Covitality – Signs of Life on Earth Day

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, announces his marriage to Hamlet’s mother, he (an incestuous, murderous villain) has the political wherewithal to admit the timing of the wedding wasn’t ideal, since it came “With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.” So much more must I lament the fact that the mission statement for this web log is being realized around the world. People are driving less so all may live more.

It would be absurd to talk about the silver lining of the present pandemic (or, as several preachers I’ve heard say, the “global pandemic”). The cost is too high and, really, the effects will probably be short lived. Two days ago, a barrel of crude oil was worth negative $35 or so; today you must pay upward of $20 or so for the same barrel. This pandemic too will pass.

In the mean time, however, it is worth pointing out that here on earth (on Earth Day, also) the virus has given us a picture of what the world could look like if people chose to drive less instead being forced by legal mandate to drive less.

Any one of these links provide a glimpse at what the world could look like over time if the practice of minimal driving (and less industrialization) were retained long after the face masks were doffed.

The hope for environmentalists is that this transient clear air and water will whet the taste of communities to maintain the change. One practical step being considered is giving preference to green technologies for business bailouts. Meanwhile, like the mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage, environmental regulations are being rolled back to keep highly polluting companies alive. Hamlet is a tragedy in the end, and I hope we don’t stick to the script we’ve been following for the last 70 years.

Happy birthday to all those born on Earth Day!

Covidiocy, Covidity, Covitality

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

I was pretty sure I had invented all those words, but that’s not the case. Covidiocy refers to people who make inane statements or perform inane actions relative to covid-19. Covidity refers to having a proclivity toward respecting the guidelines for slowing down the spread of the virus. Covidity has its own Facebook page. Covitality predates covid-19. It is a kind of therapy for adolescents (especially). It phonetically contrasts with co-dependence. In Person vs. Automobile, however, I give it a new meaning.

Covidiocy

The facts do keep shifting concerning the virus, but that does not exculpate conspiracy theorists concerning covid-19. The theory that comes to mind is the one that states the threat is manufactured by the US or a consortium of governments. I’m thinking of Tony Spell, a pastor in Louisiana, who said, “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated.”[1] If I thought my faith could keep 1,000 people safe from the virus, even though that’s a tall order, I guess I’d keep meeting with them, as he has been even after being cited on six counts of violating the governor’s executive order.

There’s a bitmapped message floating around on Facebook that generally seems to be posted to show that the covid-19 threat is minor compared to well-known causes of death. Generally, I like that approach: we often fear the unlikely dangers while we ignore the most likely danger. While a fear of flying is involuntary, it was the drive to the airport that put us on the statistical radar.

However, I decided to check the sources for this info graphic, since some of the causes of death (starting with the beginning of 2020) seem dreadfully high (and they are). But in the process, using the same source, worldometers.info, I compared the 2020 world-wide-death-count numbers as of 4/2/2020 with those of the 3/25/2020 info graphic (an additional 8 days). The count of ALL of the causes of death was 109% greater except covid-19, which was 249%.

Here’s the info graphic:

Here’s my comparison (except I couldn’t find hunger statistics):

It is this rate of covid growth that concerns epidemiologists (but not perhaps conspiracy theorists).

Covidity

Not every pastor—in fact very, very few—has ignored the mandates and recommendations to avoid public gatherings. Take my sister, for example. She resides in Oklahoma as a Methodist pastor. Oklahoma is among the five states that had, as of April 3, done the least to prevent social gatherings.[2]

She, herself, is a woman of faith, but she doesn’t take chances. After her husband returned from a trip in his automobile that required him to leave the state, she quarantined him for 14 days just to be safe. (Don’t read too much into this!)

In my peer group, I occasionally hear millennials dismissed unfairly through a kind of bigotry and over generalization. This irritates me because when I dream at night, I’m usually a millennial by age. It also irritates me because in several respects, millennials are on top of their game, including recognizing a social threat when it wanders into town. My daughter and her husband returned from China (and Paris) only to find Colorado becoming a hot spot. They quarantined themselves for 14 days. When we took our first carefully distanced walk, they were quick to note how I and a few other, older passersby failed to cover our mouths when we coughed. Kudos, sharp witted millennials.

Covitality

Covitality, as I use it, refers to the hidden physical opportunities during this time of distress. No doubt, many of us breathed a (perhaps contagious) sigh of relief when Governor Polis issued the order to stay at home. It of course allowed for essential services, such as liquor stores and dispensaries, to remain open. That was nearly a given. But it also allowed for going outdoors to exercise at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, the amount of drivers on the road subsided drastically. First in China and now in places such as San Francisco, the air is becoming notably cleaner.[3] Los Angelas has now cleaner air than it has had since World War II.[4] Similarly, the number of car accidents is plummeting.[5] Finally, life is quiet. In fact the earth is quiet, allowing seismographs to detect smaller earthquakes.[6]

While the cause for this freedom from traffic is truly awful, the result has been heralded by bicyclists, runners, and pedestrians as a long-sought advance in society. I used to seek the trails to avoid cars, but now I seek the empty roads to avoid all the people on the trails.

