Posts Tagged ‘ transportation

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.

On The Road

As I’ve documented in recent entries, I’ve gone carless. In my home life at least. But in the last week and a half, I spent some time behind the wheel of a couple different vehicles while traveling. I suppose I didn’t absolutely need a vehicle in Minnesota. Though I don’t know how else I would have gotten a couple other places, the majority of the places I visited would have been just as accessible via public transit. It’ll only get easier when the Light Rail finally opens (2014 is almost here?). But for this trip, I went through a nice little off-airport company that hooked me up with a car made in the same decade I was driving it (a rarity for me). It was, on the whole, a pretty nice experience. In Virginia? Well, if I’m only trying to get around Arlington and DC, sure, I don’t need anything, but otherwise, I don’t know how I would have done a wedding reception in Lorton without a vehicle. My parents, as per usual, let me use a car, which I always appreciate. First, it’s good to periodically brush up on my manual vehicle skills (don’t worry, I’ve still got it, just don’t ask the clutch for an opinion). Second, between staying with them and being able to borrow a vehicle, it really makes any trip to Virginia much more tenable (both in cost and access to things). Now I’m heading back to my personally carless life in San Francisco. And I’m happy about that. Here’s some things I’ve learned with a bit of perspective. Some I’ve mentioned before; some I’ve subtly realized over the past 11 days; some just hit me right over the head:

1) Even when gas is only $3.09/gallon (like it was at several places in Minnesota), I’m glad I’m not paying for that anymore. Even if it was only twice a month, that adds up pretty quickly. That’s $100 pretty quickly. Not that I’d be driving all that much. But I’ll take all the found money I can in San Francisco. Not that it was found money, per se. I still pay for transit in San Francisco, but the majority of it is a flat monthly fee of $76, pre-tax (thanks Wells!) that lets me take most modes of transit in the city. I don’t think I ever appropriately appreciated how much I spent on gas, even when I did a better job at budgeting. Even when I was biking fairly consistently, carpooling to shows, and using MetroTransit occasionally, I still managed to rack up a decent monthly bill. Even as the cost has gone up, it’s still just an expected expense to most of us. Now I think about it a little differently.

2) I definitely did a couple careless things in the first few days in the car. It wasn’t because I was texting or trying to eat while I was driving or anything like it. It’s just because I forgot how taxing driving is. It really demands your attention. I don’t miss that at all. I don’t miss nearly hitting people that you swore weren’t there before, because even when all of us pay attention, things like that happen. It only takes a second for those sorts of situations to become something much worse. I don’t miss vehicles that probably didn’t come out of anywhere even though in my mind they sort of felt that way. I’d rather save my energy for other endeavors, thank you very much.

3) I found my relationship with parking changed a little bit. Obviously it wasn’t an issue everywhere, but it’s sometimes it’s just a tedious waste of time trying to find a space or a lot. Of course, the same argument could be made of waiting for MUNI or BART. But at least when I am doing that I can just relax and wait for the vehicle, or check my phone, or just stand there. Sometimes I spent more time trying to park than I did at places I went. And I also embraced pay parking a lot more since I don’t do it all that much anymore. Logically, in my city-dwelling mind, I know that free parking is a myth. We (as a society) pay for that one way or the other. That’s a resource that the city is deploying, whether it’s on street parking that could be used in other ways that benefit the area (wider sidewalks for better walking and outdoor seating for businesses or bike lanes come to mind as alternatives) or surface lots begging to be turned into just about anything more useful like apartments or businesses. But I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up going to malls and shopping centers that had endless miles of parking lots in my mind. Free, endless blacktop was sort of an expectation. So I still feel like I should be able to find parking anywhere I go, just a little. Even if I know it’s ridiculous. Perhaps some time away from a car as an everyday item will help me finally get away from that attitude. I had much less trouble pulling into garages and feeding meters on this trip.

4) I hate traffic. I really really hate it. I certainly still get stuck in it, on the bus, riding with other people. It’s a big problem that plenty of people have spent a lot of energy on, and will continue to spend energy on. I sincerely hope there’s anyone out there who enjoys it. It’s nice to not feeling the frustration of sitting in a car inching along a city street or a major interstate more often in my life. The bus does it all the time and it’s still a problem. My commute could still take a lot less time if there were some magical solution to congestion (though there are definitely good ideas, like congestion pricing). But I’m pretty nonchalant about it on the bus. When I’m sitting in the car? It’s a whole different issue.

