Just a geek who lives in Olympia, WA with my wife, son, and animals. In my free time I play board games, write fiction, and make stuff.
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Hugo Results 2020, and Award Ceremony Controversy

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The Hugo Awards were announced the other day (Friday night for me in the US and Saturday in New Zealand). You can see the complete run down of voting statistics here.

This year I voted in eight categories. Usually I do more, but ... <gestures toward the world right now>.... You can see how I voted here and here.

There was also the matter of the ceremony itself. I watched most of it live. There was some controversy about it, and rightfully so. I'll come back to that at the end.

But first, how did I do? 


The Winners!, or, My Ballot Versus Reality

It looks like I picked the winners in three categories: Best Fan Writer (Bogi Takács), Best Related Work (Jeannette Ng's 2019 speech at last year's Worldcon), and wait for it.... Best Novel (Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire)! [Note: I also just listed to an interesting interview with Martine on the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast].

Given the way things were going with the dramatic presentations and other literature categories, where my picks were mostly off, I didn't expect that Best Novel result. I'm a bit surprised Alix Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in sixth (I had it third, but then I also consistently forget about the extensive fan base of Seanan McGuire, who came in second).

There was something I must've been missing about This Is How You Lose the Time War. Not that I think it's bad, but I greatly preferred The Deep or To Be Taught, If Fortunate (see my thoughts on the novellas here). I felt like Novelettes were the strongest category overall this year, so really there are no bad choices and N. K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" wasn't much of a surprise there. I felt almost as good overall about short stories, and while I'm a bit shocked Nibedita Sen's excellent story came in sixth, S. L. Huang's "As the Last I May Know" is an outstanding #1 choice (I ranked it a close third).

For Related Work, I wasn't surprised that Ng's speech won. It rightly precipitated the change of an award's name within a few days. It was also a damn fine speech, pointing to the future from a troubled past, and there was a cool hat involved. I'm also not surprised Arwen Curry's excellent documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin took second. I'm a bit surprised to see Farah Mendlesohn's study of Heinlein so close to the bottom. I thought it was a pretty solid work of scholarship, but I guess few Hugo voters are academics who are impressed with such things.

For dramatic presentations, I'm not at all surprised Good Omens was #1 for long form. It was a lot of fun and there's no stopping the nerdy dream team of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It was also worth it for Gaiman's touching acceptance speech. I would've liked to see Us a lot higher on the list (I put it at #1 knowing I was in the minority on this one), but I think it's pretty telling that The Rise of Skywalker was sixth. Over in short form, I was surprised that Watchmen didn't win everything, but I do love The Good Place so it's hard to be disappointed. Seeing The Mandalorian above The Expanse and Doctor Who is a bit of a shock, but on the other hand... Baby Yoda.

One thing that has become apparent to me in the last decade or so as I've become more involved in fandom is that fans like science fiction, fantasy, and horror for different reasons. And that's a good thing. I'm a fan of a philosophical bent who likes Big Ideas and big picture world-building. Others like cool gadgets. Or quirky characters. Or military maneuvers. Or elaborate magic systems. Or new takes on old fairy tales. Or ... lots of things. This becomes apparent to me when I attend cons or talk with people online, but it's nowhere more apparent than when I see how my votes compare to the results of the Hugos. And this is for the best. What fun would fandom be if I (or people like me) controlled it all?


The 2020 Hugo Ceremony Controversy: We Need to do Better

That last sentence is a deliberate segue to the topic of the Hugo ceremony itself. (I told you I'd get to it eventually).

There was a lot of talk on Twitter, which is difficult to summarize (search for #HugoAwards on Twitter and you'll find some of it). There are some decent summaries on File 770 herehere, and here. This overview by Fan Writer nominee Adam Whitehead and this one on the blog Sean Reads Sci-Fi are some of the best I've seen.

There were some technological foibles, which were maybe unavoidable given how quickly the con runners had to put on a completely digital con. The ceremony went on waaaaay too long (over three hours!).

But the real problem was a certain person who served as Toastmaster, a person who is, largely because of a certain show on HBO but also due to almost 50 years in the genre, probably the most famous person in science fiction/fantasy at the moment, at least if you measure fame by the yardstick of "a person who your family members who are befuddled by your SFF fandom might have heard of."

