Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Can Massachusetts lead the way?

Some local news. Good news this time!

First of all, Massachusetts' Department of Transportation ordered a new bicycle infrastructure design guide that "will be a good resource for all 50 states". Why? Because apparently, it will be the most advanced one of its kind on this side of the Great Pond. Looks like finally our local authorities decided to copy well-proven Dutch solutions. That's a great news - as long as it gets used. Otherwise, the guide will decorate shelves in MassDOT's office and not much more. But it's nice to think that we could have real protected bike lanes and safe intersections across the state. Or maybe I'm expecting too much...
From the MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide

In other news, Massachusetts is considering adopting Oregon model for financing roads, namely, charging drivers for how much they drive, not for how much gas they buy. The reason for this is the nationwide animosity towards increase of gas tax (which is the way infrastructure is partially financed today) and more efficient cars on roads that use less gas, meaning lower tax revenue. Whether this approach is better, time will show. This could mean lower gas prices, perhaps lower travel costs for some but likely at a price of loss of privacy (monitoring of movement of every vehicle in the state) and initial cost of such a system.
Mayor Walsh had a good idea but some see only one side of it.

Let's say that the idea to charge drivers per miles traveled will not fly. How about then charging them more for prime parking spots in the city and less for those hardly used ones? This supply and demand-driven parking has been suggested for Boston by its Mayor, Martin Walsh. It had worked pretty well for San Francisco, where on-street parking spots in high demand ares went up in price to $7/hr, forcing drivers to park for shorter time, thus letting others finding free spots easily, resulting in reduced traffic congestion. Obviously, as soon as this concept was announced by Walsh, it was confronted with some harsh criticism. No wonder - right now it costs just $1.25 to park your car for 1 hour. Hearing about a chance of $7/hr parking must have been a shock to many.

Whatever the future brings for Boston and Massachusetts, we have a chance to become the most progressive state in terms of transportation policy. Will we use it well?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Western Greenway - "I can be a mountain bike!"

Western Greenway is a system if trails running around Belmont and a part of Waltham. I'm very familiar with the northern part of the trail (Beaver Brook Reservation, Rock Meadow Area and Lone Tree Hill) - I have visited these places before and I always liked them. I think that's because they offer exactly what I'm looking for in an off-road bicycling within city limits, that is - an empty path with varied surface and elevation that lets me ride over dirt sections at 25km/h (15mph) or fight slowly with some rocky, technical ones. In other words - it's a good workout and lots of fun. The last section of the trail, running downhill towards Pleasant St (Rt 60) is even more exciting but it requires some decent handling skills on a bike like mine. I feel like it wants to tell me "I'm not a mountain bike but I can be one. I really do!". Having said that, if you bring your real MTB on this trail, you will enjoy it too.
Anyway, somehow I have never tried to ride the full length of the Western Greenway. Until today. The weather now is simply awesome for bike riding (low humidity and just the right temperature) so I switched tries in my rig and took it for a ride to Belmont. It turned out that the full length of the Greenway is perfectly passable on a bike like mine. All you need is 35mm wide tires, 1:1 gearing and decent brakes. My bike became a mountain bike, if only for one afternoon.
Some sections were very easy to ride, like the path across Stonehurst Conservation off the Beaver St.
Others, not so much and in places I had to carry or walk my bike. Nevertheless, the good news is that easily 90% of the Greenway can be done on a regular cyclocross (or similar) bicycle.
Another good news - the trail is pretty well marked. Look for the tiny green signs on trees. They will lead you through the area and make sure you won't get lost.
A word of warning though. I don't want to get complains from people who went for a ride and lost their teeth crashing into a tree. It's an off-road trail so at least some mountain biking experience would be useful there. Expect a few tough sections with large boulders, steep declines and very narrow fragments.
Finally, I have to admit that for this ride I went back to the roots. I'm impatiently waiting for the new Clement X'Plor MSO 36mm tubeless tires to show up in stores. Until then, I have to stick to what I have in my storage for this type of riding. And what I have is a pair of Bontrager Jones CXR 34mm tires that came with my bike when I bought it 7 years ago. My bike doesn't usually wear these anymore. They are quite worn and buzzing on pavement. Other than that, these are actually pretty decent tires (light, soft and supple), as long as you don't use them for what they were intended to - cyclocross racing in mud. They are lousy in mud. But on a dry trail Jones CXR work quite well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tactical urbanism - how can you improve your neighborhood on your own

