How I really feel about ipods

A couple months ago, when Angela wrote about courtesy between folks using different modes of transport, a spat broke out in our comments that got me thinking.

John writes:

I am very much in agreement with your statement that faster cyclists coming up behind slower traffic, either peds or other cyclists, are responsible for making the interaction safe. 100% true. That includes slower traffic that is deaf in one ear, or totally deaf due to wearing earbuds with heavy metal music blasting in them. What I have a difficult time achieving is not startling them, no matter how slow I go, because they seem oblivious.

And Jay responds

Hey John, would you like to cite the law or principle by where pedestrians deserve to be run over, simply by enjoying personal music players on their (our) public spaces?

Are iPods illegal?

I wasn’t aware of that.

They may not be illegal, but I have to say, I side with the biker on this one. Everyone, even slow moving traffic, has an obligation to be aware of their surroundings in busy public spaces.  A biker can’t do much not to surprise you if you’re so lost in your private world that she had no way of letting you know she was coming, even at moderate speed. This is doubly true if you are in an area where you can reasonably expect bikers to be present. If you’re on a sidewalk, and thus it’s reasonable to expect to be surrounded only by other walkers, and you can manage not to get hit by a car or walk into other people, then go ahead and listen, but bikers ARE present on bike paths, and you need to be able to reasonably interact with them. At the very least, walk predictably to the right and don’t get pissed when they pass you by but you were unable to hear their warning due to your choice to be unaware of your surroundings.

But as I thought about it, I realized my feelings on this go deeper than a biker vs. pedestrian ipod debate.

I hate ipods.

OK, that’s not quite true. We have one (wait, actually two…) and I love how we can easily keep all of our music without taking up tons of space in our tiny house, as well as the playlists that Angela concocted for H to get ready in the morning (there are songs for every activity: get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth. The woman is a genius). But I’m not a big listener on the go, and I wish other people chose to listen less and participate more in their surroundings when out and about.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen T-riders completely oblivious to the needs of their fellow passengers (say, to get off of a crowded train) because they were so lost in their listening. The other day I saw an oblivious ipod listener with absolutely no clue that a carful of friends was trying to get his attention (and they looked like they were having a good time! He missed out). A couple weeks ago I saw a biker unaware of a fellow rider’s attempt to politely pass on the street because he was so absorbed in his ipod. Come on people. Do you need to listen so badly you can’t pay attention when you’re biking on a busy road? You know the cars can squish you, right?

One of the things I love about the way we’ve chosen to live, transporting ourselves by bike, foot and public transit, is that it connects us with people. I love participating in the world as we get from point A to point B. We see friends and neighbors all the time, and sometimes people even stop us to say they love the blog (Hi Julia in Porter Square! Thanks for reading!). Even in this big city, we effortlessly connect with people everywhere: the college student who made silly faces at R on the bus, the old lady in Davis who struck up a conversation with H, and ended up dancing a cute little jig with her right there in the middle of the square. We have friendly interactions every single day with fellow walkers and bikers, bus and subway riders, and even with drivers; we wouldn’t have them if we were lost in our music or the latest podcast. When folks are too busy listening, they are more likely to do rude things without even knowing it (say, blocking their fellow bus passenger from the door). They’re also more likely to get angry at people who are themselves behaving reasonably (like a biker calling out before passing on a shared path at moderate speed). But more importantly, if all you do is listen, you miss out on the world around you. Sure, it’s nice to escape sometimes, but if you decide to listen on the go, make an extra effort to be aware of your surroundings and don’t assume the world should just get out of your way. Consider listening only in one ear, and work to be dialed in, particularly in shared space and at critical transit boarding times. But you might even consider taking the beans out of your ears every now and then. There’s a whole world out here, and as it turns out, it’s pretty nice.

