Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Big Chill

Compared to the northern cities, we don't have much to complain about... but Atlanta has seen a bit of wintry weather this week. Monday and Tuesday saw lows in the mid-teens, and we didn't get above freezing for several days. Although it was cold, it was also dry, and cycling was no trouble at all. Just a couple of extra layers. For myself, I added a thin balaclava under my hat and scarf, wore a thick wool sweater, and put on some thick acrylic tights under my pants. I also wore my warmest gloves with a liner underneath. And I was perfectly fine for the 30 minute ride to work. OK, my toes got a little cold, but I was wearing the same midweight wool socks and dress boots that I had been wearing all autumn...

Then things got exciting. They were predicting snow on Wednesday night, and I was really looking forward to it. I love snow! It's so pretty. I figured I would take my bike on the train if it got bad before I left work. But instead of snow, we got ice. Super-slick sheet ice, black ice on the bridges, ice on everything. Not like a real ice storm that knocks down all the powerlines, just freezing rain that fell wet and froze when it hit the cold ground. The news gave out some description of a "thin layer of arctic air at ground level" or something like that.

At any rate, it created havoc for commuters. No one had expected the ice, so they left work at their normal time and promptly started sliding off roads and crashing into things. I know people who fell walking, who fell bicycling home, who had to abandon their car miles from their house. In fact, thousands of cars were left in the road, traffic on highways and suburban arterials was at a near-standstill, and over 1,000 car crashes were reported. I had no trouble cycling to and from the MARTA station, and MARTA was running just fine. I have to admit feeling a little smug about this, and also feeling guilty that I feel smug...

Friday, December 10, 2010

The IKEA Bicycle Fuss

All of the business papers have been spreading the news of IKEA's holiday generosity to their employees: a new bicycle for all 12,400 of them. The press release contains tons of commentary about the health benefits of riding a bicycle, and also points out that bicycling is good for cities, and the environment, and achieving sustainability. So it's too bad that they chose such an odd bicycle. This is not my idea of a suitable bike for riding to work in the city. Awkward riding position, excessive gearing, no fenders, no lights, aluminum. It's not quite a mountain bike, although it is styled like one, but are those knobby tires?

Nonetheless, it is an admirable effort on their part, and I hope a significant number of their employees take the hint. Perhaps they will trade this bike for something more comfortable. There's already one listed for sale on Ebay. And if IKEA ever wants to think about a better design - you know, for next year - they don't have to look far. Check out the awesome cargo bikes IKEA Denmark provides for customers who arrive by bicycle and buy more than they can carry back home...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Street Life

I’m continuing on my theme of public spaces and public life… I should add here that much of my thinking has been inspired by Jan Gehl, the godfather of the bicycling revolution in Copenhagen (and now working with NYC, Sydney, and many other world cities). My case study this time is the Elliott Street Pub, a tiny bar on the edge of downtown. The pub has two distinguishing characteristics:
-It has been adopted by the surrounding neighborhood as THE hangout bar.
-Elliott Street, never a major street to begin with, has been nearly closed for the past year or so due to the Mitchell Street bridge reconstruction.

Mitchell Street bridge was closed some time in 2009 after a routine inspection gave it a “sufficiency rating” of 2. Out of a possible 100, where 100 is perfect condition and 0 is, well, imminent collapse. For many months, it was a delightful shortcut as it remained open to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Unlike the cars and trucks that were prohibited from crossing the bridge, there was little risk of damage from non-motorized travel…another way that bicycle and pedestrian traffic can help save a city money.

Eventually they began construction to rebuild the bridge and it was closed off completely. There is just a gap there now, and someday there will be a new bridge with an odd left-lane bicycle lane. But that’s another story. In the meantime, Elliott Street won’t take you anywhere useful at all, except to the pub. And a pretty large percentage of the patrons get there on foot or by bicycle.

So the street has been reclaimed for living by neighborhood residents and bar patrons. You can stand in it and watch fireworks downtown, or listen to trains passing through the ‘gulch’. During events, parking spaces are used for tables where people sit, mingle, and carve designs for the popular monthly Iron Pour. It is a beautiful, flexible use of space that would probably horrify most traffic engineers. But for the people who go there, that urban space is used to build a business and a neighborhood.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jingle Bells

The holiday season is here in full force... Kicking off tonight with Hanukah and lasting through New Year's Eve. There are decorations in every park and plaza. I still need to put lights on the house, but the bicycle is decorated. The front of my basket now sports a giant white bell with red and green flowers glued to it. It looks cute, but it sounds fantastic! Or annoying. Give me a couple of days and I may hate it. But it jingles loudly on every little bump and turns everyone's head. Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Skirts and Tights

The cooler weather and bouts of rain have taken cycling rates back down to their usual winter levels. Maybe a tad more than last year, but it feels disappointing after some of the surges we had back in the spring and early fall. So, it makes me very happy to come across an Atlantan who is handling the chilly temperatures with aplomb. Adorable bike too!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mountain Biking - On Real Mountains!

