Sunday, March 1, 2015

How Cities Kill (Failing That, Inconvenience) Cyclists and Pedestrians in Winter

I’m in Stamford, Connecticut and it’s still winter. I can tell because it is snowing again. 

What makes it especially jarring is that not four days ago I was applying sunscreen before biking in a T-shirt in Redwood City, California (more on why I was there in another post). 

So I had nearly forgotten just how well cities use winter as a tool to harass, confound and confuse cyclists and pedestrians - and how blind cities are to the fact that some of their most valuable public space could be put to better use than comforting empty motor vehicles. 

Let’s start with the road looks like immediately after a snowstorm.

When city streets are covered in snow, the cars that are parked alongside of the road get covered in snow, too. 

I figured that out on my own.

After a period of time - sometime between the middle of the snowstorm and, say July - a city plow will come by and plow the road.

It is usually at this point you’ll find people on Twitter whining about having their cars blocked in by snow (often using the hashtag - and I swear this is A Thing - #snowparking). 

But that isn’t the end of the story for the defenseless motor vehicle. Some people may spend a lot of time shoveling off a spot of public street that they want to claim as theirs when they bring their car back. These parking spots are sometimes guarded zealously. So much so, in fact, that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently said people can’t use lawn chairs, trash cans, or other creative parking space savers to ‘save’ their spot. 

Eventually, a person will want to get in their car and go somewhere. So they’ll dig open the driver’s door, start the car, let the engine warm up while they brush the snow off. Then they get back in their car and drive off.

Take a guess where the snow ends up a lot of the time. 

Of course, every Northeastern city goes to great lengths to make sure sidewalks are perfectly accessible during the winter. 

Yeah, I couldn’t keep a straight face when I wrote that.

What a lot of communities do is take care of a few sidewalks here and there but punt everything else foot traffic related to the individual property owners and their own sections of sidewalk. This of course results in an inconsistent quality of said sidewalks. 

So snow piles up on the sidewalks. It’s an easy place to put it. Another convenient place to store snow is in the shoulder of the road or in bike lanes. Dan Haar of the Hartford Courant took the time to point out that people use bikes to commute year-round, but cyclists are even less visible in cold weather than they are in warm, even as they are forced into the middle of the road when they don’t want to. 

And nearly every street has...wait for it...This Car.

Those of you who live in a part of the country where bathing suits and yoga mats aren’t sold in gas stations know what I’m talking about. I pass by one of these cars every time I leave my house.  The car never moves. It's forever immobilized like one of those volcano victims in Pompeii. The plow goes around - being careful not to hit the car - and the snow piles up.

Sadly, people who store their motor vehicles on public streets and don’t even use them never seem to ever get punished. But people who have to use the roads do - and if you are waiting for an emergency vehicle to arrive, you may have to wait a bit longer since the street is that much narrower. 

Now of course if you’re a cyclist, the problem is even worse. Not only are the racks covered in snow, but there are few places for you to carry your bike to the street - and it’s tough walking it on narrow, unplowed sidewalks. 

And then it snows again, and the Circle of Icy Winter Death continues: the snow falls, cars get first dibs on the clean pavement, and cycling and pedestrians just have to deal. 

But let’s think about something here: we’ve seen a tremendous number of articles over the past several months that a big problem is finding places to put the confectioners sugar (I mean, snow) after it has fallen. We put it on sidewalks, in bike lanes, pile it high on corners so people crossing the street are completely invisible to drivers - but we don’t think to ourselves that we also need to find a place to put motor vehicles when they aren’t in use and create a city where people don’t have to use them in the first place.

We also need to acknowledge just how valuable the real estate that a parked car takes up. The Transportation Committee in Stamford, tragically, decided recently that parking should stay cheap - when a much smarter move would have been to raise the price of parking and use the money to enable more car-free ways to get around. 

Owning a car in a city shouldn’t be - and, for many other reasons, can’t be - the only option a person has to get from one place to another. Before this snow is done melting, I hope legislators in municipalities across the country realize just how absurd coddling cars and punishing pedestrians and cyclists is. We all have better things to do with our time, money and creativity. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Knocking Down Barriers Between the Rider and the Ride

So I’m in San Jose right now. The reason is a long story, but a subplot of that long story is that I’m trying to learn about the bike culture in Silicon Valley. As you know I’ve already done two California adventures - biking the 17 Mile Drive last year and doing a long tour (and finding a lost cell phone near Anaheim) a year before that - but California is kind of a big state. 

