Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intermittently Terrifying

Slate has a nice story about this picture.
I find bicycling in Philadelphia to be intermittently terrifying. I know that our streets are not actually a war zone. I've read the statistics, and I understand that the chance of my dying on a bike is smaller than when I walk to the grocery store.

But it doesn't feel that way. I've had my eye out for some actual data on this topic, and on April 4 help arrived from England.

Peter Walker has a simply nifty new book entitled How Cycling Can Save the World. He's a writer for a very good English newspaper called the Guardian, and he regularly covers biking issues. (He also worked as a bicycle messenger shortly after getting out of college, in both London and Sydney, Australia.) I suspect that this book will become one of the standard texts for people interested in reimagining our public spaces, along with Jeff Speck's Walkable City. It's aimed at the general reader, but it's also crammed with the latest research results.

The Near Miss Project
Those research results include a 2015 British study called The Near Miss Project that neatly fills the gap between crash data and our perceptions of danger.

The study was led by Dr. Rachel Aldred, who teaches at Westminster University, which is located in London. She and her colleagues recruited 1,532 participants from across the UK. The participants kept a diary of their cycling on a preselected day and rated any incidents on a scale of 0-3, starting with annoying and ending up with very scary.

According to the researchers, the data from the Near Miss Project "can represent a missing link between 'perceived risk' (how risky people think cycling is) and 'objective risk' (how risky it actually is, in terms of injuries and/or deaths). This is because they may tell us about 'experienced risk' - how risky cycling feels. Studying experienced risk could help us understand why perceived risk seems much greater than objective risk." (From the report entitled Cycling Near Misses, page 6.)

And indeed experienced risk does deepen our understanding. The researchers calculated that a cyclist was likely to encounter one "very scary" incident every week.

Drivers do thuggish things to bicyclists on a regular basis. And we now have the data to prove it.

So my personal perceptions were not overblown. It really is scary out there. If, once a week, you find yourself inches away from turning into road kill, then I think you have a legitimate beef. (For examples of life on the road in the UK, see this article in the Guardian.)

Control Bias, Familiarity Bias
As the Near Miss researchers suggested above, there is a suspicion that bicyclists have been overreacting. If you look at fatality rates rather than absolute numbers of fatalities, you will probably be less inclined to see overreaction. But I concede that it's a subtle argument. And standard psychology suggests that it's reasonable to at least look for overreaction.

In 2012 John Pucher and Ralph Buehler pulled articles together from 21 scholars on four continents and put them out as a book called City Cycling. There's a very interesting chapter on women and bicycling.

I was quite taken with how normal psychological processes may increase the perception of danger. "In particular," the authors note, "familiarity bias and control bias may reduce the perceived risks associated with car travel and increase the perceived risks for cycling." People tend to like things that are familiar and over which they feel a sense of control.

When you're riding a bike in traffic with cars, you are not in control. Of course a network of protected bike lanes would increase bicyclists' sense of control and decrease the perception of danger.

The familiarity argument is, to me, less straightforward. The basic idea is that if you do something more often, you become more familiar with it, and with familiarity comes a rising comfort level.

I think Dr. Aldred's data can lead us to a different view - one where regular exposure to very scary incidents can lead to a major increase in the fear factor.

Once again, however, a network of protected bike lanes would significantly decrease the ability of motorists to create "very scary" incidents with bicyclists, and bicyclists would tend to become more comfortable as they used the lanes more.

(See Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, "Women and Cycling," in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 211-234, at 225.)

Choosing Our Future
As I've said before, I personally think that a network of protected bike lanes could quintuple the number of people bicycling in Philadelphia.

But do we, as a city, really want to do that? I'm not at all sure.

Such an increase in bicycling would change the city dramatically - and I would argue that the changes would be good. But others, I fear, are clinging to the failed dream of the car. Detached house, a car or two in the driveway, picket fence. But no traffic jams, no deadly crashes, no smog. They're not part of the dream. Of course they are part of our reality today.

