Sunday, August 26, 2007

Clever Cycles

I've added a link to the Clever Cycles blog. Clever Cycles is local bike shop specializing in bikes which are extremely practical and way fun. I've actually covered about 400 miles in the past month on one of their Dutch city bikes, and I'll post a full review here soon. In the meantime, the site's well worth a visit for co-owner Todd F.'s writing. Enjoy!


Another threat? picked up the story of a bicyclist who was assaulted and robbed on the Springwater Trail multi-use path Wednesday night. The path makes up the bulk of my commute route most nights. The incident actually happened out past Sellwood, where the trail definitely changes character from good spooky (owls and rustling critters) to bad spooky (nocturnal humans with hobbies their mothers probably wouldn't approve of).

I remember riding from campus over the Hawthorne Bridge with a friend one night last year. When I said I'd be peeling off at the Springwater-OMSI exit, she asked whether I thought it was safe at night. Now granted, I hadn't been here long from Montana, but my response in hindsight seems pretty funny in a hick-in-the-big-city sort of way. I responded, "No cars, potholes, or mountain lions...yeah, I'd say supersafe!" Now, with time, I came to understand that it's people that everyone's worried about here. I've never had a problem on the stretch from OMSI to Sellwood, but I'll admit I've been a little spooked on the stretches farther out when I've done night rides that direction.

In a comment over at, local bicycle rider Beth H. (who has a neat bike blog of her own) hits on the big answer, I think. She argues that feeling unsafe on the bike path is just a symptom of the larger problem of displaced, distressed populations in the city. I see one of the advantages of bicycling as bringing me closer to these sorts of problems. Each winter night, I ride through a homeless camp that's setting up for a cold night under the Hawthorne Bridge and pass folks slowly pedaling all their belongings toward some uncertain future. The vulnerability of being on a bicycle makes us more aware of our connection to these bigger problems. But, that long-term advantage has real short-term complications. Problems of homelessness and poverty won't be solved in time for tonight's commute, so what should we do in the meantime? Several commenters on the recent attack mention that they won't use the Springwater after dark (or some portions even in daylight), and I think that's a real problem.

Suggestions include regular bike patrols, better lighting, or improved design. A part of me thinks we should just toughen up and ride through the dark (and, the more cyclers the safer!). But, at the same time, scary bicycling probably isn't the best way to encourage folks to ride. Maybe step one is just moving away from anecdotes and getting real information. How risky are the trails at night? Where/what are the major problems? Are things getting better or worse?

At any rate, glad that the assaulted cycler is all right, and I hope he gets his bike back.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Am I paying my share?

The Mary Peters fallout raises an issue that always seems to be aggravating the cycler/driver divide. Do cyclists pay their fair share for the facilities they use? It seems like as soon as anyone asks the question, it changes into "Should they pay their fair share?" and pretty quickly each side is lobbing in complications until the question is unanswerable. I, for one, would really like an answer to the actual question. As a cycler, just what is the difference between what I pay into the transportation system and the costs that I impose on it?

Now, I concede that there are external benefits to utility cycling like freeing up road and parking spaces for someone else. And, at least a particle or two of air is that much cleaner given the exhaust I would have released. But, suppose I choose to give all of those external benefits as gifts to the world, what about the more basic question?

Does it boil down to the amount of road user fees (which I don't pay, directly) that is spent on the bicycle facilities that I do use, times my share of overall use of the facility? I suppose one should include some small cost for using any street, since I do take up a small piece of moving real estate. So, say the annualized cost of bicycle transportation in Portland is $1 million (PDOT estimate here is $3.5 million over 5 years for capital projects), at most about half of that comes from road user fees (here), and my share of annual Portland bicycle miles is 1/15,000th (based on 3% of Portland trips made by bike and 500,000 residents). That would put my share of the unpaid costs at about $33 per year.

Hmmm, 14 cents per round trip commute. I think I could handle that, if push came to shove...


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Socializing bike commutes

A couple of posts back, I mentioned socializing bike commuting as one way to ease new commuters into it (or maybe encourage occasional bike commuters to ride more often). Let's push the idea a little more.

It seems like a natural in some ways. One of the advantages of bikes is the ability to ride together and converse but still have one's own vehicle for different origins and destinations. Kind of like a carpool without the annoyance of the pickups and dropoffs. A group of cyclers is surely more visible than an individual cycler. Especially in the dark, rainy months, it might feel a lot safer traveling home with a group. Veterans could share load carrying, clothing, and other riding tips with neophytes. And, assuming one finds an amusing, like-minded group, there would be some positive peer pressure to get on the bike each day.

Could organized groups of commuters scattered around the city become a sort of dispersed Critical Mass (without the baggage)? I think it's possible. Smaller groups with an "acceptable" reason for riding (getting to work) might make a real positive impact on commuting motorists in a way that neither organized disturbances nor lots of individual commuters could.

Obviously, there are some reasons this sort of thing hasn't just sprung up on a large scale. There's the logistical challenge of matching up a dispersed group of cyclers with different schedules and riding preferences (routes, speeds). Especially with commutes on city streets, legal issues might pop up. At what point would your commuting group need a permit? How do you keep the group together through stop signs? None of these are insurmountable, I think.

Two commenters in the post two down from this noted a couple of potential models to build from (the Bike Buddy program (example here) and a once a month version in Toronto called BikeFriday). Kent Peterson also just posted about a proposed bike "bus" program with a similar intent.

