Friday, December 30, 2005

(Re)cycling the Tree

Well, I've posted before that most utility cycling can be done with bags and baskets. I still believe this, but I admit I have enjoyed the trailer on occasions like this one. And, "cargo stunts" surely entertain people, but I'm still skeptical about their ability to get people into riding.

Our landlords left town just before Christmas and gave us their tree. Here it is on our trailer in transit to the city's recycling pickup. I installed four tie down points on the trailer bin's sides, which makes lashing odd things to the top very handy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Edge of Town, a ride report

There's no way around it. In the US, being a cycler shoves one to the edges of things. This isn't always a bad thing, though, as in the edge of the road (or the edge of sanity, in the minds of many). As a cycler, I've come to see beauty in the edges of things. Often, they're the neatest places to be. And, just as often, I have them all to myself.

It's not so much that a bicycle is less suited to being in the center of attention. It's that a bicycle is so well suited to taking in the margins. Being able to comfortably move at ten miles per hour and requiring only about 2 feet for passage makes a difference; that's for sure. So does not being surrounded by the thing transporting you, as Todd F. timelessly captures.

Perhaps it's the dreary weather, but I've been focusing too much on the negatives of being pushed to the edges of things (the road, specifically). But, usually, it's a privilege I wouldn't give up easily. John, who has a great blog Bike Year, noted how things we could drive past forever without notice suddenly become the focus of our attention on a bike. Scraping a windshield is scraping a windshield, but a cycler picks up on the edges of seasons long before the frost ends or the sun bakes.

As I made my way home from the office yesterday about 3:00, a thermometer gave the temperature as 33 degrees, and the sleet stinging my face gave the rest. Still, there was something in the air--was it a smell or a feel?--that gave me the oddest sense of warmth, even as the sleet coated my sweater and beard with icy dampness. Finally, my mind found the page in its journal. Last year, in weather just like this, I'd been riding around the valley trying to find a road that would lead me up. Ice and snow kept turning me back. Finally, I'd found a perfectly plowed road that climbed up and up and, eventually, ended at the most remarkable edge. "We're going to ride there, right?" a voice in my head seemed to say, "Right?" What separates us cyclers from everyone else is that we tend to say "Yes" to those voices.

I raised my pace to a very brisk walk and smiled through the sleet on my way home. Once there, I slipped on a second sweater, heavier mittens, a helmet, and packed a windshirt and a water bottle on the bike. I stuffed dried figs, pistachios, and a headlight in my pockets, and I was off. Even with traffic downtown and the long climb at the end, I should be able to make it to the hilltop before dark.

The clouds producing this sleet were leaden and low, draping the hills and trapping foul exhaust in the valley. Still, my legs felt good as they warmed up, and the promise of a memory made the crisp air sweeter. I'm on the singlespeed today, geared low for plowing through snow and toting loads. Even so, I keep up with traffic downtown and race green lights for the other side.

Soon, I'm climbing the bike/ped bridge over the railyard that marks the northern edge of downtown. At the top, I look out to the west where a break in the clouds reveals some of the sprawling new development that is slowly engulfing the valley. My hilltop perch was the edge of a particularly brash one of these developments, knifing its way in a defiant spiral of luxury homes up a tired old mountain. I got the sudden sick feeling that my remembered edge might now be reduced to a center, of a house, of a driveway, of a manicured lawn. May have been rendered unfit for a reverent cycler to sit upon and shell pistachios. But, edges can still be tenacious even in the "new" west, and the barbed wire I remembered had marked this one as a fighter.

I rode as if the sod or foundation or no trespassing sign might be laid any minute. Past the clanking railyard on my left and the silent cemetery on my right I rode. Winding unnecessarily but pleasantly--the way old roads can do without pretense--I began watching for the hill as it came into view. I tried in vain to see my spot in the breaks between clouds there and traffic here.

