How to sit down, for those who need a little help

I have now been told I have no talent by somebody clearly FURIOUS about the Smartest Boy Urbanist send-up, which only kind of proves my point. Smartestest is the coin of the realm for the smartest of the smart; there’s no way to know anything about urbanism unless you smart; they soooo smartttttttt that they KNOW when they are confronted with a minor mind, such as mine because, as pointed out, I would haven’t to rely on mean meanypants stereotypes to make my points rather than REAL ARGUMENTS, like theirs.

Or they might be proving my point for me.

Because this isn’t about who is smart and who isn’t, who has talent and who does not. This is about your heart and how you conduct yourself.

The smartest boy urbanist in the room is VURRRRRRRRY SERIOUS and

The Smartest urbanists do not like being called out.

And that’s unfortunate, because I am not backing down. Because some of us need to learn to sit down more often, even if we have read all the pages from Jane Jacobs.

Sitting down and shutting up can be a radical action. Why? Because it’s hard for oppressed people to be heard as it is, without people who possess privilege hogging all the air time and oxygen in the room. Privilege gives one a platform that other people don’t have; it gives us a microphone and amplifiers that other people do not have.

So some radical humility is in order, and it’s pretty easy to practice. Here’s a guide:

1. When somebody who, unlike you, actually experiences injustice and oppression speaks about it, sit down and listen to them.

2. When somebody who experiences injustice and oppression speaks about how to change it, sit down and listen to them.

3. Believe people when they tell you that things that work for you do not necessarily work for them. Instead, sit down and listen to what they say might work for them.

Now, there are additional steps here, but those go beyond “sitting down” into “learn to ally with people seeking racial justice.”

Ultimately, whether I have any talent is, of course, probably not debatable. I can’t tap dance or sing worth a crap, which is a source of some sadness to me, as I always wanted to sing Wotan.

But if you really want to show me–I mean *really* make me feel like a fool for making you uncomfortable with my Smartest Boy Urbanist snark–then retweet and quote black urbanists just as often as you do Market Urbanism and Alon Levy. Don’t get me wrong. These are very bright people who have written and, I’m sure, will continue to write fine things. But they do not know everything. Robert Bullard (@DrBobBullard ) is on Twitter. That guy is important.Julian Agyeman (@julianagyeman). Kristen Jeffers (@blackurbanist). Manuel Pastor (@Prof_MPastor). Lots of people are out there generating important ideas about cities from perspectives other than your own. And trust me, these folks are smart, genuinely smart, real-deal smart, and worth more of your time than shaking your little fist at me through the computer screen.

Anger at the City and Donald Trump: Katherine Cramer in the Chronicle

I’m an avid reader of the Chronicle, but I don’t always stay current with reading it, so I am not sure if it is this week’s edition or last week’s edition (I usually read the print version, as I spend entirely enough time staring at screens.)

And it’s unfortunately behind a paywall.

But, I am going to share enough of the piece to maybe get you interested in Cramer’s book, as I definitely am. The short piece is called The Politics if Resentment, and here’s the money quote.

The resentment I heard toward the cities in this so-called outstate part of Wisconsin had three main components. First, many people in small towns felt they were not getting their fair share of power. Second, they believed that public funds were not distributed fairly. Many voiced their view that tax dollars were being spent on Madison and Milwaukee and not shared with the rest of the state. Finally, they sensed that they did not get their fair share of something else: respect. Many told me that city people just do not understand rural folks. “I mean, we are, like, strange to Madison,” one woman in the far northern part of the state said during one of my first visits to her group.

Cramer’s book is The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Honestly, I hope it’s something deeper than this because it sounds like so much bootyhootyhootyhoo to me. Most rural residents get disproportionate state funding because of stacked state legislatures and many public services scale readily (i.e., sidewalks cost less per person in New York City than it does in Winthrop, IA.) It also sounds like a cloaked racial comments. (Those welfare queens in Milwaukee, taking all my tax dollars, while I get none, even though it’s super-inefficient to maintain the rural farm to market system, etc. ) I hope it’s not…but I am pretty tone deaf about the dog whistle racism stuff simply because I am so clueless about social cues. I’m going to have to read Cramer’s book to find out.

My favorite About-Dad writing from the weekend’s surfeit

Father’s Day is a trial for those of us who do not have dads, and who will never have them again, especially if we ourselves have not been parents. This entire past two weeks has a been horrible. I’ve dealt with the email blowback of “The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room” which was, in general, quite mild tone policing more than anything. (I am not so foolish as to not know that puh-lenty of smartest boy urbanists are just a-waiting for their chance at a Dr. Lisa take-down. I’m sure the opportunity will arise for y’all soon enough. I am often wrong.) I also lost a friend, a man who helped me a great deal with rescue, who clearly didn’t plan for his own exit and who also hid a great deal from his friends. The result was that his passing became a nightmare for the rest of us he left behind. Most of last week was spent dealing with that heartbreak and work.

