Friday, September 25, 2009

Euro-envy in Basel and Berlin

I was in Europe on business this past week, Sunday through Friday, and spent my time in Basel and Berlin, which are both serious cycling cities. There were crowds of cyclists out, as the weather was mild. Pictures are worth thousands of words, and I'm suffering from mild jet-lag, so I'll just post some pictures and make a few comments. I describe this kind of post as "Euro-envy".

I know I've got a worldwide readership, and those of you who live in "real" cycling cities in Europe and elsewhere may well find this to be just boring tourist shots (and not great photography at that,) and for this I apologize in advance (although there may be one or two pieces of hardware below that are interesting). But this is mainly for those of us in America for whom bicycle culture is still on the outside looking in.

Arrived in Zurich on Sunday AM and took the train to Basel, where I had a day of meetings on Monday. Basel is a beautiful city situated on a bend in the Rhine, nestled in that corner of Switzerland that is right at both the French and German borders. Basel is a quite hilly place, with its share of rough cobblestone paving, and although they have bike-rental right at the Bahnhof, the profusion of streetcar tracks and the difficult navigation of the city's medieval planning kept me at pedestrian status. There is some bike infrastructure in Basel, but really it's just the social contract—well-educated motorists who are aware of the cyclists—that makes things work.

My first image tells quite a story by itself. Family of five. Mom hauling a trailer with kid #3, kids #1 and #2 on their own bikes, with Dad sheperding them. Mind you, this is the heart of Old Basel, at one end of the Mittler Brücke ("Middle Bridge") that crosses the Rhine. Here about 5 streets come together, as well as a couple (at least) of tram lines. True enough, it's a Sunday and a beautiful one at that, but ask yourself: Where in the US could this happen? Nowhere. Pick cities 1, 2, and 3 from League of American Cyclists best cities (I think they're Portland, Davis, and Boulder.) Would you see kiddo #2 on his own bike out there? I'm thinking not.

There were many families out, but this was the largest group that I saw. Lots of couples, with Mom having the child-seat or trailer setup and Dad getting to ride solo. Kind of unfair to the moms, always having to be the ones who lug the kids, but such is life.

Monday was all in meetings inside (it was a business trip, after all) and early, early Tuesday AM I caught the EasyJet to Berlin. (I must admit that knowing what I know about the carbon footprint of flying, and having the availability of trains, I was very tempted to try and build my itinerary around nothing but trains as a mode of transportation while in Europe, but it would have added probably two days to my stay to do so, and so was hard to justify to our company accountants.) Anyway, since I didn't have my next day-long meeting until Wednesday, I had an entire day to hoof it around Berlin with my cell-phone camera at the ready.

Berlin, Brunnenstraße north of Rosenthalerplatz: saw this nifty cargo bike with outrigger "rolling kickstand". This is a Biria-make postman's bike. Just look at the beautiful sweep of that split top tube, coming up to support the rear rack! A picture of the bike in action (being piloted by a familiar figure) with the kickstand up is here. Biria also sells bikes in the US, but not, unfortunately, this lovely model.

Rosenthalerstraße: the sleek iconic quality of this bike struck me. This is a classic Euro single speed. Fixies, even in Berlin, which is a very flat, infrastructure-rich, cyclist-friendly city, have not caught on here. Of the thousands of bikes I saw in use, I saw only one fixie, and it was parked. So think of this bike as "your Fixie's grandmother". Unlike what we think of as "fixies" these standard bikes are everywhere.

Rosenthalerstraße, heading south towards Aleksanderplatz (the omnipresent "Full-screenFernsehturm" TV tower in the distance): typical group of cyclists. Two of the seven cyclists in this picture have helmets. I would say that is about a normal ratio for Berlin. The Basel ratio is slightly higher.

Hackescher Markt: Nifty all-weather pedicab. These were all over. Several different companies running them.
Unter den Linden ("Under the linden trees", the broad tree-lined boulevard heading west to the Brandenberg Gate): The two shots, above and below, are the same intersection a few seconds apart as the light turned from red to green. The knot of cyclists are taking up the entire lane and spread out according to their different speeds. This is just Not A Problem in European cities. Sigh.

Charité Medical School, north central Berlin: I thought these little hedged and gated bike-parking yards were very nice. Secure and sightly. They are on the east side of the Max-Planck-Institut für Infektionsbiologie and can be clearly seen on Google Maps' satellite view.

Hannoversche Straße, near the medical school: This is a fairly unusual classic German motorcycle, an AWD. I'm no motorcycle fanatic, and certainly no expert, but I was struck by the aesthetics of this one. Look at that sleek crankcase and shaft drive. What a beauty!

