Archive for the ‘Bicycling’ Category

Take Five

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

This sweet ride was locked in front of Tucker’s Ice Cream in Alameda this afternoon (just across the street from where I spotted the cool Tiki Bike a few months ago):

Family Style

It seats five, just like the Honda Accord behind it, but I bet it was a lot more fun to ride to the ice cream shop. Sadly, I came by a few minutes too late to capture the grand arrival of this limousine, but I heard it was carrying some incredibly cute triplets.

Fun with Google Maps for Bicycling

Friday, March 12th, 2010

It’s pretty exciting that the folks at Google Maps have added bicycling directions in addition to the walking and public transit options that have been available for a few years. I’ve played with the bicycling directions a bit over the past few days, and they seem to work pretty well, suggesting routes which have bike lanes or bike boulevards, and directing people around steep hills when a good alternative exists. They advise, however, that “bicycling directions are in beta,” and there are definitely some kinks to work out. Gene at Our Oakland, for example, pointed out that Google suggests riding on a “hecka busy, hecka steep” street behind Montclair Village instead of using the much easier (and much more pleasant) rail-to-trail bike path that I wrote about back in January. My favorite suggestion so far, however, is this route between Grand Avenue and Park Boulevard:

This is an unlikely route for several reasons, but the part that amused me the most is near the top, where Google Maps suggests a shortcut between Beacon Street and Merritt Avenue. That might look like a sensible maneuver on a map, but in real life, few (if any) people on bikes would choose that shortcut. To see why, all you have to do is switch to the street view in Google Maps and look at the turn from Beacon Street toward Merritt Avenue:

Oops! I hope your bike is lightweight, because you’ll have to carry it up about 5 flights of stairs, which just happen to be steeper than most—enjoy the workout!

Google is aware that it is using imperfect data to suggest routes, so they are encouraging people to report problems. If they are responsive to feedback, and receive enough of it, then these issues should be easily fixed, but until then, use caution, lest Google send you and your bike flying down any steep staircases…

Give me your trash, your junk…The wretched refuse of your living room

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

One of the delightful things about living in Oakland is that if you get tired and want a rest as you walk or bike around the city, there’s bound to be a sofa nearby on which one can take a quick nap, left there by a helpful fellow citizen. I pity those poor folks who live in places where people take unwanted furniture to the dump, or give it away on Craig’s List. How do weary travelers in those sorts of places ever rest their legs? Whoever left this couch on 12th Avenue was especially considerate, leaving it right in the middle of the street so as to save passersby the trouble of pulling over. Thanks, secret Santa, whoever you are!

Street Seat

(At least the couch was easy to steer around, unlike the opening car door with which I had an impromptu dance a few blocks later.)

Tiki Bike

Friday, November 27th, 2009

I walked by this impressive piece of handiwork in Alameda this morning.

Tiki Bike

Check out the larger version at Flickr if you want to see some of the detailing, such as the wicker on the fork or the stays (even some of the cable housing is wrapped with rattan or some such). It’s safe to say that a lot of time and attention went into this bicycle.

Going Back to College for Some Lessons on Livable Space

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

I went up to Berkeley on Tuesday to remind myself of how the other half lives, and as I rode through the UC campus, I was reminded of something that came up in the comments on one of my earlier posts: college campuses are among the few places where pedestrians, bicyclists and low-speed motorized vehicles mix freely in “shared space” in the United States, and they offer prime examples of how mixed-use, unsegregated roads and paths can be safely used by slow-moving cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchairs, skateboards—whatever—as long as everyone is paying attention.

