Friday, November 28, 2014

Everyone likes bikes

Hakan is fed up with Istanbul's car traffic, and who can blame him?
I'm involved in an interesting but sometimes exasperating EU project called Seismic. It's about the future of cities and how society can reform to address emerging challenges in an era of shrinking public purses. It covers cutting edge experiments in social innovation: social impact bonds, collaborative mapping, participatory citizenship and so on.

While many of the ideas are new and untested, i.e. of uncertain merit, one sure mental foothold is bicycling. In the course of the project, we had a "graphic facilitation" activity called Sketch. In this, artists accost random people on the street, and interview them about their gripes and wishes for cities. The artists sketch it down in charcoal pencil, and have so far produced 400 drawings from 10 cities in 10 countries.

As scans of each country's sketches go up on the project website, you'll see serious ideas about democracy: "Maria wants a public forum where citizens can express their ideas". And a few ideas out of San Francisco, circa 1968: a public park dedicated to laughing (Prague) and my favourite one from Brussels: "Pascal wants more naked dance!"

The ideas are rich and varied, but one thing loads of people from every country agree on is bicycles. Bikes, as much as ample green space, are widely recognised as key ingredients of the ideal city. I think this is cool, particularly since it goes against the grain of "innovation". Many EU research projects emphasise innovation, which I suppose is natural. Why spend research efforts on what we already know? Then again, when we're trying to find ways to improve cities, innovation is just one approach. Sometimes the best ideas are right under our noses.

Below is a small sample of the bike-related sketches in the Seismic project's archive.

Oliver thinks Queen Elizabeth should set an example and ride a bike -- as the Dutch royals do.

I agree with Grace. Tolerance is over-rated! At least when it comes to cars.
Peter shows that, contrary to popular belief, cycling's not just for masochists.

There's a lot of pent-up hostility toward cars.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Motorist Douchebagicus

Left-turning cyclist has temerity to move into lane's middle. Is hanging good enough for him??
The smart way to promote cycling is by being positive -- who can argue with that? As the old adage says: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

But this morning I'm going to follow another old adage: honesty's the best policy. Although I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I've gotten sick to death of motorists whinging about cyclists. Cyclists don't stop at red lights, they say. Cyclists scare children and the elderly. And, of course, the compulsory and bogus claim that cyclists don't pay for roads. (In fact, everyone who pays sales and income taxes pays for roads.)

A rising chorus of opinion makers behave as if the increasing popularity of cycling has introduced danger onto once safe city streets. Where peace and predictability reigned, we now have mayhem.

In New York, we hear complaints by the Wall Street Journal that the city's new bike-sharing system has "begrimed" the city and endangered the public. The New Yorker ran a similarly alarmist opinion piece in the wake of two freak traffic fatalities caused by cyclists (Look at the map of people killed by cars in New York in 2013. It was more than two.)

I don't deny that bicyclists are sometimes guilty of bad behaviour. I've run red lights, I've biked on the sidewalk, I've gone the wrong way on a one way. But looking at the relative harm and danger posed by cyclists versus motorists -- there's no comparison.

Cars spew noxious fumes into the air we breathe (50-90 percent of urban air pollution is caused by motor vehicles); cars maim and kill people (1.24 million traffic deaths/year worldwide; 30,000-40,000/year in US alone), cars take up the majority of public space in cities, cars isolate people from public interaction and habituate them to unhealthy, sedentary daily routines.

Motorists who whinge about cyclists bring to mind an article recently circulated on Facebook. The writer, an American sociology professor, proposes a specific definition of "douchebag" as someone who breezes through life with an obnoxious attitude of entitlement. The article uses the term in connection with racial politics:

The douchebag is someone—overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males—who insists upon, nay, demands his white male privilege in every possible set and setting.

However, I think "douchebag" works just as well in the context of transport politics. It perfectly describes a motorist (black, white, male or female), who—despite having free residential parking (as in Budapest), free-of-charge access to city streets, the right to pollute the air with no carbon or other tax, and a traffic management regime that overwhelmingly caters to private cars—goes into a tizzy at the slightest intrusion against motorists' free rein.

In Budapest, there is an officially registered lobbying group fighting against the cycling movement. They call themselves "Movement for a More Humane Parking Policy"—as if free parking were a human right on par with freedom from torture or freedom of speech. Some years ago, this group, which as far as I can tell is just two guys, held a demonstration on Múzeum körút, where they "occupied" a newly created bike lane by parking their car on it. They made a video in which a woman -- ostensibly a passerby, but probably the wife of one of the organisers -- complained, "These bicyclists are trying to push us out of the city!" If only!

But parking activists are by no means the only motoring douchebags in Budapest. Just yesterday, I had an encounter with a choice example. I was on my usual morning commute on Margit körút heading toward Margit Bridge. At the point where the road forks—either left to the bridge, or straight to Bem rakpart—I veered, as usual, into the middle of the right-hand lane, and hand signaled to the left. As soon as I got into the the centre of the lane, the motorist behind me honked, and then, just before I entered the turn, he accelerated hard and roared by just centimetres from my handle grip.
Cyclists -- they act as if they own the roads!!
Further down the road, I slapped his side-view mirror to get his attention—it worked. He pulled over at the first opportunity, into a bus stop, got out and demanded why I hit his car (shiny black BMW coupe). He said I had no right to be in the middle of the road. I told him I hit his car because he'd nearly run me over, and that I had every right to get into the middle of the road to take a left turn (In fact, the Hungarian road rules say you must move to the middle in this situation). The guy wouldn't have any of it -- the idea that a cyclist could impede him and his Beemer for even a second was an outrage. We yelled back and forth for a bit, and eventually he got back in his car and sped off. Douchebag.