Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The landing strip on your Main Street - the width problem

Massive Turkey Slaughterfest, aka Thanksgiving, starts tomorrow, which also signifies beginning of the annual mad shopping season. First comes the Black Friday, then a mad rush to malls on all weekends until Christmas. From the transportation point of view this means one thing - more traffic than you can imagine.

To cope with this challenge cities introduce new measures, such as free parking offered by my town or the neighboring Boston. I'm sure this will help people glued to their car seats keeping their butts happy. But free parking spots are an invitation to drive more and drive everywhere. This simply means more traffic. Yet another reason to do all your holiday shopping by bicycle (if you can).

That's not surprising. Our cities were designed for cars (unfortunately) and great examples how bad this design was can be found everywhere. Recently, when I walked to a grocery store with my son and had to cross the main street in my town - Massachusetts Ave in Arlington, I started thinking how ugly and obsolete it is. Take a look:
Google Street View of Mass Ave close to the Arlington Center.

And an aerial view close to the intersection with Mill St.

One thing that you immediately notice is that our main street here is just ridiculously wide and it seems to have only one lane in each direction. That's a massive waste of space! No wonder such design stimulates driving and discourages any alternative means of transportation. In reality, these lanes aren't actually this wide because people of Arlington learned to create their own "virtual" lanes and as such, Mass Ave has in fact two "lanes" running in each direction. Nevertheless, it's still as wide as a runway you could likely land a small plane here.

To be honest, these Google images are not exactly up to date because no too long ago our main street got some painted bike lanes on both sides. Unfortunately, they were painted on the wrong side of parked cars and do not continue along the full length of Mass Ave. The section I present here still doesn't have any bike lanes, just sharrows, which seems unbelievable considering the available space.

I wanted to look at possible scenarios for Mass Ave in a hypothetical situation - what if we could update this important avenue to 2015 standards and make it multimodal? I used StreetMix to create a few sketches. Try the same with your street!
Current state of Mass Ave next to Mill St.

This is what we have right now. Narrow sidewalks, parking lanes on both sides and super wide traffic lanes. No bike lanes (just sharrows in some places) and no other transportation infrastructure. City buses must share road space with cars.
Option 1 - protected bike lanes and center turning lane.

First, I would like to turn Mass Ave into a residential street, not a super highway. The first option adds protected bike lanes on both sides of the street, leaves plenty of on-street parking spaces and adds a center turning lane to facilitate left turns. If you need dedicated right turn lanes at intersections you can remove parking spaces there. One traffic lane in each direction gets removed but that makes the street fit better in our commercial and residential neighborhood and much easier to cross for pedestrians.
Option 2a - dedicated bus lanes.

Just two years ago my wife used to take bus to her workplace in Cambridge every day but she quickly gave up and drove instead. The reason - buses were actually slower than cars. Not only they were stuck in the same traffic as the rest of vehicles but they had to stop frequently at their dedicated stops. Driving was faster, despite all the traffic.
 Option 2b - when you need space for a bus stop just remove the parking spaces.

In order to change it, option 2 places dedicated bus lanes (for buses ONLY) on both sides of the street. Such lanes would make daily commute much, much faster for hundreds of people and could be a real incentive to leave the car at home. On Sundays, holidays, etc. these lanes could be shared between all vehicles.
Option 3a - what if we put the tracks back on Mass Ave?

Option 3b - again, when a tram stop is needed, parking gets removed.

I won't hide the fact that my favorite solution to Mass Ave problem would be the extension of our "T" - the streetcar, from Porter Square in Cambridge to Arlington Center. As you can tell in Option 3, it could be done. It would be likely the fastest way to Cambridge but at the same time, the most expensive and most unlikely one to be built.

Whatever the future brings, please don't turn my town center into a concrete desert. Driving everywhere is really not the answer. Our cities are not made out of rubber and won't fit ever growing number of private vehicles.
Happy turkey dinner everyone!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fatbiking with Salsa Mukluk SUS GX1

Last weekend Wheelworks in Belmont together with Salsa Cycles organized another a Demo Day - the annual event where you can ride a Salsa bike of your choice, for free. Last time I tried it, I rode Salsa Beargrease XX1, which was the first time ever I had a chance to ride a fatbike. This year's Demo Day was also dedicated to fatbikes and I was equally excited about it since Salsa's offerings in this market have changed substantially this season.

I'm not sure how to describe what fatbikes used to be. They originated as rugged, non-suspended mountain bikes with a bit of touring heritage. For example, they featured longer chainstays for better stability, steeper head tube angles for more agile steering and rack mounts. Not anymore. Today's fatbikes are essentially mountain bike's replacements. They look and feel more like trail bikes with their slack head tube angles, short, agile chainstains and suspension forks. Gone are the rack mounts (a mistake, in my opinion).

