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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Now you can die while staying "comfortable and stylish"!

When you ask average Americans if they feel safe riding bicycles in our cities, they would likely say no. But unfortunately, if you ask them how to make it safer for cyclists, they will still tell you - make them use helmets!

It's 2018. This topic has been beaten to death. More and more people already realize that helmets are not going to save us. Yet still, there is a large percentage of population who thinks that these styrofoam hats are THE solution.

Take this newest offering from Park & Diamond - a collapsible helmet that looks like a hat:

According to the inventors, the biggest problem with bicycle helmets is that they are difficult to transport and ugly, which is why not many cyclists want to use them. Their offering is superior because it will keep you "safe, comfortable and stylish". Riiight...

Somehow, I can't picture this (or any other) helmet keeping me safe in this situation:

No matter how stylish your helmet is, it's nearly useless when you're being flattened by a large SUV. Of course, if you want to wear pretty helmets I won't be stopping you. Get one! Just please don't fall for the usual BS in Park & Diamond's business pitch:
  • "wearing a helmet reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury by 87%"
  • "97% cycling fatalities occur when the rider is not wearing a helmet'
  • "more than 90% of bike commuters don't wear helmets"
The first two completely false claims have been already widely discussed. The last one is difficult to agree with for someone who rides to work everyday and sees fellow commuters on the way. By my take, overwhelming majority of them wear helmets and it is evidenced in data:
As you can tell, United States is a country with one of the highest helmet wearing rates in the world. If helmets were the miracle cure, cycling in USA should be much safer than anywhere else. Unfortunately, data shows exactly the opposite. We have the highest deaths/km cycled ratio.
Even worse, our death rates are so high despite fewer trips done by bicycle compared to other countries. Notably, only Australia scores even worse and that's a country where wearing helmets is mandatory! 
By now it should be pretty obvious that Australian model is useless - giving people helmets (or actually forcing to wear them) doesn't lower number of fatalities. Instead, we should be doing what they did in Denmark or Holland - build safe infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this would be a very difficult proposition here in the United States. Most Americans can't picture anything else than driving everywhere, because they've never experienced anything else. And they are ready to defend this status quo - to the point when a very modest tax increase on gasoline could help properly maintain our roads (which, I think, is what every driver wants), it is met with fierce opposition:

But no. "Cars must stay" - we say, even though we suck at driving, especially around our own kids. If a bad crash happens, we blame it on others - pedestrians, sun glare or those damn cyclists who refuse to wear helmets (Isn't that right, Park & Diamond?). Some would really want to follow Australia's example and make styro-hats mandatory quoting that it's worth it, even "if it only saves one life". As MBTom pointed out - that just doesn't add up: 

I do not wear a helmet on my daily commute but you may want to. When you do - at least pick a "comfortable and stylish" one.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Townsend-Milton Quick(er) Loop

Don't you think this fall season's weather has been lousy so far? The whole September was very humid and then when the true fall finally came, we didn't really have a chance to enjoy those warm days with cool, crisp air. It got very chilly pretty quickly.

Last Friday was one of those rare, warm, sunny days. I decided to visit some of my favorite places nearby (i.e. within 1hr drive from Rt128). I visited this place before - in May, but it looks quite a bit different now in the fall.

As the last time, I started at a parking lot just south of Townsend State Forest from where I took Dudley Rd to Barker Hill Rd. The unpaved section starts when you take left onto Morse Rd and then continues on Mason Railroad Trail.

The nice thing about Mason Railroad Trail is that whenever I go there I don't see anyone else. It's empty. And it takes you through forest across a couple of bridges.
Once you get to the edge of Pratt Pond, it's time to turn right onto Pratt Pond Rd and then continue east until you turn onto Mitchell Hill Rd. You will notice a sign "no outlet" right at the intersection but that obviously applies only to cars. There's always "an outlet" for someone on a bike - the question is only how difficult it's going to be.
At some point along Mitchell Hill Rd you will notice a simple steel bar gate, which you can safely ignore since this is where all the fun really starts. The first few hundred of feet are a steep downhill on a rocky forest road, so pay attention where you land your front wheel. Then you'll get to a brook crossing, which is usually flooded. Fortunately, it's perfectly possible to ride right through it. No need to wet your feet.
Eventually, the trail ends at a grassy parking lot, just off Mile Slip Rd. Following Mile Slip Rd south can be... interesting. When I visited this place in May I wouldn't even consider this place a road. It looked more like a riverbed - full of large rocks, it would be more appropriate to ride it on a full-suspension bike.
Mile Slip Rd last May

Not this time. I returned a few months later and to my surprise all rocks were gone, the road was graded and rebuilt. In some way it's too bad they fixed it - I kind of liked the challenge. On the other hand, now it's easier and much, much faster to ride. I just hope there is no plan to pave it.

