Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Autonomous cars don't have middle fingers"

 Looks like winter has finally arrived. Last Friday we got some snow, this week started with another snowfall and we are expecting some subzero temperatures soon, such as -6F (-21C) on this Saturday night.

On Monday I took my bike to work, as usual. The morning was chilly and quiet with no signs of snowfall that was about to arrive. By early afternoon it started snowing heavily so I left my work a bit earlier. I was expecting some difficulty getting back home but riding on the Minuteman Bikeway was surprisingly easy, despite a fresh coat of ~2" of snow. My bike was leaving a deep cut behind and I was moving slowly forward, at a steady pace. It was peaceful and quiet. Great time for bike riding.
Over 65% of my commute happens on the Minuteman Bikeway so I'm lucky that I don't have to deal with much car traffic on my way to work. Still, every month I'm in one of those unpleasant situations that I wish I could quickly forget about. Usually, it involves a very impatient, young Mr. Motorist who feels urge to express himself by honking, yelling and waving his middle finger in an act of disapproval.

I noticed that drivers can be extremely impatient. They have to race to the next lights, even though they are red. They get angry quickly when a slower bicyclist "blocks" "their" road and therefore, they feel it's necessary to express their emotions. Interestingly though, I have never seen anyone like that, waving the middle finger at a school bus driver, a slow truck or an excavator - all of which block the road way more than a single cyclist.

Anyway, on Monday as I was riding back home in the middle of the snow storm, Mr. Motorist who was passing me, decided to educate me by honking and presenting his finger. Such thing happened to me many times in the past, but this situation was a bit different. Mr Motorist was going in the opposite direction and I wasn't "blocking" "his" road in any way.

I started thinking about it more. What is the motivation of Mr. Motorist to do such thing? Clearly, I wasn't slowing him down. I wasn't even close to him. I'm guessing that Mr. Motorist must have something fundamentally against any bicycles on "his" roads and just thinking about it makes him sweat at night and lose temper. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe by waving his finger he just wanted to advertise the size of his manhood. Either way, I'm not impressed.

Considering all this, I'm really excited for fully autonomous cars to arrive. The future looks bright. Autonomous vehicles don't have middle fingers. They don't get involved in sad cases of road rage. They don't speed and they don't even crash with each other. Driver's license may be the thing of the past soon and people will hopefully become human again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A random winter (?) mix

It's been so warm recently you would think it's spring. It's certainly been the warmest and mildest winter in Boston since... ever? Despite all this, we only needed a lousy 5 inches of snow just a week ago to see another episode of parking wars. Everyone knows that on-street parking in Boston is scarce, yet everyone tries to pack more and more cars there. This becomes a problem in winter when some of these spots get blocked by piles of snow plowed off the streets. What's Boston's solution? Remove all snow from city streets as soon as possible? Limit a number of parking permits available? No. Our solution is to temporarily legalize unloading random junk onto the parking spots to "save" them. This is usually done with cones, old chairs or other junk furniture. These space savers are our way to say "This is my spot. Don't you dare parking here". But, if it doesn't work, you can always shoot the intruder.

***

It looks like I may have awarded my Village Idiot Awards two weeks ago a bit too early. As of the last week, we have another candidate to receive this Anti-Transportation Oscar: Mike Verchio from South Dakota. In the past, Mr Verchio has been apparently "consistently voting against measures to improve road safety, such as restriction on mobile device use while driving, and voting in favor measures to decrease safety, such as higher speed limits". This time, he proposed a new bill, requiring all cyclists "under certain conditions to stop and allow faster vehicles to pass", which essentially means that if you try to ride your bike on a road you have to share with cars, you're screwed. According to the proposed solution you would need to dismount and let all those vehicles pass first before you can continue riding. Not hard to imagine this could make bicycles in South Dakota unusable. All this, plus other attempts like 15ft tall flag poles required on bicycles or Australian mandatory helmet and ID laws seem simply like a blatant attempt to get rid of all cyclists from the roads.

