Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beginner's Guide to Biking on BART

Friends Annemarie and Scott are recent converts to cycling as serious transport. They've been meeting me at Lanesplitter's Pizza and such on their new bikes for a while now. Nevertheless, Annemarie still had some anxiety about taking her bike on the subway (e.g. BART) to get to work. Among her questions:
  1. when can you use the bike
  2. where can you put the bike on the train
  3. how do you get it to the platform
Given that the goal for this site is to encourage non-cyclists and cyclists alike to cycle more, I thought it would be good to post a primer for those who are considering biking to work but have some of anxiety about showing up at the BART station uninitiated.

BART Bike Curfews
First thing is obviously to work out when bikes are allowed on BART. The answer is most of the time for any line. The exception is basically any line that passes through downtown San Francisco during rush hour.

This exception is, of course, a sad irony because it disallows bikes during the exact time of day that cycling could be most beneficial to car traffic. Nevertheless, that's the reality until BART's forthcoming makeover supports unlimited bike access.

Here's the BART schedule. It includes shaded times where bikes are disallowed. Check that out before you ride.

BART Ticket Or Clipper Card
Assuming you are traveling in a direction or at a time at which bikes are permissible, the next task is to obtain a ticket. There are two options.

BART Ticket
One is to simply buy a ticket at a station kiosk like my friend Scott here. Cash, debit, or credit are accepted. Although not all kiosks accept credit. Sometimes you have to cross a station to use credit card. I've encountered this most often in San Francisco stations around downtown.

Clipper Card
The other payment option is to use Clipper Card. This system provides access to a number of transit systems around the bay and BART is now included. The word is that this will be the only kind of BART ticket in the near future. Annemarie demonstrates using her Clipper Card at the turnstile.

Three Different Ways Through The Gates
There are three different ways to get through the gates in a BART station. I'm listing them in order of ease for cyclists:
  1. Wide Ticket Gate
    Wider one is for wheelchair access and bikes. Although all BART stations have these, not all BART station entrances do.
  2. Emergency Door
    If you find yourself at the wrong end of a station from a wide ticket gate, you can walk your bike through an emergency door and then double back without your bike through a normal gate.
  3. Narrow Ticket Gate (Advanced)
    This is not recommended for beginners but it is an option, nevertheless. If you are quick and nimble with your bike, you can pop a wheely holding your bike vertical on the back wheel and pass through a narrow gate quickly enough not to have the gate close on you. I do it successfully all the time but you do have to be quick.

Learn To Lean
Quick side note (those with kickstands can skip this): While you're buying your ticket, it is tempting to lean your bike against a wall like so (see the photo with the white bike seat). This looks beautiful but is prone to bumping and falling.

The trick to leaning your bike against a wall is to have both the handlebars and the seat or rear tire touching the wall. In the photos, the white seat is wrong and the black seat is correct.

During the morning commute, this matters more than you might think. It is nerve wracking for you and everyone else to be buying your ticket and hear the crash of your bike behind you and assorted mayhem.

No Bikes On Escalators
BART does not allow bikes on the escalators. It is unclear why since many subway systems around the world do allow bikes on escalators. Nevertheless, on BART it is a $200 fine if you are cited. That said, BART staff was very kind when I first offended and didn't cite me.

Escalator Alternatives
So if your bike can't get to the BART platform on escalators the way everyone else does, how can it? The alternatives are:
  • carrying your bike up the stairs
  • riding the elevator
  • using the new bike gutters on stairs (very rare)
The stairs have obvious drawbacks:
  • requires a healthy back
  • requires a lot of upper body strength to suspend a 14kg bike at chest level
  • if a person is short, they have to lift the bike even higher

Over The Shoulder and Front Wheel High
Regardless of the drawbacks, with the right technique it is possible for many of every size and strength to climb the stairs with their bike. The most popular technique is over the shoulder. This is where you:
  1. grab your top bar under hand
  2. lift it above your shoulder
  3. slide the top bar onto your shoulder like you would a back pack strap
One issue with the over the shoulder technique is that your front tire can sometimes bump the stairs in front of you on the way up and knock you off balance. This is particularly common with shorter folks.