With two last defiant flourishes, my old road conceded to the new, straight, six lanes of smooth asphalt. I darted into the bike slip lane between waves. No time to look at the mountain now. A headwind slowed my progress, but I soon passed under the Interstate. The road narrowed quickly. Four lanes, two lanes. And steepened. I took the second left, from memory, and rode up to a . . . dead end. This entire neighborhood had gone up in a year and completely fooled me. Like a plane flight, some progress is so rapid that it disorients the mind. Picking my way through slushy, icy patches, I carefully descended to the main road.

The second left revealed roads with names more familiar--Klondike, Prospect, Miner, Bonanza. A tangled web of cul-de-sacs and pretentious curves. After two more false climbs into squid-like dead ends, I found the right road. I sweated pleasantly up a long series of curves. The sweeping views changed with the curves. Now I was looking long into the wild northern hills. Now at rolling high pastures. Now at the neatly planned imperfection of a modern housing development. Now back to the city at rush hour, but moving so slowly at this distance. Always moving up.

Finally, I rounded the last curve. A huge new house was nearly finished, and two more were underway. But, the end of the street looked the same. A lone, unmarked gate played sleeping watchman to my treasured hillock. I dismounted at the gate and pushed my bike up the short stretch to the top of the hill.

Amazingly, things were just as I had found them last year. Right down to the ten foot circle of soft, bare grass in the middle of the patchy snow where deer bed down for the night. Twenty feet in any direction, I'm encroaching on someone's claim. Yards to the south, a posted water tank to the east, and barbed wire to the west and north. But, I don't need half the space that's left, this tiny margin separating past from present is plenty large for a humble cycler. I lay my bike carefully on its side, sit down, and shell pistachios as I take in the view.

I smile at everyone below making their way hurriedly in the middle of things. I'm content and happy that they leave the edges to characters like me.


Friday, December 23, 2005


We're fortunate to live in bike-friendly-ish Missoula, and we only occasionally have less than pleasant run-ins with motorists. Three strange ones recently, though, left me trying to figure out the mindset of a certain group of drivers. I've come to the conclusion that they're just MOMs (MOtherly Motorists).

Scene 1: A bathroom line at the local dance hall. Two middle aged guys in front of me discuss cyclers.

Guy 1: "You still riding that bike everywhere?"
Guy 2: "Oh, no, it's up for the winter."
Guy 1: "Good! The problem is some of these people don't know when to put them up!"
Guy 2: "Yeah, it's getting pretty bad out there."
Guy 1: "These bikers think they can just ride all year. They don't realize how dangerous they're making it out there."

Huh? The bicycles are making the roads dangerous? This is MOM syndrome. Motorists take it as their motherly duty to "protect" cyclers (from themselves, I guess) by keeping them off the roads.

Scene 2: I'm riding home from the grocery store on a snowy evening. For one stretch, I have to ride the right tire track, since the shoulder is piled with plowed snow. A pickup has been following closely for about 3 blocks before passing about a block from an intersection.

Pickup passenger (rolls down window): "You are NOT a car!"

I wish I'd come up with the witty comeback this line was asking for.

Scene 3: Yesterday, I was riding home from a pleasant day of fishing. I was on a busy but familiar road, keeping an eye on traffic but focusing mainly on the waning light on the mountains. I had noticed a pickup behind me was hesitating to pass, but, since we were just a few blocks from a stoplight, I decided to hold my line a foot out from the snowy shoulder. The driver finally passed, slowed down, and--I thought--started waving at me. I assumed it was someone I knew and waved and shouted "Merry Christmas!" The driver then became more animated, and I realized he was actually motioning violently toward the "bike path" 10 feet off the road. He finally sped off toward the light, and I raised my pace in hopes of catching him there to explain a few things (no, really, I'm the peaceful type).

Mainly, it isn't your decision where I ride, MOM. If there were time, I would explain that the "bike path" here is just an asphalt sidewalk and extremely dangerous. It leads across several hospital driveways and sidestreets in the course of a few blocks. It then dumps a bicycle into the rightmost turn-only lane of a four lane intersection. I needed to go straight.

Fittingly, just as I rolled up beside him at the red light, the driver made an ill-advised screeching pullout, causing cross traffic to brake behind him. Oh well.

