An easy-going way of bicycling in the city

September 23, 2016
North and Alabama Streets at Dusk

North and Alabama Streets at Dusk

From my fifth floor balcony and writing table, I watch a vibrant neighborhood in downtown Indianapolis: one block of North Street, from Alabama to New Jersey Streets, and two blocks of Alabama Street, from North, past Michigan Street, to the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue, a street that transverses a northeasterly diagonal through the old city.

The Indianapolis cultural trail runs along these streets. It is a broad, ornate sidewalk that winds for eight miles around and through neighborhoods close to downtown. All day long these streets are alive with human activity: walkers, joggers, runners, moms and dads pushing strollers, steady but not pushy car and truck traffic, and bicyclists.

Many of the evenings are especially active because of frequent shows at the Old National Centre, part of the Murat Shriners Temple across the ccorner. In contrast with Portland, Oregon, my home for many years, this part of Indianapolis abounds with paved parking lots: at the English Foundation Building directly across from my window, the Old National, another lot on the corner of North and New Jersey, and still another adjacent to a century-old church on the other side of New Jersey.

Early in the mornings these lots are empty but they fill up during the day, empty out around dinner time, and then fill up again most evenings.

I pay special attention to the cyclists. At the Starbucks two blocks away on Mass Ave, some people dressed in high style office attire arrive by bike, and others commute downtown in grubbies and change to business dress before coming in for coffee.

Portland commuters whom I have closely observed for more than a decade, mostly by riding along with them on the streets and across the bridges, and downtown, are usually dressed in casual, non-bike-specific attire. A single pannier fastened on a rear rack or a back pack carries fancier clothes to wear at work, and probably notebook and tablet computer.

The riders I see in my Mass Ave neighborhood appear to have cycled shorter distances, and they seem to prefer back packs. They use all kinds of bikes from old street bikes fixed up for city riding, to fancy comfort bikes that they ride without raising a sweat even on a humid Indianapolis day.

The most obvious difference is helmet culture. In Portland, most people on city streets wear them, whereas in this part of Indianapolis helmets seem optional. From 6:10 to 6:20 one evening, I watched twenty-five cyclists travel through my three-block field of vision: twelve with helmets, thirteen without. On my drives through the downtown and into adjacent neighborhoods I get the impression that this pattern is largely replicated elsewhere in the older neighborhoods of the city. It also appears that everywhere in Indianapolis, again in contrast with Portland, pedestrians are on their own, with little attention given them by motorists.

Whether they are wearing helmets or only a cap (often with an Indy Colts logo), Indianapolis cyclists feel free to travel wherever they like: on bike trails (with or against the flow), on sidewalks, on either side of streets (especially in the mornings before the motorists are out), on the sidewalk one minute and on the street the next. They dart quickly from one route to another, facing cars or going the same direction, with a studied indifference toward traffic signals.

During my earlier life in Indianapolis (which ended in 1995), I lived in a traditional neighborhood about six miles north of downtown, and there I encountered a different breed of cyclists. Many of them were members, as was I, of CIBA, the Central Indiana Bicycling Association. They wore helmets, dressed in bicycle-specific clothing, and for the most part rode the streets in a highly disciplined way.

Riding with them socialized me into a mature, adult way of cycling, and it’s the mode I continue to use even though it seems so old-school down here in the hip Mass Ave culture.

Despite my puzzlement over the cycling patterns I see in this vibrant downtown neighborhood, I am grateful that so many people in my readopted home have taken to two-wheel transportation.

It gives me a sense of comradeship even though there is little likelihood that I will get acquainted with them, unless it be when we fall into conversation at Starbucks. Although we use our bicycles in significantly different ways, together we add color and a humane dimension to a world that otherwise is filled with the noises and smells of the motorized world.

Bike lanes and roundabouts

September 15, 2016


For most of my forty years as cyclist, riding both in the city and on the open road, I have held mixed views concerning safety provisions that traffic engineers provide for cyclists. Initially, my views were largely negative because of my experience with bicycle lanes. This experience was confirmed in caustic writings by engineer and cyclist John Forester.

Having studied the data concerning bike-motor vehicle accidents, Forester contended that they were age-related in where they took place and why they occurred. The statistics showed that intersections were the places where danger was the greatest. He urged traffic engineers and rule writers to develop roadways and rules that would reduce danger everywhere and especially at these danger points.

Forester also believed that cyclists were safest and drivers best able to share the road with them when people on bikes followed the same rules of the road that drivers obeyed. When making a left turn, for example, cyclists should not try to do it from a bike lane on the right edge of the road but should do what cars do, which is to get into the left lane and turn from the same position that drivers used.