And then Father’s Day, and then the bloody heat started. And I’m working on a think piece that is going precisely bloody nowhere. The old horse isn’t walking, not even for me, not even for a July 1 deadline.

One happy pick-me-up in the weekend of sadness and grief was this marvelous piece from The Hairpin by Rosa Lyster entitled “My Father Reads Withering Heights for the First Time”. It is endlessly charming, if a little meandering in parts, about the relationship her father has with books, and in particular, with books written by women, including one of my favorites, Middlemarch and Jane Eyre:

My dad, naturally, admires all this without qualification. He doesn’t find her weird or boring in any way; he just thinks she is magnificent — a woman to look up to. He once sent me an email with the subject line “Jane Eyre: I love her.” He likes her spirit, and her independence, and how she doesn’t let anyone push her around. He even thinks she’s funny. He read Jane Eyre twice in a row, and then he read Villette (subject line: AAAARGH BELGIUM). He read Wuthering Heights (subject line: What is Hindley’s problem?), he read Agnes Grey (and then, of course, he read twelve books about the Brontës, and has ordered several more), and he will read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before the month is out. He is probably reading Wuthering Heights again as we speak.

June Jordan’s I Must Become A Menace to My Enemies

Maria Rosales mentioned this poem on Facebook, and it strikes me as just the thing for a day like today, where we are somehow supposed to go on despite the fact that the people who hate us do not want us to go on. Please go check out June Jordan’s web page, too. And buy her book to support the work.

I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies

Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976

I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
see me
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:

fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
condemn me

I must become the action of my fate.

How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
months will

I must become a menace to my enemies.

And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
terrorist degree)
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries

And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me

I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.

Barbara Jordan’s 1976 DNC speech , Black history, Women’s history, LGBTQ history getting made, all at once

With HRC’s presumptive nominee status, people have been remember Shirley Chisolm, who was the first woman to run for president (in 1972). These conversations, and the upcoming convention, have me thinking about Barbara Jordan. I remember her 1976 convention speech like it was yesterday: I was only just in elementary school, but my father was a local politician and he watched the conventions, both sides, obsessively. I thus did, too. To a little kid with a bad stutter and poor diction, she lit up my mind.

Barbara Jordan’s speech was a work of art. And I loved it: I loved the way crowd came alive. I loved the Texas theme song. I loved her pastel mint suit with the unapologetically frilly neck doodad. I loved how the crowd loved.

I still make my students in my social policy class watch the speech because it wasn’t always shameful to discuss the welfare state in American politics, and people should see and remember the work of Black of politicians. I still point people to it whenever I can because she was incredible. It’s also good to remind people that many of the problems we think we only have today have been with us awhile.

Less well known is that Ms. Jordan seems to have had a lifelong partner, which makes me happy.

She only lived another 19 years after this speech, which she gave when she was 40. Too young, damn it. Neither she nor Representative Chisolm lived to see President Obama in the Oval Office, which makes me sad, because they helped him get there.

It was a historic moment, it was a very good vision for the welfare state, and she was magnificent:

Part I

Part II

Part III

I am the worst scholar in the world, the very worst.

Soooooo yesterday I had a big block of time to do research. Took out the book I am working from and found: ACK. I have two index card left.

Briefly consider going to the bookstore to get some, but they will charge $400 per card. So no.

So I decide to start cleaning my drawers looking for cards. There have to be some in here somewhere, right?

Nope. Old, dead packages of mustard, check. Cords and little dongle things from long-dead computers, check.

Pull everything out of the drawers in a fit of pique, tell self I am going to organize the drawers.

After a half-hour of pulling stuff out of drawers, become overwhelmed by the job, get filled with despair at the mess I have made.

Begin reading The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise.

There is no scholarly reason for doing this.

Finally manage to work up the gumption to throw away what needs throwing away, put away what needs to be put away, and….

Get a call from somebody. There is a doggie emergency. Spend all last night dealing with a dog who has a ruptured eye (poor thing) and obsessively checking California primary returns.

Spend this morning arguing about politics on Facebook about how Sanders’ loss might be good for the far left, remember after multiple hours that it is not technically my job to argue pointlessly about national politics, but rather, my job to argue pointlessly about URBAN politics;

Sit down to work.

Realize I have no index cards.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton is historic, and that does make me smile.

Safety in numbers, gaps in risk environments, and bike helmets, Part II

If I’d known I could so thoroughly piss off the Smartest Boy Urbanists merely by suggesting that I like bike helmets AND better design, I’d have done so sooner. And louder. One was particularly outraged and sent me roughly 90 emails (ok, 7). I was told I was wrong roughly 490 times, which is interesting because I feel like didn’t really come to any conclusions other than “gosh, these data aren’t really all that helpful, and I like it when people do not get head injuries.” But one of the great skills of the Smartest Boy Urbanists is that they know you are wrong without reading what you wrote or listening to what you said, so we’re good.

I did suggest that I very much doubt that helmet-lovers like me are the reason that most American cities aren’t turning into Amsterdam particularly fast. I’d put that down to our general tendencies in urban and social policy (towards less competence rather than more) in every policy domain rather than dowdy old me with my helmet. And the very real possibility that land uses do not change as quickly as we might like.

