Courage

I was listening to a TED Radio Hour podcast on courage the other day. The speakers–among them a war journalist, a lawyer in Afghanistan representing abused women, and a doctor speaking out for transparency in medicine–highlighted the courage of those they covered, represented, and were related to. The lawyer in particular struck me because she doesn’t speak the language, uses no security measures, and insists on upholding the rule of law in a place where many egregious cases of child abuse are settled in informal courts, and yet she speaks of the courage of the children she represents. And some of the speakers said that what they felt wasn’t precisely courage, but more like determination. The young doctor is vilified by her peers yet continues her path because she is determined to bring more transparency to the profession.

I want to highlight the courage and determination of people who cross highways on foot.

While driving south on I-35, I was listening to this podcast on courage when I saw a courageous young black man run across the southbound lanes of the highway. I was scared out of my wits. “He’s going to die,” I thought. I watched him until I could no longer see him. He made it to the concrete median and waited there patiently for a break in the northbound traffic to run across the other lanes.

People who cross highways are a subject of debate in Austin. For example, police want to outlaw walking in the medians and in other places near highways, as if people are choosing to hang out in highway medians because it’s cool or fun.

This is about where I saw him running across:

I35

Terrifying, right?

And this is the aerial view of the spot:

I352

Note the residential areas surrounding I-35 on both sides, and that it is approximately 0.8 miles in either direction to an overpass. Do you want to walk almost 2 miles just to get 100 yards ahead?

Obviously, I know nothing about this guy. I don’t know if he lives in the surrounding area, was late to work, or was visiting a friend. I don’t know why he wasn’t driving a car or riding with a friend or Capital Metro. I could guess any number of things, and they could all be wrong. However, I do know that he should be able to walk where he needs to go without risking his life. “Why he wasn’t driving a car or riding with a friend or Capital Metro” is completely irrelevant. This guy has the same right to mobility as any other person, no matter where or who they are, what type of vehicle they are traveling in, or how fast they are traveling.

Instead of vilifying people who attempt to cross highways on foot, I would rather celebrate their courage in the face of a hostile environment and interview them to find out why they do it (when they survive). I would like to study what’s going on around the highway. And, where the damage of the highway is already done, the neighborhood is already split, and the best short-term fix we can provide is a safe crossing, I would like to see pedestrian bridges built without hesitation. The long-term fix involves decisions that recognize the nexus between transportation and land use (i.e., not building highways through neighborhoods). Somewhere in between is a solution proposed by Reconnect Austin to cut and cap I-35 in downtown Austin, which could well save lives.

If we can provide pleasant crossings for animals over highways, are we willing to provide safe, pleasant crossings for people?

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Empty Streets

Currently I’m reading Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Maybe it was his book that brought my attention to the streets around me as I drove the 19.4 miles from my office at RR 620 and Parmer to my yoga teacher’s studio off of Kinney Ave. I always take Mopac and get off at 35th St, taking Exposition down to Cesar Chavez and then either Lamar or S 1st to get south of the river (I’ve found it doesn’t matter which way you go, it’s painful to cross either way). It’s a long, slow drive that gives me lots of time to think. Maybe I should find a yoga teacher north of the river. Maybe I should work from home on Thursday afternoons. Maybe I should move back to Germany.

It was on Exposition that I noticed it. Just south of Casis Elementary School is a residential area with some churches. There’s a sidewalk on both sides of the street for a while. And it suddenly occurred to me that there were no people on the sidewalks. Wait, there was a jogger. Two joggers, both with headphones. Two joggers along the entire stretch of Exposition from 35th to Lake Austin Blvd.

exposition

It’s amazing what we find out when we start to notice things we normally take as given. I normally pay attention to a podcast, the radio, the cars around me, staying in the lines (definitely never ever a text on my phone, never). That day, I noticed something different, something that all of a sudden seemed odd to me. There are no people on the street. No moms or dads with strollers. No kids on skateboards. No grandmas meeting up for gossip.

I tried very hard to bring up a picture in my mind of a main road in Germany near my old apartment. There always seemed to be grandmas pulling carts of groceries, or parked on a front stoop gossiping. There were bus stops and shops and houses and apartments.

zollnerstrasse

The area around Casis is like that. There’s a shopping center opposite the school, and a library down the road, and Austin Pets Alive! But the way you get there is by driving your car into the parking lot, parking, and getting out. People don’t use the street. The only things moving on Exposition at rush hour are cars.

