Monday, February 23, 2015

Parking problems

This isn't funny anymore. This white stuff is everywhere and while roads and even (surprisingly) some bike paths are plowed quite well, the amount of snow this winter created a new kind of problem for me - with a place to park. To park a bicycle, that is. Not a car.

Bike advocates (myself included) like to point out the obvious fact that there is simply not enough space in the city to accommodate everyone's personal car (i.e. one per person). This makes other solutions such as public transportation or bicycles much more suitable in congested residential or commercial zones. Well, this winter I realized that there are exceptions to this rule but these seem to exists only because of our car-centric city planning.

What gets plowed first in winter? City streets. What gets low priority for snow removal? Sidewalks and bike paths (They become snow storage in winter months). And everyone follows this pattern, at least in my area. Everyone is expected to drive, roads are cleared of snow and parking lots too. Sidewalks - not so much (or not at all), so if you need to go to the store two blocks away you better drive there. Weird.

I know that I'm a bit of a weirdo, since in my building with hundreds of employees I'm the only person riding a bicycle to work, year round. This obviously means that clearing out the snow from the bike rack at the front door gets lowest possible priority from our maintenance crew. It simply never happens. The rack got buried in the snow a month ago, after the first blizzard and hasn't been cleaned up ever since. Facing this problem, I had to find another place to park my bike. The railing at the unused back door worked fine for the next few weeks but after the last weekend's snow storm, it got buried in the snow as well. I'm slowly running out of options. Since the beginning of the last week I've had to lock my bike to another railing at the loading dock.
This how NOT to lock your bike but believe me, I had no choice.

Meanwhile, everyone else who drives can enjoy a snow-free parking lot. You may say that my example is isolated because in downtown Boston the situation is probably quite the opposite. Huge snow banks resulted in reduced parking spaces on street and while you can chain your bike to any lamp post, you can't do the same with your car.
This is how you park your bike in Boston this winter.

However, this would be largely avoidable if you didn't have to drive into the city at all. The problem is, most public transportation systems in United States are slower and less efficient than driving your own car and most Americans who could bike to work, won't, because they picture cycling as sport, exclusively.

Fortunately, as of yesterday the white stuff seems to be melting slowly. By the end of this week I might start seeing the top of the bike rack at my workplace again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thinking outside the box - how to keep cyclists safe?

Reading some recent news, I keep thinking that people in Denmark or Holland are clearly delayed when it comes to all this bicycle tech and innovation happening around the world right now. I mean, they are still riding their wooden bakfiets and other old-school bicycles like it was 1920 or something. With so many cyclists in Amsterdam or Copenhagen safety must be a primary concern. And because it's not 1920 anymore, we need to start thinking outside of the bakfiets box. So let's see what the rest of the world can offer to Danes and Dutch.

The main problem with keeping cyclists safe in cities is that they have to share roads with cars and other heavy vehicles. While urban planners in Denmark or Holland tried to solve this issue by closing some streets to cars and building dedicated bike paths, a much better solution has just been developed in England - The London Underline.
This brilliant idea puts cyclists underground where they stay safe, away from the real traffic. Speaking about the traffic, the article noticed that The Underline would solve London's current traffic problems:
"This could be the energy-efficient solution London has been looking for to solve its traffic problems."
Right - because London's traffic problems are caused by too many bicycles on the streets, so if we move them underground, we will make more space for cars and traffic will flow nicely again. How convenient!
 
Meanwhile, South Dakota state representatives want mandatory reflective or fluorescent clothing for all cyclists. That's to make them more visible, of course. I don't have data on how many bike collisions happen each year in South Dakota but I'm pretty sure that number is much lower than all car collisions in that state. So why not just paint all cars fluorescent yellow or bright neon pink to keep South Dakota safe? They don't say. Perhaps the Governor of South Dakota doesn't like pink.
 
