Monday, December 21, 2009

Ride Report: Monday, December 21, 2009

An extraordinary and unlikely run-in with a motorcycle cop today.

It's 2:13 PM, and I'm climbing a small hill on Olympic just east of San Vicente, already feeling a little edgy about sharing the road with crazed last minute holiday shoppers. If they are the same people who come into the bookstore (where I just worked a 7 hour shift) and cut in line, yell, and leave mess everywhere, I don't particularly want to ride with them.

The rightmost lane on Olympic is available for parking, and I'm in what's left of it, technically in the door zone. I'm fine being in the door zone when I'm going pretty slow. All of a sudden someone SCREAMS in my ear. They seem to have direct access to my eardrum and they have let a scream rip at maximum pitch. I jump in my (bike) seat and look up to see an SUV with a teenager's head sticking out of the back window. As they pass me, in a total failure of my principles, I flip them off. Well... it was a heated moment. I was very startled and frightened.

I managed to note the SUV's license plate and I pulled over to call the LAPD. I have actually practiced noting license plates, because I call the LAPD regularly when I am harassed, or when someone drives recklessly around me. I've been on the phone for literally 10 seconds when a motorcycle cop passes by. Perfect! "I need your help!" I yell frantically. "Police!"

The motorcycle turns around and sort of scoots over to me. "Are you yelling for me?" he asks. I say, "Yes, I've just been harassed by an SUV... it was white, and it's headed that way, this was literally under a minute ago." He says, what do you mean harassed? I tell him that someone leaned out of the car and screamed in my ear.

He seems irritated. He tells me that there is no crime in yelling out of cars. He gestures toward the pavement and says, "Well, how were you riding, I mean, if you're in the roadway then..." I interrupt him. I show him where I was riding and he sort of shrugs. Then I say, "It's a good thing that they're writing that anti-harassment ordinance to deal with the problem of bicyclists being harassed. He leans his motorcycle-helmeted-head back slightly and squints his eyes. What "problem"? he asks skeptically. I tell him, you know, people yelling at us, passing us closely, throwing stuff at us.

"Oh." he says, as if admitting that such a problem might exist in Los Angeles. "Well, here's the thing, though... lots of bicyclists don't know the rules of the road, and lots of them are running lights, riding the wrong way..." I don't remember if the officer used the words "asking for it," exactly.

I actually interrupt him and tell him that if this is gonna be a lecture on bicyclists and the law, I'll pass. I tell him I'm intimately familiar with the laws. And anyway, I say, aren't motorists breaking the laws constantly, too? I cite some examples, like how they are always speeding. And how they never stop behind the limit line at red lights.

Turns out, Officer Corbett (? Collett? I forget.) is actually a speed patrol on Olympic and San Vicente, and he warms up to the idea that motorists are always breaking the law. Yes, he says. And what's more - "Wanna know the top speed I've ever seen? 98. Ninety-eight miles per hour on San Vicente. If somebody pulls out of their driveway in front of a car going that fast, they're dead." He goes on to tell me that he does more than the average officer for bikes and pedestrians, and he seems sincere. We talk for a while about Assault with a Deadly Weapon and how if a car ever veers toward you intentionally, it's ADW with a vehicle. He speaks with some venom, as if he has had experience with it, and he actually derides the fact that so many folks want to classify ADW with a vehicle as a traffic accident. Yes, that definitely happens in Los Angeles, I think as I listen, recalling the recent Hummer incident in downtown LA. Later he goes on a rant about how motorists don't know when pedestrians have the right of way, and how drivers need to slow down in this area, which has a hospital, a school, and plenty of elderly people crossing at unmarked intersections. We're on the same page about that, I think. I briefly consider enlisting the officer's support for traffic calming on Olympic.

Our conversation goes on for about 15 minutes longer, and we reach a much more level, respectful rapport than when I interrupted what I presumed to be an oncoming lecture. Ok. I want to end here with Three lessons from this.