Hauptbahnhof on Invalidenstraße: Right outside the main train station is a group of Deutsch Bahn "CallBikes". It is the German Railway-sponsored approach to city bikes, and it's quite different from Vélib or the others, as it has no fixed stations.

For the CallBikes system, you need a cellphone and an available CallBike (they are scattered everywhere). If the lock on the bike flashes green, it is available for rent. You call the phone number printed on the CallBikes to be texted the four-digit code which enables you to open the bike lock. When you're at your destination, you lock the CallBike to a stationary object anywhere inside the core city area. When you close the lock, a four-digit receipt code appears on the bike's display. Call the number printed on the bike, text the receipt code and the location of the bike and you're done. It will be interesting to see how this system works over time. I did see some people riding them, but I saw a lot more just sitting about.

(Sorry about the blurry shot—my group was walking fast to get to a meeting, and this was taken on the run).

Elisabethenstrasse, back in Basel: The Swiss Flyer is an E-bike produced by the Swiss firm Biketec AG, who have been at the E-bike game for a while. This is a small-wheel (20") version -- they have a lot of 26" styles and even an E-tandem! Most E-bikes, I think, use hub-motors, but this one appears to have a motor integrated with the front chainwheel (and concealed by the chain-guard.) One of my hosts in Basel is shopping for an E-bike. I think sales of these things are just exploding. This shot is a night shot of a window display, so it's a little blurry.

Intersection of Stänziergasse and Birsig-Parkplatz in old central Basel: Another night shot. This is a broad intersection of streets with lots of sidewalk-cafe action going on on a Thursday night in a pretty popular section of town, and the twentysomethings are getting around on.. bikes, of course. Lots and lots of them. (These bike parking areas are also visible on Google satellite view.) The near corner and the far diagonal corner of this intersection are packed with bikes. Most of them are locked with a short, heavy cable lock, which appears to be the security system of choice, much more popular than the U-lock seen more here in the US.

To an American, the most remarkable thing about cycling in urban Europe is it's not remarkable at all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It's a "Bike" only because it has two wheels...

Here's the "Yikebike", a Kiwi-designed transportation device that is going to get a lot of press as the successor to the Segway. In some ways, it's a worthy successor. Here's the remarkably well-produced marketing movie, replete with Europop-music, neon-green contrail, and catchy phrases.

The Yikebike is a foldable, baggable, portable, minimalistic electric transportation system. It's not an "E-bike", at least insofar as there is no way to pedal the thing when the battery runs out. It's not high-performance, as most average-to-good urban cyclists could whip it soundly over a short course of a couple of city blocks.

The "YikeBike" has been getting more coverage on gadget blogs than on cycling blogs, and this is for good reason. (It's not, after all, a bicycle as we think of it.) Here are some pertinent specs:
  • Range: 9-10 kms (5.5-6.3 miles);
  • Payload: 100 kg (220 lbs.) including baggage;
  • Charging time: 20 mins for 80% charge;
  • Charging cost: $0.15-0.20;
  • Vehicle weight: 10 kg;
  • Cost: Between $5200 and $5900.
There's a lot to like about the YikeBike concept, especially its product design. The folding design is top-notch, really well thought-out, and clever to boot (I love the "penny-farthing" iconography combined with the "Keep-on-Truckin" posture of the rider). The unit, when folded, appears to be actually compact enough to sling over a shoulder in its special bag. The steering system is compact, innovative, and (at low speeds at least appears to be) effective. The marketing (so far) is quite catchy. But as a serious alternative to bicycles (and let's be fair, it does present itself as such an alternative in its movie), it fails. The range is too short as an alternative to cycling (my daily commute is twice the YikeBike's range each way), and certainly too short as an alternative to car-commuting (which it also tries to undertake).

This raises the problematic question: if the YikeBike isn't a serious alternative to cycling or aut0-commuting, what is it an alternative to? The uncomfortable answer: walking. Walking on a very short commute, or walking to and from the bus-stop. Not even an e-bike purports to replace walking, typically they replace hill-climbing. (And that's fair enough, I suppose.) E-bikers will actually pedal on the flats, extending their range indefinitely, although too bad for them on the climbs when the juice runs out.

I say we need more walking, not less, and therefore I predict the YikeBike will join the Segway in the pantheon of vehicles for sore-footed tourists who want to do extended-range walking tours in urban settings. There are a lot of good design ideas there, though.

