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The Critic

December 10, 2014

Brad Aaron at Streetsblog has an excellent takedown of the new victim-blaming public service campaign from the MTA. While I’m a safe streets advocate and agree with Brad’s criticisms, my initial reaction to the PSAs was largely filtered through my professional experience as a TV producer and writer.  My day job involves looking at images, writing words, and making sure that those two things add up into one coherent narrative. So when I saw “Cycling for Trouble,” a new bike safety public service announcement from the MTA, the first things I noticed were the glaring inconsistencies, ridiculous images, and downright incorrect information in its brief thirty seconds.

The ad begins with a young man getting ready for his ride. First he puts on gloves:


Note: gloves are not required when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.

Then he puts on his helmet:


Note: a helmet is not required for adults when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.

Then he makes sure his bike has tires:


Note: although not legally required, a bicycle equipped with tires is highly recommended.

Then he puts on his headphones and goes for a ride:


Look, I agree. Wearing headphones in both ears while riding a bike is Not a Good Idea… if you’re riding in the heart of Midtown, on Jay Street in Brooklyn, on in any other very congested part of the city. (Having an earbud in one ear is perfectly legal, however.) But on a pathway along an empty beach? Really? Is this the most effective visual way to convey that wearing headphones isn’t the smartest thing in the world? So even before the central message of this PSA has a chance to really get out there, any skeptic who stops to process this image – that is to say, any New Yorker – is likely to be taken out of the moment entirely.

Then there’s this mini-scene, where the guy slowly coasts through a quiet park – another place where wearing headphones isn’t really all that bad – as he points to perhaps to a pal or just someone he wants to notice him:


That’s quickly followed by this image:


The sequence above is very strange: A man who methodically prepares for his ride by putting on gloves, strapping on a helmet, and making sure his bike has tires suddenly morphs into a cocky-yet-clownish character from a bad comedy video? It’s just dumb and not very well thought out.

Then the man takes to the street where bouncing bold graphics tell us what he is listening to:


This, of course, is a total surprise if you can’t hear the techno-inspired beat that begins playing the moment the man puts on his headphones. It’s just so strange. Would listening to Serial or WFAN at a low volume be “Not Good”?


Anyway, apparently the music is so loud that it causes the man to go blind, since he crashes into the same bus that’s been right in front of him for at least a block:

This is just dumb on top of dumb, and makes me suspect that no one familiar with biking in New York City, or even bicycles in general, was involved in this spot’s production. Part of the reason wearing headphones in both ears isn’t a good idea is because it makes it harder to hear cars or other cyclists approaching from behind you. On the Manhattan Bridge, what bike commuter hasn’t been stuck behind a person huffing up the incline with a set of earbuds wedged into his noggin? There’s no amount of bell ringing or “On your left” loud enough to get that guy to hear you and move over, so you’re more or less screwed until Canal Street. But its pretty rare that I see an earbud-wearing cyclist coming from the opposite direction on the bridge and think, “I better be careful. That guy who clearly has me in his line of sight can’t hear me.”

Oh, and another thing: there hasn’t been a documented case of a headphone-wearing cyclist rear-ending a bus, at least not one resulting in serious injury or death. Believe me, if an idiot died doing something like this, it would be on the cover of the Post for a week. And that’s perhaps the biggest failure of this spot: in presenting a situation so unlikely it’s less common that getting killed by a falling air conditioner after being knocked over by an exploding Mister Softee truck, the message gets totally lost and subjects the entire piece to the wrath of Gothamist. Even WNYC got in on the act. That’s probably not the outcome the MTA expected when the idea for this PSA began.

Then there’s this image and catchphrase at the end of the spot:


I guess “Stay alert. Don’t crush bicyclists and pedestrians with your multi-ton vehicle” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  1. December 10, 2014 11:20 pm

    I’m actually proud that it seems some organizations are trying to do videos in-house. However, this one was badly planned – to put it kindly. Nothing in this PSA makes sense. Including the cyclist kicking his tires. If you really want to check them – check tire pressure or make sure they are fastened to the frame. You hit all the points I would have Doug. Thanks.

  2. December 10, 2014 11:41 pm

    The cartoon at the end of the spot is goofy. Everyone knows no crunchy-granola cyclist can afford an iPhone AND and iPod!

    Nice work, Doug.

  3. December 11, 2014 7:04 am

    “knocked over by an exploding Mister Softee truck” — tee hee. 🙂

  4. December 11, 2014 9:24 am

    The problem for realistic PSAs is that they end up not being terribly complimentary to drivers. First safety rule is the obvious one: look for stuff and don’t run into it (and pedestrians are the most important stuff). Second is to anticipate the boneheaded mistakes that the drivers around you will make.

    I’d put “be visible” pretty high up there, but I get real tired of the notion that we’re not doing our part if we’re not dressed in hazard colors. I do use daytime running lights on my bike, they are great — but their purpose is to compensate for driver haste. On a bike, I spot pedestrians by cell phone glow, reflective pants piping, and dog-eyeball retroreflection.

    Do they have PSAs telling drivers to roll down their windows so they can better see and hear what’s around them? Yes, I do that when I drive. I bike enough that it creeps me out how little I can see and hear from my armored wheelchair.

    • December 11, 2014 9:35 am

      I’d be okay with a bike PSA that told cyclists to not try to squeeze past buses that are pulling into stops or making turns. That’s a behavior that’s actually dangerous. There’s a way to do that ad and have it be simple, direct, and not goofy. Whether these ads are effective or not is another story. As I’ve said elsewhere, lots of people remember the “This is your brain on drugs” PSAs from the 80s, but that didn’t stop a whole lot of people from doing drugs.

  5. Jesse permalink
    December 11, 2014 10:07 am

    My take on this is that while the execution was incompetent, the message — that pedestrians and cyclists who are killed by bus drivers cause their own deaths — was intentionally dishonest. The MTA is trying to create a false narrative that exonerates bus drivers, either for the sake of liability/insurance or just their fear of the union. I don’t believe that saving lives was given much consideration at any point in the planning or execution of these videos.

    Also, while I agree that “tuning out” is not a great idea for your own safety (and the idea that people don’t already know this is ridiculous), I disagree with the premise that the streets shouldn’t be a more forgiving place that allows you to tune out from time to time. If I “tune out” and step into the street when I don’t have the right of way, I might be a threat to some jerk’s paint job and Mercedes hood ornament, but he is actually a threat to my life. Why do we accept that level of danger in our public space? How hard is it to place more responsibility on the people capable of more harm? It wouldn’t be any less fair than the fiction we live under now where drivers pedestrians and cyclists are all falsely equated in a disingenuous attempt at “working together”. But it would be a lot safer.

    • December 11, 2014 10:27 am

      The streets should absolutely be a place where wearing headphones or looking at a cellphone while walking or biking isn’t that big a deal. Brad Aaron got into the misplaced blame/responsibility idea in his post and I didn’t feel the need to repeat his points here.

  6. Paco permalink
    December 11, 2014 2:41 pm

    If they were serious about safety, I would hope they’d put more than $50 bucks worth of production value into a PSA. Better to hire Casey Neistat and do something slick and on point like this…

  7. Janice D permalink
    December 11, 2014 3:20 pm

    Let’s face it: it’s political suicide for ANY public official or agency to hold MV drivers accountable for anything, even murder. Not going to happen, especially not with DeWimpio.

  8. December 17, 2014 12:11 pm

    Seville is the best city in Spain for biking!!!


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