Category Archives: Commuting

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Pronto First Look

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“Pronto,” Seattle’s bike share system, launched today, with some 500 bikes spread across 50 stations. A couple of those stations are mere blocks from my office, so I took one of the shiny green things for a quick shakedown cruise.

The system operates similar to those found in other cities – insert your key fob (if you’re a member) or use the kiosk to buy a pass (if you’re a visitor), press a button to unlock a bike, adjust the seat height if needed, and off you go.

Unlike the 3-speed bike share bikes I’ve ridden in flat places like D.C., Denver and Columbus (yeah, freaking Columbus freaking Ohio got bike share before Seattle!), the Pronto bikes have a 7-speed internal hub. The shifting mechanism works well, but as you’d expect with heavy bikes that need to cater to a wide swath of people, the gearing is set pretty low. These things aren’t built for speed, and those accustomed to riding single speed are rarely going to need to shift out of gears 6 and 7, even climbing Pine Street.

It remains to be seen how well the helmet system will work. Right now it’s on the honor system, with the dreaded helmet vending machines expected sometime next year. I really hope the system proves popular, and the stations expand around town. It’s a great addition to Seattle’s transportation infrastructure, particularly for quick point-to-point trips around downtown and Capitol Hill. I’m excited to use it more in the months to come.

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2nd Ave Bikeway

I Don’t Like the 2nd Ave Bikeway

It’s a bit out of my way, but I took a detour this morning and rode into work along the entire length of the new 2nd Ave bikeway, which opened bright and shiny and new this morning.

For those not familiar with Seattle, the bikeway runs down a particularly busy street in the heart of downtown.  It replaces a traditional bike lane that was the scene of a tragic death just days ago.  Like most bike lanes in Seattle, the old 2nd Ave lane was dangerous for putting riders directly in the “door zone” of parked cars.  And it was doubly dangerous because it ran downhill, on a busy one-way street also running downhill, and was on the left where fewer drivers would expect to see bikes.

The new bikeway is still on the left, but it’s separated from traffic and benefits from a system of bike-specific lights designed to prevent collisions with left-turning vehicles. This morning had a bit of a festive air, with lots of riders trying out the bikeway, and earnest volunteers from Cascade Bicycle Club cheering riders along and offering ready-made postcards to send to the mayor thanking him for adding this bit of cycling infrastructure.  The bikeway needs a little more work – better demarcation between the uphill and downhill lanes, and some surface smoothing in a lot of places – but it’s certainly an improvement over the old lane . . .

if you like riding in the bike lane.

If this morning was any indication, riders are going to rely on the bike signals at their peril.  I had not one, but two cars blow through red turn signals (and green bike signals) across my path.  Fortunately for me, when I do ride in bike lanes, I always ride assuming cars can’t see me – which means never, ever, ever going through an intersection when a car traveling the same direction is next to or slightly ahead of me.

I fear that the bikeway has the potential to make matters worse, at least until a critical mass of riders are passing through downtown.  At several intersections, a line of parked cars separates the bikeway from traffic.  That’s great, but it also prevents left-turning vehicles from seeing downhill bicycle traffic, and vise-versa.  If those vehicles don’t mind the left turn signal (as the cars did to me this morning), there will be more collisions on 2nd.

For riders, the bikeway can’t be a panacea.  It’s not a replacement for critical thinking.  Those little bicycle signals may look pretty, but riders will continue to need to pay close attention to what vehicle traffic is doing.

And for me?  The next time I ride downhill on 2nd, I’m going to do what I’ve always done – take the lane.

Pronto

Seattle Bike Share Almost Here

Despite some website difficulties (and my skepticism about the program’s success, given Seattle’s nanny-statish helmet law), I signed up for a membership with “Pronto,” Seattle’s new bikeshare service.  It’s scheduled to launch in mid-October.  Although the nearest initial station is a mile from my house, I figure it will give me yet another option for closing shorter distances downtown and on Capitol Hill.  And I want to support the program, of course.

One system that doesn’t need any additional support?  Any bike share system in China.  Vox reports today that China has over 400,000 bike share bikes – and growing, very, very rapidly.

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Takes One to Know One

This excellent piece by Carl Alviani, titled “Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things,” tackles the cognitive dissonance at work when people spew vitriol at the occasional scofflaw cyclist (or worse, tar all cyclists with that brush) while blithely accepting the carnage and lawlessness committed all around them by drivers.