Since 1999, most of my city cycling has been done in and around Portland, Oregon. Early in that period, I came to a largely positive view of the bike lanes and other provisions that traffic engineers in that city had established for cyclists. They helped me negotiate difficult intersections, and also helped drivers figure out where they should be as they were maneuvering their way in these same places.

Recently, however, my confidence in what the engineers are doing has been wavering. Their fixation upon creating separations between cyclists and motorists, as I have experienced them in several parts of Portland and in downtown Seattle, provide the veneer of safety while increasing the likelihood of bicycle-motor vehicle interaction. As much as possible—in order to protect myself from increased danger—I avoid these newly devised bicycle-specific streets and intersections.

My antipathies toward bike lanes comes to mind when both as motorist and cyclist I have to contend with roundabouts, which are being touted as the preferred form of intersections in many urban and open country areas. I know how to navigate in a world of four-way intersections controlled by stop signs or traffic lights. I can keep track of the direction I am going, and there is time, as I wait for the lights to change, to be sure of what I should do. I can usually find my way even in places that are unfamiliar to me.

Having returned to Indianapolis after living in the West for twenty years, I find that my former certainties no longer are certain. Recently driving in the city of Carmel on the north side of Indianapolis, I found myself in a surreal world that requires a total reorientation of my motorist’s mind. Carmel’s public officials and citizens are so excited by roundabouts that approximately one hundred of them are filling up the maps in this spread out community.

Before the roundabout era, I could find my way in Carmel and vicinity because it was still a four-square world. At most intersections I could turn left or right, or go straight ahead, and usually end up where I wanted to be even if I didn’t know the names of all of the streets.

No more. Admittedly, I have reached an age when it takes longer to figure out signage than used to be the case. The roundabouts I encountered on my recent travels in Carmel compounded the problem. Every roundabout seemed different and the challenges of figuring out where I should be driving and which spoke on the wheel was the one I should use to exit were greater than I could grasp in the moments that were available as I rotated around the circle.

Maybe the sweet voice on Google Maps would have told me when to veer off the circle—that is if I had her turned on and had learned to trust her instructions.

I’m reading about Carmel’s history with roundabouts and am learning how much they appear to reduce accidents and delays. My commitment to a fact-based approach to these matters should persuade me to embrace roundabouts.

To do so, however, requires that I (and everyone else) study the facts and learn new rules of the road just as Carmel’s official documents say we should. And I need to get a paper map and study the realignment of this part of Indianapolis and then spend time in Carmel going round and round until I I know what I’m doing. Until then, I’m going to do must of my driving and cycling in Indy’s four-square world south of 86th Street.


The Columbia River: learning to live with what can be saved

September 12, 2016

whiteThe Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, by Richard White (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995)

After living on the edge of the Columbia River for thirteen years, crossing it time and time again, cycling on roads and trails skirting its shore, and living the good life because of the low-cost electricity that it generates, I’m reestablishing my life in a far, distant part of the country. Part of my grief work is rereading Richard White’s elegant monograph about the great river of the West.

The publisher who commissioned this book stipulated that it have no footnotes in order to appeal to general readers. White, who then taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, succeeded in writing a lucid, interesting, non-technical little book, but the ten-page bibliographical essay at the end of the book indicates the depth of his research.

While The Organic Machine is organized chronologically, tracing the way that the peoples who have lived in its watershed have successively worked with the river to accomplish their life needs, its narrative drive is philosophical, examining “the river as an organic machine, as an energy system which, although modified by human interventions, maintains its ‘unmade’ qualities. . .My argument in this book is that we cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history” (p. ix).

White addresses modern environmentalists who “stress the eye over the hand, the contemplative over the active, the supposedly undisturbed over the connected. They call for human connections with nature while disparaging all those who claim to have known and appreciated nature through work and labor” (p. x).

He suggests that readers “might want to spend more time thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lewis Mumford and less about Henry David Thoreau and John Muir” (p. xi), which reminds me of an idea presented by Steven Solomon in Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Discussing the hydrological society of ancient China, Solomon discerns contrasting approaches to engineering solutions to water-related issues.

“Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem, just as they urged Chinese leaders to gradually win support for their goals through persuasive dialogue. . . Confucians, on the other hand, advocated a more forceful manipulation of both nature and human society to achieve the public good.” The underlying principles “framed a fundamental engineering debate which has reemerged on the global level today as the world seeks environmentally sustained solutions to the water scarcity crisis” (101).

Read more . . .organic-machine

Bicycle Rider in a Yellow Ocher World

September 6, 2016


Palouse Hills After Harvest

Palouse Hills After Harvest

During the last days of August in 2016, I traveled from Portland, Oregon, a city where my heart sings, to Indianapolis, the city in which much of my family and professional life developed and where I became an aggressive cyclist. With my twenty-nine-year-old grandson, Erik Ulberg, doing most of the driving, we made the 2,640-mile trip in six days.

