Saturday, August 4, 2012

NPR and Velosophy

I had the opportunity to be an in studio guest on the Colin McEnroe show this week to chat about bikes, bike culture, and infrastructure.  Dario took a listen, and may have had some wine.  Results below.


I listened to the replay of Colin McEnroe's show on NPR this evening. Nice job. You should consider doing a brief write-up about the show and posting it on the beat bike blog with a link. Allow me some random thoughts, maybe a little rant, but hopefully the beginning of a good discussion, besides our usual conversation concerning esoteric bike parts. Please excuse the length of this message.

A couple of things dawned on me as I listened to the show, one was inspired by a comment by someone (was it you or Tom Vanderbilt?) that we in the US talk about bike culture, whereas in some other countries there is little or no discussion about it. They sort of just do it. We talk about "bike culture(s)" because we really don't have one, I believe was the speaker's point. He overstated it in my opinion. There is a bike culture or bike cultures and in some places it's pretty healthy (Portland Oregon) and in others far less so (Hartford?). In Italy, I've seen bikes piled up one against another in provincial railway stations that belong to commuters who park their bikes and get on the train. The scene is even more impressive in northern Europe where the climate works against cycling commuters. Italians are also debating creating better infrastructure in their cities. Interestingly, the name of a major advocacy group there is "Salvaciclisti" (Save the cyclists!). The Dutch and the Danes have a long tradition, but theirs is also the result of conscious debate and awareness of "cycling" culture. So, I think that those cycling countries have rich cultures, but not to be taken for granted because they continue to advocate for legislation. The Danes, of course, are well ahead of us.

My point, actually a question, about the show's discussion is: Why does everything have to be a theological debate? Spandex vs. no spandex, racing vs. "just riding". We talk about cycling as if we were 17th C English Puritans dropped into the 21st C. Cycling is far richer and more nuanced than the hackneyed dualities trotted out during the show, even if it is modern radio and everyone has only ten seconds to respond. The problem on a practical level is certainly two-fold: educating drivers and cyclists to be more considerate (look who's talking, right?) of one another, and creating the appropriate infrastructure (bike lanes, etc…). Yet, I see the problem as being bigger than just educating drivers and cyclists to being more courteous and bigger than improving our cycling infrastructure.

Let me try my hand at "velosophy" (cycling philosophy) a word coined by Grant Peterson, although on the show he didn't express a crumb of it and he sounded very confused. The reason why he can write a book (and I'm sure it is a provocative book), titled "Just Ride" is the same reason why Michael Pollan can write a run away bestseller about food titled "In Defense of Food". Just go for a ride. Just eat real food. Their positions are tautological however because they don't explain the underlying problems in my view. (I haven't read Peterson's book, but I have read and re-read many of his "essays" on the website and I agree with a lot of what he says. Also I use Pollan's book in an undergraduate course about food culture.) What both books seem to be addressing is the lack of "good sense" and that we have to get it back (presuming we ever had it). My philosophical point?: We are detached (alienated) from food and nature. And we are detached from natural movement. Cycling requires that we interact in time and space differently from the way we do in an automobile, a train, a plane, which literally (and not just metaphorically) obliterate time and space. So does the bicycle vis-a-vis walking or running perhaps, that is "obliterates time and space", but we get the best of both worlds with the bicycle, expeditiousness and economy of movement with the psycho-physical engagement with the environment. The bicycle is a sophisticated technology, too, but one that potentially enhances our engagement with nature, not lessens it. In the U.S. I believe that we are generally alienated from movement. An example is the simple activity of walking. Walking or moving our bodies is called exercise, not simply walking (to work, to the store, to school). People go for walks to lose weight, to stay in shape, as if it were an unnatural activity, something one makes a point of doing; not something one does as necessary to existence. I bet you can buy a book about walking technique, too. And it will certainly state the obvious, "lean forward and put one foot in front of the other." We are (and I'll overstate the point) alienated from our bodies in no small part and inevitably because of technology. 

I'm definitely low tech, but certainly not a Luddite. The particular brand of American capitalism has determined that certain technologies prevail over others, cars over bicycles, Facebook vs. face time, elliptical trainers vs. walking up hills to get to the store or to work. So the problem is not so much as between choosing low tech (riding a beater bicycle) over high tech (an oversized SUV with all the bells and whistles); rather, that our culture of consumerism and conformism compel many to purchase and to mis-use technological goods that are not in the collective's best interests, creating consequently other problems, like pollution and waste. Most people could get around on foot or by bike just fine, and keep the car for other longer trips. Right? However, the political, cultural, and technological framework we inhabit is such that it is actually advocating against cycling or walking for that matter. It's not even that our society is indifferent to cycling. It's against it. Colin McEnroe opined on the show that mini-van drivers are the worst because they have no sense of the size of their vehicles. Nonsense! The mini-van driver has bought a house on wheels and wants to moving his or heer fucking house on wheels wherever he/she pleases. When you've decided to buy a house on wheels you don't care about the "other", be it a smaller car, cyclist, or pedestrian. Obviously, ditto for SUV drivers. Houses were not meant to be on wheels. (Except for trailer homes, but you get my point.)

