Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dear New York City: Thanks for the Five Boro Bike Tour

    2007 Five Boro Bike Tour

For the first time in ten years, I’m not doing Bike New York's TD Five Boro Bike Tour. I’ll tell you why - but let me tell you a story first. 

On the first Sunday of May 2005, I woke up early at my fiance’s studio apartment located on 32nd Street between 3rd and 2nd. I quietly dressed and rolled my bike - an early 1980’s Turner recumbent - and headed outside to ride to the start line. At the time the recumbent, with the 16” front wheel and 27” rear wheel, was one of only two bikes I owned.*

2008 Five Boro Bike Tour. The last year we'd see the Commerce Bank dude 

When I first signed up, I thought I was just going to be riding in the event as a way to challenge myself and experience the city. Little did I know I was starting an annual habit that would take me through 2014. 

    2009 Five Boro Bike Tour. A Rain Year.

I don’t remember a lot of specific details of that first ride - only one moment of intense fear when I was coming off one of the bridges and a saw a cyclist turning a corner in front of me. I distinctly remember staring at the rear wheel and thinking the following words:  

“I hope we get the house.”

At the time, my fiancĂ© and I - then living in separate cities - had put in a bid on a house in Stamford, Connecticut the previous Friday. We basically got a ‘we’ll let you know’ response from the listing agent since the day of the Five Boro Bike Tour there was an open house. The tour gave me a chance to push my breath rapidly in and out of my lungs instead of just holding it. 

    2009 FBBT. I stood on the median to get this shot and could barely keep the rain off the lens. 

We ended up getting the house and, a few months later, getting married. The sale of that house will close within days of the 2015 FBBT, and we’ll be celebrating our ten year wedding anniversary this fall. But back to my first FBBT. 

   2011 FBBT

In addition to that moment of first-world panic, I remember passing several people changing out flats (and helping one woman out with hers).  Later I was pleased to get through the ride on my museum piece without any flats myself or other mechanical problems.

Each tour, I’d use the recumbent and promised myself not to use it again for the next Five Boro Bike Tour if it got a flat. I ended up doing ten Five Boro Bike Tours in a row - from the year I turned thirty to the year I turned thirty-nine - and never had a single flat or any other problem, physical or mechanical. Part of it is because I know how to do basic bike maintenance, the other part is the recumbent is magical. 

   2010 FBBT

Of course, when I wasn’t riding in the tour, the recumbent wasn’t always problem-free. The first time the frame cracked, I paid a guy $60 to weld it. The second time it cracked, I welded it on my own since I bought a Lincoln Electric MIG welder and taught myself how to use it between Crack 1 and Crack 2. 

A few years later, just before the 2012 FBBT, I did some risky bike surgery and welded a metal bar so I could have full use of the dinner plate-sized, 60-tooth chainring. Meanwhile, 27” wheels and tires continued to get harder and harder to find: a wheel from a Dumpster-bound Fuji Espree that was only supposed to get me through the 2011 FBBT lasted three more tours and is still on the recumbent today.

And still the bike continued to give me no problems - always drawing admiring comments from the ladies, excited smiles from the kids, and stares of disbelief from the carbon-fiber frame riders - particularly when I’d pass them going up the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Through all ten tours, some of the coolest, most determined riders I met pedaled bikes different from all the others. People like BikeSnobNYC underestimate recumbents at their peril. 

    2010 FBBT

Over the years I figured out everything I thought I needed to know about the tour. I determined what I needed to bring and my list of The Five Things I Can’t Live Without on the Five Boro Bike Tour remains a popular post this time of year. (Just remember: when you get your tea saucer-sized cookie at Zaro’s Bakery, eat half at the start line and eat the other half at Astoria Park as you’re loading up on bananas). 

    2012 FBBT

At the close of each tour, I’d try to figure out how to plan for the next one. As soon as I found out when the sign-up period would begin, I’d write it down and plan my day so I could register the minute (or, rather, the minute the servers stopped crashing) it began. When they stopped mailing tour packets and made Bike Expo New York, I figured out how to do that too - but worried not mailing the packets would make the tour less diverse. When their weird bag policy got put into place (to be fair to them: it happened after the Boston Marathon bombing) I went along with that and even managed a workaround.

    2013 FBBT 

And I continued doing the tour. The only reason I am not doing it this year is because I’m moving to California. This very week that’s happening. In fact, the day before the tour I’ll be looking wistfully at cars with bicycles on the roof heading east while I’m driving west.