Indeed, the fact that all those modes of transportation are forced to coexist on the paths and roads of a campus such as Cal’s is what causes everyone to pay more attention, creating places where people can get where they are going at whatever pace they choose, with almost no conflict or inconvenience. It’s part of what makes a nice college campus feel so utopian compared to your average city street. In most cities, the majority of public space is devoted to moving or parked cars, with pedestrians segregated onto narrow strips of concrete on either side and cyclists uneasily mixed in with the cars (uneasily because many drivers perceive the roadway as “their” turf, and see slower-moving bicycles as obtrusive obstacles). On a college campus, the pedestrian tends to be the privileged one, while cyclists are expected to proceed with caution and automobiles are heavily restricted. Shuttle buses, utility trucks or other motorized vehicles that share the pathways have no choice but to travel at safe speeds and yield to pedestrians.

Another principle of the shared space philosophy that I was reminded of is the importance of making the space truly shared. Even a subtle division of the space by painting a strip on a path and telling walkers and bikers to stay on opposite sides of the line can have unintended consequences, especially if there is a limited amount of space, causing people to stray from “their” territory. The lovely path over the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, is divided into a bike lane and a walking lane, and back when I used to commute over the bridge by bike, the division of the space seemed to cause as many problems as it solved—inevitably, pedestrians would cross the dividing line and enter the bicycle side, either because they wanted to pass a group of slower pedestrians, or because they wanted to pose for a photo next to the opposite railing, or because they just hadn’t noticed that the path was divided into a ped lane and a bike lane. Cyclists would be irritated by the incursion into “their” space, so they would angrily swerve around the pedestrians at high speed, often having to cross into the pedestrian lane, which would cause other pedestrians to feel threatened by having a high-speed cyclists suddenly invading “their” space. The number of conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians may be reduced, but the unpleasantness of those conflicts when they do occur is greatly increased.

Given the fairly narrow path on the Brooklyn Bridge, the large number of pedestrians who walk across the bridge at certain times, and the desire of commuting cyclists to be able to ride at high speeds across the long bridge, that path may not actually be a great candidate for truly shared space, but it does demonstrate that dividing space so that each mode of transportation has its own territory doesn’t eliminate all conflicts—it might reduce their number, but when conflicts do arise, they may not be as smoothly negotiated as they are on, say, the paths of the UC Berkeley campus.

There is some effort to keep bicyclists off of some Berkeley campus areas, but in my opinion, it’s a good thing that those rules are so widely ignored—if bikes stayed on the paths that are marked as bicycle routes, then I think there would be worse conflicts between walkers and bikers at those places where they need to interact. As it is now, bicyclists tend to ride among pedestrians nearly everywhere on campus whether they are supposed to or not, and everyone seems to negotiate their way around each other just fine, because walkers and bikers alike are very alert to the possibility of encountering a faster or slower traveler at any time.

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A Site for Sore Eyes (and Sore Bicycle Rims) on Lakeshore Ave.

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Some people’s thoughts bend toward the numinous when they see a crude outline of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cloud, or in a piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. Others of us worship differently, and feel the presence of grace when we come across a crude outline of a bicyclist indicating the imminent birth of a bike lane, like this one I photographed yesterday on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland:

Lakeshore Bike Lane

I haven’t been so excited about seeing a bike lane since I saw the protected 9th Avenue bike lane in Manhattan (complete with its own bicycle traffic signals) in August, or the lovely bike lane at the eastern end of Alameda in April. What makes this latest bike lane special isn’t its design—it looks to be a standard 5-foot paint job between the car traffic lane and the car parking lane—but rather its location, and the contrast with what was there before. Lakeshore Avenue alongside Lake Merritt has long been a truly awful road on which to ride a bicycle, which is unfortunate for me because my bicycle is my primary mode of transportation and Lakeshore is the most direct way from my apartment to most points north or west of here.

Lakeshore was terrible to bike on for many reasons: the pavement was pitted and rough; there was almost no room to squeeze between the car traffic and the parked cars; drivers went too fast around Lakeshore’s many curves; the heavy recreational use of Lakeside Park means that a lot of people are getting in and out of their parked cars, increasing the likelihood of being doored; and after dark the road was not particularly well lit. If you took all the most dangerous aspects of riding a bike in a city and put them together in one street, you might end up with something resembling Lakeshore Avenue in its former incarnation. I would sometimes take a less direct route home, especially after dark, in order to avoid having to bike on Lakeshore.

