Monday, January 21, 2019

Autobesity epidemic - is bigger always better?

A cold day today. For the first time this year it feels like a typical New England winter. Of course, this means that if you need to get anywhere, you should probably drive. Roads always get plowing priority in America and bike lanes or sidewalks are now used for snow storage.

If you've driven to work today, chances are you were sitting inside your comfortable, over-sized SUV, starring at a large infotainment screen on your dashboard. Before work you wanted to grab a cup of coffee at your favorite cafe but there was no place to park your truck, err... I mean, car. Most parking spots were gone since they put that stupid bike lane there and the only ones left were too small for your new SUV. You gave up on coffee and drove straight to your office instead, bitching on the way that "Whoopi Goldberg was right and this city is going to hell".

Apparently, that's what some New Yorkers thought as well posting these home-made signs in the middle of street and announcing that now bike lane on 12th Street is cancelled because it "only benefits other people".
I see. So whoever posted these signs is trying to tell us that since he/she doesn't use bike lanes, they are not needed. Great! Now we can officially "cancel" all senior centers, retirement homes and baseball stadiums - it's because I don't have any use of these facilities and they "only benefit other people".

This is exactly the kind of antisocial behavior we have to daily deal with here in the United States. It's always about "me" and not "us". This is why we don't have good public transport, national health care, public kindergartens, etc. Basically we are acting like a bunch of selfish idiots on a desert island.

But at least we have something great. I mean, literally great - giant cars.

During the last 4 years SUVs have surpassed sedans as the best-selling vehicles. Essentially, what we have now is "autobesity epidemic" in this country.
You may think - "So what? These cars are safer, right?" Well, they are - but only for those inside. For everyone else, large and heavy SUVs are just much more dangerous. If you're a driver of a small sedan you are unlikely to survive a collision with giant SUV or a pick-up truck. The difference in mass and kinetic energy is substantial so your logical decision is to buy a SUV as well. This leads to an "arms race" and soon everyone will be driving large SUVs around.

Unfortunately, things look even worse if you like to walk or ride your bike instead. That's because big cars kill. The hoods are so much higher above the ground, compared to a small sedan that drivers simply can't see anything right in front of their cars.
These problems are evident in numbers. Here's a couple of charts I stole (or borrowed) from  Twitter. As you can see, "between 2010 and 2016, the number of US pedestrians killed by cars went up a staggering 39%":

Which can be attributed to more and more large cars (SUVs and similar) being sold.
Of course, that's not the only reason why more Americans drive in traffic collisions. Driver's distraction is certainly another factor. It's not the news anymore that drivers look at their cell phone screens more than they look at the road ahead. And if they drive a giant car, they might not even know they hit you. When they do - they will just drive away and issue some ridiculous apology later on.

But it gets worse. As we have seen on the last Consumer Electronics Show, car manufacturers plan a very bright future for us. It's going to be bright from all those screens placed in front of drivers eyes. Apparently, car makers think that today's drivers are still not distracted enough with their cell phones and it's perfectly acceptable to place a widescreen TV on the dashboard and an iPad on the steering wheel.
Byton's prototype for the "dashboard of the future".

I hope something like this will never become legal but on the other hand, I'd be fine with it, but only if these screens were disabled when car is moving, when cars finally come with systems that disable cell phones inside moving vehicle and when cars would automatically slow down to 10mph when you take your eyes off the road.

Unfortunately, I realize that's not what most people would want to buy. Instead, we are entering a post-jaywalking era, when pedestrians would not necessarily be blamed for just crossing the street, but for either "distracted walking" or... not wearing appropriate sensors!

This was a big news at CES too - something called C-V2X technology that makes vehicles smarter. It allows cars to communicate with each other, possibly avoiding collisions. Sounds good? Maybe. The problem is - pedestrians, bicyclists and dogs do not have built-in C-V2X sensors and that would make them invisible to these automated cars.

While it may look bad now when media is reporting that a cyclist hit by a truck wasn't wearing a helmet (thus implying victim's fault), soon we may see reports that "pedestrian wasn't wearing a C-V2X sensor" and that wasn't driver's fault even though he was playing Fortnite on his steering wheel-mounted iPad.
I certainly hope that's not what the future really brings.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Building a perfect commuter bike

And just like that it's nearly mid-January, yet winter remains somehow... undecided. On one hand, the lack of snow means less shoveling. On the other, my kids complain and keep asking when will the snow come.

