We don’t need no education…

One day at work, when a doctor had done something particularly stupid, I wrote on our white board “Education ≠ Intelligence”. It struck a chord and no one erased it for weeks; in fact, people would point to it to illustrate something they were saying.

I spent years in retail, maintenance, and plumbing before going to college at the age of 40. Did college suddenly make me smart? (“Who says you’re smart?” I hear someone in the back saying.)

The sooner we learn that intelligence, education, and common sense are not the same, the better. I would argue that common sense is the most important of the three. The 18th century swordmaster Chozen Shissai said “If I draw one corner and the student cannot complete the other three, I do not continue”.

| Another way to put that is to look at the line segment to the left. If I ask you to use that to draw a square, can you draw exactly the square I have in mind? People are often paralyzed by the fear of being wrong and stall by deciding that they need more data. In this case, no more data are necessary. We have all we need. The line segment is at the far left margin so the square has to go to the right. We know a square contains four 90 degree angles. We know it contains four line segments of equal length. There is only one square there. Sorry if that seemed obvious to you, but I posed this to a roomful of college-educated folks and was asked for more information. Yes, the problem requires some education, but we should have learned what a square is well before college.

Another doctor did something stupid (that primarily involved not talking to the nurse who actually knew the patient), ordering a bunch of unnecessary tests overnight. The next morning in a meeting, a different doctor said, “Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you can’t be a fucking idiot.”

An advice columnist was talking about college today. When I was contemplating college in my late 30s, a neighbor told me to take one class at night while I continued to work full time. It should be a class that was inherently interesting to me and also applicable to whatever degree I was considering. It was the best advice I ever got about education. For possibly the first time in my life, I liked going to school. I found myself doing more than was expected of me. For a speech on the Black Budget (the Pentagon’s secret budget, concealed in hundreds of separate line items scattered throughout the federal budget in an attempt to prevent scrutiny) I went to a pay phone and called the Pentagon for a response. They didn’t answer my questions, but did ask for my full name, address, and telephone number. Relating that story was probably the most well-received part of my speech. All the data may have been hard to process, but recognizing that the Pentagon wouldn’t talk to me but was trying to keep tabs on me resonated with my fellow students.

On some level, education seems to matter only if you know what you want to learn. As an empty vessel waiting to be filled, or as a student because it was expected of me, I gained little. As a committed learner, school was fun. As a parent, I realized my job was to provide exposure to the things that interested my kids and support them when they found the ones they wanted to pursue. Sometimes we don’t know what interests us until we see it, so a little random exposure helps.

While I teach for a living (much of my work with patients is teaching, plus I teach a workshop to other therapists when there isn’t a pandemic going on) I’d say there’s no such thing as teaching. There is learning and there is the facilitation of learning; but for a teacher to think s/he is pouring knowledge into empty vessels seems like the ultimate in self-importance. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you have to start somewhere. Chew on that paradox for a while. I could write a few more paragraphs to clarify or, as Mike Myers as Linda Richman would say, “Talk amongst yourselves.”

https://www.youtubetrimmer.com/view/?v=oiJkANps0Qw&start=146&end=158

As far as learning is concerned, I never learned anything I already knew. Duh. What I mean is that to truly learn, one must come from a place of Not Knowing. If we are busy showing off our knowledge or trying not to look dumb, there is no room to learn. Only after we admit to not knowing are we able to learn.

Forty five years ago, while contemplating a bike trip across the US, I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book chronicles a trans-continental journey as well as a journey to mental health. It looks at our relationship to machinery and to the world around us. Caring for a motorcycle is, in part, a metaphor for caring for ourselves. I thought of the book while working on a bike this afternoon. The bike is more than 30 years old and I realized that maintaining it is balancing acceptance and acquiescence. No matter what I do today, the bike will not be new. I have to accept its aging while not acquiescing to letting it fall apart. I have to know what I can fix and what I need to replace, and when. Failing to keep it in shape can be an actual life-threatening situation. Since I am the engine, maintaining the engine is more than a metaphor for taking care of myself.

Years ago, a friend wanted me to go bungee-jumping. I chose not to. The reason is tied to the paragraph above. I may ride my bike down a hill at 50 mph. At that speed, crashing would likely result in death. If I survived, I may not want to, or I may not ever recover from the injuries. Why do I do it? I am responsible for many of the circumstances. I maintain the bike. A mechanical problem is my responsibility. I am operating the bike. An operator error is my responsibility. Sure, there are things I cannot foresee. An animal may dart into my path. I can be watching for that and prepared for it. A car may pull out of a driveway or cross the centerline. Again, I have some ability to respond to those situations. My awareness and my skill at bike handling (or lack of either) will influence the outcome. I don’t go that fast over unfamiliar roads. (Nor do I go that fast very often.)

Bungee jumping requires that I give up all control to someone else. Once I jump, everything is out of my hands. They maintain the cord. What is the lifespan of a bungee cord when used in this way? Hs anyone studied it? How do they fail? Do they snap, sending one plummeting to the earth? Do they lose elasticity, elongating so that there just might not be enough recoil to pull me back up before I hit the ground? Is the platform the same height and the cord the same length as the last time they did this? None of this is in my hands. It is all in the hands of a stranger. Am I willing to turn my life over to this stranger? Nope. Maybe you are. Maybe bungee jumping is a lot of fun. You tell me. I’ll ride my bike up and down mountains.

