When cycling becomes mainstream, everyone’s safer

November 17, 2017

Part Two of a Response to How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker

The Cultural Trail, Indianapolis

Peter Walker advocates that cities develop facilities for “mass cycling, the sort where, say 20 percent or even 30 percent of all trips . . . are made by bike [which] only happens when cycling becomes mainstream” (xi-xii). He writes with specific places as examples, including London where he lives, works, and rides his bike.

Lower Thames Street in downtown London is an ancient thoroughfare which in the 1960s was widened and made into “the sort of double-lane urban freeway so popular in that era, when the dominance of the car appeared absolute and forever” (viii). After the rebuild, only the most daring bike riders dared use it. Even Walker who had been a bike messenger in earlier years and continued to be “a reasonably confident rider” avoided Lower Thames Road after the rebuild.

Then came the decision to build two Dutch-style “Cycle Superhighways,” one of them on Lower Thames Road. Many Londoners scoffed at the idea, but when these two routes were opened in May 2015, they were deluged with cyclists. Now on these separated lanes, Walker writes, “I regularly wait at traffic lights amid a massed pack of two dozen or more cyclists.” Most of them are ordinary people, “older, younger, slower” than “the speedy young men riding rapid bikes” who used to be the main group of cyclists on the streets.

Although I have never seen a bicycle superhighway, I have no reason to doubt that they work the way that Walker reports. I see a little evidence while looking down from my apartment window and watching people riding the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis. Not a superhighway, it is more like a super-sidewalk running alongside ordinary city streets, yet ordinary people on all kinds of bicycles use it for all kinds of trips—commuting to the office, buying groceries, shopping along Mass Ave, easy-going recreational rides, some with small children on trikes and bikes with training wheels.

Walker has persuaded me that creating networks of good cycle ways like the one on Lower Thames Road (and those in other cities he describes) would bring large numbers of people out on their bikes. I would probably use them, too—when they go to the places I want to go. I fantasize on how much better downtown Indianapolis would be if the Mile Square, with its geometrical grid, diagonal streets, and rich array of business and eating opportunities, would be redesigned in favor of ordinary people walking, riding bikes, and taking the bus.

For cycling to go mainstream, however, major challenges have to be met.

Designing bicycle-friendly streets: Walker writes that the foundational ideal is sustainable safety, which is definitively discussed in a 388-page guidebook written by Dutch traffic engineers. It has five principles. (1) Roads come in three types, high volume through routes, local streets, and connector routes. (2) Street systems should be homogenous, with big differences in size and speed eliminated as much as possible.” (3) Roads should be designed “so that people instantly know what sort they’re traveling on.” (4) “People are fallible. . .and the road environment should be as forgiving as possible.” (5) People should be educated on “how to remain safe” (119).

Even in bike-friendly cities like Portland and Seattle, streets currently fall short of meeting these criteria.

Educating the public: Cyclists certainly need to be educated. One way is with bike safety classes in schools where children and young people learn good cycling skills and traffic-wise patterns. Similar training can be offered in programs (I think of one in Portland) that help low-income adults get bikes for transportation. And most adults would benefit from training in attitude adjustment and learning better skills for cycling.

Of course, drivers need serious re-education to help them overcome what seems to be an instinctive determination to bully their way wherever they drive: jack-rabbit starts and stops, lane crowding, sudden and reckless twists and turns, cell phone and coffee cup distractions, and the unwillingness to give pedestrians common courtesy and rights to cross streets, especially at crosswalks.

Revising public policy: All of this requires significant shifts in public policy: city government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, business organizations, retail merchants. It sounds impossible, but Walker gives examples from places all over the world where it is happening. So maybe it can happen right here—wherever that is—and Walker believes that we’ll all be the better for it.

And so do I.

Even so, we have to save room for the  “Velcro-clad street warriors” of whatever age, whom Walker dismisses disdainfully. More on that next time.

 

 

 

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A new kind of city—for bicycle riders and everyone else

November 13, 2017

Peter Walker’s title, “How Cycling Can Save the World,” catches the eye but overstates his intention. A sentence in the introduction is better: “This book is ultimately about everyday riders, and the astonishing and varied ways in which they can transform the urban environment and way of living for the better.”

