Blame the Infrastructure, Not the Person Biking

Alex Baca is a Strong Towns member and manager of Cleveland's bikeshare program. Today, she's relating her experience in a traumatic bike crash, and why she doesn't blame the cyclist who caused it.

A rough sketch of what happened in my bike crash

A rough sketch of what happened in my bike crash

I broke my jaw last July after falling off my bike. I was headed south on 14th Street in Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., and swerved to avoid another cyclist, who was riding in the opposite direction in my one-way, painted lane. My front wheel hit a parked car and I slid off my bike, landing on my chin.

After the initial surgery, which involved the insertion of a titanium plate in my chin, my mouth was rubber-banded shut for several weeks; the aggressive metal bridges were replaced with braces, which I’ll have for the indefinite future. I have extensive orthodontic work to look forward to when they come off. My jaw itself is mostly healed now.

I’ve told the tale of how I broke my jaw countless times, as is wont to happen with a visible injury with a long recovery time — especially one that I incurred riding a bike, something I do both daily for transportation and professionally as the general manager of a bikeshare system. I’m grateful for the outpouring of support and love that I received in D.C., where the crash happened; in Cleveland, where I live; and online, where I talk to many of you. But I was surprised to find that one of the most frequent reactions to the whole tale, especially from people I know to be bike riders, was a variation of, “Wow, f*** that other guy for salmoning.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been caught off-guard. Salmoning — riding against traffic on a bike, particularly in a one-way, designated bike lane — is really bad. In 2010, Sarah Goodyear wrote for Streetsblog, “They are endangering other bikers as well as themselves with their wrong-way riding. It’s one of the most frustrating and hazardous phenomena I encounter on my bike on a regular basis.” Around the same time, I was writing about biking in D.C. and managing communications for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, so many of my conversations were about cyclist behavior; salmoning was a frequent target of vitriol. It’s commonly assumed that offenders are putting themselves, and others, at risk — stupidly so. Discussions of it often culminate in an exasperated sigh of, “Why would you even do this?”

I was and am sympathetic: Seeing someone ride straight toward you in a narrow lane is scary, and I now have the medical bills, scars, chipped teeth, and dental implants to prove just how much damage a salmoning cyclist can do.

But salmoning isn’t inscrutable, and it isn’t the problem. The design of our streets, the relatively tiny percentage of space that we dedicate to road users who aren’t driving, and a culture that favors driving over walking and biking are far more damaging than individual cyclists riding the wrong way. And rather than assuming that this specific individual's behavior is a stupid or idiotic choice, enacted with little regard for others, we should be asking about the implications that a built environment that’s hostile to people on bikes and on foot can have.

The intersection where my bike crash occurred. Look at how much space is devoted to cars and how little is devoted to pedestrians and cyclists. And this is a street that actually has a bike lane.

The intersection where my bike crash occurred. Look at how much space is devoted to cars and how little is devoted to pedestrians and cyclists. And this is a street that actually has a bike lane.

The cyclist that I swerved to avoid stopped to see if I was OK, but there wasn’t much he could do: I was spitting out parts of my teeth and trying to figure out how to get to the hospital without calling an ambulance (I took a Lyft). I asked him not to ride the wrong way in a bike lane ever again, and told him to go — it was around 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday, and I assumed he was heading home from a second shift.

If I had had more wits about me, I would have asked him why he was salmoning. But I can wager a guess. I was riding in a southbound bike lane on 14th Street NW, just below Oak Street, which is interrupted by 14th Street and is the northern border of a small triangle park. He was headed northbound, and I didn’t seem him until just before I swerved to avoid him, leading me to believe that he appeared there suddenly (rather than traveling in my lane for several blocks). My suspicion is that he was traveling north in the northbound lane, then cut over when car traffic was clear to salmon in the southbound lane so that he could more easily make the left turn from 14th Street onto Oak Street. There’s no light or crosswalk at 14th and Oak, and drivers are often speeding on 14th.

I could be wrong, of course. I don’t know the intentions of every cyclist. But I don’t believe that people, including the man I encountered, salmon for pure convenience: They do it because they’ve weighed their options and determined that the alternative — even if the alternative is using bike infrastructure properly — is worse. If people are naturally risk-averse, then why is salmoning so pervasive? It can’t be because cyclists, who don’t break traffic laws at any greater rate than motorists, have a pathological desire to flout cultural norms with abandon. I’m willing to bet that it’s because the option of riding “correctly” often feels, and may actually be, less safe. (Jake Dobkin, writing on Gothamist, came to the same conclusion after calculating various potential routes on a Citibike in his post, “In Defense of Salmoning On A Bike.”)

Additionally, consider the evolution of motorist safety and automotive engineering, detailed in a recent 99 Percent Invisible episode. Car crashes were once considered solely the fault of the driver — the “nut behind the wheel.” After enough fatalities, the responsibility for preventing life-threatening incidents was shifted onto auto manufacturers, who redesigned their equipment. This podcast episode isn’t about, and therefore does not address, street design, which, of course, plays a significant role in road safety today. But it’s an instructive illustration of how factors bigger than an individual’s behavior came to be perceived as critical to solve. This changed the way we talk about auto safety, and we should think about the interplay between road-user behavior and street design in similarly structural terms.

Chuck Marohn wrote here in 2014:

Stop signs weren’t designed for cyclists. In fact, very little of our built environment was designed with cyclists in mind. What we have done [...] is developed a tolerance for cyclists, and that only with some heroic effort. Engineers now generally accept cyclists and have even created checklists to help us accommodate them — at least the skilled ones — at a minimal level in our current transportation system. Tolerating cyclists, and sometimes even attempting to accommodate them, is a far cry from designing systems based on their needs.

Very little has changed since then. Though streets for people have become increasingly widely accepted, there is still a cultural tendency to castigate those on bikes whose behavior is less than pure. Riding the wrong way might irk the living daylights out of fastidiously rule-abiding cyclists. But we shouldn’t deride it, or the people who do it, without simultaneously treating its prevalence as a referendum on our unacceptable, unsafe infrastructure.

Related stories

About the Author

Alex Baca has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She is currently the general manager of UHBikes, Cuyahoga County’s bikesharing system, and has written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, The American Conservative, Slate, and Cleveland Magazine. She is pursuing a master of public administration and policy through The American University’s School of Public Affairs.