Posts Tagged ‘ biking

Why Do You Drive?

As I strolled down Götgatan one last time, I soaked it all in. It was a warmer day than the rest of my week in Stockholm, but it looked the same as the others. People driving cars, slowly making their way down Götgatan, going perhaps 30 km/h, sharing the road with people biking in a bike lane that deftly shifted between the sidewalk and the road, well separated from them. Lots of people walking, but respecting the bike lanes because they had ample space of their own to amble.Parked bikes up and down the streets on numerous bike racks. Everywhere. Even as the temperature stayed near or below freezing the entire trip. Perhaps you’ve been to Stockholm, or another European city with a strong cycling culture, but this was a first for me. It was just so beautiful to see so many people cycling like it was a perfectly normal everyday thing. When I got back on my bike yesterday, I was immediately reminded of the difference in the United States again. Bike racks hidden, off to the side of buildings, if they are anywhere at all, and mostly empty. Several dudes on their fancy bikes in their spandex talking about the latest mountain they climbed, but not many folks who looked like they were just going to enjoy a cup of coffee or running errands. People driving on 30 mi/h at speeds that felt faster, buzzing me in my bike lane if I had one, cutting me off at intersections for no good reason other than their false sense of road ownership. It was a frustrating 10 miles yesterday.

We make the decisions about what we set up as normal even if we don’t realize it. It’s accepting that it’s always been there, that it will always be this way, that it couldn’t possibly be any other way. It’s in how we talk about it. When I talk about being a bike commuter in San Francisco, the responses are a mix of admiration (“I could never do that”), fear (“isn’t it dangerous?”), and curiousity (“how long does it take to get to…”). People never ask why I ride a bike, but that’s always the underlying question. I can list all sorts of positive elements to riding a bike in the city. It takes less time than riding transit for sure, and I can’t imagine driving in this city is any quicker, especially factoring in parking (though I cannot truly speak to that since I’ve never been a driver here). It’s a good way to burn a few calories. I can still do all the things I did before, I just have to do them a bit differently, a couple smaller trips to the store instead of one big one, for example. Bikes still require maintenance, but they cost a lot less to maintain than cars, and I spend a lot less getting around on one without dealing with aspects like parking and gas. If anything, the only real detractor to riding bikes in this city is the infrastructure for it is terrible. But consider turning the question around: why do you drive a car?

In the United States we have created a car culture. It did not always existed. It is a mistake to view it as such. The automobile as a consumer product is barely more than a century old. Even San Francisco is older than that, as are many American cities. Roads have existed for far longer than that; it’s how we’ve used those roads that’s changed. As I sat in a 5 that was held up, like usual, along Market due to the overabundance of traffic, I was quickly reminded of that. It’s a space that is ostensibly for all, with wide sidewalks, four lanes for transit and other vehicle traffic, and occasionally a bike lane. Transit could use better right-of-way in that stretch. But cyclists in that stretch get short shrift, both by those driving and the actual design. A sharrow is not a bike lane, and while it may serve as a heads up bikes may be there, there’s a big difference between creating a space for those who bike and simply saying this space for those who drive may also be used by bikes. That’s mostly what we have here in San Francisco and throughout the US. There’s very little space that is dedicated to bikes. Even in those areas where it exists, there’s a lot of other traffic to contend with. Sure, it’s great there’s a contraflow by City Hall for two blocks that’s a protected bike lane, but I rarely go through there, and I never see anyone there when I do. But stretches I do see lots of people biking that would benefit from greater and/or respected space for bikes, like Valencia or the Panhandle don’t have anything nearly as nice as that Polk contraflow. As a culture, we largely refuse to create space explicitly for those who bike; when we do, we rarely police it in such a way that it’s free and open for those who bike to enjoy it.

But car culture doesn’t just succeed because of path dependency and how we’ve constructed our communities, though both those things help its continued dominance. Car culture succeeds because we don’t even think to walk or bike or take transit. While design obviously influences that, even when it’s an option, it’s just not even a consideration to most people. For many, the alternative to not driving is to take an Uber, but it’s a manifestation of the same point. It’s still taking a small occupancy motor vehicle from point a to point b. We’re changing is who’s driving it. And certainly, there are advantages to that, ostensibly better usage of vehicles that largely sit unused, avoidance of drunk driving, and so on. I just say this to illustrate that even when we don’t personally drive, we still see driving as the solution to our transportation needs in many cases. We don’t worry about whether a new building has good access to transit in our laws, but we legislate how many parking spaces are required in building codes. We call auto crashes accidents, as if they occur by chance, even though almost 34,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2013 according to the CDC. And even then we call them accidents or unintentional injury deaths. Driving is dangerous, even if the numbers have been trending downward. But even if you opt out of driving, you still face the danger of being hit by those who drive. Irrelevant of how we navigate our cities, we all share in interest in lowering this trend, in creating safer streets for all to enjoy.

