Monday, March 8, 2010

Cycling and Feminism: A Short Manifesto

My friend Juli Stupakevich recently posted an open letter on feminism and cycling to the Elm City Cycling email list. Her letter was so good - clear, powerful, and passionate - that I had to share it. I've re-posted it below, with Juli's permission.

We all know that however we choose to navigate the roads; it is often a very intricate power struggle that can bring the worst out of people. The smallest differences affect the way that people choose to treat each other: size, wealth, age, color, sex, what that guy's bumper sticker says, how fast someone notices the light turned green, the type of neighborhood, how loud the stereo is, how pissed someone is that the person in front of them is lost.... on and on. These affect how we choose to treat each other, either subconsciously or consciously.

So, a bit on why I am a feminist (and, damn it, why you should be too.)

Cyclists are quite often the minority on any given road. As females, we are an even smaller minority within a minority. As an acknowledgement of my fellow female riders: it is a TREMENDOUS act of courage to assert that we have the same right to the road as the tons of metal flying all around us. Hey, guys: do you get heckled and yelled at? We probably get it more. And imagine the things men scream to women while they are alone on a street. Sometimes it is expected to be taken as a compliment, and when it is not, you can guess the ways that drivers like to try to piss off cyclists who have "wronged" them.

Do you get startled by motorcycles revving their engines? Often, they wait until the last second to do it right behind me. Whether to impress me or scare me - I’ve never had the pleasure to ask. Do you get lectured on how you shouldn't be riding on the road? Imagine all the stereotypes that our society uses against women and, predictably, those are often their knee-jerk reactions. Namely: I am just a dumb girl who doesn't know what she is doing, slowing them down; I am a bitch who just wants to ride wherever I want; I am a naive idealist who needs to be taught a lesson.

I say this not to scare people away from cycling because a) the more of us there are, our presence is stronger and the level of aggression, I really believe, will be less and less and b) I am a stronger woman because of cycling and I can handle everything I mentioned above. And you can too. Cycling has taught me to be a clearer communicator, while not feeling guilty about it (no matter how many times a car horn or "bitch", etc. is the retort.) It has helped me realize how capable and strong I am mentally and physically. And it's helped be become proudly assertive because no one is going to give you space you don't claim in this world.

With that, will you invite one woman who might not ordinarily ride a bike for a bike ride this spring? Even if you are a more seasoned rider, could you take it a little easy, and help her figure out that she is capable of much more, but that there is no rush, and you can just enjoy the ride? I think this is a small sacrifice because we will likely get back much more seeing the ride through a fresh perspective.

I think we'll all be better for it.



Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympics provide a "nudge"

A few weeks ago I wrote (okay, maybe whined a little) about my choice to drive to what were really eminently bikeable locations. Today I saw a headline about the traffic and riots and civil liberties disasters going on in Vancouver. In a moment of unwarranted optimism thought: hey, I bet the cyclists are happier than the poor schnooks still driving or trying to take a public transit system that clearly wasn't ready. And they are!

Vancouver already has an active cycling population. This huge event has made cycling's advantages: personal freedom, the small space required to park at a destination, frequently designated lanes and the ability to maneuver out of stalled traffic, much greater than a car's normal advantages. The result is that people who might not otherwise be pedaling are out and discovering its advantages.

Maybe this answers my question from before: how to make the active transportation an easier choice. Make the default option harder. I'm thinking that some of the deterrents I listed, including fear of being accosted because you're alone out there, are less of an issue. If a lot more people are out on bikes, it would be a lot harder for muggers to operate.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the Olympics pan out for cyclists. Yup. I'm a transportation nerd.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learn to Ride!!!

We (as in, all us cyclists and wannabes) all heard about the motorist in Oregon who followed a bad cyclist and shouted at him not to break traffic laws. Because he, the motorist, was a cyclist and advocate who was tired of lazy riders making him look bad. Word went out that he'd assaulted the cyclist, but I'm delighted/sad (?) to report that in fact, the cyclist assaulted him. And got in lots of trouble. Guess there's bad behavior on both sides.

