Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Entitled and helpless...

Bill Bean of Take the Lane linked to this diatribe against winter cycling. Leaving aside the mistakes the writer makes about the highway traffic act, the rant against winter cyclists displays the combination of entitlement and helplessness often seen in the excuses abusers come up with.

The letter at issue contains this revealing passage:

If they fall they deserve what they get for being stupid -- and no helmet is going to save them -- but how about the poor driver who runs over them? The driver is going to feel guilty when they shouldn't -- not to mention being made late for wherever they were going.

I have written before about the lack of responsibility in automotive culture, so I guess it shouldn't surprise me when a driver has no sense of their obligation to drive prudently. Driving prudently includes leaving sufficient room to stop when any vehicle ahead of them, whether a bicycle, scooter, hummer or semi-trailer, stops suddenly for any reason. The above quote shows a blended sense of entitlement, of having the right to operate a two-ton steel bomb in public with no obligation to do it safely, and helplessness; drivers do not only have the right to operate recklessly, they have no choice but to do so. Drivers have a choice. They don't have to drive recklessly, they don't have to drive impaired, they don't have to drive in cars, or on days, in which their ability to stop safely comes into question. Drivers who make these excuses deserve the same answer we give to abusers: no, you had a choice. "She" didn't "make you mad", you chose to let yourself get angry, and you chose to express your anger with abuse. Adults in this society have an obligation to control themselves, and that applies to the way they behave in control of a road vehicle. No driver has to run over a cyclist, least of all a cyclist that has fallen in front of them. They can leave more space, they can slow down, and if they really doubt themselves or their cars, they can leave the car in the garage and take the bus.

Going back to an article I discussed before, from the January 26 "Wheels" section of the Toronto Star and other papers, I noticed this interesting argument:

...if radar is supposed to be a traffic safety measure, why would they run it on a bright sunny Saturday morning, on a three-lanes-each-way bridge, [the Bloor Street Viaduct] with excellent visibility in all directions, without a single intersection, store, home, school or in fact much human activity at all?

This context, too, links the excuses offered for irresponsible and dangerous driving, and those offered for various forms of abuse. Abusers have an agenda, and often the excuses they offer provide a clue to that agenda. Consider: the author of the article in "Wheels" justifies speeding on the grounds that the Bloor Street Viaduct, one of the major links between East and Central Toronto, has "no human activity". Well, except a subway station at each end, and sidewalks, which speeding cars will make more dangerous and less pleasant to use. In other words, this argument calls for two things: the restriction of large areas of public space to cars and drivers, and also the right of drivers to behave in ways that informally, or illegally, enforce this restriction. Things like speeding, which both ignores and discourages those pesky pedestrians and cyclists. Or to take things that revealing little bit further, as the author or that letter to the Waterloo Record does, driving recklessly and actually running people over.

Abusive drivers have a choice. But so do the rest of us, and the rest of us include pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who take their responsibilities seriously. We can accept this kind of attitude from reckless and abusive drivers, and we can accept the actions this attitude promotes, or we can say no to it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reflections on New York

On a brief visit to New York last week, we went to two museum exhibits: one on Camille Pissarro the Impressionist painter, and one on the late 19th century case of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose false conviction on charges of treason exposed widespread antisemitism, and split, among many other parts of French society, the impressionist movement. We went to an Off-Off-Broadway play, ate very well, and, thanks to a decision to stay in Weehawken New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, we got in several ferry rides on the Hudson River.

Anyone visiting a big, impressive city such as New York risks falling victim to the allure of the new. The magnificent classical public architecture, the Beaux-Arts mosaics announcing the station names in the New York Subway, can provoke an awe that makes us forget the spare elegance of Toronto's modernist design.

But some of New York's recent improvements to its public spaces provide models that Toronto ought to consider. For example, consider the dog park at Chelsea Piers. I have no doubt that New York has its share of conflicts between dog owners and parents, just as Toronto (all too often) has had. And one small dog park will hardly suffice for the exercise need of the huge number of dogs in New York. However, the designers of this dog park have taken a small space and transformed it into an interesting, even delightful way for New Yorkers to exercise their dogs. Nor should parents feel left out; close beside the dog park, a small but beautiful and imaginative little park serves the children in that part of New York.

Or consider the bicycle path that runs beside the West Side Highway: Toronto's waterfront bicycle path runs through a prettier setting, but the path in New York has more room, better markings, and bollards less likely to injure a cyclist at night. These details make the bike path safer and easier to navigate, and thus appealing, despite its location between two concrete walls that separate it from a busy highway to the east, and the Hudson River Piers to the East.

Bicycle paths on at least some New York streets and avenues have more space and better separation from the motorized vehicle lanes. Unfortunately, cars still get in and block the lane, but the space marked off around the bike path and the poles installed discourage traffic from getting into the lane, and make cars less likely to block the lane when they do.

