Sunday, August 23, 2015

does improving streets really make a difference? perhaps not.

Over at BikePortland, there's a little debate about the value of repaving streets:

BikePortland's writers/editors seem in favor of it all around. However, the comments reveal an interesting divide, between those who want smooth streets at any price, and those who think that purposefully leaving some funk-and-chunk in Portland's roadways is actually a good idea.

I admit I share the latter viewpoint.

My bikes all have 26"/559 wheels. I no longer work a 9-to-5 job, so if I need to go somewhere I can leave as early as I like, take as long as I need and get there "on time", all without worrying about a few potholes in the road.

A regular commenter at BikePortland takes the argument even further. 9watts (who I HAVE to meet in person someday) suggests that our desire for convenience and comfort is taking us too far down a bad path:

"Cars are big, lumbering, fragile beasts that require wide roads, frequent gas stations, repair shops, a worldwide parts infrastructure, diagnostic computers, and gobs of money to keep running. Bikes, in principle and often in actuality, are light, cheap, simple, robust devices that need none of that.
Smooth asphalt has become a symbol, an entitlement, a metric of both local wealth and municipal priorities, and of the state’s ability to deliver the goods, an ideological litmus test of government. The choice between a smooth and a bumpy road is an easy one.

Just like high heeled shoes, some types of bikes have been designed around the assumption that smooth asphalt will be found everywhere. Similarly, the suit and tie became standardized as standard office wear the world over because air conditioning made it possible to wear climatically inappropriate clothing for eight or nine hours a day, year round. Fossil fuels enabled us to build infrastructure, buildings, and adopt habits that, we can now see, are tightly coupled. The fragility of these arrangements only appears when we discover that we can no longer, for reasons of money or physical limits, continue down these paths.

Smooth asphalt is fun, and I dodge the potholes as automatically as the next person, but one of these days this stance is going to seem outdated. Didn’t the head of Iowa’s DOT recently concede that the state could no longer afford to maintain their inventory of paved roads? That the time had come to put some of them back into gravel?"

In short, if we stop improving every pothole that comes along and compel people to alter their transportation choices as a result, is that a bad thing? Maybe not entirely.

Friday, August 7, 2015

on politics and living the smaller life (there IS bike content here)

The Election Distraction Season has begun.

Last night, many of my friends who had cable were glued to their TV sets, watching the first televised Republican debate.

There is so much wrong with this:

1. The debate was scheduled fifteen months before the election. That the powers-that-be need to distract us so far out from Election Day cannot be good.

2. TV time costs money. First rule of retail is that you've gotta spend money to make money. So televised debates are just another shade of retail. I did retail for decades. Any reminder that national politics is just another shade of retail -- with all its advertising, brand protection and product placement -- is basically what's wrong with electoral politics in this country.

3. The United States is too big to be governed effectively by one-dimensional cartoon characters. A country this large needs intelligent, educated, thoughtful people who aren't afraid of nuance and complexity to roll up their sleeves and get down to work. And more importantly, our country needs its citizens to be just as educated and thoughtful. But our mass media discourages that, and so do all the corporate interests with their hands in the political pie. The last thing those interests want is an informed electorate! And, for me at least, that explains the decades of dumbing-down and under-funding of public education. A shallow electorate equals a less-educated, more malleable workforce. Even if they want to question the dominant paradigm, they won't be in a position to do much to change it at the national level.

Here are my solutions to living in a messy, angry, too-big country filled with inequality, mass manipulation and political malaise. They won't fix the world entire, they may not work for everyone else, but they will help me stay sane and live a halfway decent life:

1. Live simply. Live on as little money as possible. Create a life where you can wear your clothes till they wear out; grow at least some of your own food and eat lower on the food chain if possible.
Barter and/or work for cash under the table. Scavenge, dumpster-dive, organize the things you need and learn to love cinder-block book shelves. Borrow books from the library; bring your own containers to the store and shop only when you actually need something. Learn to wean yourself from shopping-as-recreation!

2. Move closer to everything that matters -- work, school, friends and family -- and avoid driving your car when possible. If you can go car-free, do it! Walk, bike, take public transit everywhere.

3. Develop a career where you can be your own boss, or work collaboratively with others in a non-hierarchical system. Use the extra hours you don't need to live on to spend more time with family and friends, to volunteer in the community, to contemplate deep things that matter, to play, to create art and music, to dream. These things are not a waste of time! They are a loving, wise USE of the limited time we've been given on this earth.

4. Take the time to get to know your neighbors. Share recipies, tools, extra tomatoes from the garden, maybe even pet care or child care if you grow comfortable enough with that. Throw a block party together. Celebrate what's beautiful about your neighborhood and build a community of goodwill where you live. Throw a bike ride or a picnic at the local park and invite your neighbors. Create and nurture community.

5. Stop living with a suitcase behind the door, both literally and figuratively.
Life is here and now. LIVE it here and now.

6. Live locally first! Go to a neighborhood association meeting. Volunteer at a neighborhood clean-up day. Attend a town council meeting and learn how local government works. If you want to get involved in politics, do it at the local level first. That's where your vote and involvement has the greatest and most immediate impact.

7. Learn how to fix your own stuff -- a washing machine, a flat tire, a toilet. Knowing how to fix your stuff gives you greater ownership of it, and greater control over your life. 

8. The philosopher and activist Ivan Illich taught that life lived at a speed faster than a horse-drawn carriage, or a bicycle -- roughly, between 10 and 12 miles an hour -- is a life that drains people of their time and energy. So slow down. Ride your bike. Walk. Really notice your surroundings and the people around you, and learn from them. Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is to slow down, or even sit still for a little while.

I'm not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand! Far from it. We live in a larger world. But we don't really have tons of power or influence to change the world entire. All we can do is pick a piece of it that matters most to us and direct our energy and goodwill there. Stop beating yourself up because you can't save the world, or change the national political mess. Instead, use your powers to create the most good where you can. For me, that's in my community.  There are many ways to define community. Figure out your definition, and go with it.

Life is short. Savor it.