Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bikes for the World

We interrupt this blog to present a brilliant idea. To begin thinking about this idea, ask yourself: How many unused bicycles are going to waste, simply collecting dust, in American garages? How could they best be put to use?

One continuing theme I hear on the liberal-media outlets that I frequent is that the third world needs development, not aid. Aid (in the form of money) is corrupting, too easily diverted, and ulitmately misses the target.

But... what if the aid were in the form of... bicycles?

Bikes for the World is a project of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association whose mission is to collect valuable but unwanted bicycles and related material--parts, tools, and accessories--in the United States and deliver them at low cost to community development programs assisting the poor in developing countries. The donated bikes provide needed and affordable transportation to laborers, micro businesspeople, farmers, health workers, and students.

As much as possible, Bikes for the World uses the donated bicycles to help set-up self-sustaining bicycle repair operations which can make enough money to pay the direct costs for subsequent container shipments of donated bicycle.

Think about donating, if you can, to this brilliant initiative. Even better, if you live in the Washington DC area, contribute your time and energy to fixing up and containerizing bikes.

PS: mileage update, 3/31: 721 miles. (This is where I was the third week of May last year. Yes!)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Chevrons for All

In doing a little more research on sharrows, I came across a brand-new (only two weeks old!) study on sharrows done by the city of Bellevue, Washington. It's worth a download and read. Much of the methodology is very similar to the earlier City of San Francisco (CSF) study.

Continuing in the spirit of my last two posts, I've decided to do a little "free art" for the public. I've made a couple of full-size graphics of chevron-style sharrow images, done to two different municipal standards. They are ready to be printed on a large-format printer and cut into a large sheet of (something). Then, well, do with it as you will. Hang it on the wall, or use it, uh, as a focus for night-time activity.

Images: The images are full-size PDF graphics. They are fairly compact (in terms of file size). The image based on the CSF "chevron" style (download here) is smaller and will fit into a 4' x 8' sheet of stencil material. The Bellevue image (download here) is rather larger and would require a 4' x 11' or 4' x 12' sheet of material. I've slightly modified the CSF image by adding "webbing" for easy positioning of the cutouts. This will be a single-piece stencil. The Bellevue image isn't modified from their spec, which is much more detailed, and is a multi-piece stencil.

Positioning on roadway: The CSF guidelines were for the center of the image to be 11'-0" from the curb in areas of parallel parking. The Bellevue guidelines call for the center of the image to be "about 11 feet from the curb where parking exists" and, with no parking, "about 3 feet out from the curb."

Methodology: Well, the standard approach is to print the PDF full size at a printing shop that handles large-format printing, then to transfer it to stencil material such as corrugated single-face plastic sheet and cut it out (be careful, be careful, BE CAREFUL!)

It is, however, difficult to get an image out of my head, and that is Joshua Kinberg's utterly brilliant "Bikes Against Bush" rig (website here, video here) done for the New York City Republican Convention. The resolution of these images are of course a lot higher than the rather crude (brilliant! but low-rez) letters of Joshua's first experiment. But it doesn't take a genius to visualize a higher-rez "bike dot matrix" system that could handle one-color graphic images as well as just text. This really sounds like a job for JK or the Graffiti Research Lab of NYC. This would be a technological tour-de-force for the "Urban Repair Squad", wouldn't it?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Let's continue on the topic of street marking.

Wanting to know more about sharrows, I went to Wikipedia and read about shared lane marking. (I had to read about a district in Sheffield, England first.) I was a little unclear on the topic, I suppose, as I had thought that sharrows were rather vague in their application. Nothing could be further from the truth, as there appears to be a small if well defined body of traffic standards that apply to shared lane markings.

If you've (like me) not been paying close attention to the sharrows issue, here's a brief definition: Sharrows are "bicycle use" road markings that are installed where complete bike lanes cannot be installed for various reasons including:
  • Not enough cyclists to justify bike lanes;
  • Too expensive to install bike lanes;
  • Use of bike lanes would require loss of parking; and/or
  • Use of bike lanes would require road widening;
The city of San Francisco did a study on sharrows in 2004 that they have published in PDF form. The study's stated goals for sharrows is the following:
  • Improve positioning of both cyclists and motorists on streets without bike lanes;
  • Reduce aggressive motorist behavior;
  • Prevent wrong-way bicycling;
  • Prevent bicycling on sidewalks;
San Francisco additionally studied two different forms of sharrow marking, the "bike in house" design and the "chevron" design. Their study logged 140 hours of videotaping of before-and-after activity on six different streets in SF, three of which were two-lane and three of which were four-lane. Even though this study is not exactly "new news", I must say that I'm impressed with the size, thoroughness and rigor of this study. San Francisco has got a bunch of wonks that know what they're doing, statistically.

