Bike Theft and Fundamental Attribution Error

The potential fallacy of fundamental attribution error should warn us away from inventing motives to explain why other people use cable locks or other less-than-perfect locking techniques. Developing high-tech methods to discern GOOD bicycle securers from BAD bicycle securers doesn’t help make those securers’ motives clear, whatever those motives might be. I am certainly not a priori convinced that there is a huge demand for a more didactic approach to providing advice on how to lock up your bicycle, and I refuse to accept the observation that lots of bicyclists use cable locks as support for the argument that everyone should register their bike and lock it right.

Since I wrote this first paragraph, I actually went ahead and purchased a cable lock. It cost less than $10, and was rated “1,” the least secure rating in the marketer’s system. I was out of town for school, and so I used it once or twice when leaving the bicycle outside a store for more than 10 minutes. Most of the time I would fold up my bike and take it with me, to class (where I left it folded in the back of the classroom) and to the grocery store (where I folded it up and put it in the cart, so as to take up space and keep me from buying too much food to carry home).

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t make me a bad person. When I travel for business or school, I like to use the bicycle as effectively as I can to get around, which means bicycling right to the front door and not hunting around for a bicycle rack that could be several dozen meters away from the door. Part of my effectiveness at bicycle operation is knowing when it’s necessary to lock up, and when it’s not. Even in New York City, when I duck into the newsstand every morning, I don’t lock my bike up. I just leave it outside, IN THE GHETTO practically, for 30 seconds while I go in and get my newspaper. Of course my bicycle could be stolen. But who is out there on the corner at six a.m., looking for a bicycle to steal?

Reading about decent-hearted people who have gotten wound around the axle of bicycle security makes me sad. At the worst, I see it as another example of in-group policing, where members of a small group come up with elaborate justifications for why other people cannot join, everything from the wrong style of handlebars to the wrong kind of lock. Secondly, they ignore how locking up one’s bicycle is a time-waster on the level of visits to the ATM machine–count up all those five-minute intervals spent either crouched over a staple rack or hunched in front of a bank machine, and pretty soon an entire week of life has vanished into the breeze.

Thirdly, judging the quality of all lock-up jobs by a single standard making the assumption that everyone in the same area has the same requirements. It’s weird that the same people who extol the flexibility of the bicycle as a transportation tool are so rigid when it comes to securing that bicycle. And lastly, if bicycle advocates can call for society to resolve the issue of traffic violence in bicyclists’ favor, why can they not also suggest some way to diminish the need to carry around 20 lbs. of locks and chains?

Interviewing the Elves

Figuring out why people who choose not to do something don’t in fact do it is like attempting to interview the elves who live inside your refrigerator but come out only when the light is off. People already working for a company might tell you what makes them unhappy. But these complaints won’t necessarily pinpoint the factors that keep women and minorities away from studying computer science in the first place.

Eileen Pollack, “What Really Keeps Women Out Of Tech,” New York Times, Sunday Review, page 3, 10/11/2015

Pollack’s metaphor is a trailer-load of apt when applied to the perennial question of bicycle advocates, “How do we get more people in the saddle?” One problem I see advocates having is that their own good fortune (or commodious circumstances) blinds them to the struggles that people at present considering whether to ride a bike actually face. This is an error that I have previously noted and categorized as a kind of fundamental attribution error, but I think it’s actually deeper than that. I see fundamental attribution error when I see bicycle advocates dismiss other people’s apparent reasons for not riding a bicycle as laziness or unfamiliarity. But the error that Pollack identifies is made on a different level.

Simply put, someone already bicycling sees his or her perceived choke points and difficulties as pervasive. The best example of this is the missing Second Avenue bike lane. Between 59th St and 34th St, there is no Second Avenue bike lane; there are signs along the leftmost traffic lane that say, “Bicyclists May Take Full Lane,” but not green paint or even a reserved door-zone lane. Commenters, some of whom are actual real-life bicycle advocates, are complaining on Streetsblog all the time about this, even hijacking posts about bike lanes in other parts of the city to do so. “Why are the authorities painting these subpar bike lanes in Washington Heights when the Second Avenue bike lane is still missing,” for instance.