Now when we know that in order to keep cyclists safe the best we can do is to put them underground and give them all neon pink vests, is there anything else? Helmets, you may say. Australians, being the most advanced cycling nation in the world are already doing this - 90% of all cyclists in Australia wear helmets (Hmm, I wonder why?). What an example! But what about the countries where cyclists still refuse to wear styrofoam hats? Let's make them wear airbags!
This solution not only offers more protection than an ordinary helmet but looks simple and stylish too, which means that even those conservative Dutch or Danes should like it. And Australians. On a hot summer day.
But I think we should try to see even further. There must be a better way to protect cyclists. I quickly realized that the ultimate solution was developed by the British. For James Bond. I'm talking about that inflatable jacket he used in "The World Is Not Enough."
So there you go - the safest cyclists should ride underground on a bright yellow bike, wearing a neon pink inflatable armor and a helmet. And this is the ultimate solution for Vision Zero.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thursday - the day my bike froze still

I mentioned recently that the last snow storm dumped 2 feet of snow over everything in my area, which made my usual work commute a bit more difficult. Not because of the inaccessible bike paths (they were plowed the next day) but because the bike rack in front of my office building got buried in a massive snow pile. This left me with no good spot to park my bike. This is how the bike rack looked last week:
And this is how it looks now:
It's somewhere there. You will have to believe me. Yes, we've got more snow (clearly we had not enough), with even more coming every other day. Such as this morning. It started snowing heavily when I left my house and because this white stuff was blowing into my face, my today's commute was not particularly enjoyable. Well, at least it was warm (around 32F or 0C).
 
The bigger problem emerged later - something I didn't expect, even though I should've probably anticipated it coming. The air temperature dropped a lot during the day and when I was leaving my office at 5 p.m. it was only about 14F (-10C). But because my bike was left outside, wet and covered with morning snow, it froze - pretty much completely. It turned out that the rear brake was frozen solid but fortunately I managed to get the front one working after short struggle. The shifter cable was stuck as well but thankfully it started operating properly after the first few hundred feet. Cranks and chain were super stiff and I had to spin them for some time to get them going again. Overall, that was all a new experience. I've never had a chance to ride a frozen bicycle. I managed to get home safely and slowly even though the rear brake was still stuck tight once I arrived at Arlington.

I noticed that despite the last generous snowfall, DPWs of Lexington and Bedford keep up a very good work at plowing the Minuteman Bikeway. Sometimes I feel like I'm rolling on a winter cycling superhighway.
Minuteman Bikeway in Bedford, MA

However, I can't say the same about the section in my home town. Once you cross the Lexington-Arlington border you quickly notice that the Minuteman becomes much narrower and is covered with piles of snow. It clearly hasn't been plowed in a while. It is still accessible and usable but it's much more difficult to ride bikes there. Is Arlington's DPW sleeping or did they completely give up on plowing the bike paths assuming everyone should get a fat bike anyway?

More snow to come next week. I don't have a fat bike so I can't say I can't wait for the white stuff to blow into my face again.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Snowmageddon" and beyond

It looks like the dry winter is now over. That is - the cold winter but free of snow. Enter the wet winter season as we've got some snow last Tuesday. Apparently, this time it was supposed to be something spectacular hence the "Snowmageddon" name present in media. But we've got "only" 2+ feet of snow so there was no "mageddon", just "snow". Sort of like in 2014. And 2013. And 2012. Or any other year.

It all started slowly on Monday afternoon. The nature was waiting quietly:
In fact, some crazy people were out running barefoot on Minuteman path, hours before the snow.
Ok, to be honest, that's what I first thought when I saw these footprints. Until I passed a guy jogging in Fivefingers. Anyway...
The snow came,
the city froze,
no one drove,
except the plows.
Everything was white,
suiting our needs.
It was the time
to take back the streets!

And that's what happened. With not much car traffic the first hours right after the blizzard were the perfect time to play outside. I almost wished we could keep the driving ban for a little longer. Let's just say that my son had so much fun outside he didn't want to go back home despite his cheeks being well frozen.

The following day the city recovered. It turned out that the full length of Minuteman Bikeway was nicely cleaned up. Riding my bike to work next morning was easy...
until I got to my usual shortcut in Bedford. I had to carry my bike over this section of the trail. I may have to find an alternate route unless I consider bringing a shovel with me to clean up this mess.
But the worst part turned out to be the total lack of parking space at my work building. The only bike rack around was completely buried in snow. With nothing to chain my bike to I had to be creative. Still, I can't keep tying my bike to the railing at the loading dock for the rest of this winter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's time to just ban cycling altogether!

