New Bicycle Blog


I’ve started yet another blog, this one about bicycle commuting, aptly named Bike Commuter through the Boston Biker blog network. I’ve been thinking about starting a bicycle blog for a long time and have dragged my feet about it but with spring coming in, this is as good of a time to get started.

I don’t ride as much as I once did, but I hope to get back into more regular commuting and I intend to use this blog as a way of keeping me in check.  I also feel that my many years of experience as a bicycle commuter could be helpful to others.  Boston feels like a scary place to ride a bike, but I’ve found my experience riding in the city Here’s what you may expect to read on the Bike Commuter blog:

  • Ride Log – stories about my experiences biking in and around Boston.
  • Tips –  suggestions for how to make your ride in the city safe and enjoyable.
  • Advocacy – political action to support bicyclists and bicycle facilities (I may sometimes venture into overlapping issues related to walking, public transportation, and urban planning).

Things you won’t see on this blog:

  • Athletic pursuits – if you’re into bike racing, endurance rides, and/or mountain biking, I salute you, but you’re probably not going to find anything you’re interested in.  This blog is more geared to the everyday person who uses a bike to get around.
  • Rampant consumerism – much of what is on the internet about bicycling is geared toward convincing you that you need to spend money on the right bike, the right accessories, and the right clothing if you want to be serious about riding a bike.  This blog is here to convince you to get a bike that works, put on it what you need, wear what you have on and get on the road.

If you’re interested in bicycling or just like to read things that I write, subscribe to the feed at http://bikecommuter.bostonbiker.org/feed/.

 

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links of the day for 15 February 2008


New Boston Bicycle Zine


Yesterday, while getting a picnic lunch at Canto 6 I picked up issue #1 of Boston Bicycle Reflector a cute little ‘zine for bicycle commuters. I’m not sure who put this together but it has articles with tips on biking to work, commentary on Mayor Menino’s bicycle initiatives (see the comments in this post for more), and my favorite was a piece called “Picking on Bikes” by Jeffrey Ferris which lists the many social stigmas against bicyclists.  I’m not alone!

There’s a website for Boston Bicycle Reflector but it’s just a placeholder for now.  Searching the web, I found only two other references to this publication: a Flickr photo of Issue # 1 (see, I told you it was cute) and a blog post on Joe’s Amazing Technicolor Weblog.  I hope to see more of the Reflector in the future.

Bikes in the News


Bicycles are getting positive press in Boston news of late:

Yay!

Biking to Work


The Bike Commute Tips Blog shares the Top 10 Best & Worst Cities in the US for Bicycle Commuting.  Boston is on neither list which doesn’t surprise me because Boston is good enough to have a bike friendly attitude but has not invested in the infrastructure for lots of bike paths, bike lanes, bike racks, and bike traffic lights that some more progressive cities have.  While Paul Dorn posts some questions at the end of his post, I think it comes as no surprise that “That the coastal West is generally more hospitable to bicycle commuting than the South? That compact, dense cities are better for bike commuting than sprawling, sparsely inhabited cities?”  I rode a bike to work in Virginia where the general attitude toward bicyclists was downright hostile.  I expect any parts of the country with newer cities that were built on the scale of the car and thus have many multi-lane roads/highways with lots of sprawl are not going to be bike friendly, and most newer cities are in the South and Southwest.

Streetsblog posts a pie chart showing How Americans Get to Work.   Only 4.7% take public transportation, 2.5% walk, and 0.4% bicycle. These numbers are shockingly low, but I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.  I fall into all three of these categories at one time or another, but like biking best.

It’s nice that they mention that Boston leads the nation with 12.5% of the people saying they walk to work.  “America’s Walking City” indeed!

Crosswalk Sting


The Boston Herald reports on a police sting operation in a crosswalk in Boston’s South End. A female police officer with a baby carriage crossed the street to see if anyone would stop. Over the four days of the operation, 214 motorists did not stop and they were all slapped with $200 fines. As a regular walker/bicyclist I’m pleased to see the Boston Police making this effort as auto-centric attitudes and urban design often make “America’s Walking City” unfriendly and unsafe for pedestrians. I’ve long thought that if Boston and Cambridge wanted to fill the city coffers then they should station cops at the ends of the Lars Andersen Bridge and collect fines on the many moving violations that happen there daily.

