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.

I have stated previously that when the authorities take an interest in

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?

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.

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.

The Quislings of the Bicycle Advocacy Movement

It seems unlikely, but maybe most bicycle advocates are not chained to a desk all day, reading the current popular literature on urban planning issues. Sarah Goodyear’s interview with my guru, Dr. Steven Fleming, showed up on the Citylab website last week, and prompted a set of dismissive comments. Too stark and austere, they cry. No tolerance for other travel modes. Where are the human-scale buildings?

I think these people are missing the point, and I hope, perhaps in vain, that there is someone out there who does, but is just too busy to comment (kudos to my other blogging counterpart, dr2chase, who throws in some sensible comments toward the end).

Here is the point: if you are designing a city so that its citizens can take full advantage of bicycle technique, your designs may not resemble a city that has been designed so that its citizens can take full advantage of foot or horse. This is a feature. Fleming’s Velotopia is designed to take advantage of a bicycle in every aspect, down to having rollup refrigerator doors so you can open one and reach in while standing over a bike’s top tube.

The point of this exercise is to permit bicycle advocates to avoid treading the same ground that has already been trod by urbanists and livable streets advocates. The reductive, unidimensional, “Is this like Holland? Yes? Then do more of it” thinking doesn’t help anyone who would prefer not to consider Dutch cities and towns as the Platonic ideal of urban form. It is my opinion that in the effort to shift the azimuth of city planning away from the suburban ideal of cul-de-sacs and single-family quarter-acre lots, surrounded by arterial roads dotted with strip malls, a variety of different approaches should be considered, not just a simple rubber-stamping of the Delft plan.

And on the demand side, louder and clearer calls for cities to be constructed and expanded on the basis of bicycle transportation will help clarify the lunacy of bicycle advocates supporting city plans in which everyone is riding just a hair faster than walking pace. I doubt the attractiveness of a movement whose idols ride expensive bicycles slowly, and I think bicycle advocacy would be more energized if its adherents took care to appeal to people who choose bicycling because it’s a cheap way to go fast.

Interviewing the Elves

Figuring out why people who choose not to do something don’t in fact do it is like attempting to interview the elves who live inside your refrigerator but come out only when the light is off. People already working for a company might tell you what makes them unhappy. But these complaints won’t necessarily pinpoint the factors that keep women and minorities away from studying computer science in the first place.

Eileen Pollack, “What Really Keeps Women Out Of Tech,” New York Times, Sunday Review, page 3, 10/11/2015

Pollack’s metaphor is a trailer-load of apt when applied to the perennial question of bicycle advocates, “How do we get more people in the saddle?” One problem I see advocates having is that their own good fortune (or commodious circumstances) blinds them to the struggles that people at present considering whether to ride a bike actually face. This is an error that I have previously noted and categorized as a kind of fundamental attribution error, but I think it’s actually deeper than that. I see fundamental attribution error when I see bicycle advocates dismiss other people’s apparent reasons for not riding a bicycle as laziness or unfamiliarity. But the error that Pollack identifies is made on a different level.

Simply put, someone already bicycling sees his or her perceived choke points and difficulties as pervasive. The best example of this is the missing Second Avenue bike lane. Between 59th St and 34th St, there is no Second Avenue bike lane; there are signs along the leftmost traffic lane that say, “Bicyclists May Take Full Lane,” but not green paint or even a reserved door-zone lane. Commenters, some of whom are actual real-life bicycle advocates, are complaining on Streetsblog all the time about this, even hijacking posts about bike lanes in other parts of the city to do so. “Why are the authorities painting these subpar bike lanes in Washington Heights when the Second Avenue bike lane is still missing,” for instance.

From a wide-angle perspective, it’s clear that a New Yorker’s decision whether to bike or not to bike on any day is probably very little influenced by those 25 blocks without a bike lane. Plenty of people, after all, are not bicycling into midtown Manhattan at all, let alone the East Side. Here’s where Pollack’s insight comes in. While we can fairly easily attribute ridership to the presence of a bike lane on a certain street, it is more difficult to attribute the lack of ridership in the city overall to the absence of a bike lane on a certain street. The Second Avenue advocates’ argument is that better bicycle infrastructure on those 25 blocks will have some kind of domino effect, the riders irresistibly drawn by the lane’s presence channeling like a spring tide along all other bicycle infrastructure in Manhattan, thus by safety-in-numbers creating more and more bicyclists until all 8.3 million of us New Yorkers are hastening to and fro on two wheels.

