Car Karma

Firstly, if you turn your attention to the right-hand margin (or the bottom of your mobile device) you’ll note a new banner for Kasai dynamo hubs:

I happen to have a Kasai dynamo hub myself, on this bike:

Did I mention I have a Rivendell? I’m not sure that I have.

Anyway, the new Kasai hub is “field serviceable,” which sounds great to me, because even though I’m not exactly trekking across the barren wilderness, bike stuff you can easily fix yourself is awesome:

So this is just me slipping that under your nose in case you’re in the market for a dynamo hub.

Moving on, everybody knows that the Pando created a bike boom, but you know what else is So Hot Right Now? Cars!

Well, I gotta tell you, I’m shocked. Shocked! Could it actually be that when you scare people shitless they avoid public transportation? Why, I’m old enough to remember when Mark D. Levine was telling us they were going to start burying bodies in the parks:

Between politicians running around screaming “THEY’RE GONNA START BURYING BODIES IN THE PARK!” and “THE CITY’S GOTTA SAVE US FROM THE KILLER CARS!,” it’s hardly any wonder most people just tune them out and do whatever the fuck they want. Back in early May, a wise person predicted that the “car culture” would probably snap back like “the waistband on a brand-new pair of underpants,” and here we are. The advocacy narrative is that this is happening because the city hasn’t done enough to create bike lanes and bus lanes in recent months:

Certainly that’s not helping, but it’s also not the fundamental reason people are buying cars. Even the notion that people are too scared to ride public transit is way too simplistic. No, ultimately the reason is that the city is still fundamentally closed yet people still need to live their lives in an existential sense. So unless they’re morally opposed to motor vehicle ownership (and it would have to be a very deep moral opposition because even among bike transit advocates motor vehicle ownership is certainly not zero), if they can afford a car right now they’re probably gonna go out and buy one. So here we are.

As far as the Times article, they’ve always been fairly car-centric. They even have an “Automobiles” section, which always struck me as funny because getting your automotive content from the Times is like getting your sports content, from…well, the Times, in that nobody does it. (This is also a paper with a “Fashion” section and a “Style” section, and how the editors decide where to put the ten millionth article on how bike shorts are back is anybody’s guess.) Not too long ago a Times article on, say, busways would give you the sense that the city was inconveniencing workaday drivers with some zany urbanist experiment. Now here’s one that’s more in line with advocacy narrative, which is that cars are for rich people and suburbanites–though ironically it’s a piece about how more people are buying cars:

Car ownership in New York was once generally reserved for those who worked in transit deserts, those who use “summer” as a verb, those with second homes (these last two often being the same person), who could afford garages, or those who lived in the more suburban parts of the outer boroughs, with actual driveways. Not owning a car, not knowing how to drive, or doing so poorly was a point of pride. At least in some circles, to own a car in New York was to be nothing if not an outlier.

Anyway, according to car consultant Tom McPartland, business is booming:

Tom McParland is a columnist for car blogs like Jalopnik and The Drive. He also owns a business called Automatch Consulting, which helps guide hapless, often first-time car-buyers (like me, and two others I spoke with for this article) through the car buying process for a $500 to $1000 fee — advice on picking the right model, getting a fair price from dealers, a pre-purchase inspection, and so on.

May was a record month for Mr. McParland. In April, he estimates about a third of his 30 sales were to New Yorkers. By May he had sold nearly 60 cars with almost half going to New Yorkers.

“The common theme,” he said, “is: ‘I don’t trust the safety of transit, and I don’t trust the safety of ride share. I want my own transportation.’”

I include the above excerpt only to illustrate just how wrong I’ve gone in my life. Apparently people give Tom McParland money to help them buy cars! Yes, every time some urbanite declares, “Fuck it, I’m buying a Hyundai,” this guy gets a piece of the action. Meanwhile, I’m writing about bikes for thirteen fucking years now, and if someone decides to buy a bike I don’t see so much as a dime.

