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.

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.

Parking compassionately

This is from my local parent list serve

Hi everyone, this may not apply to you if you don’t park on the street. BUT, if you do, please read on.

As you are all aware, parking is VERY difficult in our neighborhood. I think we can make some small changes that may help. These changes will not cure the problem because many people who park here don’t live here or don’t have children so they are not on this list. So though the “cure” may not happen, this could help…..

1. PLEASE don’t be afraid to pull up or back to the nearest car. 2ft is enough space for people to get in and out. If you leave 4 or 5 ft that is half a spot and imagine all of the 1/2 spots that are out there, added together we could be putting our cars in!
2. Pull ALL the way up to the end of the curb/pedestrian walk/marked parking/etc… Again, left space is wasted space. As a NYer, you know this!
3. If you find a spot that’s HUGE pull either up or back all the way since you could leave enough space for a scooter or motorcycle to fit in.
4. When alternate side parking is happening, please leave your phone number on the dash so that crazy people who need to leave and forgot to get out there in time can leave without having to wait. I leave my number and have been called about 3 or 4 times.

These are simple considerations. If everyone on this list who drives follows this, we will have created many more spaces. Encourage your fellow parkers not on this list to do the same. Ask nicely, explain why it’s nice to not leave space and that way when it’s your turn at 6:00pm to look for a spot, you just may find one!

Thank you!
K.
A compassionate parker

—–

On the other hand, the LESS compassionately you park, the more likely your neighbor will sell her car in frustration. If there was only one parking spot per block, a lot fewer people would have cars, and fewer children and elderly would suffer respiratory illnesses or be killed or maimed by inattentive motor vehicle operators. That sounds like something we could all hope for as a holiday present.

Jonathan

—-

Jonathan,

It’s true, that less cars is [sic] a better solution.  BUT I have a home in CT that I travel to.  I ski, kayak, snowboard, bike and hike all outside the City.  SO I use my car, which I paid more for so that I would get better fuel economy.  I would LOVE to have an electric car but where will I plug it in? Anyway, my post was about being considerate to others when you do have to park. Thank you so much for your thoughts too.:)

K.

—-

K,

Perhaps your enjoyment of arcane and inconvenient hobbies justifies your motor vehicle ownership. Suggest taking up handball instead. That way, you can show true compassion to the majority of your neighbors by not putting their lives at risk as you circle the block looking for a parking space for your kayak. There are handball courts in Hood Wright Park.

Jonathan

I didn’t actually send this last one, but I sure enjoyed writing it.

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.