Category Archives: Bikes

Lukewarm on Seattle Bike Share

Hub and Bespoke blog wrote the other day about Seattle bike share, with some nice links to posts about how great these systems are in other cities. And they are great; I love the systems I’ve used when traveling (like Capitol Bike Share in DC). When done right, urban bike share is a revelation: easy to use, super convenient, a whole new and freeing way to move about and experience a city, whether you are a resident or a tourist.

But I’m worried that Seattle’s system will turn out more like Melbourne’s – tepid and underused due to the requirement that all riders wear helmets. And it’s our own fault, for not seriously entertaining the possibility, that maybe – just maybe – we could get out of our nanny-state mentality and question whether Seattle really needs a mandatory bike helmet law.

Or whether the bike share system could have an exemption from the law.

Instead, we’re going to “solve” the problem with helmet vending machines.

Much as I’d like this to work, and as much as helmet vending machines are great for those choosing to wear a helmet, I fully expect that Seattle’s system is going to be a pale shadow of what it could be until and unless the mandatory helmet law is lifted.

Rain Bikes

Every morning this week, I have looked at a grey but rainless Seattle sky and opted to ride my primary bike. And every day this week, it has been raining on my ride home.

The problem is that my rain bike isn’t nearly as fun to ride as my primary (a lightweight, steel Salsa Cassaroll set up as fixed gear). So I’m going to grab the Salsa if it looks like there is any hope that it won’t rain (much). But it’s really no good to get covered in road spray, and it’s bad for the bike, too. There’s a lot of crap on Seattle’s streets.

The solution? Obviously I need to get a new rain bike :)

Cyclists and the “Moral Order of the Road”

Yes, I suppose those of us on bikes may be “annoying” to those behind the wheel, but this BBC piece from psychologist Tom Stafford posits that driver antagonism toward cyclists stems from something deeper – an innate sense that bikes disrupt the “moral order” of the road.  In other words, we’re cheaters, what with our riding-between-cars and jumping-green-lights and such.  And that makes drivers mad.

Maybe so, but one wonders how useful it is to plumb the reptilian driver brain.  There’s something about driving that lends itself to all manner of antisocial behavior.  Present company included; as someone who rides far more than he drives, I may be more aware of it these days, but I am certainly no less susceptible.

In driver mode we are paragons of impatience.   We take offense at the slightest affront.  I’m sure a psychiatrist would have some theories about what causes this: the shield of metal and glass between us and the rest of world; sublimation of feelings of powerlessness translated via an internal combustion engine; unresolved childhood trauma.  But whatever lies behind it, we act while driving in ways that would be tolerated in very few settings.

So if it’s normal for drivers to curse out someone with the temerity to merge in front of them in a perfectly legal merge lane (thereby lengthening the offended driver’s trip by a second or two), it should be expected that drivers would take umbrage at that alien invader of their environment, the bicyclist.  Particularly if the cyclist is slowing them down, or doing something dangerous.

Or even just breaking the rules.  As Stafford points out, heaps of cognitive research points to people being happy to dish out “altruistic punishments” – consequences that carry a cost to the punisher without yielding any direct benefit in return.  Think of the jaywalk scolds (a phenomenon that may be unique to Seattle), or drivers who get pissed and honk because a cyclist moves to the head of a line of stopped traffic or jumps a green light.

And I don’t know that there is a solution, at least not in the US.  It’s not safe to try and navigate any US city on a bike while scrupulously obeying rules that have been designed for cars.  That means adapting, playing by our own rules and sometimes doing things that rule-addled drivers find maddening (like creating our own bike boxes, taking the lane and running red lights).

Maybe the only answer is getting more people confidently riding bikes – so that they can be more enlightened drivers whenever they need to get behind the wheel.

Maryland Considers Helmet Law

. . . and bike advocates say NO.  As Walter Olson points out, this may be shocking to those around the nation’s capital, but it is actually possible to be both a) concerned about cycling safety, and b) not want a government “safety” mandate.

brain bucketAs I wrote last year, helmet laws are counter-productive, and in the case of Seattle and other cities, serious impediments to the launch and growth of bikeshare systems.  D.C.’s system is a joy, and could be impacted negatively by nanny-statism in the Maryland suburbs.

Here’s hoping my friends and family in Terrapin territory see fit to nix this misguided proposal.

More Cheap Fixies

Commute by Bike has a review of the low, low priced $219 (shipping included) Critical Cycles fixed-gear bike. It comes in lots of bright colors, and only one brake – which is inexplicably on the rear wheel. I’m guessing a healthy share of their focus groups quickly gave up fixed gear and flipped over to the freewheel hub.

The review didn’t specify the gearing setup, so I went and checked: and the Critical Cycles website doesn’t say.

Weird. Might be important to some people.

A reviewer on Amazon said the bike has a 48/16 setup, which if true would be pretty steep. Its likelier a 44/16, which isn’t bad. It’s what I ride on my rain bike, and roughly equivalent to the 48/18 on my primary ride. It’s a ratio that will serve in most situations. If the place you live is hillier and you feel tempted to lighten it up, it’s probably better to consider whether fixed gear is really for you. At least once every few weeks, legs flying as I go down Pine Street, I ask whether I wouldn’t be happier flipping back to a single-speed freewheel. But so far I haven’t.

