Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Passive Transportation

Sometimes I think about the phrase "Active Transportation," as used by cycling and walking advocates. I think about it especially when I find myself on a long distance bus, train or airplane trip, or as a passenger in a car: sitting still, sometimes for hours, as I am propelled through space with no input from my own body or mind. It is at times like these that the notion of active transportation is at its most appealing, because I am experiencing its opposite so keenly. This unnatural stillness as trees and houses flicker in the corner of my eye, this uncomfortable awareness of being carted, transported, delivered is what Passive Transportation feels like to me.

There is a great deal of focus today on encouraging physical activity. Walk more, be more physically active, be healthier. Getting around on foot and by bike are seen as crucial to a more physically active lifestyle. And public transit is included in what active transportation encompasses, because it is typically used in conjunction with walking or cycling. Walk a few blocks to catch the bus or subway, then walk some more to the office. And because there's no car parked at work, walk to and from lunch as well. An increase in physical activity, however small, is the goal.

Comparatively under-addressed are the psychological aspects of active and passive transportation. And here things get a little tricky, because in a lot of people's minds the car wins. When drivers explain why they want to drive and why they enjoy driving, much of it has to do with feelings of independence and control. The association starts early, as suburban American teenagers see their driver's license and their first car as tickets to freedom. The connection only strengthens in adulthood. Driving allows us to actively control our routes, our destinations, our schedule, our speed. Psychologically, this is active transportation.

Except for those instances when it's not - instances that in some parts of the world are becoming ever more frequent, possibly even the norm, and starting to redefine the driving experience. Those who find driving appealing tend to picture the ideal: driving a car along efficient highways or through scenic country roads, arriving at their destination to park directly in front of the entrance. But as many of us know, and quality of life studies are starting to note, this is far from reality today. Traffic controls car travel. In areas where it is heavy, it can slow cars to a crawl, overriding the driver's control over their speed, route selection, and schedule. The difficulties of finding parking, and obligations having to do with city ordinances, create additional restrictions. In an idealised version of the driving experience the driver may be an active agent, but in the real world they are increasingly not only passive but trapped.

Freedom of mobility is important to human beings. There is dignity in being independent, in being in control of one's movements and one's time. We place value in this, and with dignity and independence comes prestige. Modes of transportation perceived as more dignified will carry more prestige than modes that are not, and how the concept of active transportation is framed will play a role in this. Passive transportation users will be receptive to alternatives seen to offer more freedom and control, not just more physical activity.

44 comments:

  1. Good points - it's been interesting teaching my son to drive in our very pedestrian-friendly neighborhood near midtown Atlanta.

    While he tends to prefer getting rides in the car to riding his bike, he is quickly learning that DRIVING the car often sucks and bikes are almost always faster for his needs. Additionally the tight streets, heavy traffic, bike/car/pedestrian mix and parallel parking will likely make him a better, more attentive driver.

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  2. Interesting and timely, for me. I commute 13+ miles each way from my home in the suburbs into Providence, RI. On the bike I feel a tremendous feeling of mobility and independence. I park at the front door and enjoy my cycling with some or no automobile traffic (about 50% of the commute is on a bike path). When I have to drive in, I'm battling traffic on 195 and 95 and I have to park off campus which requires a 5-10 minute walk or shuttle bus. I have to get up a bit earlier to cycle in, but being in control of my movements makes me feel fee and it's well worth it!

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  3. I wonder how you see the issue of time factoring in here. People so often say that they don't have the time to bike to work or walk to the store despite the fact that often it takes more time to drive and find that ever-elusive parking space. But maybe it isn't time so much as a lack of imagination - not being able to imagine another way to move in the world.

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  4. I've never had to commute in the sense that most people do... never lived more than about 5 miles from my work. Always just figured life was too short to subject myself to that particular form of torture. Now that I work from home I seldom use my car, and more and more find driving to be a harrowing experience.

    Since I've taken up cycling I'm experiencing a very strange phenomenon. What feels like "all the way across town" in a car, simply seems like a "nice ride" on my bike! Of course, I think it's partly because I stick to the trails and don't ride on the streets. If I had to battle traffic on my bike I think it would probably feel just as harrowing if not more so than driving.

