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Not Just Bikes

In May of 2021 I discovered the youtube channel Not Just Bikes, and immediately watched the whole thing. The experience was revelatory and painful.

NJB has shown me that American urban and road design took a nosedive during the postwar period, where the American Dream was to own a house with a yard, drive a car everywhere you go, and, for some reason, have nothing of utility around you. It's very easy to hop around a map of the US and find houses where the nearest grocery store is literally an hour's walk away.

So you drive, and you park in the parking lots. The parking lots are enormous because everybody's driving instead of walking. They're so enormous, they push all the actual destinations farther and farther apart from each other, so that walking becomes even more useless and you have to do even more driving. Then the parking lots have to get bigger.

It would be no big deal to visit several small stores for a few items each on foot, but nobody likes starting their car multiple times to visit multiple stores across an asphalt ocean, and finding a new parking space each time. So, shopping trips are usually single-destination only, preferring the Walmarts and Targets over the small, specialized, personalized, and/or more informed grocers and boutiques.

Our stroads are wide, straight, and multilaned, so that it's easy for us to go really really fast and crash into buildings, because those are our priorities. All other forms of transit infrastructure are designed first and foremost to avoid disrupting the fragile egos of the motorists:

Because heaven forbid we impose upon the helpless motorists inside their cushy, air conditioned, noise-proof boxes, with radio and navigation and heated seats, that require no physical effort to launch at speeds higher than humanity could have dreamed of just two hundred years ago. Don't make them wait at a crossing. Life is already so hard for them.

Here's my favorite NJB quote:

For centuries, cities were designed such that everybody had what they needed within walking distance. Once you got where you were going, you could access everything you needed to on foot. These are the kinds of places Americans go to on vacation.

How Suburban Development Makes American Cities Poorer

He says "centuries", but I think he means "since the dawn of civilization". Automobiles are less than 150 years old. You might recognize a number of beautiful, comfortable, enviable cities which are older than that. And you'll never find yourself thinking "commuting to work in ancient Rome must have been so difficult without a car!", because it wasn't. The car didn't become a necessity until we intentionally stamped out all of the alternatives.

In America, young people love to say that the DMV needs to be more aggressive with re-testing elderly people and revoking their drivers license because they cause more danger in traffic. And while that's true and probably a good idea, it doesn't get implemented because license revocation is a prison sentence and absolutely everyone knows it. In the cities of respectable nations, children and the elderly don't have any problems going to the shop or cafe on their own because it's only five minutes away from their front door. In the States, a car is compulsory for all travel unless you live in the very densest of areas. Without it, you're stuck. Taking away your grandmother's license is taking away her independence. A whole lifetime of stars-and-stripes 🦅 American 🦅 freedom and independence comes toppling down with the removal of that one stone. Then Grandma spends the rest of her life trapped in the house because there's nowhere to walk and not enough bus service and everything's too far for even an electric mobility scooter to be useful, and she whithers away into mental and physical atrophy and dies.

One of the first excuses that springs to peoples' minds as to why America must be car dependent is that it is so big. Yes, America is geographically big, and if you go looking you can find very isolated cities that would take a long time to travel between. But the width of the continent as a whole has absolutely nothing to do with the placement of essentials within a single city. Even people who own very large houses still keep the toilet paper within arm's reach of the commode.

The people who built the oldest parts of our country must not have known how big the continent was, because they put living quarters right on top of shops back then! If today's cities would suck in their gut and bring more mixed use back into the center of downtown, people could get all of their daily business done by walking instead of driving, regardless of the center-to-center distance between them and the next city over. It's a non-sequitur.

The phrase that's been in my mind for a while is "too stupid to live". It is something of a wonder that we Americans haven't already extinguished ourselves by forgetting how to breathe or eat. You may have heard that sloths can starve to death on a full stomach because their only source of food is practically indigestible. You'd think they'd figure it out and try something else.

When my family gathers around the dinner table, one topic that always comes up for conversation is the vehicular idiocy that was seen throughout the week. Red light runs, excessive speeding, drivers in the shoulder lane, crashes, and near misses. A majority of people are not to be trusted with the task of driving, but we force them to do it anyway because we, collectively, are too stupid to put together better systems that don't necessitate it. It is easier to concentrate our moments of frustration towards the individuals who make short-term mistakes like running red lights than it is to realize the frustration that should be directed at the makers of long-term, diffuse, and pervasive mistakes like building suburban sprawl and bulldozing transit options.

