Pronto First Look

“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.





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.

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.

Bicycle Overdesign

So, this “Seattle” bike won some sort of bike contest for the “Ultimate Urban Bike” and is going into production.  While it’s vaguely cool looking, at least in a “Breaking Away” meets “Aliens” sort of way, it’s just another piece of evidence showing that bicycle design reached its evolutionary limits in the 1960’s.


Sure, there are performance improvements and useful add-ons to make.  But when you starting compromising the handlebars by having them double as a lock, and replacing perfectly adequate fenders with some sort of crazy brush system that you KNOW is going to underperform and get clogged with junk, and adding another inverted triangle to the headtube geometry just because you can, you’ve gone beyond expanding the vernacular into design for design’s sake.

And I bet that headlight is WAY too bright for riding in the city.


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!

No Surprise in Hobby Lobby

As this blog is at least partly about the law, here’s my brief take on today’s Hobby Lobby case: although it seems strange and petty to me that it’s 2014 and we’re still having debates about contraception, it’s an unsurprising decision.

Why unsurprising?  Two reasons:  First,  if the government admits that some groups (e.g., non-profit corporations) have rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it also admits that for-profit business owners have such rights, it’s pretty hard to make a cogent argument why for-profit corporations shouldn’t also have such rights.

Secondly, whether the RFRA precludes a particular form of regulation often comes down – as it did here – to a question of the “least restrictive means.”  As in “is this regulation set up in a way to achieve the government’s goal while interfering as minimally as possible with religious rights?”  And again, it’s really hard for the government to win this point when it has already granted exceptions to the contraceptive mandate for religious non-profits.  

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Congress enacted a law – in response to a Supreme Court decision that many felt was unduly dismissive of religious concerns – that offers sweeping protection for religious rights. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the government is going to be held to task in showing that it is complying with that law.  And on these facts, in this case, the government had a steeply uphill climb to make.

Cantor’s Loss Shows Why We Don’t Need Campaign Finance Regulation

Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, just suffered a humiliating loss in the Virginia primary. Overnight, he goes from being one of the most powerful people in Washington to just another K Street insider.

I don’t feel sorry for him, and even will indulge in a little Schadenfreude at the idea of a politician being humbled – even if the guy who beat him has even more reprehensible politics than the soul-less Cantor.

But his loss helps bring into focus one of the key points I’ve been trying to make to those apoplectic about the Supreme Court’s perceived loosening of campaign finance regulation in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions: money just isn’t as important as it used to be when it comes to campaigns.

But first, I need to point out a couple of key points that many of those in favor of campaign finance regulation gloss over:

  1. Political speech of all stripes is at the core of the First Amendment; and
  2. The government carries a very high burden to show that regulation of speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment is both necessary and narrowly focused at a particular harm.

This is why quid pro quo, direct campaign contributions are an easy case, and why broad restrictions of the sort at play in Citizens United and McCutcheon were doomed to fail.  It’s hard to regulate speech – you’ve got to have a very real harm and a very targeted, effective means of addressing that harm.  And this is how it should be; it’s no place for “feel good” legislation.

But for those frustrated that the First Amendment prohibits the sort of government speech control they’d like to see, the Cantor result should be seen as a panacea.  Perhaps they don’t need to wail about the injustice of it all, propose ridiculous constitutional amendments, and engage in spin (“Corporations Aren’t People! “Money isn’t Speech!”) worthy of the most hackneyed campaign. For Cantor’s loss – which follows the poor ROI of campaign spending in the 2012 and 2014 national campaigns – demonstrates that it’s getting harder for money to “buy” elections.  For grass roots groups, it’s never been cheaper and easier to organize and get the word out.  If you’ve got a message that resonates, social media provides the sort of publishing platform that only the most plutocratic of plutocrats could afford a generation ago.

In Virginia tonight, a challenger with less than a quarter million in campaign funds knocked off the second-highest ranking member of the House, an incumbent with millions of dollars at his disposal.  This should be seen as very good news to those who want the “corrupting power of money” out of the process – even as it provides further evidence that attempting to regulate campaign speech may be as unnecessary as it is unconstitutional.


Cycling Columbus

My travel schedule has been nutty of late, so even fewer posts than usual. But here’s one: about my trip last week to Columbus, Ohio, a city I visited for the first time.

I was impressed with Columbus.  What I’d pictured as a rust belt city was in fact a thriving town that seems to be rapidly reinventing itself.  The “Short North” neighborhood between downtown and Ohio State University campus is a rapidly-gentrifying area full of bars and restaurants, most of which look like they’ve just opened in the last five years (not unlike Market Street in Ballard, in that respect).  There’s all sorts of construction along the river, with a newly built esplanade along the downtown bank.  And to top it off, Columbus has some of my favorite transportation options: Uber, Car2Go, and a bike share system – “COGo,” which I used to see all that I could around town.  

I’ve lauded bike share here before, and I try to use it whenever I come across a new system.  Because of the vagaries of getting between Seattle and Columbus, I had more time than I usually do when traveling on business this time.  Instead of using the bike share to make a single trip or two to meet people, I was able to use it for an afternoon to play tourist.  And it’s the best way, hands-down, to see a town.  It helps, too, that Columbus is very flat, and has wide, empty sidewalks (the streets are highly suboptimal for riding, I learned). It may be a different story when the weather gets oppressive, but on a 62 degree day it was darn near ideal.

The flatness also encourages a lot of single-speed and fixed gear riding; I saw these bikes everywhere.

Purple single speed in the Short North, near one of the arches from which Columbus draws its “Arch City” nickname.

Seattle Bike Share Nears

With Seattle (finally) getting a bike share system later this year, the Puget Sound Bike Share program has put together an interactive site showing proposed bike share station locations.  You can vote up the stations you like, and propose other locations.

I expect the system will be fairly limited at first, but could expand rapidly if bike share proves popular.  The problem, of course, is Seattle’s helmet law, which our City Counsel hasn’t seen fit to eliminate (preferring to spend time on priorities like protecting the taxicab monopoly and running experiments on the continued viability of Seattle small businesses).  As a result, every station is going to need these god-forsaken “helmet vending machines,” which will add further friction to anyone’s decision to take a spin on one of the yet-to-be-named system bikes.

Of course, I will plunk down my annual membership to support the system.  Having used bike share in other cities, I love the idea of having this option here.  But I’m not optimistic about the success of the system as long it has to labor under nanny-state restrictions. 

Bikes, Business & Barratry