Sunday, September 26, 2010

SF Critical Mass Almost Legal at 18

Mature Event
Friday was the 18th Anniversary of San Francisco's Critical Mass. At 18, it is still not quite legal but very mature. Gone are the days of violent clashes with cars, cops, and pedestrians. There's still plenty of anarchic behavior but (for the moment at least) a really beautiful balance of temperance and tolerance is at play within all sides.

Many motorists still detest Critical Mass. Even as a cyclist, I am not fond of the Critical Mass logo with a fist running between two wheels. I'm all for vigorous debate but I don't think slamming your fist on somebody's hood, or running cyclists over, is the way to do that. Fortunately, I think a lot of cyclists and motorists, at least in San Francisco, have now come to the same conclusion.

The event still involves a lot of police but they protect cyclists as much as they contain them. Cyclists still take over intersections with impunity but they take an otherwise mellow tone with the police and bystanders. Bystanders still bad-mouth (and throw water balloons) but show a lot more tolerance overall.

A lot of this may just stem from the event's age. Almost everyone in town now has heard of Critical Mass so they enjoy it if they love it, avoid it if they don't, or know it will be over soon either way. Also, cyclists seem a lot better at not giving or taking the antagonistic bait.

Warm Weather, Warm People
Regardless, this was an awesome Critical Mass. Indian Summer was in full effect on this Friday in September. There was no fog in sight nor chill that accompanies it. The balmy sunset provided a suitable backdrop to a tour of the most beautiful city on earth. This was my second Critical Mass. The one I did last year was fun but this one was even better. The great weather definitely played a part.

The warmth wasn't just in the weather. From the cyclists, to the trapped motorists, to the motorcycle cops, everyone was remarkably warm towards each other. Rolling alongside fellow travelers without being encased in a sound-proof steel container is an experience unique to cycling that makes it hard to alienate or feel alienated. The sheer vulnerability of yourself and those around you makes you want to be more social and afraid to be less so. Critical Mass is a great reminder of how powerful this aspect of cycling can be.

Still Pushing Boundaries
Cyclists still exercised plenty of free will on the ride. We literally rode circles in the middle of Market and VanNess without warning. The course is never pre-defined. Folks decide at each stopping point what is going to happen next. This week that included attempts to cross both the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. A half dozen CHPs and SFPDs at each on ramp put a damper on that plan.

That didn't stop us from overtaking every intersection and street between bridges. It also didn't stop some cyclists from expressing themselves beyond simply taking over the street. The ride contained no less than 6 nudists, 3 DJs, 1 bubblist, and lots of weed.

Critical Ass?
Nudity is semi-legal in San Francisco. Last year, the cops hassled the naked guys pretty bad and most seemed to disappear well before the end of the ride. This year, however, folks who bared it all stayed in as long as they wanted.

The only hassle the DJs endure is getting 30+ pounds of batteries, cargo bike, and speakers up San Francisco hills. For that, and the awesome music, they are treated like heroes on the ride. It's great having more than one so you can sample many grooves that range from funk to country and western.
Great stuff!

Likewise, nobody was worried about the weed. The cops seemed focused on just keeping Critical Mass away from the bridges and the street traffic away from Critical Mass. Given that marijuana legalization is now on next state ballot, this seems like the right focus.

Conflict from Within
Ironically, the bubblist received the most heat and it came from other cyclists. After all cyclists have been through, it was sad to have the most antagonism coming from within over something so trivial.

Perhaps this is a symptom of cycling's recent success. It has never been more popular in the U.S. with major cycling initiatives underway in most major coastal cities. That's just the circumstance when balkanizing tendencies can erupt. The helmet debate is dividing cyclists just when this marginalized population can hardly afford it. Fortunately, the anti-bubble noise was balanced out by cooler heads who just wanted to ride in peace. I hope the helmet debate will resolve before it damages adoption of cycling in general.

Intangible Benefits
Crossing intersections, or riding wheelies down the middle of the Broadway tunnel, without fear of oncoming cars, police, or most bystanders puts one in a mood that is hard to describe. It makes you feel incredibly relaxed and welcome. It also erases a lot of work and personal stress.

The power of cycling to promote social cohesion, trust, and stress reduction, often gets buried under its more tangible benefits of efficiency, economy, and fitness. Nevertheless, these intangibles are potentially more important. What part of the world couldn't use more peace between people? These intangible effects have always been apparent to the Critical Mass participants but it seems increasingly apparent to police and bystanders.

Channel the Passion
The current success of Critical Mass with both participants and non-participants is an opportunity to help expand cycling massively. It's time to scale cycling and all its benefits to more than one day a month and beyond coastal cities or enlightened college towns.