I continued south, crossing some rough sections with very chunky gravel, then a few ATV-like trails.
The unpaved road ended once I reached Mason Rd, but then there's a trail just off Campbell Mill Rd that continues south through the forest. With my luck, it was of course unavoidable to get messy. Because of many rainy days in the past weeks, soil on the trails was very soft in places and my tires picked up a fair amount of mud.
The last part of the ride is a straight road running through Townsend State Forest, between West Hill Rd and Fessenden Hill Rd. It's fun - all downhill on a wide, rocky road makes you fly and finish your ride in no time.
The ride ends at Brookline Rd (Rt13), which is usually busy, with lots of traffic. I actually hoped to stay on the trail for longer and take another path through the forest but it ended up being completely flooded (like a large pond right in the middle of the trail) so I had no choice but to bail our early.

That area is always fun to ride and even though it's not that close to Boston it's worth visiting. Now I wonder if there's a way to ride this route in winter...

Friday, October 12, 2018

The German way

A couple of weeks ago I had to spend  some time in Germany, travelling for business. Even though I used to live in there many years ago, visiting European cities often comes as a minor cultural shock for someone who lives in United States.

One of the striking differences is how much more space in very centers of German cities is designated only for pedestrians and bicycles. Obviously, this is very normal in historical, medieval downtowns, which were not designed for cars and cars wouldn't even fit there anyway. But even in modern urban setting, having entire street just for people, not cars, is something Germans, unlike Americans, are apparently very comfortable with.

The next two pictures are from Frankfurt am Main. This is Zeil - one of the main streets in the city and a major part of it is closed for car traffic.
Zeil - Frankfurt's shopping street and pedestrian heaven.

Actually, it's cyclists' heaven too.

Now, keep in mind that we are not talking about closing some narrow, side road for cars. The width of Zeil can be easily compared with New York's 5th Ave. Can you imagine having 5th Ave closed for cars between Central Park and Bryant Park? Or having Boston's Boylston St closed for thru traffic from Mass Ave to Public Garden? I can already see those riots in the streets if both cities proposed anything like that...

Another difference that became immediately obvious was that many Germans in the middle of Frankfurt on their way to work or school early in the morning don't drive. In fact, most of them seemed to either walk or use bicycles:
Some guys in their usual business attire - on bikes.

Women too.

This one stopped briefly to look at the river.

The river banks in Frankfurt are used for walking and cycling. There's no major highway taking that precious real estate - unlike our Storrow Drive here in Boston.

Bikes in front of a school building. Makes me wonder how many German parents actually drop of their kids at school by car?

A small-footprint, high-capacity bike parking in Frankfurt.

It's pretty clear that bicycles are a normal mode of transportation in Germany, but what's very interesting is how much more popular electric bikes are. Over a decade and a half ago, when I lived there, electric bikes didn't exist. Now, they are practically everywhere. A good sign of e-bikes popularity is presence of dedicated charge stations scattered around the city.
While I doubt we will reach this level of car-free living here in the US anytime soon, it can be eye-opening witnessing how pleasant, quiet, and calm a large city like Frankfurt can be.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Local news - Arlington introduces BRT system

If you have even wondered why public transport is so bad in your city, you may want to read this:
I have touched this topic here before. Basically, Americans worked very hard to destroy pretty decent public transport system (streetcars) they already had at the beginning of XX century, in order to replace them with highways and cars. That might have worked very early on, when few people owned cars, but after WWII, when everyone wanted a dream suburban house with a garage, everyone started to drive into the city - and this was the beginning of the end.

It's really quite simple. Cities are not made out of rubber and you can't stretch valuable real estate forever to make space for more and more cars. Turning vast surfaces in downtown into parking lots is clearly a very bad investment for the city (free parking lots don't pay city taxes), which took us way too long to understand (and some of us still don't get it).

