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.

If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff? Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch

Nothing to it. If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff, writing fifteen thousand criminal offenders? He said to Jackie, ‘Okay,’ and was committed, more certain of his part in this than hers. Until she stood close to him in the kitchen and he lifted the skirt up over her thighs, looking at this girl in a summer dress, fun in her eyes, and knew they were in it together.

—Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch, chapter 20

“Fun in her eyes” has to be among the most Leonardish phrases out there. His books are populated largely with women with fun in their eyes. There’s a great bit in Djibouti about how the heroine is feeling, standing on the deck of a cargo ship in the Red Sea, as the plot she’s involved in ravels or unravels, I can’t remember which. She’s cool, curious, slightly excited; she appears in pretty much every Leonard book.

In Rum Punch, the bail bondsman, Max Cherry, gets these lines above, and maybe he’s actually the cool, curious one in this book; Jackie Burke, his love interest, takes more of an active role in the plot than is usual for a Leonard female protagonist.

I like the quote because it illustrates why Leonard’s oeuvre is so attractive to read; instead of a thriller, where the reader is pulled into the story by empathy for the protagonist’s troubles, in Leonard’s books the protagonist pulls the reader along by sharing just how interesting life has gotten. During the course of Rum Punch Max gets involved in heisting several hundred thousand dollars, a vault into the upper middle class that allows him to quit his day job and file divorce papers with his estranged spouse. Max is able to rise above the existential dread that you or I would feel while on such a voyage of self-reinvention, but that’s why it’s a book and not real life. As I’ve mentioned before, people who radically alter their circumstances in the course of 300 pages are a genre of people who you only meet in books.

“They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time,” Denise Mina, The Long Drop

But Mr Cooke knows what has happened to his daughter. It has happened before out there, in those fields. Girls and women attacked and no one caught. He thought, his wife thought, that women should not be out at that time. He thought and his wife said, they must be peculiar kinds of women to be out there at that time, in a field with a man. They didn’t think these things because they were nasty people, or spiteful or uncaring. They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time. Otherwise they would never have allowed their Isabella out of the door.

—Denise Mina, The Long Drop

Mina’s entire book is written in the present tense except for this paragraph, which serves as a kind of aside to the reader: this is the way things were, the way that my book describes, I want you, dear Reader, to understand how things differed from the present day.

The entire book, set in a coaldusted postwar Glasgow has a sheen of unreality, abetted by the use of the present tense throughout. As I’ve been realizing lately, the way people think in books is not necessarily the way I think in real life. Mina has intuited this also and tossed the contemporary reader this bone; I read this parenthetical remark and not only the critical distance between the book’s 1950s and the contemporary day but an appreciation of Mina’s reverence for the milieu came into focus.

‘An American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of “us” and “them”‘

In that light, the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Michael Guasco’s full piece I found on the Smithsonian Magazine website. The brief article seems to summarize what seems to be the one possible way to get out of our national obsession with white people and their privileges; let’s just build American history back up from the beginning, like some kind of new algebra, starting well before the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent.

Also the article nicely as an aside points out the essential fallacy of the Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA theory of Important Great White Supremacist Male People; the Confederacy, as represented on Monument Ave by Lee, Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, is not even the only Virginian politico-cultural initiative consigned to history’s dustbin to date. Perhaps as a corollary to broadening our repertory of historical references by investigating and honoring the precolumbian civilizations of the James River watershed, we students of critical history might want to spend some time looking into what exactly makes white supremacy such a durably attractive organizing principle.

Bike Friendly streets de-privileged

A specific case was a couple of years ago when Bike Friendly Streets were all the rage. I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever heard of. It’s a suburban solution. And it makes sense in some communities around the city for sure. But in the communities I cover, gang and other issues mean that the side streets are actually not that accessible to most people. They stick to the main streets because those are neutral, busy (lots of eyes), and folks feel safer, even if they’re more likely to get run over there. Also folks aren’t riding for pleasure a great part of the time—they need the most direct route…which are the main thoroughfares. So the idea of spending money to implement all of this stuff that nobody but the occasional white person who was riding through the community could use made me insane.

