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A “What-If” Emergency

October 24th, 2012 | Author: Sam
Category: Bike Philosophy

I haven’t owned a car for more than five years. So, it might surprise you to learn that a week or so ago I had a “what-if” emergency about it. A what-if emergency is when you feel a sudden upsurge of panic about some what-if that could happen to you. I did not have a real emergency; I did have an upsurge of panic about a somewhat reasonable what-if. As I was heading home, my felt my pulse increase and my stomach go all jelly on me, as a thought struck me: What if I have to get to the hospital?

This is usually one of the first things that crosses people’s minds as they contemplate life without a car. One of those questions that reveals the true inculcation of what some scholars call “automobility.” This refers to the expectation that personal transportation, especially a car, is normal. Zack Furness, author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, explains that automobility leads us to ask questions like: “How will I get to work? How will we get people to the hospital? How will my kids get to school?” (212). He states, “By relying on the automobile to solve each of these problems, we perpetually avoid asking an entirely different, and ultimately more productive, set of questions: Why are there no safe cycling routes or efficient forms of mass transit where I live? Why are there no doctors, schools, or grocery stores in my neighborhood? Why should my kids not be able to walk to school?” (212). Automobility “normalizes the process of thinking like an individual driver, instead of a social citizen with basic needs, requirements, and democratic rights” (213). It discourages questions of why in favor of questions of how or, in my case, what if?

Of course, a moment after the question manifested in my mind, “What if I have to get to the hospital?” I answered it with, “I’ll call an ambulance or taxi or I’ll walk or bike, depending on how severely I’m injured.” I calmed down immediately and laughed at myself. For anyone who knows where I live (just a few blocks from a hospital), it is especially funny. So, although I am not sure why that question popped into my head and made my heart sink, I can guess that it is probably due, at least in part, to living in an automobility society. Personal transportation is a strong impulse (as I recently posted about following Jarrett Walker’s presentation at HATS). This is one reason I prefer to biking or walking to taking the bus sometimes. But it is important for me to remember that these what-if emergencies should not prevent me from asking “why not?”

A Cardboard Bike!?

October 15th, 2012 | Author: Sam
Category: News

Israeli inventor and his cardboard bicycle.That’s right. A cardboard bike! I just came across this story on NPR. Apparently, it would retail for about $20. The creator, Izhar Gafni, thinks that it might help clear traffic congestion in overcrowded cities in poorer countries.

If you are wondering about the effects of rain on this bike (my first thought), know that the cardboard is treated with an organic and secret compound that makes it waterproof and fireproof!

What a great way to reuse your old boxes! Think about how light it must be. This project sparks a lot of questions in my mind. If you are having the same reaction, watch a video about how Gafni got the idea and made the bike.

Practice Bicycling

October 10th, 2012 | Author: Sam
Category: Bike Commuting, Uncategorized

The Crux, by Jay Leighter, has some recent and interesting new posts/podcasts up. If you scroll way down, you can here a podcast of Jay, Chad McBride, and me, conversing about some of the practical aspects of biking. Jay titled this “The Sam & Chad Show” because we were “on the pod” (a new phrase I learned) to ask Jay questions about what he’s doing. This is Jay’s summary of the show: “I mispronounce my friend’s name in the first 10 seconds (how did that happen?). We also talk about workplace culture, Chad’s abandoned bike, “bus holes” and what not to do on a morning commute.”

The most recent podcast is with Richard Miller, who discusses climate change.  He’s a theologian who is an advocate for understanding the science behind global climate change. He’s got some good framing metaphors and perspectives about the subject.