1) Bottom line is, in our initial exchange, the officer's first question toward me was whether I was breaking the law or riding illegally; his first impulse was then to educate me regarding bike law and describe the rampant problem with scofflaw cyclists. I called him over asking for his help, and his first assumption is that I did something to deserve the harassment, like ride "in the roadway." (Ummm.... not against the law! I suspended my urge to give him a lecture about that. anyway...) Imagine if you called the cops because someone was harassing you and their first question was whether you were breaking any laws.

Even an officer like this one, who was fair and respectful, professed to be pro-bike and pro-ped, and viewed cars as deadly weapons, displayed anti-bike bias. That's just one more indicator that the anti-cyclist bias is huge and rampant among LAPD particularly.

2) We definitely need the cyclist harassment ban proposed by Councilman Rosendahl's office. I know that most of the vehicle code can't be touched by cities because its considered a "matter of statewide concern," and legally only the State of CA can create laws like a three-foot passing law or a stop-as-yield law, but we need to find the legal areas the city actually does have jurisdiction over and regulate on this. (By the way, the city does have a local ordinance against throwing things out of cars, apparently because of a problem with motorists and their passengers spraying people with fire extinguishers (?!) a while back. Officer Corbett explained this. So if you do get something thrown at you, definitely note the license plate and call it in to LAPD.)

Here I was with the improbable, fortunate coincidence of blatant harassment and the arrival of a police officer, and unfortunately for me, he couldn't do anything. If we had an anti-harassment ordinance, I could have cited the code, listed the license plate, and watched justice speed off.

3) There is no evidence that cyclists use their discretion to break the law any more than motorists do - no, definitely no evidence. But we must be ready to face the "scofflaw cyclist" stereotype at every turn. Our law-breaking stands out in motorists' minds because we break laws that would be VERY dangerous and stupid for cars to break. Their law breaking is just routine. I had some success tempering the "scofflaw cyclist" stereotype with 1) mention of the routine criminal activity of motorists, and 2) meticulous knowledge of the law and 3) meticulous following of the law. I think we need all three of these things to prevail in the face of this stereotype, which is why I basically never break the law on a bike when there is any kind of witness around (and of course not when it'd be stupid).

Geek note: this whole "motorists come in all shapes and sizes, but cyclists are all arrogant scofflaws" actually reflects a broader psychological/sociological phenomenon called "out-group homogeneity bias."

Rosendahl and City Hall, pass that law. Cyclists, know your laws. And LAPD, stop assuming we're breaking them.

View Larger Map

(The scene of the crime. In the background you can see the unmarked intersection the officer and I discussed.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Open Urban Planning Degree 2: Carpool Fail

In an earlier post I explained my efforts to make my urban planning papers accessible to a knowledgeable, interested, general audience by imagining that I'm writing them for this blog. An added benefit of this exercise is that by posting my papers here, I make available some planning related ideas. The questions, "What is urban planning?" and 'What constitutes (or should constitute) an urban planning education?" are highly contested, and I certainly cannot, at this point, answer them. But a sort of practical answer may emerge as I pass on these papers. And I like to think that this could be of some use to someone considering going to planning skool, or to folks who do planning-related work, like community organizing, local politicking, etc., (see - I write etc. because the bounds around urban planning are perpetually implacable). Like MIT's OpenCourseWare does, I'll use the internet to make knowledge available outside the ivory tower, except unlike MITs OCW, I'll do it in a tiny, unsanctioned - let's just say it, meek way.

I wrote this paper in response to an "economic naturalist" prompt. It says, go out into the world, observe some urban phenomenon, and analyze it with economics. This assignment evinces the imperative in urban planning to address what is practical. Economics for urban planning only has worth inasmuch as it can explain some real behavior.

