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Hiles, Jeffrey A. Listening to Bike Lanes. September 1996.

Chapter 6
Design Concepts

Before moving on to bike lane issues, we’ll explore some design concepts that will help us in the following chapters make sense of how and why bike lanes affect cyclists. These concepts come primarily from the works of cognitive psychologist Donald Norman (1988) and environmental-behavior studies professor Amos Rapoport (1982).

Rack your bike, not your brain

Until a few years ago, the only bike racks in downtown Yellow Springs, Ohio, were a couple of wheel benders. By “wheel benders” I mean they were the kind of rack famous for the bicycle domino effect. You stick your front wheel between vertical rods, you start to walk away, the wheel slips, you hear a clatter as each bike falls against the next, and, thanks to those vertical rods, some of the bikes’ wheels aren’t as well aligned as they were before.

When the village decided to add bike racks to its downtown sidewalks recently, it installed a different kind of rack. It was what I call a rail rack. That is, you park your bike by leaning it against a horizontal rail, like leaning your bike against a railing or hitching rail. Unfortunately, many bicyclists had a hard time figuring out how to use the new racks. They parked their bikes perpendicular to the rail, leaned them against the supporting posts.

Rail-type racks have worked wonderfully, however, in many communities. They are the best bike rack design I’ve seen for downtown sidewalks. Because both the racks and the bikes run parallel to the street, they take up a minimum of sidewalk width. Also, rail racks give two- or three-point support to bikes’ frames, virtually eliminating the falls, scratches, and bends associated with many bike racks. Finally, this sturdy and hard-to-vandalize type of rack will accommodate nearly any frame design and locking device conceivable.

Figure 4
Yellow Springs rack versus Missoula rack

Yellow Springs versus Missoula rack.

So, why did people in Yellow Springs lock their bikes to the racks the wrong way, a way that gave less support to the bikes and that took up more sidewalk width? I believe there were two forces at work: an inaccurate mental model in cahoots with a misleading system image (Norman, 1988).

In this case, the model that many bicyclists had in mind for how a bike rack works was the wheel bender. Like a rail rack, most wheel benders also have a horizontal bar on top. But with the wheel bender, you park your bike perpendicular to the bar, not parallel to it. This is the bike parking method most Ohio bicyclists grew up with. Confronted with the new type of rack and no instructions on how to use it, many bicyclists simply tried—and still try—to use the racks according to their old mental models of how racks should be used. They parked their bikes perpendicular to the horizontal bars.

It would be unfair, though, to blame the bicyclists for assuming that their old mental models of bike rack parking applied to the new racks. The larger problem was that the design of the new racks gave no clue to the contrary. In fact, the new racks had affordances that not only did nothing to discourage inappropriate parking, they may have even encouraged it. As you may recall, Norman defines affordances as “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (p.9). One of these properties was that the racks were taller than they were long. If you want an object to be used as a rail, you have to make it look like a rail. That is, it needs to be a horizontal shape, longer than it is tall. Another problem was that the racks were open beneath the rail, which “afforded” the possibility of sticking bikes into the rack the wrong way.

Figure 4 compares the rail rack design used in Yellow Springs with one used in Missoula, Montana. Notice first that the Missoula rack is horizontal, it looks like a rail, not like a pair of posts. Also, there is a second horizontal bar beneath the top bar. The lower rail has a number of functions. It helps keep the bicycle’s wheel from turning when the handlebars are leaned against the top rail. It also affords more options for locking a bike. For this discussion, though, the key function of the lower bar is that it acts as a constraint that prevents you from putting your bike into the rack the wrong way (Norman, p. 84). Like any good physical constraint, this one is easy to see and interpret you don’t even think about putting the bike in the wrong way.

So the system image—what you see when you look at an object or an environment—of the Missoula rack gives you much better clues as to how the rack is to be used. You don’t need lessons or an instruction book. The design itself “tells” you how to use it. Norman calls this “natural design,” using “signals that are mentally interpreted without any need to be conscious of them” (p. 4). These signals consist of the visible affordances and constraints.

The right to signal a right with the right

Is it right for a bicyclist to signal a right turn with his right hand, or should that be left to the left hand? In many states bicyclists have no choice, not legally anyway. In Ohio, for example, the only legal right-turn hand signal (at this writing) is the kind a motorist with broken blinkers must make: you stick your left arm out the window and bend it upward at the elbow. This makes sense in a car; unless you have a nine-foot arm, you can’t signal by pointing your right arm out the right window. On a bike, though, it’s a different story. Cyclists in a number of states have gotten the right-handed, right-turn signal legalized for bicycling because they have found that it works better.