I suddenly felt very lonely. Here are all these people around me, driving their cars just like I am. But I can’t see them. All I can see is their bumper. I can’t run into a new friend, shake a hand, admire some great shoes. It would be hard to do that as it is–when my dad visited me last Memorial Day, he stayed at an Airbnb in Hyde Park and walked along 45th St. I’d never walked along 45th before, only driven. When my dad said he was near a “loud, busy street,” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then we walked along it together. 45th is really scary. It’s loud, cars drive by fast, sidewalks are narrow where they exist at all, and shrubs block the sidewalk on occasion. I imagine Exposition is like that.

In the Austin of my dreams, people enjoy streets. Buildings are built close to the curb, and sidewalks are larger than the space meant exclusively for cars. People look each other in the eyes. Children play safely. Moms and dads push strollers down the street and meet their neighbors. Cars drive very slowly, bicycles can ride side by side, and clean buses carry many people. I’m not blind, I can see that this isn’t reality right now. It exists in my mind. However, this vision gets me out of bed in the morning, and I don’t have a way to make it happen right now, so I suppose my best move is to keep writing about it.

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Mobility: Fully Fund the Sidewalk and Bicycle Master Plans

(This is an email I sent to Austin Mayor Steve Adler this afternoon. He has requested input from the community at large on mobility in Austin.)

Dear Mayor Adler,

I’m writing in response to your request for input regarding mobility in Austin. I’m a current TxDOT Bicycle Advisory Committee member, former chair of the Austin Bicycle Advisory Council and former board member of Bike Austin. I also work for an engineering consulting company, AECOM, where I have worked on local highway projects. I also had the opportunity to work with John-Michael Cortez while he was at Capital Metro. With all of that said, my only goal with this communication is to give you my opinion, not to represent my company in any capacity.

If 2016 is to be the Year of Mobility, then you must prioritize the modes that have been given short shrift for far too long: walking and bicycling.

It was recently shown in a KEYE piece that at the current pace of funding sidewalks, it will take 200 years to fully build out Austin’s missing sidewalks. The estimated cost to build the missing sidewalk network, 2,300 miles of sidewalks, is $120 million. The estimated cost to build the entire all-ages-and-abilities bicycle network, 247 miles of on- and off-street facilities that would take 20,000 cars off of Austin’s roads daily, is $151 million. For comparison, the US 183 North project has a recently increased cost estimate of $650 million. For about half of the price of 8 miles of car lanes, which we already know will only produce more traffic congestion–which Austin hates more than anything–we can build 2,547 miles of facilities that connect communities, reduce traffic congestion, increase retail sales, improve safety, and help people become more active.

What kind of message does Austin send its residents when we lament lives lost in car crashes, desire to improve air quality, and read in report after report that Austin’s peak-hour congestion is the 4th worst in the country, yet do not promote and fund the modes that will most directly address these issues? We must fully fund these plans and build the networks.

Mayor, I met Janette Sadik-Khan at the NACTO conference last October. I was inspired by her passionate recounting of New York City’s experience in reducing fatalities and making NYC streets enjoyable places for people to be. You said that Austin should follow NYC’s example. Why not? In this state, where someone is killed in traffic on average once every 2.5 hours, Austin can be a real light-bearer. Just like you achieved zero homeless veterans in a truly ambitious time period, we can achieve full build-out of the bicycle and sidewalk networks the same way, and we can reach zero traffic deaths. Austin steps up to ambitious, worthy goals.

Thank you for your attention to mobility in Austin. We are lucky to have a thoughtful, trustworthy leader like you to take us from the mess we are in now to a place where we can enjoy our mobility, not dread it.

Best regards,

Allison Kaplan
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Where bicycling “just works”

The other evening, I watched my fiancé Jeff catch his jeans in the chain of his bicycle because he has no chain guard.

IMG_2938

This was after I placed my purse in my rear basket, blocking the view of my rear red blinking light. My light was blocked because it is mounted on my seatpost, which is apparently the only place for it, and it’s directly in front of the basket, which is also mounted in the only place a basket can go. If I don’t put anything in the basket, you can see the light. This is good placement because the light is less likely to be stolen, but it makes it difficult to transport things in the basket safely at night.

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When it comes to the actual bicycles, riding a bicycle in the United States has not been a user-friendly experience for me. In contrast, my bicycle in Germany was very user friendly.

20.6

The best way I can explain the difference between the two bicycle thought systems is by comparing it to the difference between Macs and PCs.

