One Nation Under Surveillance, Power and Privilege, Tech and Society

The Dystopian Path to Bicycle Safety

As an information ethicist who is generally skeptical about digital products and services whose business model is surveillance, I was struck with some serious itnernal conflict by a recent story about ‘Safe Lanes,’ an app for reporting cars and trucks parked in bike lanes. You see, in addition to being an academic, I am a regular bike commuter. Like other urban bicyclists in the United States, I experience a mix of exhilaration and fear on my commute where inattentive or obnoxious drivers and inadequate bike lanes can make biking feel very unsafe. I used to think risk-taking was the price of urban biking and took some pleasure in dodging cars and powering through my commute. But having racked up decades of scrapes and scares, my sense of adventure is waning. While Seattle drivers are relatively decent about giving way to bikes (it’s a pretty ‘sporty’ city after all), collisions–sometimes fatal–between cars and bikes are alarmingly routine. The city’s department of transportation has added a lot of bike lanes since I’ve lived here, but enforcement of the right of way of bikers is nearly non-existent in my experience. By way of example, an intersection by a police precinct in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has a marked space reserved for bikes waiting for the light. That space is frequently occupied by drivers–in police cars. As I know from having had the privilege to bike in places like The Netherlands and Denmark, rigorously enforced bike lanes are a game changer for getting more people (all ages and genders) out of cars and onto bikes. The dramatic increase in bike lanes in US cities in the last few decades has been an incredible boon, but lax enforcement leaves many folks wary of using them.

Enter Safe Lanes, an app that uses smart phone hardware to capture the image and location of vehicles blocking bike lanes. The app uses technology similar to police license plate readers to identify the plate number of the car and sends this information to traffic enforcement. While options exist for bicyclists to report blocking cars through other means, like calling the police on a non-emergency number, most of us cannot be bothered to do this. It’s time-consuming, and even if one calls, there is a sense that nothing is likely to happen or not soon enough. While I am the kind of neighbor who reports litter and graffiti, calling in a parking nuisance is pretty unsatisfying. The idea of Safe Lanes is to make reporting bike lane blockers fast and easy, thereby increasing the likelihood that a report will actually lead to a ticket and maybe even change driver behavior. Even for a surveillance-averse person like me, the allure of punishing drivers who make me feel unsafe is very powerful. I was tempted.

But Safe Lanes doesn’t just stop at taking a user’s report and forwarding it to the authorities. Once a car or truck has been reported through the app, the image remains visible in the app for all Safe Lanes users to see, along with statistics about how many times a vehicle has been reported. In other words, it’s not just a reporting app but a shaming app. The persistence and display of the user-generated reports superimposed on a city map carries with it the implication that, in addition to being diligent citizens who report wrongdoing, we are also expected to join a community of fellow reporters and participate in communal rage by staring at the offending Priuses and UPS trucks reported by others with righteous indignation. And at the end of the day, Safe Lanes joins an alarming number of apps and systems that makes city streets into forums of monitoring and control. As discussed in a story about the app that appeared in CityLab, “The illusion of privacy in the public sphere may have always been an illusion, but with many more eyes and lenses trained on the streets, the age-old practice of ‘being seen’ can evolve quickly into being shared, and being stored. And perhaps being unfairly tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.”

Add to this that these apps are most likely to promote the values and worldview of a particular class of urban dweller: the much maligned “tech bros” amassing in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and other popular US cities. While the goal here, bicycle safety, is not particularly controversial or necessarily classist, it is troubling that we so easily trust some techie with programming skills with the authority to shape public behavior by releasing an app. There are myriad assumptions built into this app and its capabilities. One is that bicyclists have rights – I subscribe to that one. But let’s consider who the most likely targets of the app are: low wage ride share and delivery drivers. They are, after all, the folks whose livelihoods depend on hurrying people and passengers around on crowded city streets. I don’t want to excuse anyone making it unsafe to bike in the city; I do have actual skin in the game here, but in an age of rapidly gentrifying cities, there is something repugnant about affluent city dwellers naming and shaming people with much less social and economic power using information technology. All the ingredients are here for something that appears, at first, to be liberating for an arguably vulnerable group – bicyclists trying not to die. But it also joins an increasingly oppressive assemblage of information systems marketed to “concerned citizens” for the purpose of monitoring, shaming, and controlling others. Ugh! Safe Lanes, you had me at “improve bicycle safety,” but lost me at “participate in a surveillance dystopia in which no minor infraction goes unnoticed or unpunished.”

Perhaps this just what happens when we impoverish and abandon public institutions in favor of entrepreneurial techno-solutionism. What if, rather than hiding in our phones and relying on commercial products to mediate our participation in public life we actually spoke to each other and our elected officials – in actual public forums – where we could advocate for better bike lane enforcement, or demand money for driver education programs. What if rather than relying on apps to shame people into compliance with the behavioral paradigms imagined by technologists who happen to like biking we worked on being less suspicious and more patient with each other while also working on developing safe bicycle networks? I know, I know. This is asking a lot of humans – particularly American humans. But there has to be a better way of improving urban life than weaponizing information technology…doesn’t there?


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