Why does the right hand work better when the left-handed signal is the standard with which, presumably, everyone is familiar? Consider the difference from a design perspective. Pointing to the right to signal a right turn, just like pointing to the left to signal a left turn, communicates intuitively. There is a direct relationship between the form of the signal and the action that it signifies. Norman calls this natural mapping. It leads to immediate understanding.

In contrast, there is very little relationship between bending your left arm and making a right turn. Even though it is the standard hand signal, few motorists have used it since the invention of blinkers. So they have to search the corridors of their memories for what they learned in drivers’ education class. Not only can this make motorists slow to catch on, it’s easy for them to turn down the wrong mental corridor on the way to retrieving that information. Some bicyclists have seen motorists smile and wave back. In a test of motorists’ ability to quickly read bicyclists’ hand signals, Drury (1979) found that motorists correctly read left-handed right-turn signals less than two thirds of the time, but right-handed signals had an 80 percent success rate (p. 1045).

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world

Both the Missoula rail rack and the right-handed, right-turn signal convey information through their forms. Norman calls this kind of information knowledge in the world. Our everyday activities are guided, for better or worse, by an interplay of knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.

A bicyclist who moved to Yellow Springs from a city such as Missoula, for example, would probably know immediately how to park a bike on the new rail racks despite the lack of visual clues. Also, many motorists correctly read bicyclists’ left-handed, right turn signals with no problem. Knowledge in the head can fill in where design leaves off. To strike a good balance between information that a design conveys and information that a user must have in her head, a designer must understand the characteristics of these two kinds of knowledge. Norman explains:

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: No search and interpretation of the environment is required. In order to use knowledge in the head we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment and the information is changed. Performance relies upon the physical presence of the task environment.

…gaining the advantages of knowledge in the world means losing the advantages of knowledge in the head (p. 80).

Environmental design as nonverbal communication

Another way of looking at knowledge in the environment is that it consists of those attributes of the design that communicate, nonverbally, with the user. Unfortunately, the meaning of that communication may vary considerably from user to user.

Rapoport (1982) describes three kinds of elements that make up the built environment (pp. 87-101). Fixed feature elements “change rarely and slowly.” The asphalt or concrete surface of the street and its curbs and gutters are fixed-feature elements of the bicycling environment. Semi-fixed feature elements “can, and do, change fairly quickly and easily.” Rapoport offers examples such as furniture and how it is arranged, advertising signs, lawn decorations and many other things. Pavement markings will be our main concern among the semi-fixed feature elements in the bicycling environment. However, speed humps, channelizing islands, and all manner of traffic signs would also count as semi-fixed feature elements. Semi-fixed feature elements, Rapoport says, “become particularly important in environmental meaning…where they tend to communicate more than fixed-feature elements” (p. 89). Nonfixed-feature elements are people and their nonverbal behaviors (p. 96). Of course, our nonfixed-feature concerns will be mostly with bicyclists and motorists, and with the ways in which they behave.

We can uncover the meanings of built environments by observing who does what in those settings. As Rapoport puts it, we can “move from the nonfixed-feature realm to the semifixed and fixed-feature elements” (pp. 96-97).

You see, we create and adapt our built environments for specific purposes. For worship we build churches, for entertainment, dance halls. To carry out the serious business of our judicial system, we build court houses. For relief from serious business, we build taverns. For speedy travel we build freeways. For the comings and goings of communities we build residential streets. The elements that distinguish one type of environment from another, the features by which we know taverns when we see them, for instance, then act as cues that remind us of the behaviors expected of us in those settings. As Winston Churchill put it, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” (Deasy, 1974, p. 5).

This “mnemonic function” of built environments sounds very tidy, but nonverbal communication is not always clear. We can think of settings as “cognitive domains made visible,” Rapoport points out:

This conceptualization has two consequences: First, there are important, continuing relationships to culture and to psychological processes, such as the use of cognitive schemata and taxonomies, that tend to be neglected in the sociological literature. Second, conflicts can easily arise in pluralistic contexts when settings may elicit different meanings and behaviors—or where particular groups may reject meanings that they in fact fully understand (p. 64).

