Tuesday, October 27, 2009

People on Bikes Who Trackstand a Third of the Way into an Intersection

Incredibly, I hated the Bush administration more!

Henceforth: IIHTBAM!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Symbol of the Problem

A woman walks with the light through a recently painted crosswalk next to a hospital. Two vehicles—one turning right, one left—vie for the privilege of plowing through the crosswalk first. The larger vehicle wins. That is, it's the one that almost hits the woman.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Categories and the Safety Canard

Having spent the last few days mulling, I can now say everything I would've said right away if I hadn't been too distracted by my annoyance with Slate.

First: I hate Slate!

Okay. That wasn't supposed to be first. Again:

First: this is why I hate Slate: "Bikes occupy a gray area of the law," saith the author, Christopher Beam. But this is manifestly untrue—essentially the same as saying that pot possession occupies a gray area of the law. Perhaps there are places where biking laws are vague, but from all I've read in this book, the laws are pretty clear. It's people on bikes and uneven enforcement of the laws that give them a grayish tint.

Another reason to hate Slate: the bifurcation of all things and the remorseless drive to unfurcate all things by sticking yourself in the middle of them. "Today's cycling activists," we are told, "generally split into two groups: 'vehicularists' and 'facilitators.'"

Never mind that these terms are new to me. What's important is that they hide a much messier reality.

There seem to be only two advocates in the world of "vehicular cycling" per se—both of whom seem to make part of their living from that advocacy. And while there seem to be more people willing to embrace the "laws are for cars, not me" approach that should make them "facilitators," my experience is that they're a minority, even among cycling advocates. Most people just want to cherry pick the laws they like, hence Beam's failure to quote a single person identifying with either category.

And of course, once you leave bicycle advocates behind, you find that most people have no idea at all about what laws apply to bikes. They're so ill-informed they believe that bikes occupy some kind of gray area.

Second: post hoc ergo propter hoc as proof, not logical fallacy. Beam goes on at some length about the so-called Idaho stop, which allows people to roll through stop signs.
Skeptics say that the rule would lead to more crashes. But a follow-up study of the Idaho statute found that accidents involving bikes actually decreased the year after the law was passed and haven't varied much since.
The implication is clear: the new law brought down the number of biking accidents. But of course there's no compelling reason to believe this, since the drop in accident rates could be temporary or (to me, more likely) the result of more people discussing the fact that there are laws governing biking at all. Suddenly, people know what to do, so they do that.

Third: can I just ask, as a now officially middle-aged biker who has never been accused of athleticism, what's so fucking hard about stopping your fucking bike and fucking waiting for a fucking second to fucking look both fucking ways before fucking pushing your fucking bike forward and riding down the fucking road until you have to fucking stop again? It's not as fun as keeping on keeping on, that's for sure. But hard it's not.

Fourth: I don't think stopping for red lights is a safety cure-all. Riding against traffic, blowing lights and stop signs (the way people actually blow them, not the way folks imagine they do) are no more likely to increase your chances of getting hurt or killed, for all I know. And that's what's actually crazy about biking. No matter what people who ride bikes do, they're prey.

I stop for red lights for a lot of reasons and my own sense of safety is one of them. But the main reason is that I think that everyone on the streets and on the sidewalks should obey the laws and respect each other's need for safety. It's the attitude that driving and cycling and walking are all part of the barely refereed sport called New York City Life that's the problem, not any one rule or any one set of people on the road.

Stopping for red lights is a social protest, not the logical result of belonging to some category. It bewilders and annoys. It's something no one can complain about in theory but which, from what I can tell, almost no one likes in practice.

But above all else: it's not endorsed by Slate!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Definition of a Bad Blogger

Somebody who needs a couple of days to mull something over before writing about it.

What I am currently mulling.

Another mullable object: Why do I read Slate? Why? Please dear sweet god, tell me why I read Slate.

An even deeper mull: Why would I bother responding to anything I read there?

The deepest mull of all: Why write day after day about riding a bike and stopping at red lights? Shouldn't I be dedicating this energy to locating and browbeating, face-to-face and unfriendly, all the nightmarish folks commenting on that Slate article—the ones, that is, who openly fantasize about hurting or killing people on bikes?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bumper Bias and Pedestrian Paradises

I want to expand, very briefly, on what I wrote here about the root cause of dangerous driving.

