Friday, November 28, 2008


Nitsuh. NHTSA. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A surprisingly rich source of information for bicycling and bicycle safety. See here. I won't reproduce all the links, you can go there and see what there is to see. They also have a set of links to other organizations.

Hearkening back to the previous post, it's clear government has a role. Yet when you visit the NHTSA site, it's a bit like sipping from the proverbial fire hose. There is so much information, and such a scarcity of vision such as John Pucher.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

I'm very thankful to be a cycle-commuter. It greatly increases my health (mental as well as physical), it saves me money, and it does its part to save the planet. It has such a salutary effect on my lifestyle that I'm sure I would bore to tears anyone who asked me why I cycle and was willing to stand around and hear the answer.

One of the questions I therefore ask myself (repeatedly) is, "Since cycling provides so many benefits, why don't more people cycle? What would it take to get more people on the road?" Certainly one (oft repeated here) obstacle is the irrational fear of traffic. (Irrational, that is, for people with traffic cycling skills.) Once a cyclist has a high skill level, it's no problem to cycle in American traffic.

However, it's just not rational to expect a large number of people to somehow magically develop these skills. So in the absence of [insert magical event here], how do we change the environment (and I use the word "environment" in the broadest sense) to effect this desirable change?

I'm not the only person who has been asking this. Fortunately. (If I were, very little would have gotten done.) Dr. John Pucher is a professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and he has studied bicycle use in all its variants across the world. Pucher's bio page is here , so I won't repeat it. Suffice it to say that this guy is doing important work in the areas of public policy and public health. He (along with a Rutgers PhD candidate, Ralph Buehler) have written a well researched white paper (PDF) and an excellent presentation (in both video and slideshow form) on the topic "Cycling for Everyone" which studies cycle use worldwide, and which focuses on the ways governments can encourage cycling utilization by policy in the following areas:
  • Better facilities and traffic engineering
  • Integration of biking with public transport
  • Traffic calming of resiential neighborhoods
  • Mixed-use zoning and improved urban design
  • Traffic education
  • Traffic regulations and enforcement
He's given this presentation in various forms in fora in New York City (4/2007), Louisville, KY (4/2007), Vancouver, BC (5/2008) and at the League of American Bicyclists National Bike Summit in Washington, DC (3/2007). So this is no big secret by any means, but it's definitely information that bears repeating, and passing on.

The presentation is in some ways a laundry list, and I think that there are some implementations in Europe that will have difficulty finding acceptance in the US (30-kph speed limit zones for example) but there are many that are already "mainstream" practices in the US, e.g. traffice calming and bike carriers on public transit. The really good news here is, all the policy research has been done. Now it's only a matter of using that research to bludgeon convince our legislators that this stuff is important for our health, our well-being, and our energy policy also. I think the League has done good work in this area, and that's why I'm a member of it.

So, hats off to you, John Pucher. Here's wishing you success in getting your policies put in place. And, as long as we're being thankful, thank you for the good work you've done and continue to do.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cycling Deep into Winter

Well, OK, everyone seems to be putting up posts on "Winter Cycling Tips". Here's one over at Paul Dorn's excellent commuting website, and here's another. Now that I've been cycling for a couple of weeks in weather that is often-if-not-mostly below freezing, I guess I can offer some ideas.

Planning: Winter, with its short days and questionable road conditions, is no time to experiment with new routes, at least during the early morning and early evening hours of your regular commute. Stick to the routes you know; if you want to develop some new routes, do it over the weekend, during the day.

Clothing / Accessories / Equipment: I like a layer of full-on fleece (say Polartec 200 gauge) next to my skin, topped with a wind-proof (but uninsulated) shell, and full tights. For mid-20 to 30 deg F. weather, this is really enough clothing. If it gets down into the zero degree range, I might add another layer, but it's possible to sweat this up pretty thoroughly in sub-freezing weather. I find that I warm up about 1.5 miles into my ride, where I hit my first significant uphill. Truth is, where you're exercising, you adapt pretty well thermally.

