Sunday, May 31, 2009

A review that makes me want to buy the book

David Byrne, who has received coverage in this blog before, has become the de facto spokesman for cyclists in New York City and beyond. Normally, I'm the type who resents (to no small degree) being spoken for, but Byrne's eloquence in his review (in today's New York Times Book Review) of Jeff Mapes' PEDALING REVOLUTION: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities is so compelling that I'm inclined to settle and say, "I'm happy with Byrne being the voice of my generation."

According to the NYT-Book Review editors, Byrne is himself writing a book on bicycling and cities and their intersection called Bicycle Diaries in September. This will be worth reading, as city (and suburban) planning and the impact of cycling on it (and vice versa) is a topic I'm finding more and more interesting.

There is one egregious flaw in Byrne's review. He says therein,
I can ride till my legs are sore and it won’t make riding any cooler, but when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow.
I must insist here that it can be only false modesty that allows Byrne to assert that his personal involvment "won't make riding any cooler".

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bike to Work [Fill in the Blank]

I attended in mid-May the "Bike to Work Day" held along my morning commute in Columbia, Maryland. It was frankly frustrating, and as probably the only regular cycle commuter in attendance, I felt, frankly, out of place. Who were all these people in colored Spandex, and where did they come from? Unlike last year, when it was a downpour, the weather cooperated, and there was a pretty good crowd of people, I'd say 50 or so. A smattering of the attendees are described below:
  • An older middle-aged woman who steadfastly refused to be convinced that riding with the traffic was safer for her;
  • A group of cyclists who had a 10+ mile commute for which they hadn't figured out the route;
  • A group of bicycle cops, off at a small remove, looking like they didn't belong, and no other cyclists were going over to talk;
  • The usual group of recreational club cyclists waddling around on their racing cleats;
  • Maybe (maybe!) one other person who was outfitted for practical cycling (this was the only other bike with fenders, for God's sake.)
I went off to talk with the cops. They were nice enough guys, if a little clueless about what "bike to work" was all about. I asked them about their training, and they said they had received certification from the International Police Mountain Biking Association, which trains and certifies policemen, EMS, and security people. I asked about the coursework, and they emphasizd the low-speed, crowd-oriented part of the training. (I've since followed up on it, and to me, the PDF coursework summary offered by the IPMBA looks pretty good for a 3 day course.) As usual, I would say, the cops were a little too focused on the hardware. They kept looking at me a little strangely, maybe because I was wearing my "Eclectic Shock" T-shirt (image at right.)

But, getting back to the point. What is the purpose of Bike to Work Day? Is it
  1. To convince people that they can physically manage the ride to and from their place of work? Maybe it does that, but I also suspect that there are enough mishaps (from flat tires, sunburn, and being late to work from simply getting lost) that there is a significant risk that the opposite effect may be achieved.
  2. To allow local politicians to conspicuously ride a bike and thus try and capture the bike riding community as supporters? I suspect that this plays no small role in the planning. For sure, I didn't hear anyone talking about serious new bikeway planning or sharrow painting. (Unlike lucky Boris, see previous post.)
  3. To educate people about safety? There were State of Maryland DOT brochures out about "Bike safety" competent enough I suppose in their content, but they featured a little girl in pigtails on a banana-seated bike as their protagonist, thus perpetuating the image of bicycling as a children's activity.
  4. To ecucate people about what they really need to know about how to commute successfully? In this respect it failed miserably. Success as a cycle commuter requires planning and motivation. Resources promoting either of these were nowhere in evidence.
I suspect the real answer is 2, and so I've become more than a little jaded about bike to work day. I've joined the ranks of Bike Snob NYC who put out a PSA on Bike to Work month. (More and more, I like Bike Snob, even if he does leave me rather breathless.)

Think about it -- even the name is wrong. What does "Bike to Work Day" mean? It should be "Bike to Work Unless It's Bad Weather", or "Bike to Work Year Around". I've come to terms with the fanatical streak that keeps me on my bike and I enjoy the side-benefits, but I must admit I don't have the least practical idea about how to convince others to become regular practical cyclists. That "regular" part is pretty important -- how do you make bike commuting a habit?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Freak Incident for London Mayor

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was nearly caught in a totally freaky accident while testing out likely bike routes for infrastructural upgrading. Johnson and an entourage of about 10 cyclists were properly riding on the left edge of the pavement along a street where parked cars were on the right, and an overtaking truck had a rear hatch swing open, catch a parked car, and fling it (!!!) across the road, nearly taking out (in a major way) several of the cyclists. Luckily, no one was injured, but boy howdy, this could have been messy.

The Wharf account of the incident can be read here; The New York Times also has an account here which includes a video taken from a security camera. One of the riders in the group, also has a couple of Flickr photos here.

This incident is such a freaky one that it's difficult to draw "lessons" from it, but here at least are a few observations (feel free to chime in if you have others):
  • The danger here is by no means confined to cyclists; pedestrians or motorists would have been equally at risk;
  • The truck driver was clearly negligent (in not buttoning-up his truck at the very least) and deserves a healthy fine;
  • The system of sidewalk/curb/bike lane/parking lane/driving lane would have greatly ameliorated (if not eliminated) the risk here;
  • Boris Johnson is one lucky guy, as are his fellow riders;
Freaky Friday, indeed.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

IKEA and bikes

This past weekend, I passed the architect's equivalent of the "busman's holiday", which is, I spent two days in New York City assembling IKEA furniture for my younger daughter who is moving into her own apartment in NYC to take her first job. (Big milestones, you will I hope agree, and particularly poignant on Mothers' Day weekend.)

