Commentary: The Dutch Call Dangerous Designs Evil. They’re Right.

Let's use the right word to describe when planners and politicians build things they know will cause death and dismemberment

Redwood Road, where a motorist slammed into people *inside*  this Trader Joe's. Yet cyclists are given a bike lane that crosses slip turns, along a six lane stroad in this grotesque example of how not to make people safe. Image: Google Maps
Redwood Road, where a motorist slammed into people *inside* this Trader Joe's. Yet cyclists are given a bike lane that crosses slip turns, along a six lane stroad in this grotesque example of how not to make people safe. Image: Google Maps

Dutch planners and engineers visited San Francisco last week. One of the things I find so refreshing about meeting with the Dutch, is they have a plain-speaking culture. And when they see clearly dangerous road designs that prioritize automobile speeds over safety, they use the word “evil” to describe it.

By evil, of course, they mean it in the banal, Hannah Arendt’ian sense; it’s not that American traffic engineers and planners twirl their mustaches and laugh as they build deadly intersections. No, it’s that they simply go through the motions of their jobs without any real thinking or self-examination at all–which, when you’re doing a job that involves life and death, is evil.

The lead image of a ridiculous, paint-only-bike lane and turnout on Redwood Road in Castro Valley is a perfect illustration. Anyone even remotely studied in, well, anything, can see that bike lane is a death trap. Nobody would use a bike lane like that unless they truly had no alternative in how to get around, which is probably why a disproportionate number of dead cyclists and pedestrians are poor and Black. And yet the traffic “engineers” and planners in Castro Valley no doubt took equity pledges, did studies, built the road and striped the bike lanes, collected their paychecks, and went home to play video games, see their families, make dinner, all the while knowing people will die because of what they built.

On Thursday, a motorist crashed into the Castro Valley Trader Joe’s by that turnout, putting four people in the hospital.

So the city can’t stop motorists from driving into a store, but that stripe’s going to protect a cyclist?

That’s evil.

This isn’t even the only time this has happened to a Bay Area store this month. The Oaklandside reported that the Ethiopian cafe Jebena Cafe on Telegraph recently got taken out by a motorist–on the section of Telegraph that doesn’t have a parking-protected bike lane, so you can imagine what would have happened if a cyclist was there.

And yet there are still Vision Zero Task Forces full of American “professionals” telling cyclists and pedestrians they need to carry lights and wear reflective vests to stay safe.

Concrete, on the other hand, definitely works. This is what’s happening in New York as they finally, at long last, start to take safety seriously, by putting in real protection for cyclists and pedestrians:

From Streetsblog NYC. A concrete barrier protecting cyclists on Flushing Avenue just west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway on Friday. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov
From Streetsblog NYC. A concrete barrier protecting cyclists and pedestrians on Flushing Avenue just west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. This is what you build if you’re not evil. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

But, of course, there has to be some parking loss to make room for real, protective infrastructure as seen above.

Meanwhile, Oakland DOT’s director, who was already infamous among advocates for his contribution to the traffic carnage in nearby Hayward, told Streetsblog that protected bike lanes are unworkable because merchants “count on deliveries.” And then on Wednesday Streetsblog published a piece about how SFMTA in San Francisco plans to abandon a lane reduction on Franklin, despite a recent traffic fatality, because it might affect Level of Service.

The Dutch would never tolerate a striped bike lane on a street as wide and trafficked as Redwood Road in Castro Valley. They would not build a five-lane surface level freeway going right by an elementary school like on Franklin in San Francisco. They wouldn’t build Telegraph with long stretches with no bike-lane protection. And they would call out planners and engineers who allow such deadly designs.

One of the Dutch engineers I spoke with remarked that it’s not that Americans don’t know how to make things safe. It’s that they don’t care enough to change how they do things. Those who do care, with rare exceptions, don’t care enough to challenge the politicians and fellow planners who are getting people killed.

That’s a moral problem, not an engineering issue. And that, unfortunately, is the part even the Dutch can’t help with.

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