Another Copenhagen Syndrome | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

View all posts from Douglas Moran

Another Copenhagen Syndrome

Uploaded: Mar 5, 2016
Visionaries and dreamers can be major impediments to accomplishing anything useful. They clutter the public discourse and decision-making with ideas that are non-starters or little better than idle speculation. Even though it does not take much analysis to reveal the absurdities, dealing with even a few of these can fritter away so much time and energy that not enough is left to pursue viable ideas.

For example, at the so-called "Sustainability Summit" in January, one group had the idea of "an underground transportation system stretching from Marin County to San Jose, with high travel speeds and numerous stops along the way."(foot#1) Were they not aware of the difficulty and great expense of even a modest undergrounding of Caltrain within Palo Alto? And various other tunneling projects around the country?(foot#2) Are they so clueless about Bay Area politics that they don't realize that Palo Alto would be an insignificant player in any such project? Of course, matters of cost and practicality are irrelevant if one regards meetings on public policy as simply a venue for entertainment and self-gratification.

For years, bicycle advocates have been citing Copenhagen Denmark as an example of where large numbers of people commute by bike, some for long distances. It was prominently featured in the Mayor's State of the City Address(foot#3) so I expect this will be repeatedly raised during the rest of the year. However, I have yet to encounter an advocate for whom the example is more that "If they can do it, so can we!!!"

The following analysis is primarily a cautionary case study of the unexamined example, but also to challenge the implicit claim in the citing of the Copenhagen example that our traffic congestion problems have readily available solutions.

From my experience living in various places, I know that there are many factors in decisions about whether to bicycle. In one of those places, bicycling was very practical and was my primary mode of local travel. In others, bicycling had a limited role. And in some, bicycling was largely impractical. In living here, bicycling to some of my jobs was a reasonable choice, and out of the question for others.

Distances: My first question of the Copenhagen example is for a rough description of who rides what distances, and who doesn't, but all I have gotten so far are hand-waves. The issue here is not whether or not this profile has been assembled, but that the advocates here not only are unaware of any such profile, but didn't think to ask the questions that would necessitate having such data.

While physical distance is easy to measure, psychological distance is the more relevant criteria. I know that there have been studies done on this for drivers and pedestrians, but I don't remember hearing such studies being cited in local deliberations. Quite the contrary, when residents such as me have raised questions about this, the elite bicyclists and advocates have insisted that shortest distance was all that matters, including when the differences were only a few blocks.

Routes: The issue of the psychology of various routes is important in choosing what routes to focus on improving: A route that isn't currently the best choice may be much more amenable to the necessary improvements needed to make the larger network of bicycle routes more usable to more people. However, in any meeting on this, you are likely to encounter a group of bicycle advocates who reject making any such choices and insist that all streets be improved. In the likely case that other attendees don't tell them to "Get real!", you should probably stop wasting your time and walk out of the meeting--it is an exercise in self-indulgence for advocates who want to trumpet their superiority.

The success of the joint City-School District program for getting large numbers of students to bike to school is routinely cited as demonstrating what can be done with commuters. But that ignores that the school commute is a much more constrained situation. The school routes center on the primary regions within Palo Alto that each school draws from. In contrast, the Copenhagen-style commuting would require many people to traverse multiple cities. I once had a job 8 miles north of my home, but I could not find an acceptable route across the five jurisdictions. Some of the problems were with poor connections between the street grids, some were with poor maintenance of the streets, and some were traffic conditions. The politics of developing and implementing a coordinated plan is "daunting" (euphemism). And remember that a long series of planning meetings is more likely an indication of future inaction (except more meetings).

My experience was that for any non-trivial bicycle commute, you rarely have a single route, but have multiple alternative segments, and even two or more distinct routes. Some choices are affected by the weather: slippery surfaces, poor visibility. Some by the season (example, litter from trees). Some by the time of day--for example traffic during peak hours, and poor lighting at night on streets with poorly maintained surfaces. And a good route may become unusable for months at a time because construction on a building has taken away a lane, damaged the surface, ...

I know from repeated experience in meetings that the bicycle advocates and elite bicyclists are likely to respond to the above with "A real bicyclist knows how to handle those situations." Another example of smug superiority being more important than problem-solving.