If you're still clinging to the dream of the car, you need to make the connection between your car's tailpipe and the asthma inhaler in your child's pocket. You need to stop dreaming, or at least recognize the nightmarish aspects of your dream.

And I think that's going to be a stretch for a number of people, some of them quite powerful.

See also A Sense of Perspective, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Vision Zero in PhiladelphiaWe Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Citizens of the Planet


University of Pennsylvania, 1984.
Long before the current wave of globalization, there was something called the British Empire. Britannia ruled the waves and also quite a lot of the land - from Australia to India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and something called Mesopotamia (the Brits called it Messpot; we call it Iraq), through huge swaths of Africa and on to Canada in the western hemisphere (next to the thirteen colonies that got away).

Inside this rather capacious grab-bag of an empire, people got used to moving around. And it wasn't just upper-class Englishmen who had this global mobility. Mohandas Gandhi, born and raised in western India, studied law at the Inner Temple in London and worked as a lawyer in South Africa for 21 years before he went home and became known the world over as Mahatma.

Fast-forward to Groundhog Day 2017, Dilworth Park, Philadelphia. There I was, standing with a couple of thousand mostly young people, mostly Comcast tech employees. And they were from all over the planet. They were a cheerful bunch, actually, but they weren't very happy about the first Muslim ban, which had hit a few days before. And I said to myself, I think Donald has just organized a whole new political constituency, and it's not on his side.

It wasn't just the recent arrivals who blew me away. There was a young man who said he was Irish-American; his family had come here generations ago, and his grandfather had fought in Normandy in World War II, to protect our freedoms. And he suggested that it was now time for all of us here today to fight to protect those same freedoms.

Closing the country down is an interesting proposition when just about everybody in the country came from somewhere else.

The people I was standing with weren't the typical immigrants that Americans are used to. The classic view of migration is the movement of poor people to a new area of greater opportunity - the huddled masses and wretched refuse trope, as encapsulated in the Emma Lazarus inscription at the Statue of Liberty. The people I was standing with are well educated, affluent, connected, and not accustomed to being treated like dirt.

This is what Steve Bannon ran into at the nation's airports when he started treating people with valid papers like dirt. And he didn't know it was coming. Shame on him for being ignorant. It seems he's like his boss in that regard.

But let's get back to what I occasionally call the globally mobile business class. I admire them, but I'm not like them. The biggest move I ever made was from New York City to Philadelphia. The idea of moving to another country is, I confess, something I have never considered seriously.

The globally mobile are just that - globally mobile. Migration for them is not a one-way trip to a fixed destination. An Indian computer programmer may go to the United States to work. She may wind up settling permanently in the United States. Or she may return to India, where her experience could make her a good candidate for a management job and increasing levels of responsibility. Or she might decide to relocate to Hong Kong. Or, during the course of her career, she may do all three.

Their mental map spans the globe. Mine, frankly, does not.

My father was actually better at this moving-around stuff than I am. He was born in southern Alabama before World War I and moved to New York City to go to medical school. And there he stayed, put down roots, and had a family, including, in due course, me.

Dad wasn't exactly globally mobile. But he did go home quite often. Sometimes all of us would go. Sometimes he would go by himself. He maintained those connections.

Here's a word of advice to Donald and his aspiring thugs. If you want to be a popular president, don't tell a young man he can't go visit his mother.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
I'm reliably informed that the Greek inscription on the 1878 Ivy Day stone above may be translated as "Not to live, but to live well." Thanks to Ashley Opalka and Emily Marston.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

$50 for 31 Minutes? Surreal Parking on Schuylkill Avenue


I stumbled onto the opening day of the new CHOP building next to the South Street bridge - March 20 - and then I hadn't been back until today. Progress, of a sort, had been made. There's an open-air parking lot on Schuylkill Avenue that is apparently open to the public. The first 30 minutes are free. Then 30 minutes to 24 hours cost $50.

Okay.

Who are these people?

Stop, Bill. Just report.

Here's a picture of the main building. I rather like it.


And here's the entrance to the garage that opens onto the South Street bridge.


