Sunday, July 21, 2013

False Dichotomies, "the Bicycling 1%", and the Future

Or, Can't We All Just Get Along?

Rather fight than switch?

 Streetsblog often has some pretty interesting stuff in it concerning cycling politics, cycling as transportation, and the state of urban design as it applies to promoting cycling, walking, and transit. It brings a lot of thoughtful people together over the Virtual Pickle Barrel.  But sometimes it gets too tied up in "us vs. them" thinking. Angie Schmitt's 19 July posting, Two Schools of Thought on Bike Infrastructure: Egalitarian vs. Elite, is one of the latter.

Perhaps trying to apply the "rest of us vs. the 1%" economic paradigm that is popular in political circles, Streetsblog suggests that bike infrastructure thinking boils down to elitists who don't need bicycling infrastructure and the egalitarian masses who are being denied it by that damnable 1%.

Having actually raced and interacted with both competitive racers and Everyone Else, my observation is the discussion is actually far more nuanced.  There are plenty of racers, including "elite" Cat II/III folks who are actually quite averse to cycling in traffic, preferring to drive to those streets ideal for training, and who would support protected bicycling infrastructure applied to the urban environment, even if it doesn't serve training purposes. There are folks who have never pinned on a number but are comfortable commuting on existing roads at moderate effort, but who don't think of themselves as "strong and fearless", another stereotype used to dismiss the existing rider. There are likewise plenty of people, both actual and potential cyclists, who would like to see cycling infrastructure built, even protected infrastructure. Some, especially those who don't ride, are uncritical of design, but some actual "egalitarian" cyclists want to see improvements built but without adding hidden (or not so hidden) hazards that would especially endanger novice commuters--lets get it right the first time. John Allen, who I link to on the right ("my blog list") is one of those who are not anti-facility but who are critical of bad designs. Indeed, he has been excoriated by Streetsblog for his efforts (an example here).

E. 3rd Ave. bike lane in Durango that the city undoubtedly used towards its Bronze 
Bicycle-Friendly Community status. 3rd Ave is a wide, peaceful avenue with two lanes in each direction and a quiet center median. No reason to not take a lane.
Note the cars in the distance flush to the bike lane stripe. Such facilities are immoral.

A better sign of Durango's friendliness to two wheeled devices.
Both motorized and not.Photographed at the Durango 2013 Moto Expo.

To install truly protected bike lanes (PBLs) requires a dedication of public space and funds, thus political will and consensus. If there truly was a case of "build it and they would come" on the scale of northern European cities, this could be easily justified. But these European models do more than build PBL's: they also do many things to discourage driving, such as add punitive gasoline taxes (often 100%), impose zoning to discourage driving, promote public transit (thank you, Chandra), and ensure their cities do not sprawl to the point where cycling becomes difficult to the egalitarian masses. Here in the U.S., we see little of those other efforts, hence cycling is lagging behind the Copenhagen model, even in highly ranked bicycle friendly communities.

So bicycling, and its dedicated facilities, are a tough sell to the car-based masses as long as our politicians insist on saying that cycling infrastructure is being built "as an alternative to the car" instead of honestly saying "we want you to get your ass out of the car" as public officials do elsewhere in the world.  Furthermore, to make the costs justifiable, one would have to back this policy up with taxation, zoning codes, and holistic political planning, at least if we want Copenhagen scale results.

I think we will need to de-emphasize the car (quite a bit) given current trends in our thinking about climate change, conserving non-renewable resources, and promoting public health. Given our entire society is built up around individual, powered mobility, change will be hard. Let's put our minds to figuring out how an alternative would replace rather than sit at the fringes of extreme automobile dependence.

Streetsblog, sadly, keeps encouraging these fractious debates that turn into circular firing squads. Sure, there will always be those at 3 standard deviations from the mean who are vocal on almost any issue. Fortunately, like this blog, these virtual firing squads are sitting invisible on a rarely noticed corner of the Internet.  Cycling advocates have enough trouble getting our point across without constantly flaming each other. Lets leave the straw men and false dichotomies to others and get to work on some good ideas. Or, just ride your bike and don't worry about it.

Who can identify the John Forester character in the video clip below?


John Romeo Alpha said...

It sometimes calms me to imagine an impassioned and absurd flame war between monster truck enthusiasts, 4WD offroaders, sand dune racers, NASCAR drivers, F1 drivers, daily freeway commuters, demolition derby pros, driving school students, and parents of children operating Matchbox cars, all convinced that they need one and only one place where all could operate their machines safely, simultaneously, and freely. It could be done I guess, but what a mess it would be, and what's the use arguing about it?

Khal said...

Yeah, John. "Share the Chaos", right?

Anonymous said...

Or, just ride your bike and don't worry about it. The wheat.

Chandra said...

Khal et al:
First off, congrats on a really well-written article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post.
"Getting asses out of cars", is probably not gonna happen in my lifetime, in the US.

FWIW: Having relocated to Atlanta, GA, I am just now starting to ride my bike to the bus stop, from my home.

It takes 45 minutes to drive from the bus stop to home, during rush hour. It is only 3 miles to the bus stop from home.

It takes me 45 minutes to get to work - travel time on the bus & train alone. It will likely take me at least that much, if I were to drive; which I refuse to do. People look at you like you are from Jupiter, when you tell'em you ride public transport and cycle.

Yet, I see thousands of cars parked on GA-400, every morning and evening.

Ways to get the situation under control might include: 1) 3) promote public transportation, 2) increase gas tax, 3) increase tax on automobiles.

I am not sure the US politicians would want to do that and risk the chance of re-election.

Peace :)

Tara said...

@John - this is exactly how I feel when my cycling (read: bicycles) friends get so angry at motorists and the motorists I know get mad at bicyclists.