Sick Transit
In the U.S. and around the world, it’s a weird fad.


James Lileks

Summary of a Washington Post op-ed in my local paper: “Transit use remains disappointing because driving is too cheap.”

They mean that in a bad way.

If there’s a story about “Transit,” they don’t mean cars. Cars are just solipsistic carbon-barfing capsules that move selfish people around. Transit means communal boxes, preferably on rails. When they talk about transit options, they mean buses (ick!) and bikes (yay!) and streetcars, which are romantic and sustainable and everyone takes them in Europe. Ergo: You there with the two-car garage — pony up. Do you really have to read the article to know that’s where it’s going? Slowly? Stopping at every corner?

“Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for,” say the authors, assistant professors all. Well, let’s take a look at Delay.

Once upon a time, where I lived, a street was made one-way, to make traffic flow better. Eventually the planners realized something horrible: Traffic was, in fact, flowing. People were using the street to get from downtown to locations beyond, instead of idling on the highway. Flowing traffic meant that people who lived on the street had to deal with lots of cars — a fact that no doubt surprised anyone who bought a house on a four-lane road. Traffic had to be . . . calmed.

But how? The lights could be retimed. If it’s set on “Move along, little dogies,” you can cruise the length at the posted speed and hit all the greens. If it’s set on “punishment” your milk expires on the way back from the store. There weren’t enough lights to ruin the flow, and they couldn’t install speed bumps because people would hit them at 35 mph and poorly secured children would fly through the moon-roof.

So they removed one lane and gave it to bikes.

They might as well have given it to Segways or unicorns, or unicorns on Segways. While it was no doubt a boon to bikers who wanted the safety of a dedicated lane protected by the Magical Power of a Paint Stripe, drivers who were sitting through lights long enough to complete a Tom Clancy audiobook couldn’t help noticing that the number of bikers who used the lanes could not be mistaken for the starting ceremony of the Tour de France, and the ones you did see always blew through the red lights. They are entitled to do so because they are not emitting carbon, I guess. It’s like saying you can rob a bank because you walked to the job.

At this point bikers get peeved: It’s always the red lights with you guys, isn’t it? C’mon. They want to be treated as equal citizens, but it’s really “Two wheels good, four wheels bad.” Cars, however, do not go up the sidewalk if they wish, and cars do not go through red lights just because they don’t want to break their momentum. But some bikers — the ideological sort who regard every trip as a crusade of conspicuous righteousness — feel justified in flouting the rules, because some drivers are jerks and c’mon, man, carbon.

Two points:

1. Imagine a typical city grid of streets and blocks. This next part is hard, so bear with me. Imagine a street that runs parallel to the wide high-traffic street the cars use. Imagine putting up stop signs so the cars must defer to the possibility of bikes, and letting the bikes use the side street as their thoroughfare. Wouldn’t that be better for all? Of course not. Separate but Equal.

2. We have something up here in Minneapolis called “Winter,” which tasks the determination of the most avid biker; you’ll find stories about hardy souls who bike to work in a blizzard, which is like snorkeling during a tsunami, and I guess we’re supposed to admire their commitment to fitness and the Earth, but they’re actually the exception. Most people don’t look out the window, see seven inches of new snow, and wonder: Hmm. Drive to work in a nice warm car listening to the radio, take the bus, or thrust my wonderfully toned limbs into a spandex sheath and pedal to work through drifts until I wipe out and slide under a Yukon?

There are good reasons for biking during a blizzard, including “It is the only way in a post-apocalypse society to get to the dispensary where the last supply of antibiotics is kept, if the rumors are true, so that your child may survive.” There’s also . . . no, that’s about it.