Reactions on the blogosphere range from outright joy and approval to the opposing view of the typical, selfish motorist who prefers to blame the victims of car culture. Now I don’t favor pedestrians stepping out in front of cars when the motorist has right of way (or for that matter bicyclists who run lights and ride on the wrong side of the street) but the fact is that the deck is stacked against the pedestrian. My philosophy is that the roads should be made safe and accessible and shared by all types of users with preference toward none.

Safe places to cross the street are rare and even when there is a stop sign or a traffic light motorists will still plow through. Until recently, for example, a long stretch of North Harvard Street in Allston had no crosswalks for nearly half a mile. In these circumstances it is a necessary act of civil disobedience to jaywalk. If tables were turned and cars had to go a long way out of their way to cross a pedestrian walkway, motorists would not stand for it so why should pedestrians stand for this situation?

11 Reasons to ride underground…and one reason not to


Virgin Vacations has named the 11 Top Underground Transit Systems Throughout the World. The T, of course, is # 12. Meanwhile, On The Road With Cindy & Jeff shows evidence that driving through Boston’s new Central Artery tunnels has changed a lot but not all for the better.

In my life, I’ve had the pleasure of riding four of these systems: London, Paris, New York, and Montreal. Some other rapid transit systems I like include Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Munich, and Dublin.

In other transit news, Charlie on the MBTA reports that Mayor Menino wants to combine my loves of public transit and libraries by renaming the Copley Square stop after the Boston Public Library.

Urban Transit Round-Up


Suggestions are floating around the blogosphere that public transit systems should be free. Environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel made the suggestion at a conference in New York as documented by Streetsblog.

Why make the subway free? First, Kheel said it would save the city money overall. (He didn’t elaborate on how, but I imagine that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc.) Second, the city is in the habit of offering public goods for free. Fire and police protection come at no cost to their beneficiaries, for example. Why should safe, efficient transportation?

Phillip Greenspun makes a similar suggestion for the MBTA in Boston on his blog (albeit with a snarky comment about MBTA bus driver salaries. Why shouldn’t bus drivers be paid well and have good benefits? If private industry offers less, shame on them).

The deeper question for me is why the subway and bus system in congested Boston charges riders at all. Anyone who rides the subway instead of driving is doing the rest of society a huge favor by reducing pollution, global warming, and traffic congestion.

Free public transit makes sense to me. Both public transit and roads for motor vehicles are both heavily subsidized by the government, but except for some toll roads, one rarely pays to drive. Tolls seem to be coming fewer and fewer and are a source of outrage where they persist. Yet paying fares for subways, trains, and buses are rarely questioned.

In my experience the only place I know of that has free public transit is Portland, OR where part of downtown is known as the Fareless Square. In Munich, there is a fare on the U-Bahn, trams and buses, but they’ve cut costs by not having any turnstiles and pretty much operating on the honor system. This being Germany people value their public transit highly and comply with paying even though no one may every check. I remember buying a week long Isar Card, sticking it in my wallet, and enjoying the satisfaction of boarding the subways and trains all week.

On the other end of the problem, as suggested by both Kheel and Greenspun there is the idea of charging motorists to drive in dense cities. This is already occurring in places like London where drivers must pay a congestion fee to drive in the center city at certain times of day. Manhattan would be a good place to try this both due to the benefits of limiting congestion as well as the bridges and tunnels that serve as natural access points. Boston would be harder, but what a great benefit it would be to America’s walking city.

The way to make things work best for everyone — public transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — is through good urban design and planning. Newton Streets and Sidewalks recently published this great quote from Allen Jacobs as a thought for the day:

The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.

In the history of urban planning New York City’s Robert Moses is everyone’s favorite villain for his emphasis on highways over aesthetics and dense, historic neighborhoods. Alex Marshall writes an article in rebutal to an exhibit of Moses’ models currently touring New York. Two interesting segments:

f Moses had had his way, Manhattan would be crisscrossed with freeways and studded with new parking lots and garages. Which not only would have destroyed many people’s homes and businesses, it would have made the city less prosperous, and ultimately put less money in both private and public pocketbooks.

