Every day is like Skirt Day.

April 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

My friends are really up on suggesting things I should write about, which is good, because sometimes I abandon this blog for weeks at a time. But! It was requested that I share my opinion on the matters addressed in this Greater Greater Washington post, “Women: How comfortable do you feel biking?”

So, at first, I was like, “I dunno, I feel as comfortable as a person riding a bike can feel,” and then—upon reading further—I was like, “The hell is this Mary Poppins effect?”

It is, apparently, when “drivers seem to be more deferential to people riding bikes if they’re women, riding upright, and wearing street clothes” (per GGW). Here are some general thoughts on it; Tales from the Sharrows also snarked on the “phenomenon” in a post the other day (hey, I thought it was funny).

As for how I feel personally, being a woman cyclist myself and all, I might not be the best sample. I bought my bike in February and thus, have worn pants every single time I’ve gone out because it’s been cold. I don’t have a dress code for work, and I try to avoid skirts anyway. I’m just not interested in fussing around with my clothes. Additionally, because my office is a 15-minute walk from my apartment, I don’t consistently commute by bike. When I do, it’s often a very short ride, around three minutes.

But I do ride my bike more than I use any other mode of transportation, and I’ve never experienced the “Mary Poppins Effect.” Though I don’t ride in skirts, I’m rather small, and I’ve got longish hair…and I don’t think any drivers have ever been nicer or more considerate toward me because I appear more feminine.

With that said, I haven’t encountered that many horribly rude drivers, either. Perhaps this is because I wait for lights to change instead of running them. I slow at stop signs and stop completely if it’s a four-way or a similar circumstance, where there might be confusion if I rolled through. And I try my hardest to use hand signals when I’m turning. I think it’s those actions, not what I wear, that make me feel pretty damn comfortable when I ride my bike.

Lastly, I do resent the idea that wearing a skirt would make drivers be more considerate toward me. It smacks a bit too much of catcalling. I have to deal with that no matter how I’m dressed, but and it’s significantly worse if I’m in something a bit more ladylike. A skirt shouldn’t matter, and the fact that it might—even if my personal anecdotes don’t support it—irks me greatly. That’s compromising a lot of other people’s safety in the name of enjoying some leg.

In which no one understands what P.J. O’Rourke meant, least of all me.

April 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

A friend dropped me a link to P.J. O’Rourke’s recent Wall Street Journal column, “Dear Urban Cyclists: Go Play in Traffic,” via my Tumblr (a place for all things frivolous, mind you), noting that I might find it “interesting.” Which I do! However, my thoughts on it are more writing-skewed than cycling-skewed, because I don’t feel comfortable critiquing something if I can’t even figure out its intention.*

My experience with O’Rourke is limited; I’ve only read Eat the Rich, and it didn’t make the same impression on me that it did on my friend who recommended it. I thought it was fine, but I didn’t feel the need to jump on the O’Rourke bandwagon, which is, I presume, a thing that people do. And, despite having read Eat the Rich, I still can’t tell if this Wall Street Journal thing is supposed to be humor or not!

That said, this sounds suspiciously serious, per my reading of Eat the Rich: “But maybe there’s a darker side to bike-lane advocacy. Political activists of a certain ideological stripe want citizens to have a child-like dependence on government. And it’s impossible to feel like a grown-up when you’re on a bicycle if you aren’t in the Tour de France.”

I’ve seen only the briefest discussion of the piece, and in that discussion, people seemed to be confused as to whether or not O’Rourke was kidding. I first clicked through to the article on my phone when I was in Arizona this weekend and actually thought that it was an April Fool’s post. When I revisited it, I realized that wasn’t the case (the date’s April 2, and I’m going by that). And that’s pretty weird, in itself: that Wall Street Journal would run, so close to the Internet’s favorite holiday, something that could fairly easily be misconstrued as a rabid anti-bike screed if it was indeed meant to be satire. There are certainly tones of satire:

“Soon we’ll be making room on our city streets for scooter and skateboard lanes, Soapbox Derby lanes, pogo-stick lanes, lanes for Radio Flyer wagons (actually more practical than bicycles since you can carry a case of beer—if we’re still allowed to drink beer), stilt lanes, three-legged-race lanes, lanes for skipping while playing the comb and wax paper, hopscotch lanes and Mother-May-I lanes with Mayor Bloomberg at the top of Lenox Hill shouting to the people on Park Avenue, “Take three baby steps!”

And, then he turns bicycle registration and licensing (something I agree with, by the way) into a farce: “Special rubber fittings should be made available so that bicycle riders can wear E-ZPass transponders on their noses.” Um, sure, that’s humorous, but there’s not enough there to distinguish it as humor, given that anti-bike screamers love to bring up the need for registration and licensing in tones similar to O’Rourke’s.

