Saturday, March 25, 2017

It's the end of March so it must be... winter

This morning the weather was simply "perfect" for this time of the year. Rainy, cloudy, dark, cold and ugly, with lots of snow still piling up everywhere and refusing to melt. Everything was telling me to stay in bed late - ideally the whole day. Despite that, I felt like I really needed a bike ride.
I did a 2-hour loop around Harvard, MA desperately looking for any signs of spring. Tough luck - it seems that we will "enjoy" this winter a bit longer. I already wrote why I think March is by far the worst month in the year (if you live in New England) and I sill stay by it. March just sucks here, especially when you compare with Europe, where spring is in full swing. Not to mention Southern California where they pretty much enjoy summer.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What communists got right

If you have ever tried to drop off your first grader at American school, you know that feeling very well. Inching forward slowly in a long line of cars, checking your watch and wondering whether you are going to make it to that morning meeting on time. Unless, of course, you are one of the brave ones (or the lucky ones - if you live close to school) who walk with their kids - then you're really screwed. No one expects you to walk to school here. Driving up to the front door is considered normal. And your kid riding a bike to school? Give me a break! What normal parent would ever allow that!?

This general approach creates a giant morning mess when hundreds of cars line up and clog roads. Ideally, I would love to see cities introducing a "no car zone" policy around all elementary schools, with a car-free zone of at least 500ft radius. This way no one (except the school buses) would be allowed to drive up to the front door. A short morning walk should be good for any parent and child.

Otherwise, what you get is this:

Believe it or not, such pictures have been completely foreign to me (at least until recently). It's no secret that I grew up behind the Iron Curtain - in communist Poland. And while communists got most things completely wrong, there is one they got right, not even knowing about it. Confused?

Let me explain.

American cities are huge because everyone's dream is to own a house and a piece of meticulously maintained piece of grass called the yard. And as I mentioned in my previous post, they are willing to spend long hours in car, driving to work, just to be able to live in places where they can actually afford their own piece of land. That's how the wasteful urban sprawl is made.

On the other hand, many European cities are much smaller (area-wise) yet still hold the same number of citizens. On average, people tend to live closer to each other in apartment buildings, not single-family houses. In 1960's-80's in Poland, the government built a fair number of such buildings all across the country. Because of their inherent "beauty" and shoddy construction, I wouldn't dare to call them apartment buildings, but maybe... housing blocks. Yes, that sounds communist enough.
A typical housing block in Poland. The fancy bright colors can't brighten your life enough in this concrete bunker (Source: Wikimedia).

One single block of this type may typically have about 40 apartments (depending on building's length) and those are usually small: ~2 bedrooms and 500-800 sq. ft. That's a third of an average American house.

The place where I grew up had a large number of these blocks scattered on a 1km x 1km plot of land. I made a simple sketch (please forgive me for my crude drawing abilities) to illustrate my point.

Such housing community can still be found in every major Polish city. Mine housed about 4,000-4,500 people and was somewhat self-sufficient. As you can see in the drawing, we had some basic amenities such as schools and kindergartens, grocery stores and other usual commercial buildings, a clinic, a church and a number of sports facilities.

What is also pretty clear that major roads were placed on the outskirts of this land and parking lots we located away from the front doors. Compare it with this section of Arlington, MA - roughly the same area of a fairly typical, suburban development - many more roads and a much lower population density:
This high-density design had some major consequences. In order to run your daily errands you didn't need a car to:
  • drop off kids at school, kindergarten or daycare,
  • get groceries,
  • see a doctor,
  • take kids to the soccer practice,
  • visit the church,
  • get a haircut,
  • do many, many other things.
In fact, you would only use your car if you want to drive to another city. Going to work in the 70's happened mainly thanks to the public transportation as few people could actually afford a car. Public transport was available (even though wasn't of particularly top quality) - a nearby streetcar line and multiple bus lines took care of the problem. If you wanted to go somewhere by bike, you could easily ride on wide footpaths or merge with the cycling "highway" that would take you to the downtown.

For my fellow Americans such place may sound like a slum. No one had their own driveway, own yard and own swimming pool after all. But for us, kids, it was like a large playround. Wherever we wanted to go, we never had to cross a busy street. We walked everywhere. Walked to school and to see our friends or to the field to play ball. If we were tired of walking, we rode bicycles instead. There were no cars around so playing outside was easy and safe. We ventured out for the entire day coming back home late for dinner.

Despite all the ugliness of housing blocks and compact size of apartments our community was a safe and fun place to live.

Of course, communists didn't build it that way because they had a visionary development plan. They did it because that was all they could do at the time - place lots of people in one location and provide them with cheap housing (I know it's hard to believe but the state was providing basic, i.e. lousy, housing for everyone).

