Monday, October 19, 2015

Paris Bike Infrastructure Impressions

Journée Sans Voiture Reconnaissance

Sunrise from bike path along the Seine
On September 27, 2015, Paris rescued some its most beautiful spots from cars: Journée Sans Voiture. I arrived the day before to get my bearings and see what these areas were like before the car ban.

Cycling at dawn underneath Voie Georges Pompidou past the Eiffel Tower
Many cities are satisfied to call a coat of green paint a bike lane. Although Paris had a lot of this too, there were many great protected lanes showing considerable commitment to safe cycling: like the pedestrian/bike tunnel that goes underneath the Voie Georges Pompidou thoroughfare which runs along the Seine. It provided a safe way to a very nice bike path along the Seine right across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. A dawn ride on the last day, yielded stunning views of the Eiffel Tower under an utterly clear sky.

    Pre-Event Impressions

    Even before my bike was unpacked,  I found some great examples of the Paris bike experience. Just walking a half mile or so from the train station towards my hotel, I saw these sites.

    Not in Kansas Anymore

    Paris: more style than the average street

    One of the first things I encountered was this scene:
    • the beautiful Metro signage, lighting, and railing
    • the stylish cyclist
    • the lovely trees and architecture
    It felt like Paris alright: just a gorgeous scene. But what about the actual bike infrastructure?

    Great function

    First bike lane seen outside train station.
    This was the first bike lane I saw: dedicated to cyclists, protected from cars. Definitely battling for respect from the pedestrians and with pavement not in the best shape. Nonetheless, it provides the most important thing in a bike lane: shelter from cars. 

    Spectacular form and function

    The most beautiful bike lane I've 
    seen in Paris yet.
    This was the second bike lane I saw: absolutely gorgeous and safely away from cars. Unfortunately, not the norm but how could it be. Cycling through miles of lush garden might be too much to ask.

    Qu'est-ce que c'est?

    Arc de Triomphe at Rush Hour
    I did encounter some bike infrastructure design that was perplexing if not annoying. Although I highlight it below, this is not to say the Paris cycling experience is anything less than great in many places and way beyond many cities.

    Arc de Triomphe avec voiture
    The first surprise was that the Arc de Triomphe was not included in the car ban. If there is any place in Paris more deserving of a car ban, it is there. More pics of the Arc and cyclists here.

    Tight Squeeze
    Pretty tight and a ped risk
    Quite a few bike lanes, like this painted lane near the Eiffel Tower, were questionable:
    • Pedestrians on this corner might be hit if cyclists banked turns where this lane told them. 
    • Not much space between bikes and fast moving cars. 
    • At the end of the curve (upper right of the frame), there is a wicked sharp left. No one is making that left without stopping: just as they enter oncoming traffic.
    This one might not be better than nothing because it guides cyclists into some sketchy circumstances.

    Pedestrians beware

    Bike lane by the Louvre
    Likewise, this one by the Louvre had a nice barrier between cars but not one between people on the curb. Notoriously oblivious pedestrians would have to be very cognizant that cyclists are whizzing right next to them. Still, this would be deluxe in many countries.

    Baffling bevels

    These bevels got old quick
    There was this otherwise beautiful and obviously new lane which had bevels like this one for car driveways. They are steep enough to be quite jarring: needlessly so. Making these elevation changes more gradual seems easily doable and far more usable to bikes.

    Sheltered sharrows: nice but uneven

    This speed bump had some of
    the smoothest pavement

    There were these sharrows in parking lot lanes adjacent to a boulevard. Nice enough except some had sketchy pavement and these speed bumps ensure you won't be getting anywhere fast.

    Some places notch speed bumps so cyclists can get through without launching off their bikes.

    Reconnaissance Conclusions

    Slow ride, take it easy

    All in all, during my ride around Paris I found myself constantly killing momentum to slow for cracks, bumps or turns. It seems the bike lanes are designed for the heavy and slow 15KPH bike share bikes: Paris Velib.  Nevertheless, many of us can and need to sustain 25kph or faster to make cycling a practical mode of transport.