A final sidenote: I've read a lot of Chomsky and Naomi Klein, and had always thought of economics as an ideologically broken discipline, focused on currency and unquestioning of capitalism. This class sort of converted me. I want to use concepts such as opportunity cost, marginal cost, and externalities to create organizational systems (maybe markets - not necessarily "free" markets) that place value on the environment and distribute benefits equitably. I no longer believe that a microeconomic analysis of choice is incompatible with my ideological leanings toward anarchy and social democracy. Perhaps that's all for another post. Now, here's the paper.

Why are there so many empty seats moving (slowly) down the freeway? Wouldn’t commuting be faster and cheaper if we filled up all the vehicles?

Most cars seat 4 or 5 people, but most traffic consists of solo drivers. That’s a lot of underused capacity moving down the road. During the morning and evening rush hours, solo drivers are stuck in a sea of empty seats, yet nobody attempts to take advantage of all that potential mobility.[1] Drivers don't sell their empty seats to passengers who want to go the same places, and we don't see would-be passengers lining up to bid for rides.

The absence of such a market is most puzzling when you consider that the road is very congested, which means a lot of people want to travel along the same route. An economist would say that demand for travel on this freeway is high.[2] Whenever there's some demand for a good, anybody who can supply that good has an opportunity to charge a price for it. Then we have a seeming economic paradox. A service (mobility) is in high demand, and the ability to provide this service (empty passenger seats) is under private ownership and available for profit. This same scenario exists on the LA Metro, and there is a market: used fare tickets, still good for a few more hours of travel, are sold at informal (and illegal) markets around the stations. Why isn't there a market in casual carpooling?

In order to answer this question, let's imagine how such a market would have to work. Such a thought experiment addresses some logistical questions, like how would carpoolers match up with drivers going to their destination? And what about safety concerns? Let's just imagine the most low-tech solution possible. Let's say I am one of the many Angelenos who does not travel to work by car.[3] If I want to get to UCLA from the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, I walk to the nearest on-ramp to the 10 W freeway. I stand there with a sign saying “405 N – Wilshire” which represents where I want to get off the freeway. In a robust market, I'd find another passenger hoping to go my way so that we could get in a car together, because traveling in twos alleviates safety concerns for the driver. With all the rush-hour activity at every on-ramp, eventually someone going my way would roll up. The two of us would get in and we would pay the going price. The driver would drop us off shortly after the freeway exit, and we would be on our own to reach our final destinations.

It would seem that everybody gains in such an arrangement. That's the talent of private markets: they match up buyers and sellers who are both better off when the transaction is made. In this case, my fellow passenger and I are better off because we can get to work without owning a car. We save a lot of money, even if we spend some of it on the commute. The driver, who has already sunk a lot of money into the cost of owning and maintaining the car, gets to recoup some of this while getting to her final destination in nearly the same amount of time. So let's return to the question, why doesn't such a market form?

First of all, the market depends upon a level of robustness, or else passengers look like crazy commuter hitchhikers. The whole thing has to be established at many locations and well-known. This means there's a significant start-up cost. Whoever invested the time and energy wouldn't receive any special benefit, and everybody else who participated in the market afterward would be a free rider on the founder's original effort.

More importantly, the marginal cost per mile of driving is very low. Economists distinguish between fixed costs, which must be paid upfront to engage in some activity, and marginal costs, which vary with the level of use. In the case of driving, there are huge fixed costs: the cost of ownership and maintenance. Even the cost of a tank of gas is a fixed cost when you're behind the wheel. You already paid for the tank of gas, so the next mile is free. The distinction between fixed and marginal cost doesn't necessarily defray the driver's general incentive to recoup his costs. But a basic precept of bargaining (and markets) is that everybody tries to get the best deal possible.[4] In this case, consumers know that the marginal cost to producers is zero, and they will try to bargain them down that low. Why should I pay you to give me a ride when I know that you're going there anyway, and you already bought the car and filled the tank? I should get this ride for free.