The Bikeway got icy. It's been just a bit warmer for the last 3 days and we've got a mild precipitation of rain/snow recently. Everything got coated with a thin layer of snow, including my bike that seemed frozen solid yesterday. A crust of frozen snow on fenders, frame and hubs may look pretty, but does not help me getting to work any faster.
No matter. After reading the news recently, biking to work seems like the dumbest idea ever. In fact, mankind seems to do everything to make sure that riding a bicycle in XXI century should be considered an oddity and the only right thing to do is to ban those ridiculous two wheels completely. After all, those bloody cyclists take up way too much valuable space on OUR roads so why not just give them their own roads to ride the bike? Like... in the middle of the forest. But, God forbid, in the city.

In rare circumstances when you encounter a cyclist on the road in front of your SUV, you should make sure that he leaves plenty of space for your vehicle by staying at least 3 feet away from you and riding somewhere where he's out of your way, like in the gutter. This makes perfect sense! This way you don't have to deal with those lycra-clad idiots who think that they own the road and trying to pass them won't force you into the opposite lane. You could save 5 seconds out of your 1 hour long commute. Perfect!

But even if the worst happens and a guy on two wheels finds himself too close to your front bumper, don't worry. Our friendly police will make sure to ticket his sorry ass for not giving space to more important users on the road, like you in your F-350.

So as you can see, it's definitely the right time to just ban all cycling altogether (Finally!). We all know well that everything those bloody cyclists do is not only annoying but plain wrong. And while we are at it, let's look at walking as well. Especially those little kids walking around the neighborhoods. Not only they should just be at school or sitting in front of TV but when they crawl around they may even want to cross the street, slowing you down by another 5 seconds. And you wouldn't want that, would you?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Defeat winter on your bike - cycling at subzero temperatures

First, a little explanation. By "subzero" I mean sub-American degrees zero, which translates to about -19C. Otherwise you would be thinking - where is the challenge in that?

Every single year in January we get a week or two when temperature drops to single digits Fahrenheit or below -15C. This morning my kitchen's thermometer showed -20C outside and it made me think twice whether I should attempt riding my bike to work. It takes me about 50 min. to ride 10 miles and it might be an unpleasant ride in such conditions. But when I checked on my car, it failed to start. No wonder, the battery was weak and I haven't used it in over a week. I could've jump started it from my wife's car but... it was just much easier to take the bike.
Nearly -5F outside (or -20C). And yes, it's only 61F (16C) in my kitchen at 6AM but I like it that way.

When it comes to riding a bicycle in winter it's not the air temperature that matters but exposure, defined as the outside temperature multiplied by the time spend on a bike. And this means that even when it's really freezing outside but you only have to bike to the grocery store 2 blocks away, you will likely be fine wearing your regular winter clothes. You won't freeze to death before you reach your destination anyway.
However, rides that take about an hour or maybe even longer, require some more preparation. The three most important parts of your body to take care of during such rides are:

Hands
Unlike the core of your body that will likely stay cozy warm due to extra heat you produce on bike, your fingers may start to freeze. Except of operating brakes and shifters occasionally, fingers grasp on the handlebars and don't move. Also, they are exposed to wind chill, so ideal winter gloves should not only be insulated but also wind/water proof. After years of experimenting with double gloves, liners, bike-specific ones, etc., I decided to spend some more to get more and bought Hestra Army Leather C-Zone mittens. At $108 a pair (after discount), they were not exactly cheap but well worth the money. Being a 3-finger mittens they are much warmer than anything I tried before, yet still let me operate brakes and shifters with ease. Add to it a lot of insulation and waterproofing and you get a glove for those freezing winter rides. I have been using them for the last month and noticed that at temperatures above 22F (-5C) they are just too warm. But whatever mittens you buy get a pair a size too large. The extra pocket of air will help keeping your fingers warm.

Feet
Keeping your fingers warm is easy compared to protecting your toes. You (rarely) move your fingers when biking but when it comes to your toes, they stay still all the time. And that means that sooner or later (likely sooner) they will start to freeze. I haven't found a 100% perfect solution except of cheating with some chemical toe warmers. But after I switched to North Face Snowsquall Mid my toes stayed warmer for much longer. In fact, the best test of these boots happened just this morning. I usually take a shortcut through a forested area in Bedford, next to some industrial buildings and a parking lot. Last night that place was fully passable but this morning it was flooded, with its top layer frozen. Could it be from a bursted pipe somewhere nearby? All this means I had to walk through this puddle of icy water that turned out to be a 3-4 inches deep. Fortunately, my boots survived this treatment easily but stayed iced for the remainder of the ride. Good that Snowsqualls are waterproof. I wouldn't want to have wet feet at -5F weather.