Just as distances and routes become much more complicated as soon as you start thinking about them, so do the effects of work schedules. For example, when you have to leave for work and when you get home relative to dawn and dusk. Copenhagen is much further north than here (visualization: roughly the same latitude as Ketchikan in southern-most Alaska) and has much shorter days in the winter. That could provide insight about the behavior of people who would be bicycling in the dark because they work late.

If you have worked in a foreign country, you were likely surprised by how much you underestimated (and overestimated) how different things would be, and how much seemingly inconsequential differences matter. For example, it took me months to become effective shopping in a British supermarket because of the different groupings of products and the color and design of the packaging--I would look for items in the wrong areas of the store or not recognize them as I scanned the shelves. One good way to explore the relevance of the Copenhagen example would be to find local residents who had been bike commuters in Copenhagen and ask them to do a compare-and-contrast on the situation in the mid-peninsula.

Shopping: Another big difference between school commutes and job commutes is that the latter often includes stops for shopping and other errands, known as "trip combining". In one place I lived, the local grocery store was only two blocks from my house, but I would never go there by bike: After work, I would drop my bike at home and drive. In another, my primary grocery store was on my commute route for both bike and car. Shopping when I was biking noticeably limited what I would buy, and what I needed to buy could cause me to commute by car rather than bike. I am not going to delve into the details because it is complex enough to be its own topic, and the topic here is the failure to explore the relevance of examples and analogies. My previous attempts at discussing these problems at meetings has been thwarted by bike enthusiasts who argue that since they have figured out how to do their shopping by bike, the problems that others have are the results of their personal failures.

I expect that some will argue that having "Walkable Neighborhoods" would go a long way to reducing the problem of shopping while biking. That ship has sailed -- a long time ago. It was recognized as a serious issue during the development of the current Comprehensive Plan in the early and mid 1990s. Neighborhood-serving retail was decimated during the DotCom boom. City Hall's response was to hold periodic meetings with little follow-up action. The City's existing policies to protect and enhance retail are generally not enforced, and have been repeatedly contravened by City Hall, including explicit approvals by those City Councils.

Scaling up is notoriously hard, with many failures, especially in the commercial world. But that gets lost in a "Yes you can!!" culture. For example, I routinely hear bike advocates celebrate being able to park immediately in front of the store or restaurant they are going to, and argue that many more people should do this. But do some sampling as a reality check: A restaurant that has seating for over 50 customers has a rack for two bicycles. I have lived in college towns with lots of bicycling. At some destinations the number of parked bikes obstructs pedestrian flow. At others, the bike parking problems make walking a preferred alternative.

Theft: As the concentration of bikes increases, so does the problem of crime, which has multiple components. First is that it is not just whole bicycles that can be stolen, but wheels, seats, lighting systems and other accessories. Second, preventing theft has substantial capital costs--locks...--and substantial operational costs--the time taken locking up the bike and taking vulnerable accessories with you. Third, lost opportunities--for example, I didn't buy an expensive headlight that would have made my commute easier and safer, even though I could afford it. What I didn't want to have to cope with was securing it, or finding it stolen when I needed it to get home after working late.

There is a major difference in parking a bike within a sea of other bikes and parking it in front a store where you are the only customer who arrived by bike. In the former case, the thief is essentially invisible; in the latter, any potential thief is likely to be noticed by bystanders (if not you).

I know people who bike to many locations within Palo Alto, but won't bike to meetings and events at Stanford: A variation of "Nobody goes there anymore--it's too crowded" (Yogi Berra).

Migration/Transition: Doing a major upgrade to a computer's operating system is so fraught with potential problems that one would expect people in Silicon Valley to be highly sensitized to the potential for problems in migrating between systems in other categories. One would be wrong. I have seen this repeatedly in discussions of public transit, where the policy being advocated is to build high-density housing that would encourage, if not force, people to use transit under the theory that, although viable transit is not currently available, that eventual accumulation of density would cause transit to be provided. There is no concern about what would happen in the intervening 30, 50 or 100 years. Or concern that the difficulties during the transition might abort it.