Given the slightly chilling account of the cyclist using his bike to shatter the man's windshield, I'm glad I resisted temptation the other day. I followed two cyclists down Elm Street in New Haven in my car, and they were striking examples of the difference between riding with traffic and cruising along in the road. One in particular came close to having an irate driver pull alongside and yell at him for making us all look bad.

Just for the sake of context, Elm Street is a long, one way street with three active lanes, bus stops, many many pedestrians crossing, and parking. And the cars fly. In other words, not a place to mess around.

One cyclist clearly felt that lanes only exist for four-wheeled vehicles. He cruised around in his chosen lane on the right. When the bus in front of him slowed down, he pulled around the bus onto the dotted line between lanes about four inches from the passenger window of my car. When cars stopped for lights, he drifted along between so he could run the light. Meanwhile, his spandex twin was far behind due to his dedication to riding with the traffic. You know: staying in his lane, stopping with the traffic, signaling his intentions. He was following state guidelines for safe riding. I hope they eventually found each other. And I hope the annoying one didn't injure himself or anyone else.

The people I see riding on the sidewalk are annoying. But somehow they are less infuriating than this particular rider. Why ride in the road if you aren't going to bother to either ride properly or learn how to ride properly? I'll admit I wasn't that good at riding in traffic when I started, and I had to learn. But this person was too thoroughly equipped to be a beginner, so I can only assume he doesn't care.

I never take it personally when I'm stuck in traffic with a lousy driver. But cyclists are still a small group, and the behavior of one tends to be taken for the behavior of all by motorists. If he annoyed other drivers the way he was annoying me, they'll remember. And maybe take it out on another cyclist.

We need a cyclist version of the Pace car, just so those cyclists who can't be bothered can see that they are not necessarily the only ones riding. If they can't learn, cyclists are going to end up having to be licensed just like drivers. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Sacred Cow

While I was in the Lone Star State, I heard a lot about Austin's new commuter railway. As a budding transportation nerd, my ears pricked up and I listened to what people said, and took a look at a station. Basically, Austin's Capital Metro is using existing freight rail lines to add a commuter service that will connect downtown Austin to its northern suburbs and Leander, TX. The line was supposed to be in operation two years ago, but it's failed four inspections by the federal agency responsible for policing rail safety. And the city recently dumped its rail contracter, Veolia Transportation, after failing for the fourth time. It's now planning a March opening.

*Sound of brakes screeching*

Ok. So. I was going to write about how the Austin commuter rail, despite numerous positive press releases and public statements, appears to have been something of a debacle. I would have discussed why it was sad that incompetence had thwarted the development of a rail system in a city that really promotes active transportation. I might even have asked a few questions about how this project compares to light rail, such as a trolley system, or bus rapid transit, and how these options would work for walkers and cyclists.

But then I spoke to my husband, a transportation planner, who flinched a little. Further discussion with him led me to the conclusion that any attempt to impartially explore rail and bus development would be bad. If I attempted an amateur take on these issues, I would probably have inadvertently stabbed any number of sacred cows in the neck and started up a bus vs. rail flame war. And would then have had to join the Witness Protection Program to avoid being stalked by angry bloggers. Light rail, buses and conventional rail have a lot of ardent advocates.

That right there, is the problem we're having in active and alternative transportation, people. I'd like to use my status as the outsider to take an outsider's look at rail transit in the U.S., but there are lots of intelligent people slamming each other over this. And I could expect a whole lot of angry diatribes in my inbox if I dared to comment. Perhaps it's time to ease up on criticism from within the ranks: bus advocates vs. the street car crowd, effective cyclists vs. the Copenhagenize syndicate, almost everyone else versus cyclists. There's plenty coming from outside, as this attack on the director of America 2050 will show.

Let's discuss transportation issues, let's pool ideas. But let's also have an open mind about alternatives. Let's remember that the goal is to make it possible, even desirable, for people to choose something other than their car to go about the business of living.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

120 Million People Can't Be Wrong

Our tag line here at WalkBikeCT proudly states that the revolution will not be motorized. Should we be sure about that? After all, a number of blogs and newspapers (see Sunday's NY Times) have picked up on the growing popularity of electric bikes. (I admit, it's old news, but I was still shocked to read that there are 120 million "e-bikes" zipping along China's crowded roads.)