If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d see a different city. Not just because the bike routes tend to take you different ways. Because you are freed up to see more. It’s a more leisurely way of getting around; my stress is mostly trying to avoid the danger of motor vehicle, and even that pales in comparison to the stress of operating one of those motor vehicles on these streets. If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d realize the hills aren’t that bad. If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d realize biking is a pretty good way to get where you are going. You’d also realize that we can do a much better job of creating better systems for that. The Wiggle is a terrible bike route. Its only redeeming value is its flatness. But the problem with The Wiggle isn’t where it is but that we refuse to truly dedicate a space to those who bike. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Cities like Stockholm didn’t just magically create an effective multimodal system. That’s years of hard work and planning. That’s having effective mass transit as a backbone. That’s my problem with saying we have to drive here. We’ve created a system where we have to, but that’s a different issue. We have to make better decisions for those who come after us. Some of that would be making people pay more of the true costs of driving. Whether it’s the cost of gas in this country or how enamored we are with the concept of free parking, we most definitely do not pay the true costs. Some of that involves creating cities where driving is less necessary because people have more and better options than driving, are able to live closer to where they work, etc. But I still think the biggest part of that is a question I asked early. Why do you drive? It’s a thorny question to untangle, I am aware, but it’s a series of decisions and systems we build that lead us to that point. If you say you have to drive, well then, what forces created a system where you have to? And why is that what we judge as what should be normal or expected? Normal shouldn’t be thousands of people dying every year in preventable crashes. Normal shouldn’t be having to drive because we have failed to create other effective options. Driving is not an equitable activity. It’s expensive, and it shuts out many who cannot afford it from a lot of opportunities because we’ve constructed a society that largely views it as necessary. If you don’t want to think about why we set those sorts of ideas up as normal, ask yourself why not.

Good Exercise

When I tell people I bike commute, there is something a general flow to the conversation that follows. It doesn’t vary that much now that I live in San Francisco, though my perspective has changed now that I don’t even own a vehicle other than my bike. In general, there’s admiration mixed with some incredulous statements (good for you!, I don’t think I could do that, etc) that segues into questions/statements about the general danger of biking. Now, I don’t need anyone to tell me that biking isn’t the greatest here. I bike on Market Street several times a week, and I get all the examples I could ever want. But something else curious happens every time I have these conversations.

I generally don’t pay much credence to Willie Brown’s columns, and this one is no exception, but there is an odd observation at the end about bikes. I’m not gonna link, because he doesn’t particularly deserve the clicks in my opinion, but here’s some random text from the end of his most recent opinion piece:

Willie Brown

People say things like this a lot about cyclists. I’ve gotten used to hearing it. I’ll give you a minute to get past the astonishing random sexism there. Perhaps I’ll save that for another time, but right now, I’d rather focus on the other aspect of that which I hear a lot: an unsubstantiated opinion about cyclists. That isn’t based on anything. I don’t even know how you could determine the age of the cyclists you see. There are plenty more where that comes from. Sometimes people tell me that cyclists should stay in their lane (even on roads where signs explicitly say cyclists have full use of the lane, even in situations where motor vehicles are parked in the bike lane); other times they just say they shouldn’t even be in that place (even though bikes have just as much right to be on the road as other vehicles, so much so that it’s recognized by law), or follow the laws of the road if they want to ride on the road (while ignoring the differing mechanics of biking versus driving or ignoring the fact that drivers frequently don’t follow those same rules). Most people will profess at the beginning of the conversation that they do not bike commute, and don’t even go out much except for an occasional social ride, yet they seem to have “the solution” to whatever the bike woes of a place are. I rarely have conversations like this with other cyclists. In those situations, I tend to have conversations about routes, preferences, secrets, gear, whatever. The conversation might be focused on bikes, but it’s quite a different conversation.

