Advocate On The Hudson

Attaining Vision Zero

Apr 27, 2014

If New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants to see accident deaths drop to zero in his city, he will have to ensure that there are fewer cars and trucks and more pedicabs and bicycles on his streets.

New York City Pedicab

April 30th marks the 75th Anniversary of the NY World's Fair that brought us Television, lots of cars and many other modern miracles. On that same date next week, the Transportation Committee of the NY City Council, under its Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez, will hold an important Public Hearing on Mayor DeBlasio's Vision Zero, his initiative to reduce the number of traffic fatalities here to that number. Every year, hundreds of pedestrians and scores of cyclists are killed by motor vehicles in New York City, fewer than previously but still a lot. This is in addition to the hundreds of motorists killed by other motorists as well. The count of injuries is in the tens of thousands and the Mayor has decided to confront this carnage and to begin the process of reducing it to, in his words, Zero.

At a Town Hall meeting before a host of City Council members, the head of the city's Department of Transportation, and other luminaries, 100 different one minute long public comments gave a good picture of their neighborhoods' concerns and their expectations, for this bold proposed step, to improve our transport infrastructure and make it less likely that a step off a curb lands you in a hospital or worse. Many residents pointed to a corner or intersection that they found particularly problematic, and the guys who represented the taxi and black car industries gave statistics that showed that professional drivers are actually less likely to be involved in accidents, than some other categories of drivers, regardless of appearances. Well, maybe. Everybody was grateful that a blue-ribbon panel had descended into their midst and was listening to their serious concerns and gripes and was offering to respond to them. Not everybody thought that anything different would actually come out of this exercise, but they were all willing to take their time out to give it a try.

A top police official listened while the question of enforcement and the lack of it, in crucial areas, came up again and again. What good are laws if they are not enforced? The city promised a more aggressive policy towards speeders, those who don't give pedestrians their right-of-way and DUIs. A lot of people pled that the whole traffic system be slowed down, especially in residential neighborhoods, even on some major arteries, with many more bike lanes a popular request.

One minute is very little time if you are trying to say something. I used mine to point out that this was the week of the anniversary celebrations of the Fairs that took place in this very Borough 50 and 75 years ago. These events were influential in convincing everybody that cars were the wave of the future. They were a factor in rendering our roadways rail-free and bike-free, which helped to guarantee the hegemony of the automobile. I've suggested that we use the reminder, that these historic happenings provide, to inaugurate a program to encourage creative design of human-scale and human-powered vehicles, perfect for dense urban environments. There are few things that the political leaders of New York could do that would have as dramatic an impact on the safety and civility of the streets of the city. Sure, reining in marauding garbage trucks in the middle of the night is important too. The 22 different bills being presented on April 30th, on this historic occasion, address a whole range of problems and opportunities. Although not included in this first batch of street-calming and traffic-controlling measures, the creative downscaling of the machines we use to get around, may be the healthiest response of all, to this dangerous and toxic traffic mess.

The formula for improving the safety on our roads begins with the issue of scale. We identify two forms of this phenomenon, one is Industrial Scale and the other Human Scale. One is measured in tons of pounds and the other in tens. The lightest vehicles may currently share the roadway in many urban environments but most are banned from highways and discouraged from using many roads on which they are legal. Historically, the smaller vehicles fall into a few separate categories. Some, like mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters, can weigh hundreds of pounds and go fairly fast. Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are an odd duck which is not allowed to go more than 35MPH and is not allowed on roads which are posted at 45MPH or faster. Bad luck chum, you are wedged in a regulatory crevice from which you may only emerge in a planned community or golf course. They are Industrial Scale because they weigh 1000 pounds or more, but share some other vehicles' problems with access to the road.

Pedaled bikes and electric-assist models, that can only be moved when the pedals are in use, are in their own category and it is the one with the most potential to aid the Mayor in his worthy goal. All Industrial Scale vehicles are inherently dangerous, just due to the combination of speed and weight which results in their substantial momentum. Relatively slow, 15 or 20 MPH, lightweight bikes, even those with electric-assist motors, can not do the harm that a 3000 pound compact can, even at a modest 30 MPH. It has been customary for us to use minimal conveyances, like cycles, only in fair weather. The exception has been the amazingly hardy food deliverers, who mange to get around under the harshest imaginable conditions, when mere mortals are retreating into trains and taxis.

We have accustomed ourselves to use, almost exclusively, these single passenger vehicles we call bikes. When it comes to automobiles, only racing cars ever fit just a single person. In China, you were allowed to have a passenger on the back or bar of your bike if you were in the country, but not the city, due to safety concerns allegedly, but hardly enforced. Sadly, the “Sociables”, multi-rider tricycles of the 19th Century are now considered exotic and the social aspect of travel on the smallest scale has been absent for over 100 years apart from a few tandems and trailers for kids.

These limitations can be overcome in many ways and thereby improve utility tremendously. This is not to say that this task is not a demanding one: these are design challenges of the first order. You must make something that is going to share the road with monsters. The weather is going to change and that includes possibly strong winds. You want to be as portable as possible, but not easy to steal, lightweight, but not easy to break, unusual or unique and therefore somewhat unfamiliar, but still easy for anybody to use safely. This is a difficult assignment but fortunately the world is filled with ingenious people, many of whom like tough cases, who want the satisfaction of solving complex and demanding puzzles.

