Monday, December 31, 2012

Hipsters and the Environment

I first heard the term "hipster" when I was a college freshman in 2001. It referred to the frighteningly composed and catty clique who dressed in clothes reminiscent of mod and listened to The Strokes. They were irrelevant to me, though, because I thought I was a hippie. At that time, I was wearing purple patchwork dresses and trying to reconcile the boarding school kids who dealt weed and followed Phish with my teenage vision of 1960s bohemian California. The people cultivating dreadlocks seemed to find more excitement than I did in their subculture. To me it looked like a nostalgic performance of a long-dead play, about as vital as the Greek tragedies we were reading for conference. I was relieved the following summer when my money order for the Reggae on the River festival came back to me because tickets had sold out.

So, with my lifelong expertise in thrift shopping and the musical knowledge I had gained through the edgy tastes of my older sisters as my passport, I joined the ranks of the hipsters. I had bangs by 2002, when my aunt gave me several garbage bags full of her perfectly preserved early 1980s attire, and in 2003 I fell for a guy who wore black Wrangler jeans and who wrote his senior thesis in French about film semiotics. Riding a bike to impress a different boyfriend in 2005 connected with my desire to participate in the hipster subculture that throbbed through Portland. His favorite sweater, which I had created from a pink-haired friend's castoff dress, was bright red with a white angora lightning bolt. I spent my days at the fabric store where I worked doodling minidresses and planning sewing projects. I still have a good deal of the fabric I purchased with my discount during that year. But I realized that I didn't want to support myself through craft shows. I entered graduate school in 2007 largely because of a nagging sense that I was missing something by staying in Portland, with its amateur artwork on every café wall and hour-long brunch waits. And then, when I moved back to Southern California, the thing that had been missing, my teenage passion for social justice, took over my life. That's what I've been blogging about since 2008.

Make no mistake, though; I still look like a hipster. At least, I think I do. I've heard the term used to describe so many styles now that the only common thread is the contempt the speaker wishes to convey. You use the word to refer to someone you find vapid, superficial, annoying, try-hard. It's because of their hair, or the type of anachronistic shoe they're wearing, or their prattle about David Bowie being underrated. Ugh, hipsters! So easy to dismiss for their pretentious vanity. Just like environmentalists, really, with their endless nagging about recycling and their holier-than-thou attitudes. This really came together in my mind when I started hearing people dismiss bikes as a hipster statement. Like the only reason you would ride a bike is to try and look cool.

Well, that's me, that's how I started bike commuting. And then I kept bike commuting not because I thought I looked cool, but because I felt cool. That changed my life; it mattered less how I looked, and mattered more how I felt. What I did, my routine practices, could make me feel good, and because I have a big ol' social conscience, I started to feel less good when I realized how many ways I was contributing to nasty stuff. Riding a bike put me in touch with ecology, with fair trade, with social justice. I started thinking about where my trash went, how much water I was using to wash clothes, infrastructure, what connects me and the rest of the world. I started noticing the people who were riding bikes because they couldn't afford to drive, not cause they thought they looked cool.

A short while before I left Portland, I saw Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers' documentary about the Rolling Stones circa Altamont. In footage of the festival, I watched a young man on acid contorting his face, trying to master the waves of sensation passing through his body. Emotions flashed across, happiness, confusion, pain, while his hands flexed and unflexed. In the crowd behind him there were many other versions of this kid. Even though I had pored over my mother's 1969 yearbook countless times, and found The Crying of Lot 49 transporting, it had never struck me before that these people were just like me and my friends. They didn't know that their youth would become a set piece for Forrest Gump's personal heartache and a bottomless source of inspiration for mass produced goods. They thought something big was around the corner. In the film they all sit there, looking as cool as they could, waiting for the magic to pour out from the epic performers taking the stage. When the hour struck, during "Under My Thumb," it was not what they expected: a man in a psychedelic suit waved a gun and a knife-wielding Hells Angel, part of the evening's security detail, took him down.