Although electric bikes have been around for many years, it appears that improvements in battery technology are making the prospect of an affordable electrically-assisted bike feasible. Who's got two grand to go 22 mph on this?

I am sure most many of this blog's readers (and contributors), those pesky non-motorized purists, will throw their mouses or iPhones in disgust, but e-bikes could do a lot to encourage a critical mass of people to give up their cars for commuting and shopping purposes.

Would making biking easier lead to greater ridership?

Most of us would agree that, thanks to lightweight construction and plentiful gears, biking already is pretty easy.

But maybe it's just not easy enough for Joe the Commuter, who wants to arrive at work without needing to change his clothes or recover from biking up and down the hills in his leafy suburban town on the way to the city. Joe the Commuter thinks exercise is for the gym, after all, not his trip to work.

I am not convinced, however, that my strawman everyman would bother with an e-bike.

First, if he wanted the thrill of the open road without the workout, why wouldn't he just get a moped or motorcycle? (Perhaps the answer, for now, would lie in the lack of regulation; I don't think that riding an e-bike requires registration and a special license.)

Second, according to trend spotters, e-bikes ain't cool. As the NY Times wrote:

In China, riding an electric bike conveys professional achievement, even a certain degree of wealth. People in the United States, said Ed Benjamin, an independent consultant in the bike business, don’t quite know whether these bikes are fashionable. The e-bike is “an ambiguous statement,” Mr. Benjamin said.
What's "ambiguous" about e-bikes? I guess the rider is trying to toe the line between different circles, and not succeeding in any. His car driving co-workers will think he's weird. Ordinary bicyclists will think he's fat and lazy. And his wife will worry about the onset of his mid-life crisis.

Maybe e-bikes are going revolutionize transportation, or maybe they're just another goofy fad. Anyone out there still have a moped?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Chilly, Timid Activist

Last night I went downtown for a yoga class (how yuppie). And here's my embarrassing secret: I drove. I live two miles away from that class, but it was cold and dark. So I drove.

I also drive to work. Again, very easy to get to via bike or public transit. Except: it's a hospital, in a part of town where nobody ever, ever walks around at night. I can't get to the transit stop without walking alone along poorly-lit streets and waiting at a stop, and I can't ride my bike home without going through an area where cyclists have been jumped before. So I drive.

I haven't come up with an answer to the question that I'm asking, assuming it's the right question: is it possible to make active transportation feel as safe and comfortable as driving? I realize that statistically, I probably have a much better chance of being hit or worse driving back and forth than I do walking and cycling. But blame it on salience or the media, I feel safer in that car. Fashion has thoughtfully swung in my favor and made puffy down jackets and furry boots look good, so it's easier to walk somewhere and arrive looking acceptably stylish than it was five years ago. But at night, I still get cold.

Safety could be addressed by more people walking. Montreal addressed the cold problem by building numerous subterranean walkways, which is a bit much to ask Connecticut. Could making transit easier and more flexible make it more comfortable to walk? It's already the same price to take the bus downtown as it is to park there, although it costs considerably more ingenuity to untangle the confusing and counterintuitive schedule and map. And it's much slower, especially if you have to change routes to get to a specific location.

Greater minds than mine are working on the problem, I know. But I hope they'll bear in mind that if I, a reasonably healthy and active adult living in a walkable city, often choose to drive, others will too. Can we make it easier to choose active transportion? Or do we also have to make it harder to choose to drive?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Right Question

A mentor of mine used to tell me that the secret to a successful investigation is to start by asking the right question.

"The research question", he'd state, "is the most important part of the research process."

Any doubt I may have had about this mantra was whisked away by The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup.  In writing this book, Shoup has done more to influence urban planning than almost anyone else alive.  Not surprisingly, many people consider him to be one of the most influential contemporary urban thinkers.

So what is so ground-breaking about this book?  Is it a formula for eliminating pollution?  Ending sprawl?  Perhaps, but it does so by looking at a simple, far-reaching facet of accepted planning and zoning. In this book Shoup challenges a central but hidden land-use policy, one that affects virtually every community in the country: the minimum parking requirement. This policy holds that it's the planner's responsibility to provide enough parking spaces to allow everyone to park for free, wherever they go.

