Tag Archives: bicycles

American “Helmet Culture”

Having suitably pimped for the excellent Urban Velo magazine, I can now get into one of the things that really caught my eye: The November 2012 issue, and John Greenfield’s excellent interview with the “pope of urban cycling” Mikael Colville-Andersen. And like the pope, he hails from the Vatican City of Bikeolicism, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Being a bike evangilist in Copenhagen is like being a cheese evangelist in Paris. Lots of choir to preach to. So when I read about Mikael getting irate about our American “obsession” with helmets, well, I think it lacks context. Going on the obligatory rant about why he is a charletan is pointless because he isn’t, and I both respect his expertise and appeeciate his opinion. But the upshot is that he misses the point. If we had Denmark’s bicycle infrastructure and were all nerded up about helmets and Spandex, his comments would be apt. But we don’t. And purposely or not he makes a badly drawn criticism of our dilemma.

The dynamic has alot to do with both the history of America, and the current state of the discussion over transportation. We have a history involving half-baked concepts of “rugged individualism”! Which is a problem now that corporations are people, and they get massive government handouts, but if you are a regular ‘murrikin individual you go without a bike lane and any of that candy-ass shit and strap on a styrofoam helmet and roll the dice. Denmark has, I am sure, plenty of rugged individualists, or maybe more specifically, rugged socialists. They have made a massive committment to public services in all sectors, but you see it in transportation infrastructure immediately and clearly. I have heard that when you buy one car in Denmark, you pay for three. The usage taxes roughly triple the cost of purchasing a car. They have made a committment to socializing the cost of the automobile, and using the proceeds to maintain roads, and diversify transit modes. I saw it firsthand in 2009 and it was a shocke to be on a divided highway, and seeing a parallel bike path over the entire length. As well, it was roughly parallel to a train route.

If you haven’t noticed, the discussion in America is about maintaining the infrastructure we have, or at least it should be. There is a bit of head-in-the-sand going on in the current infantile political morass we are being subjected to. But we can at least pretend that there are adults involved… Whether it is bridge maintenance, paving, safety measures… much of it is either lacking or failing, so improving and diversifying it just doesn’t get onto the radar. This collides with the fact that most Americans who want to ride a bike are doing it on motorways. Those roads are designed for, optimized for, automobile traffic. It is the kind of place where a bicyclist might need to take evasive action, or even lay their bike down. They can be rough, potholed, and if you ride on the shoulder or breakdown kane, strewn with jagged debris. Since most cities have ordanances prohibiting bicycles from sidewalks (a bad place to ride a bike anyway) you are sharing a lane with cars, and often parked cars as well. This can put you into the “door zone”. There, an inattentive driver will flip open their door, right in front of you, and you get a “door prize”, aka a “dooring”. How do you feel about helmets now? You will ride on roads with poorly enforced speed limits, where traffic hits highway speeds in residential neighborhoods. Helmet? What color? Despite your day-glo specialty clothing, which Mikael especially loathes, you are left dodging potholes and texting drivers, stoned teens, golden-agers, and all sorts of fun folks, while trying to predict their behavior and “ride safely”. Visor, or no? Urban cool or road racer style? Why double down on a broken collarbone with a side of TBI if you don’t have to?

So without belaboring the point, there are many reasons why an American bike rider would wear a helmet. Looking past the criticism of the device, the helmet, I am totally fine with the point behind the snark: could we build effective infrastructure for modes like the bicycle or walking, lessening the need for excessive safety equipment, and making those modes more accessible to all? That is a dynamic that has the power to shine through even the densest, sootiest, Scandinavian Smug.

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter – 2

One great resource for bicycle reading is Urban Velo magazine out of Pittsburgh. In the great tradition of mags like Tape-Op and Beer Advocate, it is a sharp focus mag with a strong identity and strong opinions. In this case Urban Velo has a fixed-gear focus with a strong undercurrent of Bike Friendly and Bike Awesome development. Check them out, and if you like them get a subscription and support them.

Been There, Haven’t Done That

As much as I like what I see in places where bikes have a place in every day life, it is not lost on me that for every Portland, OR story or Manhattan High Line, there is China. China was bike-dominated until as recently as 15 years ago, and has since given over to the automobile in a huge way. I believe that is an indicator that much of this urge to return to bike-friendly fantasy land could be seen as a First World thing, a luxury item where it is easy to want it when you don’t feel you need it. But the difference, as I see it is about where on the development continuum you are. China is a rapidly growing economy with a huge demand for western conveniences. In time they will want to be less dependent on fossil fuels and want a return to bicycle-scale transport. What “First Worlders” have in spades is the opportunity to become more flexible and less dependent. Bike lanes in places like the US could be like Social Yoga, bringing flexability back to a too-rigid frame.

