Time to piss off the bike riders: a lesson in unintended consequences.

I wrote this in response to a debate on Facebook a few days ago regarding whether or not urban bicycle riders should be required to wear helmets (a lot of people think that they shouldn’t be required because the inconvenience may discourage people from biking for urban transportation.  Kind of messes up the hair.)

As you may recall from the book, my husband Dave is a long-distance bicyclist, and he had a pretty awful accident a couple of years ago.  So I knew that I had a gut-level bias on this topic, and I initially resisted commenting because I knew that wasn’t objective on that issue.  But as the debate continued, I became worries that there was a significant blind spot developing in the discussion: the statistical odds of someone having a big wreck somewhere, and the political and cultural fallout on the urban biking movement that has a good chance of resulting from that.

As I reread this, I thought that the issue demonstrated something that I had grappled with in the book: the power and the risk of blindly pursuing a strategy without critically thinking about (and addressing) the potential unintended consequences.  This blind spot, this lack of critical self-review, has led to case after case of massive, damaging unintended consequences, to the point where I suspect that the urban professionals of the next two to three generations will spend much of their time undoing the damage of our past good intentions.  The greatest risk I see to many of the evolving urbanist movements is a disturbing tendency to pursue the same ipso-facto, all we have to do it X and everything will be fine, thinking that gave us much of our current design and policy indigestion.

Do recall that this was written as a Facebook post, so it’s not great literature.  But I’d be grateful for your feedback.  I’m well aware that I have blind spots, too.


Ok.  This is way too long, but I’m seeing some overly simplistic responses here that worry me–and if they’re indicative of anything, could spell trouble.


One anecdote does not equal data, but I think that the assumption that bikes are slower than cars and thus safe, and that brushing aside reasonable safety issues to try to get more people riding for transportation looks like asking for trouble.

Here’s the anecdote:  My husband is an experienced long-distance bicyclist.  He regularly does 30+ mile rides that take him down city streets, suburban roads, all sorts of places where you have to be a pretty experienced biker to navigate.  So his expertise level is close to the top of the chain of what we see in urban biking.  Two years ago, he was riding on a dedicated bike trail– a rails to trails, no obstructions.  Few people on the path, early morning.  He’s riding along, not racing.  He turns his head to thank the one guy passing him for giving the usual “on your right” warning, catches his front tire on a pebble, flips over his handle bars and smashes his shoulder blade into pieces.  That’s not an injury I’d recommend–it took over a year to get him anywhere near back to normal.

But here’s the really scary part:  If he had not been wearing a helmet, he would have landed on his brain stem.  He’d be either a vegetable or dead.

The unavoidable fact of the matter is that you ride a bike because it enables you to go faster than you could on foot.  Basic physics says that the higher the speed at which an object is moving, the more force it takes to stop.  That means that if you’re moving faster and something makes you stop suddenly, you’re going to experience more force in the impact.  If I trip and fall down while running, I’ll probably get hurt more than if I’m walking (I’ve got plenty of experience with both!).

Increase acceleration, and it’s simple math.  And as long as people are biking in environments that also include other people, dogs, garbage cans, street signs, potholes, pebbles…people are going to have bike accidents.

That by no means indicates that people shouldn’t bike–all the other benefits are huge–but it does mean that there is some risk–it might be less than some other kinds of activities, and again there are huge benefits–but pretending that bike riders in a city have no more risk of serious injury than a pedestrian doesn’t make sense. A helmet law isn’t the same as wrapping people in bubble wrap so that no one gets a scratch.  It’s more like an air bag: relatively unobtrusive guard against catastrophe.

Safety do-gooding aside, here’s a practical concern:  If urban biking advocates resist reasonable regulations to protect people from catastrophe (not bubble wrap) there’s a big risk to the movement of a backlash or loss of credibility when a bad accident (for whatever reason) does occur.  Press coverage of one ugly wreck could easily push elected officials to say “see?? See?? We can’t encourage bikes!!”  Which of course is the opposite effect from what cities need, or what anyone here wants to see happen.  That certainly could undo any increase in biking that might be possible because people don’t have to mess up their hair.


