Breaking The Shackles

Good morning.

Firstly, if the key to your lock breaks and you can’t get to your bike, here’s what to do:

Step 1: As your building superintendent if he’s got anything that can cut through a u-lock.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

Secondly, it’s a solemn day on the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the harvest festival during which young men and women who have reached the age of 13 mark the passage into adulthood by exchanging gifts for eight days. Given this, I hope you’ll forgive me for touching on something serious:

Obviously, this is awful. But because it involves not only a bicyclist but one who is connected to the advocacy community, there’s all sorts of discussion around it, including “Whose fault was it?”-type debate:

Which invariably spirals off into who’s ruining the city and how, and helmets, and Ukraine, and which way you should hang the toilet paper, blah blah blah blah. There also seems to be a Reddit thread with various eye-witness accounts, some of which suggest the rider ran the light, or that the driver was speeding, or both, or neither, yadda yadda yadda and so forth.

There are few things people love more than blaming other people and touting tragedies as proof of why their worldview is the correct one, whether it’s that cars are evil, or bicyclists are reckless, or that helmets should be mandatory, or that toilet paper should be hung under rather than over so that the weight of the roll facilitates a one-handed tearaway. But it’s not always so simple, and while I have no idea what happened in this case, in my own experience anyway it seems like these things often occur when two people are each just a little bit “wrong” at the same time. You can drive a little too fast and most of the time everything will be fine, and you can roll red lights and most of the time everything will be fine. But in doing so you’re counting on others maybe a little bit more than you should (which is not at all), and when you encounter someone else who’s doing the same thing the odds of something going wrong increase exponentially, which is when things tend to go awry.

Certainly no amount of vigilance can keep you safe from the most reckless people out there, but by holding up your end of things you can reduce the odds of disaster considerably. There’s a reason aviation is so safe, and it’s because there’s a protocol and everyone is checking and double-checking shit constantly. Meanwhile, a week after passing the road test most motorists forget half of what they learned, and a lot of people riding bikes never really learned anything in the first place. Increasingly I believe that understanding this and acting accordingly is by far the most important aspect of riding a bicycle (or driving a car) through the city, and far more important than any policy.

Again, I’m not saying any of the above did or didn’t happen in this particular case; however, it’s something I think about all the time, especially in the context of stories like these. In turn, I also think about advocacy, and its stated mission to make the city safer. If you visit the TransAlt site, you’ll learn all about how dangerous the streets are:

And you can read reports on what they say we need to do about it:

You may agree or disagree that, say, congestion pricing is one of the keys to achieving TransAlt’s goal, that being “transforming our streets into safe, sustainable, and equitable places to walk, bike, take transit, gather, and thrive.” Certainly it’s long been a priority for them, as a trip back in time via the Wayback Machine shows:

What has changed over the years, albeit subtly, is the manner in which they address more practical matters–the sort of “hands-on” knowledge that’s useful to riders (or people interested in becoming riders) right now (or then, since we’re looking at the site as it was in 2007):

It seems like there was more to actually learn from and engage with in those days, whereas now it’s a bit more perfunctory:

Certainly the quaint web designs of yesteryear and the fact that TransAlt’s homepage still looked like Craigslist may be partially informing my impression. Furthermore, as social media has grown there’s arguably less reason for TransAlt to play host to folksy ride calendars and other resources on their website. Still, I think it’s fair to say that sometimes TransAlt feels a little more like a think tank than a grassroots organization, and that the discourse in New York around bikes and advocacy in general often feels like it’s among people who either have advanced degrees in urban planning or are trying to sound like they do, and as such focuses more on theory and models and projections and fashionable terms such as “spatial equity” and “environmental justice” than on more pragmatic stuff like “How to ride a bike to work without getting a crotch fungus.” Or getting creamed.

To be clear, I’m not blaming TransAlt for anything–their donors give them money to advance policies, not tell people how to avoid crotch fungus. Also, TransAlt isn’t the only game in town, and Bike New York offers lots of resources for new riders:

The danger of saying we need to look out for themselves is that in so doing we absolve others of responsibility. But the danger of blaming others and focusing on policies that can take years, or decades, or generations to implement is that we can forget to look out for ourselves–or worse, conclude we shouldn’t have to. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but especially as bikes become electrified, I think maybe advocacy is due for a bit of a correction in favor of promoting proficiency and self-reliance.

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