Monday, September 29, 2008

Stockholm Business / Cycling Trip — 1

I just got back from my first time in Stockholm. Business trip. Lovely city in late September, and lovely people, too. I'll put several posts up about the trip, which culminated in a wonderful 5-hour cyclist's tour of Stockholm. I'll be putting a map up on Google and some linked pictures up on Flickr. about that, also.

Preparation: I'd never been to Stockholm before, so I got out the NYT's "36 hours" feature on it, which wasn't too old. I find the "36 hours" series try to find the very new, very hip, or offbeat places that you might not find in a conventional guidebook. (As I was meeting up with locals for business, I figured I would get plenty of the "standard tourist fare" from them.) Other than that, I looked up my hotel, my meeting places, and a couple of the places in NYT on Google Maps, and figured out how far apart things were. (My hotel was a couple of blocks from one of my meetings, and less than 4km from the other.) As for equipment, I took a helmet, U-lock, gloves, and a bandanna. As I was carrying on all my luggage, I wondered how the U-lock would look to the security screeners. (Outbound, no one asked anything. Coming home, the screeners asked to see it. I said, "It's a bicycle lock." The screener smiled and said, "I know, but she (pointing to the x-ray screener) wants to see it." All very good natured.) Also, a tourist tip: If you visit Stockholm, use the Arlanda Express high-speed train to get into town. Not much more expensive than a bus and much faster. And, you can pre-book on the Web and just use your credit card for ID in and out of town. Painless.

Geography / Geology: Stockholm is an archipelago. I rode on 7 bridge-connected islands when I was there. One of the first things you notice when you catch the Arlanda Express train into town is that the walls of the station itself are cave-like. No structure or walls, just hewn from rock, dark granite like stuff. At first I thought it might be decor, but I learned otherwise. It turns out Stockholm is underlain by a huge granite dome. (Question: what better place for a chemist to develop high-explosive to remove rock?)

Here's a picture of a "working bike". Notice the details. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the framemaker included diacritical marks in the lettering. Nice.

(Soon: A deal that's even better than Stockholm City Bikes..)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Skills vs. Infrastructure Debate

Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time I bloviate on about "vehicular bicycling skills." (It might be more accurate to say that this is one of the primary ongoing themes to be found in this blog.) Not all of this blog's readers, however, might know that there is an ongoing if ill-focused debate among interested parties that touches on this issue. The debate is between proponents of INFRASTRUCTURE vs. those who promote SKILLS DEVELOPMENT. (It is entirely possible to be a proponent of both these things. Let's, just for the moment, be partisan about this, hey? It's so much fun to argue, even if it is with oneself.)

The "infrastructure" argument asserts that bicyclists need more environmental protection from motorists, and the way to make that happen is with new bike-lane infrastructure. This argument tends to support the intuitive position of people who think they would like to cycle more but are not currently doing so, i.e., "Gee, if only there were more bike lanes like in Europe, then I would get out and cycle on a much more regular, even frequent, basis."

The "bicycling skills development" argument asserts that if bicyclists learn and use the rules of "vehicular bicycling," then additional infrastructure not only isn't necessary, but can have negative effects such as creating confusion (if poorly engineered), creating a false sense of security for unskilled cyclists, and (ultimately) relegating cyclists to "second-class" vehicular status (because of the additional confinement of the bike lane -- e.g., if a bike lane exists but is not used, even if for a good reason, is the cyclist liable?) and ultimately driving (so to speak) the cyclist off the roadways. The "skills" argument seems to be adopted more by people who are actually regular cycle commuters.

I believe it to be the case that bicycle accident statistics tend to bear out the "skills" arguments rather than the "infrastructure" argument. See my earlier post here.

I personally think that bicyclists need more education and skills development to be safer. I commute regularly by bicycle, and the stupid (i.e., dangerous) things I've seen cyclists do is breathtaking. This includes inexperienced cyclists, who are still in the "toy-bike" mode, as well as experienced road riders (who are nonetheless inexperienced vehicular cyclists) who believe, since they are so experienced, the "rules of the road" don't apply to their seasoned selves.

If the problem could be described as a problem of educational infrastructure rather than transportation infrastructure, then what is the best approach? I don't see this as something that can or will be taught in public schools -- they certainly have enough problems, not the least budgetary. But the educational infrastructure needs a curriculum, a venue, teachers, and a funding source.

A curriculum could be developed by interested parties drawing from the LAB curriculum (which the LAB tends to keep under rather tight control, as their training courses serve as a funding source) and other sources, such as Forester's Effective Cycling curriculum (but much abbreviated). Of course, the curriculum should be regularized on a national basis, while being scrupulous to minor variations within the governing state's "rules of the road". The cost to do this would be a few tens of thousands of dollars, I would think.

