Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A General Theory of Cycling, Motorists and Money

It was when I witnessed the staff at Brixton Cycles standing worried by a distraught customer that I first appreciated the intense human dramas played out at the bike shop. The woman had just been given some bad news about the cost of fixing her bicycle – or the impossibility of repair. She collapsed into such hysterical sobs that someone scurried off to the back offices to find a chair, sit her down and offer her whatever the bike-shop equivalent of grief counselling is. I’m sure they’d done everything they could.

A Surly Big Dummy outside Brixton Cycles: who knows
what dramas lurk inside the doors?
It was only the messiest of countless collisions I’ve witnessed in bike shops between people’s expectations about the economics of cycling and the reality. Because it costs nothing to jump on a bike in the morning - and people forget that assets require regular maintenance and occasional replacement - many expect it to cost nothing at all. I can’t pretend to be entirely bemused. I open my wallet with something like gay abandon for the bike shop. But I never quite remember that the same money is no longer available to replace trousers worn out by catching on mudguards or shirt collars worn out by over-optimism about my neck’s fatness. I wander round for the most part in the clothing equivalent of the squeaking, buckled-wheel bikes I encounter on the roads – shirt collars frayed, trouser seats nearly worn through.

Yet one doesn’t need to cycle for long in most western countries to encounter someone who thinks cycling should be costing far more. This was roughly the view of the SUV driver who came crowding into the cyclist-only advance stop area at a set of lights one night on south London’s Clapham Road. As I tried to turn right across the oncoming traffic, he should, I pointed out, have been behind me, giving me space. “You don’t pay road tax!” he leant out of his window to shout. It was an only slightly less sophisticated version of the argument that John Griffin, the chairman of Addison Lee, London’s biggest private-hire car company, put forward in a recent issue of his company magazine where he ranted about the danger cyclists posed and their failure to pay road tax. "It is time for us to say to cyclists 'You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up'," the chairman opined.

A beautiful, up-to-date bike: all in a day's work for
the market's invisible hand
Cyclists consequently find themselves in some dark middle ground between the paid-for-but-well-funded city of Motoring and the free-but-clearly-unchargeable village of Disregarded Pedestrianism. Most are paying out far more to the private sector than they might like to keep their bikes on the road – but getting ever-lighter, ever-faster, ever more beautiful bikes in return. They are meanwhile paying, in many people’s view, nothing for use of road networks towards whose uptake most motorised users pay substantial annual taxes. They get in return roads built almost wholly for non-cyclists, and the contempt or antipathy of the police forces meant to keep those roads safe. A powerful headlight is needed to illuminate this road. Who, if anyone, is getting ripped off here? Could there be a better arrangement?

There is certainly an irony about watching the smashing of free-market capitalism’s carbon fibre road bike into liberal cyclists’ custom-built retro roadster at Brixton Cycles, the bike shop that attracts the vast bulk of the Invisible Visible Family’s substantial bike expenditure. The shop avers itself an opponent of normal, capitalistic ways of doing things and is a workers’ cooperative. It is festooned with the paraphenalia of anti-establishment urban culture. I’ve grown so used to them I barely notice them. But, recently, as we left the shop the Invisible Visible Girl stayed, her 10-year-old faced glued to a sign in the window. “Daddy, what’s a Dykes on Bikes ride?” she asked.

The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker
He knows he's used this picture before - but suspects
others must enjoy gazing at it just as he does
Yet capitalism’s genius for parting people from their money screams so loud from every corner of the shop that even adverts for biking Lesbians can’t drown it out. I used 15 years ago to reach down to the bike’s down tube to change gears on my early road bikes. When I bought my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike in late 2007, I was delighted to find I could change gears between a choice of 24 with a sideways flick of either the brake levers or little switches beside them. Two years later, I found shifters for a mere 24 gears were no longer available. Instead, for much the same price, I was offered seamless shifting between 27 speeds.

When I first brought a road bike from Edinburgh to London in 1997, I had to glue in ineffective Kevlar linings to protect them against puncture risks. Now, thanks to the latest Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, punctures are rare, landmark events. My early road bikes’ brakes were neither strong nor easy to service. My Long Haul Trucker boasts easily adjustable brakes that stop me quickly and efficiently from a substantial speed – and that even a mechanical know-nothing such as I can adjust. Twenty years ago, I wrestled with dim lights demanding heavy batteries and apt to stop working suddenly. I now attract complaints from those around me for the dazzling brightness of far smaller, lighter, less energy-hungry lights.