I’m off to a slow start - but I did take my Bike Friday out for a couple of rides so far. To keep my friends from hating me for escaping the Hoth-like conditions of Connecticut, I don't say anything on the internet about the sunshine and palm trees I’ve encountered. 

To try and get a feel for the culture (and buy some much-needed lubricant for my chain) I did visit the Mike’s Bikes location on Lincoln Avenue in San Jose - a very nice and welcoming shop.

(sorry: I thought I had taken a photo of Mike's Bikes on Lincoln Avenue but I didn’t).

The customer service there is extraordinary. For instance, if a jet lag-addled Connecticut cyclist picks up lube off the shelf, pays for said lube, and walks out of the store leaving said lube on the counter, an associate at Mike’s Bikes will run outside, track this cyclist down, and tap on the window of said cyclist's rental car to give him said lube.

(The only problem I had with Mike’s Bikes was the sign outside of the shop that read ‘Challenge the Weather: Ride a Bike’ It gave me a smirk. It’s February with temperatures flirting with 70. Go to Connecticut and and learn about how to ’challenge the weather.’)

West Beach in Stamford, CT, - 2014

But I’m getting off the subject.

I wasn’t even planning on writing a post this morning but then I saw this terrific story from Rob Roth on  KTVU: a mom in San Jose is trying to raise money to pay for a bike for her special needs son. All this boy wants to do is ride a bike but there is a barrier - and having a barrier between a rider and a ride is something we can all relate to. 

But while most of my friends in the Northeast have a barrier that involves simple patience (waiting for the weather to be less Jerry Bruckheimer film-like) this mom has a bigger barrier: a bike for a special needs 9-year-old is expensive - so a GoFundMe site was created to raise funds to buy it. 

Cyclists in the Northeast: put down your ice scrapers, stop pedaling on parabolic rollers in front of the Mythbusters pirate special DVD for the hundredth time, and make a small donation. Just think of the joy Tony and his mom will feel when this barrier to cycling falls and he can go riding. And if you can't help Tony try to find someone else who has a non-weather related barrier and help them out. Either way, you will do some good and kill some time while you wait for your own barrier between you and riding to, literally, melt away into nothingness. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Biking Nations: Strasbourg, France (and Kehl, Germany)

I went to Frankfurt, Germany for work not to long ago (more on that in another post) but for anyone who has been to Europe: it’s not always about the place you’re visiting, but the places you get to visit on side trips. At my wife’s suggestion, we went to Strasbourg, France - and I found there a city that does biking and urban transit right. 

Where to begin: Strasbourg doesn’t allow cars in the city center. Now this is similar to the no-car policy of Paraty, Brazil but I think that is more of a result of cars getting stuck on, under and between the Kia Sportage-sized cobblestones. 

Strasbourg was smart enough to do it on purpose, and the picture above is what I’m talking about: you have whisper quiet trains running about that are clean, have huge windows, and look like they are from the future. And the motorman’s cabin, unlike the Bill & Ted phonebooth-sized ones on subways in the U.S., is a spacious wedge-shaped room that gives the driver of the train a full range of vision.

And to top it off: the trains run so low to the ground it makes running someone over almost impossible. I didn’t try this - I don’t have a ‘Buster’ equivalent for this web site (Hi, Adam & Jamie! Loved the aqua bike episode!).

Strasbourg also showcased the kind of everyday cyclist I wish we’d see in the U.S. more often (or, rather, the kind of cyclist we’d see if elected leaders would throw more than table scraps toward Complete Streets). Note the smile. 

There are also trails and bike lanes almost everywhere you turn. This one, running along a river, made me smile when I thought about what the Mill River Greenway in Stamford could grow up to be someday.

To be clear about something, too: you don’t just walk in Strasbourg, you stroll.

Naturally, all of the strolling made me antsy, but luckily I brought my Bike Friday New World Tourist - which made France the 10th country I’ve biked in. 