It was open on March 20, but when I went by today, April 2, it was closed.


Not sure what's up with that. Here's what I think is the Schuylkill Avenue entrance.


If it's open, I think you get to it by going through the same entrance that gets you to the open-air lot.

Just to round out the story, here's some of the retail up on the bridge.


Here are the switch-back ramps on CHOP's version of the Spanish Steps. I think it will look nice when it's done. Have no idea how people will use it.


And here's the bridge across the railroad tracks to the Schuylkill Banks.


Here's a shot of the interior of the bridge.


And here's a view of the Schuylkill Banks extension under construction.


And that's what I have so far.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Legacy Street Signs


Have a look at this street sign at Waverly and 19th. I know. It's seen better days. But still it gives me the thought that we lost something when we handed the signage over to the car guys.

The big green signs we see everywhere come from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD. I think I have a problem with MUTCD, or at least with the way it's applied in Philadelphia.

I don't mean to be unkind, really. The green signs are supposed to be visible, and dear God they are that. And I gather they're reasonably inexpensive.

But they're also an invasive species. In much of Philadelphia, they have nothing to do with their surroundings. Don't get me wrong. I think these signs do great out on the Interstates, which is their native habitat. But in the older parts of Philly, let's just say they aren't great respecters of context.

Up in New York City, in the historical districts, they at least make the street name signs a pleasant rust brown, which goes well with all the brownstone buildings they have up there.

My thought for Philly is that maybe we don't need so many of these big green signs.

An option
There are other ways of doing street signs. There's that slender little pole on Waverly, with its equally non-aggressive sign. Philly still does street signs like this. Here's one just off of Rittenhouse Square.


The skinny signs have the merit of not getting in the way of the view, the way the big ones do. This is nice when you're admiring architecture, and it's also nice when you're looking for a restaurant.


I still think I would prefer rust brown to the green.

And it's also true that the skinny little street signs are not going to solve all our problems. Here we are at Waverly and 17th.


The utility wires are a definite buzz kill. You'll notice they're buried up around Rittenhouse Square. But I digress. There are a fair number of these skinny signs in the Rittenhouse area, but in my opinion there could be more.

A Second Idea
Here's a second idea. Say you've had the thought that a lot of sidewalks seem overly cluttered with street furniture - traffic signs, parking signs, parking meters, utility poles and wires, fire hydrants. Hold on. Let's keep the fire hydrants. And the bus shelters. But it does seem true that stuff keeps getting added, and hardly anything seems to go away.

Well, you could put the sign with the street name on a nearby building. Here's a nice one on Ringgold Place, which replaces Waverly at 19th. The building you're looking at was built around 1862. Note the period after the word place.


Below is a much less ambitious sign. It says S. 19th St. This is at Waverly, quite close to the pole sign at the beginning of this story. I really like the blue with the white lettering. Gets the point across without being annoying. Works well with red brick.


And here is some rather elegant signage at 17th and Addison. An old Bell Telephone building.


Here we are at the Curtis Institute, back up on Rittenhouse Square.



People are still doing this. Below is a corner of the new Schwartz-Siegel building at The Philadelphia School, Naudain and 25th.


My thought is, if there's existing signage, maybe we don't need to put up the green signs.

Think about it. The motorists who turn down these streets generally know where they're going, and frankly these are very low traffic streets. I often enjoy walking up the middle of them for blocks at a time, without encountering a single moving car.

So maybe we should treat them as the byways that they are - and should be. More discreet signage, on a more human scale and more respectful of context, would still be able to to guide pedestrians and confused motorists, who as an added benefit would probably have to slow down to read these signs.

Think for a minute about the visitor from Kansas or New Jersey as he's tromping up 18th Street somewhat in excess of the speed limit, late for a meeting and looking for Pine Street. Better to discourage him from turning on Addison or Waverly by not marking these streets as if they were part of the Interstate Highway System.

And then our streets could be just a little bit more about art, and finesse, and a little bit less about the roar of 18-wheelers.

Imagine. A hierarchy of signs for a hierarchy of streets.