There is a difference between these questions:

1. Are you, Bob the Cyclist, as an individual better off with or without a helmet, right now, in the streets you bike in, not necessarily the streets we would like you to have in order to lower your chance of a incident to virtually nothing so that anything like helmets designed to protect you in case of incidents you won’t have in that better bike environment become irrelevant?

2. Might mandating helmets suppress “Safety in Numbers” (SIN), because people do not like to wear helmets, so much so that their reticence cancels out the SIN effects (and worse, discourages cycling so much that people won’t cycle and thus get the exercise benefits)?

Keep in mind, I am not advocating for mandating helmets. I am asking questions, particularly, about #1: in the matter of “should I wear a helmet and/or have my kid put one, too”… should you equip like you are in the city you want, or should you equip for the city you have?

Because if the city you have is badly designed, I think it could be pretty irresponsible for urban experts to tell people that helmets are dumb because Amsterdam! Helmets may, in fact, be dumb because Amsterdam!, but most of us do not live there, and there is a big gap between many–not all certainly–but many existing cycling environments in US cities and what Amsterdamians enjoy.

If you tell people to get out there and bike “for numbers,” there’s a time period, as the numbers build, where you are pushing people into existing crash risks for your agenda and using them as a means to your end. Somewhere between “not enough bicyclists to reduce crash incidents so low helmets are irrelevant/current conditions” and “enough bicyclists to be visible, displace cars, and make life safer for cyclists” there is a gap of time where the risks might well go up–particularly for inexperienced cyclists, which includes kids–and who, exactly, is supposed to take those risks on for the sake of getting us the numbers we need?

Is that time period and subsequent gap in the risk environment important? I do not know. How much more cycling would we need in order to push through that gap? Dunno. We have some good modelings studies, but models are models and a well-designed empirical study can invalidate a million modeling studies.

Granted the needed bike density threshold, whatever that threshold might be in various contexts, how much time would it take to get it in local contexts? Dunno.

Now, before all y’all scream and yell that this gap is no reason not to pursue numbers, that is not what I am suggesting or exploring here.

But I do think that gap is something we can’t just assume away as unimportant while we look down our noses at helmets because in Amsterdam, things are so safe for bicyclists that helmets are silly. I personally approve of many things in and about the Netherlands we don’t have in the US for all the reasons we in the US can’t have nice things.

If that gap is meaningful, the policy and planning recommendation (as opposed to the individual equipment strategy) is probably to go after car drivers with policy (such as price floors on gasoline) to decrease volumes immediately to give bicyclists in existing urban environments a fighting chance to get out there, even with urban environments as they are. Policy changes can occur more quickly than built environment ones, but…I know. Getting such a radical policy change is beyond the scope of what I can imagine for political feasibility. It’s too bad.

We don’t talk about the policy environment in Denmark or the Netherlands very much, just the design and culture, and you do have to wonder how crucial the policy environment was in securing the ability to make the planning commitments they made to biking.That is, do you get Amsterdam as it is without a $3.80 per gallon excise tax on gasoline? (And do you maintain the ability to tax the daylights out of fuel when you have provided lots of other ways for people to get around?) While I see plenty of advocacy for changing design and increasing cycling, I see very little real movement to discourage car use at high levels, and that tepid approach to dampening car use strikes me as an important blind spot in the gap in the risk environment that I described. Now, I know most people who advocate for Amsterdamishness also think that lowering vehicle volumes is important, but that advocacy has been much less successful than the ability to get bike lanes built, and that means, to me, an evaluation of what is possible/credible/workable granted that sticky problem.

My musings the other day were rewarded by a very nice gentlemen showing me a dream bike and sending me an OECD study where I went through and read a bunch of the bibliographic references. It wasn’t great coverage on the OECD’s part, but they did cite a meta-analysis, and it’s always weird surveying the literature when somebody’s already done it. That said, the brain bucket question is waaaaaaaaay more interesting than you might think:

Hard shell helmets:

  • Risk of head injury decreases by 64 percent;
  • Risk of facial injuries decreases by 34 percent;
  • Risk of neck injuries increases by 36 percent

Soft shell helmets:

  • Risk of head injury decreases by 41 percent;
  • Risk of facial injuries decreases by 14 percent;

Again, none of these are important if you live somewhere where crash risks are so low that subsequent injury or fatality risk is practically nonexistent. But do you live there? I don’t. I live in Los Angeles. It’s going to take us awhile to become Amsterdamesque.

These are from a 2009 meta-analysis, so the study could probably be redone as helmets have changed, and bicycling environments have changed, at least in some places.

This meta-analysis in question appears here:

Elvik, R. et al. The Handbook of Road Safety Measures. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2009.

I HAD TO GO TO THE LIBRARY IN SUMMER TO GET THIS BOOK. You people have no appreciation how much I sacrifice for you. I give and I give and I give. AND WHAT THANKS DO I GET? Sassing from the Smartest Boy Urbanists, that’s what I get.