A friend of mine who (like many) cannot visit her aging parents and who has had to learn to teach her students online—in other words, who is paying a price for the pandemic—remarked to me that she thought it good that we have to slow down. She hoped—as I do—that when the virus subsides some of the good habits it caused us to acquire will not.

One Good Habit

Closing with a video as I often do, here is one from Don Bushey (who authored a post about almost dying on his bicycle) that might cheer you up:

 

____Footnotes____

[1] He’s quoted in an online site, Reason, which, quoting Christianity Today, provides this: “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” pastor Tony Spell told CNN affiliate WAFB. “We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

[2] According to an April 3, 2020 article in the Guardian, Which states have done the least to contain coronavirus?, the states are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

[3] The stunning impact of COVID-19 social distancing on air pollution.

[4] As of April 6, 2020: As Many Stay Home, L.A.’s Air Quality Is Better Than It’s Been in Decades.

[5] See, for example, Traffic collisions are plummeting in several US cities and Car crashes down by 75% in Phoenix metro area as COVID-19 pandemic continues.

[6] According to this article, the Earth has quieted down to the level normally reached on Christmas day: Coronavirus lockdowns have changed the way Earth moves.

Presidential Candidates, Cars, and My Predictions

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This, I admit, is a quixotic post, in that my critique of the automobile industry touches only tangentially on electoral predictions, but it’s an unlikely union I chose to make. Hopefully, I’ll soon be riding an electric kick scooter so I can finish that short series and forget about politics for a while.

Transportation and the Candidates

It’s becoming likely that Joe Biden will face off with Donald Trump in the November election. Bernie Sanders remains in the picture although it appears the established, moderate Democrats have teamed up against him and settled for Biden. The Libertarian Party holds its primaries toward the end of May, and the Green Party late spring and early summer.[1]

Relevant to this post is a tweet of a press release from President Trump:

Clearly, this position stirs the hearts of many Americans who believe the automobile is a right, a necessity, and an unmitigated blessing. In short, the Americans who do not consider that automobiles are in ways destroying the world. The statement lumps all Democrats together (“who all want to get rid of…”). And it offers as a boast something Person Versus Automobile would consider highly controversial if not downright confessional: that the President is having new automotive plants built “all over Michigan.”

In response, Greg Shrill (whose article “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” is summarized in two earlier posts on this site), responded:


Seventy-five billion dollars is a significant investment for Bernie Sanders to make under his Green New Deal. It’s a funny shade of green but one that seems burned into the American soul.[2]

Shill’s comment makes suspect both the characterization by President Trump of Democratic transportation schemes and of Sanders’ commitment to a green revolution.

How, then, does Joe Biden fare on the national transportation issue? According to his own web site, “Biden will propose to immediately spend $50 billion over the first year of his Administration to kickstart the process of repairing our existing roads, highways, and bridges.”[3]

Of course, read in context, both Sanders’ Green New Deal and Biden’s plan for rebuilding the infrastructure pay significant attention to the need to move away from the gasoline automobile toward cleaner, safer options. Both, in short, are a breath of fresh air for those who see that America’s dependence on the automobile is at best annoying and at worst destroying.

The Presidential Election

However, none of these candidates gets the endorsement of Person Versus Automobile, a loss not quite tantamount to losing the endorsement of The New York Times, I’m sure. None of the candidates is coming out openly and stating that America has gone astray in a very big way from the beauty and natural harmony of self-propulsion. Both the Democratic candidates see electric cars as a significant part of the future. That’s probably a factually true. But it’s not revolutionary. The electric cars still have many downsides, and always will be a problem for those who don’t want to be run over by them or listen to their tires roar against the sounds of nature.

Having come this far, perhaps I’ll make my November prediction, which is something few do before the Democratic primaries have concluded. First, Bernie will for the second time be over-ruled by those with the greater corporate interests (the elite establishment). Then Biden will try to find a running mate who has all the appeal he lacks: perchance a woman whose imagination and courage can interest the multitude of young Democrats who were looking for Sanders on the ballot. Finally, President Trump will win again. Why? Well, surely many Americans like a president building new car plants all over Michigan. He’s fixing the rust belt and making America(n traffic) Great Again. And, finally, for single-issue voters who believe that the unborn are fully human, Trump is the only candidate.

I may be wrong in this prediction, and I hope I am. While I will stand up for the unborn until I lie down in my grave, I am not a single-issue voter, nor do I think destroying the environment and removing EPA regulations is in any way innocent. But I may be right: it seems that the Democratic instinct to offer a Trump-lite candidate—i.e. someone entrenched in corporate interests, yet with an eye on the margins of society—is always going to drive independent voters away, even if it’s in electric cars.[4]

 

____Footnotes____

[1] See the following Wikipedia articles: Libertarian Party Presidential Primaries; Green Party Presidential Primaries

[2] This article in Streetsblog USA, which is highly critical of this aspect of the Green New Deal, says that 80% of the $75 billion will go to highways themselves: Bernie’s ‘Green New Deal’: What’s In It For Transit?