If you’re doing the tour, be sure to look around at the riders around you: there are thousands of people, of all ages, from all over the world, pedaling pieces of junk, works of art (or both). Every body type and income tax bracket will be represented. That - and the ability to watch the city grow at least once a year from a free-flowing river of cyclists never gets old. Over ten tours, Borders Books fell. The Freedom Tower rose. And the city abides.

    2008 FBBT. Worth at least 1,000 words about bikes and cars in cities.,000 words about bikes and cars in cities.

So, Bike New York, thanks for the Five Boro Bike Tour.  I’m positive that this Sunday, at my hotel somewhere in Ohio, I’ll wake up at 3:00am terrified I missed my Metro North train from Stamford to Manhattan (and I will wear my 2010 FBBT T-shirt that day). 

But because I didn’t snap up my FBBT ticket it means that somebody else did - hopefully a newcomer. Whoever you are, have a great time. Whatever you ride, I hope it runs flawlessly. Whoever you meet, I hope you make friends. And whatever you do don’t take the day for granted. 

     2014 Five Boro Bike Tour. At the time, I was unaware I wouldn't be doing the 2015

And thanks to the NYPD, the sponsors, and of course the presenting sponsor, TD Bank. I hope you keep up your commitment to the tour and make a big, big show of putting a bike rack in front of each and every one of your branches - like I’ve tweeted at you about before. You’ll get great press and make more money like when CVS dumped cigarettes, you’ll lead the change parking lots around this country desperately need and, possibly most important, I’ll bank with you forever. 

And to all who will be shivering at the start line on Sunday (don’t worry; it’ll either get warmer or you’ll have so much fun you’ll forget you’re cold): enjoy the city that never sleeps when only the cyclists are awake. I’ll miss you all most of all  - and I’ll look for a fun annual ride in Silicon Valley. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

   Unknown FBBT 

*My bike collection peaked at 14 and 3/8th bikes in the fall of 2013. Because of the move to California I’ve cut back to 7 and 1/5.

Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bikes on Trains: California vs. Connecticut

                        Bike on a Metro North train in Connecticut.

One day you’re a seasoned Connecticut cyclist with intelligence and connections and the next day someone’s staring at you blankly because you asked what a Clipper Card is. 

Let me back up a second.

So I’m trying to get used to the idea that I’m moving from Connecticut to California. Part of it involves having to relearn a lot of everyday things that are incredibly stressful to me but seem profoundly silly when I explain them to someone else.

Using the Caltrain for the first time was one such area of stress. I’ve used the Metro North in Connecticut so many times I took for granted the conductor with the mesh-topped hat coming around with the little custom hole-punch to pop a tiny hole in my ticket and charging me the Blue Book value of my car for not having a “Peak” ticket during Peak times. 

Not so in California - and that was only the first difference I’ve found when traveling by train in the state once helmed by the star of Kindergarten Cop

Now as you know bikes on trains is a big issue in Connecticut. Metro North allows them on the train absolutely anytime except when it would be useful for a bicycle commuter. Racks, promised to cyclists years ago, have now appeared sporadically in Metro North but they share the same space with foldable seats. The racks themselves only hold two bikes per car. 

Things are different out in Silicon Valley. And by different I mean, better.

Visiting the Redwood City station one morning I saw several bike commuters waiting with people who didn’t have a bike. When Caltrain pulled up you could tell right away it was bike commuter friendly. 

Further research - done with me apprehensively carrying my Bike Friday on a train I later discovered was carrying me in the wrong direction - confirmed that the “Bike Car” had spaces for 40 bikes. Having them lean on each other with bungees is far from perfect but this was taking an awful lot of cars off the road which is the point of building this kind of infrastructure and policy

Finally, many Silicon Valley bicycle commuters place a yellow tag on the bike with the destination station written on it. The reason is so you can try to lean your bike with other bikes going to the same destination to make it easier to get on and off the different stops without having to dig your bike out from under a pile.

I don’t understand: Connecticut attained statehood in 1788. California in 1850. How did my birth state squander its 62 year head start?

I may never know the answer, but any conversation about fixing Connecticut transportation infrastructure has to include these kinds of improvements. Making trains easier for cyclists means making the train a good alternative to #choosethebike instead of adding another car - electric, hybrid or otherwise - to the road. 

