We Found a Piano!

So I was riding my bike home today when I encountered an abandoned piano on the streets of San Francisco near Alamo Square Park. I’m always finding items gifted to the streets of San Francisco–books, picture frames, chairs, even couches– but this abandoned piano is the best find yet!

We still don’t know who it used to belong to.

As per my comrades in this adventure, Kyle and Carla: I had never before met Kyle before this moment, but he stopped to listen as I played a few tunes and to ask me why on earth this piano was sitting on rollers in the street. I had no good answer, but since he just started playing piano three weeks ago, we realized it would be a kick in fate’s face for him to NOT adopt this lovely contraption. So thus began our journey to roll it into his garage!

That’s around the moment that Carla joined us–she’s the one recording the video (until my phone quickly ran out of storage space). Carla, I had met twice before, and that’s a fun story in itself. It took us a few minutes to realize where we recognized each other from, but it turns out I had first encountered her four-man/woman band back in November when they played on the streets of the Mission in front of 826 Valencia on a Thursday night. I took their business card and a video that night, but lost both and had no way of tracking them down. :/ Five months later, though, I was carrying my ukulele in a coffee shop when a woman approached me asking if I also played the mandolin or banjo because her band was looking for new instrumentalists. Turns out it was her! Here and now, about a month after the second encounter, she stumbled upon new-friend-Kyle and I as we played tunes and debated ways to lift this abandoned piano to his third-floor apartment down the block.

I love the power of music 🙂

This reminds me of this beautiful video from the Disposable Film Festival, except our version of the story ended more happily. I guess if you leave something on the streets on NYC for more than 24 hours, that’s what has to happen.

Check out Carla’s band, Twig & the Berries, by the way!


On Dreams, Intimidation, and Bicycle Academia

I start to feel stuck as I work on doing outreach to bicycle-oriented researchers and organizations around the world. There are many people who are WAY more established in their ideas, thoughts, cultural and academic explorations than I am. I talk about wanting to give a human face to non-motorized transportation by creating short documentaries for web purposes about people and the role non-motorized transportation plays in their lives, but haven’t deeply explored the best way to methodologically approach that. What version of the each story do I want to tell? Design-wise, how do I want to present it? I envision myself using ethnographic methods of interviewing and participant observation to connect ideas and initiatives from different places, but what’s the best way to go deep and what’s the best way to remain compelling and relevant? What does it mean to produce documentary vs. ethnography?

I have more questions than answers, but here is something I do know: I am presently most interested in the different ways the bicycle is framed, understood, promoted, and utilized in different cultural contexts, particularly as a tool for empowerment. I believe comparative narratives of bicycle use in different places and ways can help get more people on bicycles in different parts of the world. My goal is to spend time in various places doing ethnographic research through interviewing, participant observation, and the production of short videos/interactive media highlighting localized transportation initiatives and illuminating the diverse and widespread human faces involved in sustainable transportation. The trick is establishing relationships in each of these places.

For the people I’m reaching out to, reasons to promote cycling are obvious. The Bicicultures  and Cycling and Society networks have much-more-established academics in their realm;   Bicycles Against Poverty in Uganda already has videos similar to the ones I’d like to make. My goal now is to understand for myself any of the people I contact should bother working with me–how can what I’m trying to do further what they’re trying to do? In other words, how can I work with them without being a bother? I only have an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, and I’m still shaping my idea of what goes into  high-quality, compelling digital storytelling. I get both overwhelmed and excited when I start to see how many bicycle-related articles exist in the inter-ether… and they approach the bicycle topic from so many angles!

