Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Bike Racks

[Note: I've spent too much time in the last couple of days responding to a spirited attack on the FA's position on the tenure debate in the comment stream for the last post.  As usual, much of the value of this blog lies in in the comments.  Do check them out.] 

I bike to campus most days. The DE today ran a story on our new bike racks that has gotten me to scratching my head. It nicely summarizes much of what I'm feeling about campus these days.

My take on the new bike racks when I saw them a few weeks ago was, well, (surprise!)  negative. This for a rather simple reason. In the area I lock up my bike, near the student center end of Faner, the old bike racks were often pretty full. The new bikes have less than one half of the capacity of the old racks. The old racks were efficient and effective. I'm not talking about the gadgety relics near the Museum end of Faner, which were hardly recognizable as bike racks at all and were almost never used, but the humble effective racks at the other end of Faner, and elsewhere on campus.  The new racks are, however, prettier. And they are painted Saluki Maroon, aiding our campus branding. But the story gets more complicated, after the break.  

The DE story runs with a lead sentence in which a student is quoted saying he wouldn't bring his bike to campus to last year "because the racks looked so bad". The story repeats several times that the advantage of the new racks is that they look nicer; at one point there's a hint that they may be safer, but later this is translated as "the new racks look safer to use than the old ones and will reassure students it is safe to use their bikes". I take it that "look safer" means "look sturdy enough that your bike won't be ripped off". But looks seem to be the key feature, rather than any functional improvement.

Now I am, in case you are wondering, not an Expert on Bike Racks. Maybe these are not only more secure but safer. And it may well be that the university grounds people are going to be on top of supply an demand issues (though I think they will be in for some trouble in my neighborhood of Faner). And I am all for enticing more students to bike rather than drive: that is good for all sorts of reasons. 

But was bike theft really a problem on campus? Are our students really, ahem, superficial enough that many more will be enticed to ride to campus by less efficient but prettier bike racks? Are we better off, in short, if we spend money making the campus less functional but more attractive? Anyone else see the parallel to spending lots of money on pretty new administrative buildings, Saluki Way, perhaps even, dare I say it, University College, Saluki First Year, the whole damn package, while leaving other academic positions empty? 

No doubt sometimes it is worth spending more on design and good looks. I am, after all, a Mac person, typing on a rather attractive aluminum laptop. But my Mac is also a pretty functional computer.  Where do we draw the line?  When have we crossed the line so that we're not just putting a bit of honey on the wormwood cup, but have given up serving anything but junk food?  (Sorry for the classical reference: it's Lucretius, for whom poetry is the honey for the wormwood of philosophy.)  I traditionally end my Greek Civilization syllabus with an old Greek jingle: chalepa ta kala (though of course I print it in Greek font). It means something like "what's fine ain't easy".  I don't translate the bit of Greek, and my Greekless students rarely ask me about it. Maybe I need to wake up and get with the program.  Or maybe I need to keep fighting the good fight, against student indifference, administrative superficiality, and the rest, fighting for those "fine/noble/beautiful/admirable things" in the untranslatable Greek phrase.  

If you're wondering how I got here from the bike racks, I've been reading Montaigne, the first blogger. Not that I am, ahem, exactly in his league.   


  1. The ghost of Harold GrosowskyAugust 17, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    Bike racks? Really? If anyone needed proof as to the charges that "you really just don't like anything" this has to be it.

  2. I'm not an Expert on Bike Racks either, but I also bike to campus most days. I'm not sure that the new racks have fewer USABLE spaces than the humble old racks.

    The humble old racks were designed for people to wheel in and wrap a chain around the bike and the rack. People don't do that so much anymore. Sometime in the 1980s, police started recommending people use U-shaped locks instead of chains. Around that same time, quick release tires became more popular. A bike secured by just a tire could be stolen, minus one wheel, by just opening the quick release and wheeling it away.

    If I want to keep my bike secure in a humble old rack with my U lock, I have to put the front wheel over the top of the rack. Aside from scratching the underside of my frame, it almost always causes my front wheel to turn sideways. My bike takes up two or three spaces in the humble old racks but only one space in the new ones.

  3. Wormwood reminds me of C.S. Lewis's character in _Screwtape Letters_. : - )

    But, really, "sometimes a bike rack is just a bike rack" (apologies to Freud). Parking, on the other hand. . . .

  4. Dave:
    Would you please update us about special BOT meeting today with agenda items SIUC's new logo and expenditure on marketing?

  5. If the students asked for better bike racks then their request has been answered. But if the Administration wants to improved campus life, how about rebuilding the bathrooms, many of which are borderline hazmat sites. The bathrooms are so appalling that a visiting Public Official complained resulting in everyone else being locked out (a story I call "the Green Room and the Senator"). What does that say for the Admins concern for students, staff, and faculty? Maybe I should start sending students and visitors in search of the loo to Anthony Hall where the potties are probably angelic and clean enough to drink from.

  6. As a new SIUC student, I would rather that money have been spent on bike ports around the resident halls. Rust is the number one killer of bikes. I will not park my bike outside uncovered over night.

  7. More levity here was requested by Jonathan Bean less than twenty-four hours before Dave removed part of a post for fear that the levity would be misconstrued.

    For the die-hard readers who would find this comment on their subscriptions to the comment feed or who would dig back this far, I present levity via the Deo Volente Drinking Game.* It was inspired by the number of literary allusions in a recent post.

    One sip for each reference to the Nixon administration or Watergate

    Two sips for each literary allusion

    Three sips if the allusion is to ancient Greece or Rome (Months of the year or other ordinary English words based on ancient Greek or Roman mythology or literature do not count.)

    Finish your glass if part of the post is written in Greek or Latin.

    * Lest I be accused of corrupting the young, I state here that this drinking game may be played with any beverage, not just Dionysian ones. :)


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