Sometimes what works is to shift the perspective from what the advocates seek to impose on others to what they would tolerate themselves. For example, suppose you wanted to visit Madagascar but the only flights you could afford had a connection, with overnight stay, in Libya on the way there and connections in Yemen and Syria on the way home.

One of the consequences of high job mobility in Silicon Valley is minimal penalties for undue risk-taking and "unforced errors" in migration planning. This has the subsidiary consequence of the sense of the hazards doesn't seep into public consciousness.

Copenhagen Syndrome (there are others with this name)
My choice of this name was inspired by the Stockholm Syndrome in which captives/hostages come to empathize with their captors. In this syndrome, advocates become captivated by an example or analogy that they fail to ask obvious questions. But then, after seeing the complexity of the questions outlined above, maybe credulous acceptance is the better path.


1. Palo Alto plots greener future at Sustainability Summit: Close to 300 attendees debate new goals, policies for slashing carbon, Palo Alto Online, 2016-01-24.

2. Other expensive and difficult tunneling projects:
BART-to-San-Jose, the Los Angeles subway project, Boston's The Big Dig, Seattle's Alaska Way Viaduct replacement tunnel.
California's High Speed Rail (HSR): The HSR Authority changed their plans from starting with a segment from LA to Nowhere, near Bakersfield, to starting with the segment from San Jose to Nowhere. They were reported worried that the costs, difficulty and delays of tunneling through the mountains would be such a budget-buster that it would kill the project unless there were already massive sunk costs.

3. State of the City Address:
Traffic looms large in Pat Burt's 'State of the City' speech: Mayor cites steep transportation challenges, potential solutions during annual update, Palo Alto Online, 2016-02-24.
Editorial: Our city state: Transportation issues highlight aspirational 'State of the City' speech, Palo Alto Online, 2016-02-26.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Johnny, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 7:53 am

Thanks Doug you are absolutely correct and I am relieved there's someone here he still uses common sense.

"Another example of smug superiority being more important than problem-solving."

This is the problem EXACTLY. What can I do to help? Can we join together and finally strike down these wasteful programs? What will it take?

We're not in the minority. I think the majority of people agree that the Copenhagen fantasy is nonsense, but THEY ARE SIMPLY BEING SILENT and letting these committees get away with murder.

Posted by parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 8:49 am

Every day I see hundreds of Palo Alto kids biking to school as well as adults biking to work or to run errands. This is despite the problems listed in this article.

Bicycle theft was rampant a few years ago, then the city installed bicycle racks on every block downtown. This was a apparently a wildly successful project since I see every one the racks in use along University Ave. We need to encourage the city to double down on successful projects like this. Why are there not more bike racks around the Caltrain stations or around the Midtown Shopping Center or Stanford Shopping Center?

The Bryant Bicycle Boulevard is another wildly successful project. Every day, I see more bicycles than cars along this route. However, why does the city have so few east-west bicycle routes? Gunn and Paly are both on the western part of town. Same goes for Stanford and all the employers around HP and PARC. They city could easily double or triple bicycle commuting rates by building safe direct bicycle routes from our residential areas to these important destinations. Mountain View has built 2 major bicycle paths across Hwy 101 from Google to the city's residential areas (the Stevens Creek Trail and the Permanente Creek Trail). What has Palo Alto done? We don't even have bike lanes along University Ave from Palo Alto to Stanford or to Facebook and the Dumbarton Bridge. The long proposed bike route across Hwy 101 from Palo Alto to Google has apparently been postponed for years due to weak leadership.

Palo Alto residents keep complaining about traffic and parking and air pollution. What is the city really doing about it? No one is saying that bicycling works for everyone all the time, but improving bicycle routes where there is an obvious demand seems like a no brainer to me.

Posted by Gerbil Swarming, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 9:41 am

Doug: this is one of the best pieces I've read in this forum in some time. Very good and balanced analysis.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 10:16 am

@Doug: Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. I believe your points about migration/transition issues are particularly well-taken. I'm not convinced that "smug superiority" is a problem, though; at root it might be a matter of lack of familiarity with other people's lives and priorities.

