Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Bicycling Paradox

Karl Ulrich, a professor from Wharton School of Economics in Philadelphia (and an avid bicycle commuter,) is experiencing some significant notoriety in bicycling blogs as a result of a paper he has written about the "true" environmental savings of bicycle transportation displacing automobile transportation. Most succinctly put, his thesis is this:
Practical bicycling is not a net gain for the environment because the energy savings due to the use of human power for transportation is offset by the increased energy used by living longer due to better health.
I think this paper has good entertainment value, and I'm pretty sure that Ulrich is writing this as a Gedankenexperiment with a little bit of tongue in his cheek. There are a few aspects of his logic and assumptions that I'm not sure I buy, however:

Ulrich correctly calculates the net efficiency differential of auto to bike at approximately 1:32 (I have replicated this calculation elsewhere) but falls into the trap of making a big deal out of the energy cost of agricultural production, thus lowering the differential in the range of 1:6 to 1:9. (This is a pretty big range, by the way.) As I've said before in a letter to the League of American Bicyclists magazine, I think this is a slippery slope. Since food is such an energy-expensive proposition, does Ulrich consider the food consumed by the auto driver? (Or by the driver of the gasoline tanker truck, for that matter?) What about vegetarian locavore cyclists?

Ulrich rightly and justifiably compares the practical cyclist to the athlete who doesn't abandon the use of the motor vehicle. (This includes all those athletes at the health club as well as recreational cyclists). The energy profile is shown in the graph at right. Note that, even with the "stacking of the deck" done by Ulrich in the food-production energy discussion above, the practical cyclist is still superior to the sedentary motorist, if not by much.

There is an excellent discussion of the papers and its putative "holes" here.

By the way, Ulrich is also the creator of the Xootr Swift folding bicycle. If you go to this link for the Swift, and click on the "Guidelines for commuting by bicycle" link, you'll find one of the better one-page summaries of how to be prepared to commute by bicycle, including some recommendations for cold-weather dress that pretty closely parallel my earlier post. Hey, Ulrich is right up the road, in Philly. Not too far from Central Maryland where I live, so the guidelines should be similar. I like the Swift also. Not many folders are specifically sized for the tall (6'5"+) rider, but the Swift has an "XXL" size that is specifically aimed at us tall guys.

Friday, April 24, 2009

AIA-SFO: Integrating Bikes and Business

Next week I'll be attending the American Institute of Architects (AIA) convention in San Francisco. Architects are (at long last) becoming environmental leaders in the professional communities, and "cycling" and "environmental" fit together nicely for me, so I'll be taking a folding bike to push the envelope of "green consciousness" for architects. I don't want to be unfair here—I've noticed that there exists a large intersection among architects, cyclists, and (even) bike builders, it's just that, when it comes to cycling, and particularly practical, everyday cycling, there's a lot more lip service than action. So I hope to turn that around in a small way.

My company, Nemetschek NA, produces a computer-aided design software called Vectorworks. It's used primarily by architects (as I am), but it has great 3D and solids capabilities, and I want to design bikes with it. (This would be just another integration of life, work, and avocation for me.) I've designed buildings and shoes with it, but not yet bikes. If you've used CAD to design bikes, I want to talk to you, so leave me a comment and a way to get in touch!

San Francisco is a city where I've spent time before. And it has hills that are serious challenges to walk up, much less bike up. I don't think I have a bike set up with the gears needed for all of San Francisco.

That's the bad news. The good news is, I'm going to be spending almost all my time in the "SoMa" (South of Market) area, which is quite flat, by SFO standards. Following one of the guiding principles of Practical Cycling, "Research your Route", I've done some homework on SFO. Here's a nifty topographical map of the city overlaid with bike routes. Below is a Google map of what I'm going to be up to. The aqua-colored destination in the middle of the Castro district is where my friend Scott and his wife Polly reside, and that is at the top of a pretty awesome hill, one I don't think I'd try and tackle unless I had about 22" gears. So Scott and I will have to meet elsewhere (maybe at the "Zeitgeist" bar, which is I'm told a favorite of the local bike couriers), or I'll take the bus to his house.

