Sunday, June 27, 2010

Car-less Places: Oaklavía

Oakland, California - At 10 A.M. another "ciclavía" session began. Oaklavía, as it is called in this instance, is a special metropolitan area in which a formerly car-dominated downtown district is temporarily transformed into blocks of wide open space where even toddlers play safely in the middle of the street.
Ciclavías have occurred in other cities like New York and elsewhere. This is one of the first to happen in Oakland.

My friend and I have lived our whole lives in Oakland but we've never experienced it without cars in the streets so we decided to check it out. The photos that follow are mostly from before the event to illustrate the car-lessness as dramatically as possible.

As you can see from the photo, the car-less spaces weren't quite contiguous but the police and the event volunteers ensured that cyclists and pedestrians didn't wait long, or at all, to move between each car-less segment.

To be honest, even with police blocking on-coming traffic, it was still tough to relax in the middle of the street. Seeing this mother and child in the roadway was truly surreal. No fear of imminent death in these two: just joy at being out on a Sunday in a wide-open space.

Once the lack of car noise and the abundance of space set in, it truly was liberating and incredibly stimulating. Events like this and cycling in general flood you with so much more detail about your surroundings than you would normally get. Being in a steel and glass enclosure moving at high velocity (aka a car) robs you of so many parts of a place.

The smells of all the food alone made the trip worthwhile: like those from this outdoor café setup in the street in front of Ratto's Market & Deli, not to mention the Oaklavía barbecue.

Moving through downtown this way, you just plain notice things you didn't know were there. My friend (the gardener) found this little garden a half a block down from the city jail, with a nice view of the Federal Building in the background. Who knew? How would you know given that this one-lane boulevard (aka freeway) is what the garden sits along. Today, without the fear of imminent death by car, we could literally stop and smell the roses, or at least the tomatoes. Yum!

While we were investigating the garden, we met this event volunteer. I had to get a picture of his sweet cargo bike. He said it can haul up to 600 lbs. and cost $1,100. That's more than Randall can haul on his Bilenky. Awesome.

All in all, Oaklavía was a huge success in giving people such great new perspectives and experiences on their city. Now, if this kind of car-less open space could just be made pervasive and permanent.

The cyclavía website specifies that these temporary spaces are purely for recreation. This essentially turns streets into a temporary park. This is a wonderful thing. However, removing cars from a business district like this is reminiscent of another type of space that has a more lasting and possibly more profound impact on one's life: the plaza.

Europe is full of these plazas, piazzas, and platzs, i.e. massive car-less spaces where people gather, not just on weekends but everyday, e.g. Trafalgar Square, St. Peter's Square (seen here), Marienplatz, etc. In these places, you feel safe from cars not just while you recreate but while you work, dine, shop, run errands, etc. In other words, you feel safe from cars virtually all the time. Living life without the fear of imminent death by car is a refreshing if not a profound shift in your mind's focus. Suddenly, brainpower currently spent on parking, driving, and dodging cars is available to ponder other things. Ponder the possibilities of that.

Europe is not necessarily more enlightened about public spaces. They've got their share of car-obsession, -dominance, and -congestion. These plazas are simply legacy spaces left over from the pre-car era. Since much of the U.S. was designed and built during the car-obsessed 20th century, we have relatively few car-less places. "Drive-through" everything seems to be our legacy in many cities. Fortunately, many in the U.S. feel this needs to change.

The sponsors of Oaklavía, for example, Walk Oakland, Bike Oakland are working hard to diversify our streets from cars. Another site representing proponents of this idea is the Livable Streets Initiative. There are, of course, many more. Nevertheless, as illustrated in Vegas, there's a lot more to do.

Regardless, Oaklavía did an excellent job of showing how rewarding this vision can be: for a few hours if not forever.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bike Gear: Visibility

Cycling as serious transport in a country without a commitment to it requires a lot of guts and a lot of great gear. Over the years, I've gone through a lot of money and strife finding that gear. Below is one of a series of posts (see security, rain/wind protection) sharing my experience with what works.

This entry is about visibility: seeing and being seen.

Being Seen
Riding in a car through the streets of Berkeley recently, I was reminded how difficult it is to see cyclists: day or night. I was also shocked how many cyclists I saw in one hour that were riding without lights in heavy traffic in the dark.

My friend Johan's story shows what a challenge it is to be seen, even during the day, given the level of distraction drivers have: especially with the advent of texting. Until those issues are properly addressed, cyclists really need to pull out all the stops on visibility.

Street Legal
Major bicycle commuting countries like Denmark have laws that require bicyclists to have a number of mechanisms for being seen. Whether to legislate such things is another discussion. Nevertheless, Denmark's legislation indicates how seriously they take bicycle visibility and how seriously it should be taken by all cyclists.

