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?

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.

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.

Vision Zero and Bicycling Promotion

Dear Martha Roskowski,

I read your blog because I’m a bicycle advocate, so I’m bemused by your sudden jump onto the Vision Zero train. Unlike People For Bikes, VZ is not about creating better facilities for bicyclists, or about encouraging people to get on their bicycle, or about using bicycles to help kids get around their neighborhood, or about helping people use their bicycle for more than just recreation

Your Green Lane Project has done a great job of pointing out that people generally don’t like to walk or bike in close proximity to motor vehicles, no matter how safely they are being driven. I don’t think Vision Zero is going to change this preference. I can’t argue with the authorities spending time and money to save lives, but I humbly suggest that VZ-type safety initiatives might not be central to your organization’s mission to get more people bicycling. We have seen in New York City that Vision Zero has put bumper stickers on taxicabs that say, “Your choices matter”; it has not inspired miles of protected bike lanes.

Consider bicycle helmets. It’s clear that safety enhancements to the practice of bicycling are not definitively linked with getting more people on bicycles. I think that now in 2015 it would be a stretch for advocates to argue that the safety benefit from wearing bicycle helmets has encouraged people who don’t ordinarily ride a bicycle to get in the saddle. In fact, I often read arguments that advocates should not call for people on bicycles to wear helmets as this will discourage casual bicycling and make the practice of bicycling appear to require safety equipment.

It’s not hard to imagine that greater attention to traffic deaths could make people more afraid to bicycle, and more afraid to let their children bicycle.

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.’

Wasting bicycle advocacy efforts on people who bike

Yet many cities “are investing in the 2 percent who already bike, not the 98 percent who don’t,” said Penalosa, citing trail maps, bike parking, racks on buses and lines on streets. These are all well and good, but the only thing that will attract new riders is making them feel safe on the road.

This quote from Enrique Penalosa suggests that bicycling advocacy is too important to leave to people who actually ride bicycles. Could be so, but I suggest that doing it this way leaves out the most natural constituency for riding bicycles, people who are doing it already.

I don’t think careful readers have failed to notice that many people who are already in the saddle are poor people who are bicycling either as a job or as a cheaper alternative to driving a motor vehicle. I don’t understand why improvements to bicycling conditions aren’t recommended for these particular people already on bicycles, and I don’t understand why improving the conditions of bicycling for those who are already bicycling should take second place to improving bicycling for those who aren’t.

When it came to the Curbee I was against it, as it didn’t actually improve my chances of not getting killed or maimed. But hidden in the last paragraph of that blog post is the notion that authorities should “be looking for interventions that increase bicycling all over the network, not just on specific routes near the interventions.” The Curbee is the Platonic ideal of a site-specific bicycling intervention.

Mr. Penalosa, I suggest that authorities invest in interventions that support bicycling everywhere. The kind of infrastructure that accords with your suggestions is expensive and installed on a “roll-out” model, where not every neighborhood gets it at once. If you feel that bicycling is actually suitable for the 100%, how is a model with such built-in inequality going to get the 98% not yet bicycling into the saddle?

Overcoming obstacles for fun

Steven Fleming, the Cycle Space blogger, points out a form of Dutch bias, “Overcoming obstacles signifies their devotion.” This kind of Northern European Calvinist view is perhaps, as Adonia Lugo suggests, a hidden reason for why city planners like to refer to the Netherlands as a touchstone for cities. Steven suggests however that Copenhagen is a more generally applicable model than Amsterdam, because the cities looking to Copenhagen are “looking for solutions to economic decline and congestion in 19th-century city centres.” We would all be better citizens if we could overcome something, no matter what.

Streetsblog Comments Worth Saving

Here are a set of comments I made to Streetsblog back in 2011 that I thought were worth digging up again and saving for future reference. I was a little more engaged in the commercial cycling business at the time, as you can see.

I can attest from personal experience that it is not easy or straightforward to shop for a liability policy for bicycles on the business level. Individuals may find it easier.

I believe that this problem is at least partially responsible for the poor cycling behavior of the delivery fleet. Riders are treated as independent contractors (with their own personal bicycles) because the restaurants can’t afford to pay a liability claim. More enforcement and more widely available insurance would make it reasonable for restaurants to put their riders on payroll and cover them directly under their own insurance policies. This would align safe and courteous riding behavior with what the boss wants. All the “bicycle-friendly business” campaigns won’t do a thing until business owners actively take responsibility for the behavior of their delivery fleet riders.

(I liked particularly the idea of the delivery fleet dressed as flight attendants and riding big Oma bikes. It’s a useful corrective.)

BicyclesOnly, thanks for sharing your thoughtful bicycling memoir and explanation for why you support TA’s policy. I agree with you, but have two caveats.

First and most obviously, the benefits to following the “Biking Rules” street code mostly accrue to other people. It’s not obvious that following Biking Rules will keep you, the rider, any more safe. One simple example: stopped at a red light next to automobiles. No cross traffic visible. Is it better to cross the intersection against the light and avoid turning autos or is it better to wait with the automobile and have them turn into your path? I prefer to cross against the light; call me a rebel!

Second, if it were true that “the small minority of cyclists who ride too aggressively” were all individual actors, than I would feel the same as you do; I would grudgingly accept that a behavior-modification campaign was the best way to win acceptance for cyclists.

However, if TA believes that “setting an example” is the way to change cyclists’ behavior, don’t they realize that the example is not being set by paid-up TA members with fluorescent clothing and front-and-rear lighting systems? For every Larry Littlefield in a blinking LED vest, there are a hundred cyclists in black nylon jackets riding without brakes. They are the ones setting the biking rules for everyone else.