The crime for which people condemn hipsters is detachment, satisfaction with surfaces. But this is what they are themselves reproducing in belittling the efforts of people to make real connections between where things come from and where they go. This is my understanding of the artisanal movement, the DIY lifestyle, the attention to details that make hipsters visually identifiable. Why is it despicable to care about how one's choices affect the world? I think about the incredibly wealthy people who benefit from this underlying class backlash, where things like shopping at Walmart get defended because poor people don't have other options. If you criticize Walmart, you're criticizing the poor. Now that is some effed up BS right there, but that is the strange reality in which we live. Calling out exploitation, trying to refocus attention through more ethical choices, marks us for bullying. Shut up hipster! Who cares where that food came from. You should be glad you have food. They want us to be that crowd at Altamont, distracted by the drugs surging through our veins, passive, until someone loses control and brutality becomes justifiable. But I'm not one of those kids, because I time traveled to the future and I know where their passivity got them: back to the suburbs, chained to their cars, producing new generations of young people who they drive to the Apple store for more white boxes full of experience design.

I do hipster stuff like cutting up old sheets and sewing napkins for friends. It feels good to make things, and finding colorful stripes on a sheet at the Goodwill outlet is a pleasure unto itself. Is that somehow less socially acceptable than going to Target and buying new dishcloths with a recycling symbol printed on them, covered in chemicals and produced by people living under extremely different conditions than I am? Does it make me an awful hipster that I get satisfaction from making a statement with how I live?

A lot of movements are counting on social marketing, the idea that our lemmingness as humans, wanting to show others that we're down with whatever they're into by doing it too, will get us into better, more sustainable practices. The things we buy are supposed to make us good people, because we don't just buy stuff, we take pictures of it and use it to display our identities on Facebook. We might as well be using this tendency to make sustainability seem cool, right? Some of us think that's kind of silly, and actually want to re-make our consumer practices. But would you be able to pick us out of a hipster lineup?

Hipster in Bogotá, Colombia
Hipster with the mayor and the founder of the ciclovía at the first CicLAvia
Hipster at a café in London, where she'd just presented her research at a bike conference
1. I'm a hipster.
2. The word "hipster" doesn't refer to anything solid but is lobbed at any youngish person who demonstrates that they care about something.
3. What appears to be detached hipster behavior could be a lot more grounded in ecological reality than driving an SUV around in the suburbs to buy endless packaged goods imported from overseas.
4. Hate the game, not the player.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sustainable Transportation is a Civil Right

Whose streets? Our streets.
I biked down to Columbia City on a cold night a few weeks ago to attend a Rainier Valley Greenways meeting. The greenways vision, as I understand it, builds on the older bike boulevard model to make transportation corridors that work well for pedestrians, too. It looks for ways to make small changes that mean biking and walking can be more comfortable for people of all abilities. One of the cool things about the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways movement is that it's been community-based, with local residents collaborating to propose street re-design to the city.

 I've been particularly interested in the effort in Rainier Valley because, as I've heard many times from Seattleites, one of the Rainier Valley zip codes, 98118, is the most diverse in the country. I did some interviews in Rainier Valley earlier this year, finding out what area leaders in communities of color thought about bicycling. From what I heard in those interviews and what I saw in my bike rides, bus rides, and walks around the area, bicycling isn't necessarily seen as an easy way to get around Rainier Valley neighborhoods. In Rainier Beach, for example, I saw less of the commuters that are common on my familiar streets in Capitol Hill, and more of the extremes of poverty and elite leisure cycling. I wondered how this difference would affect a project like greenways, whose success in other neighborhoods seemed to stem from the wisdom of existing cyclists very familiar with the local terrain. At the meeting in November I could see that the greenways folks were making a big effort to do effective community outreach.

I was chatting with an organizer from a different greenways group after the meeting, which made me notice that I kept reducing the effort to bikes. A few times the advocate I was speaking with clarified that he doesn't ride a bike. Maybe he was thinking something like, these bike people, always forgetting the pedestrians. Why do I so often forget that bike issues need to stay grounded in a larger framework of sustainable transportation?

I used to be part of a carfree social world through my everyday life at the LA Eco-Village. Since I moved to Seattle, I've found my most kindred spirits among fellow cyclists, even though I walk and ride the bus as often as I bike up here. I've had occasional twinges over this, because it's made me realize that people have very different ideas about what they're promoting (and to whom) when they advocate for cycling. The other day I had a bigger twinge, more like a full on kneejerk, when I read about an "apartment building designed for bicyclists" being constructed in a redeveloped area in downtown Seattle. I'm pretty sure the people that the developer, and the city government that co-signs money-making projects like this under the aegis of the Urban Infill Moral Imperative, have in mind as future inhabitants of that building are not working families that need affordable housing and transportation.