Oh, George R. R. Martin... I like your books and you're a big star and there's a lot about you that I admire, but... the Old Man with Tales of Yore routine was not what we needed in 2020. Mispronouncing the names of nominees (and at least one magazine) was not what we needed. Casual transphobia was not what we needed. Extended paeans to long dead fascists without acknowledging that they are problematic was not what we needed. (Much the same could be directed at Robert Silverberg, who also went on far too long, but he wasn't the Toastmaster, so let's focus on Martin).

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I doubt that Martin did any of this deliberately or consciously. Of course, I don't know that. Maybe he really did resent Jeannette Ng and others for pointing out John W. Campbell's fascism. Or maybe it was an unconscious retaliation. I don't know.

But whatever Martin's intentions were, he needs to do better. Unlike the truly deplorable Sad and Rabid Puppies of a few years back (and it's worth remembering we're only three or four years removed from all that bullshit), I suspect Martin at least wants to be a decent person who supports a more progressive, more diverse fandom for everyone. But for whatever reason, he failed many members of the community who most deserve his support right now. And he hasn't really apologized yet (aside from a contextless Voltaire quote on Twitter and this lackluster apology on File 770). He needs to do better.

But as I reflected on this incident, I noticed that while I was a bit uneasy during the ceremony, I had to go on Twitter to understand how angry it made many others. Part of this is that I'm not by nature a very angry person, but I think part of it is also that I, too, need to do better.

It's easy for me as a white man to listen to older white men talk about the exploits of dead white men. It's easy for me to brush off mispronouncing names and microaggressions, if I even notice such things at all. It's harder to notice the ways all of this can be problematic when it doesn't affect me personally, when I don't have a lifetime of living in a society that devalues my identity and experience. I need to listen. I need to do better.

I am as fascinated by the history of fandom as most fans are. Part of my fandom is reading old stuff to understand the history of the genre. It's also fun, especially at cons, to hear personal stories about authors who made the genre what it is, authors whose work made me who I am. I like those stories (although maybe the Cliffnotes versions would suffice for the Hugo ceremony). But we shouldn't continue to tell these stories with rosy-tinted nostalgia. We shouldn't continue to engage in the same old bullshit that excluded so many for so long. We need to do better.

The reason that so many of us fought against the Sad and Rabid Puppies just a few years ago was that they wanted an insular, monolithic fandom of people like them. But we need to do better. If we follow the lead of the new vanguard of the genre, we will do better. They're pushing the boundaries of the genre to realize potentials that should have been recognized all along. 

As interesting as the past of SFF is, this year's Hugo nominees show us that the future of the genre and its fandom should excite us more.
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The Whistlers.

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I doubt I would have even bothered looking for The Whistlers, which is free to watch on Hulu, if my friend Tim Grierson hadn’t named it one of his favorite films of 2020 so far. Submitted by Romania for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, The Whistlers missed the shortlist in a very competitive group, and perhaps was too quirky or absurd for the committee (who did nominate The Painted Bird, which you couldn’t pay me to watch given how much I hated the book). It’s a crime drama with a perfectly ridiculous twist that makes it one of the most interesting and unusual films I saw from last year, so even where the plot is a bit off, it still works and kept me engrossed till the end.

The Whistlers takes place in Romania and on La Gomera, one of the smaller islands in the Canaries, jumping back and forth in location and time to follow the main character, Cristi, a Romanian police officer, as tries to free a businessman named Zsolt who has been taken by an organized crime ring based on the island. I was completely unaware of this before watching The Whistlers, La Gomera has a whistling language called Silbo Gomero that has been used for centuries to communicate across the island’s valleys. (You can read more about it at UNESCO’s page, commemorating its inclusion on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.) To evade detection by foreign police officers, Cristi learns the whistling language, with comic misfires along the way, using it to talk to the various thugs with whom he’s working, along with the femme fatale Gilda, who is working with the criminals but also has her own agenda.

