Tag Archives: advocacy

Building bridges?

There’s lots of material about Boston in this League of American Bicyclists policy document about bridge access:

http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/reports/pdfs/bridges.pdf

I regard the document as good in its recommendations on advocacy strategies. It does overemphasize separate bikeways over shoulder and bike lane treatments — less expensive, sometimes no-cost solutions, and more suitable for use through winter — though they often accommodate only bicyclists and not pedestrians.

But — see pages 7. 11, 12, 18: Praise is heaped on Livable Streets, which is not a bicycling organization, though it is listed on the League’s Web site and is presumably, then, as of recently, a League member organization. There is no mention whatever of Massbike, which has a 35-year history in advocacy, which has been involved in the same bridge advocacy efforts, and whose President is on the League’s Board of Directors.

What message is League President Andy Clarke trying to send?

Review of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes

Review of
Pedaling Revolution: How cyclists are Changing American Cities
by Jeff Mapes

cover of Jeff Mapes's book Pedaling RevolutionI bought my copy of this book at the 2009 National Bicycle Summit, a conference and lobbying event organized by the League of American Bicyclists.

Jeff Mapes is a political reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, and often commutes to work by bicycle. He took a sabbatical to write this book.  He attended the Summit, and he inscribed my copy:

To John. You made this a better book. Thanks for your help. Jeff Mapes.

(You’re welcome!)

Mapes had interviewed me when he visited Boston, and I had taken him for a ride on my tandem  bicycle, showing him bicycling conditions, and techniques for a safe ride in Boston urban traffic.

Mapes has a keen journalist’s eye and sense of where to look. He found his way into a number of previously obscure corners of the bicycling advocacy landscape. An example: do you wonder sometimes about the wide-ranging online presence of Streetsblog and Streetfilms, which relentlessly promote urban bicycling? Turns out that they are bankrolled by Mark Gorton , a successful New York City hedge-fund manager who also is a “streets for people” advocate, and that many Streetsblog activists are on staff in the New York City  Transportation Department. More about Gorton is here.

Mapes traveled in Europe as well as in North America to research the book. He describes the endemic lawlessness of Amsterdam cyclists, and the frustration of driving a motor vehicle in that city – partly a consequence of the ancient street layout, partly of the complicated and slow traffic patterns with bicyclists separated from motor traffic, and partly of the need to pay very careful attention to avoid collisions with the bicyclists. The crash rate is low, but speeds also are low, and for bicyclists too. This portrayal contrasts with the unfailingly rosy pictures painted by many cycling advocates, who emphasize bicycle mode share over everything else.

While Mapes touches on many of the social and political issues concerning bicycling, I’m not moved to consider that he explores them deeply. Mapes, for example, expresses the opinion that people of all ages, including children, should be able to ride bicycles anywhere in an urban area – without immediately raising the cost/benefit issues for the majority of the bicycling population and others, or whether it makes sense to accommodate cycling at a child’s level of skill in a financial or industrial district where children are unlikely to go.

Mapes describes bicycling advocates as “unlikely transportation revolutionaries” seeking to “seize at least part of the street back from motorists” with “a contest for space on the street and alternately as mixing it up.”  I find the huge red flag and the subtitle on the cover a bit much: probably the publisher’s wretched excess. Most bicycling “revolutionaries” are comfortably middle-class. The meaning of “mixing it up” is unclear – street demonstrations, or simply taking one’s place in traffic? – but Mapes doesn’t exactly sprint away with these premises in top gear. He acknowledges the impediments to bicycling – the size of the US urban areas and that bicycling is not practical for many trips for many reasons – physical impairments, age, weather, the need to carry passengers or tools.

But, again, the value of this book is in that Mapes really got around, both in North America and in northern Europe, and he interviewed many people,  so he is able to offer many aha moments of insight into the history and character of bicycling advocacy. The book is all about details, as befits a journalist’s work. I wrote several pages of detailed notes as I read the book, then had to put them aside so this review wouldn’t go on and on. For historians some twenty or fifty years in the future, the book will be a valuable resource, as it already is for anyone interested in surveying the bicycling advocacy scene today.

Turn out the lights?

My attention has been drawn to a video from the U.K. that advocates removal of traffic signals.

I am sure that removing traffic signals is sometimes beneficial — my late friend Gihon Jordan pioneered it in Philadelphia, and he was able to report reductions in crashes. He did a careful survey of crash data to confirm that result.

On the other hand, in many situations, removing signals will not improve safety and mobility, or it must be accompanied by other changes (such as conversion of intersections to roundabouts) if it is to work.