Many cities in Europe have already achieved this. They have permanent and pervasive cycling infrastructures and cultures. This looks increasingly possible in American cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York, and even Los Angeles but it's nowhere near certain in these places and far less so in many others.

A rare but narrow window is now open for cycling but it may close soon. Places like Omaha have introduced new cycling initiatives but they are enduring fierce skepticism. Unprecedented numbers of Americans are fed up with the physical, environmental and economic havoc wreaked from cars and oil. However, the electric car may soon mitigate the public's distaste for cars by appearing to remove smog and CO2 from the equation. This may distract everyone from the other benefits of cycling.  Given all this, cyclists need to act now to build and spread the momentum cycling currently enjoys.

If Critical Mass doesn't inspire motorists to support more cycling infrastructure, I hope it inspires the participants to do so. Critical Mass is avowed to be unstructured. There's no leader or group controlling it. While this is a key part of its attraction, I hope its thousands of participants show equal passion for cycling in more structured ways as well. If folks lobby and vote for cycling with the same gusto that they party at Critical Mass, our cities will be the better for it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Bike of Mormon

Cycling is the closest thing I've come to finding a calling. As a philosophy major at UC Berkeley, I analyzed religion but never adopted it. Over my life, I've sampled a few (buddhism, hare krishna, numerous flavors of christianity) but nothing really took. The only message that ever touched me was that, afterlife or no, the earth sustains us now so caring for it ought to be a high priority.

Back in the 80s, I did a semester of college in central Los Angeles. The Iran-Iraq war was causing oil price spikes. A family friend's 5 year old son died after he was hit by a car in their neighborhood. Smog alerts and traffic jams were a frequent part of the nightly news.

Cycling seems a perfect fit for all Christians given it reflects at least 4 of 7 heavenly virtues: temperance, diligence, patience, and humility.

Given all this, I was pretty passionate about doing something real and immediate to eliminate pollution, oil addiction, and car domination. My answer was to use only a bike to get around Los Angeles. But after a couple of months cycling between Watts and Westwood, my breathing got strained and I was coughing up black soot with regularity. This is not to mention all the hazing and near death experiences from cars. I lost faith in my cause. I felt like the world would never see what I saw in cycling: a way to solve so many huge problems all at once with so little.

More than 20 years later, my faith in the promise of cycling has been rekindled by all the news from around the world about the great awakening to cycling's benefits: to reduce obesity, healthcare costs, budget deficits, etc. So it was interesting timing to run into a couple of fellas using cycling to proselytize their faith.

Returning from lunch on a really hot day, I saw these two Mormon missionaries (Elder Campbell and Elder Kim) cycling through a business park. They were wearing classic Mormon missionary attire: dark slacks, white short-sleeved shirt, and tie.

I've seen missionaries in many settings but never on bikes. I was impressed: partly because the church obviously recognized how effective bicycles can be as a serious mode of transport and partly because cycling in their attire on such a hot day already displayed a lot of passion for their faith.

Given my travails in LA years earlier, I felt for these guys. Fascinated, I chased them down and asked for an interview. A few weeks later, we met in front of the local bike shop and went for a ride. They brought me back to one of the churches they work with in the area. We stopped and had a nice chat about their mission, their faith, and their cycling.

What a journey for these guys. Elder Campbell came from Canada and Elder Kim came all the way from Korea (and speaks perfect English). They had never met before they started their mission. Yet, they are deeply united by a profound sense of being blessed and an intense desire to share that with as many people as possible. To this end, they cycle as far as 20 miles at a stretch for hours each day. They'll continue this for 2 years. They say it is all worthwhile, especially, when they see someone really receive their message.

It turns out, Mormon missionaries have a long tradition of cycling. There are even websites, like the missionary depot, dedicated to helping them obtain cycling gear. Not all missionaries cycle but quite a few do and have for years. I am impressed to see this zeal for bikes within the Mormon church. Cycling seems a perfect fit for all Christians, not just Mormons, given it reflects at least 4 of 7 heavenly virtues: temperance, diligence, patience, and humility. I'd argue you could include kindness (to the earth).

Cycling runs in the family as well as the church for Elder Campbell. He comes from a family of downhill mountain bike racers. The terrain in Canada is perfect for that. However, he says he never biked as much as he does now and does not expect to use bikes for transport much after his mission. He says there's too much snow back in Canada to make it a viable transport option in winter. I mentioned to him, that it is possible to ride in snow.  I told him about the folks I found cycling in Jackson Hole last December but I agreed it is challenging.  Regardless, after his mission, he plans to get a road bike to keep in shape.

I asked them about some of the realities of cycling. For instance, did they get hot in their uniforms? That was a definitive "yes" but the church allows no alternative to the standard uniform even while cycling. The goal is to look professional while performing church duties. They certainly do that, even if the guys do look a little glossy after a ride.

