IT COULD BE POSSIBLE at this point to gather an impression that expansionary designs are somehow always preferable to restrictionary ones. This is not the case. Spelling out why will help to clarify what it means for values to guide our design and policy development practices, all while keeping in mind the multistability of technology.
Let’s consider the design of fences that stand along the sides of bridges and, in particular, the fact that such fences often arc inward. This inward curve can serve several purposes. For one, it can discourage people from throwing things off the bridge, which can of course be extremely dangerous. If someone were to throw, say, an object off an overpass, it could land on passing cars below and cause an accident.
But there is a further reason to arc bridge fences inward: to discourage people themselves from climbing up and over. The act of jumping off a bridge is of course a common form of suicide. Bridge fences and other redesigns, referred to as “suicide barriers,” have proven to be an effective deterrent.
There is a long-standing and intense debate over the prospect of building a suicide barrier along the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Since the bridge first opened in the 1930s, an estimated sixteen hundred people have jumped to their deaths, second in the world only to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China. Proponents for a barrier have been arguing their case for decades.
Opponents of suicide barriers on bridges in general, and on the Golden Gate Bridge in particular, tend to offer two main arguments. First, they claim that the barriers will detract from the beauty of a manmade landmark. And second, they claim that those seeking suicide will simply find another location; that is, they suggest that the measure will not actually have an effect on individuals contemplating suicide nor an effect on regional suicide rates.
On the first point, we can only attempt to weigh the value of public health against the value of architecture aesthetics. But on the second point, we can turn to data. Jane Pirkis and her colleagues have conducted a meta-analysis of studies investigating the effectiveness of suicide barriers on regional rates and conclude that, “although there may be some shifting of suicidal acts to other sites, deaths by the same method are still significantly reduced overall.” This accords with the psychological realities of suicide prevention. Efforts to intervene on suicide attempts, and efforts to make options for suicide less easily available, reduce overall rates.
This point is illustrated dramatically by the oft discussed moment in British history when coal ovens were phased out in favor of natural gas in the 1960s. Before this shift, a common means of suicide was asphyxiation through oven gas. The high carbon monoxide level in coal gas made it a method readily available in many homes. So when the country shifted from coal gas to natural gas, a substance without the same carbon monoxide content, there was a massive drop in overall suicides. While it is true that the rate of suicide by other means did increase during this time, the increase not nearly enough to compensate for the absence of oven-related deaths. The overall rate across the United Kingdom dropped by one-third and has remained that way. We can see something similar in data on the Golden Gate Bridge in particular; a study of potential jumpers pulled or talked down from the bridge by police found more than 90 percent to have ultimately continued their lives.
In 2014, officials approved a plan to construct a barrier system on the Golden Gate Bridge that will include nets that stretch twenty feet out on both sides. Set to a price of $76 million, the project currently remains encumbered with delays.
Bridge fences are another example of a restrictionary public-space design. In one case, it is a design modification of the bridge to restrict those who may want to toss an object over the side and endanger the people below. In the second case, fences and other redesign features function as suicide barriers, closing off the bridge as a method for self-harm. In both cases (and in others we can go back and pick out of previous chapters, such as the antiterrorism garbage can designs), we find restrictionary modifications intended to close off options for harming oneself or others. In both cases we may find the protection from harm to be commendable.
In these bridge fence examples, the restrictionary designs can be interpreted as a majority population (e.g., those driving or walking below) protecting themselves from a minority population (those who want to do harm to strangers by throwing things off bridges) or as a majority population (the state) protecting a minority population (those who would commit suicide by jumping from a bridge) from themselves. But of course, this is not the only possible directionality of power for commendable restrictionary designs; restrictionary designs can also close off stabilities preferred by a powerful majority.
Consider the example of bicycle lane development in the United States. In 2013, more than seven hundred people were killed in traffic accidents while riding a bicycle, and forty thousand were injured. One way to help protect riders, to encourage ridership, and thus also to promote a more environmentally friendly form of transportation is to expand the country’s networks of bike lanes. But as we’ve seen with any public-space design, bike lanes will be open to different meanings and uses. It can be helpful to think of the bike lane as a multistable technology.
A bike lane is a space of the road designated for bike riders, and there is debate about which lane designs are best, whether there should be barriers, and so on. Let’s here consider a standard bike lane, set along the side of the roadway and divided only by a painted line. And let’s take biking on the bike lane to be the dominant stability. Under this conception, there is an alternative stability frequently taken up in practice: bike lanes are often used as makeshift parking spots for cars. In the American context, in which cyclists are still a small minority, and for which the political struggle to establish bike lanes remains a challenge, it can be disheartening to find bike lanes coopted as parking spots. As Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, puts it, “bike lanes, like sidewalks, set aside space to make it safer and easier to bike places. Every time someone parks in a bike lane (or on a sidewalk!), it threatens that progress.”
What makes this an enlightening example at this juncture of the pamphlet is that what I’ve labeled the “dominant” stability—biking in the bike lane—is not the usage taken up by the most powerful group of travelers (drivers) but the one used by a transportation minority (cyclists). In the American context, the bike lane is a device designed for and utilized by a marginalized group, at least compared to the supremacy of car culture and infrastructure. When cars park in bike lanes, it is an example of a more powerful group taking up an alternative stability.
There are bike lane designs that, in addition to making lanes safer, also discourage or even prevent their use as a parking spot. For example, there are “protected” lanes, enclosed by concrete barriers. Sometimes bollards or other standing posts mark off a bike lane. These can be understood as restrictionary designs that simultaneously allow the lane to be used for biking but discourage or prevent a car from entering. And as always, there are trade-offs to consider, such as the fact that a concrete bike lane barrier would prevent all cars, including emergency vehicles, from using the lane as a parking spot. There are compromise designs available too, such as a series of bumps or a slightly raised lane, which would discourage a bike lane’s use as a parking spot (though not physically prevent it, as would a concrete barrier) and would simultaneously allow usage by emergency vehicles.
The example of bike lane barriers shows that it is possible in some cases for restrictionary designs to protect a minority of users against a more powerful majority. Put differently, restrictionary designs do not always work to preserve hierarchies; in some cases, they have the potential to challenge them. In the previous section, we saw examples of expansionary designs that can, at least in certain ways, be interpreted to challenge rather than preserve existing hierarchies. Whereas antipick garbage cans and hydrant locks close off stabilities favored by less powerful groups, the pro-pick cans and spray caps were offered as examples of expansionary designs that facilitate usage in just those terms, in addition to retaining the dominant usage. In contrast, an expansionary approach to bike lane design might encourage exploitation of these spaces by drivers, the already advantaged group. Restrictionary bike lane barriers may thus in this case actually challenge the existing hierarchy by closing off a stability that represents an encroachment by the more powerful network.
The point here is that restrictionary, unrestrictionary, expansionary, and any other forms of technological modification do not automatically instantiate particular values. It will depend on the case and on our perspective on that case.