Sunday, June 13, 2010

Law'n'Order: Ethical Principles and Practicality

Questions to consider:
  • While motoring*, have you ever tried to scrupulously observe the speed limit, anywhere in the US, any time in, say, the past 8 years? What happened? (Bonus question: Was there bloodshed?)
  • When's the last time you saw a motorist make a complete stop at a stop sign when it wasn't mandated by cross traffic?
  • If you live in an area where cellphone use is illegal while driving, do you see people doing it anyway?
  • Are there stretches along your cycle commute where litter is really bad? (Bonus question: How many times in the past, say, month have you noticed complete fast food bags discarded?)
By now you're asking, "What's your point, Robert?" Fair enough. I've been thinking about how personal ethics are affected by being in a car. I'm wondering if the isolation that an automobile imposes, the sense of being "cut off", somehow enables the motorist to compromise his principles. Is a cyclist different because he's "out there" in the environment with little or no protection? Admittedly, I see plenty of cyclists (in the US at least) do lots of scofflaw behavior. And it's this behavior that I always consider "stupid", meaning dangerous, or ultimately impractical.

Ethics seems to be about finding the balance between the principle and the practicality of the situation. Consider the well-known "four-way test" of the Rotary Club International:
  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Notice that items 1 and 2 are about adherence to principle (truth and fairness) and 3 and 4 are about practicality (goodwill, friendship, benefits). Certainly, if an action can be said to meet all 4 questions in the affirmative, it can be said to be ethical. (See this post for more ruminations on the Rotary "4WT", including examples of situations where the principled and the practical collide.)

Traffic laws (and for that matter, littering laws) are thankfully areas where the principled and the practical coincide, or at least overlap greatly. A commenter on a previous post noted that cyclists (and pedestrians) in Denmark were scrupulously observant of traffic laws, and I've noted the same on my travels to Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Sweden. (France is, well, another story.)

I'm always flummoxed when I see a bicyclist, say, commenting on a blog, defending his right to break the traffic laws. Neither principled nor practical.

*I recognize this blog is not about motoring, and it may be that many readers of this blog in fact never act as motorists. To you, I doff my helmet and bow.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

BTW Day, Again

So I went to the Columbia, MD, Bike-t0-Work day yesterday. As I've said before, my feelings at these affairs are mixed at best. This year was about the same as last year, although there were more practical bikes (if not cyclists!) in attendance. I found the speakers more fatuous and self-congratulatory than I remember: at least two county officials sent their aides in their stead, who dutifully reported that "[blank] couldn't be here today because of a scheduling conflict," to which I was thinking, "Yeah, at 7:30 am, it's a conflict with bed." Mostly, there was a air of patronization, of "we say we love you for what you do, but we wouldn't be caught dead doing it ourselves."

Hm. I'm betraying a seriously bad attitude here.

(Truthfully, I did seriously appreciate the Chief of Police who is a fit looking guy and a cyclist, who got up, gave an update on Maryland traffic laws -- hey, we have a Three-foot rule now! -- and admonished the crowd that you have to be respectful of traffic laws if you want respect from motorists. Hear, here.)

The county director of transportation got up and, after talking about mostly nothing for about a minute, and never mentioning any traffic improvements for cyclists, prompted me to shout, "more bike lanes!" which (to my satisfaction) nonplussed him and gained me the bemused looks of fellow cyclists. (I was hoping for a smattering of applause.)

The problem is (as it was last year) is that no one is serious about promoting biking to work. If they were serious, they'd be showing off bike lane planning for the region (assuming same existed,) they'd be touting LCI's teaching "Road 101" classes, there would be little workshops on "what you do (and don't) need to be carrying on a commuter bike." But there's none of that. There are a couple of booths for local bike shops showing off various relevant and non-relevant bikes, there are people talking all starry eyed about how they got county officials to listen to a presentation about sharrows (but no commitments of any kind), and there are county officials waxing ecstatic about how BTWD got them to practice riding so they could show up, and guess what? It was exhilarating! Plus lots of bumper stickers and tee shirts. (Where was the League of American Bicyclists?)

