Friday, August 30, 2013

This is Commuting Freedom on My Bicycle

It blazed just like that

I read this week in several popular news outlets that American car culture is waning. In various versions, the articles said that VMT or Vehicle Miles Traveled in the USA, peaked in August of 2007, fell sharply during the Great Recession, and has remained around that plateau level. This is not really that that newsworthy for several reasons, including that the Brookings Institute thought the trend was pretty serious back in December, 2008, when the drop-off was most significant.

Claims in the press included statements like the USA's love affair with the automobile is over, that getting a license is no longer a right of passage for teenagers that it once was, or that the car as a "fetish of masculinity is over" since they are so computerized and complex as compared to my father's fixer-upper. Taking the data behind the story, from this source at the Federal Highway Administration, I created this graph, sticking with their non-zero y-axis origin approach which emphasizes the point:

The data that launched a thousand articles

It does look plateau-like, doesn't it? On another hand, this is USA-only data, I wonder what the world total data graphed would look like. This article popped up in my search results, but doesn't answer the question. I tried, and failed, to find similar data with which to make a global VMT graph. I am sure it would be soaring exuberantly skywards, though, dwarfing the little flattening out on this USA graph. Let me know if you know of any.

OK, back to the photo at the top. One of the statements in the flood of articles was referring to the automobile as a symbol of freedom. While it may be tarnished, and may deserve more tarnishing, it is true that a car, or at least one that's working, and has gas, and insurance, and that you have access to, lets you go pretty much wherever you want, on a whim, if you feel like it, and have the time.

On another hand, when I commuted by car, I always felt as if I was in a hurry, with only one optimal route to travel, down a freeway corridor with thousands of others who felt exactly the same way. On my bicycle, on another hand, I choose from several different routes, based on what I want to look at, what I want to avoid or experience on a given day, since there are several more or less equally good ways for me to meander my way in to the office. When I saw the sun blazing in that blue sky in the top photo, I stopped and just stared at it for a few moments. Long as I felt like it. No one beeping at me from behind, no one running me off the road while texting and rushing to work, no one glaring at me through tinted glass as we all sit immobile in a traffic jam in the shimmering sun broiled air. Just me beneath a wide open blue sky. That's commuting freedom for me, choosing my route, and my mode, for moments like that. Or this.

Stopping next to a Little Free Library, to peruse the day's books, and contemplate clouds

Commute freedom: where and how are you going? Why do you make that choice? Are there others?

What trick of light causes these colors to fringe and shimmer the clouds?

If I need or want to go somewhere hundreds of miles in a day, perhaps with my family or to move a load, I enjoy the freedom of getting into a car to make that journey. I don't always enjoy the journey itself as much as I once did, although by making a kind of game out of being an extra courteous, conscientious, and careful driver in order to see if I can infect others with that virus, it's not so bad. But on my daily commute, a round trip of a dozen or twenty miles, I have many other choices on the list, at the head of which is my bicycle. No gas refills, no monthly payments, no registration fees, no direct insurance costs (although I do have uninsured motorist on my auto policy which covers me if someone without insurance hits me while I'm riding so I guess there's a cost there), and many pleasing routes from which to choose, typically the more beautiful ones with the least traffic, by the way.

I'm just wondering: is it freedom if you don't use it?


  1. Since you're insured, does that affect your bike locking technique?

    1. Interesting question. No doubt locking in general would be subject to the more general behavioral adaptations of other safety equipment: the locker-upper may adopt riskier behaviors out of the perception of increased safety. This article on behavioral adaptation and compensatory behavior describes the situation well and gives several thought-provoking examples. To quote, " In many (if not most) cases, the design of a product influences the way individuals interact with it, as well as the way that they perceive the product and the level of risk associated with it. Safety interventions introduced into a system often produce secondary effects (behavioral adaptations). Individuals often react to perceived safety enhancements in a compensatory fashion and adopt riskier behaviors based on the perception that the environment has become safer. Unfortunately, the perceptions of increased safety due to a design change may not match reality. Such perceptions may lead to behavioral changes that result in a net decrease in overall safety." On the other hand, my deductible is higher than the replacement cost of any one of my bikes, except maybe my nicer road bike, so for me I think the answer is no, except that I don't even carry a lock when I'm out on that bike because it never leaves my side.


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