Laziness and fear

Published 2015-08-31

This one is for Portland friends:

I chose the word “laziness” very deliberately. One friend on Twitter objected to it as judgmental. He suggested:

But the truth is, there is an element of judgment in my use of the word “laziness” — which is partly why chose that word.

I need to step back and clarify that I am actually a proponent of laziness. Laziness is a powerful motivator for efficiency. An old joke about programmers is that they’re so lazy they’ll spend hours writing a script to save having to type the same thing three times.

Ironically, laziness is why I ride a bike! Bikes are cheap, easy to repair & maintain, seldom break down & even more rarely leave you stranded, and present highly predictable travel times. They require little-to-no registration, no licensing, and they are super easy to park. My rational mind writes all that down, but in reality what happened was, for about 20 years I was too lazy to shop for a good car. (Shopping for cars is hard work.) It was easier just to keep riding my bike!

Human beings are lazy to the extent they are efficient.

So when I say I consider it “lazy” that someone doesn’t want to get wet on the way to work, this is partly a compliment in my universe: you are maximizing your return on effort.

But is partly … not a compliment. Getting wet (to extend this example) is a state I find myself in frequently and I kinda sorta have degraded sympathy for people who merely dislike getting wet. Or dirty. Or having tired legs. Man up and ride ya wimp.

OTOH riding next to cars is scary — I understand that fear viscerally. I have tons of empathy for someone who is skittish around traffic on bike.1

I think there has been a longtime conflation of safety and convenience, that has wrapped these two things together. Comfortable is safe, inside a car, but safety and convenience are potentially orthogonal properties. The driver is essentially “offshoring” safety to the rest of the world for the sake of convenience.

Anyway what set this off was a (minor) incident this morning where a driver, clearly late for work, failed to appropriately yield to Orion and myself. It was a totally “safe” interaction — Orion and I could both see what this guy was going to do and planned appropriately for it. We saw him run out of his house, look directly at us, and get into his car and back it out, reckoning (correctly) we would surrender our right-of-way rather than get squashed.

Such interactions — where a driver in a hurry sees me and makes a deliberate calculation that my safety is less important than their convenience — happens nearly daily to me. This was a minor example. There were others this morning. Like the guy who risked right hooking me to get into the queue for the Morrison Bridge on-ramp. Or the woman who risked left-hooking me to make a turn onto 39th Ave. from Belmont.

I don’t know who all these people are. I don’t know their stories, or their states of mind. But I have driven a car at rush hour and running a little late, so I can guess. And I experience the other side so damn frequently when I’m on my bike that I’ll go out on a limb here and stereotype. These are mostly people commuting from inner Southeast to the city core. Whatever the reason they can’t add an extra fifteen minutes to their morning routine to make it a little less crazy for the rest of us. Considering that a potential outcome is: “someone (out there, outside MY car) might die,” I think I can justify using worse words than “lazy.” Although from the perspective of late-for-work dude — he’s just maximizing a return on effort, based on an arbitrage we have built into our society: people trying to get around without cars are not safely separated from cars, and disproportionately bear the consequences of that lack of separation.

This is where America has crossed the “safety” and “convenience” wires. It’s totally “safe” for late-for-work dude that we should yield to his “convenience.” He was a rich dude in a fancy neighborhood with a European car, an upstanding citizen. We were grubby hippies on bikes. And in fact a usual reaction I get when I’m on this rant is something like “well that’s what you get for not driving your kids to school like a normal person. Like a normal person (with money, natch), I should offshore safety to the miserable poors outside — yet in fearful proximity to — my car.

But to return to my original point: we as a society can’t fix laziness. We can’t make people more upstanding or empathetic or better at managing their morning routines. I’m a strong social libertarian in this regard: not only do we have no business legislating states of mind, it tends not to work well anyway. Shaming people into being not-lazy is mean-spirited and pointless. I want to cut the relationship between “safety” and “convenience,” and the knife I want to use is the design of the built environment. What would happen if safety and convenience were appropriately disentangled?

Which brings me to Scott’s more politely-worded point, and the point I was trying to hammer.

To bring this back full circle … if we disentangle “safety” and “convenience,” I think we might find getting wet is less troublesome than we expected. People ride their bikes all winter long in Copenhagen, after all, and it’s not because the Danes are superior human beings2. It’s because the Danes have made riding a bike for most trips as safe as driving a car.



1 I’m kind of using “bikes” as a proxy for walking-biking-transit. Transit also suffers a “safety” problem, but more of a physical safety issue, i.e. harassment, panhandling, assault etc. As with bikes, it is a socially degraded form of transport because we have normalized offshoring safety onto others for the sake of our own convenience. Buses are for poor people, right? What bugs me is that we regard the offshoring-safety exchange as somehow part of the natural state of the universe when in fact it is socially constructed.

2 although this kind of thing does make you wonder…