This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, Antifragile. You should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the second section of Antifragile.

The following is Strong Towns member, James Fogarty's answer to this question:

More people jaywalking makes it safer for everyone yet a single person jaywalking is dangerous. More kids outside playing makes it safer for all kids to be outside playing but one kid alone is more susceptible to harm. Traffic lanes full of bikes and a culture of biking creates safe conditions but a lone biker on a stroad is putting their life at risk. It’s clear we’ve intervened ourselves to extreme fragility. Now that we’re here, how do we go back?  

Photo by  Edu Alarcon

Photo by Edu Alarcon

In his book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb identifies situations that seem to expose an innate human desire to intervene in order to fix a problem.  He uses the example of the surgeon, who is rewarded with praise and money if he or she successfully performs surgery, and is not rewarded at all if no treatment is provided and the condition resolves on its own without exposing the patient to risk of infection or complications from surgery. 

Taleb asserts that even if the problem at hand is fixed, interventions often result in more harm than good, thanks to unintended consequences.  Can society go back to a state where unexpected events or small errors in judgement don’t result in extreme negative consequences, and if so, how do we get there? 

One intervention that stands out is the criminalization of use of the street by anything other than a car, otherwise known as jaywalking.  The term ‘jaywalking’ originated in the early 20th century as part of a campaign to establish the street as a place for cars.  Jaywalking was a pejorative term meant to shame those who would not yield the right of way to nascent automobile traffic.  The campaign was a way to reduce collisions between cars and people—a new problem at the time—in a way that painted automobile traffic in a more positive light. 

The subsequent relinquishment of the street to auto traffic lessened the time needed to reach distant destinations but also led to many other safety problems.  This included health problems, social inequity, increased cost for lower density development, and somewhat ironically, the continued problem of collisions between cars and people.  On a street with fast moving traffic, a small mistake or error in judgement by a pedestrian, bicyclist, or driver can be deadly.  By giving streets the illusion of predictability and scaling them to reduce the perception of speed, they feel safe, even though there are potentially serious consequences for even a very minor error. 

When there is a perception of some danger, the resulting extra caution a person might take could actually improve overall safety.  Driving more slowly and cautiously gives drivers more time to react and lessens the severity of a collision if one were to occur.  Where laws and traffic signals do not offer absolution of personal responsibility, it is human empathy that can limit reckless and inconsiderate behavior.  Reintroducing some risk, or rather, making the risk that is already there more evident, may be the best thing we can do to help re-build a culture where small mistakes don’t have devastating consequences.  A good start might be changing the expectations for transportation facilities such that when a mistake is made, the downside would be something on par with getting a bad scratch or losing a mirror. 

Taleb also identifies the misperception of risk as a side effect of modern news cycle.  There is a saying that one never reads about the plane that did not crash, which implies that such news is uninteresting.  Parents, who are bombarded with sensational stories of grotesque things happening to other children, have an emotional reaction to protect their children from risks.  Some of these risks are in reality much more remote than other risks they face on a daily basis.  For example, a parent might prevent their child from walking to a park that is 800 feet from home along their quiet, residential street due to the perceived risk of kidnapping.  That same parent might then drive their child to a play date on the other side of town. 

Ironically, the risk involved from being driven around, even in the back seat with a seatbelt and a booster seat, is significantly higher and significantly worse than risks from walking down a slow, local street.

Ironically, the risk involved from being driven around, even in the back seat with a seatbelt and a booster seat, is significantly higher and significantly worse than risks from walking down a slow, local street.  In fact, it is likely that in the event of a rear end collision (the most common type of collision), the front seat a child is probably sitting behind is designed to fail in a way that would severely injure or kill them.  With few exceptions (see this report) this type of accident is so common that it doesn’t regularly get reported.  Parents misjudge the risk and don’t really understand the consequences. As a result, they may unintentionally put their children in harm’s way.  This is one reason that auto accidents remain a leading cause of death for children between 2 and 14 years old, while kidnapping by strangers is rare. 

As a result, a culture has emerged (at least in the middle and upper classes) where children more frequently interact during supervised, indoor ‘play dates’ than with spontaneous uncontrolled play (see this related Huffington Post article).  While we may feel better actively and constantly supervising our children, there is a downside to this helicopter parenting. Let me explain: If a child plays outside or in the street by themselves, they are more vulnerable to errors in judgement. Without adults or lots of other kids around, mistakes such as getting too close to a lake or falling off a slide have more serious consequences.  

Nonetheless, allowing a child to experience just a little bit of pain, risk, challenge, or failure for themselves in a controlled way is one method to help reduce downside from risk.  For example, by getting burned a tiny bit, children learn caution and judgement that helps them not to play with fire or go near a hot stove, even when parents aren’t around.  Hypothetically, these lessons can prevent more serious injuries and damage down the road.  Part of the point of childhood education is that decisions have less serious consequences so that when the consequences are more severe, better decisions can be made.  By limiting and managing severe downside potential and accepting that some small losses may strengthen both the whole and the individual, we can build a stronger, less fragile society.  

Read all our Antifragile coverage.

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About the Author

James Fogarty is an alumnus of the University of Florida, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering.  He has worked as both public agency staff and in the private sector as a consultant.  He is currently the president and founder of JRB Solutions, LLC, a planning and engineering firm committed to considering people first in the built urban environment.  JRB Solutions, LLC specializes in transit planning and design, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, transportation safety, street design, and efficiency in public investments.  James was recognized by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011 as an Up and Comer, and in 2012 by the local chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers as the young transportation professional of the year.  A native of the Tampa Bay area, he has presented nationally and internationally on Tampa Bay's infrastructure improvements and is active in a number of local projects and efforts.  He has proudly served as the transit agency representative on the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is an active participant and supporter of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, along with many other community organizations.