I’d like to start off with a scenario that I have seen play out countless times in every town or city that I have lived in. The perfect setting, if you’d like to try to see this for yourself, is a large-ish retail parking lot in a suburban area, but odds are you can find this happening anywhere. Our protagonist has parked their car and is casually walking towards a store. There are cars moving through the lane along the storefront and our pedestrian scurries across as quickly as possible despite being in an extra-large, clearly painted crosswalk. It often seems absurd watching a middle-aged, out of shape adult in flip-flops doing an odd scurry/trot movement across this final stretch of pavement.
It’s clearly a greater effort for the pedestrian to trot across the lane than for the driver to move their right foot a few inches to the brake pedal, so this exercise isn’t about minimizing inconvenience. It doesn’t save an appreciable amount of time, either, maybe one full second? But it does suggest something about attitudes: the pedestrian’s scurry is basically a display of deference, like a visual apology for being an unintentional interloper in someone else’s space. Of course the reality is that they’re both just people going about the perfectly ordinary activity of going shopping. They’re on an equal footing. Watch the same two folks inside the store and neither will trot away from the cereal aisle so that the other can grab tomorrow’s breakfast without hindrance. The point of this story is to look at how we assign value. Are human beings the exclusive source of value, or do we elevate cars to an equal (or greater) position?
Valuing human beings above machines is one of the themes of BikeSnobNYC‘s latest book: Bike Snob Abroad. The book covers a bit of autobiographical ground, from the author’s childhood bike-riding adventures in New York City to the birth of his first child. It is the experience of cycling in NYC with his young son onboard in a child-seat (he calls biking with a child the “final frontier” of cycling) that leads to a family trip to Amsterdam, to see if a cycling paradise really exists.
Chapter 8 is titled: “It’s Real, And It’s Spectacular”, although the point of this section is actually that in Amsterdam cycling is completely ordinary and mundane. It is this casual acceptance that feels so spectacular to an American cyclist accustomed to the constant threat of violent death while cycling. In a side-trip to London he did a radio interview, of which he writes: “I contemplated just how strange it was that I was on the radio… for the simple reason that I write about riding bikes. It felt especially odd considering I had just come from Amsterdam, where the act of cycling was so completely ordinary.” In the US, riding a bike for transportation is often seen as a de facto counter cultural statement. BikeSnob describes an encounter with a driver in NYC stopping to ask him how he could possibly feel safe biking with his child while surrounded by “maniac” drivers. This feeling of “outsiderness” is another recurring theme in the book.
Leaving London, BikeSnob observes, “I’d watch with amazement as vehicles of all kinds would come to a halt for pedestrians in zebra crossings, even in the throes of rush hour, and it was an indication to me that London still has not completely surrendered the notion that an unprotected and self-propelled human should take priority.” My own experience corroborates his observations: only minutes before sitting down to write this blog I was nearly run down in a crosswalk, with the WALK signal, by a speeding minivan making a left turn. There was a woman pushing a stroller in front of me (seriously, I’m not exaggerating the details) and the driver cut between us without ever slowing down. And I currently live in the most pedestrian-friendly city I’ve ever lived in. Returning home to NYC, BikeSnob concludes, “It was like our lives were a form of currency, and we were returning to a place where that currency had a far lower value.”
So how do we encourage more human-centric values here in America? Petitioning for more humane laws of the road is a good start, but can prove to be a constant, slow battle with frequent setbacks. Urban America may well be entering the early stages of a new era of multi-modal transportation; it is worth noting that cities like New York and Washington, DC had virtually no cycle infrastructure at all less than ten years ago. Large-scale bikeshare is a very recent development, too, and growing rapidly. But these changes are not yet firmly rooted, we still need to nurture this concept in order for it to grow.
Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes