USC’s SHOUT-Y BIKE LANES: Bikers “win”, our community loses

Attention notice: Sustainability advocates can be as bad as developers who want to plant megaprojects all over. Strong-arming control over urban space sucks no matter who does it.

My beloved USC has a pretty gnarly bike design problem on its two major thoroughfares. I was rather unsympathetic when my bicycle advocate students went into a fury about USC’s supposed bike ban, which actually consisted of restricting bikes from the major thoroughfares only about 7 hours a day. That left plenty of other walkways for students to use if they wanted to stay on bikes without dismounting.

Now, there are problems with that, too. The rest of the walkways on campus have smaller pavement widths. These major thoroughfares are also dead flat. They are easier to bike on, and the flatness lends longer sight distances that can help pedestrians and cyclists see each other.

Of course, this bike ban was intolerable to bike advocates, who see bike lanes as crucial to their mobility. Frankly, though, there is much of the USC bike advocacy that isn’t about mobility at all. It’s about bicycling advocates feeling like they have visual symbols of their social importance that are stamped on campus and roadways.

So I guess–I guess–there are now bike-only lanes on these major thoroughfares. I found this out today not because there were helpful bike advocate volunteers out working to help explain the new set-up and how people on campus can navigate the new facilities, but by getting screamed at.

I was pottering along dreamily, walking along, when one of USC’s ubiquitous rent-a-cops on a segue started barking at me to move to the side, complete with pompous-looking gestures. I simply thought he wanted through. So I moved to the grass–where, by the way, people sit and walk all the time–and Barney Fife yells at me to get off the grass.

“PEDESTRIANS ON THE OUTSIDE LANE.” He screamed at me as he whizzed by in all his wanktastic glory. I shot back that he should blow it out his ass.

Now, would it have killed him to alight his little scooter to chat with me about the changes and the plans? I get that security people like to project authority, but dude–you are wearing little postal worker shorts and driving a scooter. There’s only so impressed anybody is going to be by you to begin with.

I walk on, my mood destroyed by being verbally attacked at my workplace, and I see another rent-a-cop yelling at a young woman who was *walking her bike* in the ENTIRELY UNMARKED area in front of Tommy Trojan. Yes, these genius new bike lanes just disappear when you get to the campus’s biggest intersection. What was the girl supposed to do? Levitate? When she reached the end of the VERY VERY SPECIAL SEPARATE BIKE WAY, was she supposed to wink into a parallel universe or maybe a wormhole that takes her to the other side of the intersection via Bajor? WTH? She was doing exactly what she should have been doing to be polite, safe, and considerate of others. AND YET CAMPUS POLICE SHOUTS AT HER?

What are we DOING?

Ah, the restful civility that bike planning and campus sustainability brings to a beautiful, sustainable world.

And that’s my point. Hey, the bike advocates “got theirs.” Nothing else in planning matters, right? Culture doesn’t matter, community doesn’t matter, helping people with the transition doesn’t matter. All that matters is your win for the bike lanes. You got your pet project approved and/or built. Good job.

After all, bikers are savingtheplanetandfightingobesityandcleaningtheairandcombattingclimatechangeblahblahblahblahblah and…well, when you are on an important mission like that, making people welcome to use the space now that you’ve got yours doesn’t matter.

No, we aren’t going to train rent-a-cops to stop, get off their little scooters, and actually talk to people like me like we matter in this place. We aren’t going to have rent-a-cops on foot walking around and helping people understand the new, unbelievably crappy signage. No. We are going to shout at people on our campus like they are shoplifters trying to sneak out of the bookstore with Trojan gear shoved under their blouses.

Finally, the design and placement of the new ‘bike only’ lanes makes no sense in an American context, and their placement increases bike-pedestrian conflicts. The bike lanes are on the inside lane, so that NO MATTER WHICH way a bicyclist turns, he’s moving across the “pedestrian way.” By all means, let’s have the heaviest and fastest-moving vehicle have to demonstrate the most care.


Don’t scream if you meet a cow and other rules for women cycling in 1895

Mobility is, at its most basic levels, inherently transgressive. If it isn’t, ask yourself why repressive places bind feet, refuse to allow licenses, or even movement outside without complete covering.

Wheels of Changes by Sue Macy has been getting its fair amount of attention around the inter webs, and deservedly so. It’s a delight.

Brain Pickings offers us this list of do’s and don’t for female bicyclists in 1895. It gives us some insight as to all the rannygazoo women were getting up to riding their bikes around cities, including the admonition that one not scream if one meets a cow or discuss one’s bloomers.

Next thing you know, these gals will want the vote.

And I’ll boast of my long rides if I damn well want to!

What if Biking Being a Fun Thing *is* the Important Thing?

So how dare I suggest that it might be more important to be a fun thing than an Important Thing?

Let’s look at the other example I give: Locavore food practices are entirely discredited in one regard–they do diddly to reduce transportation-related emissions. They may even add emissions during their product lifeline.

Nonetheless, locavores are still out, doing what they are doing, and with very little opposition. And that may be a good thing. Why? Because local food tastes good. There is a market for it. Having access to it is an amenity–that’s why it’s associated with well-to-do people. Well-to-do people: if we have a particular talent, it’s that we know how to get nice stuff for ourselves.

As a by-product of that, there are perhaps some subsidiary social benefits: people may eat some more veggies, and the food supply in places with few other options can get more and better food. There is a competitor to Big Food Corps. But all those social benefits come first and foremost because the thing–the center idea being sold–has inherent, lasting utility to the people practicing it–including those who aren’t sold on the Grand Social Vision.

So for bicyclists, what does that mean? It means that as soon as you start arguing we should invest in biking because of the Big, Important Social Claims–fighting obesity, battling climate change, the whole ball of wax—that means people are going to start questioning you and challenging you based on the Big Social Claims.

Then pointy-headed social sciences types like me will study it. Half the studies will say Big Important Social Claims are true, and the other half will show little effect. Or worse, like the locavore food studies, the results of the body of research will fail to provide evidence the Big Social Claims really work out.

But biking is still fun at the end of it all. It is indisputably fun. Bikers indisputably derive value from their biking. When was the last time you heard the argument go like this:

You: “Biking is great, I really enjoy my commute.”
Opponent: “No, you’re wrong, you don’t enjoy it.”

Never, that’s when. Your and others’ enjoyment is–after all of the noise–the core value that can not be discredited.

It may be the fault of the public policy field itself, this tendency to want to prove or disprove social good. Or it could be the political discourse we have that acts towards any and all public investment like a Puritan elder rebuking sin: if we want to invest in something, we have to act like Everybody Wins.

But what if it’s entirely legitimate to want your cities to have enjoyable things in them?


And if you think that Being a Fun Thing isn’t more important politically than Being an Important Thing, look at stadiums. There is nothing more settled in the policy research than stadiums. Cities always put more money in than they get out. Perhaps there are a few examples somewhere, but in general, stadiums cost taxpayers money. And yes, stadiums get built because powerful coalitions of elite actors want them. But democratic action matters; if taxpayers really hated stadiums, they’d hand those elites their fannies. There’s a reason why we’ve had decade after decade of stadiums and value pricing on freeways (despite being invented decades ago) is just peeking through the public policy clouds.

That reason: a large subset of taxpayers likes to go to football games and concerts, and large subset of taxpayers hates paying for roads.

Remember when biking used to be a fun thing rather than An Important Thing?

I think one of the reasons why there is a resistance to otherwise nice things like local foods and bicycling concerns the often terminally joyless way their advocates present the Great Social Good that The Better People Who Do These Things create, unlike you, you indolent, planet-killing dolt.

Before it became about Changing the World and Proper Urbanism and Saving the Planet and Fighting Obesity and Duking it Out With Those Planet-Killing Killers in Cars, Yelling at Everybody to Make Bike Lanes and Treating Bicyclists With the Respect They Deserve, riding a bike outside was…fun.

There’s part of me that thinks the fun part of it is a lot more worthy of public investment than many of the Important Social Claims.

Here are some kids messing around on bikes, no bike lanes, no Proper Urbanism, no multi-million-dollar bike parking facilities with lockers. Just bikes, a makeshift ramp, and some kids with free time (on a low-volume suburban street, for you sensitive viewers who will be scarred at the sight of the hopeless desperation in which these children of the Provo suburbs live, in single-family houses, rather than on the lively, sun-loving, Proper Mixed Use Streets of Much Righteousness). They don’t appear to have sidewalks.

The song is one of my favorites about bicycling, from a band called All The Apparatus.

I like how the kid with glasses mans up at the end. Well done, kid.

Wish they were wearing helmets though.

Bicyclists’ liability

Bicyclists are fond of telling me that they should be taken seriously as a mode. I do take the mode seriously. But being taken seriously has a double-edge to it.

One of my wonderful PhD students sent this to me yesterday: Cyclist fractures pedestrian’s skull, gets $400 fine

So what is the right response? I suspect that the reason the fine is so light is that the jurisdiction has, in the past, the most experience with child bicyclists, who do little damage (usually hurting themselves, unfortunately). But this was 49 year old man behaving like an ass.