Regarding the Sentencing of Dr. Christopher Thompson

Dear District Attorney Stone,

I have been a daily cyclist in LA County for more than 15 years, using my bike as my primary means of transportation.  As a result, I have experienced many instances of either reckless or malicious behavior by drivers on our streets and highways.  Teenagers “having fun” and people out to “teach me a lesson”, no doubt.  These are very serious offenses, which needlessly endanger me, and infringe upon my right to use our publicly funded infrastructure in a healthy, economical, fiscally responsible and environmentally friendly manner.

The case of Dr. Thompson is an extreme one, and I believe that he deserves the harshest penalty under the law for his violent act, which might well have ended the lives of one or more cyclists in Mandeville Canyon.  However, he is only one person, and there are many lesser and some greater offenses committed against cyclists in LA County every month, which go largely unnoticed by the media or law enforcement, or if noticed, are dealt with in a manner which does not appropriately apportion responsibility.  Drivers wield hundreds of times more power, in the literal sense, with their vehicles than cyclists do, and travel at much higher speeds, with much greater energies.  They have the ability to cause much more harm than cyclists.  This should result in greater responsibility.  “I didn’t see him”, as drivers often say after an accident involving a cyclist, is not a valid excuse; it is evidence of their dereliction of this responsibility, a responsibility that all road users have to be aware of their surroundings, and the potential consequences of their actions.

More than any particular sentence for Dr. Thompson, I would like to urge you to take less spectacularly reckless behavior by drivers more seriously.  For instance, driving while using a mobile phone, while now illegal, is not being aggressively ticketed, despite being an impairment on par with driving while under the influence of alcohol.  Drivers who do not take their responsibilities seriously, or worse, who use the power their wield with their vehicles as a means of intimidation against other more vulnerable road users, should have their drivers licenses revoked for a long period of time.  They need to be taken off the road.  Losing your license is often seen as an extreme punishment, because we have built our city, and more broadly our society, so entirely around the idea that everyone will own and drive a car on a daily basis.  But driving is not necessary, even in LA, as I can attest having never owned a car here, and I do not believe we should confer the right to operate a motor vehicle on every citizen when they turn 16.  It should be a privilege that is earned and maintained through consistently responsible actions.

Thank you for your time and attention,
Zane Selvans

Stop framing transportation and bicycles as identity politics

Hello Mr. Mason,

I just read your article For the Danes, city planning is all about the bike.  As a daily bicycle user and advocate in automobile dominated southern California, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the tone which was set in the first two sentences:

From his second-floor office overlooking a Baltic-fed canal, Andreas Rohl ponders a daily question: How can he make life hell for the car drivers of this Scandinavian capital? Mr. Rohl, you see, is the bicycle program manager for the city government of Copenhagen.

Based on the quotes you took from him throughout the rest of the article I have a hard time believing that this is really how Rohl thinks about his job.  It seems like a much more North American perspective on bicycle planning to me. Making these the first words in the article creates an antagonistic lens through which the reader sees all the examples you point out of resources being shifted from cars to bikes, especially if the reader uses a car as their primary means of transportation, as I suspect most of your Canadian (and US) readers do.  It would be a very different article if instead you’d said “How can he make life easier for the bicycle riders of this Scandinavian capital?”  (I’m really curious, do you primarily drive, or ride a bike to get around?)

When there is a finite resource that has to be shared between cyclists and cars, such as lane width or timing priority on the “Green Wave” streets, a rational transportation planner would ask themselves “How can I allocate this resource between the competing modes to most effectively meet my transportation goals?”.  What cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Groningen have decided, I think correctly, is that quite often transportation goals can best be met by
allocating more of these finite resources to bikes than we do in the US and Canada.  In an urban environment, per unit transportation utility, bike infrastructure is much cheaper than automotive infrastructure to build and maintain.  The vehicles it supports (bikes) are also cheaper, safer, quieter, do not pollute or rely on imported fuels, and contribute to the health of the general population, reducing health care costs.  Parking for bikes takes up an order of magnitude less real estate and money, making multi-modal public transit much more feasible.  All of these are functional, dispassionate reasons to shift planning priorities toward bikes and away from cars.