As Alviani notes, the vast majority of people don’t ride bicycles, particularly in urban settings, leading to:

The social psychology term for this bias is “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to attribute the actions of others to their inherent nature rather than their situation, and the less we sympathize with their situation, the greater the bias. A 2002 study from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory found that it plays a starring role in our perceptions of traffic behavior, with drivers far more likely to see a cyclist’s infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver. 

This lack of sympathy for cyclists is also related to the failure of drivers to understand why someone on a bicycle might do something – even if that “something” is breaking the law.  A driver might understand and sympathize with another driver who cuts off a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but is aghast at the cyclist who rolls through a red light.

It also probably explains why I always feel safer riding on Capitol Hill. You see, it’s not only the relatively lower traffic speeds, but also the fact that so many of the drivers are bike-sympathetic riders who just happen to be driving at the moment.

Thanks, hipsters!

Desert Ghost Bike

Reasons I Didn’t Ride, 2013 Edition

I tried Strava in 2013, but the novelty of it wore off – and it’s no substitute for tracking data in excel (probably safer, too, as I’m no longer competing against my top time for the “12th Avenue Bump” when riding home).

In any event, here’s how 2013 shaped up:

  • Days Ridden: 176.  That’s actually slightly better than last year, but still well below my goal of 200 days ridden.
  • Business Travel: 36.  The biggest category cutting into my bike commutes – the 50,000 or so miles I flew this year had to exact a toll somewhere.
  • Family: 17.  Not so bad, considering kids starting high school, football games, family events out, etc.
  • Vacation: 13.  Wow, I can’t believe I only took 13 days of vacation.  Sad.
  • Social: 4.  Or should we call that “anti-social?”  Although in my defense I was much better this year about riding my bike to happy hour and other get-togethers.

I missed one day due to a poorly-scheduled dental appointment, and one day to weather (an inch of snow during the morning commute earlier this month).  All in all, a good year.  I’m convinced the stress-busting benefits of riding (particularly the single-speed uphill ride at the end of each day) is what’s keeping me from missing any rides – or days of work – due to illness.

Here’s looking at 200 days ridden in 2014!

Cold weather cycling

Cold Weather Cycling

It’s been cold the last week or so in Seattle.  Temperatures in the teens and 20s, which is much colder than usual for this time of year.  To be sure, it’s not Duluth or Buffalo cold, but cold in a way we’re not really set up for in Seattle.  Many older homes here, including mine, have no insulation to speak of.  And we go more in for water- and wind-proof jackets than fur-lined parkas.

If we’d had rain or snow along with the cold, I wouldn’t have kept riding to work.  Our hills, narrow streets and inexperienced drivers make it far too dangerous to take the bike out when there’s ice on the pavement.  But – as is typical when it gets this cold here – the frigid air was accompanied by crisp, clear skies (until yesterday morning, when an overnight dew made it scary-slick on the way in).

People often look askance at me for riding in this weather, but honestly, it just takes a few gear adjustments.  And riding on a dazzling clear morning beats hell out of sidling up against crowds of sniveling sickies on the bus, or idling in a car, stuck in downtown holiday shopping traffic.  Here’s how I manage it:

Hands:  I’ve tried a number of different gloves over the years, and I’m convinced there aren’t any cold weather bike gloves that perform below 40 degrees.  As I don’t really need all of the specialty padding for my 3.5 mile commute, I just throw on my ski gloves.  So much better than even my warmest pair of bike gloves.

Head:  I like my simple, thin balaclava.  Decent enough protection for the ears and neck, and can be pulled over the chin and mouth if it’s really cold and windy.  Of course, wearing a balaclava = guaranteed bad hair day. Makes mine all stand straight up.

Neck:  It sucks to hoover up cold air through the neck of your jacket while riding downhill.  Zip-up sweater, balaclava or even a scarf – they all work.  Unfortunately, I forget about my neck half the time when heading out the door.  Brr.

Body:  My ride is short.  A sweater and windproof jacket work fine.  A little cold, but fine.

Legs:  For some reason, the cold doesn’t bother my legs.  I’m in knickers year-round.

Ride: I really appreciate my fixed-gear when the weather drops below freezing.  The connected ride, all the feedback I get with each pedal stroke, makes me far more confident when riding on potentially-frozen streets.

