Shared psychosis or lowest cost alternative?

On most days I bicycle to work. This morning I almost drove. I’m out of coffee, and I’ve decided to only buy Kéan Coffee. Now while I have biked to Kéan from my house and from there to work before, it is a bit of a trip, adding about 30 minutes that I didn’t have this morning. So I was tempted to drive, but I didn’t. I didn’t really need to have coffee this morning, I’m trying to cut back, and I did have the equivalent of a single espresso’s worth of beans. So I bicycled in, as usual.

I write that to illustrate a point. I was reading various bicycling sites the other day (mostly out of Portland, interestingly enough) when I was trying to run down more information on the Paris Velib’ program. I got a little distracted, and read a lot more than I should have given the task at hand. One comment from one site (I apologize to the author, but I forget the site) stuck in my brain—the notion that modern society operates under a shared psychosis that demands that we all drag around several tons of metal and travel at very high speeds.

Now it is comforting perhaps to claim that driving is a psychosis, especially if one is a bicycler or a walker, or even I guess as an excuse if one is an unabashed driver. On the other hand, the term isn’t really accurate. Driving is a very low cost proposition, and while I readily agree that many external costs are not recognized by the drivers and that there are many systematic subsidies to that mode, choosing to not drive is far more of a psychosis. Choosing not to drive means that you are not accepting the various subsidies and development patterns that favor driving. It makes no sense from an economic standpoint. Even considering the high price of gas these days, I am sure that the cost of the extra croissants I eat to fuel my daily commute is higher than the cost of the gas that I am not using. Toss in the incredibly high risk of injury when you are bicycling (especially in Southern California), and again, it is borderline psychotic to bicycle rather than to drive.

So why do I bicycle? I think because if I do, perhaps others will. If people see me on my bike, with my wicker basket in the front and my battered panniers in the back, perhaps they will think about biking, and get out of their cars. I also bike because I am now in great shape, without having to make extra time to run or go to the gym. And because when I drive I get home angry, and when I bike I get home tired and happy (albeit dripping with sweat if I am pushing to break my current best of 27 minutes 13 seconds).

But I don’t kid myself that biking is better than driving here in my corner of Orange County. In Irvine it seems that biking is for kids and for those lycra-clad people on workouts. It isn’t for getting around town. The grade-separated bike paths that exist don’t seem to connect directly to any destinations. In Costa Mesa and in Newport Beach, there are more hipsters on beach cruisers, so although there are fewer grade-separated paths, bicycling is more accepted and useful. But given the magnitude of the distances involved in your average trip around here, it is difficult to bicycle for most trips unless you live in east Costa Mesa or Newport Beach. But even there, cars still rule the road and drive really fast, and a collision will be serious or fatal to the biker, not to the car.

So where does this leave us on the question of sustainable transportation? Bicycling is most definitely sustainable and very green. Cars most definitely are not. And yet, the best answer seems to be electric cars and hybrid cars, both of which will still require vast infrastructures to support (although to be fair, we are working on distributed fuel cell technologies that should be a bit less infrastructure intensive).

Looking forward, perhaps the Orange County Great Park can be one area that we can begin to address this from a planning point of view. The master plan calls for a transit system (rail in the OCGP, met by a bus (!) outside the park), and “Orange Bikes” scattered everywhere. Perhaps we can mix the Orange Bikes with a station car system, like our ZEVNET, so that people can use cars for longer trips and bikes for shorter ones. With one card, you can swipe out a ZEVNET car, or swipe out a bike. This wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket compared to the total vehicle miles traveled in Orange County, but it would begin to show how alternative modes might be supported at the expense of the private automobile.

I always think about the Netherlands as an example when it comes to biking. In Amsterdam, we saw cars carefully avoiding the bike lanes when they made right turns (no merging into the bike lane there!). We saw those great Bakfiets bikes with what looks like a wagon in the front, filled with kids or anything else. We used mostly grade separated bike lanes to travel around the country as a family. We saw kids on dates, holding hands as they biked down the street. And I got a haircut from a woman in Delft who said that she hates biking, but she couldn’t afford to park and the bus was too slow. There are still lots of car trips in the Netherlands, but those trips that can and should be made by bicycle or on foot are. Cars are for long trips, and not every trip is so long that it needs a car.


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