Aggro Culture

In my small part of the world the bike world is dominated by “racer types”. They are nice folks and all. You know, some of my best friends wear spandex bibs! There is a kind of split in the bicycle world between “racer types” and pretty much everyone else. Everyone else rides for fitness or for enjoyment. Racer types ride in more of a competition mindset, and they typically ride faster (less differential between their speed and the speed of a car). Far from being the spandex mafia (though they are) the racer type is a good fit when you lack bike infrastructure. That physical and mental profile can get you comfortable with sharing roads that lack even the most basic bike facilities, like a shoulder with painted line. In areas with real bicycle infrastructure the rider is able to ride in a more relaxed fashion, in normal clothes, at a more moderate pace. The bicyclists we see in Amsterdam, or Copenhagen, or Montreal for that matter, don’t have to duke it out with inattentive drivers on their commute. The “barrier to entry” is much lower, and in the best cases the barrier is actually higher for automobiles. As opposed to some cases where there is a “chicken or egg” paradox, in transit there is no paradox. The transit follows the path of least resistance. The best infrastructure provides the least resistance. If we had throngs of square-peg dorks on Dutch Bikes clogging up secondary roads it would be obvious, but in the case of suburban New England, the bikes are the effect, not the cause.

Back to the Future

To tie back in with the previous post: In central Connecticut, I think that the pessimism over Fastrak is based on lack of experience with successful transit projects. We have a popular rail-to-trail system that recreational bicyclists love, but it does not act as a commuter route for most users. That is recreation infrastructure (linear park) but it is a bad example for a commuter solution. The target for Fastrak is getting people into Hartford for work or entertainment, and then home safely. As the Capitol of Connecticut, and one of the most commuter-intensive cities I have ever been around, there is hope that demand for a better/cheaper solution to local transportation should be a winner. The on-the-books population of Hartford is roughly 125,000, but the “daytime” work week population gain is anywhere from 70,000 and up depending on your data source. A city that bloats from 125,000 to 200,000 in the morning and then deflates by 6pm. That is a commuter rich environment, and an option poor environment.

One of the weirdest arguments is that nobody will use infrastructure. Every example seems to point in the opposite direction. We have Metro North rail system linking the shoreline from New Haven to NYC and beyond. It is positively clogged with riders, and any increase in capacity is filled in short order. We have rail-to-trail and greenway projects that are again, filled to the brim with walkers, bikers, strollers, birders, and if you want to observe the Yeti-like rollerblade, that’s where you go. The same for State Park infrastructure, rivers with fishing and swimming, and boating opportunities, and infrastructure of their own. So we can assume that if you build it, people use it. Just as in those scenarios we can facilitate that use, just as we have done by connecting hundreds of thousands of rural residents to highways and malls with vast networks of solid two-lane. Nobody is asking for infrastructure at that level, but the scale shows how resources are allocated to support a single mode of transportation.

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter

The winter of 2012 was a wonderful aberration. In most of New England it was the “winter without a winter”. While some people remember the lack of skiing, skating, ice fishing, or snow plowing, my memories involve bicycles. Not the lack of bicycles, but the amazing gift of a winter bicycling season. Unseasonably warm temps meant that I was taking rides around town in January, and not covering every inch of exposed skin against frostbite-inducing winds.

This winter, not so much. It has been business as usual with heavy snows, cold arctic-born winds, and our favorite form of frosty excitement: Wintry Mix! If it is, say, 37F and raining, and maybe some ice, sleet, snow, or other unknown matter is along for the ride, you’ve got Wintry Mix. Actually it is formal slang for “crappiest of winter weather” and can mean anything from a foot of ice nuggets to rain showers onto frozen ground at 19F… black ice machine weather. As a result there has been less time for riding and more time for thinking about riding.

Bike Curious

On top of that I have been following the progress of CT Fastrak, the project previously known as the New Britain Busway. It has many of the markings of a successful transit diversification project. As a pure transit service concept, this particular project is a loser. It provides one mode, rubber-tire buses on a closed roadway, in an effort to provide a service that nobody asked for. At least not that we know of. I have been around Connecticut long enough, and New Britain specifically, to know that it is possible that *many* people in New Britain are big fans but don’t have a voice or don’t feel comfortable in the current discussion.