Look, being serious about wanting people to bike to work equals a commitment to painting bike lanes. It really is as simple as that. The few of us who are vehicular cyclists will bike to work anyway (and be perfectly safe,) but the others need bike lanes. New York City has proved this. Studies conducted over the last couple of months show a significant increase in cyclists in New York City following their painting over 200 miles of bike paths (although there is some controversy on the exact numbers). If the powers-that-be really want to encourage practical cycling for all the reasons they say, all they need to do is get out the white traffic paint.

I shouldn't be so negative about BTWD. I was in the middle of a conversation with a county official when a fellow cyclist (fully outfitted in cycling gear) came up and said, "Hey, you're the guy that I see biking to work every day, aren't you?" It made my day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tufte would be Proud

Ed Tufte is one of the original thinkers of the Information Age. See his website here. I will presume that most readers have at least a passing acquaintance with his books, perhaps fewer with his sculpture. I was struck by a surpassingly nice graphic in last weekend's New York Times that was pure Tufte. A reduced image is at right; click here to go to the original article. Rarely have I seen a more concise graphing of two important (and related) quantities: The price of gasoline vs. the number of miles driven per year (on average) by Americans. Nice to see them researched and correlated. (I also like the way the curve is smoothed out -- it has a nice organic look to it.)

It's pretty shocking to see that between 1968 and 2004, the miles driven by Americans doubled. It's also nice to see things moving back to the left. Do Americans realize that, no matter how nicely appointed their autos, the quality of life while driving is a miserable fraction of that spent out in "the real world"?

All other things being equal, economic theory predicts that instead of such a loopy curve, we'd see a straight slope up from left to right. Of course, this isn't the whole story. To see the entire economic picture, we'd also have to see a supply curve of gasoline produced in the US market for the same period of time. Perhaps also an efficiency curve of average MPG for autos in the US market. Perhaps looking at such a 3- or 4-dimensional graphic would give me a headache!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Austin's Vulnerable Law

The city of Austin, Texas (my old burg) has decided to right the wrongs of the emperor governor of its state and has enacted a three-foot vehicle clearance law to bicyclists and pedestrians. You can read more about it and see a local telecast on this topic here. (Even better, commercial vehicles must maintain a 6-foot clearance.) This is great news, and not just because Governor Rick Perry has to obey this law to get to work (although there is some delicious irony going on here).

When I was in the Austin area around Thanksgiving, I paid a visit to some friends (I will call them Mr. and Mrs. J) who live in the suburbs outside town. We had a great visit, and it was good to see them. And the suburb in which they live is beautifully planned, with linear parks and bike paths. The visit pointed out to me the distance between people who see bicycles as recreational devices and those who see them as transportation. I mean, I recognize the value of hike-and-bike trails, particularly for people who aren't ready to undertake a 10- to 20-mile commute.

While my friends and I were visiting, Mrs. J expressed to me her exasperation about the "social engineering" that the Austin City Council was undertaking in the new bike ordinance and (not knowing that I had a blog where I write about Practical Cycling) opined that bicyclists belong on the paths and not on the road. I judiciously held my tongue (and since Mr. J. was aware of the situation, there was no need to rock the boat). Mrs. J. did bring up an interesting point about the law, expressed as an objection to scofflaw cyclists (she and I are on the same page there) and asked rhetorically, "What happens if I'm stopped at a light and a cyclist comes up right next to me? Am I breaking the law?"

I thought it was a fair question, and looked up the wording of the ordinance. You can download a copy here. It's supposedly identical to the wording of the law that the Texas Legislature passed virtually unanimously and that Rick Perry vetoed (you can't fault the Austin City Council for failing to take advantage of other legislators' work.)