The cyclists whom Walker eulogizes are personified by a woman he saw cycling on a London street: “peddling an ancient folding machine at a sedate, regal cadence,” she was “probably in her sixties, wearing red trousers and bright blue visor to shield her eyes from the glare.”

Walker hopes that his book, which is filled with reports of research studies, will encourage an ever-increasing number of people to think of bikes as “nothing more than a convenient, quick, cheap way of getting about, with the unintended bonus being the fact that you can get some exercise in the process.” He imagines a time when 20 to 30% of daily trips will be on two wheels.

How can this save the world? Rather, how can this kind of cycling transform life in the cities of the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States? In four ways, Walker declares.

A healthier world: “Study after study has shown that people who cycle regularly are less prone to obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease, and various cancers. Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into old age” (9). Cycling (instead of driving) as one’s normal way of getting around works because it is “incidental exercise,” something built into the ordinary activities of daily life, rather than add-on actions, like going to the gym, that are shoehorned into a schedule that’s already too full.

A safer world: We have normalized “a complacent, entitled, careless, driving culture, where millions of people who would see themselves as moral, kind, and careful people nonetheless get into a motor vehicle and routinely, unthinkingly, put others’ lives in peril” (39). Walker argues that “creating streets that are more welcoming for cyclists has a wider safety dividend for other road users, particularly pedestrians” (54). Drivers slow down a little, pay more attention to their driving, and are likely to make fewer trips.

A more equal world: Walker argues that “cycling can make societies fairer. It comes down to the fact that the bike is arguably the most equal and democratic form of transport in existence, at least in an urban setting. It is nearly as cheap as walking, and in some ways is arguably more inclusive, not least because. . . a bike can greatly expand your physical and social boundaries” (61). Bicycling offers mobility to people who otherwise are “travel-deprived,” including children, older people, women, and people with disabilities. Cycling is a less expensive way of getting around.

A happier, more prosperous world: Not only does cycling instead of driving improve the environment, but it has economic advantages, too. Walker claims that building better bike infrastructure is being “billed as a new model for competitive cities—that they are these days judged less on busy roads than on people-friendly streets lined with pavement cafes. . . [T]his philosophy aims to bring about a happier, healthier, more human-scale city” (88–9).

Networks of protected bicycle lanes: What has to happen to bring about this dramatic increase in the number of ordinary people who use their bikes for ordinary trips? Walker’s answer is stated in the title of chapter 5, right in the middle of the book: “Build It, and They Will Come.” A hasty reading of the chapter suggests that the key to changing cities is “fully segregated cycleways,” in which cyclists and motorists are completely separated. One example is a new network of these roadways in Seville, Spain, that was completed in 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of trips starting by bicycle increased from 0.5 percent to 6 percent.

Later in the chapter, Walker makes it clear that building protected cycle ways is only part of the strategy for change. “And for all the occasional opaque discussions about curb heights, lane barriers, and traffic light phases, this is about something more fundamental. Bike infrastructure is, at its heart, about a changed vision for the place occupied by human beings in the modern urban world” (112).

In forthcoming blogs, I plan to  continue my discussion of Walker’s book. Coming next: Walker’s recommendations for how to transform cities like Indianapolis where I live. In the third blog of the series I intend to speak on behalf of cyclists (like me) whom Walker disparages—the “Lycra-clad warriors” ready to hold our own in streams of traffic on city streets.

[How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017)]


Old man’s bicycle mount

October 20, 2017

The Old Man’s Bicycle Mount

 “I’m having trouble getting on my bike,” I told Bill Davidson when he was delivering the custom bike he had just crafted for me. “I can’t swing my leg over the saddle as easily as I’ve been doing all these years.”

“Do it this way,” Bill responded. “Lay the bike on its side and step over the top tube, placing your foot on the ground in the middle of the frame’s triangle. Bring the bike half way up and step on over the crank to the ground on the other side. Pull the bike upright, engage the pedal with your foot, and you’re ready to go.”

I’ve tried the old man’s mount from time to time and find it clumsy and slow. It embarrasses me to do it when someone’s watching.

