Friday 13 June 2014

Rate Limiting Steps. Or, don't overtake and brake, you idiot.

I remember learning a really important lesson in kinetics in chemistry at school. Well, from my chemistry teacher rather than in class. 

It actually came in the corridor on the way up to the school dinner hall, where we'd always run up as a bunch of lads to join the queue, before hanging around waiting to be served and for a table to all sit at and eat. He questioned why we ran, explaining that its like in chemistry where you've got one step that governs the rate of whats happening. You can run up the corridor all you like, it won't get you sat down and eating any sooner. Rate limiting step. 

Now thats a good lesson in life, and its a good lesson in chemistry - there's no point fannying about with the steps of a reaction that don't govern the rate or efficiency of a process, its the rate limiting step that governs how quickly something will be produced. Of course later in education I encountered all sorts of reactions where, for example, because reagents are really cheap, or because you can recycle a reaction volume to re-use any excess you end up with some parts of a process being given way more feedstock or energy than they really require - or, in other words, despite the rate limiting step thing holding true, you still have 'too much' in the other steps because there's no good reason not to.

Yesterday I was riding along, catching up with a slower cyclist, when a car passed me and pulled in. The driver obviously had to then slow down for oncoming traffic, only to be stuck behind the cyclist in front as we approached the red light at the end of Carlton Way. She seemed most put out (to the extent of sounding her horn and yelling) when I passed her to get in to the cyclists box in front of the traffic. Of course, you always catch them. You always go past. Their average speed in traffic is way slower than ours - overtaking us never gets them anywhere.

The parallel between this and the lessons one would have hoped to learn at school are pretty obvious - gunning your engine and overtaking only to be stuck a little further on while a cyclist overtakes you again is just stupid, didn't you even go to school? But when we think further, what the car does is make speed effectively free. Might be a few pennies to overtake and slam on the anchors, but its no physical work and any financial cost is lost in the general money pit of motoring. Inefficient, downright daft decisions have no consequences.

Cars used on urban and suburban roads are capable of reaching absurd speeds, in moments, with no effort on the part of the motorist. In fact to avoid doing so is considered so strange that if you're driving behind a cyclist the next driver will very often be right up your exhaust telling you to get a shuffle on, mate, ain't you got nowhere to go? Its only a fucking cyclist. And it you hit the cyclist? The courts will understand.

We have made aggressive, pointless and downright dangerous overtaking morally, financially and legally free. As a result of this bad overtaking is the norm rather than the exception - to the point where we then tell cyclists to ride assertively in the middle of the lane and act all surprised when motorists bully us out of the way. 

Until we take this kind of dangerous, antisocial driving seriously in the UK we'll never really tame aggressive motorists. But how do we take motorists back to school and get them to realise the importance of rate limiting steps?

Thursday 5 June 2014

Supermarkets aren't ignoring us. They fear us.

Those who read this blog regularly might remember that I've touched on the subject of shopping by bike several times. I want to come at it from a different angle this time.

Supermarkets are set up for motorists. Their PR folk will say this isn't so, while offering discount petrol for those en route to the 'free' parking we subsidise.  Supermarkets, especially the ever more dominant suburban superstores, are for motorists. 

Now we can make the (very valid) argument that this is all wrong, they should cater to cyclists because we spend more money than motorists (the theory being we make more trips, we're exposed to their marketing more, and as we've higher average earnings we spend more). That's all well and good but its missing the point. And, more importantly, the marketing folk at these gargantuan retailers know this, they've read the same studies we have. Simple economics dictate that they ought to be putting better bike locking in - but they don't.

I don't get all my shit from supermarkets. I get most of my veg from the allotment, I get most of my meat from the farm shops or the butchers, I get the rest of my stuff from greengrocers, wholefood shops, the market, and indeed some of it from supermarkets (or 'grocers' as I suppose they once were). I suppose that Tesco could install the best bike racks in the world or Asda could start offering free puppy play areas, but I'd still not really use them for the bulk of my shopping.

Supermarkets fear us. We're not tied to making one trip through ghastly, soul destroying traffic per week, we don't need to strip the shelves of irradiated, nutrient free sliced white bread and 28 pints of milk that have to last until next Saturday. We don't have to fill a car boot with plastic wrapped chemical sludge to microwave on high for 2 minutes before leaving to rest for 1 minute prior to puking in it and putting it in the bin. We. Are. Free. 

We can shop anywhere. We're not tied in to a lifestyle that necessitates living like a Walmart slave. For most products supermarkets offer us no advantage - we aren't their slaves like the motons are.

Its not that supermarkets don't want to serve us - they would love our custom, but anything they could do to make it apparent that you can live a different way is also directly threatening to their business. It isn't that they don't understand our spending power. The truth is that supermarkets fear our freedom, our capacity to defect from their system where consumers shuffle zombielike with a trolley full of drug laden ecological timebombs through a shop so dehumanised they've even removed the checkout staff for fear we'll eat their brains. They don't want to discourage us from shopping with them - they want to discourage us from promoting a lifestyle that they see as directly challenging to the abhorrence of their existence.

In an economy where getting a car, having kids, driving said kids to Morrisons once a week so you can have a sugar-fuelled family feud enacted in the sanitary products aisle is considered normal, doing something as radical as shopping by bicycle is an act of sedition. Viewed this way, the congested roads leading to the hypermarket become the arteries through which vampiric multinationals suck value from our local economies.

Lack of good cycle parking at supermarkets isn't an oversight, nor is it lack of consideration towards valuable customers. Its an act of aggression towards us, and the better lifestyles we represent.