I do feel like this leans toward satire. But, what if it wasn’t? It’s just stupid, and because it’s unclear as to what it’s supposed to be, the piece is just…stupid anyway! Wall Street Journal has no doubt learned by now that posts about bike lanes are fantastic traffic drivers, but this was just bad on all aspects—so bad that I’m not even going to bother to talk about how I ride a bike because it’s cheap and fast, not because it’s “environmentally conscious.”

In conclusion: The whole thing was poorly done. If it’s satire, it’s really bad (and badly timed) satire, and an editor should’ve had a stronger hand in making it, you know, funny. If it’s not satire, and O’Rourke really believes what he wrote, then an editor still should’ve had a stronger hand in making him sound less like a raging, privileged idiot with the worst case of windshield perspective I’ve ever seen (and I’m from suburban Maryland!).

Oh! One more thing: “…Only a few bicycles are needed to take up as much space as my Chevrolet Suburban—just one if its rider is wobbling all over the place while trying to Tweet. And my Suburban seats eight.” Excuse me? I’ve seen cyclists on phones, but none reading screens while on their bikes. Drivers, though? I’ve seen plenty wobbling all over the place while trying to tweet—myself included! This also sounds exactly like—not like a parody of—something an anti-bike rager would say, which doesn’t help the case for satire much.

*We all know I was going to disagree with the majority, if not all, of what O’Rourke wrote, taken at face value, anyway.

Local blog call.

March 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

I follow a lot of neighborhood blogs, but I’m sure I’m not following all of them. I’m talking neighborhood-specific stuff here—like, very hyper-local and focused on neighborhood news (rather than city-wide, or food-based, or whatever).

If you’ve got a suggestion, I’d so appreciate it if you could leave it and the corresponding link in the comments (or tweet it to me @alexbaca). Many thanks!

Here’s what’s on my reader right now:

Bluemenauer on Weiner on bike lanes.

March 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Grist:

“I think Anthony’s quick with a quip, and I’m sure that there are some people that he’s picked up politically, but I think he’s reading it wrong in terms of the long-term politics,” said Bluemenauer in a phone call. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s wrong in terms of how cities operate.”


*Sorry for the unprofessional blogging. It is Friday night, after all. For the record, I am squarely against Weiner’s anti-bike, anti-Sadik-Khan screed. I also thought, from a journalist-y point of view, it was irresponsible of The New York Times to lead the Sadik-Khan profile with that sensational quote from Weiner. It’s completely distracted everyone’s attention from the rest of the piece, which was interesting in that it addressed some of the issues that hard-charging local politicos with urbanist tendencies can face.

The evolution of ethnography; also, Tally’s Corner.

March 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

John Kelly, of The Washington Post, has written a bit about (mostly the location of) Tally’s Corner in his Answer Man column recently. Tally’s Corner is the loitering spot made notable by Eliot Liebow’s book of the same name (Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, 1967). It’s a seminal ethnography text; I read excerpts of it for a class in my last semester, but have yet to get around to reading the book in full.

Kelly links to a City Paper story from 1992, “Back on Tally’s Corner,” by Dick Mendel. It’s a beautiful and fascinating read for a couple of reasons: One, it’s an excellent profile of Liebow, his research methods, and how he established them; two, it addresses the topic of ethnography—or, as it was more often referred to as in 1992, “participatory research”—and how it was a rather uncommon, and by some regards unpopular, method.

This was totally crazy for me to read because I graduated from UMD’s American Studies department, where ethnography is pretty much a research law. I say that affectionately; I mean that ethnography, more than historical or literary research, is the preferred research method and most students graduate with at least some experience in using it. It’s really rare to hear that someone is pursuing something in that department that doesn’t involve ethnography, and much of the teaching there is centered on ethnographic texts. (For example, in the same class where I read excerpts of Tally’s Corner, Carol Stack’s All Our Kin and Phillipe Bourgois’ Selling Crack in El Barrio also featured prominently.) I used ethnography in my research and hope to continue to do so.

The argument that Mendel weaves throughout his profile of Liebow is that his ethnographic research is and was a rarity. It’s really fascinating to see the way ethnography/participant observation has evolved into something that’s expected in no small number of liberal arts departments across the country. I’m probably not doing the greatest job explaining why the way I feel the way I do about this, but suffice to say, I wouldn’t imagine researching anything urban studies-related without at least a bit of ethnography.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

The job called for Liebow to immerse himself in the life of the inner-city street corner—as best a son of Jewish immigrants could. In the barren language of the social sciences, this method is called “participant observation,” or, worse yet, “ethnography.” It does not rely on the conventional tools of the social scientist—surveys, questionnaires, one-shot interviews. Those work fine for gleaning opinions and statistics, but this study sought a different kind of “data”—firsthand insight into the dynamics and undercurrents of street-corner society.