Cristi’s bosses suspect him of criminal involvement and have him under what appears to be nonstop surveillance, including bugging his apartment, which leads to all sorts of subterfuge, not least of which is Gilda pretending to be a sex worker, with Cristi a regular client, to fool the cameras. Of course, Cristi is hardly the only corrupt cop – one theme throughout every Romanian-language film I’ve seen is that pretty much everyone is corrupt – and it’s not really clear how effective their cover story is, especially given one detail towards the end of the film that was the only element I found hard to accept as plausible.

The Whistlers has a very neo-noir feel even with the comedic elements, thanks to a short list of named characters and a plot that has just about everyone in the story working multiple angles, including Cristi himself, reminiscent of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang orsome of the Coen Brothers’ work. The script plays the comedy very straight, respecting the whistling language even as Cristi looks utterly ridiculous trying to reproduce the sounds required for it, while also hiding enough of the byzantine machinations of all of the major characters to make the film’s resolution as suspenseful as you’d demand from a classic noir film.

Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu is apparently better known for dramatic films, including Police, Adjective (which also stars Vlad Ivanov, who plays Cristi), so this script was a new turn for him, and his ability to write dark comedy is quite promising – and a welcome shift from the grim reputation of Romanian films. It also adheres to the spirit of traditional noir stories in that the actual crime at the heart of the plot, the theft of several million leus stuffed into a couple of mattresses, isn’t actually all that important to the film as a whole. This is about the interactions between the characters, with levity from Cristi’s difficulty mastering the whistling language, with an ending that ties the remaining threads together in clever, cohesive fashion.

Because The Whistlers was submitted and eligible for this year’s Oscars, I’ve included it as a 2019 film and added it to my ranking of all films from 2019 that I’ve seen.

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Urban Planning As a Tool for White Supremacy, In Minneapolis and Beyond

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Source: Tufts University.
Julian Ageyman. Source: Tufts University.

The legacy of structural racism in Minneapolis was laid bare to the world at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street, the location where George Floyd’s neck was pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. But it is also imprinted in streets, parks and neighborhoods across the city – the result of urban planning that utilized segregation as a tool of white supremacy.

Today, Minneapolis is seen to be one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. But if you scratch away the progressive veneer of the U.S.‘s most cyclable city, the city with the best park system and sixth-highest quality of life, you find what Kirsten Delegard, a Minneapolis historian, describes as “darker truths about the city.”

As co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, Delegard and her colleagues have been shedding new light on the role that racist barriers to home ownership have had on segregation in the city.

‘Racial Cordon’

Segregation in Minneapolis, like elsewhere in the U.S., is the result of historic practices such as the issuing of racialized real estate covenants that kept nonwhite people from buying or occupying land.

These covenants began appearing in U.S. cities from the early 1900s. Before their use in Minneapolis, the city was “more or less integrated, with a small but evenly distributed African American population.” But covenants changed the cityscape. Racist wording from the city’s first racially restrictive covenant in 1910 stated bluntly that the premises named “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”

As a result, African Americans, especially, were pushed into a few small areas of the city such as the Near North neighborhood, leaving large parts of the city predominantly white. Some of the city’s most desirable parks were ringed by white residential districts. The result was an invisible “racial cordon” around some of the city’s celebrated parks and commons.

‘By design, not accident’

As a scholar of urban planning, I know that Minneapolis, far from being an outlier in segregation, represents the norm. Across the U.S., urban planning is still used by some as the spatial toolkit, consisting of a set of policies and practices, for maintaining white supremacy. But urban planners of color, especially, are pointing out ways to reimagine inclusive urban spaces by dismantling the legacy of racist planning, housing and infrastructure policies.

Racial segregation was not the byproduct of urban planning; it was, in many cases, its intention – it was “not by accident, but by design,” Adrien Weibgen, senior policy fellow at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, explained in a 2019 New York Daily News article.

The effect was and still is devastating.

A map of redlined Black neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Minn. Source: Mapping Inequality
A map of redlined Black neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Minn. Source: Mapping Inequality

The Urban Institute, an independent think tank, noted in a 2017 report that higher levels of racial segregation were linked to lower incomes for Black residents, as well worse educational outcomes for both white and Black students. Other studies have found that racial segregation leads to Black Americans being excluded from high-performing schools. In Minnesota – which ranks as the fourth most segregated statethe gap between the performance of white students and students of color is among the highest in the U.S. Likewise, segregation limits access to transportation, employment and quality health care.