You may notice I haven’t answered my own question – why? The answer is probably somewhere in the last three years of this blog. It’s also not one of my favorite questions. What is the favorite question of 3 year olds? Can you ever give them a satisfactory answer, one that does not lead to the next “why?”

Why do I ride a bike? Why do I ride down hills? Why do I ride fast? Because I can. Reasons? We ain’t got no reasons. We don’t need no reasons. I don’t have to show you any stinking reasons.

Rather than “for what reason?” I prefer to see the question as “for what purpose?”

Why are these photos relevant? Because I took them this week. One is from my Wednesday Night Bike Ride. We rode from Salmo Pond, which was the turnaround point for many a ride in my youth. We would stuff our jersey pockets with food and ride to the pond, where we would swim and eat before riding back home. (Small pond image from Channel3000.com)

For this ride, we met at the pond and rode the ridges south of the valley drained by Black Earth Creek. At the end of the ride, a large maskless group was gathered in the parking lot chatting. I still am not ready for that. Soon after, the CDC came out with new guidelines that say we can do just that. A few days later I came across a gathering of 35 maskless people in my neighborhood park. I’m inching towards acceptance. Why did I get vaccinated if I can’t begin to change my behaviors? I have been walking the dog without a mask this week. Maybe I’ll even ride with vaccinated friends this week.

I kinda like that this path appears in the photo to go nowhere. It seems to start and end just for the purpose of crossing the little bridge over the creek.

The other photo is a motivational postcard from a workplace which shall remain nameless.

The path of least resistance?

Where I live we have three types of thoroughfares: roads, shared-use paths (commonly known as bike paths) and sidewalks.

Roads are for motor vehicles and bikes; pedestrians if there are no adjoining sidewalks. Sidewalks are for pedestrians and bikes (unless buildings abut the sidewalk, in which case bikes are prohibited). Bike paths (officially known as shared-use paths, even though some have “bike path” in their names) are for bikes, pedestrians, joggers, skaters, skiers, equestrians…

How do bikes fit into all of this? Some of the trails are toll roads if you’re on a bike but not if you’re walking. We have no toll roads for cars in this state. I have seen rants in the newspaper (or heard them from people) that bikes don’t belong on rural roads – they should stick to the paths. I’ve heard rants that bikes don’t belong on other roads because they go too slowly. I’ve seen rants (on a neighborhood app) about bikes that go too fast on the paths. And I’ve seen claims that bikes on sidewalks are illegal (as noted above, they are illegal in only a very limited downtown area where I live).

So where does that leave bikes? Not wanted on the roads, not wanted on the paths, not wanted on the sidewalks. Too slow for the roads, too fast for the paths, just plain dangerous on the sidewalks.

I have written before about John Forester‘s concept of vehicular cycling. Back in April of 2018 I wrote a series of posts about bike safety. This time, I’m here to talk about the conundrum. Our society has not yet decided whether to consider bikes toys or a mode of transportation; partly because there is no reason they can’t be both. How we are using a bike should be a determining factor in where we ride. Generally I prefer to ride lightly-traveled streets – both in town and in the country. Whether going fast or slow they seem to work best. (Jarjour, et al in Environmental Health, 2013, found lightly-traveled bike boulevards reduced cyclists’ exposure to environmental pollutants from vehicle exhaust – a result that should make you say “duh”, but should also make you rethink riding on busy streets.)

The purpose of traffic laws is to standardize and define relationships and expectations among users in order to increase safety. In grey areas, the most vulnerable user should have the right of way.We are responsible for each other’s safety and ultimately we are all responsible for our own safety. A law will not protect us from a multi-ton vehicle. Common sense should be our guiding principle.

Drivers are often advised that it is safest to drive at or near the prevailing speed of traffic rather than strictly at the speed limit; thus they may be going slower or faster than the posted speed at times. Going faster is always illegal, regardless of the “prevailing speed”.

Q. Isn’t slower always safer?
A. No, federal and state studies have consistently shown that the drivers most likely to get into accidents in traffic are those traveling significantly below the average speed. According to research, those driving 10 mph slower than the prevailing speed are more likely to be involved in an accident
.” https://www.motorists.org/issues/speed-limits/faq/

“It has been found that motorists are generally capable of determining the driving speed that is reasonable for prevailing road and traffic conditions unless there are some roadway conditions that they are unaware of or which are not readily apparent and that the majority will subsequently adjust their speed accordingly. The 85th percentile speed, the speed at or below which 85% of the vehicles travel a particular roadway, has been found to best represent this perceived ‘reasonable’ speed.https://wisconsindot.gov/dtsdManuals/traffic-ops/manuals-and-standards/teops/13-05.pdf

I would argue that 85% of motor vehicles exceed the speed limit on 25 mph residential and urban streets. Yokoo, et al (Traffic Injury Prevention, 2019) found that “speeding is widespread…” in Minneapolis/St Paul. Hu and Cicchino (Injury Prevention, 2020) and Jones and Brunt (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2017) argue for speed limit reductions in Boston and Wales, respectively. Apparently motorists can determine the safe speed but that doesn’t mean they/we adhere to it. The 85% rule appears to be most applicable for highway speeds.