Because of its growing chic, bicycling is becoming more a symbol of some lifestyle (green, new urban, artisanal) than a mode of transport for the masses. That's why I'm thinking that getting caught up in the bike side of sustainable transportation leaves out some important concerns and undermines our claims that bicycling is for "everyone." If we keep moving in this direction, where developers can use bicycling as a way to sell more condos, it's going to get a lot harder to claim ignorance regarding the disparate effects bike projects have on different communities.

In the mid 1990s, a coalition of groups supporting equity in public transit won a historic case against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority based on the violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their claim was that Metro was funneling monies toward rail development and cutting service to bus lines, which had a disparate negative effect on communities of color, who used buses. Personally I don't want to see bike projects come under the same righteous attack. Maybe instead of working to frame our efforts as good for business, we should be supporting bicycling because access to healthy, safe transportation is a civil right.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Culture and Transportation in Copenhagen

In preparing to visit Copenhagen, I talked to my Danish aunt, a wonderfully energetic woman who is responsible for the fact that I associate Christmas with risalamande, marzipan pigs, and little red and white paper flags on toothpicks. I had recently decided to pronounce it Copenhawgen, as opposed to Copenhaygen, cause I thought that sounded more correct, and during our phone call Ulla interrupted me and clarified, in her spirited way, "the Germans say it Copenhawgen. In English, it's Copenhaygen!" Chagrined, I asked how the Danes say it. "København," she replied. Ah. 

This aunty anecdote has been included to make a rather obvious, but necessary, point: Copenhagen is Danish. It has Danish people, it has Danish traditions, it is the product and manifestation of Danish culture. It has Danish problems, such as a very conservative immigration policy. I will be writing about the neat things I saw in Copenhagen in other posts, but this one is more about the idea of Copenhagen as a place where there is no bike culture, as a place where bicycling is normal.

One afternoon in Copenhagen, I was sitting at a café table in a charming cobblestone alley lined with townhouses built hundreds of years ago, when a man driving a Hummer turned onto this narrow street.

Everyone stopped and stared because of the incongruity; perhaps because he noticed our attention, the driver turned on bass-heavy music that vibrated our eardrums as he drove slowly down the crowded alley. This spectacle prompted a new direction in the conversation at the table behind me, where a young man and woman were seated. The woman had a version of my own nasal, California accent, and the man flirted by talking in accented English about how many local club owners he knew, so I think he was Danish. Here's what I eavesdropped:
American Woman: I used to think Hummers were cool, but they handle so poorly
Danish Man: They're so expensive because Danish gas prices are so high. Gas prices in the U.S. are $4?
AW: Yeah, they thought they would get to $5 this summer, but fortunately they didn't. It really affects people!
DM: There isn't much public transportation there, away from the east coast.
AW: The systems are hardly usable. Maybe in New York it's possible, but the taxis there are cheap too.
DM: One time we took a men's trip to California, a week in Vegas, a week in LA, and we took a bus once.
AW: (gasps) I would never take a bus in LA.
DM: I think I sat next to two serial killers.
AW: Just the people you see at the stops look so trashy.
Then they strolled away, leaving me flabbergasted that I had come across the world to see a city where bicycling is normal only to hear people spew racist/classist bullshit about taking the bus in LA.

What I thought about later, though, was how AW framed her dislike of Hummers from the perspective that they don't drive well. DM framed it as an issue of expense. They had different ideas about what the choice to drive a Hummer would mean. The desire to make bicycling "normal" seems odd to me, when there are many existing cultural ideas about transportation. Many American bike advocates look to Copenhagen as the ideal model for our own, very different cities. When hyping Copenhagen's bike infrastructure, do they think about American diversity or the cultural meanings of transportation? I wonder if there is some vestige of a colonial worldview that makes Northern Europe something cosmopolitans aspire to emulate without wondering why they think designs from that part of the world are so cool. Copenhagen has tons of people riding bikes, but visiting made me think that when I hear about bicycling becoming something "normal," I'm hearing people sidestep the race, class, and gender realities that make each of us approach transportation differently. What's the difference between normal and normative?

