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?

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?