Income and wealth gaps

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Minneapolis the median Black family income in 2018 was US$36,000, compared to nearly $83,000 among white families. After Milwaukee, this is the biggest gap of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. Mirroring the city’s income gap is a huge wealth gap. Minneapolis now has the lowest rate of homeownership among Black American households of any city.

Residential segregation in Minneapolis and elsewhere is still stubbornly high despite more than 50 years since the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, among other factors. But while some residential segregation is now income-based, racial segregation across the U.S. is more ingrained and pervasive than economic segregation.

Zoning out

Residential racial segregation continues to exist because of specific government policies enacted through urban planning. A key tool is zoning – the process of dividing urban land into areas for specific uses, such as residential or industrial. In the introduction to her 2014 book “Zoned in the USA,” urban planning professor Sonia Hirt argues that zoning is about government power to shape “ideals” by imposing a “moral geography” on cities. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, this has meant excluding “undesirables” – namely the poor, immigrants of color and African Americans.

With explicit racialized zoning long outlawed in the U.S. – the U.S. Supreme Court ended the practice in 1917 – many local governments instead turned to “exclusionary” zoning policies, making it illegal to build anything except single-family homes. This “back door racism” had a similar effect to outright racial exclusions: It kept out most Black and low-income people who could not afford expensive single-family homes.

In Minneapolis, single-family zoning amounted to 70% of residential space, compared to 15% in New York. Buttressing this, redlining – the denial of mortgages and loans to people of color by government and the private sector – ensured the continuance of segregation.

Anti-racist planning

Minneapolis is trying hard to reverse these racist policies. In 2018, it became the first large city to vote to end single-family zoning, allowing “upzoning”: the conversion of single-family lots into more affordable duplexes and triplexes.

This, together with “inclusionary zoning” – requiring that new apartment projects hold at least 10% of units for low- to moderate-income households – is part of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. Central to that vision is a goal to eliminate disparities in wealth, housing and opportunity “regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, religion, or zip code” within 20 years.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis City Council acted quickly in advancing plans to dismantle the city’s police force. Dismantling the legacy of by-design segregation will require the tools of urban planning being utilized to find solutions after decades of being part of the problem.The Conversation

Julian Ageyman is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and is republished here with permission. 

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Masks as Theatre ?

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A recent blog comment claimed masks, especially cloth masks, were only “theatre.” That’s simply not true, and you can prove it yourself… but first a few basics.

A cough can travel as fast as 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets in just one go. Sneezes can travel up to 100 mph and create upwards of 100,000 droplets. Several studies found that larger droplets [from someone not wearing a mask] easily carried for more than two meters and as far as six meters. Those droplets and aerosols can hang around for hours, and longer in poorly ventilated areas.

The British medical journal The Lancet recently released a meta-analysis on studies dealing with “person-to-person virus transmission.” Among the many findings was one that masks were an effective way to reduce transmission, since they function as an effective “source control” restricting the flow of droplets and aerosols.

This past July 16th, the CDC released a statement specifically addressing cloth face coverings, stating that they should be used, and that studies showed that they were effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19. Masks block direct airflow, which reduces the amount of virus expelled and the distance it can travel… and that reduces contagion.

And if you’re still skeptical… look at the world map. Places with high masking rates and social distancing are doing MUCH better than we are.

By themselves, masks aren’t a cure-all. They are rated at reducing the risk of virus transmission by roughly 70%, but many flu vaccines don’t do much better. Masks also have one other problem. My mask protects you twice as well as it protects me. In effect, my fate lies more in your hands than mine. Now, that’s always been true in every functioning society, but most people don’t see it or like to admit it. We are indeed our brother, or sister’s keeper.

And that’s a problem in a country where some 40% of the population believes a President whose operating maxim is effectively, “Me first, screw you.”