My unoriginal idea of why otherwise nonhomicidal people become such menaces behind the wheel of a car (or truck, etc.) is that they feel safe doing so. They've got a bumper and a couple of thousand pounds on a person on a bike or a person crossing the street, so they know nothing will happen to them. This also explains the Great Motor Vehicle Hierarchy: 18-wheelers at the top, followed by city buses, school buses, fire trucks, dump trucks, ambulances, delivery vans, SUVs, four-door sedans, minivans, and compact cars. (Sports cars are the wild card here, as they're often given a little greater deference because they're perceived as being fast risk-takers.)

I think this is also behind the comparative equanimity of New York's sidewalks, how effortlessly so many people commingle in such tight spaces, even shouldering umbrellas in cold rain the way so many people were yesterday. There's a hierarchy here too, but the general assumption is that we're equally vulnerable.

Which brings me to my first literary recommendation on this blog: Notes from Underground. (Or Notes from the Underground, whichever you prefer.) Surely the greatest novel ever written about an outraged pedestrian.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Catching Up

I've already said my piece about this New York article.

It's hardly a perfect article—hell, it's hardly an article. But New York is a willfully superficial magazine, every paragraph it prints squeezed through the sieve of branding that's both very particular to our historical moment and an integral part of the magazine business since the get go. So if they (and author, schmauthor—articles at glossies are group productions) can do better than an actually worthwhile and important organization like Transportation Alternatives, then I think that deserves to be recognized.

I'll just add this. In the comments there's a back and forth about helmets, with some people insisting on wearing them and other people insisting they don't really do much to protect you, etc.

By all accounts, no statistics related to bicycling can be considered especially reliable. We just don't have the same mechanisms or incentives for record keeping with bikes that we do for cars. So I don't have any comment on the various arguments, except to say if it's even close to true that 97 percent of the people who died in biking accidents between 1995 and 2005 weren't wearing helmets, then people really should wear helmets.

But here's my anecdotal argument for helmet use, posted at the New York site but not linked to . . . since they don't allow you to link to individual comments.

A couple of years ago a coworker and I were in very similar biking accidents about two weeks apart.

Of the two, mine was worse: going over my handlebars on the downward slope of a steep hill to avoid hitting a girl who had jaywalked in front of a bus and into the bike lane. My coworker brought her bike over while riding about 5 miles an hour on a level (private) road.

Both of us ended up with broken lips and tooth problems. But she had a concussion and I didn't even have a headache.

Guess which of us had a helmet.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Why What Should Cheer Me Up Makes Me Want to Stop Trying

This post has a heartening photo of long lines of people on bikes waiting at a stoplight in Denmark. For half a minute I loved it: My ideal world realized! Maybe I should move!

Then I thought of this earlier post on biking in Copenhagen, which argues that longstanding approaches to urban planning in Denmark mean "cyclists and drivers are really equals":

It’s actually impressive to a degree that’s somewhat unsettling. Regular bicycle commuting in the United States is, among other things, a somewhat meaningful identity category. Initially it’s thrilling to see so many of “your people” everywhere. But looking closer you start to see exactly what was explained to me—the whole reason you have so many people biking around is that cycling is totally mainstream in Copenhagen and doesn’t constitute an identity at all.

That one had me cheering too. The idea of people on bikes and people in cars and trucks and so on recognizing that they're equals—with all the same rights and responsibilities—is pure cake and ice cream to me. Add that to the sense that riding a bike "doesn’t constitute an identity at all" and you've given me a birthday present and a party too.

Understand: I resent the amount of time I spend thinking about riding a bike to work. It's a silly thing to waste consciousness on. And about the silliest thing I can imagine writing about.

I don't feel any special kinship with other people on bikes. (If I did, I'd probably scream at them less.) But I do think that biking in the city has made me think of myself as part of a group.

Little wonder since, according to the second post, 37 percent of commuters in Copenhagen take bikes while in New York only six-tenths of one percent do. That means there are probably fewer people who could be called bikers in New York than there are people who could be called artists.