To be honest, I haven't been very familiar with the concept of tactical urbanism until just a few weeks ago. It was then when Jonathan Fertig, a local architect and activist, decided it was time to fix a few bike lanes in Boston and make them look the way they should have looked from day one. Clearly, just a strip of green paint was not enough to stop drivers from using those lanes and parking there. Fertig then created his own barrier between the bike lane and the car traffic by placing flower pots and cones, making these "protected" bike lanes a little bit safer. If you wonder whether this home made barrier worked, take a look at these pictures:
Apparently, adding $6 flower pots and a few cones is all you need to keep drivers at bay and make life easier for cyclists.
The pots stayed in place for quite a while until the city of Boston installed a proper barrier several days later, clearly motivated by Fertig's action and all the media buzz it created.
After reading this, I started looking for more examples of tactical urbanism. Just a few days ago we were celebrating PARK(ing) Day, an initiative to temporarily convert metered parking spaces into tiny parks or simply areas that people, not cars, can use and enjoy. There are many examples on internet like these:
PARK(ing) Day examples - turning some of those many curbside parking spaces into livable spots.
In general, tactical urbanism is a really neat idea. Changes are usually introduced within hours, not days, so they happen quickly, yet they are temporary so they don't interfere with the lifestyle of most city citizens long enough to become burdensome. At the same time, they stay in place for some time and many locals have a chance to get familiar with them and try on their own how their streets would look and feel like if they were more livable. That can convince the undecided that changes are necessary and the full length of the street doesn't necessarily has to be filled with parked cars.
Yehuda was into tactical urbanism before I even heard about it (Source:

Monday, September 14, 2015

Five out-of-place trends in bicycling

You may not like what you read here about but since, as everyone, I'm entitled to my personal opinion, here is the list of 5 trends in bicycling that I find out-of-place and difficult to understand at very least.
5. Mountain bikes in a city (Where city bikes should work better)
This one is quite old, actually. In fact, I remember mountain bikes being the most popular bicycles used in cities back in the early 90's. But that was the time mountain bikes were fashionable so everyone had one.
If majority of urban bicycle riders use mountain bikes with suspension forks and disc brakes it's either a temporary fashion or something plain wrong with city's infrastructure.