I also found a bunch of really nice papers by Rune Elvik in general, and while meta-analysis is often hair-raisingly difficult to do well, accident researchers I find tend to do them in ways that make me say “damn I wish I were that competent” and Elvik does not seem to vary from this general impression.

(ok for some reason my autocorrect wants this name to be Elvis. I promise I have changed it back at least 7 times. So for the record, I am not talking about Elvis. Elvik. Elvis. Sigh.)

It’s never not interesting when there is a conflicting effect. They only had a handful of studies on the neck injury portion, but there are probably more studies now on the neck injury findings.

People have taken stabs at the other question above, but again…I am not convinced we really know much. That said, there are some really nice studies out there, but they show pretty mixed possibilities for Safety in Numbers using methods, the data that are really limited, and most of what we have are pretty speculative modeling studies. (You have to start somewhere, but it’s important to not confuse your start with well-validated empirical findings.)

The strongest claims on behalf of Safety in Numbers article I found was:

Jacobsen, Peter L. “Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling.” Injury prevention 9, no. 3 (2003): 205-209 (here’s a pdf I found of it.)

This is a strong attempt with severely limited data, but he dug for some good stuff. He’s got walking and biking data for 68 California cities, walking and biking in 47 Danish towns, he’s got bicycling and walking data for 8 European countries, and he has fatality and injury outcome measures. He’s also got data for the UK going back to the 1950s, and he uses a power function to fit relationships between fatalities and relative risks. His best fit is not surprising, the California cities, where he has the most observations. Unfortunately there he’s got to use the percent of the journey to work mode share for biking and walking prevalence. He assumes that those mode shares hold for non-work trips, and while that’s debatable, I don’t really have a better idea for him, and I also don’t really have a better idea than using the percentages even though there is going to be more noise from small cities than we really want in a small sample.

I do have some problems with his power function as he has a couple big outliers in the dataset. A robustness check to address those outliers would have helped me. That said, most of the benefits in relative risk reduction on the California side accrue with really small changes in mode share. That conflicts with a later study, but it suggests that you do not have to have a bike utopia to have real gains as long as enough bicyclists get out there and ride. (Aha! That means we don’t have to accommodate bikes in design much at all, since we just need a few percentage point changes…. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH I AM JOKING. JOKING MIT YOU.)

And I’m not sure I can accept the assumptions about distance and injury; he plots distance per capita against relative risk, and distance is his use measure, and yes, but…I am not sure distance is a proxy for numbers, which is what he wants to show. Per capita distance can go up with relatively few cyclists or walkers who walk relatively long distances or with lots of people on the road making close-to-average-distance trips. Without seeing the distribution, you can’t tell. These are two separate things, and I suspect they might have different effects: the former has longer trips potentially displacing more VMT versus the latter having bigger clumps of people both potentially displacing cars physically and raising cyclists’ visibility to drivers because there are so many cyclists you can’t miss them.)

Again, aggregation to the city or nation-state level–he says he has intersection data but I don’t see any, how did that get passed reviewers and an editor? Am I reading that right?–does not help very much. It could be what we are seeing here is, simply, lower car use. I’m fine with that, btw.

The study that I thought made a nice case for SIN, but it’s an APM model, which means limited parameters and a lot hinges on the assumptions. This is:

Elvik, Rune. “The Non-linearity of Risk and the Promotion of Environmentally Sustainable Transport.” Accident; analysis and prevention 41, no. 4 (2009): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2009.04.009 (I couldn’t find a pdf of that one, sorry…)

Their outcome measure is number of accidents, to both pedestrians and bicyclists. The parameter coefficients come from prior studies. For doubling the number of bicyclists, they do not really see a big effect. The big payoff comes when they reduce traffic by 50 percent, and…that’s a big change, and it’s hard to compare that with what Jacobson finds in relative risk because Rune is examining counts. Do we need a big change in the numbers or a moderate change in the numbers? Rune suggests a pretty major shift in vehicle flow, not the smaller shifts in mode share that Jacobsen’s suggested.

Stay tuned.

This is another APM study:

Schepers, J P, and E Heinen. “How Does a Modal Shift From Short Car Trips to Cycling Affect Road Safety?” Accident; analysis and prevention 50 (2013): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2012.09.004. (No pdf again, sorry. I am a Googling failure).

Schepers works for the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, which strikes me as being better than the Ministry of Silly Walks but not nearly as good as the Ministry of Magic.

This study, like Rune 2009, uses an accident prevention model again, but they have decent data, and APM models are not that data-hungry. They find using the data on crashes from Dutch cities that a mode shift for short car trips to bike trips would have no effect on fatalities and some increase on injuries. This is a good finding for the SIN advocates: without a safety in numbers effect and displacing cars, increasing biking would mean more crashes. It didn’t in this APM. And that’s good because you get the benefits of more biking with no real losses in fatality. If you want gains, then see Rune 2009, above.

Hooray. But. And this is a big one.

