Sustainability through the mind's eye

Archive for March, 2010

Down with “avid cyclists”

Posted by Michael Druker on March 22, 2010

As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.

Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.

By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?

Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No it is not.

I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.

Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.

There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.

Addendum: There are more comments on this post over at and Kaid Benfield responds as a proud avid cyclist.

Posted in Cycling | Tagged: , , , , | 16 Comments »

The fundamental attribution error in transportation choice

Posted by Michael Druker on March 15, 2010

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency for people to over-attribute the behaviour of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors. (Actually it isn’t quite fundamental, as collectivist cultures exhibit less of this bias.) People are generally more aware of the situational influence on their own behaviour.

Thus, the fundamental attribution error in transportation choice: You choose driving over transit because transit serves your needs poorly, but Joe Straphanger takes transit because he’s the kind of person who takes transit. This is the sort of trap we find ourselves in when considering how to fund transportation, be it transit, cycling, walking, or driving.

Let’s say you live in a suburban subdivision. You can afford to drive, and it’s the only way you can quickly and easily get to your suburban office and to the store, and pick up your child from daycare. How do you interpret the decision of other people to take transit? Is it something about the quality of transit where they are? More likely you are going to attribute it to something about those people themselves — they’re poor, or they’re students, or they’re some kind of environmentalists. It’s difficult for people to realize the effect of the situation, e.g. one with frequent transit service to many destinations along a straight street that is easy to walk to. (I’d also point out that students, the poor, and even environmentalists do drive as well.)

Why do Europeans walk more, cycle more, and take transit more? Surely it is something about their culture? But this is an excessively dispositional attribution. I won’t deny that culture plays some role in transit use, especially in the decisions that lead to the creation of transportation infrastructure. But that infrastructure itself and the services provided on it are a strong influence on the transportation choices people make. The European infrastructure situation facilitates those other modes of travel much more so than does typical North American transportation infrastructure.

Where our infrastructure gets closer to the European model, so does the transportation mode choice, and conversely, where Europe is more like the North American model, Europeans turn out to drive more. If culture were really the driving force, you wouldn’t expect to see much fluctuation in transportation choice. But just as North America suburbanized and fell in love with the private automobile, so did Europe, albeit to a lesser extent. Only recently has Europe started again building new tram lines and clawing back space from the car. Copenhagen, now viewed as an urban cycling mecca, wasn’t always one. The rise of the car drastically lowered cycling there in the 1960s. Copenhagen owes its recent fame to restrictions on parking and to its dedicated cycling infrastructure, which have led to a cycling renaissance.

Consider how North American visitors travel in Europe. How do they get around London? The Underground. How do they get between London and Paris? The train. How do they get around Amsterdam or Copenhagen? Quite possibly they rent a bike. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do: they walk, take the subway or tram, or maybe ride a Vespa. What do European tourists do in North America? Generally they rent a car, because that’s the only realistic way to travel in most places. There are exceptions, of course: tourists to New York City or Washington, D.C. take the subway because that’s the most convenient way to travel in those cities.

We’re not so different from tourists in how we choose to get around. We may have our own preferences, but the biggest influence on our choice of transportation mode is what modes are available to us and how useful they are. Above all this is determined not by culture and personality but by the kind of infrastructure and transportation service provided.

Addendum: Jarrett Walker has some great commentary on this post at Human Transit. More context was given in the Streetsblog write-up. Cap’ Transit provides a counterpoint,  and there’s more commentary at Kaid Benfield’s blog.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged: , , , | 36 Comments »

Another perspective on the Iron Horse Trail

Posted by Michael Druker on March 7, 2010

This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.

It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cycling, Walking | Tagged: , , | Comments Off

How the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians

Posted by Michael Druker on March 4, 2010

Missing sidewalks are in blue, access roads that are used as paths are in red, and orange indicates unpaved or inadequately distinguished paths. (The image links to the detailed view on Google Maps.)

The University of Waterloo’s main campus was built in the 1960s, and it shows badly. The campus is designed with a strong car focus, despite UW being a university with extensive pedestrian traffic. I’ll leave further discussion of the problems of UW’s suburban form to a future post, and restrict this one to existing pedestrian issues.

How does the University of Waterloo fail its pedestrians? It often provides sidewalks on only one side of a road or sidewalks that are too small. Many main paths are not paved and encounter obstacles such as parking lots, man-made berms, poor or absent crosswalks, and, of course, weather conditions. UW forces pedestrians onto access roads designed for cars that make those on foot feel distinctly unwelcome. Instead of using more appropriately-sized vehicles, it uses regular vans and SUVs (maintenance, police, delivery, access vehicles) right on major pedestrian thoroughfares. Many buildings connect poorly to their surroundings, with few access points and several buildings actually surrounded by something resembling moats. The university is difficult to get in and out of, with poor connections to an existing path network and missing sidewalks on major roads (Westmount Road and Seagram Drive), as well as on the within-campus Ring Road itself. The adjacent shops on University Avenue surround busy parking lots and are frankly hostile to pedestrians, despite the vast majority of customers being pedestrians.

There are additional issues for cycling and handicapped access, such as excessive use of stairs, man-made topographic obstacles, mismatched or absent curb cuts, and so on.

In the map above, I’ve tried to point out most of the problematic sections around UW, excepting the significant additional troubles of ongoing construction. Below are a few photos I took this week that give a feel for the kinds of problems pedestrians face on the University of Waterloo’s main campus. UW does have many portions that work fine for walking, but that is no excuse for its failures. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Walking | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

We should curb parking requirements

Posted by Michael Druker on March 1, 2010

This year I am on The Record’s Community Editorial Board. Today’s paper carries my column on the subject of off-street parking requirements. Below is my original text (most is behind the cut):

We Should Curb Parking Requirements

Why do we devote so much land to parking? You might suppose this is purely due to the high demand or the high value of parking, but you’d be wrong. Municipal by-laws have actually been requiring abundant off-street parking across North America since the 1940s — when cities started their decline and modern suburbs their ascent. These requirements pave the way for a spread-out, car-oriented form for cities, to the detriment of the density and foot traffic necessary for vibrant urban areas.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Planning | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »


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