Nevertheless, many times I heard claims that MTB is the best bike for the city because of its wide tires and suspension that makes riding on curbs or stairs easy.
The truth is, urban downhill competition aside, you shouldn't have to ride on stairs in a well-designed city. If you feel like you need a mountain bike to ride through your city then your city is not bike-friendly enough. This means - yes, in some cities MTBs are the best type of bicycle to move around but that's not something to be proud of.
4. Bikepacking (Where it's not necessary)
There is that new thing (It's been around for a few years already but it's still pretty new) - bikepacking. It's essentially the same as bicycle touring with the exception that instead of packing things neatly in panniers or some other bags and strapping them to racks on bike, we now pack everything into special bags that get then tied directly to the frame, seatpost or the handlebars.
Sometimes this makes sense. The idea to skip racks comes from riding bicycles in places where large panniers hanging on both sides of the bike simply get in the way. While they work quite well on an open road, panniers are just too bulky on a narrow single track trail. This is why you would see mountain bikes used for bike travels featuring frame bags and not traditional panniers.
But then, there are things I don't understand. I call it rack aversion. I think of it whenever I see a bike used on open roads but loaded with ridiculous (sometimes) number of various frame bags, strapped all over the place, instead of simply placing most of that stuff on the rear rack. Why can't you use rear panniers on a road bike like this?
Rack aversion in its fullest form
Unfortunately, very often you can't (easily). It's because of bikepacking, manufacturers started omitting rack mounts on newer frames. So sometimes even if you realize that instead of packing your stuff into 5 separate frame bags you can just throw it into 2 panniers and a small handlebar bag, you can't. Thanks to trendy bikepacking.
3. Electric mountain bikes on trails (Where it's just plain cheating)
By all means, electric bicycles are awesome. If you don't think so, try hauling four full grocery bags and two kids on a heavy cargo bike up a 10% hill. You will change your mind, I'm sure.
Way to get up the mountain and don't break a sweat? (Source:
But there is one exception. Electric motors come to the world of mountain biking as well. You would think - why not? Instead of just trying to ride uphill, or even walking your bike, you can now slowly keep rolling, saving time and energy. The problem is that unlike transportation cycling, mountain biking is purely recreational. That means sweating, huffing and puffing is a part of this experience. If you don't want to get tired, don't ride your mountain bike. Says me, who once spent 2 hours just to ride/walk the bike uphill in Austrian Alps only to ride it back down in 15 minutes. And it was well worth it.
2. Fixies and track bikes in a city (Where pretty much any other bike would work better)
I know this one is even more controversial. But seriously, track bikes were designed for a track (duh!) and I really have a hard time understanding how a bicycle that has a fixed gear, no brakes and handlebars that essentially force you to ride in drops all the time, can be useful in a city.
A city bike? I don't think so. (Source:
Fixies are (were?) fashionable and quickly our cities filled with young crowd riding on those brakeless, suicidal machines. Their arguments - it's a bike in it's purest form, no unnecessary add-ons, simple and efficient, only as much as you need to keep moving. All true. Just not for riding in a city.
Do you want to make your fixie really useful for urban riding? Make it a freewheel single speed, put both brakes on it and give it some fenders. It will stay simple, yet actually usable.
1. Helmets for city cycling (Even though you shouldn't need one)
I'm not sure if I can call it a trend. It's a widely accepted norm, except very few countries (Denmark, Holland) where it's an oddity and a few others where it's a requirement (Australia, New Zealand).
In some places helmets are required (Even Brad needs to wear one!). That's how city governors say: "We care about your safety". Removing cycle tracks at the same time to make more space for cars, of course.
But whenever I hear about various "safety events" (One coming up this weekend in my town) or local politicians talking about cycling safety, I know they will bring up the same shit as always - wear a helmet, it will keep you safe!
Few who have any political power want to face the ugly truth. Yes, helmets may save your life but won't work if you get ran over by a 5000lbs truck. I'm yet to see a single "bike safety event" where local politicians say: We were going to talk here about safety and most of you think: helmets. But we want to truly solve the problem not just pretend to do it. That's why were are pleased to announce that the next month we are starting construction of a protected bike lane on our main street."
Too bad this isn't going to happen. Real solutions are too complex, too expensive, too difficult. It's easier to play stupid.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I went on a countryside ride because bikes don't belong in cities

It's yet another bullshit article written by an Internet troll, I presume. I would think that thanks to the shift in mindset of modern urban planners over the course of the last decade, most people would be familiar by now with an idea that packing more cars onto narrow downtown city streets is not a valid transportation solution in XXI century. And that bicycle can be, and should be, one of the important parts of this solution, as proven by some famous examples from Europe.

But no. Apparently, this concept is still completely foreign to some people, like Jeff Jacoby. He's clearly entitled to his own opinion and he may even be perfectly happy being so ignorant, but just in case Mr. Jacoby is simply lost, let's try to help him get a bit more educated.
First of all, Mr. Jacoby noticed that the victim of the recent crash was
the 13th cyclist killed in collisions with motor vehicles on city streets since 2010. That number is sure to rise if Boston keeps encouraging people to ride bicycles where bicycles don’t belong.
Hmm, no. The city of Boston clearly doesn't encourage riding bicycles on roads where they don't belong, such as our I-93 Interstate. However, they do encourage it on other city streets by adding bicycle lanes wherever possible (with arguably mixed results).
Apparently, it seems that Mr. Jacoby would prefer a different policy - ban bicycles from the inner city altogether. Especially from those wide, main roads such as Massachusetts Ave:
They are meant for the cars, trucks, and buses that transport the vast majority of people moving through the nation’s cities. Those vehicles weigh thousands of pounds, operate at 300-plus horsepower, and are indispensable to the economic and social well-being of virtually every American community.
Uhm... I would argue that cars that carry mostly only 1 person are really "indispensable to our economy" in downtowns of large cities. Here is why:
Same number of people. Different road space required.

Sorry Mr. Jacoby, but my social well-being goes south when I have to live in a place buzzing from daily heavy car traffic. Most Americans feel the same. Otherwise, why would those houses built so close to major highways be cheaper, on average?

Let's skip some more of Jacoby's bitching about how wrong it is to give more space to bicycles on Boston city streets and jump forward to what really bothers him:
All of which might be marginally more tolerable if bikers operated under the same restrictions that drivers do. But cyclists pay no taxes, don’t have to be insured, undergo no safety inspections, and needn’t register their vehicles. They don’t have to carry an operator’s license, and aren’t required to pass a written or a road test in order to pedal in the streets.
See? Cyclists pay no taxes. Holy shit, I didn't know that was even an option! I bike to work nearly every day so I should certainly qualify for a tax exemption. I must check with my tax adviser in January.

But joking aside, it's true that cyclists are not required to do some of these things. For a good reason. Bicyclists pay taxes as much as any other legally working citizen. That's how we pay for roads. They don't pay excise tax because it would have to be negligible. Same with registration - no benefit and huge cost of such system. That's why no country in the world does it - drawbacks and costs far outweigh benefits.

While I would like to see a smart road safety education program in schools, let's not get too excited with an idea that cyclists don't know the rules of the road, while drivers are properly trained. The entire driver's license test in US is simply a joke as I witnessed myself years ago. I bet no average American would pass German or Polish driver's license test because most American drivers don't know shit about controlling a car, just some basic rules of the road. They can be completely clueless sometimes, as evidenced at any 4-way stop. So if we want to improve safety on our roads, let's not focus on bicyclists but on our drivers, who are lousy at best.

So now, when Mr. Jacoby has spilled his bile we know that those damn cyclists on Mass Ave. are the root of all evil. Without them, there would be no traffic, no crashes, no victims, no delays. Our economy would prosper and cows would give more milk. It's all as easy as banning them from access to Boston's streets.

I listened to Jacoby's preaching and being a good student decided to take my bike this afternoon to the countryside - far from car's paradise.
Well, not too far. But Carlisle still counts. Too bad days are clearly becoming shorter. Riding after 7:30PM means lights are already necessary.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Most important innovations in cycling

A few months ago Jan Heine published a list on his blog about 10 the most important innovations in the world of bicycling. It's a good list and even if you don't completely agree with it, it's hard to argue that cycling has changed dramatically after introduction of derailleurs (and gears in general) or lighter materials such as aluminum alloys, butted steel tubing or even modern carbon fiber.
Certainly, #1 on the list - pneumatic tires, is well deserved. In fact, pneumatic tires is one of the most important inventions in the history of transport, right next to railroads (the first way to travel long-distance and move heavy cargo at high speed) and modern airlines (reaching farthest placed in the world in a matter of hours, not days or weeks). Without pneumatic tires, there would be no bicycles, no cars, no trucks and even no modern airplanes.

There are some things that are missing on Jan's list though. They may not be good candidates for places 1-10 but they should be mentioned as well. While I agree that generator hubs are a game changer (even though they are not particularly popular yet) the earlier important innovation in bicycle lighting came with arrival of LEDs. Old bicycle lights were dim, heavy and had limited battery life. Modern LED lights are not only small and bright, but also seem to last forever. Thanks to LEDs night riding became possible the way it never was before.
Another invention that didn't make the list is a freewheel. I know that fixie enthusiasts couldn't care less, but for most of us ability to coast down the hill is so obvious that we just don't appreciate how important the innovation of freewheel was.

Jan mentioned indexed shifters as one of the inventions that made shifting easy and brought it to the masses. It's hard to argue with that. But, at least in the world of road cycling, there was one more innovation that should be mentioned - integrated shifters (such as Shimano STI). Moving shifters from the downtube onto the handlebars and integrating them with brake levers was a true game changer for all road cyclists. Finally, we had a full control of gearing at all times, without moving hands off the bars. STI shifters may be more expensive, more complex and heavier than downtube shifters, but are well worth the trouble.
Finally, there are things that most of us would probably not think of when putting together their "most important bicycling innovation list". Why just focus on bicycles only? Bicycling is not only about the machine, it's the activity and the entire experience. That's why we really need to add bike lanes (or actually the idea of separating bicycles from a fast-moving car traffic in general) to the list. Long time ago, there was a time when bicycles "owned" the roads but with arrival of an automobile the situation has changed. While sharing the road with cars and trucks is a nice idea, it's often utopian and (protected) bike lanes were the reason why bicycles could be reintroduced in cities and not just belong to the countryside.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What is the best place for bicycle touring?

While rolling along Ocean Blvd towards York last week, I was trying to answer one question - what would be the best place for bicycle touring in the world? I guess there is no definite answer to it. It seems to me that everyone would have his/her own best place for bicycle travel depending on many factors, which make such place attractive for us.
For some people it's simply sheer distance they cover. This kind of tourists could e.g. take their bikes across Canada, coast to coast, riding at least 100mi a day. Others will like to explore some unknown and (maybe) unfriendly places. They may want to traverse the rainforest in Congo and neither the language barrier nor the environment would drive them off.
I think there is one universal denominator to all bicycle tours that we would described as best: changing scenery. On a bicycle tour you would want the scenery to change every day, even every hour. While some people find joy in just riding, I don't think I would want to look at pine trees on both sides of the road for 5 days straight, which may be the case in some places in Canada or Finland.
This made me realize that I knew the answer to my question 10 years ago. In 2005 me and my friend visited New Zealand and spent 2 weeks driving around both main islands. Since then, I've been thinking this is the ideal place for a longer bike tour (Ideal, if it wasn't for their mandatory helmet law such as the one in Australia. But unlike Australia, at least not every animal in NZ is trying to kill you).
You would start in Auckland, where you could climb a top of One Tree Hill to see the city from above. Or, the lazy way, take an elevator to the top of Sky Tower. You could stop by at the marina and walk through the center and try to spot some art deco buildings.
Mt Ngauruhoe

Rt 1 next to Tongariro NP

From there, you could visit Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park. Hiking through the park is fun and will make you feel a bit like Frodo walking towards Mordor, especially with Mt. Ngauruhoe (the LOTR's Mountain of Doom) towering above the landscape.
 Coast of Coromandel Peninsula

Or you could ride in the opposite direction, north, and visit Ninety Mile Beach and the most tropical part of the country. No matter what you do, you should stop by in Rotorua and visit its thermal valley and hot springs as well as Coromandel Peninsula where 1000-years old Kauri trees still can be found.
On the way to Wellington

Finally, you would go the see Mt. Taranaki - the lone volcano just at the edge of Tasman Sea. Now that you have seen a lot and your jaw completely dropped, pick it up. Because, trust me, you haven't seen anything yet. Next, we are going to Wellington to board a ferry to Picton on the South Island.
Across the Cook Strait

In my opinion South Island is much more fun. You can visit seals or chat with penguins, climb Southern Alps or ride Otago Rail Trail. Or just ride south to Catlins, where you will find yourself closer to the South Pole than the Equator.
 Going through Otago...

 ... and Catlins.

That's the end. Further south is the Stewart Island and then Antarctica.

Don't forget about the famous Milford Sound and fiords. Or Queenstown - the birthplace of bungee jumping (if you are into this kind of thing). Glaciers on the west coast should not be missed either.
Milford Sound

On the road to Queenstown

The reason I think New Zealand would work for me for an ideal bicycle tour location is that it has nearly every landscape and climate zone you could possibly imagine packed into this relatively small country. There is a rainforest, volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, sandy beaches, rolling hills, waterfalls, little coves and hot springs. Plus, my memory from driving there is that you could stop literally every 10 min. to take pictures and there won't be a single day you would be bored because all you see is a wall of trees or just sand on the desert.
The only problem is that it's pretty far from here. But I will be back there. Someday.