They do estimate a substantial increase in the risk of serious injuries from single bike crashes. These can be pretty serious, and a helmet could help with these ones. I suspect one effect embedded in the SIN effect shown in priors is that with good design and welcoming spaces, inexperienced bicyclists get out and ride, which is great, but that includes children, and then we need to get real about what risk and whose risks change, why, and what we should do about it. Kids learn and grow up, but there are new kids coming in and learning the system. Insulating them from major injury, even if it is a single-bike crash, is life-enhancing.

One last one I liked:

Bhatia, Rajiv, and Megan Wier. “Safety in Numbers” Re-examined: Can We Make Valid or Practical Inferences From Available Evidence?” Accident analysis and prevention 43, no. 1 (2011): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2010.08.015.

Basically, they say what I said when I stirred up trouble on Fboo and on the blog. APMs and aggregate spatial units are not an optimal way to figure this out. APMs tend to use spare specifications with volume data for the modes, that’s about it. Aggregate geographic spatial units are not really relevant to biking-motorist interactions in any meaningful way, and so we have no good information about design, only vehicle volumes (which can proxy for design if your design is lowering volumes.)

Only these authors say these things by sounding smart and with evidence and whatnot.

Some excellent papers I read that you might like too:

Wei, Feng, and Gordon Lovegrove. “An Empirical Tool to Evaluate the Safety of Cyclists: Community Based, Macro-level Collision Prediction Models Using Negative Binomial Regression.” Accident; analysis and prevention 61 (2013): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2012.05.018

Wegman, Fred, Fan Zhang, and Atze Dijkstra. “How to Make More Cycling Good for Road Safety?” Accident; analysis and prevention 44, no. 1 (2012): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2010.11.010 FOUND A PDF FOR THIS ONE

This one looks to be very promising in handling the murky mechanism problem I noted with SIN assumptions because they have a cool natural experiment around “cycling season”:

Fyhri, Aslak, and Torkel Bjørnskau. “Safety in Numbers – Uncovering the mechanisms of interplay in urban
transport with survey data.” AVAILABLE ONLINE!! YAY!

Somebody asked me about moral hazard with wearing helmets, so here’s some on those (people are naughty):

Gamble, Tim, and Ian Walker. “Wearing a Bicycle Helmet Can Increase Risk Taking and Sensation Seeking in Adults.” Psychological science 27, no. 2 (2016): doi:10.1177/0956797615620784 (PDF LINK)

This suggests that people compensate with other safety behaviors when they do wear helmets (people are smart):

Phillips, Ross Owen, Aslak Fyhri, and Fridulv Sagberg. “Risk Compensation and Bicycle Helmets.” Risk analysis : an official publication of the Society for Risk Analysis 31, no. 8 (2011): doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01589.x

And just to piss everybody else off more…I don’t understand why everybody in planning loves roundabouts; when I am walking around them, all I can think is “Why am I going around this dumb circle instead of just cutting through it? Why did people forget that part of why DuPont Circle is cool? I hate everybody.” This study agrees with me so IT MUST BE BRILLIANT (I am joking, joking with you…)

Parkin, John, Mark Wardman, and Matthew Page. “Models of Perceived Cycling Risk and Route Acceptability.” Accident; analysis and prevention 39, no. 2 (2007): doi:10.1016/j.aap.2006.08.007

So now for those of you who wish to tell me I am wrong, TERRIBLY WRONG…I will summarize my conclusions here:

I got nothing I’d bet my first edition Varian on. But y’all haters do not have much in the way of evidence in support of your “helmets are not a solution, becoming Amsterdam is the solution” position, either. Maybe someday, you will, if people keep poking at the questions and changing streets.

Oh, but I do hate roundabouts.

The Showtime Lakers, Muhammad Ali, and my early education on race

I grew up at a time and in a place where the word n*ggr was said, often by people I loved and respected. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, and even today the only encounters that some of us, whose families never could afford to travel anywhere, were going to have with black America was going to come through our television sets. (You can tell when I grew up, simply because I use the term “television set.”)

Muhammad Ali Ali was on the television set, as were a group of men known as The Showtime Lakers–Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and James Worthy. There was also Julius Erving. And Arthur Ashe. I was interested in these men. How could you not be? They were handsome. They were famous. They did beautiful, athletic things.

My fascination with them led me to ask questions, read things, and ask more questions.

In Ali’s case, he was roundly described, by many in range of my little ears, as a “mouthy n*ggr.”

Hey! I was told I was mouthy all the time, too! I had something in common in this magnificent, adult man. What did people mean when they said he was mouthy?

He talked about race. He didn’t know his place.

What was his place?

Don’t ask questions.

I read more things, from the library. I read a book by William Faulkner where the word “uppity” appeared.


But why did people around me seem to dislike Ali so much? So what? What investment did they have in him being subservient if they didn’t even know him or have to be around him?

(This took me a long time to understand; I had to shelve it for years and years, but I did get there.)

Some people were not racist, they said. They just disliked him because he dodged his duty in Vietnam.

