Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cycling the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Part III

See also Part I and Part II.
On the way home from working on the alpine race courses in Whistler, B.C. for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, I stopped in Vancouver to see the city's Olympic sights. In addition to seeing all the extraordinary places for the public to gather for the Olympics, I found extraordinarily diverse and abundant facilities for getting the public to the games without cars: some really nice trains to get people across the long distances and some superb facilities for bikes. Amongst the bike-friendly facilities in Vancouver, I found everything from sharrows to bike lanes, to dedicated bike paths complete with separate pedestrian lanes. Deluxe!

It started with a ride from the airport to downtown on the sparkling new subway train, completed just in time for the Olympics. It's not quite a system yet since it only has one line with about 8 stops but it is a very nice beginning. This train is fully automated so there's no driver compartment to block your view at the front of the train. You can sit and look through the front windshield as you whiz through tunnels and over bridges. It was also free to volunteers of the games. I had done lots of research on getting to and from Vancouver but I hadn't done any research on getting around the city itself. I had anticipated an expensive and time-consuming bus or rental car ride into town from the airport. I was so psyched to have the new light rail system, the "Canada Line", to quickly whisk me into town for free. It gave me even more time to explore.

The only bummer was the usual message on the train platform that instructs bikers not to use the train during times of maximum use: the Olympics. This is similar to the rush hour rule on BART in San Francisco. The stated reason is always that the train system is too congested for bikes at these times. However, it is precisely those congested traffic periods when you want people out of their cars and onto bikes. That does indeed add to congestion on trains. However, San Francisco's CalTrain system demonstrates that any increase in congestion from bikes can be addressed with a dedicated bike car. That is obviously added cost but if it removes cars from the road during congestion it provides obvious value as well.

Moving on, here's the first thing I saw when I left the subway station: a guarded bike parking lot. Right on Vancouver! This is what you want if you are really serious about encouraging cycling as serious transport: real space and security for your bike while you are away. No more lugging around your own lock which has to be so large and heavy that it makes riding a pain. This kind of bike parking also means you can count on your ride being as fully functional as you left it: no wheel, seat, or light theft or vandalism to worry about. If you are returning home late at night, this place provides the kind of piece of mind and predictability you need in order to rely on your bike to get you home.

From here, I took a streetcar, on loan from the Belgium Transport Company for the Olympic games, that took me from the Olympic Village subway station to Granville Island. This thing was too narrow to squeeze a bike into but any cyclist would probably ride from a Canada Line station to Granville anyway. At this point in my trip, my bike was stuffed into a bike case at the airport so I was hoofing it. That was just as well because this clean new, oddly narrow, train was a pleasure to ride. Sadly, I'm told it will get dismantled after the Olympics.

At Granville Island, I had breakfast at the Swiss House. This is the place setup by the Swiss government to allow folks to gather and cheer on Swiss athletes. They had rented the beautiful Bridges restaurant during the games which was right on the water next to the water taxi station. They also provided these electric bikes. Go Switzerland for choosing a beautiful spot with such a wealth of transportation options that do not involve a car. The breakfast, the free Wi-Fi, oompah band, and alpine skiing in HD, were all fantastic.

Once I got into downtown I found all manner of bike-support. The first that I saw was a sharrow-type configuration on a one-way boulevard. Note the bike icon on the street sign. I hadn't seen that before, but I like it as a way to tell drivers and riders what to expect on the roads they intersect as well as the roads on which they are driving or riding.

Second, I found dedicated paths with painted stripes to separate pedestrian and bicycle traffic. This was on the way to Saxony House: the house for cheering on German athletes during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. These bike paths are pretty nice but the pedestrians in this photo demonstrate the problem with just using paint to separate traffic: people just ignore it.

Regardless, while sitting on the back deck at the Saxony House enjoying my grilled pork loin sandwich and a beer, I found this beautiful site. This bike rack is right on the dock and, at least, one sailor was using his bike this day.

Next, I found bike lanes, and dedicated bike paths that parallel the roads. Here, it is not just strips of paint separating pedestrians and bikes. These are the minimum of what you want in a bike path: an island separating cars, bikes, and pedestrians. You hear about this specified in road design theory but you rarely see it in practice, especially the separation of pedestrians. Bike lane sceptics often stress how unsafe it is to cram bikes and pedestrians on the same path. Often, you find cities address this with paint to separate the two on the same path. However, that never seems adequate. You consistently find pedestrians walking wherever they want on the path. In this case, the pedestrians couldn't ask for more.

