Nine fallacies or blurred areas of bicycle advocacy

1. Fundamental attribution error, assuming fallaciously that poor people are not as informed about bicycle transportation as rich people, especially rich people who ride bikes. It is not the case that poor people are unaware that bicycles exist or can be used to go from place to place more cheaply than the bus. It is also not the case that motorists stuck in traffic are unaware that bicycles exist. The flip side of this is the aggressive hunt for people who are absolutely unaware that bicycles exist, who are used as straw men to be set ablaze by the writer’s fiery rhetoric and incendiary logic. See ‘Poor People and Bicycling,’ ‘Despairing Season for Riding a Bicycle.’

2. Subjective worldview, assuming perhaps incorrectly that the advocate’s daily ride is representative of all locals’ daily rides, and therefore that fixing problems along the advocate’s route will make a big difference in ride quality across the city. The other way to conceive of this is to consider the impossibility of ranking poor bicycling conditions across a vast city like New York, especially since truly poor-quality bicycling repels bicyclists, including well-meaning bicycle advocates. See ‘Your Ride is Your Perspective,’ ‘Poor Infrastructure Is Everywhere.’

3. Masochism, or ‘Overcoming Obstacles for Fun.’ Sure, everyone wants to be more virtuous, but bicycling, like most activities, doesn’t make sense for people if it involves too much hassle, discomfort, and frustration. Getting on a bicycle in the wintertime is frustrating and uncomfortable. See ‘Despairing Season for Riding a Bicycle.’ It’s best to recognize this overtly and work on constructive ways to alleviate it, rather than celebrating the suck and hoping that other people are just as masochistic as the advocate. Conversely, masochists fail to celebrate actual joy in the performance of bicycling technique in favor of second-order benefits, like cardiovascular exercise and the ability to perceive the streetscape at pedestrian time-scales. This is tangentially related to Early Adopter Syndrome, in which people who get in on something at the start are consigned to using kludgy, inconvenient equipment to accomplish their goals, while people who start later on benefit from improvements in design. Just think of how much effort and specialized equipment were required in the early 2000s to get one’s bicycle to one’s Manhattan workplace and secure it there; now we have bike share and bikes in buildings!

4. Fighting for inadequate provisions, like these good people complaining that the bike lane on a relatively quiet street hasn’t been repainted, though the street has been marked with a double yellow center line, or this guy suggesting bike paths in highway medians. Oh, the noise! and smell! Let me give you a suggestion. If it would look weird to see a bicycle there, as in “Dad, look! There’s a guy on a bicycle! In the median!” perhaps that’s not the place for a bike lane. Nobody wants to look weird and out of place. Addressing the first issue, is there someone who decided not to bike on Seaman Avenue because the public-works department took away the bicycle lane? Maybe that marginal person on a bike just put the bike back on the balcony and took the bus instead.

5. Focusing on safety promotion instead of bicycle promotion. Assume there is a “safety deficit,” that people feel that bicycling is not safe enough for them to take part. Then, assume that vigorous attention has remedied this safety deficit and it’s not there any more. Bicycling is just as safe as people want it to be. Now, let’s ride! The same marketing campaign to get people into the saddle post-remedy could have been used pre-remedy. How are we in the future going to communicate the safety of bicycling in a way that is not true today? People will get in the bicycle saddle when it makes sense for them to get in the bicycle saddle. Spending time trying to make bicycling safer is a worthwhile way to spend time, but I don’t see how it gets more people into the saddle. See Safety Promotion vs. Bicycle Promotion.

6. Overreliance on imported models. Instead of doing the onerous anthropological work of figuring out who is actually riding a bicycle and how, work that is a natural but perhaps not obvious prerequisite to encouraging more people to ride bicycles, lazy advocates prefer to import models wholesale from the Netherlands and assign them to local populations.  This overlaps somewhat with fundamental attribution bias, especially when zealous Omafiets riders attempt to explain how less doctrinaire bicyclists are doing it wrong by using the bike they had in the garage to commute. Americans are constantly being informed by these kinds of advocates that we are not riding correctly, that all we need is the right kind of neighborhood, the right kind of intersection, the right kind of bike lane, and the right kind of bike and we will be on our bicycles just like the Dutch. Well, yes: if Dutch bicycling is correct then we would do well to build new Hollands everywhere. But if bicycling is so fantastic, why does it have to be done with exactly one kind of bike, and one kind of street? I would prefer to support multiple variations of bicycling technique as I cannot authoritatively pronounce one way better than another.