Oh, that was bad. It was bad to do that. Why did he do that? He couldn’t be a physical coward; he was a boxer. Why did he do that? More reading, in my school library, and the quote that has been making the rounds since Ali’s passing:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

That didn’t strike me as ‘not knowing one’s place” or dodging anything. It struck me as valid reasoning. (One of the curses of being a little Asperger kid is that for me at least, you are swayed by valid arguments well beyond what those in your social circle want, and thus you risk being reviled when you take the side of reason against traditions or norms, which generally have to do with how people view the soundness of the premises. This is the biography of my entire life in two sentences.)

And why did Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have such cool names? Those names were lots cooler than my name. “They changed their names from their real names.”

Why did they do that? Can I do that, to a name I like better? (This is, along with cutting one’s own hair and thus, risking not being pretty, apparently a huge sin as it meant you weren’t entirely defined and controlled by your parents, which you should be. Obey. Obey. Obey: the drum beat of a working class kid’s childhood. Even when there is no sound reason to obey, obey, dammit.)

So I did some more reading. Cassius Clay and Lou Alcinder. I had to admit, I thought the name Cassius was cool, too. But I could understand the rest: not wanting to inherit the name of a line of slave masters. Wanting to start a different tradition, one that rejected the ones where you were always on the bottom, and that told others of like mind that you have publicly and visibly joined them.

That made sense.

What is the Nation of Islam? What do they do? What is Islam? What do they believe?

I wasn’t allowed to watch Roots. So I read it instead (nobody paid any attention to my reading) right in the middle of my fascination with Magic Johnson, who could pass a basketball like nobody before.

WTFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF. Human beings did that stuff to other human beings? And we wonder why people want reparations?

Muhammad Ali was a leader, and great leaders are an education in themselves.

Parkinson’s knocked down Ali for the last time last week, at the age of 74, which is tragically young for a man who in his youth had trained his body to beyond perfection. I am glad it seems his family got to come say goodbye.

Edited to add: dang it! I hit publish on this post before I proofed it, and it had Mr. Ali’s spelled wrong! My apologies. I meant to check it and published before I did. Dork.

I come in peace, with a bike helmet on

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: I come in peace with my bike helmet. Liking bike helmets does not mean I think they substitute for street design or culture, and I really doubt anybody else who isn’t crazy thinks helmets are a substitute for design or safety in numbers, either.

Ok, so brilliant student Shane Phillips (who blogs brilliantly here) yesterday shared something about bike helmets and design, and the piece suggested that bike prevalence is a safety substitute for helmets, and I said, hey, it would work for me if we had both bike prevalence and helmets. When it comes to most things regarding safety, I am more Adrian Monk than Laura Croft.

Note the metaphors there: Adrian Monk is not particularly rational about his assessment of risk. I’m not either. I’ve known way too many people I’ve loved who have been hurt by bike crashes, and one of the worst did not involve a vehicle, at all. I’m paranoid. Every day is a long list of worst-case scenarios that float through my head, and bike injuries are in there with falling meteors and Donald Trump becoming president.

You do realize I think the NFL should change its rules to touch football, right?

So anyway, what I thought was some good-hearted banter turned into a boy urbanist coming in mansplain ABOUT THE FACTS, AND THE FACTS ARE THAT BIKING IS MUCH SAFER THAN BEING A CAR AND SO I GUESS HE TOLD ME.

But I never said that driving was safer. Nobody had. It was an attitude he assumed I had because he wanted me to be wrong, and he wanted to yell and scream and Be the Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room.

Then another guy piped in, and he at least was polite. But his statements made me uncomfortable, too, because he trotted out the whole “Denmark totally proves that helmets have zero correlation with bike fatalities” conclusion “because almost nobody wears a helmet but there are few fatalities.”

Now, I have nothing against the Netherlands or Denmark, but we can’t use these numbers in this way. I’ve heard my students quote this idea, and while it’s not the worst instance of poor urban numbers, it’s not rigorous thinking about how things might relate.

The idea seems to go something like this:

1) People don’t like bike helmets and that’s what keeps them from riding a bike;

2) Bicyclists are safer when there are more bicyclists are on the road (“the safety in numbers” effect); and thus

3) If helmets keep bicyclists off the road, they do not improve safety because they dampen the “safety in numbers” effect.

Now, most people can understand the reverse causation possibilities in 2: bicyclists are safer where there are more bikes and it’s likely there are more bikes where things are safer, either because of design or culture or both, which is what we likely see in Amsterdam.

And then the corollary: the more bikes there are, the fewer cars there likely are, and the lower fatalities are more likely to occur because of the latter, not the former. The former is a lever for the latter, but they are still two effects.

That part, I totally buy. It’s the helmet part I’m having trouble with. Why? Because for years I’ve advocated for and studied transit, and I’ve heard people tell me every specious excuse in the book for why they don’t take transit. Them: “It doesn’t come near my house.” Me: There’s a bus stop on the corner, a five minute walk.” Them: “Oh, but that’s a bus. Buses take too long.” Me: “It’s a 15 minute trip, you have no transfers.” Them: “It doesn’t leave when I want it to/the sun gets in my eyes/I’m allergic to the bus seats/people look at me funny/I got sick on a bus once after drinking seven bots of tequila so I just know I get bus sick.”