The Mac User

I’m not very interested in computers. My expectations of my computers are very simple and clear: they should turn on, all the programs should work, and they should not have any viruses. I don’t care how much RAM they have, whether I can tinker with the programs, or whether they are the latest models. I like it when they run fast and put up with it when they don’t. In short, I am your ideal Mac customer. I love it when my computer “just works.”

The PC User

In contrast, my brother is the ideal PC user. He knows how his computers work and has built his own machines. He tinkers with settings and programs and sometimes writes programs. Sometimes, he wants to play really complicated games and have it look amazing on his screen and not lag. For that, he needs a really nice computer he can mess around with: a PC. (He has also owned Alienware computers, high-end gaming PCs.)

Germany: Mac bicycles

In Germany, bicycles are like Macs: they just work. In the photo of my German bicycle above, you can see the front headlight. It is mounted low, just above the front wheel, so that if a basket were to be mounted above it, the light would still be visible beneath the basket. Also, the light is powered by a dynamo generator and is affixed to the bicycle, so it can’t be stolen. It was simple for me to just flip the dynamo generator switch, toss my purse into my rear basket, hop on my bicycle, and go anywhere.

US: PC bicycles

In the United States, bicycles are like PCs: meant for experts and aficionados. Frequently, when you buy a bicycle in the US, you buy just that: a bicycle. No lights connected, no fenders, no racks, no chain guard. You get a basic product, and all of those things that made my German bicycle just work are aftermarket add-on items that you have to somehow fit onto your bicycle. And the majority of aftermarket lights are powered by batteries, so if your battery dies during your journey, you’re out of luck. I’ve only ever seen two dynamo generators in the US, and the one I got my hands on was on a decades-old bicycle I was taking apart, and it didn’t work. Cheap, battery-powered lights are also easily stolen, so you want to detach your lights and bring them with you wherever you go. Good luck taking a clutch out on the town.

(My brother the PC user also has a high-end triathlon bike, by the way. Coincidence?)

My Next Bicycle

IMG_2774

As much as I was hoping Lady, my current bicycle, would be the bike to end all bike buying, she still doesn’t have all the ideal features. I really want to sell her and buy this one, a Pashley Princess Sovereign. I saw it at Whole Foods one day and gushed about it to Jeff for a full five minutes. Everything I love about this bike:

  1. Step-through frame
  2. Chain guard
  3. Skirt guard
  4. Rear light mounted at back of rack, underneath a potential basket
  5. Front light mounted below basket
  6. Dynamo light generator
  7. Fenders
  8. Mousetrap rack
  9. Bell
  10. It’s pretty

Obviously, I have not overlooked the role my local bike shop plays in my rear light situation. I’m sure they can come up with a workable solution. And I will enjoy Lady as long as I have her. But…a girl’s gotta have a goal in life. The Pashley Princess Sovereign Mac is my goal, and yes, I will name her Kate.

Why Is This So, and What’s to Be Done?

I don’t know exactly why this PC/Mac situation exists, why I could easily get a cheap “Mac” bike in Germany but will pay dearly for it in the US because it’s so rare. I’m sure it’s related to Germany promoting transportation cycling for many years, and Americans considering bicycling a recreational sport you do only during the daytime. I’m sure it’s related to lack of demand for transportation-type bicycles in the US, although I surmise that, like with maternity leave, Americans just don’t know what they’re missing; and if they did, they’d buy these bicycles in droves. I do know that I’ve been trying to re-create my German bicycle for the past 10 years, and it hasn’t worked because I didn’t realize until recently exactly what made my German bicycle so easy to get around on.

And what’s to be done? Exactly what I’ve been doing. Increase demand for transportation bicycles by building places for them to ride on safely.

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TNCs: the real issue

Michael King nailed it on TNCs (Transportation Networking Companies: Uber, Lyft, GetMe).

While Austin has been debating whether fingerprinting is the best background check method and whether it will pose a real threat to Uber’s and Lyft’s business, the real issues are getting lost in the chatter. Uber’s and Lyft’s threats to leave Austin in response to regulation point to the heart of the matter.

I see a lot of people getting really upset over regulating TNCs, I mean truly over the top angry. Who is talking about the true heart of the issue? Michael King is one. He calls fingerprinting a distraction and says that the real issue,

represented in the explicit threats of the companies to leave the large and growing Central Texas market if they don’t get their way, is whether the community’s democratically elected representatives retain the authority to regulate businesses operating in Austin, or if the driver-eat-driver “free market” imposed by billionaire corporations will instead rule the day, where the weakest go to the wall.

From the very beginning of their operations, Uber and Lyft have made very clear that they fight dirty. The latest stunts are no different. They want to operate their way without, in their minds, submitting to onerous regulations by a city attempting to ensure safety for its citizens and a level playing field for its businesses.