The antagonistic framing that your introduction sets up, and which unfortunately also permeates a great deal of bike culture and bike advocacy in the US, does not help anybody make rational, dispassionate transportation decisions.  It encourages the reader to pick a side. It turns transportation choices into issues of identity.  Am I a driver, or am I a cyclist?  Really, we’re all just people trying to get somewhere, and I think the Dutch and the Danes understand that better than anyone, as your final sentence makes clear.

Zane Selvans

CC: Andreas Rohl (Copenhagen Bicycle Planner), Mikael Colville-Anderson (Copenhagenize), Dale Benson (Caltrans District 7 BAC)

California traffic signals should detect bikes

Hello Mr. Singh,

As a person who uses a bicycle as almost my only form of transportation, not being detected by traffic signals often makes me feel like some kind of outlaw, even though I am very explicitly operating my vehicle within California law. This difference between the letter and the implementation of the law contributes to the mistaken perception, by drivers, law enforcement officials and cyclists alike, that bikes somehow have both fewer legal rights and less responsibility to obey the rules of the road.

It has come to my attention that there is nobody on the California Traffic Control Devices Committee (CTCDC) who represents the interests of the non-motorized elements of traffic, though there are multiple representatives from the state’s automobile clubs. Under AB 1581 (now CVC 21450.5) bicycles are entitled to be detected by the devices that CTCDC oversees, but with no representation on the committee it seems unlikely that the decisions it takes will reflect our needs. Many other jurisdictions (e.g. Copenhagen, Denmark) that have decided to incorporate cycling meaningfully into their transportation networks have successfully solved the technical problems associated with detecting and directing the flow of bicycle traffic, and so I do not feel that “we don’t have the technology” is really a viable excuse. What we lack is the political will, and I think that having some direct representation of non-motorized traffic on the CTCDC would help facilitate finding that political will.

Zane Selvans

CC: Ken McGuire (Caltrans Bicycle Program Manager)

Green bike locked to cherry tree in Little Tokyo

Continue reading California traffic signals should detect bikes

Will there be no more public Pasadena Bicycle Master Plan meetings?

That’s what the advisory commission rumor mill is saying anyway.  I hope we can ensure that the gossip is wrong.

In February the Pasadena Department of Transportation said that we would have four (count ’em: 4) public meetings or workshops throughout the spring to get input on the Pasadena Bicycle Master Plan, and that a draft would be finished by around June.  I posted a summary of the meeting.

We have so far had one workshop, in May, which many people felt was not adequately publicized beforehand (the City did not, for instance, send an e-mail to the list of interested parties it had collected at the first meeting, which it did use to get more than 1000 responses to the online Pasadena cyclists survey).  At the workshop we were told that a second draft of the new plan’s goals, objectives, and actions would be posted on the web within one week, incorporating our feedback from the workshop.  I posted the first draft of these items with commentary.

No Cars In The CityNo Cars in the City (CC-BY Zane Selvans)

Continue reading Will there be no more public Pasadena Bicycle Master Plan meetings?

On the Pareto frontier in salary-vacation space

Dear (Prospective Employer),

Thank you for your monetarily very generous offer of employment!  Honestly, it’s not obvious to me how I could spend $X a year, as I am currently living quite comfortably on about one Nth of that amount.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’m sure I could spend it all if I got a mortgage on a big house out in the suburbs, bought a fancy car with which to commute to work, ate out frequently, and had a few kids I planned to put through college.  However, I prefer to live simply in a small home, cook my own meals, bus or bike to work, and I may very well choose not to reproduce.  I also prefer, in my all too limited time on Earth, to experience the wilderness that still remains in the world, and the myriad human cultures, cuisines, and languages that have emerged in the last 50,000 years.  Those experiences will not come easily sitting in front of a computer in an office park, and they often cannot be had on weekends or whirlwind tours.  Thus, I am concerned about the following potential scenario with your offer of employment as it currently stands.

Continue reading On the Pareto frontier in salary-vacation space

A Letter to David Bodansky

Hello Prof. Bodansky,

I’m a PhD student in geophysics, and I just finished reading your book, Nuclear Energy.  I appreciate the trouble you went to in the book to remain effectively neutral as to whether we ought to be pursuing the development of nuclear power.  While I can’t say that the book made me into a nuclear advocate, I am less opposed to it in principle now, and believe that it does represent a potential long term energy solution, albeit one with non-trivial caveats.  Then again, that seems to be the case with all of our options at this point.

Continue reading A Letter to David Bodansky

What kind of bicycling should Pasadena support?