Has it really been over a week since I posted anything here? Crazy. But I have a series of good excuses, from the worst food poisoning of my life (yet) to a mini-vacation in an internet-serviceless mountain cabin to some exciting developments in my personal life. The good part about the mountain trip was that I got to put the Schwinn to several of its intended purposes: transporting it easily on vacation via car-mounted bicycle rack, and riding off-road.

I have griped before about the incompatibility of the standard trunk-mounted rack and step-through frames. One of the reasons I added a diamond frame bicycle to my collection was to have something I could toss onto a rack and take on vacation. The simplicity of hoisting this bike onto the rack, strapping it down, and walking away was such a relief compared to the handful of times I have tried to take Blue Belle somewhere. In that case, it was 30+ minutes of wedging, readjusting, swearing, getting greasy, and snagging delicate cables, followed by rage at the failure of the rack manufacturer to accommodate my precious bicycles. Several people have suggested using a 'boom bar' to create a good mounting point, a bar that grips onto the stem and seatpost. But my old-fashioned seatpost does not have the little knobby clamp that would make it secure on that end, and my stem/ headtube area has bells and shifters and other stuff mounted to it that would get damaged. So, ironically, I had to go out and get a bike to fit my bike rack.

Anyway, the other reason for the Schwinn was the beautiful, wooded, utterly tempting forest roads near this cabin, which we visit regularly. We would often take long walks along the paved and unpaved roads, talking about how much fun they would be on two wheels. I was not interested in crazy rock-jumping trails, but those bumpy roads leading back into the woods were too much to resist. And they were no place for a city bike.
That looks steep. And slippery. Help!

The Schwinn has fat tires with a slightly knobby texture, an extra-sturdy frame and fork, 21 gears, a slightly shorter wheelbase, and probably some other stuff I don't know about. It's an older-style mountain bike though, so it is made of steel and doesn't use shocks. The way they used to do it! It also still doesn't have bar tape or a new chain - I've been busy.
He's done this before...

The Beau coached me through the basics of riding on unpaved surfaces, gravel, leaves, ruts, etc. It's a lot like riding past a construction area or something, where there is gravel and sand spilled. He gave me some tips for climbing, corners, avoiding hazards, and going down long grades (don't ride your brakes). And then we rode up a mountain. It was fun, though heavy breathing replaced conversation after a while. It was also hunting season, which worried us both a bit. We got all the way up to the top of the ridge.

Then we rode back down the mountain. There was screaming. There was hollering. My arms and hands got tired from holding on to the vibrating, bouncing handlebars. I felt like I was going way too fast. It was a scary and entirely new experience, but also loads of fun! Like a roller coaster! But you don't have to stand in line and the view is much nicer. I'll definitely do it again.
Looking pleased with myself after a successful ride on forest roads

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta

My trip to New York gave me a lot to think about, but I was really only there for a couple of days. Life back in Atlanta has been pretty routine. Riding to work, finding creative places to lock a bicycle at interesting new (and old) drinking establishments, oiling chains and trying to rearrange the house so there will be enough places to squeeze in a bike or two. There were a couple of days when I hardly saw anyone else on a bicycle, even though the weather was lovely. Then there was the Chomp and Stomp in Cabbagetown last weekend (yes, I am a week behind in postings!).

It really goes to show how important location is for bicycle culture. I saw that in NYC too. There are certain neighborhoods where cycling becomes really popular, even in the midst of a city with minimal bicycle mode share. Part of it may be due to young, trendy residents picking up on trends from elsewhere - fixed-gear aficionados and celebrity sightings. But it seems to follow the infrastructure as well.

Both Little Five Points and East Atlanta, where bicycle culture seems to congregate, have good bike lanes connecting them to the downtown area (Edgewood Ave. and Glenwood Ave., respectively). They also have a pretty good network of local streets that allow bicycle riders to get around the neighborhood on quiet, low-speed side streets. They also have small commercial centers that make it possible for local residents to meet their daily needs without going across town. Now if you could just connect those two neighborhoods with a bike lane on Moreland Ave., we'd be all set!

