When Loaded Language Attacks!

One Street is highlighting a new report by professors at Rutgers and Virginia Tech comparing the rates of bicycle commuting in nine North American cities with New York City — specifically to learn what factors are leading to lagging participation in NYC and what the city might do better. (direct link to .pdf)

And, so far, I’m scratching my head.

The report was sponsored by the Research and Innovative Technology Administration of the U. S. Department of Transportation. That’s fine. We eggheads are always happy to study stuff for the government. What’s bugging me is a whole pile of adjectives and other loaded language forms in the executive summary that lead me to question the initial intention of the report.

For example, here’s the second paragraph (a .jpg file because the report does not allow copy-and-paste):

Sez who?

This is questionable language for an academic study. This is entirely appropriate language if the following is your rhetorical intention:

The US Department of Transportation (1994, 2004) has set a goal of increasing the percentage of trips by bicycle while improving safety. The rationale for promoting cycling is that it would shift some trips from the car, thus reducing roadway congestion, parking problems, air pollution, noise and energy use. Moreover, both the US Department of Transportation and the Center for Disease Prevention and Control advocate active transport such as bicycling for physical activity that would help combat the worsening obesity epidemic.

That’s the first paragraph of the introduction to the report.

And, BTW, yes, we’re all for all of that.

OK, so it’s a big report, and there’s much of interest here (more anon). But my problem with it so far is that the researchers appear to be promoting (re: all those red highlights above) particular approaches and types of  infrastructure — e.g. bicycle lanes and tracks — because these increase participation (something that I think has been adequately proven re: lanes and tracks) without examining the safety of these systems in the U.S. The researchers do quote themselves on such a safety study of European infrastructure, but I would argue that European systems, founded in very different (car) cultures, make it difficult to compare.

Would I like to see more bicyclists on the road? You bet! — on the road. I question the morality of poorly designed bicycle lanes that fool novices into thinking they are safe (re: here and here). I’ll be happy to consider, say, Dutch-like infrastructure (often bicycle superior) when we have a Dutch-like car culture and Dutch-like fines for traffic violations.

I’m suspicious of this report because, all too often it seems, cities build poor bicycle infrastructure while certain bicycle advocates cheer anything as progress. I’m not anxious to see reports such as this promote more nonsense on the streets.

What we need is a comparison of accident and fatality rates of traffic-integrated bicyclists versus those who use lanes and tracks and versus those who are non-traffic-integrated (i.e. sidewalk riders, road salmon, etc.). Does such a study exist? I don’t know. If any Carbon Trace reader has information about this, please comment.

I’m going to pull some interesting bits out of this report over the next few days — including a stat that makes an excellent argument for the 1-Mile Solution 🙂

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Comments 5

  1. Immanuel wrote:

    There was an article in the news recently from the Harvard School of Public Health. Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street. doi:10.1136/ip.2010.028696 The abstract indicates that cycle tracks are as safe or safer than the street, but I haven’t had a chance to read the article.

    Posted 06 Apr 2011 at 1:00 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    I- Thanks for that information. Here’s the link: http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/early/2011/02/02/ip.2010.028696.abstract

    Posted 06 Apr 2011 at 1:25 pm
  3. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I’ve worried about this for a long time: too much of this field is tainted by what is called “advocacy research”, which leads me to question the concept of impartiality. Are folks being funded to fulfill the DOT mandate to get people out of cars, or are they funded to be completely impartial? The kind of language Andy highlights would raise huge red flags for many scientists.

    I’ve read the Montreal paper and while I find it interesting, I also worry about the lack of discussion and justification of experimental controls a little worrisome (i.e., on the kinds of cyclists and their experience levels, the design of the control streets, the design of bike facilities, comparison of bike culture and law enforcement from city to city, before and after road conditions and cyclist population, etc.). Even if the Montreal data are good for Montreal can you infer the universe?

    There’s a shitload of variables to control. Not sure anyone has done a stellar job with this and the authors of many of these studies such as Drs. Lusk and Pucher clearly have axes to grind. Frankly, I share those axes, but I don’t write research papers about it.

    Aside from that is the political question. As Andy asks, are we ready to embrace segregated facilities in a social paradigm such as is found in the U.S., where cycling enjoys far less respect than it does in Europe? That is a clear path, in my opinion, towards second-class treatment. We can’t put the cart before the horse. Recall that cars took over from bicycles because everyone wanted a car.

    Posted 06 Apr 2011 at 3:00 pm
  4. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Sorry for the fractured prose, Andy. Its not my slowest day here.

    Posted 06 Apr 2011 at 3:24 pm
  5. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… NP 😉

    Posted 06 Apr 2011 at 5:24 pm

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