Wednesday, February 22, 2017

It's only as good as you want it to be

Bicycling infrastructure. We get so little of it even though we deserve more. It gets rationed over the years. It gets the lowest priority in urban development. And then, when winter comes, it's completely neglected.

Last week's examples from Boston show magnitude of the problem. Just take a look:


The truth is - it's not enough to build it. It has to be maintained too. Unfortunately, it seems that Boston has some serious problems understanding that once the infrastructure is in place, it can't be simply left alone. And especially, not in winter.
It's not just Boston. Our suburban Minuteman Bikeway got neglected as well.

Sometimes I think that protected bike lanes were built to provide extra storage for snow in winter months because, you know, "no one rides bicycles in winter anyway." Our New England winters are likely also the reason why Boston's government was so reluctant to install any kind of real protection (in form of bollards, curbs, etc.) along those new bike lanes. Why do it if it gets damaged later by snow banks and snowplows, right?

Of course, this is not a problem anymore. The issue is gone, since nature solved it right away starting last weekend. Most of the snow melted, winter is nearly over and now we can pretend that the problem never existed. Until the next year...

Unfinished projects bother me a lot. It's not just a statement that you didn't really put much effort to solve the problem. It also shows that you just don't care.

For those of you who don't understand what I'm bitching about, here is everyone's favorite car analogy:
Imagine you had to drive from Boston to New York but the nice 3-lane highway was cleared off all snow only up to Hartford, CT. The other half of the way would not be plowed at all. Would you be happy with it?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter friction

It's alive! Better late than never, but mother nature decided to finally make this winter great again. We've just got the first decent snowstorm this season - in mid February - very late for New England standards.

But prior to today's snowfall, we witnessed an early Armageddon yesterday morning, when roads turned into hokey rinks, which immediately resulted in this:
55-car pile up on I-95 (Source: Jen Miller @ Boston Herald)

The roads were low on friction, but completely thawed during the day when air temperature reached nearly 60F. And then it dropped to below zero on the universally-accepted scale (i.e. Celsius) and the big snow cometh.
Roads immediately got empty, not counting a few snowplows. I left my work early but despite that, there were already about 2 inches of snow on the Minuteman Bikeway. Riding through it was surprisingly difficult in places, as my 38mm tires are just too narrow to float on snow. Instead, they were trying to cut through it with lots of resistance. Is that a hint that I should tell my wife I really need to buy a fat bike?
Judging by the tracks, apparently, I was the only crazy person to ride a bike on the Minuteman in the middle of a blizzard. I finally put a studded tire on the front wheel of my bike and I have to say it made a huge difference. At least on the front wheel. I really should've bought a second tire for the rear wheel as well (I didn't. Call me cheap.), because while now the front wheel stays well planted on the path, the rear one is a different story. This morning I performed a perfect 180deg spin around the front wheel. I didn't even know I could do something like that!
I actually like riding a bike in blizzard-like conditions. It's fun, it's quiet, roads are completely empty and it's beautiful. If only the stupid wind didn't always blow snow in my face.

But then there is one thing that I encountered several times that makes this experience much less pleasant. It's the drivers - some of the ones who decided to drive anyway. Too often they feel like they have to roll down the window, throw a few f words (and I don't mean "f for friendly") and express their general disappointment that someone chose to ride a bike in such conditions. I guess driving a car during a snowfall is accepted as normal, but riding a bike, not so much.

Have you heard that the maturity of transportation cycling is measured by the number of women who ride their bikes in given area? They are the fragile ones - who often won't try to go somewhere by bike unless there is a safe and convenient infrastructure in place.

Here in New England, I would add one more measure - the number of people who ride bikes in winter. This really tells a lot about Boston and its suburbs. Is the infrastructure well-maintained during winter months or are bike lanes just a free storage for snow? Is plowing of bike paths given a priority? Are drivers aware of winter cyclists or do they just wave the finger? Still too much animosity. Friction is good, but under the tires.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Killing in the name of

Welcome to America - the land of the free! We have our rights guaranteed by the world's first modern democratic constitution. This amazing invention gives us so much freedom and liberty, yet at the same time makes us all equal in obeying the law. At least that's how it was in 1789. In 2017 however, some people are more equal than others.

Senator Jim Tomes (R) of Indiana wants to flush the First Amendment down the drain by introducing Bill 285 that allows police to "deal with traffic obstructions by protestors" (defined as 10 or more people) "by any means necessary".

Similar solution is considered now in North Dakota, where it may be completely legal to run someone down with a car as long as such person is obstructing traffic during a peaceful protest.
Wait, what year is it now? Is it really 2017?

Ah, car traffic. The holiest of American things. We love unobstructed flow of car traffic so much that we designed the entire transportation policy around it. We love our cars so much that soon new generations of Americans will be born with right foot stronger and larger than the left one. And now, we are trying to protect our holy "right" to drive by introducing this convenient option to shoot or run over those unprivileged people with no cars - merely traffic obstructions, not human beings anymore.