Elder Campbell told the story of getting his seat stolen and having to ride home without one. Now they are experts at knowing which neighborhoods are the most vulnerable. Beware of Monument boulevard they said. "Everyone gets their bike stolen there".  I recommended a few things from my post about Cycling and Security.

Both they and I noted how both missionaries and cyclists are often antagonized, or anyone dressed or acting differently for that matter. For cycling missionaries, it's a double risk. Some drivers and pedestrians can be downright hostile to cyclists. They confirmed missionaries can sometimes experience similar hostilities both on and off the road. These experiences are painful but we both agreed they help us empathize with folks who don't fit a particular mold.

While we commiserated about the challenges of spreading our respective messages of hope, I realized that I feel like a bit of a missionary myself. Only, my gospel is cycling.

Though our belief systems differ, I wish them the best of luck in their mission and a safe journey on their bikes and beyond. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cycling and Security

Ultimately, cycling can improve our national security by ending addiction to oil and the violent regimes that control it but we've got several million converts to win over before we get to that. And those folks need to know how to hang onto their ride.

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 last year, I've gone through a lot of money and strife finding that gear. What follows is one of a series of posts (see visibility, rain/wind protection) sharing my experience with gear and the need it fills. This entry is about security. Namely, it's about how to minimize theft and vandalism while maximizing convenience. With that in mind, I'm highlighting  the systems and tools that help me do that.

There have been some very positive developments for bike security with the proliferation of bike lockers, parking garages, and valets; not to mention, the cool "low-jack-style" GPS/RF bike tracking tools. But first, here are a few quick points about the obvious bike security tool.

Ever since my brand new Schwinn Continental was stolen outside a bowling alley back in the 70s, I've been searching for a lock I trust. The one I used that time was foolishly feeble: a 1 cm chain with a 3 digit combination lock. I was just a kid. I learned, after the fact, even I could pick this in a couple of minutes.

Today, folks (myself included) often favor the "U-Lock". The 2+ cm steel U-shaped bar can be as strong as chains but a tad lighter, and easier to pack. Still, there are issues.
  1. Not all U-Locks are created equal. See's great profile on U-Locks to learn about the differences. 
  2. Though lighter than a chain, the better U-Locks are still a lot to carry. Riders often leave them locked to a rack to avoid the weight issue. 
  3. The U-Lock's fixed shape means it has limited reach. It can't reach around thick posts or around both wheels.

There's not much to be done about the reach issue. Cables come to mind but they can be cut through easily. Chains come to mind but the good ones are really heavy. Neither option leaves you much better off than with a U-Lock. The reaction to this seems to be to use a tiny U-Lock. At least then, you are not lugging much weight and the bits you lock are secure.

This picture in front the Berkeley Bowl shows a classic example. You could remove your front wheel and lock everything around the back wheel but that means you spend time realigning your wheel with your brakes every time you make a stop which is a sure fire way to discourage bike use. To avoid this, I sometimes use a cable to loop through the back wheel but that boosts the weight and space again.

Steel-encased Cable Lock
There is one other option: the steel-encased cable. It's lighter than a chain, stronger than a cable and has the reach the U-Lock doesn't. It still won't thread both wheels but it does go around large posts. The one I use is by ABUS: a great German lock company that makes the Diskus padlock that's been very popular for years. Knock on wood, I have not lost anything so far while using the steel-encased cable.

There's a lot of video on youtube showing the big bolt cutters breaking just about every lock on the market, this lock included. However, it is hard to tell just what they are cutting and the bolt cutting scenario is hopefully an unlikely one if you've picked a good high-profile spot. Other sources say this lock is relatively tough to break. Although, they say it still only takes 3 minutes to get through without bolt cutters. For this reason, I still treat this as a lighter option.

No matter what lock you use, the old saying is still true "if they really want to take it, no lock is going to stop them".  Consequently, securing your bike is really about completely hiding or completely exposing your bike to others. Hiding your bike is great (because noone knows to steal it) but tough to achieve in public so the other strategy is more popular.

Few thieves like witnesses to their crimes. If you can find a well-populated place, then all the lock has to do is keep honest people honest by removing the basic ability/temptation to ride off with your bike. With an ideal parking spot, almost any lock will do. Still, if the bike is facing hours of seclusion, I try to avert thieves with as much armor as I can stand to carry: the U-Lock and a cable.

Locks may deter thieves but they don't do a thing about vandalism. If some jackass wants to turn your rims into pretzels, there's little you can do. One exciting trend in bike commuting that addresses vandalism and the other limitations of locks is the proliferation of bike lockers, parking garages, and valets.