From a wide-angle perspective, it’s clear that a New Yorker’s decision whether to bike or not to bike on any day is probably very little influenced by those 25 blocks without a bike lane. Plenty of people, after all, are not bicycling into midtown Manhattan at all, let alone the East Side. Here’s where Pollack’s insight comes in. While we can fairly easily attribute ridership to the presence of a bike lane on a certain street, it is more difficult to attribute the lack of ridership in the city overall to the absence of a bike lane on a certain street. The Second Avenue advocates’ argument is that better bicycle infrastructure on those 25 blocks will have some kind of domino effect, the riders irresistibly drawn by the lane’s presence channeling like a spring tide along all other bicycle infrastructure in Manhattan, thus by safety-in-numbers creating more and more bicyclists until all 8.3 million of us New Yorkers are hastening to and fro on two wheels.

This argument blithely assumes that there are no other constraints on bicycling in midtown, that nobody is hunting in vain for a bike share bicycle, or unable to find a safe place to park, or obliged to leave work after dark (or leave home before dawn). It recalls the old chestnut, the reserve army of bicyclists, in this case waiting in their midtown offices with padded shorts on for the Second Avenue bike lane to be opened.

I fully agree that the lack of the Second Avenue bike lane does make bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown more hairy and fretful than it needs to be. But this effect is only noticeable if you are already bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown (like, I expect, most of the advocates). Bicycling advocates have already worked through all the other difficult aspects of commuting by bicycle (finding the parking space, packing the clean shirt) and the implementation of the full Second Avenue bike lane is the one thing that would make their commute easier. Pollack’s insight is that the one thing for the advocate is likely not the one thing for someone ready to get in the saddle.



Nine fallacies or blurred areas of bicycle advocacy

1. Fundamental attribution error, assuming fallaciously that poor people are not as informed about bicycle transportation as rich people, especially rich people who ride bikes. It is not the case that poor people are unaware that bicycles exist or can be used to go from place to place more cheaply than the bus. It is also not the case that motorists stuck in traffic are unaware that bicycles exist. The flip side of this is the aggressive hunt for people who are absolutely unaware that bicycles exist, who are used as straw men to be set ablaze by the writer’s fiery rhetoric and incendiary logic. See ‘Poor People and Bicycling,’ ‘Despairing Season for Riding a Bicycle.’

2. Subjective worldview, assuming perhaps incorrectly that the advocate’s daily ride is representative of all locals’ daily rides, and therefore that fixing problems along the advocate’s route will make a big difference in ride quality across the city. The other way to conceive of this is to consider the impossibility of ranking poor bicycling conditions across a vast city like New York, especially since truly poor-quality bicycling repels bicyclists, including well-meaning bicycle advocates. See ‘Your Ride is Your Perspective,’ ‘Poor Infrastructure Is Everywhere.’

3. Masochism, or ‘Overcoming Obstacles for Fun.’ Sure, everyone wants to be more virtuous, but bicycling, like most activities, doesn’t make sense for people if it involves too much hassle, discomfort, and frustration. Getting on a bicycle in the wintertime is frustrating and uncomfortable. See ‘Despairing Season for Riding a Bicycle.’ It’s best to recognize this overtly and work on constructive ways to alleviate it, rather than celebrating the suck and hoping that other people are just as masochistic as the advocate. Conversely, masochists fail to celebrate actual joy in the performance of bicycling technique in favor of second-order benefits, like cardiovascular exercise and the ability to perceive the streetscape at pedestrian time-scales. This is tangentially related to Early Adopter Syndrome, in which people who get in on something at the start are consigned to using kludgy, inconvenient equipment to accomplish their goals, while people who start later on benefit from improvements in design. Just think of how much effort and specialized equipment were required in the early 2000s to get one’s bicycle to one’s Manhattan workplace and secure it there; now we have bike share and bikes in buildings!