Lakeshore Bike Lane

So the brand new pavement, the reduced number of car lanes from 4 to 2 (which will hopefully reduce speeding) and the new bike lane really do come as a revelation. I knew that bike lanes were included in the master plan for the park and roadways around the lake, but I had also heard some recent speculation from people in the neighborhood that bike lanes were not going to be painted on Lakeshore after all, because there wouldn’t be enough room between the parking lane and the car traffic lane. I’m glad to see that those rumors were unfounded, and we are definitely getting our bike lanes after all.

I’ve been pretty down on Oakland lately, for reasons that I can’t entirely pinpoint, but the privileged status of the automobile here is certainly one factor. The danger posed to vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists from automobiles (which are all too often controlled by reckless, oblivious, or downright angry people) was tragically brought home two weeks ago when an 11-year-old girl in East Oakland was killed by a hit and run driver as she walked across a crosswalk from a bus stop to her school at 8 o’clock in the morning (as far as I know the killer still has not been identified). I’ve written plenty before about the importance of making the world safe for pedestrians and cyclists (including schoolchildren). The resurrection of Lakeshore Ave.,with its new pedestrian islands in the median, its bike lanes, and a reduction in its number of car lanes, should be a model for other parts of the city (like, say, lower Park Boulevard, perhaps?).

Traffic Calming on Park Boulevard Today

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I wrote in January about some of the problems with lower Park Boulevard, my neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. One big problem I noted is that cars treat it like a speedway instead of a city street, which makes it pretty scary for pedestrians and bicyclists, and therefore diminishes its potential as a thriving urban street (the closure of the Parkway Theater in March—temporary, we still hope—doesn’t help either). I also pointed out that Oakland, unlike some neighboring cities such as Alameda, does not seem to enforce traffic laws very forcefully. (I’m being charitable here; I almost never see drivers pulled over for speeding or other reckless behavior in Oakland, unless the traffic stop is done as a pretext for checking out a “suspicious” person.)

So I was interested to see more than half a dozen officers near the corner of Park and 5th Avenue this morning, clocking drivers with a radar gun and pulling over the speeders.

No Speeding!

I don’t know whether they were issuing full tickets or just warnings (maybe it depended on how fast the driver was going), and I don’t know what long-term effects these operations have, but I was at least happy to see that someone was aware of the problem. I told one of the officers that in addition to speeding, another big problem on that stretch of road is that drivers almost never stop for people at crosswalks. I was going to ask whether anything specific had prompted today’s operation, but unsurprisingly, the officer didn’t seem very eager to stand around chatting. (He seemed about as interested in my thoughts on crosswalks as cops usually are when I share my opinions with them, which is to say not at all interested—but it never hurts to try, right?)

I can imagine that some people might think it’s a waste of resources to have 8 or 10 Oakland police officers conducting an anti-speeding sting in a relatively quiet part of the city, since the OPD is chronically understaffed and has more serious crimes than speeding to worry about, but personally, my only small complaint about this sting is that it was happening in mid-morning, instead of two hours earlier—I had biked down that exact same stretch of Park at 8:30 this morning, and I literally had to pull over to the side of the road because there were so many cars driving so fast, and I didn’t feel safe “sharing the road” with them. Oh, well: better late than never.

An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

Outlaw Cyclists Run Rampant on City Streets

Friday, September 11th, 2009

I didn’t realize until now that I break the law nearly every day:

12.60.010  Bicycle license required.

It is unlawful for any person to operate or use a bicycle, as defined in Section 39000 of the California Vehicle Code, upon any street in the city of Oakland without first obtaining a California Bicycle License therefor

I’m glad to see that I’m unlikely to do any jail time if I get busted:

12.60.080  Violation of Sections 12.60.010 through 12.60.060–Fine.

Any person who violates or fails to comply with the provisions of Sections 12.60.010 through 12.60.060 shall be subject to a fine of not more than ten dollars ($10.00)

Tykes on Bikes

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

They closed off a few streets of downtown Oakland for some criteriums today, the 5th Oakland Grand Prix. I only had time to swing by for a few minutes, but one of the races I caught was the “local kids” category (they did a single lap). They may not have been as fast as the adults, but they were much cuter:

Starting Line
(The kid on the yellow Specialized took off on an early breakaway and never looked back. You can tell he meant business because of the spandex and racing gloves.)