Another part of the problem is that it feels good to punish people. We are a sadistic species and we like to coerce people into crossing our boundaries so that we can feel justified in retaliating. It is not as fun to design boundaries that don't get crossed in the first place. We design roadways that encourage unsafe driving and then we put up signs justifying punishment. It's dissonance. Here's a big fat 50mph five lane road that runs straight for miles, but you'd better slow down to 25mph now because there's an elementary school here. Nevermind that the 25mph stretch of road is cut from the same cloth as the 50mph road — it's the posted sign that makes the difference. Here's a series of traffic lights that don't coordinate with each other, and will stop you over and over again just as soon as you get going, but you'd better not run any reds and you sure as hell better not get stuck in the intersection during a light change because boy I'm gonna, um, honk at you, yeah that's what I'm gonna do, and you're gonna deserve it. It is difficult to convince people that car crashes are a symptom of deep, systemic design flaws affecting average people of average driving skill, rather than the fault of uniquely stupid individuals. Which is not to say the average skill level is very high, but even the people who'd like to opt out do not have a choice.

There is a freeway near me that is currently undergoing expansion, which is proven to induce more demand. Intelligent species have known this for decades. The mbillions of dollars being used to put more cars on the road are not being used to improve walkability, bikeability, or reduce the need for driving in the first place by fixing our wack zoning and just allowing a grocery to open on more corners.

Our zoning is the first thing that must change before anything else can happen. American cities are designed with huge contiguous swaths of land zoned as residential, especially R1 which denotes single-family housing. This is the zoning that prevents you from walking to the shop because there are no shops. This is the zoning that requires you to exodus by car to do absolutely anything except admire your neighbors' yards. This is the zoning for which every American deserves forty lashes.

With mixed-use zoning we can allow destinations to exist among the living space instead of being wholly separate. We should start with small shops, cafes, and restaurants. The kinds of things that are needed often by the residents and won't draw excessive traffic from far away because the people who live far away have their own. This will give the NIMBYs less room to complain, though they will try anyway.

In the study of occupational safety, there is something called the hierarchy of controls. Commonly represented as an inverted pyramid, it suggests you should do everything you can to eliminate a hazard using the most effective methods available to you, and only proceed to less effective methods when absolutely necessary. In between each of these levels, you could insert the phrase "but if you can't, then, ...".

For example, an electrician wearing rubber gloves (PPE) could touch a live wire without too much risk, but it makes a lot more sense to turn the circuit off in the first place (Elimination) unless there are substantial justifications for working hot.

Applying this to suburban motorsports, we might find these levels correspond to:

  1. Elimination: Do not ride any dangerous vehicle, just walk. But if you can't, then,
  2. Substitution: Get ordinary motorists off the road because they have proven themselves untrustworthy; substitute them with buses operated by drivers with higher training standards, and trains which run on rails and are backed by substantial safety measures. But if you can't, then,
  3. Engineering controls: Increase separation of motorways from other modes of transit. Add comprehensive networks of bicycle paths. But if you can't, then,
  4. Administrative controls: Design roadways to be less conducive to speeding and reckless driving by making them less convenient to motorists. Raise pedestrian sidewalks so motorists must slow down, lest they wreck their suspension by speeding over it. Move traffic lights to the near side of the intersection. Bring destinations closer together with better zoning. But if you can't, then,
  5. PPE: Mandate airbags and seatbelts.

Fail, fail, fail, fail, pass. Great job America, you got seatbelts in your cars. The only measure you've managed to accomplish so far is the least effective.

We are the sloths. We are too stupid to live. We'd rather challenge ourselves with the invention of self-driving cars and the manufacture of unspeakable quantities of batteries for EVs [1] than consider the possibility that maybe spending thousands of hours in traffic isn't an inherent part of life around which all else must bow down. You'd think they'd figure it out and try something else.

NJB has made me ashamed to be American. I am ashamed that a country with this much flagrant disregard for sense touts itself as the best nation in the world. I am ashamed that the closest we can get to eco-friendliness is to make our cars run on massive batteries and steer themselves, because simply getting out of the car was never considered an option. I am ashamed that these are my surroundings and that I did not wake up from this Matrix sooner.

