Wednesday, January 29, 2014

DIYBIKING.COM Presents: Staying Safe While Riding at Night (Part II)

(click here for part one)

So last week's post presented a less-obvious-than-it-sounds message of day being different from night because our eyes are drawn to different things. I used some of my HO scale miniatures to illustrate some of these differences.

But now I need to take it a step further by 'going full scale' and actually showing the reality of what it means to ride at night without taking any precautions. Since I didn't want to communicate this with my obituary, I decided not to put myself or any friends at risk with this experiment.

The first thing I needed to do was find a bike. In my basement, this is not difficult to do.

And what a bike it is.

This bike was a throwaway from the great guys at the Trafigura Work & Learn Center at Domus. It is a Saint Tropez, and an interesting design quirk is the disc brake in the back and the fist-sized mechanism that goes with it.

I may do a real Saved from the Scrapheap post about it later, but for now I need to go over why I chose it for this post: it's not a dark color, but it isn't a bright color either. And there are no reflectors on the bike except for the ones on the pedals.

I've seen plenty of bike-shaped objects moving around Stamford in the dark without reflectors, so I figured this would be a perfect stand-in.

Next, I needed a way to keep the bike upright without modifying or damaging it. Lucky for me, a drawer in my welding room yielded some Frame Maker brackets, and I was able to use one to attach a set of handlebars to the underside of the frame. It took a couple of tries, but I eventually got it to stay upright.

Now, I needed to build a cyclist. I wasn't sure how to go about doing it, but because my welder was out of service (more on that in a week or two) I ended up finding another post to put in the seat tube. When I removed the seat itself, I had a nice, ready-made base to attach a torso, which I made out of bolted aluminum, pipe insulators, and plastic lids.

So far, I was pleased; the rider would sit where it was supposed to and I didn't have to permanently alter the bike to make it stay there.

Now I needed to put a shirt on it. My first choice was a T-shirt featuring an iconic vehicle - the Reliant Robin Space Shuttle - from one of my favorite TV shows - BBC's Top Gear.

Unfortunately, I realized I needed something with long sleeves if I wanted to avoid building arms for the rider. So I located a boring, dark blue T-shirt.

Rather than bias the experiment by giving the cyclist black pants, I elected to use some light green ones that I sometimes wear in the shop. Putting foam pipe insulators in each pant leg allowed me to bend the fake legs to put them on the pedals.

When I put the seat post through the open fly (which is just as weird as it sounds) I attached the sleeves to the handlebars with spring loaded clamps and put a black helmet on it to complete the look.

I took a step back and immediately thought I had cast Christian Bale's character from 'The Machinist' as my cyclist.

In a perfect world, I would have waited until sundown that day and carried the whole thing outside in order to take the photographs. But due to poor planning, this DIYBIKING.COM version of 'Buster' - named DIYBiker - stayed like this, on the bike in my basement, for two days. Just at the foot of the basement stairs and steps from my home office door, I'd often forget it was there and it would startle me a bit when seeing it.

Finally, I came to a night I could deploy: temperatures were in the high thirties/low forties and not far from my house there's an access road to West Beach which I thought would be the perfect place to do all this. No street lamps and little light from buildings, so at dark it would be a good road.

So I took DIYBiker off the bike, broke him in half so he'd fit in a blue IKEA bag, and put him in the back of my Honda Element. The bike was a bit awkward carrying it up the basement stairs, but it fit in the car easily as well.

When I parked, I set up some Christie Administration Approved traffic cones behind my car and put the four-way flashers on. I then set up DIYBiker as the last of the light drained from the sky.

Then I went back to my car and looked at my creation through the windshield. I realized I had my 'money shot' as I had just happened to place the cyclist at a distance where you could just barely realize that you were looking at a someone on a bike.

Remember the image below: when you dress for night riding you may look loud standing in front of a mirror but below is what the driver sees.