Some Blogs of Cycle Scholars:
Thinking About Cycling
Urban Adonia
Bicycle-related Academic Articles

Other High-Quality Bicycle Resources:
League of American Bicyclists Blog
Denmark’s Bikeability Site
Mexico’s Ciclociudades
Europe’s Cosmobilities Network
Denmark’s Bicycle Innovation Lab

Some Impressive Bicycle NGOs:
World Bicycle Relief 
Bicycles Against Poverty

In the yoga philosophy I’m studying right now, the concept of vinyasa krama is to step (krama) and to place (yasa) in a special way (vin). On the one hand, this speaks to cultivating a deliberate and beneficial physical practice (asana), but the concept also applies generally in life: “it is not enough to take a simple step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” I’m applying for a digital storytelling fellowship for which the application is due on Feb. 28, but I haven’t yet been able to connect with scholars or institutions in my desired places to the extent that they’d be willing to affiliate with me. Part of me feels I need to have a clearer idea of how I delineate (or don’t delineate) ethnography from documentary from advocacy from academic research, etc., before I confidently move ahead in this game.  That process, I believe, would be best cultivated and developed in an academic setting, a world in which I am currently not living in. I AM, however, living in a world of freelance video editing and working as a communications assistant for an active and positive bicycle advocacy non-profit (San Francisco Bicycle Coailition). This is where I develop my thoughts and real-world practices of effective narratives/storytelling methods, and this real-world, applicable-skills process is just as important as the academic thought development process.

The bottom line is that the application is due in 20 days and I don’t have relationships or affiliations worked out yet. This makes me feel like I’m rushing into the Fellowship part of the process. I’d rather spend the next year developing relationships and see where it takes me and how my thoughts and methods develop. I still feel too new to this world. Being just nine months out of my undergraduate degree, I’m just getting the hang of this ‘real-world’ thing, yet I feel immensely under-qualified when it comes to academic conversations I want to be participating in. I love the learning process, but sometimes fear I’m trying to rush through it too quickly.

So once again, my current main goals with these Comparative Narratives of Sustainable Transportation:

  • Give a human face to non-motorized transportation by creating short documentaries for web purposes about people and the role non-motorized transportation plays in their lives:
  • Blog about cross-cultural similarities and differences in transportation trends—why might a trend in one location be the opposite in another?
  • Utilize ethnographic methods of interviewing and participant observation to connect ideas and initiatives from different places
  • Highlight organizations using the bicycle for different social goals

On Our Car-Crash Anniversary

A year ago this weekend I was in a major car accident that didn’t change my life.

Rather inconveniently, this happened in a very specifically rural part of West Virginia where both cell phone service and wifi are illegal—smack near the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone,  “a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference.” That renders all emergency calls to cops,  ambulances (if needed), and tow trucks impossible. This is not the best place to total your car at 11 pm in freeze-your-fingers 2 degree weather.

We were lucky that two other couples had been driving fairly close behind us; otherwise we would have been stuck in near-zero-degree darkness with little idea where we were and no way to contact anyone. (This was also driving on backroads through woods nearly uninhabited by humans). Our fellow strangers helped us climb out the side (now the top) of the car, heaved and ho’ed with us to get the mangled piece of metal upright again, then gave us hours-long rides to our approximate destination.

The car rolled somewhere between 1 and 3 times with us in it, I’m not quite sure the exact number. The black ice snuck up on us—or we on it—as four of us chatted away, excited about our weekend tucked in the ski slopes of Snowshoe, West Virginia. It’s funny how minds and memories really do slow events down in these kinds of situations. I constructed this vivid vision of the Pringles in the front seat between Chris and I sliding somewhat gracefully out of their open container, hanging in the air before scattering everywhere as we flipped upside down, right side up, and to all the places in between. OB’s back-seat perspective of the flip, on the other hand, includes four pair of hands stabilizing our bodies using the car ceiling, Kelly’s and my long hair hair flying this and that way based on our shifting velocity.

The car settled on its side before we could process the fact that the wheels had left the ground at all. I tried opening and lifting my passenger-side door as it sat above me, but confusion and gravity joined forces against me to resist my efforts until an aforementioned stranger came along and helped us from the outside. Seatbelts are difficult to undo when all of your weight is resting on the buckle that now sits below you!

The next five hours were filled with a myriad of different coincidences and adventures, miracles by my standards, that led to eight friends (there were two cars driving up separately—one crashed, the other lost) being reunited at 4 am for a feast in our rented cabin. Everyone went to bed that late night, both exhausted and thrilled to ski when it got light later that day.