Now…for that personal proof. Hold your hand fully extended in front of your mouth. Cough, hard. If you’re reasonably healthy, you should be able to feel the airflow from your cough on your fingers. For most people that’s a distance of a little less than three feet. Put on a mask, and do it again. When I do it, and I have fairly strong lungs, I can’t feel any airflow through the mask [mine is cloth, with HEPA filter inserts]. Some airflow will escape through the edges of the mask, but any aerosols or droplets emitted will stay close to the body, and combined with social distancing and adequate ventilation, will effectively protect others.

As for masks being theatre… that’s not quite true. Wearing a mask isn’t theatre, but not wearing one is… and it’s called tragedy.

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Half of Americans Want Drivers Who Drive More to Pay More

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Nearly half of Americans think it’s time to rethink how we fund our road infrastructure by switching from a federal gas tax — which theoretically rewards drivers for choosing greener cars, but doesn’t always deter excessive driving itself — and replacing it with a tax based on how many miles drivers actually travel, a new survey says.

The results, which were part of an annual study conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute, also showed that support for a vehicle mileage traveled tax are reaching record heights. Forty-five percent of respondents said they would prefer a flat mileage fee to a gas tax, while 49 percent said they’d prefer a “green” mileage fee that charges drivers of high-polluting cars a little more, and drivers of more-efficient cars a little less — the highest levels of support the researchers have found in the 10 years since the survey began.

That’s an enormous amount of support for a relatively obscure idea. Vehicle miles traveled taxes are not currently in use in any state in the United States, but several communities have conducted pilot programs to study the idea, including one in California that collected drivers’ mileage information via GPS technology on their cell phones, or on dedicated devices attached to their cars.

Of course, many commercial trucking and “rideshare” companies already use similar apps and devices to collect driver mileage and other information — which could make them a natural candidate for a dedicated VMT tax of their own.  Between 52 and 54 percent of respondents to the survey also supported the idea of new mileage fees specifically for taxi companies and delivery vehicles, which are actually empty more than 20 percent of the miles they spend on the road. (Taxi companies like Uber and Lyft are “deadheading” more than 40 percent of the miles they travel).

Source: Mineta Transportation Institute.
Source: Mineta Transportation Institute.

What’s wrong with the gas tax?

One of the reasons why the Mineta study is so significant is because it could indicate a burgeoning public awareness about our broken road funding system — one which both fails to fund the maintenance of our road network, and also fails to disincentivize excessive driving that has a deadly and expensive impact on society.

The federal gas tax was established in 1956 specifically to fund the Highway Trust Fund, which was supposed to pay for 100 percent of maintenance costs of the national road network in perpetuity. But since 1993, Congress has stubbornly refused to raise that tax to meet climbing costs — even after the Fund went into bankruptcy in 2008. Stagnant tax rates combined with steep rises in construction material prices, decades of constant road building and maintenance obligations, and the advent of the increasingly fuel-efficient and electric cars have combined to create a national fiscal emergency — and today, the Highway Trust Fund runs an average $18-billion deficit every year. The Treasury has largely filled the gap, meaning that taxpayers at large are functionally subsidizing the infrastructure costs of those who drive most.

“The public doesn’t fully recognize how much transportation funding sources have changed in the last 20-plus years,” said Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst at the Frontier Group. “Most of us, we go to the gas station, we see that we pay a gas tax, we assume that it pays for the roads that we use. But it doesn’t — at least not completely.”

Of course, wear and tear on highways aren’t the only costs to society created by excessive driving — and the gas tax currently commits no money to addressing the expensive externalities of the mode, from accelerating climate change to our ongoing traffic violence epidemic, alongside countless other problems. Experts have long pointed out that the drivers of “green” monstrosities like the electric Hummer (or the wide range of hybrid SUVs that kill a disproportionate number of pedestrians) could save money at the pump when compared to the drivers of safer, smaller cars — savings that could be lessened if the nation switched to a better tax structure.

Hiking the gas tax, of course, could help stabilize the Highway Trust Fund — at least in theory. But many experts argue that just raising gas taxes could backfire in the long run, because high gas taxes are often obscured by low oil prices. Since the gas tax is rolled into the price tag at the pump, any drop in total fuel cost has historically incentivized drivers to hit the road more. And as fuel-efficient cars become a larger share of our national vehicle fleet, total fuel costs per household will go down even further — and so will Highway Trust Fund revenues, without the benefits of actually subtracting any drivers from the roadway.