Happiness on Two Wheels

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s been a while since I waxed rhapsodic about riding a bike, and now that summer is upon us, this is probably as good a time as ever to sing the praises of the two-wheeled commute. We cycling evangelists are sometimes considered strident and holier-than-thou about our choice of transportation. I suppose that’s unavoidable, since it’s self-evident that we are morally and ethically superior to our fellow human beings in every way. Whatever the merits of our self-righteousness, however, lecturing and scolding can be counterproductive when one is trying to spread the good word to benighted souls, and our emphasis on the environmental, financial and geopolitical benefits of burning up less petroleum can give the impression that riding a bike is a difficult sacrifice, a hardship that must be endured for altruistic reasons.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, so I want to dwell a bit on another benefit of getting around by bicycle which is sometimes given short shrift: the psychological benefit. I’ve thought about this in the past, but it was clarified for me during last month’s Bike to Work day. I usually don’t observe Bike to Work Day in any special way, since I bike to work every day anyway, but for some reason I got into the spirit of it this year, so I woke up early to join a loose peleton (which included my city council rep) from the Grand Lake Theater to City Hall, where they were serving a free pancake breakfast to bike commuters in the plaza out front. I then picked up a free Arizmendi scone at an “energizer station” next to Lake Merritt, then a free cup of coffee at Fruitvale BART station, and by the time I got to work I was as happy as a clam.

Now, I’m a real sucker for free food and drink, but it wasn’t only the free stuff that put me in a good mood. It was also noticing that all the other people riding their bikes to work that day, some of them presumably for the first time, had smiles on their faces. How often do you see car drivers smiling as they commute to work? Almost never! Instead you see a lot of stressed-out grimaces and furrowed brows. It occurred to me that people on bikes tend to look pretty happy as they cruise around town, and will often give a friendly wave to each other as they pass. People in cars, on the other hand, generally look tense and anxious in the gnarl and snarl of rush hour traffic. Sure, some of the friendliness among cyclists is probably just the camaraderie that comes with encountering a kindred spirit, but I am convinced that the cheerfulness of many bike commuters can also be attributed to the salutary psychological effects of riding a bike instead of driving by car.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve always tended to be in a better mood upon arrival to work after getting there by bike. When I used to drive a car most of the time, I would occasionally ride to work if my car was in the shop, and while I’d be annoyed about have to leave the house earlier, I would arrive feeling refreshed and chipper. Thinking back to when I lived in New York, I remember when I started riding my bike from Brooklyn to Times Square sometimes, instead of taking the subway every day. The trip took the same amount of time, but when I rode the bike, I would be more alert and cheerful when I arrived, whereas I would still be groggy and grumpy on the days when I took the subway. What’s amazing is that even though I was aware of the correlation between biking to work and feeling good once I got there, I still used to drive my car, because it was “more convenient” and would “save time” (as if time can actually be saved, rather than just spent in more or less rewarding ways). What folly! It wasn’t until my car was totaled that I was able to fully recognize that it was more a curse than a convenience.

So I can sympathize with the stressed-out commuters in their cars, because I used to be one of them. My usual route to work now takes me over and alongside Interstate 880, but in the past I used to join the unhappy masses on 880, and the experiences couldn’t be more different. I used to be just another agitated driver strapped down to my seat, tailgating slower drivers out of frustration (to the point where I once rear-ended a Camry that stopped short in front of me), and changing lanes obsessively in hopes of gaining a few seconds’ advantage. I now quite literally rise above all that, and every time I glance down at the people in their cars, I remember how miserable I used to be driving down that same stretch of road.