One of the other big problems with cars, which I don't think NJB has mentioned yet, is that they turn everyone into anonymous metal bubbles. Even without tinted windows, cars provide very little person-to-person visibility, communication, and most importantly, empathy. It is easy to become hateful towards a driver on the road in a way you'd never be towards a person you bumped into on foot, because they are nothing more than a big hotwheel that's sitting in your way. Also because bumping into someone on foot doesn't normally incur thousands of dollars of property damage.

Tom Scott made a video about Peachtree City, Georgia [2]. They have a network of asphalt paths designed specifically for travel by golf cart, which I think is really cool and sets a good example for the rest of the country to follow. Small vehicles provide an intermediate option between bicycles and 3,000 pound automobiles, ideal for many of the around-town trips we have to make where a bike might not be enough:

NJB has talked about microcars, and while the video is still excellent, these don't strike my fancy the same way the golf carts did. Most of the microcars shown in his video follow too much in the design language of regular cars, with their high pillars and rectangulish porthole windows.

If we were to adopt small vehicles in more areas, I'd like them to remain mostly open-air, or wrapped in clear glass only. Slower modes of travel allow everyone to be closer to each other, and this coupled with high person-to-person visibility will ease traffic interactions and lessen the visceral savage hate that leads to so many of our stupid, pointless crashes. A switch to small vehicles is an opportunity to solve multiple traffic problems at once — let's not squander it by following the same old metal-bubble design. I don't expect actual golf carts to be what sweeps the nation, I just want small vehicles about that size, plus some comforts like weatherproofing and some speakers.

(See also Micah Toll's glowing review of a 25 mph electric mini-truck from China: part 1, part 2)

Finally, we need more public transit and it needs to provide benefits that cars can't. Sometimes I'll pick a destination on Google maps and ask it to route by transit. For destinations that are within "day trip" distance, the results are usually three to five times as long as travel by car, blowing all possibility of making a day trip out of it. I tried sampling a few destinations from here to the other coast and transit never seems to break even, always 1.5× to 2.5× the travel time of the car.

I have very little experience riding transit, so I'm not sure how much timing overhead is to be expected, or if these numbers are Americanly bad. Naturally, some time overhead is worth it in exchange for not having to do the driving, and transit routes can never be as direct as driving there yourself. But I really was expecting the trains to go just a little bit faster to make up for it. Notwithstanding that at these distances you're better off enjoying stops along the way rather than gunning for the finish.

As it stands, it is undeniable that transit is always significantly slower and less practical for day-to-day travel than driving except in the very densest of cities, and only exists for those who have no other options. Improved transit could be a great benefit to our society and atmosphere [3], but only if it provides enough advantages to be desirable to a person who otherwise could drive a car.

I can also recommend City Beautiful. In the meantime, try breaking traffic waves.

Here's an exchange from How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a movie I'm surprised I hadn't heard of earlier:

- [Dennis, to his boil] I'd like to see you suffer.

- [Boil] A typically communist statement.

- I'm not a communist!

- Yes, you are. You want to take everyone's car away.

- I do not want to take anything from anyone. I want to give them the choice of something better.

- Oh, yes? What?

- Trains.

- Trains? Trains are no good. They're old-fashioned. I hate trains. They're rotten.

- Only because they don't consume. Only because they're already there and don't eat up more and more and more. That's why you hate them. That's why government hates them. That's why they're old-fashioned and rotten.

- You commies don't half talk a lot of shit.

- Shut up! I'm not a communist!

And here's a fun, angry comment from Hacker News user brailsafe:

The suburbs are ironically, but not so surprisingly filled with crazy assholes that feel like the world belongs to them, or otherwise have some absurd levels of entitlement. They feel like they own the sidewalks, or if there's no sidewalks, they own the street and everything on it or not on it in front of their house, they feel like they should control whether or not a marginally higher density building should be built down the street or whether a neighbor can paint their house a different colour. When there's no land left, they want more cul-de-sacs built for them because it's the suburban dream and fuck wetlands anyway, and when there's no social services left, they want new ones built for them at everyone else's expense and they don't really want to be part of a community; they want to be by themselves, on their fat asses, in front of their fucking TV, the only quality of which they understand is how big it is.

[1] I look forward to EVs replacing ICEs, but they are still not as good as just using fewer cars.

[2] not to be confused with...

[3] That's the place we keep our breathable air.

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