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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two Interesting Articles in surprising places...

Article 1: Slate, which I haven't read since the end of the election season. (I don't miss my addiction to political online writing much!) Anyway, they published a quite good article by Christopher Beam about vehicularists vs. infrastructurists. Here's a quote:
Vehicularists see the potential transformation of America into a Euro-style bike paradise not just as a far-fetched utopia but as an insult. Dedicated bike paths are an admission that the cyclist deserves pity and should be walled off from the world. Bike paths are separate but unequal—a way for motorists to get bikers out of their way. John Forester, the author and engineer known as the intellectual forebear of vehicular cycling, traces the philosophy back to a set of laws introduced in 1944 that relegated bikes to the far right of the road, prohibited cycling outside of bike lanes, and banned them from the street if bike paths were available. (These laws were part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, a national model on which states base their own traffic laws.) Since the rise of the automobile, vehicularists have seen any attempt to treat bikes differently as a civil rights violation.
Go check it out.

On a related (sort of) topic, I've been thinking about the typical legalese in the Uniform Vehicle Code adopted by most states that talks about "[bicyclists] may ride two abreast if not impeding traffic." Certainly our intuition tells us that bicycles "impede" auto traffic, but I think the truth is a little less obvious. If we think about "impeding" traffic as being the same as "congestion" (reasonable enough, I submit), then at least in theory, widespread bicycle use should produce less congestion (by using up less roadway) and therefore bicycles, while microcosmically acting as an impediment, macrocosmically reduce congestion!

Which is a sort of round-about lead-in to article 2, in the Wall Street Journal, which makes the dubious claim that traffic jams, by providing disincentives for driving, are "good" for the environment. (It's of course a rather transparent plea to avoid congestion taxes, but hey..)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Impeach Rick Perry

Rick Perry, the governor of the State of Texas, is a lying tyrant and should be impeached.

There might be people who think that statement is just a wee bit strong. But you know, I just don't know how to put it more plainly and simply than that. I'm sure that most readers of this blog know the basics of the story by now, but just in case, let's review them:

The Legislature of the State of Texas soundly passed a bill, SB 488, "Relating to the operation of a motor vehicle in the vicinity of a vulnerable road user; providing penalties," intending to protect (among others) bicyclists in the state of Texas. It was passed out of committee by a vote of 7-2. The bill was passed by a vote of 142-0 (with 2 abstentions) in the Texas House of Representatives last June 2, and on June 3 by 26-5 in the Texas Senate (so I trust there will be no challenge to the word "soundly".) The bill was certified by the conference committee to have no negative fiscal impact on either the State of Texas nor the communities of Texas.

A web page for the bill, from which the text can be downloaded, is here.

The bill would have required motorists to give cyclists and others categorized as "vulnerable road users" at least 3 feet of clearance when passing on most highways. The "vulnerable road users" category would have included pedestrians, highway construction and maintenance workers, tow truck operators, stranded motorists or passengers, people on horseback, bicyclists, motorcyclists, moped riders, and other similar road users.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, in an action surprising to some observers, vetoed the bill last June 19th. (The Texas state Constitution gives the Governor ten days after receiving a bill to either sign it or veto it, I don't understand why this bill could have been vetoed after 16 days. But that's for more expert Texas legal minds to ponder.)

Perry, a mountain-biker who recently broke his collarbone in an accident, said that many road users in this category already have operation regulations and restrictions in state law. He stated,

“While I am in favor of measures that make our roads safer for everyone, this bill contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users.”

Perry is plainly lying when he says that he is "in favor of measures that make [Texas'] roads safer for everyone." This statement can be explained no other way. (It's not merely a lie, it's a bald-faced lie, one that is so obvious and blatant that it dares to you call it such, and I choose to do so.) So now let's address the "Tyrant" part of my earlier epithet.