Denmark's Henrik Norby with the Viva Bikes
the market tells him to design
The market’s invisible hand has, in other words, fitted bike manufacturers’ products to cyclists’ real needs as smoothly as a well-lubricated gear cable slips through its cable housing. No mere bureaucrat, for example, could have anticipated the sudden rush away from the order and progress of ever-improving gears into the chaos of gearlessness. But the world has suddenly filled, without breakdowns in supply or vast deliveries of unwanted bikes, the gearless, sometimes brakeless, pared-down machines some of the public seem to want. Cycling advocates have no need to pester the manufacturers to meet their needs. Whatever the market’s shortcomings in, say, providing stable banks or creating just societies, it has responded to cyclists’ changing whims as smoothly as a new chain and rear cassette mesh when bidden by STI shifters like those on my bike.

The transmission between governments and cyclists’ needs works more like the derailleurs on some unloved old mountain bike abandoned outside a town hall. The reactions are either delayed or over-sudden, the outcome unpredictable and everything accompanied by a great deal of squealing.

Rust clogs up the mechanism. The sense that cyclists will never exist in large enough numbers to justify significant spending fouls up many links along the chain. The feeling that cycling is an optional extra sits like great blisters of rust on the rear mechanism.

But undoubtedly the most obstructive bit of rust - two great browny-red agglomerations around the wheels that keep the chain taut - is the feeling that there somehow isn’t a stream of money that justifies spending on cycling. It helps to make the police, largely untroubled by insurance companies’ worries about the cost of cycle accidents, apathetic. It helps to bore local politicians eager to shape dramatic new junctions for cars, rather than dinky bike lanes. The outraged anger of people like John Griffin or the man beside me on Clapham Road makes the politicians scared of being seen to clean off the rust.

The problem takes me on a mental journey to some outbuildings of Oregon State University, in the neat college town of Corvallis. There the university some years ago devised equipment to charge cars for their road use in Oregon by a more rational method than the simple gas tax. A meter, guided by a GPS beacon, would measure the car’s mileage on Oregon’s roads and in the most congested area around Portland. Charges would vary according to the time of day, the car’s carbon emissions and a range of other factors. At fuel stations, an electronic pad would detect the meter, knock the fuel duty charge off the driver’s bill and collect the required road-user charge.

Oregon paid for the apparatus I saw in Corvallis because fuel tax revenue, shrinking as car engines grew more efficient, no longer covered even the state roads' repair costs. Most European countries try to cover the costs of new roads, accidents, pollution, greenhouse gases and congestion as well. But, whatever the approach, introduction of so much clearer and more straightforward a charging system might, I think, have eased even the Angry SUV Driver’s frustration. It would have been clear that he was paying for the damage his SUV did – and that what he paid wasn’t covering everything. Most transport economists even in heavily-taxed Britain think motoring tax receipts fall at least £3bn short of covering all the costs motoring imposes. My taxes are already helping to foot the bill for cars – it’s hard to see I should be charged, as Mr Griffin wants, for using my bike as well.

An Addison Lee cab in traffic: price signals might
keep him in line
But it’s not necessary to wait until everywhere adopts a system like the Oregon experiment – which the state has now, sadly, abandoned – to see the magic of clear, strong price signals working to protect cyclists. Cyclists swarmed on April 23 toAddison Lee’s offices to protest against Mr Griffin’s comments and demand consumers boycott the company. The protest echoed a practice I’ve occasionally adopted when harassed by a particularly aggressive taxi driver. If the driver remains unrepentant after one complaint, I reach for the passenger window, knock on it and shout to the occupant, “no tip!”.

