Monday, September 26, 2016

Vision Zero in Philadelphia

Boardwalk, Asbury Park
Well, Labor Day has come and gone, and I think it's fair to say that Jim Kenney is not Michael Bloomberg.

I think many of us were willing to wait until the soda tax fight was over. But then the summer came and went, and there has been remarkably little progress on Vision Zero and Complete Streets.

Yes, we have the bike lane on Ryan Avenue, and progress appears to have been made on the South Street bridge. Philly Free Streets proved to be a lovely and very crowded event. Its chief innovation was to close South Street on a Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (actually well past 1 p.m.).

But we are a long way from where I had expected to be at this point. Where is the city's Vision Zero task force? Where is the Complete Streets commissioner or director (I gather the effort is no longer worth a commissioner).

Where is the bike lane on 22nd in Fairmount? Where is the two-way cycle track across the MLK bridge at the beginning of MLK Drive? Where are the cycle tracks on Market and JFK west of City Hall? All of these projects have been languishing for years.  All of them could easily have been completed in the construction season that is now drawing to a close. And still no word.

I had hoped that Mayor Kenney, like Mayor Bloomberg, would be an ally and an advocate for Vision Zero and Complete Streets. By now, though, it seems clear that he has opted for a different, perhaps more traditional, role as mayor - that of an arbiter who weighs the competing demands of various constituencies.

Advice from Saul Alinsky
A few months ago I finally got around to reading Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. I found the book very informative and at times hilarious. (Alinsky does tell good stories.)

One thing Alinsky emphasizes is the importance of identifying who your enemy is and then mounting a sustained attack on that enemy.

I think some of my friends may be tempted at this point to see Jim Kenney as the enemy, but he's not. City Council is not the enemy either. Even traffic engineers who are still focused on moving the maximum number of cars through the system at the maximum possible speed are not the enemy.

The enemy is bad drivers. We need to hammer that message home. Yes, lowering the speed of vehicles is very important, but it is not an organizing principle. We need to reorganize our streets to prevent bad drivers from acting on their evil impulses.

False Equivalence
I hear again and again, "Well, bicyclists and pedestrians do bad things too." Or, as a middle-aged woman put it to me at a community meeting, "Bicyclists are evil."

Yes, pedestrians have been known to cross in the midblock - this is called jaywalking. And bicyclists have been known to treat a stop sign as a yield sign - this is known as the Idaho stop, because it's legal in that state.

But I simply reject the false equivalence. Bicyclists and pedestrians do not kill motorists. Meanwhile, motorists kill pedestrians with great regularity. (And they usually get away with it, but that's an issue for another day.)

Where the Rubber Hits the Road
We will also be needing a specific, tangible issue to fight over, and I have one - Pennsylvania's four-foot passing law.

The four-foot passing law has been on the books since 2012, and it requires a motorist passing a bicyclist to leave at least four feet of clear space between the two vehicles. (Billy Penn has a very funny article and video about the four-foot rule.)

As I pointed out in an earlier story on this site, the four-foot law means that it is illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist on many of Philly's narrow streets.

Here's the arithmetic. Take 21st at Pemberton, in South Philly. There is one traffic lane, headed south. It is twelve feet wide.

The typical American car is between six and seven feet wide; the handlebars on the typical bike are around two feet wide. That gets you to nine feet. Add four feet of clearance, and you're at thirteen feet.

But wait. The motorist will want clearance on the other side of the car as well. Call it a foot, which gets you to fourteen feet, which is two feet more than the width of the travel lane.

It's illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist at 21st and Pemberton.  It's illegal everywhere in Philadelphia where similar conditions exist. And, of course, motorists commit this particular moving violation all the time.

Making the Law Effective
Wouldn't it be nice if the City did a few things to make the four-foot passing law effective? It could put up more of those signs which say that a bicycle "may use full lane." This sign doesn't tell the whole story, but it's been in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2009, which means it has received the traffic engineering equivalent of a papal blessing.

The City could also educate the public on the four-foot passing law. I'm reasonably certain that the vast majority of Philly residents are blissfully unaware of this law.

And the City could enforce the law. A police officer doesn't need any fancy equipment to do this. No radar gun required. If there's one lane, and it's twelve feet wide, and the motorist is passing, he's breaking the law. If the officer wants to whip out her iPhone and take a picture, she will have an open-and-shut case.

If All Else Fails, Sue
Will the City be eager to do this? I rather doubt it. But, if friendly persuasion doesn't work, perhaps a lawsuit will. The City does have a duty to enforce the laws, after all.

A key tool for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement was its Legal Defense Fund. Perhaps we need a Vision Zero Legal Defense Fund.

I hope it doesn't come to that. But if we want to sway the current administration to our side, we are going to need to fight. We are going to need to fight harder and smarter than our opponents.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Semiotics of Parking on the Street

City Hall, Philadelphia.
The other day I was walking down 19th Street near Pine. It was a beautiful day, around lunchtime. Sunny, about 80 degrees, low humidity. I'd run some errands and walked through Rittenhouse Square, and now I was walking home, thinking about the subject of this article.

As I crossed Pine there was a loud noise behind me, and to my right. I was startled and actually jumped a bit. It was a car horn, of course.

A middle-aged man, accompanied by a woman who was presumably his wife, was driving a nondescript sedan. He actually had plenty of room to turn onto Pine behind me, which he proved by accelerating dramatically as he passed by.

So, why the honk? Was he concerned for my safety, thinking that I might for some reason start running backwards? If that had been his concern, he could easily have used his brake instead of his horn, and much more certainly avoided the nonexistent danger.

But no, I'm afraid I don't believe that was his motive. I think that he, like a bull elephant, was honking to assert his dominance.

Of course, from a legal point of view he was not in a dominant position. I was in the crosswalk with a green light, and I had the right of way.

Driver's Ed, Philly-Style
Anyone who lives in Philadelphia knows that none of these things matter. I sometimes think there's a class hour in Philly driver's ed courses where the instructor sits his charges down and explains the way things really work.

"Listen, kids, the streets are there for the cars. It's always been that way, and it always will be. Pedestrians tend to forget, though, so you need to remind them. Otherwise they might start insisting on their rights, and that would be bad."

The instructor looks around the class and, noticing that there are no girls, shifts his language into a rougher gear. The message, though, is always the same:  Assert dominance, discomfit other occupants of the street, and make sure you are the focus of attention.

The instructor then summarizes with the same words for all audiences: "Remember, kids, when you're sitting behind the wheel, just keep repeating to yourself, 'It's all about me.'"

And at the end, if the audience is right, the instructor will channel Sean Connery in The Untouchables and say, "Look, intimidation doesn't always work. But if you feel it's the right thing to do, you can always put them in the hospital - or the morgue."

On to On-Street Parking
So what does all this have to do with curbside parking? Well, the cars get tired. They can't spend 100 percent of their time cruising and looking for pedestrians to intimidate. In fact, cars spend 95 percent of their time parked. But that doesn't mean they're useless. They can still intimidate.

Here's what the parked cars say: I won't kill you while I'm sitting here. But if my driver comes, and he or she is late for work, or hung over, or pissed at a spouse, I will kill you on orders.

Even the parked cars know that the police and the media will probably blame the victim.

There are other reasons for parking on the street, of course - for one, it's cheap. And, if you're a big shot, you can give yourself a dedicated parking spot in front of the building where you work. (See photo at beginning of story.) Then nobody is likely to accuse you of having a small ego.

But if you want to look at the underlying message that all those lines of parked cars convey - the semiotics of parking on the street - it's not a warm and cuddly message. Those cars are saying, We own the street.

View them as an army of occupation. After all, they're big, they're powerful, and they're everywhere, all the time. They never go away. Walk down a sidewalk, and depending on the time of day, there may not be a lot of cars driving down the street. But the lines of parked cars are always there, always reminding you, always dominating the streetscape.

Think about it. What did you see more of on the street today - cars or people?

Stop Sign, Philly-Style. Corner of Uber and Ringgold Place.
For developments in the street culture of Paris, London, and Amsterdam, click here and here.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Measuring the Health of a Parking System, The Parking Dream, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is John Forester a Car Guy?

Traffic arrows, Asbury Park.

John Forester is widely known as the apostle of Vehicular Cycling, and he dearly loves bicycles. But there's another side of him that peeks out occasionally in his 800-page book, Effective Cycling.

Consider the following tidbit: "Whether America (and large parts of the rest of the Western world) was wise in adopting urban designs that rely on personal mechanized transportation is a very serious question. Whether it would be wise to try to return to the mass transportation city is an even more difficult question. However you may answer these questions, our present cities that rely on personal mechanized transportation will be with us for a long time, probably as long as you, dear reader, are likely to be interested in cycling." (John Forester, Effective Cycling, 7th ed., MIT Press, 2012, p. 498.)

In other words, the war is over, the cars have won, and you need to find a way to fit into the new order. Henry Ford couldn't have said it better.

Actually, Aldous Huxley did say it better, in Brave New World: "Ford's in his flivver.... All's well with the world."

So is John Forester actually a car guy? Can a bike guy also be a car guy?

A Special Kind of Bike Guy
It's important to remember that Forester is a very special kind of a bike guy, and his views are very closely linked to a place (California) and a time (the 1950s). In this experience, bicycling was an activity carried out by a select few. As he puts it, "In Northern California I could ride all weekend without seeing another adult on a bicycle. If, by chance, I did see one, I knew him." (Pp. 711-712.)

For Forester, the threat to his happy little world came with America's second bicycling boom, which got started in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s. (The first bicycling boom came in the 1890s. For more information on that boom see James Longhurst, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, University of Washington Press, 2015, and Evan Friss, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s, University of Chicago Press,  2015.)

In the second bicycling boom, cycling increased "from substantially zero to considerably less than 1 percent of traffic," as Forester puts it (p. 712), but that was enough to get people talking about creating separate bicycle lanes.

In case you don't know it, I'll let you in on a little secret. John Forester hates bicycle lanes. As an advocate for vehicular cycling, he feels that bicycles should always travel in the same lanes as motorized traffic. Not just some of the time. All the time. He liked things just the way they were in northern California in the 1950s.

This picture includes no bike lanes and almost no bicyclists.

Forester's History of the American City
Forester makes some remarkably peculiar statements about the shape of American cities and the ways people get around. Remembering his frame of reference, we can more easily understand sentences like the following: "In modern cities, the only reasonable and available transportation modes are motoring and cycling; walking takes too long for the distances required and mass transit is ineffective." (P. 712.)

A few pages later, Forester takes on the advocates of bike lanes. Although he concedes that European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been very successful at encouraging bicycling, he claims that the example of "old walking cities" is irrelevant  to modern cities that "developed in the automotive era." (Pp. 737-738.)

And apparently old walking cities - like the central parts of Philadelphia - require no further consideration.

Bicycle advocates also like to talk about Portland, Oregon. Forester calls Portland a city "with very strong antigrowth and antimotoring policies" and refers approvingly to unnamed experts in urban affairs who "consider Portland a failed city." (P. 738.)

Effectively, in Forester's argument, the city based on the automobile (and its attendant urban sprawl) is the inevitable city of the present and the future. (For a more insightful analysis of the rise of the automobile city, see Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, MIT Press, 2011.)

Forester even takes a swipe at what he calls "the induced traffic argument. That says that building new roads always increases traffic, so the anti-motoring person should oppose road building so that congestion will limit motoring." Based on his experience over the years, "the reasonable conclusion appears to be that the induced traffic effect is rather small." (P. 766.)

I'll give you one final paragraph from Mr. Forester. "Bicycle advocates argue for returning cities to the shape they had in 1920 when bicycle transportation was quite useful. However, over the space of my memory - say, 1940 to the present - the proportion of trips that are suited to bicycle transportation has steadily decreased. That's a fact of present life, and no bikeway system is going to alter it." (P. 739.)

A Few Points in Rebuttal
I could expend several reams of paper - or the electronic equivalent - rebutting Forester's oddly ahistorical historical analysis, but I am going to confine myself to a few highlights.

1. Forester probably doesn't think he's a car guy, but he is. Over the years, he has been quite forceful in presenting his views, even to the extent of initiating litigation, and it seems fair to say that his efforts helped to hold back the development of urban bicycle networks in the U.S. by several decades. And who did that benefit?

I expect that his arguments were music to the ears of the typical state Department of Transportation. They could listen to him and keep building out a monomodal transportation system focused on the private car. And they could ignore those pesky advocates who called for a more balanced transportation system - what we might today call "Complete Streets."

2. While it's certainly possible to criticize Portland for things such as failing to meet affordable housing goals, it seems a bit harsh to call Portland a failed city.

3. Induced demand is a trivial phenomenon. On this point, Forester is just wrong. If you're inclined not to believe me, I've got another 800-page book for you: Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking.

For more than you probably want to know about John Forester, here's an autobiographical essay that he posted on his website. I particularly enjoyed the bit about the German Schwarzkopf track bike from about 1935.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Learning to Dance Together, Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?