Very rarely do we feel comfortable telling complete strangers what to do. Usually only in the case of children doing something dangerous. I think (a very few) motorists imagine every bike being ridden by a child. I did get a chuckle imagining telling motorists where to drive. Can you imagine riding alongside a car and gesturing wildly, while screaming "Interstate!"

MOMs are a little unsettling to me, though. Are they really concerned that they might swerve four feet to the right at any moment? There are many less predictable things along an uncontrolled roadway than a bicycle: actual children, deer, dogs, other motorists. If a driver truly feels uncomfortable keeping a vehicle four feet from a bicycle, I would argue it is the motorist who needs to get a bike and keep it on the bike path.

I hope eventually to have a conversation with one of these drivers. Maybe I'm way off on their motivations. It is interesting that 90% of these interactions occur with men driving trucks. For now, I'll just assume they're harmless MOMs. At least I know they see me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Snow riding for wimps

I'm a wimp, mostly. People seem to think riding down a busy highway, or on snowy trails, or in the cold, or 80 miles up a mountain pass means I'm tough as nails. No way, never will be. I have arthritic fingers, toes and knees. I'm a thin guy that grew up in the south and can't tolerate cold. I've fallen 4 times in the past 4 years (only once in winter), and I didn't like any of the four in the least. There I was, though, bombing down a snowy road at 20 miles per hour in biting cold here yesterday. What's my secret?

The dirty little secret of wimps like me is this: riding a bicycle is ridiculously easy. The part I'm good at is the part that trips most people up: getting outside and on the bike. Nine times out of ten, conditions that seem impossible when you first plant a tire in them become a lot easier in 5 miles and fun in 10. I even enjoy riding a stretch of Interstate now and then.

Most astounding to eyewitnesses, though, is a cycler riding on snow and ice. So, if you're actually a closet wimp like me, here are some winter riding tips you probably won't read in Bicycling's forthcoming "20 Hot Tips for Cold Rides."

1) Practice is more important than equipment. Just because you can't afford those studded tires, get out there anyway. I've ridden a month of snowy days this year without special tires and without a spill. It's hard at first but gets easier fast.

2) Snow isn't pavement. Once things get bad enough to slide out on pavement, you're in big trouble. Having a tire slide out on snow is different. Your tire is actually still gripping the surface. It's just that the surface isn't gripping itself. It's normal in some conditions for wheels to slide 6 inches or more in either direction before catching. As long as there's snow, the slide will stop before you fall. At first, you'll fight every one of these diversions, and your arms will ache after a mile, but you'll be warm! Eventually, you'll learn to ignore the minor diversions and relax your grip on the bars.

3) More snow means more effort but less chance of falling down, and vice versa. Six inches of fresh snow will pretty much hold a bike up on its own, but it's a workout to ride through it. You'll learn to find your comfort zone in this continuum.

4) Traffic is (mostly) friendlier. In most places, you have at least 5 minutes before that driver behind you comes to grips with the fact that you're riding a bike in the snow. During that time, you'll never get honked at. If conditions demand you ride the right tire track for a while, don't sweat it. Think of the show you're giving the cars behind you!

5) You'd think hard braking would mean instant death on snow and ice, but your two skinny tires are actually translating a lot of force to the surface. Ride up and down a quiet street braking each wheel until it just skids. Contrary to popular belief, locking the front wheel won't instantly crash you. Remember, everything slows down in snow. Now--if you want to--practice locking up the rear and finishing out a skid. Think of the rear wheel as a sled runner. Now--if you want to--lock the rear wheel and lean the bike to bring it around like you're driving a car in the movies. Useful? No, but I'll bet your smiling now.

6) To get re-started at messy intersections, get your weight on top of that saddle, and choose a relatively high (hard) gear.

7) The best way to warm up is to ride somewhat harder. I used to really pootle around in the winter because there are so many neat things to look at. Alternating pootling with more effort has done more than anything else to keep me warm.

8) If you have a commute with heavy traffic and lots of hills and ice, you're probably going to need studded tires, but 1-7 still apply--well, maybe not the 180's!