But now that I know how beautifully friendly the Caltrain is to bicycle commuters (and I finally know what a Clipper Card is) I’m going to use it as much as I can to get around. If you're in California, haven’t used this system, and are tired of queueing up at red lights: I recommend you give this a try today, seeing as it is Earth Day and all - and/or during Bike to Work Day, which is May 14th in Silicon Valley

If you're in Connecticut, demand better bike access on trains AND make a note that Bike to Work Day is on May 15 (not sure why the CT BTWD is different from CA. May have something to do with the three hour time difference). Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Dear Connecticut: It's Not You, It's Me

I doubt I’m going to handle this with the same level of class and composure Jon Stewart mustered when he gave his announcement a few months back but here goes: over the next several weeks I am leaving Connecticut and moving to Silicon Valley. There are only two possible explanations: I have either gotten tens of millions of dollars in funding to develop the DIYBIKING.COM smartphone app or my brilliant wife got a job offer in California and I’m packing up my laptop, bikes, Star Wars action figures and HO scale miniatures to go with her.

I'll give you a hint: it’s the second one

So I’ve been flying back and forth to California several times over the past few months. This is a big reason why there are longer than usual gaps in posts and a lack of builds lately. I’m sorry to say I’ve been spending a lot of time dismantling things that were never built to be dismantled and selling things I always thought I’d keep.

I know, I know, I know - I even donated my good ice scraper to Goodwill the day after teaching my bike repair workshop at Rippowam Labs.

What ‘builds’ I have done have been improvements to our Stamford home so the sight of parts of it wouldn’t send potential buyers fleeing toward the West Beach breakwater. I even modified my workshop so it would look less like like a Dexter Morgan kill room and more like a place Bob Vila would like to hang out it. 

Of course, a lot of the house looks great. I mean, we haven’t even gotten two years out of the kitchen that upended our lives in early 2013, so that’s a huge selling point…once I get past my disappointment of just figuring out where everything goes when emptying the dishwasher a couple of weeks ago.

So while that’s been going on I have been checking out the bike scene in Silicon Valley and hope to be a part of it - recreationally and professionally. It’ll be an adjustment, for sure (just now I’m getting used to the idea of having to apply sunscreen in months like February) but eleven years ago I adjusted from rural New Hampshire life to city life, so I have a halfway decent track record going on. Also, as I’ve learned biking around this country and eleven others: a lot of cities have similar transit problems - many of which can be solved if more would #choosethebike. 

Also, I am terribly sorry to say I will not be participating in this year’s Five Boro Bike Tour. Last year was my tenth one in a row, and not giving it a proper send off is like Ed Sullivan going off the air without a finale. I’m sure it’ll be a great one per usual - visit the Bubba’s Barbikyu tent if there is one at the festival - but there are regular rides in Silicon Valley and some cool-sounding events taking shape like the 1st annual Silicon Valley Bikes: Festival & Bicycle show on Sunday, May 3rd at 635 Phelan Avenue in San Jose

Even though I’m not completely on a hard timeline for finishing this move (Jon Stewart's being vague about his last day; this is no different) I am excited to begin a phase of my life where I don’t need to dream up ways to make my house smell like baking cookies for potential buyers.* While I am in this transitional period I’ll do what I can to promote Bike to Work Week in Connecticut (especially Stamford, since there is even more planned this year than there was last year) and Bike to Work Week and Bike to Work Day in Silicon Valley

Thank you for keeping up with this site and for all you’re doing to lift your communities with cycling. As I’m learning it may not matter where you live since you can bicycle - and improve the environment for bicyclists - no matter where you are or what you do. I’ll let you know when I’m about to have my last alfajore cookie at Lorca and when I get my California driver’s license.  As always, thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

*As a service to cyclists who may be selling their homes, here’s the process I developed when you have five minutes to get out of your house before a realtor comes over with a client:


1) Buy Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough at your local grocery store. Roll into 1” balls and place on a sheet of aluminum foil in your freezer.

2) Within an hour of the broker and potential buyers coming to the house, remove one of the frozen balls of cookie dough, place on a paper towel or napkin, and microwave for EXACTLY 42 seconds**

3) Leave the microwave door open when you remove the now steaming ball of dough and place in a central location of your house.

4) Wait three to five minutes. This is a good time to get the rest of your Go Bag together.

5) Discard the cookie dough in the kitchen trash can and close the microwave oven door. The smell should linger about two hours.

**42 seconds took a while to figure out. Also I like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Six Ways to Mitigate the Loss of the Stamford Transportation Center Parking Garage

                       The Stamford parking garage in happier, intact times. 

Breaking news reported by the Stamford Advocate: the parking garage attached to the train station has been closed by the state because, as regular car parkers like myself will attest, the Quikrete combovers of rebar bald spots hasn’t been enough to make the garage safe. 

