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The Logic of Jim Walden: Safety Isn’t a Popularity Contest, Except When It Is.

April 1, 2011

Here’s part of the statement the PR firm working for Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes put out in response to the Jim Brennan poll:

Jim Walden, pro bono attorney (from the law firm Gibson Dunn and Crutcher) for plaintiffs Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety (who are suing the DOT and its Commissioner re: the Prospect Park West bike lane) said, “Pedestrians feel less safe crossing Prospect Park West, as this poll decisively shows.  But DOT’s own data tell the same story, and the numbers don’t lie: people feel less safe because they are less safe.  In the end, safety is not a popularity contest.

Walden’s pretty crafty, isn’t he?  He says the poll “decisively shows” that people feel less safe but that that “safety is not a popularity contest.”  Walden has used this reasoning before.  Here’s what he said on the Brian Lehrer Show on March 23rd on the subject of the Brad Lander survey:

They keep trumpeting this study, as if safety was a popularity contest. What they don’t talk about, and it mystifies me how they would do this – there are significant number of people who responded who said they felt less safe.  Now clearly the majority of the people felt more safe but it was more than 30 percent.  I wonder if he conducted the survey again, and if he conducted the survey in person, and not over the internet so people could pad the numbers, and if he conducted it with senior citizens who access the park and disabled people who access the park what those numbers would say.

You got that?  If the majority of people in a survey feel the bike lane is working, then safety is not a popularity contest.  But if that survey could somehow be redone to show that the majority of people feel that it is not working, then safety is a popularity contest.

The Brennan poll — which skewed heavily to drivers and people with landlines — still shows that 48% of local residents support the bike lane and that 25% want a few changes.  Only 32 percent want to remove the bike lane entirely.  But like so much of the NBBL strategy, Walden seems to love grasping onto the one piece of data he thinks makes his clients’ case.  Here’s the part of the survey which Walden categorizes as a decisive showing:

Regarding the impact of the bike lane on pedestrian safety, 33% of all respondents feel less safe crossing Prospect Park West, while 22% feel more safe.

But if you look at the other pieces of the poll, the picture changes a bit:

48% said it was a change for the better, and 32% said it was a change for the worse. 20% had no opinion. 37% felt strongly it was a change for the better, and 26%  felt strongly it was a change for the worse.

In other words, 33% of respondents feel less safe, but 48% say it’s a change for the better.  Brennan’s poll starts to get a little less decisive, no?

As Tom Vanderbilt writes, “Perception of safety and actual safety in traffic are not always the same.”  People just aren’t used to this bike lane yet, so the fact that they actually are safer now than then ever have been may take some time to filter through the community.  Let’s see the polling on this in a year or two.  By then everyone, even the grownups, will have learned how to look both ways before crossing the street.

The good news about street improvements is that they benefit you no matter how you feel.  While the new PPW may seem strange and mysterious, you’re safer crossing two lanes of traffic, not three.  You’re safer with cars going 30 miles per hour, not 40.  You’re safer now that cyclists take to the bike lane and not the sidewalk.  But give Jim Walden credit for being right about something and earning all the money NBBL is paying him in the process.  When it comes to safety, the numbers don’t lie: since the bike lane went in the NYPD hasn’t reported a single pedestrian injury.

With the facts working against them, a weak showing at the last CB6 meeting, and a second poll showing their neighbors support for the bike lane, NBBL’s ship is sinking.  All they have left is a life boat that’s going to cost taxpayers a lot of money: a lawsuit.

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