Using my Measure Master, I found there was exactly 71 feet between my car and DIYBiker. I know other cars have dirtier and less effective headlamps, scratched windshields, poorer vision, etc. but for the purposes of this post, it would have to do.

I then left my car in the road and headed to DIYBiker to attach a basic red reflector to the back.

I walked back to my car, returned to the driver's seat, and snapped another picture.

See that little red dot? That's the reflector. And if you take absolutely no other precautions other than the reflector I won't lecture you, but I will say that that little red dot is what you are counting on to save your life. 

Let that sink in.

Now excited with what I had found out so far, I jumped out of the Element, ran to DIYBiker, and removed the reflector to replace it with a cheap red bike light. I set it on 'constant' so it would get in the shot.

I jogged back to the car and took the usual photograph.

I thought it seemed brighter than the reflector, and just to test the overall visibility I switched off my headlights for a second.

Okay, so it's not the brightest bike light I've ever seen, but as I wasn't willing to drag DIYBiker forward or move my car backward, I did figure a driver would definitely be able to become aware of a cyclist further away than 71 feet - and thus be able to react to the cyclist sooner than if the biker had little or no reflectors.

I had other, better quality bike lights to test as well as a reflective trouser guard and a highligher-yellow jacket I wanted to put on DIYBiker…but then the police arrived.

I assumed not many people would be at the park at this hour, but while I was taking the above photos of DIYBiker, this particular officer was already in the park and came across me while I was getting ready to put a bright vest on an artificial cyclist.

He rolled down the window of his patrol car and asked me politely and professionally what I was doing. It's not always easy keeping a straight face when I tell others what I do, but I did okay as I explained that I was doing this for safety reasons. His eyes flickered from DIYBiker to me and back again. For a moment, I expected him to administer a sobriety test.

Instead, he explained I needed to leave. My car was parked in the road, which made me a safety hazard. As if on cue, a car entered the park and paused at the rear of my SUV, but in fairness (to myself) the driver was probably more intimidated at the sight of the patrol car than of a nine-year-old Honda Element.

I apologized, and the officer took mercy on me by granting me permission to resume my experiment up at the parking lot.

I packed up DIYBiker as the officer watched silently. But while carrying DIYBiker in one hand and the bike in the other, the bracket I had made earlier to keep the Saint Tropez upright twisted out of position and fell apart.

When I got to the parking lot, I discovered a vital piece was missing. As it was getting late and windier (making it impossible to resume the experiment with just the kickstand) I made a defeated drive back home.

The next day, below-zero temperatures and over seven inches of snow blanketed Stamford, thus changing the conditions of my lab.

But to paraphrase Egon Spengler: "I wouldn't say the experience was completely wasted."*

From a glass-is-half-full point of view, I established a motorist would have to be at least 71 feet from a cyclist at night in order to see him or her. But I was doing this in a parked car. When a car is moving there are other factors in play. I now needed to illustrate what it means when a car is approaching a cyclist at different speeds.

And I planned to do it in a way that would involve math but would not draw the attention of rozzers. Tune in next week. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

(Click here for Part III)

*typing that I realized the film 'Ghostbusters' was made thirty years ago. #wowiamold

Friday, January 24, 2014

DIYBIKING.COM Presents: Staying Safe While Riding at Night (Part I)

Define irony: you're taking photographs on a dark road for a post about safety while riding at night and a police officer kicks you out of the park you're using…because you're a safety hazard.

Let me back up a second.

I've been wanting to cover how to bike safely at night for well over a year, but the post I have long wanted to do has involved two things I have been known to have trouble with:

1) Taking high quality, high resolution photos of cyclists at night in such a way the risks of such travel are understood to both cyclists and drivers.

2) Math.

Let's start with the first one.

The photo above is bad by accident but I posted it here it on purpose. Believe me when I tell you it is merely the tip of an ugly iPhoto image library iceberg.