Doing things on a human scale can also mean hand fabrication and wide customization as well as variety and diversity of design. Hand craftsmanship has become less and less evident as market imperatives and heavy competition demand economies of scale that can only be achieved through mechanization, sometimes even leading to automation. There are great advantages to having a machine that can crank out aluminum pipe by the mile and do it fairly economically, consistently, and in a wide selection of sizes and specifications. Regardless of the efficiencies that can be achieved through some use of highly automated machinery, many operations benefit from the contributions made by live attendants, monitoring progress or completing certain associated hand-tasks. It has been demonstrated that the ability to add the human touch to a piece can both enhance its beauty and its value.

Many factory workers are recent immigrants from parts of the world where hand metalwork and woodwork and other crafts are still popular and have many practical applications, so there are a goodly number of people practiced in the arts of handcraft. If we shift from totally mechanized to moderately so and leave room for hand-painting, first-class leatherwork, a host of optional features, some of which require measuring the recipient and testing their tastes and needs, the product is upgraded considerably, life-span extended and otherwise made better. If the only focus is on profit than it is inevitable that the human factor will be minimized. Unless there is more bottom-up momentum, if the customer is not a known person and, like the maker, an anonymous, unidentified element, we will have lost an essential aspect of our goods. What was once passed down through generations is discarded now after a few uses. We need to regain our respect for both people and the objects that they help bring into the world, give them as much care and concern as we would our spawn.

Even though cars now come with sealed modules and big replaceable units, there are still plenty of mechanics who know how to take things apart and put them back together as well as modify existing parts to fit special needs. Our biology compels us to explore ways to fulfill our requirements continuously and we do not entirely lose the ability to contrive and invent simply because we use it so little. Those who are used to employing their ingenuity, of course, will find it easier to put it into use. Artists, for instance, would be lost without it. We could all stand to have a closer relationship with our basic natures, and in touch with the instincts and talents that go with it, whether they reside within ourselves or in others.

I would urge any readers of this blog who are in the NY metropolitan area to consider coming to this hearing, and speaking on behalf of enhancing a city with more electric transportation of all kinds, taxis, buses, cars and all. The trains already run on Niagara Falls juice. Many are accustoming themselves to a world filled with bikes, thanks in large part due to the currently fragile but much-loved bike-share system. It is time to begin to incorporate the new, higher tech electric-assist bikes of all kinds into the mix, in many cases to replace the huge and dirty vans that now fill the streets. The rapid expansion of same-day delivery is going to require a bouquet of new configurations, preferably with narrow profiles, and perhaps with three wheels, that will serve the now instant-gratification society, that Amazon and Ebay have decided to further advance. The same improvements that will be made to cargo bikes will translate easily to passenger-carrying vehicles like pedicabs as well.

The food delivery business is making considerable strides in generating more positive practices in the industry to help lessen the unhappiness felt when a deliverer rides his bike on the sidewalk or narrowly misses colliding with a pedestrian. This is a difficult issue, since the congested streets of midtown Manhattan especially, mean a constant dance to avoid cars and other big and dangerous vehicles. Bikes (not just electric-assisted ones) are far less hazardous of course, but also somewhat less predictable since they may want to avoid going an extra four blocks when they can simply slip carefully up the current one. There will need to be increased civility by everyone, even including pedestrians, if a reasonable situation is to be reached under such difficult and stressful conditions. Meanwhile, encouraging as much activity to take place at the Human-Scale rather than the Industrial, improves our prospects considerably, lessens noise and smoke, hazard and threat.

Likewise, the 850 pedicabs plying the streets of NYC are now being deployed with greater care and concern about the quality of the fleet and their drivers. The rash of bad actors has mostly left town and the new administration may improve the operations of the department enough to restore some balance in this activity. One needed improvement is the legalization of electric-assist motors of course and the incorporation of the Fair Sex fully into the industry by humanizing the experience, making it less of an extension of brute strength. Better weather protection for both drivers and passengers and progress on other needed design changes is in the works.

The groups that will be forming to design and build their own vehicles, might well consider making their project one that involves transport of people or, even better, one that is able to transform itself from a freight to a passenger vehicle with ease. Providing capacity for the transportation-challenged, also has to be high on the agenda. Lessening the pressure from an overabundance of large motorized vehicles will require a conscious process, of substituting multi-ton nightmares with minimal, muscle-propelled works of art, that don't fill the air with poison or crush the unwary.

In his documentary “The City”, made as a prelude to the 1939 World's Fair, the opening of which we are celebrating here, Lewis Mumford said, ”We used our hands and mastered what we put our hands on”. This was part of his plea, to recover the values that once characterized our society, the competence and care that were so diminished, during a period of rapid expansion of industrialization, and consequent lower standards, with nobody “personally” responsible for what emerged. Re-connecting to our natural identities as ingenious creatures and re-making elements of our world, with our hands, beginning with those which we all have the greatest access to, like bikes, can help give us back the confidence we deserve and need, to move forward on all of the other issues which require this kind of creative and compassionate attention. Your contributions are welcome at SharingUmbrellas.org

Meanwhile, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, don't forget to come to NYC City Hall on Wednesday, testify and celebrate the birth of a new Vision of getting around, one that goes way beyond GM's slick Futurama, that thrives on the human-scale and protects and enhances the life-force, instead of diminishing it.

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