This argument blithely assumes that there are no other constraints on bicycling in midtown, that nobody is hunting in vain for a bike share bicycle, or unable to find a safe place to park, or obliged to leave work after dark (or leave home before dawn). It recalls the old chestnut, the reserve army of bicyclists, in this case waiting in their midtown offices with padded shorts on for the Second Avenue bike lane to be opened.

I fully agree that the lack of the Second Avenue bike lane does make bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown more hairy and fretful than it needs to be. But this effect is only noticeable if you are already bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown (like, I expect, most of the advocates). Bicycling advocates have already worked through all the other difficult aspects of commuting by bicycle (finding the parking space, packing the clean shirt) and the implementation of the full Second Avenue bike lane is the one thing that would make their commute easier. Pollack’s insight is that the one thing for the advocate is likely not the one thing for someone ready to get in the saddle.

 

 

Transport Equity Bun Fight

Alon Levy in his Pedestrian Observations blog has responded to Adonia Lugo’s complaint about Vision Zero on her own blog, Urban Adonia. Dr. Lugo sees Vision Zero as another in a series of well-meaning interventions helmed by rich, white, athletic men, meant to address the social ill of traffic violence and mayhem. She has pointed out helpfully that one’s perception of the relative importance of fixing traffic violence depends on one’s social and economic position.

Dr. Levy drops the Hammer of Technocracy on her. His point is that there is a Best Practice in road building, in transit, and in bicycling promotion, and that in most of these domains America is not executing the Best Practice. So why should bicycling advocates care about what Dr. Lugo’s pen pals in East Crumbhalt, America, do to make bicycling safer, when it is simpler and more straightforward just to do exactly what is done in Copenhagen?

Dr. Lugo has previously pointed out that the prevailing culture among bicycle advocates is the culture of rich white male people with money to burn, yet there are many people who are bicycling who do not fit this category. She has argued that bicycling advocacy needs to be responsive to different cultural practices in order to meet the needs of the different people who are bicycling. I interpret this as the primacy of bicycling technique over bicycling context; it’s important that people are actually spinning the pedals and going somewhere, less important that they are accomplishing goals such as “errands” or “shopping” or “dropping off kids” or “going out to get sloshed” that have specific cultural values.

I have previously argued that the technocratic approach to bicycling promotion treats bicycle culture as “vacuum cleaner culture.” In Denmark, apparently, everyone has a vacuum cleaner, but nobody identifies with their choice of vacuum cleaner; it’s just a tool. Same thing with bicycles. We advocates are just too wound up in our own special mode of transport to actually accept the technocratic approach. The first step in the accepted best way to create a city in which everyone is bicycling, where bicycling is normative, turns out to be to drive away all the bicycle advocates. Shades of Enrique Penalosa!

I think Dr. Lugo’s most powerful argument is her no. 4: “It’s strange to me that a movement so focused on rejecting car-dominated engineering would think that the solution is more large-scale, top-down planning.” This counters Dr. Levy’s argument for technocracy by asserting that no matter the form of the technocratic approach, problems will bubble up from underneath, that will require the special insight of someone who loves bicycling to resolve.  As this Washington Post blogpost points out, inequality extends to traffic violence as well as other, more recognizably determined forms of violence, such as crime and drugs. The grand technocratic approach to building roads for motor traffic has clearly seen better days, so why commission a new Grand Design for building roads for bicycles and expect any better?

Justice, revolution and bicycling

I envy the Portlanders in this BikePortland post for their charming assumptions that bicycles are key to livability and that Portland somehow holds the record for livability. I guess livability is the secret to Brooklyn; even though it’s more expensive than where I live, it’s got the livability rep going.

And I think what charms people about bicycling is the illusion that it is somehow a more sane, more basic, more elemental way to get around than motor vehicle or mass transit. As this Brooklyn Spoke post demonstrates, however, bicycles are caught up in the same politico-cultural milieu as every other form of transportation. It is fairly obvious to me that motor vehicle operation, as the default mode of choice, comes with the privilege (for privileged people) of never having to answer the question, “Why are you driving?” Mass transit, as New York’s people’s mode of transport, comes with the privilege of oblivion—nobody will pay any attention to you while riding the bus or subway.

