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.

The Cyclist Who Waved at Trains

I was riding my bike home from work last night when I reached a railroad crossing, where WES was crossing.

(Wes reminds me a little of Daisy, from the Thomas the Tank Engine series.)

Anyhow, as I roll up to the railroad crossing, there’s a cyclist in front of me. And as WES rolls by, he waves.

It did not occur to me to wave. Then again, I wasn’t all the way to the intersection, and I had been in the saddle for 45 minutes, so I was more occupied with trying to keep my tongue from lolling out. But traffic was still stopped when I arrived, so I asked the cyclist if anyone waved back.

“I can’t see through the reflection on the windows,” he said. “But it seemed the friendly thing to do.”


He and I rode together, which means he rode and I slogged behind him. I noticed that for a guy who’s friendly to train passengers, he practiced the Idaho stop, even at intersections where, you know, the car to the side was there first.

I caught up to him at a large intersection, where he struck up a conversation, and asked directions. I rode with him a little more to lead him through a neighborhood, and then we parted ways.

When I got home, I kept thinking about him waving, and his comment about “the friendly thing to do.”

It was a friendly thing, but I couldn’t help thinking none of this would have happened if we weren’t on bikes.

I doubt motorists would wave. Not because they’re all unfriendly, but for the same reason the cyclist couldn’t see the train passengers’ reaction to his behavior — because of the reflection. And because motorists don’t usually wave to each other.

Plus, the only way that he and I ever have a conversation is if we’re on bikes. People in cars in cities don’t strike up conversations, and rarely ask directions of other motorists.

Which is another way of pointing out a fundamental difference between bikes and cars. In a car, you’re surrounded by glass and steel–walled off, as it were. On a bike, you’re in the environment. You feel the air (and unfortunately, the rain), you feel the slope of the ground and the bumps in the road … and you can talk to other cyclists.

PS – The blog title kinda sounds like a parody of a Stieg Larsson book, doesn’t it?

Fulminating against the Local Fish Wrap

The Oregonian, Portland’s big daily paper, laid an egg the other day when covering a proposed change to Oregon traffic law regarding cyclists. It’s so bad, in fact, you can’t even grasp the subtleties of the proposal. (BikePortland does a much better job.)

I was so disgusted at the newspaper’s coverage, I posted a response on the O’s public blog. If you have a minute, wander over there and add a supporting comment, eh? (Login required. It’s free.)

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!

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

Republicans Call Walking “Wacky,” Will Soon Have SUVs for Legs

Kathy Dahlkemper is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania. Republicans ran this ad about her recently, saying she has “wacky” ideas.

Rethuglicans say she has “wacky” ideas like opposing suspending the gas tax.

Why the gas tax is a bad idea: in addition to stimulating demand for gas, it would have been an “administrative nightmare” for the IRS and taxpayers themselves, and it would have crippled the highway trust fund used for infrastructure improvements. Oh, and it was a paltry amount of savings to begin with, only 18.4 cents per gallon … I’m sorry, what was the wacky idea again?

Her next “wacky” idea is to oppose domestic oil drilling. How wacky is it? Let’s have a look:

Hmm. That’s a just a drop in the gas tank, isn’t it? It would be a real industrial blight on the environment, though. And that’s worth something, isn’t it? What about non-offshore drilling? But you might suggest that oil companies start with the 30 million acres of leased land they already have and ignore.

“Dahlkemper’s wacky solution? She says we should make personal sacrifices, like walking places, and riding bikes.”

How wacky is walking?

  • walking slows aging
  • walking builds aerobic fitness
  • walking prevents diseases like colds
  • walking helps manage weight
  • walking walking controls blood pressure
  • walking boosts good cholesterol
  • walking decreases risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, hip fracture, gallstone surgery, depression, colon, constipation, osteoporosis, and impotence
  • walking strengthens muscles and bones
  • walking improves sleep

… that’s why wacky organizations like the AARP recommend it.

And my personal favorite, that cycling is wacky. Since cycling is exercise, it also improves health and fitness in just about every way mentioned above. Here are some other fun tidbits:

“According to the Department of Transport, study people who do not exercise who start cycling move from the third of the population who are the least fit, to the fittest half of the population in just a few months.” Wacky.

“There can also be indirect benefits in terms of reducing injuries from falls, which can be seriously disabling, especially in older people. The strength and co-ordination that regular cycling brings make them less likely.”

And my personal favorite: “If you are worried about traffic fumes, there may be no need. Cyclists and pedestrians actually absorb lower levels of pollutants from traffic fumes than car drivers.

Lemme repeat: less fumes. Wacky indeed.

So tell me again: why is health a “sacrifice”? Oh yeah—because you can’t be healthy while driving your SUV? No, wait.

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

That’s Kathy Dahlkemper’s opponent, Phil English. Should I even mention how much walking and cycling would benefit him? No, better not. Too wacky.

PS – Right after I finished this post, I saw that Colin Beavan’s excellent post, “Do cars make us fat?” Check it out, especially the great graphic!

Put the Fun Between Your Legs

Sure it’s a callow double entendre, but if it’s good enough for a bicycling t-shirt, it’s good enough for a headline. I ran across Paul Dorn’s Bike Commuting Tips website today, which merits a mention for those of you waffling about whether or not to dust off the Schwinn. Besides, May is Bike Month. Saddle up!

Paul’s site has plenty o’ tips about commuting, but he isn’t one of those sniffy foot-in-the-clips-and-holier-than-thou types, as he documents the many mistakes he made (clothing, choosing routes, etc.) along the way.

One quoteworthy part:

A big reason why many people don’t commute by bike is because they think like motorists. As drivers, they know that the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B is by Route C. Unfortunately, Route C features abundant high-velocity traffic, plenty of potholes and rough pavement, a few steep hills and several dangerous intersections. Not very attractive even for a seasoned cyclist, let alone a beginner. (Not very attractive for a motorist, for that matter.)

However, there just may be a Route D that runs parallel to Route C. Route D features slower – and thus less abundant – traffic, and is flatter with good pavement, more trees, interesting scenery and many smiling pedestrians.

I did this too, riding on a stretch of a busy road with a 45 mph speed limit. Yipes! Not only that, while I was hauling ass to get off that stretch as fast as possible one day, I got attacked by a dog* (*well, if a Chihuahua counts as a real dog).

Now I avoid the big streets and ride on the quiet ones, just like Paul.

One other cool part of his site are some of the biking quotes he found:

“The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.”–James Marston Fitch, New York Times, May 1, 1960

“Driving a car versus riding a bike is on par with watching television rather than living your own life.”–Bruce MacAlister, Calgary cyclist

“This is the basis of car culture, the idea that the world and all of the world’s people are merely in its way.”– Travis Hugh Culley

“The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”–Christopher Morley, American writer and editor, 1890-1957

That last one, surely, should be any writer’s motto.