What still strikes me as most spectacular about this whole experience is how absolutely unharmed everyone and everything was (except for the totaled car, of course).  Between the four of us, we counted fewer than five minor scrapes and bruises. The beer was fine; the tomatoes were fine; the wo snowboards that had been strapped to the roof as the car rolled over them… they were absolutely fine. Chris and Kelly rode on their boards that same day, bodies and equipment completely unbroken. It still blows my mind.

Call it a miracle. Call it guardian angels. Call it karma(?). I see it as just one more thing that blows my mind about existence (and there’s a long list for that). Retrospectively watching our GoPro footage from that weekend (see below), I am struck by how simultaneously delicate and powerful the body is and by how things that are supposed to go horribly wrong can turn out bizarrely okay.

What a way to start a ski weekend, eh?

This little video is a year overdue bc I thought I’d actually do something interesting with the footage… but alas, I haven’t. Here are some shots from us toying around with a GoPro at Snowshoe in West Virginia.

This is right after four of the seven of us got in a car-rolling, car-totalling accident. Literally no injuries other than a drop or two of blood. And the snowboards in the footage? They were on the roof of the car as it rolled over them. No damage.

Music: ‘Linguistics’ by Cunning Linguists (and apologies for the video quality.. for some reason I didn’t convert from H 2.64 to Apple ProRes 422 before editing and that doesn’t make Final Cut happy….)

Is Transportation Sexy?

NOTE OR WARNING: This post is part argument to reveal how fascinating transportation can be and part personal musings/meanderings on activism and anthropology.

Is transportation a sexy topic? Sexy in the sense that it’s highly appealing or interesting. Two years ago, I didn’t think so. My mode of transportation was deliberate only in the sense of perceived convenience. I never thought twice about the statement I made by how I moved around or about the contribution I was making to pollution and congestion. Two years after becoming interested in bicycle travel, my thinking is more along the lines of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which states:

“Transportation is at the heart of many of the most pressing issues facing the world today–from climate change to public health…Transport networks are the pulse of a city, defining livability and urban space.”

More than half the world lives in cities today, and that number is only growing. So how are we thinking about our built environment? How much of our public space is dedicated to moving and storing private vehicles? (Too much, if you ask me). I get really revved up about this in part because how we move will define our future sustainability. Continuing to celebrate the automobile as the ideal mode of transportation will lead to more pollution and more congestion, increasingly making our cities and our planet less livable.

But who cares about transportation infrastructure when there are so many bigger issues in the world? That’s my most struggle-worthy question these days. Once I re-convince myself that it’s an advocacy-worthy cause–which I do almost every day–I spend a lot of my time and energy thinking about bicycles and multi-modal infrastructure as a part of improving lives and cities. I want to be a part of shifting cultural attitudes (leading to affected policy) about design of public space, but I also want to play observer and recorder of the cultural realities that exist in different places… aka ethnographer. After all, the bike is being presented as a useful tool in contexts outside environmentalism and urban development, and that is FASCINATING. I hear conversations about women’s empowerment, mental health benefits, access to education and markets, etc. Where and why is it being framed in particular ways? That’s the idea behind The Bike Beat.

What ends up being slightly disheartening to me is that most people I talk to see the bicycle as just a bicycle, just for recreation. I’ve built up this whole other framework of significance in my mind. It’s a little discouraging when my big, idealistic ideas are brought down to earth in this way that discredits my own attempted ‘moral imagination,’ to use John Paul Lederach’s term. This professor of International Peacebuilding defines the moral imagination as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not exist yet.” He’s talking about conflict transformation instead of bicycles or transportation culture/infrastructure, but I see these types of ideas as very potentially connected.

So I consider myself a cultural anthropologist, at least to the extent that the subject was my undergrad major and I love the anthropological approach to the world. I understand anthropology as the study of the different frameworks people use to explain and break down the universe, as the study of different but equally legitimate (?) versions of reality.

I’m trying to reconcile the dual identity of anthropologist and activist (and a reporter, of sorts?). If most different versions of reality are equally legitimate (which it’s easy to argue they aren’t, but that conversation gets way too messy way too fast), then where does activism belong–can outsiders be advocates? For that matter, how long does one have to live in a place to not be considered an outsider? (That’s a tangent for a different blog post…)

What is activism anyway? I’ve been meditating on that, and my current working definition is: a statement of how one believes the world should be, and a subsequent attempt to convince as many people as possible to construct their worlds in line with that statement. It’s funny and contradictory, though, that I consider myself a mild activist and an open-minded person. I’m realizing as I write this that I don’t think open-mindedness and maintenance of strong opinions are oppositional. The part I’m most conflicted about is imposition of strong opinions on people. For example, I have very strongly found that bicycling is the best mode of transportation for me. I want to convince everyone in the world of its wonders, and I want to get more people on bikes, but I am also hesitant to impose my belief system on others.

In studying bicycle culture in different places, for example, how do I work on an issue like transportation in a local context while respecting local values and ideals…when is imposing what ‘I’ believe in okay? Isn’t that what activism is? And say, hypothetically, I were to go to Kurdish parts of Turkey and have a conversation about transportation. Would I be quickly dismissed for other more pressing issues? In other words, when do people in any given place start thinking about transportation? Only AFTER poverty is alleviated? AFTER quality education for all is provided? AFTER the world is fed? AFTER freedom for the oppressed is achieved? Or is the bicycle a logical part of each of these conversations? I believe the way we move our bodies through space is incredibly important, and I also believe it is a useful part of other conversations. What kind of space is there in the conversation on things like poverty alleviation for transportation issues? (Hint on that, and subject for another post, The World Bank thinks bicycles can be important elements of poverty alleviation..and they also recognize its usefulness in other places)

San Francisco’s Vision Zero

It concerns me how many people are scared to ride a bicycle. And for fair reason- we’re considered ‘vulnerable road users’ in large part because death and injuries are too prevalent. (see here why some researchers suggests we move away from the language of ‘vulnerable road user’ Hint: it’s a psychology thing)

San Francisco witnessed four cyclist and twenty-one pedestrian deaths from collisions with cars in 2013. Unanimous agreement echoed through City Hall last Thursday (January 16, 2014) that this is twenty-five people too many. The event was a joint hearing before the Police Commission and Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee, and the call to action came from citizens and organization such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco.

These and other organizations are asking city officials and law enforcers to commit to ‘Vision Zero,’ a policy goal to reduce traffic deaths to Zero within ten years. The concept began as a road safety project in Sweden in 1997, has recently been adopted in Chicago and New York, and is now clearly working it’s way to San Francisco. During the hearing,  SF’s police chief, Greg Suhr, committed to this ‘Vision Zero’ and Supervisor Scott Wiener called for more government accountability when it comes to executing these wildly popular pedestrian and cyclist safety resolutions.

City Hall Assembly on January 16, 2013 to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths

City Hall Assembly on January 16, 2013 to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths in San Francisco

So what does this mean? How does a city actually go about reducing traffic deaths of pedestrians and cyclists? We shall see how it plays out, but these are several of the tangible points I came away with:

‘The three E’s’ came up a lot: Education, Engineering, Enforcement. 

Enforcement was most emphasized element of the night. In particular, more, more, more citations. Law enforcers will ensure that people in the city, drivers and cyclists alike, stop at stop signs and withhold from using cell phones while driving. From my understanding, citations on the spot for any collision with minor injuries where there is a determination of fault will be a new initiative. As a linguistic choice, they will also cease using the word ‘accident’ and instead use ‘collisions.’ Why? The term ‘collisions’ implies more actively that crashes are preventable.

With the enforcement emphasis came a conversation about a culture shift to stop blaming the victim. There’s still a dominant perception law enforcement and elsewhere–perhaps mostly subconscious–in which the ‘vulnerable road user’ who gets hit is blamed for the ‘accident.’ But the fact is, 2/3 of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the driver. Another shocking statistic that came up: Only 20% of trips in SF are made on foot; more than 50% of traffic collisions are with pedestrians.