Those of you who've followed me for a while know my appreciation for shadows on sunny days, especially when riding very early in the morning like in New Hampshire a couple years ago.

But taking pictures at night is tough, and when you want cyclists to understand how much different night riding is compared to riding during the day, pictures from the point of view of a cyclist who is actually riding at night doesn't cut it.

The thing is, we think we're visible and we often don't understand why people don't see us. To us, our bike is bright enough to be visible and whatever clothes we're wearing are bright enough to be seen.

But a lot of cyclists just don't get it, and some even have really bizarre reactions to others simply suggesting they take more ownership over their own safety. When I was reading BikeSnobNYC's reaction to the New York Times opinion piece about cyclists getting hit, it reminded me of the far-right or far-left loudmouth who makes good TV but never gets above 1% of the vote in any election.

Look: I don't care if the car coming up behind you or turning into your path is driven by an attentive person traveling at a safe speed, a guy on a cell phone and shaving at the same time or a serial killer heading home from vacation. Cars are cars and I don't want anyone to be hit by any of them. And I like to think of the people who drive them as prospects, not enemies. Calling them names does nothing productive, but anything you do to increase the odds of a car passing by you without incident is smart.  Not outfitting your bike for night travel, not dressing for visibility and running red lights (at any time of day, for that matter) are just three stupid things you can do - no matter where you live or who you share the road with. The whole I-must-not-impair-the-look-of-my-ironic-hipster-outfit-so-look-on-my-fixed-gear-ye-mighty-and-yield! mentality doesn't cut it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now a lot of you already know, or think you know, what you should wear or outfit your bike with (and I'll probably cover that) but the big theme of this series is why you need to stay safe while riding at night.  The words 'because its safer' have no impact, and besides: that's only three words. I'm sure I can cover why you need stay safe with more words than that - and perhaps, even if by accident, more impact.  Let's wade into that by taking a look at the picture below.

This is a cyclist on a side street waiting to make a turn into traffic. But what happens if I turn off the basement lights/if it is dark instead?

Now let's imagine a cyclist simply sharing a straightaway with a car.

And when the cyclist is riding at night:

Here's one more: a cyclist riding alongside a van.

Now let's throw the switch.

Think about a city as through it were an attractive person and 'day' and 'night' are two completely different outfits. It's the same person, but your eyes are being drawn to different things. Day is like a hoodie with pink yoga pants and night is a black cocktail dress with a low neckline.

I'm going to quit that metaphor while I'm ahead.

So because our eyes are drawn to two different things (such as the shape of a car or bike during the day and the pools of light from the headlamps at night) we have to account for that when we ride at night. It's also part of why I think Blaze, the new bike light manufacturer in the U.K., is really onto something with their Laserlight that projects an image of a cyclist on the road right in front: it's an extra visual cue that tells somebody flat-out there is a cyclist about - and there isn't a shortage of times that would help.

As usual, my miniatures are telling a story in a way that I can't, but because I'm just getting started with this theme of staying safe while riding at night, I need to ask myself: W.W.A.S.D? which is a commonly used abbreviation in workshop worship circles for: 'What Would Adam Savage Do?'

I know what he'd do; he'd say 'It's time to go full scale.'

And that is what I'm going to do next. Get your Christie Administration Approved traffic cones, a heavy coat and a flashlight, because we're taking pictures of a car and a bike outside. Tune in again soon for Part II or become a follower of DIYBIKING.COM. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

(Click here for Part II)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Update on the Stamford Share the Road survey…and Lorca

As most of my Stamford readers know by now, I designed a survey called 'Stamford Share the Road' for the bike and walk advocacy group, People Friendly Stamford.

Now the goal was to get cyclists to rate and comment on different projects that have been proposed over the years for the city, but I tried to take it a step further by asking a few questions about cycling habits and age range, as well as asking people to rate certain statements about city life.