[3] Invest in Middle Class Competitiveness

[4] Biden’s stance on abortion is less clear than Sanders’. See Trump Is a Disaster for Abortion Rights — but Joe Biden Can’t Be Trusted to Fight for Choice for a discussion that worries Biden might slip back into his Roman Catholic bias against abortion.

Scooters (Part 1 of 2)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This web site promotes self propulsion above all forms of transportation. Other forms of transportation should of course be considered as an advancement. However, an advancement doesn’t entail perfection.

Before we consider kick scooters, take electric cars, for example: they may be potentially fossil fuel free, but any plastics in their design are likely petroleum products and, currently, natural gas (a fossil fuel) provides the electricity for the bulk of electric cars in California, a forward-thinking state that admits humans have a pollution problem.[1] In addition, electric cars may involve manufacturing pollution[2] and disposal pollution[3]—as well as human rights abuses.[4]

Eventually, I assume, the gas/diesel powered car will become a museum piece, not that electric cars address the primary concerns of Person vs. Automobile: they still impinge upon the environment, menace people and animals, and make annoying tire noise at highway speeds.

Onto the Kick Scooter

Vosh, Stockholm ( 1090722)

On one hand, electric scooters address all the negative aspects presented by electric cars: they don’t make annoying highway-speed tire noise (rarely reaching highway speeds, as well as lacking the mass and surface area to generate much noise); the materials required for manufacturing and disposal are markedly less than for automobiles. Furthermore, although we will look at collisions with pedestrians, as a pedestrian, I’d sooner be hit by a scooter than an SUV any day.

On the other hand, scooters have established a gnarly reputation at best. One hears of homicidal and suicidal driving habits, as well as rivers and lakes being polluted by scooters that make their home in these watery beds. Rules are unclear. Helmets? Sidewalks? Streets? Gutters? Some jurisdictions require them to avoid streets, while others insist they use the streets. In Ireland one cannot insure them, but the police reportedly confiscate them precisely because they are not insured.[5]

Scooters make bicycles appear as a well-accepted form of American transportation (and anyone who rides a bike knows that isn’t true).

In an extensive interview, I asked four people about their experience riding scooters. Three of them said it simply felt dangerous, one of whom rode for less than a minute before returning to ambulation. These three were millennials. The fourth person was a grandfather. He said that where he rented one (at a touristy waterfront), helmets were both legally required and unavailable. But the clerk did hand him a piece of paper with the name of a company that would take a mail order for a helmet.

Between 2014 and 2018, among millennials, injuries on micro-mobility devices increased nine-fold. “One quarter of injuries included a broken bone and one-third of injuries were to the head, double the rate among bicyclists. A separate 2019 study found less than 5% of e-scooter riders wear helmets” (“Electric scooter injuries tripled in one year among US millennials, study finds”, Guardian, January 8, 2020).

Companies such as Lime and Bird have injected electric kick scooters into major cities with the result that by downloading a smartphone app and (I assume) including a credit card number, users can rent a scooter and, in a matter of seconds, be riding a low-polluting vehicle. At the same time, they may be endangering the lives of pedestrians and other scooterists, as well as bicyclists. Finally, after the scooter gets parked wherever its driver needed to go, the scooter may be picked up by a disgruntled citizen and tossed into a river, lake, or ocean.[6]

As Carlton Reid notes in his book Roads Were Not Built for Cars, bicycles had an uneasy reception, endangering and aggravating pedestrians as scooters currently do. Lobbyists and the sheer elegance of the bicycle won the day (for the most part). The history of bicycles demonstrates that a form of transportation that initially threatens the public may find eventual acceptance. Whereas bicyclists were first considered the aggressors who endangered pedestrians, now they are more commonly the victims, assaulted by careless and belligerent automobile drivers.[7]

Not every technically sweet form of transportation makes the transition though. As Reid points out, in spite of its capabilities, the Segway encountered many difficulties as it entered the market. The price ($3,000-$6,000) was a deterrent. Worse, cities provided no infrastructure for these vehicles. They were fit neither for sidewalks nor streets. As it has turned out, they remain popular as service vehicles for policemen, security guards, and medical personnel (i.e. those who can do what they want), but not for the consumer.[8] As Jordan Golson remarks in an article in Wired: “No, the problems that sank the Segway weren’t technological. They were social.”[9]

Segway Polizei 4.jpgPhoto by Reinhold Eder, posted on Wikipedia

It is easy to see how kick scooters have circumvented the problems encountered by the Segway: they are rented, not owned. Moreover, they have been injected into some cities in such great numbers that it is a matter of asking forgiveness, not permission when it comes to riding them. The smart phone, no doubt, has been indispensable in assisting their popularity.