It’s a tactic that’s never well-received and seldom calms down a confrontation. But it’s hard to imagine that, if my knocking on the window prompts a stream of passengers to leave a few more pounds in their purses, there won’t be at least some change. The market’s invisible hand is unlikely immediately to make cars as responsive to cyclists’ needs as bike manufacturers already are. But it could start nudging things imperceptibly towards the right direction.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Am I real to you? Noam Chomsky and the real questions on the road

There were, I have to admit, a lot of ideas that shocked me half a life-time ago at university. But one of my more wasted fits of the vapours was over a psychology lecture I attended about Noam Chomsky’s ideas on grammar. It made no sense, according to Chomsky's theories, to imagine languages followed hidebound rules on whether infinitives could be split or what the accusative of the interrogative pronoun “who” was. Languages instead followed “derived grammars” – a set of principles that could be divined by working out how the language’s speakers actually used it.

“Whom does he think he is kidding?” my pedantic late-teenage self asked. “Who is he boldly to go into the question like this?”

Yet, however schocking I found the great Chomsky’s views, his ideas have been coming back to me lately. In this blog, I’ve written a lot about how people should think about cycling and other ways of using the roads. I’ve been looking at how best to enforce de jure, written-down rules. For this blog, I'm changing perspective, looking around and trying to divine what Chomsky might call the “derived principles of road use”. Forget what the rules say. How do people actually use the roads?

The principles I've deduced seem to me to do a far better job than any other explanation I've seen of dealing with some otherwise inexplicable phenomena I encounter on the roads.

The first of my Great Derived Principles of road use, for example, explains a mystery that's bothered me for some time. Why, I've often wondered as I watch some driver slalom around the road while using their telephone, are so many people willing to risk others' lives for the sake of a possibly entirely trival 'phone conversation?

A chilling warning - but only to motorists who understand
everyone else is real too
It's now dawned on me that hardly any of those drivers see the imbalance between the risk for other road users and their convenience in those terms. When using the roads (or undertaking quite a few other social interactions, for that matter) many people simply don’t appreciate that other people are really real. They certainly don't feel they're real in the complex, contradictory, emotionally and intellectually sophisticated way they themselves are.

It’s going to be difficult, I recognise, for some readers to accept this theory since it's coming from me and I, at the end of the day, amn’t you. Some of you might have drawn different conclusions from my confrontation a few weeks ago with the Angry Man of Clapham Road. It's entirely possible, I suppose, that the AMCR, who took badly to being told not to drive into an area reserved for cyclists, fully understood his fellow road-users’ humanity. He might simply have thought it reasonable to express his irritation by pulling his car, as I saw him do, across a cyclist’s path. Maybe he’d thought fully about the lives he would wreck if he seriously injured the man and still thought it worth making his point.

But ask yourself, I urge you, this question: when did you last see someone else using the road who struck you as as wise, sophisticated and intelligent a road user as yourself? When, by contrast, did you last ask yourself, “What’s this idiot up to?” or mentally or audibly shout some term of dismissive abuse at another person on the roads? If you’ve noted, say, half as many wise people as idiots, I grant that you have your arms round the idea that other people are as real as you. For anyone else, I fear you don’t. It is only natural, as far as you're concerned, to treat others' fears, concerns and complaints on the roads with both contempt and incomprehension. Which would be a problem only if everyone else also felt like the world’s only real person and were using the roads on the same basis that only he or she really mattered.

Many of you may still, nevertheless, feel protected by another phenomenon I’ve spotted. Just as Billy Bragg once sang, “Sexuality, your laws do not apply to me,” many of my fellow road users seem to be humming something similar about old-fashioned Newtonian physics (“Physics, I can see/ Your principles don’t work for me,” perhaps?).

It’s a tendency I first observed when catching taxis around the cities of the Balkans a decade ago. From Skopje to Sarajevo, Bucharest to Belgrade, it was pretty much unheard-of to find a taxi driver who, if one reached for the front-seat seatbelt, didn’t try physically to restrain one, shouting, “No problem, meester”. There was no need for a seatbelt, no need to ensure one’s body’s momentum wouldn’t carry one on in a crash through the windscreen. I was in the care of one of the 99 per cent of Skopje’s or Sarajevo’s or Bucharest’s or Belgrade’s taxi drivers with above-average driving skills – so above average, indeed, that they could prevent other people too from driving badly around us.