View SFO AIA Convention 2009 in a larger map

So, I've decided to take my folder for the flat areas. I bought (off my brother, who wasn't using it) a Dahon "Speed D7" folder, (mine being about 8 years old, not quite as nice as the one in the link), and a Samsonite "Oyster" standard-airline-case (SAC) that it fits in for transport. I spent a weekend overhauling it, getting it properly equipped for minimal practical cycling (tool kit, pump, lock, patches, lights,) and learning how to pack it. (I made some breakthroughs in this area. There are websites that state that you can't pack a Dahon folder in an Oyster without removing the stem and handlebars, a major pain since I added a cyclocomputer mount. I found that I need only remove the wheels, and everything else fits neatly. (I'll leave the details of that for another post.)

I was in Seattle at the beginning of April and used the trip out there as a first shake-down trip for the travelling cyclist use-case. Excepting a tangled chain on initial unpacking of the bike, everything went surprisingly well. I found the little Dahon, while a bit short in the leg for my tall frame, to still be an acceptable ride for up to, say, 20 miles. I put about 75-80 miles on the Dahon in 5 days, in Seattle, a city not devoid of hills itself. The gear range is rather limited, at both the top and (somewhat surprisingly, given the 20" wheels) the bottom.

So, if you're in San Francisco next week and see the very tall guy on the clown bicycle wearing the Vectorworks shirt, that will be me. Flag me down and tell me you're a reader of A Practical Cyclist, and I'll be glad to invite you to the Vectorworks "City to Green" party on Thursday night! And if by chance you're attending the AIA convention, please drop by the Vectorworks booth, #1651, and let's talk bicycles, design, and computer-aided design.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cycling and Meditation

As I've gotten older, I've mellowed a lot about spirituality. Spirituality of all flavors. I've gotten more into church, especially through singing. (I also pray a lot more these days.) On an irregular basis, I attend meditation sessions with my wife, where we do sitting and walking meditation. Meditation is about being totally present in your life, where you focus on breathing and try and quiet the internal monologue that goes on in your brain. I really enjoy meditating.

When you're cycling in traffic, and really paying attention, it's a form of meditation, too. Think about it -- to be safe, you'd better be 100% in the present. You better know what the traffic around you is doing, you'd better know what the road conditions are likely to be in the next quarter mile, you better know how the traffic signals are sequenced, and you better be watching for pedestrians to boot. (Hey, "pedestrians to boot" -- get it? Never mind.) There is really no room for having your mind wander, not if you want to be safe.

There's really no room to indulge in anger or reverse road rage, either. The only time all last year when I came close to having an accident was when I was agitated when I was signaling for a lane change and a rude driver came right around me, ignoring my signal. I got all bent out of shape, and yelled at the jerk. Within a minute, and while I was still agitated, I came within a hairs-breadth of turning left into oncoming traffic. I must have had a guardian angel give me a dope-slap to pull me out of my agitation and save me. I was really shaken by this incident and by my inattentiveness caused by my not letting go of the anger.

Seeing the danger in "reverse road rage", I resolved to mend my ways. When drivers act stupid, aggressive, or (as is usually the case) heedless, I still shout at them, but then I let it drop, and be over. It's the only way to be really safe. Hanging on to your anger and agitation is just purely dangerous.

Peace, sisters and brothers.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bicycle as Fetish

My dictionary defines it thus:
fet•ish |ˈfeti sh |
•an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.
Now, bear that definition in mind as you read and view this article from the Style (of course!) section of the New York Times, a photo layout of high-fashion models draped over Dutch and high-end American street bicycles. After reading (with no small amount of amusement) this article, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that bicycles are now a fetish in urban America. Since it is defined as bestowing powers, what can we say is the power it might bestow? I submit that the power (in today's America) is coolness.

Bikes have become cool. Partly as a result of Lance, partly as a result of the skinny young bike couriers, partly as a result of the ecological movement, partly as a result of last year's gasoline price bubble, bicycles have arrived.

The fashion models bear witness to this. I mean, really! The set of individuals who would not only bike to work but who would insist on being a fashion plate is very, very small. This is not for societal reasons, it's for practical ones. Let's examine a quote from the Times article:
Can the bicycle, the urban answer to the wild mustang, slow down and put fenders on? Can the urban cyclist, he of the ragtag renegade clothes or shiny spandex, grow up and put on a tie?
I think what's interesting is the way this quote (and the article as a whole) presents this as an either-or. Either spandex or worsted. Either wild or staid. Either adolescent or grown-up. While the either-or is effective as a literary device, I think it's a bit overwrought in this particular case. Let's look at some facts:

"Real" cycle-commuters have to deal with the weather. Even sitting upright on a Dutch bike, in New York City there are probably only about six weeks out of the year (three in spring, three in fall) where you could ride to work a distance of greater than 3 miles and not get either grossly lathered up or pretty darn cold. Fashion cycling is a very limited activity, and people who cycle because they are motivated by fashion-good-looks won't be doing so for very much of the year.