Postscript: what do I really, really, really like about the YikeBike movie? Check it out. The uber-cool YikeBiker is wearing Chuck Taylor All-Star Black Monos. This is the ultimate shoe in the world. It can be worn anywhere: your local skateboarding park, a cocktail party, with a tux to an opening at the Kennedy Center. It's green, recyclable, and your yoga teacher will like it, because it folds and gives your feet an opportunity to learn how to Walk Right. I own two pair (one high-top and one low) and am happy to bestow on them the Practical Cyclists' Seal of Approval. (Now if Converse only made them SPD compatible!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Proof of God's Love and Sense of Humor

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
—Benjamin Franklin

"Bacon is proof that God loves us... well, a whole lot more than He loves pigs."
—Robert Anderson

This past Tuesday morning I also got proof that God has a great sense of ironic humor. I was approaching what is consistently the most dangerous intersection on my morning commute, and it was approached by the most dangerous kind of driver, in the most dangerous kind of vehicle, doing the most dangerous activity, and...

The distracted housewife in the SUV with a cellphone clamped to the side of her head at the four-yield traffic circle stopped, made eye contact, and (just for good measure) waved me through.

It took me a half a block to grasp the kind of joke God was playing on me, upending all my stereotypes in one fell swoop. I appreciated it so that I laughed out loud. As a religious person, I would generally consider myself more of a Diest than a Theist, even though I am pretty faithful Lutheran (but that's mainly because I love to sing in the choir). The rest of religion—all the stories, all the doctrine—are just stuff that people have made up in a vain attempt to explain the unexplainable. (Not that there aren't some good stories.) And there are some things (like the "resurrection of the body" that wraps up the Christian Credo) that, I'm sorry, just haven't been thought through. (I mean, will I have to have dental floss and toilet paper in Heaven? Gimme a break.)

Cosmological physicists tell us that we can perceive only about four percent of the universe. Everything we can perceive of the universe, all the Earth, the Solar System, the galaxies, everything.. is just four percent of all that is. We as humans just don't have the senses to perceive the rest. Scientists have made up something called "dark matter" (I like to think of it as "the fudge factor of the universe") so that their equations will match what is observed. How is it, then, that some scientists have such faith in their miserable perceptions to loudly disavow the existence of God?

Another scientist (well, mathematician) of (ahem) note, Blaise Pascal, put it this way, (about "betting" on whether God exists) in his work Penseés:
But you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Difficult to put it better than that.

Later on in that morning ride, just for good measure, I got to bike on the rarest thing: a freshly-swept road. I mean so fresh that the little water dribble-marks from the street-sweeper were still visible on the asphalt. It was awesome. So clean and smooth.

Every once in a while, Theism tempts me away from my cooler Deistic beliefs.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rolling Stop

This morning (monday) on my way in to work, I didn't have a particularly good set of legs (it's amazing how, when you exercise every day, you find days where you are just "sub-par", and you learn to forgive yourself.) But, I had great timing. All the way into work, 9 miles, I didn't put a foot down. Part luck, part skill, part timing. Sort of like poker.

I go through seven stop lights on the way in to work, plus an all-yield traffic circle (more on that in a future post), plus two chicanes, plus 3 smaller traffic circles, plus two stop signs. Only two, and that surprised me when I counted them. Usually I take rolling stops through them. Speaking of rolling stops, it's a topic of debate that more states should adopt Idaho's "cyclists treat stops as yield" law. Here's an interesting YouTube on the topic:

I don't know about you, but this is one of the finest examples of educational 3D animation I've seen in quite a while. Kudos to Spencer Boomhower, the animator. Clearly a pro. It's a pleasure to see good work like this.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hazards 2: Interchanges

I was having a Saturday-morning kaffeeklatsch conversation with some ex-pats from overseas (there are a bunch of them who live out in Maryland suburbia, who work with NASA, in the diplomatic corps, and for agencies, well, let's just say they don't talk about their work very much.) One of them recognized me as a regular cyclist, because he'd seen me often on our neighborhood streets (I was so pleased), and so I gently (honest!) steered the conversation towards cycle-commuting. One of the guys was from Holland, and of course he liked to cycle "back home", but he said the hills in Maryland were too much for him. Another of the guys (an antenna designer for NASA) said that at one time he lived just 9 miles from his work, and (so he said) he would have liked to bike but there was a big highway in the way and he couldn't figure out how to get across it.

I knew the highway he was referring to, and I cross it regularly. There is an overpass about every mile along its length, but the overpasses are secondary roads, legal to cycle on, but certainly intimidating for the inexperienced. The overpasses can be particularly intimidating, and I thought it might be interesting to throw out the method I use to cross them. (Here's a link to the excellent "Infrastructurist" blog that the image at right comes from.)