Before I visited Copenhagen, I attended a bike research conference in London and heard presentations by several Danish bike researchers. One, a sociologist, started her talk by pointing out the importance of a critical approach, even when studying bicycling in Copenhagen. She said that the image of cycling in Copenhagen is aimed at a mirroring a particular elite identity, and mentioned that immigrants in Denmark use scooters more than bikes. There, too, transportation has cultural meanings. Could it be that there, too, marginalized communities have a heightened need to demonstrate social power, and, like in most of the world, bicycling might be avoided by people who don't want to seem backwards and poor?

I haven't made a point of following the Copenhagen fixation in the bike world, but it's impossible to not notice that many people think the city is a shining example of how bike infrastructure can make bicycling seem normal. What often comes to my mind when people clamor for infrastructure is that they see motorist behavior as fixed and unchangeable, and they seem to think that the only way to get more people biking is to simply remove bicyclists from interacting with motorists as much as possible. I'm pretty interested in how this elides the social participation of motorists in shared streets, as though they really are, like the car commercials would have us believe, traveling alone in a climate-controlled comfort zone. In Copenhagen, I saw this imagined automobile sovereignty clash with social reality just like I do at home.

On a Friday night, I saw a car parked partially on the slightly grade-separated bike path next to a busy street. Several bicyclists tapped the car as they rode past, out of annoyance I assume. Suddenly the passenger slammed his door open, into the body of a passing bicyclist. The man on the bike fell over in slow motion, stunned, knocking over several bikes parked on the sidewalk while I heard sickening crunching sounds. The passenger got out of the car and put his hand on the man he had doored, but then he ran off to try and catch one of the people who had tapped the car. Maybe separating transport modes helps maintain hostility between road users; rather than forcing them to face each other as social equals it keeps them apart.

After I left Copenhagen, I traveled to the Netherlands to attend another bike research conference. During the Q&A after my presentation, a Danish bike researcher suggested that bike advocates in LA and other U.S. cities should just ride normal bikes; this would show people that biking does not have to be something extreme. I knew that he meant the heavy cruisers that fill Danish and Dutch bike paths, and I told him that bike advocates do, in fact, ride these, making a big deal out of how un-sporty they are and filling their symbolic baskets with symbolic flowers, popping off briefcase panniers and wearing suits and heels to make a statement. The thing is, I tried to explain, this does not look "normal" to everyone; it's pretty noticeably playing into a particular idea of what it is to be cosmopolitan.

My perspective as a bike advocate is that we need to flood the world with images of diversity in bicycling. We need to change the idea that you have to look "normal" (read: Northern European) to ride a bicycle. I don't know what bicycling will look like when it becomes unexceptional in the United States, but my guess it that it will look like lots of things because Americans look like lots of things. I think we're in a pretty good position to contribute some ideas about promoting diversity in bicycling, actually, but first we have to admit that design should take culture into account.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Irish Infrastructure

When I talk about "infrastructure," I'm kind of loosey goosey as to what I mean. Sometimes I'm referring to straightforward examples of infrastructure, like highways or bike paths or power distribution. Other times I'm talking about something that facilitates something else in a more metaphorical sense, like social networks and individuals within them. For this post, I've been thinking about infrastructure as something that tells you where you are.

This is the sound you hear when the luggage hatch opens on a Bus Éireann motorcoach.

In the U.S., the national bus service has a greyhound as its symbol. In Ireland, it's an Irish setter.

When we visited Donegal Castle, I thought about castles as a form of security infrastructure. These hanging fireplaces show how stone walls endure longer than wooden floors.

On this back street in Dublin, double yellow lines mean no parking.

Here's what it looks like when you sit upstairs on a double decker Dublin bus.

In Dublin's Kimmage neighborhood, glowing bollards light up a dark roundabout.

Across the city, an empty commuter train travels toward Dún Laoghaire.

The outlets can be switched on and off individually. I liked the way this made me think about energy efficiency, and how you could leave a charger plugged in but switched off. And switching those little buttons had a satisfying feel.