The benefits of VMT

If a gas tax only disincentivizes burning a lot of fossil fuels, a VMT tax disincentivizes something much more simple — frequent unnecessary driving.

“To me, one of the possible benefits of a vehicle miles travelled fee is that it’s more transparent to folks than a gas tax,” Dutzik said. “With VMT, you at least have a meter running in your mind about how much that next mile will actually cost you, and it might discourage you from taking that car trip when you could get there another way.”

Because “green” VMT is an option, electing to tax excessive driving doesn’t mean we can’t also tax excessive fuel consumption. And with even more finessing, they may even make it easier for governments to give a leg up to poor drivers with no choice but to drive to three jobs all over town.

Because VMT programs don’t have to rely on gas station infrastructure to collect fees, they’re fairly flexible. For instance, after a low income driver’s onboard GPS device sends the government her mileage, the government could discount or forgive her fees based on her tax bracket, or allow her to pay on an installment plan the way she might any other utility when she falls behind on the bill. And if drivers prefer to pay directly at the gas station or charging station, some pilots even allow them to do so in cash, or via a service like Cash App or Venmo, which are increasingly popular financial options among the underbanked.  

“There are valid equity concerns with a mileage fee, but here’s the thing: right now, nobody budgets for the gas tax,” said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, director of the National Transportation Finance Center and one of the study’s co-authors. “At least with VMT, there are ways to make that price tag more visible, and plan for it.”

Why VMT alone is not enough

But experts warn that even a perfect mileage fee wouldn’t be a total panacea for what ails our city transportation networks. That’s because it matters a lot how much those fees would actually be — and what the fees would actually pay for.

In our current system, rock-bottom gas taxes prop up an increasingly insolvent Highway Trust Fund, which itself supports a mode of travel that kills an average of 38,000 people every year. Experts say that’s a stark contrast to nearly every other country in the world.

“In most nations, gas taxes simply go into a general revenue fund, and then the government decides every year what it wants to do with that money,” Weinstein Agrawal said. “[The fact that the US has a dedicated Highway Trust Fund] limits our ability to make changes, and spend money on the things that people might believe are important in a given year.”

But if more of our travel fees were channeled towards infrastructure for transit, walking and biking — while simultaneously funding an effort to decommission the most dangerous highways that never should have been built, like the ones we ran through countless downtowns during the urban renewal era — it could have a more positive impact than simply channeling gas taxes back into infrastructure for gas-guzzling modes. Increasing the gas tax could help even more, as could switching to a tax structure that more accurately disincentivizes excessive driving, like a VMT-based fee.

And it might be even better, some experts argue, if we implemented a suite of new taxes on drivers that accurately reflected all the negative impacts driving has on our communities.

“You could charge people for the congestion they produce, for their impacts on the road infrastructure, for the carbon they emit, and for their mileage,” Dutzik said. “Fees for time on the road have even been put forward. When we posit VMT as a replacement for the gas tax, it at least addresses some of those issues, at least. ”

For now, experts are heartened that the American imagination is at least beginning to expand — especially as we begin to recognize that even the most deeply embedded categories of government spending aren’t set in stone. 

“Saying you strongly support something on a survey does not mean you’re necessarily champing at the bit to see it implemented,” said Weinstein Agrawal. “But I do think there’s more awareness of the fact that the transportation world is changing. At least, I think people are seeing that electric vehicles are actually coming, and there may be a lot of them, and gosh, it doesn’t seem fair that those drivers should pay nothing. There seems to be this assumption in the room — and certainly in Washington — that Americans hate taxes, and, of course, you can’t raise the gas tax. We’re starting to realize that may not be true.”

