Monday, August 30, 2010

Methodone clinics and the lessons we can learn from them

Although I'd like to think that I'm generally very aware of my surroundings, I have to admit that it took years before I noticed the pattern. There, on the route I take everyday to work on my bike I see them. Some are old, and some are young. Some are sad looking and disheveled, while other are neatly dressed. Some arrive by car, luxury cars, but the overwhelming majority get there by walking. They walk a long stretch, about three miles on this single road, as well as many miles before that. It all happens early in the morning, usually before sunrise, and the number of people walking is amazing. Not only due to the large number, but also because in American cities like this one, so few people walk long distances, especially in roads like this one.

It never dawned on me that the nondescript building they were all walking to was a methadone clinic. I actually had to look up the name of the business (a name as innocuous and nondescript as the building it's housed in), to see if my assertion was correct. It was. The massive amounts of people heading into this small building on a busy city street were going there out of need and desperation, a fact that was further underlined by the horrible conditions in which most of them had to walk to get there, particularly during the winter. Like so many other roads this size in the United States (four lanes total) the street has no sidewalk. There's the busy road, no berm/shoulder, a thin guardrail (sometimes), and then there's the overgrown grass and trees that have never been suitable for walking, but through which all these people travel on a daily basis. In the spring and summer, people walk through the densely wooded area as they would if they were in the jungle, moving their arms furiously to get branches out of the way as they walk. They walk over boulders, and climb over fallen trees. In the winter, the makeshift path is never plowed, not even when nearly three feet of snow fall in one weekend, and snow plows then deposited another two feet on top of that as they clean the busy road. Some people try to walk over the snow, sinking with every step, while others have no choice but to walk on the road, heading opposite to car traffic that routinely goes 50 miles per hour. When they do this, often with their infant children in tow, cars pass by showering them with ice and salt spray.

My dignity
While on my bike, riding on this road, I too feel unsafe. I too get showered with ice and salt spray from the cars. I too feel that I'm robbed of my dignity and my safety due to poor urban planning (I'm a delicate cry baby, I know). I too feel that my needs should have been addressed, and that the city was designed, built and kept up for the needs of drivers alone. But unlike the patients that are walking miles through these conditions, I have some options. They don't. My job affords me the ability to take public transportation for free (an amazing benefit). I could also car pool with co-workers, hell I could drive myself if I needed to. I don't, but I could. It would be costly, and bothersome...but the options exist. I know some cyclists don't have these options...but many, particularly those who are taking up commuting by bike in order to get to white collar jobs, do. Even if they don't own cars, many could. Maybe they would be horribly old cars...but cars nontheless. Cyclists as a group are not homogeneous, since we too range in age, social strata and the like...but in general, it's safe to say that (at least where I live) many cyclists have options. In the other hand, (and at the risk of making a generalization about the people who I see walking to the methadone clinic) I don't think they have these options. Like any other group, these patients are varied in race, income, age and the like. I know that. But the ones that walk, the overwhelming number of those that go to this clinic, are seemingly unable to even take the bus, a car or a bike there. They have to walk, and the way that the city is planned robs them of their dignity as they do so. Regardless of what you think about drug addiction or its treatment (my views on the subject are rather stern, but that's not the subject at hand), I think we can all safely agree that these are people who are going through tough times, and possibly damn near hitting rock bottom in some cases (for whatever reason, and however they ended up there). The manner in which they travel to this location makes me feel (go ahead and laugh) that the city has failed them, and in doing so has robbed them of their dignity. This is not to say that society, governments and cities should treat their citizens like children, spoonfeeding them along the way...but I feel that sidewalks are not too much to ask for. Walking through a damn jungle, or feet of snow without a sidewalk surely makes what is already a shameful death march worse. In the context of that busy road, they look wildly out of place. So while cyclists have needs, and I look forward to the day when at least part of my commute can be made within the confines of some kind of safe bike lane, path or something like it...I always think about those people walking to the methadone clinic. They are reluctant pedestrians. They don't want to be walking, but they have to walk. They could be walking anywhere, since the issue here is not drug addiction, or whatever treatment is being give to them. These people are just individuals who walk because they have to. They don't think about a "pedestrian scene", they don't write on websites about which city is most pedestrian friendly. If they had a car, they would drive it, and would hope to quickly forget the days when they had to walk such distances in the snow. Still, this doesn't make their needs any less real. That's why, when I see these people walking, I realize just how far most American cities have to go in terms of meeting the needs of their populations.

A city like Brasilia is fantastic to look at (depending on your taste), but difficult to live in. Why? Because it wasn't planned for the pedestrian, or on a human scale. See images here showing how pedestrians are choosing to carve their own paths through a city that is renowned for not having sidewalks, and where pedestrians are struck by cars at a rate five times higher than that of an average city.