Just a thought.

See also Alleys, A Tale of Three Alleys, My New Favorite Alley, This Isn't Just Any Alley.

Monday, March 6, 2017

I Just Love My Little Blue Rain Barrel!

The new arrival in my back yard.
There was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there were two nice young men and my new rain barrel. They also had a bag with some tools and a few accessory parts. Fifteen minutes later the installation crew was done with its work; we smiled and shook hands, and they left.

And I had a 55-gallon plastic rain barrel hooked up to the downspout that drains my roof. Free rain barrel, free installation. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

So what do you do with the water in the rain barrel? Well, you can use it to water your flowers. Probably not a good idea to drink it - hard to know how many birds have been pooping on your roof.

The main thing, however, is you're helping the planet. Yes, who knew. The PHS is into green stuff.

If you've noticed that we seem to be getting more intense rain storms in Philadelphia, and that there's more local flooding - where the storm drains back up into the street and create pretty little lakes at intersections - well, you're not crazy.

And one of the answers is the rain barrel. Every 55 gallons in a rain barrel is 55 gallons that aren't gushing up through the storm grate down at the corner. By the way. I call it a little blue rain barrel, and it is. But it's not a toy. When it's full it weighs about as much as a sumo wrestler. Don't ask me how I learned this.

The rain barrels are part of a larger program for stormwater management that emphasizes what is called green infrastructure, as opposed to gray infrastructure. Gray infrastructure means building new sewers and holding tanks and stuff, and pouring huge gobs of concrete. Using concrete to deal with all the rain that's on the way would cost a couple of bazillion dollars. Green infrastructure costs a lot less. Green infrastructure means blue rain barrels.

All set to get your free rain barrel? Well, hold up. You've got to get yourself educated first. Go to the website and sign up for one of their information sessions. Don't worry. You'll actually learn stuff. I know I did. And at the end you can fill out some papers and schedule your installation.

Two more things. First, the information sessions also have a road show. If you're in a community group that would like the Horticulture Society to visit you with a Powerpoint presentation and a bunch of sign-up sheets, contact Rosemary Howard, assistant program manager: rhoward@pennhort.org, 215-988-8767.

Also, the program does a bunch of stuff beyond rain barrels like rain gardens and permeable pavers. These will cost you money, but the prices are very attractive.

They only come in blue, but you're free to decorate. 2000 block of Moravian.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Life on the Farm

Grandma Moses Country, 1978.
I must have been about nine or ten years old when this happened. I was standing with my grandfather, who was chatting with one of his farmer friends. Grandpa asked his friend about another friend, and the farmer replied something like, "I think he went on the county." Nobody said anything for a brief moment, and then the conversation resumed on another topic.

I believe that was my first exposure to the concept of welfare. I didn't know what it was, but children are sponges for subtext as well as text, and I knew that being "on the county" was shameful.

Another day my grandfather and I were standing by the dirt road that ran in front of our house. He was talking with a man who had stopped his truck for a chat. It turned out that our new arrival was selling homemade applejack out of the back of his truck. I couldn't figure out whether my grandfather knew this guy or not. At one point he just said, "I like it, but it doesn't like me." An old guy dodge, tossed in with back-and-forth on such things as the weather, how the crops were doing, the price of milk.

And, after a while, the truck and its driver moved on to their next stop down the road. I didn't realize it at the time but that was probably my first experience with the concept of tax evasion. A direct line back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

And again, one fine summer day - actually these were all probably fine summer days - my older brother and I went to a Grange meeting with my uncle and aunt and their children, our cousins. The meeting was in the Grange hall not terribly far from where my uncle and aunt and cousins lived. I recall a pleasant lunch at trestle tables, where we sat on benches. I'm afraid I wasn't following the subsequent business meeting very carefully - my cousins could be quite amusing - until my aunt told me that the meeting was going into a segment where people who did not belong to the Grange were not welcome. And so, she said, my brother and I should go outside and play in the parking lot.