A typically bucolic scene in post-war Kosovo:
special physics is keeping the farmers on the wagon.
Those special powers, I came to realise, had been magically granted to many of the other drivers on the roads as well. Early post-war Kosovo seemed to me to present an unusually wide array of ways to crash. Kosovo Liberation Army foot patrols were apt to spring suddenly from the roadside into one’s path, giving a simple “how-not-to” class in running a vehicle checkpoint. Roads were apt to run out abruptly where a bridge had been bombed. Some were simply very, very heavily bomb-cratered. But, when I looked around, I noticed that pretty much everyone who wasn’t me or driving a tank was seatbelt-free, protected by the magic of their special driving.

The principle applies beyond the Balkans. Philip Hammond, the past UK transport secretary, argued that enforcement of road rules should no longer focus so heavily on speed or persecuting the “law-abiding majority”. Instead, it should focus on “anti-social driving”. The “law-abiding majority”, it seems, release less energy when hitting another road user at 45mph in a 30mph speed limit than someone imparting “anti-social momentum”.

Among cyclists, the “suspension of physics” crowd have their adherents among what I call the “chicken licken” cyclists – those I see cycling around wearing helmets with the chinstraps undone. According to conventional physical principles, unattached helmets offer excellent protection against the risk that the sky will fall. But, in any actual, foreseeable crash, they would fly off, offering protection barely beyond the “lucky charm” level – “I’ll be safe because I’ve made a gesture in the direction of being so”.

However, perhaps the surest proof that some people think physics has been suspended is the persistence both of in-line skating and the behaviour I encountered one afternoon on the Serpentine Road in London’s Hyde Park. The road is generally a stressful place to ride because of its popularity as a place for skaters to grapple with the fundamental problems of their means of transport. Some lay out little obstacle courses; others practise skating backwards. All fail to realise a means of transport where braking automatically overbalances you doesn’t work.

This man, however, went a step further. After a brief argument over how his sticking a skate into my path had forced me to swerve, he started shoving me. Given that the slightest return push would have sent him sprawling to the ground, he either saw himself as above physics or saw the Invisible Visible Man as a liberal wuss who would never dare shove back. The second idea is, obviously, one we can safely discard. He thought physics was only for the little people.

Yet, for anyone who doesn’t find it preposterously prattish, perhaps the appeal of in-line skating lies in the Third Great Derived Principle of Road Use: that form is more important than function, that it’s more important to be cool than safe.

A fixie at the Bike Show: this one
seems designed for looks
rather than function
One of the great exemplars of this phenomenon is the recent popularity of certain kinds of fixed-wheel bikes for road use. Many of these bikes lack brakes (albeit it’s possible to slow down by pushing backwards on the pedals). All lack gears to match the cadence of the rider’s pedalling to the bike’s current speed, the road gradient and any number of other factors.

There are, granted, circumstances where such bikes’ simplicity is an advantage (track racing, bicycle polo and, well, track racing and cycle polo). But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re popular mainly because their clean, classic lines look cool. People are prepared, as a result, to put on their knees the strain that gears would otherwise handle.

An SUV with tinted windows: not obviously sensible.
Drivers have been following the "cool matters most" principle pretty much ever since Chrysler first stole a march on Ford by coming out with a new model range every year. In south London, it’s a nightly occurrence to encounter performance cars with windows so heavily tinted they must be nearly opaque. Music blares out of many so loudly the whole car shakes. Navigating in safety seems to be the last priority.

But it’s not just in their kit that people show their desire to be cool. A pedestrian I encountered last week in Waterloo illustrated all three Great Derived Principles. He was too cool to look up as I rang my bell at him and too unconcerned about the physics of the looming collision to break his stride. Nor did he seem to grasp much why I might be annoyed he’d made me swerve.

“Caaaalm dowwwn,” he said, slowly and patronisingly when I suggested laughing at me might not have been the most appropriate response to a mildly sarcastic reprimand.

Perhaps, however, that sums up the conflict. I’ve spent years puzzling out the most rational way of getting people to relate to each other on the roads. The vast bulk of road-users regard my efforts with the same puzzlement as my efforts to keep the pronoun “whom” alive or infinitives together.

With the grammar, I’ve long since giving up on persuading others to agree. The encounter with the AMCR has reduced my enthusiasm for making the point on the roads. It ended with his threatening, fists raised, to assault me and my desperately calling the police. Call me a coward if you will – I can’t quite face a beating over this gulf of understanding.