Towers for communications, towers for spectacle. Although I suppose radio towers are a form of spectacle in themselves, showing technological rather than architectural prowess.

More castles, this time on Dublin's city crest. 

A railway bridge in central Dublin carries travelers over the complex system of curving roads.

I get a kick out of how many competing designs there are for hand dryers in the world.

On board an Irish ferry named after James Joyce's Ulysses, a plastic tube protects a neon tube from Irish Sea spray. Nesting tubes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Another Auto Factory Job, or Less Dependence on Foreign Oil?

Last night, as thrilled as I was to hear a commitment to social equality and an acknowledgement that climate change affects us all, I couldn't ignore a contradictory theme in President Obama's acceptance speech.

"We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

"You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift."

"And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil."

I feel frustrated that the auto industry remains such an important symbol of American manufacturing, even as it is incontrovertibly clear that our dependence on oil is a massive problem. I look forward to a day when there's a consensus that a large truck represents overconsumption that ultimately keeps working families underwater (maybe literally), rather than being a hearty symbol of American labor. Courtesy of Mr. Rogers, here are some videos that show other things American workers can make (or used to). The bottom line is that we need more quality manufacturing jobs in better industries. Or maybe Ford and GM can go full circle and start manufacturing bicycles. They're useful beyond nostalgia.

Penny Farthing as Nostalgic Spectacle at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI

Monday, November 5, 2012

Carfree in Rural Ireland

At the end of August, we took a bus from Dublin to Donegal Town in northwestern Ireland. Renting a car didn't come up in trip planning, and I had some notion that there would be ancient footpaths connecting all the things we would want to see. We discovered that getting around its environs without a car was possible, but not exactly supported.

We stayed about a mile east of the town the first night. Our lovely hostess met us where the Bus Éireann motorcoach had left us, in the pedestrianized town square.

I had sent a Couchsurfing request to this particular lady because her profile said she lived in Donegal without a car. As it turned out, this did not mean that there were winding footpaths connecting all destinations; it just meant that when the sidewalk disappeared just out of the town center, we would be walking in the road.

I like inhabiting streets, but since I was in a country where I wasn't familiar with transportation etiquette, I stayed close to our hostess. There were a few spots on the beautiful country road where motorists might not see us as they came around curves. Most drivers slowed down once they saw us, which made me think that seeing pedestrians walking down roads like this must be somewhat common. I didn't see anyone else walking on the road, or riding a bicycle.

Later in the evening, we walked back into town for dinner, and I felt pretty jumpy walking back through the darkness to the house. There were no streetlights, so we used our phones to alert drivers to our presence. Each time a car's engine approached, and we saw the headlights emerging from the night around a curve, I shrunk against the forested shoulder, prepared to throw myself out of the road. Fortunately I didn't need to. Our hostess told us that rural bus service is unreliable and expensive, which means that low income people like herself can't afford to use it much. Sometimes she'll get a taxi home from town, especially if she has a lot of groceries. She said she didn't have a bike right now, I think she either sold it out of necessity or it was stolen.

She told us about the government's efforts to encourage more people in rural areas to switch to sustainable transport, which I was interested to hear about because I had learned that there is more bike commuting in Irish cities than in the countryside. I can't recall seeing any transport biking in Donegal, though I did see a regional bike map on a sign in the town center. We had a good laugh at the idea of politicians taking part in a reality show where they would live without cars to see what challenges people actually faced.

The next night we stayed at the Donegal Town Independent Hostel just north of the town center. This time we had sidewalks for most of our walk, but they were narrow and the street was wide and traffic was swift. I could see why I had heard that Donegal being spread out; there didn't seem to be much reason why there was a large gap between our hostel and the town, but houses seemed kind of scattered through the fields. This is what it looked like walking into town, crossing the River Eske.

From the hostel, there was an alternate route that took us onto a footpath into town, though you had to dash across the highway and walk down a gravel residential road to get there. The path took us along the edge of Donegal Bay.

Across the bay we could see the cemetery in the ruined abbey that had been burned around 1600. The abbey, along with Donegal Castle and a boat tour of the bay, are the town's main attractions. We took the bay tour and learned that this was a departure point for people fleeing the Great Famine of the 1840s. On the bay, we could see juxtapositions of old and new, like wind turbines on distant hills behind a tidal island surrounded by a rock wall. We did not make it out of the bay, but we did see it meet the sea.