7. Great expectations from aggregate data. The more people are counted, the more we are supposed to know. But what would we do any differently, knowing 10 times as many people as we thought were using the bike lane? It’s my considered opinion that bicycle infrastructure installation is not particularly dependent on descriptive statistics. The reserve army of bicyclists is not training on rollers, waiting for Mayor De Blasio to build it a bike lane.

8. Measurement bias. Rides that can be measured become the yardstick, and the data that can be conveniently gathered from open data repositories somehow becomes the entire story. I would like to know what the spread and success of local bike shops says for the technique, as local bike shops actually turn bicyclists per se into consumers and job creators, but that data is a lot harder to find. Easier to see how many people are using the local bike share kiosk. This goes along with subjective worldview, as the people who are doing the measuring are the ones providing the worldview.

9. Historical bias, e.g. “Bicycling: Now Safer Than Ever.” Bias toward the past, and what happened in the past, and away from the future, and what we plan to happen. We overvalue the incidents that happened in the past, and neglect to take into account recent interventions to address those incidents, and undervalue what will happen in the future. It took me a while to see this one as its own fallacy. It can be viewed, however, in the inability of safety interventions to change people’s attitudes about the safety of bicycling. Folks will always remember how unsafe it felt the last time they got on a bicycle… in 1999.

Heather Havrilesky’s solid work advice

[tags: quotes, blog posts, Ask Polly, Heather Havrilesky, New York Magazine, advice, inspiration, agony aunts]
[category: Miscellaneous]

And let’s be honest, it’s harder to be a real person in real time than it is to live in a fantasy world. The real world takes real risk. You have to show up instead of distracting yourself with your whimsical, sexy imaginings. You have to get out of your own head. You have to work really fucking hard at things that don’t seem to matter at first, and you have to work really fucking hard to figure out what things might seem to matter eventually.

From this Ask Polly column, which showed up today in my RSS feed.

Despite the salty language, this half-paragraph appears to be pretty good advice for the particular job I’m doing right now, which is personnel recruitment. It makes me feel like I’m going back to my old days doing marketing for my delivery business. What she says, especially the part about getting out of your own head, is kind of important. I feel as if I want to get my pitch down perfectly before calling people; if I screw up I would be shy about calling them again.

Aristotle on trolling

Newly translated by Rachel Barney, this little essay is, I believe, now the definitive definition of trolling.

Well then, the troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed.

I don’t think I’m a troll, but I’m sure opinions can vary. My worry of being misperceived, is great enough, however, to keep this blog going.

Found on Language Log.

Historical Preservation

I went on a Jane’s Walk yesterday through the Inwood neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, led by indefatigable local activist Pat Courtney. Pat knows a lot about Inwood, and this walk took us around to see some of the “contributing” buildings to the currently notional Inwood historic district. Buildings of historical interest are contributing; buildings without historical interest are noncontributing.

It’s nice to see that other people as well took time out of their weekend to go on this walk; we got to about 25 participants by the end, including local City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who lives in the neighborhood. He stayed for the whole thing and was not accompanied by staff members, which counts in my book as an expression of legitimate interest in the subject. Most of the folks were older than me, of the empty-nest generation that doesn’t have conflicting activities scheduled for Saturday morning.

At the RING Garden, at the intersection of Dyckman St & Riverside Drive & Broadway, Sandra Hawkins of Transportation Alternatives got up and spoke about how Dyckman Street had been the site of traffic violence for a hundred years or more, back to the time of the first West Side ferry that stopped at the western end of Dyckman Street, where it meets the river. That kind of history is important to remember, but not so important to preserve.

As we walked along, we saw multiple groups of recreational bicyclists, mostly headed uptown. I assume that they were enroute to rides through the Bronx and Westchester, or perhaps returning from spins in New Jersey on the west side of the George Washington Bridge.

From the standpoint of advocacy, I would call the walk a success in how it brought together multiple people of different viewpoints and backgrounds to share for the afternoon a single point of view, that Inwood had a distinctive history, worth commemorating, and that this history was told in part through its buildings and physical form. The effect of historic preservation is in its ability to unite buildings with their neighbors and to maintain the form of a neighborhood; traditional development relies on individual landowners making decisions about their property one at a time, without regard to the gestalt of the area.

 

Envisioning the New World

Most of my blog posts are prompted by Streetsblog comments. Something written down catches my eye and I start cogitating on it. Once in a while I can extract a new post from the thinking I do; often times it just reduces down to one of the messages I’ve already identified. I see no need to write a new post about the same thing every time it catches my eye.