"Real" cycle-commuters have to deal with safety. The Times article states, "Dutch bikes are ridden upright, not hunched over, and you move at a safe, slow gait". Please! Moving at a "slow gait" on the streets of Manhattan is safe? Riding a bike to work, preoccupied with how I'm going to keep my two-thousand dollar Marc Jacobs suit from getting stained or ripped is safe? Not wearing a helmet because "..riding a bike should be normal, and you shouldn’t have to wear a funny Styrofoam hat” is safe?

"Real" cycle-commuters in the City have to deal with New York. The article pays lip service to the ever-present everyday problems of the commuter: the traffic, the fear of theft, the lack of secure bike parking. None of these are made any easier by being dressed fashionably. (Lugging and lifting bikes is a great way to rip tight-fitting pretty-boy suits. I think the look on the face of the model in this picture, dealing with the folding bike, says it all.)

The Times article, in the end, is kind of a mish-mash (or "mashup," the more popular contemporary term). It flits around, and touches on a wide variety of very valid and interesting issues, but doesn't stay with any of them long enough to make sense. Of course, that's not its point. Its point is to sell fashion, which it does admirably with its slide show.

This isn't the first recent intersection of bicycling and fashion that comes to mind. There are the $3000 cycling suits by Rapha, fresh from Savile Row, and the seriously sartorial Dashing Tweeds get-up that bike manufacturer Gary Fisher (right) recently was fitted for in London. The Dashing Tweeds suit is made of Lumatwill, a fabric whose pinstripes are reflective for night riding. Like Gore-tex it's a Teflon laminated fabric, so it's both breathable and waterproof. To me, this is a true bespoke ("custom" for those of you who don't speak the King's English) suit for a cyclist. It's truly forward-looking and (assuming as I must that it's cut for freedom of movement) represents something that could be seriously used by a commuter on those days when he just has to wear a suit.

David Colman of the Times has put up a visually interesting article, but ultimately it's about the conventional fashion trade. It seems ironic to me that there's a true story going on about cycling and cycle-clothing, however, and they're missing it.

PS: Hey, NYTimes, where are the female models? Is it just too hard to reconcile the way that real female cyclists look with the current uber-anorexic female fashion model?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Age, Treachery, Gravity

This morning (it was chilly, low 30s) I was 5-1/2 miles into the commute, at the end of a quarter-mile gentle downslope, and a young cyclist on a nice street bike just blew by me. He was in his late 20s, I reckon, and had generally good handling skills (he could set up and take a corner at speed quite well.) I'd been just moseying along, so I picked up the cadence a bit to see if I could keep up with him. He'd put half a block on me, but I noticed two things as I tried to keep up that suggested he hadn't been out much this season: first, he was rocking his head and shoulders quite a bit; and second, he was slowing down on even gentle rises in the road.

My favorite climb of the morning, an 0.6 mile 3% grade, was a half mile ahead, so I just kept pace and bided my time to see what would happen when we hit it. Sure enough, as soon as the upgrade began, he began having trouble finding the right gear. He shifted into too low a gear and began struggling. He must have had a mirror of some kind, because I never saw him look around, but he pulled over as I went around, about an eighth-mile into the climb. I never looked back, but had a great climb, cresting at about 13 mph.

Let me tell you, there's nothing that stokes your self-esteem like smoking a guy half your age on an uphill, early season or no. (I know, I know, I had the "unfair" advantage of having been riding all winter.)