I’ve parked my car in that station more times than I wished to. I advocated that 700+ space garage to be kept where it is so motorists wouldn’t just drive all the way to work instead of deal with a longer train-based commute. I’m not sure how I feel about the loss, but since I am not in Stamford at this moment (more on why in another post) I can’t go to the station to say a proper goodbye.

But what I can do - in addition to admonishing the city of Stamford and the state of Connecticut for doing an appalling job encouraging bicycle commuters over the years - is present a short list of action items we can all do in the wake of the station suddenly vanishing. 

1. Instead of driving to the train station, #choosethebike

This is pretty obvious. After the kind of winter that would freeze a Tauntaun in its tracks, it’s finally starting to get a little nicer outside so your list of reasons to not bike is shorter automatically. Also: biking is healthier than driving, not much slower, a whole lot cheaper and much more fun than driving a car. 

2. Advocate for better bike parking and bike lockers in and around the station.

Parking a bike is easier and cheaper than parking a car, but at the Stamford Transportation Center (and most of any city, for that matter) it isn’t without its drawbacks. Yes, you can park a bike for free but not without bashing your two-wheeled friend against a metal railing, rack or another bike.

When someone decides to #choosethebike and ride to the Stamford Transportation Center, they leave an automobile parking space for someone who really needs it. But bicycle commuters are going to need more spaces immediately and, as I’ve written about several times on this site, the bike parking at the Stamford station is just terrible - and is much better in other parts of the world. 

     Bike lockers in Frankfurt, Germany

No matter how outlandish some seem, bike lockers and bike shelters can be put in place quickly at a fraction of the cost of a car parking space. Now is the time to do it. 

3. Advocate for sharrows and bike lanes around the station and throughout downtown Stamford. 

A lot of people don’t like to bike in cities because they feel unsafe. I know this because I see passionate cyclists wave at me all the time from behind the wheel of their hybrid cars with nobody in the passenger seats. Every time I tell someone I am going to go biking in a new city the first thing I am usually told is to be incredibly careful - followed by a hug and the tender words of ‘come back safely’ as if I am heading off to war. 

Make cycling safer. I would pay to have those words tattooed on the mayor’s arm or at least written somewhere prominent in the government center at 888 Washington Boulevard. Make cycling safer and everybody wins. Fewer cars on the road, more people getting to work on time. Win-win. Done and done. 

4 . If you’re a legislator, raise the car tax but grant breaks for one-car households.

Sometimes politicians who should know better talk about ending the car tax. I don't like paying that tax as much as anyone but ending the car tax is stupid. There’s no sugar-coating it. If there was a way for municipalities to make up for the loss of not having a car tax we would have discovered it by now and anyone who has driven on I-95 in Connecticut during the morning or evening rush will probably answer ‘no’ if you ask them if the state could incentivize more people to own cars - which is what ending the car tax would do. 

The car tax should be raised, not lowered. Once that’s done, we can restructure the tax to provide breaks for households that have only one car between two adults. If we make the city easier and safer to bike and walk in few will mind. 

5. Make it safer to walk and bike to the Stamford station - starting tomorrow. 

Tomorrow morning in Stamford there are going to be some awfully confused people moving around in and around the station. Some of them, especially people who didn’t realize the garage would be closed, are going to be angry. Angry people are going to drive that way and make mistakes. If you’re a pedestrian, look both ways before you cross the street. If you’re a cyclist, wear a helmet, outfit it with a rearview mirror, and take no chances biking in Stamford going forward. If you’re a police officer, please make the case to be on foot or bike patrol all around the station for the next several days at least. Give written warnings to every illegally parked car on day one but tow them and fine them if there is a day two. 

This situation just feels like trouble so make sure that you and your neighbor, no matter how he or she gets to work, is safe.  

6. When it comes to car parking, remind people to reduce the demand instead of increase the supply.

Searching the Stamford Advocate archives I found a long letter to the editor about why the Stamford parking station needed to be bigger - but the very author of that letter said that we ‘do not need to add more traffic’ around the station - which is what adding more parking does. 

Making the car tax higher, creating ways to encourage walking and biking to work and realizing that we can put public space to better use than temporary storing a car are all things cities needs to do. Stamford: I’m sorry you can’t do it on your own terms now, but maybe this sudden parking garage closure - and the misery that will surely result - will finally move you to action. Everyone please be patient getting to work tomorrow. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.