I am continually impressed with IKEA's value-engineering of their product. Their simple idea is to deliver good design at the least cost. In this case, "good design" means not only visual appeal but also sturdiness without excess weight or material. These are big challenges also for bicycle design, and IKEA stands out as the world-wide champion of achieving this.

Their approach to value-engineering is relentless, and if you assemble (as I did) eight pieces of furniture and observe their VE technique, it's quite remarkable. In eight pieces of furniture, there was only one mistake in execution (a wrong-handed drawer glide was supplied.) The newer pieces used a composite, rather than all-metal, cam-lock mechanism that was lighter, cheaper (no doubt) and held just as tightly as the old all-metal ones. Perhaps most remarkably, in not one of the pieces I assembled (and I did everything from bookcase to desk to dining table to futon) was there either a hardware piece missing or extra.

It's extremely tempting to ask the question, "If IKEA made a bike, what would it be like?" I'm guessing the specs would be something like this:
  • Two-piece reinforced resin 6 spoke wheels;
  • Sealed press-in cartridge bearings everywhere;
  • One wrench required to assemble the whole thing (probably 6mm);
  • Internally geared 3 speed rear hub assembly, in-hub drum brakes front and rear;
  • Single frame size (also reinforced resin or possibly TIG-welded aluminum);
  • Size adjustments with extra-long, cuttable seatpost;
  • Some innovate approach to a fork (maybe a motorcycle style double-post fork with resin crossbars) to eliminate the expensive headset arrangement;
  • Single-chainwheel crank with either belt drive or lifetime lube chain;
  • Standard saddle and pedal attachments to allow for customization / replacement;
  • One-piece (i.e. non-demountable) bars, grips and brake lever assembly.
All flat-packed and user-assembled, of course. The price would I think be in about the $300 range. It's doable with the current technology (and with the VE technology that IKEA has already assembled.)

Then they should sponsor a team in the Tour. (I'm surprised they don't already -- they must have more money than God.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

San Francisco April-May 2009

So, within one month I've managed to visit both Seattle and San Francisco, both west coast towns that are reputed to be bicycling cities (with the third of the West Coast Bicycling Triplets being Portland, of course.)

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and arranged to go get drinks and a bite with my friend Scott at Zeitgeist, a fun bar and grill on Valencia street in the "SoMa" district of San Francisco. Arriving at my hotel and unpacking my bike, I discovered I'd left my pump at home (insert self-administered dope slap to forehead here) and so I looked up a nice bike shop called Freewheel just a few blocks south of Zeitgeist. I got down there in plenty of time, got the exact pump I was looking for (a Topeak Road Morph), and had time to do a little sightseeing on South Valencia before heading back north to grab a couple of beers and a burger with Scott.

Thursday night, my company Vectorworks was co-host of what turned out to be just a bang-up party —the City To Green Party— for architects, cyclists and artistic locals at the 3A Gallery on South Park street. In the gallery was an exhibit of track bikes from the second half of the 20th century. The gallery proprietors hung a show of track bikes on the walls and described the provenance of each bike, and detailed descriptions of the bike realization as a work of art. Here's a transcription of one of the the bike descriptions:

Automoto, France, 1940s.

Cycles Automoto was a pioneering French maker of motorcycles and bicycles founded at the turn of the 20th century. Well regarded for thoughtful design and meticulous construction, Automoto grew in popularity until merging with the Peugeot group in the early 1960s. Part of that popularity is attributable to the company's wide ranging product offerings, whose bicycle line along grew to include 20 models. When an Automoto advertisement boldly declared, "Le Triomphe De La Qualité Française", few in sound conscience would have doubted the claim.

Built for the professional track racer

Restored condition
Magistroni cranks
Chater Lee Pedals
Major Taylor stem

Collection: American Cyclery of San Francisc

Quite refreshing. A very well attended party, right to the end, as you can see from the photos. I've often wondered why the intersection-set of architects (particularly young architects) and bicyclists is so large. At least 30 attendees (including yours truly) arrived on bike and were graciously attended to out front of the gallery in a nice bike parking lot attended by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition , a club of more than 10,000 members. Very, very nice work.

This poem was transcribed in chalk on the walls of the foyer of the 3A Gallery:

Ode to Bicycles

I was walking
a sizzling road:
the sun popped like
a field of blazing maize,
was hot,
an infinite circle
with an empty
blue sky overhead.

A few bicycles
me by,
the only
that dry
moment of summer,
barely stirred
the air.

Workers and girls
were riding to their
their eyes
to summer,
their heads to the sky,
sitting on the
beetle backs
of the whirling
that whirred
as they rode by
bridges, rosebushes, brambles
and midday.

I thought about evening when the boys
wash up,
sing, eat, raise
a cup
of wine
in honor
of love
and life,
and waiting
at the door,
the bicycle,
only moving
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
it isn’t
a translucent insect
through summer
a cold
that will return to
when it’s needed,
when it’s light,
that is,
of each day.

- Pablo Neruda, 1956

I broke 1000 miles for the year so far on the last day of April on the streets of San Francisco. For me, this really cut it. Call me fickle (less than a month ago I was extolling Seattle,) but San Francisco is US Bicycling City Number One in my book.