Let me say right up front that this is vehicular cycling, and I've come to the realization that it's just not for everyone. I think that VC requires a commitment (and, often as not, a little bit of militancy in that commitment) to the concept that bicycles-have-full-vehicular-rights. It also requires concentration, some athletic ability, and some developed cycling skills. With all these ingredients available, VC is not dangerous, but as I say, it's not for everyone. In the America of today, though, it is the way to become carless if you don't want to wait for the powers-that-be to develop infrastructure. (This is not to take anything away from the Urban Repair Squad.)

The skills required for this apparently obvious maneuver are three:
  • The ability to ride up a gentle incline (as are most interchanges) and maintain a speed, say, in excess of 10 mph;
  • The ability to "ride a line" in traffic, to ride right on a highway stripe and not swerve even when cars bypass at speed;
  • The ability to look back in both directions without leaving your line of travel;
I say "apparently obvious" because in essence all the cyclist does when crossing an interchange is go in a straight line. I've seen experienced cyclists (although not experienced in the vehicular sense) mess this one up, always trying to be next to the curb or shoulder, and crossing too many vehicular lanes in the process. The State of Maryland "rules of the road" booklet is a little ambiguous on the practice of bicycles and turning lanes. It says:
A bicycle should be operated as close to the right side of the road as practical and safe. However, cyclists are expected to use turn lanes.
It doesn't say, however, in this context how bicyclists are supposed to use them. (I've contacted MD-DOT and will post their clarifications here when and if I receive same.)

So, anyway. Back to the topic at hand, which is the interchange. A most common interchange that one would encounter here in Maryland is the classic "cloverleaf" which I've illustrated in an adjacent image.

I've analyzed the crossing of this interchange and find that it contains seven (!) zones that have to be traversed, and each zone requires a separate response. Each zone is unique, but some are similar to others. Take a look at the illustration.

Our intrepid vehicular cyclist is crossing from bottom to top. The primary road (say an expressway) is the horizontal main road. The secondary road (typically a road with a speed limit of less than 50 mph) is the one our cyclist is on. We'll assume the secondary road has a decent rideable shoulder. (This is not necessary, but most secondary roads of this character do in fact have this, so it's a reasonable assumption.)

So, let's descibe the seven steps of getting across a highway interchange. They are:
  1. In this zone the cyclist is riding the shoulder, looking over his left for oncoming traffic that may not see him;
  2. In this zone, the cyclist is "riding the line", on high alert for motorists overtaking, not being aware of him, and crossing in front of him from left to right;
  3. In this zone, the cyclist gets a brief mental rest (on the shoulder again) and looks to his right to assess oncoming traffic from the loop;
  4. In this zone, the cyclist is again "riding the line", on high alert particularly for motorists coming off the primary road overtaking, not being aware of him, and crossing in front of him from right to left. Since there are also cars on the left, this is probably the most intimidating section;
  5. Another brief rest. This is similar to zone 3, as the cyclist should be looking right and anticipating;
  6. In zone 6, the cyclist will either "ride the line" if there is bypassing traffic on the right, or, if the road right-behind is plenty clear, make an efficient crossing to the shoulder. (I say efficient because for obvious reasons this lane is no place to dally);
  7. The last zone, the cyclist has regained the shoulder and is on his way;
So. There you have it, a quite complicated way to get from point A to point B in a straight line. Most experienced vehicular cyclists might well regard this post as both obvious and trivial. But I put it up to make explicit what the requirements are for VC. Mind you, I think the rewards are commensurate, to be sure. Freedom is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Yearly Checkup

On Tuesday of this week, it was time for my annual physical exam. I don't know how you feel about "the checkup", but for the last few years, it's something I really look forward to. To put things in perspective, 3-1/2 years ago, here's where I was. I:
  • weighed 250 lbs.
  • had a BMI of almost 29
  • had blood pressure of 140/90 (taking medication), and
  • was pre-diabetic.
Today, after 3-1/2 years of incorporating practical cycling and eating right into my lifestyle, here's where I am. I:
  • weigh 200 lbs.
  • have a BMI of 23
  • have blood pressure of 110/70
  • have absolutely normal blood sugar
  • have total cholesterol of 179, with an HDL of 65, and
  • no meds (well, a buck's worth of dietary supplements a day.)
My annual-checkup conversation with my doctor begins something like:
"Hi, Doc. How's business?"
"It's OK. (looking at my charts:) You know, you're in pretty good shape."
"Well, all you have to do is fit large amounts of exercise into your lifestyle and eat right."
"Yeah, but who wants to do that?" (smiling)
Bicycle commuting hits the "sweet spot" in turning around the American health care crisis. I know that this is a strong statement, but not really too strong. Ask yourself, what would happen if a large percentage of Americans who lived less than 10 miles from their work just "did it"? (Hint: Big Pharma wouldn't like it.) Most Americans don't believe they can afford the time to fit enough exercise into their lives (and this is no doubt true for people in every developed country, except perhaps Denmark and the Netherlands.)