There is a silver lining for some of us, tarnished as it may be: the southern half of the Fastrak project includes a 5 mile bike/pedestrian path. That solves a problem for me by eliminating one of the worst sections of my bike-to-work route. As usual, it creates another problem by dumping me in a residential area with zero bike infrastructure. That is where I would have been anyhow, but the idea is that the bike route ends near absolutely nothing. If there is nothing but the chance to ride on the shoulder of the road and battle it out with the texting and driving crowd, it can very easily turn into a kevorkian-esque piece of social machinery.

One thing I would like to find is a commitment to development that leverages the Fastrak project. If you are a struggling city you could do worse than have your own transit corridor to jobs and commerce. Location of residential or commercial development with good access to the Fastrak system would seem to be a given. To me, that is the identifying trait of successful transit development. The city needs to buy in for it to be a success. This could mean residential development in the South End or on the East Side, with solid tie-in to Fastrak.

I need to see more about mayor Tim O’Brien’s planning vision before resolving that question. I think he is doing a solid job as mayor, so maybe I need to look harder. In fact, I will. To hear the anti-busway voices, providing transit from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. And of course, if that drives the dialogue, they could be right.

Bike Friendly

I recently had the very good fortune to attend a few events where the new direction of the Connecticut DOT has been touted, and even illustrated. The Bike Walk Connecticut membership dinner was a last minute thing, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Bike geek stuff is usually a hit with me. On top of that I was able to see Dan Esty, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP, where I am employed), speak on the topic of transit infrastructure and how great bicycles are! I have seen the same thing as part of my job, but seeing it “in the wild” was good for some perspective. Dan Esty was an infotational and positive as always. That is a compliment.

As well, there is a 600lb gorilla in most of the high-level communication about bike transit. I appreciate the enthusiasm, no doubt, but most of these presentations miss the fact that those bicycles are ridden on roads with zero bike-safety structure. You might get some painted lines, maybe even a “sharrow” or two. Might. probably not.

Bike Agnostic

Being bike-friendly at the destination is about showers and bike storage. We have had that at DEEP headquarters for a while now thanks to a few people who saw opportunity and bingo! Bike Racks! I had the good fortune to attend an awards event where a Deputy Connecticut DOT Commissioner awarded a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Business award to DEEP because of the agency’s bike-friendly policies and basic infrastructure (Bike Racks!). The DOT showed up with a great slide show on the bicycle infrastructure improvements in Connecticut. I am looking for a link to that content. It is a good example of how priorities at the top effect the actions of the agency.

One of the projects he brought up was Fastrak. I took the opportunity to ask, after the meeting broke up, “why didn’t we get the last 5 miles of bike trail on Fastrak?” Apparently the right of way was too narrow to accommodate more bike lane. I nodded and all, but I have a hard time believing it. I believe the answer, but I wonder what the prospect for the entire project is with the half measures and lack of continuity. As another attendee said “If they needed the space for cars, they would get it”.

I am happy to have a 5 mile section of bike path, so it is a net positive for me [less likely to be run down by a driver hitting 65mph on Cedar Street]. But, it would be many times more useful if Fastrak extended into Hartford. The right of way issues should be a spur in the replacement infrastructure department, but it seems to be off the radar. The challenge now will be to upgrade the roadways that extend from the ends of the bike path, giving them wider shoulders and better sightlines, and allowing more of the surrounding population to reach the trail by bike, and end up in bikeable distance to their destination. That is how you link a community to a job source, and consumers to stores, without tying them to the car as a solution..

Back in the Saddle

Quick update before I get back to blogging again…

The Halloween Storm did a number on things here at the ranch.  A few trees down, a week without power, and a general setback for musical, photographic, and otherwise enjoyable productivity.  If productivity involved a rake or a chainsaw, then yes, it has been a productive period.

Got a gig coming up with two NHIC groups at Firehouse12 on December 3rd. 8:30pm and 10:00pm.  The first is nhic:atlas, a six-piece mostly acoustic affair.  I am playing my Tacoma CB10F fretlsss ABG and it sounds really nice with this group.  The second is NHIC Electric, a noisy electric affair.  That is a job for the Zon Sonus. I am in hog-heaven as a bass player because Atlas will have Mike Paolucci on drums, and he played in my short-lived jazzy Soul Cryptographers band.  I really enjoy playing with Mike and it is good to be working with him again.  NHIC Electric will have Peter Riccio on drums, and that is VERY badass.  I had been hoping that we would have this opportunity, and it is sounding very nice in rehearsal.

If there is any bright side to this “winter” it is that we are still getting warm temps.  Last weekend I put on about 20 miles on the bike, in short sleeves!  getting that opportunity after Thanksgiving in New England is rare.  I am definitely not complaining.  My friend Chris James calls it Global Weirding… Well, let’s keep it weird!  Oh… rising sea level and food chain disruption?  P’shaw!