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critical of the masses

By enelson
Wednesday, October 17th, 2007 at 11:38 pm in Bicycling, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), connectivity, driving, fuel, Funding, parking, tolls.


When I got invited to share my wisdom about Bay Area transportation this morning on KQED radio’s “Forumprogram, I though maybe I’d hear from listeners about my aligning San Francisco with the Bush Administration.

The outrage, I imagined, at the thought that the epicenter of all things progressive could be the running dog for U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters’ crusade to make drivers pay through the nose for causing congestion. I mean, really.

But no, no one wanted to pillory me for such a suggestion, not even Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, who told me Tuesday that not everything happens because of politics.

He was, by the way, the only Bay Area transportation official I’ve ever seen hug a member of the Bush cabinet on the streets of San Francisco. Come to think of it, she’s the first member of the Bush cabinet I’ve ever seen receive a hug on the streets of San Francisco. Maybe that’s because he and she serve together on a panel that’s trying to figure out how this nation is going to pay for transportation now that the highway trust fund is broke. Or maybe it’s an acknowledgment that once that Golden Gate Bridge toll goes up to $7, they could be the only friends they have left.

No, that’s not what provoked ire on the part of listeners, nor was my suggestion that you can’t run efficient public transit out in our sprawling suburbs, where a bus ride often involves just you, a bus and a driver.

No, the raw nerve that I touched was about bicycling.

To start with, there was an e-mail sent to the show that complained that for all our blather about trains, buses and automobiles, we were neglecting bikes as a viable mode of transportation.

As a frequent bike-train-bike commuter, I jumped in, saying that it’s great for the young, healthy and fearless, but for most commuters, it’s somewhat impractical, not to mention scary in places where 18-wheelers are blowing by.

As soon as I got back to my desk, I was greeted with a note from concycliere John Rogers of the human-powered Cosa Nostra:

I could barely believe what I was hearing. How upsetting that someone who actually rides a bike on part of his commute can be so dismissive about the potential of bicycle commuting. Although I suppose if all you have to go on is how “scary” your ride is from the Coliseum BART station, I shouldn’t be surprised.

I guess first off I need to ask if you are aware of the significant role that bicycle commuting plays in cities outside the US. Have you been to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or any other city in Europe?

Is yours a “it can’t happen here” attitude, or just plain lack of knowledge?

If you have never seen it working, I can more easily excuse your attitude.
Otherwise why would you be so disparaging? Why would you not even mention the benefits that can come from an extensive, safe, multi-modal bicycling infrastructure? Why no mention of the percentage of bicycle commuters in European cities?

Why no mention of bike lanes, bike parking, bike access to public transportation, or any of the amenities that make cycling a viable way to and from work for millions of people around the world?

Sure it’s “scary.” The point, obviously, is to make it not scary. That’s why they other cities have things like colored bike lanes, protected bike lanes, traffic calming, bike parking, bike signals, etc. That’s why in European cities it is not the “young and fit” that bike to work; it’s everybody … working people of all kinds, business people, school kids, seniors, you see them all on the street. They feel so safe they don’t even wear helmets…

“If you build it they will come,” would be a much more reasonable and informed stance. Don’t you think?

That’ll teach me to mouth off about bicycle commuting. Maybe I’m just bitter that the East Bay Bicycle Coalition won’t link my “for profit” blog to their site. Trust me, if it made a profit, I’d have heard about it.

Yes, there are places where people ride bikes in huge numbers. In most of those places, it is a lot easier to get around by bike. It’s also a lot harder to get around by car. Gas costs $5 a gallon and/or people can’t afford to buy cars.

I also pointed out to Forum host Michael Krazny that in places like China where everybody rides bikes and takes public transit, more and more people are driving cars once they accumulate enough wealth.

And I have been to Europe, more than once. I lived there. Germany, which has fantastic public transit and more car-free downtowns than anywhere I’ve seen, also has some world-class staue, or traffic jams. Listen to the radio there in the morning and all you’re going to hear is “stau,” “stau,” “stau,” preceded by the number of kilometers traffic has backed up.

I love biking to work. I know other people are passionate about bicycle commuting, and as I said on the show, our local transportation agencies are doing numerous projects to make BART stations and other facilities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. Even in my own little world of risking my life on Hegenberger Road, there’s a path on the drawing board that will connect the Coliseum BART station with the other side of the freeway and the Bay Trail.

But most people I know wouldn’t dream of getting themselves all sweaty just as the arrive at work, to say nothing of give up the convenience of having a car handy. It’s a great alternative, but as long as we have cars and occasional free-flowing traffic, that’s what it will continue to be.

(If you have an hour to kill, you can listen to the program here.)

Photo from norisons2005 site.

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2 Responses to “critical of the masses”

  1. Roderick Llewellyn Says:

    The “18-wheelers” that “blow by” as you ride your bicycle will disappear with the oil. So will the suburban land uses that encourage and are ultimately dependent on high transportation per-capita energy use.
    The automobile has (temporarily!) triumphed not because of people’s inherent preferences but because of extensive subsidy, including ignoring the long-term effects of climate change, pollution, and the passing of health-care costs so caused onto the general public. Even in Europe the car is the beneficiary of said subsidy. In the future, we’ll look back with fury at the 20th Century as the time when we blew out all the oil and yet failed to build a sustainable urban environment even once we knew what the problems are.
    I notice you blipped over Mr. Rogers’ comment that people of all ages in other countries, including advanced ones like Europe, do ride bikes. You merely point out that they have traffic jams too. The unwillingness of many people over here to ride bikes or excercise in general is because of the American system I might call a “lazocracy”, in which reducing individual physical effort is lauded. I don’t watch TV, but I’ve polled friends who do and they admit that there is never a single character on the tube who rides a bike. (Except for occasional crazy people!). And you can bet the car-company advertisers insist on that. Same reason you don’t see any transit riders either.
    You do ultimately provide an answer when you say that other places are easier to get around by bike and they have $5/gallon gas. Simple: make our places easier to bike around too! You don’t have to worry about getting us expensive gas. Reality will take care of that all on its own.

  2. Doug Faunt Says:

    The problem is that the common response to “it’s dangerous” is to not do it i.e. get in a car too. The alternate response would be to make it safer to ride.

    I’m neither young nor fearless, and my health is at least partially a result of my bicycle riding.

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