Several times over the past few years I’ve used the term “immoral” to describe bicycle infrastructure that suggests safety but actually puts bicyclists in danger. For a good example: see my recent coverage here, see Keri Caffrey’s recent coverage here, and check the original source here.
Is that term too harsh? I don’t think so. I think it is accurate. Here’s what I wrote just a few minutes ago on a Facebook discussion of the topic:
Not that it needs defending, but as a professor who teaches ethics (media), I think this is a concept we MUST continue to use. We ARE talking morality and ethics here. From the duty side: We have a duty not to put others in danger — especially not by fooling them into believing they are safe. From the consequence side: Sending a novice into a dangerous situation with the delusion of safety can easily lead to injury or death.
We must continue to speak that word in the face of those who would paint dangerous lines on the road.
One of the discussants mentioned that he had once used the term in a discussion with engineers who were “taken aback” because they were “following standards.”
There is no substitute for doing the hard thinking about how one’s actions may affect the public — especially, in this case, if your job is to build things the public uses. Or if your passion is to advocate for something the public “needs.” Or if your goal is to encourage more people to ride bicycles.
If you do these things, you cannot avoid the moral requirement to think about what you’re doing and how it affects, or could affect, the people who will follow your encouragement or use the thing you build. This requirement, as I demonstrated above, may be argued both in terms of deontological ethics (duty) and teleological ethics (consequence).
Think of that as the double-whammy of ethics. If you’re offending both duty and consequences, well, man, you are way out of bounds in the whole morality thing.
“Standards” (e.g. AASHTO) don’t relieve you of the moral responsibility for what you advocate for and/or what you build.
I would like to see more bicyclists on the road, too. It would make life for everyone a lot better. I know that to be true. It’s one of the things that keeps my fingers banging these keys and pumping these screeds into the interwebs. But I am not willing to earn numbers at the cost of the safety of others. I’m not willing to advocate for infrastructure that I would not use or that would would not allow my wife and daughter to use (straight out of Kant’s categorical imperative, btw).
Our situation (political, social, cultural, economic) in the U.S. means that we bicycle advocates much deal with low participation caused by, among other things, manufactured fear and a love of the almighty automobile. We all wrestle with how to overcome the many obstacles. Can we, please, however, avoid those methods that may harm the very people we wish to serve?
UPDATE: Three important things as this conversation moves forward:
1. An important reminder I give students in my media ethics classes: Using terms such as “unethical” or “immoral” is not intended to brand someone as bad person. We are always discussing behavior — something that one may change as one learns new things.
2. None of what I have written here should be read as a blanket condemnation of engineers. That would be inappropriate and wrong on my part. As commenters have pointed out, inappropriate infrastructure gets built in numerous ways that may or may not include engineers.
3. I use AASHTO above merely as an example of “standards.” The point being that one’s moral obligation does not end with simply following standards. I’m making no claim about AASHTO.