The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Tue, 20 May 2014

Cyclin' USA

[I wrote this last summer, as you can probably tell.]

In late June I was in a piano shop in Palo Alto, California, signing a rental agreement. I ended up renting a portable digital piano. Since it was a portable, the guy was clearly thinking about letting me take it home myself instead of paying for the usually-obligatory delivery. “What kind of transport do you have?” “A bike” I replied. There was no raised eyebrow. Feeling myself at once the doubly-strange foreigner, I even made some comment about my self-perceived eccentrism, but he flatly rejected it. “No, no... round here is bike central!”.

In relative terms, he's right. In the San Francisco Bay area, there is no shortage of expressed enthusiasm for cycling. Local governments, including my local, Redwood City, are quick to state their firm commitment to cycling and other sustainable transport options. Companies too, including my own illustrious employer, are quick to include in their “mission” a “commitment” to something sustainable.

The problem is that it's all doublethink. Everyday people's lives are hopelessly locked into the car-dependent lifestyle. And neither companies nor any kind of government make any credible moves towards changing anything—after all, they are staffed by the very same kind of ordinary, locked-in people.

This doesn't sound so unusual. All the above would apply to most of the UK too. There are, however, big differences between here and the UK. Many differences are simply of extent—the same problems show up, but tend to occur here with greater severity. But there are also deeper differences in attitude.

One such deeper difference is as follows. In the UK, there is at least a token attempt, by authorities and lawmakers, to give cycling some kind of notional status as road users. Local authorities know that they have obligations towards cyclists, even if they don't execute them very well, and even if “ordinary people” don't think much about cycling. In the Bay area, it's subtly different. Cycling has (even) less status in the minds of local authority employees. reflecting its even lower status in the minds of people at large. Around Redwood Shores I couldn't legally turn left at a majority of junctions, because they use induction loops that are not calibrated to detect bicycles. At least in Britain, it is only the occasional rogue junction that has this property. Here it's at least half of all signalled junctions. Of course, the same city's web site proudly claims a commitment to making their roads accessible for all. But their deeds don't match up. My accumulated experience led me to believe that this is not just haphazard incompetence; it stems from a baked-in belief that cycling is not a thing that needs full consideration, that “people don't bike on this road”.

That's not to say that people here don't like to cycle. They do. Here's an illustration of the difference. There's plenty of cycle “tracks” or shared-use “trails” provided around here. In most cases, they are completely disconnected from the road. What they are connected to is the “parking lot”. Most cycling infrastructure is not provided so that people can get to places. Cycling is something to do at the weekend, very often “as a family”. How do you get to and from the cycle trail? You do so in your family car, of course. In Britain, there would at least be some ill-designed attempt at accommodating movement on and off the cycle route. This kind of omission is another sign of a locked-to-the-car mentality.

In fairness, you don't have to go far from Redwood Shores to find large populations that cycle for transport. Mountain View, with its Google and Facebook campuses, is a hive of cycle-commuting. San Francisco, too, sees a fair bit of cycling. But the inconvenience level of not having or using a car is cranked up that little bit more than in the UK. The psychological dependence is also cranked up. It's not that you need a car—it's that the idea that you both have and use a car is more firmly entrenched among people who don't think very much. In truth, you don't need a car, but you pay greater inconvenience and annoyance penalties for not having one, because you are fighting against the work of these people.

It is a cliché to say it, but California is a place of contradictions. It shows us what happens when self-consciously and proudly “progressive” people are situated among the decidedly non-progressive lifestyle norms of today's America. One outcome is that tokenistic measures are taken readily and trumpeted loudly—to eliminate plastic bags (though mysteriously, that doesn't seem to have happened around here), to recycle (which is done reasonably well, so long as you don't have an incompetent housemate who doesn't know how to separate). But the pervasive culture of thoughtless consumption is never far away. At Oracle, paper cups are abundantly supplied at every kitchen in every building. Naturally, they come printed with a lecture about how there is no such thing as a sustainable paper cup. So why provide them? Even worse, the uber-strict kitchen maintenance leaves no room for the cupboard of communal mugs—a feature of every other office environment I've ever known— so you have to work extra-hard to avoid using the paper ones.

Doublethink is alive and well here—thriving, in fact. Companies claim to be “committed” to encouraging the use of public transport, car-pooling, cycling, and other sustainable means. But they do very little, and their employees respond accordingly. Once, I happened to be out on Oracle Parkway (the road along which almost all HQ buildings are located) at 5pm. It was choked with traffic, moving at a crawl when it moved at all. My first thought was that these people must really hate their jobs. Why else would they jump from their desk at 5pm, only to sit in this traffic, rather than spending ten more minutes at their desk, which would inevitably translate into ten fewer minutes spent queueing outside, hence ten fewer minutes of their life wasted. Only if they really hated their jobs more than they hated sitting in traffic would they make this otherwise foolish trade. But that analysis presupposes that rational thought is at work. This sad traffic situation cannot be explained by rational agents, hard economic fact, or other refuges of the optimistic. It is a testament to the dull plasticity of human thought—the inability to act differently from “the norm”, despite whatever highly apparent justifications there might be for doing things differently. The state of cycling in the suburban Bay area is another instance of the same problem.

I was reading about Swift, a company founded by Aaron Patzer (of fame, although some years earlier he also interned at the same peculiar little research lab in Princeton where I would later spend the summer of 2007). The article's omissions say it all. There's a means of transport that is the ideal solution to the “low-density metro”. It can cover miles in minutes, and it even runs on those super-cheap “asphalt roads” that the article trumpets. Yes—it's the bicycle. That a person can write such an article and jump straight from “asphalt” to “car” says a lot about the problem. People aren't locked in to the cars by force, but by lack of imagination—by the very normal human inclination to do only what other humans do, the “normal”, familiar thing, unthinkingly.

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