While most city centers in this country have sidewalks, few suburbs (even old ones), or larger roads leading there do. Some will simply argue that this is further proof that urban sprawl is the worst thing on earth, and that humanity will cease to exist as a result of suburbs even existing. Before you go down that path, I kindly ask you to consider that regardless of what you think of it, sprawl exists. People live there. Some are rich, but many are poor. Some of these "sprawling" neighborhoods are actually pretty old, but still lack the necessary infrastructure to serve those who live there. The views that many have of suburbs are actually outdated based on current statistics (a good video about this, which a commenter suggested, can be seen here). Also remember that the "city neighborhoods" that so many now treasure were once urban sprawl too. Cities grow, and you can't curtail the needs or wants (perceived or real) of a population. But you can, or at least should, seek to provide minimal infrastructure for them to live.

My city talks? If so, what is it telling me?
I know you can all safely accuse me of sounding like a stereotypical lefty, commie liberal for saying this...but what message does a city send it's poorest citizens when their needs for mobility, and thus their need to get to medical treatment (I use the term "medical treatment" in general, and not in reference to methadone...which I know very little about), aren't even met? Are cyclists jumping ahead of the line in requesting sheltered bike lanes, when most American cities don't even have sidewalks on most roads? I fully understand that a bike lane's cost is seldom more than some paint...but I wonder who will speak out and be the advocate for those who need to walk through our cities.

As you know, in this blog things always end up having to do with Bogota and here it goes.
As Enrique Peñalosa (mayor of Bogota from 1998 to 2001) said, a city should never rob a citizen's sense of dignity (that word again) due to its poor layout and planning. To the contrary, a city should provide the necessary infrastructure to allow its citizens to move and live, all without being robbed of their sense of self-worth. This means, as Peñalosa himself pointed out, that the person with the $40 bicycle, is worth just as much as the person with the $40,000 car, and that they both should have the same right to mobility. And within the context of the United States, we'd also have to add to that equation the fact that some don't even have a $40 bicycle...and their needs should be met too, since sidewalks here have never been a priority (unlike in Bogota). Put simply, every road should have a sidewalk, and most (if not all) should also have bike lanes. Sounds crazy, and perhaps foolish, but it's also plainly democratic. City planning can't, even if only passively, communicate that those who earn more are worth more than others, not when it comes to something as simple as moving throughout a city. Perhaps some of you will think that this is the foolish commie in me speaking...the unrealistic idiot who thinks everyone should have their way, and that Father Government should provide. Be that as it may, I would excuse myself by pointing out that I'm merely a product of my upbringing (always a safe way of explaining your beliefs), and Colombians tend to lean this way. I would also say that allowing those from different income brackets, or those who make different choices about mobility (within reason) , should be accommodated. I say within reason, because I don't think kite surfing to work is an immediate need in most cities.

Street in Bogota

Back to pedestrians
Surely some will argue that these pedestrians could be converted to cyclists, if they could only learn the joys of the in addressing cycling needs we would address theirs. But we would be venturing into a kind of proselytizing scenario that I'm not really comfortable with. Believe me when I tell you that as a person who rides a bike, I want my needs to be met, and I thank the people locally who are helping make those things come true. I can't help but feel, however, that maybe we're jumping ahead of the line when I see people walking miles through the woods along what is at best a highway. Sure, in the ideal world, all needs would be met, and there would be no line to speak of. But that's not the case, so I wonder who is looking out for the needs of those who are willing or unwilling pedestrians.

Cities like Bogota have successfully addressed the needs of both cyclists and pedestrians, but I have to admit that I doubt such an undertaking could take place in most American cities. Bogota has a car free day once a year, it restricts which cars can be driven in peak hours (based on your license plate number), and the city decided to go car free during all peak hours by 2015. To me, this is not a matter of cars versus everyone/thing else. I merely bring these things up because I wonder if any such wildly progressive initiatives could take hold in American cities. I hope they can...but in the meantime, I think most people here would settle for having some sidewalks first.

Extra credit

And now, to keep with the consistently inconsistent tone of this blog, I present you these two items.

Here's a video in which Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady and Andy Schleck discuss (among other things) the differences between techno and trance music.

via Ten Speed Hero

Lastly, fans of metal music will appreciate this small detail from the Vuelta A España coverage in the newspaper El Pais, which reader Dave pointed out. It references the fact that Iñigo Cuesta is a big fan of the band Sepultura, and that he would make everyone in the bus listen to them, torturing his team director. Those of you who speak Spanish will surely delight in the fact that the band is described as "punkis".

Apparently Cuesta must be a huge fan of the band, because his taste for their music is referenced in yet another piece, this one in the Diario Vasco.


  1. Do the drugs that caused these folks to need the methadone in the first place play any role in their loss of dignity? or just the city planning? How about their individual decisions to start using the drugs in the first place? Do the people themselves bear any responsibility?

