When Athletes Commute by Bike

I commute by bike when I can, and blog about it sometimes. Lately I’ve seen a neat trend: celebrities talking about transportation. Not long ago, Brad Pitt was on The Daily Show, and someone pull-quoted this gem from him:

After looking at this (exhaustive) page of celebrities on bikes, it seems he isn’t the only one. But a lot of those look more like weekend cruises than commutes. Yes, but! Look at LeBron James:

LeBron James biking to work. Photo credit: @jacknruth

King James is jamming in traffic, on the way to work. Just like a regular guy! (Except for $16 million difference in our salaries, I mean.)

But that ain’t all, sports fans. Turns out that in 2008, at least, a large number of pitchers for the Baltimore Orioles were commuting by bike: “At last count, the cyclists include Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, Brian Burres, Garrett Olson and Lance Cormier.”

The original story in the Baltimore Sun is unavailable, but coverage in Streetsblog said that Guthrie rode to Camden Yards six days a week during long home-stands (on Sundays his wife dropped him off after church). His comment:

“There are some side benefits,” Guthrie said. “It’s the overall idea of being outside and exercising instead of driving. I hate cars, I hate driving, I hate doing something I don’t have to do. For me to drive downtown is a waste of gas; it’s a waste of my time. I can ride faster than I can drive.”

I can’t ride faster than I drive, but I do like the idea of having healthy legs.

A Humble Suggestion to Improve Beaverton Transit Center

Trimet opened a brand-spanking-new bike facility at the Beaverton Transit Center yesterday. Plenty of the local mandarins turned out and speechified, and for good reason. It’s a nice-looking facility, with lots of secure, covered parking for bikes that requires a card for entry. There’s even a bike repair stand, some basic tools, and an air pump. The Westside Transportation Alliance toured it with an representative from Trimet:

I have two problems with this set-up. First, I’m not sure it’s necessary, and it’s definitely not what cyclists want.

In a post at BikePortland.org, Jonathon Maus talked to TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane about the project: “There’s only so much space on the [rail] cars, no matter how many hooks we put on there,” McFarlane said. “If we’re really going to have a lot of cycling access to the MAX system we need to have a different way to solve the problem.”

By a different way, Trimet means the way they prefer. Just last month, Maus summarized results from a large study in Los Angeles that concluded,

Survey respondents overwhelmingly said that being allowed to take their bike on the train influenced their decision to travel by bike and rail. Of the 477 people who responded to the question, 65 percent chose “allowed to take bike on train” as a factor that influenced their decision. (my emphasis)

Trimet could not have known about those survey results before breaking ground on its two-bike and-ride facilities (there’s another in Gresham). But they actually did their own survey in 2008, one which produced even more definitive results:

more than three-quarters (76%) cited that they needed their bike to reach their destination, and indicated that they were not willing to use secure bike parking at their boarding station instead of bringing their bike onboard. (my emphasis)

I like that Trimet surveyed cyclists like me, but it’s discouraging to give them such a overwhelming mandate to let us take our bikes on trains, only to see them ignored because limitations they describe only a few paragraphs later:

However, several factors constrain expanding existing space dedicated to bikes onboard trains. The principal constraint is the space required to serve the growing number of passengers at peak hours.

To recap: more than three quarters of cyclists told Trimet they would prefer to take their bikes on the trains, and Trimet responded by … building an expensive facility to encourage people not to take their bikes on trains.

My second problem is that the station is still poorly designed for cyclists and pedestrians. Let’s consider a use case of a cyclist wanting to take his train on the MAX to head eastbound, where downtown and Portland State University are. First, the cyclist must walk his bike on the platform:

I don’t dispute the rationale for this. If I were a pedestrian, I wouldn’t want to be broadsided by a cyclist. But once the cyclist has dismounted, what’s the next step? He needs a ticket. Here’s the problem: for all eastbound trains, the ticket machine is at the far end of the platform.

The eastbound Blue Line track at Beaverton Transit Center. Note the ticket machine on the far left (with the blue and white signs on it), far from where cyclists and pedestrians enter the station. The machine for the eastbound red line train is also at the far end of the platform.

For every cyclist that needs a ticket for the eastbound MAX, they need to walk their bike the entire platform to buy one. Every pedestrian entering the station that needs a ticket to head eastbound needs to cross the platform, too. Now look at a map of the transit center:

The center is only accessible by Lombard Ave (unless you walk behind stores in an adjacent shopping center). So almost all the pedestrian and cycle access to the station–including people using the new bike park and ride–comes from the west, yet the ticket machines are on the east.

This seems like a small issue, until you multiply it. For me, it’s the same problem, multiple times a week. And I’m far from the only one using the station. In the video above, Trimet’s Colin Maher said that Beaverton Transit Center is the system’s busiest, with 18,500 MAX boardings each weekday, and 12% of those are cyclists. Unless my math is incorrect, that’s 2,220 cyclists who have to struggle every day with a poorly designed train platform.

