Sunday, June 13, 2010

Law'n'Order: Ethical Principles and Practicality

Questions to consider:
  • While motoring*, have you ever tried to scrupulously observe the speed limit, anywhere in the US, any time in, say, the past 8 years? What happened? (Bonus question: Was there bloodshed?)
  • When's the last time you saw a motorist make a complete stop at a stop sign when it wasn't mandated by cross traffic?
  • If you live in an area where cellphone use is illegal while driving, do you see people doing it anyway?
  • Are there stretches along your cycle commute where litter is really bad? (Bonus question: How many times in the past, say, month have you noticed complete fast food bags discarded?)
By now you're asking, "What's your point, Robert?" Fair enough. I've been thinking about how personal ethics are affected by being in a car. I'm wondering if the isolation that an automobile imposes, the sense of being "cut off", somehow enables the motorist to compromise his principles. Is a cyclist different because he's "out there" in the environment with little or no protection? Admittedly, I see plenty of cyclists (in the US at least) do lots of scofflaw behavior. And it's this behavior that I always consider "stupid", meaning dangerous, or ultimately impractical.

Ethics seems to be about finding the balance between the principle and the practicality of the situation. Consider the well-known "four-way test" of the Rotary Club International:
  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Notice that items 1 and 2 are about adherence to principle (truth and fairness) and 3 and 4 are about practicality (goodwill, friendship, benefits). Certainly, if an action can be said to meet all 4 questions in the affirmative, it can be said to be ethical. (See this post for more ruminations on the Rotary "4WT", including examples of situations where the principled and the practical collide.)

Traffic laws (and for that matter, littering laws) are thankfully areas where the principled and the practical coincide, or at least overlap greatly. A commenter on a previous post noted that cyclists (and pedestrians) in Denmark were scrupulously observant of traffic laws, and I've noted the same on my travels to Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Sweden. (France is, well, another story.)

I'm always flummoxed when I see a bicyclist, say, commenting on a blog, defending his right to break the traffic laws. Neither principled nor practical.

*I recognize this blog is not about motoring, and it may be that many readers of this blog in fact never act as motorists. To you, I doff my helmet and bow.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

BTW Day, Again

So I went to the Columbia, MD, Bike-t0-Work day yesterday. As I've said before, my feelings at these affairs are mixed at best. This year was about the same as last year, although there were more practical bikes (if not cyclists!) in attendance. I found the speakers more fatuous and self-congratulatory than I remember: at least two county officials sent their aides in their stead, who dutifully reported that "[blank] couldn't be here today because of a scheduling conflict," to which I was thinking, "Yeah, at 7:30 am, it's a conflict with bed." Mostly, there was a air of patronization, of "we say we love you for what you do, but we wouldn't be caught dead doing it ourselves."

Hm. I'm betraying a seriously bad attitude here.

(Truthfully, I did seriously appreciate the Chief of Police who is a fit looking guy and a cyclist, who got up, gave an update on Maryland traffic laws -- hey, we have a Three-foot rule now! -- and admonished the crowd that you have to be respectful of traffic laws if you want respect from motorists. Hear, here.)

The county director of transportation got up and, after talking about mostly nothing for about a minute, and never mentioning any traffic improvements for cyclists, prompted me to shout, "more bike lanes!" which (to my satisfaction) nonplussed him and gained me the bemused looks of fellow cyclists. (I was hoping for a smattering of applause.)

The problem is (as it was last year) is that no one is serious about promoting biking to work. If they were serious, they'd be showing off bike lane planning for the region (assuming same existed,) they'd be touting LCI's teaching "Road 101" classes, there would be little workshops on "what you do (and don't) need to be carrying on a commuter bike." But there's none of that. There are a couple of booths for local bike shops showing off various relevant and non-relevant bikes, there are people talking all starry eyed about how they got county officials to listen to a presentation about sharrows (but no commitments of any kind), and there are county officials waxing ecstatic about how BTWD got them to practice riding so they could show up, and guess what? It was exhilarating! Plus lots of bumper stickers and tee shirts. (Where was the League of American Bicyclists?)

Look, being serious about wanting people to bike to work equals a commitment to painting bike lanes. It really is as simple as that. The few of us who are vehicular cyclists will bike to work anyway (and be perfectly safe,) but the others need bike lanes. New York City has proved this. Studies conducted over the last couple of months show a significant increase in cyclists in New York City following their painting over 200 miles of bike paths (although there is some controversy on the exact numbers). If the powers-that-be really want to encourage practical cycling for all the reasons they say, all they need to do is get out the white traffic paint.

I shouldn't be so negative about BTWD. I was in the middle of a conversation with a county official when a fellow cyclist (fully outfitted in cycling gear) came up and said, "Hey, you're the guy that I see biking to work every day, aren't you?" It made my day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tufte would be Proud

Ed Tufte is one of the original thinkers of the Information Age. See his website here. I will presume that most readers have at least a passing acquaintance with his books, perhaps fewer with his sculpture. I was struck by a surpassingly nice graphic in last weekend's New York Times that was pure Tufte. A reduced image is at right; click here to go to the original article. Rarely have I seen a more concise graphing of two important (and related) quantities: The price of gasoline vs. the number of miles driven per year (on average) by Americans. Nice to see them researched and correlated. (I also like the way the curve is smoothed out -- it has a nice organic look to it.)

It's pretty shocking to see that between 1968 and 2004, the miles driven by Americans doubled. It's also nice to see things moving back to the left. Do Americans realize that, no matter how nicely appointed their autos, the quality of life while driving is a miserable fraction of that spent out in "the real world"?

All other things being equal, economic theory predicts that instead of such a loopy curve, we'd see a straight slope up from left to right. Of course, this isn't the whole story. To see the entire economic picture, we'd also have to see a supply curve of gasoline produced in the US market for the same period of time. Perhaps also an efficiency curve of average MPG for autos in the US market. Perhaps looking at such a 3- or 4-dimensional graphic would give me a headache!