I don't view New York as a model for Toronto, but certainly we should consider the things the New York city government gets right. And when it comes to amenities for cyclists and pedestrians, New York clearly gets a lot of things right.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cars, guns, and the social contract

Do a Google search for the phrase "law abiding gun owners" and you will get "about 46,500" pages back. Do the same search with "car" substituted for "gun", and Google will return "about 264" hits. To understand why, consider this quote:

Okay, so speeding is speeding, and speeding is against the law everywhere. But seriously.

Seriously? OK, then, as seriously as anything gets: this website calculates the stopping distance for an average car, given the speed, from the moment the driver steps on the brake. Adding in a two second reaction time necessary to see a situation (say a child racing into the street after a ball) developing and hit the brakes, and we arrive at the following table of stopping distances at various speeds:

Speed (km/h)Stop distance (meters)
70 101.79
60 79.13
50 59.58

Put bluntly, if a child darts out after a ball less than 59 meters in front of a car doing 50 km/h, the car will probably hit them. That grisly number defines the social contract between urban drivers and urban parents: a car traveling at the general urban speed limit can stop for a child in about 60% of the distance of a football field. Suppose an inattentive driver lets the speedometer creep up to 60 km/h; the child now has only about 20 meters of the football field left. An impatient driver who believes their time matters more than other people's lives, and speeds up to 70 km/h? It will take over a football field's length for that driver to stop.

Around every technology a culture will inevitably arise. The measures of that culture will include its adherence to the larger social contract. In this respect, automotive culture falls decidedly short; to judge by the quote above, which I believe represents the linked article, the characteristics of car culture include a sense of entitlement, impatience, and disrespect for the law and other road users. Reason Magazine has an article comparing the restrictions on gun ownership with the restrictions on car ownership. Despite some problems with their logic, the article makes one valid point: society expects, and to some extent gets, at least more respect for the social contract from those who speak for gun culture than they get for the people who speak for automotive culture.


CTV has a story about the man ticketed for warning other drivers of speed monitoring ahead. They quote a police officer saying that the law doesn't prohibit anyone from flashing their lights to warn of speed radar. The story makes this person's contention that the police have no business enforcing the speeding laws quite plain. If this truly constitutes the state of automotive culture today, I want no part of it.

Update 2:

Spacing also has a post up which, sad to say, retails the same old car culture excuses.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pennies from heaven

...if Ottawa feels flush enough to lower the GST, that money should have been handed over to cities.

So said Christopher Hume; based on the context, I can only assume that he meant the federal government ought not to lower taxes, and instead write a big cheque to the governments of the city of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and perhaps a few other municipalities.

Pennies from heaven, taxes that someone else levies and takes the heat for, make some politicians very happy. The idea of one level of government (the "bad guy") taking the heat for taxes, and then cutting a cheque to the "good guy" level that provides the services also appeals to ideologues and advocates. But the process of justifying taxation by providing services provides one of the few assurances of good government we have. A politician who can shower services on the electorate without specifying the cost will enjoy a spurious popularity and a license to indulge in mismanagement or outright corruption; a politician forced to justify raising taxes will have to ensure the public gets value for its money. Moreover, the process gets the public involved: debates over how to spend our money focus the attention like few other things.

Recently, Hume has written about the high cost of car addiction and the ways it skews our priorities, as well as the reluctance of drivers to pay their share. In this sense, Christopher Hume gets it. So why, in his article calling upon the federal government to fund the cities, does he say of the finance minister: " fact potholes are his concern." If we demand that the federal government pay to fix the damage to our roads caused by drivers, then how can we ever expect to change the habits of people in our city? Making it the responsibility of the federal government to pay for fixing potholes sends precisely the wrong message to drivers: it defines their auto habit as something so important that the federal government has a responsibility to pay for it. If we eve hope to reduce automobile use, we have to send the opposite message, and define driving as a private indulgence, for which the individual has the obligation to pay the full cost.

Cities do currently pay the cost for some services that the federal government has an obligation to at least share. These include immigrant services and services for urban First Nations people. However, fixing potholes does not belong on this list. As someone who disagrees with Canada's current government, and will work hard to defeat it in the next election (roll on the day) I hate having to agree with anything the minister of finance has to say, but in this case, has has simply told the truth. Moreover, he has provided us with an opportunity. The prospect of having to raise taxes to cater to the demands of drivers might change the minds of people such as Rob Ford and Case Ootes. Goodness knows, the sneers of progressives haven't affected them.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dignity and homicide...

Another gun battle in Toronto has claimed the life of another passer-by, and Mayor Miller has again called for a comprehensive ban on handgun ownership by Canadians. Handgun owners may feel unfairly singled out: after fatal car accidents, hardly anyone calls for a ban on the private ownership of cars. But if gun owners want to understand why almost 50% of their fellow citizens want to take their guns away, they might take a look at the widely disseminated essay A Nation of Cowards, in which the author, Jeffrey R. Snyder, writes

How can a person who values himself so highly calmly accept the indignity of a criminal assault?