Here’s my suggestion: Trimet, you spent $275,000 to build this facility, yet the positioning of your ticket machines is backwards. Please move at least one of them to the other side of the platform, the one where people actually enter the station.

Bikes are Better than Cars: Reason Umpteen

So there I was on the way to work, sawing away in the bike lane. I was passing some bushy trees (or tree-ey bushes), and dangling from one of them was a plastic Safeway bag. Ahh! The scourge of plastic bags!

The bag was all billowed out in the morning breeze, and at about shoulder level. But what the heck was it doing in a tree? Not good. So, while still cruising along at 15 mph, I reached out my right hand and snagged it. Then, without even slowing down, I stuffed it in the bottle holder pouch in my backpack.

Yes yes, I know I’m a treehugger and all that. But just try doing what I did while driving your car!

Fuji Suncrest, 1987 – 2008

Fuji Suncrest, 21, Beaverton, died Oct. 28 of acute frame fracture.

A remembrance will be held tonight, after dinner, over a few beers.

The Fuji was first in the possession of a bicycle shop owner in Watsonville, Calif., where he used it as a high-end mountain bike.

In 1989 the shop owner sold it to a college student, who used it as a mountain bike and as an all-purpose commuter. The student added a Blackburn rack to the bike, and rode it continually from 1989 until 1992, in place of a car. Much of this commuting was on the UC Santa Cruz campus, and some of it consisted of, arguably, one of the best 3-mile commutes in the world: down West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, Calif.

ATIS547, via Flickr

West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, Calif. Credit: ATIS547, via Flickr

The bike was a stalwart companion, despite impressive misuse including mountain bike crashes such as one at 25 mph, and a spectacular one off a bridge into a river.  On more than one occasion, the bike carried the student and his friend home on the rear rack, when his friend was too drunk to see straight.

In 1992 the Fuji moved to San Francisco and then to Palo Alto, where it served as a light-duty commuter and weekend mountain bike.

From 1996 until 2000, also known as The Dark Years, the Fuji sat mostly dormant in a garage in Oklahoma City, an inhospitable city for bicycling.

In 2000 the bike moved back to Santa Rosa, Calif., where it was fitted with slicks and served as a short-duty commuter.

In 2004 the bike moved to Beaverton, Ore., and in 2006 began a second era of bike commuting. The commuting started out as relatively short-hop: a 3-mile ride to the train station, then a 1.6 mile ride in downtown Portland. For close to two years the bike humbly and safely conveyed the same owner on commutes and trips around town, even as he added clipped pedals and fenders (a necessity in a city as rainy as Portland), and the seat post clamp wore out, the rear axle failed, and the bottom bracket broke.

By this time the bicycle was older than some of the mechanics that worked on it. Yet these mechanics never looked contemptuously at the bike. Instead, they typically nodded, impressed at the durability of the grizzled old warrior.

In the summer of 2008, when gas prices rose and Johnny-come-lately bike commuters flooded the trains, the owner began riding the Fuji the entire trip between home and work. Once again, despite being heavy and old, the Fuji performed without complaint, even as more of its components started to fail.

On October 27 in the evening, the bike conveyed the owner the entire 13 miles from work to home, carrying him along a rough path buckled by tree roots that runs down the Willamette River, across the carved-up pavement in the Corbett-Terwilliger area, up steep hills west of the river, and out through West Portland and Beaverton, a trip that includes two wooden bridges and numerous speed bumps.

The next morning, after a ride into work on a cool autumn morning, a fracture was discovered in the chain stay, near the rear derailleur.

The bike will be donated to the Community Cycling Center, for parts.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you take good care of your own bicycle.

How to Improve Your Commute

I commute to work by bike two to three times a week. After a couple of years of relying on the MAX (Portland’s light-rail system) for part of the miles, this past summer I started getting adventurous, and riding the whole way. With the help of the Bike There! map, I plotted a route, refined it a couple of times, and then I was off.

While there are all kinds of advantages to riding to work (fitness, happiness, saving money on gas, polluting less), I brought my camera along last week to show the two best parts.

Looking west

This is the Oregon Electric Railroad Right of Way Path, a 1.2 jaunt between a rec center and a street. It runs between properties, goes past a park and a golf club, and is just freakin’ gorgeous.

A bridge on the path

A bridge on the path

There are some nice roads in Portland, but I defy you to find something nicer than this on your way to or from work. But wait—there’s more! After about four miles of riding along with cars, I drop down to the river, and last week this is what I saw:

Bike path along the Willamette River, looking north

Bike path along the Willamette River, looking north

A little foggy that morning, but you get the general idea. That’s Hardtack Island on the right. A little farther up the path (I was headed north), I turned around and took a photo of the view looking south:

And a little farther still, I couldn’t resist this shot:

It’s not all that beautiful, of course. But it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d like to see something like this (above), or something like that (below):

The Marquam Bridge in Portland

The Marquam Bridge in Portland. Photo credit: Auraleius, via flickr

Evil Drives a Pontiac Vibe

I had a close call yesterday. I was writing my bike to work when a white car — this car — passed me, then pulled to the curb right in front of me without signaling.

I stopped. I had to, because she’d cut me off. She pulled away and I followed, and I caught up with her at the next stop sign. I waved and tried to get her attention, but her eyes were riveted on the road. So then she pulled away again, and then did the same thing.

But since I’m not an idiot, I’d decided not to ride alongside someone that dangerous, so I was still sitting at the stop sign. She pulled away again, and about a half mile later, I caught up with her and took a picture of her car.

What kind of person threatens someone with their 2,700-lb. car? When I participated in the first Bike Beaverton even this past summer, I saw a woman get impatient with a trail of cyclists at the side of the road. She honked, sped up, straddled the middle lane, and passed the cyclists. Just in case you’re keeping karmic tally, that’s dangerous, unbelievably uncool (speeding next to children riding their bikes), and illegal. And why did she do all this? So she could turn left a half-block later.

A friend of mine calls these people “haters.” I guess you can’t keep people from hating, but I sure with you could keep haters from driving.

I reported my incident yesterday on the BikePortland.org close calls thread (it’s distressing how many of them there are) and to the Beaverton Police. I’ll let you know what happens.

In Praise of the Gyratory Circus

There’s a fairly remarkable article in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly, called “Distracting Miss Daisy,” in which the author, John Staddon, argues that “the American system of traffic control, with its many signs and stops, and with its specific rules tailored to every bend in the road, has had the unintended consequence of causing more accidents than it prevents.”

Here’s his take on top signs:

Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. More to the point, however, the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving—instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.

The larger point is that “By training drivers to drive according to the signs rather than their judgment in great conditions, the American system also subtly encourages them to rely on the signs rather than judgment in poor conditions, when merely following the signs would be dangerous.”

Staddon’s proposal is to adopt something like the British traffic system, including the roundabout: “when traditional intersections in the U.S. have been replaced by roundabouts, collisions have typically been reduced by about 40 percent, and fatalities by up to 90 percent.”

If you drive in the U.S. (or Canada), I highly recommend reading the entire article (it isn’t long), though afterward you may behave like I did, like a traffic libertarian.

I also recently read a short paper by Joel Fajans and Melanie Curry, both bike commuters from Berkeley, Calif., titled “Why Bicyclists Hate Stop Signs” (FYI, it’s a PDF. The image above is from the article.) Fajans is a physicist, and tackles the problem by looking at how many watts of propulsion an average cyclist generates.

For example, on a street with a stop sign every 300 feet, calculations predict that the average speed of a 150-pound rider putting out 100 watts of power will diminish by about forty percent. If the bicyclist wants to maintain her average speed of 12.5 mph while still coming to a complete stop at each sign, she has to increase her output power to almost 500 watts. This is well beyond the ability of all but the most fit cyclists.

Then the authors put the estimates to the test on a bike route in their home town, which happens to run parallel to a busier route which has fewer stops. In two tests, he was 30 to 39 percent faster.

Because the extra effort required on California is so frustrating, both physically and psychologically, many cyclists prefer [the busier route to the bike route], despite safety concerns. They ride … the official bike route only when traffic on Sacramento gets too scary.

The authors note that “a cyclist who rolls through a stop at 5 mph needs 25 percent less energy to get back to 10 mph than does a cyclist who comes to a complete stop.”

Clearly, stop signs are tricky for bicyclists. On one hand, they increase safety by decreasing the number of cars on a road, and slowing the remaining ones. On the other hand, they make cyclists work much harder to maintain a reasonable speed. For a commuter choosing between a car and a bicycle, the extra exertion can be a serious deterrent.

If you’re not a bike commuter, you may not think this is a big deal. But it is. Many commuters can’t shower at work, so they don’t want to break a sweat. Luckier ones like me can shower, but on weeks when we commute all week, we get run down from the effort (which include going over speed bumps, a great example of a traffic calming device that we face — only without shock absorbers).

I’m thinking the roundabout is the solution for this, too. Motorists would be forced to look for obstacles in the road; cyclists wouldn’t have to come to a complete stop unless traffic was heavy. Plus, roundabouts would help increase traffic flow, instead of the irritating stop-start experience of driving in a residential neighborhood.

BTW, the title of this blog post comes from an anecdote in Bill Bryson’s excellent book, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way. He relates an anecdote that the word roundabout was actually coined by an American living in England, who was working on some BBC commission on English. Before the American’s improvement, a roundabout was known as a “gyratory circus”!