Even so, the time has come when I have to swallow my pride. For four three or four years, I’ve been troubled with a sore left leg that seems to be a persistent case of IT band syndrome. My doctor, a cyclist himself (and twenty-five years my junior) gave me the diagnosis and recommended an exercise regime. I used my Silver Sneakers program to join a fitness center and paid a physical trainer to help me. Although the pain pattern changed, the discomfort continued.

Therapeutic massage eased the pain. I signed up for yoga in a studio a neighbor recommended, but the teacher spent more time describing her personal relaxation experiences than in teaching a novice like me how to learn the positions. After a few weeks, I dropped out. I continued stretching the way I had learned to do it during cross country training when I was in high school and added moves that are described as IT band-specific.

The problem has continued. While I’m on the bike, I feel fine, but the next day the pain hits and continues into the night. Although my flank hurts a little, the more serious pain clusters around my knee and where my leg joins the torso. Massaging on a foam roller helps, but the pain doesn’t go away.

There seems to be no choice but to use the old man’s bicycle mount. After three days, I was feeling better—enough to take a forty-four-mile ride, my longest in several weeks. It was a humid, unseasonably hot day. On the bike there were a few twitches of the syndrome. After the ride, a shower and a nap, both legs, my lower back, and shoulders were stiff and sore. I spent a few minutes rolling around, took a pain pill, and dozed again.

Within a couple of hours, the pain was nearly gone and by evening I was moving in an almost normal way. The next morning I was fine, except for a little residual fatigue. Does this mean that the old man’s bicycle mount is the solution to my problem? It’s too early to tell, but I intend to stay with it long enough to improve my technique and give it a chance to work.

At the McDonald’s where I stopped half way through the long ride, I talked with a man about twenty years younger than I. Because of chronic vertigo, he’s given up riding a standard road bike and now rides a performance-oriented three-wheeler. We agreed on one point. Moving into our later decades, whether our sixties as in his case, or the eighties as in mine, the advancing years bring challenges.

Fortunately, cycling is an adaptable sport. Some people start cycling when they have to give up running or tennis. Even cycling, however, makes demands upon our bodies and we have to adapt or quit. For me, learning the Old Man’s Bicycle Mount appears to be the way to go.

Six weeks after making the change, I’m doing better, and it may be that I’m on my way to recovery. It’s probably time to try yoga again, but this time in a studio that has a program for old guys like me. No meditative chants. Hands on coaching for beginners. Emphasis on flexibility and strengthening core muscular strength.

In their book Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100, Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky affirm that old guys like me can keep on riding. If the old man’s bike mount will help me reach that goal, I’m going to keep doing it!


Bicycle Talk on Lake Washington Boulevard

July 22, 2017

“When did you buy that bike? Back in the eighties?”

“Earlier than that,” I responded. “Probably in 1973.”

I had seen the questioner when he and his six-year-old daughter were buying their drinks and snacks at the Starbucks where I was resting before assaulting the ridge up to my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill. They were sitting at an outside table eight or ten feet from my reconditioned, classic Mercian bicycle. While Anna was reading her book, her father, Jeff, had been looking closely at my bike.

I joined them at the table and we spent the next few minutes in bicycle talk. In response to his questions, I gave him a brief history of my life with the Mercian. He volunteered suggestions on how I could polish the Campy Record components so that they would glisten even more brightly. He filled in a few of the details of his racing in earlier years, primarily on criterium races. “I was always too stocky for road racing,” he explained.

“The bike that was on the other side of the rack,” he told me, “was a Pinarello Dogma carbon fiber bike.”

“Several years ago I saw one priced at $14,500, but I think they are more reasonably priced now,” I responded. “The man who’s riding it told me that he had to get back on the road so that he could make another circuit of Lake Washington. He’d already been around one time, which his wrist-mounted device registered at 48.9 miles.”

“I have to hurry,” he explained, “because I have to run this afternoon after finishing my trips around the lake.”

During these conversations, at least a dozen other cyclists, all dressed in serious Lycra cycling gear, stopped at the Starbucks. Several of them, I presumed, were also stopping at The Polka Dot Jersey, a bike shop one or two store fronts up the street. The sidewalk in front of the shop was a jumble of bikes, riders, and mechanics. Inside, the shop looked smaller than the Starbucks, and there was hardly room for even one more person to push through the open door to ask a question or make a purchase.