    Protected bike lanes are the ideal but, when encountering these obstacles, it became very tempting to just jump in with the cars after all. Thanks to congestion, it was rarely difficult to keep up with them.

    Still great and about to get better

    All that said, many lanes were great: like this one near Belleville Metro Station. Decent spacing, nice distance from pedestrians, plenty of distance from both parked and moving cars. It's even tree-lined.

    Paris has clearly made huge investments in bike infrastructure and stands ready to make a lot more. Vive Paris for their commitment to bicycle transport. We could expect no less from the home of the Tour de France.

    Monday, September 28, 2015

    Cycling Car-Free Paris: Journée sans Voiture

    Back in August, I read that Paris would go car-free for one day: Journée sans Voiture (Car Free Day). I had always meant to go to Paris and seeing it car-free was irresistable.

    GoPro video of cycling Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées during Journée Sans Voiture (Paris' car-free day). The Arc was not included in the car ban but some of us cycled it anyway.

    Global Trend

    The Journée begins
    Like L.A.'s first Ciclavia in 2010, this felt historic. I had to be there to witness the city's high profile shift to the great pleasure of life with fewer cars.

    Map of Paris Car Ban

    Map of Journée sans Voiture
    The actual city plan turned out to involve total closure of a very small subset of the city. The dotted pink line in the adjacent map shows the spots that would be 100% car-free. Other areas included were not contiguous with this center section.

    The three key spots I most wanted to see car-free were the iconic:
    • Arc de Triomphe
    • Champs Elysées
    • Eiffel Tower
    There are pictures below of each one of these with and without cars.

    Journée sans Voiture: Grand but limited

    SRO at the Champs  Élysées
    The actual event was indeed grand. It made headlines around the world with these kinds of iconic shots. Parisians savored with gusto their freedom to roam iconic spots like the Champs Élysées and Eiffel Tower without fear of cars.

    However, there were suprising limits to the Journée sans Voiture.

    Arc de Triomphe

    Never Car-free

    Arc de Triomphe avec voiture: boo!
    Here's the Arc de Triomphe at night with cars. I had planned to make this a before shot with another shot from the next day showing the Arc "sans voiture". Unfortunately, the event did not include the Arc de Triomphe.

    Excluded from Journée sans Voiture

    A typical jam at the Arc
    That's right, the Arc de Triomphe, perhaps the most iconic point of car domination in Paris, was excluded from the Journée sans Voiture even though it is literally feet from the Champs Élysées. All the pictures of the event make it look like the Arc was included but sadly it wasn't.

    Only 99% car-free at dawn

    99% car-free but only 
    at the crack of dawn
    This photo from 6 a.m. Sunday morning, way before any official car bans, is the closest I got to a car-free Arc de Triomphe. Beautiful. How much more beautiful it would have been to see people picnicking all around the Arc de Triomphe. C'est la vie...

    Belgians and I take the lane anyway

    Belgians taking the lane at the Arc
    Nevertheless, that didn't stop these brave Belgians (and myself), no strangers to car-free events, from taking the lane at Arc de Triomphe anyway, right in the middle of the day.

    Fast but not furious

    Fast but not furious
    Although there were quiet moments around the Arc roadway, they were invariably interrupted by cars cutting this big circle as straight and as fast as they could, like this guy. It  is a little frightening but to hell with it. The day of the Journée sans Voiture seemed a good day to die cycling.

    Although they were fast, the cars were considerate for the most part. At least on this special day, I got a wide berth from cars and did not get honked or shouted at: fast but not furious.

    Eiffel Tower

    Mostly car-free already

    Eiffel Tower sunrise on 9/27
    I visited the Eiffel Tower early before the Journée started to see what it looked like with cars. The Eiffel Tower was included in the Journée sans Voiture. Although it enjoyed some road closures for the special day, it didn't look like it needed much.

    Taken post Journée sans Voiture
    It turns out, cars are already not much of an issue at the Eiffel Tower. Except for a major boulevard near one edge, the tower enjoys a healthy border around it, which in turn is surrounded by some relatively quiet streets.