I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Shoup speak at Yale University last week and was amazed at the turnout.  It seemed like parking would be too dry of a topic to pack a lecture hall, but the hall was full.  It was a who's who of Connecticut transportation nerds, myself included.  He is one of the most influential thinkers in the field - his book has planners and politicians everywhere suddenly rethinking policies that have been unchallenged since World War II. 

Minimum parking seemed like a very good idea at the time.  To many people, it still does.  Who doesn't love free parking?  And who likes searching for change among the grit and gum wrappers under the car seat to feed the meter, or initiating a panicked search through wallets to pay for the garage?  Nobody, which is why the idea of requiring developers and land owners to provide enough parking seemed so attractive.  For decades, this policy was untouchable and enshrined in the planning canon.

Mr. Shoup upended this thinking.  He asked the right question: "What is the cost of providing 'free' parking to everyone all the time?"  This question matters because we tend to assume that if we aren't visibly paying for something, then there's no cost.  This is, of course, ridiculous to assume.  None of us have received an invoice for the war in Iraq, but we all know that this military action isn't free.  It turns out that the cost of providing "free" parking is very high.  It pushes up land prices, it taxes storm-water systems, it uses up land that could be put to better use.  In a nutshell, free parking is very inefficient because everyone pays no matter how much or how little they use those spaces.

When I go to a store part of the money I spend there goes to cover the construction and maintenance of the parking lot, whether or not I've used it.  If I rent a condo with "free" parking, I pay for that parking with my rent and condo fees, whether I use each allotted space or not.  Parking has been an amenity we use without paying for so long that we've become blind to the absurdity. 

Imagine for a moment that instead of parking, air travel was required to be "free".  Imagine the government raising all our taxes to dramatically upgrade air traffic control, airports, and planes, and provide tickets to anyone. Picture major travel destinations being required to help provide free tickets to anyone who wants them; the cost would of course be passed along to the consumer in the form of much higher prices for meals, hotel rooms, and amenities.  What would you do?  Well, it's "free", so you'd fly.  Immediately, there would be a shortage of seats on airplanes, and we would eventually become unaware of the staggeringly high cost being paid by frequent flier and aerophobe alike.

This is how parking works now.  We all use it as much as we can because it we've already paid for it.  Therefore, it's always being used, so there's a constant clamor for more because there never seems to be enough.  By asking the right question, Shoup cuts through conventional thinking to show that free parking isn't really free at all, and that it actually wastes resources and space.  His solution is simple: Stop requiring developers to build parking they don't want to build and charge the market price for the parking that's available.

Shoup suggests charging a price high enough to occupy about 85% of existing parking spaces.  In other words, raise the price until about 15% of people who would normally park are deterred into making another arrangement.  This will result in an efficiently utilized parking system in which those willing to pay market price can quickly and easily find a spot.

This obvious solution eluded planners and policy-makers for decades.  It's because they were asking the wrong question, namely: "How much parking do we need for everyone to park for free?"  This is a doesn't work, because there is no such thing as free.  Somebody pays.  You pay, even if you never get a bill.  Shoup was able to see this solution simply by asking the right question: "What is the true cost of a parking space, and what should we charge people for parking?"

Despite being convinced by Shoup's theory and thoroughly enjoying the book, seeing him speak last week left me somewhat disappointed.  To be fair, Donald Shoup is an excellent and engaging speaker.  What disappointed me was the realization that Shoup had asked and answered one critical question but left its corollary wide open.  Shoup tells us how to price parking but not how much parking to build in a community.  A town could have 20,00 spaces priced for 85% occupancy or 5,00 spaces priced for 85% occupancy.  In both cases the town would be following his advice. But would either one would be optimal for the town's economic vigor, ease of movement, and efficiency?

Too many spaces, and you arrive at an urban wasteland that welcomes cars but repels people.  Too few, and businesses can't serve all their customers, residents circle the block in frustration, and traffic builds.  Although it is tempting to say "the fewer parking spaces, the better", it's just not practical.  Until our land use policies change to create communities less dependent on private automobiles, a certain amount of parking is necessary. 

So my question for Donald Shoup, and everyone else out there, is, "How do we decide how many parking spaces to build in a community?"