A companion site (THE PRACTICAL CYCLIST) is home to
genuinely practical information about using bikes for transportation.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ruthless Pragmatism, and Transportation Engineering

Uh-oh, I've passed through a wormhole into a vast transportation research space, and I'm quickly getting lost. Someone throw me a rope! We're going to wander a bit, stay close... First, read this:

Why is sponsored research into cycling safety so flawed?

Since our new President introduced me to Reinhold Niebuhr, I've become interested in reconciling idealistic or utopian liberalism with the pragmatic considerations of day-to-day living. In the past, the best I could do was to say that human beings are sufficiently complex that a certain degree of hypocrisy is the small but necessary price to pay for any sane and moral human being. This may still be true, or not, but I feel like I've crossed over a mountain pass, and have a new valley of territory to explore. Fun, but tiring. Let's see what we can find.

Ruthless Pragmatism and Radical Acceptance, applied to transportation in America, appear to yield some devastating facts. I had to go back and add appear to that last sentence because even I (and a lot of other cycle advocates) appear to have bought the bill of goods. For the better part of the 20th century, research and engineering performed virtually exclusively by virtually exclusive users of motor vehicles has lead to the virtual exclusion of bicycling and walking as forms of transportation. When it's put that way, it's hardly a surprise, is it?

In fact, given the landscape of transportation in the US, it seems remarkable that statutes in all fifty States continue to consider bicycles to be vehicles, or to give right-of-way to pedestrians. If Robert Moses had thought about bicycles at all, he probably would have arranged for their removal from vehicle codes far and wide. I guess sometimes it's nice to fly under the radar.

But what's the point? It is this: transportation engineers and Americans in general are plagued by misinformation and misconceptions about bicycling and bicyclists to such a degree that even their honest efforts to promote bicycle use make bicycling more difficult and more dangerous. It resembles the cycles of depression or anger, which reminds me that someone somewhere said, "America has a co-dependent relationship with cars,"-- a little touchy-feely, but also accurate. To pull ourselves out of this death-spiral, we must practice rigorous honesty and ruthless pragmatism:

a.k.a. SCIENCE

(Cue music: Dolby, Thomas, She Blinded Me With Science, 1982 by Capitol Records.)

One other element of pragmatism that we can't ignore: even the most knowledgeable cyclists among us may sometimes buckle to the vitriol of impatient motorists. This fact--that even ardent vehicular cyclists, bicycle drivers, etc. may not adhere at all times to proper practices--does not make these practices less proper. Instead it demonstrates the extraordinary cultural bias toward motorists that exists in America:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses... so they can wash my car and pump my gas.

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