Relatedly, even if the market were already established (perhaps by some government wanting the road to function better) and even if the marginal cost per mile of driving were higher, driving alone may actually confer a significant benefit on some people. Perhaps they really enjoy rocking out to music in the morning.[5] Alternatively, drivers may perceive the risk of inviting strangers into their car to be very high. Either way, for these people picking up a paying hitchhiker would entail a large transaction cost. Whenever transaction costs are higher than the going price, a market will not form.

In the places where we do see casual carpooling markets, some of the above criteria do not hold. In the Bay Area, casual carpools form to cross the Bay Bridge. In this case, the market's logistics are simple: there is one pick-up spot, and one drop-off spot. This solves the free rider problem that comes with establishing the market. In addition, the marginal cost of driving is much higher than normal. Single occupancy vehicles pay a toll of $4 to cross the bridge; carpools of three or more can bypass it. Now that there is a monetary benefit, more drivers are willing to take on the transaction cost of picking up strangers.

If casual carpooling were widespread, freeways would carry more people, and overall we might spend less money on commuting and less time in traffic. Unfortunately, because no one wants to do the work to coordinate all these carpools, and because driving another trip to work is basically free, all those empty seats remain an untapped resource.

[1] Except the government, which does provide a meager incentive in the form of a less congested carpool lane.

[2] Technically, they would say that the quantity demanded is very high because the price is very low. The term demand on its own refers to a dynamic function of price.

[3] About 20% of Los Angeles’ workforce, according to this document:

[4] In economic jargon, consumers try to maximize their consumer utility.

[5] Surveys suggest that this benefit is nontrivial. When people were asked to name their ideal commute time, the mean response was 16 minutes, not “no commute.” This is chronicled in the 2008 book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, p. 139.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prius Ad Campaign on LA's Freeways Violates Public Space, Federal Law

Since I now do it so rarely, driving a car makes me feel like I'm in an alternative reality - either a dream state where everything floats by without any tangible sensations, or an exhilarating video game where I maneuver around vehicles and accelerate through curves.

Last night the 110 North was all video game thrill, the lane lines blurring and the curves making me lean in my seat. But today, driving East on the 10, just past Overland, I rubbed my eyes, 'cause what I was seeing disoriented me and intrigued me. Was it a dream? It looked like this:

It's an elaborate flower arrangement like you'd find in the Rose Parade. That orange thing in the middle? It's a 2010 Prius.

Why did it look so odd and disorienting? Because ever since 1965 when the Highway Beautification Act was signed, advertising has been restricted on Interstate Highway landscaping. Toyota themselves recognize this - check this excerpt from their press release:

Since federal regulations require that the Floralscapes be non-commercial in nature, abstract images of the new Prius will appear in different settings, capturing the essence of its marketing campaign developed by Saatchi & Saatchi LA – “Harmony Between Man, Nature and Machine.” All of the images have been approved by California’s department of transportation, Caltrans.

I just spent 20 minutes re-reading the beginning of that sentence, and poring over relevant federal regulations, and I can't find any evidence that this is legal. The flowers obviously form a Prius, and this is obviously an ad campaign. This isn't the only spot Angelenos will be forced to stare at an orange flower 2010 Prius; they're at seven locations along LA freeways.

Will someone with legal training help me out on this one? I'm sure Toyota is prepared to defend their actions, considering that they have the time and money to make sure their multi-million dollar ad campaigns are actually legal. On the other hand, I still think the State Attorney General Ed Brown should bring charges against the parties who facilitated this ad: Mayor Villaraigosa, Caltrans, Toyota, and Saatchi & Saatchi. Attorney General Brown should file charges because the states can lose a portion of their federal highway funding for violating the Highway Beautification Act. Caltrans and Mayor V have definitely violated the act, at least in spirit, and what was a green public landscape is now lost to branding and commercialization.