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I’m convinced, Moses essentially didn’t understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they’re going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.

and

Moses thought he was modernizing Manhattan and the boroughs by adjusting them to accommodate the car and the highway. It’s true that on a conceptual level, he was acting similarly to those of the 19th century, who had put in train lines into New York and other cities, adjusting them to that then new mode of transportation.

But what Moses apparently didn’t see is that the car and the highway operate by different rules than modes of transportation past. Despite its behemoth-like size, a highway is actually a low-capacity mode of transportation, particularly when compared to trains.

Moses can’t be forgiven his intellectual errors by the observation that “everyone was doing it.” For one thing, everyone wasn’t. Lewis Mumford, who in the 1950s was a prominent and respected critic, laid out in painstaking fashion just exactly why plowing freeways into cities would not improve overall transportation, even while destroying so much of what was worthwhile in urban centers.

Secondly, Moses was not just part of the pack; he led the pack. Before World War II, the general plan was to put freeways beside major cities, not through them. Moses helped convince the federal government otherwise.

Finally, an effort to reduce driving fatalities. Not by making stricter safety standards for cars, but by addressing the root cause of most crashes: the drivers. The effort to improve driver behavior originated in the Netherlands and is now spreading to the United States.

The “traffic justice” initiative in the US, which is fueled by local groups, aims to shift the national discussion from “car accidents” to “car crashes,” says Mr. Chauncey. Americans accept limitations on personal freedoms in exchange for airplane safety, he says. “Now we expect just conduct from all players in the road transportation system: the planners, the engineers, the drivers, and the car companies.”

Safe travels everyone!

The Inevitable Laws of Bicycle Commuting


While riding my bike the other day it occured to me that certain things happen in my daily treks to-and-fro work that just seem inevitable. I thought it would be fun and perhaps cathartic to make a list.

  • Just as I approach the intersection, the light turns red.
  • The road will be clear until I want to make a left and then suddenly will be clogged with traffic.
  • When waiting for a line of ten cars to pass so I can make a left turn, the driver of car #10 will stop to let me go.
  • When a city bus is stopped in my lane and I try to pass it it will inevitably pull out when I’m right next to it. If I wait for the bus, however, it will sit at the stop for a long time
  • If I think I can outrace the coming storm, I’ll get caught in a downpour a quarter of a mile from work.
  • Taxis will double park in the bike lane
  • Pedestrians who would never step in front of a moving car have no problem jaywalking right in front of me.
  • People say I’m crazy for riding in the cold.
  • People say I’m crazy for riding in Boston.
  • I’ll come up with a brilliant idea while riding but won’t be able to remember it when I can actually write it down.

A lot of these are grumpy and negative so here’s a positive one:

  • When I’m feeling that I just don’t want to get on that bike but force myself to do so I end up having an exhilirating ride that lifts my mood.

Snow


From Monday afternoon to Tuesday morning, snow gently fell on the metro Boston area for the first time this winter. At least it was a close approximation of snow that dusted the region and tried to remind us what season it really is. For me it is a proud moment because I’m still trying to commute to work regularly on my bike through the winter. The several weeks of unseasonably warm weather made it pretty easy to keep peddling so this was my first real test. Monday was also the first day I got to try out my new fleece jacket, a Marmot shell, and thin insulating gloves, thin insulating socks, and a thin insulating hat that fits under my helmet, all acquired at Hilton’s Tent City.

I’ve learned that bicycling in cold weather means trying to avoid overdressing to keep warm. The lighter, breathable layers keep away the chill of the wind but allow for greater flexibility and prevent my from sweating (and then getting cold from being lathered up in sweat). I found it quite a thrill to ride in the cool, fresh air and to pedal among the snowflakes. And my bike had fine traction, it didn’t slip at all. Of course, this is a mild test compared to the greater rigors of winter, but it’s still a test I passed. One thing I didn’t expect is just how much salt ended up deposited on my pant legs. Perhaps I need gators.