So, what happened? Well, the city of San Francisco (CSF) videotaped and analyzed a lot of traffic behavior. In 6 street locations, and before painting the streets, they taped cyclists' positions on the street, motorists' locations, and clearances afforded cyclists by motorists. (They did this for 1100 cyclists.) Then they painted the sharrows with the center of the figure 11'-0" out from the curb. And they ran the video study again. The results of the study are as summarized in the graphic at right.

I don't know about you, but I think these are pretty significant results. Cyclists are clearly less crowded towards parked cars, and motorists are clearly making better affordances for them.

One of the interesting things that the CSF found was that while the "chevron" design eliminated wrong-way cycling where it was used, the "bike-in-house" design appeared to have no effect in this area. For this reason (and the slightly better affordances noted above), the CSF approved the "chevron" design for use on CSF streets.

Because the markings were applied to the streets with no preceding public education program (the CSF evidently felt this might have skewed the results,) cyclists and motorists were then surveyed as to their perception and understanding of the markings. I won't go into the results of this survey in detail, (you can peruse the PDF if you like, as it's all there,) but will hit on some highlights:
  • Most cyclists felt that the markings indicated a bike route;
  • 60% of the cyclists felt an increased sense of safety;
  • 33% of the cyclists felt that the markings caused them to "take the lane" more;
  • 35% of the cyclists felt that the markings improved motorists' behavior;
After reading and reflecting on this excellent study, I feel that I have a much more positive feeling about sharrows than I had before. First and foremost, they are effective; they work to improve cyclist/ motorist interactions. Secondly, they have a "skills improvement" component, that of helping the cyclist attain proper position on the road. Finally, their ambiguity (which had put me off a little before I read the study) may prove to be one of their strong points: while a cyclist may feel he is "unprotected" if he ventures outside a fully-marked bike lane, no such boundary exists or is even implied with a sharrow, and this is probably a good thing.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Urban Repair Squad

There's an interesting group of urban cyclists in Toronto who are practicing a form of "street art". They call themselves the "Urban Repair Squad", and a website showcasing their work can be found here. The manifesto of the URS goes something like this:


To encourage bicycling as an antidote
to the poison that is car culture.

To invert the status structure of the commons,
returning priority to pedestrians and bicyclists over cars.

To create an infrastructure
that promotes polite sharing of the roadway.

To employ the concept of Critical Mass,
encouraging cyclists to bond together
and more safely take back their rightful place
on the public roadways.

To encourage citizens to reclaim
ownership and stewardship of their public space.

To actively construct a positive future
of what urban transporation could be
by installing it NOW.

Your city is broken.
Don't wait for the bureaucrats to fix it.
So, what doe the Urban Repair Squad do, exactly? They surreptitiously paint bike lanes and sharrows. This is usually done under cover of darkness ("rush hour bike lanes.") Tom Vanderbilt, in his blog, notes that they do this while "disguised as municipal workers." This is an interesting and amusing (if true) twist on the term "street theatre", entertainment not only in the street but in fact changing it. Vanderbilt notes that they have painted over 6kms of bike lanes in Toronto.

If you download and read the URS manual, it outlines (sometime in amusing hand-drawn comics) the process and results of this urban guerrilla activity. I think that, as long as the bike lanes are well-chosen and well-executed, this is a laudable activity, although it raises some potentially difficult questions, e.g. what happens if a cyclist is struck by a motorist while in a guerrilla bike lane? Is the liability of the motorist somehow reduced because of the illegality of this urban infrastructure? (I'm reading a book on the legalties of cycling, which I will post on in the near future, that will hopefully point the way to some answers on this.)

PS. The URS website linked above is claimed to be not an "official" web site. It is maintained by a photographer named Martin Reis who claims to be only a "fan" and documenter of the URS activities and not a participant (sure, Martin, sure! :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lawfulness & Licensing (Survey)

Once again, the NY Times has a well-written screed about urban cycling. It's here. I have to say that the sentiments of the author, Robert Sullivan, pretty much mirror mine. Riding in an urban environment carries inescapable risks, and it's simply imperative to avoid the risks we can by obeying the rules of the road. As one of the article commenters (from Davis, CA) responds, "same roads, same rights, same rules".