Forty years ago this summer, during America’s bicentennial year, I made much the same journey by bicycle with my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Sharon Watkins, and a family friend as companions. Self-supporting and camping much of the way, we travelled 2,630 miles in thirty-six days.

Although they were intertwined in my heart and mind, these two journeys were significantly different: early summer/late summer, slow/fast, exposed to the elements/traveling in air-conditioned comfort, in frequent contact with people/largely isolated from people along the way, celebrating the nation’s heritage/anxious about the future of our nation and the world.

In 1976, we were part of a venture that encouraged more than 4,000 people to bicycle across the country, whereas in 2016 cyclo-touring had become routine in American life. My first trip was fired with the eagerness of new experience; this second journey was tempered by the melancholy of my advancing years.

In broad outline, both trips followed the same route: through the Columbia River Gorge and rolling hills of the Palouse Country in southeastern Washington; across the Snake River at Clarkson and along the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers to Lolo Pass and Missoula; south to Chief Joseph Pass, the Big Hole National Battlefield, Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, through Wyoming and across southern Nebraska to the Mississippi crossing at Nebraska City; Mound City, Missouri, and eastward on U.S. 36 or closely parallel low-speed roads to Indianapolis.

The Grand Tetons

The Grand Tetons

At two places only did the drivers in 2016 deliberately deviate from the cyclists’ route forty years ago. At Wisdom, Montana, the cyclo-tourists took the northern route to Dillon and the auto-tourists took the shorter, southern route. On the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming the cyclists stayed on U.S. 26, traveling to Riverton, where we used a motel for the first time on the trip, and then made a 100-mile mad dash to Casper where we stayed for the first time at a church. We continued to Scottsbluff and Lake McConauchy in Nebraska.

The motorists turned south of U.S. 287, driving to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we began our sprint to the east on I-80. Most of this later portion of that day’s drive took us through country I had never seen before, and it included some of the most interesting terrain of the entire journey.

A full account of the 2016 journey can be constructed around a series of themes; among them are the following.

 The Yellow Ocher World

Because the auto-tourists were traveling in late summer when much of the west is rain deprived, colors from the ocher palette dominated the countryside. In the eastern Columbia River Gorge, vegetation had a dull, brownish hue. In the Palouse Country, wheat stubble clothed rolling hills in bright yellow tones. At higher elevations some of the trees glistened with golden and reddish colors. In corn belt states, fields of ripening grain displayed their readiness for harvest by their varied shades of yellowish brown. Erik, who is seriously interested in the interface of art and technology, suggested that the ocher color chart, ranging from dull yellow to rusty red, contains many of the end of summer colors we were seeing.

Grasping the Scale of the Bicyclist’s World

Because bicyclists necessarily focus attention on the road just ahead, they rarely can view the grand scope of the larger landscape. Because they are free to look all around, auto-tourists can see the roads winding far ahead, disappearing over the hills and reappearing on the other side. They can see smoke rising in the far distance, blotting out the sun, and the imposing magnitude of mountains on ahead. Driving this route gave me a new sense of the courage required of cyclo-tourists.

Requiem for Western Woodlands

The conifer forests throughout the high country, which I remember as healthy and whole forty years ago, are now distressed. We drove through long stretches of highway with blackened, denuded trees collapsing against one another, with occasional signs of new underbrush beginning the slow work of reestablishing the forest. Similar stretches of lodge pole pine were dying from beetle infestation, the result of climate warming and diminished precipitation.

Big Hole National Battlefield

On both trips, the emotional high for me was the Big Hole National Battlefield, which solemnizes the memory of an attack by U.S. Army forces on a band of Nez Perce Indians as they slept in their camp early on the morning of August 9, 1877. This event dramatizes the long history of broken treaties, deprivation of rights, and ethnic cleansing that America’s dominant white society has and continues to perpetrate on our nation’s first peoples.

America’s Ice-Age Rivers

As we drove along the eastern bank of America’s greatest river, I became aware of the similarity between the Columbia and the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Both were formed by melting of ice packs during the closing of the ice age and the impact still shows in the geology and geography through which we travelled.

The Ghostly Cyclist

In 1899, a young American, W. E. Garrison, spent three summers cycling through Europe. One of the photos he took of himself was double exposed so that his portrait standing by his wheel is superimposed on a shadowy image of himself in much the same pose. During this drive through America’s western lands, I often sensed that I as the younger cyclist of forty years ago was also in the car, hovering over the shoulder of the old man I am becoming. It was, and is, a strange but confirming experience.