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!)