About Nathan

Nathan lives in North Cambridge, MA with his wife and two kids, and prefers never to be in cars if he can avoid it. Nathan thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Biking, Problems and issues, Public transportation, Sharing roads and paths, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How I really feel about ipods

  1. Bosrunner says:

    A little disclaimer….I love music and I love my Ipod. I don’t get much quiet listening time in my house so the brief moments on the T that are my commute are the only time I get for my music. That said, I wish there were a law outlawing biking or driving with an Ipod or other music/headphone device on.

    I have watch so many bikers with headphones (some noise canceling – HELLO!) on while biking in heavy traffic in the area. Aside from safety, you raise the community connectivity issue that I find myself quite concerned with. Ipods, social media and other technology are wonderful tools that can help us to share things that we are interested in but their abuse can also remove the human to human part of community and relationships. Nice post – thanks for writing it!

  2. Sarah F says:

    I just love knowing about Angela’s playlists for Harriet!

  3. mamavee says:

    the kid playlist is brilliant. I think we need to know it. I have two kids who need some serious help getting ready each morning!

    I also love my ipod. I relish taking the train or bus so that I can listen. Perhaps b/c I get to ride so infrequently I’m also excited to be around everyone that I am scanning the car checking everyone out while I listen so I feel very aware of what’s on. I think most people are NOT aware of whats behind them. I find this walking all the time.

  4. Cindy says:

    While I don’t generally use my iPod in public at all, or like it when others do, I’m not sure I agree that listening to one is causing people to be less cautious or aware. I think it ‘s equally possible that people who tend to zone out and not interact with their surroundings WITHOUT an iPod are just doing it with an iPod (because it’s a good excuse to not interact with others). On the rare occasions I have listened to the iPod in front of others, I could easily hear what was going on around me. So, I agree that people need to pay more attention to their surroundings, but I don’t think taking off the iPod will necessarily help with that. Just a thought.

  5. 2whls3spds says:

    Two words: “situational awareness”

    You can use an Ipod but don’t get pissed at me if you don’t hear me coming around on the MUP. I rang the bell, I even called out but you were oblivious.

    This can lead to a whole host of issues like personal attacks!

    I own an Ipod and a couple of MP3 players, greatest invention in the world as far as I am concerned, but like anything else they need to be used responsibly.

    Workout on a stationary? Crank that puppy up.

    Walking in a public place, riding in traffic, driving? Consider leaving one ear bud out or turn the durned thing down. It is bad when someone with no hearing in one ear and only partial in the other can hear YOUR Ipod when he comes up behind you!


  6. Robyn says:

    True. I have chosen to forego headphones while riding.
    I just also wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoy your blog….not only for the info about about bicycle culture but also for info/pics about Mass (I grew up in the NoHo area & miss it). We live in the mid-US right now, but are thinking about retiring near Boston. It’s nice to be able to keep up with how the bicycle community/infrastructure is developing there.

  7. Robyn says:

    p.s. Forgot to mention….. Sometimes when I want tunes, I play Internet radio off my iPhone that sits in my front basket (no earphones). I can still hear everything going on.

  8. Last time I attempted to cycle along the Charles River trail, there was a jogger in front of me who not only was listening to her ipod, but sort of dancing to it as she jogged – moving from left to right in unpredictable swaying motions. I rang my bell. I shouted “on your left”. I got close and said “excuse me” in a loud voice right next to her ear. Nothing. I had to *tap her on the shoulder* in order for her to realise I was trying to get by. And of course, she was annoyed by my “rudeness”.

  9. Mamavee says:

    Oh Robyn remind me that I use a iPod speaker thing (cheaply bought at staples) in the cargo box and play the kids an audio book for some long slow rides. They fight less while listening to Ramona and beezus fight.