But there is hope. More and more city governors and planners notice that situation is not improving, despite opening new roads, bridges, parking garages, etc. They finally started turning their focus to what they destroyed 80 years ago - public transport.

One good example how a city can quickly improve the situation without spending massive amounts of money (Because let's be clear - building a new streetcar line from scratch wouldn't be exactly inexpensive.) is BRT - bus rapid transport. In short, it's about giving buses dedicated lanes whenever possible, adjusting signals to prioritize buses over the rest of traffic and moving bus stops to avoid buses leaving and merging with the flow of traffic.

My town of Arlington played with this idea for a while and this October we will see the introduction of a pilot BRT program on our main street - Massachusetts Avenue. I'm really happy such initiatives turn into solutions - hopefully permanent, but there are a few bugs in this early design that I'd like to point out.

First of all, this BRT program has a very limited range, running only between Lake St and Alewife Brook Parkway - that's only 10 blocks/intersections, but since it's just a pilot, I can live with that.

Then, there are some major issues in the design of BRT bus route and I seriously hope that this is only temporary and should Arlington decide to keep the BRT forever (and they should!), these bugs will get fixed before we make anything permanent.
Just take a look at this route design near Henderson St. The third, bus-only lane is placed where some parking spots used to be. Unfortunately, the city decided to place bike lane on the wrong side of these parking spots and now, since BRT lane replaces those spots, cyclists will get squeezed between moving buses to the right and speeding cars to the left. Honestly, who would want to ride a bike in a lane like this? Obviously the right way to handle this is to move the bike lane all the way to the right - next to the curb, and place buses next to car traffic.
This is what we have - with bike lanes painted on the wrong side of parking lanes.

 This is what are getting for now - bicyclists will be squeezed into a space between buses and cars.

And that's what we should have - move bike lane behind bus stops. No need to for buses to move into/out of their BRT lane and safer for cyclists.

Similar problem is shown in the second picture from city's presentation. It looks like buses will have to cross the bike lane in order to reach bus stops, then cross it again to merge with the BRT lane. Again, this makes no sense. The correct way is to swap bike lane and BRT lane, placing bike lane closer to the sidewalk, ideally running it behind the bus stops. That makes it easier for everyone - car drivers don't need to worry about buses and bikes, bus drivers stay in their BRT lane all the time and cyclists are physically separated from all heavy car/bus traffic.

Let's wait until October to see BRT in action and then hopefully we will have a chance to address these problems and make it right before anything becomes permanent. For now, I'm being optimistic.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Nahmakanta Tour - Day 3

Day 3 - Endless Lake to Pittsfield (126km/78mi) 

On day three, the sun woke me up early when it rose above the treeline. On these short bikepacking trips my daily routine changes quite a bit. I go to bed at sunset, since there isn't really much to do in darkness. This lets me get up at sunrise and maximize daylight usage for riding.
I tend to travel pretty light, which means no cooking equipment, not many clothes, no big supplies. As such, packing my camp in the morning takes me a little more than half an hour. By 6:45AM I was already rolling out.
The first part of my route was to cross Seboeis Land forest and reach shores of Schoodic Lake. Fortunately, the road was wide and empty and cool, cloudy morning presented perfect conditions for a bike ride.
I eventually reached Railroad Bed Rd, which is basically a wide, smooth, flat and straight highway in place of a former railroad (obviously!). It was a welcomed change from all rough ATV trails I visited day before. Rolling there was like riding on a high-quality pavement. So nice, so easy.
Logging industry is the mainstay of Maine's economy. In fact, I'd bet that it's not moose or bear who is bicyclist's biggest threat in these lands, but logging trucks.

In no time I reached Milo - a small town on Sebec River. My goal was to get to Dover-Foxcroft by noon and stop for lunch. Of course, I could've just followed Rt6 and be done with it but this would've been too easy and not fun enough. So I opted for River Rd, which is actually a dead end road ending somewhere deep in the forest with a concrete barrier - a serious problem if you're in a car but only a minor obstruction if you're on a bike.
I finally got to Dover-Foxcroft and stopped at The Mill Inn & Cafe, which I can certainly highly recommend. Their food is delicious and the only minus I would give them is for the lack of a bike rack in front of their building. I had to chain my bike to the railing of nearby bridge.