I guess some thought needs to be given to who/what social bike commutes would best serve. Once a month (or week?) probably makes the logistics easier and would serve antsy new commuters and the "Critical Mass" visual impact. Daily groups might better serve the group safety and support role. This is Portland, maybe themed commute rides. I could imagine the impact of 30 cyclers from the "natty dressers commute club" pedaling downtown in their finest some Friday morning! Comments welcome. Would you want to share your commute once or more a month?


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Car/bike contact

Wow, four years of riding pretty much every day, and I finally had my first physical car/bike incident. No damage done (to me), but maybe there's a lesson, or maybe you have time to kill and need something to read.

Going to show that cycling is pretty idiot-proof, quite a few unusual things had to conspire to cause a 1-inch bike/car overlap. I was riding home from a long, hot ride on a new bike. I was riding the bike lane south on Water Street near the Hawthorne Bridge. There was a long string of cars held up trying to get to some event at OMSI. A yellow Hummer (no kidding!) merged from a cross street into the bike lane and stopped, waiting for someone to let him in. I went around him on the right and had to immediately merge back into the bike lane to avoid parked cars ahead. The maneuver put me a little more right in the bike lane than usual. It probably also kept the lady in the second parked car from seeing me before swinging her door open.

I remember thinking (all in a split second): 1) I'm going to hit that door, then 2) LEFT! LEFT!!, then 3) Wow, I think I made it! Then, I felt the most peculiar sensation. The rear end of my bike suddenly lifted up and moved over, as if a giant had just pinched the rear rack and scooted it over a foot. Then, I heard some nasty noises. I stayed upright, no doubt due to my superior bike handling technique of sitting perfectly still and looking dumbfounded, and braked to a stop.

"Are you OK?" the unfortunate door-opener asked. I don't think I answered, just continued to sit on my bike dumbfounded, since this had worked well so far. I finally circled back and found the woman trying in vain to reattach the plastic trim that had been ripped off the door. There was a small dent where the last of it had held on as my bike and I pivoted around on the other end.

"It just pops back on, right?" she asked in good humor, as it fell back to the ground. At this point someone else who must have seen the show asked me if I were all right. I said with much grace and tact, "Looks like the car got the worst of it!" Haha. So, I apologize to whoever it was in the red VW for the door. For once, it really was the Hummer's fault!

Portland's next step: a contrarian view

It's lonely at the top, I guess. There isn't a lot of debate about which big US city is the bikey-est. Having lived in Portland for a year now, I have to agree that this city has gotten a lot of things right, from a cycler's point of view. There is a sense that Portland is not quite sure what to do next, though. Should we keep fighting for funds and rights of way to build bike paths? Should we keep striping bike lanes, or make them wider, or take them out? Should we bark up a new tree, and shift toward more Euro/Davis,CA ideas like bike boulevards (of which we have a few already)? Should we go more radical (Keep Portland weird!) and shoot for the moon with covered bike expressways or fleets of public bikes?

Although I think whatever comes out of the PDX bikebrain will probably be great (and miles better than anything I could come up with), I have a contrarian view, and this is my blog. I think that at some point--maybe now--the focus needs to shift a skosh away from infrastructure and toward actually getting "butts on bikes," as the Portland Tribune so eloquently put it.

Portland's problem is sort of unprecedented in this country. How do you get even more people to ride once you've skimmed all the cream? The problem is best summed up I think in the range of bicycle attitudes in Portland. Those who actually ride fall into either the "Strong and fearless" (<0.5%)or "Enthused and confident" (7%). The balance of Portlanders are either "Interested but concerned" (60%) or not the least bit interested (33%). I've been taught that given a planning problem (like convincing 2/3rds of the population to try riding a bicycle more/at all) there are usually 3 ways to come at it. We can change the built environment, change the rules of the game, or change people's attitudes. I'm not at all qualified to make this statement: Portland is focusing an awful lot on changing the built environment. I say we take up Plans B and C and start working on those attitudes. After all, the difference between "Interested but concerned" and "Enthused and confident" is maybe 10% education/experience and 90% attitude, especially in this town.

So, what would a Master Plan look like if it backgrounded infrastructure? Here's my short list:

1) Educate: Find ways to teach people the basics of riding in traffic and using their bikes. Close a street or two and have some fun neighborhood classes. Also, remind people that bicycling isn't any more dangerous than driving, probably less so.

2) Socialize bike commuting: Hire some clever people to make it easy to link up bike commuters going the same direction. The first commute is probably the hardest, and a little positive peer pressure probably helps when the rain starts!

3) Get serious about incentives: What's 250 days of new bike commuting worth to the city? How about a free commuter bike setup, paid off by 250 days of using it. What's a trip to school or the grocery store worth? 50 trips? Surely some free ice cream, anyway. If we could get kids nagging their parents to ride, we might get somewhere!

4) Get bike shops involved: could we fund an employee at each shop dedicated to utility cycling (not that all shops need it)? Or, help pay for ads? I love the River City Bicycles ads. Bike shops benefit from new riders, too.

5) Rethink rules and enforcement: Cars are huge, dangerous objects, and driving them should be a solemn, rule-bound duty. Bikes, not so much. I would push for stop signs as yields for bikes, for instance. Anything that doesn't seriously impact safety and reminds people that bikes aren't cars, they're easier and more fun. I might go for legalizing side by side riding, too. It might make new cyclers feel safer near traffic.

I think back to my own start with utility cycling 4 years ago. I lived in a town (Missoula, Montana) with good bicycling infrastructure and had a bike. My own move from "Interested but concerned" to "Enthused and confident" was mostly an attitude shift. Once I made the decision to venture out there, I found things weren't actually so hard and scary after all. With a little bit of instruction, I was a pro! My grandfather used to say most of success is just showing up. I wonder if we focus too much on what new cyclers will find when they get there and too little on getting them to show up.