It's well written. It does the following:
  • Defines a class of "Vulnerable Road User" ("VRUs" include cyclists);
  • Directs that motorists shall vacate a lane used by a VRU if there are two or more lanes going in a direction;
  • Directs that motorists shall pass the VRU at a safe distance otherwise;
  • Defines "safe distance" (3 feet for a private vehicle, 6 feet for a truck or commercial vehicle);
  • Directs that motorists shall yield ROW to VRUs when making left turns;
  • Directs that motorists may not overtake and turn right in front of VRUs unsafely;
  • Directs that motorists may not use their vehicles to threaten or intimidate a VRU;
Hm. It goes quite a bit beyond clearances, it really succinctly tries to address the major hazard facing bicyclists. Although it's concisely written, it's a straightforward, good law, and Mrs. J's concerns for "motorists' rights" (as if they needed additional ones!) are ungrounded. Good for you, Austin.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jan Gehl, Planner Extraordinaire

A name that I became familiar with only after reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries over the Thanksgiving holiday (a complete review is on its way) was that of Jan Gehl, a Danish urban planner who is largely responsible (as far as I can fathom) for making Copenhagen the world bicycling paragon that it is. I have spoken before about Copenhagen and its self-propagated images and perceptions, and frankly, I've been less than complimentary, because I think that the most vocal Danish bicycle proponents confuse cause and effect and fail to give credit where it's due (Mikael Colville-Andersen, in his talk in Washington DC, did not mention Gehl).

But if he is not personally so, Gehl appears to be close to the source itself. He's an architect and planner, and principal in Gehl Architects (who have one of the coolest Flash web front-ends I've ever seen.)

New York has a significant connection to Gehl as well. The New York City Department of Transportation hired Gehl as a consultant to survey its streets in 2007 and, by no coincidence bicycling is up in that city as well. Perhaps related to this connection, the New York Times has seen fit to recognize Gehl in its ninth annual Year in Ideas issue of the Sunday magazine.

Byrne talks about Gehl in several places in his book. He introduces him talking about Melbourne and the success they've had in making their city much more liveable. Byrne describes Gehl as
a visionary yet practical urban planner who has successfully tranformed Copenhagen into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city.. We here in New York think that's .. all well and good for the Danes, but New Yorkers are .. independent minded, so that can't happen here. But Gehl reveals that his proposals initially met with exactly that kind of opposition over there: the locals said, "We Danes will never agree to this—Danish people won't ride bikes." [emphasis mine]
There are many reasons to be hopeful and engaged after reading Byrne's book, but I must say that I found the above paragraphs to be the most inspirational I'd read in quite a while.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Plan B for Cold Weather

..and when I say, "Plan B", I'm not talking about not riding! Today it's about 20 degrees (F.) out, but clear. A good day for cycling, if you dress right. However, flatting a tire in really cold weather can be a royal pain. In order to fix that tire, you have to pull of those nice warm gloves, and I can guarantee that adhesives just don't work the same in extremely cold weather. (Hm, this seems to be a self-referential kind of post.)

If you flat, it won't be a problem to fix it once you get to your destination; you'll have your patch kit, tools, and access to soap and water for a clean up. But on a cold, blustery day, it sucks to do this outside. I think the best solution is to have a Plan B. The only two Plan Bs that I can come to reasonably are:
  • Calling a (good) friend on your cell; and
  • Public Transit
The first one being self-explanatory (let's hope your friend doesn't drive a Mini), let's concentrate on the second. It's not necessary for a cycle-commuter to cycle along bus routes in cold weather, but it's good to know where they are relative to your ride. (The graphic is an overlay done in Vectorworks of a GoogleMap screencapture of my route over the PDF of the Howard County transit routes. The HCT routes are abstracted enough that this exercise is of but limited value, but you get the idea.)

So in very cold weather, try not to flat. But if you do, have that Plan B in the back of your head. Know where the transit routes are relative to your route, and head to a bus-stop if you flat. (Have the correct change for that fare ready!)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Objet Trouvé

Seen in Houston.

I swear to God that I didn't touch the thing; it was just right where I found it.

I have to admit, it's a little hard to imagine the circumstance that would allow a cyclist to just leave his left crank-arm and pedal sitting out there near the curb like this. I mean, clearly there was a missing crankarm-fixing-bolt, and I suppose that it's possible to lose one of those, (although I've never done it personally,) but how does this happen and you don't just reach down and retrieve the thing?

What's the most likely? Was it:
  1. the cyclist was walking his bike and didn't notice;
  2. the cyclist was walking his bike and too drunk to notice;
  3. the cyclist had his bike on the back of his car;
  4. the cyclist was riding and he and every bit of his bike except the left crankarm and pedal was hit big-time by an alien abduction ray;
When you figure it out, let me know.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Extreme Cyclist Holiday

I didn't really start out intending to have an Extreme Cyclist Holiday in Houston. I just meant to take my folder along and get some riding in, instead of spending all my time in a car, worrying about gas, parking, etc. Then things just sort of got out of hand.