There are no half measures. We can remake society to place bicycling as the default mode of travel, but why remake society if it is still as unjust and unequal as it is today? More precisely, I commute through the Bronx. I don’t see bicycling improvements being made along my route. Bike Snob, another Bronx commuter, has the right idea, often titling his posts “The indignity of commuting by bicycle.” What I see is that everyone in the Bronx should be indignant about their commute. Yes, bicycles could help, but we won’t get bicycles, because to shift to a bicycle-focused society, the perceived costs of getting the current motoring class around by bicycle will overpower all other considerations. The kind of socially promoted bicycling we would get would be so riddled with exceptions as to make it impossible to actually use a bicycle to get anywhere.

Dutch Bikes, decline of

At the time of writing this review, I do not think it unfair to say that the Dutch bike craze in North America has come and gone. When the bicycles first appeared on the scene around 2008, they were a source of fascination. The concept of the Dutch bike inspired us with images of carefree, relaxed, un-athletic cycling – of bicycles that allowed the rider to sit bolt-upright, “as if in a chair,” while effortlessly floating along, groceries or toddlers casually in tow. With these machines came the promise of a dignified, utilitarian and (dare I say it?) fashionable means for ordinary people to ride a bicycle for transportation without changing the way they dressed.

But as nice as it all sounded in theory, in practice it didn’t stick. Routinely, those North Americans who had purchased Dutch bikes discovered that conditions where they lived were too hilly to make these lovely machines practical. Or too windy. Or the distances were too long. Or the car traffic called for more nimble and aggressive handling. So they made adjustments to their Dutch bikes, attempting to lighten them, and to install lower gearing, and to lower the handlebars, before – more often than not – ultimately switching to a different style of bicycle. As the transportation cycling culture in the US grew, a preference emerged for machines that – while still relatively upright and fitted with utilitarian accessories – were of a lighter, sportier, more compact nature than the prototypical Dutch bike.

From the estimable Lovely Bicycle blog, the definitive explanation for whatever happened to the Dutch City Bike in the US market.

I bought one from a neighbor. It had one gear, and no front brake, and only a rear coaster brake. I sold it to someone who really wanted it, but it was hell to ride uphill.

Despairing season for riding a bicycle

Across so many different domains of our lives, private and public, this dynamic seems to hold. We say we want something, often something very noble and admirable, but in reality we are not prepared to pay the costs required to obtain the thing we say we want. We are not prepared to be inconvenienced. We are not prepared to reorder our lives. We may genuinely desire that noble, admirable thing, whatever it may be; but we want some other, less noble thing more.

The above quote from The Frailest Thing blog sounds quite illuminating as a reason for why people don’t get in the saddle and ride. I picked the quote with the notion of arguing that well intentioned folks value the concept of riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, but they are not prepared for the inconvenience. I even went to the trouble of compiling a 10-point list of how my bicycle commute was so pitilessly inconvenient and frustrating, without even mentioning the possibility of being killed or maimed by errant automobiles. That was to buttress my argument that people had good reason for not getting on their bicycle and riding, and for preferring to use their motor vehicles.

But upon reflection, that kind of post is not what this week deserves. Since making that list, I was diagnosed with pinkeye and stayed home for most of three days. As a person therefore who is today recovering from both conjunctivitis and my umpteenth upper respiratory infection of the season, I am intrigued by the concept of a vehicle that shelters you from the elements during the journey.  How about  a “health wagon,” with a roof, a heater, and adjustable windows to permit ventilation? Now sit that atop an internal combustion engine that could handle the weight of the health wagon, and navigate along a network of speedy roads, and I think it’s an idea that could really be popular.

So if I declare, “I can’t ride on Monday,” it’s not because I because I am looking for excuses to hide out in my (notional) health wagon, it’s because I am truly afraid that I will never get well if I keep riding my bicycle.

Ultimately as a gesture of respect and empathy we have to take people’s decisions to get in their cars as genuinely reasoned and worthy of acknowledgement. Advocates like me are often unable to do this, partly because of fundamental attribution error, partly because our own enthusiasm blinds us to the limits of our transportation mode choice.