Time and Effort to Insult Rather than Negotiate

Uber created a video to show what the service (and transportation in general) would look like under the regulations proposed by Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee Chairwoman Ann Kitchen. Uber’s theory is that regulations would take transportation backward.

In addition, Uber added an option to their app called “Kitchen’s Uber,” which allowed you to hail a horse and buggy for $50.

kitchenuber

Stop and take that in for 30 seconds.

In response to proposed regulations, rather than sit at the table and negotiate like adults, Uber chose to spend money and time creating insulting ads and manipulating its app.

Make no mistake, the point of the video and app manipulation was to bully City Council into a particular course of action, and the video was shared widely so that as many users as possible would be galvanized. Michael King minces no words about it:

Even better: In the event of a political beef with elected officials, [TNCs] can count on all these indentured servants to campaign on [their] behalf as an army of Little Guys fighting oppression from The Man – peppering the neighborhoods with cute little pink signs that say “Support ridesharing,” as though these multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths were the vehicular equivalent of a Saturday yard sale.

(“Indentured servants” = TNC drivers.)

Lyft, in choosing not to operate in cities that require fingerprint background checks, is setting itself up as the victim and reducing its own operating area. What is Lyft’s explanation for its hard-line approach? Why wouldn’t they want to sit at the table and negotiate?

Multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths acting like the victim rather than negotiating from a place of power.

And these are the companies Austin is courting?

Sexual Assault

As KUT ‘s Kate McGee pointed out, Uber’s response to lawsuits alleging sexual assault by its drivers was to file a motion to dismiss the claim because victims had agreed to Uber’s terms of service. In case that isn’t clear, the Burnt Orange Report cleared it up for you: Uber accepts sexual assault as a potential risk under its terms of service. (Uber and Lyft both automatically suspend drivers facing sexual assault charges until police investigations are complete.)

Let’s also be clear that Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said to KXAN that crime happens to “easy targets.” Further, from KUT:

“You should never feel 100 percent safe,” he told KXAN. “You should be aware, and more importantly I always talk about, don’t be getting publicly intoxicated. It makes you really a target for people to really take advantage of you.”

Is Art Acevedo absolutely right that getting wasted never leads to a good outcome? Yes. Is it his department’s job to protect Austin citizens, regardless of whether they are intoxicated? Yes. Austin’s leaders have a depressing history of pointing to our drinking culture as the cause of many societal ills, such as traffic deaths and sexual assaults.

However, TNCs claim that they reduce DWI crashes. So are we, as a city, saying that individuals have to choose between driving drunk and potentially getting raped? The Houston Chronicle, always eager to tell us how Houston did it better, published this article by Dug Begley showing that Uber can operate and thrive in cities with fingerprinting requirements, which have caught potential drivers with criminal backgrounds.

Is Austin really courting a company that includes sexual assault as a potential risk of riding with them?

We Must Decide

The heart of the issue, as always, is that Austin is struggling with its values as a city, not that companies respond to regulations in certain ways and whether they should respond differently. Do we empower our city council to govern as is their charge? Is it acceptable that a given number of people will die each year due to drunk driving, and a given number of people will be sexually assaulted?

As a side note, Austin has a maturity issue. We talk about a drinking problem as if it cannot be solved. Where is the evidence? How can we act now to shape a future where drunk driving and sexual assault do not exist?

In the end, my blog is about transportation. As a city, we are getting lost in the weeds. We are forgetting that transportation does not begin and end with ridesharing. TNCs exist because there is a need for better transportation, and while they can be part of the solution, there is a better way to think about transportation that does not require us to abandon our values in response to bullying.

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Traffic engineering and medicine: scientific method ignored

This blog post (December 6, 2015) by Robert Steuteville, editor and publisher of Better! Cities and Towns, explains everything I’ve ever wanted to say about transportation engineering. His main point is that transportation engineers need to be more like doctors.

Doctors and traffic engineers actually have a lot in common. Their decisions significantly affect quality of life. They have life-and-death consequences. Street networks have been shown to exert an impact on health.

Mr. Steuteville suggests that, just as the medical profession advances and changes based on evidence produced by scientific study, transportation engineering should do the same. Theory should lead to study, then implementation.

