Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Getting Back on the Horse: Guest Post by Alex about Biking Again after an Injury

A while back, I learned that two different friends who didn’t ride had lost their ability to bike due to illness or injury. Before that, they’d both been bike commuters, and one had even been employed as a bike advocate. Giving up biking was a difficult life change for both of them. Since there’s not much discussion around disability and bikes, I asked my super fun good friend Alex Cook, who stopped biking for a few months because of an injury, if she’d write about her experience. The following is a guest post by Alex, with photos by Ursula Moffitt.

I have been an avid biker since I met Adonia in my late college years. Sure, I knew how to bike before then and occasionally did, but she showed me how easy it was to get around town on a bike and how fun trips with friends could be. In the summer, we would often go gallivanting about on bikes with an old boom box in a milk crate attached to the back of my bike. When I got a job five miles away, it was natural to me that I would bike, even though if you had asked me two years earlier I would have said that was ridiculous. At GladRags where I worked, we even won an award from the BTA (Bike Transportation Alliance) for being a small business with the highest participation rate (100% of the employees, everyday) of a month long bike to work challenge. Since Adonia inspired me, I have associated biking with freedom, adventure, entertainment, and just plain utility.

Late last spring, however, soon after I had been laid off, I broke my ankle in a silly running around accident. I soon learned that I would need to have surgery to install two pins and a plate in my right leg. I was completely debilitated and depressed. I was crushed that I could not participate in so many summer activities. Biking in Portland is fun, but biking in Portland in the summer is magical. I would even miss the annual 3 week bike festival called Pedalpalooza, which includes midnight rides, taco runs, and bike theater (my mother was very sad that she missed the naked bike ride. She slept through it while she was helping me during my surgery).

I was out of commission for around 3 and a half months. In that time, not only did I not bike at all (obviously), but I also did not move around very much and had certainly lost some of my energy, endurance, and about half the muscle mass of my calf. Biking was pretty far from my mind during the recovery process. I was scared that I would be awkward on my bike or worse, that I would re-injure my ankle. The fact that it was my right ankle made me even more nervous about biking, because that is typically the foot you use to bear the load of yourself and your bike when you stop. Additionally, by the time I was healed enough to even possibly bike, autumn had started in Portland and that means rain and slightly less fun biking and lots of wet leaves to slip on.

Throughout my injury, surgery, and recovery process, I had an overwhelming sense of dependence, which was stressful because I am a self-reliant young woman who does not feel like I should need that kind of attention. Remembering the sense of freedom that bike riding gave me, I knew I wanted to get back to riding.

After I had ditched my crutches, but while I still had a limp, I picked a day when I felt comfortable biking. It was sunny and my boyfriend was hanging out at home in case something happened. I picked a safe street with few cars and took a short ride. It was wonderful! I had forgotten what it felt like to have the wind and sun on my face and experience the beauty of my neighborhood. It was not nearly as awkward or difficult as I had anticipated. There was still some pain in my ankle, but no more than if I had walked.

I challenged myself to longer and longer rides and was soon back to my old habits. Biking was actually easier than walking, because there was less pressure on my ankle. I felt independent and liberated from the relative confinement of my injury.

The key to biking after any long absence is to make sure you are comfortable and using moderation. Obviously, you should not do anything too physical if you are not comfortable or if your doctor has advised against it, but if you are cautious and persistent, you can regain that sense of freedom, adventure, entertainment, and utility that comes with riding a bike!

I’m really glad that Alex was able to get back on her awesome gold bike! Portland is a pretty ideal place to take it slow and get comfortable riding again, cause it’s a city where bicyclists are largely taken seriously as road users and aren’t harassed nearly as often as we are in other cities. Can’t wait to hang out with Alex on bikes again!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Green Development and Sense of Place

Last weekend, I took the bus to White Center for a bike repair event at a food bank there. On the map, it looked like I would get off the 60 and walk a few blocks through an urban grid to my destination. I was unprepared to step into a new urbanist colony, but there I was, walking through what looked like a Ray Bradbury description of some New Town on Mars. Cheap construction, few people on the sidewalks. Retail spaces below apartments. Then, a few blocks in, the sidewalk vanished and I found myself walking alone down a two lane road with houses on either side of the street. What had been here before New Town (actually called Greenbridge)? Was this downtown White Center?

When I got to the food bank a mile or so later, I had a lovely chat with the director, and she told me that the new development was King County public housing, and had replaced WWII era barracks that had been Section 8 housing. There was a town in White Center, but it was a short distance west. After chatting with people about bikes for a bit, I headed over to downtown White Center, and found a midcentury retail zone that had many empty storefronts. Lots of Latino-owned businesses, lots of people walking around and waiting for the bus.

Why had King County invested in a new urbanist development away from this area instead of investing in the existing town? Why do "green" developments so often demolish existing buildings rather than restoring what's there? I imagine it has a lot to do with zoning and it being harder to get financing for rehabs versus starting over from scratch.

I don't know much about the politics and funding behind "green" development, but based on my research into the history of transportation infrastructure in the U.S., I can guess that it's probably controlled by developers who want public subsidies to go into their pockets rather than by experts on equitable urban sustainability. Like transit-oriented developments, for example. Before the rise of the private car, all dwellings were transit-oriented. People relied on streetcars, subways, their feet, and bicycles to get around their cities, and on trains to get between towns. Why is it that when people talk about transit-oriented developments now, they're only talking about new apartment buildings?