5) Driving can really makes me angry and apoplectic. I have more colorful invectives for a guy who squeezes into the space I’m keeping between me and the car in front of me than I do for a lot of other things in life (and some of them probably deserve those invectives a bit more). I wonder why that is. It’s like driving fills all of us with the same amount of vituperation this guy had for the person who made his poor burrito. Is it because it’s a safe space to be angry at someone like that? I mean, the other driver is definitely not hearing whatever it is I’m saying. I pound steering wheels like the best of ‘em. Why do we do that? I am not the only one. I’ve been a passenger many a time and seen other people who are normally pretty staid individuals string together curses that make me blush when someone doesn’t signal. I am certain I’ve done the same.

6) Despite all of that, I really miss nice, open road driving. The kind where you just go. Dropping gears when going around a corner on a winding road on Virginia that no one else is on? It’s like a birthright. I miss popping on the right song or record and just going when you get the chance. I miss the illusory feeling that I can go anywhere. I had places to be most of the time when I was driving and it wasn’t like I just got in the car and drove west or anything crazy like that. But it always feels like, even if it’s just for a moment, you always have that potential with a car. It’s still that expression of freedom. Other vehicles require more planning, but the car? It’s the biggest embodiment of that feeing. Most of us will never get in a car and just do that. But haven’t you thought that, just for a second behind the wheel?

7) It’s nice to not worry about the kind of responsibility that driving entails. Think about it terms of alcohol. It’s no secret I enjoy a good beer or cocktail when I get the chance. With a good meal or at a show, it’s just a nice compliment. Some nights, I have a couple more. I’m still thinking about the cost, or whether I even want to have a beer. But as we say in the business, by not using an automobile as my primary transportation, it’s just mitigating the risk. I am still mindful of how much I drink in the sense that it’s my job to take care of myself. As I should be. I still stay completely sober the majority of the time I go out in San Francisco. In Minnesota, I had to exercise that extra layer of discretion for the first time in a while as I was drinking and had access to a vehicle. I have no problem exercising that discretion. There’s plenty of awareness around that and I am not an idiot. It’s not a little thing one just forgets about driving. I am still trying to be responsible because that’s on me. But if I’m being honest about one of the benefits of being carless, that’s an honest thing to consider. Not an excuse to get wasted by any means, but still a true aspect.

I don’t think I ever appropriately appreciated the cost of driving. I doubt many of us spend our time thinking about it. Or at least appropriately understand it. I still am only scratching the surface on these kinds of thoughts. It’s obviously a great thing to be able to do. I love driving at times. There are places I never would have been, things I never would have done without the cars I’ve owned. I will at least continue to rent cars or borrow them on occasion and I think it’s a worthwhile skill to have even if I’m not using it all that much. Some day in the future I may own one again. But there are obviously a lot of costs associated with it that I never really paid much mind to, because they are subsidized by society in one way or another. It makes me realize there are probably a lot of things I do that I don’t really question my relationship with. I’ve begin to challenge those things a bit more as I’ve gotten older. Where I live in relation to where I work, the true cost of the things I use in my life, what I eat (or don’t eat), how I get around, those are all help make up who I am. It’s good to challenge those ideas. It’s also good to revisit them. I am sure my relationship with the automobile will continue to evolve. This is a reminder to continue to think about even those things that have been integral to our lives. Because those things can change. Quicker than you might believe. I’m not saying you should go out and get rid of your car tomorrow. But spend a couple minutes thinking about it. I assure you, it’s a curious exercise.

Explore Minnesota

As I was riding home today, I’m pretty sure I saw half of the Twin Cities, walking dogs, riding bikes, jogging, just enjoying what has been the best day in a winter full of good days. I think we can officially put winter to bed for 2012. Certainly it will be chilly in the mornings still, but I don’t see a high below 40 or a low below 20 for the next several days, so I can start thinking about shedding a layer on the morning rides, slipping in an extra five minutes, and hopefully getting home a few minutes sooner since it’s that much less clothing to put on and take off. That’s the hidden cost of winter biking. There’s a lot of layers going on there, and all that clothing takes a lot of time. So I think I can suffer through a couple mornings in the near future as I keep hitting the bike.

Unfortunately, I only just crossed the 700 mile mark for 2012. I know, I’m so lazy. On the plus side, I have ridden 32 of out 66 days (outside, at least…exercise bikes hardly count), and that percentage is sure to go up as we get into the stretch where I ride to shows, Twins games, or whatever the hell else catches my interest. I know that the longer days are ahead of me, when I start turning in 40 and 50 miles instead of just 22. And you know what? I look forward to it. Of course, spring and summer come with their own special hazards as more and more people crowd the roads and trails. It’s always a little treacherous on these first few nice days, not because of the ice (though that will be back in force one of the next few mornings), but because everyone out there is getting their bearings. I want them to, but you have to pay attention. People are still working on the kinks on their rides, still getting back in the swing of the simple courtesies of the road, and generally that stuff is not automatic. But it does come back (except for those jackasses who just never had it and never seem to want to find it).

It’s going to be tougher to get a tune-up, but that’s a good thing. That means more people are getting ready to get out there. Don’t take it into the shop just to put it back in your garage or basement and not pull it out again. There’s a bike storage room in my building and I swear 4/5ths of those bikes never move. Some of the owners may not even live there any more at this rate. Setting that aside, I should call Freewheel and schedule some time, because my bike needs some work as it is.

And if you want to see Lake Calhoun, you better go now. Because it just gets ungodly as it warms up. It’s the one place I am happy to be when it’s raining or cloudy or cold because half the Twin Cities is there if it’s nice. Bless their hearts, but there’s too many people who are just there to be seen. And there are so many better lakes in the chain. Maybe you are out there to see and be seen. I’m fine with that when I’m walking. But it’s a mess on a bike. There’s just not as much to see at 15 miles an hour.

Look, I’m not saying I expect you to start biking to work tomorrow (though, you know, it’s not that hard…). I know we all have a lot of things in our lives that pull us simultaneously impossible directions. While it would be noble to ride to work every single day, that’s just not going to happen in my life. Not that I shouldn’t try to make it happen every day, but there’s a lot to juggle. Sometimes I need to be in Brooklyn Park at 6, and while I certainly could do that on a bike, there’s still the fact that I would somehow need to get back to Saint Paul later that evening. Even someone like me who bikes a fair amount has to make those decisions. And maybe it’s not biking for you. All I’m saying is, I get that winter is an easy excuse to not do things. Especially this winter, when the normal wintry things weren’t even possible. Minnehaha was a little sad, though it was also nice to see the only partially frozen falls. It’s a bit different.

Anyway, it’s time to get onto those goals. Because this year, I’m figuring out how to get my bike from Saint Paul to Hastings. And though my mileage was a little disappointing for the first couple months, 6000 miles is still a realistic goal. Because the 200 mile weeks will begin to pile up. It’s not all that much anyway. My parents will ride at least as much as me probably, and I have an uncle who will definitely ride twice that. I bike because I enjoy it. I don’t expect everyone to. But if you are getting out there, are you enjoying what you do? Because you should. There are too many great things to do, especially right here in Minnesota, for you to be spending too much time doing one that you don’t enjoy. Whether it’s on a lake, around a lake, or nowhere near one doesn’t really matter. We can get too caught up in all the various bullshit of life. The long work days, the things we need to do, I get it, I have them too. The dishes still don’t wash themselves and until there’s a fundamental restructuring of the way our employment is structured in this country, I don’t think the long work days will stop any time soon either. Personally, I long for the days when the bike paths and road trails are so crowded that we actually have to pay more attention to that infrastructure. While it’s a bit contrary to a large part of why I bike (seriously, cut 5-6 hours of driving in traffic out of your life and see how much less stress you feel) as more bikes mean paying more attention and probably falling into those same pitfalls, I think we as a society are a long way from that. And it’s never going to become most people’s primary mode of transportation. So if it’s not biking, that’s fine. And if it’s not why you bike, that’s fine too. Get out there and run, or walk, or take those dogs to Cedar Lake. Make this the year you finally see Cascade River or the Devil’s Kettle. And if you don’t live here, I’m sure there’s plenty to do wherever you are. It’s not that hard if you look for it. The question is, do you really want it?

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