Or could they? Just when I thought Vancouver's bike facilities couldn't get much better, I saw this near Stanley Park in Vancouver. This heavily engineered, lighted, underpass was obviously not cheap to build. Yet, it is totally dedicated to human-powered transportation: bike and pedestrian lanes only. It has no support for cars whatsoever (except over its top). What a beautiful representation of Vancouver's priorities! Go Vancouver!

Some of the biggest users of bicycles in Vancouver that I saw were the police. These guys were super-friendly and very enthusiastic about cycling as serious transport. Mario, pictured here not far from the Olympic cauldron, has been on a cycling beat for 2 years. He says it is his favorite kind of beat so far. I asked if the bike helped in a chase situation, he said it sometimes can. He likes that he is so much more engaged with citizens on a bike while he is still able to get around city streets about as quickly as a car. He also likes how well it keeps him in shape. The other officer pictured here is actually riding inside the airport. He had similar things to say about cycling. Cycling as serious transport does not get much more serious than this. When I look at these guys, I see calories burning, skies and roads clearing, as well as social barriers and health costs plummeting. What a wonderful example these guys are setting for the rest of us.

See Part I and Part II of this story.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cycling the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Part II

See also Part I and  Part III on cycling in Whistler and Vancouver.
I found the trail I had heard about connecting Creekside to Whistler and it is fabulous. Today I pedaled from Creekside to Whistler without seeing a single moving car. The trail winds past the frozen Nita Lake and the beautiful Nita Lake Lodge (both seen here). And it is not just a single trail. It is an entire network of trails. What a fabulous resource in winter time for getting around.

This trail is absolutely beautiful and peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that even on a crisp shady afternoon the trail was full of cyclists, runners (some of them in Olympic team uniforms), dog walkers, even readers. You can see the woman sitting on the rock reading as she overlooks the frozen Nita Lake. What a beautiful site. She liked this photo so much she had me take one with her camera.

I found this guy actually riding on the lake. I was tempted to join him but decided against without more detailed knowledge of the lake's freezover patterns.

This radically changes my perception of the Whistler winter cycling experience. It is not a mixed bag at all. It is awesome. Perhaps the locals I talked to were not familiar with the awesome set of trails available for getting around Whistler with NO exposure to the noise and danger of fast moving cars. Perhaps normal winter weather produces too much snow to adequately plow these trails. Regardless, someone is plowing the trails successfully now and some locals obviously know these trails are here. I found this guy running a very telling errand in a ski town.

Pedaling back from Whistler along the newly found bike trail, I also found that there is indeed a train to Whistler: the Whistler Mountaineer. It even stops right behind the Nita Lake Lodge which is a short walk across the highway from the Creekside Gondola. What a dream of a commute to Whistler! Apparently, this only runs in summer for the general public but a chartered version of it just happened to be stopped behind the Nita Lake Lodge when I cycled past on the bike trail. Unbelievable that this was not a highly promoted option for getting to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games!

When I asked why this does not normally run during winter, I was told it was because demand was too low. They didn't have a large enough volume of riders to justify regular intervals up to the mountain. Consequently, the few trips that were made were very expensive. I immediately thought of one obvious source for a large volume of riders: the patrons of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games! Given these shots of the rail stations beauty and proximity to Whistler mountain, and all the aggravation reported from all those that had to drive to the Olympics, I find it hard to believe that people would not have chosen the train in droves. It is truly tragic that VANOC did not embrace this transportation option.

If the incredible convenience and beauty of this train stop were not attractive enough, how about this? As I pedaled away from the Nita Lake Lodge, who do I find on the bike trail but Steve Podborski (one of the greatest ski racers of all time, a member of the "crazy canucks", and currently a commentator for NBC Sports during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games). He was actually walking to get on the train. Apparently, the province of Alberta had chartered it for the games and he was one of their guests. So this option is available but to an exclusive few. Steve is certainly worthy of such a privilege but I still wish VANOC had pushed to extend it to many more and possibly sidestepped a lot of controversy of the highway upgrades. Oh well! All of this resulted in me bumping into one of my idols. For that I am incredibly grateful. As I rode off, he said "ride safe". I'll ride as safely as you ski, Steve :).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Family Travels To Whistler Olympic Village By Bike

Met these fine folks this evening while strolling through the Whistler Olympic Village. The WHOLE family had arrived at the village by bike, complete with dog. The dog runs alongside the bikes.

Apparently, these folks find cycling to work during a typical Whistler winter a tad much but using bikes on a beautiful and unseasonably warm winter day to avoid all the traffic hassles and enjoy the day is not a problem and such a pleasure. That is too cool.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cycling the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Part I

See also Part II and Part III.

When I decided to bring my bike to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, a lot of folks questioned the idea, including a lot of locals. Everyone cited the obvious: winter weather. The locals also cited the fact that the roads between key points in Whistler were not particularly bike-friendly. The bike lanes are in place but some parts just run along a very busy highway that includes the traffic from a pretty good bus service. Despite all this, I brought my bike. To be honest, it has been a mixed bag. I found both great and lousy bike lanes since being here. (See Part II of this story for more great trail photos.)

Some, like this one, are great. Passing through lush green forests or quiet neighborhoods, they leave one feeling perfectly serene and secure. The breathtaking backdrop of the Whistler mountains puts the experience over the top. A simple ride to the barber and grocery store was a delight and a decent workout, even if I did have to share the path with the occasionally knuckledragger.

Sadly or happily (depending on your view of climate change) the weather has not been a factor. Although the weather has been unbelievably warm, the first week did manage to throw a few cold rains at me. That did make the ride home from the barber a bit hectic and messy when taking the highway bike lanes. However, the worst of that was the car traffic, not the rain. I'm told there's a dedicated bike trail, totally off the highway, between Creekside and Whistler. I'm determined to find it before I leave. (See Part II of this story to see what I found.)

Though nice, the mild weather, is kind of a bummer, at least, for me personally. First, I really wanted to see how snow cycling feels. Second, it is just plain disconcerting to have weeks of spring-like conditions in the middle of February. One wonders if we really are witnessing climate change at the Olympics which in turn makes one wonder how much longer a winter Olympics will even be possible except at the highest latitudes. Vancouver is already pretty far north. Are the games going to have to move to the arctic circle in my life time?

What compounds these concerns is seeing how ungreen winter Olympic events are. This is the greenest Olympics ever. All the disposable cups, cartons, and silverware are compostable. Some of my volunteer uniform is made from bamboo (super soft too) because it is far less resource-intensive than cotton. A lot of the new buildings are self-sustaining with regard to water and power.

Nevertheless, there is still the jet fuel for helicopters, the diesel for snowcats, the gasoline for snowmobiles, the water for snowmaking machines, the plastic for all the decorations, the merchandising, the temporary construction, etc., etc. All this is still part of the games. There's no question that events like these will always be resource-intensive but there's obviously a lot more to be done to improve the resource footprint for an event like this. The spring weather in February has been a constant reminder that more had better be done soon.

British Columbia and VANOC missed a great opportunity to discourage car use by upgrading the Sea to Sky highway rather than upgrading the rail system.

British Columbia and VANOC missed a great opportunity to discourage car use by upgrading the Sea to Sky highway rather than upgrading the rail system. The Alps are littered with ski resorts where the train station stops just steps from the base of lifts. I've personally seen people getting on the train in their ski boots in downtown Munich. They can do that because the train system there offers virtual door to door access to numerous ski resorts. Imagine all the traffic jams that occur during snow storms replaced by train loads of people drinking hot cocoa (or even something stronger) during their relaxed journey from town to the slopes. Now stop imagining it because British Columbia and VANOC missed a great opportunity to embellish the European village atmosphere they've developed in Whistler by perpetuating the North American emphasis on the car.

Nevertheless, train systems beg lots of other questions that ultimately reduce to the larger question of what type of transport will dominate in a given society. In order for a rail system to work, it has to go virtually everywhere. Vancouver has no pervasive subway system or light rail so how would it deliver people in large numbers to the Sea to Sky rail system? How would people get to the few subway stations? By car? If so, then that would defeat a lot of the purpose.

Still, even half-measures were passed over: like promoting bus use rather than car use. The world famous ski town Zermatt banned cars years ago. It is only accessible by train but there's no reason you couldn't introduce bus-only access to Whistler to create a similar car-free ambience in the village and remove the need for a highway upgrade by virtually compressing the added traffic volume into buses.

If that's still too untenable, how about just installing bike-racks on buses or having bike-dedicated buses to and around Whistler so that those that want to use bikes as transport around Whistler can do. The roads to and around Whistler are pretty flat relative to other mountain resorts. Riding a bike with a little trailer that holds skis and snowboards onto a bike-dedicated train or bus would have been a fun and efficient way to get to and around the mountains.

If nothing else, I wish VANOC (Vancouver Olympic Committee) would have refrained from hauling Wayne Gretzky (the final torch bearer) in an SUV to light the Olympic cauldron. This is traditionally a runners task so it seems particularly gratuitous, untraditional, and antithetical to a green event to put the would-be runner in an SUV. Anything but that. Why not a bike? What a great symbolic gesture that would have been to have "the great one" hop on a bike (Canadian-made even) to travel to the torch in a reasonable amount of time.

Regardless, what has felt good is fulfilling the planbike mission to send a message with direct action to all the guests of the Olympic games that bikes work anywhere and anytime and, with the proper scale of adoption, could be an important component to keeping the world inhabitable and some snow on the mountains. The unseasonably warm weather, for me, makes this point even more important to make. It was also heartening to find out I wasn't alone. Found this gal, a fellow volunteer in her blue smurf suit, out at 4:30 a.m. on her way to work. Cycle on girl!

The ride to Whistler is so beautiful, it is a shame that anyone has to keep their eyes on the road during the journey. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the games, enjoying the scenery, and enjoying the bike.

See Part II of this story.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cycling to Work Despite Snow and 2010 Winter Olympic Insanity

While volunteering at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, I met my second commuter cyclist from the great white north: Ryan. Ryan is a ski boot doctor at the Blackcomb resort in Whistler, B.C. He cycles to work approximately 3km/day despite low temperatures, little daylight at this latitude, and tons of new traffic and security restrictions related to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Like Nadine (the other Canadian commuter I've met), he says he has no trouble pedaling through the snow. No spiked tires necessary. In fact, his tires seemed pretty bald to me. Regardless, Ryan is happy to demonstrate that it's not an issue.

Ryan has cycled for fun and commuting for years so his current commuter pattern has no explicit beginning. However, he says that one of British Columbia's LiveSmart B.C. incentive programs caused him to upgrade to his current ride: a single speed (but not a fixie) with an LED tail light built into the seat post and cork handlebar grips. Yay British Columbia for doing so much to promote cycling. Yay Ryan for braving the cold, the dark, and all the Olympic tediousness to make the world a cooler, less carbonated, place.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bike Commuting from Sea to Sky: Breathtaking!

On the way to Whistler from Vancouver, I noted the well marked new bike lanes all the way up the Sea to Sky Highway. These were part of the improvements made in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Nice job, B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

More Olympics Pics:
The beautiful lanes and beautiful weather made me sad I decided not to ride up. Advice from local cyclists consisted of significant dangers in winter time and potential Olympics-related roadblocks. Consequently, I decided to pass on cycling over the 90 mile journey. Too bad.

Nevertheless, it has all worked out pretty well. I compromised and brought my bike up via shuttle to tool around Whistler and get a feel for snow riding.

What's more is that when the shuttle driver made the usual stop at the Squamish Visitor Center to give everyone a break, I just happened to see a serious looking commuter bike out front.

When I inquired, I met Nadine. Turns out, she's a super hardcore commuter cyclist who has been biking to work at the Visitor Center everyday for 3 years: SNOW or shine. What a perfect person to profile here on PlanBike.

She knows she is super lucky because the breathtaking beauty and the great bike lanes make you want to commute by bike.

Nevertheless, I'm guessing all that changes in a blizzard. It takes some guts and grit to get to work in these parts on a snow day.

To handle those snow days, Nadine rides a Cannondale mountain bike with beefy tires and fenders. She says studded tires are overkill for the snow on her commute path.

Interesting was Nadine's reason for starting to commute by bike: she doesn't really have one. All she remembers about that time 3 years ago was that the lease was up on her car and she didn't get another one. Fantastic!

As for what keeps her going, all she said was "obsessive, obsessive, obsessive". Looking at these white-capped mountains, I'd have to agree.