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  5. This dignity/prestige thing informs a lot of your taste in bikes methinks, such as step throughs.

    Of course the conclusion is wide open and hard to agree/disagree with. In other words the more society excepts bikes as ok, they are ok.

    I don't like the first paragraph as it sets up this argument, however. Passive transportation is only passive inasmuch you're not locomoting yourself. Perhaps you're working, communicating, writing blog posts, dreaming...those aren't possible or largely very difficult on a bike. In that sense bikes can be seen as a waste of time (this is a direct refutation to those who use the argument bikes always save time over cars).

    Anyway travel is always about using the best tools for the job in terms of happiness, stresslessness, efficiency, blah blah.

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    1. '...with dignity and independence comes prestige.'

      As a general statement, this is not true.

      If you had said with dignity and quiet accomplishment comes respect from some quarters, yes.

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  6. The freedom myth. In theory, having your own car means you can go where and whenever you want. Car commercials pummel that into our brains. However you have to be able to afford the car, and keep pilling money into it over and over. Then, you have to go to school, or work so aren't mindlessly driving up and down highway 1 in California for fun. You are stuck in traffic, the traffic lights get tedious, you are so bored stuck in a jam, you have to think about where to park, it is often not that easy to just pull over. And you are just sitting down, not getting any physical activity.
    Because I am so used to cycling and walking, I find even the bus for small trips makes me antsy. Long bus trips, trains and planes almost intolerable.
    I have a crazy idea to have little portable pedal machines on buses, trains, planes, even cars you can get some exercise while sitting for hours. I even think it should be able to generate power.

    I live in a semi rural area. There is a bus system and nothing is very far apart so it is very bikable year round. But like many rural areas there is little work, much hidden poverty etc. There was a symposium on the status of women as things aren't great. And what was a big complaint? Lack of transportation, and fear of riding a bike. The public transit is fine, you just have to choose to live close to it, not way way out, and just start riding a bike. There are bike lanes, safer routes if you know about them. The women interviewed were so hung up on having their car, their 'freedom' that they were willing to be financially sunk to keep a car running. I know it is hard with kids involved, but my gosh the school buses which pick up and drop off kids for free, so that argument is toast.
    When I first moved here I got a car, I was living far out on an inlet, no bus service, but in hindsight a lovely short bike ride into the nearest town. I was too scared, which was odd considering I'd always biked for transportation. Anyway, the car became unaffordable, had to give it up. I miss being able to go long distances on a whim or avoid getting soaked, but don't miss the stress.

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    1. Go Heather...

      Spindizzy

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  7. While biking and walking is great, I find the lack of control when taking public transportation infuriating and much worse than sitting in traffic. Waiting for that bus or train that is inexplicably 30 minutes late feels a lot worse than sitting in that possibly same traffic in a car.

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    1. Funny, I feel freest of all on public transportation. Get on, get off. No parking, no locking, no nothing.

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    2. I think you and Unknown are talking about different aspects of transit though. Opaque transit systems that are hard to navigate and are not dependable time and route wise can be very anxiety inducing and I think are at root of a lot of people's dislike of transit.

      But once you have a system that you know and trust, it can be very freeing to realize how many things you don't have to worry about. "It just takes me where I want to go" is a powerful concept.

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  8. Driving a car doesn't require much cerebral activity. That it is so simple explains how it can be done while drunk, while texting, that it is done by the very small children who sometimes steal cars. I think a lot of the friction between cyclists and drivers comes from the fact that we cyclists are necessarily much more alert and operate with much quicker reaction times. Driving a car feels, by comparison, like some sort of waking dream.

    My father, who remembered cars that made demands on their drivers, used to say that modern cars all came equipped with a chauffeur. It does feel like the car does it all for you.

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    1. To this day I have difficulty driving a car made anytime after 1965. It feels like driving a living room sofa. Ick. Not for me.

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    2. Google drive car + two door manual transmission convertible sports car + brompton for the boot + an assortment of bikes = what transportation'problems'?

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    3. As someone who paid my way through Montessori boosting Camaros, I'm a little offended that you seem to be saying any child could do it. Hmmph. OK, most kids can intuitively operate a stick-shift, and sure, once in gear you can pretty much just remain standing on the drivers seat and ignore the pedals if you plan ahead and scrub off speed rolling over mailboxes and picket fences and shit, but what do you do when you get that HotRod home? Huh? It takes a special kid to part that sucker out and fence it a bit at a time. And no E-Bay BITD either.

      I'll bet you rode the bus...

      Spindizzy

      Sometimes ya'll just piss me off...

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    4. A car for SD: http://jalopnik.com/the-zero-fucks-given-rx7-is-better-than-any-car-you-ll--143407124

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    5. JIM!!! THAT WAS AWESOME!!! Old RX7s are the absolute best freaking hooligan cars ever. I think I've had 4 of them. I wish I had one now and would trade my 23 year old Miata for one in a sneeze. Thanks for the link.

      spindizzy

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    6. Thought you might like it. Funny, here we are discussing cars in a bike blog called LB, specifically in a post about how cars' ability to inspire is moribund...

      Didn't know you had a Miata for some reason. I have two.

      Bikes, cars, aesthetics, wind in the hairs...it's all the same.

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    7. 'brompton for the boot + an assortment of bikes = what transportation'problems'

      BTW more train/brommie vs. Car tie-in: latest Top Gear has (spoiler) noted bromo phile James May whipping his out in mortal combat against noted slob Clarkson.

      Richard Hammond, running, wins. So there.

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    8. My last car was a Miata. Eight years on I can't say I miss it.

      Bikes, cars are not all the same in light of sequester. A society that moves itself with a combination of mass transit, bikes, and walking will have more money left over to see to things like education, medical care for the young and elderly, policing, etc. than one that is constantly throwing money away to support the highway sprawl society.

      This is not even considering the environmental cost of the auto, or the deteriments to health and mental well being the disconnected auto lifestyle encourages.

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    9. "...My last car was a Miata"

      D'oh! And all that time I thought you guys were misspelling Miyata.

      Hey I didn't say cars don't inspire, I said driving in congested areas doesn't inspire.

      My automotive tastes are fairly pedestrian. A BMW 2002 for fun, and a decent truck for hauling will do. Well, and maybe a Jaguar XK120 for my country estate.

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    10. I think someone is forgetting her unreliable car history is what started this blog.

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    11. I had an 84 volvo briefly and then an 86 bmw 325 around ten years ago. Not exactly the easiest cars to drive, but such love. I think I was told I had to be 'active driving'. If I rent a car, I find the new cars to lack any finesse and are so jumpy, no wonder everybody speeds. But I will not lie, I loved my bmw! It was a country bmw so hauled plenty of stuff, took major road trips like it was nothing and could take on plenty of rough dirt roads even subaru drivers are afraid to take. If I could have one dropped from the heavens and afford to maintain a diesel 80's bmw and use recycled biodiesel for long trips, day trips to lakes, support for cycling themed trips and hauling stuff I would. Not for driving in city unless I was going to pick up a pile of free firewood or a big big item. No mindless trips into the village for one item.
      Yes a jag! A pre ford Jag of course. I was driving ms bmw through northern california on an empty highway except for a woman maybe my age in a jag and that car could go. We road along for awhile , but I recall thinking 'damn that is some car, and I am not into cars.'

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    12. Hey! BMW 2002, I had one of those as well(a '73 tii), lots of fun, quickest normally aspirated 2 liter for the price way back when. I still have an extra motor under the bench in the basement. Neat car, lots of rust however... An XK120 eh, Give me the C-type variant and I'll be happy to wear nice walking shoes and carry a Brompton on the back for the "when, not if". I've never had a Jag but almost blew my Pell grant on a '64 3.8 coupe. The guy who bought it out from under me 31 years ago kept it till 2006 and sold it for $68,000. Of course he had the foresight not to wrap it around a tree...