I had no aim, no goal, nothing I wanted to particularly do other than stretch my legs after an intercontinental flight. I allowed one street to turn into another and, while I had the usual Area Map with me I didn’t use it much. Strasbourg’s layout and landmarks make it a happy place to get lost.  

Another big reason to put Strasbourg on your biking bucket list: you can cross off another country while you’re in town. That’s right: there is a bridge that crosses the Rhine and leads right into Kehl, Germany. 

I crossed it the following morning: my wife, who made some beautiful sketches in Strasbourg and planned to sketch again, said she wanted a pretzel from Germany. It’s as good a reason to bike to Germany as any, so I agreed. 

Strasbourg’s network of trails made it easy to find the bike & pedestrian bridge, which is hard to miss. 

Years ago I remember feeling tremendous excitement when I crossed the state line into New York state for the first time (part of me may have just been happy to leave the bike-unfriendly pit of despair known as Greenwich, Connecticut). That was nothing compared to the strange thrill that came from stopping at the base of the bridge and realizing Germany just became the 11th country I’ve ridden in.

I didn’t think I was going to stay long in Kehl. I was on a mission, and after only a few minutes, I accomplished it. 

In fact, it was such an easy trip I decided to stay a little while. First I headed up and down the trail on the German side of the bridge.

While there, I spotted a UFO that had landed. I’m sure the backstory of this object is more interesting than that, but that’s a tale for someone else to tell.

I also headed up toward Offenburg but didn’t make it all the way there. After all, I still had a pretzel to deliver. 

On the way back I passed a station that knows how to do bike parking a whole lot better than any of the Metro North stations in Connecticut. Nearly brought a tear to my eye, it did.

Closing in on the border I stumbled across two other Americans on Bike Fridays. I struck up a very brief conversation with them, and if they are reading this I must apologize for pedaling on ahead and not riding with them: You were really nice but I didn’t fly all that way to hang out with people from Oregon - and, more importantly, I had a pretzel to deliver. 

Back in Strasbourg I paused on one of the bridges. I did need to finish bringing the pretzel to my wife but I knew this would be my last ride in France for a while and wanted to savor the moment. 

And there you have it. Due to the hours I was there I didn’t have a chance to visit any bike shops or even make a dent in the places one can go in this area, so as we were sharing the pretzel, my wife and I both agreed we needed to return to Strasbourg one day. If you too have been there I hope you can also return, and if you haven’t I hope you can go for the first time. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Live in Stamford? Take the Stamford Share the Road Survey 2015!

Any Stamford Connecticut people reading this blog should immediately click on the link below and take the Stamford Share the Road survey 2015:

Right now, there are exactly 48 respondents….in a city of over 120,000. I think more people in Stamford did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last summer. Doing this survey only takes a little bit longer than pouring ice water on yourself but you won’t even have to change you clothes when you’re done. 

This survey has already gotten some attention on the Stamford Advocate’s blog and (not to tread into this-is-what-it’s-all-about territory too much here) the more people who sound off about dangerous roads in the city and bike/ped priorities for the future, the louder are voices are - and the more influence we have. 

Please take the survey today and tell your other Stamford friends to do the same. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rippowam Labs: The Makerspace in Stamford You Have to Go To

NOTE: If you live in Stamford and haven’t yet taken the 2015 Stamford Share the Road survey please take it before Saturday by clicking here. Sound off about what you want to see happen for bikes and pedestrians (and review Mayor David Martin’s efforts)!

So last week I was invited by a guy I met randomly while I was riding to work 18 months ago to check out Rippowam Labs in Stamford; a makerspace that started a while back as a Meetup group but now, as of November 2014, has its own digs at 482 Summer Street. 

It sounded good to me. Working at home coupled with the Hothlike conditions of Stamford meant I was cooped up. I also wanted a diversion from little irritations -  like my iPhone 5 suddenly deciding it didn’t want to play with its charger cable anymore. It got so bad that I began to wonder what a “Weird Al” song about the phenomenon would sound like.  

Whatcha gonna do wit dat big old phone?

Jiggle. Jiggle.

Meh meh meh. MEH! MEH! MEEEEEEH!