Is it just me or is this shit seriously wrong? Or maybe I'm wrong and Jim Tomes just wants to get home early?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

SLADDA - transport for Swedish meatballs lovers

Apparently, there is no real winter this year but despite this, the shifter cable on my old Schwinn developed some weather pains. Looks like there must be some water inside the housing that freezes when it gets sufficiently cold. Yesterday morning I had to limp to work in 3rd gear, but as it warmed up significantly during the day, I returned back home with all 3 gears working.

Maybe I could avoid all these problems if I had one of the new IKEA bikes. Yes, IKEA started selling bicycles. The one and only model they offer is called SLADDA, which means "limp forward" in Swedish (Or was it actually "a skid"? Not sure.) and it looks like this:
Interestingly, according to IKEA this vehicle is just a piece of furniture:
Tipping furniture, err.. I mean bike, can kill you. Thank you IKEA for a friendly reminder.

It has two wheels, adjustable stem, both pedals and a fancy forward-propelling device called belt drive, so it's virtually maintenance-free. It has two (2) automatic gears to keep you moving (cleverly hidden in the rear hub) and a set of brakes to make you stop (coaster in the rear, mechanical disc in front). It comes with fenders, lights and even a kickstand. Finally, it can be yours for a total of $499, not counting the optional front and rear racks that will cost you $60 extra. On top of that it's covered by a 25-year warranty on the frame and a 10-year one on the belt drive.

I didn't have a chance to test it in the real life, but it all sounds pretty good on paper. Very good actually.

Of course, there is one question that we have to ask - do we need to first assemble it with the included hex wrench?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter rollercoaster

Stupid winter. The air temperature changes more often than politician's opinion. One day it's warmer and everything melts, then the following day it freezes again. The whole cycle then repeats again and again. The result? Ice on bike paths, like the Minuteman Bikeway I use daily. The Bikeway runs through an environmentally protected area, which means that no salt can be used there to melt ice. So basically, riding on the Minuteman this time of the year is more like ice skating.

Lesson learned. I ordered studded tires for my winter bike.

The other problem is even more frustrating. I'd much rather have a winter like two years ago when everything was completely frozen for the whole two months. Otherwise, water gets into all possible gaps during the day, then freezes overnight and I end up not only with frozen shifter cable, but also frozen storage door. This morning, I had to fight with the lock for a few freezing minutes to open my bike garage door. Riding a bicycle to work seemed questionable, at least for a while.

Honestly, it's not my kind of winter (even though it could be far worse, of course). Five American degrees (or -15) this morning, followed by 50F (11C) this Wednesday. Then down to freezing on weekend. It's a winter rollercoaster ride!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Another 8 Kickstarter inventions for year's end

It's almost Christmas, year's end and winter has started as well. But before we sit at the Christmas table let's take a quick look at the newest Kickstarter bike projects.

OttoLock
I will start with the first ever Kickstarter invention that I would actually buy. In fact, I'll probably preorder one.

OttoLock is a bicycle lock but it seems to solve the eternal problem of all bike locks - they can either be lightweight or secure. A thin cable lock is very light, but can be cut with pretty much anything. U-locks on the other hand, are very secure but weigh a ton. OttoLock, thanks to its smart construction, is supposed to be much more secure than cable locks (although it will likely not beat the best u-locks anyway) and much, much lighter than an u-lock - just 120g for the 18" OttoLock.

The only feature I'm not very fond of is the 3-digit combination lock, instead of a key. Yes, it's technically 1000 combinations but most of these type of locks I've seen were not high quality. I just hope that the locking mechanism is not the weakest link of OttoLock.

My verdict: Very nice. Interesting offering for someone looking for a lightweight and secure bike lock, which is pretty much every cyclist, I think.

Moskito

This thing is pretty weird. Or maybe it's smart? Moskito is a "precision chronograph and smart bike computer in one". Basically it's a cycling computer (Strava-connected, of course) in a form of a classic, analog Swiss watch that also talks to your smartphone. If you don't think that's weird you probably already have one.

I like it's design as a watch but it seems to over-complicate things too much when used as a cycling computer. Tiny analog dials are much harder to read than large digital display. Not to mention that I would love to see the expression on someone's face when they ask you for time and you show them that beautiful leather strap with the empty stainless ring on your wrist, because you have just realized that you left the watch on your bike.


My verdict: It's a completely unnecessary bicycle jewelry that is supposed to do two things well but in reality messes up both.

PoleProtectr

If Moskito was weird than PoleProtectr is just stupid. It's an "unobtrusive aero-design 3D silicone rubber" that will protect the frame of your bike when you lean it against a street sign, fence or anything like.

The biggest problem with PoleProtectr (except it's ridiculous name) is that there is no innovation in it! You can buy a piece of adhesive silicone in your local hardware store for a few bucks. Why even bother with Kickstarter?

My verdict: Clearly, some inventions should be never invented.

Dyna-Snap

Another little gizmo that looks very useful! Dyna-Snap is a connector system for your dynamo-wired bike lights that uses magnets to keep the plugs together - just like Apple MagSafe.

Not many people use dynamo-powered lights but those who do, would appreciate this quick-disconnect feature. It makes wheel swaps easier and safer.