What are we getting in the trade-off? Is Toyota going to maintain the landscaping around these ads? The press release implies as much:

California-based businesses are contracted to install and maintain the Floralscapes. The non-profit Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which provides training, education and work experience to at-risk young adults and school-aged youth, will maintain the areas surrounding the Floralscapes.

But the passive voice in that first sentence leaves some important questions unanswered. Hmm, who is paying for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps to do this? Toyota? Or our tax dollars? Inquiring minds want to know.

So much irony abounds here. Mayor Villaraigosa celebrates the advertisements as a symbol of "the city's progressive approach to solving environmental issues." He's right, technically. The Prius does pretty well symbolize Mayor Villaraigosa's idea of a greener LA. It uses fancy modern technology to produce basically no results (a Prius gets worse gas mileage than a Geo Metro), it maintains the car's hegemony, its costs are borne by your average Joe and Jane car-buyers, and it pleases big corporate interests. Oh, and let's not forget that Priuses cause just as much congestion as Hummers.

The Prius 2010 campaign intrudes on our lives by design, and this is not the only way it does that. First, we found ourselves in Prius "solar flower" playgrounds, like this one in the Americana. Then, Toyota found a legal loophole so that they could stick their ads in a place where no ads have gone before. LA is already embroiled in controversies about supergraphics and digital billboards. The Prius ads on 7 LA freeways mock the citizen movements against enormous advertisements that have popped up all over our city.

Caltrans and Mayor V have never allowed the everyday organizations that adopt stretches of highway to spread their message to this extent. That's for the best. Anybody and everybody can and will adopt a stretch of highway. I don't want the gun club or the Mormons (sorry, gun-loving LDSes - I'm sure there are many of you out there reading this) creating a flowery mural of this:

Anyway, that's beside the point.

This Prius ad isn't going to disrupt my personal view, and let's face it - even if I did drive a lot, sights and sounds on the freeway have never been that exciting or beautiful. The real scandals here are (1) the ever-encroaching privatization of public space, (2) the successful greenwashing of a technology that really doesn't do much to solve our climate and oil problems (3) the fact that our leaders think we buy this greenwashing, and think they can strike a sketchy deal like this with a huge car company like Toyota.

Come tomorrow, I'll be back on Olympic on my bike, and I won't be looking at this ad. But it should come down.

Then the 10-W at Overland will look like this again.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Road Anti-Rage, or We Will Meet Your Physical Force with Soul Force

There's no dearth of guides on how to ride a bicycle in a city -- on safe urban cycling practices, legal rights on the road, even how to cope when there's an accident.

This is not a how-to of any of the types listed above. This concerns how to talk to drivers, and how to engender their goodwill by displaying goodwill ourselves. This is a method for road anti-rage.

Though this method applies to the most extreme cases, and certainly must hold up in their light given the recent case with Dr. Thompson, I mean it primarily as a way of everyday riding and interaction. We must use nonviolence in each and every interaction we have on the streets. Every single day we face honking, yelling, dangerously close passing, purposeful braking, and buses buzzing us. Most drivers mean no harm. Some do. Most, we are confident, are ignorant of our perspective, and ignorant of how vulnerable we really are and all the dangers we face.

Ultimately, drivers control the heavy weaponry and they will win in any violent contest. What I am suggesting is that we embrace the fact that we are weak and a minority, and we champion the very vulnerability that often fills us with fear. If we take a principled stand against violence, we will always win.

Many of us bike because of our principles. Perhaps we want to take a stand against wars for oil, environmental degradation, and an automobile industry that shrugs at fatality counts. Or we want to see and engage with our city and our neighbors. Or we want to take charge of our health and body. For whatever reason, when we bike, we endure some unpleasant situations in the name of these principles, these commitments.

The issue of road rage and how we respond to it is then essentially an issue of how a principled movement should respond to violence. We must draw on the nonviolent tradition, the same tradition that peacefully overturned dictatorships in countless countries. The methods and philosophy of nonviolence gained civil rights in the U.S. It is a method that has proven to win remarkably. More important than that, though, we must adhere to nonviolence if we are ever to achieve more peaceful, civil, and humane roads, and that's the goal for which we all strive.

