June 21, 2007

Bicycles in Amsterdam

First of a series of posts on bicycles and bike infrastructure in Amsterdam.

I've been living in Amsterdam since December. One of this city's great pleasures is the cycling life. According to Wikipedia, there are about 700,000 bikes in Amsterdam, almost one bike per inhabitant. Bikes handle 40 percent of all trips inside the city limits. This makes Amsterdam unique among major urban centers in the developed world (though cities like Shanghai and Bombay have a lot more of them.)

Bikes and canals make this city quiet. With so little auto traffic, mostly what you hear is the whoosh of bike tires and an occasional warning bell. Riding in serious bike traffic has been a major learning experience. I've only seen one collision and so far I haven't hit anyone, but it's still a bit terrifying to float along in the pack with hundreds of other cyclists at rush hour. I've seen people doing amazing things, such as carrying a huge television, or half a dozen 3-meter planks. A parent at my son's school carts four children around on a 2-wheel bike (two in front on a long frame extension, one behind on the rack, and one in a baby seat on the handlebars).

The standard Dutch bike is black, with only one gear and a coaster brake. They're very heavy, probably close to 40 pounds (don't try carrying one of these monsters up a set of stairs). You see more and more bikes with handbrakes, additional gears, other colors, etc., but they remain the exception. The riding posture is upright, making the already gigantic Dutch look even taller. Cyclists ride at a stately pace, low by American standards but appropriate for heavy bike traffic, a phenomenon you rarely encounter in the USA.

More than 10 percent of all Amsterdam bicycles get stolen every year, so you're actually better off with the basic bike, cheap and nondescript. Still, the fact that most bikes look very similar can be a real problem if you forget where you've parked. Bike parking lots at train stations can hold thousands of bikes; the photo shows the three-story bike parking structure at Amsterdam's Centraal Station. (Imagine how big this would need to be to accommodate the same number of cars.) Bike racks, provided by the city, are ubiquitous — at least one long rack per city block, holding 60-100 bikes — and they are very often full.

Many people, including me, carry two locks: one that just blocks the back wheel, and another for locking it to something. Junkies are constantly scanning the bike racks, looking for the easy pickings, so if you have two locks they're more likely to let yours be. Apparently the price of a stolen bike on the black market exactly tracks the price of a shot of heroin. Bar locks aren't as secure as the colossal Stahlex chains and padlocks most people use. The Hummer of bike locks, this setup probably weighs 3 kilograms. When you try to snake it through the wheel and the bike frame, the chain behaves like a slippery, very dead python, flopping around and yanking itself out of your hands. The padlock pulls apart, into two pieces, so you end up with four items in your hands (padlock body, padlock hasp, two ends of the chain), which is one too many to handle. It took me one very frustrating month to train myself to put the lock body down while I wrestled with the chain. Probably hundreds of padlocks and chains fall into the canals every year while their owners are trying to lock them to the railing.

Kids here learn to ride almost as soon as they learn to walk. Training wheels are typical, but you also see kids on the much more sensible German "walking bike," which teaches them to balance without the training wheels and makes the transition faster. Adults mostly don't wear helmets, but a lot of kids do.

Cycling is totally integrated into the Dutch urban transport mix. It's not an afterthought or an optional add-on, but a fourth mode of street-level transport along with pedestrians, automobiles/buses, and light rail. You can take your bike on the metro and the train (though not on trams and buses). Stairways in metro and train stations have a very thin metal ramp, just wide enough for bicycle wheels, to facilitate getting bikes up and down. Folding bikes are common, too.

For the most part, cyclists get not only bike lanes, but actual bicycle roadbeds, separated from the sidewalk, the tram tracks, and the street by curbs or other physical barriers (not just markings). Cyclists have their own, separate system of traffic lights, adorned with happy little green, yellow, and red bicycle icons. The basic warning device is a bell, but people don't use them much -- mainly just to warn the tourists, who are always stepping into the bike lane in order to get around other pedestrians, or just because it looks like a good place to walk.

This semi-separate roadway infrastructure makes a huge difference to the cycling experience. Mostly you're riding with other cyclists, not competing with cars. Drivers here are much more respectful and careful of cyclists, probably because they're all cyclists as well. In the USA, many drivers still seem to think cyclists shouldn't ride in the road at all. (Last Fall my dentist asked me helpfully whether I'd been sure to stay on the sidewalk on my way to her office.) American drivers honk their horns and indulge their road rage against you, even if you're lucky enough to have the rare luxury of a bike lane. Here they look out for you. Nobody honks, ever. (It's positively weird.)

To me the most interesting reasons for why this works so well here regard the cycling culture Dutch people have created. In the USA, you only ride a bike everywhere if you're a kid. (Even then, mainly because you're not old enough to drive.) If you're an adult and you're on a bike, it means you are either having XTreme fun (and often wearing garish cycling tights to prove it), or getting exercise, or both. But if you are a serious adult professional person, you do not, not, NOT go to work on a bike. If you show up to work carrying a bike helmet, somebody will almost always say something. The comment won't necessarily be hostile, but it will still remind you that you're unusual, different, -- out of the ordinary, perhaps slightly heroic, perhaps a bit nuts or not quite grown up. If you're wet from rain -- or worse, sweat -- you'll soon be looking for a back door where you can sneak into your office without anybody noticing your soppy state.