As you know, some great stuff came from the 'any other comments' field - in which the most common complaint was the lack of bike parking in Stamford. I wrote about that last week and presented some examples of great bike parking in the U.S.; but you know who really knows how to do bike parking? Ottawa.

Just let the image above sink in…then think about what you want to lock your bike to in Stamford. 

Anyway, since the Stamford Share the Road survey has closed you can visit to check out the findings. And if you want to talk bikes or just meet some cool people interested in such things there is an event coming up this Thursday called Spokes N Folks, which is at 7:00pm at the great Bedford Street destination, Lorca.  

I hope I see you at Spokes N Folks and you visit to check out the results of Stamford Share the Road. And if you're a bike shop or cycling organization/advocacy group and you want to do a survey, I'm holding my hand up to the side of my face with a pinky in front of my mouth and a thumb by my ear. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wake Up! Your City Needs Bike Parking

Portland, Oregon - 2009

Yesterday, I rode my Dahon Matrix to the bank. When I got there, I locked it to an ashtray/trash can hybrid by threading the cable lock through one of the pillars near the top.

And I thought absolutely nothing of it. Until about an hour later, after I got home.

You see, I was going through the results from the Stamford Share the Road survey, which is a consulting project of sorts I've been doing for People Friendly Stamford. It's an online survey I designed to get feedback on a number of proposed bike lane and sharrow projects in the city.

Every time I build a survey I always add an open-ended question at the end just to see what would happen. Sometimes I learn absolutely nothing. This time was different.

The question was: is there anything you want to add about bike infrastructure issues in Stamford?

The most common complaint was the lack of bike parking.

That's my bike at the new Stamford Trader Joe's, which moved into the old Border's bookstore building. I went there during the first week, and I winced when I locked the bike up against the rack where they corral shopping trolleys: it looked like the paint had just dried on the black railings.

Inside, I bumped into the manager and suggested he add a bike rack outside. I need to suggest it again and hope more do the same: the miserable time vampire that is High Ridge Road in Stamford (more on that in my Stamford Patch column) keeps me going elsewhere most of the time.

So the survey findings are making me think about bike parking, and it didn't take long for me to browse through some of my 17,468 photos* for me to look at bike parking around the country.

For the most part, finding a place to lock up usually involves something that is solid enough not to cut through, but not too big around for me to thread a cable lock around, such as a tree in front of Time Warner Center.

In Philadelphia, parking meters served as bike racks, just like home.

In some places, bike racks are available but lack in style, such as this example in Manhattan.

Of course, you can't talk about bike parking and style without mentioning Cleveland. Who can forget the ingenious use of a shipping container near Nano Brew?

I've had the pleasure of locking there a couple of times. It's just brilliant.

I believe that when some of these were designed, they were thinking about what would be so beautiful that nobody would want to lock their bike to them…and then they backed off from there a little bit. Very inspirational. Visit Cleveland.

But in my part of the country, it doesn't feel like bike parking is taken that seriously. If there is a place to lock up, it's often just an afterthought. Take Zumbach's Coffee Roasters in New Canaan, for example. The first time I went there the place was filled with cars (no easy feat since there isn't much parking) so I chose the most obvious place to lock up.

When I got my drink, I went to the side of the building to sit at one of the small, round tables outside. I just happened to glance to my right…and I saw this near the garbage cans.

I didn't know if it was a bike rack or simply sitting over there because they were throwing it out anyway.  I kept my bike where it was and sipped my coffee, watching two-ton wheeled Tetris blocks gently move in and out of the parking lot without hitting each other.

Now as some of you know, I was at last week's public hearing on a plan to get rid of part of one of Stamford's few bike lanes on Washington Boulevard. When I posted about that before Christmas, I noted there was room for twelve cars to park. At the hearing I learned the bike lane was going to be irreparably demolished for seven.