    No doubt, sidewalks are rad. But it also seems that the city is doing quite a bit in making methadone available to folks who otherwise wouldn't have access to it and wouldn't be able to afford it.

  2. There's something about Columbia......
    Columbia, Mo. isn't so bad either. Lots of new trails, lanes, signs etc being added lately (including newer/smoother sidewalks for wheelchairs)

    Still, I occasionally see individuals walking in the street even when a sidewalk is available. I can not explain it.

  3. I'm with you Lucho, on sprawl. The non-voting, non-cash-contributing poor are often further disadvantaged by urban planning. Even the Wikipedia entry for transportation planning alludes to this issue.

  4. wow, this was a great post.

    First, (if you haven't already) you should check out Kevin Lynch's book Image of the City and Robert Goodman's After the Planners. Secondly, as someone who will admit that they have hit rock-bottom in such a fashion, these people are not on death marches through the jungle or snow, rather, they are walking towards a brighter future and what the vast majority see as their second (or third or fourth) chance.

    Nonetheless, the issue of sidewalks remains.

    There is also the issue of Methadone clinics and how they operate, and hopefully we will see buprenorphine replacing methadone as Opiate Addiction treatment soon - it already has in Europe, Canada, and more progressive American cities, and it allows month-long take home doses, which definitely restores some dignity.

    Lastly, to address the first poster, yeah these people bear responsibility for their addictions, the complete depletion of your bank account which a habit dictates, and their current position, but most people who use opiates are seeking to extinguish some overwhelming physical or mental pain which exists in their lives - something the current medical establishment is ill prepared to address as I can say from experience. (It may be helpful to remember that Opiates were the primary treatment for depression from antiquity until the 1950's,) it is only recently that doctors have switched to newer anti-depressants which create DEADLY withdrawal symptoms rather than just really uncomfortable one's.

    Wow, that's a long comment.

    Lucho, I love your writing, this was a great post.

  5. Nick,
    thank you for weighing in. The topic of how people get addicted, why and all that is huge and I know little to nothing about it. As a person who doesn't even opinions on the matter would seem damn dogmatic to tell you the truth. So while their dignity was perhaps self-removed...we don't know. As an outsider, I only saw people walking in horrible conditions (for US standards), regardless of what they were walking to.

  6. Great post, Lucho.
    Did you happen to catch this PBS video about the most dangerous street in Georgia? (I think the CommuteOrlando blog had it first.) It's a great example of a road that is _really_ not designed for the dignity of pedestrians. It seems to be more designed for their death. It's a great example of a suburb designed for everyone to own a car and eventually people too poor to own a car move there.

  7. This topic is too heavy for me. I also lived in NY too long and now, in Stamford, CT. Both cities are chuck-full of sidewalks, so what do I know.

    Two other things:

    1. R.I.P. Laurent Fignon. Cancer sucks. I didn't always like the dude, especially since his book came out, but he was an amazing cyclist and I have lots of memories of my childhood attached to his dopey glasses. He was only 50. What a bummer.

    2. The day Jens Voigt retires, I'm gonna have a memorial in my house with plenty of German beer.You are all invited.


  8. carfreepvd,
    thank you so much for suggesting that video, i didn't know about it...and it made me feel like perhaps i'm not completely crazy. thank you.

  9. Brasilia looks a great deal like Albany. I didn't know Govenor Rockefeller had so much clout to get similar space-aged architecture erected in South America. Do they call that oblong one "The Egg" or maybe "El Huevo"?

  10. Terrific blog. Your argument is nice and complex, like real life, especially real life in cities.

    The destination of the pedestrians really isn't germane to the question of whether they "deserve" to have to walk through the weeds, around the guard rails, and so forth. Everyone should have a basic walkway, just in case they want to leave their bicycles or cars behind that day.

    And certainly rich or poor, everyone deserves to have some transportation method. The method with the lowest cost and highest expenditure of energy happens to be walking. So let's do a better job with our sidewalks and other walking accommodations, and especially with eliminating the outright barriers to walking--places where one literally has no place to walk without getting into car traffic.

  11. Lucho, you just shouldn't apologize so much when you hit the nail straight on the head. Moving around safely should be granted to everybody, whatever the choice or need, whenever a country claims to worship such an ideal as "Equality". Strong, accurate and moving post. You're not only good at joking... keep on the good stuff.

  12. cornel,
    thank you for the kind words. i'm always weary of how i state my opinions, only because the written word doesn't allow much space for background information, or for people to know that i'm not insanely dogmatic about much of anything, and even when i come off as being strong-willed, i could just as easily talk about something silly. having said that, you're right...moving safely is NOT a far out idea. we're not talking about freedoms in the context of something nebulous...we're talking about walking. pretty damn basic.

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