In the Netherlands, cycling isn't seen this way. Nobody thinks twice if you show up on a bike, because everybody rides. If you're really wet, you might get offered a towel, but it won't be accompanied by the "you are an alien" look people give you in the States. I've seen people riding in high heels, swimming suits, sandals, fur coats, expensive business suits, and long evening gowns. Not just in good weather, either, but in cold, heat, and rain. Yes, people can get drenched and unhappy, but they cope, and nobody complains because everyone's doing it. Cycling in the rain isn't always a good idea. I found this out the hard way, when I came down with pneumonia after a long evening of searching the grachtengordel in the rain, looking for another sauna after Deco turned out to be closed. (We never found it.) Still, if you wear good raingear and carry a towel, it's really not a problem most of the time. As one of my more intrepid friends likes to say, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

I can hear the "yes, buts" starting now, all the way across the Atlantic. "Yes, but I have to wear a skirt to work." "Yes, but I'm wearing a suit and tie (or makeup, or nice shoes, or whatever), so I can't sweat." My point here is that these reactions are not natural facts. The cultural infrastructure of cycling is at least as important as the physical infrastructure in creating a critical mass.

If enough other people are doing it too, cycling becomes a normal form of transport — a default option. Then the problems you confront become normal problems, not exceptional ones that draw commentary and puzzlement. Need to dry off? Keep a towel in your office. Want to stay dry on the bike? Buy full-body raingear. Wearing a skirt? Choose an upright bike with a "woman's" frame with no crossbar (which in the Netherlands is standard for both men and women). Too many hills between you and your job? So what are you doing on the Lifecycle at your gym? We've got an obesity epidemic, but people won't be caught dead sweating in public.

In future posts I'll have more on Dutch work bikes (bakfietsen) and other technological innovations; the Dutch cyclists' union and the history of cycling infrastructure here; Amsterdam consulting with London and other large cities on how to increase cycling; bikes vs. other forms of transport; bike safety. And lots of pictures.

June 20, 2007

Default Options

In April, Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz published an NYT op-ed called "Unnatural Selections," about default options in practically every sphere of life.

People have to make a lot of choices — too many choices. If we considered all the options, we'd overheat, burn, and then die of choice overload. To economize on brainpower and time, we generally go with the default. Schwartz's example: in New Jersey, where no-fault car insurance is the default option, most consumers get that, but in Pennsylvania, which began offering no-fault around the same time, consumers have to choose it explicitly — so most people don't. This goes against their economic interests, since no-fault insurance is a lot cheaper.

The cartoon accompanying Schwartz's article makes the point better than he does. A scowling diner stares in disgust at a restaurant table covered with food -- literally covered, with gravy oozing into the tablecloth, because he "didn't choose the 'plate' option." A leisure-suited salesman shows off a new car with no wheels, because "you didn't choose the 'wheels' option." Etc. etc.

There's a real lesson here. It's related to, but not identical with, ideas like "path dependence" and "configuring the user." All infrastructures create default options; in fact, that's half the point of having an infrastructure at all. Yet the bigger, more widely accepted, and more deeply entrenched an infrastructure becomes, the harder it becomes to make use of other options, the ones that have to be deliberately chosen and configured (if they still exist).

I'm living in Amsterdam this semester, where bicycles are (almost) the default option for short-distance transport: 40 percent of all trips inside the city limits. A standard conversation you can have with Dutch people involves the total dominance of cars in the USA. Like most Europeans, they assume you can go almost anywhere on public transport. They're not idiots; they know that many trips may be slower on trains, buses, and trams than in a car. What they're not prepared for is the "you can't get there from here" answer they'll hear across the USA, at least outside the downtowns of large Northeastern cities and a handful of others. A Dutch colleague took a one-semester job at a US university. To her complete amazement, even for such a short period there was really no way to do without a car. Not only that, she would be expected to pay for the car, insurance, parking, and everything else the four-wheeled beast needs to live. Her employers and colleagues were equally amazed by her consternation, since from their point of view, what else would you do? It's the default option.

In the IT world, this lesson gets learned again and again, a bit better over time, perhaps, but never once and for all. In the 1980s Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores developed a program for distributed workgroups called the Coordinator. Based on a speech-act theory of interaction, the Coordinator attempted to help people complete multi-step interactions. To begin, they had to explicitly categorize each communication as a form of action: make a Request, reply with a Promise, Cancel an earlier request, make a Counter-request, etc. "Request" was the first action in most sequences, so it was the default option, and sure enough, practically every transaction -- including responses to requests -- were soon identified as "Requests," reducing the capacity of the program to channel and track action and turning it basically into glorified email. Another example: Microsoft Word users, probably including you, suffer the plague of Word's "auto-recover" feature, which sounds a lot like the "auto-save" option most programs have -- but isn't. (Word keeps a file of changes to the document, but does not actually save the document itself, so that if you crash and then make the wrong response to the auto-recover dialogue, your changes are gone forever. I recently spent an entire day trying, and failing, to drag some of my work out of Autorecover's jaws.)

This lesson applies to almost anything: privacy (opt-in vs. opt-out), law (the power of precedent), social interaction (default greetings, goodbyes, unspoken codes of behavior surrounding argument), software (default document and data formats), and on and on.

So designers, choose the choices carefully. Whatever users get when they don't make a choice is probably what most people will end up with. And contrary to popular belief, most people don't actually want to make more choices.