Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bike Infrastructure that Doesn't Help Bicycling

Sometimes I'm riding along on a street, and I come across a piece of bike signage so confusing that I stop and take a picture. Here are a few I took recently:

This is 14th and Pike in Capitol Hill in Seattle. The key here is that neither before nor after this separated bike area is there actually a bike lane. Once a bicyclist pulls ahead here, she will again have to take the lane unless she wants to ride directly into that parked car. It's not safe to re-merge over and over with vehicular traffic when riding a bike. Maintaining a straight line makes you more predictable to other road users, and demonstrates that the street is a shared space. For city infrastructure to ask bicyclists to remove themselves from the traffic lane in the middle of an intersection seems like a set up for conflict.

I'm certainly not the first person who has noticed the strange use of sharrows in Seattle (for example, Elly Blue talked to Seattle Bike Blog's Tom Fucoloro on the topic in November), but I just can't get over how randomly placed they seem to be. Some of them do what's going on in the first picture, where they seem to tell people to pull up to the curb at intersections (again, from a safety and traffic flow standpoint, this is a bad idea). The sharrow pictured here is on a curving street in the Mt. Baker neighborhood, and it seems to be telling cyclists that we should get as close as possible to that bulb out so that cars can more easily make the curve. In both cases, the bike signage seems to indicate that your personal safety as a bicyclist rests on you getting out of the way of cars.

Bike infrastructure should not be about keeping bikes out of cars' way. 

Signage like this perpetuates an idea that motorists should be able to travel as-fast-as-possible, that biking is nice, in its place. 

Our streets are dangerous not because bikes and pedestrians "get in the way," but because this as-fast-as-possible mentality makes people outside of cars into externalities.

So what should bike infrastructure do?

Bike infrastructure should make riding a bike safer and easier. Infrastructure projects that take bikes out of car traffic only to dump them randomly back in when the paint or path stops do not accomplish this. 

I was biking down in Portland recently, and it reminded me of just how big I feel when I'm biking in a city that has accommodated transport cycling. My body on my bike takes up the street, I'm not being pushed to the side and allowed to travel only where it's convenient for motorists. I love seeing sharrows that are out in the middle of the traffic lane, where they should be, rather than shifting along the street according to the expected movement of cars.

When I see a sharrow painted over a pothole or otherwise leading me into a dangerous situation, I wonder where it went wrong. Was it the worker painting the thing that decided to place it there? Was it a city planner who decided to place it there? And then I think, why would a design like this get approved? Is it because the people who made the decision to install this signage weren't thinking about how bicyclists would be using it, but about how placing bike infrastructure on these streets would affect property values?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Style Wars, Brought to You by the Internet

It's not often that I see a movie so good I feel disoriented. But ever since seeing Style Wars, a documentary about the early 80s hip hop scene in New York, I'm having a hard time concentrating. I want to learn more and more about that moment in time, when just about the most disenfranchised young people made the city their own by covering subway cars in graffiti art, not to mention inventing breaking and rap.

The film gives a glimpse of New York when it still had tumbling down or burned out buildings, not a lot of people around, greenery taking over empty lots, kind of like Detroit today. People of different races share accents cause they grew up in the same neighborhoods. It's exciting to watch the young dancers and bombers talk about their craft, even though they were filmed before I was born. A successful ethnographic documentary communicates the feeling of some social scene, and this thing is driving me crazy wondering what it must have felt like to be part of that moment in time.

I can sit at home in Seattle during an ice storm and learn about New York in 1982 because of the information infrastructure called the internet that people have used to post details about figures like Iz the Wiz, Rammellzee, Lee Quinones, Crazy Legs, and on and on. People who believe in the value of the film have launched a fundraising campaign to restore Style Wars. What have they done to get the word out? Posted the film on Youtube. Letting copyright issues get in the way of sharing cultural history would be about as stupid as the city of New York washing graffiti off subway cars. It didn't make it go away, it just damaged some pretty impressive works of art.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How Much Consumer Waste is Fueled by the Fear of Looking Poor?

Back in October, I rode a Greyhound bus home from Salt Lake City. If you're taking a long distance trip on the Greyhound, you end up spending an hour here and there waiting in stations along the way so that drivers can get breaks. My bus left SLC around midnight, and there were a number of people waiting to re-board. One such group was a mother and her little boy and girl, traveling with her boyfriend. Who knows how long they'd been traveling at this point. This lady acted playfully tough with her boyfriend and her kids. She seemed like she'd sheltered her kids through some ups and downs. The little boy slept protectively next to his sister, and the two got up with no complaints to file into the station when we stopped somewhere in Idaho around 5 am.

Recently I offended my mother by saying we'd been poor when I was growing up. She said she took pride in being able to take us to the doctor whenever we were sick and providing us with dental care. She didn't have these things as a child. My grandmother would wait until it was absolutely necessary to take her to the doctor. So I clarified: to me growing up poor meant knowing that we might not have enough money to make it through the month, and not asking too often for money to go to the movies or shows when I was a teenager. Being poor meant never mentioning the American Girl doll I wanted so badly when I was a kid. (She did learn about that a few years ago, and the next Christmas I found a Samantha doll wrapped up for me under the tree.) I didn't fly until I was 11, but then again we never rode the Greyhound or the train; we always had a car for long trips.  

Later that week, I heard an Italian-American woman who has spent her life in a close-knit community north of Chicago describe how her family moved between rented apartments many times when she was a girl in the 1930s. She always made sure to stay away from home on the days when the movers came. Why? we asked. Because she was ashamed that her family didn't own their house. Eventually her parents did buy a house, and that's where she raised her kids and still lives today.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the shame of poverty and how it impacts kids. I don't want those kids on the Greyhound to grow up feeling like dirt. But you know what a lot of people might call them? White trash. I remember my sister and I convincing each other that we weren't poor poor; we just weren't rich. And we were saved from being white trash cause we were half Mexican. Now I try to throw that all away and talk frankly about what I learned from watching my mother struggle to take care of us.

In my life this means being part of an urban sustainability movement that helps families. I want eco practices like bike commuting and carrying tote bags to the grocery store to seem like good ideas, not symbols of class. I want to be able to tell other grad students I'm riding the Greyhound home without getting a baffled look in response. But how we consume, how we get around, and where we live mean a lot to us outside of their utilitarian qualities; parents work so hard to protect their kids from the hardships they faced. Our culture's contempt for the poor goes very deep, and it's a self loathing that leads to a lot of consumer waste. I hope that in 2012 I can go further toward helping build a green movement that fights urban inequality by respecting struggling families rather than one that creates affluent future cities serviced by peripheral slums.