Tell me about your rides.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Driving and Productivity (and a book)

A while ago, I asked my students to analyze the economics of bicycle use. Most had no trouble figuring out the cycler's private benefits: fuel savings, parking savings, health benefits. A majority also recognized that other members of society benifitted from spillover effects from the cycler's decision--reduced congestion, easier parking, cleaner air. Finally, the students were to consider whether there might be any negative spillover effects of an individual cycler's decision. The answers I had anticipated focussed on straining of the bicycle infrastructure. Once facilities become crowded, a cycler choosing to ride may negatively impact other cyclers, who are competing for the same racks, bike lanes, trails, and bike space on the bus. I expected students to be intimately familiar with these problems, since campus bike facilities themselves are overtaxed in nice weather.

I wasn't surprised that many students confused private costs with social costs. This is a common mistake, and expected, too, since few of us consider the full social costs (or benefits) of our private actions. What did surprise me were the number of answers along these lines: "If too many people choose to ride bikes, people will be less productive."

I realized I had to accept the answer. After all, I had only asked for potential negative effects. If increased bicycle use truly did decrease productivity, it certainly could be seen as detrimental to society.

All of this came back to me as I read Tom Lewis' Divided Highways. The book is an entertaining, historic account of the development of the interstate highway system. It has much to recommend it. Having lived my entire life after the completion of the Interstates, I had never seriously considered what cities, landscapes, and communities were like without them.

I was particularly taken with a description of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans before it became I-10:

Claiborne Avenue had once been a thriving black district of the city, filled with families and small shops. Typically a black entrepreneur operated a business on the ground floor of a building fronting the avenue and lived with his family in an apartment above. Claiborne Avenue had once boasted the longest single stand of oak trees anywhere in America. There impressive branches reached forty feet into the sky, a leafy shelter from the sun and heavy air. The shops and homes lining the avenue abounded with commerce and life.

I-10, according to Lewis, transformed the district into a dead zone with little commerce, low property values, and high crime rates. The tree-lined boulevard was replaced by an elevated expressway where cars zipped through at 50 miles per hour. I can't vouch for the accuracy of Lewis' descriptions. But, I cannot imagine how I-10 could possibly have made Claiborne Avenue
more productive. Perhaps it increased productivity at an exit 10 miles away but did that make up both for the loss of Claiborne Avenue and the cost of the interstate?

Does increased traffic and average speed really increase productivity? There remains, of course, the larger question of whether--if driving more and faster does increase productivity--it is worth it. But, I'm interested in the question we seem never to have answered. From the beginning of road expansion in the US, we have heard that roads will expand the economy. Even today, many (my students included!) argue that reduced driving will decrease our productivity and decrease our standard of living.

I'm unconvinced. Is a car really like a pocket calculator, a telephone, or electricity? For me, time spent in the car seems like one of the least productive things we do as a society. I certainly don't feel less productive without a car. I teach more students and am paid more this year than last. I haven't stopped doing anything productive. Does giving up some driving really mean a reduced standard of living? Or, have the costs of reducing driving been trumped up just as the benefits of increasing driving were?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Carrying Things (part 2, big loads)

Nineteen trips out of twenty, a basket or two is all you'll need to tote a nice load on your bike. I've said before that I think people sometimes go overboard on capacity in this country. I see several commuters regularly who have either a full set of panniers or a cargo trailer with just a backpack in it. I don't begrudge them their space, but surely they're a lot less likely to take the long way home on a pretty day, and that's a shame.

One trip in twenty, though, or fifty, you may need to carry something too big or weird or precious for a basket. In those cases, it can be fun to have more capacity because in those cases, that's what the ride's about. People love to see bikes carrying crazy loads, and they'll stare and honk and wave sometimes.

If you do have big things to carry by bike, you picked the right time. There are so many clever ways to carry things bigger than your bike nowadays. The XtraCycle Free Radical is a practical headturner. If you have an old mountain bike to spare for big load duty, it might be just the ticket. Otherwise, there are a number of neat trailer designs, all of which are worth a look. Bikes at Work, Burley, and BicycleR Evolution all make smart trailers that cost less than a couple months worth of gas and last a lot longer.

