Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Power of the horn

Boston drivers love to sound their cars' horns. I got beeped twice this morning on my way to work. I rode in a straight line, half a meter from the curb, thus being in a perfectly safe and correct position on the road. I wonder what were those drivers trying to tell me? Was it either:
"I am passing on your left. Watch out!" or
"Stay away form the road. You should not bike here!".
I don't think they were trying to warn me. Lanes in that area are really wide and even if I ride away from the curb drivers still have plenty of space to pass me without entering the opposite traffic lane.
Something tells me that those beeping drivers are just trying to "educate" cyclists that they should either stay glued to the curb or not be on the road at all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Immobile generation

The K5 Learning Blog published recently results of a study on the time children spend with digital devices. The results are telling - the future belongs to digital, immobile kids.

"More kids aged 2-5 can play a computer game than ride a bike."
"More kids aged 2-5 can open a web browser than swim unaided."

Pretty sad, I would say. When I was growing up we didn't have computers and we used to spend a whole day playing outside. In fact, our parents had usually a hard time to make us come back home. Today's generation is drastically different. Parents have to try hard to make kids play outside. Actually, I wonder if parents prefer them to stay home and play a computer game instead of ride a bike because it seems to be a "safer" way of spending time.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Thank you drivers for sharing the road with us.

Thank you city governors for the new bike lanes.

Thank you readers for visiting this blog.

Thank you all for riding a bike.

Now back to the turkey!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Riding in suburbs

If you, like me, happen to live and ride in suburbs, you a bit out of luck. Many bicycle blogs would give you some really good advice on how to deal with drivers and heavy traffic, yet what those blogs sometimes fail to notice is that riding a bike in suburbs can be a dramatically different experience than when riding in a densly-populated downtown. Let's compare:

1. "Counter-intuitive to what many drivers believe, cyclists actually reduce congestion on the roads by not driving cars. They're reducing the time you spend in traffic jams as they're taking up so much less space."
This is true in a heavy downtown traffic. But on a narrow road out of town, not so much. Unfortunately, a slower vehicle (bicycle) will slow down the traffic.

2. "If you must take a route without the designated bike lane, try to use roads where cyclists ride more often. Drivers get used to bicycles on those roads and learn how to pass them safely."
Again, this works great in the city, but what if you are always a lone rider during your morning commute on a suburban road? Usually, I ride alone and I don't see even a single cyclist on my way to work.

3. "Use bike lanes."
Bike lanes? What bike lanes?
4. "Don't get stuck in traffic. Ride your bike to work and be there faster."
This would apply well to a traffic-corked downtown. In suburbs where heavy traffic could be rare and distances are longer, driving may actually be faster than cycling.

What is your experience like?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Safe and dangerous

Being a suburban bike-commuter I have to share road with cars and I don't have convenience of bike lanes since there simply aren't any. Fortunately, a part of my route has a really wide shoulder, which essentially substitutes a bike lane. This is the easiest and safest part of my daily ride.
On the other hand, I have to cross I-95, a major highway. This means riding along a line of cars while many of them enter the ramp to the highway on my right. As you can imagine, those cars must either wait for me to clear the access to the ramp or speed up and pass in front of me to enter the highway.
So far, most of the drivers were courteous enough to let me go first but sometimes I encounter an impatient one who puts me in danger of being right-hooked. This is clearly the most dangerous and most stressful part of my morning commute and unfortunately, there is no bike-friendly way of crossing this highway. I noticed that most drivers are well-behaved yet you can imagine that they may drive carelessly in the morning traffic when everyone rushes to work.

The accident that happened this year in Poland, on September 9th, reminds me how dangerous this situation can possibly be. A CCTV camera in the city bus captured the moment when a minivan driver right-hooked a cyclist while attempting to enter the ramp on the right. The cyclist survived but ended up with multiple fractures of his collar bone and ear injury resulting in partial loss of hearing. Worse, 2 months later the driver still remains unidentified.
And what is the most dangerous part of your bike-commute?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The 5km challenge

You have heard it many times already. According to the 1995 National Personal Transportation Survey approx. 50% of all trips are made within 3 miles (4.8km) from home. This report is quite old but numbers haven't changed that much in the consecutive years. Plus, a kilometer more or less does not change the general conclusion - we really shouldn't have to drive everywhere.