Like someone once said, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.  And it doesn’t take too much gear to make cold-weather riding work – at least here in Seattle.  Anyone else have any crappy-weather tips and tricks that work to keep them riding?

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Seattle’s Unclean Streets

Here’s another gripe about Seattle’s lack of bike infrastructure – or really, its lack of attention to the basic blocking and tackling of running a city.

In a city of foliage-blocked stop signs, roads laced with seams, cracks and a shameful number of potholes, and a nod to cyclists in the form of paint splashed on the road, we can add this: a near-total lack of attention to street cleaning.

When I lived in San Francisco, even the residential neighborhoods had once-weekly street cleaning – a four-hour window where parking was forbidden, on pain of being towed.

And the city meant it, as I found out more than once when I forgot to move my car.

Here?  While it’s big news that we’re getting a fancy cycle track cleaner for Broadway, it’s more telling that it never occurred to the city that they’d need the thing.  And in Seattle’s leafier neighborhoods?  Forget about it.  Those leaves fall, and absent conscientious property owners cleaning the streets in front of their places, those leaves remain to moulder and create giant slick patches all along our residential streets.

I get that there are city budget priorities, and tax dollars only go so far.  But I bet we could cover a fair bit of the cost with all of the impound fees.

And until then?  Yet another reason to just take the lane.

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A Note to Drivers from an “Aggressive Cyclist”

Really, KIRO7?  An investigation of “aggressive” cyclists?

Must be troll week.  But I’ll play along.

Apparently, “aggressive” cyclists are out flipping off drivers, running red lights and riding too close to pedestrians.

Guilty as charged.

But I think the nitwits at KIRO7 – who no doubt have never spent a day riding in the city, let alone commuting every day – need a little education in why “aggressive” cyclists do what they do.

  • The Bird!.  Me, I’m more partial to the “ass-slap”, as the times when I most want to flip the bird are when some impatient driver honks at me for taking the lane.  Is it rude?  Yes.  It it earned?  Yes.  If you’re a driver, and you get flipped off by a cyclist, there’s a 95% chance that you did something stupid, dangerous or rude to deserve it.  Just own it and try to be a better driver.

  • Running Red Lights.  Drivers need to get in touch with their passive-aggressive tendencies here.  Is it really such a problem that a cyclist just ran through a red light?  Does it affect you in any way, other than to offend your sense of law-and-order?   (Seattle pedestrians, cowed by generations of overly-hyper jaywalking enforcement, are complicit in this view)  Yes, cyclists occasionally run lights in dangerous ways.  But the vast majority of the time, what I see (and often what I do myself) is cyclists running through red lights when it’s safe to do so.  You see, traffic lights are designed for cars.  They’re not designed for bikes.  When you’re stopped on a bike in traffic, you are at your most vulnerable.  Red lights expose you to unaware right turners and red light runners in 4000 pound cars – all sorts of evil.  While there are plenty of situations where it’s safer to wait for the light, there are also many where it is better to ride through it.  Once you’ve ridden in the city for a while, you realize – as drivers and occasional cyclists don’t – that safety dictates taking what the philosophers call a critical view of traffic laws.

  • Pedestrians.  One critical element to riding in the city is to be predictable and visible.  Seattle’s pedestrians are neither; they dress in black and think nothing of scurrying into traffic after loitering pensively on street corners.  They also need to realize that cyclists need only 20 inches of space to get by them – which is, by the way, a lot less than a car.  We also want to preserve momentum; it’s what keeps us safe.  So we’ll ride in front of you, or ride behind you.  Just please keep walking in a predictable way.  And don’t expect us to stop for you, unless you’re in a large group.  Just keep walking.  You’ll be fine.

  • Bike Lanes.  Look, I know you think I should be riding in the bike lane.  But Seattle’s bike lanes suck.  They put riders right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  They’re often littered with debris, clogged with double-parked cars, or abruptly shut off for construction.  My daily commute includes less than 1.5 miles each way on 12th Ave, which has bike lanes in both directions.  And most days you’d need two hands, each way, to count the number of times I have to leave the bike lane for double-parked cars.  Riding in the bike lane also makes it hard for traffic turning into the bike-laned street to see you.  The downhill portion of 12th from Cherry to Yesler is –  much like the downhill lane on Pine – completely unusable without taking your life in your hands.  In short, Seattle’s bike lanes are unreliable and dangerous.  Sure, I’ll use them for climbing, when door zone issues and reaction time don’t loom so large.  And I’ll happily ride in them in other places where it’s safe to do so.  But drivers need to be prepared for cyclists to abandon the bike lane, and take the whole lane, whenever the bike lane fails us.  Which brings us to . . .

