Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Local news: "We will never give away our parking spaces!"

The time for a change is now.

Long time ago, I wrote a little bit about major changes coming to my town - the plan to rebuild our main intersection and make it more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Obviously, as it nearly always happens in such situations, the project faced some strong opposition of "concerned citizens" or those who are so terrified by the loss of a few parking spaces and installation of a bike lane, that they would rather enjoy speeding cars, increased traffic and smell of exhaust fumes.

The construction is supposed to start in April. Right now, the Arlington Center intersection is still a mess. Back in the days this place was designed, the planners clearly had a goal to make it more pleasant for drivers. Pedestrians' experience was an afterthought and bicyclists... well, let's just say they didn't exist.

But it's not 1970's anymore. With more people on bikes traveling through this area and more people on foot, changes were definitely necessary. One of the major problems came with the opening of the now-popular Minuteman Bikeway. This shared path is abruptly cut off on one side of the intersection and then continues several hundred feet later on the other side. This disconnect is troublesome for all cyclists using the Bikeway on their daily commute, towards the Alewife Station.

The plan is now in place. You can download the whole thing here but keep in mind that it's very detailed. It's probably better to just take a peek at the "at glance" version.

Plan for the new Arlington Center.

The things I am most excited about include:

  • Curb extension (shown in red) - more space for people and shorter distance to cross. ("outrageous!")
  • Extension of the Bikeway to the edge of the intersection - no more riding on sidewalk. ("a massive waste!")
  • Bike lanes on both sides of the Massachusetts Ave - finally. ("blasphemy!")
  • Crossing signal for bicycles across the Mass Ave - safer way to cross this busy street. ("ridiculous!")

Things not to write home about:

  • Bike lanes next to high speed traffic and parked cars - cyclists will get doored. ("We will never give away our parking spaces!")
  • Bike lanes do not continue the full length of the Mass Ave. ("Yipee, more space for us!")
  • How will crossing signals be timed? Will crossing the street on a bicycle on or foot require long wait? ("Sure it will. Cars go first!")

As you can see, it seems that a loss of just a few parking spaces is seen as such a drastic economic hit to the well-being of our little town that there is no way we can expect a protected bike lane on Mass Ave any time soon, despite having plenty of space available ("After my dead body!").

Still, I'm glad these changes are coming. They are much needed and maybe they will be an ignition point to a much larger discussion later on. After all, it's not just a single intersection that needs to be rebuilt, but the entire length of Massachusetts Ave.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

One bike to rule them all?

If you have followed the news from the cycling world today, you may have heard about the "novel" convertible bike concept by a small German startup - 8bar Bikes. I suppose, the Mitte is their answer to this ancient question - if you could have only one bicycle, what would it be?

Many people would want something that is fast on roads but capable of off-road riding at the same time. There are already bicycles like these. Many adventure, gravel or cyclocross bikes fit pretty well into this category. But apparently, 8bar wasn't satisfied and they came up with their own solution. The Mitte is a road bike that "can change into a cyclocross bike within 15 minutes". This is done by swapping out the fork and tires. Also, the Mitte can become a touring rig with racks and fenders added.
Watching the video on their Kickstarter page today, I realized how close and how far at the same time this concept is from the idea I had about 2 years ago. I was trying to answer myself this one question - what would be my one-bike-to-rule-them-all solution?

The first problem I have with the Mitte is that swapping out the fork is not something trivial and not something I would want to do every time I go for a ride in different conditions. Then comes the problem of gearing. This bicycle is equipped with a standard road crankset and a wide-ish cassette - both good for the road, but not very much suitable for off-road riding. Overall, the Mitte is a compromise and feels a bit like a solution in search of a problem.

My take was a bit different. Instead of changing forks and altering the geometry, I would just leave everything pretty much the same, on or off road. That is, a road bike with a 72-71.5deg head angle and ~440mm chainstays may not the be raciest and most agile one, but it doesn't mean it wouldn't roll comfortably on road. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The trick to satisfy both uses is simply in swapping wheels - something that can be done in one minute and without tools. First, I thought that sliding dropouts (like those on the Mitte) are the answer, otherwise how else would you fit 700C-sized wheels with either road 28mm tires or off-road capable 1.95" ones? But then I realized one simple fact:
The outside wheel diameter for a 700C wheel with a 32mm tire is the same as a 650B wheel with a 2.0" tire.
This makes things simple. Just build a frame with enough clearance to fit 650B wheels with ~2.0" wide tires and a 135mm rear spacing (for hub compatibility), then swap out the wheels to ones with narrower tires if you want something faster on pavement. No need to fiddle with the fork.

Next, add a wide-range gearing such as a 46-30T crankset and 11-32T cassette and this way you could have a bicycle that does it all - it's still pretty fast on road and much more capable off-road than any cyclocross bike.

Thinking more about it I started to wonder why such solutions aren't advertised more? I quickly realized that this is not going to happen. Bicycle manufacturers don't want you to buy one bike that can be used anywhere. The want you to buy 2 or more "specialized" ones: a road bike, cross bike, gravel bike, a touring rig - who knows what else? I guess the only way to get a bike tailored to the ways you want it to ride is to have it custom built.

On the other hand, I already have one. It isn't as fast as those aero carbon machines and not nearly as off-road capable as a dedicated mountain bike, but it can handle various conditions surprisingly easily.

My road bike...
... and a "mountain bike". Same bike, slightly different package.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Why you no ride your bike?"

I don't know what happened to spring this year but summer has already arrived. It was 23C (74F) yesterday and this morning didn't feel much cooler either. I rode to work wearing no jacket, no gloves, no hat and just a short sleeve - something unimaginable in March a year ago.

The weather like this bring all kinds of cyclists onto the bike path. Some of them are now very recognizable to me, as those are the same ones who I usually see on the Minuteman Bikeway year round, except winter. Once warmer weather arrives, they restart their regular bike-to-work schedule.

Then, there are those who enter the bike path only in fair weather. By "fair", I mean something like at least 70F, sunny and no rain. Apparently, for most of folks out there, there is such thing as bicycling season and it doesn't include winter.

All of which brings me to ask this very important question - why don't you ride your bike year round?

Giving it some thought, I came up with a list of possible excuses (and my rebuttals):
  1. It's too cold - dress appropriately
  2. It's raining/snowing - see above
  3. It's getting dark early - get some lights
  4. My bicycle is too nice/expensive for it - get a cheap beater
  5. I would need to shower at work - no you don't, ride slowly and don't overdress
  6. I would need to change at work - use a bathroom?
Number 1 on the list is there above all others. I see more people cycling to work when it's warm but rainy than when it's cold and dry. For some reason people are scared of cold and once it drops below 30F they think their butts are going to freeze to saddles.
But seriously, if someone tells me that bicycling for transportation is stupid and doesn't make sense because you can only use those bike for like 2 months a year, I'm possibly going to kill them with my laughter. Interestingly, these kind of statements come often from people who live in a very favorable climate - bicycling-wise. Such as my hometown in Poland, where rain is scarce, temperatures are mild and snow in winter hasn't been seen in years. Still, you will hear frequently that bicycling in the city can't be done, because... you know, the weather.

That's not an excuse. No one says you should dare to bike to work in the middle of a thunderstorm and a downpour. But even those cool mornings or light drizzle are perfectly manageable. It always puzzled me that many more people use their bicycles for transportation in those "cold" countries in the north than those warm, nice places in the south. Which simply means that it's not about the weather.

Examples from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Groningen, Berlin and many other cities show that if you want people cycle to work you need to provide infrastructure - something we usually lack here in the U.S. of A. But then why not try to ride to work in the week after Christmas? It's usually the best time of the year to start!

Or maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe it's something different? Perhaps people don't ride their bikes on daily basis because they can't answer some very basic questions, such as what is the optimum tire pressure?:
Hey, I'm mentioned on Bike Snob's blog - unimaginable!

Having said that, it was raining this afternoon, which made my commute back home much less pleasant. There were only a few other fellow cyclists on the bike path. Weirdos like me.