Of course, we can easily blame it on our car-centric urban development. Downtowns of large U.S. cities start to change and bike lanes finally start to show up there. However, the situation is much, much worse in suburbs. In my area, there are no bike lanes at all, except the Minuteman Bikeway, which is basically a recreational, not a commuter path. Despite that, I would like to bike more to local destinations like, e.g. grocery stores. Let's ask Uncle Google how far they are from my home:

Stop and Shop: 1.5km
Really close, but the way back would be a problem. I live on the top of a steep hill and I would have to push my bike, loaded with all the groceries, uphill. This side of the hill is really bad. I can ride it up on my 20-speed cyclocross bike but even then my knees hurt. There is no way I could make it on my 3-speed commuter bike.

Whole Foods, Medford: 5km
A bit better, since I can use Minuteman partially, but in the end I have to ride on Mystic Valley Pkwy. Anyone who drove that road would know that it is not a place you would want to be on a bike. Two, very narrow lanes in each direction, no shoulder, lots of fast moving cars. Also, the same problem with uphill battle on the way back although maybe I could approach it from the north and go around the steepest part somehow.

Whole Foods, Woburn: 5km
Not better. Most of the ride would be on Rt3. It is a busy street, lots of fast-moving vehicles, no shoulders. No wonder bikers stay away from it. The only plus side is the more relaxed ride on the way back as this side of the hill is longer but less steep.

Whole Foods, Alewife: 5.5km
A bit further away than planned 5km, but it is a really pleasant ride. Probably 90% of it is on the Minuteman Bikeway, away from all the traffic. And of course the same hill challenge on the way back.

Trader Joe's: 2.5km
Much better choice: very close and easy to ride (Minuteman Bikeway mostly). Again, pretty long climb up on the way back, which means pushing the bike up for good 300 meters.

Wilson's Farm: 4km
A bit further than Trader Joe's, on the same route. Pleasant ride on the Minuteman Bikeway towards Lexington. Same problem with the hill on the way back.

Considering all this, no wonder that I don't ride my bike to local grocery stores as much as I should. I could skip those that are not easily accessible due to a heavy car traffic, but what to do about that hill?
The flatter side of the hill: 16.7% grade. The other side is much steeper.

This hill is likely the first reason why I don't use my city bike more. I am thinking that a strong electric assist motor is the answer. I would have to research this more. So far I found out that StokeMonkey assist motor can candle even 31.5% grades but it looks like its production was stopped. Can someone recommend a good product?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Five main reasons why car is better than a bike

We looked at the reasons to choose a bike over a car. Now, let's be fair and try the other way:
1. Try to haul a queen bed on your bike.
2. Driving in heavy downpour and headwind can still be enjoyable.
3. If you have to be in a place 100km away within an hour, leave your bike at home and drive.
4. You can transport your bike on/in your car. It is difficult to put a car on a bike.
(Found somewhere on Internet)

5. You get a full set of lights and fenders with EVERY car. And they don't charge you extra for them.

Anything else?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Five main reasons why bike is better than a car

Continuing my last week's car-related topic I decided to figure out why a bicycle is better than a car:

1. You can ride and park pretty much anywhere. See that "No parking anytime" sign? It doesn't apply to your bike!
2. You are closer to nature, and you see more. This is why Sunday ride through countryside is much more enjoyable on a bike than in a car.
3. It costs less. Bikes are cheaper, don't need gasoline, and spare parts cost peanuts compared to car service.
4. You need only 10 min. to fix a flat tire and you can do it yourself. Anywhere.
5. You can take your bike into your bedroom. Or even hang it up above your bed.

Would you add anything?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Is life best when driven?

I am going to write about cars for a change. Well, just one car, actually. I noticed this new FIAT 500 commercial on Youtube:
I like the new Cinquecento. It is a cute, little city car with really nice Italian design. Its "eco" version (obviously not available in the U.S.) with tiny 2-cyl. 0.9L Twinair engine has an impressive 4L/100km (~60mpg) rating for urban driving. What strikes me in this video is the message: "Life is best when driven". I really want to think that they meant something more by "driven" and not just "spent in the car".

Car manufacturers like to remind us that we can be more "cool" if we sit in the car, instead of e.g. a bike. Just like the recent GM ad campaign.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I am not happy with the last weekend's daylight savings. What's the point of having just a bit brighter mornings if I have to pedal home in darkness? I can't see any benefit of it so far. Fortunately, there are many fellow cyclists on Minuteman Bikeway and front light on my bike is more than adequate. Still, riding in complete darkness is not much enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why I hate Schrader valves

I really hate Schrader valves. Most of them. Why? Just look at the valves I have in my Schwinn. Try to inflate these tires:
Easy? I don't think so. When you push the pump head on the valve the whole valve dips into the rim and installing the pump on it is a real PITA. Good quality Schraders come with fully threaded body and thumb nuts that secure them on the rim. Like this one:
Schrader valve with threaded stem (Picture from Wikipedia.org)

But these are rare and it is not easy to find a factory built bike that would have them. Most Schraders that come with factory bikes are crap. It is a perfect example how saving a few cents in manufacturing costs does not make sense. The result is a worse product that becomes a source of aggravation for its users.