Liebow accepted the job on condition that he could use the research for his dissertation. His project director, Howard University professor Hylan Lewis, suggested that he start in Shaw.

One of the first men Liebow met was “Tally,” a 31-year-old who was burly enough to have once been a prizefighter, as he claimed. Everybody seemed to know Tally, and nobody challenged his assertion. Then there was “Sea Cat,” 27, a superb storyteller who always seemed to seek the unusual in ordinary people or events; “Richard,” who had left his hometown in the Carolinas suddenly two years before, after assaulting (with provocation, by his account) a white policeman; and “Leroy,” the baby of the group, who acted younger than his 23 years. Liebow made himself at home in the beer joints, the poolroom, and on the street, gaining and losing friends, listening to music, talking, drinking, and, above all, listening.

Read more here.

Elastic commuting.

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

So, John Cassidy wrote a pretty ridiculous anti-bike lane screed in The New Yorker, and it’s being systematically taken down in a few places. The rebuttals are worth reading, but I wanted to highlight a particular comment left on the latter link, Felix Salmon’s Reuters.com blog. It’s by user Greycap (for some reason, I can’t get a permalink):

tvcminnick, you are narrowly correct but you are missing the big picture here. Cassidy is trafficking in the bogus premise that there are these different groups of people with conflicting interests: ‘drivers’, ‘cyclists’, and ‘pedestrians.’ In fact, there are only people who happen to be driving, cycling, or walking in the moment. Practically all of the people you see cycling or walking *have cars*, they just happen to find it more convenient to bike or walk at the time you observe them. The assessment of what is convenient is very elastic, easily modified by modifications to public space; a assure you that Paris was not a cycling city before the bike share program went, in, and that nobody wants to walk in an American suburb with 8-lane roads and no sidewalks. The “us and them” construction that Cassidy is peddling is meaningless because these group memberships are so plastic.

I think this is something really critical to remember, because it’s usually true. Here in D.C., if you see someone walking, it’s likely that they also use some other form of transportation, whether it be a bike, the bus, the Metro, or a car.

This is true for me personally; I use, I’m pretty sure, all of the major modes. I have a bike, ride the bus and the Metro when biking isn’t feasible, take commuter rail as much as possible, and walk all the time in between. I also have a car, which I use to drive to my parents’ house in suburban Maryland if I want to see them on a weekend (this wouldn’t be an issue if MARC ran on weekends…), and to buy groceries at the Foggy Bottom Trader Joe’s because it’s relatively inaccessible otherwise.

The cool thing about all of these things is that within a two-week span (that’s as often as I use my car, because that’s how often I go to Trader Joe’s), I’m reminded of what it’s like to be a biker, a walker, a public transit rider, and a driver. This keeps me empathetic to everyone else moving themselves via whatever mode they’ve chosen. I feel like that makes me a better driver (I don’t gun it and slam on the brakes when I see a pedestrian in the sidewalks), a better biker (I try my very, very hardest not to weave in traffic, run red lights, and follow pedestrian signals when in bike lanes), and a better public transit rider (when I know it would’ve taken as long to drive and park, I’m much less inclined to be angry at WMATA).

There’s no “us vs. them” for me because I’m everything. While I realize that not everyone will commute every which way, I do think that commuting in more than one way opens up your thought process as to how others get around. For example, before I bought a bike, I was highly cognizant of where cyclists were supposed to go, because I had figured that out, based on being a driver and a pedestrian.

Would there be more support for non-car transit if those who are virulently anti-non-car transit (I know this is complicated, but I do feel as if “alternative transit” marginalizes biking, walking, and public transit options, and I’d like them to…not be marginalized) commuted by bike, or by foot, or by bus one several days? I think so.

And, for the record, I would like to note that my least favorite mode of transit is driving.

More on bike lanes as a “culture war,” from The New York Observer.

Link City

March 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am terrified that my browser is going to crash and I’ll lose the big, fat stack of tabs I’ve got piled up to read.  Lots of relevant stuff on the Internet lately (mostly sourced from Twitter). Very quickly, here’re the things I want to get into when I have some free time:

And, I’ll be keeping an eye on TBD’s crowdsourced/interactive map-thingy tracking what their readers feel are the most desirable places to live.

EDIT: But, wait, there’s more!


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