      I wonder why we so often think there isn't any room for cars in our personal imaginary utopias? If the people who just can't stop loving cars still had a few and drove them (out of everyone else's hair), just for fun, while the vast remaining majority do whatever it is that makes them pant, who get's hurt? When car ownership diminishes to being just a hobby of the wealthy and us home fabricator/hotrodders, we'll be fueling them from bacteria generated carbon neutral fuel anyway and those who don't get it can just avert their gaze.

      Lot's of us really love dumb stuff and there's room for it if we don't take it to extremes. I really like(actually, ADORE) cars, enjoy shooting rifles and some other dumb stuff that one needn't shout about, but I'm perfectly happy to live within reasonable limits. I'm never going to build another 500HP big block Dodge Dart to street race or fire Bondo balls out of that old Civil War cannon out at the cabin again. It just feels extravagant and irresponsible to me now. But if I want to take the running gear from my old rusty RX7 and put it in a homemade Lotus 7 copy what's it to you? Maybe you don't miss taking your Miata out in the snow and squirting around corners sideways at 30mph on empty roads at midnight but I sure would.

      If hunting remains a viable way of procuring meat I'll probably keep taking my old Mauser or lever action Winchester out for a few walks every Autumn too. I don't think it's too much to ask me to keep em locked up when I'm not making noise with them, register them like my car and forgo military weapons(although almost anyone who's ever emptied a belt-fed 30cal M.G. into a derelict dump truck
      understands part of the attraction of that particular affliction).

      If others want to loll about composing Theremin music and brewing beer in their root cellars that's great, (society can probably absorb the evil that comes from that), but some of us will still be doing the old normal dumb stuff, we won't be stopped and it can still be alright in the end.

      No hard feelings, OK?

      Spindizzy

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  9. Is this a lecture, or are you just pondering some things?

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  10. I think the auto industry has done an excellent job of pushing the concept of freedom associated with driving. In reality, there are real trade-offs. Car ownership comes with significant burdens. Car loan payments, insurance, gas, maintenance, parking, etc. When I made a leap of faith and went car-free a couple of years ago I found it liberating to be free of those burdens, especially since I soon discovered how easy it was to get around town without a car by bike and public transportation.

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  11. Wow, your so right. Honestly it was great to read. Your real gone girl!

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  12. Our small city received a modest grant to put sharrows on our mile-long Main Street this spring. I'm working on the PR campaign, and I may work in the idea expressed here that the car has lost much of its status as the most liberating of transport modes.

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  13. I'm not sure that it's as simple as the car having lost it's status as the most liberating mode of transportation as "M" put's it.

    I don't argue that there does seem to be more and more of that as people struggle with the impracticalities of driving in the worst congested places, or that marketing and modern cars have drifted farther and farther away from the old perception that driving well is a skill that should be admired and cultivated, but I think maybe part of it is this pervasive feeling that convenience is the highest goal.

    Letting someone else drive/fly/conduct us around after we shed the hassle and responsibility of car ownership is more often as not presented as the convenient option (which sometimes it is) rather than a proactive approach to engaging in the the effort of living actively(which it also can be).

    Maybe that's why V feels out of sorts while being squired about on passive transit, she might be one of the many who embrace walking, riding and all the associated stuff as a way to include intentional effort into their lives. Convenience and efficiency can be shifty things and so often other things(laziness, the desire to isolate ourselves from difficult questions/relationships/responsibilities etc.) masquerade as such. If we engage in our communities, vocations and relationships in a more eager way maybe some of it would feel more rewarding and less convenient...

    I wish I understood all this better, I think about it a lot(which makes it sort of a pity that I'm such a bad example) and feel like maybe it's getting better. Let's hope so.

    Spindizzy

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    1. I agree it's not simple. Most Americans will give up their cars the same way we finally got Charlton Heston's gun, from his cold, dead hands. Or, when it becomes economically unfeasible to own a car, which is becoming a reality for many, except since we can't imagine life without a car, we go into debt to own and maintain one. Lots of people have no health insurance or terrible teeth but own one or two cars.

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    2. Fortunately or unfortunately, I suppose all Charlton's firearms ended up in other, warm, living hands.

      Spindizzy

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  14. My family owns one car which I use very infrequently. Both my sons - ditto. I take my bicycle or occasionally public transportation. For long distance I usually take AMTRAK as air travel is pretty polluting although it is doggone fast.