Monday, November 7, 2011

2012 Schwinn Coffee review

Recently, I was looking for a simple 3-speed bike that I could use for these 3 things:
- daily work commute in regular clothes and shoes,
- relaxed riding on bike paths around the town,
- weekend family rides with some grocery bags or a child seat for Dr. J. attached to the rear rack.
After some research and a test ride, I decided to get a 2012 Schwinn Coffee. Here is my review.
2012 Schwinn Coffee (Click to see details. Warning: very large file! Source: Schwinn website)

First impression
The bike is pretty good looking. It is a modern bike but with some retro styling. After a test ride I knew it would be comfortable and it should serve quite well for my needs. At f
irst, I was also positively surprised how "light" that bike felt. Then I weighed it and it turned out to be 16.5kg, which is definitely not light, but acceptable. So maybe it was just me expecting the Coffee to be much heavier somehow. The price was attractive as I as able to get it for only $400. One more thing I immediately noticed was that both screws used to adjust brake cables were not secured properly and even worse, the head set was not tightened (You could easily feel that fork was loose)! Lousy bike store job of putting the bike together. Honestly, I don't care that much since I would double-check it myself anyway, but many people would just ride the bike, as received from the store and then wonder why is everything falling apart.

Frame and fork
It is a Chinese-built steel frame and a steel fork. The frame is definitely not the prettiest one around since it does not look like those old classic ones - no lugs. It has some ugly featur
es like the seat tube cluster with seatstays that are welded to both sides of the seat tube but are not tapered.

On the positive side, it has a pretty comfortable geometry: 69deg head tube angle for a better pot hole handling, long wheelbase for more relaxed riding (And no toe overlap at all). It features a "Schwinn" emblem on the head tube and decals on the top tube. That's nice.

It does not have brake pivots as it is designed to work with caliper brakes. It has several braze-ons, most important the ones for a rear rack and a fender. The bottom tube has a bunch of braze-ons for shifter cable so this means that the shifter cable runs around the bottom bracket and is fully enclosed in housing. This is good as it prevents water from getting into the housing and corroding the cable. It also has a welded-on kickstand mount.

The fork is made of steel with something that is supposed to pretend to be a lugged crown. Threaded tube. No brake pivots. Fender mounts included. Overall, not bad. For lighter use this frameset could work fine.

Aluminum rims (good), 36 spokes (good), unknown front hub (not so good), Shimano Nexus 3-speed rear hub (great), Kenda Kourier cream (!) tires 700x38C (nice). Unfortunately, tube valves are those crappy Schrader ones. Overall, not bad, I guess.

Shimano 3-speed hub is a nice change from all derailleur-powered drivetrains. Especially in a city bike. It turns out that 3 speeds is probably all I need, even on some hills that I have on the way to work. The only "problem" is that the difference between gears is much, much larger than in my 20-speed cyclocross bike, which means than going uphill I have to remember that I can't that easily fine-tune in the right gear. I have to push the bike uphill in the 2nd gear for a little longer before switching to the 1st one. It is something I have to adjust to. Changing gears is easy and of course they can be changed even when bike is not in motion. That is really nice.

The bike has 170mm long Schwinn aluminum cranks with a steel 38T chain ring. The rear Shimano sprocket has 19 teeth. This gives a really nice range of gears. I can ride pretty fast on a flat bike path and still handle those hills. A welcome addition is the chain guard with a "Coffee" logo. It is not fully enclosed guard but still protects my pants from getting messy. And it is made of sheet metal, i.e. is more stiff than those cheap plastic ones. Pretty good. Exactly what I wanted.

Brakes and shifters
The bike has Tektro dual-pivot caliper brakes. I found them to be fully adequate in most road situations. They feel good, are powerful and thanks to dual-pivot design they should be easy to adjust. Obviously, as most rim brakes, they lose some power when wet but even then I did not have any problems stopping my bike at all. They look like standard road calipers but wider. Levers are by Tektro as well, long, 4-finger type. The shifter is the Shimano Revo 3-speed. Overall, very good. No complains here. 

Handlebars, stem, seat post, saddle
Coffee comes with a Schwinn high-rise quill stem for threaded forks. Handlebars are 105mm rise bars, swept-back. The bike has a regular, old-type seat-post with a separate saddle clamp. Not sure if I like it but it is more compatible with some old saddles that require non-standard clamps (i.e. for rails that are not round). The saddle is a "Schwinn Classic Downtown with rivets" (That's what Schwinn claims on their website.). I can't find any rivets in mine. It is a sprung saddle, which helps a little but honestly I find it to be literally a PITA. I will be replacing it with Brooks really soon. 

Other components
Grips are by Schwinn. Color-matched with tires. I think they are good enough. I may change them to something else but I don't feel like paying $100 for some fancy Brooks leather grips. The bike comes with some some cheap plastic pedals with reflectors. They do the job so far. Maybe some metal ones would be better but I am going to leave these until they fall apart.
There are also fenders, made of metal. The rear one is a bit shorter than many city bike fenders. I read many comments that cheap bikes come with terrible fenders that are wobbly, soft, bend easily, etc. The Schwinn ones are pretty good, I think. They seem to be quite rigid as I can't really bend them by hand. They stay firm on bike and don't wobble. We will see in the long run.
The rear rack is really a great looking, chrome-coated piece of steel. It looks lightweight, has a mousetrap-like spring clamp on top and some short, vertical rods positioned down (These will help securing bungee cords). It has a red safety reflector installed in the back (I will put some rear light there in the future). It is a nice rack for my daily commuting since I can put my panniers on it and since I never really stuff them anyway (Just some keys, wallet, phone, lunch, some papers), a lightweight rack would be totally sufficient. For family rides with Dr.J. in the back (In a Co-Pilot seat), this rack would be too weak. This is not an issue for me as I can put on this bike the heavy duty rack from Elka's bike. 

The good:
+ nice geometry, relaxed position,
+ 3-speed hub,
+ decent brakes,
+ good looking,
+ kickstand,
+ metal chain guard.

The bad:
- uncomfortable saddle,
- some frame features could be finished better,
- Schrader tube valves.

The ugly (The verdict)
Overall, I am very happy with this bike. It should serve me well for what I intend to use it. As a light commuter in a pretty good weather, it should work very well (And you can read here that this is what my commute is like). Can it replace a proper heavy-duty commuter/transportation bike? Definitely, NOT! Here is why:
- poor saddle,
- too weak rack,
- no mounts for the front rack,
- no full chain guard (chain will get messy in mud and rain),
- fenders with no splash guards,
- rim brakes (worse in mud and rain),
- welded-on kickstand (What if it breaks off?),
- no lights.
As you can see, not a chance. If you want a serious commuter bike, you bike-commute EVERY day, you bike for a case of beer every weekend, you smile in rain and you just LOVE New England snow blizzards, then get a proper heavy-duty commuter bike (Dutch-style like this Pashley or Opafiets). Keep in mind that those will cost you an arm and a leg, since they are roughly 3-4 times more expensive than this Schwinn (~$1500+). Truth is, you wouldn't have to replace anything in those, and they should survive ever the worst beating. You get what you pay for.

I will be upgrading my Coffee with a rear light (to feel safer on the road with cars), and with a good leather saddle (to save my butt). I am not counting the stronger rack (for the child seat) and panniers since I have them already. Still, this will cost me total of around $550. Not bad for a simple utility bike.

Update: Read also my impressions after several upgrades and 17 months of use.

Friday, November 4, 2011

About safety again

I have just found an excellent post by James Schwartz from TheUrbanCountry.com and I decided to write about it here since it complements well with my two previous posts. James even used the same graph to show that mandatory helmets are not the answer. He also prepared a list of action items that should be done in order to improve safety of urban cycling, instead of mandatory helmets. I liked this list so much that I decided to re-post it here:
  • Reduce the speed limit on streets that are shared with cyclists (in North America, most city streets have a posted limit of 50km/h and motorists usually drive faster than this)

  • Build infrastructure to segregate cyclists from fast-moving automobiles

  • Raise awareness about cyclists through driver education

  • Modify traffic laws to take bicyclists into consideration and enforce the laws for both motorists and cyclists

  • Restrict automobiles from turning right on red lights at certain intersections

  • Build traffic signals that accommodate cyclists (especially for safe left-hand turns at dangerous intersections)

  • Build bike boxes to help prevent cyclists from being squeezed at tight intersections

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to discourage people from cycling?

There are days when we all feel sometimes discouraged and refuse to cycle. It can happened for numerous reasons: inclement weather like a heavy downpour or extreme cold, aggressive drivers who would like to see us rather using sidewalks than occupying a precious part of "their" road or even a poor quality equipment like a bicycle that is too uncomfortable to ride.
But what method would we use in order to effectively encourage masses of cyclists to leave their bikes at home? We would have to ask Australians:

What happened after 1991 that suddenly Australians decided to stop cycling? (Well, not completely stop, but being on a rise with the cycling-to-work trend, they essentially went back to the levels of 1970s). Whatever they did was very effective since in most states of Australia number of cyclists went down by over 30% within a single year!

It turned out that the introduction of mandatory bicycle helmet laws in 1991 was a real killer to number of cyclists on Australian roads. People started hating cycling, businesses started to lose customers and going bankrupt, and cycle-to-work scheme nearly ceased to exist when more cyclists chose leisure cycling instead.

You may think that at least it should be now safe to cycle in Australia since number of injuries should have gone down. And it did, but mostly due to a reduced number of cyclists. However, number of head injuries remained almost unchanged, despite of a strictly enforced helmet law. The costly legislation resulted in no savings and indirect promotion of a more sedentary lifestyle.

The government tried to encourage Australians to revisit cycling by, e.g. opening a bike sharing program in Melbourne in 2010. The city installed 50 stations with 600 bikes but after first 4 months of operation the system attracted less than 650 bikers. Interestingly, the city of Dublin, Ireland introduced a similar system a year earlier (40 station, 400 bikes) and it has became increasingly popular since, with over 47000 users within the first 12 months and plans to expand the system up to 5000 bikes by 2015.

On the contrary, the Melbourne program is on decline and may share the fate of New Zealand's Auckland bike sharing system that was closed in 2010 after reaching only 50 rental a day. As you may have guessed, Both Australia and New Zealand require all cyclists to wear helmets, while Ireland does not. In fact, 85% of surveyed people in Brisbane said that the helmet law was the main reason why they didn't use the system.

Knowing this, I wonder what sort of future our new Boston Hubway sharing program has, since it requires all users to wear a helmet as well.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


It was the Halloween night last night. It usually means that kids are coming for candies and there are all possible horror movies played on TV. I am not American so I don't know what exactly the point of Halloween is, but I guess it is supposed to remind us that death is around the corner and we should live in fear. In a funny way, of course.

When it comes to cycling, we somehow really like to think that fear should be the integral part of cycling experience. Still many Americans believe that cycling is dangerous and in general should not be attempted without protective clothing and helmets (Let's forget about performance/sport cycling and focus on vehicular cycling for a while).

Maybe the case with fear of cycling is a bit like the problem with fear of flying. We all know that far less people die every day in plane crashes than in car accidents, yet many of us experience some hard-to-explain hysteria when sitting on a plane. We could argue that this statistics is not valid here since many more people drive daily than fly. We would have to then look at a place where people drive to work as often as they cycle, like Holland. Let's take a look at this graphics:
Cycling safety in various countries (Source: http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1079.html)

Well, it turns out that the percentage of trips done on a bicycle in the U.S. is only around 1% compared to 27% in Holland. Yet somehow, America leads with 110 deaths per billion kilometers cycled, compared to only 19 in Holland. So it looks like it is not simply a matter of scale. Somehow the Dutch managed to make cycling safe. How?
In the 60' citizens of Holland became richer and richer. This means that they could afford more cars. And large cities in Holland became flooded with cars. Public city space was converted into much needed parkings and bike lanes were reduced. Sounds familiar? Pretty much like in the U.S. right now. More cars, more drivers, richer citizens... They must have been very happy, right?. Or maybe not so much, since they quickly noticed the increase in fatal accidents. In 1971, 3000 people died on Dutch roads, including 400 children.

So what did the Dutch do to reduce number of fatal accidents and make cycling safer? Judging by our American standards, they should have probably given helmets and reflective vests for free to every biker. It looks like that was not the case since only 0.1% of cyclists in Holland wear a helmet. If you don't trust these numbers, you can see it for yourself:
Can you count how many bikers wear a helmet in this video? None. Zero. Not even one. Weird, right? Based on the above graphics U.S. should lead the world in bicycle safety since 38% of all cyclists wear a helmet. If this is not the case why do we live in fear and gear up for cycling, while the Dutch just simply take their bikes everywhere not fearing any danger?

The answer is in this excellent post by Kim Harding. Basically, in the U.S. we are trying to fix the situation by penalizing its victims, while in Holland they really got the to root of it. It is like sweeping all the dust under the carpet. Yes it is faster and easier this way and it gives you a feeling that room is clean. But is it really? So instead of educating drivers, building infrastructure, and motivate people to use other means of transportation, we prefer to spread the fear that cycling is unsafe, and all who cycle must be nuts because real Americans should only drive.

This means that unlike the Dutch, we take a "backwards approach to road safety", which in my area results in 1 crash every 1030 cycled miles.