This made me wonder, though, about what kind of advice was out there so I went to Google over the lunch hour and typed in "how to climb hills". The first page of links was all about cycling -- no surprise there. Right up top, I found:
  • Dr. Dick Rafoth's excellent Cycling Performance Tips website that has a host of scientific fact-based information;
  • A very good entry in the late, great Ken Kifer's Bicycle Pages website about the strategy of climbing;
  • A typically-un-informative entry from the eHow website. (I always find eHow unenlightening. It used to be a wiki-type cooperative editing environment, maybe still is, but the entries all seem so darned obvious. Tip number one: use cleats. Tip number two: use the proper gear. Duh.)
  • A quite good article on the REI web site on climbing. Funny, all the times I've ordered stuff from REI, I never looked at that little "expert advice" tab. They have a host of articles on cycling. Many of them are about the kind of stuff to buy (what did you expect, after all?) but this one was pure technique.
So there's a smattering of what's out there. Google it yourself if you want to really pursue this topic. It's funny, I was filling out a questionnaire the other day and one of the questions was, "What do you like about your daily commute?" I answered, "The hills." It seem like a strange answer, but I've really come to an understanding with the gravity part of my ride. I used to really dislike the hills, but now I really like the variety that hills provide, not only variety in the terrain, but also variety from day to day. They serve as a great gauge of how I'm feeling physically and help me to know more about myself. When you hit the hill just right, at just the right cadence, and load your legs just so, so they're "glowing" when you get to the top, but you've still got something left, man, that is a great feeling.

Friday, April 10, 2009


This is too ironic. Here's a verbatim quote from the GM introduction of the "P.U.M.A." auto-balancing two person vehicle made in joint venture with Segway:

"Imagine moving about cities in a vehicle fashioned to your taste, that's fun to drive and ride in, that safely takes you where you want to go, and "connects" you to friends and family, while using clean, renewable energy, producing zero vehicle tailpipe emissions, and without the stress of traffic jams," said Burns. "And imagine doing this for one-fourth to one-third the cost of what you pay to own and operate today's automobile. This is what Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) is capable of delivering."

Yes. Imagine that. Let's imagine this as a series of bullet points, shall we?
A vehicle:
• tailored to your tastes
• fun to drive and ride
• safely takes you where you want to go
• "connects" you to friends and family
• using clean, renewable energy
• producing zero vehicle tailpipe emissions
• without the stress of traffic jams

I say that my commute (which is to say, my bike) can robustly answer "check!" to all of these with the possible exception of the "connects you to friends and family" item which seems to me to be more like a cell phone than a vehicle. But my bike, maybe kinda sorta, can be said to do even this.

This whole thing beggars the imagination. I've accused GM of incompetence before (before this abomination, even well before the first bailout).

But the point is, really: What does the fact that PUMA can be taken seriously say about us as a society, anyway? Are we so culturally averse to physical activity (and to sweat) that we'll do anything to avoid it, as beneath us? The Roman poet Juvenal described the ideal of the "healthy mind in the healthy body"; the apostle Paul referred to the "body as a temple". It does seem that there is something particularly American about this; you don't see this aversion to activity in Europe. Can this be laid at the feet of Madison Avenue, who basically elevated BO (and therefore sweat) to the level of a mortal sin?

And, does that guy in the photo above have any notion of just how truly dorky he looks? I mean, didn't everyone see Wall-E?

Have we really, truly become South Park? (Thanks to Geeks are Sexy for the reference.) Man, I would feel so much better if I knew this were GM perpetrating an elaborate joke. But I don't think so; they're a week late.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bike Ownership Patterns and Cyclo-computers

It's funny, you know. There seem to be two different types of bicycle owners. The first kind has one bike. Maybe he or she personalizes it, gives it a name. The second kind of owner owns several bikes: maybe a road bike, maybe a fixie, maybe a twenty-niner, maybe a folder, maybe a vintage 70's model. Either kind of owner can be a dedicated rider or not.

But in the case of the second type of owner who happens to be a dedicated rider, there's a market need going unfulfilled, and that is, cyclo-computers with more than two available wheel size settings. They just don't exist as far as I know. The multi-bike example I gave above (and honestly, from perusing the blogosphere, I don't think this is such a rare occurence) could have 4 different wheel sizes on his bikes.

Later this year, as I rebuild my beloved touring bike, I will be in a situation where I have bike with 3 different wheel sizes, and I will be forced to go to wheel reset mode on a regular basis if I want to properly accumulate mileage (and I do.) I'll bet that the desire to have a reasonably accurate cumulative mileage (coupled with the ability to learn one and only one set of controls) would be highly attractive to a growing market segment.

So here's a great opportunity, all you manufacturers of cyclocomputers (and there's probably only about three, maybe four, of you) -- give us some flexibility!