On Fri, May 29, 2009 at 5:36 PM, Sims, Brian wrote:

Zane and Rich,

During our last BMP meeting we discussed the idea of the City sponsoring more biking related events.  I was over at Pasadena PD today dealing with my stolen and then recovered bikes and saw this flyer. This is exactly the type of events we were discussing.  This also ties in nicely with our BMX track idea.

I certainly don’t see anything wrong with a BMX track as a city recreation facility if there’s demand for it (especially if it means less conflict between BMX riders and those would would prefer that they not practice elsewhere in the city), and it may well be a good Police fundraiser, but I don’t see this kind of event as particularly constructive in the context of getting people to consider bikes as a viable means of transportation within the City, because it focuses on bicycles as a means of sport (over function) and on experts (rather than everyone).  Which isn’t to say that bikes aren’t sport — of course they are — but training and competition amongst the elite is very different than active and inherently non-competitive transportation.  The Tour of California falls into the “elite” category too: it’s spectation, vs. participation.

photo by Incase Designs on Flickr

Continue reading What kind of bicycling should Pasadena support?

A Letter to Richard Rhodes

Dear Richard Rhodes,

Thank you for writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  It was beautiful, and terrible, in the way I imagine a nuclear detonation might be.  It deeply changed the way I think and feel about history, about technology, and about the role and limitations of human volition and foresight in the making and potential unmaking of our world.  Somehow you made these people human, and independent of the roles they played.  You made the science beautiful, and the history engaging.  Given that books like yours exist, I am appalled that I was not required to read them in the course of my scientific education, and instead have had to stumble across them on my own.  I think science and engineering students deserve to have some understanding of the potential scope and consequence of our work, for better or for worse, before we are turned loose on the world.  Too often the ethical and philosophical impacts of technology are left completely unaddressed, or even shunned as irrelevant by scientists, until after the effects are widespread.  I doubt this kind of education would have much substantive impact on the overall course of history, or technological development, but I once attended a talk at Caltech by Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project, and even after half a century he broke down into tears on stage.  He said he didn’t regret having helped create the bomb — that it had to be done — but that he felt guilty for having enjoyed it.  I would prefer that we were better prepared for the possibility of bearing that kind of responsibility, and for taking it on knowingly, as I think Oppenheimer and Rabi did, instead of only realizing our roles after the fact.

Continue reading A Letter to Richard Rhodes

Support AB 1186 for transparent parking costs

Dear Assemblymember Portantino,

I would like to urge you to support AB 1186, an effort to enhance the transparency of parking costs for easing the enforcement of California’s parking cash-out legislation.  This bill has been introduced by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (District 40), and is due for a hearing in the Assembly Transportation Committee on May 11th.  The cost of parking is enormous, generally hidden, and heavily subsidized, producing significant distortions in the transportation choices made by Californians.  Making the price of parking transparent, and enabling those who choose not to drive to recoup those costs, removing the hidden subsidies, is in the best interest of business, transit authorities, the citizens, and California in general.  For instance, at my own institution in Pasadena, the California Institute of Technology, we are forced by city regulations to provide what would constitute a vast oversupply of parking were employees and students required to pay the true price of providing those spaces, wasting $3 million each year (approximately $1000 per person on the campus), that could be better spent on our core scientific research and education mission.  While this bill unfortunately would not directly address this waste, it is a step in the right direction, and I strongly encourage you to consider other such steps.


Zane Selvans

Denver RTD: ditch Amtrak people at Union Station

Dear Denver RTD,

I had the pleasure yesterday of riding my bike 19 miles from Lakewood to downtown Denver almost exclusively on cycling paths, all the way to Union Station, where I intended to catch a BX up to Boulder. I understand you are in the process of re-developing the old rail station to be a major multi-modal transit hub for the city, with a great deal of high density mixed use transit oriented development in the vicinity.  So far, it looks absolutely great, and I applaud you for working with the city and developers to continue central Denver’s urbanization in an intelligent way, and make long term investments in non-automotive transportation infrastructure for the region.  I am considering re-locating to the Denver area from Southern California when I finish my PhD, to work at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, and the region’s excellent transit system is one of the reasons.  I prefer not to own a car or drive, for economic, fitness, and environmental reasons, and having high density mixed use developments and effective multi-modal transit options makes living without a car much more pleasant and convenient.

Continue reading Denver RTD: ditch Amtrak people at Union Station