Monday, September 8, 2014

Looking and Not Seeing, Listening and Not Hearing

The other day I was walking to work on a beautiful day about 8:30 in the morning, and as I got to Spruce Street the light turned red.  So I stood there until the light turned green and, for something to do, counted the traffic in the street.  Eight cars, four bicycles.

The light turned green.  I moved on.  Around the time I hit Rittenhouse Square it occurred to me that one-third of the vehicles in that little snapshot back on Spruce Street were bicycles. 

Yet it didn't feel like that many bikes.  Bikes are inconspicuous.  Any frame you put them in, they're easily overwhelmed by a few cars.

The Visual Frame
Take the visual frame.  The silhouette of a bicycle coming directly at you is minuscule.  Then turn the bike and look at it in profile.  It gets a lot bigger, but it's essentially transparent.  You can see through it -- a few bars of metal, and wheels with spokes.  You're talking about something that, compared to a car, is barely there.

The only vehicle I can recall that is more evanescent is a single scull on the Schuylkill, going directly away from you as the sun goes down.  The boat itself is essentially under water.  All you really see is the rower and the oars.

So how many bikes would it take to produce the same impression of occupying space as one car?  This is a very subjective thing.  My guess is maybe eight bikes, gaggled at a stoplight, might be an adequate visual counterweight to one car.  But remember, the bikes are carrying eight people, and the car is probably carrying one.

The Auditory Frame
How about the auditory frame?  Cars and their big brothers, the buses and the trucks, are a primary source of noise in our cities (and also out in the bucolic countryside).  Other major sources of noise are airplanes and helicopters and heating and air conditioning units, like the compressor in my back yard.

Bikes, like pedestrians, are basically silent -- except when their riders decide to cast some invective towards an errant taxi-driver.  I remember calling a cabbie a jackass on Spruce Street.  Believe me, he deserved it.  His response was to to share with me all the English curse words he knew -- about five, as I recall.  I think we both wound up enjoying ourselves, and the vocabulary exercise seemed to be a good stress reliever on both sides.  He was happy he hadn't hit me, and I was very happy about the same thing.

So bikes are Lilliputian in the auditory frame, particularly when compared to, say, a poorly tuned Diesel trash truck.

The good news is that cars don't need to be so loud.  Hybrids, when running on electric, are virtually silent.  Kind of like bicycles and pedestrians.

Oddly, some people think this is bad.  There have been proposals to add sound to hybrid cars, so that inattentive pedestrians can be aware of their approach.

I'm not a great fan of this approach.  My thought is, if the overall environment is quieter, we will more easily attend to subtler cues.  And failing that, the motorist could beep her horn or, in an emergency, roll down her window and dish out a good dose of Philly invective.  It works for bicyclists.  I've even heard the occasional pedestrian speak up and remonstrate with a vehicular reprobate (both two- and four-wheeled).

The Olfactory Frame
Finally, we come to the olfactory frame.  Motorized vehicles inevitably smell.  That is because they are essentially defecating into the air -- and the result winds up on your window sill and in your lungs.  Some are worse than others.  Rudolf Diesel's progeny are among the worst, but they are hardly alone.

Bicycles, on the other hand, don't smell.  Okay, maybe a little chain oil.  And bicyclists can definitely smell, which is why I'm predicting that the next great office perk will be showers for sweaty bicyclists who show up to work early, so they can freshen up for the day to come.

Getting Big, But Not Seen That Way
The Bicycle Coalition has recently come out with a wonderful report.  Two Philly neighborhoods, Center City and South Philly, have bicycle commuting rates above  5 percent.  This is huge, and makes us major players on the national bicycle stage.

But do any of us here in Philly really perceive the magnitude of the shift that is taking place?  I include myself here.  I have my little snapshot on Spruce Street, where 33 percent of the vehicles were bikes.  I could calculate that, but could I feel it?  Can I feel it right now?  Frankly, no.  And I think the time is not far off when most of the vehicles in such a snapshot will be bicycles.  I'm saying more than 50 percent.

But will we see it?  The bicycle's virtues -- small, quiet, olfactorily inoffensive -- all work against it, when it comes to perceptions of the importance of the bicycle.

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