Head
Your ears need special care at these temperatures so cover them well. I use a fleece headband, a thin wool hat and a helmet. The helmet is obviously the least important part of this puzzle but I wear it because it reduces wind chill pretty well. You may want to replace it with a thicker hat if you like.
Covering face is tricky and in general I don't like full-face balaclavas. They are too warm for me for most conditions. If you decide to get one, I suggest you look at models with nose and mouth holes. Without these openings your balaclava will soon be completely frosted with iced water vapor you exhale.
My solution to this problem is a thin, wool buff. I wear it to protect my neck (so no scarf needed) and I pull it over the back of my head (covers back of my neck) so it covers my cheeks (at least partially) from both sides. This way the buff doesn't cover my mouth and nose yet still works quite well as I can quickly adjust it and pull it down from my face if I get too warm or pull it up over my nose if I encounter severe wind chill.
Over the course of the last 4 winters I found out that the most difficult face part to protect from severe wind chill are the cheeks right over the cheek bones. In those places the skin is very thin and bones underneath act like a heatsink, which means your skin cools down there very quickly. The only good solutions are either a full-face balaclava or those funky pieces of tape, professional cross-country skiers use. Neither of which seems terribly attractive to me.

That's it. The rest of your body is much easier to take care of. Rule #1 is not to overdress. If you get sweaty and face severe wind chill you're asking for trouble. I usually end up wearing only my regular work shirt plus a wool sweater (a thicker one for those subzero rides). Then I wear a waterproof softshell over it. The softshell is there only to cut off any wind chill from my body.

Even in subzero conditions I don't use any special insulated pants - just my regular work chinos. But because wind chill can make my ride very unpleasant, I put a second layer on - waterproof cycling pants I got at REI for $25. They don't let any air through so my legs stay toasty warm for the entire ride and they are easy to remove at destination pretty much anywhere. No need for a private changing room.

This morning ride was much easier than I expected. No wind chill and low humidity resulted in surprisingly pleasant conditions, despite -5F on the thermometer. In fact, I remember a day about 2 years ago that was easily 10 degrees warmer but my cheeks and toes were pretty much frozen when I arrived to work. Wind chill does make a huge difference.

Nevertheless, I was stopped by a driver in Bedford who must've felt sorry for me when she asked if I needed a ride. It may be difficult to believe for some people but -5F on a calm winter day is actually perfectly appropriate for bike riding.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015!

2015 is here. The previous year turned out to be a pretty busy year for me. In January we were supposed to be hit by a mysterious polar vortex but it seemed to skip New England for some reason.

In February I learned that I live in a "wrong city" because Boston doesn't want to "waste time" to plow bike lanes in winter.

In March I finally took my road bike a for a ride from its winter hibernation and learned a fascinating story about how Americans ruined their public transportation.

In April I decided that it was time to go back to the beginnings and I switched to platform pedals on my road bike, putting my SPD shoes deep in a closet. I tested the new pedals on two short rides and I was very happy with my decision. Oh, and I opened my Twitter account.

In May I got a new bike - Xtracycle Edgerunner 27D. It's been a great addition to my garage and helps me running errands together with my son. He loves it too.

In June the warm weather kept me motivated to explore the surroundings a bit more so I completed several short rides on my Poprad. And I also had a chance to ride a fat bike - Salsa Beargrease XX1. It was fun!
In July I completed the longest ride so far (over 100mi or 160km). I also looked at the "urban bike of the future" competition but I was unimpressed with the results.

In August I finally completed my Frankenbike. It rides very well and I use it on those warm, dry days to get to work.

In September I replaced Tektro cantilever brakes on my Poprad with TRP mini v-brakes. So much more power! I also thought about 3 the most important components of your bike that you can't see.

In October I took a family foliage season trip to New Hampshire. No bikes this time.
In November I looked at the list of 12 cycling things you should do before you die. You should try to make your own list too (That's thing #13).

In December I wondered why most bike headlights are so bad and I wanted to remind you that holiday season is probably the best time to start bike commuting.

What will 2015 bring?