So if you aren’t riding a bike because you don’t like wearing a helmet, then you are a fair weather bicyclist in my book. “It messes up my hair.” Buy a comb. And what? You don’t ride if it’s windy? When I actually get my fat self on a bike, which isn’t often, and I’m not wearing a helmet, I always wind up looking like I did my hair with an immersion blender anyway. Hair, schmair.

Now, in fairness, I do understand the problems that people have with helmet laws. So you forgot your helmet, and then what? You get a citation? That’s a hassle, just like having to have exact change for the bus is a hassle. But how strictly are helmet laws really enforced? Anybody got an idea on how strict enforcement is in places where they have helmet laws?

BTW, I don’t think helmets should be mandated because it just strikes me as overreach. That’s different from wishing people would wear helmets.

More to the point about research, I can find no believable research that demonstrates “safety in numbers” results from not encouraging helmets, and I also can not find any credible data that “safety in numbers” precludes wearing helmets or that helmet laws discourage street design, or any other such thing.

Here’s the story that circulated on Streetsblog, where the columnist, Angie Schmitt, who is really a wonderful columnist I often read for Streetsblog, concludes things I really don’t think you can with the numbers from the graphic she presents.

Let’s start with the title. I know titles are always screwed up, but the title starts us off in ways that make me squirm. Helmets are not the answer the bike safety. Well, did anybody say they were “the” answer? Can somebody point me to the article or expert saying “We don’t need bike lanes because we have bike helmets?” Is somebody saying that? Did Congress slash funding for bike facilities because we have helmets now? Because that would be crazy if people believed those things, and I’m willing to believe that some people say this because some people also think that aliens embedded a code in the Torah. But…really?

Then there’s the next line:

Better street design and getting more people on bikes — not blind faith in helmets — are the keys to making cycling safer, recent research has shown.

Are there people out there in the world telling people that all they have to do is put on a bike helmet and they should be fine, just fine, even if they peddle themselves onto the 405 when traffic is moving at 60 mph? Because that would be nut bar. Who is this person, or these people? Or this just shadowboxing to set up a column?

Just about everybody who does safety research groks that safety isn’t a one-factor deal, except when it comes to very simplistic things, and mobility systems are not simple. Seat belts are fine, but seat belts, crumple fenders, and airbags are a whole package. Seat belts, crumple zones, airbags–and speed limits and proper sight distances and drunk driving education are still yet more potential dimensions and variables.

You know what else increases vehicle safety, a lot? Using cars less overall. I’m a fan of that one, too. But that doesn’t mean I think we should get rid of airbags.

Granted this, why do some US bike advocates seem to think that if you favor wearing helmets, you are against good bike design? Why can’t people have both?

The logic strikes me as a bit like this: You think people should eat right. YOU MUST BE AGAINST EXERCISE THEN. WHY DON’T YOU PEOPLE WHO WANT TO EAT RIGHT UNDERSTAND THE IMPORTANCE OF EXERCISING JEEZ? Shit, some people hate to exercise, and if you associate exercise with eating right, people won’t eat right because that means they’ll have to exercise.

Um, no, it’s possible that both are a good idea, and that both contribute, even if one effect is more important than the other.

Just like it’s possible that there is a “safety in numbers” effect and a helmet effect on safety.

Then we move into the rest of the column, which shows this graphic, which is supposed to show us that bike helmets do not contribute to safety because look at


This graphic, like the one one she references but does not display, I think came from Toole Design Group.

Now, Schmitt grants that these are only eight data points, but then goes on to say:

Of these countries, the U.S. has the highest rate of helmet usage among cyclists — around 55 percent — but also the highest cyclist fatality rate per distance traveled. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, where helmet use is practically nil, cycling is much, much safer.

While this is just eight data points, higher helmet use seems to be associated with higher fatality rates. Intuitively, that makes some sense. The more dangerous an activity, the more people feel inclined to take steps to protect themselves.

So the url says this is “why helmets are not the answer in one chart”…but this had better not be the basis for the conclusions because this chart does not say anything consistent about anything. Technically the charts shows sixteen data points, for the anal data types, and 8 cases.

One point of contention: helmet use is not practically nil in Denmark–her idea of practically nil and mine are not the same; and with helmet use, I suspect that there are strong nonlinearities by age, cycling experience, and gender. You don’t necessarily need everybody wearing a helmet. It may be that the Netherlands has the right people wearing them, while all the low-probability injuries and fatalities types go without. Sure, it means not everybody wears a helmet, but it also could mean that in individual incidents, helmets help.

But I digress. The major point: why are we highlighting Denmark/Netherlands and the United States here? Because if I want to make the opposite claim–that bike helmets clearly do help with safety–then I have those data in the chart, too: compare Finland and the UK. Or Finland and France.