What, one wonders, is the net effect of electric kick scooters on society? Are they completing the transportation line, picking up riders where trains and buses leave off? Is there one documented case where the use of an electric scooter supplanted the use of an automobile? Are they primarily an alluring substitute for a healthy walk or bike ride—with the added disadvantage of ending up in and polluting urban waterways? The people who throw these vehicles into rivers, lakes, and oceans—are these people concerned that the scooters are cluttering sidewalks, sometimes parked carelessly (which still doesn’t explain cluttering waterways), or are they, dare we say, envious that for one reason or another they cannot join in the fun (low fear threshold, no smart phone, bad balance)?

The answers to these questions elude me. I’m new to the business. Part 2 of 2 of this investigation will involve my first (and probably last) ride on a scooter. As the reflections on the history of the bicycle suggest, the jury is still out on the role of kick scooters in urban areas. But, judging by the 2018 data graphed below, my bet is that with increased regulation, along with scooter vandals being fined stiffly, scooters will become respected as a relatively innocent form of urban transportation. After writing the previous sentence, I bought some kick scooter stock—just to make good on my prediction.[10]

Applying the popularity test among US cities, scooters get a net win, as this graph from statistic illustrates (2018):

Infographic: Majority of U.S. City Dwellers View E-Scooters Positively | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

 

____Footnotes____

[1] “Electric Cars Mostly Run On Electricity From Renewable Energy Or Natural Gas”, February 6, 2018.

[2] The production of electric cars—as a result of their massive batteries—may increase the greenhouse footprint 15% above producing gasoline cars. “Electric cars may be the future, but they’re still critically flawed in a key area”, February 6th, 2018. This view is challenged, however, by an article on Forbes.com: “Are Electric Vehicles Really Better For The Environment?”, May 20, 2019.

[3] This review article in Nature provides a hierarchy of preferred responses to the problem of both creating and disposing of lithium batteries. The goal is to reuse as much of the battery as possible, which action addresses both manufacturing and disposing issues.“Recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles”, November, 6, 2019.

[4] “The dirty secret of electric vehicles”, March, 27, 2019.

[5] “Motorized scooter”, Wikipedia, last updated January, 21, 2020.

[6] All these points, as well as a discussion of the reception of bicycles, is mentioned in this excellent article: “What the Fight Over Scooters Has in Common With the 19th-Century Battle Over Bicycles”, December, 2019.

[7] I appreciate the reminder of Reid’s work provided by the aforesaid Smithsonian article: “What the Fight Over Scooters Has in Common With the 19th-Century Battle Over Bicycles”, December, 2019.

[8] Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid, 2015

[9] “Well, That Didn’t Work: The Segway Is a Technological Marvel. Too Bad It Doesn’t Make Any Sense”, Wired, last updated January, 16, 2015.

[10]As it turned out, I couldn’t find a publicly traded company, so I bought three shares of Lyft stock instead, since they now rent scooters.

David Byrne (Talking Heads) and His Bicycle

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

He owns a very nice bike helmet, he says, and even wears it if he needs to ride in gnarly traffic. However, with dedicated bike lanes, such as along the West Side of New York City, he lets his (now) gray hair blow in the wind. He doesn’t want to unnecessarily risk “helmet hair.”[1]

David Byrne on bike, nice helmet in basket (from NY Times interview on Youtube )

Continue reading “David Byrne (Talking Heads) and His Bicycle”

It’s Easy Not to Drive…

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

It’s Easy Not to Drive if You Don’t Own a Car

I should know. I didn’t have a car for five years.

For years my house looked like this:
house, no car
Now it looks like this:
house, car in front

I bought the car for a host of reasons, including the reason that my friends nearly gave it to me; that another friend, who is elderly, needs me to drive him places increasingly; and that I have to run or bus to a different town (Broomfield or Boulder) in order to rent a car.

The mission of this web site has always been to urge people to drive less. It has never been to outlaw cars.

The phrasing of this site’s mission statement “driving less so that we all might live more” is a deliberate echo of the more elegant, “the rich must learn to live more simply, so that the poor may simply live.” Both are a call to moderation.

Today I took two trips, one to the hardware store on a bike and one to the grocery store on foot. The car, as a travel option, isn’t prominent in my mind. This diminished role arises from those years of auto abstinence.

Some people like myself have a hard time achieving moderation. We are, as my dad described rabbits, bimodal, either running or frozen in motion. So it’s easier for us, at least for a while, to abstain nearly completely in order to break the gravitational pull of a habit, whether it’s driving a car or drinking a beer. Later, we might add the practice back into our repertoire, but with fear and trembling, lest we open the flood gates wide, once again.

