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?

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?”

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.

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?

Bicycling Away from the One True Way

Commenting on ths Adonia Lugo blog post, I indicated that there are soi-disant bicycling advocates who hold to the credo that all traffic regulations must be followed to the letter, or that bicycling must have standards to be worthy of advocacy. There are advocates who see exhilarating events like Ciclavias as mere milestones on the historical progress of our cities toward Dutch-style bicycling metropoles, and there are advocates who commit fundamental attribution error by assuming that everyone who is not riding in the preferred position, style, or wardrobe is just sadly misinformed.

Adding further,this study from People for Bikes seems to dampen the rush toward infrastructure ‘solutions’ to the problem of not enough people on bicycles. If about two-thirds of people who want to bike more feel okay with the bicycle infrastructure they have, either those people are willing to share the street with automobiles, or they just aren’t even considering the possibility. It doesn’t seem, once again, that there is a reserve army of bicyclists.

For me I realized about four years ago that advocating for bicycling meant nothing in particular, like advocating for more right turns. It was advocating for people on bicycles that meant something. But it seems like everyone in the world of advocacy treats it like a zero-sum game, where certain groups win and certain groups lose. Sometimes sticklers for following traffic rules are privileged, by having streets departments spend money on giving away helmets and safety-themed coloring books; sometime people who live in certain neighborhoods are privileged, by having bike share programs come to them; sometimes people riding in certain directions are privileged, by having cycle tracks set up on their through routes; sometimes people who don’t even ride bicycles are privileged, as when advocates ponder how to increase mode share among the ‘interested but concerned.’

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.



No Reserve Army of Bicyclists

I doubt that there is a reserve army of bicyclists ready to hit the streets, awaiting some particular intervention. By “reserve army,” I refer to a mass of potential bicyclists whose role in society is to keep bicycle-focused interventions coming. We advocates are constantly being told that one thing is standing in the way of mass cycling. Whether that one thing be the rolling Idaho stop, or a protected bike lane, or a strict liability law, or peak oil, or bikes in buildings, or showers at work, or a bike valet, or that self-driving wheel, I don’t think any single intervention is going to make that much difference in getting people into the saddle. I believe however that interventions like those I mentioned do have value in communicating the value of the bicycle to the culture at large.

I arrive at this conclusion following my two posts (1, 2) on “Who is the Marginal Person on a Bike.” If I cannot easily identify a single kind of person who is the marginal person on a bike, how can I blithely assume that there is, in hiding, an entire battalion of them?

As usual, I am merely extending the insights of Dr. Adonia Lugo. In this post she elaborates on the gap between normal and normative when it comes to bicycle riding. She points out that each of us approach culture and transportation differently, and my extension of her statement is that it each of us will require different prerequisites in order to feel comfortable with getting into the bicycle saddle.

I have believed for a long time that people will get in the bicycle saddle when it makes sense for them to do so. This also contributes to my notion that there is no reserve army of bicyclists, as each person’s sense of when it is a good idea to get in the bicycle saddle is different. As advocates for bicycling and generally empathetic people, we have to engage with individuals as individuals, and avoid assuming that they are all equally ready to get on the bicycle.

Another way to think about the reserve-army concept is that it ignores the role of culture in promoting bicycling. Perhaps as Dr. Lugo suggests, people who have been to Copenhagen and Holland return with the idea that bicycling can (and ought) be normative. I’ve previously identified this as the vacuum-cleaner approach, the point being that the bicycle can be just another household appliance like the vacuum cleaner, which is used regularly but doesn’t inspire a lot of devotion or the wearing of special uniforms.

My own experience at the Secret City suggests that the bicycle is not exactly normative for Americans and that young, healthy people, in an environment with bicycles and without privately owned motor vehicles, do not jump into the bicycle saddle in large numbers.

What does this matter? What are the consequences? If there is no reserve army of potential bicyclists, why should you care?

One, advocates can move toward a multifocal approach that empowers individual people on bicycles and away from the single-intervention model of advocacy; two, advocates can engage with bicyclists who are actually bicycling instead of the shadowy reserve army of potential bicyclists; and three, advocates can begin to celebrate bicycling for the joyful activity it can be, instead of regarding it as a transportation chore that needs to be made routine.