Which is what we did. I don't recall being upset. I believe we may have played the radio in my uncle's car, and eventually we were readmitted to the meeting.

And that, I believe, was the first time I experienced a closed social group from the outside.

Some readers may not know about the Grange. The formal name (I looked this up) is The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  It is an organization of farmers dedicated to mutual self-help - an "agricultural fraternity," as the Grange puts it. The Grange was founded in 1867 by a group of people that included several Masons. If I had known this years ago, I wouldn't have been puzzled by the Grange's inclusion of secret proceedings.

Survival of an Old Culture
So, self-reliance, mutual assistance, evasion of authority, and secrecy. These are all salient features of a small community organized specifically for survival in a dangerous world.

What we're looking at here are remnants of a very old culture. This is the village culture of Europe, which dates back at least to the year 1000 and was shaped by the needs of poor farmers - the vast majority of the population - dealing with everything from the uncertainties of the weather to the exactions of the local lord of the manor.

"Daily face-to-face encounters among neighbors in these small rural communities were the principal social environment for most Europeans from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century." (Richard C. Hoffman, "Villages: Community," in Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 12, c. 1989, pp. 437-441, at 437. See also Fredric L. Cheyette, "Villages: Settlement," op. cit., pp. 442-447.)

The internal dynamic of the village was to seek unilateral control over its own affairs and to dictate the terms of its relations with the outside world. Countering this dynamic were church and state - the parish priest and the local lord, who had an interest in law and order and also in taxes.

With the arrival of the industrial revolution, many of the villagers moved to the city. And guess what? They may have left the physical village behind, but they brought the mental village with them - a millennium of experience in how to deal with the world. This deeply engrained structure of custom and, yes, prejudice is alive and well today.

In the United States, because our history of slavery and racism is essential to understanding the American experiment, I think we may at times overlook or minimize the role of village parochialism.

So what does an urban village look like? In The Other Paris (2015), Luc Sante describes the typical quartiers, or neighborhoods, of Paris in the nineteenth or early twentieth century:

"The neighborhoods were self-contained and independent, each with its church, graveyard, main street, central square, range of shops and ateliers, as well as its own culture and ambiance, its folkways and politics. They were like the country villages of their time not just in their particular mix of atmosphere and occupation but also in that most people remained within their borders from birth until death, and many seldom ventured outside for any reason less momentous than a fair or an execution." (Pp. 35-36.)

Urban villages persist to this day and go a long way toward explaining the balkanization of politics in places like Philadelphia.

Beliefs
I would also argue that Donald Trump intuitively understands the villager worldview and panders to it shamelessly, and that this meeting of the minds goes a long way toward explaining why he is in the White House. Let's take just a few examples.

Taxes. Perhaps the most basic tension in the medieval village was over taxes. The villagers didn't want to pay them, possibly because they didn't see them having any positive effect in the life of the village. On the other hand, the local lord and the parish priest thought taxes were a lovely idea. The hatred of taxes is visceral, and appeals to rationality will not work.

America First. Isolationism is just the villager's insularity writ large enough to fit a nation. People intuitively know that the right solution is to shut out the outsiders. Again, appeals to rationality will not work. They're sure they're right.

Actions
You can't trump Trump by fighting him on issues like these. But I do think there are some things we can do to be more effective. Democratic leaders clearly find the villagers - whether rural or urban - to be puzzling. Just look at Candidate Obama's comment about clinging "to guns or religion" or Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."  We do need to get past our lack of comprehension.

And as a first step, stop patronizing them. They think you think you're better than they are. And maybe you do. And maybe you are. But you need to stop acting like you think you're better than they are. It's good politics, and a little humility never hurt anyone.

Stop expecting them to change. These people are not going to wake up one morning and discover that they have become liberal cosmopolitans. So stop trying to win them over with arguments that appeal to liberal cosmopolitans.

Get them some money. The middle class in this country has been hollowed out. We need to refill the shell, or at least show them how we would do it if they voted for us. Our ace in the hole is that Trump is never going to help these people in their pocketbooks. He'll put on a very entertaining show persecuting Mexicans and Muslims. But he's never going to deliver the bacon. That's something to work with.