One trick for dealing with this is to use your free hand to tilt the bike back a bit. The goal here is to have the bike on your shoulder with the front wheel higher than the back wheel so the bike looks like it is going uphill. This will match the angle of the stairs and keep the front wheel from bumping.

While Scott and Annemarie demonstrated the over the shoulder technique, Annemarie definitely felt uncomfortable so at the next stop she took the elevator.

Although elevators are great for those who don't feel they have the strength, health, or coordination for stairs, they have some issues as well:
  • slow
  • crowded
  • may require two stops
If you hear that train pulling in, it can be quite frustrating to wait for moms with strollers, or travelers with suitcases, finish loading into or unloading from the elevator while you miss your train.

Elevators at some multi-level stations also require you to exit and enter the elevator twice: once at the level of the turnstiles so you can register your ticket or pass, and then once to get to the platform. Rockridge is an example.

Even so, Annemarie was a much happier camper as she exited the elevator.

Bike Gutters: Best But Scarcest Option
Last but not least are the bike gutters on some, but not all, BART stairs. In fact, the only bike gutters I've seen are at the Mission Street station. That's unfortunate, because they are, by far, the best option. They:
  • do work like a charm in crowds unlike the elevator
  • don't require you to be a body builder to get your bike up the stairs. 
My friend Chris demonstrated the bike gutters. You simply walk up or down the stairs while your bike rolls in a special gutter on the side of the stairs. They work so well and are so economical to install. Hopefully, more of these are on the way soon.

No Bikes In First BART Car: Seriously
Once you've made it to the platform the next thing to establish is the car you should enter. You can get into any car except the first one. This, unlike the escalator rule, is RIGIDLY enforced. Not sure why but BART train drivers are super adamant about this. They will not move the train until the first car is void of bicycles.

The only other rule about what part of the BART train bicycles may enjoy is that bicycles must avoid crowds. The BART website elaborates on this rule.

Some cars have a seat with a formal bike space near the door much like the wheelchair spaces. I try to use either of these so people don't have to walk around my bike much. Obviously, you need to move immediately if a wheelchair needs the space.

Leaving The Station
Once you've arrived at your destination, you've obviously got to get  your bike back onto the street. Elevators and bike gutters work identically to the way they do when you enter a station. However, stairs can be approached differently on exit of the station than they are on entry to the station.

A lot of folks hoist the bike over their shoulder again to go down as well as up but this is really not necessary.

You can simply grab your bike around the seat post and let it roll down the stairs. Doing this is easier and less prone to bumping others on the stairs than the over the shoulder technique so it is my favorite.

After their maiden voyage on BART, Scott and Annemarie turn their focus to more important things.

That about covers it. Thanks to all of my beautiful models for patiently posing for these shots.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cycling The Las Vegas Strip

In mid-April, I was invited to stay with some friends on the Las Vegas strip. The hotel was pretty much free as part of a timeshare sales program so I figured why not see what it is like for a cyclist in Las Vegas. While my hosts sat through a sales presentation for a condo, I took off on my bike down the Las Vegas strip.

Flying with Bicycle
Of course, before I could do that I had to get myself and my bike to Vegas. I could rent a bike like I did in Australia but finding a place to rent a really nice road bike is even more difficult than finding a place that rents a really nice car. Also, my height makes it even more difficult to find something my size.

Given that, I'm starting to regularly bring my bike with me on planes. Southwest Airlines is the most reasonable at $50 each way. For some, this is outrageous. For me, my bike fits like a great pair of shoes and it is totally worth it. If you factor in the money you save on a rental car, it works out.

No Bike Lanes, Not Even a Shoulder
One of the first things I saw on the strip was this type of thing: a classic American roadway completely dominated by cars. No bike lanes or sharrows here. There's not even a shoulder for cars. That must create all kinds of fun when a car breaks down.

Lots of Cops on Bikes
The second thing I saw were bicycle police. Seeing them made me feel better about the total lack of any other protection for bikes. With the cops on bikes, the drivers on the strip will be thinking twice before antagonizing a cyclist. Even better, I just happened to be wearing a yellow jacket like the cops were.

I asked one policeman how he liked using a bike on his beat. He said, "Don't tell anyone but I'd do this for free". I can see it. It is loads of fun whizzing down one of the most colorful streets on the planet.

Refreshingly Flat
With that, I took off from the very north end of the strip (the Sahara).  I was pleasantly surprised by the flatness. The Hayward and San Andreas faults back home ensure you are never really off of an incline. There's always a subtle, or not so subtle, grade you are pedaling against. Here, there was no resistance. Woohoo!

With that I was easily able to sustain 25 MPH and could even sustain 28 MPH for a couple of blocks. This turned out to be plenty of speed to keep up with traffic. Because of the incessant stop lights, even the lead foots couldn't get going too much faster than I did. I even passed cars in some of the congested parts. This calmed my nerves. I figured no car could be too upset with a cyclist that was meeting or exceeding the flow of traffic. Now I could enjoy the scenery.

Since I was enjoying the speeds I could reach, I decided to cruise all the way to the south end of the strip (beyond MGM) and then work my way back more slowly: focusing on some of the new architecture and sidewalk infrastructure that are unique to Vegas and hint at what could be possible for bikes there and elsewhere.

The New City Center: Disco Berlin
One of the amazing new sites in Vegas is the new City Center. This should not be missed because it is unlike anything else in town. First of all, it is absolutely massive compared to anywhere else on the strip. It takes up many city blocks and the base goes up 5 stories before the tall buildings even start.

The style is also uniquely understated for Vegas. It looks like someone from Vegas decided the strip could use a hint of Berlin or Geneva along with all the other cities represented. Of course, the new buildings still have a Vegas flair: some of them are leaning (by design) at a dramatic angle. Regardless, the development is something to see both from an aesthetic point of you and from a transport design point of view (perhaps poor design but fascinating, nonetheless).

Yet Another Monorail
Included in this new development, is a new monorail. It turns out, Las Vegas has two monorail systems. Why they need two disconnected systems and why neither goes to the airport, is a mystery. One has been around for a while and it spans the whole strip. It is quite effective in quickly and safely getting pedestrians or cyclists to key parts of the strip. The new City Center monorail looks really cool and gets you around the City Center but that's about it.

The line of cabs waiting at the new City Center nicely illustrates what it still takes to get around Vegas. Obviously, these monorails are not a complete transport alternative. Nevertheless, this is still a better alternative transport infrastructure than you find in a lot of other American cities.

What the strip lacks in real bike and train solutions it makes up for with the pedestrian solutions. The Vegas strip pedestrian infrastructure is awesome in its scale, enginuity, and even its beauty at times.

Vegas has always had wide sidewalks along the strip which are always a welcome site for pedestrians. Those are still in full effect with some rather nice landscaping to obscure the whoosh of cabs that are inches away. These can obviously be found in lots of cities as well.

Pedestrian Intersection Bridges for Days
What most other cities don't have is a comprehensive set of pedestrian bridges over all the road intersections. Nor, do you frequently see such pedestrian bridges with escalators.  With this infrastructure in place, it is possible for a sucker (I mean guest) to stroll the entire strip without encountering cars. That alone is a fabulous achievement and more than you see in anywhere cities in the U.S. Granted, it stops at the strip but I'm betting the pedestrian fatality and injury statistics are excellent compared to other downtown areas of large cities.

When similar infrastructure is proposed for cyclists, cost and space constraints are always cited. Las Vegas is proof that these can be overcome.

Blocks of Elevated Sidewalks
The new City Center construction takes this pedestrian infrastructure to a new level in engineering and aesthetics. One gets the impression that Las Vegas will eventually have two strips: one for cars at ground level and one for pedestrians two stories above that. The bits of that vision that are appearing now make that look like a nice idea. If they could incorporate bikes and trains more deeply into this trend, downtown Las Vegas could be on to something.

In the meantime, dangerous though it may be, I still dig racing the cabs.