So I’ve recently become interested in why Americans don’t walk and bike more, and tried to figure out what “more” meant anyway. I didn’t want to mistake my own suburban existence for the entire nation. There’s plenty of that from pundits living far more urban and exurban existence than mine. So I decided to look at the whole country.
Throughout my time biking every day, and especially now that I barely bike at all, I was discomfited by the moral aura of the act. Whenever I tie myself to biking, either in doing or in planning, some people get a little shifty eyed and tell me about the time they used to bike miles and back to work. It is the first thing they mention after I tell them what I do.
I can understand the need to tie their interests to my interests. God knows I’ve done that often enough. I’ve flagrantly pandered with amateur facts to Geologists, Criminologists, Library Scientists, Sailors, Spelunkers, Cybersecuritates, and Bridge Engineers, to name a few. But I get caught short by these salad days of a biking youth. They seem to be pleading for forgiveness.
I am not your mother superior nor your confessor.
I am not looking for a confession nor handing out dispensations. I didn’t bike for moral superiority, even if I did bike for moral reasons, among others. I had a lot of time to think in Atlanta about how my lifestyle of proximity, economy, and personal mobility could be brought to the entire 400 thousand Atlantans, the 4 million in the metro, and the 300 million in the US, and I still couldn’t manage it. I’ve only this year figured out how to let it compete, and yet it is still not competing. Ideas are bunk without implementation.
Biking in America is hard. I bless myself and anyone else who does it. I understand well the reasons why anyone would;t. I just want to make an America where it is as easy as turning the key in the ignition.
I barely bike anymore. Every time I do it is this wheezing affair along the sidewalk next to six lanes of traffic on the way to some exhausted coffee shop. I tried biking in my neighborhood and nearly died from the hills and boredom of one house, the next yard, after another. There is no majestic goal in the suburbs, just one shop after another. And there is little pleasure in the pain of moving my long dormant legs over and over again. I have been sitting too long in this school, in that office. Doing mind work without any body work.
I wouldn’t dare drive in the street in this condition. I know what it means to be stuck behind a slow weak biker in traffic. Being that slow weak biker, I stick to the sidewalk out of deference to the greater mass and speed of traffic, but also out of fear. Fear of being honked at. Fear of the revving engine. Fear of an involuntary soda. Fear of looking the fool. Fear of my feet falling out of the toeclips and ripping my pants on the spinning pedal. That has happened.
The involuntary soda has happened, long ago, in an unfamiliar part of Atlanta. I violated some family van’s expectation of what the road was for on a long hill, so they decided to give me a shower in fruit punch as they revved up the hill past me. Young and cheeky. I thanked them for it, robbing them of the satisfaction of my demise. That was when I was at the peak of my strength, and I was more amused than dispirited by the intended insult. It was illustrative of the Atlanta attitude towards bikers in the road, though.
Biking has fallen from an adult activity of the well-to-do to a children’s hobby in 50 short years between 1880 and 1930. The first highway department, a board of inquiry under the department of agriculture, was commissioned in 1893 to investigate national road paving policy for the benefits of bikes, not cars. Until very recently, the 1970s at the earliest, bikes were seen as the province of children, to be set aside or given away with the first drivers license at 16. In the last the years, cities have begun to build for bikes as a more fiscally conservative mode of transportation. However, the majority of America has no choice, they have built for traffic, so they have to keep building for traffic. Throwing good money after bad.
The beginning of my fall from biking was when I learned to get around by car, but the transformation was not immediate. When I worked in IT in Atlanta, I started out biking to and from work in all kinds of weather. Then I learned that my parking credit could be used to pay for transit. I had no interest in driving and parking to work, but I could see the use in taking the train back from work. It was cold and dark when I got off work at midnight, after all. Why not take my bike down into Five Points and catch the let train home. The cars that time were;t crowded at all, and it would be a short, bearable drive home from the station after that.
Then I got married, and transit continued to tempt me. I made sure when shopping for places with my new wife to look for places within walking distance of a train station; The regional rail in Philadelphia was not frequent like MARTA, but it was huge, convenient, and on time most of the time. We lived five miles from school, mostly a nice scenic drive along the banks of the Scuyllkill, but a straight hill the final mile up to our place. The street was a former stream, and it showed in the steep aspect of that street. Better to walk up and down part of it to get to the train every morning and night, than to have to bike up the whole length of it in the cold of the night,. I maybe biked back and forth from campus a coupe dozen times in two years at school. Each time seemed like a worse idea than the last, when I could just the riding the regional rail into school without expending any effort.
Since Philadelphia, we have lived in the DC suburbs. I was able to walk through a metro station to work, but there was little else to recommend walking or biking in this area. Everything has plenty of space for packing and lanes for driving, but nothing to recommend walking. The nine blocks of downtown Fairfax nearby were built out before 1900, but everything else was built with the car, not the biker or the walker, in mind.
Yes, this is a mewling post, but I think it holds an important lesson. I don’t bike where biking isn’t obvious, and biking isn’t obvious in most of America built since 1930. More on this Monday.
I have been enjoying the data of the Census, FHWA, FTA, BLS, and even DOJ for years now. I’m a transportation planner and a policy wonk, after all, so these things are grist for my mill.
However, as a left-libertarian*, I have to ask myself if they systematically collections ed data is really any of tyne government;’s business.what business does the government really have collecting this data on us anyway. Who cares what then unemployment of poverty rate is, anyway?
Or rather, wouldn’t this data be better collected by those with an interest in knowing it, like marketing and research firms? During the last government shutdown, we got a loot at the more fine grained data of Challenger and Christmas, Standard & Poors and others, who had been collecting better data than the government on employment, because they were in constant contact with employers. Why not just let these guys do it, and save millions on the federal budget.
Three problems with that are consistency and access. The federal and state government s have the oldest continuous records of employment available, and to compare 1913 with 2013 would be difficult to impossible for a company that didn’t even exist back then. The handover from public to private record keeping would be onerous at best, and I doubt it would ever evolve beyond a redundant consultancy to the government. Private companies collecting continuous private data can generate much better data than government agencies taking monthly surveys, but private companies can also charge for the privilege.
The availability pif public data for free is transformative to public discussions. It means that with enough time and skill, people can find out information to support their local or national arguments. Arguments become a battle of wits, and not finance.
But there is still the nagging truth that our everyday lives are not lived in data. Our unemployment rate is either 0 or 1005%, our household finances are what they are. Whether they are balanced is far more important to our happiness than what the average is, locally or nationwide. We can all sense the likelihood of crime in an area better than some national abstract statistic or hysterical talking head.
The best I’ve come up with so far is the model of property. Real Property – land – is a bundle of rights specific to a piece of geography. Where that land is makes a difference as to what laws will apply to it, and where it will be recorded. Nothing protects it as your land except the threat of violence should someone infringe your rights. The convenience of government is that they will contract this duty out to and from you, so you don’t have to maintain a friendly or deadly relationship with all of your neighbors. Newcomers to town assume that property belongs to someone, and they know where to check to find out who owns what land. That would not be so easy of every property was defended within a web of relations.
This is why strangers are so mistrusted in some cultures. They are a pain in the ass to fit into the landscape of claims.
That’s a pretty minimal definition of what is and is not the government’s business. The Census has grown from a tally of the populace to a continuous collection on people’s lives, finances, and movements. I am not sure this is what the founder’s intended, even if I do value the data they collect today.
* Whose standing is forever in doubt.