And transportation engineers have given the impression that they follow the process, while in fact doing the opposite. It has been demonstrated that “the tenets of street design were based on conjecture, not science” (see Eric Dumbaugh’s Safe Streets, Livable Streets in the Journal of the American Planning Association, 2005). And then in the 1980s and 1990s, evidence began to emerge showing that the theory of street design after WWII is not valid. Steuteville then shows that the transportation engineering profession ignored the evidence and continued to try to prove the post-WWII transportation engineering theory, while making a few modifications. They followed the same paradigm while sticking their thumbs over the leaky holes of that paradigm.

Mr. Steuteville then suggests that the medical profession provides an example to follow:

Traffic engineering can learn from medicine, which makes many mistakes but has set up a system of rigorous self-analysis and correction that can take effect relatively quickly once studies are complete. When data is found that does not fit the existing model, traffic engineers should aggressively question the model, change course without delay, and try to correct past mistakes more diligently than is currently the case.

I agree 100% that when data is found that does not fit a model, the model should change. In reality, however, the medical profession does not embrace the evidence presented to them when it comes to nutrition’s role in treating disease.

Read the books (The China Study, How Not to Die, Proteinaholic, The Starch Solution, Food Reform: Our Desperate Need, etc.). Watch the films (Forks Over Knives, PlantPure Nation, Cowspiracy, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, Food, Inc., etc.). For various reasons, doctors are not learning the truth of how your diet affects your health, and they are not passing on that information to their patients, despite a large and growing amount of published evidence.

Although the process works when it is applied, both the medical and transportation engineering professions are denying the results of the process. Mainstream Western medicine is still under the impression that animal-based and refined products are just fine to eat, and all the diseases that result from consuming them can be fixed with pills, or can’t be fixed at all, despite evidence to the contrary. Transportation engineers still believe street trees are dangerous, wide lanes are safe, and we will never be able to prevent all traffic deaths by slowing cars down, despite evidence to the contrary.

Why is this? Why do both of these professions hold on to their theories with a white-knuckle grip? Who profits from keeping heads in the sand?

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Happy streets

When I lived in Coburg, Germany in 2006, I rented a room in a small apartment in a building with about five other apartments. Each tenant took turns doing the common-area housework, which included sweeping the sidewalk in front of the building. Not completing the housework was grounds for eviction. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that the landlady was being cheap by not hiring a company to do the cleaning.

The landlady sometimes helped me, and as we swept the sidewalk one day, I swept leaves and debris into the street. That’s what I thought you were supposed to do with debris on the sidewalk. The landlady saw me and admonished, “No, no! Don’t sweep the leaves into the street. The buses will come and push the leaves back up onto the sidewalk. Gather the leaves and put them into a bucket,” and then we put them in the green bio-waste bin, a trash bin that the city picks up once a week.

That one small scene has stuck in my mind ever since that day. When I moved back to the U.S., I started to notice what people did with their leaves, grass clippings, and street debris. I think of her every time I see landscape workers blowing cut grass into the street, or a person sweeping their front stoop off into the street. That one landlady changed my whole perspective; before sweeping the sidewalk with her, I would never have noticed or given them a second thought. I grew up knowing that the correct thing to do is sweep trash into the street. Apparently I had been taught somewhere along the way that debris belongs in the street.

This awareness brings up a lot of questions for me. Where did I learn that the correct place for debris was the street? How did that become common knowledge? How did that landlady learn that you have to bag up your sidewalk leaves? Is there an incentive in Germany for bagging up yard waste and tossing it in the bio-waste bin? Where does the bio-waste go? How is it used?

What I’ve come to realize is that it is a lot nicer to be on a street that is swept clean of broken glass, leaves, grass clippings, branches, and other debris. Germany is full of wonderfully clean streets where you don’t worry about getting a flat tire on your bike from broken glass or having to ride in the lane meant for automobiles because of overgrown vegetation. In fact, I never experienced a flat tire due to street debris until I moved back to the U.S. I didn’t know you had to worry about those things. In addition, I was proud to have had a (small) hand in keeping my sidewalk clean. I could point to the clean sidewalk where I walked every day and say, “I did that.”

Streets that have debris in them are sad streets that look neglected. Like a house where the mail piles up, dust gathers, and clothes are thrown on the back of the couch, a street that is not maintained indicates a lack of responsibility and caring. I regularly clean my home so that it is orderly and nice to live in.* I also want my city to be a nice, orderly place to live in. Since streets make up a large percentage of the area of the city, I want them to be clean, orderly, inviting places. I believe that I would even be proud of my city’s highways if they were cleaner.

Clean streets are happy streets, and happy streets make a happier city.

*Let’s be honest, my boyfriend Jeff  cleans our home because he loves me and knows I like a clean house.

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