The most recent blog post that Jay has written is about beginning to commute by bicycle and a list of rules that The Washington Post published to guide people. Jay’s point, and I think it’s a good one, is that rules help and a top ten list of what to do or not to do helps, but they won’t move you from novice to virtuoso rider (or even from novice to competent rider). What will help you ensure that you are safe and comfortable riding is practicing. This paragraph is especially clear:

“my advice is to ride a lot but when you start, try to minimize unpredictable situations. Taking the insights from the model I discussed, while you are still learning the rules of the road, how your bike works and how your body works, try to limit situational factors that could be dangerous. When you first start, ride where there isn’t traffic and at times of day other than M-F during rush hours. Ride in weather that you and your bike can handle. As your fitness and comfort levels increase, you can make choices about adding complexity to the rides. Finally, if you come across lists of rules for commuting by bike, understand the value of such lists. But, more importantly, understand the ways in which such lists are limited for gaining competence as you start commuting by bike…which I hope you do.”

The rest of the post is, of course, insightful. So, read the complete meditation, if you have time and want some strong advice about becoming a better cyclist.

Transportation is Freedom

October 1st, 2012 | Author: Sam
Category: Get Involved, Transit, Uncategorized

“Transportation is freedom” was one of the take-away points from Jarrett Walker‘s presentation at the Heartland Active Transportation Summit on Friday, September 28, 2012. Walker earns his living thinking about public transit and helping others do the same. Therefore, it was no surprise that he offered many interesting questions, theories, and terms.

My Photo The idea that “transportation is freedom” is so obvious that it is often overlooked. Hearing Walker articulate this sentiment so eloquently helped me understand the attraction to owning a car. When people have immediate access to any place in the vicinity, they feel free. Anyone who has been car-free for even a short period of time knows the disadvantages to depending on other people for rides. His point is that if people have access to convenient transit, they can feel that same freedom. Transportation, then, is a form of agency, the power to do what we want to do.

Walker explained that five factors impacted the efficacy of transit: (1) frequency, (2) span, (3) speed, (4) reliability, and (5) capacity. I’ll explain what each of these means in terms of buses. Frequency means how often the bus comes. Span refers to how early it starts running and how late it stops running. Speed means how fast it goes. Reliability means it is there when it should be. And capacity means how many people it can accommodate. Walker is an advocate for choosing the appropriate technology (meaning the kind of vehicle) and argued during his presentation that technology usually doesn’t fix any of the problems that can arise with these five factors. At the extremes, technology can impact capacity and span .

Ran-630-autotram-extra-grand-630w If you get a bigger bus, you can fit more people. If a city spends more money installing a light rail that doesn’t need an operating, then it can run the light rail into the wee hours of the morning. However, although we are emotionally connected to speed and reliability, technology generally doesn’t affect them. He explained that these two factors are determined by how long the vehicle stops and by what can get in its way. So, if a bus has a dedicated lane, it can be just as fast as a light rail. Span and frequency are the most cost-intensive factors, after the initial investment, because they depend on employing more people to operate the vehicles. Speed, reliability, and capacity all get better as the system becomes more efficient. He goes on to suggest that when city planners/city council members try to imagine the needs of people using transit, frequency is the most difficult to explain to habitual car-users. Speed, reliability, and capacity are part of the personal-vehicle experience, and therefore, are easy to imagine. He said that he uses the analogy of a store being open or closed to help habitual car-users understand what it feels like to be subjected to the span of transit. But he runs into problems when he tries to explain why frequency is so important. Often, transit designers conserve costs by having a bus run less often. His analogy about why this is a problem was one of the best things I got from the presentation. He said that to help habitual car-users understand the problem with infrequent service, he asks them to imagine that at the end of their driveway is a gate that only opens once an hour. What a truly poignant analogy! If you have to be somewhere at a certain time, you need to consider when that gate is going to open and get out before you miss it and need to wait for the next opening. Or if you are trying to get home, it doesn’t matter how tired or hungry you are, you will have to wait for that gate to open. To me, that was such a helpful way of articulating why taking public transit is sometimes problematic. He suggested that transit planners make maps that show how frequently buses run to help users make the best choices for them.

These five factors strongly impact the freedom that we experience in our transportation options. Transit can play a big part in cities’ transportation plans if it is appropriately designed and used. Walker’s presentation offered those who attended the summit some new ways of thinking about transit and about how to talk about transit. He has a blog called and a book of the same name.

What did you think of Walker’s talk? Let me know if you want to post a blog about it:

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