Later on our trip, I heard a presentation by an engineer who was working for an Irish government agency that had plans to develop a countrywide bike network. They will be converting disused railways and things like that. It seems like that would be a great step toward making carfree transport in rural areas into something less invisible, and thus safer and more desirable.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Blogging about Bicycling and Anthropology

For the month of November I'm going to be guest blogging on Savage Minds, a group anthropology blog. My first post, about bicycles giving ethnographers a different perspective on urban space, is up now. I'm planning to write about promoting bicycling through positive and negative interventions in streets (like ciclovías versus a disaster), the development of a bike cultures research network in the U.S., and bike ethnography as a playful experiment.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New York Infrastructure

While I was traveling this summer, I took pictures of infrastructure networks in each city I visited, thinking about both the industrial side and the user side of things. When infrastructure works, it connects people invisibly. When it's broken, it can become a barrier to connection.

I was in New York City in August. Since yesterday morning, I've been glued to my computer screen reading updates and looking at pictures of all the broken systems people there are facing because of Hurricane/Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy. New York infrastructure is more than a means of moving people, energy, water, information, garbage, goods, what have you; it's a monument to human ingenuity. And even beyond that, in a country that has moved so far in an incredibly unsustainable direction, where so many millions are dependent on cars to access food and jobs, New York has remained an influential bastion of American urbanism.

The subway, for example, is a place where people leading very different lives spend time next to each other, which is an experience a lot of Americans avoid, intentionally or no, by living in suburbs. I'm sitting here, separated by a massive continent from the scenes of devastation playing out in millions of people's lives, and one of the things I'm sad about is that the New York subway isn't running. One of the first things I wrote about when I started this blog was visiting the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, where you can go down to a decommissioned subway platform and tour all the rail cars they have used since the various systems began. Each car has ads from its respective era, like this one:

 I read yesterday that the bridge carrying the A train into Rockaway Beach, a line I had used in August, was underwater.

Gizmodo linked to this picture that shows the scale of Sandy relative to the European continent. Sometimes during my cross-country train travels I wonder about the utility of having such a large nation. American regions have a lot more variety than we really talk about. But it's at a time like this, when the interconnectedness of so many lives is so painfully clear, that I can see a purpose in having an economic and political network across thousands of miles. Now that we've contributed to a shift in our climate toward more catastrophic events, maybe it will be all the more necessary to have large networks that reach beyond regional vulnerabilities to disasters.

I'm so sorry to think that the city that has shown over and over the creativity that can happen when we live in dense, urban spaces has been so threatened by our refusal to live at a human scale. Here are some things I collected in August that New Yorkers can't take for granted today.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

From Viking to Biking Dublin

Dublin was founded by Vikings, who sailed their wooden ships from the Irish Sea up the River Liffey to the River Poddle and found a defensible body of water that they called Dubh Linn, black pool. They built a stone wall that later became a castle, and today the black pool is a garden in the castle complex. The river that fed it now runs underground, and on the surface roam thronging hordes not of Vikings, but of tourists. The central quarters are packed with visitors who believe in this party capital's power to bring the fun (or at least the Guinness and traditional music). Hen and stag parties from the UK mingle with Croatian soccer fans as big blue and yellow buses lumber past and small cars wind through the curving city streets. A bike share system called Dublin Bikes has been installed, and I saw many people braving the densely packed traffic on public bikes.

With local bicycle planning consultant and sociology PhD student Damien Ó Tuama as my guide, I spent a day in late August biking around Ireland's biggest city. I felt very fortunate to spend time with such a knowledgeable participant in Dublin's bike movement. I encountered many of the same bicycle infrastructure designs and dilemmas that I know from the west coast of the U.S. I learned some vocabulary:
Bike advocate = Cycle campaigner
Speed bump = Ramp
Bike lane = Mandatory or non-mandatory cycle track, cycle lane
Right of way = Priority

 The travel-on-the-left thing made me feel totally disoriented, so I followed Damien closely on the sturdy hybrid he'd lent to me for the occasion. Bike lanes sometimes ran over double yellow lines, what to me look like the divider between different directions of travel, which here indicate no parking zones.

