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

Local Blogs

By 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.