I understand quite well that it is a lot simpler to argue for bike lanes and for cyclists to not blow through red lights (especially when you're allowed only sound bytes) than it is to change our consumer and conformist bad habits. But I think that if we understand better the deeper roots of the fracture in our own society we can have a clearer discussion about the remedy. Cycling, food, the environment, and especially social relations (how we talk to and behave with one another) are all intertwined, of course. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that these conversations happen in such a vacuum. I'm probably not saying anything you don't know, but I was sort of disappointed that a deeper discussion about "culture" didn't develop.

One question I had for you (and I would for other guests) is: Were you "king for a day" what three things (legislation, etc…) would you change or implement to enhance cycling safety?


I'll answer Dario's questions soon, but want to give the internets first dibs.


Gabriel Sistare said...

This is an excellent commentary! I think the best way to improve safety for cyclists is to borrow former Bogota, Colombia mayor,Enrique Penalosa's bike-centric urban redesign. Penalosa was profiled in Gary Hustwit's documentary, Urbanized. Penalosa explains that there is no consitutional right to "park," as well, there is no equal right to ride a bicycle. But, if the two methods of transportation are equal in terms of their mutual absence in any national consitution, priority should be given to the mode of transportation that is most physically efficient and environmentally ethical.

Penalosa outlines how bikes are prioritized in Bogota. On roads, parking spaces are next to moving vehicles, whereas bike lanes are marked in between parked cars and sidewalks. Also, roads are narrowed to build bike lanes in the center rather than the periphery of major highways. The attitude in even the most cycling-conscious cities in towns in the U.S. is that bikes are still peripheral, (physically and symbolically) to cars.

Cycling-safe infrastructure would be more prevalent if overall preference were given to cyclists over drivers.

Schleppi Longstocking said...

I don't think he is asking questions so much as leading the conversation in the way it should be going. The Pollan comparison is apt: we have to go back to trusting our instincts, which we, as a culture, have become divorced from thanks to the prevalence of advertising, technology, and conspicuous consumption.

When I tell people I am walking or riding, I get many well-meaning offers for rides. We have to work on changing this faster, I think, than any false dichotomy presented on the show (I didn't listen. I'm going to trust Dario's gin-soaked judgement). Unless a sudden storm has popped up, why would it be expected that I was not prepared to take myself back home from wherever I had walked or biked to? Why *do* people spend loads of money on gym memberships when they could get at least the cardio part fulfilled by simply carting their own asses around without the aid of a motor vehicle?

We know the answers to these questions already. It's all for the same reason that many get hitched to someone for reasons other than love, why they then move to the suburbs and have families, even if they are not personally driven to do so. Expectations for behavior are ingrained. If you behave outside of that norm, you risk scrutiny, or at least, risk receiving extra attention.

Tony C said...

1) Double (or treble) the price of gas with a tax increase instituted over ten year ramp. Use funds for public transit and bike / ped infrastructure.
2) Make bike / ped education part of school phys ed programs.
3) Infrastructure improvements.

You'll notice that Infrastructure is third in my wish list. That is intentional.

isleofanalia said...

What a fabulous post! I encounter the same mix of pity and confusion whether I say I am biking, walking, or taking the bus.

I feel like the American obsession with cars is rooted in this false sense of absolute sovereignty and freedom that people get from cars. It's your own personal space, that you are in charge of and don't have to share (although, you have to follow the rules of the road and share the roads with a logjam of other people, so clearly this is a false sensation).

There is also a class issue buried in there. In some countries having a bike is an incredible luxury over walking, riding a bus is a step above biking, and having your own car is an impossible sign of wealth that trumps all other forms of transportation. Why this hierarchy seems to linger is beyond me, but when I say I ride a bus or ride my bike places I am often asked, "don't you have a car?"

Basically, though infrastructure changes would be nice, the attitude change is by far the more difficult, long-term problem with transportation. Thanks for this really well thought out discussion of the vast cultural barriers to biking!

Brendan said...

Why does everyone want to raise the price of gas so much? So no one can afford food? Cycling culture doesn't need to founded on a negative or some calamity. I'm all for growing cycling, but why does it need to be seen a punishment for society's misdeeds? I don't ride a bike because I hate my car. I love driving, but I love riding a bike more.

Tony C said...

In my limited experience the only thing that causes more than a fringe minority to choose active (not lazy) transportation is financial incentive, or more common, disincentive.

Advocacy and education all pale in comparison to pain at the pump.

Although, global demand may drive gas prices up without a proactive tax.

Brendan said...

But that logic makes me think that more DUIs will result in increased ridership.

Aaron said...

"King for a day":

1. Add signage along and among any pedestrian/cycle routes that increase the severity of penalties for moving violations, not unlike those in road construction zones.

2. Make prosecution for vehicular manslaughter/assault much more common; also make driving with a suspended license a serious crime (felony? IDK.)

3. Hairbrained: Make it illegal to drive with windows up on surface streets, barring cases of small children in the car when it's cold out, etc. Might help to open up the isolationist view that people have when driving.