In order to change their behavior, though, it makes more sense to coerce the businesses that employ them than to pressure the individual riders. Restaurants are reputation businesses, and should be held responsible for the behavior of their employees. It’s the job of the employer to make sure that employees are following the rules, not the job of random bicyclists on the streets.

Thought experiment: if restaurant delivery staff dressed like flight attendants, rode big heavy Dutch Oma bikes with GPS dynamo headlights and bright red taillights, and strictly obeyed the Biking Rules code, would that encourage or discourage other New Yorkers to ride a bike? I think the former.

The city heavily regulates the taxi fleet; why not the delivery fleet? Better regulation could improve service (bikes could have GPS built in, so customers could track their delivery online), improve safety (lights and reflectors), and reduce accidents (GPS-activated horn could beep when bike was being ridden on the sidewalk, and brake to a crawl when bike was going the wrong way), and enhance the image of cycling as a dignified and respectable way to get around, even with a couple take-out dinners in tow).

(From the same post)

My opinion is that the Biking Rules program reinforces the antibike narrative by creating an monochrome context in which many cyclists’ behavior is interpreted as “WRONG.” This prompts the antibike crowd to argue, very reasonably, that they are all for “RIGHT” biking, and that until all cyclists are “RIGHT,” “WRONG” cyclists shouldn’t be entitled to full use of the streets. Why build bike lanes when “WRONG” cyclists will just use them to maim innocent pedestrians, they say?

And even when articulate proponents of cycling infrastructure like yourself advocate for the benefits of extending more bike lanes so that people can be “RIGHT” cyclists, the dichotomy is stuck to you like a bear trap; opponents respond, ‘Yes, that would be great, but until we do something about “WRONG” cyclists endangering the lives of our uncles and aunts, we shouldn’t just give them more precious street space.’

It reminds me of the fight over needle-exchange programs. In that example, it was necessary to redefine and destigmatize junkies from offenders to victims before exchange programs were accepted as tools for harm reduction. As long as TA (and DOT) keep drawing lines with the majority of working cyclists on the outside, people riding bikes will never get the benefits that they deserve.

Airborne selfies for bicyclists

In Monday 23 June’s New York Times, page B6, Nick Bilton opines, “Among the first mainstream uses of drones will be airborne selfies.”

Great idea, I say. I can just see how in the near future, the responsible bicyclist is accompanied by an airborne videographer, whose video evidence will be used as irrefutable proof that the bicyclist did something right in a future collision.

As I reread this above paragraph, I see that “responsible bicyclist” can be interpreted in two different ways. Either bicyclists in accidents will be blamed for not having airborne camera support, or bicyclists with a responsibility fetish (and plenty of extra spending money) will rush out to buy these kinds of aircraft.

I can definitely see the attraction of having an eye in the sky to look after me, but consider the upkeep and issues involved. I have to stop outside my house and land the thing, then carry it indoors each time. I have to store it when I’m not flying it around 50 meters over my head. I have to fuel it, or charge it, or whatever. (I am a person who gave up on GPS tracking when I realized that it took too long in the morning to turn on and find my location, which was difficult to do from indoors as I slurped down the remains of my oatmeal).

One great appeal of bicycling to me is the lack of preparation time necessary. I can store the bike at home hanging from the front wheel, where it takes up next to no room in my hallway, and simply usher it out in the morning, hop on, and roll along to the workplace. I contrast this of course with the option of owning and operating a motor vehicle, where you have to retrieve the car from the parking place, fasten seat belt, turn on engine, clear away junk and distracting objects, tune the radio or music player, and then get going. Having to program launch codes for a flying overwatcher at the start of every journey is a step too complicated for my tastes.

As a proud New Yorker, I do like my bicycle, but I am not anxious to have it drift into the corner of fetish object, either on the transportation-object fetish scale or on the recreation-object fetish scale. Introducing a drone companion would be one step too far in this direction, no matter how responsible it would make me seem to others. As a parent, I realize that all possessions are ephemeral and we just use them until they are too beaten up to keep using. Best to remain focused on wheels, pedals, saddle and chain.

Six point plan, no metrics involved

I read this Bike Portland post this afternoon and got a little befuddled.

The six points are:
1. We need to make it easier to choose to bike or walk
2. We need to not be afraid to take a few risks
3. We need to not be afraid of what creating congestion might do
4. We need to find a way to create “temporary” projects that show us what can be done
5. In the area within two blocks of a school, there should not be parking or loading zones
6. We need to do a much better job of mitigating construction

Thanks, Kari Schlosshauer.

With my military experience, I tend to examine manifestos and such from a how-would-you-do-this perspective. If you were King of Portland, Kari, how would you enact this plan? How would you judge whether or not you were making progress? What would you tell people who came to you asking how they could help?

The issue with all bicycling promotion is that it’s ridiculously easy to implement. Take away free on-street overnight parking. I’ve learned that my two cousins who live in Brooklyn with small children both have automobiles. Both grew up going to Quaker school and are clearly on the enlightened side of the spectrum, but because they own cars they are now bought into the motor vehicle economy. Me, I have two small children and our family saves a literal krap-ton of money each month by not having a motor vehicle. And we have more family time, because not having the means to make unnecessary trips to furniture retailer Ykea means not making unnecessary trips to Ykea.

Luckily for me, my neighborhood makes it easier for me to not have a car because only the folks with no job can find the time twice a week to move their cars from one side of the street to the other.

So when I read Ms. Schlosshauer’s six points, it seems to me that she is trying to have it both ways; persuading motor vehicle owners that they can live in a bicycling paradise and that it won’t really change anything in their lives. The easiest way to do this is to claim that your platform is “for the children,” because it puts opponents on the defensive; who is against children?

The problem is that winning arguments and persuading people to give up their cars are two different things.