Protection of Extremities: I have a thin fleece cap that fits under my helmet (I'm probably going to add a balaclava), and I use SmartWool hiking socks. So far I haven't found the need to go to a second layer of socks -- I probably would use a vapor barrier wrap made from bread sacks or newspaper bags before I went to a full-on multilayer sock approach. (For a good discussion of why you want vapor barriers at your feet, go to this link at the venerable Stephenson "Warmlite" site.) The big difficulty I find is keeping my hands sufficiently warm. I wear a light Polartec glove liner under full winter cycling gloves, and my fingers still hurt from the cold at the end of a 9-mile ride. Better to hurt than to have lost feeling, I guess. The next step is to go to "lobster gloves" -- I've ordered some from LL Bean (Pearl Izumi brand) and maybe can find some comfort.

Other Equipment:
One thing you'll need is sunglasses for the morning commute. The sun is low in the sky, and creates a lot of glare. If you don't wear glasses anyway, you'll need eye protection for the evening commute, also. One other thing that I've found, is that it's extremely handy to have a visor on your helmet. This is so you can put your head down to deflect the headlight beams of oncoming cars on dark roads. This keeps you from getting blinded.

Outfitting the bike:
Mudguards (fenders) are essential, of course. Lights that meet the legal minimums also. I like the blinking-LED variety, for the way they conserve batteries. I've also added a large amber auto-reflector to supplement the standard red rear light. If I know the weather is going to be inclement, I don't plan to ride. But I carry extra clothing (a full rain outfit and the aforementioned newspaper bags) to keep me reasonably dry if the weather turns foul. As for tires, you can research and buy studded tires at Peter White's excellent website. For me, right now, if the weather is such that I'd need studded tires so I can ride on ice, hmm. I think I'll not ride that day. That doesn't mean you can't, though.

Motivation: Many of the other blog articles on winter cycling talk about motivation and getting going. It is true that the first mile is the hardest. I think the strategy that has been most successful for me is to just not quit, not get out of the habit. I do think that deep winter would be a challenging time to start a cycle-commuting habit, to say the least. I feel like any week where I can ride 3 days or more is a good week, and I've had mostly good weeks since the end of summer.

If you're planning on regular winter cycling, I hope these little tips have been useful. Be safe!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bike-onomics, or, What Succeeds the Bike?

Here's a link to an article in the Week in Review section of last Sunday's New York Times. It's an article about technological advance and the "creative destruction" of capitalism (a timely topic, you might concur.) It starts with the (to me) exceeding provocative statement, "By some logic, there is no earthly reason why bicycles should still exist." It's a very interesting article, and (as is often the case with the NYT) so very timely on many fronts. (So go on, read it, don't worry, we'll still be here when you're done..)

The author, Catherine Rampell, makes the statement that "older technologies have survived by recasting themselves as luxuries and by marketing their sensory, aesthetic and nostalgic appeal." I wouldn't disagree with that, exactly, but Ms. Rampell does miss (or perhaps chooses to ignore) the point that bicycles do have a straight-ahead economic advantage: they are greatly less expensive to operate than automobiles for trips of a certain length, say daily commutes of 10 miles or less. There's just no comparison, and commuting bicyclists' blogs are replete with stories of how much money they've saved, ad nauseaum. Ms. Rampell might make the argument that such extra modality makes no sense, even if there are savings to be had. I would respond that I know of people who (even today) find cross-country driving more economical than flying, and do so for that very reason.

But I think the article raises an interesting question: what would it take to render the bicycle obsolete, at least as a practical means of transportation, or to marginalize it to such a degree that its only practical use is as a "fresh-air exercise machine"? I say this knowing full well that there are those of us "hard-core" individuals who will let you take our bikes only when you can pry our cold, dead fingers, etc., and it can reasonably be argued (by someone who lacks the personal daily joy of same) that bicycle commuting is inherently a fanatic kind of activity, even if economical.