To be seen, reflectors are an obvious choice. There are few visibility solutions more elegant than a device that diverts the light from approaching threats right back to its source. All this without any batteries, etc. Consequently, reflectors are an essential part of being seen.

An unaltered night photo of the Nike Vapor.
One cool addition to reflection is this incredible new jacket from Nike: the Vapor. The entire thing is reflective (more on that here).

How To Compete With Day Light?
As great as reflection is, in day time, it can be drowned out by ambient light. Even at night, reflectors only work when they are shined upon. On curved roads, by the time automobile headlights hit your reflectors, it might be too late.

So the passive lighting of reflectors is not enough. Given that, the next step is clearly active lighting so cyclist visibility is increased anytime and anywhere whether some headlights are pointing at them or not.

LEDs To The Rescue
In the past, the cost and weight of batteries or generators could possibly explain the absence of lights on bikes but not anymore. Fortunately, a new wave of LED (light emitting diode) lights has revolutionized bike lights to help with this. Thanks to these new LEDs, you can now make your bike incredibly conspicuous day or night with lights that weigh ounces, cost few dollars, last hours, and run on the same cheap batteries as a digital watch.

Visibility Arms Race
When it comes to lights, cyclists should take their cue from other modes of transport. Many pedestrians now use them day or night.  In California, the law mandates that motorcycles keep their lights on day and night because of the dramatic benefits to their safety. Even car drivers are encouraged to use lights in day time. Some cars do this automatically.

Given all this, it is shocking how few cyclists leverage this knowledge. On top of all the other vulnerabilities, cyclists are in danger of being out lit by their competition on the road. Consequently, it is imperative that cyclists use them. Get lit, if you don't want to get hit.

Being seen is clearly key to cyclist survival but so is seeing. Many cyclists are killed each year not by what hits them but rather by what they hit: what they failed to see. If you are cycling as serious transport, sooner or later you are going to be cycling at night or dusk.  In that situation, you need a light that reaches far enough ahead to give you time to react.

The 3 Second Rule
If you are moving at 15 MPH (aka 22 feet/second) you need more than one second to react to upcoming obstacles. Otherwise, you find yourself slamming on the brakes a lot or going ridiculously slow. Given this, night riding requires light that fully illuminates at least 25 yards (aka 3 seconds) ahead of you and preferably much more.

The ambient light from cars, shops, and street lights may provide 3 seconds of lighting in the city. However, dedicated bike paths in the city or elsewhere tend to be woefully lacking for street lamps. Again, if you are cycling as serious transport, you will eventually be on one of these unlit paths at night, so be prepared.

Few LEDs Bright Enough
Although most LEDs meet the first visibility challenge (being seen), they've struggled to meet the second (seeing) without considerable cost and weight. Nevertheless, that is starting to change.

Lights: My Favorites
I won't bother recounting most of the lights I have bought because most sucked. Nor, will I recount the features of each light. Let the reviewers do this. I'm simply listing the ones I've used that worked for me and why. Likewise, I don't cover anything but LEDs because the cost and weight of batteries, bulbs, or generators for halogens and such are not worth it to me given the power and efficiency that LEDs are now providing.

The Light for Being Seen
For being seen, the Planet Bike 1-watt LED has been a great light. When I bought it, it cost $40 which was double what some lights cost but I wanted something light, powerful, and longlasting, and this seemed to deliver.

However, bright as this light is, I learned the hard way that it does not sufficiently illuminate 25 yards (aka 3 seconds) ahead on a totally unlit road so I am only listing it as a light for being seen. Nevertheless, it is decent for night biking on city streets with a lot of ambient light. There is now a 2-watt version out for $30. The added power will surely help but I'm betting you will still want more than this for seeing well-ahead on unlit roads.

The Light for Seeing
The need to light your way puts you on a separate tier for lights. There are only a handful of LEDs that can do it at anything close to a reasonable price. Among those, there is only one that is very lightweight and very easy to use.

Ultimately, what matters for lights is not wattage but lumens. The more powerful lights list the number of lumens they produce. In my experience, you want no less than 200 lumens to light your way.

Sadly, most lights that deliver 200+ lumens require heavy battery packs or generators with clunky cables that must be strung all over your bike (good luck securing that when you lock your bike somewhere). These lights also cost about $1/lumen and up. Happily, there is a light using yet another wave of new LEDs that resolves a lot of these drawbacks.

That light is the Exposure Diablo:
  • no battery pack
  • 1hr. @900 lumens
  • 3hrs. @200 lumens
  • All day in blink mode
  • Water-proof
  • Elegant/sturdy design
  • Quick-release clip: the best I've seen
I have no incentive to rave about this light other than my own satisfaction in using it. This light delivers light for roughly $0.25/lumen, far less than the competition. It does so in an elegant, extremely durable, and easy to use, package.