—Sahra Sulaiman in a comment on her article on the women’s march, posted on LA Streetsblog

I really appreciate these kinds of impromptu comments because in my view they clarify the issues in a very quick and decisive way. I have generally felt not particularly fond of the bike-boulevard concept because I think that all streets should be accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. It is my belief that the creative process that leads to establishment of a bike boulevard necessarily implies the designation of a complementary route as an “traffic sewer,” a condition which doesn’t attract bicyclists. Or put another way, once the bike boulevard is designated, bicycle traffic will shift from the main road to the bike boulevard, leaving people who want to access the main road’s attractions by bicycle more vulnerable. As Ms. Sulaiman notes, the BFS doctrinally avoids the direct routes that save people time. Shortcuts, however, are more valuable on a bicycle because the two wheeler’s slower speed makes each mile of detour more onerous than it would be in an automobile.

Over the long run, it feels to me as if I am slowly accumulating a body of evidence that carefully disputes many of the most cherished truisms of bicycle advocacy. It takes a long time and leaves me with the sinking feeling that many people whose wisdom I have counted on are engaged in a process that supports only a small sliver of the population on bicycles.

Communicate safety in the future…

…By building better streets that look and feel safer to people on the fence about getting on a bike every now and then. It’s not rocket science.

Streetsblog commenter, 12/17/2015

I haven’t responded to this comment on my soi-disant authoritative comeback to all safety-based arguments: How are we in the future going to communicate the safety of bicycling in a way that is not true today? It’s been sitting there for more than a year now.

The answer is obvious; those streets are there already but nobody is riding on them, for reasons that have nothing to do with the safety of riding a bicycle. Every weekday afternoon I pedal through the quiet leafy streets of northeastern Queens and only on rare occasions do I see another person riding a bicycle. Again, my observation is confirmed. People will ride bicycles when it makes sense for them to ride bicycles, but not now; at present they just find it easier to drive around and do their errands. Nothing is stopping them from bicycling; there is not a lot of traffic, there are no steep hills. They just feel more comfortable driving.

In order to change this I humbly suggest moving away from safety promotion toward promoting the enjoyment of bicycling and the fun it involves. I am sitting inside on a sunny day and I am itching to go out and ride; why don’t more people feel this way?

Origins of interpersonal problems

In her consulting practice, Dr. [Amy Cooper] Hakim says, many interpersonal problems boil down to a failure to communicate directly about the real problem with someone who can actually resolve it.

Good advice from the Rob Walker Workologist Sunday advice column in the Times, this one from 22 January of this year.

I appreciate this as lately I have seen so many iterations of this type of problem, where there appears to be a real problem but the person affected doesn’t seem to be willing to move very far to solve it.

Treating goals as if they were programs

One of Klein’s favorite adaptations is the conflation of wishes and operative political programs. Again and again she holds up statements of intent—protect Mother Earth, treat all people equally, respect all cultures, live simple, natural, local lives—as if they were proposals whose implementation would have these outcomes. It’s all ends and no means. This is a double convenience: first it eliminates the need to be factual and analytical about programs, since announcing the goal is sufficient unto itself, and second, it evades the disconcerting problem of how to deal with the daunting political challenge of getting such programs (if they even exist) enacted and enforced. I believe the treatment of goals as if they were programs is the underlying reason for the sloppiness of this book on matters of economics and law. Klein can say we should finance a large green investment program by taxing fossil fuel profits, or we should simultaneously shrink the economy and increase the number of jobs, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether these or other
recommendations could actually prove functional in the real world. The truth lies in the rightness of the demand, not the means of fulfilling it. But this too is an adaptation to powerlessness.

—Peter Dorman, on Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything

To paraphrase in terms of the bicycle: we should enact a giant bicycle facility construction program, or we should simultaneously shrink the economy by reducing private motor vehicle traffic, because it doesn’t matter whether these recommendations could actually prove functional in the real world. I prefer to ask, “Who is the marginal person on a bike?”

Heather Havrilesky’s solid work advice

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.