"Health care" is what cycle commuters do every day. Physical health, mental health, and spiritual health. Is it Utopian to talk this way? I don't care.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bike Parking at Union Station

So, last Wednesday, I was on my way in to DC for a meeting on Capitol Hill—not at the Capitol, I'm no VIP, but at one of the congressional office buildings. When I go to DC, I virtually never drive in to town, because I'm not familiar enough with all car parks, and navigating DC without help of a local or a skilled navigator can be a frustrating experience. So instead, I drive to the Metro stop nearest my office (Greenbelt, the north terminus of the Green Line) and ride in on the train.

(Background: If you know Washington, you'll know that the stop to take to get to the capitol office buildings is Union Station, the main (i.e. only) railroad station in DC, and that's where I was headed. Union Station is served by three passenger railroads: Amtrak, MARC (the Maryland commuter train system) and VRE, Viriginia Railway Express, the Northern Virginia commuter train system. It is quite a hub for federal workers, and, I'm guessing, one of the top 5 commuter hubs in the US.)

So, back to the story. I'd just gotten in my car and started the trip to to Union Station, and was listening to Morning Edition on NPR, and lo and behold, the very first story that I heard was about Bikestation, a new bicycle parking facility at Union Station. The powers that be in WDC, bless 'em, are building a place for commuters (especially rail commuters) to store their bikes so they can get into town, grab their bike, slam on the panniers, and get to work from Union Station. (The DC cabbies are going to hate it.)

There are very high-tech motorized multi-level racks to hold the bikes, the bikes will I think be monitored, and I'm sure there will be subscription pass cards, etc. The building is I think a little overdone, but hey, it's Our Nation's Capital! The excess is part of the point—this project is as much about advertising the bicycle as a form of practical transport as it is utilitarian parking. (For a definition of "utilitarian parking", see the second picture, which is of bike parking as it currently exists at Union Station.)

So here's to the Bikestation at Union Station—long may it serve those who work (and bike) in WDC.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Case against Vitamin I

Outside of my addiction to strong coffee and being a moderate consumer of alcohol, I'm not a big user of drugs of any kind. My family physician would probably tell you (if you asked and if it were legal for her to answer, which it's not) that I'm averse to them. She will give me prescriptions and I ask for homeopathic alternatives, which she, to her great credit, is happy to recommend.

So it is with over-the-counter remedies for me also. I don't like using them unless I really need them. It's my (gut-level and totally unconfirmed) theory that this practice makes the drugs more effective for me when I need them. (Here's a link to learn more about the image at right.)

I first came across the term "Vitamin I" (referring to ibuprofen, aka Advil or Motrin) in one of Selene Yeager's columns in Bicycling magazine. It seemed humorous to me at the time, and it was understandable that such an effective drug might be seen to be effective as a general prophylactic (i.e. preventative) against aches, pains, and inflammation.

My first inkling that this might not be the case was a cautionary page that I came across at the website of a company called JointHealing, from whom I bought a compression knee brace to ease the chondromalacia that I experience in my right knee. (Highly recommended supplier if you're in the market for a joint brace.) They had an article about the use of glucosamine sulfate for rebuilding cartilage that suggested that the overuse of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, of which ibuprofen is one) might actually negatively impact growth of new cartilage. The use of "vitamin I" and similar drugs was described as possibly making the problem you are trying to fix worse. Red flag number one.

Red flag number two came in the form of an article this week in one of the New York Times blogs. This was much more alarming. I won't reiterate the entire piece here (bad etiquette, and besides, that's why I gave the link), but summarized, a highly-regarded physician from UNC's Human Performance Laboratory studied runners in an ultra-distance (100 mile) race before and after the event. Here are some of the findings:
  • A significant majority of the participants were using ibuprofen before and during the race;
  • There was no significant difference between users and non-users of NSAIDs in their pain levels;
  • NSAIDs slow the healing of injured muscles, tendons, ligament, and bones;
  • Perhaps most disturbing, NSAIDs may actually increase one's chance of injury by inhibiting the natural response of the body to form stronger bones and tendons as a result of exercise (note the echo here of the caveat given in the JointHealing article);
So, if you're taking ibuprofen as a preventative as (apparently) many do, it would seem that the current prevailing research suggest that you should cut that sh*t out!