Perry as governor of Texas doesn't have a lot of power, really. The real power is in the Legislature (the "Lege" as it was referred to by the late great muckraker and humorist Molly Ivins.) The only real power the Governor has is the veto. Perry has misused this power: In the four legislative sessions completed while he was governor, Perry has vetoed 203 bills – more than any other governor of Texas. He is also the longest-serving governor in Texas history. (What are you Texans out there thinking, anyway? If you elected a fire-hydrant to the office of Governor, at least it would do less harm than Perry!) This petulant and corrupt over-use of the veto authority is taking power out of the hands of the legislature and the people they represent, hence my use of the "Tyrant" epithet.

The state of Texas has a provision for the legislature overriding governor vetoes, but according to this article, there are procedural issues that make overrides difficult. So the Texas Legislature has written a bill providing for a Constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to call a special session to deal specifically with veto overrides. However, according to Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth (R), Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst are conspiring to prevent the constitutional amendment from making the floor of the Senate.

All of this would be moot if the state of Texas enforced the laws on its books (you know, those laws that Perry says suffice.) But they don't. If you're a cyclist in Texas, you have very little protection. Consider the tragic case of Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler. The San Antonio couple were riding a tandem on the shoulder of Highway 16 north of Helotes, TX when a truck struck them from behind. They were both killed and leave behind a 7-year-old daughter. (Heart-rending images of the daughter abound in the blogosphere, and I won't reproduce them here.) Local news reports that “investigators say there are no charges on the driver. They believe this was an 'accident' and that somehow the driver lost control of his truck.” Even though the driver was reportedly exceeding the speed limit. That, dear friends, is the state of law enforcement in Texas (and, to be fair, in other states.)

You might think that, given this (admitted) diatribe, I don't care for Texas. But that's not true. I lived for almost 30 years in Texas, and I love that state, and I love Austin, where I married and had kids. I love Texas, but I've had enough of lame-brained Texas politics. Just like another stupid mountain-biking governor of Texas, this one should be impeached.

Memo to Texas Legislature: Grow a pair.

Memo to State's Attorneys across the State of Texas: start doing the job you were elected to and enforce the laws that are on the books.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bike fitting

Bike fitting, buying and finding and adjusting a bike to work well with your body, your flexibility, your strength, and your needs, is an important topic. Today I've put together a post that covers some of the online resources for bike fitting, and also briefly discusses fitting services and systems.

On-line Guides: First I'll give a brief survey of some of the online fitting guides. At top right is a chart detailing the topics covered by these sites:

Rivendell Bikes has a nice online guide for choosing a bike. This is predominantly a guide for choosing a frame size, based predominantly on pubic bone height (AKA "inseam"). It has an interesting rule for how to determine the leaning angle of the torso. This is oriented towards comfort and not racing sizing (which really is not addressed by any of these sites.)

Bikerowave (love the name) has a pretty plainly presented (looks like a forum entry) discussion, but the information there is good.

Jim Langley's excellent site has made the posts of this blog before. He presents fitting as a troubleshooting guide. Good if the bike you already own falls within the range of what you need, not so useful as a buyer's guide. (Langley quotes from Ivan Illich -- hm, good topic in itself for some future post.)

Kirby Palm's long discourse on bike fitting is encyclopedic. Anyone who can write this much on a topic probably knows something about his subject. If not, let's hope he gets lucky. Seriously, this is arranged in a somewhat wordy narrative, but is quite comprehensive and useful.

Peter White Cycles has a page on the topic. It provides some general advice on frame fitting as well as advice on selecting the kinds of merchandise Peter sells. (I really like Peter's site and sincerely appreciate the information he provides. I would buy from him a lot more if he made it easier to do so.)

The Colorado Cyclist site has a thorough (if not particularly broad) guide. It uses a step-by-step approach that I like in this kind of guide.

Wabicycles has a frame-spec focused site that is oriented toward fixies. It information is compactly organized and not unsophisticated. Definitely the place to go if you're thinking about converting that old Raleigh from the '70s into a fixie.