Several regular commenters this week have been discussing transportation mode share (the proportion of trips made by car, transit, bike, or foot), and how to change New York City’s mode share to increase bike and foot traffic. I support this goal and read posts and comments on the subject eagerly. The advantage of mode share over other frequently discussed goals is that mode share is quantitative; it can be measured. Setting quantitative goals is, I feel, a positive, because I see the drawback of qualitative goals to be in their expansion citywide. Many people, I have indicated, suffer from subjective worldview, where they are chiefly concerned with their own circumstances or their own ride to work. It’s not debilitating, but it does make open discussion difficult as the subjective worldview holder cannot compromise on goals; progress out of sight is not progress to these advocates. So choosing as a goal to increase bike-walk mode share has the benefit of being widely desirable without prescriptively suggesting which interventions go where.

The discussion about mode share (and here) soon starts to drift away from the goal and instead boomerangs back to the qualitative style, where advocates tout their favorite interventions and their likelihood to increase bike-walk mode share.

My takeaway from the discussion is this: our contribution as internet commenters is pretty much limited to a laundry list of interventions that should, one hopes, result in the desired change. But the interventions are more tangible and more desirable than the change itself. We all have one-track minds, racing from the present to a future cycling nirvana along a predetermined course.

But if I have one goal in this series of bicycle-related posts, it’s to herald that there is more than one way to get to nirvana, and concomitantly, to suggest that slavishly copying what works in other places may not be the best way to get to nirvana here. New York today is nothing like Amsterdam 50 years ago, so it’s unlikely that New Yorkers doing what was done in Amsterdam 50 years ago would naturally win for us the Amsterdam of 2016 as our future of 2066. And additionally, who knows tomorrow? Is the Amsterdam cycling boom of today actually durable, or in 2066 will it be the Dutch who are copping ideas on bicycle urbanism from the New York of the teens?

For this reason I appreciate Steven Fleming and his Velotopia, which serves as a convenient outer bound to scoping efforts in service of a better world for bicycling. If we really wanted to make New York a bicycling city, I like to say, we would fill in the East River. I don’t actually anticipate this happening, which is helpful, as conceding that a certain goal is unattainable is the first step to generating actually attainable goals.

So here are some questions: would common-and-garden urbanist interventions improve bike-walk mode share, are these interventions actually attainable, and are there other interventions that might also improve bike-walk mode share?

It’s a truth about statistics that bringing up the lagging indicators makes the biggest change to the overall figure. Conversely, improving the areas where indicators are most positive makes little difference. This fact suggests addressing the least-urban parts of New York City first, before trying to improve the most urban. It also suggests that if the most urban parts of New York (Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, the Bronx south of Fordham Road) were judged separately from the suburban parts, the bike-walk mode share would be quite impressive. And most importantly of all, it’s the built environment that determines how people get around it.

My direct experience with suburban New York City is in northeastern Queens (Whitestone and Bayside), a suburban landscape with single family homes on small lots. Business districts are low-rise and stretch only a block or two. Downtown Flushing, however, is more built up, with newly erected 10+ story towers dominating the landscape. In Whitestone and Bayside, I see parents driving their kids to the bus stop and multiple cars parked in front of the houses. If families are looking for good schools, easy commutes to Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut, and yard space, Bayside and Whitestone seem like good options. The urbanist plan would be to develop more densely around the train stations, with multifamily apartment buildings, but this concept is not keyed into increasing bike-walk mode share, as that part of Queens is more than 10 miles away from midtown Manhattan, a little far to bike. It’s a good concept, but it is not going to increase bike-walk mode share.

Note also that traditional dei-ex-machina solutions to increasing bike-walk mode share, e.g. sudden rise in oil prices, end of subsidies for motoring, have the effect of lowering house prices in suburban neighborhoods, which then makes them more desirable for people who can’t bike, walk, or subway to work and need places to store motor vehicles.

Fundamental Attribution Error

We are predisposed to see other people as having enduring characteristics that cause them to behave in predictable ways, and to interpret samples of behavior—even hopelessly inadequate samples—as clues to their characteristics. Our theory of human nature leads us to expect that people will be consistent…
The predisposition to attribute someone’s behavior to something within them that’s relatively stable and enduring—something that nowadays is called personality and that used to be called character—actually causes us to make errors in prediction; we expect people to be more consistent than they really are.

Harris, J. R. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Definition of fundamental attribution error from Judith Rich Harris.

Comments Worth Saving: Manhattan Walkability and the Obstacle of Central Park

I left this comment a couple weeks ago on Streetsblog, discussing the possibility of developing bicycle routes across Central Park:

The park itself is the problem. Who decided it would be a good idea to separate the East and West Sides with an imitation landscape? As Dr. Bones points out, crossing the darn thing on bicycle involves long detours or inconvenient walking or both.