If you wanted me to do actually my job here, as a researcher (ugggghhhhhhh work), I’d say we cannot use these data, at all. They are noninformative about correlations because aggregating bike safety at the national level isn’t really useful. Nation-states do not represent biking environments or cultures, per se.

We all know that the US has poor infrastructure and design for bicyclists in many US cities, and since Denmark and the Netherlands are highly urbanized, you can maaaaaybe use the nations as proxies for bicycling environments there. Maybe. But as some cities in the US improve their design, the US as whole becomes a very poor proxy. Even as it is, freight volumes and practices differ, weather, etc etc between Denmark and the US, and it’s hard to compare rates across a big country and small country because small countries are always going to have more variation in aggregate numbers than the big ones. I don’t think large numbers problems explain the differences between the US and the Netherlands and Denmark–I think the latter’s planning clearly demonstrates effectiveness–but it does make measuring the effect more of challenge.

We also have the problem that fatalities might be even lower than they are–closer to my practically nil than Schmitt’s practically nil–if the Dutch wore more helmets more frequently. The comparison that matters is between helmet wearers versus non wearers in Amsterdam. As one commenter noted: “Show me a statistic of fatalities of helmet wearers who crash on protected multi-use bike paths.”

THAT is the world I want to live in: helmet wearers wrapped in bubble wrap riding great bikes on great bike facilities. Maybe we could even have some these cool bubble jobbies to wear when biking:

Bubble soccer USA Rent Bubble Soccer
(Image from; God that looks fun.)

What matters are the practices and designs in place. In order to know what we’d like to know about the independent effects of design and helmets, we need to know about specific intersections, specific street set ups, specific traffic conditions, and specific crashes.

And that’s a huge problem. Because–and this is a good thing–bike fatalities are statistically rare events, even in the US, which means doing the sort of research you’d like to do–controlling for all the design and personal safety factors (like wearing a helmet) that enter into fatalities–requires data usually too sparse to grant your statistical analysis the power you need to find effects.

The other problem with these conclusions is that helmets may not be useful in preventing fatalities, but they may be useful in preventing injuries. Injury prevention has social value, too; and it may be that “safety in numbers” would also influence injuries for the better concurrently with fatalities, or it may be the opposite, just like on some freeway lengths, lower speeds are associated with more crashes but fewer fatalities. (Congestion lowers speeds, therefore decreasing severity but increasing frequency.) I am betting bike-related injuries follow similar nonlinearities into zones where you might have more frequent incidents (bike-ped, bike-bike), but that those incidents are not as severe as what happens when there are too damn many cars moving too fast.

The other study that Schmitt highlights is better, but still has some pretty troubling data problems Here is a pdf to the study. This is a very nice study, and the authors are explicit: they state they inferring and do not have causality, and–and I think this is interesting–gender winds up being a significant variable. I am not sure I understand their interpretation, but maybe I will see it more clearly when I reread it.

The problem here–and I’m not saying anything the authors do not know-is that they use bike helmet laws as a proxy for wearing bike helmets, and that is not optimal. They may have no other choice, but self-reports are a problem. It is a truth universally acknowledged that human beings are bad self-reporters, on everything, but particularly when they know there is a “right” and “wrong” answer, like safety and health questions.

They are two steps removed from being able to make policy conclusions about helmets. First, do helmet laws increase helmet use, and then bicyclist who experience trauma wear helmets? And another problem: if bike helmet laws do suppress use, it would exert an effect both on overall amounts of cycling which is likely to (though not inevitably) lower incidence and on the safety in numbers effect. The endogeneity problems make things tough, right along with the rarity of the event that prompts people to aggregate the data to non informative spatial units.

Again, we go back to the problem of really wanting to be able to look at specific traits–of places, people, behavior–of specific crashes and compare them with nonfatal incidents in those locations as well as overall exposures at those places to avoid the Abraham Wald survivorship problem .

Keep in mind that I am not saying that we do not need better bike design. Bikes and bike facilities more than warrant priority. People enjoy them, they promote health, and they do not cost very much granted what they can deliver in terms of mobility and enjoyment. Promoting cycling and walking are no-brainers. Do I think they solve climate change? Eh, maybe. Not convinced. But if people enjoy these activities, then why wouldn’t we make space for them cities based on that rationale alone?

Schmitt’s last comment is what inspired me to write the blog post:

Despite the high rate of helmet use in the U.S., helmet campaigns have clearly failed to make cycling as safe as it should be. If anything, they’ve distracted from the much more important work of designing safer streets and reducing motor vehicle speeds in cities.

Now, wait. Suggesting that you slap a helmet on your head, which takes all of 30 seconds, distracts the US from doing a good job with bikes? Come on.

Really, folks, people like me are not your enemy. I just want you to keep the skin on your face where it is if you get unlucky one day. If you don’t want to wear one, well, that’s up you. But just like the people who love me wish I’d lose weight, I want you to ride safe, too. I want you to do what you can to protect yourself as US cities try to get their shit together and supply better spaces for riders.