Fitting Systems: Let's suppose, however, that you don't feel confident about measuring a bike (or yourself) and just want to have it done for you. There are a couple of bike-fitting hardware systems sold to bike shops whose personnel are usually certified to use them. Perhaps a shop in your area has one of these systems:

Bike Fit Kit: The "Fit Kit" sold to cycle shops to determine bicycle fit. Since they sell the kits, they don't "give away" their methods online, but visiting their site is interesting in what it says about their approach.

The Fitmaster is the all-in-one fitting machine seen in many bike shops. Shops in at least 25 states in the US have these. A nice, integrated system combined with training on how to use it. This is a good investment for any bike shop, it would seem.

Some randomly-chosen services using (probably) one of the above systems are listed below:

Ride Boutique is certified on several different fitting systems. If you live near Ann Arbor and have a couple of Benjamins to spare, this might be time (oh, yes, and money) well spent.

Papa Wheelie's bicycle shops (again, I love that name) in Boston and Portsmouth, NH also has advanced fitting services. They mention the magic word, "chondromalacia," which I suffer from.

Bicycle fitting services in Tampa, FL. Seem reasonably priced.

eBooks: Lastly, you may simply be a book person, and the comfort of the printed page (that is, if you're willing to print it yourself, as these are ebooks) is the way to go for you. (I can certainly understand this.) There are a couple of titles that come to hand, based on my Internet search:

Arnie Baker's "Bike Fit" ebook. If you're a learning-oriented, self-reliant kind of person, this may be for you. A whole lot less expensive than a fitting session, too.

Andy Pruitt's Medical Guide for Cyclists. Ebook. Combines a section on bicycle fitting with a section on injuries / prevention / care.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Across the chasm

The renowned cult author, Robert Pirsig, wrote an article for Esquire magazine in 1977 about cruise sailing wherein he observed that people who had spent years and lots of money preparing for once-in-a-lifetime cruise sailing voyages often cut them short, disappointed and disillusioned, eager to get "back to reality" from their dream cruises that had turned into nightmares.

Here are a couple of excerpts that apply, directly or indirectly, to bicycle commuting, I think:

The house-car-job complex with its nine-to-five office routine is common only to a very small percentage of the earth's population and has only been common to this percentage for the last hundred years or so. If this is reality, have the millions of years that preceded our current century all been unreal?

An alternative - and better - definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components ...air...sunlight...wind...water...the motion of waves...the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to.
Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there's no choice. You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values.
Taking responsiblity for my own transportation is such a liberating thing, and I think it's exactly what Pirsig is talking about. What the weather's going to do, how I have to dress for that, how long it's going to take to get to the office, how my legs feel and how steep the rises are, all these things are part of my "daily chores". Every hill is an opportunity to find the perfect gear to carry me. Headwinds are an opportunity to orient my direction to the cardinal points and get a better sense of my space on the map as I go home. That squeak in the chain means that I'm going to have drop it and lube it soon. My right knee is twinging a bit, better gear down. The way those clouds are moving means that the rain will be over in no more than 5 minutes.

Those cars going by me are big and hot. And heavy, really massive. They are big metal-and-glass parlors on wheels carrying large amounts of flammable liquid. Sometimes the drivers are aware of me, sometimes not. Most of the drivers don't seem too happy; a lot of them are distracted, talking on their cellphones.

As I sit here typing this post, two (count 'em) car ads have come on late night TV touting new cars with "driver-assist" technology. You know, computer-aided steering that moves you back into the land if you wanter, or senses when you're nodding off and alerts you. All this stuff is going to put just more stuff between the drivers who buy these (very expensive) cars and reality.

Pirsig is right. Dealing with reality, if made into a habit (and taken in manageable doses) is value-forming and -enhancing. Motorists have their "reality". In their world, what I do is crazy, dangerous, and even childish. (They wonder when I'll "grow up and get a car"!) In my world, what I do is entirely safe, fun, life-enhancing and (especially) real.