Sullivan, in the concluding paragraphs of his article, makes four suggestions for "better Bike PR":
  • Stop at intersections;
  • Don't ride on sidewalks;
  • Don't ride against traffic (especially on one-way streets); and
  • Signal your turns;
This is all pretty basic stuff, and I agree that universally doing these things will improve the lives of all urban cyclists (practical and otherwise!) but lately, I've been thinking further afield, deeper about this problem, venturing into what I'm pretty sure will be unpopular territory.

Simply put, the question is this:
If bicycles are vehicles, prone to the rules of the road like cars, and fundamentally unlike pedestrians, should bicycle riders who use public rights-of-way be licensed to operate their vehicles?
With no small amount of trepidation, I'm coming round more and more to the conclusion that we should be licensed. I think this solves two fundamental problems that otherwise show no clear way of being solved. These problems are:
  • Lack of Skills Training: Many, many cyclists on the road are woefully unprepared, both physically and mentally, for dealing with traffic issues. They don't know how to recognize dangerous situations and how to avoid them. Any licensing program would have to have a concomitant skills development and testing program to justify the awarding of licenses.
  • Lack of Moral Hazard: If I'm a driver, and I behave irresponsibly, then my license can be revoked, and I have to cease driving (at least if I want to obey the law). This threat of "points" has a strong effect of keeping my more animal impulses in check.
I look at "outlaw" cyclists, the heedless or reckless ones, and see people who are behaving as though under the influence of a drug. (See this post over at the Momentum website for yet another essay / perspective on this by Deb Greco.) Certainly cycling as an experience can convey a sense of euphoria, and it is the dangerous aspects of this euphoria in a public sphere that vehicular laws are intended to regulate.

The question is, should bicyclists play offense or defense? There are those, uh, "colorful cyclist personalities" who insist on the right to play offense. They assert that in Europe cyclists are treated with far greater deference by motorists, and that's the way it should be here, dammit. I'm a pragmatist, and I believe in defense. Cars are big, hot, massive, dangerous. To assert that it "should be otherwise" is all very well, but it is what it is. Much as I like Europe, much as I've enjoyed cycling over there, the US is different. I say that for me, for here, defense is the game.

So, time for an informal, non-scientific survey. The Blogger system doesn't (at least as far as I have discovered) allow for a formalized survey system, so let's do an informal one. If you have read this far, please do me the favor of commenting on this blog post with a letter signifying one of the following survey preferences. Honor code, here; don't be casting multiple votes (I'm pretty sure I can delete multiple votes after the fact, anyway.) As I've implied above, this is primarily aimed as the US, so if you're voting from overseas, it would be helpful for you to say where you're located. Feel free to comment further, but start out your comment with one of the letters A through D:

Question: Should bicycle riders who use public rights-of-way be licensed to operate their vehicles?
  • A. Yes; time to get serious; Particularly as the number of cyclists grow, it will make the roads safer for all of us.
  • B. Partly; Require licensing for bicyclists using roads that have speed limits >= 30 mph. This will allow "family use" in suburban 25 mph zones.
  • C. No; If we provide bike lanes, the safety problem will go away, except for those idiots who want to take crazy risks with their own necks.
  • D. Hell, No; I demand the right to do as I please on a bike; I'm not a car and I shouldn't have to behave like one. We need the government out of our lives.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bag Security / Laptops

Marcus Sanford, one of the two co-editors over at the Austin on Two Wheels blog (see my blogroll), has just experienced a major equipment failure with a pannier which failed to protect his laptop, and he cracked his screen as a result. Read the story here.

My condolences to Marcus. I think that bag security is a major issue for commuting cyclists. I, like Marcus, carry my laptop in to work on a daily basis. Until early last year, I wore a padded laptop backpack to do so. However, I changed over to large touring panniers that are large enough to actually take the padded backpack inside. Although initially somewhat improvised, this has proven to be a quite workable solution.

Marcus' experience was that the laptop pannier he chose (the Axiom "Transition") didn't have an obvious (or documented) lock-down mechanism to guarantee that the pannier wouldn't fly off the rack. (His dispute with the Axiom company is that they did in fact have a locking device, but failed to inform the users about it! I can't blame Marcus for being heated.)