Next, I had to get back to my car in Pittsfield and conveniently there was a long off-road trail extending all the way from Dover-Foxcroft to Newport, which means I could stay off the main roads and ride through some quieter areas. At least that's what I hoped for.

Unfortunately, people in Maine have a bit different understanding what "recreational trail" is and Newport/Dover-Foxcroft Rail Trail turned out to be heavily used for Maine-type of recreation. That is - ATV riding. By noon, sun was out, it got drier, which means it was dusty. Like - very dusty. During the full 40km/25mi of the trail I encountered only one cyclist, one jogger and hordes of ATVs blowing clouds of dust in the air. This proved to be tiresome and I was happy to get off the trail in Newport and merging with a regular paved road. 

After getting back to Park & Ride in Pittsfield all I had left was to spend the next 3 hours driving back to Boston,... which welcomed me with hot and humid weather again. Argh..., I should've just stayed in Maine!

The Nahmakanta Tour - Day 2

Day 2 - Lily Bay State Park to Endless Lake (134km/83mi)

The next morning, I woke up early, packed up and was ready to hit the road by 7:20. I stopped briefly at the shore of Moosehead Lake, since I didn't have a chance to see it the previous day - it was already too dark when I got to my campsite.
A deer family didn't even look at me when I rode by. They were too busy consuming breakfast.

My first quick stop was in Kokadjo, which is a tiny settlement at the edge of First Roach Pond and also the last resupply stop for miles to come. From here, the vast forested areas of Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land swallowed me whole and gave me a solid workout.
Kokadjo Camps & Trading Post

I admit, I've never had a chance to explore remote National Forests in the West or Midwest. I live in New England where most land is highly urbanized and even if you enter countryside, distances between towns and residential areas are measured in minutes - even when you travel by bike.
The Nahmakanta Land was my first experience of being in a truly remote place. Yes, there were roads, although those roads were barely appropriate for trucks and locals use them mostly for ATVs in summer and snowmobiles in winter. Yes, I could see tire tracks in the ground, telling me that someone comes there once a while. But not knowing how old these tracks where and knowing that the next settlement is 40mi (60km) ahead, gave me some uneasy feeling. At least for a moment.
ITS86 was my main ATV "highway" I followed to Millinocket

Main Nahmakanta Land road. This one was really nice - few rocks and no mud.

So it was just me, my bike and... surprisingly few animals around. No mosquitoes, no moose, no bear, just a single porcupine. And the sound of wind.

But once I got to Nahmakanta Lake I saw a car with two people and a dog inside. They were equally surprised seeing me as I was seeing them. They asked where I came from and where I was heading. When I said "Millinocket", they seemed puzzled: "How the hell do you get to Millinocket from here?".

Good question. And a tough one to answer if you're in a car. But since bicycles are true freedom vehicles, they take you to places where cars don't go. As I found out - also to places where not even ATVs go.
One of my trails. This one was snowmobile-only, which explains lots of vegetation.

I knew where I wanted to go. But what I didn't know was that the next section of my trail was for snowmobiles only, which means that it was completely unused in summer. And that means it was so heavily overtaken by vegetation that for the first two miles I spent more time walking my bike or rather pushing it through, than riding it.

For a moment I thought that if something bad happens there, I could be in trouble. Not only no one is going to find me there in summer, but it's also questionable anyone would find me there in winter - once heavy snow comes and covers everything.
Fortunately, after a couple of miles the situation improved and the rest of the trail was actually usable. Once I got to the wide gravel Grant Brook Rd I knew the toughest part was behind me. From there I finally reached Millinocket where I stopped for late lunch.

Another burger and two more Allagash White later I was back on the road. My initial goal was to reach the edge of Seboeis Lake, which is a public reserved land and where camping is generally allowed for free.
It was getting late and I still had miles to go. I decided to abandon the ATV trail that runs along the main road (Rt11) since it would slow me down too much. Instead, I stayed on Rt11 and by 5:30PM I entered Seboeis Public Land.
There still was some daylight left so I figured that was an opportunity to push a bit more forward and camp further down my route - giving me a head start the next day.
This way I eventually reached Endless Lake with a picture-perfect camping spot right at the waterfront. After pitching my tent, I went for a swim. Water was surprisingly warm and refreshing. Could there be a better way to end the long day?