Tuesday, July 4, 2017

London Bike Experience 2017: Part I Unwavering resolve

Unwavering resolve

NOTHING stops London cyclists. As evidence, witness this video. 

Keep calm and pedal on

Just another day in the sea of car

It's been a while since the last post on this blog. A lot has changed with the world since 2015. Fortunately, one thing that hasn't is Londoner's commitment to cycling as serious transport.

Inspiring layover

I first witnessed this on my way to the Journée Sans Voiture: Paris' closure of major parts of the city to cars. Flying in and out of London, gave me a chance to catch a truly magical London Critical Mass and an all too brief daytime tour of the city for the day before my return.

Summer Critical Mass in London
As great as the Paris tour was, I returned home most spellbound by the transformation I witnessed in London. The irony was Paris had the bike lanes but London had the riders. The contrast in ridership was stark: not only between the two cities but between present day and the 1990s London I first witnessed.

I knew I had only scratched the surface of the London cycling experience so I vowed to return soon for a deeper look. It took two years but I finally made it back.

Price or passion?

Originally, when I shared how moved I was by the volume and range of people cycling in London, one ex-pat Londoner in America said it was due to the Congestion Charge not romance for cycling.


My heart sank a bit at this but I was determined to find this was false and that I did. Every London cyclist I asked said it was a massive cultural shift in the city: that their love of bike racing and commuting was real. One rider described bike commuting: "like a magic carpet ride around the city". Another enjoyed the feast for the senses you get with a bike that a bus or car cannot match. None said anything about the price of driving.

Nevertheless, beyond the fun there is a lot of pragmatism to be found in cycling London. It is a truly superior way to get around a city with few long straight roads and extremely heavy congestion with really no chance of any vehicle (motorized or otherwise) going above 30 KPH for long. Bikes perform beautifully under such conditions and Londoners clearly realize that.

Cycling courage

Surrounded by two-stories of steel
Amsterdam and Copenhagen get props for embracing bikes but Londoners must be commended for embracing the bike despite the lack of safety measures those bike meccas enjoy.

That a great auto-loving nation can make such a transformation is moving enough. It is exponentially so when considering the parade of fatal accidents London cyclists endure due to lack of infrastructure and untrained lorry drivers. The courage of Londoners through adversity is legendary. It is quite evident that extends to cycling.

Between my two visits, I read of half a dozen Londoners who perished cycling (often very preventably when lorries turned into them unable or negligent in watching out for them). One occurred in Chelsea during this visit. Yet, you still see sights like those in these photos: cyclists threading their 25lb machines betwixt jagged multi-ton vehicles. They carry on with this when it rains. Truly moving.

Rider Range

A refreshing aspect of London's cycling community is the range of riders you find. Some communities have a decent age range but can be a lot of "boys on bikes", often from the same demographic. Not so in London. It has that contingent for sure but it also has a very strong gender, class, and ethnicity distribution.

Pedaling Parents

Also impressive were the number of childseats on the bikes. In the US, one common excuse for not cycling I hear is that it is simply not practical to truck around small children and all their gear. Many London riders show otherwise.

London Women Represent

Countless articles in the US lament how to get more women bike commuting. They talk about special infrastructure to coax these so-called timid riders onto the road, etc. However, seeing all the women cycling in London makes you wonder whether that's a factor. From Peckham to Shoreditch and the west end as well, I saw a large percentage of female riders.

Shoreditch rush hour
There are dedicated bike lanes in London but they rarely last for the whole journey. Despite all the risks and lack of infrastructure, women glide fearlessly among the lorries as often as anyone else.

And, it is not just during rush hour. On a mid-afternoon visit to Peckham, it was mostly women riders: these gals.

Peckham bike commuters

Age, class, ethnicity, style represent as well

The diverse ridership does not stop with gender. In London, you regularly find the gambit of age, class, ethnicity, and style on bikes: not just sometimes, every day. Cycling is now clearly part of every kind of life there.

Here is a sample of those braving the mixed-use London roads.

All walks of life cycle London

Diverse bicycles

Brompton in Chelsea
Since Britain is the home of the Brompton (a global folding bicycle brand), it is no surprise that London sports a lot of those.

Folding Bike Free Trade

Tern Folding Bike in Hampstead
Found this Tern rider in Hampstead: sporting the competing folding bike deep in the heart of Brompton country. Glad to see free trade alive and well in the cycling community.
Exotic bikes

Other Exotic Bikes

These guys represent a smattering of the different types of bikes found on London streets. The exotic bikes rival all the exotic cars. That middle one looks like a Vanmoof. Very cool.

This "red bike" just looked like a spontaneous custom paint job but to great effect. It was striking as it went by.

Against the wind

London cyclists with masks
One final moving but sad observation about London cyclists is their resolve to endure, not just the kinetic risk of getting hit but, the atmospheric risks of air pollution. Sights like these are still very common.  It illustrates how pervasive car exhaust, particularly diesel exhaust, is throughout the city.

According to a study by Kings College from 2015, 10,000 Londoners die from air pollution annually. Sadly, you can feel why when you ride there. The exhaust is often overwhelming. That is the last thing you want when you are breathing deeply to power a bike. The fact that so many Londoners don't let that stop them is, again, a testament to their resolve.

London cyclists ride despite the lorries, the lack of lanes, the weather, and the air itself. I hope all sides can see their way to let that passion flourish as safely as possible.

Until then, God speed braving the chaos, Londoners! You inspire us all!

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.