At 900 lumens, you've got enough power to fully illuminate the next 50 yards (aka ~7 seconds) in front of you. With an hour at 900 lumens or 3 hours at 200 lumens, you've also got enough time to reach your destination.

The sealed aluminum hour glass body has endured drops at high speed and heavy rain without failing or really scratching that much. The battery is built-in so it works great as a regular flash light. It does have a proprietary charger because of the built-in battery but I already have a recharging routine for my phone. I simply charge this similarly and the battery life has been sufficient to get me through a ride on days I forget to charge.

Tail Light
I recently added an accessory to the Exposure Diablo which is the red, 80 lumen, tail light. It requires no batteries since it plugs into the back of the Diablo. The Diablo powers both just fine for the several hours I commute.

This tail light does involve a wire to the Diablo but Exposure now has a wireless version of the tail light with its own built-in rechargeable battery.

Neither weighs much and, at 80+ lumens, they are brightest tail light I've seen on the market. They are just fabulous lights. No other light comes close.

The only drawback to Exposure lights seems to be that they are tough to find, at least, in North America. Bike shops, like many sports gear shops, are filled with a lot of high-margin crap. It's tough to get the good stuff in general but this light is especially tough to find, even online. It did not even show up in a lot of reviews I found on the internet. I stumbled across it in some bike forum. Regardless, it is worth finding. Six months in, I couldn't be happier.

Innovation Will Continue But The 3 Second Rule Persists
As prices keep dropping and power keeps escalating with each new generation of LEDs, many of my points about power and price may soon become moot. What won't become moot is the 3 second rule for biking in the dark.

Even if you have a lot of ambient light on your ride, that ambient light won't show a lot of potholes or cracks that can stop a road wheel dead in its tracks and launch you all kinds of fun places, e.g. oncoming cars. Having a light that fully illuminates the next 3 seconds of your ride can be a life saver.

Night Riding Not Intimidating With Right Light
Regardless, don't let the dark discourage you from riding. At night, there are fewer people out, a.k.a. fewer points with which to collide. Furthermore, in my experience, drivers actually notice me with lights at night more than they do in the daytime. Realizing this has eased many of my reservations about riding at night. It's also quite peaceful generally. This, in turn, keeps me riding more often which keeps me realizing the benefits of cycling that PlanBike is all about.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cycling Monterey to Carmel and Back

Living in the bay area, I've visited Carmel and Monterey many times. They are only 2-3 hours away and the scenery is stunning. Because of the flat terrain and the scenery, cycling has long been popular. Folks either rent bikes or bring bikes in Monterey and then take 17 Mile Drive around the Monterey peninsula to Carmel and back. Less popular is to complete the circuit by going over the hill above Carmel back into Monterey. I had always been curious about the route bikes can take to get back to Monterey without doubling back around the peninsula. This weekend, my friend and I decided to check it out.

We arrived at the Monterey Plaza Inn and Spa early on a Friday. Aside from being perfectly situated on the water, it is perfectly situated along the bike trail that turns into 17 mile drive. It is also appointed with great bike storage if you bring your own. The place is not cheap but it had everything we were looking for with this bike trip.

We hung out around Cannery Row that night. Cannery Row is pretty touristy but there's a lot of great food and bars a block or two in any direction. And some spots, like this small stretch of beach, were charming despite all the schmultz around the corner. From here, we walked to Gianni's Pizza on Lighthouse Avenue. This is just a nice, clean, pizzeria. Nothing fancy but nothing greasy or over-priced.

Given that 17 mile drive is only 17 miles and my average bike speed is 15 mph, we started the next day fairly late thinking we had plenty of time to finish the ride. We spent the morning savoring the pricey but spectacular gym and jacuzzi at the hotel. That got us thoroughly stretched and relaxed for the ride.

We cycled about a mile down from Monterey to Pacific Grove to grab breakfast at the Red House Café. Great shaded deck and great light California cuisine. After cycling just a few blocks from breakfast, this is what we found: spectacular flowers, surf, and rock formations.

Bike lanes here and on the whole route are sporadic. Initially, there were none just out of Pacific Grove but a bike lane started about a half mile later and continued for miles. The lanes are not large and are frequently used by stopped cars and pedestrians but at least they are there. Fortunately, most of the competing traffic is not moving very fast because everyone is gawking at the scenery. Even when the lane narrowed or disappeared, the situation didn't feel threatening.

As we pedaled around the tip of the peninsula well out of the Pacific Grove proper, the golf resorts started. These are all beautiful in their own right but they do push the road away from the shore a bit. The good news about that is you go under more trees right about the time you are getting a bit hot.

Once you get past the Spanish Bay golf resort, you are pedaling through a full blown forest of pines. In addition to providing a nice place to cool off they provide their own aesthetic value to the ride, especially when you get filtered glimpses of the bright blue shoreline.