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Opinion: The Fraught History of Cops and Bikes

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Eric Schewe
Eric Schewe
Bike New York this week called on the NYPD, among other things, to put more officers on bicycles in order to improve community policing. But the NYPD’s recent use of bikes against Black Lives Matter protesters — as well as the NYPD’s history with biking and relations with cyclists — shows that this demand is deeply problematic. Yes, having cops work in SUV cruisers reinforces their “windshield perspective” and alienates them from the communities they police, and more cops definitely should patrol on bikes. But the force would need to rethink the training officers get on biking — as well as its relationship with the cycling community — before that would be a viable strategy. The NYPD has a long history with biking, dating back to the early 1900s, when Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt organized a bike-mounted squad of “scorchers” to pursue criminals. The modern history of NYPD biking, however, began in the 1990s, as part of an earlier round of “community policing.” In mid-1992 the (now defunct) Housing Authority Police put 36 cyclists on the beat and publicly celebrated the efficacy of bike patrols. The NYPD also began buying bikes in the 1990s, and since then, many precincts have maintained a few bikes for patrol, in particular, mountain bikes — which have a macho, athletic image.
Blue Bikers: Police Commissioner Roosevelt's Scorcher Squad. Photo: RoughDiplomacy.com
Blue Bikers: Police Commissioner Roosevelt’s Scorcher Squad. Photo: RoughDiplomacy.com
Yet, even as cycling has spread among civilians in the last 20 years, NYPD attitudes toward it have hardened. A turning point was the 9/11 attacks, which changed the NYPD’s stance toward civil disobedience. The department began cracking down on cycling demonstrations, such as Critical Mass, culminating in a confrontation between police and 5,000 Critical Mass riders at the 2004 Republican National Convention.The police brutally arrested 234 riders; the city eventually paid $18 million in lawyers’ fees and suit settlements over NYPD conduct. With the spread of hundreds of miles of bike lanes and launch of the Citi Bike program, the city has become friendlier for cyclists — but drivers still nursed grievances. Motorists proved unwilling to concede cyclists the space afforded by the new lanes and — guess what? — many cops have sided with them, shirking enforcement and using NYPD vehicles to block bike lanes. (Let’s not even get into the history of NYPD harassment of cyclists or victim-blaming of crash victims.) The alliance is no mystery: The average police officer commutes by car from the outer boroughs or suburban counties. Cops simply don’t identify with people cycling for work: tens of thousands of bike commuters, as well as low-wage delivery workers, most of whom live in Manhattan or inner-borough neighborhoods.
Manhattan Community Board 4 says NYPD is not a good partner of Vision Zero, for reasons like this. Above, a police car parks in a bike lane in Manhattan. Photo: Dan Miller
Some enforcement: An NYPD SUV parks in a bike lane in Manhattan. Photo: Dan Miller
Ideally, getting more cops on bikes would help them lose their windshield perspective. But how cops use bikes is just as important as whether they use them. In the last several years, New York actually has trained more bike cops than it has ever had — but, for the most part, these cops aren’t using bikes for patrolling. They’re the officers of the Strategic Response Group, whose chunky bikes are driven for them to special events in large vans. After the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and the 2014 London Riots, the NYPD got Department of Homeland Security money to hire some 800 officers for the SRG, which the brass pledged would focus on antiterrorism. Of course, the SRG has been used principally to suppress popular protests and even surveil left-wing groups. By 2017, the unit had trained and outfitted 250 officers to use bicycles in crowd control — which was supposed to be a “friendlier” alternative to shields, helmets and horses for riot policing (and got the NYPD fawning coverage on local TV). The SRG bike unit’s first major outing was directing crowds at the Women’s March before President Trump’s inauguration. In recent protests, we’ve seen SRG police using their bikes to block the movement of and even ram protesters — a hard-edged tactic, veering into frank brutality, which needless to say is the antithesis of community policing. The need for widespread retraining of this militarized group — and, in certain cases, disciplinary action against individual officers — is glaring. As a first step, however, we must highlight the hypocrisy of the NYPD’s strategy and demand that SRG bike cops actually bike through the city they trained to protect. Then we should demand that the NYPD actually train cops to learn and enforce the Vehicle and Traffic Law as it pertains to cycling, and use some courtesy, professionalism and respect when dealing with the cycling community. Eric Schewe is a historian and Queens resident. He writes regularly for JSTOR Daily and on Twitter @nychistorybiker.
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