My point in writing this, though, is not to try to evaluate the practice, or the particular intersection shown. Rather, I want to point to a style of advocacy. The video shows some heavily-edited clips of congested traffic before the signals were removed — and free-flowing traffic after, but the video consists mostly of a series of testimonials. There is only one statement by an engineer who might have the technical background to evaluate where traffic-light removal might be suitable. The remaining statements are by ordinary citizens with no particular technical expertise, including two groups of schoolchildren. The video casts the traffic-signal industry as an evildoer by implying that it is unduly influencing design choices, a statement which the video does not support with any evidence. There is some narration to the effect that accompanying measures are needed, but this is given way too little time to explain such issues adequately. Only one negative opinion is represented, from a blind man who, understandably, has more trouble with uncontrolled intersections than with signalized ones.

Traffic engineering has been subject to political pressure as long as it has existed, and with very mixed results. To be sure, we wouldn’t have infrastructure for travel if the public didn’t agree to fund it, but then, there is a strong element of tragedy of the commons in the uneconomical use of clean air and of subsidized infrastructure. Dominant modes of transportation — railroads in the 19th century; private motor vehicles and commercial air travel in the early 21st, — distort transportation choices — by making streets less hospitable, by taking the lion’s share of public funding, by reducing demand for other modes so they become less economical, by affecting patterns of land use. A full-cost, pay-as-you-go model would not be practical, because so much infrastructure must be held as a public monopoly: there can be only one set of streets, one urban public transportation system, etc. and it must be accessible to people at all income levels.

While political pressure is unavoidable, appealing to the general public for implementation of a specific measure has its perils. Where infrastructure choices are driven by such advocacy, the results often are out of tune with best practices as established by careful analysis. Common examples are demands for more traffic lights or stop signs — or, getting around to the topic of bicycling advocacy, for special bicycle facilities as if they were some kind of panacea. It is too easy to push for simple solutions to complicated problems.

And also as to bicycling, here’s one specific I noticed in the video: there’s not one single bicyclist in it, from beginning to end. I think that deserves mention. I don’t know whether bicyclists were there but were intentionally not shown, or whether there just weren’t any. In either case, I regard that as unfortunate and I’d like to know why!

Such language!

The following are my comments on a post on P. M. Summer’s CycleDallas blog. I’d have liked to post my comments there, but they are longer than allowed by the software on Summer’s site.

Quoting Robin Stallings, Executive Director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition:

We have tried to answer your inquiry from a ‘legal’ point of view below.

Leslie Puckett, our legal fellow, prepared the answer with some input from Mark Stine and I. This should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney for that.

The word “legal” in quotes — the nominative “I” as the object of a preposition — trivialities? Maybe, but on the other hand, grammatical errors can drastically alter the meaning of laws. Indeed, consult an attorney, but Stallings and his advisors didn’t!

The short answer of BikeTexas’ interpretation of the current law is that:

“If the bicycle lane is considered part of the roadway, then, TTC 551.103, which requires a cyclist to ride as far to the right on the roadway as possible, would seem to require a cyclist to ride in the bike lane (or paved shoulder) except when it is obstructed or when turning left, since the bike lane is usually on the right side of the roadway. The law is appropriately ambiguous and leaves discretion to individual cyclists to determine for themselves if the bike lane is obstructed and is usable.”

Stallings appears to be unaware that the bike lane, but not the shoulder, is part of the roadway. Also, Texas law requires a cyclist to ride as far right as practicable, not “possible”, and with additional exceptions he doesn’t mention. These are important distinctions in the light of the Reed Bates arrests in Texas. Stallings knows of these arrests.

I leave out the list of studies that Stallings cites — Summer has addressed that.

There are no examples of cities that we are aware of, in Texas or the nation, where the mainstream bicycle advocates regret the installation of, or are calling for removal of bike lane networks.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to give an example…Stallings also changes the subject, “where is it legal to ride?” to “mainstream, knowledgeable (!) people like us support bike lanes everywhere and if you don’t, you’re a weirdo.”

However, protected bike lanes, also known as “cycle tracks”, are replacing bike lanes in many cities.

Stallings floats a topic that has nothing to with the original question — he gets to sound more authoritative to an uninformed audience, and to use the word “protected”. This originally applied in traffic engineering to, for example, a left-turn signal phase where the opposite-direction traffic has a red light, but now, instead, it is applied to a bikeway behind parked cars, with the attendant poor safety record due to crossing and turning conflicts and sight-line obstructions. It is a path — but calling it a bike lane lends it the aura of the familiar. The uninformed, or misinformed, will assume that it offers real protection. They are also introduced to a new buzzword, “cycle track,” which may have been unknown to them.

Sharrows are in use in many cities where there is not enough right way to accommodate bike lanes.

Shared lane markings, not the obsolete “sharrows” — are indeed used, but to refer to them and bike lanes as the only alternatives narrows the discussion, now doesn’t it?

Let me know if you have any more questions.

OK, then, why, Mr. Stallings, are you resorting to classic techniques of manipulative use of language? On that topic, allow me to recommend Prof. S. I. Hayakawa’s classic book Language in Thought and Action and to quote Robert Jay Lifton:

“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”