The venue for this education should be diffuse, locally-based, and trusted. I think a good candidate would be the public library system. Public libraries are available and currently serve a well-recognized educational role. They typically have many outreach programs, which a bicycle-skills program could join. They have large parking lots for basic skills training. They have a good image.

The teachers will of course be drawn from the ranks of current practitioners.

Funding is of course always an issue. How is this to be controlled and paid for? Will the state DOT have any say, will they want control or licensing authority? (I assume driver-training schools are licensed by the state DOTs.) Would this ultimately be linked with (and at least partially paid for by) a cyclist-licensing program? Others have broached the subject of testing and licensing bicyclists, and I think it's perhaps an idea whose time has come.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No Impact Man and the Senator

Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man" in New York City (hello again New York!) had a close call with a car (driven by a rather self-important sounding State Senator) in downtown NYC a couple of days ago that turned into a rather ugly incident. Details here. I really like NIM's writing and sentiment, but I wonder about his cycling skills. NIM allowed himself to get caught in a driver's blind spot in a situation where he had no safe outlet. This is a highly dangerous place to be. It's arguable that he did the right thing (safety wise) by striking the car (as long as he didn't sustain a hand injury), but far better to never get caught in this situation in the first place.

This leads to a handy rule for safe vehicular cycling: If you're riding on a trafficked street and there is not ample shoulder (or adjacent turn lane) space as an escape area, you have to "get out there" in the lane to force an accommodation by the driver. This is one of the rather non-intuitive aspects of safety in bike commuting, I admit, but there it is.

Just added No Impact Man to my blogr0ll. It's worth visiting.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Back from Vacation

..A vacation from this blog. My younger daughter, no stranger to blogging, says I just overdid it in August. No doubt she's right.

I've been thinking that I really need to put up my principles of safe practical cycling. This requires some preparation, though, (creation of graphics, etc.) so I've been putting it off and getting immersed in political blogs. Enough, as the politicians are so fond of saying. So look for a series in this area coming up.

As for right now, I just want to talk about a very eventful commute home last night. My commute is 9 miles, more or less, but last night had a series of interesting observations. First, it's worth noting that yesterday, I probably saw more bicyclists on the road than I ever have on a weekday. It's early fall weather and the cool evenings here in the Baltimore area are perfect for recreational cycling. So, by milepost, here's what I saw last night:

Mile 3.1: Cyclist (young, fit looking female but in street clothes) riding without a helmet, wrong way on a narrow sidewalk, across a bridge where if she came down off the curb, she would be in the oncoming traffic. (I almost stopped to lecture her, but restrained myself.)

Mile 3.2: Father and daughter cycling, same direction as traffic, her on the sidewalk (with traffic), him on the street. Both with helmets. The same sidewalk as the young lady above. Interesting lesson soon.

Mile 4.1: Passed by a young road rider, maybe in his late 20s. He said "hello, sir" (I gritted my teeth -- hate those "sirs".) I picked it up a little and kept with him for about 1/2 mile. At the end of this section, he ran a red light, crossed 2 lanes of traffic and made an illegal left turn to continue on his way. Sigh.

Mile 5.3: Passed an inexperienced rider (with helmet, but laboring in too tall a gear, and taking frequent coasting breaks) to arrive at my "nemesis" stop light - a demand-based unit that my bike won't trigger. (I've got to get organized and use this trick from Instructables!) While waiting for the light to change, passed (in the right turn lane) by a doofus, waving and smiling, apparently trying to identify with me, because he had a bike strapped to the back of his car.

Mile 7.9: Stopped at a red light in the left turn lane, ready to make the home stretch. (Only two more hills to go!) I'm all alone until a driver comes up in the right turn lane, rolls down his window, and we have a conversation:
Him: "You know, you're the first cyclist I've ever seen obeying traffic laws."
Me: "Well, I commute a lot, and this is the only way to be safe. You wouldn't believe the crazy stuff I see cyclists doing."
Him: "You be safe, and God bless you." (takes off.)
Mile 8.5: I came up on a rec cyclist as dusk was beginning to fall and it was getting dark (7:10 pm). This cyclist (female) was moving along pretty well, but had no lights, no reflector in back, nothing. She was very lucky the cars were making space for her on a busy street (typical of suburban MD -- posted speed limit 30 mph, typical speeds 40-45 mph.)

So. There you have it. Encounters with 6 cyclists and 2 motorists. Of the 6 cyclists, 3 (being generous here) were making mistakes that could turn out to cause serious accidents. I've talked before about cyclist education, but this really illustrates my point. Cyclists in the US have a very poor skill level. Until we have a way to develop vehicular cycling skills, there will be accidents (bike lanes or no.)

Not all days are like this. Some are more interesting than others.