Rachel and I recently received a BicycleR Evolution "Heavy Duty" Trailer. Our 1 in 20 usually invloves toting a guitar, hand drum, or four grocery sacks worth of recycling. The trailer is an incredibly smart design and so simple I find myself trying to think of reasons it shouldn't work. It is based around a large (5 grocery bag sized) rubbermaid type bin, 2 16" wheels, and an ingenious hitch based on an air hose coupling. The trailer literally just snaps on and off of the bike with one hand and zero effort. The whole thing stores upright and out of the way on our tiny front porch.

Here are a couple of pictures of Rachel pulling the trailer on a grocery run. We came up with a silly long list just for fun, five bags worth, and the trailer performed well. I don't anticipate using the trailer often, but it's certainly another fun thing to do on a bike!

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Brief Encounters

It's easy to remember the one lousy driver that cuts you off. It's easy to remember the one lousy cyclist that cuts you off. Focus on such isolated events, and it's easy to have a lousy day.

The temperature was falling through the twenties, light snow was adding to the six inches on the ground, and I was on my bike. It was a spurious trip, unnecessary in every way. Just the trip for a bicycle. I set the grocery store as my target.

Cutting through neighborhood streets designed by a planner with a definite artistic streak added time to the ride. Pleasant time. My tires cut through fresh snow and sent tiny pellets flying in all directions through the crisp air. A car passing opposite was illuminated under a street lamp. The driver waved, laughed, and shouted out the window to me, "You're on your bike. That's great!"

In the checkout line, the cashier greeted me as usual.

"One paper sack?"

"You've got it, but I think I made it tough for you this time."

"I like a challenge."

She fit the groceries in as if the package would be up for a building inspection. It would have taken me ten tries to do it.

"You're getting good at this."

"It's fun! Have a safe ride."

At the bike rack, another cycler was spinning his front tire.

"Enjoying the snow?"

"Oh yeah! I just got some studded tires."

We discussed them for a minute, and he rode off, grinning, into the snow. I set off, too, cutting through back streets toward home. A middle aged lady, walking, waved me down with a big greeting.

"Isn't it hard riding in the snow?"

"It's not as bad as you might think. And, it's a lot of fun!"

"I may have to try it. I've been walking since the snow."

"You'll do great. Just remember not to lean, and take it slow."

"I think I'll try tomorrow."

Scientists say that much of our happiness depends on positive interactions with others. If so, chalk up another one for the bicycle. And, if you're hesitant about riding in the snow, give it a try. It's not as bad as might think. And, it's a lot of fun!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

How Green Thou Art

On a snowy ride today, I was reminded of an old Maynard Hershon article: "How Green Thou Art." I must have first read it years ago in a Bridgestone catalog when I was researching the purchase of my first mountain bike. I say "must have" because I honestly don't remember it at all. Nevertheless, in those days not a page escaped my eye.

I happened to read it again a couple of years ago. It is a provocative piece. For those without time to read it (you really ought to; it's short), the point of interest is that only bicycle trips that replace car trips are truly "green." We kid ourselves when we ride for fun or drive to trailheads or fly to tours and then look smugly down on non-cyclists. I mostly agree. Bicycles do many things well, but surely their greatest potential lies in efficient, sustainable transportation.

I would add to Hershon's point that--once car trips are replaced--any further transportation on a bike is essentially costless, both to the cycler and to society. Rachel and I do not drive, and our quality of life is at least as high as when we did. Therefore, we can say that we have mostly replaced our 8,000 car miles per year with bike miles. But, would we be meaningfully improving anything at this point by trying to keep our bike miles under 8,000? No! Most would agree with Hershon that driving less is imposing fewer costs on society. Few would agree that biking less does so.

In many ways, the bicycle fulfills the empty promise of the automobile: transportation independence. Year round bicycling is the rugged individualism car ads pretend about. Bicycling is alternative energy. Hershon says it best: "Riding bikes does no harm."

Text of the article is available on Sheldon's site here. More good Maynard here.