I had asked Damien before our trip if bike commuters in Dublin find routes that run roughly parallel to major streets to avoid heavy traffic like we do in the U.S. Turns out, in a radial rather than gridded city, this method is less feasible, at least close into the center. In the suburbs, where there are wider streets, the situation is different.

The city's ancient core has narrow streets that will not accommodate much widening, so bicyclists share space on major routes into the city with cars and buses, with the right to ride in bus lanes when available (though not in contraflow bus lanes). Since the buses are generally double deckers, this made me feel pretty small when they passed us.

Coming from the U.S., I really enjoyed seeing so many bus lanes. In many cases I saw that on streets wide enough for three lanes, there was one car travel lane on each side and a bus lane in the direction of the city center. Damien explained that the bus lanes had allowed for more certainty about travel times, which encouraged more people to use buses.

In LA, I remember people acting like adding a bus lane on Wilshire was tantamount to heresy. Burn the bus lane witch! Bike advocacy and planning mean something different in landscapes where there are already many people using public transit by choice.

Dublin allows taxis to use bus lanes as well. They deregulated their taxi industry in 2000, and there are approximately 13,000 cabs on the roads now. Their cabs are much smaller than the hulking yellow sedans we use in America for such purposes, but I noticed similar driver behavior there, with the cabbies darting and swerving as they attempted to bend space and time to get passengers to their destinations.

Here was a familiar thing: despite the infeasibility of developing a city-wide cycle network on narrow streets, Dublin's city planners have decided that installing separated bike/ped facilities is an important symbol of participation in a global sustainable transport culture. They, too, look to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, just like New York, which has installed a number of Northern European-style separated bike facilities in the last few years.

The Grand Canal Cycleway is Dublin's shiniest piece of new infrastructure. It follows the Grand Canal waterway, with signalized crossings at busy streets. It stops and starts oddly, with confusing signals sometimes applying to peds and bikes, sometimes to one or the other (apparently pedestrians are not supposed to use some portions, though they do anyway, especially at crossing points).

The cycleway has Ireland's first bicycle-only signals.

We passed a tram station that connected with the Grand Canal path. The station was on a newly opened line that had been built along an old tramway, where they'd had to rebuild a number of bridges that had been torn down many years ago. More evidence of global trends in transport infrastructure: people turned on streetcars here, too, and now we're all having to rebuild things our great grandparents took for granted.

Following the Grand Canal took us into a redeveloped industrial area that had the same kind of glass and steel lofts that I see in every city. It lacked a distinctive character, but maybe that will come with time as people move into the empty spaces? Personally I fail to see the appeal of such uniformity, but I think others might see it as a meaningful symbol of participation in a modern global economy.

The bike lanes are divided into “mandatory,” which means they are always restricted to motorists, and “non-mandatory,” which means motorists can drive or park on them during certain hours. 

Up until very very recently, cyclists had to use cycle tracks (with the correct statutory signage) where they were provided, and this has now changed due to more than ten years of focused campaigning. Hooray for bike advocates!

I also saw a lot of what I would call “bike boxes” and what Damien called “advanced stop lines” painted before intersections at stop lights. Apparently these have been around for about ten years without necessarily educating drivers about sharing the road; many or even most motorists just pull up into them.

One piece of infrastructure I learned about that has had a big impact on road safety is the Port Tunnel, a major project that removed HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) from Dublin's city center. In the period from 1996-2000, 13 of 18 total bicyclist deaths involved HGVs. Damien told me that pedestrian and cyclist fatality numbers have dropped dramatically since the opening of the tunnel rerouted most freight traffic away from the city's quays and city center routes, combined with the initially controversial lowering of the speed limit to 30km/h (17 mph) within the city center (stats up to 2007 can be found here).

Damien gave me insight into the human infrastructure that makes cycling in Dublin easier, showing me the passages and routes that were not marked with signs. At one point, we biked between the rails on a tramway. Cycle campaigners in Dublin have been lobbying to change one way streets there into two way for bicyclists and buses, but for now navigating can be complicated due to the lack of parallel streets.

We stopped to admire the Samuel Beckett bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, a characteristically graceful structure that looked like a massive harp made of bone. Damien pointed out how much of the bridge's space had been given over to bicyclists, pedestrians, and buses (the lane to the left of the car pictured is a bus lane, and there is another in the opposite direction).