Then I say, let us do away with the finger and with retaliation. Those are violent responses. Let us do more than put away the finger. Let us also refuse to hate the drivers that act violently towards us.

To be specific, I am suggesting that:
  • When we are honked at, we nod humbly.
  • When we are yelled at, we respond with calm.
  • When we are passed closely and want to either fight or flee, we must engage in discussion with humanity and love.
Here's a rough template for how such an interaction would proceed:

  1. Unsafe, unpleasant, or hostile encounter with motorist
  2. Assume that motorist is a well-intentioned, good (but maybe ignorant) human being. This assumption shows on your face as you treat the motorist with kindness and respect. Empathize with the motorist.
  3. Attempt to find a moment to interact. This may occur naturally, at a light. Or, you can yell, "Do you have a minute?" Motorists usually don't. They're especially unlikely to pull over if you show even a hint of defensiveness. But I've had some success with a genuine entreaty to have a conversation. For example, I'll say, "If you have a minute, I'd be happy to explain to you why I have to take that lane position."
  4. Kindly explain why you were riding where you were riding. (Note that (4) requires you to be conscious in your riding style and choices, and confident in them. If you're rude or unjustified in the way you ride, this method won't work.) Some kind explanations can reference the law, but none focus on it. When interacting with a neighbor in a civil fashion, and searching for a way to share the road, the law becomes beside the point. Technically, yes, the law can keep us safe, but its not adequate as a guide for how to interact as citizens and human beings sharing space.
  5. Kindly explain how the motorist's actions affect you. For example, "When you pass me so closely, it makes me feel very afraid." Readily admit fear and vulnerability. These are truths of our lives when we ride bikes.
  6. State your needs offer the motorist a suggestion for how to meet your needs For example, "I need more room in the lane in order to feel safe. Would you be willing to pass bicyclists while giving us half a lane to comfortably ride in? I'd really appreciate it."
  7. End by reiterating that you're cooperative and friendly. "Well - no harm meant on my end. I just want to get to work on time. Thanks for listening, take care!"
  8. Just as it is important to learn how to state our feelings, thoughts, and fears without making judgment or using violent language, it is also crucial that we remain open to the driver's needs, thoughts, and feelings. Listen to what the driver might have to say. Listen for the fears or feelings driving their communication, even if the words come out as harsh or defensive. Acknowledge that motorists also need a safe space to drive.

It might be infuriating to consider this approach when so often motorists carelessly endanger our lives. But I'd argue that if we really want our interactions with them to increase our safety and make the world a better place, then we have to keep our side of the street clean, act like the upstanding citizens we are, and kill them with kindness.

I realized some time ago that my ultimate goal was mutual understanding with motorists. So I started practicing. For example, a driver would lay on the horn for a block, then pass me very closely, yelling "sidewalk!" and zoom away. We'd meet again at the intersection. I assume, going into this encounter, that this is a person, a human, with whom I can empathize. I show that assumption on my face. I say, hello. Usually I am greeted with what I perceive as disgust and anger. The motorist may expect a fight. But if I can remain calm, explain my perspective, and remain open to the motorist, we usually end the conversation on a good note. A much better note, at any rate, than if I tried to argue with them.

Martin Luther King said, Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

For all the attention that's been paid to the most minute questions of legality and safety, very little attention has been paid to how we interact with others on the road. In the absence of this attention we're left with crude advice and cruder instincts. This is an attempt to draw on the most old-school, time-tested philosophy of movements for social change. It takes the rage part of road-rage seriously and doesn't shy from the spiritual. So I'll end this post with a quote from the preacher of all preachers:

So in many instances, we have been able to stand before the most violent opponents and say in substance, we will meet your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children and bomb our homes and our churches and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.