Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cycling and Hartford Part IV

Cadenza/coda to come tomorrow.

Cycling and Hartford: Pt. IV: Build it and they will come?

But they don't have to, of course. We might be a nation that is ostensibly obsessed with gun "rights" when, instead, we should be more concerned with air and water quality, food security, and other pressing problems but these are the contradictions of "modernity" some might say. And we are definitely addicted to oil and gas but not necessarily because of natural causes but for historical reasons as we have mentioned before. As cities, like Hartford adapt and reinvent themselves does the bicycle fit into the changing urban landscape? Local associations and organizations like BikeWalk do their best to motivate cycle commuting, and we've even seen Pope-era kinds of developments in the second-half of the 20th C and in the first decade of this century in terms of cycling infrastructure. When I came to Hartford in 1966 (we lived on Webster St., near New Britain Ave.) the only cyclists I ever saw were "bicyclists", that is, children on "play bikes" and tricycles. The bicycle was basically viewed as a toy. No one. And I mean, no adult, rode a bike (at least in my very defective memory). As a teenager I bought my first ten speed (a French bike by the ominous name of "Unic Sport") and these were my wheels even after I got my driver's license. Sound familiar (except for maybe the "Unic Sport" part)? Fast forward (from the OPEC oil crisis of the early '70's when "economy" cars became popular in the U.S. and when commuting cycling became more prevalent) to our own time, we see more riders on the road. The infrastructure is much better, too, with the rails-to-trails movement, the Greenway, and consideration paid in many towns and cities to multi-use paths. In Hartford, marked bike lanes are intended to slow down car traffic and make cyclists more visible in some of the heavier trafficked intersections. All of this is thanks to advocacy groups working with local administrations. Urban cycling activists will often point to Portland and to several European cities and to the importance of bike share programs, etc… as instances of innovative urban planning, although in Portland it was more an epiphenomenon of the pre-existing cycling culture which won over city-hall. Ignoring our cold, wet winters, Hartford is uniquely suited for increased urban cycling because of its network of parks and its history with the bicycle. Yet, for all these opportunities cycling is not considered a means of urban revitalization in Hartford except by a small group of people. Implementing simple measures to improve conditions for cyclists would likely yield a more positive cost-benefit ratio in the long term than many other costly and ambitious public projects. More so, if we consider not only the effects for commuting cyclists, but for citizens in general (less noise and pollution). Moreover, even mass transit projects like the busway in Hartford is intended to serve people who do not necessarily live in the city, but suburbanites who make their living there. But is the difference between promoting less-costly innovative cycling projects and exorbitant expensive mass transit ones is that the former don't involve enough pork to make leaders and interested parties (who stand to gain from them) turn their heads. Unless cycling can quantitatively demonstrate that it can improve people's lives, enhance the real estate market, and create jobs (or at least be an important effect of it, as in Pope's day), it will be viewed by most as a marginal activity practiced by a "virtuous" (or foolish, depending on your perspective) minority of citizens (unless and until there is some critical threshold of cyclists).

Environmental and economic sustainability typically involves making tradeoffs, sacrificing something important and lucrative now for a longer term cost-saving objective. Shifting from gas to alternative energies is an expensive proposition, except in the longer term, as we know. And even if it were "impossibly" expensive, we might still have to do it. We often complain about the prices of things, but to sustain a quality of life for consumers and producers alike, we need to pay more for these goods and services. There are just too many negative hidden costs to our current lifestyle. But there are many sustainable choices that are actually far more fiscally smart and feasible in the short term, such as enhancing the cycling infrastructure, that would certainly be worth the price. It's an easy fix in other words. So, where is American pragmatism when you need it? Born in part from a frugal, hardworking, and dogged frontier mentality (also from the Protestant work ethic) American pragmatism conceptually works against sustainability because, by definition, "pragmatism" is primarily about the concrete and the present, not so much about the possible and the future. Think short term, not the long term. Consumer consumption, (since Thorstein Veblen theorized anyway) relies on an extreme version of pragmatism, now applies to a broad swath of the middle class and not just to wealthy elites . Think of the effects of it, the use and abuse of disposable goods filling up landfills. The most conspicuous of conspicuous consumptions is the mindless practice of accumulating unnecessary goods and disposing them irresponsibly as soon as they are no longer desired. Conspicuous consumption (which is the backbone of mass culture) is unsustainable.
So where do we go from here?

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