A few days before I made it to White Center, I attended a conference on "Urban Industrial Futures" at the University of Washington in Tacoma, where I heard a former governor of Maryland talk about how young people are moving to cities because the suburbs where they grew up lack a "sense of place." Actually, suburbs have a sense of place, they're just really boring places. 

Where does a "sense of place" come from? To very briefly summarize loads of theoretical work on the subject, it has something to do with the built environment, and it has something to do with how people use public space. In my experience, neighborhoods that have a homogeneous population, whether urban or suburban, tend to be less interesting places. Neighborhoods where there's a mix of people living alongside each other, mix in the sense of race, culture, and class, are rare, but we obviously think they're valuable cause they're often undergoing gentrification.

As long as we put our public dollars behind projects based on some notion that a sense of place can emanate magically from density, without taking into account cultural life and people's relationships with the existing built environment, I think we're backing ourselves into a very, very boring corner. I would much prefer to live in a shabby old apartment building on a bus line than in a new, "luxury" apartment in a TOD over a light rail station. Is this more than an aesthetic preference?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Send Congress the Message

Last night I went to a cafe in Rainier Beach to learn more about Puget Sound Sage's Transit Justice Project, which sends teens out to collect surveys about who is using buses and light rail in Rainier Beach. I got to look at some of the surveys, and I was really impressed by finding a community-based research project that also serves as outreach.

Getting ready to head home, I turned down an offer for a ride, thinking I should defy the recent warnings about transit violence in the neighborhood. I waited at the bus stop for a short time, and two young men came up. Ever since somebody tried to steal an electronic device from me when I was getting off the subway in LA in 2010, I try to stay very aware of my surroundings when I'm getting on or off transit. Making eye contact is a big part of this, so I briefly smiled at the two dudes. The look I got in return was less than friendly, but I decided to sit down under the bus shelter anyway. All of a sudden, glass exploded a few feet from me. My first thought: these little shits are trying to intimidate me. But when I looked up, I could see that they were just as startled as I was. Someone in a passing car had hurled a glass bottle at them.

"Why the fuck would they do that?" I asked the guys. "I don't know!" they replied, cursing and obviously mad as hell. They were black. "It was some of those Asian gangsters," one teen said. I didn't see who was in the car, just heard it peeling off. They started yelling and posturing at passing cars, pumping with adrenaline and filled with rage.

It was a horribly up close and personal example of what an unequal power dynamic cars create, where a person can hurl a bottle out of a window and never face the consequences of that action. There was nothing we could do except stand there and stare, imagining the feeling of glass shrapnel cutting up our skin. This is extreme for me, but how normal is it for those teens? And do you think they're going to keep riding the bus one second longer once they can afford to drive? And, finally, when they are the ones inside the car, are they going to treat people on the outside like humans, or like video game targets?

Our congress is currently debating a federal transportation bill that has no funding for public transit, funneling all monies toward automobile infrastructure. How do our elected officials think we are going to solve our transportation problems by continuing to subsidize individual automobility? How do they think this is anything but a huge attack on the most vulnerable people in the United States? What kind of message are they trying to send?

A short bus ride later, I was back in my neighborhood, where people like me feel warm and fuzzy about using transit and riding bikes to brewpubs.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Blaming the Street for Driver Behavior

In the last five days, two motorists have hit pedestrians crossing a street around the corner from my home. The street has sharrows and on street parking. I cross that street often, and I know that people routinely drive over the speed limit. I have to wait long intervals to cross at unmarked crosswalks because drivers choose not to stop. I have a hard time believing that flawed street design is to blame for these incidents. I think, actually, there are two motorists who are to blame.

In a recent academic article, sociologist Deborah McCarthy reported that people who use bikes to get around in Charleston, South Carolina, a city with less than four miles of bike lanes, said that their risk as cyclists comes from driver aggression, not a lack of bike infrastructure. McCarthy seemed skeptical about this finding, suggesting that it may not be valid. But are those cyclists wrong? Why do we pretend like motorist behavior isn't the problem? Isn't the goal of infrastructure to control behavior?

If a road diet or traffic calming causes motorists to slow down, it's because they have accepted that they are sharing a road (or have accepted that they need to drive on a different road). I've walked and biked in a lot of cities, and I can tell you that a huge part of what makes bicycling in Portland easier than biking in other cities is that motorists often give me the right of way. They drive slowly, they stop when they see me. Even though Portland gets mentioned quite a bit as an example of good bike infrastructure, people don't usually mention driver behavior.

Transportation research often focuses on the built environment instead of on individual bodies making decisions that impact the people around them. This makes traffic crashes into the fault of some design rather than the fault of someone. The attitude that drivers can somehow yield responsibility for their actions to street design dehumanizes us all. Even the way we talk about crashes reinforces this; do you say "the driver hit the pedestrian" or "the pedestrian got hit by a car"? Jackson Katz, an anti-gender violence activist, advocates for changing the way we talk about violence against women so that it is clear who is responsible: "he beat her" versus "she was a battered woman." In the case of traffic violence, why are we so willing to leave the motorist out of the equation, and often flat out blame the victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

We expect transportation infrastructure to keep us safe. But people seem to go too far and expect individual behavior to remain constant so that we can all just interact with traffic signals and not each other. Guess what, people do unexpected stuff; that's why driving at high speed through residential areas is a bad idea. Biking and walking infrastructure that works trains people to use streets differently. It's not that it finally and forever separates people outside of cars from people inside of cars. Traffic is people.