At this point, it was becoming important to find a bathroom. Sadly, there are very few facilities along 17 mile drive. There are no gas stations and very few businesses of any kind on the west side of the peninsula north of Carmel. The exceptions are the golf resorts. We actually darted inside the Pebble Beach Resort and they graciously allowed us to use the facilities. This lack of facilities applies to input as well as output of course. As always, it is important to pack water on this cycling trip because there are very few places to hydrate until you get to Carmel.

Once we were past Pebble Beach, Carmel was not far off. There's a steep drop down into the outskirts of town with no bike lane. This had some of the fastest moving and voluminous traffic of the ride so it was a bit hectic but no worse than a lot of typical rides anywhere else.

The road from 17 mile drive dumps you out near the shoreline of Carmel. This positions you perfectly to see the famous beach at the base of Ocean avenue. This is not to be missed. The sand is super white. This is due to the high silicon content. It has an extraordinary squeek when walked upon.

Carmel village is at the top of Ocean Avenue. This a pretty steep hill but it is only a couple of blocks until you are in the center of things. Scenes like this one make it totally worth the climb. We stopped for an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) at the General Store. This has the best patio in Carmel for my money. It also has great Long Island Iced Teas if you are not driving or riding.

After the break, we had to decide which way to take home. We had tentatively planned on going up and over the hills of Carmel to get back to Monterey. This route was only 5.9 miles as opposed to doubling back on 17 mile drive. The problem was my friend, like most of the riders of the world, is not a big fan of hills. After the climb required to get into Carmel Village, she wasn't too keen for a lot more climbing. Worse, the path to go over the summit involved going all the way back down the hill to the shoreline to get back up to 17 mile drive. Once you are up on the hill in Carmel, there is no shortcut from the village back over to 17 mile drive.  There is no way to save the altitude you've already gained if you want to go up and over. This map shows how frustratingly close the roads are to one another.

After a failed attempt to find a possibly undocumented trail to 17 mile drive from Carmel Village, we doubled back down to the shoreline and then back up to 17 mile drive. Just the climb to get back up to 17 mile drive was steep, hot, and car-filled. That was enough to give my friend serious reservations about going to the summit. Since I had not done my research on the length and degree of the incline to get to the summit, she was seriously thinking about just doubling back. To her credit, she decided to go for the summit after all (what a sport). It didn't take long to discover we had made a good choice. Using iPhone GPS, we soon discovered the summit was only a mile up and we were rapidly making lots of progress on the map. We made it to the top in about 23 minutes and that was with frequent stops to avoid traffic or just sit in the shade. The last bit is sufficiently steep but still relatively short as climbs go. The worst of it was the unknown. Next time, I'll research the incline better.

Once at the summit, we found the trail that parallels the freeway back into Monterey. Given it's proximity to the freeway, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was this beautiful shady pathway dedicated to cycling. Long, straight, and steep, bombing down it was a nice reward for slogging up the west side.

Once you are down the big hill, you go under the freeway onto Munras Avenue. Munras actually has a nice set of dedicated bike paths just off the road as well. Another pleasant surprise.

After Munras, the dedicated bike paths turned into bike lanes on the street, but still deluxe compared to places like Vegas.

Back in Monterey, we stopped off at the "east side café" for an iced coffee. This is a great coffee house with not only a great patio (shown here) but an utterly lightless room for the hungover, web-obsessed, or goth-like.

From here, we took the bike trail that runs along the water back to the hotel. Although this is a dedicated bike path, it tends to be overrun with pedestrians. Dodging pedestrians is still better than dodging cars but at times you just have to stop and wait for some of the chaos to pass.

The payoff for taking the bike trail along Cannery Row is, of course, the scenery. There is a nice herd of seals hanging out in the harbor. The rocks in the background are covered with seals. They are quite the hams but cool nonetheless. Farther out in the water, you can seem quite a few sea otters eating a meal off of their bellies. Monterey delivers on the wildlife.

Back at the hotel, we decided to relax a bit with some mixed drinks. All in all, we felt great about the day. The weather was perfect. The summit climb had been better than feared and gave us more time to do something else than if we had doubled back on 17 mile drive.

With hindsight, leaving earlier would have been better to avoid the heat. Strategizing about bathroom breaks is also a good idea. Regardless, when you consider all the wonderful smells of sea air, trees, and flowers, cycling is the best way to see Monterey and Carmel.

As a nice bonus, the next day at breakfast we stumbled upon a bike race through the center of Pacific Grove. The Butterfly Criterium. Here's a shot of the Category 3 guys giving it their all. We had a nice view of all the action from Toastie's.

On the way back to our car, as we headed out of town, we found one of the racers warming up under a tree. A nice end to a bike-themed weekend.