@parent: My guess is that the Bryant St. bike boulevard hasn't reduced traffic; it simply moved some to Waverley (the nearest parallel through street that offers a traffic light at Embarcadero). At my corner we're now up to an average of 5100 vehicles per day, about two thirds of which are on Waverley. We need to be conscious that creating more bike boulevards without also taking measures to reduce total vehicle traffic may simply turn nearby streets into sacrifice zones.

Posted by Johnny, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 10:40 am

Lack of familiarity has nothing to do with it, Allen. We all see the less privileged around us. We just turn the cold shoulder.

If smug doesn't work for you, call it moral licensing. We're all guilty of it, no one is a saint, which is why the pragmatic approach is best.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 10:53 am

Encouraging more bike riding is not some pie in the sky idea. If riding is user friendly then more people would do it. Visit Stanford University during the day. There are thousands of students and staff riding around campus. That's because it's easy and safe. In addition all this bicycling at Stanford is successfully commingled with thousands of pedestrians. Therefore, I suggest we allow bicycling on many of our sidewalks. Even though it is illegal, I ride on the sidewalks when I need to travel on roads like Embarcadero or Middlefield. With a little courtesy and common sense bicyclists and pedestrians can coexist safely.

Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 11:08 am

Thanks for observing succinctly (in the first sentence) a broad issue that many of us have encountered, even if we haven't scrutinized it as a phenomonon. I strongly agree with Johnny. I see the same syndrome in my town at times.

Concerning the destructive consequences to real-world problem solving of "visionaries and dreamers" that you summarized, a phrase came to mind that I borrow occasionally (from a Rex Stout story), "accountability only to our own egos;" but in public discussions of policy (high-speed tunnels indeed!) a closer metaphor might incorporate costs (basically, absent any responsibility for the implementation costs of your notions, any can seem excellent). An archetype is the crowd that gathers around a car stuck in mud, eagerly offering conflicting armchair advice, most or all of it bad.

Posted by Gerbil Swarming, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 12:05 pm

@Neal: I enjoyed your comment about using Stanford as a model for cyclists: "There are thousands of students and staff riding around campus."

I'm on campus two days a week. My experience with cyclists there is that the majority of them don't realize that they are "moving vehicles" and that traffic laws apply to them, for example, many of them don't stop at stop signs. I wonder how well this behavior would work out on El Camino, Lytton Avenue, or Middlefield Road.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 1:22 pm

I bike whenever I can instead of using my car, but biking in Palo Alto is not safe. Cars are parked in bike-lanes and force cyclists to frequently swerve into the street, where cars move too fast, with drivers often texting or talking on their cell phones, paying scant attention to the road. Bike-lanes should be completely free of parked cars and very safe, otherwise they actually become more dangerous for cyclists than the road.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 2:33 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Additional notes:

Scale: The Copenhagen example includes the claim that about half the work commutes are by bicycle. For Palo Alto, this would mean tens of thousands of bicycle commuters--local, in-bound from other cities, out-bound to other cities--to even be in the same ball park. The pictures of Copenhagen bike commuting show two or more lanes of bicyclists coming toward the camera on boulevards wide enough to accommodate them plus public transit plus private and commercial vehicles.

The fallacy of the Stanford example: The primary Stanford campus is rough 1.5 miles across and many/most? of the bike commuters are traveling less than a mile by bike. Just as with the PAUSD school commutes, this is irrelevant because it is so different from what the typical job commute is. Think bike commutes from San Francisco, San Jose, Los Gatos, Fremont, Santa Clara, Cupertino, ...

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 2:59 pm

"Even though it is illegal, I ride on the sidewalks when I need to travel on roads like Embarcadero or Middlefield. With a little courtesy and common sense bicyclists and pedestrians can coexist safely."

A bicyclist said that, not a pedestrian. I ride all over town, and I never ride on Embarcadero or Middlefield, or Alma or El Camino either. There's ideology, and there's common sense. I'm also not willing to ride on the sidewalk. It's uncouth. (as well as unsafe)

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 3:22 pm

@Johnny: The smug, morally superior bicyclist is a popular stereotype. (Pearls Before Swine has had some very funny strips on the subject in the past year or so.) However, I don't see that smug moral superiority is any more common in my cycling friends than it is in the population at large.