“One of our mechanics, who’s not here today, is an expert on classic bikes with old components,” a mechanic on the sidewalk told me. Chances are I’ll bike over to the Polka Dot Jersey in a few days to talk with the Campy expert.

These conversations took place in the Leschi neighborhood, on Lakeshore Boulevard, about three and a half miles from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill, a former streetcar suburb south of downtown Seattle. Her house was built in 1908 and has been her home since 1981. During my visits these many years, I have explored bike routes over and around Beacon Hill and adjoining ridges.

For me and many others, Lake Washington Boulevard is a happy place to be. While some people frolic in the lakeshore parks, others are walking or running on the walkways near the street. And cyclists? This road, with its peaceful ambiance is a destination point. In a city with hard climbs, steep down hills, and constant traffic, we can enjoy few miles of hard, fast cycling and, friendly  bicycle talk over Starbucks coffee.


The Coyote’s Bicycle

May 10, 2017

In 2008 serious flooding occurred in the Tijuana River Valley along the borderland between San Diego and Mexico. Journalist Kimball Taylor was assigned to investigate why “the winter flood brought several forty-foot Dumpsters’ worth of used tires with it.”

During Taylor’s investigation, a rancher on whose land many of these tires piled up mentioned another puzzle, the Mexicans on bicycles who “come banzai down the canyons. They drop their bikes on the trails. They run into the estuary. They run into Imperial Beach!” During the past six months, the rancher had collected a thousand of these abandoned bikes (pp. 23-25).

Fascinated by this report, Kimball set out upon a quest to learn all he could about these bikes, the people who used them, and how all of this fit into the larger story of a strange migratory pattern: the bicycles’ movement through the black market, Hollywood, the prison system, and the military-industrial complex” (from the Book Jacket). The result is a big book—406 pages, including notes.

Kimball had a network of friends and professional contacts and already was skilled in following leads, talking with people in bars and other unconventional locations, and converting hints into clearly established facts. He gradually uncovered the story in highly personal detail and in the book tells it in bits and pieces, much as he learned it in the first place.

He takes his readers to a small Oaxacan pueblo in southwestern Mexico, introducing Pablo, a twelve-year-old boy, and his best friend, Solo, who want to follow others of their families into el Norte. Pablo decides to make the trip, and Taylor unfolds the motivations and methods he uses to make his journey to Tijuana. There, Pablo took time to learn how to get across the border and to places in the United States where he could link up with his family.

He became acquainted with coyotes, the people who engineered the crossings and demanded payment for their services, and established a relationship with Roberto, a coyote whose story Taylor has already told his readers. Taylor summarizes the way that this business was organized. At the top of the pyramid was el coyote, and working under him were recruiters called polleros, chicken herders, whose recruits were referred to as pollos, chickens.

Roberto’s operation was unique in that he used bicycles as the means of getting pollos across the border and to safe places from which their travel to the north could continue. Each time Taylor learned something new about this system, further questions emerged. Where did el coyote get his bicycles? What happened to them after they were dumped in the United States? How did the bicyclists escape the notice of the Border Patrol? How could large numbers of pollos stay out of sight while waiting for their transportation further north?

Persistently, Taylor untangles these puzzles, and related story lines. The one that holds the book together and commands the readers’ attention revolves around Roberto, his sister Marta who became his highly skilled and increasingly essential partner in their business, and El Indio, a pollero whom Roberto reluctantly brought into the organization at Marta’s urging. This story gradually deepens into one of love, tenderness, tension, tragic illness, and death.

Taylor’s sub plots are interesting in their own right. One explains how many of the abandoned bikes were used on Hollywood sets that simulated Middle Eastern villages and were used to train U.S. military personnel. Another recounts the story of how bicycles are stolen, broken down, and sold, often with the collusion of law enforcement personnel.

Much of Taylor’s research was done while this business was still in operation. It lasted only a few years, and not until it had been discontinued did he feel free to tell the story to the wider world. In a note to readers, he states: “Names have been changed and identities have been obscured in order to protect migrants and the smugglers who cross them.”