Then there’s this, which I only include because it’s so quintessentially Times-ey:

And so tree-lined borough blocks that felt bucolic in March are fiercer-than-ever battlegrounds for alternate-side parking spots, with temp-plated gladiators duking it out for a place to spend the night. Cars from Carvana, the online used-car retailer, are being dropped off in the city, purchased sans test drive (you have seven days to return).

And of course like any decent trend piece it itemizes the purchasing decisions of people who live in the canonical New York City neighborhoods relevant to the Times reader:

Erica Lyon of Prospect Heights and Biz Lindsay of Greenpoint, both 33, sprung for Volkswagens: a used white Golf and a new black Golf Alltrack, respectively. Alex Faille in Fort Greene, also 33, bought a used Jeep Wrangler. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Subarus seemed to be the rage: Al Risi, a 53-year-old music supervisor, scored a used Forester. Oliver Klein, 31, a restaurant manager, and his fiancé, Molly Stein, 30, who works in art publishing: A used Crosstrek.

And in Williamsburg, Eli Razavi, 31, and his fiancée Tamara Fine, 27, went in on a petrol blue-green 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SL convertible. Mr. Razavi had moved to New York from Los Angeles 10 years ago and sold his car for cash on arrival. “‘I’m never getting a car again’” is how he felt at the time. And then, of course, enter Covid-19:

“I just felt like I was trapped. And I didn’t want to take public transportation or Uber. I didn’t want to deal with renting cars because everything was booked.”

And here we are.

So what does this car boom mean for bikes, and advocacy, and all the rest of it? Well, I’d say the Smugness Mafia here in New York City should probably meditate on an uncomfortable truth: lots people do want cars, even if it’s a latent desire, and bike lanes (as much as we need them, and need more of them) are not going to change that. Yes, there are a million reasons to hate them–especially the city, and especially especially in a crowded city like New York–but the fact is that there are still plenty of people here who are a life-change (or even a convenient pretense) away from getting one. Certainly the Pando is a life change that hit millions of people at once and will probably net us a bumper crop of motor vehicles in the short term, but every day someone in New York City has a baby or comes into some money or moves to a different neighborhood and starts contemplating a car. I’m not saying this undermines the central message of bike and transit advocacy, but as I mentioned in the column I linked to earlier, I do think advocates need to have “compassion and understanding” when it comes to other people’s circumstances and the decisions they make. It’s a lot more complicated than blaming de Blasio (a dolt to be sure, but some things are more complicated than who the mayor is) and repeating platitudes about how “cities are for people.” Ridiculing the dumb car owners is a big part of the advocacy discourse (Lob knows I’m guilty of it), but making fun of people who say they need their cars to get to the doctor’s office ignores the fact that, you know, there are people who need their cars to get to the doctor’s office.

There’s also the fact that, like it or not, the car is (as one dealer in the article calls it) an “escape pod.” I’ll cop to that, having become a Pando Driver myself:

I love going places with my kids on public transit, and I’ve got no apprehension about doing so now–it’s just that many of the places I take them are still closed. Advocates have been celebrating the advent of curbside dining: Streetsblog calls it “one of the most revolutionary shifts in the use of public roadway space since car owners seized the curbside spaces for car storage more than 70 years ago.” Hey, I love to eat and drink outside as much as anybody, and open restaurants mean work and income for people, which is hugely important. At the same time, while you can’t build a city around cars, you also can’t build it around brunch. Some people can’t afford a car payment or an $18 eggs benedict every weekend. Or they can afford one or the other, and arguably the car is a more practical choice.

Either way, the universal constant is that no matter what happens, cyclists will complain about it:

None of this is to judge the car owners, or the advocates, or even the Times journalists writing trend pieces around their new vintage BMWs. It’s just that, as a finger-pointer myself, it seems like a good time to take a break from finger-pointing and the idea that we know better. Maybe what constitutes the highest, most enlightened use of the streets is more of a fair-weather debate, and with so much in flux the idea that we can figure all that out seems unlikely, if not outright hubristic. Making decisions now is like adjusting the stereo volume while you’re driving on the highway with the windows open: it may sound good now, but next time you get in the car your head will expode.

Actually, that may be what happens to all those new car owners.

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