When we actually ask people in SE DC what they think about cycling…

An early table from the 2013 survey

An early table from the 2013 survey

In 2012 and 2013, American University Prof. Eve Bratman and I worked with two of her classes to survey more than 250 commuters in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8. While much of the city — and indeed the country — has seen a cycling renaissance (hooray!), commuters in predominantly poor, predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 aren’t exactly part of the boom.

Above is an early table from the 2013 segment of the survey that specifically asked commuters at a wide range of places what barriers they could identify to cycling. Meanwhile, we note that the overwhelming preference among our respondents in both surveys is still for an automobile.

Ultimately, this leads us to conclude there is more serious work to be done; and we have a few policy suggestions. For a more developed argument, see the initial findings of our exploratory, shoestring research published today by The Atlantic‘s CityLab.

Many thanks to CityLab for listening to us. And thanks to all the co-conspirators (fellow students) in this research. We’re looking at publishing a much more thoughtful, articulated and data-heavy version in the coming months.

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Winter cycling, not exactly a staring contest with Sauron’s eye

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

My blog has been on hiatus for a number of reasons. I have a long list of comments, rejoinders, articles, anecdotes and the like that I would love to write. But I’m supposed to be either tudying Hindi or writing scholarly things about fish.

However, I can’t restrain myself…

Atlantic Cities has a post this week about prepping for winter cycling. Lots of good and thoughtful and helpful tips. While we’re at it, I have two names: SmartWool and Icebreaker.

But, if you read the comments, there is also a fair bit of subtle bragging which may be read by the wary as a sign that we all believe this is indeed something difficult. Here’s a counterpoint that can’t be emphasized enough: Winter biking is absolutely doable and not much more difficult than many other types of weather, terrain or distance, or even other manners of commute.

Still the post and in particularly the comment thread rings with such talk as “how to survive” or “how much money it’ll cost” or “here’s what the hardcore pros do” or “I do it because I care so much” or “look at me I’m tough” only reinforces the fallacy that to ride in cold/wet/slush/snow is actually Herculean.

As a winter cyclist during the two years I lived in DC, I may have fallen prey such mild self-congratulatory behavior. Here’s the truth: Is cycling in the winter as easy as sleeping in? No. But it’s probably not much more difficult than getting out of bed some days. Or, say, walking a mile to Metro on unsalted sidewalks.

However, if we constantly suggest that “Winter cycling is difficult but you too can overcome adversity,” the perception of reality begins to mold to the outlines of the discourse. We (society) begin to think winter cycling actually requires some beyond-normal capacity. Furthermore, we (cyclists) tend to reinforce this through our own egos, because we believe that we have now conquered such difficulty. Which isn’t really fair, because winter cycling is hardly a journey into Mordor.

Meanwhile, such suggestions that winter cycling is difficult fit neatly into the larger but false narrative about cycling (sold to society by a certain brand of development ) — that a cycling-dependent mobility strategy requires some combination of guts, desperation, fortitude, eccentricity and, of course, a willingness to defy social convention. Reinforcing said narrative is the real damage, because while both cold fingers and a snotty nose can be solved by a good pair of gloves with a fleece patch for wiping, no technical gear or stylish-but-functional hat (both recommended in the post) will weaken the stereotype that cycle commuting is abnormal.

I’m reminded of Darren Zook’s great discourse analysis in Agrarian Environments, titled “Famine in the landscape: Imagining hunger in South Asian history 1860-1990.” Boiled down, one of Zook’s arguments is that both Indian nationalists and British overlords tended to overstate or manipulate the issue of famine and hunger in India and use it for their own purposes. Nationalists seized famine — an inherently social construct — as proof that British were ruining the country. The Brits said the opposite: India can’t even feed itself; we need to stay. In both cases, the discourse shaped the perception of reality according to prevailing political or egotistical interests.

Perhaps a discussion of colonial politics is a bit heavier than cribbing about biking in winter. But the parallel is there: The discourse can shape reality and, as such, we must be careful how we speak.

On the one hand, discussions like this one at Atlantic Cities are trying to encourage more cyclists, which is just plain good in uncountable ways. But on the other hand, when we make it sound like an extraordinary challenge that must be overcome, then we may actually do the cycling cause some disservice.

Not suggesting that everything in the AC post is even remotely bad, but just something to keep in mind the next time we’re about to respond to that familiar: “Oh my lord, how do you manage to cycle all winter long?”

P.S. I miss biking and am very excited to finally get back to the road when I shift to Bangalore.

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Lousy Smarch weather…

Winter wonderland? Meet Monday morning ride

While the Midwest received a blizzard Monday, DC got its only real dose of winter weather, after the official arrival of spring.

Perhaps we had a calendar misprint? Or just a fluke snow+sleet storm?