Don't get me wrong. Even though it may sound nice there were just too many things wrong elsewhere in the system and at one point in 1989 we just showed our government the middle finger and ended the whole stupid experiment.

The housing blocks, however, survived. They still stand today and after numerous renovations still perform their function. And while many single-family dwellings started to pop-out around cities later in the 90's, the block communities are the ones to remain the most people-friendly. Yes, the apartments are still small, but are well-located and well-connected to the rest of the city tissue.

I see similar developments in the U.S. but at a much smaller scale. American apartment neighborhoods in the suburbs can't even compare to the old communist solution. Not only they are smaller but they also place large parking lots right in front of the buildings. Due to the local zoning laws, they don't include any commercial or educational institutions within the complex. And any public transportation is severely limited, which means you still have to drive everywhere to take care of the simplest needs.

I wonder, will it change or will we still prefer to own a yard instead of owning more time?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's the transportation, stupid!

Big news recently was the ranking of U.S. States, and the first place for Massachusetts - apparently, the best state in America! We might be #1 in education and #2 in health care but our infrastructure was rated much, much lower (#19).

No matter. Our president gave a speech a few days ago emphasizing that rebuilding infrastructure is going to be the key issue during his term, which means that America will get up from its knees and be great again. Soon. Ugh... maybe.
It's important that while rebuilding those crumbling roads and bridges he should remember about cyclists. Not that I have particularly high hopes it's going to happen. People are still given a lower priority than cars in American cities even though we should admit that "the car century was a mistake and it's time to move on". Something tells me it's just wishful thinking, given this government focus on fossil fuels and actions such as this one, when automakers petitioned the EPA to lower emission standards. Not pretty.

That dependence on cars is going to kill us (Or was it the smartphones?). And it's not getting any better. In fact, an average commute in America keeps getting longer. You would think it doesn't make sense - surely, people would not prefer to waste time in traffic everyday, instead of spending it with family. Apparently, not so, because:
"People don't want a longer commute, but faced with a choice people will choose that lawn."
So there you go - it's not that Americans love to spend hours in a car. They just want to live close to the city (where land is expensive) and have a large house with a backyard - eat a cake and have it too. Obviously, if everyone drives to work two issues immediately pop up - road capacity and parking space. Since space for new roads is limited in the city, we have to give up something (like driving, duh). In Seattle they decided it's time to ditch the bike lanes. Apparently, they are the culprit of all morning traffic.

Here in Boston, we are focused on the second issue and are planning a new, subsidized parking lot with 2,100 spaces. You would think a free (or discounted) parking in the downtown is something we already tried decades ago and it didn't go well - there is just never enough of it. Seems like it's still 1980's in Boston.

Don't despair though - things are supposed to change soon. The City of Boston has prepared a comprehensive transportation plan for future called "Go Boston 2030". It includes lots of nice, bold words and plenty of "aspirational goals" but something tells me it lacks enough political vision and power to make these changes happen. Maybe they should've called it "Crawl Boston 2060" just to be safe?

No matter what they do, you can be sure they will keep the car traffic flowing. Unless, of course, they will blow all the money on those new fancy parking garages and have no dough left to even fix the potholes. In such case, it's back to gravel surface - like they did in Omaha. Let's keep those gravel bikes ready!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bicycle touring and family matters

It's only March but if you, like me, are already thinking where your cycling adventures will take you once it gets a bit warmer, you may be thinking about giving bicycle touring a try.

Many people believe that you need a lot of money to travel by bicycle. You don't. At least not as much as you may think. But because bicycle is a relatively slow mode of transportation, you certainly need plenty of time. For me, finding time is by far the most difficult thing about bicycle touring (or bikepacking, whatever you like to call it).

I'm a family man. I have a lovely wife and two little buggers plus a 9-to-5 job. This means that should I plan to take more time off to ride my bike, keeping my family and my boss happy could be quite difficult. I can't picture myself saying "Honey, I'll be gone for some time. Take care!" simply because I know that those short weekends is the only time I can help out by taking care of kids, so that she can do her own stuff too. It's also not feasible to take a full month off at work (without quitting my job) and abandoning my family to tour some remote country by bicycle. Unfortunately, my wife is not much of a cycling person and my kids are too little to be involved into any serious escapades. Yet.

All this means that I had to come up with some smart strategy that would still let me travel by bicycle at least once a while. Of course, traversing Sahara or riding across Alaska is out of question. I had to start small... and likely stick to it. Here are some tips for those who want to go bike touring but have no time:

1. Travel light on a fast bike.

This applies in general to pretty much any type of bike touring. You don't want to take too much with you as this means more items to pack and unpack, more to haul, more stuff that can break or get stolen. You would also want a relatively quick bike - lightweight and fast-rolling. It doesn't mean that you should buy a race bike. While some people are perfectly happy to travel on vintage 3-speed roadsters, in our case, because of limited time we need to keep moving and a heavy bike without proper gears would slow us down.
My "touring" bike loaded with everything I need for a 2-3 day trip.

2. Increase your mileage.

You want to get to places and see more, but you have limited time - what do you do? Travel faster (hence a fast bike and a light load) and further. This means - more riding in one day. While most touring cyclists don't ride more than 50-60mi (80-100km) a day, it's perfectly possible for an average cyclist to ride much more without exertion and still save time to stop for pictures, food and rest. I usually ride 75-100mi (120-160km) a day during my mini bike tours, which means riding for 11-12 hours (including all stops). Obviously, in difficult terrain these numbers are lower, but in general, it's just a good idea to use all available daylight as much as possible. You will be getting up just after sunrise. It may sound harsh but if you want to get to places in limited time, it's the best what you can do.

3. Plan well but be flexible.

There are many bicycle tourists (or bikepackers) who claim that the true way of traveling by bike is to point direction and go - without any plan. Unfortunately, this kind of ultimate freedom is good for those who have unlimited time. While I'd love to travel like that, not knowing where I end up on a given day and where I would sleep, I can't. Therefore, careful and detailed planning is critical. However, at the same time you have to be flexible. First, you should have plan B in case something doesn't go as originally planned. Second, grab any opportunity. There are places you would likely want to visit on a certain time in the year. For example, New Hampshire would be great to tour in the end of September when all foliage is at its peak. But you may not have time in September. Maybe your kids will be going to school and you have to be around? Whenever an opportunity comes up, when you can take time off and your spouse with kids will be entertained for a few days - use it. The next one may not show up for a while.
New Hampshire can be beautiful in the peak of foliage season.

4. Stay local.

This one is self-explanatory. Forget about visiting places that require 2 days of airline travel. You don't have time for that. Best is to stay local. Trips from your doorsteps can be fun but if you feel like you know your neighborhood too well and want to explore further...

5. Use your car.

Put the bike in your car and leave early morning to reach a remote location where you can start your tour. This way you can quickly get to places even a couple of hundred miles away from your home. Combined with a 2-3 day weekend bike tour, this gives you an opportunity to see more. One problem you may face is where to leave your car overnight for a few days. Long-term airport parking is generally a good choice even though it's not going to be free. However, many states have designated park-and-ride locations, where you can leave your car for free for a few days. This is what I did in Vermont recently. New Hampshire and Maine have similar facilities.

6Use public transport.

If driving your car to a bike tour is not something you can or want to do, try the train. Unfortunately, trains in the U.S. are generally slower than driving and the number of Amtrak trains that allow bicycles on-board is very limited, but you may be lucky to have one in your area. Buses are an option too but depending on the company, taking unboxed bicycles on-board may not be not allowed. You may however, try to combine different modes of transport or even do a one-way tour, where you would start from your home on your bicycle, eventually reaching a place where you can catch a train or bus back.

7Overnighter is your best friend.

The quickest, shortest and easiest way to start is simply to ride somewhere from your doorsteps for the whole day, stay overnight and return the next day. This "overnighter" (Is that a word?) is your best friend, simply because it can be done on weekends. No need to take time off at work.

8. Afternoon overnighter - if you really have no time.

But what do you do when you can't find time for two full days of cycling but still want to go for a quick tour? Try the afternoon overnighter, which is basically a shortened version of the 2-day tour. Start from your home on Saturday afternoon and ride to the location worth visiting, not too far from your house - some place you can comfortably reach before sunset. Stay overnight, then return on Sunday morning. This type of micro-adventure still lets you stay over in an interesting location and get there by bike, even though you could actually get there and return in just one day. It's like a 1-day long ride divided into two.

9. A (holiday) weekend tour.

If you feel ready for a bit longer mini-tours, a 2-day weekend trip is probably the easiest one to execute. You may leave your work early on Friday, spend touring over the weekend to return on Sunday evening. There are many variations possible. For example, since many national holidays are conveniently placed on Mondays in U.S. calendar, use it to your advantage (This is what I did visiting Vermont last year). Just keep in mind that campgrounds may be full, especially in high season.
10Saturday to Sunday is the most you can get.

Once you figure out how to send your wife and kids away to visit your in-laws, friends or relatives, it's time to take a week off at work and squeeze in the longest bike tour you will be likely ever able to do. Starting on Saturday morning and returning on the next Sunday afternoon means a 9 days and 8 nights long "expedition". This is where all the fun begins, just don't expect to be able to do it frequently.

That's it. I hope it was helpful for some of you. I'm planning my next short cycling adventure this summer but still need to work out some details. For now, I will stay quiet. I don't want to jinx anything.