Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tax Cars, Subsidize Bikes

Some "foodie" named Mark Bittman wrote an article in the New York Times calling for the government (because we all know they don't have enough to do lately!) to levy sin taxes on pop and processed foods, the building blocks of the Standard American Diet. The way we eat makes him SAD. He proposes using this tax money to found a program to make healthy food more widely available and teach people how to cook it. Which is nice in theory, except that these things never work out as intended and that revenue will go where it always does, a tax cut for the top 10% of Americans.

The comparison to anti-tobacco programs is a shaky one at best. The link between smoking and cancer is direct; the link between obesity and diet, not so much. (Otherwise, I'd weigh four hundred pounds! Seriously, my diet sucks and I should probably do something about it eventually.) The link between obesity and ill health, again, there's a link but it's not a direct one in the way that smoking and cancer are directly linked. And fast food is still food, which is something you need to keep living. It's definitely not the best food, but nothing pisses me off quite as much as food fascists who smugly declare that Taco Bell isn't food.

But you know what's a better analogy? Driving. Just like eating, transportation is a necessity. And just like the government has subsidized corn and soybean manufacturers for more and for longer than we ever should have, it has also subsidized and bailed out oil companies and car makers. We've bent our infrastructure around the almighty car, just as much as we've bent our diet around what's cheapest and easiest. Just like some people in the inner city live in food deserts, people in Houston or South Podunk live in transportation deserts, wherein car-less transportation is only theoretically possible, forcing people to chain themselves to expensive, dangerous steel cages whether they want to or not. Even exercising can be impossible in those kind of places if you don't have access to a car. I grew up in a suburb/small town where there weren't even any sidewalks to walk or jog on, and where if you wanted to do some hardcore exercising, you had to join a gym, which required the cage! That's some vicious circle, dude, and it's no wonder that lots of people just stay home. They've spent too much time in the cage that day already.

And that's not even getting into the health effects of driving! Did you know that sitting will kill you? How about commuting? It seems to me that the car is at least as bad for you as fast food, and possibly worse. So why single out food?

In Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization (which is awesome, by the way), Jeff Rubin talks extensively about the gross, egregious subsidies that our government uses to keep the price of oil lower than it has any right to be. He also talks about the sky-high subsidies that developing nations like India and China are giving their drivers as a way to usher them into modernity, even as the modern world is realizing that car culture is not long-term sustainable.

I picture a world in which Americans (and Canadians and Australians and Indians and the Chinese) are forced to pay the real cost for their oil, a cost which includes carbon offsets because that's an integral part of oil use. A world where "fitness" is not something you do after work or on your lunch break, because everything you do requires physical effort, whether you're walking to the store or biking to work. And although I'm not any kind of expert, I sorta think that emphasizing physical activity and making our communities a good place to walk and bike would do a hell of a lot more good for our collective physical and mental health than slapping French fries out of someone's hand, saying "no!," and telling them what they should be eating instead. (Fun fact: Poor people already know this. They are not dumb.)

And guess what? A society where people don't drive as much, and don't import as much food as they used to due to carbon taxes being taken seriously, is by necessity a locavore society except for the upper 10% of income earners who can afford to buy fancy imported Big Macs and Kobe beef. My dream of high carbon/oil taxes isn't too dissimilar from Bittman's dream of taxing "bad" foods, except that I'm cutting to the source of the problem, not the effect.

So, don't look down on me for eating poorly, and attempt to change my behavior, not unless you're prepared to turn the camera right back on yourself and admit that you, too, benefit from Standard American Transportation (SAT... this is also an apt acronym!). Fast food, and the people who enjoy it or who see it as a necessary evil due to living in food deserts, is an easy target. But make no mistake: what got us to this point is globalization and the deceptively cheap oil that makes it possible. Sin taxing fast food is a surface-level "fix" that allows foodies to sneer at fatties without doing anything to solve structural problems. Let he who is without sin cast the first, uh, tax.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Cat Days of Summer

Bikey news: One of the bike blogs I read, Let's Go Ride a Bike, is sponsoring a Summer Games for those of us non-athletic-type riders who nevertheless enjoy a bit of friendly competition. The challenges, intended to push one out of their transportation cycling comfort zone. Some examples of activities you too can participate in: ride on a bike path you've never been on before, ride somewhere new in your city, commute to work if you don't already, go on a group ride. As I'm moving into an essentially new-to-me area in six days (!), and plan to explore the hell out of things during the first week of August, I figure I'll have this one in the bag!

Not that I've been doing a lot of riding lately. Today's temperature clocked in at 102 degrees, and I don't know what a heat index is but it can't be helping anything. I am, in general, a huge fan of hot temperature; my ideal temp is around eighty degrees, with just a slight breeze. But this triple-digit crap that's been going on for the entire past week is a different animal. It's not as bad as winter because nothing is as bad as winter. Yet it's still weather that keeps me indoors when I'd prefer not to be, which is crazy-making even without all the white shit on the ground. But it's supposed to be down into the nineties next week in Maryland, which will be a relative relief.

Non-bikey news: As previously alluded, Rob and I are moving from the suburban college town of Towson to the neighborhood of Hampden in Baltimore, to a lovely first-floor apartment with multicolored walls and a tree in the backyard, and from which I will have non-trivial access to public transportation, independent non-chain businesses, and other things that make life worth living. But before the moving comes the packing, and wow, I really hope we stay at this new apartment for years and years because the process of packing to move is one of the most miserable things of all time.

We have a lot of books. I mean, a LOT of books. Lots and lots of books. So far, we're up to a mighty thirty-four boxes and while mostly done there are a few stragglers which I'll just throw into crates or something because we're out of damn moving boxes. I'm pretty sure that if I piled all the moving boxes on top of one another and jumped off the pile that would be a stupid idea. In addition, there's the furniture and clothing and such to deal with, but those aren't beyond what most "normal people" have in their houses. And no, an e-reader wouldn't really help matters, since 80% of the books are comics. At least the situation is improved from the last move, though, when we had probably over fifty moving boxes for books alone and also a dozen long boxes of single-issue comics. The latter is gone almost completely, and there's a significant dent in the former. We're also both becoming a lot pickier about what we bring into the house, too, which is going to cut down on the accumulation while we continue to chip away at what's already there.

Just in case there's anyone who reads this blog and also orders from Black Light Diner Distro, I'll be boxing up zines (both my personal collection and distro zines) around mid-week, and unboxing whenever I get around to it, so if you want to order anything (and help me lighten my load) then do it now, now, now! Also in zine news, I'm seriously thinking about doing a 24-hour zine for International Zine Month, since I've never done one, aside from a comic flipbook in 2008 that I promptly put out of print because I didn't like it. I have so much packing/moving-related stuff to do, though. It will probably come down to whether I feel like I can justify squandering a few hours to work on a zine. But as I've already spent most of this afternoon sitting in a blissfully air-conditioned Panera doing nothing... maybe my time isn't as precious as I think it is.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Like, seriously, fuck car culture. Right in its EAR.

I swear I'll get back to funny/light posts that aren't about transportation issues eventually but this is too important a news story to not comment on. Raquel Nelson, an Atlanta woman whose child was killed by a drunk driver while she was crossing the highway in front of her apartment building, is now being charged with vehicular homicide for her son's death. Nope, not the driver who actually killed him. The woman who lost her child due to the combination of a selfish asshole driver and piss-poor urban planning is being charged with murder. Welcome to another battle in the war between pedestrians/cyclists and drivers.

Of course, comments are making much to-do over the fact that she crossed illegally. This is true, she did. But why should a mother with three young children be forced to walk almost a mile round-trip to get to the crosswalk? Why are crosswalks so scarce in this part of Atlanta? Why did the bus let her off in an area without a crosswalk? The story says that other bus passengers also illegally crossed there, and if I'd have to guess based on the aerial picture on that link I'd say that it's a pretty popular spot for illegal crossings. There appears to be a large housing complex on the opposite side of the street from the bus stop, a wide median strip, and no obstructions to prevent walkers from seeing cars speeding toward them. And there also doesn't appear to be a sidewalk on that road, meaning that walkers who do choose to travel along the shoulder to the crosswalk would still be in danger from cars drifting onto the edges of the road, plus the exhaust and harassment and possible disease-ridden debris normally found on shoulders. I've seen dead rats and broken beer bottles alongside highways, been panhandled, had things shouted at me. I don't blame her for taking a chance crossing that highway instead of mucking around on a shoulder for an additional half hour with three young kids, who tend to be inquisitive and put things in their mouths and such.

Naturally, race and gender have a lot to do with this, too. Would Nelson have been charged with killing her child if she was a white man? Well, maybe not, but maybe so. It's no secret that non-drivers are marginalized almost everywhere in the United States; a greater percentage of non-drivers are POC/poor/disabled which skews things, but even a person privileged in almost every other category becomes suspect when they choose not (or are forced not) to travel in a two-ton death machine, when they live in a walker/biker/human-unfriendly place. And in another news story, which did not mention Nelson's race, a commenter came right out and said a woman with children who doesn't own a car is a child abuser. Awesomesauce, right? To top it off, Nelson's jury wasn't comprised of her peers, not just because all six (and since when does a jury only have six people on it?) jurors were middle-class whites, but because they were all drivers. God forbid, if I am ever in a serious accident, I for damn sure don't want people who have never walked or cycled anywhere to be on my jury, no matter their race or class. (Actually, I don't want people who have never walked, cycled, or taken public transportation in their lives to even exist but we're talking about possible hypotheticals here.)

Being a pedestrian in a walker-unfriendly city is not a crime. Raquel Nelson is guilty of crossing a road illegally, but nothing else. The drunk driver who killed her kid bears the greatest responsibility (natch), but so does the city of Atlanta for allowing this situation to happen via some seriously shit-ass urban planning and bus routing. I think it's about time for people who take "alternative" transportation to start organizing around these issues, and for cyclists to care more about pedestrian issues, and vice versa. Walkers, cyclists, bus-riders... we all have more in common than we think we do, and the Nelson case sets a dangerous precedent for all parents who can't or don't have a car to be charged with murder (like, really, my mind's still trying to wrap around that one) for just attempting to get their kids safely home.

Soapbox dismounted!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why I Am Not An Athlete

I recently picked up a book that I bought many moons ago at a closing Borders entitled The Non-Cyclist's Guide to the Century and Other Road Races by Dawn Dais. In retrospect, I should have known that it wasn't going to be a book written for me due to the presence of the word "race" in the title, but the cover had a cute ladies' bike and it was only like eight bucks, so why not. In the process of flipping through it to discover whether I was going to read it cover to cover, it brought up a lot of feelings I have regarding cycling for sport; namely, why I don't do it.

I have nothing against people treating cycling as a sport per se. And in some respects, I treat it as one too: probably around half of my riding isn't strictly necessary, i.e. not a grocery run or a doctor's appointment or meetings with friends. Sometimes I travel to a further place instead of a closer one, sometimes I go out without any destination in mind at all. And yes, cycling is great exercise: pound for pound it's not as effective as running or swimming, but in my opinion it's way more fun than either of those things. Also, I have this weird mental block surrounding exercise where I don't want to do something unless it's in some way "practical," even if this practicality is a stretch. I can't exactly run to work or to a fancy dinner party, can I? I can't swim to Target! Yet I will happily bike six miles to a distant coffee shop instead of walking less than a mile to the closest one, because that's "practical." I am probably insane.

So, anyway, problems with athletic cycling--GO! First, there is the equipment. Some of the things Dais recommends as a "probably should have" are: cycling shorts (which can easily cost over $75 for one pair), special shoes, special gloves, and a whole lot of other stuff that seems to be obscenely overpriced. And, of course, a racing bike, some of which can easily cost a grand and up. Talk about your barriers to entry! Then there are the century races themselves, which usually cost money to enter, and are often held (at least, most races here in MD... not that I'm ready for a century but I've looked for others) at places I can't bike to, which is a no-go for me due to the irrational hang-up discussed in the last paragraph.

Another beef I have is that many (again I'm generalizing based on what I've read online and seen in person) athletes are terrified of riding with traffic. Simply terrified! And while I don't want to discount someone's fears, because lord knows I have my own, this is an attitude that I don't understand, especially when the athlete is also a driver. It's the same road, the same rules, except you're going much, much faster. If anything, driving should be the terrifying activity, and that's certainly how it feels for me. But take someone out of their giant tank, and they turn into a wuss. Just like a gun owner, the "weekend warrior" feels helpless without their weapon. And as someone who is endangered (both as a pedestrian and a cyclist) by cars, it is hard not to feel perturbed by this "roads are dangerous!" nonsense. Yes, they're dangerous--because of you!

Probably my main objection to sport cycling, though, is because these athletes by and large aren't doing anything to increase the accessibility of roads for those of us who use our bikes for transportation as well as to "feel the burn." In fact, some of them lobby against riding for transportation. How many times have you been flipped off or called a jackass by someone with bikes (usually much fancier and more expensive than your own bike) strapped to the back of their SUV? When I think "athlete cyclist," I think of folks like that, folks that will drive five miles to get to a nice safe path and think transportation riders are losers. This is probably definitely not a fair assumption to make, but it's the one I make.

In the end, I guess it's dumb to have an anti-sport cycling bias, as dumb as a driver in a Ford Focus hating someone in a Formula One racer for not caring about their needs. We are doing completely different things, the athletes and myself. But biking is marginalized in a way that driving will never be in America, so it's hard to not see athletic cyclists who drive short distances as part of the problem. Truthfully, I get angrier at them than at your average driver, because they have both the physical strength and the equipment to ride a bike for transportation and they... don't. So close, and yet so far.