So, as motorists and bicyclists move down a roadway, there are many features of that roadway that remind the travelers of what kind of behavior is expected of them in that setting. Fixed-feature elements include the width of the street, whether or not there is a curb, the kinds of buildings that line the street, perhaps the type and quality of the pavement. Semifixed-feature elements include pavement markings, roadside signs, street furniture, trees, lawn ornaments. Nonfixed-feature elements include the volume of traffic and the mix of cars, trucks, busses, bikes, and pedestrians. From these clues, motorists get a sense of what speed is most appropriate and of what kinds of hazards to watch for. The clues affect bicyclists’ sense of comfort and safety in ways that vary considerably from bicyclist to bicyclist. In the next chapter, we will explore “psychological processes” related to that nonverbal communication called bike lanes. We will see why these settings elicit different meanings and behaviors and how these differences, combined with the inherent tension between knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world, create the conflict we see among bicyclists today.

Asking the right questions

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 raised hopes that transportation planners would become more responsive to public input. Federal guidance on public involvement paints a picture of grass-roots planning:

A good indicator of an effective public involvement process is a well informed public which feels it has opportunities to contribute input into transportation decision-making processes through a broad array of involvement opportunities at all stages of decision-making. In contrast, an ineffective process is one that relies excessively on one or two public meetings or hearings to obtain input immediately prior to decision-making on developed draft plans and programs (FHWA/FTA, 1995, p. 6).

Put another way, transportation planning is moving away from a process by which a few technocrats plan for the community and toward a process where the experts’ role is to create plans by working with the community. This helps prevent unfortunate products of that designers’ mind set Deasy called “naive realism,” as discussed in the last chapter, where designers’ training and experience so shapes their viewpoint, that they can’t see or appreciate the problems other system users face. But there is a trap within this noble trend.

One Ohio city, for example, recently conducted a “Bikepath Opinion Survey” to assess “the value bike paths play in our community.” In essence, the six-question survey asked residents if they wanted more bike paths. There are several problems with this. One problem is that it’s a backward approach to planning. As Williams (1993d) puts it:

One way to come up with trivial results is to start with a solution in hand and look for a problem it can solve. The idea is to only look at the problem closely enough to justify our preconceptions and determine its usefulness in furthering our agenda. A closer view may present a more complicated problem to solve. And a more complicated problem may require a different solution.

The transportation planner or engineer who believes his primary obligation to bicycling is to build paths (or lanes) is like a physician who believes his primary task is to administer penicillin. It’s prescription without examination or diagnosis.

The Ohio city’s survey used the terms “bikeways” and “bike paths” interchangeably and made no mention of the differences between paths, lanes, routes, traffic calming, or any other approach to accommodating bicycling. Even if the survey had offered more options, though, few residents have much experience with or understanding of those options; so their choices would have little meaning. And it would still be starting with a solution before identifying a problem.

If the planner’s role is to work with the people, but asking people what kind of facilities they want is fruitless, what then? According to Constance Perin, the environmental designer needs to ask not what people want, but what people want to do:

...the emphasis on behavioral expectations is intentionally a departure from “preferences,” in that behavior that is satisfying is likely to be preferred, and people are more likely to have ideas about alternative ways of achieving satisfactory behavior whereas they may be lacking in preferences for what they have never experienced. By raising questions of detailed preferences for environmental ensembles instead of questions about the behaviors people find necessary for attaining their ends, the designer is hemmed in with limitations to his imaginative abilities, right from the start (Perin, 1970, pp. 72-73).

The first step in planning for bicycling is to find out what people want to do on their bikes, the ways in which they are successful in carrying out those behaviors, and the ways in which they find it difficult to do what they want to do. Only then does it make sense to talk about what changes a bicycle program should advocate. The last step in planning for bicycling, the measure of a bicycle program’s success, is not the number of miles of facilities a city has built. It is the ease with which bicyclists can do what they want to do:

The concept environmental design might organize its data around, as it measures and estimates the consequences of what it does and proposes to do, is that of the sense of competence people have in carrying out their everyday behavior...(Perin, 1970, p. 45).

The next two chapters will look at bicycle facilities as environmental design. This should make it easier to see the ways facilities such as bike lanes contribute or detract from bicyclists’ sense of competence. The last chapter, of conclusions and recommendations, will include suggestions for assessing bicyclists’ sense of competence.


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