  10. Since my comment that resulted in the spat, I’ve spent some time thinking about Jay’s reply. It took me by surprise, I must admit, since I only intended to say something about some of the challenges of being courteous, even when you really want to be! And of course my point was not that ipods are illegal–I don’t think I actually said that(?) But Jay’s reply did end up ringing true to me, because it emphasizes the awkwardness of encounters between cyclists and pedestrians on multi-use paths. Regardless of ipod isolation or not, cyclists on a busy multi-use path are not a good mix with pedestrians. If the three foot passing law makes sense for cyclists on the road, and I am a firm supporter of it, then it also makes sense for cyclists passing peds on MUPs–three feet of passing clearance would increase safety, decrease the startle response, and increase the sense of mutual courtesy. Of course, a MUP wide enough to enable a three foot passing clearance is very rare. Most of them are more narrow than that. So, Jay, for me personally, I’ve chosen to look for alternatives to crowded MUPs–wide streets for example–to cycle on. If a busy MUP is the only way (some run parallel to freeways for example), then I’ll do my best to ride excessively slow around pedestrians, if there’s not room for a three foot passing clearance. Because a MUP is a public space, as Jay pointed out, and cyclists do have a responsibility to safely overtake in that space, as I pointed out. OTOH, if I can make a three foot pass while dinging my bell, and you’re wearing your ‘phones and get a bit startled anyway, c’est la vie!

  11. Jacob says:

    It is odd to see the different perspectives on this issue. I am also a car-free parent of two (and a mathematician) but have never driven. I have never had a license and neither has my partner. There never seemed a good reason, having lived in large cities well served by transit (in Canada and Europe). So, the statement about “the way we have chosen to live … ” would never occur to either of us. This is just how we have always done things. And, as such, we are both used to working on the bus and using music to block out noise around us.

    If I didn’t use my iPod on the bus (or use earplugs), I would not be able to get as much work done and so would instead do that when home and miss out time with my girls. For that reason alone I love my iPod.

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  13. kcar1 says:

    I’m with Jacob on this one. I do like that I interact more with people by not using car… but I am introvert… and after a long day, being able to feign induced deafness makes a train ride enjoyable not a chore. And the magic of ear buds (with or without sound) makes it possible for me to share an office — rude though it may be a couple of times of “not hearing” things can mean the difference between a productive morning and getting side tracked for the day.

    I say feign because I am still aware of my surroundings unless I am concentrating on something and then it is just an aid. I don’t listen to anything on it loud enough to drown people, cars, etc. out… I would like to hear period when I am older.

    I must not bike enough on mixed use trails to really be up in arms about this one, though I do bike across a uni campus — no real problem avoiding ipod-users, phone-talkers, or gaggles of sorority girls, but the smokers — blech. Otherwise, I usually bike on the street. I wear ear buds some when I am really into something and never felt like it really impaired my ability to know what was going on around me — but my most frequent route to campus is through a light industrial area, wide 2-lane streets, relatively light traffic dominated by big trucks — no trouble hearing them or avoiding them or the cars.

  14. mark e says:

    I LOVE my iPod! I listen while I work (solo, as a carpenter). I listen as I drive. And occasionally I listen as I bike. Much of this listening is podcasts, and, yes, much of the listening is music. But I rarely have it loud enough to not know what is going on around me. Theoretically, I like the idea of interacting with the world around me, as you describe. But I’m an introvert, so I like being able to shut the world out by putting my headphones on. Like kcar1, this “shutting out” is mostly in appearance. It’s a psychological shut out. Perhaps it is unhealthy of me, but I prefer it. And if the opportunity arises when I do choose to interact with someone or something, turning off the music and removing the headphones only takes a second.

  15. Michelle says:

    I realize this is an old post, but this post relates to an experience of a friend of mine. The friend, distracted, backed into a cyclist riding on the road behind him.
    My friend felt terrible and accompanied the cyclist to the hospital to get checked out (cyclist was fine). An emergency room nurse approached my friend to reassure him: “What did this guy expect? Don’t worry about him; he was wearing ear phones!” Several of the nurse’s colleagues agreed vocally.
    I think about that potential lack of sympathy in the ER when I consider putting myself in danger by ignoring my surroundings in a busy place.

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