Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Value DNA"

Recently, this blogger made comments with regards to the state of bicycle advocacy in the U.S.  In the post, I created the following heading:

"America Lacks not for Best Practices (in bicycle planning); We Lack Political Will" 

Among the most important tasks before American bicycle advocates today, in my estimation, is the need to develop a strong base of political support amongst policy makers and money appropriators for increased bicycle infrastructure.  Even a cursory look at the cities where one-third or one-half of the people go by bicycle each day reveals a sophisticated network of protected bicycle infrastructure that was funded by the national government and/or the local municipality.  And conversely, a glance at cities where there are few bicycles in the street and almost no infrastructure reveals a lack of municipal leadership for creating a bike friendly city.  

This is why the bicycle advocacy community will need political will if we intend to increase the number of bicycles in America's roadways. 

I don't think I'm underestimating the challenge when I describe the work ahead of us in this way.  We're talking about some serious social change here, and social change is tricky business.  

So perhaps I should be clear: I'm not saying there is one method or strategy that will lead to the cultivation of a strong bike culture in the U.S.  We'll need infrastructure alongside education, bike lanes and educated cyclists and drivers.  Such educated people are in fact the very folks that can help to develop political will. 

Yet at the end of the day, catalyzing political will is in my opinion the critical component required to make bicycling into a common activity in America.  In response to this claim, and in response to my recent travels, a reader sent me the following comments.     

I just returned from cycle touring in France (Normandy, Seine River Valley, Paris) and England (London and countryside near Manchester).  My observation is that the culture of Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands related to transportation, social good, an individual's place in the society, life balance and material goods is considerably different than that of the Anglo-Saxon culture.
The following comments are especially significant, I think: 
 Realistically we in America are not going to experience a culture shift that moves us more than infinitesimally closer to Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany.  It's not about political will, it is about who we are and who we are not. Sorry, but we just don't have the same value dna.

As the reader above states, the individual's place in society, the transportation options available to the individual, and the idea of "social good" are all ways by which to measure a society's values.  

But the *literal value* a society places on each of these things can be measured by municipal investment.  In the case of bike infrastructure in Denmark and the Netherlands, it was the municipality--bolstered by the social movements for increased bike infrastructure organized in the wake of the 1970's oil crisis--that began to put a dollar value on their town's ability to be bike friendly. 

Put simply, while you cannot change your DNA, you can change a society.  

When the municipalities of Copenhagen and Amsterdam began to invest too heavily in car infrastructure in the 1960s, advocacy groups organized demonstrations and mobilized thousands in these medieval city squares.  This is not because the Danes and the Dutch have different value DNA; it's because commuting by bike is more practical than going by a car.  

They organized because they didn't want to see their cities consumed by motor vehicles, pushing the people farther and farther away from their Gothic spires. 

They mobilized because they believed the oil crisis was a warning that an over-reliance on fossil fuels could be politically problematic.  

They did not gather in the thousands in their public squares because they had certain ideas about the individual's place in society; they organized because they wanted bike paths that took them to work more quickly.  

My reader goes on:      
...I think I see in England a changing model that is more akin to what we face in America.  The English (can't speak for the Scots, Irish or Welsh) have a love affair with individual motorized vehicles for personal transport.  As compared to Europe, their cars are bigger, more powerful, more in use and more per capita (with the exception of maybe Germany, Swiss) and their roads are more narrow, winding, and less direct.  There are virtually no separate and safe hard paved cycle paths (although there is a growing route system).  I see the cyclists and motorists in England at a pressure point today.  The cycling community voices the same statements and beliefs of the right to the road, the benefits to individuals and society and the need for action as we do in the US.  The motorists voice the same statements and beliefs of right to the road, safety, taxes paid, and cyclist's behavior that we do in the US.  And although there are more bicyclists using roads in England than in the US, they are moving the culture needle very much.  In London there are a lot of cyclists (certainly not like northern Europe) but they are brave, brave souls in commuting spandex (fenderless road bikes or fold up Bromptons where the rider commutes in bike jersey and riding pants then changes at the place of work rather than commuting in work clothes) who mix with the car, London taxi, bus with trepidation.  There are some bike lanes but mostly it's pedaling between the curb and the vehicle.  And the folks are not just the hardcore bikers, but nurses, administrators, etc.  They are just much more brave than I would be.
In so many ways, I think here we can see the symptoms of a strategy that has not and will not work in America.  

I agree that a "transitioning" bicycle culture might provide a helpful model for the United States (see Australia), but the idea that one needs to be brave to ride a bicycle in a U.S. city--or any city--is a problem.  

Bicyclists are not crazy, and they are not super heroes (complete with their own skin-tight suits!).  They are simply bicyclists.  And it doesn't do anyone any good to remain obsessed with fear. 

I can say this from having ridden both in medieval cities--where buses, motor scooters, taxis, pedestrians and bicycles are competing for very limited space--and in the big American cities, where space is abundant though bicycles are not.  

I didn't necessarily feel "safer" riding in one or the other.  In fact, I was hit by a car for the first time in Amsterdam two weeks ago! (It was a minor crash and it certainly wasn't my fault--but thanks for your concern.)  

In sum, neither bravery nor social values will make America into a strong bicycle culture.  It will instead be advocates who make the good arguments and make better connections.  It will be communities organized around a message of how cycling can bring our communities closer together, people who articulate to political leaders how cycling is good for both the individual and the society.  

Developing political will is hard work, much harder I think than settling with the idea that Western Europeans have different "value DNA" than Americans; but it's good work.  

Perhaps most importantly, I believe this is the work before us in America.    

1 comment:

  1. I learned in class the other day that our lack of bicycle infrasturcture is not the only subject we blame on our "dna". Americans use that excuse for everything- In the health care debate- we have been trying to get some type of health care reform since 1908. People explain the prior defeats simply that is not the American way, we don't do things like that here. It is a little mindboggiling to me that "dna" is still an accepted excuse for why it is so hard to create innovative effective change in America.