Nothing short of apocalypse will get us from 0.6 percent to 37 percent in my lifetime. So pining after this ultimate American cityscape—one that allows everyone moving through its public spaces a reasonable sense of security if they're willing to follow the rules of those spaces—feels like a pipe dream. I try not to waste my time on pipe dreams.

Portraits of My Would-Be Killers, Part 1

Last week the person driving this car came within a foot of jamming her bumper into my calf. I had to turn and scream at her before she backed off.

When I do that I can't see the doors that could be opening in front of me. The domino effect of dangerous driving.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Signs and Wonders

It's getting dark earlier now, so my evening commute is becoming more dangerous. More cars nosing closer to my legs, more people honking at my back, angry that I'm keeping them from getting to that red.

I'm convinced it's not a matter of visibility—at least not just mine. I have front and back lights and have even been wearing reflective clothing. I keep to a very straight line when I bike and—as I might have mentioned—don't run red lights so I can't be said to do anything unexpected.

My theory is that driving is so unpleasant for most people that they have only a little bit of tolerance to spare. As it gets darker, that little bit gets eaten away by their worries over pedestrians and other cars and all the little things that can appear suddenly in front of their bumper.

A person on a bike is always a nuisance—a big one. So when you have subtle, even imaginary ones taxing your vigilance, ones you can't do anything about, you get angry at the one you think you can do something about.

Still, the mornings have been cool and clear, and I'd be shirking my duty as Honest Blogger if I didn't mention two recent milestones.

The first was at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington, where I once saw an older man crossing the street get thrown about fifteen feet when a person driving a car slammed into him while making a left-hand turn. It's one of the worst things I've ever witnessed directly.

But this time I was waiting at that same light when a teenager asked me for directions to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was shocking—strangely shocking and strangely gratifying. I felt like a person on a street, able to talk to another person on the street, not a category (biker) interacting with another category (pedestrian).

Needless to say, as a street-savvy cyclist and BBG member, I gave him the wrong directions—but only at first.

Then today. Also on Washington, but this time closer to Atlantic. A guy in shorts on a mountain bike is riding slowly downhill in front of me and way too close to the line of parked cars. I don't want to be the indirect victim of a dooring, so I pass him. He blows the first red light and moves in front of me. I get back in front of him and approach the second red light, signaling that I'm going to stop.

Two women are on the sidewalk at that corner, waiting to cross with a stroller. They move ahead a bit when the light changes for them but one of them, the mother I'd guess, keeps an eye on me. I stop, and the other guy speeds through the light about four feet away from the stroller.

In between my stopping and the guy blowing the light, the one woman nodded at me. I'd say it was a "thanks for not being a jerk" nod. Not too positive, and why should it be? I was just doing something that should be normal.

Even so, it's the only decent interaction I've ever had with someone because I stopped at a light. And I'll take that, no questions asked.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Better Advocates, Please

According to Streetsblog, this evening Transportation Alternatives will be holding what amounts to a memorial bike ride for a person killed while riding his bike across Queens Boulevard.

The person who was killed was killed by another person, this one driving a car. Who knows how many laws the person behind the wheel of the car was breaking at the moment he or she hit the man on the bike—that's the thing about these cases: all your experience suggests there was wrongdoing but officialdom doesn't care enough to determine what that was—but apparently the one with the bike was crossing against the light.

When the Streetsblog post gets around to acknowledging this, it takes a painful turn:
But capital punishment should not be the likely penalty for an error in judgment. James was arguably as much the victim of an infrastructure designed exclusively for the convenience of motorists. All others who stray into the area are an afterthought, at best.
By "painful" I mean both that I find it painful and that the writer also seems to.

Here's a guy posting on a policy blog about a friend who recently died—a rotten position, to be sure. The writer has to balance all kinds of different feelings and rhetorical needs, the most important one here being to square, at least loosely, his friend's death with the kinds of policies advocated by the organization he's associated with.

And since that organization emphasizes changing infrastructure over changing behavior and winks at people on bikes who run red lights, the writer follows suit.