My big panniers sit far back on my rack, to make room for my big feet. They are secured with hooks, with heavy elastic tie-downs, and (as a backup) with Velcro safety straps that encircle the top rails of my rear rack. (See the image.) If the panniers that you use on your bike have a comparable safety device, use it, even if it takes an extra moment to do. (Marcus will tell you it's worth it.)

Although these are by no means expensive bags, (they're the Nashbar house brand), they get the job done. They are plenty big (and that's a major virtue), and they are soft and kind of floppy, so that abrupt bumps are "suspended" by the flexibility of the bag itself. I've hit many bumps over the 3,000 miles of last year, and no major accidents yet. It's also a major advantage that, if I park my bike, I can easily lift out the backpack with my laptop, and carry it with me comfortably.

I do consciously think about my bags. I look back at them at least once on every commute. If I see them swinging about, I stop and check attachments. So far, so good.

PS: End of the first week of March, and I'm now at 500+ miles. Woo-hoo!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bike Safety Tips...

...from The Onion, from 2001. Here. This post is definitely showing its age (I mean, a lot of trends have come and gone in eight years!) but I love the Onion. It's a guilty pleasure. I especially like the advice,
Bike safety can never be stressed enough. If you doubt this, try stressing it as much as you possibly can. It won't be enough–guaranteed.
Go for a quick laugh.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A non-bicycling day, a non-bicycling post...

So, today (or more properly last night, although it's still coming down at 10:30 am) the Nor'Easter of 2009 arrived to us here in Maryland. Where I live, it amounts to about 9" of light, powdery snow, easy enough to clear off the driveway, but deep and slippery enough to merit a day to work from home.

I gave my wife (for Christmas a few years ago) a nice bird feeder, a Droll Yankee, and we hung it right outside the breakfast-nook window. It has proved to be a great investment in entertainment. We see cardinals, wrens, titmice, chicadees, finches of all kinds, and occasional other varieties. When it snows, the bird sometimes get a little, well, desperate and crazy. The movie is a brief example of the "bird wars" that sometimes ensue.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Progress / Condescension

So, first a progress report: I logged 180+ miles in February, which isn't so bad since I "lost" more than a week visiting Germany and Switzerland. (Not really lost, of course, although I came to dread hitting the hotel gym to ride a stationary bike -- bleah.) The good side was of course seeing how the "other half lives".

The hastily-snapped cellphone picture at right is a bike shelter we saw from the
train between Munich and Basel. Interesting bike racks. But also consider this is the first week in February. Many citizens, even in the elevated parts of semi-Alpine Western Europe, have integrated their bikes in their daily lifestyle. Bike, train, no car. At least not on a daily basis. It's definitely true that distances are smaller compared to the sprawling US, but I have to say, it is so refreshing to see this (and not just because of the brisk air.)

While we were in Basel, we had anything but nice weather (lots of rain and wind) but the practical cyclists were out, getting around, everywhere, at all hours of the day. On the coldest, windiest day, I saw a woman riding a bakfiets with her two little kids bundled up like two stuffed toys. Even I, a daily cyclist, saluted her unconsciously, but frankly, she didn't seem fazed.

Which brings me back to my experience since returning. On a couple of occasions, I've sort of 'snapped' at people who have commented on my cycling. Just after returning, when attending a yoga class, I was locking up my bike at the yoga center when an older woman (who was going to the same class as I) turned to me and said, "Ah, it's a sure sign of spring when the cyclists come out." I responded with as much abruptness as I could muster, "Oh, I cycle year 'round." (It just came out, really.) And just last week, I was biking to meet my wife at a doctor's office so I could put my bike in the back of the car and drive her home, a nurse at the office said, "that's so cute that you ride your bike everywhere," and I snapped back, "I'm the future."

I felt condescended to by these people. My dictionary defines "condescend" as "to show feelings of superiority". Certainly people driving cars have physical superiority. A very small car is still very large, heavy, and hot up against a bike. But to be treated in the diminutive makes me feel like these people are also claiming moral superiority, and I can't accept that. These people are ignorant. They don't understand the horrifying waste that they produce with their lifestyle, they haven't the imagination to see it. Since I've comprehended it, I can't just make it go away. So I do what I can. And I think that is worthy of respect, not condescension, not impatience.

I won't be holding my breath waiting for it, though.