Let's back up a little. At the last minute, I decided to go to the Rice University homecoming to hopefully see some old friends and hang out some with my older daughter Claire, who helps run a bookstore there. I booked a flight, and found my usual close-to-Rice hotel had some good rates, so I got a room. Then I thought, "Hey, I wonder if I can get from the airport to reasonably close to my hotel using mass transit?" Hopping on the Houston Metro website and entering a couple of addresses, I found that I could catch a bus right at the airport that took me to within a quarter-mile of my hotel with no transfers. Wow. Sixteen miles in Houston for a buck and a quarter. Double wow. (The image at right is from the Houston METRO trip planner, very convenient.)

So, that axed the rental car, which saved me about a hundred bucks, probably a hundred thirty with gas. Ka-ching. But it also meant that my in-town trips would be either by bus, by taxi, or by bike. (Now there's an easy decision.) Houston is flat, and the November weather in Houston is really perfect for riding (high 60's to mid 70's, and not terribly humid). And good weather (no rain) in the forecast.

So, to make a long story short, I spent an entire weekend (three days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) in Houston, Car City USA, and not once did I even get into an automobile. It didn't seem strange until early Sunday when I realized that I hadn't been in one. Of course all my old classmates thought it weird, but I caught some whiffs of envy among the incredulity, when they asked, "You're kidding! You BIKED to the party?"

Good things: Saving money, great exercise, the flatness of Houston (my little Dahon folder is great for packing, but really not much for hills), Rice University bike parking facilities (basically, good secure bike racks everywhere), not having to worry about parking a car, Daniel Boone's Cycle Shop, and great weather.

Some people complain about Houston drivers. I was told by the bus driver (friendly guy) coming into town that Houston drivers don't respect cyclists, but I had zero bad experiences over about 60 miles in 3 days. Of course I was in a university part of town, where there are quite a few cyclists, but overall, no complaints from me about Houston motorists.

Not so good things: Houston has the world's narrowest bike lanes (where they have them), and the paving in Houston is the pits. Literally. Basically, Houston is built on the flat gulf-coast plains that have a lot of clay in the soil. This "gumbo" as it is called is just hell on pavement. I found myself weaving a lot more than I wanted to be to avoid really nasty potholes and large cracks.

I even had an accident because of the bad roads! It was late at night and I was riding back to the hotel from my daughter's apartment. I hit a bad pothole (hard to see) and went right over the bars (not hard to do on a short-wheelbase, small-wheeled folding bike.) Luckily, no injuries beyond some bruised kneecaps, as I wasn't going all that fast. Not even any torn clothes.

The funny thing is, I picked myself up and dusted myself off, determined the bike was rideable (it needed the derailleur hanger bent back into proper position) and proceeded home. The next morning, I got up early and looked at bike and saw what I missed the night before: my cyclo-computer was missing. Muttering under my breath at my obliviousness the night before, I hopped on the bike and went back to the accident site (I figured if I waited, there was more chance of it getting smashed by a car) and there it was, flung up in a driveway, fully operational. I clipped it back on and went back to the hotel for breakfast.

But it's been almost 30 years since I had an over-the-bars experience! I'll probably be sore for several more days, but the only cure for that is more riding. I really wouldn't mind not ever going over the bars again, ever. Good thing I was wearing gloves. But the accident seemed to underscore the "extreme" quality of the weekend.

I have to say though, I wouldn't hesitate in the least to do a pure "bike holiday" again (except for the accident part). A little planning can yield a lot of riding, and a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weather Wuss

A weather wuss is what I am. When the rain is coming down solidly, I still go for the car. Look at that map. We're socked in from Tropical Storm Ida. I still just can't find the motivation to go out when it's really raining. A light drizzle, sure, no problem. But real rain, man. It's just hard to gear up to go out into a situation where the visibility is poorer, the road surfaces are worse, and the drivers are ultimately more dangerous to me.