The wet season with frequent rain/snow mix and road salt sprinkled all over "just in case" means that my bike requires frequent cleaning and chain maintenance. Because of this I started pondering about a hypothetical "what-if" scenario - if I could build a perfect year-round commuter bike, what would it look like?

Of course, a year-round commute means something very different depending on where you live. Those of you lucky to reside in the sunny Southern California may never need fenders, not to mention studded tires. But since I'm spending my winter in New England, let's focus on an all-weather bicycle.

Frame and fork
If I could afford it, my top pick would be a titanium frame, simply because it's virtually indestructible by elements. It doesn't rust so it doesn't need paint and any scratches can be simply buffed out with some fine grain sand paper. My second choice would be likely either a well-protected steel or even aluminum frame.
Titanium frames last a lifetime. Even when covered by road salt.

Regarding the fork, a rigid fork is all I would need. Suspension is really unnecessary in the city and just adds weight and complexity.

I would want the fork and frame to have all possible mounts for fenders, racks, lights, etc. Internal routing for electrical wires is certainly a good idea too.

Wheel size
Wheels for my ideal commuter bike would be certainly build around 700c rims but I think that the 26" MTB standard could also work quite well. The worst choice (apart of some tiny 16"-20" wheels) would be the more-and-more popular 650b format. Why? Well, it's all about...

Basically tire choices would determine what wheels I consider using and the major limitation comes from studded winter tires. There's plenty of them available in 700c size but studded, urban tires (i.e. without a very aggressive off-road tread) are essentially non-existent in 650b size. In general the 700c standard seems like the best choice - I can choose from everything starting at 23mm wide road slicks to a massive 3" wide MTB rubber, although I think that 35-38mm wide tires are likely to be the most optimal.
Studded urban tires - readily available in 700c size.

This is the part that gets really messy and as such I would want to make it somehow impervious to dirt and mud. It seems to me that the best solution would be to use an internally-geared hub such as the 8-speed Shimano Alfine with a belt drive. This combination means that all gears are enclosed, with no chain cogs requiring frequent cleaning. The belt is completely maintenance-free and since it's running dry, it also means that no oiled, moving parts would be exposed on my bike. While some of you would prefer to just use a singlespeed, fixed drive, I like having at least a few gears to my disposal.
Internally-geared hub with a belt drive - the best choice for winter commute in the city.

I would go with hydraulic disc brakes on such bike, simply because they provide plenty of power and modulation in all conditions. Also, they do not wear out rims like caliper brakes do. Being fully hydraulic they are also immune to any water ingress into cable housing (since there are no cables) so I can be pretty sure they will remain operational in our New England winter.

To change gears I would prefer using a twist-type shifter (unlike a trigger type). It's simply because a twist shifter can still be operated with thick winter mittens (or finger-less gloves) on hands.
Twist shifters - usable even in thick winter mittens.

The saddle on my bike would be likely from Brooks. They are made out of leather and aren't really maintenance-free (need to be protected from being soaked in rain) but provide supreme comfort that's hard to give up.

Definitely not clipless pedals, since my commute isn't a race and I prefer riding in my work shoes to work. A simple, wide platform pedals would do the job. As a bonus, I would pick ones made out of plastic or some composite, but not aluminum. That's because metal pedals tend to act like heatsinks at low temperatures and cool down my feet too much.
Plastic/composite platform pedals - plenty of grip and "warmer" than all-metal options.

Full-length fenders are absolutely essential on commuter bike as well as at least one cargo rack. I would prefer a front rack and/or a basket, as that's the most convenient way of carrying an office bag or any smaller load on a bike. An additional rack in the rear could be useful for those larger grocery runs.

Finally, my super-commuter would certainly have both front and rear lights powered by a dynamo hub. This way I would never need to worry about spare batteries. My top choice for a headlamp would likely be a German-made Edelux, as it has a properly-shaped beam that doesn't blind other road users in the city.
SON Edelux - pretty much a golden standard for a proper bicycle headlight.

The last items that are likely good to have is a decent, stable dual-leg kickstand and an integrated rear-wheel lock.

That's pretty much it. What would your ideal commuter bike look like?

Monday, December 31, 2018

Good things must end to make space for new ones

This year is almost over - there are only a few hours of 2018 left. But before that will happen, I had a chance to go for one more quick bike ride. I somehow don't enjoy winter riding that much, especially not when winter is this warm, rainy and free of snow. It might be the gloomy weather, cloudy skies, muddy trails or perhaps just all of it together.