 Urban shared-use paths require care and vigilance. Travel slowly enough not to spook other users and to be able to react to their sudden moves. Calling “On your left” frequently results in pedestrians looking over their left shoulders while unconsciously moving to the left into your path. That’s why I use a bell in the city (and most of my bike path use is at 6 AM when there are few people walking). People seem to do better at localizing the sound of the bell and moving appropriately. I have no evidence to support this beyond personal experience. (Lack of evidence is not the same as evidence against. It just means I can’t find that anyone has studied this.) The Next Door app in my neighborhood is currently exploding with a thread about e-bikes on shared-use paths.

The same standard that applies to motorists appears safest for bicyclists. If you are going to be traveling fast, stay on the street (or rural paths that are known to be used primarily by bikes). If your town has “bike boulevards”, they tend to be safer, with infrastructure designed (sort of) or retrofitted for bikes. (Walker et al. define bicycle boulevards as “low-volume and low-speed streets that have been optimized for bicycle travel through treatments such as traffic calming and traffic reduction, signage and pavement markings, and intersection crossing treatments.” [Fundamentals of bicycle boulevard planning & design. Prepared for the Portland State University Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation.2009])

Eric Minikel studied bike boulevards in Berkeley, CA, comparing them to adjacent streets and found:
“Using police-reported collision data and the city’s cyclist count data, this study finds that Berkeley’s bicycle boulevards do indeed have lower collision rates for cyclists than their parallel arterial routes. This is true for all six bicycle boulevard–arterial pairs for which data are available, with risk ratios ranging from 1.8 to 8.0. This is true whether only reported bicycle–motor vehicle collisions are examined or bicycle–bicycle, bicycle–pedestrian and single- cyclist incidents are included as well.” (Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2012)

If you are going to be traveling slowly, use urban paths. Personally, I see very few times that a sidewalk is safe. Motorists backing out of driveways (or turning into driveways) are not looking for bikes. They are not looking for anyone traveling faster than walking speed. Small children on bikes may be going at walking speed, but are so low as to be all but invisible to motorists. Learning to ride a bike on the sidewalk in front of your house may be fine, but traveling any distance on a sidewalk is probably not very safe for a young child.

Forester recommends riding like a vehicle – stay right except to pass, turn left from the left lane. He essentially argued that bikes should be integrated with motor vehicles and that separate bike lanes cause more dangerous situations at the inevitable intersections between bike and car – e.g. bikes turning left across multiple lanes of traffic from a bike lane on the right, cars turning right across bike lanes going straight. A completely separate bike path inevitably intersects roads, and motorists who have learned to be unaware of bikes (since they are not on the roads) will inevitably be more dangerous when they do have to meet. Apologies to Forester if I misrepresent him by merging my thoughts with his.

I would argue that bike paths have their place and that they require the same style of riding as do streets – with the understanding that the other “vehicles” with which you are sharing the road are roller bladers, kids, strollers, dogs, beginning riders; instead of cars and trucks. I think he is right that bike lanes create a false sense of security and result in greater danger (cars parked in the bike lane, parked cars opening doors into the bike lane, cars in right turn lanes turning right across the path of bike lanes that continue straight). I would argue that riding as close as practicable to the prevailing speed of traffic is safest – thus slower on shared-use paths and faster on roads.

While this column did not start as an argument for bike boulevards, they seem to deserve serious consideration. In many cities there are parallel roads. I would argue for using the less-traveled route while on a bicycle. Minikel shows that crashes are less-frequent on bicycle boulevards than on adjacent routes, but is this due to the boulevard infrastructure or just the relative dearth of traffic? Where one route is less-traveled than another, common sense would hint that the less-traveled route is safer for bikes. Is the infrastructure a major determinant? Mulvaney, et al (Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2015) set out to determine whether infrastructure could be credited for increased safety. They concluded “Generally, there is a lack of high quality evidence to be able to draw firm conclusions as to the effect of cycling infrastructure on cycling collisions. There is a lack of rigorous evaluation of cycling infrastructure.” They judged the quality of most evidence as low and preliminarily hinted that 20 mph speed limits may help and that roundabouts may be dangerous for cyclists.

Personally I tend to avoid urban shared-use paths because I have to treat every intersection as a yield sign in order to protect myself from cars, and I have to ride more slowly than I’d like to when commuting during daytime hours when others are out. There are routes where the street alternative is worse, so I choose routes on a case-by-case basis. (And some are too pretty not to ride on.) My daily routes to and from work were chosen by trial-and-error and adapted over time.

As in almost everything I read for work, “further study is warranted” and “there is a dearth of quality evidence”. As always, common sense should be your guide, and common sense is less common than it ought to be.

As Rodney King (1992) asked, “Can we all get along?”