(I’ve found writing “Weird Al” songs in my head is a good coping mechanism for stress. But I’m getting off the subject).

On Tuesday, with temperatures about 20 degrees and falling and my iPhone’s battery life at 20% and falling, I decided to #choosethebike and safely ride at night to Rippowam Labs. Since a bike is a lot faster than a car and I didn’t have to wait for my cheap city bike to warm up, I got there so quickly I had time to stop at Lorca to buy some alfajore cookies to go. I figure I’d come out even on the calorie counts due to the pedaling and shivering.

Soon after, I located Rippowam Labs on Summer Street. I know that part of the block well since it houses Eos - an outstanding Greek restaurant that probably pays six months of property taxes with the amount my wife and I spent regularly on take-out dinners there. 

After locking the bike to a lamppost (Dear Board of Finance: What do I have to do to get bike racks built around here? Sincerely, Mike) I entered the building and walked up to Suite No. 4 - and was immediately inspired by what I saw around me. It wasn’t a crowded space but there were a lot of random items in the cubbies by the door - and the sight of what I was sure was parts of an underwater scooter made me wonder if someone here was working on Duckymoto-like technology. It made me want to know more. 

The random cyclist I had met a year and a half ago who helped build the makerspace is named John, and he and I sat at a table that had a sewing machine and a soldering iron sitting within inches of each other. I also saw something a little unusual yet somehow right at home in a makerspace. 

Ah, I thought. Arduino. 

That’s about all I can say about Arduino - and I subscribed to Make Magazine for a year, bought a book about Arduino, and attended a Maker Faire in Queens. But I still am not completely sure what Arduino is. Something about making your computer talk to different items and getting them to do different things using motors, lights, sensors - whatever you can imagine. Like many things, it is above my intellectual pay grade, but I want to know more. 

John also showed me a 3-D printer under construction. It’s not a whole lot to look at now, but this is Luke-building-his-own-lightsaber cool and it too made me want to know more. 

He also showed me some of the works of Chandni Thawani, one of the makers who is presently teaching sewing classes on Sundays this month. She’s also working on a variety of things including - according to the Rippowam Labs web site - a turn signal bike jacket. 

Hmmm, I thought. I want to know more. 

John explained more about the makerspace and its mission - and it just seemed like a great way for people to learn things (and teach things) outside of their normal orbit. Like Arduino. Or sewing. Or building a voice-changer as part of the Spymaster Series. And there will be something bike related soon, I'm sure.  

I thanked John for the tour and headed home - certain I’d come back (I may do so when Rippowam Labs is hosting a Fix-It Night on February 7th, where they are inviting anyone with a broken appliance to come to Rippowam Labs from 7:00pm to 9:00pm and see if it can be fixed right there on the spot. However: remember that there are stairs, so don't bring freezer cases, water heaters, or anything else that's hard to carry). 

The next morning, feeling smarter, I dug out the plastic bacteria colony/toothpick from my imitation Swiss Army Knife and poked it into my iPhone’s port. I pulled out enough lint to stuff a throw pillow, and when I couldn’t pull out any more with that I cut a piece of electrical tape narrow enough so I could poke the sticky side into the port and pull out even more lint. 

I plugged the phone in. It immediately began taking a charge. Just one thirty minute visit to Rippowam Labs and I was already smarter.  Make sure you check them out, take a class, go to their Fix-It Night on February 7, or otherwise get involved. Rare is the place that inspires and makes you want to know more. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Inaugural Address: Five Ways Malloy Talked About Bike Infrastructure Without Talking About Bike Infrastructure

Yesterday in Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy took the oath of office for a second time. Before the event, the media was already buzzing about what he was going to say about transportation. 
As many of you know I was disappointed with the governor’s answer about parking at train stations at a transportation forum a few months ago. But in yesterday's inaugural address (published here by NBC Connecticut) I counted five times when he spoke about the value of cycling:
1) "We all want our streets and neighborhoods to be safe places to work and to live…”
You can tell how unsafe your neighborhood is by conducting a simple test: watch somebody cross a street in the middle of the day. If they glance back and forth several times before running across the street like they’re avoiding sniper fire, it’s not a safe place to live. 
Days after a woman was killed at this intersection in Stamford in the summer of 2014, I went out there to watch how cars treated the corner between Summer and Hoyt Streets. 
Another test: the number of passionate cycling neighbors you have who won’t ride their bikes unless they’ve attached them to their Yakima racks and driven across several area codes to get away from car traffic. 
Neighborhoods aren’t made safer by adding cars or making it easier to chose a car to go somewhere. When state roads and town roads simply reduce the amount of space a car can drive on (say, reducing the width of a travel lane from twelve feet to 11 and adding a bike lane) it’s a low cost way to make a neighborhood safer.
2)"We all want cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable energy for our citizens and for our businesses."