Ah, the beautiful South Dakota. Now, get off my f****** road! (Source: The Cavender Diary)

***

Let's go back to Boston now. The shocking yesterday's news was the horrific crash (notice how WBZ in the video called it a "horrific crash", not an accident) that happened in Boston's Chinatown. A Chinese-American female driver hit two pedestrians and dragged one of them under her vehicle for over 3 miles (traveling on highway) before realizing she was pulling a body through the city. Next, she simply got rid of the body and drove away. I don't know, maybe in China (I've never been there) they have different standards and such behavior is perfectly acceptable or maybe this woman found her driver's license in a box of Frosted Flakes. But how bad and negligent driver you have to be not to realize that you hit two (!) people and are dragging a person (!) for over 3 miles (!) only to dump the body (!) and drive away? What I do know is that she was released on a $5000 bail, which is simply laughable considering the situation. As someone pointed out on Twitter:

***

In other Boston news, our bike sharing program - Hubway, is expanding, adding new stations all over the city, which is great. Apparently, not for everyone. Local business owners complain that since Hubway stations had been installed in front of their shops "it cut the business almost in half". And that's something hard to believe as one single station takes space of 1-2 parking spots. Does it mean that they only had two parking spots in front of their shops and now are unable to serve more than 1 customer at a time? Something tells me bicycle sharing has little to do with the lost business opportunity. But it's easier to blame those damn cyclists than try to find the real problem.

***


Finally, the cycling racing world is buzzing now with the news that mechanical doping does exist, indeed. It's been discovered that one Belgian cheater, I mean... a cyclocross racer had been using a small electric motor and a battery kit hidden in the seat tube. To be honest, this doesn't surprise me at all. Whether it's blood doping or mechanical cheating, who cares? Pro cycling is such a dirty sport that it's been many, many years ago when I stopped believing anyone who is in the world's top 50 in their category is clean. In my opinion, all of them are cheaters. That's the prime reason why I completely lost interest in all competitive cycling. It just doesn't make sense to waste my time and watch a bunch of guys on drugs in Tour, Giro or Vuelta. Where's the future of this "sport"?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Overcomplicating winter cycling

This winter is being easy on us so far. About this time a year ago we would be already well frozen, with average daily temperatures not rising over 15F (-10C) and easily dropping to negative American degrees (or -20C) at night.

Not this year though. We can still enjoy a balmy 20F (-7C) weather with only a thin blanket of snow. It's supposed to change this weekend as a bigger snowstorm has been already announced but it seems like it may skip my area and move somewhere further south.

All this means that winter cycling this year should be particularly easy (and it is!). Unfortunately, judging by the severely decreased number of fellow morning commuters I usually see on the Minuteman Bikeway, I guess that most people assume that bicycles are unusable in winter months.

Recently, I read a blog post by Mikael from Copenhagenize, who argues that most people who promote year-round cycling for transportation, do it wrong. According to him, they present winter cycling as something difficult and unapproachable without lots of special gear. That people who ride bicycles to work in winter must have super human abilities, otherwise they would not survive a few mile long ride to the office. A good example how over-complicated it could get is this article about a Boston female riding just 4 miles to her work: balaclava, ski goggles, ski helmet, two scarves, two jackets, tights, running pants, biking pants and shoe covers. Can she actually still move in all those layers? Well, maybe I shouldn't judge. Everyone has different sense of temperature.

Mikael wrote that lots of advice you'll find about winter cycling is targeted at wrong people. Most of us don't need much of this superfluous gear because the right winter clothes are already in our closet - those that we wear everyday anyway.
What you need for riding your bicycle in the city and what various guides will try to sell you - according to Copenhagenize.

He is right. At least partially. If you live in the city and not too far from your work, riding a bicycle there in winter should be simple. All you would need is your regular winter outfit - jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, boots. There's really no need for any special gear, even if temperature drops down to negative Fahrenheits, you won't freeze to death on that 2-5 mile ride.

But at the same time,I think that Mikael's point of view is quite different than many of American winter cyclists. Lots of us here don't live that close to work or school. We live in suburbs. We have much longer bike commutes, covering often more than 10 miles one way. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, the situation looks as follows:
Number of Copenhagen citizens choosing bicycle as their main mode of transport drops down drastically once they have to ride further than 10km (6mi) (Source: City of Copenhagen 2010 study).

For those short trips, averaging between 2 to 10km (1 to 6mi) bicycle is the preferred mode of transportation for Copenhagen citizens. No wonder - it's simply the fastest and easiest to use. But once the same people have to travel further, they start choosing cars or trains and leave their bicycles behind.

This, I think, is the position of an average American bike commuter. Either we have an option to go multimodal (bicycle + train) or we have to ride the whole 10-15mi distance by bike. And that may require taking some special steps in severe winter conditions.

I wrote about it last year. Cycling at subzero temperatures, once your ride takes about an hour or longer, means that you will have to take some extra steps to stay warm. Fortunately, it doesn't mean you have to spend nearly $1000 (as Mikael suggested) for special cycling gear. In fact, I only use two pieces of clothing on my winter rides to work that I would consider cycling-specific. One is a wool buff, that I wear around my neck and sometimes over the face, instead of a scarf. The other one is $25 waterproof pants that I pull over my regular work pants when temperature drops down below 15F (-10C). The block all the wind very effectively, keeping my legs warm.

It doesn't have to be that complicated. Just get your bike ready, look in your closet and start riding.

Monday, January 18, 2016

And the Oscar goes to...

This year has just barely started and we can already name several new nominations to the Biggest Moron Award. Or the Village Idiot Prize. Whatever you call it, these people do their best to keep bicyclists off "their" streets (Only U.S. nominees are considered for this special prize):

5. Jon Cox, WY
You would think it should be safe to ride a bike or drive in the least populous U.S. state, but you would be wrong. Wyoming scores very high (#2) on the list of the most dangerous roads in America and state's Dept. of Transportation's chief Jon Cox makes sure his state will stay in top three for quite some time. Apparently, he believes that high collision rate on roads in Wyoming is not due to their poor design but drivers' and cyclists' irresponsibility. Even if he was partially right, he's not willing to fix the situation because... it's easier to blame others.

4. John Culberson, TX
If you have never heard about induced demand, go to Texas. John Culberson, the state representative who lives there, has never heard about it either. Maybe that's why he begged Congress for money to widen Katy Freeway in order to reduce congestion. The result? In 2011 during the rush hour it took about 47min to travel between downtown Houston and Pin Oak. After the highway widening, in 2014 you needed over 70min to cover the same distance. Good work Texas! Now not only you have the widest highway on Earth but you also spend much more time on this concrete desert. Not to mention that you didn't solve the traffic problem at all.
Cars, cars everywhere. The new Katy Freeway in Texas. (Found somewhere in the interwebs).
 
3. Jeff Jacoby, MA
Second runner up is our local road safety and traffic flow "specialist" - Jeff Jacoby from Boston Globe. He wrote so much nonsense in his newspaper that it could nearly instantly give him the first prize... if only there weren't bigger idiots than him (Hard to imagine but it happened!). Mr. Jacoby claims that bicycles should be banned from urban roads, cyclists pay no taxes (!) and should be licensed. But wait, there's more. Read it if you like. Meanwhile, I'm going to look who's in place #2.

2. Ed Orcutt, WA
State Rep. Ed Orcutt from Washington truly deserved his second place. Until just last week, he was the only serious candidate to the Biggest Moron Award. All that for one email where he described why bicyclists are big polluters and should likely be taxed more. That's because "a cyclist has an increased heart rate and respiration (and) that means the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride." Right.

And the winner is...
 
1. Jay Houghton, MO
State Rep. Jay Houghton found a way to improve road safety in his district. He proposed a law, which would require every bicycle to be equipped with a fluorescent orange flag to make it better visible to drivers. Just this is seriously idiotic but once you realize that Mr. Houghton suggested the flag should be... 15 feet tall (over 4.5m), it's clear that he wins the competition. Congratulations Rep. Houghton for the most idiotic road safety law presented within the last year!
Hmm... I hope they don't have low bridges in Missouri.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My 2016 resolutions... for our dearest governors

The new year is here, which means that gyms are packed now, at least for another week or so. Then, things will come back to normal when most of those who committed to work out more in 2016 drop out by February and only the regular gym-goers stay.

The truth about resolutions is - if you haven't done this already it won't happen this year either.

But if 2016 should bring some changes, here is my New Year's resolution all local politicians should adopt: make you city/town more livable. And by more livable I don't mean more free parking spaces. Sorry.

There's a bunch of politicians who should seriously rethink what livable means and why it doesn't involve catering to car drivers.

Let's start locally. Colleen Garry, our State Representative, seeks to increase fines for jaywalking. Apparently, she still lives in 1930's. Just like the politicians from Nova Scotia who recently increased fines for jaywalking to nearly $700, making them more expensive than the penalty for using a cell phone while driving! Looks like in Nova Scotia crossing an empty street is equally dangerous as driving distracted. The latter one may lead to killing someone. The former one - not so much, unless Nova Scotia governors believe their population is so stupid that people would run across the street in front of approaching vehicles.

Now let's jump across the ocean. Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Właszczykowski said recently that bicycling in cities is a "foreign culture" and doesn't fit in the traditional Polish lifestyle. I guess he was referring to this very traditional lifestyle when you get totally wasted after work, crawl onto your horse-drawn cart and ride back home in glory. He's right. I can't see a place for bicycles there.
Polish MFA thinks cyclists and vegetarians are a "foreign culture" and don't belong to XIX century Poland. (Source: newsweek.pl)
 
Meanwhile in Australia (Oh boy, we love Australia, don't we?), now all cyclists in New South Wales are required to carry an ID and will get penalized more for riding without a helmet ($319) or running a red light ($425). The new rules were announced by Duncan Gay, state's roads minister and my "favorite" Australian politician.

All this means that if you are a cyclist in NSW your life may be miserable but if you are only a person on a bicycle, who just rides to the grocery store 2 miles away, you're screwed. I repeat myself here and say that Australia should just ban cycling completely and be done with it. Why pretend to be a modern country when it's obvious that you're stuck in the 60's?

The list gets longer. In fact, I've just discovered that the Bicycling magazine made my life easier and published their list of "people who could use some bike love in 2016". Worth a look.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Muddy mess at the year end

Looks like winter finally arrived. This morning commute was quite a mess. The snowfall started at night and continued through the morning and most of the day. Unfortunately, it's just too warm outside and what we've got was not a fresh blanket of white, fluffy snow we all (?) like, but a muddy mess, heavy and wet.

Despite all that, I decided to ride my bike to work and leave the car behind. Too bad I quickly had to abandon safety of the Minuteman Bikeway as it wasn't cleared of snow at all and riding through the sticky slush on my Schwinn proved to be too difficult. If only I had a fatbike... well, that's another story.

Because main roads were plowed and relatively snow free, this meant going back to vehicular cycling, i.e. "sharing" road with cars. Usually, this "sharing" in the weather like today looks like this - you ride as close to the curb as you feel is safe and try not to skid on any patches of black ice, while motorists pass too close to you splashing you all the time with muddy slush from the road.
I felt a bit like Yehuda this morning. It's not fun to get splashed by passing cars every minute of your commute. (Source: yehudamoon.com)

Enough complaining. Time for the year end summary. The passing 2015 was a pretty interesting year, from bicycling standpoint, at least.

It all started with sub-zero temperatures and a big "Snowmageddon". It was supposed to be a big snowfall but happened to be a regular one. Regular, in Boston terms, means something like 2 feet of snow overnight, of course. Nevertheless, the last winter season was truly record breaking with combined 2.8m (or 9 feet) of snowfall. I remember digging a tunnel in snow to my front door and some cyclists did the same in order to access the bike path in Medford.
The mountains of snow we had last winter created a completely new problem for me - with a place to park my bike. It was actually easier to park a car (requiring more space) than a much smaller bicycle. All because parking lots get plowed in winter here, but bike racks don't.

All that was in January and February. Then came March... and the situation got even worse. But no matter. Spring finally arrived and I celebrated it with the purchase of a new bag - Racktime ShoulderIt.
In May, I finally completed rebuilding my Xtracycle Edgerunner into "Big Eddie" - or what I call the electric version of it. Electric bicycles have probably the same number of fans as opponents. If you don't like them, I'm just going to nod my head and admit - yes, it's like cheating, yes - they are a bit like motorcycles. But if you were trying to haul two kids and 4 bags of groceries up a 10% grade, believe me - you would WANT that electric motor on you bike.
In June, the new Copenhagenize Index was published and we have even seen some American cities on the list as well. Sign of changes? Not in Boston though. We would likely be classified around place 200.

In the same month, thinking about my kids, I put together a list of better-than-Wallmart-junk children bicycles. If you happen to think about a new bike for your little buggers, take a peek.

With the arrival of warmer weather, I started riding my bike more and discovered some new places around Boston - MIT Haystack Observatory and Fruitlands. Then I finally found some time for a little longer ride - a 2-day "mini tour" to York in Maine and back. To complete that busy cycling week, I rode my bike to Cape Cod, but from the other end, making a landing by ferry.
Early fall, here in Boston we were reintroduced to the concept of tactical urbanism thanks to the hard work of Johathan and other folks, who decided not to wait until city governors finally do something about bicycling infrastructure and took the matter in their own hands - by planting hundreds of cones to separate bike lanes from a fast-moving car traffic. Even if not all cones stayed in place for too long, results were important and eye-opening.

Towards the end of the year, I swapped the lightweight road tires on my bike back to wider cross ones and went back to the roots - exploring dirt roads and trails in my area, such as the Western Greenway. Not having enough, I managed to test ride the newest Salsa Mukluk as well.
FInally, it was the Christmas time and while my wishlist is, well... just wishful thinking at this point, I will try my best to make some of these wishes come true. In 2016 or later.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Santa is coming, if only he can fit through the chimney

The third year in a row we get some really warm weather at Christmas. In 2013, two days before Christmas I was visiting my family in NYC and I remember wearing just a t-shirt on that day. Last year, we had a 60F weather a few days after Christmas, which I spent on beach with my kids. Today, the temperature hit nearly 70F and with added high humidity, it felt more like the 4th of July than 24th of December.

I had to do some last minute grocery shopping and because all stores are totally mobbed on Christmas Eve, it was certainly a smart decision not to drive anywhere, but take a bike. My daughter enjoyed it too, playing with some stickers and observing the surroundings.
She loves riding on the "Big Eddie" - our Xtracycle. Whenever I get close to my bikes she thinks we are going on a ride and grabs her helmet and tries to climb up to her seat. I noticed that she's very calm on the bike. She carefully studies everything around and gets very excited when she sees dogs on the Minuteman Bikeway. This is in contrast to moving her around by car. She's still too young to have her car seat face the windshield, which means that she can't really see anything from inside of the car. She gets bored and annoyed quickly. Bicycles are such a great vehicles for transportation of children. They are like strollers but faster and more fun.

My kids get very excited this year for Santa to arrive with presents. And I'm glad I somehow avoided all the usual craziness that we need to deal with in the end of December. First, it's just weeks of shopping, hunting for gifts. Then, cooking all the special Christmas treats (unless you do it the American way and just order some catering). Next, come multiple family visits where you either lucky and have fun or you are listening to the same stories again, hear various complains or just end up chasing your kids around someone's house. Finally, you overeat and you promise yourself that in the new year you are going on a diet, which we all know never happens (or happens for a few days only).

I'm glad I'm avoiding it. I'm spending this Christmas with my closest family and I'm trying to limit my part in the usual mad rush. I'm taking it easy and might even find some time for a bike ride. Which is what I wish you all.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!