Several speakers, including the Bicycle Coalition’s well-spoken executive director, Leah Shahum, emphasized education initiatives for all road users, with a particular focus on professional drivers and law enforcers, but also on other road users, from drivers to cyclists to walkers.

As per engineering, it almost seemed a given that the most dangerous intersections in San Francisco should be a main focus both enforcement and street re-design. There much more emphasis on enforcement than engineering this night, though, which is what I’d expect in a hearing with the Police Commission.

I will say that my favorite comment from the public pertained to engineering, and it came from a 20-something bearded cyclist who called for a more radical redesign of our transportation infrastructure. He spoke of his recent travels to Germany where cars aren’t allowed in the center of many cities. It made more sense, he argued, to reserve high-traffic public space for walkers and bicyclists rather than for heavy chunks of speeding metal. I, for one, see his point and support this kind of radical re-design.

A side note: Despite the fact that San Francisco adopted a ‘transit first’ policy in 1973, this still remains a city often dedicated to storing and moving private vehicles. Last year, Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich told SF Streets Blog, “When there’s excess road space that cars don’t need, it’s given over to bikes, peds, and transit, but where there’s a real shortage of road space, in the most congested parts of the city, the car is still the priority.” 

I dream of a time and a place where biking and walking is safe for everyone and is no longer ‘other.’

As with everything, there was also call for more funding during the hearing. Always, everywhere with the more funding plea. Sigh. I wish money wasn’t always the main measure of implementability.

On a final note, I left City Hall that night with two life-lesson takeaways that kept coming up during the meeting. Here they were used in the context of preventing traffic collisions, but I see them applicable in situations beyond commuter safety:

Slow Down and Pay Attention.

Bikes and Buses in Bogotá

Bogota, Colombia keeps coming up in my cycling research when it comes to sustainable urban development. It seems a lot of people are and have been concerned about the extreme congestion and pollution in the city–the road system was not built to handle the 1.5 million cars that were on Bogota’s streets in 2009. It seems to be another place where a car is valued as the ideal mode of transportation, both a sign of status and an efficient way to get around. A car for everyone! To maintain this ideal is to doom our cities to ever-increasing congestion and pollution. More cars, more highways = less walkability, bikeability, livability.

Former Bogota mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, dreams of a transportation revolution where buses, bikes, and pedestrians rule the day.  According to the WWF, “Peñalosa rejected a proposed city beltway, and began building a 300+ km bicycle network instead. He used saved and remediated land for parks, playgrounds, libraries, schools, and sports areas. To solve transportation bottlenecks, the city began limiting car-use with a number-plate regulation, and set up a high-capacity BRT system (TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit).” This TransMilenio system is being used as a model for cities around the world (see video and commentary below).

He  and his brother were also responsible for the first ‘Ciclovia’ anywhere in the world. Imagine a full day of car-free streets, where roads are instead dedicated entirely to bicycling and walking. It’s a movement that started in Bogota and has been spreading to cities all around the world. Every single Sunday and holiday, 100 km of Bogota’s streets are closed to cars. Imagine taking that initiative beyond the weekly day of leisure…

Penalosa’s dream, as articulated in this TED talk, is that there are greenways with bicycle highways in all parts of his city, that every other street is dedicated solely to walking or biking, and that streets exist only for buses. In this car-dominated city, this may be a pipe dream, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards and advocating for these types of streets. How we move will define our future sustainability, and building more and more highways to accommodate more and more personal motorized vehicles is not the way to increase liveability in a city. It’s bad for congestion and for public health. I love his argument in this TED talk that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” argues Enrique Peñalosa.