For more than twenty years I have driven and bicycled through the desert Southwest, and during these travels have often passed through Border Patrol checkpoints. While driving, I have sometimes been asked a question or two, but often have been waved on. As a cyclist, I’ve never been stopped. I’m white, old, and mounted on an obviously fancy road bike: no reason to doubt my status.

What little I have known about the business of smuggling people into the country has been negative. The Coyote’s Bicycle, however, describes the deeper story of why people want to cross the border and how the process affects families on both sides of the border. It also shows how corruption affects the process and indicates that some of the smugglers are people of integrity. Taylor also adds to the mystique of bicycling and human life. This is a fine book that deserves a large readership!

The Coyote’s Bicycle is published by by Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon, 2016.

 


Urban spirituality on two wheels

April 29, 2017

Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, by Laura Everett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017)

Laura Everett lives, works and bikes in Boston, but we met at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis. The occasion was a retirement dinner for a church executive with whom each of us had worked in our own church-related jobs. Everett was seated at my left and my granddaughter, also a church executive and only a few years younger than Everett, was on my right.

When Everett mentioned that she bicycle commuted to her job (executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches), I responded with casual interest, wondering how competent and committed she might be. My skepticism is understandable because I’m the kind of bicyclist whom Everett calls a Fred, retro-grouch, or retro-grump (pp. 105 ff.)

I’m an older male cyclist who has been on the road forever, with “an unfortunate tendency to mansplain to everyone, regardless of gender, exactly how a particular bike component works.” I’m glad that Everett holds old male cyclists like me in a favorable regard, but her characterization does come as a warning.

Most of what I know about Everett comes from Holy Spokes, which she published in April 2017, a year (almost to the day) after our dinner at the Columbia Club. I had known that it was coming but had little way of anticipating what kind of book it might  be. Although it stands on its own, this book resembles Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by Bike Snob NYC. and parallels Robert Penn’s book It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels.

Holy Spokes is organized according to the parts of a bicycle, and each component is paired with an aspect of what Everett depicts as urban spirituality: Frame/Rule of Life, Wheels/Habit, Saddle/Endurance, Handlebars/Adaptation, and so on. Each chapter begins with a few lines from the seventeen-century spiritual writing, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

After two or three paragraphs about that chapter’s bike part, Everett broadens the focus. She tells her own experience learning about that part of the bicycle and then describes how she has matured as a city dweller and young professional woman in a man’s world.

The chapter Fork/Rest is especially strong. Everett acknowledges that “forks aren’t the most interesting part of a bike, but they are critical. . .The fork isn’t productive in its own right, but it’s the connective tissue that allows the bike to roll and steer” (74).

She started paying attention to the fork about eight months into her life as a cyclist when she was hit by an automobile on her way to work. She soon discovered that the “bent fork was an early indicator of a much larger problem: my bike was actually both un-rideable and un-repairable. But my body took the more serious hit: after the crash, I ended up with a bulged disk in my spine and a fair amount of fear in my legs. It would take me a full two years to get back to where I had been on my bike” (p. 75).

She tried to resume cycling before her body and spirit were ready. Gradually she came to realize that she was trying to live too fast a life and that she needed to find a new mode of quietness. “Even though Boston is a smaller city, it moves quickly and constantly. But we humans aren’t designed for constant motion. Cultivating quiet and stillness might be the spiritual practice with the largest gap between city living and rural life” (p. 79).

Laura Everett

Everett tells the story of how she has become a vital cog in Boston’s biking community and in the process has learned to understand her city in a newer, deeper way. I’ve been mostly a solo cyclist and have rarely participated in cycling communities as Everett does. Now that I live downtown, surrounded by my city’s urban cyclists, it may be time for me to open a new chapter in my cycling way of life.

I became an urban bike commuter and aggressive open road cyclist about the time that Laura Everett was born. Even so, in Holy Spokes this strong, wise, young urban bicyclist is helping me rethink cycling and the process of living as much as any book I’ve read for a long, long time.   


Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

April 22, 2017

The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it about twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchell Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

Keith Watkins Historian

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most…

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