So whaddaya think – who’s up for dropping a couple hundred bucks on what appears to be a serviceable, if garish, fixed gear bike? Probably a better choice, even at twice the price, than these $99 Walmart beauties.

The Case for Multiple Bikes

So I was running a little late this morning, considering I planned a pre-work trip to the SODO Home Depot. Hopped on my daily ride, and got halfway down the block when I felt a wobble in the right pedal. I’ve experienced this once before, and it’s not good. Best case, the bike shop will be able to “shoot a coil” in the crank arm that will allow me to re-thread the pedal. Worst case means a new crankset. Whatever the case, I wasn’t getting to work on THAT bike.

OK, so out comes the rain bike. Hmmm – tires look really low. Well, it’s been really sunny in Seattle; I haven’t ridden it in weeks, maybe months. Except that as I pump I hear the hiss that tells me all is not well with my rear tire. And there’s a glassy piece of road debris, sticking out proudly. Damn. Changing the tire is a 15-20 minute process because (a) it involves removing the rear fender stays and (b) I’m slooow when it comes to bike repairs. Fixing the flat will mean shitcanning my morning plans.

So good thing I’ve recently acquired a third bike! Jumped on my coaster-brake equipped single-speed SE Draft for the trip. A bit dodgy dealing with SODO traffic on a bike better suited for laying down skids in the alley and tooling around the neighborhood, but hey – at least I got my ride in.

Building the Fleet

Yes, it was a bargain, and yes, it’s great fun to ride – but there’s not much more of an explanation for this little bit of ridiculousness I picked up. It’s an SE Draft single speed with a coaster brake. Cheap steel frame, wanna-be wheels, and road tires that are a jarring match for Seattle’s pitted roads. But check the simplicity – no gears, no brakes. Just slam on the pedals to stop.

I’ve ridden it to work a few times, but I don’t see this being a commuter bike. Coaster brakes are great for kids and leisurely flatland riding. They’re not so good when flying down the hill on Pine, or trying to stop on a dime to avoid an errant driver.

I wrote before about the differences between a fixed gear and a coaster brake, but I hadn’t realized how inferior coaster brakes remain compared to disc or rim brakes. And of course, losing a chain on a bike like this is every bit as bad as having that happen on a brake-less fixie.

Still, I’m happy to report that this bike can lay down skids every bit as effectively as the Schwinn I rode as a kid. I expect it will largely see use on weekend doughnut runs and impromptu evening rides around the neighborhood.

First Ride: Capital Bike Share

On a trip last week to Washington, D.C for my brother’s wedding (congrats, Tommy and Monica – it was about time!), I decidedly to try out DC’s bike share system. Seattle is apparently going to get such a system next year, so I was curious to see how it works out.

My first concern going in was the weather. After all, DC in August has in the past driven me to take a cab to go 5 blocks (and I love walking nearly as much as I love riding a bike). Fortunately, it was mid-80’s and – crucially – relatively low humidity.

The system itself is easy to use and ubiquitous, with 150 stations around town. The idea is to be able to ride around from station to station; short rides are encouraged via a system that only charges for rides exceeding 30 minutes. Locals pay an annual fee for access; for tourists a day pass goes for $7.

I grabbed a bike at Union Station and meandered through town to Dupont Circle. Getting the bike is as simple as inserting a credit card, getting a code and unlocking a bike. The bikes are sturdy step-through 3-speeds, easy to maneuver on wide tires. The gearing felt a little low – being used to riding single-speed in hilly Seattle, even the top gear on a bike share ride felt too light. But it probably helped slow me down to enjoy the sights.

The biggest revelation was how DC has plowed forward with bike share despite abysmal bike infrastructure. Outside of a slightly-terrifying two-way bike lane running right down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue (often occupied by pedestrians and emergency vehicles), any nod to bikes is exceedingly hard to find. Indeed, most everyone just chooses to ride on DC’s wide sidewalks. It gives me hope that Seattle’s system will work as well – and maybe even accelerate the process of making downtown more bike-friendly.

All told, I loved Capital Bikeshare as a way to easily get around town and see the sights. I’ll do a three-day pass the next time I’m in town.

Unless that trip is in July . . .

Fixed Gear Dangers

Yesterday, as I rode down Pine Street in the rain, bouncing along at 20-25 MPH, my chain slipped off the chainring. All it took was a mixture of a little deferred maintenance, a chain drawing near the end of its useful life and the sorry condition of Seattle’s pavement following our January snows.

And it was no big deal. I braked, pulled onto the sidewalk, put the chain back and on and was on my way.

But if I’d been a slave to fixie fashion? Without brakes, I would have been absolutely screwed. The only way to stop a brakeless, chainless fixed gear bike going downhill is to lay it down or run into something. Chain derailment may be less common occurrence when riding fixed or single speed than it is with a geared bike, but it can easily happen.