Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympics provide a "nudge"

A few weeks ago I wrote (okay, maybe whined a little) about my choice to drive to what were really eminently bikeable locations. Today I saw a headline about the traffic and riots and civil liberties disasters going on in Vancouver. In a moment of unwarranted optimism thought: hey, I bet the cyclists are happier than the poor schnooks still driving or trying to take a public transit system that clearly wasn't ready. And they are!

Vancouver already has an active cycling population. This huge event has made cycling's advantages: personal freedom, the small space required to park at a destination, frequently designated lanes and the ability to maneuver out of stalled traffic, much greater than a car's normal advantages. The result is that people who might not otherwise be pedaling are out and discovering its advantages.

Maybe this answers my question from before: how to make the active transportation an easier choice. Make the default option harder. I'm thinking that some of the deterrents I listed, including fear of being accosted because you're alone out there, are less of an issue. If a lot more people are out on bikes, it would be a lot harder for muggers to operate.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the Olympics pan out for cyclists. Yup. I'm a transportation nerd.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learn to Ride!!!

We (as in, all us cyclists and wannabes) all heard about the motorist in Oregon who followed a bad cyclist and shouted at him not to break traffic laws. Because he, the motorist, was a cyclist and advocate who was tired of lazy riders making him look bad. Word went out that he'd assaulted the cyclist, but I'm delighted/sad (?) to report that in fact, the cyclist assaulted him. And got in lots of trouble. Guess there's bad behavior on both sides.

Given the slightly chilling account of the cyclist using his bike to shatter the man's windshield, I'm glad I resisted temptation the other day. I followed two cyclists down Elm Street in New Haven in my car, and they were striking examples of the difference between riding with traffic and cruising along in the road. One in particular came close to having an irate driver pull alongside and yell at him for making us all look bad.

Just for the sake of context, Elm Street is a long, one way street with three active lanes, bus stops, many many pedestrians crossing, and parking. And the cars fly. In other words, not a place to mess around.

One cyclist clearly felt that lanes only exist for four-wheeled vehicles. He cruised around in his chosen lane on the right. When the bus in front of him slowed down, he pulled around the bus onto the dotted line between lanes about four inches from the passenger window of my car. When cars stopped for lights, he drifted along between so he could run the light. Meanwhile, his spandex twin was far behind due to his dedication to riding with the traffic. You know: staying in his lane, stopping with the traffic, signaling his intentions. He was following state guidelines for safe riding. I hope they eventually found each other. And I hope the annoying one didn't injure himself or anyone else.

The people I see riding on the sidewalk are annoying. But somehow they are less infuriating than this particular rider. Why ride in the road if you aren't going to bother to either ride properly or learn how to ride properly? I'll admit I wasn't that good at riding in traffic when I started, and I had to learn. But this person was too thoroughly equipped to be a beginner, so I can only assume he doesn't care.

I never take it personally when I'm stuck in traffic with a lousy driver. But cyclists are still a small group, and the behavior of one tends to be taken for the behavior of all by motorists. If he annoyed other drivers the way he was annoying me, they'll remember. And maybe take it out on another cyclist.

We need a cyclist version of the Pace car, just so those cyclists who can't be bothered can see that they are not necessarily the only ones riding. If they can't learn, cyclists are going to end up having to be licensed just like drivers. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Sacred Cow

While I was in the Lone Star State, I heard a lot about Austin's new commuter railway. As a budding transportation nerd, my ears pricked up and I listened to what people said, and took a look at a station. Basically, Austin's Capital Metro is using existing freight rail lines to add a commuter service that will connect downtown Austin to its northern suburbs and Leander, TX. The line was supposed to be in operation two years ago, but it's failed four inspections by the federal agency responsible for policing rail safety. And the city recently dumped its rail contracter, Veolia Transportation, after failing for the fourth time. It's now planning a March opening.

*Sound of brakes screeching*

Ok. So. I was going to write about how the Austin commuter rail, despite numerous positive press releases and public statements, appears to have been something of a debacle. I would have discussed why it was sad that incompetence had thwarted the development of a rail system in a city that really promotes active transportation. I might even have asked a few questions about how this project compares to light rail, such as a trolley system, or bus rapid transit, and how these options would work for walkers and cyclists.

But then I spoke to my husband, a transportation planner, who flinched a little. Further discussion with him led me to the conclusion that any attempt to impartially explore rail and bus development would be bad. If I attempted an amateur take on these issues, I would probably have inadvertently stabbed any number of sacred cows in the neck and started up a bus vs. rail flame war. And would then have had to join the Witness Protection Program to avoid being stalked by angry bloggers. Light rail, buses and conventional rail have a lot of ardent advocates.

That right there, is the problem we're having in active and alternative transportation, people. I'd like to use my status as the outsider to take an outsider's look at rail transit in the U.S., but there are lots of intelligent people slamming each other over this. And I could expect a whole lot of angry diatribes in my inbox if I dared to comment. Perhaps it's time to ease up on criticism from within the ranks: bus advocates vs. the street car crowd, effective cyclists vs. the Copenhagenize syndicate, almost everyone else versus cyclists. There's plenty coming from outside, as this attack on the director of America 2050 will show.

Let's discuss transportation issues, let's pool ideas. But let's also have an open mind about alternatives. Let's remember that the goal is to make it possible, even desirable, for people to choose something other than their car to go about the business of living.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

120 Million People Can't Be Wrong

Our tag line here at WalkBikeCT proudly states that the revolution will not be motorized. Should we be sure about that? After all, a number of blogs and newspapers (see Sunday's NY Times) have picked up on the growing popularity of electric bikes. (I admit, it's old news, but I was still shocked to read that there are 120 million "e-bikes" zipping along China's crowded roads.)

Although electric bikes have been around for many years, it appears that improvements in battery technology are making the prospect of an affordable electrically-assisted bike feasible. Who's got two grand to go 22 mph on this?

I am sure most many of this blog's readers (and contributors), those pesky non-motorized purists, will throw their mouses or iPhones in disgust, but e-bikes could do a lot to encourage a critical mass of people to give up their cars for commuting and shopping purposes.

Would making biking easier lead to greater ridership?

Most of us would agree that, thanks to lightweight construction and plentiful gears, biking already is pretty easy.

But maybe it's just not easy enough for Joe the Commuter, who wants to arrive at work without needing to change his clothes or recover from biking up and down the hills in his leafy suburban town on the way to the city. Joe the Commuter thinks exercise is for the gym, after all, not his trip to work.

I am not convinced, however, that my strawman everyman would bother with an e-bike.

First, if he wanted the thrill of the open road without the workout, why wouldn't he just get a moped or motorcycle? (Perhaps the answer, for now, would lie in the lack of regulation; I don't think that riding an e-bike requires registration and a special license.)

Second, according to trend spotters, e-bikes ain't cool. As the NY Times wrote:

In China, riding an electric bike conveys professional achievement, even a certain degree of wealth. People in the United States, said Ed Benjamin, an independent consultant in the bike business, don’t quite know whether these bikes are fashionable. The e-bike is “an ambiguous statement,” Mr. Benjamin said.
What's "ambiguous" about e-bikes? I guess the rider is trying to toe the line between different circles, and not succeeding in any. His car driving co-workers will think he's weird. Ordinary bicyclists will think he's fat and lazy. And his wife will worry about the onset of his mid-life crisis.

Maybe e-bikes are going revolutionize transportation, or maybe they're just another goofy fad. Anyone out there still have a moped?