    In the event I need a vehicle there is an ENTERPRISE Rent-a-Car store about 2 blocks from my home - incredibly convenient.

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  15. Growing up an American male in the first decades after WWII, I pretty naturally became an auto enthusiast, sub-type, sportscars. Does this conflict with my life-long love of cycling? Well, no. You see, I think cars are great, for sport; you know, tooling around, taking a weekend drive, a cross country vacation (with the bike on the roof rack, naturally). We just misuse them by making ourselves dependent on them for daily transportation. Daily transport is much better done with good city planning, walking, cycling and public transit. When we get good at using those modes of daily transport, we can go back to enjoying occasional recreational auto use. Doubt it? Think about sailboats. Around 1900 they ceased being basic aqautic transportation, replaced by motorboats. Did they disappear? No, they moved into a golden age of recreational use, as the auto may when we stop misusing it for daily transportation.

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  16. Though way better than in a car, traffic can sure be a drag on a bike too. The shortest of my routes to work has miles of city followed by many more miles of Route 1. Between the din from cars and big trucks and the endless lights, this is a very different experience from the non-commuting cycling I do.

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  17. I meet and know so many people under 25 (yes, I live in an area with three private colleges) who don't drive. But also, many of my friend's kids are choosing not to drive.

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    1. Check these charts of DOT driving statistics. I'd note that none of the analysts I've seen looking at this data mention increasing use of alternative transportation such bicycles.

      http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/DOT-Miles-Driven.php

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  18. I always think that the main reason people continue to drive in horrible traffic is not freedom (though it's generally framed that way) but privacy. Whatever indignities one suffers in a car, they are suffered in private.

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    1. Which include wallowing in one's own germy filthiness.

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  19. I get squirrelly on public transit as I posted earlier, but it is still preferable to the burden of owning a car, or attempting to drive in an urban/suburban area. It can be very relaxing and stress free. It can get stressful if it is busy, the bus is very late or if it's too cold on the bus. I'm in my late 30's and many in my age group rejected cars early on, but still use them here and there, maybe feel pressure when kids come along. Early adopters maybe? Car companies have had their knickers in a twist because it seems us and the younger adults/kids/young adults are not into buying cars-certainly not new ones. The industry of course is trying to find ways to lure people into buying new cars. marketing campaigns with young people having lots of fun, cool music, up to date graphic design style, cool hipster rock stars in the ads(flaming lips that was so low!).
    These people have massive student loans, not much in the way of job prospects or expendable income to throw at a moneypit like car ownership. Another thing is that many provinces in Canada have complicated graduated licensing systems that make it expensive and slow to get a driver's licence. In Ontario it has been common for a few decades now for people to not ever learn how to drive because it is too expensive to take the lessons etc and if they live in a big city, the bus, walking or biking is easier. Kids might still feel the pressure to have a car if they've been raised in a car culture, live in the suburbs or rural areas, but it need not be so.
    I recently was flagged by someone on a bike who had moved to my area and has seen me biking all over. He must be in his mid 40's, a life long bicycle commuter who moved to the country and got scared. I often see people who swear they rode their bikes daily and moved to the country and got scared. It's understandable(sort of).
    He seemed to want assurance that it was okay to ride such long distances on sketchy highways and the like. If more people are out riding, the more drivers have to pay attention. Ironically, I see more and more older as in senior people taking up cycling to get around than young folk.

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  20. Current government guidelines (here in the UK anyway), recommend at least 30 minutes moderate exercise every day. It's very easy to rack that up using trains/buses. Walk 10 min to the station, 10 min to work, then the same for the return trip and that's 40 min already.

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  21. An excellent post; got me thinking, thank you.

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  22. Active transportation = running at full capacity to get to the bus before it leaves, because you slept in and are late (again). And don't forget the active cerebral activity from being able to read or journal or even just 'gel out' on the bus.

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  23. Get the best of both worlds! - Active (which is healthy and fun!) or passive (which is nice when you get tired!)

    Google US Patent #8322943

    and/or Google 'GravTrans' on YouTube.com

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