Even on foot, there are really only seven transverse routes: W 63 to E 60, along the north side of Hecksher PG and south of the zoo; W 67 to E 69, along the north side of Sheep Meadow and crossing south of Rumsey Playfield; 72d St; W 81 to E 79, past the Delacorte, along the south side of the Great Lawn, and out south of the Met; W 85 to E 84, along the north side of the Great Lawn, and north of the Met; 96th along the path marked for bikes, or 97th by the tennis courts and bathrooms (on opposite sides of the transverse road); and 102d via the shortcut road.

The four routes south of the reservoir are indirect and winding, usually very crowded with people on foot, and poorly marked as cross-park routes. I did use to go around the north end of the Great Lawn after dark back 10 years ago and that was never a problem, but perhaps it has gotten busier now.

The notion that the transverses could be made tolerable for bicycling is seductive, but who wants to ride in a jersey-barriered lane in a ditch? It lacks appeal as anything more than an expedient shortcut.

It seems to me that in a contest between maintaining the park according to the Olmstead-Vaux vision and using parkland to create bicycle facilities, the architects’ vision must take precedence. A three-block-wide green zone in the middle of Manhattan is of course going to impede people getting from one side to the other, no matter how much bicycle infrastructure you build. If Olmstead and Vaux wanted to make bicycling between East and West Sides easy, they wouldn’t have built the park.

Moving on to another aspect of Manhattan’s walkability versus bikeability, I came down firmly on the side of Manhattan being the epitome of walkability, with negative consequences for bikeability, in a short BikePortland comment,

As a Manhattan resident and daily bicyclist, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On my block (no crossing streets), I have day care, flower stand, restaurant, convenience store, pharmacy, fish restaurant, pizza parlor, subway entrance, newsstand, and supermarket. Everything I need, and too close to make bicycling worthwhile. The farmers’ market is about the farthest unique thing away, and that’s only a 20-minute walk.

Bread baking books

Fromartz, S. (2014). In search of the perfect loaf: A home baker’s odyssey. Discursive chapters on bread, French bread, sourdough, artisanal flour, landraces, rye baking, et al. Includes recipes, including his pain de campagne recipe, which I have been trying for a week or two now.

Scherber, A., Dupree, T. K., & Amy’s Bread (Bakery). (2010). Amy’s bread: Artisan-style breads, sandwiches, pizzas, and more from New York City’s favorite bakery. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Recipes for bread that use standard U.S. ingredients, Amy also offers videos of her kneading technique. Capsule bios of bakery workers.

Risgaard, H. (2012). Home baked: Nordic recipes and techniques for organic bread and pastry. Nice pictures, hard to find some ingredients. Some of the recipes seem a little sketched out, particularly her basic sourdough recipe.

Forkish, K. (2012). Flour water salt yeast: The fundamentals of artisan bread and pizza. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Ken Forkish repeats himself a lot in this book, but I like his techniques. Baking inside the dutch oven (inside the regular oven) is a good tip for retaining steam; he also explains how to do baker’s percentages correctly.

Hamelman, J. (2012). Bread: A baker’s book of techniques and formulas. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Jeffrey Hamelman worked for King Arthur Flour. This is an encyclopedic book that offers step-by-step instructions to making many different types of baked goods. All recipes are in metric, English, bulk and volume, so it’s easy to adapt them to the size of loaves you want to bake.

Six Points on Hedonic Bicycling

I posted the following on Streetsblog, in the depths of a comment tree. The original post postulated the existence of a reserve army of bicyclists, waiting for safety interventions. I generally do not agree with this notion.

I like the points I made below; I think they are good and are worth having in a more accessible place.

I disagree with the fad for using the safety frame to discuss getting people in the saddle.

First, bicycling is super safe as it is, so there’s nothing to apologize for. And safety in numbers actually works, so the more people engaging in the safe activity of bicycling, the safer it is for the marginal person in the saddle.

Second, bicycling has health and life-extension benefits that people can take advantage of immediately, so not pushing back on people who complain that bicycling is dangerous is actually harmful to health, because it’s depriving people of the opportunity to live healthier lives.

Third, most people have access to some kind of bicycle, especially with bike share, so they can really start bicycling this afternoon or tomorrow.

Fourth, New York has many destinations that are convenient to bicycle to, so the opportunity to get in the saddle and replace auto or subway trips with bicycle trips is evident.

Fifth, bicycle facilities are unevenly distributed around the city, with more of them in rich areas like Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, so counting on the authorities to build ‘better streets that look and feel safer’ as a bicycling promotion program will just perpetuate the idea that bicycling is for rich people who have plenty of other transportation options.

