Friday, May 19, 2017

You are a terrorist and you don't even know about it

It's the Bike To Work Day today and I somehow managed to do it for the first time in years. For some reason, in the past several years I always missed this event, but it didn't bother me much, as I ride on the other 364 days of the year anyway.

It's been an eventful week. The spring is in full swing, which means that trees just erupted producing tons of pollen leading to my sneezing, itching and aching for the last few days. 

Then it got worse. It's 75F (24C) early in the morning only to get much, much hotter (over 90F) later in the day. At this point I'm close to park my bike and hide in a fridge. Knock on the door when September is here.

What else happened this week? Oh yes, several new scandals in the White House, but that's nothing new. Our president is busy doing the right thing - fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, the focus is in a wrong place. There is a real terror happening on our streets and no one gives a damn about it. In fact, you (or someone you know) are likely a terrorist. You just don't think about it.
Just an accident, "not terrorism" so nothing to worry about. (CBS News)

Yesterday a driver (with multiple earlier DUIs) mowed the crowd in Times Square, killing 1 and injuring 22 pedestrians. Press quickly reported it wasn't an "act of terrorism" so everything is fine. Just a normal day in America, right? A cost of our way of life.

On the same day an 8-year old boy was ran over by an inattentive driver in Wellesley's school parking lot and taken to hospital with severe injuries. Seems like the parent was rushing to drop kids off and get to work. Yet another example of "not terrorism" that happens every day.

School zones are "a total madhouse" anyway. It's a problem we created with bad road design, lack of public transport and no bike lanes. My solution was simple - large "no car zone" around every elementary school in the country. Kids (and parents) have legs - they can walk.

So there you go. People drive, people die. Unfortunately, the dead ones are mostly the least protected ones - pedestrians and cyclists. They're being killed daily by terrorists in cars. 

Nothing will change until we recognize the problem and our politicians fail to do so. Marty Walsh, Mayor of Boston, said recently that pedestrians and cyclists share the blame of accidents. According to him,
"You’ve got to understand, cars are going to hit you."
You see, it's that simple. Either you can join the terrorists in cars or be stupid and try to walk or bike. Just don't complain when you get hit by a car. Oops, it happens.

That was yesterday. Today, since it's the Bike To Work Day and after a huge public outrage, our Mayor decided to fix the damage slightly and "announced a commitment to increase Boston's Vision Zero investment by $1 million" in 2018. Sounds good but I don't believe it until I see it working. You see, Vision Zero has been a great talking point for most politicians - it's a great idea that can win them many supporters without doing nothing (but talking).

Implementing it, however, is a completely different animal and no one says it's going to be easy. Take protected bike lanes, for example. In New York, they are a source of chaos. Apparently, in eyes of terrorists, err... I mean, drivers, bike lanes lead to traffic headaches. I think that's probably because it hurts them to see cyclists just riding by, when they are stuck in their own traffic.

With over 30,000 Americans dying each year on roads, traffic collisions are much deadlier than terrorism. Now, what are we going to do about it?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A boring solution

"musking" - the depositing of musk for scent marking by badgers and similar animals. (Oxford Dictionary)
Elon Musk, who is aspiring to become a visionary, technological leader Steve Jobs once was, is leaving his "musk" all over the place.

First, he manufactured some nice, electric Tesla cars and attempted to solve home power issues with Powerwall, then focused on electrification of other means of transport such as trucks and buses, only to finish with The Boring Company that would bring us underground tunnels as the ultimate solution to our traffic problems.

But it worries me that he's exerting his energy in wrong places. As much as cool-looking and technologically-advanced Tesla cars may be, electric cars won't solve any congestion problems because of this:
What Musk fails to notice is that any new solution he envisions still supports to the old "one person per car" policy and as such, requires far too much of precious road space than available. It doesn't matter if his car is electric, autonomous, or travels underground on a 124mph "skate". As long as it only transports one person per vehicle, it's wasteful, pointless and far worse than the old XIX century invention - rail.

Sorry Elon, but space for cars in our cities is severely limited and drilling tunnels underground is not going to change it. It would be far more efficient to build a real high-speed rail between Boston and Washington D.C. that could carry millions of passengers a year, connecting all major cities on the way, than building tunnels for high-speed electric cars.

The only thing I truly like about his idea of tunnels is that they put cars underground. That's a great way of giving streets back to people. And when we already bury our metal boxes deep under, let's just keep them there. At least within the city limits.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sorry, I'm late to complain about the same thing yet again

Last Sunday, there was an important event in the downtown Boston that I obviously missed. Hundreds of cyclists rode through the city to demand safe streets, namely - more safe bicycling infrastructure like real, protected bike lanes, not just those with painted lines.