Nevertheless, I wanted to revisit an old place nearby - Wharton Plantation in Groton. I always had lots of fun riding there in summer mostly because the trails were not just some ordinary sandy paths in the forest, but at least a part of them are a bit challenging with some steep and rocky sections.
Anyway, once I got to the trailhead I didn't even recognize the place. It turns out that my favorite trail area underwent a massive timber harvesting operation earlier this year and the trail I wanted to use looks now like a muddy battleground.
I had no choice but to keep going hoping that not everything got permanently destroyed by lumberjacks. A bit further down the Dan Parker Rd the situation didn't look any better so I decided to turn right onto a more remote path leading east. This proved to be a good choice, not counting a couple of severely flooded spots. I guess the advantage of winter riding is that most of these places were still frozen solid. Crossing these places in summer could be much more difficult.
Next I reached Blood Rd (Geez, what a name!) and then Whispering Brook Rd (That sounds way better). I continued south along the former railway (Red Line Path) to then turn right and go back west coming back to Old Dunstable Rd.
It was a very short ride since it was getting dark so I decided to head back. I felt sad that some of my favorite hidden gems like Wharton Plantation are disappearing. I have never seen anyone on a bike over there and now I don't even know if I bother to visit this place again. The muddy, wide service road certainly doesn't have the same feeling as the old, narrow, rocky Dan Parker Rd had.

I guess some good things must end to make space for new ones. Hopefully, 2019 will take me to new, unexplored places.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Boring news

Finally, the future of transportation is here! At least that's what Elon Musk claimed earlier this week. He unveiled his first tunnel under Los Angeles area that apparently will take you across the city at high speed:

Sounds like the future? Sure! The only question remains - who is this future for? Because the more I learn about Musk's idea the more I realize this isn't the future for most of us.

But let's start from the beginning.

Elon Musk made some big claims years earlier when working on his project and when he started The Boring Company, with the aim to bring cost of drilling tunnels significantly down. And he did just that - building the 6000-ft tunnel in 18 months for just $10 million. That may look inexpensive compared to the cost of other tunnels until you realize that a lot of development cost isn't included in that price and his tunnel is only 12 feet wide, fits a single traffic lane and doesn't have any emergency exits. Looks more like a sewer than a true tunnel to me.

Then there's a problem of capacity. Musk claims his tunnels would be better than existing solutions such as subway, because he will move 4000 cars per hour at 155mph (250kmh). This however, means that a car would need to enter the tunnel every second. Since he's planning on using elevators to bring cars underground directly from parking street level, this doesn't seem probable.
As many quickly pointed out, a single subway train can hold about 2000 passengers and as such has much higher capacity than Musk's solution. This doesn't seem to discourage Elon Musk. He thinks he's building "something better":

But the most criticism came pointing out that Musk's idea "totally misses the point". And the point is obviously to move people, not cars, through the city.

Considering the amount of space they require, cars are just very inefficient vehicles. On top of that, they do have a significant impact on climate and are #1 cause of death of young Americans (with SUVs being particularly deadly).
As such, it seems that Musk just didn't do his homework. Or did he? His company sells cars, not subway trains after all, which makes me think that maybe it's all of us who miss the point. Maybe Musk's plan is not to give us the future of mass public transport, but to create a future... for himself (and few wealthy friends). Only then it makes sense to drill tunnels that will take several electric Teslas across the city.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

You can't have a change without making changes

And just like that it's nearly mid-December. Where did that year go? I've been reflecting on what happened in 2018, recent events in the world and here in the United States. Today I want to write about something a bit different. So, no bike content this time. Instead, I want to discuss global environmental changes we are facing, better known as global warming.

First, please keep in mind that I'm not an expert on this topic. I try to educate myself the best I can, but still, this is just my opinion - the way I see things. And the way I see the climate change problem is sadly somewhat pessimistic. I'm usually an optimist but with a firm connection to reality. However, when it comes to climate change, there's just too little to be happy about.
Let's start with saying that you can't believe or not that climate change is real. It's simply not a matter of faith! Essentially, the same way you can't believe that Earth is flat or Sun doesn't exist. If you do - you're just an ignorant - someone who chose to ignore science and scientifically proven facts. In other words, yes, climate change is real, water is wet and Earth is round. Period.

Since we have established that this phenomenon is real and we know it's threatening our future. Apparently, we need to cut down our CO2 emissions by half within about a decade, or we are all doomed. So what can we do about it?

If you look at majority of related information in media, it seems that we primarily focus on two topics: renewable energy sources and electric cars. Now I have bad news for you - it's not enough. Being green is not just about electric cars and renewable energy, even though it would be nice if the solution was that simple. At least that's what our politicians seem to believe. They are happy to propose a future with "clean coal" (whatever the heck that is) or "Green New Deal".

But it's not enough.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that in order to severely reduce CO2 emissions, we would need to do more. Much, much more. At the same time I just can't see this happening within the next 50 years and the reason is, simply put - money.

Let me explain.

The problem we have now has started back in the end of XIX century with the arrival of Industrial Revolution. Industrialization was the process that allowed countries such as United Kingdom, France, Germany or United States to leap forward and manufacture more in shorter time. The process continued through early XX century, accelerated by two world wars. Then, in the 1950's we started building our modern capitalism and corporate culture.

Now imagine it would all have to end.

Basically, in order to reduce pollution and "fix the planet", we all would need to drastically change our lifestyle. Driving electric car to work is not going to change much just as riding a bicycle won't help much either (sigh). Instead, we would need to revolutionize many more areas such as:

Energy sources
Coal is dead. Close coal and oil power plants. Shut down coal mines. Switch to renewable energy sources as much as possible. We may have to keep some nuclear power plants for critical industrial consumers but otherwise those would be phased out as well. In general - use less energy whenever possible. This means energy-efficient vehicles and devices but it also means to account for amount of energy required to manufacture such goods.

Ideally - no private cars. No matter electric or not. We would need to travel less. Family vacation? Sure, but probably more like camping in a local state park than flying across the world to stay on a beach. No more flying for executive business meetings to the other side of the continent. We would need to work remotely or live much closer to work. Use public transport as much as possible. Use bicycles.

Single family houses in suburbs would be mostly gone. They are largely unsustainable as they require us to travel a lot and consume too many resources in the process. People would need to live closer together in townhouses and apartment buildings. We won't be building cheap, poorly insulated homes for a quick profit but more expensive and longer lasting energy-efficient buildings. We won't have front lawns either but those most likely won't be missed - we don't use them anyway.

Goods manufacturing
To reduce waste we would need to cut down on manufacturing, distribution, packaging and recycle essentially everything. This means no more junk we really don't need. No more buying stuff made on the other side of the world (shipping stuff across ocean is very polluting). Less plastic (ocean are full of it already), more reusable items. We would have to repair everything as much as possible and not throw out something just because it's not fashionable anymore. Planned obsolescence would be absolutely illegal.

Food production
Less meat (its production requires lots of resources). More locally grown food. Simpler menus. Less waste in general.

As you can see this type of future is characterized by words like no, less, decrease, lower, etc. This is in stark contrast with modern corporate world that is defined by words like growth, more, increase, profit and such.

Now you probably see why I said I can't see us being successful in fighting global warming. We are simply too used to our lifestyles and we created a world that worships wealth and monetary profits over anything else.

Try to tell Americans that they have to vacate their suburban homes and move to apartments in the city, they can't drive their cars, can't fly to their timeshare in Hawaii and can't have steak or burger for dinner anymore. Good luck with that.

The same way try to tell corporations that they have to now sell less, manufacture less, make less money, produce less waste, and be responsible for recycling of all old products and packaging they made earlier. I just can't see that happening either.

Of course, this doesn't just apply to Americans (Yes, I'm as guilty as anyone else.) or the Western World. China is now the leading producer of trash and one of larger world polluters (although not per capita). Try telling them now that they have to stop buying stuff, using disposable items and recycle everything. Easy?

But maybe I'm too pessimistic. Maybe it won't be that bad. Yet somehow, I feel that no matter what we decide, our grandchildren will live in a very different world than the one we live in now.

Friday, November 30, 2018

E-scooters - saving cities or ruining them?

E-scooters. These little buggers started filling streets of our cities in a rapid pace. For some, they are godsent, letting people move around quickly and efficiently, avoiding heavy car traffic. For others, they are a disgrace, clogging city streets and cluttering cityscape. Some US cities started regulating scooters, essentially trying to figure out where to place them among cars and bicycles.
Interestingly, bicycle advocates quickly realized that scooter companies could be potential allies. The advocates have been asking for a better cycling infrastructure for years, often to be left with some bits and pieces of randomly disconnected bike lanes. But then came the scooters and their companies started pushing for more space to ride or for a less-restrictive helmet laws. Sometimes it worked - New York finally decided to move towards legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters:

Following such news, I would expect most bike-lovers to like scooters as well. Then, to my surprise, I bumped into this tweet from Mikael Colville-Andersen, a well-know advocate for cycling for transport and building livable cities:

As you can tell, my response was straightforward - scooters over cars! To which he replied:
I admit I didn't fully understand his hostility towards this simple, alternative way of transportation, but now I think that he's against scooters in the city because he sees them as a threat to bicycles, not cars.

You see, Mikael is a Dane, living in Copenhagen - a city where bicycles are a normal mode of transport. Actually, in the downtown of Copenhagen bicycles are likely the dominant mode!

This is in stark contrast to all American cities where most people drive, some take public transport and very few travel by bikes. As such, the arrival of scooters in US cities was mostly well-received by many bike advocates as these small, simple electric vehicles could help reducing our dependency on cars and eventually move people onto bicycles as well.

But not in Copenhagen. There, bikes are prevalent and few people would prefer to drive into the downtown. As such, electrically-powered scooters present a threat to bicycles and have to compete with them for space on city streets. That explains why Mikael would rather see people to use their bikes instead of switching to scooters.

Whether e-scooters are just a temporary fashion or they stay here for longer, they may persuade some people to leave their cars in the driveway. It won't be easy though. The struggle for prying American butts off driver seats is going to be a difficult one.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Your commute sucks and you love it that way

How was your commute last night? If you live in New England or at least on northern East Coast, it was probably miserable. We were getting first snow of this season, which meant "full panic mode on" for most drivers. And since most people in America drive to work, we are stuck with the inefficient system that fails us in such "panic mode" situations.

Or, as Doug Gordon put it - the system is working as designed:

Exactly. The system is designed for drivers and drivers only. Public transport in suburbs is nearly nonexistent and even in city centers it lacks severely in reliability.

The situation around New York City last night was particularly bad, but even here in Boston it looked much worse than usual. It seemed that nearly everyone decided to leave work at the exactly same time and as such, on my way back home, pretty much every intersection was gridlocked and cars barely moved.

It didn't bother me at all. I was on my bike and I actually liked that heavy traffic. You see, there are only 2 situations where roads with no protected bike lanes are very safe for cyclists:

  1. When roads are completely empty and there is no traffic at all.
  2. When roads are completely gridlocked and cars can't move.

In both these cases speed of cars equals zero. In all other situations cyclists and pedestrians are in danger. Therefore, we should build separated infrastructure for those road users: sidewalks for pedestrians and protected bike lanes for cyclists.

We should, but we rarely do. America loves to drive... and getting stuck in traffic, just like the last night in New York. In the recent commuting study done by New York ended up as one of the worst states (#47) rated by the overall commuting experience. Massachusetts was about in the middle of the pack (#36), while among the best states we find Alaska (#1), Montana (#3) and Wyoming (#5). That's probably not surprising. All of these 3 states have more bears than people and as far as I know, bears don't drive to work.
What's more surprising is how bad those few drivers in Wyoming and Montana are. They scored #41 and #43 respectively. Maybe there are bears driving cars over there after all?
Florida scored last, which is not surprising given that the average driver's age in Florida must be around 75 ;)

Here in Massachusetts on the other hand, we can be proud to lead the country (#2, next to Hawaii being #1) in "alternative transportation" options. Yes, this means riding bikes to work. You see, it's 2018 but the idea of riding a bicycle to office is still so bizarre in America that we call it "alternative". Still, it's great seeing Massachusetts being #2. If they can do it in sunny Hawaii, we can do it here, where we "enjoy" likely the lousiest weather in the United States (freezing and snowy winters and hot and humid summers anyone?).
So you see, my fellow Americans, if you don't want to be stuck in traffic anymore, something must be done. And that something means - we need to give up our cars. Now, before your blood boils and head explodes - let me clarify that. I don't mean we have to give up our cars completely (that's a bit too Utopian for now), but we really need to reduce our dependence on them. Fortunately, more and more people seem to understand that. Unfortunately, these people are not our politicians (at least not many of them).

We had election last week and according to media we witnessed a "blue wave" - many Democrats retaking positions in the government. You would think, these progressive politicians, who understand risks of climate change and necessity of efficient public transportation would propose solutions such as congestion pricing or market-driven parking fees. But no. I didn't hear any Democrats proposing this. While it's entirely possible that I simply missed that, I think that these ideas are still too radical (and thus unacceptable) even for the most progressive Americans.

The change may come however, from another direction. It turns out that younger generations are less excited about owning a car and driving it. Millenials seem to have different life goals than their parents and buying an suburban house with large driveway is just not one of them.