My verdict: Simple, straightforward and does exactly what is supposed to do. Smart without trying to be Internet-smart.

Nexo Tires

Nexo is an airless tire system. Just like all other systems of this kind it promises no more punctures and... that's about it. Unfortunately, like all other such systems it comes with the same issues. Want a specific tire on your bike? Not a chance. Only several limited options are offered by Nexo. Want a cushy ride? Err... though luck. You have to rely on softness (or hardness) of rubber because the best thing about pneumatic tires - air, has been eliminated here.

My verdict: Not for me. Might be good for someone who has one bike and uses it twice a year. Then he/she doesn't have to worry about inflating tires anymore. Or someone with one bike who is too cheap to buy good tires and a pump. For any serious cyclists Nexo is not a solution.

Kwiggle is just an uglier version of Brompton. This "most compact bicycle in the world" folds into a tiny package so you can hide it in your back pocket. Well, almost.


Yes, it's ugly but it seems to do what is supposed to - be small yet still usable. The one problem that I see with Kwiggle is that due to its size, it can be only either single or dual speed. Brompton (although not great in that regard) offers more drivetrain options.

My verdict: It may work but it's ugly. Would you want to be seen on one?

Air Lever
Air Lever is an attempt to combine two bike tools into one - a CO2 inflator and a tire lever. It's not bad, I think, it's just... completely pointless. Yes, you have those two tools together but then every cyclist knows that to change a tire effectively you need two levers (And that's why Air Level comes with an extra one). So that's two separate tools already. Then add one more, because you need to take a CO2 cartridge with you as well. Without it Air Lever is useless.

My verdict: Is it really worth paying extra for something that minimizes number of tools you carry with you from 4 to 3? I don't think so.

Chirp, despite its name, doesn't emit any sounds. It's a bar end plug with integrated LED lighting. Again, the execution is sound (with no sound in it), but what's the point of it? There is a reason any red lights (especially those blinking ones) are mounted on the rear end of a bike. I don't think I would enjoy any lights blinking into my face. What Chirp reminds me are those marker/clearance lights you find on semi trailers. It's just that bicycle is much smaller than a trailer and doesn't need any clearance lights.

My verdict: Another unnecessary gadget for those who have everything. Need good lights for your bike? Buy something bright that mounts to the rear rack or the seatpost.

That's it folks. I'm taking a brief Christmas break. Enjoy your holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cultural learnings of Switzerland for make benefit glorious nation of America

Earlier this week I had to spend a few days in Switzerland. It's certainly not the best time of the year to go there - too early for snow and skiing season, yet too late to enjoy good weather. But since the primary reason for my trip was business, I wasn't there to enjoy the weather anyway. Nevertheless, I took a long walk through Zurich trying to get a feeling how different a cyclist's life there is, compared to what we experience here in the United States.
First of all, given the number of old, narrow, cobblestone streets, Zurich is more walkable than any large city in America, but that's certainly not surprising. What struck me more though, was apparent lack of on-street parking nearly everywhere in the center. Instead, motorists are asked to park in either multi-level garages or designated bays such as the one in the picture below. (But there is also less reason to even drive into the downtown, as Zurich's public transport system is quite impressive.)
It doesn't mean that on-street parking doesn't exist. It does, but it's not a norm. At least I didn't have that feeling while walking around the center.

The lack of on-street parking means that there is more space for bike lanes. There are many bike lanes in the center but don't think that Zurich is Copenhagen. Things are clearly better there than on our side of the pond, but infrastructure is far from perfect. Most bike lanes are simply painted with yellow lines, right next to traffic lanes.
I didn't notice any properly constructed protected bike lanes, expect this one - separated with a simple curb.
 Unfortunately, in some places where such a curb would be most needed, bicyclists are "protected" by just a strip of yellow paint.
All this left me feeling a bit disappointed. I was hoping for more exemplary bicycling infrastructure. On the other hand, drivers seem to drive more cautiously than here in Boston and be more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists. Maybe that's why, despite lacking infrastructure, bicycles were everywhere and seemed to be a popular form of transportation. That included mostly city (or similar) bikes, but cargo bikes could be seen as well. I also noticed a large number of electric bicycles, which may be understandable considering hilly terrain. Interestingly, electric bikes in Switzerland are registered (!), with a small license plate attached to the rear rack. I think this comes from European regulations, where e-bikes are considered more of a mini motorcycles and for example, their speed and motor power must be limited.

Because of a large number of bicycles in Zurich bike racks were plentiful. They often had a form of a single bar with multiple hooks where bicycles could be hung up by handlebars. An included steel cable was then used to secure bike in place.
Overall, even though I was expecting a bit more, I would still feel more comfortable riding a bike through Zurich than doing it in Boston. Yes, there are more bike lanes there but since they are very basic, it's not the bike infrastructure that would make me feel safer. I think it's because of calmer traffic in general. They simply don't seem to have that many cars in the center of the city. If that's the case, we could do the same in Boston. Even without heavy investment in bike lanes, simply slowing down and limiting traffic would benefit both pedestrians and cyclists.