    Eiffel Tower: already

    This adjacent pic shows one of the many gorgeous examples of roads that end at the park that surrounds the tower.

    Avenue Gustav Eiffel indeed car-free

    Avenue Gustav Eiffel getting a
    bath before Journée sans Voiture
    The one road closest to the tower is the Avenue Gustav Eiffel which separates the Eiffel Tower from the Champ de Mars, the large lawn adjacent to the tower. Not sure what it normally looks like but it was indeed closed and thoroughly enjoyed by the visitors who took the opportunity to get pictures of the tower from closeup vantage points not possible when you are dodging cars.

    The Eiffel Tower is a truly spectacular place to bike and walk every day not just during the Journée sans Voiture.

    Champs Élysées

    Spectacular with cars, even better without

    Champs Élysées on 9/27/2015
    The Champs Élysées was almost entired closed to cars, except for the last few yards towards the Arc de Triomphe. Despite the exclusion of the Arc, this was still was huge and spectacular to behold especially as everyone filled the space.

    Champs Élysées packed with cars

    Champs Élysées: Journée sans
    Voiture Eve
    Here is the Champs Élysées the night before: stuffed with cars. Gunning your car or motorcycle seems to be a Parisian past time. Luckily, for these pedestrians on this saturday night, the traffic is so bad that speeding in a car is impossible.

    Father and Son Can't Wait

    The Champs Élysées moments after
    temporary car ban.
    Here is the Champs Élysées moments after they closed it to cars. This father and son couldn't wait. What a pleasure to see riders, skaters, strollers, et al. enjoying the car-free space.

    Pique-nique sur les Champs Élysées 

    Picnic on the Champs Élysées
    Here is a family that setup a little picnic in the middle of the Champs Élysées. So cute! Too bad it is only for one day.

    Champs Élysées packed with People

    The Champs Élysées shortly before end
    of the temporary car ban.
    Here is the space later in the day. Stunning!  So beautiful to see such a huge turnout. Hopefully, the government feels rewarded for their decision and will expand both the geographic scope and the frequency of the the journée sans voiture.

    A closer look at Paris' bike infrastructure here. A lot more pics on instragram and here for anyone interested.

    Ironique ou tragique. Tu décides!

    Just moments after the ban on cars was lifted, down by the L'Hôtel des Invalides this guy decides to park in the middle of the bike lane. He couldn't resist tainting all the good will I guess. I'm using him here to highlight one of many advantages to protected bike lanes. He'd think twice if his oil pan was at risk of hitting a bike lane barrier.

    Saturday, July 18, 2015

    Folding Bikes Part I: The Social Bicycle

    Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
    Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
    To be truly bike-centric, in the still car-centric U.S., you need a bike that can work with the dominant infrastructure despite its limitations.

    A Return to Cycling Hit Roadblocks

    A few years back, I revived a huge passion for cycling and bike advocacy. My goal was to really use the bike as my primary, if not exclusive, mode of transportation. However, it quickly became apparent that this was impossible for the following reasons.

    Bridge Bike Lane not yet even halfway.
    First, in the bay area where I live, the two most centrally located bridges cater only to cars:
    • The San Mateo Bridge has no way for bikes to cross. 
    • The Bay Bridge has half a bike lane that sits half finishedBART has scarce space for bikes at crucial times. 
    Second, meeting friends out somewhere meant the bike or I got left behind if they travel to a second location.

    Bike lanes often stop at overpasses.
    Third, inevitably, some trips were untenable for rigid schedules:
    Finally, even off the bridges, car-centric infrastructure is pervasive. Many places are still designed for drivers and no one else. Technically, you can ride it but at your peril.

    Limits to Bus, Train, Or Friend

    Some of these issues were mitigated by heavy use of bus and train, and by inspiring a number of friends and family to create a network of bike racks on our cars.

    Friends with bike racks are few.
    Bus bike racks fill up quick. 
    Folding Bike on BART at rush hour
    Folding fits well with rush hour
    Even then, having the bike all the time wasn't full-proof the way your primary transport needs to be:
    • Few friends had racks. Even then, bikes on them would get "racked" when we forgot and entered a garage
    • The few bike racks on buses were often full. So cyclists must wait up to an hour for another one which also might be full.
    • Train systems had varying restrictions:
      • BART, at the time, had outright bans on bikes during rush hour: when cyclists needed it. They've since revoked this. Nevertheless, it is a real challenge getting a full size bike on board.
      • CalTrain restricts bikes to two "bike cars" that are stuffed during rush hour. So cyclists are bumped to the next train like with the bus.

    PlanBike 1.0 Failed

    All in all, in using a regular bike for all transport just didn't work in a vast car-centric metropolis. I could not count on:
    • safe roads to the destination
    • enough time or speed for the hills and distance
    • enough rack space on a bus
    • enough "bike car" space on a train
    • enough friends with car racks

    Folding Flexibility To The Rescue

    What to do? The answer turned out to be getting a folding bicycle.

    Overcoming Folding Perception

    Bike Friday Tikit in Geeky Splendor
    Though the latest folding bikes are quite fast and elegant, many cyclists still view folding bikes as oddly-shaped, slow, and flimsy, contraptions.

    If even cyclists felt that way, it was a question how these could appeal to the non-cyclists I am still hoping to inspire. Nevertheless, they seemed to solve many of the issues I was facing so I gave one a try.

    Barring a few missteps (more on that in future installments), the decision has been a great success. 

    The Catalyst for All Transport Modes

    Folding Bikes in luggage Cars.
    Folding bikes fill any gap in bus, train, plane, ferry, or car schedule while giving you full confidence you can keep them while you use alternate transport.

    With a folding bike, you always have a ride on the other side of the bridge, road, mountain, or ocean, that is too dangerous or impractical for bikes.

    They are the perfect catalyst to link all transport modes into a working solution. The only other transport mode that comes close to being this flexible are legs but legs are not nearly as fast.

    The Ultimate Social Bicycle

    Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.
    Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.

    With a folding bike, neither you nor your friends are left behind when you travel together, even if you used different transport modes to meet.

    No matter what mode of transport you take as a group, the folding bike can fit. You are never bumped or banished from using any transportation resource.

    For this reason, folding bikes are the ultimate social bicycle. They collaborate nicely with whatever transport your friends choose or with whatever safe/effective transport mode is available.

    Welcome Inside Buses, Trains, Planes, Cars

    Folding Bikes fly in a regular suitcase.
    Once folded, your bike is welcome inside:
    • a bus
    • a train's luggage car
    • an Über or a friend's trunk
    • a water taxi or ferry
    • checked airplane luggage (for no additional fee)

    Welcome Inside Buildings

    Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
    Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
    Since a folding bike, once folded, is not much bigger than a stroller, another advantage is that it is often welcome inside:
    • coat check rooms
    • restaurants
    • stores
    • workplaces
    • small home closets

    Added Security

    Folding Bikes fit in tiny closets.
    This ability to fit inside means the bike is less vulnerable to theft or vandalism at typically inadequate external bike storage. That is a huge relief to many cyclists.

    Stealthy Performance

    If all that weren't enough, folding bikes have evolved way beyond a mere contraption. They are now vehicles of considerable performance. 

    40+ miles on a good Folding Bike is great.
    50km+ on a good Folding Bike is great.
    Although I still get teased for riding on a "toy", I've kept up with relatively fast peloton's of road bikes on 50km rides with no problem. After that, the heckling stops and the questioning starts about what they weigh (8.6kg - 13.6kg) and what they cost ($500-$5000).

    Folding Is My New Normal

    Folding Bike down Lombard Street
    Now, folding bikes are all I ever ride. The performance and convenience are too hard for a regular bicycle to match. They even look cool once you get used to the small wheels. If you've encountered the same commuter cycling challenges I have,  they are worth a serious look.

    Next time, I'll talk about which ones I got and why. There is a lot to consider.