Happily, the default mode for me is to propel myself, rather than be propelled. The car (which happens also to be a Rabbit) obtains a ghostly existence:
house, transparent car

What My Friend Said

A few days after getting the car, I told a friend about it. She immediately quipped “you’ve gone over to the dark side.” On one hand, that statement puts me in good company with Google and Bob Dylan, to name a couple of successes. But on the other hand, it doesn’t fit the case. It implies that a few of us should go our lives without cars as we protest the majority who drive relentlessly. By contrast, the solution is for everyone to drive less, no matter the number of cars one owns (reminding me of Jay Leno’s 169 cars).[1]

Of course, making and burying cars is polluting, including or perhaps especially electric cars (the jury is probably out on this one). But once a car is made, it does little polluting when not running.

If we were going to define “the dark side” of automobile use, we would each draw the line in a different place, and often for good reasons. According to the concerns circulated on this web site (noise pollution, air pollution, carbon footprints, pedestrian and animal safety, health, and a keen sensibility for the general art of living), the definition might go something like this:

I Drive…
only when the distance is too great, the weather too dangerous, or the payload unsuitable to walk, run, bike, or bus
on errands but not daily and not to work
to work, which is necessary since there are several stops in various places I must go every day, but also I drive on errands, even to the grocery store which is a half mile away
to work; I know there’s a fairly direct bus or train, but public transportation would add a half hour each way and I’m too busy—I need time to read and think…lots of people to text
any distance and every opportunity, including the neighbor’s for a dinner party, the gym, and joy riding, all of which are a bit more fun in my big vehicle that can hold six to eight people but usually carries only myself
the biggest, loudest, meanest truck, SUV or Humvee that money can buy, and I do it with a vengeance whenever possible to show the stupid environmentalists that I’m… well, not to boast, but I’m king of the road! I’m proud to be an American, I am, and if you question that, I’ll gun my engine and drown you in a cloud of black smoke, but I won’t hear your expletives because I’ll turn up my radio with my windows down to prove that I dominate you

I doubt the table above would change many people’s driving habits. I doubt it would change some of my friends’ habits! Guilt raises our defenses, and, besides, we all know we cannot fight every battle in life. A better motivation than guilt, for me at least, is a sense of being alive and having adventures.

What’s More Exciting than a Car?

While I was touched by my friends’ generosity, while I always liked their VW Rabbit (I had asked them a year ago to let me know if they ever were selling it), and while I will relish driving it occasionally, I didn’t get as excited when I bought it as I did with this device. Walking through my neighborhood this summer, I found it set out on the curb with some trash. For several days, I kept my eye on it. I called Foxtrot (a local bike shop) to let them know they might be able to flip it, but no one grabbed it, so I finally did. All it needed was air in its tires:

My second Gary Fisher bike; this one with street shoe pedals for quick jaunts around town

 

____Footnotes____

[1] “Leno owns approximately 286 vehicles (169 cars and 117 motorbikes),” according to Wikipedia (8/29/2019).

Good News for Pedestrians and Bicyclists

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

Below are some recent events that chip away at the disproportionate role of the automobile in Western society (and, technologically, almost all society is Western).

  • Everywhere: Protected bicycle lanes make even automobile drivers safer
  • Colorado: New legislation increases penalty for drivers who hit vulnerable individuals
  • Spain: People protest automobile pollution in Madrid

Protected Bike Lanes

As reported in “CU Denver Today” an extensive study recently concludes that adding protective bike lanes (i.e. lanes with a physical barrier, not just paint) to city streets not only makes the bicyclists safer but all the drivers safer.[1]

The study points out that it is not an increase in bicyclists but apparently  an increase in non-negotiable structures, such as protective bike lanes, that makes drivers more careful. One thing this conclusion means is that cities should build the protective lanes before waiting for an increase in bicycles (and bicyclist fatalities), knowing that the lanes will benefit everyone on the road from the outset.

The embedded video in the article deserves viewing, not only for being informative but for its animated sketching (3 1/2 minutes).


New Colorado Law Should Concern Careless Drivers

Recent legislation in Colorado (Senate Bill 19-175) adds consequences to drivers who hit vulnerable individuals (including pedestrians, bicyclists, and those in wheelchairs). According to a summary in Streetsblog, Denver, prior to the legislation, “drivers could severely injure someone in a crash and receive just a four-point penalty on their license. If the driver had a clean record, they could have caused injuries in three more crashes before having their license revoked under the state’s 12-point system.” (This is alarming.)

Under the bill signed into law May 29, 2019, “[n]ow, such an offense is a class-one traffic misdemeanor that could result in a license suspension, paying restitution to the victim and other penalties.”

Protests Against Relaxed Law in Madrid

As many of us recognize, for several years the United States has been rolling back regulations against pollution (“83 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump” New York Times). Against similar moves, many citizens in Madrid are currently resisting their newly-elected mayor’s recent rollback of a law that protected central Madrid from excessive pollution.

They are protesting during a historic heat wave in Spain. While spontaneously igniting chicken manure is not altogether uncommon, it does suggest temperatures that would make an outdoor protest uncomfortable.