Listen: I think it's terrible this person died. Goddamn it: biking to work shouldn't be a semi-suicidal pursuit. And that street sounds like hell. If it had been me trying to cross it, I'd want to be away from it as soon as I possibly could. And, yes, the infrastructure is built to make people in cars as happy as they can be. (Not easy, since they're among the most miserable people on earth.)

But how do you have a friend die while apparently crossing against a red light and not scream "Stop at red lights!" at least as loudly as you scream "Stop speeding!" and "Stop building roads for just a tiny part of the population!"?

I want better advocates for the causes I believe in. Some that demand more than an organization can give.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Down to Business

When I saw this article by the not-so-gently self-promoting Robert Sullivan, I thought, “Lo, here there is fodder.” And of course I was right.

Sullivan advocates—mildly, reasonably, in the passionless, careerist way of the Times—setting the Brooklyn Bridge walkway aside for pedestrians and installing well-protected bike lanes one the main level.

If he'd stopped there, I just would've given the closest thing this fledgling blog can give to a high five (namely, a link) and gotten on with my day. I've driven a car and a moving van over the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour and can't see any reason not to take a strip of it away from the Angry Parkers who apparently enjoy congregating there.

Then I got to this paragraph
If we bicyclists cede the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, then it might be a step toward winning the public’s respect. Then, just maybe, pedestrians would call a truce and recognize that their real enemy is the car, that bikers are like pedestrians in that they are just trying to get to work without the use of a gurney.

And I thought: bullshit. The “real enemy” of humans on bicycles isn't “the car,” it's all the people (humans on bicycles included) who see the street as some territory where the standard rules of civilization don't apply. Or, put differently, the idiots.

But before I can get that thought down in the prissy manner of this blog, Bike Snob NYC has to go and say the same thing better than I possibly could. He even uses it as a pretext for sticking little pins in rollerblading, something I've dearly wanted to do for a while now.

I'm hopelessly outclassed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Manifesto-like Expression of Somethingness

Though I’ve made a point over the years of living in places where I can easily get around by bike, I don’t consider myself a cyclist, anymore than when I drive I’m a driver.

I just use a bike. I use it to get to work. I use it to shop. I use it to visit friends. I use it, very occasionally, for fun.

I know so little about how my bike works that I can’t even change my own tires. And I kind of don’t want to know.

I have this idea that all I should know is that when I get on my bike I’ll be okay. If I obey the law, if I stay aware, if I do everything a reasonable person would do, I’ll be at least as okay on a bike as I would be in a car.

But I’m not okay. No one who uses a bike is okay riding on American streets—at least anywhere that I’ve lived and biked.

I’m a target. A lightning rod for drivers’ frustration with the misalignment between how easy it is to drive a car and how hard it is to get around using one. How all you have to do is press a few pedals and twist your wrist to shoot along faster than any earthbound thing on the planet did for several billion years before the invention of the engine. But how sticking tens of millions of those kinds of machines next to each other often means going more slowly than many people can walk. How so much money and care is tied up in something that only rarely realizes its obvious potential. How wasteful it all is—burning gas and money and not calories. And how isolating.

Here’s my vision for the future: I can bike without spending almost every second of that time sussing out the accident that’s about to happen. The door that’s going to open. The delivery truck riding three feet behind me and going twenty miles an hour through narrow streets, the driver feeling martyred and angry because he’d rather be going forty. The pedestrian who only listens for traffic, doesn’t look.

Here’s what’s crazy: that vision counts as radical.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stopping for Red Lights

I ride a bike to work and always stop at red lights. I wait for a green and then go. I do this whether I'm continuing straight on the road, turning left off it, or turning right. I do it at every light, no matter what time or day it is.

This should be forgettable—a normal statement about a normal life in a normal city where normal people go about normal business thinking normal thoughts about normal things.

But really it's an oddly bold position. A kind of social and political statement of the sort I haven't made with this kind of angry persistence since high school.

Because, bizarrely, a bike stopping for red lights makes people froth. Screaming, horn-honking, menacing-you-with-their-bumpers, telling-you-to-stop-taking-up-space furious.

This is a blog about the strange consequences of doing something reasonable in a place with a street culture in love with its own insanity.