As usual, exploring a new city on a bike showed me things I hadn't noticed while riding the bus or walking around, and the feeling of getting comfortable on an unfamiliar bike kept my attention to my bodily experience of the afternoon. I saw many kinds of people biking in Dublin, from students to workers to people with babies. They clearly have a strong advocacy movement, centered at the all-volunteer Dublin Cycling Campaign, which has been growing for 20 years. I was glad to see that their bike advocates are working with the shape of the city as it exists now, rather than imagining that massive shifts in infrastructure are necessary to increase the numbers of bike commuters. And innovations in Dublin have an impact on the rest of the country, Damien told me, where there is less biking in rural areas than in cities. I was about to see for myself what it was like to live carfree in a place like rural Donegal Town.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Irvine Wayfinding Signage Fantasy

When I lived in LA, I used to commute on Metrolink and Amtrak down to UC Irvine. I plotted out bike routes from the Irvine station, where both train types stop, and the Tustin station, where Metrolink stops. Here's the map I made a few years back detailing my bike routes:

View South Orange County by Bike and Transit in a larger map

I preferred the ride from Tustin, because there were fewer places where I had to interface with motorists entering and exiting freeways. When I was in Southern California last week, I was really pleased to find that Metrolink has expanded service in Orange County, so the options for commuting to UCI through Tustin have increased. But despite the new bike cars on the trains and the bike lockers at the station, there is no information at the station for how to get around the area on a bike.

Last month, I attended the World Cycling Research Forum at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Its suburban campus is situated between the towns of Enschede and Hengelo. Both towns have rail stations, and I used both during the conference. There were bike paths connecting many destinations in the area, including the university and suburban office parks. There are a lot of bike paths and bike lanes in Tustin and Irvine, too, but you don't see massive rows of bicycles sitting at the train stations there like I did in the Netherlands.

Would some wayfinding signage make bike/ train commuting seem more possible in Tustin and Irvine? I decided to take some pictures to show the bare minimum points where there could be some wayfinding signage to direct people on bikes to UCI from Tustin station.

Here's what a wayfinding sign to the university could look like:
I based this off of the bike wayfinding signs in Portland, with the UCI anteater mascot for fun.

When you first pull out of the train station, you make a left onto Edinger Avenue.

This island just before the intersection would be a good place for a sign.

You ride on Edinger under the Jamboree overpass, where there is a traffic signal. For some reason, the bike lane disappears through this intersection, but starts again afterwards. I was always careful to watch for right-turners here who want to speed onto Jamboree, which is a highway at this point.

Two signals up,  make a right at Harvard Avenue. 

This stretch has some of the widest bike lanes I've ever seen, but on the day I was taking these pictures I saw a man riding a bike on the adjacent sidewalk. I think this area is a good example of how infrastructure gets interpreted differently by different people.

After following Harvard's gentle curves for a bit, you enter the San Diego Creek bike path by turning right just after the intersection with Barranca Parkway.

 The bike path has a signpost up already, but nothing to tell you where you're going. I'm not even sure that it's called the San Diego Creek path at this point.

Soon you reach a bridge, which you cross and turn right to continue on the San Diego Creek path.

This is the longest stretch of the 5.5 mile journey, and I always enjoyed passing through the creek habitat as it changed through the seasons. Many Irvine residents use this trail, too, which is nice. I noticed on this day that an elderly lady stopped and stood to the side as I biked past, acting like I wasn't going to share the trail. I've seen a lot of recreational cyclists biking very fast on these trails, barking "LEFT" as they pass, so I'm guessing she was projecting her frustration with that behavior onto meek little me.

For the last stretch, you are biking parallel to University Drive, and you stay on the path till you reach Campus Drive (I don't know who chose these names, but that person is some kind of deadpan comic genius). Make a left onto Campus, and UC Irvine will be on your right.

Maybe some urban planner can explain to me why this thing that seems so simple is actually a complicated process that would require years of work to install. Maybe there's already a wayfinding signage project in the works. In any case, it'd be cool to see some signs up or even just spray paint on the ground showing people how to use the extensive network of bike infrastructure in Tustin and Irvine.