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Comments on Fabricius letter by John S. Allen

(Quotes from Fabricius letter are indented, responses are not.)

We believe that the proposed Vassar Street design addresses in a very positive way the safety and operational issues that you've raised.

Nothing whatever about the design has been changed.  The only issue that has been addressed satisfactorily in the response is that of tree root encroachment. In addition to safety and operational issues, there are also issues of expense of construction and maintenance, and of liability exposure.

We recognize that we are applying a different strategy on Vassar Street than is commonly found in Cambridge...

Yes, that is true. The different strategy is one that the City would not choose, one that flies in the face of national design standards, liability concerns and the results of safety research.

... and we will strive to educate our population about its proper use.

In the end, a good design that is laid out with logic and clarity will not require a substantial educational effort.

That statement is incorrect, and reveals a profound lack of understanding of safety issues.

It is common knowledge that training is essential for safety in boating, mountaineering, wilderness hiking, scuba diving and other activities undertaken in an environment that has an inherent hazard. Yet most bicyclists in the USA have no training in safe bicycling, and no understanding that any such training might be necessary or helpful. The usual attitude toward bicycling is one of schizoid denial: on the one hand, "bicycling is dangerous" and on the other, "I know how to ride a bicycle. I learned when I was 6 years old." Most bicyclists' assumptions about what is safe are incorrect, and lead to a downward spiral in which brushes with danger reinforce incorrect behavior.

Until appropriate safety measures were developed and implemented, beginning about 100 years ago, the typical sailor or boater believed that there was no hope of survival if he went overboard, and so he didn't wear a personal flotation device and often didn't even know how to swim. The current situation with bicycling is analogous.

Just look around you in the streets and consider the high percentage of bicyclists who fail to to observe the traffic laws -- or to use the most basic safety equipment -- lights, helmets. We don't need a substantial educational effort?

Safe bicycling requires a substantial educational effort no matter where bicyclists ride, but the problem is worse with students who are suddenly thrust into an urban environment where they must use bicycles for transportation. My pamphlet Bicycling Street Smarts (online and in print) and John Forester's book Effective Cycling (MIT Press), among other resources, teach the skills which most people lack. Exploring these publications will give an idea of the problem and how it may be solved. Forester's book goes into depth about its causes and epidemiology; my pamphlet only teaches how to ride.

When facilities pose unusual hazards and create a false sense of security, then education is very difficult, because bicyclists must be instructed to take special care to avoid the unusual hazards. Generally, the institution which created the hazards puts itself into a quandary: if it educates users about the hazards, it damages its credibility. If it does not educate them, it multiplies the risk to users, and the risk to itself through liability exposure.

Attitudes which lead to the belief that education will take care of itself also lead to a vicious cycle in facilities design: The unquestioning acceptance of untested beliefs -- "bicyclists are safer on the sidewalk" -- leads to disregard of the research literature -- "it's obvious, what is there to know?" In this project, those attitudes have progressed to outright denial and rejection.

As an educational institution, MIT is in an usually strong position for bicycling education and enforcement. MIT has the potential to become a national leader in this area rather than to make an embarrassing and costly mistake.

Also see comments on education on the next page.

Please feel free to contact me if you'd like clarification on any aspect of this letter or the attached memorandum.

It is entirely clear what the letter and the memorandum say. Nothing will change.

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