Sixth, bicycling is a joyful, creative, problem-solving activity that deserves to be actively promoted to everyone, not reserved for some “fearless” subset of the population. I personally don’t understand why so many people consider passively accepting people’s excuses for not getting in the saddle as bicycle advocacy.

Bike Theft and Fundamental Attribution Error

The potential fallacy of fundamental attribution error should warn us away from inventing motives to explain why other people use cable locks or other less-than-perfect locking techniques. Developing high-tech methods to discern GOOD bicycle securers from BAD bicycle securers doesn’t help make those securers’ motives clear, whatever those motives might be. I am certainly not a priori convinced that there is a huge demand for a more didactic approach to providing advice on how to lock up your bicycle, and I refuse to accept the observation that lots of bicyclists use cable locks as support for the argument that everyone should register their bike and lock it right.

Since I wrote this first paragraph, I actually went ahead and purchased a cable lock. It cost less than $10, and was rated “1,” the least secure rating in the marketer’s system. I was out of town for school, and so I used it once or twice when leaving the bicycle outside a store for more than 10 minutes. Most of the time I would fold up my bike and take it with me, to class (where I left it folded in the back of the classroom) and to the grocery store (where I folded it up and put it in the cart, so as to take up space and keep me from buying too much food to carry home).

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t make me a bad person. When I travel for business or school, I like to use the bicycle as effectively as I can to get around, which means bicycling right to the front door and not hunting around for a bicycle rack that could be several dozen meters away from the door. Part of my effectiveness at bicycle operation is knowing when it’s necessary to lock up, and when it’s not. Even in New York City, when I duck into the newsstand every morning, I don’t lock my bike up. I just leave it outside, IN THE GHETTO practically, for 30 seconds while I go in and get my newspaper. Of course my bicycle could be stolen. But who is out there on the corner at six a.m., looking for a bicycle to steal?

Reading about decent-hearted people who have gotten wound around the axle of bicycle security makes me sad. At the worst, I see it as another example of in-group policing, where members of a small group come up with elaborate justifications for why other people cannot join, everything from the wrong style of handlebars to the wrong kind of lock. Secondly, they ignore how locking up one’s bicycle is a time-waster on the level of visits to the ATM machine–count up all those five-minute intervals spent either crouched over a staple rack or hunched in front of a bank machine, and pretty soon an entire week of life has vanished into the breeze.

Thirdly, judging the quality of all lock-up jobs by a single standard making the assumption that everyone in the same area has the same requirements. It’s weird that the same people who extol the flexibility of the bicycle as a transportation tool are so rigid when it comes to securing that bicycle. And lastly, if bicycle advocates can call for society to resolve the issue of traffic violence in bicyclists’ favor, why can they not also suggest some way to diminish the need to carry around 20 lbs. of locks and chains?

Is bike-share equitable?

Is bike-share equitable? Here are my comments on a now-deleted exchange between Adonia Lugo and Michael Andersen on Dr. Lugo’s Urban Adonia blog:

Bike share, as David Hembrow suggests (more details in posts on his earlier blogspot-hosted blog), is by nature expensive, because of the overhead involved with any kind of large-scale program, and limited in its powers to increase mode share of bicycles, because there just aren’t as many bikes in the bike share program as there are in garages and basements.

Andersen suggests in his comments that the low cost to the end user makes the program appealing for low-income people. He thus elides Lugo’s chief criticism, which is that the total program budget should be the point of consideration, not the individual user’s portion, as that aggregate figure could as well fund several other kinds of bicycling initiatives, such as supporting bike shops, teaching kids repair skills, or giving away bikes on long-term arrangements.

I suggest that Andersen is focusing on the wrong side of the equation. Just because something is cheap doesn’t make it a good value for people with limited funds. Bike share programs’ costs to user are not what makes them inequitable, it’s that they are limited to the coverage area, limited to a single user, and limited by the length of the subscription. The program does not build any bicycling capacity; at the end of the subscription term, or at the outer limit of the coverage area, the share-program bicycle turns back into a pumpkin.

Lugo however is concerned with systems that operate in the public interest, and even though certain systems operate without city financial support, those systems do receive benefits from the city such as space to set up docking stations and wayfinding signs, regulation and competition-limiting support from the authorities, and participation of public officials in ribbon-cutting or press-release issuing.

As an advocate for bicycling myself, it troubles me to see other advocates cheering for programs like these, or at least not confronting the programs’ biases in the direct fashion of Dr. Lugo. I confess that I have no idea of the current mission of our local New York City bicycle advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, whose leader, Paul Steely White, was recently in Portland plugging New York’s Vision Zero safety campaign. I would like bicycle advocates to be plugging for getting more people on bicycles.