Snyder specifically proposes handguns as the most convenient way to protect your dignity. We saw the problem with that idea on the streets of Toronto recently, when a young man fired a shot from a handgun at a bar bouncer, killing a passer-by. I doubt that Snyder had the shooting of bar bouncers in mind when he proposed the use of firearms as an expression of dignity, but bouncers physically propel people out of bars, which compromises the personal dignity of those they expel. If handgun violence serves to protect or restore human dignity, then bouncers, and people walking near them, can expect to get shot at. Snyder's essay does mention the obligation on those who use lethal force to do so competently, but another gun-related site dodges this issue:

Shooting accurately under stress is often difficult and more than one shot may be required to stop each attacker.

As we have seen twice in one week, bullets do not come with brakes that engage when they miss their intended target. By the law of averages, 50% of all the bullets that kill bystanders unrelated to a dispute will come from the guns of people who can claim to have fired in self defence.

Gun advocates, or at least responsible gun advocates, understand the dangers of gun battles in public places. So why do we have a gun culture dominated by the voices of people who consider using lethal weapons to protect their dignity not only a right but an obligation?

Handgun owners may reasonably protest that politicians have singled them out unfairly; automobile culture arguably fosters even more irresponsible attitudes, with some people still finding excuses for drunken or otherwise homicidally reckless driving. Whatever the pitfalls of lawful self defence, few people in the gun culture excuse outright criminal violence; indeed, they demand harsh punishments for it. Unfortunately, our society has run out of patience with reckless shooters before it has run out of tolerance for homicidal drivers. Responsible Canadian target shooters and collectors who want to keep their handguns might consider answering the irresponsible voices in the gun culture, before more gun battles push the number of Canadians calling for outright bans and confiscation to a majority that federal politicians can no longer ignore.

Friday, January 18, 2008

So who really did kill the electric car?

The idea that someone 'killed' the electric car, both in the early years of the 20th century, and in more recent incarnations, has lasted a long time. Distrust of oil and automobile companies, based on real history helps to keep idea going, but it also draws strength from a desire to believe that the technology for a low-cost, pollution-free form of luxurious personal mobility already exists. If the perfect, non-polluting car really exists, and only a conspiracy by "evil oil companies"™ and other vested interests (cue Dick Cheney) keeps it from us, then we can hope to drive cars and breathe the air as well. I have written before about some of the fallacies involved in such thinking. I now want to suggest a more disturbing possibility: we may never have an economically or politically viable electric car, simply because an electric car would have to use a fungible energy source.

By fungible, I mean that you can use electricity for a wide variety of purposes: home heating, cooking, powering appliances, and powering vehicles. Gasoline, on the other hand, only works for one purpose: powering light duty engines. That makes it very useful for cars and light trucks, and essentially useless for anything else. When you fill up your SUV, you don't have to wonder if you (or anyone else) could have used that energy for cooking or heating. That matters, because the energy a car uses can power a lot of air conditioners, stoves, and washers. According to a report on the US Department of Energy web site, in 2001, 107 million US household used 29 kilowatt hours per day. An average car uses about that much energy in a single hour of driving. That means a two-car, two-commute family will see its electrical consumption triple or quadruple when it tries to charge two electric cars.

We can, in theory, operate central power generation systems that emit less pollution than gas-powered cars do, using carbon sequestering systems, geothermal, wind, and nuclear power. But to do that, we have to build a huge amount of infrastructure. To power automobile traffic in Toronto alone would take something like 10,000 windmills. It would cost a lot less to build a "green city" based on active (human powered) and public transit.

Maybe we already have most of the electric cars we need. They just run on subway (and trolley) rails, rather than on rubber and asphalt.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A post I did not want to write...

I read a number of web logs, but for thoughtful comments on American life and politics, I look very often at Obsidian Wings, a group weblog designed to span the (American) political spectrum. On of the posters there, Andrew Olmsted, an officer serving in the American army in Iraq, died in Iraq at the beginning of this year.

In a wretched irony, my most recent comment to Obsidian Wings responded to the graphs of casualty figures by pointing out that you can never understand what casualty figures mean unless you know someone who has died, heard the voice now stilled, remember the friend now absent. I will miss the voice of Andrew Olmsted, a straightforward and decent man who always had something worthwhile to say.

Whether you believe making peace requires making war, or whether you believe, as I do, that the time for war has long passed, you cannot address the great issues of the time without taking personal risks. I work with people who have faced the lawlessness of occupied Baghdad and the horrors of civil war in the Congo and Colombia. Neither peacemakers nor soldiers can hope to change the world without the honour, courage and grace in the midst of misery that they (and Andrew Olmsted) showed. My condolences and prayers go out to his family.