The key part of this transportation initiative is the mulit-modal emphasis. The revolutionary Transmilenio bus rapid transit system is incredibly efficient and, importantly, is tied to the the network of bike paths throughout the city. “For transportation, it’s really important to integrate transportation means,”  Eduardo Plata told the videographers of Streetfilms.org. For that reason, they have secure bike parking INSIDE the bus station. And for every 20 people who bike to the Transmilenio bus station to hop on the efficient red buses, that’s one less feeder bus they need to send around the city to bring to the larger Transmilenio bus stations. This video made by StreetFilms highlights the initially successful Transmilenio bus rapid transit system implemented in 2000.

Before you watch, though, it should be noted that the work of any public transportation system–even good ones–is never done. There were protests over the system in 2012 because, to name a few of many reasons, expansions aren’t being implemented fast enough, because there isn’t enough funding to deal with existing issues and speed up the expansion, and because many people in the city want a metro system that would be much more expensive and time-consuming to build and implement than this bus rapid transit system.

Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

While there has been a lot of emphasis on the public transportation bus system, I’m very interested in the bicycle initiatives. The recent Biciciudades report by the Interamerican Development Bank highlights Bogota’s Ciclovia and ranks the city as the more bikefriendly cities in Latin America. (Read the report here). Also worth paying attention to- just this past September, The Guardian highlighted local think tanks and community organizations working actively to increase cycling and cycling safety in Bogota.

La Ciudad Verde:

La Ciudad Verde members identify places in the city where cycle lanes don’t join up (of which there are plenty) and using social media bring citizens together to paint the connecting lanes themselves. The activity usually attracts plenty of local media coverage and ultimately has caught the attention of the city authorities, who have responded positively and offered to work with La Ciudad Verde.

“We empower people to change cities with their own hands,” says Carlos Cadena Gaitán, a member of La Ciudad Verde (The Green City)  an activist think tank born in Medellin, but now active in Colombia’s three main cities.

Mejor en Bici

Also, if you understand Spanish well, here’s this well-stated argument…. that I can only partially understand:

Re-Entry to the Personal Thought Blogosphere

I’ve been away from this blog for a while. Partially because I landed in San Francisco on September 20, 2013 and, since the theme of this section of the blog has been “Ellie’s Bicycle Journey,” I’ve felt that I need to fit any content I put up here in that framework. As a result, I’ve held back my tangential and  unrelated meanderings because they’re either not about a bicycle or because I’m afraid of voicing my private thoughts about things like the construction/understanding of meaning, self-identity and discovery (and the presentation or ‘branding’ of self that comes along with that), indigenous rights and my relationship to that as a White American Woman, frustrating associations of money with success, and other thoughts such as these. I’m done, though, hesitating to write my thoughts because ‘people just want to see pictures’ or because ‘that’s not relevant here.’ I’ve been terrified of what the vast and timeless Interwebs (made of people) will think of my personal thoughts, and while I’ll remain careful and rather deliberate with what I post, I will be less scared of external judgment.

So as I work to move past these fears, the thoughts and findings posted are the continuation of my journey. Right now it is cathartic to write freely, and I do not live in a place that tightly monitors my words and my thoughts in a way that is presently used against me. I have learned the consequence and sensitivities of word choice in a country where each expressed idea has serious implications, and I believe that is one reason why I am slower to express my own. But I want to use this page now to express the continuation of “Ellie’s Bicycle Journey,” even if it’s not in the form of bike travel day in and day out. I do promise, however, that the ideas can all start and end with the concept of a bicycle. At least subtly.

By that I mean- I continue to ride my bike almost daily in San Francisco in commuter form, and my mind tends to wander well when I catch my breath that little bit more deeply on a ride. So the thoughts I express on this blog will now be expanded to encompass “Things Ellie Thinks About On A Bicycle.” In other words, I can write basically anything I want on this blog and attribute it to something I thought of while riding my bicycle. (Kinda like Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, which he claims he thought of when he was riding his bicycle)

It won’t be fully representative because I don’t know how to post purely blank space on here. Man, I love those brilliantly meditative rides where all thoughts are subdued! Who’s with me on that??

So anyway, you’ll see the rides here where thoughts race with such inspiration (or confusion) that I can’t keep my fingers off the keyboard. I’m going to try to stop fighting that urge.

So hello again, blogosphere!