Justice, revolution and bicycling

I envy the Portlanders in this BikePortland post for their charming assumptions that bicycles are key to livability and that Portland somehow holds the record for livability. I guess livability is the secret to Brooklyn; even though it’s more expensive than where I live, it’s got the livability rep going.

And I think what charms people about bicycling is the illusion that it is somehow a more sane, more basic, more elemental way to get around than motor vehicle or mass transit. As this Brooklyn Spoke post demonstrates, however, bicycles are caught up in the same politico-cultural milieu as every other form of transportation. It is fairly obvious to me that motor vehicle operation, as the default mode of choice, comes with the privilege (for privileged people) of never having to answer the question, “Why are you driving?” Mass transit, as New York’s people’s mode of transport, comes with the privilege of oblivion—nobody will pay any attention to you while riding the bus or subway.

There are no half measures. We can remake society to place bicycling as the default mode of travel, but why remake society if it is still as unjust and unequal as it is today? More precisely, I commute through the Bronx. I don’t see bicycling improvements being made along my route. Bike Snob, another Bronx commuter, has the right idea, often titling his posts “The indignity of commuting by bicycle.” What I see is that everyone in the Bronx should be indignant about their commute. Yes, bicycles could help, but we won’t get bicycles, because to shift to a bicycle-focused society, the perceived costs of getting the current motoring class around by bicycle will overpower all other considerations. The kind of socially promoted bicycling we would get would be so riddled with exceptions as to make it impossible to actually use a bicycle to get anywhere.

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?

Incisive critique of cycling research

Link to bicicultures.org

There are two perspectives on this page, the one I particularly find appealing is the one on the right, by Melody Hoffman.

The United States is a neoliberal, capitalist, patriarchal, and white supremacist country. This stifles our ability to rebuild our cities so schools are blocks away from grocery stores and our homes. This stifles women seeing their potential beyond being perfect mothers and perfectly feminine beings. This stifles efforts by people of color to participate in city meetings that determine where bicycle infrastructure goes. And this stifles poor people accessing bike maintenance and adequate storage for their bicycle, lest it rusts out in their backyard. We are so far from the ideologies, values, and politics that drive places like the Netherlands that it is not even a fair comparison.

We can keep doing research that argues chain guards and drop crossbars will enable women to ride in everyday clothing. Or we can ask why women need chain guards and drop crossbars and men do not. Women are being held to an unfair standard even in the cycling world and it may be better to educate women about their options beyond the patriarchal confines that argue 1890s-inspired bicycle components will help them. There are bigger institutional and systemic barriers we need to face before we can normalize anything.

I would not like to describe myself as a negative or pessimistic person, however this particular quote really hits home for me when it comes to promotion of bicycling and discussion of bicycling culture.

I would describe my own position as fairly minimalist. I believe that when it makes sense for people to get around on bikes, they will do that. I believe that people are fairly well informed about the options they have, and that what Chamberlain calls privileges that they do not have are apparent to them. In other words, there isn’t much that simple persuasion can do to change people’s minds about getting around on a bicycle.

If the conditions change, however, then people will change their minds. So I support changes to the street grid to make it easier for buses and pedestrians and bicyclists, to the explicit detriment of private motorists, because I would like things to be easier for buses and pedestrians and bicyclists (I am one), and I don’t care so much about the private motorists (I am not one). I also recognize that absent those changes, people won’t change their ways very much.

With my New York perspective, I do not believe there are secret paths to getting around that people don’t know about. I myself like to get around on bicycle, but I recognize that the choices I make to enable that, and the privileges I have, are instrumental to that preference.

As to the basic question, “How can we get more women cycling,” my answer is, the same way we get more men cycling. We make it easier for them to cycle. Hoffman discusses some of the systemic reasons why this is so hard. Chamberlain discusses why it is easy for her, in the process shedding light on why it may not be so easy for other people.

In general, I think both writers do a good job at explaining why we cannot create our own private Netherlands just by hopping on bicycles. More so, we should not expect that a directed process to make our streetscape more like the Netherlands should result in anything of the sort, given as Hoffman notes that our sociopolitical environment is completely different. As Lugo reflects, “The desire to make bicycling “normal” seems odd to me, when there are many existing cultural ideas about transportation.” The Netherlands is an admirable model for society in many respects, but it is obvious that Dutch and Americans do not typically hold the same cultural ideas about transportation. I do not think that this necessarily inhibits New Yorkers from planning grand changes, only that we should be mindful of the cultural traction that current ideas and mores have when looking to improve our built environment.