My hope when the survey results are published on the People Friendly Stamford site and the weather finally gets warmer the city will think intelligently about putting bike parking in. As Cleveland and Portland show, it can be done in a way that is artistic and fits in to the character of the city. For instance: Stamford was once the home of Yale & Towne, which made locks. A bike rack that looks like a classic Yale lock practically designs itself.

And I'd love for the businesses to get involved, since there's much for them to gain too. Personally, I can picture Lorca, the great little coffee and churro place on Bedford Street in Stamford, dumping the car parking spot right in front and replacing it with a brilliant bike rack. Not only will people use it, but it'll make Lorca easier to see when you drive by it since there won't be an ugly Kia blocking the view.

There were complaints made about the bike parking options at the Stamford train station (pictured above) and something needs to happen there too. If you park there, I recommend you complain and complain loudly. I will do the same. Also: go out of your way to thank businesses and organizations in this and other cities that do put bike racks up - and make a show about rewarding them with your business. Ask to see the manager and explain to them that cyclists spend money, and if they can't park near the store or restaurant they like, they'll spend money elsewhere. I'm hoping the next time I write about this, I'll have something happy to report about the state of bike parking in Stamford. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then I'll Begin.

Meet Bob.

Bob lives and works in The City. He has a job he likes and a place to live he enjoys. He owns a car and he owns a bike. But because The City is full of cars and dangerous, he takes his car to work.

Bob sees a lot of traffic.

On the way to work, Bob wants to stop at his favorite coffee shop for a Half-Caf Double Shot Espresso-cino, but he's running late and can't find a place to park. So Bob goes to work without his favorite cup of coffee.

Trying to hurry through an intersection, Bob doesn't notice that the traffic light ahead has already gone red. Now Bob is blocking the box.

Bad Bob.

After a series of car horns and very impolite gestures, the angry trucker decides to drive around Bob and nearly causes an accident.

Bob is relieved he didn't cause an accident. But by blocking the box, Bob caused a chain reaction which keeps the traffic in The City backed up for a very long time - and it makes a lot of people late for work.

After finally making it through the traffic lights, Bob realizes he is low on gasoline, a magical chemical used on the ancient and inefficient technology of internal combustion engines. So Bob must stop at a gasoline station to fill up.

Finally, Bob gets to work and has an argument with another car over the very last parking space. Bob gets very angry and gets out of his car to talk with the other driver, who turns out to be named Jane.

Bob and Jane begin talking, and they realize that there has to be a better way for themselves and the city to live. So they get together with friends and lobby The City government to make the place they live and work better for bicyclists. After a long period of writing letters to the editor, sending emails to Board of Finance members and talking to their city representatives, a bike lane is installed on a road near Bob's house.

Bob and Jane meet with the owner of the coffee shop, and it turns out she enjoys bicycles too. So she installs a bike rack right in front of the coffee shop. Soon it encourages people to ride their bikes instead of drive and it opens up more parking spaces. That means more people can buy Half-Caf Double Shot Espresso-cinos, and that's good for the coffee shop's business.

So Bob decides to take his bicycle to work.

Bob is happy with the bike lane The City installed. When he arrives at an intersection, there is even a special space in front where he can safely stop. Because Bob didn't drive today, he didn't block the box with his car and the angry trucker becomes a happy trucker since he can get his goods to market faster.

Bob also doesn't have to stop and get gasoline. Since Bob and other bicyclists don't drive as much as they used to, the demand on gasoline falls and so do prices, which makes people who drive happy.

Bob and Jane are also happy.

But Jane reminds Bob there is more they need to do to make The City a better place to live, so they never stop lobbying for change and are still, to this day, trying to make it easier for their friends and neighbors to choose the bike instead of the car.

The End.

Thanks for reading and thanks for riding - and please come to the Stamford Government Center tonight (888 Washington Boulevard) at 7:00 for a hearing on removing a bike lane. And if you live or work in Stamford, please take the Stamford Share the Road survey.