Madrid Protests
Madrid Protests (from a video on the BBC website, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48814970)

 

____Footnotes____

[1] While I’ve provided a link to a December 2018 version of the study, a paywalled version bears a 2019 date, although I found no obvious differences when comparing a few sections.

The Legal Bias Against Pedestrians and Bikes (Part 2 of 2)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

When I discuss the American (and increasingly global) dependency on automobiles, some people with a politically conservative bend respond by saying that the problem is a result of personal irresponsibility, no more.[1]

I was raised to think this way, to think individualistically. So I get it.

However, over time, I realize that done exclusively, this thinking allows conniving and greedy organizations (or their leaders) to move invisibly through the world, exploiting freedom by limiting the range of choices that occur to individuals. As a result of such organizations, even if one’s moral fabric permitted him or her to resist pernicious trends, the very idea of resisting may never enter one’s mind. The gains of corporate and political greed are usually won upstream, with whispers in back rooms, such as, What they don’t know won’t hurt us, and, I don’t care who they vote for as long as I choose the candidates.

This is the second of two posts that highlight points made by Gregory H. Shill’s nonpareil paper, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?”.[2][3] One achievement of his article is that it should forever banish from discussion the notion that auto-abuse is a purely personal, individualized problem. While the legal system is not the main institutional driver, it has developed a protective umbrella, shading the automotive industry from scrutiny and scandal.

“Should Law Subsidize Driving?” would require dozens of Person vs. Automobile posts were they to cover all the article’s important points. Why not instead urge readers to read or browse the article itself? Be so urged.

What follows in this post is a lightly annotated reproduction of the article’s abstract.[4] Although “abstract” may sound dry, this one—along with the article itself—resounds with powerful indictments against the systematic suppression of human locomotion in the service of motorized vehicles.

Abstract

A century ago, captains of industry and their allies in government launched a social experiment in urban America: the abandonment of mass transit in favor of a new personal technology, the private automobile. Decades of investment in this shift have created a car-centric landscape with Dickensian consequences.

(Comment) A “car-centric landscape,” while descriptive, is also oxymoronic, since the cars obfuscate and suffocate the land itself. “Dickensian” is ambiguous, but in this context, I think of something so widespread that it is unstoppable no matter the cost to human life (think of the French revolution in Tale of Two Cities) or something absurd (like Ms. Haversham in Great Expectations, who insists on perpetuating the past, long after its relevance fades).

In the United States, motor vehicles are now the leading killer of children and the top producer of greenhouse gases. They rack up trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs annually, and the most vulnerable—the elderly, the poor, people of color or with disabilities—pay the steepest price. The appeal of cars’ convenience and the lack of meaningful alternatives has created a public health catastrophe.

(Comment) Any one of these sentences should give one pause before slipping behind the steering wheel habitually. Taken together, they outline a burgeoning crisis. It may not destroy you, but it could easily destroy someone you know, and many you do not know living generations away.

Many of the automobile’s social costs originate in the individual preferences of consumers, but an overlooked amount is encouraged—indeed enforced—by law. Yes, the U.S. is car-dependent by choice. But it is also car-dependent by law.

This Article conceptualizes this problem, and offers a way out. It begins by identifying a submerged, disconnected system of rules that furnish indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving. These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively reassigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large. They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law. Law’s role is not primary, and at times it is even constructive. But where it is destructive, it is uniquely so: law not only inflames a public health emergency but legitimizes it, ensuring its continued dominance.

(Comment) The first step to freeing ourselves from the dehumanization of over-dependence on technology is to recognize it’s a problem. The second step is to realize the existing norms are governed neither by nature nor God but are malleable and need not be the way they are. The third step is to look beyond the obvious causes of overuse to the unseen structures that maintain, propagate, and legitimize the system.

The Article urges a teardown of this regime. It also calls for a basic reorientation of relevant law towards consensus social priorities, such as health, prosperity, and equity.

(Comment) Thank you, Mr. Shill, for the enlightening paper that goes beyond critique to prescription, from theory to practice.

The upcoming post… just in: the upcoming post is a wonderful apology from a driver to an anonymous bicyclist; the following post will provide an example from the state of Colorado where “law [is finally working] towards consensus social priorities, such as health, prosperity, and equity.”

 

____Footnotes____

[1] The converse, of course, also occurs: some people believe the problem is entirely systemic (political and commercial), giving the individual no other choice than to participate. It strikes me as obvious that the responsibilities are mutual. If individuals resisted commercial schemes, they would fail (one problem being that it is usually decades after the schemes have succeeded that their drawbacks become salient); if corporations and their lobbyists did not mold the infrastructure to encourage dependency on the automobile, individuals would never find it so hard to resist and break away from the practices.

[2] Gregory Shill is an associate professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. Shill’s (must-read) paper, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” is posted on SSRN (Social Science Research Network), “an open-access online preprint community providing valuable services to leading academic schools and government institutions.” This paper is an electronic version of a forthcoming paper for New York University Law Review. (The page numbers that I cite correspond those in the full-text PDF version.)