One Last Story
In this last story I'm not a child anymore, and it's winter. One day my brother and I stopped by to visit someone we had known since childhood. He had grown up on a neighboring dairy farm, worked on that farm and, for a variety of reasons, decided to go out on his own. He had a small place not far away, and was exploring various niches, like serving as a nursery for baby cows until they were ready to go into the milking business. It wasn't going very well. If you know about dairy farming, you know that things in general are not going very well unless you have an extremely large factory operation in a place like the central valley of California.

With a characteristic smile and twist of humor, my farmer friend said the banker who gave him his start-up loan had told him that making a go of it would be hard, "but he didn't tell me it would be impossible."

1988.
See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama and There: Now You've Got Something You Can Eat!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Who Are the Undeserving Poor? Who Are the Deserving Rich?

The struggle we are presently engaged in will, I think, go on for some time; personally, I look at it as simply the latest acute phase of a very old struggle. Fatigue will set in, as it does in the later stages of a marathon. Indeed speakers have been calling it a marathon, but the marathon is, despite the crowds, a solitary struggle, and a little while ago a speaker at Tuesdays with Toomey happily pointed out that our present struggle is also a relay. A relay marathon, if you will. We carry the burden together. No one person can attend every rally; yet each of us needs to do whatever he or she can. 

With that in mind, here is a story that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on January 15, 2014. I am no longer able to locate it online, so I post it here.

Philadelphia, January 2014.  It's 13 degrees.  It's 6:12 a.m.  It's very dark.  I'm sitting at the breakfast table with my wife.

"This is insane,"  I say.  She doesn't say anything.

I say, "The only thing more insane is that Congress left last year and didn't renew the extended unemployment."

Lois sips her coffee.

"So I'm going," I say.  To D.C., I don't say.  On a bus; she knows.

She says, "Isn't it your fifth anniversary this month?'

Five years ago my life changed.  My employer of 16 years decided I was excess baggage in a business downturn, and streeted me at the age of 61.  Thanks for that.

No, seriously, thanks for that.  Then I got to do what I really wanted to do, which was fight for healthcare reform.  A whole alphabet soup:  PUP (Philadelphia Unemployment Project), HCAN (Health Care for America Now), PHAN (Pennsylvania Health Access Network).  Not something I could have done while working for a health insurer.

I think I helped.  That's the downside to casting off people like me.

I also collected unemployment.  And I looked for work.  And I religiously attended the classes at the outplacement agency.

Here's a simple fact of life.  When you've been working for 16 years for a company with a reputation for mindless bureaucracy, and you get streeted at 61, your career is over.

The outplacement agency pretended that wasn't true, and for a while I believed them.  But in the end I came to accept the facts, even as others continued to deny them.

I collected unemployment for a year and a half, and it was important for me -- not just the money, but the validation that I was still a person.  Eventually, with help from PUP, I got a part-time job.  It doesn't pay much, but the people are nice, I enjoy the work, and again it's a validation.

And I've spent a lot time over the last five years sitting on buses, sitting in waiting rooms and cafeterias in D.C. and Harrisburg, spending time with people who are actually poor.  And I'm here to tell you, you can learn things in your 60's.

Our Puritan forefathers bequeathed us this dichotomy between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.  It's false.  There are just the poor.  They do what they need to do to survive.  And it's not middle class, and it's not pretty.  But I find myself loving every one of them, not just the lovable ones, not just the deserving.

The rich, on the other hand, have been getting away with murder in this country.  We can get distracted by their demonization of the poor, but what would happen if we carried the Puritan battle to them?

How many of the rich deserve to be rich?  There's a whole school of theologians who say that wealth is a signal that God likes you, but what would Jesus say to that? Or St. Francis?  Or the pope?

Dear me, I'm turning into an aging radical.  I got on the bus and got to sit in a room in Washington with a bunch of senators and representatives and poor people and lots and lots of cameras.  And maybe it made a difference.

See also For Athena.