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.

“A face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery,” Balzac


…Godefroid examined [the stranger] closely and was surprised at his exceptional thinness, no doubt caused by sorrow, and perhaps hunger, and very likely hard work. Each of these debilitating forces had left its mark on that face, whose withered skin clung tightly to the bones, as if baked by the fires of Africa. His high, looming forehead sheltered two steel blue eyes beneath its cupola, eyes as cold, hard, wise, and penetrating as the eyes of the savages but marred by two deep and very wrinkled dark circles. His long slender nose and proudly raised chin gave the old man a certain resemblance to the popular image of Don Quixote, but this was the face of a cruel Don Quixote, a Don Quixote without illusions, Don Quixote as a formidable figure.

In spite of this severity, the old man could not entirely conceal the fear and frailty that indigence confers on all its victims. These two afflictions had created something like cracks in a face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery. His mouth was eloquent and serious. Don Quixote was complicated by the President de Montesquieu.


Le grand vieillard hésitait à répondre; il voyait venir Mme. Vauthier; mais Godefroid, qui l’examinait attentivement, fut surpris du degré de maigreur auquel les chagrins, la faim peut-être, peut-être le travail, l’avaient fait arriver; il y avait trace de toutes ces causes d’affaiblissement sur cette figure, où la peau desséchée se collait avec ardeur sur les os, comme si elle avait été exposée aux feux de l’Afrique. Le front, haut et d’un aspect menaçant, abritait sous sa coupole deux yeux d’un bleu d’acier, deux yeux froids, durs, sagaces et perspicaces comme ceux des sauvages, mais meurtris par un profond cercle noir très ridé. Le nez, grand, long et mince, et le menton, très relevé, donnaient à ce vieillard une ressemblance avec le masque si connu, si populaire attribué à don Quichotte; mais c’était don Quichotte méchant, sans illusions, un don Quichotte terrible.

Ce vieillard, malgré cette sévérité générale, laissait percer la crainte et la faiblesse que prête l’indigence à tous les malheureux. Ces deux sentiments produisaient comme des lézardes dans cette face construite si solidement que le pic dévastateur de la misère semblait s’y ébrécher. La bouche était éloquente et sérieuse. Don Quichotte se compliquait du président de Montesquieu.

—Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine), Part II, Chapter 3, translated by Jordan Stump

Do we still see our fellows in the same detailed way? I wonder if this kind of descriptive language, this way of introducing a character, still exists in the language of the present day. I know that it’s often easier to look for a shorthand metaphor, a kind of picture-word that’s worth at least five hundred other words; I’m thinking of this kind of description in particular:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.

To me Balzac’s description reeks of the past, of a different way of looking at people, of close examination of appearance as a way to better understanding of character. This kind of quote takes those old saws about how “suffering was written on his face” and walks the reader through one such face: M. Bernard’s thinness as the result of hard work and sorrow and hunger, the forehead-as-cupola, the steely blue eyes, and the reference to popular views of Don Quixote.

The larger question is this: do people even look like M. Bernard any more, especially in novels?

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picture via flickr.com

Identity and lost lists

Bombon, Murros, Silvestre, Chupa Chupa, Tita, and Monica

These are the names of the six cats at Casa Azul. There’s a story here.

When I went to Mexico City the first time, in 1995, I stopped by Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s house in the Coyoacan neighborhood. It’s a pleasant dwelling, with a copy of Inside Europe by John Gunther on the bookshelf (same as in my house!), and a pre-Columbian pyramid, scaled down and painted blue (not the same as in my house).

There were also several cats prowling around. I asked one of the groundskeepers what their names were, and I assiduously copied them down in my little pocket notebook. In the fourteen intervening years, the notebook has been lost, and with it this important historical record.

The fact of losing the list placed it front and center in one of my better literary efforts, “La liste de listes perdues.” I wrote this up as the last entry to date in La fièvre Madiaba, my French-language blog from earlier in the decade. For those of you who can’t read French, in 2006, while in Paris, I struck up an acquaintance with this French author who was putting together a book about lists. I thought for a couple of days on the subject, and then came up with my idea: a list of lost lists. There are 10 of them, some of which have since been found and others which remain in a state of latency.

So when the folks went to Mexico City and asked me for suggestions, I thought for a minute and said, “Hey! Here’s something that you can really help me out with. I lost my list of names of cats at the Casa Azul. Can you visit and get me the current list?”

Et voilà! Bombon, Murros, Silvestre, Chupa Chupa, Tita, and Monica.

But now, three years since “Liste de listes perdues” and 14 years since the visit to Casa Azul, I am reconsidering the whole list-making enterprise as something very dear to me and my identity. I was there, at the Casa Azul. I made an observation (cats!) and noted it down.

This is the same thing I’ve been doing with my cycling: I was there, out back of the airfield, riding fast (how fast?), and I noted it down.

But what is the identity-building part? Is it the object (the thing listed), the subject (my list-making habits), or the verb (the act of making the list) that makes me feel more thoroughly myself?

picture via flickr.com from Sophie Cunningham