[3] Shill’s paper has already been summarized nicely in the article, “How Driving is Encouraged and Subsidized — By Law,” by Angie Schmitt (March 6, 2019). The summary covers the following main points:

  1. Traffic Laws Soft-Peddle Very Dangerous Behavior
  2. Land Use Laws Favor Sprawl
  3. Legal Parking Requirements Subsidize Driving
  4. Emissions Laws Exempt ‘Light Trucks’
  5. Emissions Laws Ignore the Environmental Costs of Roadbuilding
  6. Vehicle Safety Regulations Ignore Pedestrians
  7. Vehicle Safety Regulations Allow Unsafe Aftermarket Vehicle Modifications
  8. Insurance Law Limits Payouts to Pedestrians
  9. Tax Law Subsidizes Sprawl
  10. Tort Law Protects Dangerous Drivers
  11. Contract Law Freezes Out Pedestrians
  12. Criminal Law Rarely Punishes Dangerous Drivers

[4] I am using the March, 2019 version. Mr. Shill continues to refine the paper (making it shorter).

The Legal Bias Against Pedestrians and Bikes (Part 1 of 2)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This is the first of two posts that highlight points made by Gregory H. Shill, University of Iowa College of Law, in his paper, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?”.[1]

Shill’s eminently readable, 76-page paper has already been summarized nicely in the article, “How Driving is Encouraged and Subsidized — By Law,” by Angie Schmitt (March 6, 2019).[2]

All in all, Shill’s paper provides a damning case regarding the US dependence on a transportation system that militates against individuals who attempt locomotion without polluting the environment or putting others at risk. Often these individuals, as history has it, are poor, young, and brown or black. Laws have (at times unwittingly) been constructed to protect those who need the protection the least and to threaten those who need protection the most. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Language: Today’s post touches on the ways in which language masks the realities behind the automobile complex (or “motordom” as the conglomerate chose to name itself). The law article highlights the following tendentious words. It prefaces them by reminding the reader that between 1910 and 1920 as automobiles were introduced, the streets were regarded as public areas, useful for walking on, standing on, playing on, and dancing on. Cars were the intruders. Vermont once had a law requiring cars to be escorted by a pedestrian waving a red flag (21), a course of action no doubt doomed to die but nevertheless signifying the initial recognition that cars were a menace to life.

Accident—we have naturalized the use of “accident” in relation to automobiles. As long as something is considered an accident the driver (in this case) is implicitly exonerated. Events outside of the driver’s control are assumed to be at work. Causality between driving a car and eventual bloodshed is effaced. And, no doubt, some vehicle malfunctions render the driver innocent and impotent to intervene. Often though the collision (or execution, depending on how far we want to travel down the road of responsibility) results from human error. Sometimes, human error is a moral error, when rage replaces sound judgment, and the vehicle is no longer a car but a weapon.

To highlight the inconsistencies inherent in these “accidents,” the paper asserts “The uneven distribution of motor vehicle casualties casts the use of ‘accident’ in even sharper relief. Wheelchair users have a 36 percent higher chance of being killed by motorists versus the overall population, and for male wheelchair users aged 50 to 64 the figure is 75 percent” (22).

Park—to park a car or use a parking lot seems to my untrained ears to be an inevitable use of that four-letter word p-a-r-k. Never did I question its origins, but, happily, the author did. “Park” has all the connotations of a natural space designated for recreation and rest. But that changed drastically, as Shill writes,

Prior to the invention of the car, the verb “park” meant “a. to plant a tree or spread a patch of turf or flowers,” or “b. to create a little patch of parkland” [citing Christopher Gray, Streetscapes/Cars: When Streets Were Vehicles for Traffic, Not Parking, N.Y. TIMES, Mar. 17, 1996] and municipal “parking” agencies were originally charged with creating and maintaining parkland. (23)

For etymological nostalgia, next time you are walking across a massive block of asphalt and painted lines, imagine the newly “parked” trees surrounding you and smell the roses!

Jaywalking—Shill remarks that this is, “perhaps most insidious of all” (29, March, 2919 version). Not only does it prevent streets from being used by the public at large and not instead exclusively by mechanical vehicles, it denigrates the pedestrian, as Shill’s nuanced account illustrates:

“A ‘jay’ was a hayseed, out of place in the city.” Then coupled with “walker,” “a ‘jaywalker’ was someone who did not know how to walk in a city”; the closest epithetic analogy today might be “hick” or “redneck,” with all the elitism and classism of those terms. While jaywalking originally referred to “pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians,” motorists quickly appropriated the term and in the popular parlance “jaywalkers” soon came to mean “pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic” [citing Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of The Motor Age in the American City (2008)]. The usage of “jaywalking” developed in part organically, but was drawn from the streets into the political sphere by organized interests. (24)

While the experienced runner and walker know that in many cases jaywalking is safer than crossing at busy, ill-regulated intersections, the language and laws often blur the edges of reality to stylize these bipeds as obstructions to—rather than models of—good transportation.