Well, here's a candidate for a vehicle technology that might someday render the bicycle obsolete except for us fanatics: the Twill Wicked. What if you could have a highly safe personal transportation device, freeway-speed capable, extemely efficient (450-mpg equivalent, say), and capable of existing totally "off the grid", for which a solar panel of less than 4 square meters would suffice to supply energy for a daily 30 mile commute? What if this vehicle cost $12,000 (the price of a high-end carbon racing bike)? Such are the promised specifications of the Wicked.

To be sure, the Wicked exists right now somewhere between the gleam in the eye of an engineer and a partially-working prototype, no more. But the imagination displayed in this project is remarkable. (Allow me to step up on my soapbox a moment.) It is precisely the lack of this kind of imagination on Detroit's part that is at the root of their current death-throes. I mean, look at the ridiculous Chevy Volt, totally hobbled by the fact that it's designed around a superstructure based on cheap oil. As long as a car is assumed to be a ton-and-three-quarters hunk of metal, the battery requirements to get any kind of decent range will be excessive and costly. The problem is that, since this is what Detroit's "best and brightest" can come up with, this is what the public takes for an "electric vehicle". I don't assign any form of conspiracy theory here along the lines of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", rather I just think it's gross incompetence. (end soapbox) Maybe the the Wicked is what will replace the car, maybe the Aptera. Or a vehicle being brewed in any one of a thousand garages right now.

But I'm not worried about them replacing the bicycle. No time soon, anyway.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

2539.7 what it reads on my cyclo-computer odometer (which I reset on January 1) right now. It being just past the Ides of November, I expect I may (if I'm lucky) get in 3 or at most 4 weeks more of commuting in before the end of the year. This past week, I got in 3 days, had one day lost to bad weather, and one day lost because of having to make a business trip into Washington, DC.

My goal for the year was to displace 3,000 miles of car travel. To me, this meant 3,000 miles of trips that I would have made anyway in a car — commuting, errands, etc., so recreational cycling wouldn't technically count. I feel like I've gotten pretty close, no matter what the rest of the year looks like. I'm particularly happy in comparison to last year, when I cycled only about 2200 miles, over 500 of which were weekend recreational miles. (Nothing wrong with them, except they don't displace auto miles.) I got a late start this year, no cycling in January, which was pretty inclement, and precious little in February. I'm just going to have to get out more in winter if I want to make my goal next year, which I'm setting at 3,300 miles. (You read it here first.)

So, (shifting gears here a little,) as part of the Great Financial Bailout of 2008, the Bicycle Commuting Act was passed. This allows employers to provide fringe benefits to their bicycle-commuting employees of up to $20 and provide various tax incentives for same. I don't know how a "bicycle commuter" is defined; there are several guys at my office who are "bicycle decorators", i.e., they use bikes for office decor, but they don't ride them very much. One article I read says that if you ride your bike 60% of the time, you would be considered a bicycle commuter. So I broke out my calculator:

48 weeks* x 5 days x 17.6 miles in my RT commute = 4224 miles per year at 100% utilization.

(* I figured 52 weeks - 3 weeks vacation - 1 week holidays)

So at 60% utilization, 4224 x 0.6 = 2534.4 miles. This means that on my last ride home this past week, I became a bicycle commuter for the year. Whoo-hoo!

Seriously, I do a good amount of business travel, which should fairly be excluded. And there are other extenuating circumstance -- no one should have to cycle in a downpour. Not only is it not fun, it's dangerous. But I know that by US standards, I'm a cycling fiend. It just goes to show that the bar for defining "cycle commuter" has not been set too low by our friends in Congress.

For a NY Times article on the Bicycle Commuting Act, go here. For more information on the Congressional Bike Caucus (presumably a good place to write to do some informal lobbying,) go here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Final word on Stockholm

Before I leave it, a few last words on Stockholm:

Stockholm Bike Fashion: The "fixie" craze has yet to hit Stockholm the way it has in the US. If you have a single-speed, it's an standard* steel-frame, coaster-brake style. Other "standards" are three-speeds. (I would call an "standard" an "old person's bike" except that young people who are not bike enthusiasts ride them too. So they are just "standard".) Enthusiast bikes are derailleur-equipped late-model mountain bikes or road bikes with bright paint jobs. (I did see one Rohloff-equipped bike. Nice.) I saw aluminum, not carbon, frames in the display windows of the one bike shop I stopped at. As for couture, I saw only a few people wearing Spandex, and they were all club riders. For that matter, I was remarkable (even in my street clothes) for wearing gloves.