I figure I can make it through the winter riding whenever possible but avoiding riding in 1) heavy rain and/or snow, 2) riding when the streets are icy or covered in snow, and 3) riding when it’s just plain wicked cold. The good news is that it’s only two months to spring so I should be in pretty good bicycling shape when it arrives regardless of how much riding I can get in in that time. I must confess that ice still make me nervous. I read online a comment that slipping on ice generally doesn’t lead to injury compared to warm weather riding because the extra clothing protects one from things like road rash. On the other hand I really don’t want to find out what happens if I slip on the ice in front of a moving car thank you very much.

Speaking of bicycle safety, a recent study suggests that the more people bicycling the safer it is. So I encourage everyone to get out on their bikes and make it safer for everyone. On the other hand, since I had difficulty finding a place to lock my bike in Harvard Square tonight that wasn’t already occupied by a bike, I guess plenty of people are out riding this winter.

Things I learned today



Update on March 13thFor some reason WordPress.com will not let me add a comment on this post, so here is what I would have put in my comment:

ResourceShelf offers further commentary on librarians making the U.S. News & World Report Best Careers for 2007.

Charlie Card is Here


My plastic Charlie Card arrived in the mail today. This is the bold new venture of the MBTA, a reusable debit card of sorts that can open turnstiles and pay for buses with just a tap. This should be great news to people concerned about security (“thieves will steal my card with all that money on it”), conspiracy theorists (“the governments gonna use this chip in the card to track me”), and curmudgeonly types (“wait and see how this one’s going to flop”).

Personally, I’m not as negative as many commuters are regarding the T, and except for some occasional grumbles I appreciate having an effective public transit network. That being said somedays I feel the MBTA is a center of entropy. The 18-month process of installing the new turnstiles abd card readers has several examples of the MBTA creating chaos despite their best intentions.

  • The new turnstiles were first installed at Airport station where vistors to our town could buy passes that didn’t work anywhere else on the system.
  • Replacing reusable tokens with one-time use tickets and the inevitable piles of litter that ensued.
  • Tickets have to be dipped down into the fareboxes on buses, slowing down the boarding process.
  • Naming the new ticket after a satrical political protest song in the first place doesn’t bode well for confidence in the system.

Let’s hope the new plastic cards are the end of these types of problems for the T and not the source of a whole bunch of new ones.

To keep track of things I’ve added Charlie on the MBTA to the blogroll.

For a peek back to Charlie’s MTA, take a look at this sweet scan of an old system map I discovered through Universal Hub.

News of the Road


Yesterday during my lunch break I noticed at least a half-a-dozen news vans from competing TV stations parked on the grassy bank of the Charles River off Soldiers Field Road. If it was one news van I’d figure they’re just filming location scenery for the weather report, but with so many vans on the scene it had to be something big. What the big news was I could not determine, and finally decided it must be geese-related.

As it turned out, I missed quite a bit of excitement. A driver who may have had a seizure collided with another car and then he and his SUV plowed into the river. The most touching part of the story is that passersby jumped into the river to try to help rescue the driver. They commented that the water was cold and I personally consider it a blessing that the weather has been so mild for this time of year. Usually by this time the Charles is frozen over which could have caused almost instant death to the driver and his rescuers.

Another Boston Globe article suggests that driving could be made safer if there were fewer signs telling drivers what to do.

According to some researchers who study the psychology of driving, an overabundance of traffic signs makes drivers less likely to pay attention to any of them. And yet at the same time, drivers also pay less attention to their surroundings, secure in the knowledge that there will be instructions quite literally at every turn.

The researchers say the solution to this problem is to reduce — or perhaps even eliminate — traffic signage. It’s a solution the European Union, for one, is giving a try.

It immediately puts in mind of Leonard Wibberley who writes in The Trouble With the Irish that one of the differences between the English and the Irish is respect for signs. His example is that in Hyde Park there are no signs that say “don’t throw rocks at the swans” and no one throws rocks at the swans, but in St. Stephen’s Green there are signs and yet people do throw rocks at the signs. Since Boston is an “Irish” city I figured this might explain Bostonians casual indifference to road signs. But perhaps psychology explains it better.

The final road-related note comes from the Newton Streets and Sidewalks blog where Sean Roche makes a good case for why bicyclists need to be nice to motorists even though they tend to be careless and hostile toward bicyclists.