San Francisco likes to tout its mileage of bike infrastructure, and looking at a map like this leaves you with the impression that there’s quite a bit. I guess there is if you are counting the roads where they drop an arrow on it and indicate bikes will be present, but as someone who’s ridden quite a bit of it, I still haven’t found a good east-west route from the Financial District to Inner Richmond. Perhaps my perspective is skewed by the fact that my east-west ride in the Twin Cities was Summit and The Greenway, two really fine examples of on-street and separate bike lane systems that I didn’t have to share with pedestrians or even cars all that much, but there’s definitely nothing like that here. San Francisco certainly does some things really well (the green waves are quite nice) and has strong organizations like the San Francisco Bike Coalition fighting to make things better here, to make more bike-first routes. I am not saying that I have any brilliant new ideas. I don’t honestly. I think a lot of the ideas I’ve seen are good, but it’s a matter of getting from “we have an idea” to “we have the means to accomplish it” to “it’s done”. And no matter what that is, that’s a tough thing to accomplish in this city. Plus, I get that it’s not just going to become the bicycle utopia I’d like to see. I want East Bay bike infrastructure in San Francisco, and that’s just not going to happen overnight. Of course, there are different elements that created that infrastructure in Oakland/Emeryville/Berkeley. Perhaps we will get there some day, but it’s a long game. Which is why, even if I jest a bit about the protected contraflow bike lane on Polk (which I’ve never used since I’m rarely in a position to), I know that what is two blocks today could be two miles in five years. It is an important step, and nice to see.

Here’s what I see when I bike. Yes, I do see bikes run lights and stop signs. I also see cars do that. I see buses rumble through intersections when they should probably wait. I see pedestrians step into the flow of traffic even though there’s already a car coming and at that time they do not have right of way as dictated by the traffic signals. I see cars block pedestrians by trying to get through an intersection when there’s no space. I see cyclists ride through pedestrians when they don’t have right of way and probably shouldn’t. I don’t know what the impulse is that drives that behavior. I’m not going to claim to be immune to it. I am definitely not claiming I haven’t done some of these things (in most modes of transit) I don’t know if it’s just that we all think our time is more important or that we are all in our own little worlds at times. I am sure there are probably studies on these issues that point all sorts of ways. What I do know, what I do observe, is the mode of transportation isn’t what drives this behavior. It’s us. So it feels a little strange to lay it on a particular vehicle type. For me, I know not all bikers are like that, just like I know not all drivers are and not all pedestrians and so on and so forth. But that attitude does have impacts.

We all have a lot of affinity with drivers because most of us are or have been at some point a driver. I do think that affinity matters. It influences our perspective I live in a city where most people are multimodal when it comes to getting around. That increased modality leads to increased affinity, whether it’s with transit or walking or bike or driving. What I think would be a good exercise is for people to increase that modality. There are going to be people who still make lazy judgments and assessments with no experience. But something I’ve noticed in other areas of my life is what people are most frequently missing is perspective and exposure to different ways of thinking, of being, of doing things. I don’t say this to justify some of the things I observe when biking, or even some of the things I do (like I said, I’m not immune by any means), though, like I said, I think there’s a far broader reason than “it’s a bike”. But I do think it’s an important exercise, and not one that is all that hard. It takes me less time to bike to work than any other means of getting there. It takes me less time to bike to just about anything here in the city. It is the best way for me to get around, the least time consuming, the most flexible. I also live by myself, have no kids, and am able, which invariably affects my perspective on the flexibility of this means of transit. Biking isn’t the right answer for everyone, but it probably is a good answer for a lot more people than just me and the others I see riding around. And even if it isn’t something you end up doing full time? I think you’d be amazed at how you might see your city, your commute, and your fellow travelers differently. Besides, it’s good exercise.

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

I am watching some much-needed rain fall. It’s put a bit of a damper on my plans to get around the city a bit more on bike or run some errands as I have nothing against being wet, but it’s no way to spend the whole day and I don’t want what I buy getting wet. I realize now I have never adequately processed rain in San Francisco, that I am ill-prepared for it, though I did at least have the foresight to keep the fenders on the bike. It wasn’t so bad last night, as a capstone to the evening, zipping through The Wiggle at 1:30 am when no one else was out as it poured. My jeans and shoes were even dry this morning (though not my poor hoodie). As an end of evening affair, it was appreciated. It also hadn’t rained all day even though they kept saying it would. As anyone else has probably (oft) uttered, it seemed like a good idea at the time. This morning, as a way of starting the day? Well, it fits my mood. But no, I’ll probably just hang my bike up for the day and let it dry out. And I suppose it gives me a chance to use those Uber credits I received from Noise Pop.