  • Taking the Lane.  For whatever reason, this seems to outrage drivers, even though in many places in the city we’re barely slowing you down.  I take the lane because it’s the safest place to ride.  It gives me the most options to avoid obstructions or one of Seattle’s famously-obtuse pedestrians darting into the street.  And I really don’t want you to try and “squeeze by.”  When you do, you radically reduce the bailout options, and increase the danger.  Riders have to be more aware, because we are constantly in danger of being crushed.  And drivers increase that danger when they squeeze by, or think we should ride right in the door zone – where we’re much less visible to car passengers, pedestrians and crossing traffic – to allow you to get ahead of us.  So hang back.  In the city, it’s not going to be for more than a few blocks.

  • Riding on the Sidewalk.  I’ll admit,  I don’t like riding on the sidewalk.  It feels wrong – even though it’s legal to do so in Seattle.  The thing is, it’s dangerous when done at speed, because of the lack of predictability and the overall cluelessness of Seattle pedestrians.  But it’s sometimes preferable to ride on the sidewalk for a block or so, in order to avoid construction or dangerous road conditions.  Or to execute a “Copenhagen left”, which is both safer and better for traffic flow in dense areas.  So don’t be offended at riders on the sidewalk – although it’s fair to expect that they ride slowly and courteously.

  • Sharrows.  Many drivers think cyclists need to ride in the middle of the “sharrows” found on Seattle streets.  But that would be wrong, because to do so would – again – put the rider right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  There’s also some unique quirk to Seattle roads that positions a pavement crack right in the middle of the sharrows.  Note to drivers: pavement cracks are bad when you’re riding a bike.  BTW, while some think “sharrows” is brief for “sharing arrows”, it’s actually short for “shitty arrows:” a way for the city to claim tons of “bike infrastructure” for the cost of a little paint.  Ultimately, sharrows are just a reminder that there will be bikes in the road.  Possibly taking the lane.  Nothing more.

  • Signaling.  I’ll signal when it’s safe to do so, and I think it’s useful to drivers, pedestrians or other cyclists.  But have you seen the state of Seattle’s streets?  It’s rarely a good idea to take a hand off the grips.

As with drivers, sometimes cyclists ride in rude or dangerous ways.  But a lot of what non-cyclists consider “aggressive” is just what’s required to navigate automotive infrastructure on a bicycle.  Ride a few miles on our pedals and perhaps you’ll have a clearer view.

 

Bikes Merge with Traffic

Safety in Numbers?

Does having more riders on the road mean things are safer?  Probably, once you reach critical mass.  But there’s a difficult middle stage, where more cyclists make it more dangerous.  Like now in Seattle.

I’ve never been shy about why I believe it’s safest – at least in American cities – to be a vehicular cyclist and to be minimally troubled by obeying traffic rules.  The trouble is, many other riders adopt a more tentative riding style.  That’s fine for bike trails or quiet residential streets, but experienced riders know that approach doesn’t cut it for urban riding in a city lacking meaningful cycling infrastructure.

So the other morning, I pulled up on 12th  at the Madison intersection, heading south.  Two riders were ahead of me in the bike lane, stopped before the crosswalk.  The bike lane on 12th is borderline usable, but it doesn’t have a bike box at the intersection, let alone any special signaling.  A very large construction truck was in the lane, signaling to turn right.

This is a situation that demands pulling in front of the crosswalk, in front of the truck.  Or maybe, if there’s room,  joining car traffic in the regular lane behind the truck.  Basically, anywhere is better than sitting in the bike lane in the truck driver’s blind spot as he attempts to turn right.

One guess where the other two riders were.

So my choice is to rudely force my way around them, or defer to the dangerous riding decision they’ve made for me.

That’s just one example.  I want to ride politely, but I’m more interested in making it to wherever I’m going in one piece.  I’m sure with better bike infrastructure – and a lot more riders – this would largely be a non-issue.  It would rarely be necessary to ride aggressively or vehicularly.

But as bike commuting grows slowly on our pothole-riddled streets, there’s a tension between those of us who ride as the conditions demand today, and those who ride as we aspire for them to be.