 

____Footnotes____

[1] Shill’s paper is posted on SSRN (Social Science Research Network), “an open-access online preprint community providing valuable services to leading academic schools and government institutions.” This paper is an electronic version of a forthcoming paper for New York University Law Review. (The page numbers that I cite correspond those in the June, 2019 full-text PDF version.)

[2] The summary covers the following main points:

  1. Traffic Laws Soft-Peddle Very Dangerous Behavior
  2. Land Use Laws Favor Sprawl
  3. Legal Parking Requirements Subsidize Driving
  4. Emissions Laws Exempt ‘Light Trucks’
  5. Emissions Laws Ignore the Environmental Costs of Roadbuilding
  6. Vehicle Safety Regulations Ignore Pedestrians
  7. Vehicle Safety Regulations Allow Unsafe Aftermarket Vehicle Modifications
  8. Insurance Law Limits Payouts to Pedestrians
  9. Tax Law Subsidizes Sprawl
  10. Tort Law Protects Dangerous Drivers
  11. Contract Law Freezes Out Pedestrians
  12. Criminal Law Rarely Punishes Dangerous Drivers

Public Transportation Desert (guest post, Marc Syrene)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

[Marc, from southern Colorado, has turned his Mercedes into a car that burns the diesel fuel he also makes. Following is a post he wrote on the dilemmas with which he struggles. — Louis]

Driving Less in a Public Transportation Desert

AeroKroil, my latest hope in the fight to get my 1995 Mercedes diesel back on the road.

Embarrassment, the key motivator to pull her in to my garage to figure out why she is smoking so bad when started cold. I pulled the fuel injectors to test them and two of the crush washers, which all need to be replaced, are frozen in there with carbon deposits; hence the AeroKroil. AeroKroil is supposed to be the “best” penetrating oil out there. The gun toters like it to clean their guns cuz it dissolves carbon.

Sick Mercedes Diesel
Sick Mercedes Diesel (Marc sent this update several weeks after writing this article: “Haven’t resolved the smoking issue although I did end up getting the crush washer out and had the injectors rebuilt. So she still sits in the garage till I get back to checking it out.”

This car has 288000 miles on it and rides like a dream and gets 38 mpg on the highway. This car and my two other old diesels have seemingly been happy to run (in the above freezing months anyway) on the biodiesel my neighbor Jack and I have been making in my garage for the last 10 years+.

We have made roughly 10,000 gallons of it in mostly 40 gallon batches at a time. It has helped ease the tension in my mind about the man vs. automobile plight but only slightly in an ego based sense. On that level driving a car on homebrew has a feeling that doesn’t exist when driving on diesel from the pump because I haven’t really “earned” it.

Biodiesel Proccesor
Biodiesel Processor

But that is not really what the point is here. The point here is that I am in a true battle with my car and getting the friggin crush washers out. If I don’t then my car cannot be put back together without having to spend so much money as to render it not worth it. I believe we (who own cars and are not fitfully wealthy) are always on the verge of this dilemma whether we know it or not.

I will keep fighting against and for my old diesels for the time being though until I finally put my own desires behind the true need of not burning things to travel.

  • Can I really ride my bike with all my climbing and camping gear and food that I have grown and canned to Indian Creek and back to meet all my friends that have driven there?
  • Can I really ride my bike in the winter from Del Norte to Alamosa to spend the evening with sweet Laura?
  • And is ordering things on the internet more environmentally friendly because the delivery truck is coming here anyway?
  • And how much money will it cost to buy a Rivian electric pickup truck and put enough solar panels on my roof to charge it?
  • Do I really want to go back to work for that long?

One of the questions in a “public transportation desert” is how will it feel to slow down and just be with myself and my brain at home? Can I find peace in my neighborhood filled with dog owners who think the sound their dog projects all day and night is a gift to the world while they are inside blaring the TV? Can I rally and cultivate what it takes to be Zen? That kind of discipline I fear I do not have. The one thing a person needs to succeed, discipline. Zen=discipline, like it or not! That juxtaposition is why punk rock happened and why jazz is such a miracle.

My neighbor Jack, who used to be a hell of a climber, seems to have settled into a beautiful, low-automobile-use lifestyle by fiddling with chainsaws all day. They (chainsaws) still burn fuel but they have really small tanks, so it’s ok. I’m not sure if Jack and Morag order their food on the internet or resign themselves to pick out the best food from our small grocery store in Del Norte.

(By the way, is burning wood really green? They say it’s carbon neutral but is that relevant because it still puts “stuff” into the atmosphere.)

Maybe I should just give up and take the long view. Earth will shrug us off when it needs to. Meaning, we will likely shrug ourselves off. I’m only sad because of the collateral damage to all the other beautiful, innocent creatures that live on Earth. Who made us boss? God? So seems to be the consensus. Man vs Automobile and so much more.