Boston is one of the oldest American cities and was built long before the car era started, which means that there are plenty of narrow streets with limited space for large vehicles -perfect locations for pedestrian (or ped+bike) zones. Despite that, cars dominate the downtown. You would think that in XIX century, following excellent examples around the world, the City of Boston would want to change this obsolete design and open its streets to people. I'm guessing it's not going to happen anytime soon. Citizens of Boston may want it, tourists may want it, even daily commuters may want it, but the city doesn't give a damn. There is simply no political will to change things, despite deaths of numerous cyclists in recent years.

But then I'm thinking that maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe the City doesn't want to change anything because most people are perfectly happy with status quo. The same people think that it's not drivers' fault that people are dying on Boston streets. No. They think that "cyclists are the worst thing that happened to this city" and they have solutions to it.

First, of course, as a cyclist you have no right to demand safe infrastructure if you don't wear a helmet:
Next, know that you are a parasite who uses roads for free, because you don't pay "road tax":
Then, clearly, if you want to ride in the city, you have to be licensed and registered:
Finally, you certainly don't deserve any respect and place on road because it's so obvious that you never obey the rules:
I think it becomes perfectly clear now that our city does the right thing. No stupid protected bike lanes are necessary. Citizens don't want them. Instead, they want all cyclists to be helmeted, taxed, licensed, registered, identified, painted red, beaten up and kicked out of the city.

Then, we'll finally find our peace.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sorry, I got distracted but at least I didn't kill anyone

Sorry, I got so distracted by my life that I didn't realize a half of this month is already gone. I'm trying to ride my other bike a bit more recently but it turns out to be difficult sometimes, since lots of local trails are still flooded and inaccessible.
Soggy spring has arrived and everything started blooming slowly. Still no leaves on trees but at least we know they are coming soon.
My distraction is meaningless, but in general, cell phone distraction is now one of the most common collision causes on road. It turns out that 88% of smartphone owners use them while they drive. You can easily imagine what may happen when you look at the screen of your smartphone and not the road. If you can't, take a look at the pictures of this head-on collision, when a Texas driver killed 13 people because he was texting while driving 80mph. He was allowed to text and drive as Texas is one of only four states that doesn't ban it.

It's pretty clear we have a huge problem and you would think media should notice that. Unfortunately, they prefer blaming victims (duh!), which leads to some ridiculous situations when The Today Show blamed pedestrians for collisions because of "distracted walking", which "they illustrated by showing a video clip of a person being struck by a driver while standing on the sidewalk"! Clearly, whether you are distracted or not by your cell phone's screen, cars or trucks should never be a threat for you when you're on a sidewalk.

It seems that we've got a new technology and this tech is now killing us, because of our strong dependence on both smartphone and cars. Interestingly though, we already have a solution that would essentially turn smartphone into "dumb" phones when driving. It was developed a decade ago but no cell phone provider is interested in implementing it, fearing lost profits.

So don't text, tweet, instagram, email or whatever else, when you drive. Remember that you are operating a heavy and powerful vehicle that can easily kill someone. Be like Spiderman - with great power comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Winter, spring or summer?

Last weekend I decided it was finally time to start this year's "cycling season" and explore some surroundings a bit further from home.

I drove to Leominster, then rode around the Wachusett Mountain. Or at least I tried to, since spring hasn't arrived there yet and snow was everywhere. In fact, the summit was not even accessible with the main gate being blocked by a huge pile of snow.
I had to skip the ride to the summit and try my luck elsewhere. It was still pretty cold early in the morning but later on as temperature raised, you could feel that warmer days were coming. I actually enjoyed riding along Parmenter St in Leominster State Forest despite all the frozen snow on the ground.
To be fair, this place would be way easier to ride once snow melts completely, but even then make sure you bring wider tires. Parmenter St is not really a street at all but more like a very rocky forest road. I guess that's what makes it a place fun to ride.
Now this was two days ago and situation has changed dramatically since then. Snow is pretty much gone and now we enjoy... summer with air temperature reaching 80F (27C) today. It's a strange kind of summer though, with no leaves on trees (yet).

This warmer weather also means that suddenly everyone recalled those two-wheel machines stored in basement and as such, bike paths are now full of seasonal cyclists.

The season is officially open. Cyclists are here. I'm just waiting for pollen to arrive.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It's the end of March so it must be... winter

This morning the weather was simply "perfect" for this time of the year. Rainy, cloudy, dark, cold and ugly, with lots of snow still piling up everywhere and refusing to melt. Everything was telling me to stay in bed late - ideally the whole day. Despite that, I felt like I really needed a bike ride.
I did a 2-hour loop around Harvard, MA desperately looking for any signs of spring. Tough luck - it seems that we will "enjoy" this winter a bit longer. I already wrote why I think March is by far the worst month in the year (if you live in New England) and I sill stay by it. March just sucks here, especially when you compare with Europe, where spring is in full swing. Not to mention Southern California where they pretty much enjoy summer.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What communists got right

If you have ever tried to drop off your first grader at American school, you know that feeling very well. Inching forward slowly in a long line of cars, checking your watch and wondering whether you are going to make it to that morning meeting on time. Unless, of course, you are one of the brave ones (or the lucky ones - if you live close to school) who walk with their kids - then you're really screwed. No one expects you to walk to school here. Driving up to the front door is considered normal. And your kid riding a bike to school? Give me a break! What normal parent would ever allow that!?

