Wednesday, October 12, 2011

GM's Ad: Correcting The Real Offense

UPDATE: Giant Bicycles post an ad that responds to the GM ad. Details on Grist. The ad is displayed below the GM ad here.

While monitoring the "sound and fury" surrounding the recent General Motor's cyclist-bashing ad posted by, it was heartening to see the downpour of support for cycling and to see it actually affect GM's plans.

Nevertheless, this ad is just the tip of the iceberg. There's been a media blitz of bicycle-bashing for years (this article talks all about it). Bicycles and cyclists are frequent symbols of emasculation and failure in media. Just in the last 5 years, there's Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, Steve Carell in 40 Year Old Virgin, Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go and Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Is it GM we're mad at or Madison Avenue and Hollywood?

Furthermore, it seems silly to be shocked that car ads would use sex to promote cars and disparage other modes of transport. Doubly so, given that we just bailed out this particular company from financial ruin and told them to go and compete as best they can. These are the guys who took private  jets to D.C. to tell us they were broke. We gave them money anyway. Now we are shocked that these guys don't "get it"?

The real offense is that we somehow elected government representatives that chose to keep this company alive instead of promoting multi-modal transportation. Had we not done that, we would be reaping the benefits of job-creating infrastructure projects and economy-stimulating traffic from pedestrians and cyclists. Instead we're spending our time shouting down tasteless ads for which we paid and ultimately voted while dodging more cars.

Given this industry's track record (GM's in particular), it is doubtful GM learned anything from this. While they are issuing an apology to us, it would not be surprising if they try to get a return on their ad investment by simply retrofitting this ad campaign for some place else in the world where folks don't squawk so much. Ultimately, GM has been and will continue to be an obsolete organization ruthlessly preserving itself and perpetuating an outdated, unsustainable, vision of transportation.

Like Steve Jobs once said, "death is nature's change agent". This ad is a perfect example of what we get when we don't let nature take its course.

Successfully shouting down this stupidity is definitely a sign of progress but it won't really change anything. Only starving the old oil and car lobbies of money will do that. Ironically, that will be tough in the next election given that our next president will either be the guy that saved this miserable company and wants to import oil from Canadian tar sands or a guy from Michigan. Regardless, we can still vote with our feet, our pedals, and our media choices.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011 Cyclists Fatalities Already Alarming. What Can Be Done?

Fatality Spikes
The last few weeks have felt like an epidemic to many cyclists in Los Angeles. BikingInLA reported 52 cyclist fatalities as of September 24 and there have been more since then.

Likewise, Seattle reported 10 fatalities so far this year. Three of those have occurred since July, according to StreetsBlog.

Spikes Not Pervasive
The spike hasn't been seen everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, various news agencies have reported less than 10 for the year. But that's down from 15 in 2009, according to this Bike Accident Tracker. In New York City, reported the city's 10th fatality on September 4. But that's down from 12 fatalities in NYC in 2009, according to stats cited in the Village Voice. Obviously, the year is not over yet but these numbers are relatively flat given the growth in cycling's popularity and compared to Seattle and LA.

Among improved instrastructure, law enforcement, and training, only law enforcement is quick to implement.
So, as many are asking, "what is going on?" And how do we prevent this? Despite an incredible, perhaps cynical, lack of data collected by our governments on cycling fatalities, we know from experience where solutions lie: improved infrastructure, law enforcement, and training. More detail can surely be revealed about the cause of the spikes this year but simply reviewing some of the cases shows these 3 components would help a lot.

In Seattle, Seattlebikeblog and others have already identified incomplete and/or poorly designed bicycle infrastructure as a cause. In LA, a common cause is hit and runs by drivers. In New York, one cause was a cyclist going the wrong way down a street. Studies to precisely identify the root causes of all these incidents take time. What can be done to prevent more people from dying right now?

Short Term Solutions: Few
Among improved instrastructure, law enforcement, and training, only law enforcement is quick to implement. New bike lanes or training programs won't save the cyclist who dies tomorrow but better law enforcement might.

Law Enforcement
However, better law enforcement requires the right laws to be in place and resources, a.k.a. dollars, to take action. As of this writing, Governor of California, Jerry Brown, just vetoed cycling advocate's third attempt to pass a "3 feet rule": SB910. Even more challenging, he did so at the urging of the CHP.

Operation Safe Passage
Even so, law enforcement does act on similar issues. Right now, a collaboration of police agencies and the CHP are implementing "Operation Safe Passage", a program to enforce "zero tolerance" of hazardous driving around schools. This operation was planned in advanced but it was able to start just a day after a 6 year old pedestrian was killed.

Since cyclists are not concentrated in one area like a school, such a program is tougher to scope to address cycling risks. Nevertheless, something similar could be designed and implemented quickly if the political will exists.