From the Good Ideas File: A Conference on What Went Wrong

I’ve seen an occasional conference session popping up here and there lately, but never a whole conference on how our great ideas, big projects and good intentions blew up all over us. So it looks to me like the Urban Research Network has done something pretty interesting here.  This social-sciences-researchers-with-an-activist-bent network is looking for dignified professionals who want to get together with their peers and discuss all the ways their work has gone wrong:

Members of the Twin Cities metropolitan area (Minneapolis & St. Paul, MN) in conjunction with the University of Minnesota are convening the first ever “What Went Wrong?” conference from July 11-12, 2014, dedicated to understanding and enhancing community-engaged research practices.

The “What Went Wrong?” conference will provide a space for those working for social justice to come together in active dialogue about what it means for communities and universities to practice deeply engaged research that is reflexive, questions power dynamics, and works toward shifts in practice.

One of the themes that runs through the book has to do with the power of unintended consequences, and one of the chapters actually calls on urban planning and economic development academics to get into the work of evaluating whether our long-term plans and strategies actually ever do any good.

So if they can do it, why can’t we?



chicken head

Photo source: eurleif, Flickr, Creative Commons.



From the Good Ideas file: Work at WikiSpeed is not work like it used to be

It’s hard for people who work in local governments and nonprofits (or many old-line employers, for that matter) to grasp the incredible changes going on in how more and more people do their work.  Don’t get caught up in the gee-whiz technology mentioned in this article, but look closely at how this work is getting done — who’s doing it, how they’re working together, how it’s managed or controlled.

Hint: it’s kind of not. At least, not the way you might think would be needed.  Here’s a quote, but make sure you read the whole article, which isn’t very long:

Justice’s attitude is all about getting things done and having as much impact on the world as possible. He describes Wikispeed as a “do-tank,” as opposed to a think-tank that comes up with ideas but never sees them through. The real innovation is in the process: the way Wikispeed splits every engineering problem into smaller pieces, putting each task onto a backlog-list. Distant collaborators work independently, choosing tasks to work on, until they’ve met detailed “acceptance criteria.” Then, once they’ve finished, each member files meticulous paperwork, so other participants can copy, and improve, on what they’ve done.

Wikispeed engineers work in small teams and often anonymously. Justice doesn’t know exactly who is doing what until they complete a task. And he says he has no idea how many people are in the whole network (though about 500 are signed up officially). Sometimes, he is surprised to hear that a team in, say, Barcelona has been working on something for months, or when completed components turn up out of the blue. “I only really know when they’ve mailed it to one of our shops, and they’ve posted a YouTube video about it,” he says

Think for a moment how that differs from…pretty much every development or manufacturing process you’ve probably ever encountered.  And then think about how this changes your community’s

Office space needs?

Manufacturing space needs?

Flexible collaboration space needs?

The characteristics of a valuable employee?

The characteristics of your community’s Talent?

What happens to those people and places when one of these initiatives flops (as anything innovative risks doing)?

Extreme Manufacturing quote

From Fast Company

And before you write this off as a Silicon Valley, wild -but-that-will-never-happen-here scenario, notice something: the people working on Wikispeed  projects are coming from all over the world.  The guy who organized it doesn’t even know where they all are.  And he doesn’t really care.  What matters is getting it done.  And with a good computer and, soon, a 3-D printer, you can be part of the team from anywhere.

How does that change what your community needs?

From the Good Ideas file: the unintended consequences of Eds and Meds

Could ‘eds and meds’ be a liability for some cities? Via @AtlanticCities:  http://t.co/CUvb10i2Od 

For me, this was the particularly interesting part — chalk it up to the risks of unintended consequences and counting on magic bullets to solve everthing for us:

Eds and meds employment levels were uniformly negatively associated with nearly every single important measure of regional economic performance: income, economic output per capita, and high tech industry concentration. (The correlations were not huge—in the range of 0.2—but they were statistically significant). This stands in substantial contrast to other highly educated, highly skilled occupational sectors like science and technology, business and management, and even arts, culture, and entertainment, which are all more concentrated and clustered geographically and much more closely associated with regional economic performance.