This general approach creates a giant morning mess when hundreds of cars line up and clog roads. Ideally, I would love to see cities introducing a "no car zone" policy around all elementary schools, with a car-free zone of at least 500ft radius. This way no one (except the school buses) would be allowed to drive up to the front door. A short morning walk should be good for any parent and child.

Otherwise, what you get is this:

Believe it or not, such pictures have been completely foreign to me (at least until recently). It's no secret that I grew up behind the Iron Curtain - in communist Poland. And while communists got most things completely wrong, there is one they got right, not even knowing about it. Confused?

Let me explain.

American cities are huge because everyone's dream is to own a house and a piece of meticulously maintained piece of grass called the yard. And as I mentioned in my previous post, they are willing to spend long hours in car, driving to work, just to be able to live in places where they can actually afford their own piece of land. That's how the wasteful urban sprawl is made.

On the other hand, many European cities are much smaller (area-wise) yet still hold the same number of citizens. On average, people tend to live closer to each other in apartment buildings, not single-family houses. In 1960's-80's in Poland, the government built a fair number of such buildings all across the country. Because of their inherent "beauty" and shoddy construction, I wouldn't dare to call them apartment buildings, but maybe... housing blocks. Yes, that sounds communist enough.
A typical housing block in Poland. The fancy bright colors can't brighten your life enough in this concrete bunker (Source: Wikimedia).

One single block of this type may typically have about 40 apartments (depending on building's length) and those are usually small: ~2 bedrooms and 500-800 sq. ft. That's a third of an average American house.

The place where I grew up had a large number of these blocks scattered on a 1km x 1km plot of land. I made a simple sketch (please forgive me for my crude drawing abilities) to illustrate my point.

Such housing community can still be found in every major Polish city. Mine housed about 4,000-4,500 people and was somewhat self-sufficient. As you can see in the drawing, we had some basic amenities such as schools and kindergartens, grocery stores and other usual commercial buildings, a clinic, a church and a number of sports facilities.

What is also pretty clear that major roads were placed on the outskirts of this land and parking lots we located away from the front doors. Compare it with this section of Arlington, MA - roughly the same area of a fairly typical, suburban development - many more roads and a much lower population density:
This high-density design had some major consequences. In order to run your daily errands you didn't need a car to:
  • drop off kids at school, kindergarten or daycare,
  • get groceries,
  • see a doctor,
  • take kids to the soccer practice,
  • visit the church,
  • get a haircut,
  • do many, many other things.
In fact, you would only use your car if you want to drive to another city. Going to work in the 70's happened mainly thanks to the public transportation as few people could actually afford a car. Public transport was available (even though wasn't of particularly top quality) - a nearby streetcar line and multiple bus lines took care of the problem. If you wanted to go somewhere by bike, you could easily ride on wide footpaths or merge with the cycling "highway" that would take you to the downtown.

For my fellow Americans such place may sound like a slum. No one had their own driveway, own yard and own swimming pool after all. But for us, kids, it was like a large playround. Wherever we wanted to go, we never had to cross a busy street. We walked everywhere. Walked to school and to see our friends or to the field to play ball. If we were tired of walking, we rode bicycles instead. There were no cars around so playing outside was easy and safe. We ventured out for the entire day coming back home late for dinner.

Despite all the ugliness of housing blocks and compact size of apartments our community was a safe and fun place to live.

Of course, communists didn't build it that way because they had a visionary development plan. They did it because that was all they could do at the time - place lots of people in one location and provide them with cheap housing (I know it's hard to believe but the state was providing basic, i.e. lousy, housing for everyone).

Don't get me wrong. Even though it may sound nice there were just too many things wrong elsewhere in the system and at one point in 1989 we just showed our government the middle finger and ended the whole stupid experiment.

The housing blocks, however, survived. They still stand today and after numerous renovations still perform their function. And while many single-family dwellings started to pop-out around cities later in the 90's, the block communities are the ones to remain the most people-friendly. Yes, the apartments are still small, but are well-located and well-connected to the rest of the city tissue.

I see similar developments in the U.S. but at a much smaller scale. American apartment neighborhoods in the suburbs can't even compare to the old communist solution. Not only they are smaller but they also place large parking lots right in front of the buildings. Due to the local zoning laws, they don't include any commercial or educational institutions within the complex. And any public transportation is severely limited, which means you still have to drive everywhere to take care of the simplest needs.

I wonder, will it change or will we still prefer to own a yard instead of owning more time?