Anyway, the choice of this year's Salsa bicycles was limited to Blackborrow SUS GX1, Beargrease Carbon SUS X01, Bucksaw X01, Mukluk SUS GX1 and El Mariachi GX 2x10 - they only non-fat bike in the group. Because I rode Beargrease last year and Blackborrow looked a bit too extreme for my taste, I picked the Mukluk as my steed for the ride.
The first impression of the new Muk' was certainly positive. The machine feels solid and looks like it would be fun to ride. Mukluk SUS GX1 comes with a 100mm RockShox Bluto fork, 1x11 SRAM drivetrain, Guide hydraulic brakes and some pretty (and quality) Thomson components. These are built around a new aluminum frame with trail bike-like geometry. A big change this year are also the new wheels, featuring Mulefut SL tubeless-ready rims. The bike wasn't set up tubeless but such conversion should be trivial, having all components prepared.
First, using a luggage scale I weighed the bike at exactly 15kg (33lbs) for a 20" frame I used. This wasn't surprising. I was expecting it and it's not low weight by modern standards. Surprisingly though, I didn't feel this weight at all on my ride. Mukluk rolls over rocks and roots with ease, climbs effortlessly and except those situations where you would have to shoulder your bike and carry it for an extended time, you shouldn't be bothered by its weight. Which doesn't mean that it wouldn't hurt if it was lighter.
I wasn't too excited about the addition of a suspension fork to new Salsa's fatbikes. Last year when riding Beargrease I never felt like I needed it and this year my feelings were essentially the same. It's probably nice to have those 100mm of travel available and it's certainly useful in some situations. But honestly, with 4" wide tires I could skip the Bluto fork and ride rigid. It may be due to my riding style. I'm likely not challenging this bike enough, given my limited mountain biking experience.
I would have to try the Blackborrow next time, or another bike with 4.8" tires, to tell whether my feelings are correct, but so far I think that 3.8" tires on Mukluk or Beargrease are a perfect balance between something really, really wide that provides much more grip and flotation over rough terrain than regular MTB tires, and something ridiculously wide and heavy. Wider, 4.8" tires are likely going to be very useful only in certain conditions such as very loose sand or powder snow. That's only my speculation, of course.
Regarding the gearing, there is not much to say here except that SRAM 1x11 works very well (no surprise). It was the second time I rode a bicycle with such configuration and I liked it on Muk' as much as earlier on Beargrease. The MTB SRAM shifters are clearly different than Shimano Rapidfire I'm used to but they seem to be equally comfortable. However, I can't say the same about SRAM's road DoubleTap shifters, which I find unintuitive and inferior to Shimano's STIs.

Overall, the new Mukluk is a very nice bicycle and it clearly fits well into Salsa's fatbike lineup for 2016. There are a few things I find puzzling though. From now, all Salsa's fatbikes are essentially mountain bikes. They lost their touring, or bikepacking heritage. There are no rack mounts anymore (even though rear rack installation is still possible with some gimmicks). Also, I have a hard time telling the difference between Mukluk X7 and Beargrease X5. They are relatively minor - some components are different but both bikes have now the same frame geometry. In fact, while Beargrease used to be a sports/racing/performance fatbike, Mukluk was always the choice for bikepackers and travelers. But now these two bicycle lines got so close to each other than we may see them blend into one, in 2017. We will see.

No matter what, you will always have fun riding one.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Illegal pedestrianism

Long, long time ago, city streets used to be full of people walking everywhere. The streets belonged to them (and streetcars, horse carriages or bicycles). Cars, however, were as rare as pink elephants and as such, things like crosswalks, street lights or speed limits didn't exist.
Cities before times of Ford Model T and its siblings used to look like this.

But then thanks to guys like Benz, Diesel, Dunlop and Ford things got really screwed up. Well, no, no. To be fair, cars play an important role in modern economy so we can't blame Benz or Ford for the technological progress they enabled. Nevertheless, things did get screwed up. Adam will tell you how that happened:
Why jaywalking is a crime - by Adam. You can also watch the full episode here.

There you go - cars needed space, so people got pushed off the streets onto sidewalks and they wanted speed, so crossing the street in any place and at any time you want became no longer possible. Not to mention that arrival of (many and always more) cars in U.S. cities meant death of well-developed streetcar networks. We could blame car manufacturers (and we should) for this situation, we could blame government for the lack of oversight, and urban planners for no vision.

But being limited to walk on the sidewalk and crossing the street in designated places only, is just a part of the problem. The other, and a worse one, is that jaywalking is (still) a crime. Apparently, it can be such a serious crime in this country that it requires 12 police officers to pacify the situation:
But wait, there is more! As you can learn from this article, those guys who got brutally pacified were crossing "a street that had been barricaded and closed to car traffic". Yep. In this country you can be arrested for crossing an empty street with no traffic at all! But only if you are either Hispanic or Black "because two of the five people crossing the street in the group, presumably lighter-skinned, were not detained". Shame on you Austin police. I thought that in 2015 such obvious racist behavior would be a thing of the past.

Unfortunately here, closer to Boston, things don't look any better. In New York cops just love to ticket jaywalkers. No wonder - fighting such petty "crimes" is by far the easiest and fastest way to improve statistics. Are the streets getting safer that way? No, but it doesn't matter. It looks nice on their monthly report though.

Sometimes, things get way out of control. Just like when Kang Chun Wong, 84, was beaten up by the police to submission, when he was stopped for jaywalking. Now, he's suing their asses for 5 million bucksI hope he gets it. I know it's New Yorker's (taxpayer's) money and NYPD won't likely pay a dime. But maybe a few more actions like this one and people will wake up asking who's actually being "protected and served" here?
There is one more good reason why strict enforcement against jaywalking (let's start calling it "freecrossing") is a very bad idea. I will give you an example from Poland - the country I visit once a while. Things look as bad there as they are here in the U.S. Police simply loves ticketing pedestrians crossing streets "illegally".

Why is it bad? Over the years of such police action, it simply made people less aware. People stopped to think. "Hey, the green light is on! Let's cross the street. But what if there is a motorist running a red light approaching? Never mind, we need to cross. It's green!". I've seen it multiple times. The green light comes up and people rush across the street not looking for any cross traffic. Why? Because they were taught so. They were "educated" by police that crossing an empty street where there are no cars approaching is bad, if the light is red. But crossing it when the light is green is good. So, trusting the lights, they cross in rush, not checking for any cars on the road. You may not see it as a serious problem but I would rather live in a city with thinking and aware citizens and not those controlled by street lights.