Let me tell you something about my City Bike (the vintage Diamondback road bike I paid $5 for at a New Hampshire tag sale in July. Hundreds of miles logged with it (including in Cleveland!) and the ‘check engine’ light never came on. Not only that but I never had to spend $507 dollars for a mechanic to investigate a mysterious noise. 
A run to the Stamford Goodwill in 2014 with the trailer I made the year before. The bike is so much easier to maneuver in the tiny parking lot I try to avoid driving there at all times.
It doesn’t get cheaper, cleaner or more reliable than a bike. And if you do things that make bikes easier to use (add bike lanes, secure bike parking, and so on) it eases off the throttle of gasoline demand a bit - which will make motorists happy. 
3) "And we all want roads, highways, buses, trains, ports, and airports that work for every city and town, for every business, and for every person in our state."
If you’re driving by your favorite coffee shop and won’t make it to work on time if you stop (since you’d have to wait for a parking spot to open up) the coffee shop loses a sale. 

But if the roads leading up to the coffee shop were built for cyclists and the parking lot was designed for bicycles it might make it a lot easier for everyone to stop.

One thing that drives me nuts when people talk about transportation ‘systems’ is when they leave out just how mind-bogglingly flawed a car-only system is. Think about this: it only takes one or two cars blocking the box at an intersection to tie up traffic for dozens of motor vehicles. 

A way around this is to build boxes that open up briefly when all lights go red so as to remove the box blocking miscreants.

But it’s probably cheaper and more humane to build bike infrastructure. Probably. 
Also remember this: a one-car accident on I-95 delays hundreds and hundreds of cars for hours. That’s the ‘transportation system’ I’m talking about: one car represents a point of failure in a complicated system. And bikes, trains and cars are all connected and can’t be thought about in silos, either. 

4)" one party or one policy maker holds a monopoly on good ideas. We might not always agree on the details, but we can agree that we want our children to inherit a better Connecticut than we were given."
Taking bike rides with the mayoral candidates in Stamford back in 2013 (two Democrats and Republican Michael Fedele) reminded me of what Malloy said yesterday. Nobody owns the voting cycling bloc but everybody needs to get from one place to another. I hope Republican cyclists heading to Cleveland in 2016 encourage their friends to go riding with them.
5)"We can build a transportation system that better connects us to one another and to the rest of the world."
Let’s start with the first part of that sentence where he says connects us to one another. How many times in a car have you driven by somebody you know and honked the horn and waved while still going by? 
Our fellow humans deserve more than that. 
While on a bike, I recognized and stopped to chat with Congressman Jim Himes on Bedford Street. My yoga instructor from Exhale in Cove. A fellow cycling fanatic walking on a sidewalk by the Stamford Town Center. Another friend I had meant to email but instead stopped to have a real conversation with. 
It’s easier to talk to a fellow traveler on the road (and easier to listen to a fellow traveler) when on a bike. As for the rest of the world comment…

My house is about a mile and 3/4 from the Stamford Metro North station. It’s also, of course, an Amtrak stop. I’ve biked to the station to get on a train to get on a plane to fly somewhere. In doing so, I gave a parking space at the transportation center to someone who really needed it, didn’t add traffic to I-95, and didn’t wear out my car. A bike can do more than take you as far as your legs will take you. When done right, a transportation network can allow you to use your bike to go anywhere in the world.
So please join me in congratulating Dan Malloy on his victory and make sure he works toward what he suggested in his inaugural address. In 2014 the Connecticut Department of Transportation adopted a Complete Streets policy, so 2015 is the year for implementation. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.