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.
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 Colombia...so 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.
Back to pedestrians
Surely some will argue that these pedestrians could be converted to cyclists, if they could only learn the joys of the bike...so 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.
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.