On the other hand, I remember my life before kids pretty well, and I had no clue about the extent of the changes that kids make to your life. It's easy for me to imagine that a young, single cycling activist doesn't understand how commuting, shopping, errands, etc. will be different once kids arrive, and that a choice to drive rather than cycle may have plenty of justification.

Blaming the stereotype doesn't do justice to the full range of reasons people may have for trying to increase cycling, and it probably causes a lot of people to simply stop listening to whatever else you have to say. I know it gave me pause, and I'm pretty much in agreement with everything Doug had to say.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Been there, seen that, gritted teeth.

Advocates are seldom implementers. Their contribution, as it may be, stops with "I showed you what to do, now just do it."

The better behaved ones then forget the whole thing. The rest quickly convince themselves that nobody followed their golden path because (a) everyone else is too stupid to recognize dazzling innovations when they see them, or (b) there's a big conspiracy against really progressive ideas out there.

The correct response is to politely note their pipe dreams in the minutes and move on. It quiets the fantasizer and provides a note of humor for the luckless souls who might have to read the minutes.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "... The correct response is to politely note their pipe dreams..."

This can work if the dreamers are merely random participants. But it doesn't work if, as is so often the case in Palo Alto, they control the meeting or have the sympathies of those who do.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 5, 2016 at 7:02 pm

"This can work if the dreamers are merely random participants. But it doesn't work if, as is so often the case in Palo Alto, they control the meeting or have the sympathies of those who do."

I avoid those meetings because they are a total waste of time, not to mention blood pressure raisers. They tend to be city staff "community outreach" window dressing anyway. To avoid being kaboodled by a seismic shift during a gathering that had been going well, take along a device that will let you quietly do something useful while the fantasies float overhead.

Posted by Marc, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 8, 2016 at 9:37 am

I think you should write another entry about how Palo Alto/Bay Area is NOT NYC or any other major urban area and will never have the public transit infrastructure they have.

I just came back from a week in NYC. People can moan all they want but Palo Alto/Bay Area/Peninsula will never have the same public transit system as an established urban area has. And we are deluding ourselves to think that slapping one bus route/rail line suddenly will make things better. Running an express bus up and down ECR does NOT make an public transit system.

I could fly into EWR, get to Westfield/Clark NJ, back to EWR, to Penn Station NYC to lower east side without a problem. Catch a train to upstate NY. The system is pervasive, frequent, reliable and affordable. I could travel all over NYC between subway lines and bus routes. Never had to think that some route was only there for a 3 month test.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 8, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Marc

This topic was address in an earlier blog of 2014-07-01 Public Transit Follies.
Note: Palo Alto Online recently established a tiered subscription model for articles (FAQ). The pay meter does not apply to blogs (current and old).

The basic points echo what Marc observed: You need to have a large enough system that you can use it get to enough of the places you need to go, and you need enough population density to make it affordable. And additional criteria is that you need the system to be managed by people who care about usability (often lacking in the Bay Area transit systems).

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 8, 2016 at 11:51 pm

" need the system to be managed by people who care about usability..."

A couple months ago there was a hint this could happen here. The VTA decided to move its proposed ECR bus-only lanes from the center of the road to the edges. Apparently some VTA muckamuck actually looked at a bus and learned the passenger doors are on the curb side. That's a small step toward reality, a giant leap for VTA.

Posted by History Buff, a resident of another community,
on Mar 23, 2016 at 10:27 am

Doug should teach a class in critical thinking, which is sadly lacking, even here in Silicon Valley.

We will never be Copenhagen and, as Marc points out, we will never by NYC. Yet officials at all levels continue to propose more ways to add offices and housing that won't increase traffic.

For example:
"Councilman Cory Wolbach, one of the council's leading housing advocates, supported the 'micro-unit' concept targeting people who don't drive. He emphasized that the council should make it clear that it would enforce the car prohibition for these units." Web Link

I suppose the city would insist on a "no car clause" in the apartment lease and add a special squad of police to ensure tenants didn't buy cars.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Boichik Bagels is opening its newest – and largest – location in Santa Clara this week
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 2,485 views

I Do I Don't: How to build a better marriage Page 15
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 981 views

By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 865 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.