Either way, the larger pattern of weather extremes, instabilities and oddities (hots, colds, hurricanes, super storms, etc.) might indeed be part of that nasty phenomenon called climate change. Scientists say the unseasonal cold this spring on both sides of the North Atlantic is likely the result of the loss of Arctic sea ice. Climatology is complicated, but here’s the gist: The loss of ice cover warms the polar ocean which shifts the jet stream in a manner that allows colder Arctic air to reach mid-range latitudes, precipitating snowfall when we’d expect warmer weather.

The heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures which have marked March 2013 across the northern hemisphere are in stark contrast to March 2012 when many countries experienced their warmest-ever springs. The hypothesis that wind patterns are being changed because melting Arctic sea ice has exposed huge swaths of normally frozen ocean to the atmosphere would explain both the extremes of heat and cold, say the scientists.

Specific implications if cooler-than-normal temperatures last (delayed planting for farmers already suffering from lingering drought?) are mixed or unclear. But, generally speaking, we’re headed for a new normal of weather, which may be anything but normal, even year to year.

This is me trying to restart the blog by not focusing on writing my damned thesis.

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Why I ride in freezing weather…

DC's understanding of snow this winter

Because my first downhill into the park makes it all worthwhile.

Well, my wrists were exposed and are now burned by windchill.

But it’s worth it.

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Footprint, schmootprint… an overconsumer’s confession

Ouch...

Actually, this is somewhat serious. I’m an overconsumer; if everyone on the planet were to live my lifestyle, we’d need several more earths. And yet I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, I eat primarily organic and my landlords purchase 100 percent wind electricity. I do fly considerably more than the average person, but even subtracting that carbon output, my lifestyle is still well above the planet’s per capita biocapacity.

While all eco-footprint calculators have serious deficiencies — a finding from my semester science brief (click here for a boring PDF) — the reality is that in America, we use more than our fair share; beyond our personal consumption, our lives are supported by carbon/resource intense infrastructure and government spending, as well as social, medical and commercial services.

Interested in finding out your footprint? Click here for a simplified version from the Global Footprint Network.

I can’t be all doom and gloom — certainly we’ve made some relative strides in recent years, in environmental governance, recycling, personal habits, “green” consumption, reforestation (in parts of the globe). But such incremental eco modernization (Arthur Mol, say what?) does little to offset rising global consumption as more and more countries attempt to mimic a U.S. standard of living (Peter Dauvergne and Gus Speth know what’s up). We see real global warming and resource depletion around the world; denying that is just not an option anymore.

I believe the social scientists who say we face serious limits to growth. We need to make changes, individually yes, but more importantly as a society.

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The road is no place for you little buddy

Nearly road kill

I almost ran this little guy over on my morning ride a couple days ago. I haven’t seen a Banded Woolly Bear (known in my childhood as a woollyworm) in years.

I dodged him at the last second while going through Rock Creek Park, turned around and stopped to ponder him for a few minutes. I also tried to get him off the road with the leaf above. He briefly got on the leaf, but as soon as I moved the leaf he began to play dead — as is the woolly bear’s defense mechanism — and fell to the ground.

I decided to leave him there lest I cause more trauma. Cute little bugger though. Legend has it they herald the coming of a strong winter.

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Hit and run… I’m OK. My bike isn’t.

Damn Subaru knocked my shoe off.

On my way home tonight, while riding hard but slow up a hill, I was rammed by a green Subaru. I heard the car coming up rather quick, turned my head to look and then was, all of a sudden, rolling up the hood of said car.

This is cliche: It all happened so fast. The hit literally knocked my right sock (and shoe) off.

I assume the driver was looking the other way (checking a blind spot and switching lanes) or confused by the weird intersection and lane markers. One lane — the one I occupied — is straight only; the right lane is turn only. Whatever the reason, car on bike doesn’t work out so well.

The driver paused a bit and then — about the time I stood up — drove off. I didn’t get a look at the plates.

I called 911, less for my health and more to file a report. Medics checked me out. Mostly they just let me sit in the ambulance and an officer took down details. There’s no insurance to cover the bike damage (tear), but at least a police record might help to change road signage in favor of bikers.

This is a great example of why bike lanes are necessary. And also, why more, not fewer, bikers should ride on the road. Drivers aren’t looking for us because too many bikers are timid and ride on the sidewalks.

The tire, wheel and rear of my bike is bent to hell. Some or all of it may need replacing.

Nothing major on me, as much as I can tell, was hurt. I could stand and carry my bike off the road. The bike suffered far worse than I.

I got checked out by medics. A police officer took a report and then gave me and my sad bike a ride home.

Not particularly happy about my bike being wrecked. I’m thankful, though: I’m only scratched up a bit; my right leg (the good knee, unfortunately) is sore and tweaked but I’m hoping that’s not anything serious.

Today I’ve actually felt a bit euphoric when thinking about how badly that could have gone.

By the way, helmets rock.

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By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes

Where the sun shines bright...

Took a nice short trip from Glasgow and had a pleasant afternoon on the banks of Loch Lomond. I really need to stop going to beautiful places by myself.

Continue reading this entry » » »

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