Infrastructure / Pedestrians: Bikeways, where they are uninterrupted, are great, e.g. along a waterfront, especially where there is some separation (other than a line of paint) from pedestrians. But they are always problematic where they end, or have to deal with intersections, or cross roads. There is a lot of "engineering" (signalization, signage, and control) involved. And the cyclist always has the option of using the roadway anyway. Just as in the US, delivery trucks and cars park in the bikeways, forcing the cyclist into the motorway. The adjacency of bikeways to pedestrian areas is problematic, I think bikes (moving at 10-20 mph) belong more with cars than with pedestrians. I found myself using my bell a lot.

*I've been, justly enough, taken to task for my earlier use of the term "ordinary", which historically refers to a "penny-farthing" type bicycle.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stockholm Cyclist Holiday...

..well, it was really a business trip, but I was able to tack on a day to do an extensive tour of the city by bike. As I said in an earlier post, I'd never been in Sweden before. I found it very English-friendly. (This is good thing, as my Nordic is pretty non-existent. One of the weird things about visiting Sweden is that "Hello" in Nordic is "He!" pronounced "hey". It's tempting to just say "hey" right back, kind of comfortable and informal, until you realize that you're sending the wrong signal about which language you prefer.)

Stockholm has a lot of practical cyclists. It would not be hard to believe that (at least in the warm months) 20 to 25 8 to 10 percent of city-dwellers commute to work, or do at least some practical transportation on bikes. The city has an extensive network of bike lanes, and the sensible Swedes wear helmets in far greater proportion than I've seen elsewhere in Europe. I'd guess 50% of the urban riders I saw wore helmets, which may not sound like a lot, until you see Paris where the percentage is in the low (and I mean low) single digits.

Stockholm has a public bike-sharing system called "Stockholm City Bikes". It has been put together by Clear Channel advertising, who I think also did the Washington DC "SmartBike" system. The systems look pretty much identical: the bikes (3 speed w/ coaster brakes on the rear) are the same (see my post on SmartBike here), and the rental system is very similar, with a 3-hour usage limit. SCB is more tourist oriented, though, with a 3-day pass available (for between $15 and $20) at the central railway station.

I got a better deal than SCB, though. I got a free bike for two days from my hotel (a very nice central hotel called the Scandic Anglais). Evidently this is not unusual. The larger hotels keep a collection of bikes available for patron use, and you just check them out and a deposit is put on your hotel tab until you return them. Simple and convenient. The bikes are nothing special: one-speed "ordinaries" with rear coaster brake (coaster brakes suck, by the way) and drum brake on front, rack, mudguards, and lights. Pretty basic stuff, and not very different from what a lot of locals use on their own. Just guessing, I would say that about 50% of the locals were on "ordinaries" while the other half were on more high-tech modern bikes. I saw very few people on the SCBs. It was late September, and past the tourist "high season", so maybe that was it -- the SCBs were mainly for tourists.

The SCB website is here, but it's in the off-season now. Bikes are available only for seven months of the year, 3/31 to 10/31. I guess winters are pretty tough in Stockholm. One of my acquaintances there said he had a co-worker who put on studded tires and rode year-round, but he was considered extremely hard-core by his colleagues.

So, to document the holiday and encourage other tourist-cyclists in Stockholm, I've mapped my city tour on Google Maps below. My first day tour (8.5 miles, Friday afternoon) is in red, and my longer Saturday tour (19.5 miles) is in purple:

View Larger Map

..and, even more fun, have an annotated collection of "travelogue" photos on flickr here. You can click on the map link on each photo page to see where it was taken in Stockholm. I hope you enjoy seeing Sweden's capital by bike!