Objectively, we cyclists are far more put upon than putting upon. But, practically speaking, it’s irrelevant.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if we want to live in a world that is more bike friendly, we really have to be model citizens. Being model citizens is not enough. We have to be active in our communities to create a more bike-friendly infrastructure and culture. But, if we want allies (or at least neutrals) in our activism, we also have to be nice to motorists. The world is generally hostile to us. Nice people like my mother-in-law are looking for reasons to dismiss our concerns.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. It just is.

Last night, I dropped my bike off for a tune-up with the wonderful people at Broadway Bicycle School so I won’t be on two wheels again until after I return from my holiday travels, but it is something to think about for the new year.

News: Discouraging and Encouraging


Rocco Palmo broke the news last night in Whispers in the Loggia that Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was removed from his post at St. Leo’s Church in Detroit. The news was confirmed today in the National Catholic Reporter where Gumbleton regularly contributes “The Peace Pulpit” column. While Gumbleton is gracious in his quotes I suspect there is a political motivation of the type that plagues our Church behind the removal. The most interesting quote to me is Gumbleton’s commentary on clustering of parishes:

“I don’t think the church becomes most alive when parishes become mega-churches. I think smaller communities are much more vibrant and much more expressive of a community of disciples than big churches. [Big churches] become big service stations.”

In totally unrelated but more encouraging news, Streetsblog reports on a pedestrian safety initiative in Chicago which includes sting operations by police disguised as ordinary pedestrians.

Streetsblog emphasizes the lessons New York could learn from Chicago, and I add that Boston too could profit by example. Drivers on the Larz Andersen Bridge turning onto Soldiers Field Road in Boston and Memorial Drive in Cambridge are notorious in driving in a manner that puts pedestrians, cyclists, and their fellow motorists at risk. I’ve long thought that police stationed near the bridge fining all the violators could solve the financial problems of both cities.

Brrr-cycle


I am a bicycle commuter. Starting in 1999, my main source of transportation has been my bicycle (actually in 1998 even before I moved to Boston I rode to work from time to time on the unfriendly roads of Virginia). With the exception of a couple of steep hills and rainy days, bicycling the 3.35 mile route is the most pleasant — and quickest — way to work. Generally I can pedal my way to work in 25 minutes while walking the same route takes 50-60 minutes. The T, which sadly doesn’t follow a straight line between my home and workplace, takes at least 45 minutes, and often takes a whole lot longer (although once, just once, I managed to get to work on the T in 20 minutes, but I’ve never been able to duplicate the feat).

Generally I commute on bicycle roughly from late March to mid-October. This year is a bit topsy-turvy. I had problems with my bicyle all summer long and it was either in the shop for repairs or I was too frustrated to ride it. Eventually I learned the problem was that there is a crack in the frame — a nearly irreparable problem, and a dangerous one at that. So in early October I purchased a new bike from the wonderful folks at Broadway Bicycle School. My current bike is the Redline Conquest Sport which may be the best bike I’ve ever had, and I highly reccomend it for bicycle commuters. I’ve been riding it almost every work day since.

Yesterday morning it felt like winter for the first time after unusually mild weather throughout November. In fact, it snowed. Today, a brisk but sunny day I braved the cold and pedaled to work. I’m trying to be less of a wuss about riding in the winter so this was a good step in that direction. I figure I can ride on the milder and clearer days in the winter, at least as far as the nearest subway stop which cuts the bike commute in half.

I think I can handle the cold and the wind (and even some precipitation), but there are two things I worry about:

  • Ice — When I was college I rode my bike across a patch of ice and before I knew what was happening I fell straight off the back of my bike! I landed on my backbone and it smarted for a long while, but fortunately there was no serious injury. Still, it was so sudden and so stunning I’ve been wary about ever riding in icy conditions again.
  • Snow — The main concern of snow in the Boston area is that it piles up on the side narrowing the roads, and the bike paths where they exist, thus taking away the places I usually ride. Motorists generally are unhappy about sharing the roadway with bicyclists and I certainly don’t want to be among the cars in slippery conditions.

The ride today felt good and I feel confident about continuing to ride as long as possible. I’ll update here with news about my fall/winter bicycling commuter experiment.