I do drive sometimes, when the situation demands it. (I will have to tomorrow.) So it's easier for me to understand the perspective of a motorist. But 99% of all motorists will not have my cycling experience. It's like we are on the opposite rims of a canyon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Juking the Cars

I was going to call this post "Vehicular Jiu-Jitsu", but technically Jiu-Jitsu implies using the weight (and momentum) of your opponent against him, and in terms of weight and momentum, the cars have all the advantage. So I realized I was really thinking about another "J" word, from American sports (it's used both in American football and basketball): Juking.

The online slang dictionary defines the word thus:

juke |joōk| informal

verb [ intrans. ]
1 to cheat.
2 to not meet someone as planned; to "stand up."
3 to fake out or to feign [sports].
4 to dance provocatively.

The applicable definition here is #3. In basketball, to "juke the defender" means to fake a shot (to get the defender to leave his feet) and, while the defender is in the air, drive by him. In football, the "juke" is a weaving or swerving pattern used by receivers to lose their defenders. In both cases, the offensive person make a move to get the defender to hesitate, and then takes advantage.

It happened in traffic the other evening, coming home. I was trying to move into the left lane in traffic to get into a left-turn-only lane. I had my arm out, and two cars had passed me by (the second one made me a little angry -- he had plenty of time to see me and give me room.) The guy in the third car was going to try and sneak by (I was "just a cyclist", after all) but I crowded him, swerved ever so slightly into his lane and he backed off. He didn't want to -- he gave me quite the dirty look as he passed me by on the right. When I saw what he was driving, (a Mercedes S-class) I gave myself a couple of bonus points, as I suspect he wasn't used to getting backed down by drivers in lesser cars, much less a cyclist.

Welcome to the juke, fella. Don't be angry with me just because I maneuvered you into doing the right thing.

This ability to make a split-second judgement about what a driver is doing (or likely to do) is one of, if not the most challenging aspect of vehicular cycling.

Particularly in this situation -- drivers wouldn't dream of overtaking a car slowing down with its left turn-signal on, but many, many drivers think they can sneak by a cyclist doing exactly the same thing. Although it helps to be taking the lane pretty aggressively, I've still had drivers zoom by me when I'm full in the lane with my arm out. I can't explain this level of motorist negligence.

I don't know how this is taught in the LAB classes (as I've not been able to attend one yet, but that's another story). I think it is one of the most "athletic" aspects of VC, so the athletic analogy is well-suited here.

NB: The image above is from a very cool web page illustrating "Self-Defence with a Walking-Stick," originally from a 1901 edition of Pearson's magazine.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Mikael Colville-Andersen (that's him at right) is a film-maker and the blog author over at Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. I heard him speak at the Washington DC Planning Commission last Wednesday night. Mikael is a good public speaker and a charming and funny guy, and he is promoting a provocative idea about urban cycling and cycling policy:

We could have all the benefits of Copenhagen cycling if we just, you know, dressed a little nicer on our bikes, if we just marketed bicycling as an activity by, um, looking more like a fashion plate.

Mikael cites a lot of statistics (if, for example, you go over to Copenhagenize, you can see a running total of bicycle miles ridden in Copenhagen up to the moment) and makes a number of frankly good points about the Copenhagen environment. He talks about all the bike infrastructure that's being implemented in Denmark, and he spends no small amount of time addressing the fact that cycling is so much a part of the Danish lifestyle that people who do urban cycling in Copenhagen don't think of themselves as "cyclists". To what does Mikael attribute this great example for the rest of the world? To the fact that the Danish cyclists dress well, with a sense of style, (and that the men wear suits). Mikael asserts that bicycling's lack of status (outside of Copenhagen and -maybe- Amsterdam) is due to the fact that we just don't dress well enough.

Mikael, excuse me for saying so, but I think you have your cause and effect either reversed or at best very muddled. Your fashion premise is a fiction. An amusing fiction, and one that we might all like to imagine ourselves in the midst of, but a fiction nonetheless.