I doubt I’ll ever be a regular user of such a service. It’s just not where I would choose to spend my money. $2 bus ride (though, really, prepaid monthly pretax work benefit) versus a $12 Uber fare versus me getting my ass on my bike and riding for 20 minutes to the Mission? These days, the bike is winning, which is probably best. I am happy to be reasserting my lost identity as a cyclist. I still haven’t embraced the concept of riding to work here (you go ride in the Financial District at 9 am and tell me how you feel about it), and biking still isn’t gonna get me to the airport most of the time (though, again, I’d love to try that one time), so transit is still important to me, but it’s good to find something that I lost for a while. Even as it’s intermittently rained this week, it’s been great to be out. Besides, the rain will be gone soon enough.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to not care about something like Uber all that much. Personally, I don’t exactly like getting in the back of a stranger’s car and being called sir. It’s a challenge to my whole idea of challenging others, of putting the burden of their misgendering back on them. Because how comfortable would you feel doing that in the back of a stranger’s car like that? I’ve settled for something of a middle ground, asserting their incorrectness while trying to not putting it in the form of a question. It’s a reminder that there are a lot of scenarios that I didn’t anticipate, that I have a long way to go before I can really coolly and calmly deflect back what I am receiving. This is my personal issue, of course, though I am sure lots of people experience lots of uncomfortable moments in the back of those cars for a variety of reasons who can empathize. To paraphrase a friend, cab drivers aren’t exactly on the forefront of openmindedness.

None of this is touching on many of the higher level concerns of disruption and the sharing economy and all those other tech buzzwords, of who these services truly benefit and serve, of the disparate impact created by people hiring out their cars and homes for the right price. So far I have had two good experiences with Airbnb and several mediocre experiences with Uber, Lyft, and their ilk. I am by no means a power user; but what happens the first time I’m turned away from a room or a ride because I am trans? Can I prove that? What is my recourse if something like that occurs with this new sharing economy? Considering how little recourse there is in a lot of places with the much better regulated businesses of the world, there’s a part of me that’s terrified about these kinds of business models. If everything just took care of itself, then we would need desperately needed anti-discrimination laws.

I do believe it’s a fact that we can make better uses of our resources as a society. One needs to do little more than look at miles and miles of paved over suburbs for little more than parking that is rarely anywhere close to full. And I don’t believe the people who start companies like this are evil and malicious. They are trying to find a different way of doing things, and that’s a noble impulse. But who do these new businesses truly serve, and who is still left behind? What happens when the actual impact of the business is wildly off the mark, when it’s disparately impacting so many in negative ways? I am sure someone may have uttered it seemed like a good idea at the time. Not that ceasing to be is a good option. I am not going to argue that every Uber rider is suddenly going to get on Muni or start riding if that’s not there. Some would taxi, or drive, or walk, etc. Everyone who stays in Airbnb isn’t necessarily going to spill into the nearest hotel instead. There aren’t neat causal relationships like that. But these kinds of services are having affects on the cities and communities they operate in, and it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. There are a lot of concerns regarding the impact services like these have on the real cost of living. Of course the drivers and hosts are making money too. But again, who’s really making the money? It’s not like Airbnb is known for their penchant for paying taxes, either. These services are here and do not seem to be going away; how are we living with them and making them better?

I am not a fan of boycotts. I am not saying I am never going to use any of these services ever again. But I do have a responsibility to think about how I ethically interact with the world around me. That comes in the simplest forms: how I make my money and how I spend it. Some might question the company I work for, for example, or not feel comfortable doing business with them, or wonder why the hell I’d work there. For me, I don’t feel like I have been involved in anything that’s been terrible. And I really feel like they honor the T when they say LGBT, which feels so, so rare. Very few entities that utter that acronym (or its variants) truly deserve to say it. Or at least truly want to represent all of it. But my perspective is invariably different, and influenced, because of the fact that I have been there seven years. I am not saying people have an obligation to learn about every little aspect of the world they interact with, because that sounds paralyzing to be honest. But I do myself a disservice if I ignore what I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had with the services I use. It’s worth looking past the veneer of convenience and cost to find out why those elements exist. And it’s ultimately worth questioning, once again, who is truly served by these services? Even if Muni sucks, I am glad to pay in. They need all the help they can get to be better, and I feel like (hopefully some day) having effective mass transit is a lot better than paying into a private car service. I am glad to be a statistic and a voice for the next biking survey here in San Francisco, to count toward ridership for future projects or help address why I don’t bike to work right now. I feel like money for better transit and biking projects benefits a lot of people. I feel like paying into those aspects of my society is just a great benefit. A crippling rent for your place is hard enough without car payments and paid parking on top. People deserve other options. Some people don’t have any other options. They didn’t choose to be carless; they just can’t afford to own one. And the people who need those services? They probably aren’t zipping around 7×7 in ZipCar or taking Uber to a show tonight. I am not saying people shouldn’t have those options. I am just asking you to once again consider the following: who has those options?

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