Bike Lockers
Subway stations in my region and my work place don't supply full-service bike parking but they do provide bike lockers like you see here. These are great: at least for day parking. Again, if someone is determined to axe or saw their way into these lockers, there is not much to stop them. Still, even this would take time and make a lot of noise and that would hopefully prompt a witness to call the cops.

Regardless, the beauty of lockers is that they:
  1. hide the bike completely
    (i.e. out of sight, out of criminal minds)
  2. only require you to carry a sturdy padlock
  3. provide some protection from vandalism
I find these very satisfying to use. It is literally a huge load off your mind and your back to have your bike hidden from view in a sturdy container and locked with something not much heavier than your shoes. At work, I use the ABUS Diskus padlock. I even leave this locked to a fence so I have 0 weight to lug around if I want.

Bike Garages and Valets

The ultimate in bike theft prevention, of course, are the attended bike garages or bike valets. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, provides free bike valet service at ATT Park for ballgames and at the SF Ferry Building during farmer's market on Saturdays.  I can't say enough about the positive effect this has on a cycling experience. It relieves a ton of stress that you typically have when you just lock your bike and it allows you to carry more cargo because you are no longer lugging your own security system around with you. It really is a very profound difference.

To some, it might sound excessive to have structures built to house bikes but cities are littered with parking garages for cars. If bike commuting is ever going mainstream, the same will have to be true. Here's a nice one in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

These bike parking services are increasingly common in bike-friendly cities like San Francisco and Vancouver. However, even in those places the hours of operation are limited. The bike parking garage shown here by the SF CalTrain station is closed on weekends. To really support cycling as serious transport, you need to count on these services being available virtually 24/7 so that you can go out as you normally would: without concern that access to you're ride is going to disappear at the stroke of midnight.

Personal Security
Locks and bike parking provide security for the bike while it is stationary but what about security for you while you are moving? Protection from cars and the elements are best left to infrastructure but there are tools to protect you from other people and animals: for instance, the 9mm  Beretta (just kidding).

Seriously, though.  Lots of cyclists report having things thrown at them. I've personally had people try to block my way and hassle me. I've also had dogs literally nipping at my heels. The latter instance happened while riding in Texas. That experience caused me to buy some pepper spray. It's not much but it's a non-lethal device that can buy you some time to pedal out of harm's way. The pepper spray I've got has a really nice strap with a velcro release. I've mounted it on my pack in a readily accessible spot. Naturally, now that I have it I never have cause to use it. That's fine with me.

Cycling amongst roads and drivers that don't want you there can be stressful enough. The tools and services profiled above have helped me mitigate that stress by maximizing convenience and piece of mind.

UPDATE: Low Jack Option
Although I try to only post about stuff I've actually experienced or tested, one thing on the horizon of bike security that is too promising to ignore is the use of GPS and radio transmitters to have your bike broadcast where it is if it ever gets stolen. Currently, this only appears to be used by law enforcement as bait, e.g. UOP is fighting a bike theft epidemic with such a system. Nevertheless, if a consumer product ever becomes available at a reasonable price, it could be a great thing. How satisfying to end forever that horrible feeling you will never see your bike again or know anything about where it went. Given the escalating prices of high end bikes, I am betting we'll be hearing a lot more about this option.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Another Bike Commuter is Born

This week saw the maiden ride of another convert. Bryan, one of my co-workers, has entered the bike commuter fold.

Bryan has biked sporadically all his life. One of his fondest memories was riding in the rain in Maryland as a kid. Most cyclists don't like the rain but I can actually relate. If you've got the right gear, riding in weather is down right fun. That bodes well for Bryan's perseverance as we enter the rainy season.

He says he's decided to start bike commuting because it "just makes so much sense". He lives less than 10 miles away from his job. With that short of a distance, he can beat a bus because of all the stops they make. He also leaves when he wants like he would if he drove. The fitness and smaller gasoline bill are a nice bonus as well.

I am particularly proud of Bryan's conversion because my donation of a crankset helped make it possible. The FSA crank from my Cannondale was just lying around and his Bianchi needed one so I donated it to him in accordance with the PlanBike mission.
Several weeks later he's gliding next to me using the crankset. Too cool.  He's already on his 5th consecutive day. I was pretty saddle sore when I started and had to take a break. Between his love of rain and his strong start, Bryan's in danger of being a hardcore bike commuter.

Here's a picture of Bryan, Ed, and I on our first lunch trip. Check out Ed's cool folding Bike Friday "Tickit to Ride". Turns out Ed is also a recent convert. Just 16 months. Having a mobile posse greatly expands our lunch options. This time we only went about a mile out. Still, the ride made me feel better about chowing down.

Just five days in and he's already bought clipless pedals and Sidi shoes and loves them. This guy has got the bug. Right on. We need more like him.

Welcome aboard, Bryan. I can't wait for us to pedal out to all the new lunch possibilities.