4. Fighting for inadequate provisions, like these good people complaining that the bike lane on a relatively quiet street hasn’t been repainted, though the street has been marked with a double yellow center line, or this guy suggesting bike paths in highway medians. Oh, the noise! and smell! Let me give you a suggestion. If it would look weird to see a bicycle there, as in “Dad, look! There’s a guy on a bicycle! In the median!” perhaps that’s not the place for a bike lane. Nobody wants to look weird and out of place. Addressing the first issue, is there someone who decided not to bike on Seaman Avenue because the public-works department took away the bicycle lane? Maybe that marginal person on a bike just put the bike back on the balcony and took the bus instead.

5. Focusing on safety promotion instead of bicycle promotion. Assume there is a “safety deficit,” that people feel that bicycling is not safe enough for them to take part. Then, assume that vigorous attention has remedied this safety deficit and it’s not there any more. Bicycling is just as safe as people want it to be. Now, let’s ride! The same marketing campaign to get people into the saddle post-remedy could have been used pre-remedy. How are we in the future going to communicate the safety of bicycling in a way that is not true today? People will get in the bicycle saddle when it makes sense for them to get in the bicycle saddle. Spending time trying to make bicycling safer is a worthwhile way to spend time, but I don’t see how it gets more people into the saddle. See Safety Promotion vs. Bicycle Promotion.

6. Overreliance on imported models. Instead of doing the onerous anthropological work of figuring out who is actually riding a bicycle and how, work that is a natural but perhaps not obvious prerequisite to encouraging more people to ride bicycles, lazy advocates prefer to import models wholesale from the Netherlands and assign them to local populations.  This overlaps somewhat with fundamental attribution bias, especially when zealous Omafiets riders attempt to explain how less doctrinaire bicyclists are doing it wrong by using the bike they had in the garage to commute. Americans are constantly being informed by these kinds of advocates that we are not riding correctly, that all we need is the right kind of neighborhood, the right kind of intersection, the right kind of bike lane, and the right kind of bike and we will be on our bicycles just like the Dutch. Well, yes: if Dutch bicycling is correct then we would do well to build new Hollands everywhere. But if bicycling is so fantastic, why does it have to be done with exactly one kind of bike, and one kind of street? I would prefer to support multiple variations of bicycling technique as I cannot authoritatively pronounce one way better than another.

7. Great expectations from aggregate data. The more people are counted, the more we are supposed to know. But what would we do any differently, knowing 10 times as many people as we thought were using the bike lane? It’s my considered opinion that bicycle infrastructure installation is not particularly dependent on descriptive statistics. The reserve army of bicyclists is not training on rollers, waiting for Mayor De Blasio to build it a bike lane.

8. Measurement bias. Rides that can be measured become the yardstick, and the data that can be conveniently gathered from open data repositories somehow becomes the entire story. I would like to know what the spread and success of local bike shops says for the technique, as local bike shops actually turn bicyclists per se into consumers and job creators, but that data is a lot harder to find. Easier to see how many people are using the local bike share kiosk. This goes along with subjective worldview, as the people who are doing the measuring are the ones providing the worldview.

9. Historical bias, e.g. “Bicycling: Now Safer Than Ever.” Bias toward the past, and what happened in the past, and away from the future, and what we plan to happen. We overvalue the incidents that happened in the past, and neglect to take into account recent interventions to address those incidents, and undervalue what will happen in the future. It took me a while to see this one as its own fallacy. It can be viewed, however, in the inability of safety interventions to change people’s attitudes about the safety of bicycling. Folks will always remember how unsafe it felt the last time they got on a bicycle… in 1999.

Lee Semel’s answer to What are some stupid things that smart people do? – Quora

Engaging in zero sum competitions with other smart people .

There are whole industries – semiconductors, computers, most software, mobile phones – with too many smart people and not enough dumb ones. (Although, we should note that RIM tried to get less smart by having two presidents, and HP has done their part at least twice.)

27 Feb

This part about the zero-sum competitions is pure genius. Link to the Semel post is here: