Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Skills vs. Infrastructure Debate

Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time I bloviate on about "vehicular bicycling skills." (It might be more accurate to say that this is one of the primary ongoing themes to be found in this blog.) Not all of this blog's readers, however, might know that there is an ongoing if ill-focused debate among interested parties that touches on this issue. The debate is between proponents of INFRASTRUCTURE vs. those who promote SKILLS DEVELOPMENT. (It is entirely possible to be a proponent of both these things. Let's, just for the moment, be partisan about this, hey? It's so much fun to argue, even if it is with oneself.)

The "infrastructure" argument asserts that bicyclists need more environmental protection from motorists, and the way to make that happen is with new bike-lane infrastructure. This argument tends to support the intuitive position of people who think they would like to cycle more but are not currently doing so, i.e., "Gee, if only there were more bike lanes like in Europe, then I would get out and cycle on a much more regular, even frequent, basis."

The "bicycling skills development" argument asserts that if bicyclists learn and use the rules of "vehicular bicycling," then additional infrastructure not only isn't necessary, but can have negative effects such as creating confusion (if poorly engineered), creating a false sense of security for unskilled cyclists, and (ultimately) relegating cyclists to "second-class" vehicular status (because of the additional confinement of the bike lane -- e.g., if a bike lane exists but is not used, even if for a good reason, is the cyclist liable?) and ultimately driving (so to speak) the cyclist off the roadways. The "skills" argument seems to be adopted more by people who are actually regular cycle commuters.

I believe it to be the case that bicycle accident statistics tend to bear out the "skills" arguments rather than the "infrastructure" argument. See my earlier post here.

I personally think that bicyclists need more education and skills development to be safer. I commute regularly by bicycle, and the stupid (i.e., dangerous) things I've seen cyclists do is breathtaking. This includes inexperienced cyclists, who are still in the "toy-bike" mode, as well as experienced road riders (who are nonetheless inexperienced vehicular cyclists) who believe, since they are so experienced, the "rules of the road" don't apply to their seasoned selves.

If the problem could be described as a problem of educational infrastructure rather than transportation infrastructure, then what is the best approach? I don't see this as something that can or will be taught in public schools -- they certainly have enough problems, not the least budgetary. But the educational infrastructure needs a curriculum, a venue, teachers, and a funding source.

A curriculum could be developed by interested parties drawing from the LAB curriculum (which the LAB tends to keep under rather tight control, as their training courses serve as a funding source) and other sources, such as Forester's Effective Cycling curriculum (but much abbreviated). Of course, the curriculum should be regularized on a national basis, while being scrupulous to minor variations within the governing state's "rules of the road". The cost to do this would be a few tens of thousands of dollars, I would think.

The venue for this education should be diffuse, locally-based, and trusted. I think a good candidate would be the public library system. Public libraries are available and currently serve a well-recognized educational role. They typically have many outreach programs, which a bicycle-skills program could join. They have large parking lots for basic skills training. They have a good image.

The teachers will of course be drawn from the ranks of current practitioners.

Funding is of course always an issue. How is this to be controlled and paid for? Will the state DOT have any say, will they want control or licensing authority? (I assume driver-training schools are licensed by the state DOTs.) Would this ultimately be linked with (and at least partially paid for by) a cyclist-licensing program? Others have broached the subject of testing and licensing bicyclists, and I think it's perhaps an idea whose time has come.


Willie said...

How about the fire department as a venue? You would need a "multi-level" education approach, but it might work for an urban setting. The FD has the right mission, which is public safety.

Adrienne Johnson said...

Skills, skills, skills! We can have all the bike lanes in the world, but if you ride a bike like an over tired night shift worker who talks on the cell while swerving in the SUV, someone is going to get hurt, no matter what. Many areas have local bicycle advocacy groups who have rider skills and safety classes for adults and children.

I like your idea of using libraries as a means of creating a space for bike education- great use of public institutions, already in place. As for involvement by the DOT... there is not a lot of positive re-enforcement from the government in regards to bicycling as it is. Were there to be bicycle 'licenses' for riding, I think you would lose a lot of cyclists.

David said...

Nice post. All that follows may be old news to you, but I felt like writing it down. I suppose because I'd like to have someone to discus it with, particularly someone in the same neck of the woods. For the sake of disclosure/ ethics: I took an LCI seminar this year, should become a full LCI shortly, and have done some work for WABA.

The League (as it likes to be known now) does not gain revenue from classes taught by LCIs (though it does sell approved literature). LCIs are _certified_ by the league, and insured by the League if they follow certain guidelines, but they plan and organize their classes independently of the League, and payment is not typically routed through the League. The exceptions to this are for the most part limited to the Instructors' Seminars (which makes sense). LCIs can advertise/post their class schedules and contact information on the League website, but I just looked, and there are NO CLASSES listed for MD, VA, or DC, despite there being a bunch of LCIs.

Part of the issue is that it's really hard to make your living as a bicycling instructor without being an employee of an advocacy organization or DOT. It might actually be possible, but as far as I know, no one has tried to do it. There's some hope though...

Safe Routes To School (SRTS) is a national bike and ped education program federally funded and mandated in the most recent passed Transportation Act (Ice-TEA, or TEA-21, or Safe-TEA...hard to keep track). Every state is required to have a SRTS Coordinator, within the DOT I think, working with the school systems, law enforcement, planning depts, and others to coordinate both the educational programs and some facility enhancements (I think some percent of the funding is required to be used for enhancements, but a certain amount is also required for educational programs). I think advocates generally agree that this represents a huge opportunity. From what I've seen, school systems have taken two approaches: they can train (with the help of the DOT or an advocacy group) their own teachers (often PE teachers) to teach bike/ped programs, or they can contract someone (often a local advocacy group) to teach "extension" programs. We're talking about the public school system here, so movement is slow, but once it gets going it can have a lot of inertia!

I think your comment about the League "gaurding" its programs is a bit too strong. The League provides insurance and a nationally recognized certification to LCIs, and this is basicly what drives the program. To maintain their credibility, and their insurance, they have to "gaurd" their programs somewhat, and uphold certain standards. This is what gives a regular guy (who is an LCI) the ability to walk into his local rec center (or library, or fire station) and say, "I'd like to offer these classes, how can I arrange to do it in your space?" Remember, the League is a membership organization; it's not subsidized by the oil industry or funded by the government. It's a crime that automobile transportation is given such a central place in most federal and state legislation, but it's also a fact.

In addition, I think the League does see the need to continually improve and update its curricula. In evidence, they just brought out a revised introductory course booklet, and their Education Director Preston Tyree is continually building a library of resources for LCIs to use.

Local advocacy groups often modify League programs for their own purposes. For example, you might know about WABA's (the Washington Area Bicyclist Association) Confident City Cycling classes, which are free, taught by LCIs. The instructors are paid by WABA, and at least in part funded by the local/state DOTs. When these programs are successful, they can work their way up to League (I think they need to be approved by an education committee or directors, or similar).

On a semi-local note for you, WABA just announced the results of what appears to have been an effective meeting with MPD, DDOT, and DC councilmembers. Check their website for more on that: