Monday, November 20, 2017

Jaywalking 2.0 - "Petextrians"

If you think that American streets and roads are safe, you either live deep in the woods or drive a heavily armored vehicle through your city. But many of us, mortals, think otherwise. Apparently, we made a big move in safety numbers on our streets - just in the wrong direction:
Fatality rates here in 1990 were roughly 10 percent lower than in Canada and Australia, two other affluent nations with a lot of open road. Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. (...) Our vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s.
So it's true what they say about Americans - we love our freedom to the point we would rather kill each other than give up any part of it. In this case, it's a freedom to speed and to drive distracted.

But interestingly, we don't apply the same freedoms to people who don't drive. They are the enemy - those who impair our freedom to move at speed when they want to cross the street, especially "illegally".

Harassing anyone for jaywalking should a thing of the past, but it's coming back. Now, when nearly everyone is glued to a cell phone screen, apparently the biggest enemy of drivers in the city (apart of lack of free parking) is a texting pedestrian - "petextrian". Honolulu has already set a fine of $99 for this "illegal pedestrianism" (which really should be called "freecrossing") of the digital era. Now Boston wants to follow this example with fines up to $200 for distracted walking.
As they say, every place has its own village idiot and here in Boston we have Rep. Colleen Gary, who already made her name as a person who really hates everyone impeding car traffic in any way. Jaywalking 2.0 is her big comeback this year as she pushes for high fines for distracted pedestrians.

Fortunately, not everyone is this blind to see that it's not pedestrians but drivers who are the problem. Perhaps those autonomous vehicles wouldn't be that bad if they pay more attention to traffic than a human driver. But this mean we would need to give up our freedom to drive and speed. Are we ready for it?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

OTTOLock review - small, light and secure?

Light or secure? You can only have one. That's essentially the only choice we have among all various types of bicycle locks. Or do we?
Enter OTTOLock, a bicycle lock that tries to solve the seemingly impossible - it combines low weight with high security. I wrote about this lock last year during my Kickstarter inventions review and I added that it's likely the first Kickstarter invention I would actually buy. Nearly one year later I finally got one of these locks.

I ordered the 30" version of OTTOLock and my first impressions were very positive. The lock feels very solid in hand. I can't speak of how secure it really is since I'm not going to try to cut through it, so I have to rely on manufacturer's claim that its steel tape enclosed in orange rubbery plastic would withstand any attach with ordinary tools much better than cheap cable locks. Don't be fooled though - OTTOLock is clearly not going to be as secure as heavy-duty u-locks, but that's not the point. It's not supposed to combine low weight with ultimate level of security. Rather low weight with security adequate enough to leave your bike unattended for that longer shopping trip.

When it comes to weight, OTTOLock delivers what it promised. I weighed the 30" lock at 152g - very decent result for a lock of this size.

In my early Kickstarter look I wrote that the only thing I'm worried about is its 3-digit combination lock. Fortunately, the locking mechanism seems to be very solid and doesn't look like it would easily fall apart in use or could be broken into with some simple tools.
However, if I could be critical of one feature of OTTOLock it would still be its combination lock. I just don't feel that not having a key is any advantage here. Certainly it isn't any faster. The way OTTOLock works is that in order to lock your bike you have to set your chosen combination on the dials, push and hold the small metal button on the side, insert the tape into the locking mechanism and finally turn the 3 dials to secure the lock. It isn't that bad as long you already have the right combination set on the dials, but if the dials rotate (and they can rotate quite easily) you will have to reset them to your code before locking your bike.

At this point you may think, this is still better than searching for key in your pockets, but I'm not so sure. You see, it's November, which means that early morning in Boston air temperature hovers around 32F (0C) and that means I wear gloves. And it's much easier to get a key from a pocket and use it to unlock the bike, than to try to set the right code on 3 tiny dials so close to each other.

The only other complain I would have is that depending on how you transport your OTTOLock on the bike, it may have to be rolled first and secured for storage using included rubbery strap. That makes it (again) slower to use than most other locks out there. Without rolling and securing it, OTTOLock wants to unfold itself thanks to its steel tape construction.
Other than that, OTTOLock is very nice. It is lightweight and feels much more secure than most flexible bike locks. I will keep using mine and see how it works for me long term. Since it would be easier to use in warmer weather, it may become my travel lock. My bicycle travels happen pretty much only in June through October and the low weight of OTTOLock makes it a good bike touring companion.
Pros:
+ very light for a bicycle lock
+ feels solid and secure
+ no key required

Cons:
- difficult to use in thicker winter gloves
- slower to use (setting the combination, folding for storage, etc.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mason RR Trail

Since I became too familiar with my neighborhood trail I have to frequently venture out further away from home in search for more places to ride.

Last weekend I went to Townsend, MA to ride a short loop north into New Hampshire and back. 

I started just off Rt13 and followed Dudley Rd initially, to connect to Mason Railroad Trail. Being a former railroad, I didn't expect any major hills there but I was actually a bit surprised the trail was so... raw. It simply didn't seem to be used frequently. The surface was covered in leaves, branches and was pretty rough in general. Maybe I expected it to be wide and smooth like those other railroad trails in my area.
I didn't ride the full length of the trail since I wanted to move east and then back south. I took Mitchell Hill Rd to find entrance to another path cutting across Stephens Forest. It all started well...
but then turned out to be very rocky and pretty much unsuitable for anything else but a fat-tire mountain bike.
Finally, I got to the parking lot at Mile Slip Rd and when I thought it was all over, the worst part had just begun. The southern section of Mile Slip Rd is not much of a road at all. It's basically a fairly steep (6-10% grade) downhill section on very rough rocks, boulders and roots. The path seems to be shaped by rushing water during heavy rains and if you feel like riding there, bring your enduro bike with you. Don't make my mistake and try it on a cyclocross bike.

Even though the entire loop is only 24mi (38km) long and it would take about 2hrs to complete it, it's a fun place for bike riding. October weather makes it even better. It's still warm, it's dry, there are no mosquitoes nor flies in the deep forest and fall colors are just spectacular. To be honest, October should be 60 days long!

I will have to return here next year. On wider tires.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A bag of mixed feelings

I'm sure you have heard about Vision Zero - a noble program to reduce traffic deaths to zero (duh). The victims are overwhelmingly those unprotected road users - pedestrians and cyclists. The culprit - mostly drivers. Many cities in United States adopted Vision Zero, or at least claimed they did. It's because still very little has been done to make streets safer for everyone.

There is number of ways city streets can be made safer. Starting simply by reducing number of cars in the city (congestion charging) to a better street design such as physical barriers that separate heavy car traffic from unprotected road users (e.g. protected bike lanes). In fact, physical separation should be a preferred way, as distracted driving is on the rise. As it turns out, smartphones are killing Americans. Texting/facebooking/tweeting/instagraming has become so addictive that most drivers do that while moving. Starring at the smartphone screen is pretty much as prevalent as disobeying speed limits - even though it's illegal, everyone does it.
 
You would think that it should be in everyone's best interest to make streets safer for all road users. Unfortunately, there is always a group of idiots who will oppose it. The best example came recently from Minnesota where some people literally "lost their minds over a bike lane". I've seen many weird things in my life but calling bike lanes "Nazi lanes" is definitely new.

(Photo by Shane Morin)

But the worst things happen when the big opposition to Vision Zero comes not from a small group of local retards but a mayor of the largest city in America. Bill de Blasio - mayor of the New York City called for crackdown on e-bikes. I would never think that simple and relatively slow-moving vehicles that harm no one are the major problem to New Yorkers. As was quickly reported, "in 2016 alone, drivers killed 146 pedestrians and 18 cyclists. And in the first two months of 2017, city drivers have killed 18 pedestrians and one cyclist. (...) Meanwhile, e-bike riders have been involved in zero traffic-related deaths during the time that the city has collected data on their use."

This means one thing - e-bikes are not a problem to citizens of New York City. They are a problem to de Blasio, who, just like our mayor of Boston, is likely "a car guy". So either de Blasio doesn't understand what Vision Zero is, or he thinks it means "zero inconveniences to drivers".

Nevertheless, New York remains the most walkable large city in the United States. If only it would protect its pedestrians better, it could likely score higher on "Walkable Communities Report Card" issued recently by National Physical Activity Plan. Unfortunately, most places in America get a solid F grade, but what I found most shocking is this plot:
As it turns out, 30% of students in this country are being driver to school by their parent at a distance of less than 1/4 mile! That's a lousy 1300ft or 400m. I can't believe how some people's butts got permanently glued to their car's seats.

Anyway, jumping to another topic, the end of year is coming soon and I have an impression that some towns are trying to spend money they have left before December. In Bedford, I noticed they are building a sidewalk on a quiet residential street that is rarely used by pedestrians. The sidewalk won't connect to anything on one end, because the next street doesn't have a sidewalk either. Not sure if this new sidewalk is really needed.

In neighboring Lexington they started to build a ramp connecting Minuteman Bikeway with Maple St. That's great. There is already a ramp on the east side, but now we will have one also on the west side of Maple St.
Lexington also started their first "bike share" system last Friday. It's based on Zagster, it has a number of nice, white bikes available from just... one station. That doesn't make it a bike share program at all - more like an automated bicycle rental station.
Well, let's hope this is just a beginning and the system will be expanded quickly in 2018. Although, since the Minuteman Bikeway connects Bedford, Lexington, Arlington and Cambridge, I would really like to see all 4 communities working together to unify the system. This will allow people to share bikes and commute from Alewife station or Porter Square all the way to Bedford. That would make much more sense.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Parking spaces

Let's talk about parking spaces. No, not parking for cars. There is too much of it anyway. I want to look closer at parking for bicycles in its simplest and cheapest form - bike racks.

Bike racks come in all shapes and colors and some are better than others. On my way to work I counted not less than 6 different racks. Here are some examples.
This pretty, leaf-shaped rack belongs to a local bank. Despite the funky shape, it's actually quite functional. There is plenty of space nearby to park all types of bicycles and the rack provides a number of locking points. The one little problem though - it's not set in concrete but just bolted to it, making it less secure.
This ugly, red "wheelbender" is a very popular place for bicycles in Arlington. That's because it's the only rack available at Trader Joe's and right next to the Minuteman Bikeway. Given its popularity, it's a real shame TJ hasn't replaced it yet with something larger and more secure. The biggest problem with this rack is lack of space. The only somewhat secure spot is the one on the side, where I parked my bike in the above picture. All other spots require locking bikes by the front wheel only and the other side of the rack is blocked by a concrete wall. If you come here with an u-lock, you can only use the side spot. Locking to the inner slots requires you to use a very long chain or cable lock. On top of that, the rack is not even properly bolted to ground!
A bit further down the bike path, in Lexington Center you can find this long, black rack. It may look similar to the red TJ rack but it actually avoids all issues of its neighbor. The top bar is high over the ground so you can push your bike in, far enough to lock frame with front wheel using an u-lock. There is plenty of space for many bicycles in the rack even though most of the time it stays empty.
In Bedford I encountered this beefy structure. It's properly secured to ground and has enough space for a few bikes. I guess it might be the best bike rack here, but that massive tube may not be compatible with some narrower or shorter u-locks.
Finally, here is another rack in Bedford. It works for me, although it could be better secured to the concrete slab than just using a few bolts. I actually like its unique flat shape as it works better with some mini u-locks. 

All the above makes me wonder if we need some kind of national bike rack standard. I know that more regulation is usually not the best answer, but what can we do when we desperately need a place to lock our bikes and all we get is a lousy "wheelbender"?

Finally, I noticed that from all of my bicycles, the easiest one to lock is my Xtracycle - as long as I'm leaving it for only a few minutes! That's because it doesn't need a bike rack at all! I can just park it somewhere out of way and lock the front wheel with frame using an u-lock. No need to lock it to anything!

That's because no one would be able to ride it, nor walk away with it. It's just too heavy to carry and too long to fit in car's trunk. Unless there are two guys nearby with a pick-up truck, I don't see easy way to steal a heavy electric cargo bike. Still, obviously I wouldn't leave my bike locked like this for the whole day.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It's the end of September and non-motorists are to blame

I just noticed it's the end of September. Time flies! There must be some international conspiracy behind this and it's probably because of those without cars. You know, when in doubt - blame cyclists and pedestrians.

Why?

Because they get away too easily with their crimes! Death by bicycle is rampant, which is why British government considers a new criminal law for cyclists. To be honest, numbers are not exactly in favor because "of 1,730 people killed on UK roads in 2015 just two – 0.12% – were killed in collisions with cyclists". It doesn't matter. Every live saved counts (Ain't that so, Australians?)!

It's also good to blame pedestrians, because they are just a "hazard to cars". That's what they think in California:
This is America. Here, paint on your car has more rights than a person crossing the street so those texting teenagers better be aware of it! If they dive nose-deep in their iPhone screens, they'd better at least wear something bright and reflective. According to American DMV, hi-vis clothing solves such problems. As evidenced here:
Ok, but that's on the other coast. Let's jump to my local backyard. The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, thinks that cyclists don't deserve their space on city streets simply because it's impossible.
Perhaps if we remove cars from some streets, that space would be found. Newbury St and Hanover St seem like perfect candidates. But let's leave our mayor alone. It takes some political balls to pull this off and he's currently fighting for re-election.

Finally, I'm happy to announce that my little village of Arlington and its brother town of Lexington are introducing their own bike share system. How exciting! Obviously, it would make most sense to simply expand Hubway system that already works quite well in neighboring Cambridge and Boston. But it turned out that Hubway is quite too expensive for our town, which is why both towns considered some other options.

Lexington started by approving the location of... one station. Yes, you read it right. They have essentially created the smallest bike share system in the world that operates with 14 bikes from just one station. This means that soon citizens of Lexington will be able to rent a bike to ride twice around town only to drop it off in the same place they took it from. They won't be able to get to work or run errands by bike but who give a shit. They use their cars for "real" stuff anyway.

That's the American way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

S24O - to Pawtuckaway State Park and back

S24O is simply a sub 24-hour, overnight ride. This means, we pack the bare minimum needed for 1 night stay somewhere in the wild, ride to our destination and come back the next day. All that in less than 24 hours.

Last Friday I decided to give it a try - leave my workplace earlier, around 3:30pm and ride to the distant Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire, roughly 60mi (100km) away. This state park has a designated campground, located right on the shores of Pawtuckaway Lake and that's where I planned to stay for the night (even though it's not free).

Because weather was warm and it was only 1 night of camping, I managed to reduce my gear to pretty much bare minimum.
I use an ultralight Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 tent, which I like a lot (despite a few minor things that could be made better). But one issue difficult to solve when packing it on a bike is where to place poles. They are just too long. Once I strapped them separately to the bottom of top tube, the rest of the tent and the mattress fit in a stuff sack that I strapped to the seatpost. That left me with the sleeping bag, some food, spares and minor items (camera, phone, etc.) that I loaded into Apidura handlebar bag. The whole setup worked perfectly, although I would prefer placing the poles somewhere else, since it was awkward to portage bike over obstacles, when I had to lift it up by the top tube.

Day 1 (66mi or 106km)

Shortly after I left Bedford and was approaching Lowell, it started pouring heavily. In no time, I was completely soaked. I thought about stopping somewhere and waiting for rain to stop but I was kind of racing against the clock. I had 60mi to ride and sun was about to set soon. I paused only to pour water out of my shoes and squeeze out any water out of socks and shirt. It was very warm and humid and this kind of heavy rain felt just like a warm shower and didn't really bother me much.
I didn't stop in Lowell but I really liked its restored historical downtown. Looks like a very interesting place for a longer visit. I continued north through Windham to Chester. At this point it was already around 7pm and because of the thick layer of clouds, it got completely dark. I turned lights on and kept going but had to skip some forest trails I wanted to explore on the way. It was simply impossible to find entrance to some paths hidden in darkness.

I usually don't have a chance to ride at night and this was an interesting experience. There was little road traffic in rural New Hampshire. It was very warm, humid and loud, with noise of crickets playing their night tunes.

Some time around 8:45pm I arrived at the campground. I got a spot right at the lake, pitched my tent in darkness and thanks to nearby bathroom facilities I didn't even have to go to sleep with legs covered in mud. There were many people camping nearby but they didn't bother me since camping spots at the park are conveniently spread out. The campground overall looked attractive for a family camping day I'd like to try some time next year.

I didn't sleep that well. Somehow I couldn't fall asleep right away, then some large animal woke me up in the middle of the night. Not sure what it was, but it kept huffing, puffing and sniffing around my tent, making quite a noise. After I figured out that the only things I left outside are my smelly shoes, I decided not to investigate what that creature really was, as there was a remote chance it could've been a skunk. Fortunately, after not finding anything interesting, the thing went on its way into the dark forest.

Day 2 (78mi or 126km)

I woke up around 6am, when most other campers were still sleeping. The morning was even more humid than last night and a heavy cloud layer was hanging low over the lake. I packed my stuff and headed back. I had a long ride ahead.
My camping spot. No fly on the tent as I started to pack things already.

Bridge to Horse Island at 7am. Humid, wet, cloudy.

I didn't want to take the shortest route home but explore the area at least a bit. I took Mountain Trail towards Reservation Rd, but it turned out to be so rocky that I had to walk my bike a lot. It would likely be easier on a mountain bike, although there are sections on the trail where even a MTB would not be much help.
The Reservation Rd was certainly much more suited for my type of bicycle and the rest of park ride was enjoyable. Next, I got to a power line trail off Brown Rd, and it turned out that it didn't matter my shoes and socks were still wet from the previous day. I soaked them again trying to get through some flooded areas on the trail. One more stop to pour water out of shoes, squeeze out socks and I was ready to go.
Once I got to Raymond Rd I thought I could continue along the power line trail even though this section on map is marked "winter only". Well, there is a good reason for it. There is a small wooden bridge ahead you can see from Raymond Rd but unfortunately, there was absolutely no way I could get to it. The whole area is a wetland and it's only passable in winter once everything freezes over. I empirically verified that a detour was required by soaking my shoes for the second time that day when my front wheel sunk up to the axle in a ditch full of water.


At this point I had enough of off-road exploration and decided to take RT107 to Raymond. There, I merged with Rockingham Recreational Trail towards Epping and it was a very pleasant ride. The trail is wide, with hard-packed surface. Too bad crossings with major roads are not designed better. Right now, the trail lacks the feeling of continuity.
From Epping I took the southern section of the trail towards Sandown but it soon turned out to be a disappointment. The first part up to RT107/Main St is very bumpy and difficult to ride. It seems to be used mainly by horseback riders and the entire surface is destroyed by horse hooves.

Then the next section, south of Main St, was free of horse presence. Unfortunately, it seems to be frequently used by motocross bikers and it's just too sandy for my 35mm tires. Had I been there on a plus-sized mountain bike, the situation would've been different. I decided to abandon the trail and take a shortcut along RT111A to Salem, NH.
In Salem, I entered Salem Rail Trail that has a compacted gravel surface and would've been a good place to ride a bicycle, if only busy RT28 wasn't right next to it. Once the trail crosses Massachusetts border it turns into Methuen Rail Trail that started promising, but unfortunately then entered Lawrence where it runs next to an area occupied by a bunch of homeless people, tons of trash and derelict buildings. I teleported myself ASAP away from Lawrence and continued to Tewksbury.

The rest of the trip was relatively non-eventful as I managed to get lost only a couple of times. Navigating through some more remote areas around Billerica I finally reached familiar waters and arrived home at 3:15pm - a touch away from 24hrs mark.

The whole thing was fun even though it took me longer than I expected. If only Pawtuckaway Park was a bit closer! Weather was a bit of a problem. It would be nicer if it wasn't that humid but on the other hand, it would be likely much worse riding on a hot, sunny day. The one thing I have to remember about next time is spare waterproof socks.