The point is, if you hold a funky festival in the midst of these bike-happy places, you get a whole lot of bicycles. Atlanta Bicycle Coalition set up a bike valet station to provide free bicycle parking (donations welcome), and it was full up. I can't even guess how many hundreds of bikes came through there that day. And there were still many more who didn't make it over to the valet at all.
Bicycle parking here!
Parking this many bikes takes organization
Rockin' the mixte (a unisex bicycle frame)

I see about one tandem for every hundred bicycles or so
On the far side of the festival, bikes were parked three deep

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best of NYC

To wrap up my trip to New York City, here are a few of my favorite shots...
Dodging pedestrian on Brooklyn Bridge

A chap enters the riverside bicycle path

Folding bikes are popular in a city with limited parking

Another mini bike


Monday, November 8, 2010

Nitty Gritty City

When I visited NYC last week, I specifically left myself some extra time to wander around looking at the city's new bicycle infrastructure. 200 new miles of bike lanes in the past three years, for over 1500 total lane-miles. Impressive, no?
Bike lane on Broadway
Well, yes and no. The infrastructure itself is first class. I mean, I am really jealous, and I wish we could get anything that looks like that in Atlanta! Many of the lanes used colored pavement to make them stand out. Most of them are buffered, at least at key points. A beautiful bicycle-only path loops most of the way around the island of Manhattan, offering views of waterfront parks, and the bridges have designated bicycle lanes separated from motorized traffic. Altogether, it forms a pretty comprehensive network until you get out toward the edges of the city.
Traversing the Williamsburg Bridge on a dedicated bike lane. The pedestrian route is on the opposite side, also elevated above traffic.
Newly installed buffered lane with bike signal and signage
Using the lane
Bicycle facilities on the Brooklyn Bridge
A separated path next to 11th Avenue
However, I saw very few bicyclists relative to the total volume of traffic. There are streets in Atlanta with more frequent bicycle traffic than many parts of Manhattan! The majority of the people I did see on bicycles were making deliveries - men transporting restaurant take-out and flower bouquets for low wages. There were also a handful of spandex-clad athletes, some groups of tourists on rented bikes around major attractions, and a smattering of hipsters and everyday folks on basic city bikes. Hardly anyone was riding in the bicycle lanes. A large percentage were riding the wrong way, against traffic, in either the general purpose lane or a bike lane. Some were on the sidewalk.
Empty delivery basket, traveling wrong-way in the bicycle lane
A woman rides against traffic on a quiet street
Rented bicycles near Times Square

Chinese food trumps traffic controls
What's going on? I suspect it is the local transportation "culture". Every city has one. NYC has a dominant pedestrian culture in which motorists tend to expect people to be in the street. They drive cautiously compared to other cities and are very good about yielding to pedestrians. People cross the street whenever there is a break in traffic, regardless of signals or pavement markings. It seems to be understood that pedestrian travel is an essential part of a functioning city. This was the only place I have ever been in America where I felt like drivers interacted with me person-to-person when I was on foot. This is good for bicyclists, because drivers are expecting to see people in the roadway and to be respectful towards them. It does have drawbacks, though, as pedestrians often take over bicycle lanes.
Annexed bike lane
Bells are required in NYC - and used frequently on the Brooklyn Bridge to shoo pedestrians out of the bike lane

There is also an issue of supply and demand. Central Park and the waterfront path were popular. These routes had few pedestrians and ample room. Better yet, they allowed cyclists to travel at full speed, bypassing the traffic signals and congestion on parallel streets. But they didn't go where the people on bicycles were trying to go. For the delivery guys trying to transport hot food a few blocks away, as fast as possible, it seemed most expedient to ride up the nearest street even if traffic was going the opposite way. With lots of one-way streets and few curb cuts, the bike lanes rarely took cyclists to the front door of their destination. Instead they used the closest lane, often on the opposite side of the street from the bicycle facility, and rode up the sidewalk from the corner. The unprotected bike lanes served little purpose at all, filled with delivery trucks and double-parked cars, and the rest of the traffic was moving at bicycle speed anyway. At the Brooklyn Bridge, a one-way vehicular ramp forced bicycle riders coming from lower Manhattan to make a large lap around the block to reach the bike route; most rode wrong-way up the ramp instead.
One-way access to the Brooklyn Bridge bike route
 Theft is clearly an issue, and bicycles of any apparent value were rare. The vintage steel frame bicycles that I love were fairly common, probably because they are cheap, less attractive to thieves, and come equipped for city riding with baskets and fenders. Pedicabs were available in a few places, but the prices were exorbitant relative to a taxicab ($20 for 15 minutes).
A riderless pedicab using a brand new lane