I'd really like to hear from commuters out there who manage to go out in inclement weather. I'm really just talking rain (not sleet, snow, or ice) here, and rain that is coming down, not just drizzling (like Seattle rain, which I've also enjoyed riding in.) How do you do it? What has made the difference for you?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blighters Rock

No, it's not really writer's block, I've just been, ah, busy. We're in busy season at Nemetschek, meeting our design deadlines for the next great version of Vectorworks, and I've had my head down.

I've had my head down cycling, also. As I knew would happen, I "made my year" and met my goal of 3300 miles last week. In retrospect, it seems kind of ho-hum. We'll see how many miles I make by the end of the year and I'll try and do some kind of estimation of what percentage of work days I rode to work. I have to say, though, my utilization has got to be really high, if you deduct for business trips. I think I use my car to get to work no more than 2 days per month, at least for the past 3 or 4 months. Good weather (that is to say, reasonably clear weather) helps.

When it comes to understanding urban cycling, there's nothing like statistics. The city of Fort Collins, CO has just released a compilation of statistics about cycle-auto accidents over a 30 month period and I'm working on some analysis of that as well as accident stats from elsewhere. But the news item I've read recently that has I think the most significance is new bicycle usage stats from New York City. Since 2007, the ridership is up 66%. (That is to say, cycling levels in 2009 are 166% of what they were in 2007.) Wow. Check out that chart. (That is a zero-based chart!)

What can account for this? It's pretty simple, really. There's a serious commitment by the NYC DOT to get people bicycling. The city has substantive programs in:
  • Bicycle education and safety;
  • Bicycle parking;
  • Bicycle/Mass Transit interface; and
  • Bike street infrastructure.
The city has created 200 miles of bike lanes in 3 years and is committed to 50 miles of lanes per year until it completes its bike network. Check out the main NYC-DOT page on cycling and drool. For anyone outside of NYC, it is just enviable, to live in a city that has resources and uses them to Make Things Better.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Patch Kit Zen

I've been in some tough deadlines at work, so no posts late October. I've been enjoying riding in the cool autumn weather, enjoying the color, the wet leaf debris on the shoulder not so much, but hey, can't have it all.

Here's a bicycling koan (of uncertain provenance) that has seen a lot of coverage on the Web:

A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, "Why are you riding your bicycles?"

The first student replied, "The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!" The teacher praised the student, saying, "You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do."

The second student replied, "I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path." The teacher commended the student, "Your eyes are open and you see the world."

The third student replied, "When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, 'nam myoho renge kyo.'" The teacher gave praise to the third student, "Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel."

The fourth student answered, "Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings." The teacher was pleased and said, "You are riding on the golden path of non-harming."

The fifth student replied, "I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle." The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, "I am your disciple."

Why do I post this? It came to mind late last week. I had done my usual morning preparations, (made breakfast, made coffee, made and packed lunch, packed my change of clothes,) and, as I was just ready to go out the door, loading my backpack/laptop bag into the other pannier, noticed that my rear tire was flat. I cursed under my breath, because I should have seen it the first thing, but wasn't paying attention. I considered changing clothes and driving in to work for no more than 2 seconds, and then got my agitation under control and realized that what I had to do was to do the very best job of fixing that tire that I could.

So I took my time and was careful. No obvious leaks, no hissing. A slow leak. Putting it in the kitchen sink, no leaks the first pass. Added a little more air, passed it slowly through the water, and turned up the very slow leak (about 1 small bubble every three seconds.) Put a peel-n-stick on it, looked for but couldn't find any persistent hazard in the casing, aired it up, got my kit back together, made it to the office only about 20 minutes late.

The payoff? At the end of the day, ready to ride back home, the tire was still rock-hard. I just love beating a leak and (especially) not having to go back and revisit it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New Tagline

The new tagline above is from Iris Murdoch. I saw over at Urban Simplicity an article about her that incorporated the quote. I'd been using the H.G. Wells "no longer despair" quote for a while, but things needed a change. Thanks to BuffaloCook over at Urban Simplicity for acquainting me with Iris Murdoch! Here's her Wikipedia page.

Update: I've re-read Iris' quote, and although I don't disagree with its premise, its scope may be too narrow. I have to say, though, that for long distances, high-speed trains are pretty darn civilized, too.