Friday, 17 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 4

Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Copenhagen (Denmark) - Malmö (Sweden) - Copenhagen (Denmark)

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 25 focused on “sustainable” and “environmental” travel and transportation, with former bicycle messengers Alli and Kym each winning a (product placement) plug-in hybrid car after finishing first in a series of tasks including driving similar cars as fuel-efficiently as possible across the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö, and making deliveries in Copenhagen on a cargo bike.

This isn’t the first time that The Amazing Race has had tasks that appear to have been tailor-made for a specific team, but it was one of the most unfair in pitting bicycle delivery professionals against amateurs. Any long wheelbase or heavily loaded bicycle or tricycle — a tandem, a long wheelbase recumbent, a cargo bike, or even a heavily loaded touring bicycle — handles very differently from a conventional single-rider diamond-frame bicycle without a load.

Some years ago, I left my garage door open and my long wheelbase recumbent bicycle was stolen. A neighbor called the next morning to ask what my bike was doing in the bushes in front of their house: The thief or thieves had been unable to ride it, and had abandoned it less than a block away. They kept my partner’s less valuable conventional diamond-frame bike that they had stolen at the same time.

The alternative task for the teams of racers (for those of you who don’t watch the TV show, the challenges are sometimes a single task, but in other cases offer the racers a choice between two tasks) also highlighted the extent to which Copenhagen has been trying to de-prioritize private cars in the competition for scarce public space on city streets: The racers had to furnish and decorate a “parklet”, or car parking space on the street re-purposed as a mini-park or extension of a sidewalk seating and lounging area. I believe that parklets originated in Copenhagen, and eventually spread to San Francisco and other U.S. cities first as unauthorized guerrilla art installations and eventually as permitted uses of designated spaces along city streets.

Copenhagen is generally thought of as “bicycle friendly” according to the infrastructure-centric criteria I discussed last week. A high percentage (by European standards) of travel within the city is by bicycle, and the percentage of Copenhagen residents who own cars is low.

But in this episode of the race, we also saw some of the problems with trying not just to provide separate sections of the right-of-way for pedestrians and wheeled vehicles, but to provide a third division of the right-of-way for two-wheeled vehicles separate from those for pedestrians and for larger vehicles.

Some of the racers were surprised to be overtaken by motorcycles in the bike lane, but motorized two-wheelers are permitted in such two-wheeler lanes in many countries. There is no international road “standard” as to whether a “bike lane” is reserved for non-motorized vehicles, or is reserved for all two-wheeled vehicles, motorized or not..

There’s a similar lack of standardization as to which portion of the right-of-way bicycles are expected or required to use where there are two divisions. In most of the USA bicycles are required to share the portion of the roadway used by all other (motorized) vehicles, and the sidewalk is legally reserved for pedestrians. But in many other countries (and in some places in the USA) bicycles are required to share side paths, where they exist, with pedestrians, and leave the main portion of the roadway for the exclusive use of motorized vehicles.

To make matters worse, common practices are often at odds with the law. There are many places in the USA, and for that matter in England and elsewhere, where bicyclists are expected by motorists and even the police to ride on the sidewalk, wherever there is a sidewalk, even where that’s illegal. Rarely is there any clear notice to a visiting bicyclist as to either the local law or local behavioral norms or expectations.

Expected lines for bicycles to follow through intersections are even less standardized, confusing, and consequently often dangerous. That’s especially true where there are sometimes two and sometimes three divisions of the right-of-way, and bicyclists constantly have to be trying to figure out whether they are supposed to be on the sidewalk, in the street, or following some third way (and if so, where that third way is).

Despite what I presume were the the good intentions of the TV show’s producers. something was missing from the discussion of sustainability on “The Amazing Race”, as from most discussion of responsible travel or “ecotourism”: There was no mention of the environmental impact of air travel.

As I said earlier this month at the SXSW Eco conference in a presentation on Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age:

Definitions of “ecotourism” have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as “green” even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit.

The lead news story from SXSW Eco was the contrast between my talk and the keynote by a spokesperson for Boeing. This was also a topic of discussion (although not as much of one as I would have liked) at the TBEX travel bloggers conference I attended in September.

I don’t intend to claim any moral superiority here — only a degree of consciousness and public acknowledgment of my moral qualms — or to tell you what to do. I don’t know if I’m a moderate, a hypocrite, or merely conflicted in my ambivalence about continuing to fly. After my talk, I was flamed on Twitter by climate-change deniers calling me “unspeakably evil” for flying if I think doing so contributes to global warming. One could say the same thing about any use of fossil fuels. But the trolls have a point: I have no children, I live in the city and get around mainly by bicycle and public transit, and I’ve never owned a motor vehicle. Air travel is the largest “discretionary” (although essential to my current livelihood) component of my carbon footprint.

What can I, and what can you, do about the environmental impact of our air travel? As I concluded my talk on “Peak Travel”:

If you think that travel can have a positive impact — on global consciousness and tolerance for diversity, on environmental awareness, on community development, on wildlife conservation — and if you want yourself and your children and grandchildren to continue to be able to travel the world, you should take the lead in raising these issues, figuring out what a more sustainable and less air travel dependent ecology and economy of travel might be like, and getting the necessary infrastructure and policies in place to enable that — before the oil runs out and the era of air travel ends.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 17 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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