Here are my recommendation to Mayor Bloomberg, who I'm sure is reading this, and to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan:

New York City needs a bike share program! Transportation in NYC is all about flexibility - take the subway to work, then walk to a nearby restaurant to meet friends, share a taxi over to the Village, maybe catch the bus home. But if you ride a bicycle somewhere, you are stuck with it. If your friends are taking a cab, you have to ride and meet them, or leave the bicycle behind and hope you can come back for it later. With a bike share, that flexibility is restored. It can be substituted for any other mode without committing you for the rest of the day. Friends can spontaneously decide to cycle somewhere together. And theft is not a concern for the rider.

 I would also recommend buffered two-way bike lanes, contraflow lanes, and, where feasible, separated bicycle paths that give riders an advantage over traffic. They could also use official recognition of the bicycle delivery operators, and ask them what type of infrastructure they need - priority bicycle parking? They could also support pedicab expansion and freight distribution management.
The waterfront path

Friday, November 5, 2010

Public Streets, Public Life

I know everyone is sick of hearing about politics, including me, so I won't address it directly. But I do want to make some observations about general concepts of political engagement and public discourse as they relate to urban form.

A few things struck me in New York City... One was the frequency with which I encountered parks, plazas, and community gardens. You didn't have to intentionally go to a park, you just kind of wound up in one on your way somewhere. There is Central Park, of course, an enormous presence throughout upper Manhattan. But there are also delightful public spaces crammed into every available spot. Benches and landscaping invite passerby to linger for a few extra minutes, and friends meet on street corners and near subway stations.
Park benches and gardens line the Broadway median
A cyclist greets friends at Union Square

Moments of beauty in everyday life

They are even reclaiming parts of the roadway, using planters, paint, and attractive fences to create places to walk and sit. (I'll describe how this affects bicycling in another post.)

The sidewalks themselves are enormous compared to most other cities. And with good reason; there are thousands - millions? - of people using them all day and night. I can't even guess how many people I came face-to-face with in the day I spent walking around. There are social norms in place so that you limit your actual interaction with others to a manageable level, such as not quite making eye contact. But you can interact if you want to, especially with people you encounter regularly. No matter what, you realize that you are in a diverse community but still have much in common with its members.

This opportunity for interaction is largely lacking in Atlanta, and people are noticing. At a recent meeting, one person after another said, in their own ways, "We don't have a public life in the Atlanta region. We don't have public places to meet, to express ourselves to the community, to interact with people who aren't exactly like us, to create a society. Everything is gated, commercialized, privatized. There is no commons."

One of the facts I heard about NYC, while I was there at my conference, was that 80% of their public space is their streets. This includes the sidewalks and bikeways. So the way that they use that space is crucial for creating a society, a public realm. I would assume the figures are similar for Atlanta's public space, but ours in almost entirely used for motor vehicles. You can't interact from a car. Honking and shouting are not a basis for community. Even rolling the window down to talk to a neighbor feels somewhat divisive, as you strain your voice over the sound of the motor and continually glance behind you for approaching traffic. And although local streets make up most of the transportation network, the majority of car travel takes place on major roads and highways where no meaningful interaction is possible at all.

How does this affect our perception of society? Will we support different public policies as a result? Does it change our perception of our role in the political system? Does it limit our ability to get unbiased information about the world around us? And if it is changing our sense of community for the worse, what can we do about it? Will we have the strength to change the existing policies, and create a new social and political future?
The High Line: NYC created a new park on elevated train tracks several stories off the ground

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Amsterdam?

There were several moments in New York City that made me wonder - had I been transported from New Amsterdam to old Amsterdam? Narrow, crooked streets were lined with narrow brick buildings, flower boxes bloomed from windows, and practical city bicycles were chained to every stationary object.

A stylish, mature woman in a camel blazer rode past, accompanied by the rhythmic creak of various worn bicycle parts.

Some blocks further on, a bicycle shop - the famous Adeline Adeline - offered Dutch-style city bikes from Batavus, Workcycles, Pashley, and Abici.