I-880

Nowadays I pass over that unsightly ribbon of stress and ride along the waterfront instead, which is why I end up taking so many pictures from that area. Instead of having to stare at bumpers, asphalt and concrete, I get to look at boats, buildings, parks, water and the occasional piece of art. Instead of being subject to the vagaries of traffic, I can ride happily along at whatever pace I choose, enjoying the scenery, breathing in the relatively fresh air coming off the water, and probably feeling the effects of exercise-produced endorphins.

Another reason that riding a bike improves one’s sense of well-being is that one feels far more connected to the places one is passing through. (In this, it resembles evolution’s ideal innovation in human transportation—that is, walking.) Even if one avoids the freeways in a car, the physical separation between a driver and his surroundings means that one often doesn’t care, or even notice, whether the streetscape is pretty or ugly, or whether a neighborhood is alive or dead. The effects of that alienation from the surrounding environment may be hard to measure, but I believe that it has real consequences for one’s state of mind. Even a description of my route to work conjures a comforting sense of place: instead of getting to work via “Interstate 880,” I now get there via Brooklyn Basin, Embarcadero Cove, Union Point, and Jingletown. Have any freeways ever had such evocative names? Not all of my ride to work is beautiful, but none of it is dull.

Port of Oakland

Even the decaying vestiges of the area’s industrial glory days are fairly picturesque:

Dock of the Bay

What’s most remarkable to me when I compare riding to work and driving to work is how driving a car can dramatically change one’s relationship with other people. You can take a generally calm and easygoing person—for example, me—and put him behind the wheel of a car, and he is suddenly transformed into a kind of sociopathic monster, who sees other drivers as the enemy, sees pedestrians and bicyclists as irritating obstructions, and is willing to put lives—his own and others’—at risk by running a red light, or swerving around a blind corner, or cutting off someone else on the gamble that you won’t both pull a reckless move at precisely the same moment. And for what? To shave a couple of minutes from one’s commute? Agitation and anxiety are a high price to pay for that small amount of “saved” time.

I don’t know precisely what psychological mechanism is at work, but there really seems to be something about being inside a metal box, separated from the rest of humanity by a barrier of glass and steel, which encourages anti-social behavior. I can still feel the change in mindset occur on the rare occasions when I get behind the wheel of a car, and I need to remind myself to breathe deep and relax—and to stop for those bothersome pedestrians at crosswalks. We like to think that some people are nice and some people are assholes, but the truth is that most people can be both at different times; context, circumstance, and the expectations of others can have a huge impact on one’s behavior. I really think there’s something about getting behind the wheel that can often make normal people act like psychopaths.

Of course some bicyclists also ride recklessly and selfishly, and I can attest from personal experience that being on a bike doesn’t make one immune to road rage. Just as a lot of car drivers are very responsible and considerate, a lot of bike riders are jerks (it’s worth noting, however, that a jerk on a bike is extremely unlikely to maim or kill anyone). And riding a bike does have its drawbacks, such as arriving to one’s destination sweaty, and the danger inherent in sharing roads with heavy metal objects moving at high speeds. (That last issue is why it’s so important to design streets that feel safe to ride a bicycle on—there are a lot of people who would enjoy getting around by bike, but who are reluctant to do it because they simply don’t feel safe riding in traffic.)

When it comes to fostering peace of mind and mental health, I doubt any mode of transportation will ever beat walking, but when getting someplace by two feet is impractical, the two wheels of a bicycle are the next best thing. Exercise, fresh air, independence, and none of the stress that comes with stop and go traffic, or waiting for a late bus, or crowding into a subway car: what’s not to love?

Translation, please

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Now that Washington Mutual has been fully digested by Chase, Chase has blanketed the West Coast with billboards in order to introduce itself to us. Apparently I’m too dense to understand this one. As a cyclist, should I be flattered, or offended?

Translation, please.