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.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sharing the Road as a Christian Act?

It doesn't come up often in my bikey and academic circles, but I spent a good portion of my childhood afternoons entertaining myself at a Lutheran church where my mom was the office manager.

Sometimes I pondered the meaning of a wooden sign that said "No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace." Other times I watched these Hanna-Barbera "The Greatest Adventure" videotapes.

I also read the bible a lot, skipping over all the lists of names and marveling at the racy stuff I found about spilling one's seed on the ground and prostitutes. My point is, I know a thing or two about bible stories. I grew up with the idea that Jesus inspired faith through his own faith in humanity, that the bible's stories about his kindness were meant to teach us how to share our lives joyfully with others.

Do people think about being Christian when they're driving?  This morning, my mom and I biked through San Juan Capistrano at a quiet hour, speeding to catch the 7:34 train that would carry us to CicLAvia in downtown Los Angeles. As we passed the Mission Basilica, San Juan's historic Catholic church, ringing bells lightened my heart, and I felt like a living connection between the town where I was born and raised and the city where I found a sense of purpose as a bike advocate.

Nearly twelve hours later, we biked back the same way. Having floated up to cloud nine at seeing the hundred thousand happy faces of people biking and walking through central LA, I plummeted down to earth again when we passed the church and a man nearly hit us with his car. There is a back entrance to the church's parking lot that opens onto Camino Capistrano, and there is an entrance to the train station's parking lot directly across the street. He was pulling out to the right while looking to the left, and we were turning left into the same lane. I was within a few feet when I realized I would have to call out to get his attention, because he wasn't looking forward while his car came accelerating towards me. "Hey!" I called. The man looked up, clearly startled. Then he screamed, "get out of the street!" His window was down, so I thought I could explain that we were using the road lawfully, but when I attempted to speak to him he hit the gas and swerved around my mom, burning rubber and nearly fishtailing in his rage.

You know how when you go to the library and check out a book, it's yours to use for a while. You followed the correct procedure, and you're walking out the door. What if somebody came up to you, shouted "that's mine!" and grabbed the book out of your hand? Wouldn't you think, um, somebody doesn't know how to use a library. So what's the deal with people using public streets and then telling other lawful users that they don't have the right to be there? We get told as bicyclists over and over that our right to occupy space is meaningless in the face of someone else's. It's a very dehumanizing and frightening experience.

Usually when a motorist treats me like dirt, I don't have much recourse. They go on their way, thinking that I'm wrong for using the road, probably not questioning their own ignorance regarding the laws governing the street upon which they are operating heavy machinery. But after this man sped off past the church, I decided that in this case I could appeal to a moral authority, so I went to find a priest. Since he was pulling out of the church parking lot and I saw a number of other people hanging around outside the way people do after church, I thought that a mass had probably just ended. I didn't find a priest, but I did find a notebook on a table inside the church where I explained what had happened and urged the clergy to talk to their parishioners about how they are using streets alongside other people, not enemies.

What if churches preached sharing the road? What would our streets be like if pastors reminded their flocks to remember that we travel among people who should be treated in ways consistent with how we would like to be treated? What would it take to make that connection, between what you hear about in church and how you treat your fellows on the road?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Stark Divisions and Bike Social Justice in New York City

On our way to Europe, Ben and I stopped in New York City for a few days to see friends. Our first stop was Rockaway Beach, where we swam in the tepid Atlantic while tiny crabs nibbled our toes. Afterwards, as a friend drove us through East New York to where we would be staying in Bed-Stuy, we talked about how in massive old cities there can be whole neighborhoods that have been standing for over a century, and they're not landmarks, they're just worn out houses. I'm a child of the west coast, where 1970s stucco boxes reign supreme, and I still get excited when I see buildings from the nineteenth century. Of course, these neighborhoods are seen as future sites of value as future trendy enclaves, but the New York gentrification that started in the 1970s has yet to remove poverty and blight from all corners of the boroughs. How much longer will the low income communities who remain here be able to hold on when the city would clearly prefer to see property values rise rather than ensure that all families have access to affordable housing?

As we cruised down a crowded avenue, conversation in the car ceased when we spotted an amazing physical feat happening outside our open windows. A man was riding a bicycle like a unicycle, popping a wheelie and traveling against traffic in the street. His bike did not have a front wheel. Was this a person getting around in the only way he could, being creative in a way that creative class economies wouldn't value? Or was this a street clown showing off his skills?

That night, we took a walk from Bed-Stuy to Prospect Park, then cut over to the East River to see the Manhattan skyline. We saw a lot of handsome brownstone townhouses, and the sun setting behind a church. 

In Bed-Stuy, businesses seemed to cater to an African-American and East African clientele, and I saw a few mosques. I felt really self-conscious, trotting around in my velvet minidress with two skinny white boys. We were in a place where stark divisions between black and white made me wonder where passersby would place me, a brown hipster with a sharrow tattoo. As we walked, more and more cafés catering to people like us appeared.

When we reached Prospect Park, we stopped and talked about the separated bike lanes built around there.

I haven't followed New York's bike lane controversy too closely, but I know that there as in the rest of the country communities have been framing bike lanes as symbols of neighborhood takeover. Seeing infrastructure that seemed to aspire to Northern European heights, I thought about what it would take to promote bicycling there using community-based methods. If the people who live in the neighborhoods where new infrastructure goes in don't admire Amsterdam and Copenhagen the way that the bike lane designers do, are those designers imagining that a different population, more like themselves, will replace the people who just don't get it?

Rather than speculating wildly about this stuff as an outsider, I met with Shelma Jun, one of the organizers behind POW! People On Wheels. POW! is a really cool bike social justice group that Shelma and Helen Ho formed after meeting at this year's Youth Bike Summit in New York, where they realized that they shared a commitment to promoting bicycling in diverse communities. Both women are urban planners, and they are working to develop community-based leadership on bike issues in communities of color.

Even though they've only been in existence since this spring, POW! has formed partnerships with a number of community-based organizations and are taking care of business. They are doing research on biking on the Lower East Side, pushing for a social equity component for the city's planned bike share program, and I was excited to hear about a photo project they've been working on to show what diversity on bikes currently exists in the outer boroughs. I'm looking forward to learning more about their projects! I'm glad that they're working on building new, community-based images of bicycling.

I was intrigued to learn that Los Angeles played a part in inspiring POW!. Shelma got her MA in urban planning at UCLA, and she said that when she moved to New York last year she was surprised that she didn't find the same connections being made between social justice and bike advocacy that she'd seen in LA. Hearing LA spoken about as a place doing good bike work makes me feel like this: