Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Unapologetically Utopian

 If you look up terms like "effective altruism" and study the many characteristics derided as "woke," you will find, in addition to ominous interpretations that project a future in no way pleasant to the majority of people who would find themselves living in it -- however briefly and uncomfortably -- common threads of utopian fantasy. These go back well into the 20th Century. The principles in some of them stretch back as far as recorded language, but by the 20th Century a lot of technological developments were well established and evolving to support many of the practical underpinnings of a society based on the greatest good for the greatest number.

Because greatest good and greatest number are elastic terms with no universally agreed definitions, the uses of these technologies diverge into the various earthly paradises and hellscapes explored in futurist academic and fictional narratives and analysis. They also underlie the current privileged areas and existing hellscapes that we have already established.

I have said for years and will repeat with tiresome persistence that human-powered transportation, most notably using bicycles, has always been a game that any number could play. The more people using bikes and their own muscles to get around, the better the world becomes. It is unapologetically utopian.

More than 40 years ago I set out to demonstrate how much easier it was to negotiate the crowded streets of Annapolis on a bicycle than in a car. What the other road users saw instead was just some idiot exposed to weather and traffic hazards, not a thought leader and influencer. They put up with the few transportation cyclists in town with varying levels of tolerance depending somewhat on the neighborhood. The further you got from older residential neighborhoods and the center of town, the more likely you were to have friction with an irate motorist. But no place was safe. A skirmish could break out anywhere. Still, the struggle seemed winnable.

By the time I left Annapolis, the local cycling group could put 15 or 20 riders onto the road in a group ride on a summer afternoon, but their consensus was that the traffic was so hostile that they would meet at the mall parking lot on the west edge of town rather than start somewhere downtown, as we had done when it was four or five plucky road racers from 1979 to 1982. Of those four or five racers, three of us also rode our bikes for transportation, because none of us owned a car. We would have to borrow one to drive to a race. By 1987, I was the last one who was living without a car.

Racing was always secondary to transportation for me. Transportation cycling provided a baseline of mileage and saddle time on which to build whatever recreational riding I had time for. Meanwhile, one of the other car-free riders invested his spare cash in carpentry tools to prepare for when he eventually started his own highly regarded contracting business, and the other one saved up enough money to make a down payment on his first home in Annapolis. He didn't buy in the most expensive neighborhood, but in Annapolis there were no cheap ones. Transportation cycling improved their lives to the point where they could give it up and never look back. The fact that they gave it up is unfortunate, but it does underscore how not everyone can use a bike to get around. Although one of them started out as a naval architect, they both ended up working as carpenters, and that requires a truck and tools.

We need people who build things. What they build depends on their vision of the present and future that they want to create, or the lack of any sorting criteria. The trap is that someone might stake their savings on tools and training to build things, and have to take jobs building things that are ultimately harmful, just to get the money to live. Principles are a luxury. To make that happy future, the human species needs more than infrastructure and tools. We need to agree on where we're headed, informed by all kinds of investigative thinkers who study the interactions of all life and environment. We need someone to design and build the transportation network that can accommodate all vehicles, including thousands of bike riders who will eventually be taking advantage of the vast benefits of simple, human-powered transportation.

I guarantee that if the human species had chosen back in the 1970s to focus its efforts on making a long term plan instead of knowingly forcing crisis after crisis in order to generate profits and duel for global dominance we would have fewer young people scornfully dismissing Boomers. Not trusting my own generation's better judgment as I saw how they were progressing I didn't add my own cannon fodder to the future that looks increasingly likely. Meanwhile, my 30-mile commuting days on rural roads and highways here in New Hampshire look less like proof of concept and more like proof of insanity. My system is stretched to its limit to try to maintain all of the things I've come to like a lot -- not to say love -- in my life. But this rickety economy depends on the considerable savings of even a half year of bike commuting compared to uninterrupted motor vehicle use. So it does demonstrate that one can still stretch a dollar a long way using pedal power where possible. It's worth expending my waning strength on it.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Throwing our bodies in front of the machines...

 Two women ran side by side along the edge of Mill Street on this sunny morning in meteorological spring. They were facing traffic, as they should when no other infrastructure is provided, but there is a sidewalk on the other side of that street. I expected them to divert into a parking lot entrance a few yards ahead of them, because that's what pedestrians on that side of Mill Street usually do. Instead, they continued to run up the traffic lane itself, toward the intersection with Main Street, a corner that motorists regularly round as if they're being filmed in a chase scene. It may be a driver yanking a quick left from Main Street southbound or snapping a quick right just past the last parked car on Main Street northbound.

Most motorists are unaware of how fast they're actually going in their machines designed to isolate them from the wind of their passage and the roughness of the pavement. Locked into the flow, we all have a tendency to focus on stopping only where we had already planned to, or wherever circumstances force us to. Drivers scan constantly for objects the same size as their vehicles, or larger.

The runners would have had to pass a retaining wall that gives them nowhere to go except right up the lane past a small building to get to the little section of parking lot beyond. And that section of parking lot is used as the entry to the bigger parking lot behind that small building, by drivers careening off of Main Street. With piles of snow crowding the roadway at that corner, the runners would not be able to walk across the worn dirt and trampled grass for a few yards to get to the sidewalk along Main Street, as they could do in the summer. This would bring them right up to the corner of Main Street itself. I couldn't see them once they passed the lower end of the little building, but I knew what their options were.

Their trajectory didn't end with a screech and a thump. One reason that people continue to do risky things is that they usually get away with it. In my observation, most drivers are aware enough to avoid hitting anyone. But are they happy about it?

Whether drivers are happy to see us doesn't matter unless you encounter the one who is finally having a bad enough day to engage in assault. You can't know who that is. So, if you want to use the roads you have to put yourself out there.

My first thought was that these women were idiots to place themselves at risk like that. But then I considered the challenge of creating traffic systems that accommodate all users. Unless a jurisdiction has the space and the budget to separate all users, we're going to mix. In Wolfeboro, not every street has a sidewalk. People walk where they can, because otherwise they would have to deal with congestion and parking for short hops in the village, which is already crowded with vehicular traffic. And, especially in the summer, the dinky sidewalks are so crowded that pedestrians spill over into the streets, or cross wherever they happen to be.

Pedestrians and bike riders are mobile traffic calmers. We aren't made of concrete. We aren't crash-absorbing barrels, although we will burst on impact, splattering liquid all over the place, if an inattentive motorist plows into us. Drivers know this, too. Most of them don't want to be grossed out like that. So our mere presence serves to remind them to be more alert. Our presence in larger numbers creates friction in their flow, automatically slowing them. Our bodies in front of them confront them with humanity.

The women did not get hit, but they did remind drivers that we exist. Every non-motorized road user reminds drivers and transportation planners that people do something besides drive. I would not have taken the route that they did, nor would I have advised them to do it. And I don't think they did it to make a statement. I think they were pretty oblivious. That makes it an even more powerful demonstration that walkers and pedalers need to figure in planning and in the perceptions of drivers. If no one is seen out there, the people who make the plans don't perceive a need. Drivers happily forget how to act around us. If you hang back and wait for the perfect facility, you will wait a long time. So we throw our bodies in front of the machines.

With Daylight Relocating Time starting this weekend, all I will need is some base miles and halfway decent weather to start the bike commuting season. This used to involve a distinct period of retraining motorists. For some reason, for about the past decade, drivers have seemed to adapt more readily, with less hostility than they used to. That can change at any time, though. No rider on the road can ever assume that the troubles are over. Just be grateful for times when they seem to be suspended. No doubt around here the transition is eased by people like those two women, who just go for it, and by the handful of riders who take every opportunity throughout the winter to grab a quick spin. We owe them reinforcements, these defenders of the people's right to self-propulsion. Not every struggle for freedom fills the news with flames and mass casualties, mobilizing national governments. Your own world is right here for you to shape.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

People you don't want trickling on you

 Specialty retail is hard, but specialty retail in a small town is even harder. In a small town where the median income jumps by six figures in the summer, the machinery of trickle-down economics operates in plain sight.

 Back in the 1990s, slopping over a bit into the 21st Century, we operated under the philosophy, "Charge what you're worth, and be worth what you charge." Since then, the cost of tooling and the complexity of the systems we have to master has made it harder and harder to stand out and turn a profit. As each subcategory of bicycle becomes more narrowly focused and intricate, a few specialists emerge to cater to the dwindling number of addicts who can afford -- or think they can afford -- to pay whatever it costs to keep their chosen machines running. A town this small can't support all of those specialists, nor will it fund a generalist shop with well-equipped departments for every possible need. When the machines were simpler, we could do an excellent job, charge what was a decent price at the time, and only go broke very gradually. It was so gradual, we didn't even notice it. We were still having too much fun.

Summer is the busy season. It is nowhere near as busy as it was in the 1990s, but it's still more bustling than winter. Winter brings its own type of business, but without the second home crowd that swells the population by tens of thousands and raises the median income by hundreds of thousands for a couple of months.

In our year-round customer base, the income range covers everything from SNAP and Medicaid to stock portfolios and bragworthy adventure vacations. So we have some indigenous tricklers as well as the seasonal ones. Ideally, we wouldn't burn any of them off. In real life, however, some go away mad when things go sideways, and others turn out to cost more than they trickle.

The high-cost tricklers divide roughly into two categories: accident prone and abusive of their equipment, and outright deceitful. The deceitful may also be accident prone or abusive of their equipment, but they are the ones who make a stink afterwards and try to strong-arm you for warranty, or cover the tracks of their abuse before presenting an item for evaluation.

In a small town, you often have to maintain a working relationship with people in life outside of the shop. You may even be friends, or at least friendly. That makes the diplomacy more delicate when they want to support a local business and you know that whatever they buy is going to come back in pieces within a few days to a couple of months.

Some of these human booby traps manage to bugger up their bikes in ways that tie up a work stand for days, and/or call for parts that are very hard to get or very annoying to install. Given the way the latest bikes are designed, just about anything is very annoying to install.

It extends to ski season as well, especially when the misfortune magnet has a taste for higher-end equipment. That stuff is built for speed, not for durability.

In the animal world, insects that are toxic often have distinctive color patterns so that predators know to avoid them. In the retail world, we have to learn to identify the specimens that will end up forcing us to regurgitate the money that they put into our coffers. A refund may have costs attached that take more out of us than just the purchase price. Even if it just zeroes out, in all likelihood we didn't have the money long enough to make the tiny bit of interest that you might get from a sufficiently colossal bank balance. And credit card transactions in either direction have bank fees.

Both the merely jinxed and the outright duplicitous usually end up shopping elsewhere, relieving us of the diplomatic issue as they search for either the perfect place that sells things that never malfunction, or new suckers who haven't figured them out yet. But occasionally they return, forced by momentary need, or seized with nostalgia, or perhaps just hoping that we've forgotten the last time.