I've been pretty tough on Mikael so far this post, (and I beat up on him a little in a previous post) but I will certainly concede that in his talk he does make some interesting and (mostly) valid points about the "values inversion" of the way that cars and automobiles are marketed:
  • Which is truly more "liberating", an auto or a bicycle?
  • Which is truly more dangerous, an auto or a bicycle?
  • Which is truly sexier, driving a car or riding a bike?
  • Should automobiles have warning labels like cigarettes?
and he does a nice historical exposition of bicycle posters, to show how bicycles and bicycling (as a tourist activity) have been marketed over the 20th century. These are valid, and I appreciate all this. And Mikael's "cycle chic" (thinly disguised girl-watching, but hey, I like this as much as the next guy) is supported in this article in Sci-Am about the incidence of female cyclists.

But the promulgation of "cycle chic" is just wrong as primary policy. Why do I say this? Two reasons. One, it's an effect, not a cause. And Two, because there are bicycling advocacy groups who will buy into it because it's easy. "All we have to do is increase our marketing budget and find some good-looking models, and our urban cycling problems will diminish!" Excuse me, but this is reductionist malarkey.

Over the past couple of years, I've spent enough time in Europe, in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, to see the truth about why urban cycling in these places is different from the US. The truth of it is, what make cycling work in Copenhagen (and Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Brussels, Stockholm and elsewhere) is the combination of two components:
  1. Motorists' near-universal respect for bicyclists*; and
  2. Bicyclists' near-universal respect for traffic laws.
These two complementary components, while not impossible to enable in the US, are, nonetheless, longer-term and messier than a simple marketing campaign. Making these two things happen in the US will involve "the three E's":
  • bicycle safety education (best if done in public schools from an early age);
  • enactment of laws that protect bicyclists in a reasonable way; and
  • consistent and fair enforcement of those laws.
Denmark has all these things, and that is why Copenhagen residents use bikes casually and don't need to think of themselves as cyclists. (Some of the readers of this blog have already commented on the Danes' observance of traffic laws.) And this has created the secure environment that allows them to 'dress up' when it suits them. Not the other way around.

Postscript: Am I guilty of taking Mikael too seriously when he is intending to be 100% ironic? Hm. It is a possibility. But if Mikael really wants to get the substantive good news out about Danish cycling, there is certainly a lot of it that he's bypassing. Consider this excellent report (PDF) from the English reports pages of the Danish Road Directorate. (It's from the year 2000, but is the most recent paper on this topic.) In a (partial) defense of Mikael's "marketing" position, there is this quote:
It is important to link soft policies (campaigns, instruction etc) with hard policies (infrastructure, taxation etc). The combination of hard and soft policies is necessary in order to achieve a big change in travel behaviour, both regarding transport mode choice and road safety.
Notice that the quote does mention "campaigns" but in the same breath talks about education as well as "hard policies". In fact, the report is such a good report and so well researched and balanced, and give such a good picture of the real policies that need implementing that it somewhat reinforces my picture of Mikael as being reductionist. And mind you, the source of this document is the Danish highway department. Consider how different the US would be if we had our highway departments actively researching and promoting cycling! As just one example, consider the chart below and the story it tells:
But hey, all of this doesn't mean I'm not a curmudgeon :)

*There are exceptions to this, especially in the UK which for some reason tracks the US more closely.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cyclist's Log; A new word

First: Mileage at the end of September: 2892 miles. Only 344 miles for the month, but not really too bad considering the fact I was out for a whole week working /touring in Switzerland and Germany. This is about the mileage I had at the very end (like December 31) of 2008, so I've got quite a bit of time to travel but 408 miles to make my goal. (The fable of the tortoise and hare comes to mind...)
Second: A new word today, that if you Google it you get zero hits (or maybe just this blog). So it's safe to call it a "new" word, I think? The word: Bikonoclast.

bi•kon•o•clast |bīˈkänəˌklast|
1 a challenger of accepted wisdom about bikes and bicycling.
2 a vehicular cyclist

I've come to the conclusion that I am a bikonoclast. (You, literally, read it here first.) Has a nice ring, don't you think? (PS: the picture is a non-sequiteur. But I thought it was funny.)

Update: the word in a logo:

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.