Sources of Political Will
So where to get political will? The three classic sources are money, publicity, and pooling support with other groups. All are already at work for cycling in various degrees. With immediacy being the current goal, only one stands out.

Money Can't Buy Us Love
In the current system, money could very possibly buy us love but can we afford it and do we want to perpetuate this perverted system? Regardless, using money to lobby for cycling has obvious drawbacks for the cycling community. Bicycles alone do not represent the dollars that cars and other industries do.

Bicycle Revenue Connection Still Fuzzy
Many studies show bike-friendly communities do generate lots of revenue but the association with all those dollars is not as direct. Any bicycle lobby will find it tough to compete until it consolidates financial support from all the ancillary businesses that benefit from bike-friendly streets. And that won't happen until more bike-friendly communities are created which, ironically, requires more lobbying.

So if money can't buy cyclists love (at least for now), what about publicity? These tragedies have produced that. Seattle's mayor plans to hold a bicycle safety summit in response to all the recent cycling fatalities. However, summits don't necessarily lead to a solution as Los Angeles knows all too well. Their mayor held a bike summit last year. Despite a lot of great cycling developments in LA since then, the deaths keep coming.

Even Alan Dershowitz Can't Get Justice
In order for such events to be effective, they need the focus of the greater majority and not just the cyclist community. As Alan Dershowitz's experience shows, as he tries to identify all those involved in his sister-in-law's death, going it alone to get justice is tough. If one of the foremost attorney's in the country can't get justice, it is clear other forces need to be employed.

With a high enough profile, Mr. Dershowitz would get a cooperative DA and Los Angeles could immediately find/raise money for officers to clamp down on texters, speeders, and drunks causing the hit and runs. Without that larger audience, no summit or anything else will generate enough political will to do much more than is already being done.

Publicity Possibilities
AIDS Awareness
Nevertheless, getting that focus is not impossible. Good lessons for how to do this lie in how AIDS awareness was expanded beyond the minorities that first experienced the disease. Again, the problem is time: expanding AIDS awareness took decades.

Occupy Wall Street
So what can be done in the short term? The group Occupy Wall Street is showing one way right now: a protest. However, this is having limited success because their message is not clear and they are not appealing to the majority's self interest. This lack of focus may be intentional but it still leaves the mainstream confused and apathetic.

Overcoming Distraction
If you want a distracted person's attention, you can't waste time telling them what you are against, you've got to tell them what you are for, what you want and why they should care, and do this instantly. That's more rally or vigil than protest.

Celebrity Association
One way to instantly get people to care is to simply get familiar faces associated with your event. The Occupy Wall Street protest really took off when Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon showed up: shallow but true. The other way to engage is to illustrate the magnitude of the loss, again instantly, e.g. the AIDS quilt.

Rally For A Common Cause
This is what cyclists can do in the short term. Hold a vigil or rally for those we've lost with something visual and large of which distracted passers by or TV viewers will take note, and with a clear way for empathetic people to respond. With a high enough profile to the event, it is possible to obtain substantial new resources quickly.

Pooling Support
Pooling support with groups sharing common interests is yet another way to build support. In this case, the obvious group is pedestrians. Many groups already combine cyclists and pedestrians for this reason. This group is as financially challenged as the cyclist group, so joint efforts may not have a huge impact in lobbying any legislature. Nevertheless, it could potentially have a huge impact on any rally. Like the cycling community, pedestrians suffer greatly from cars. Many people do not cycle but almost everyone is, or has been, a pedestrian at some point. Holding a combined rally would appeal to the majority's self interest.

Long Term Solutions
A lot of the long term work is already being done. The goal is obviously to do it more effectively and swiftly. One well-known key to that is to fill the data gap. Enact legislation that forces officers and other officials to collect detailed data on bicycle traffic volume and accidents.

Data gives the few intrepid politicians out there the foothold they need to take unpopular or unprecedented action. Unfortunately, many industries like the oil, tobacco, and auto industries know this so they sometimes lobby against collecting the data.  Nevertheless, from good data can come good infrastructure, training, as well as the good laws and enforcement.

After supporting any rally in support of better law enforcement, my focus is going to be on legislature that improves data collection on all cycling activity including these accidents. At best, we need to know as much detail as possible about the cause of these tragedies. At least, we need to concretely document for the powers that be how many more of us are now out there.

None of this will bring those victims back but for those of us that feel we must do something, these are constructive and tenable.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bicycle/Train Compatibility: the good, the bad, and BART

Update 20111031: Rockridge BART Getting New Fare Gates: BART to  start work to provide an extra wide turnstile that accommodates wheelchairs and bicycles.

Update: BART's Bicycle Survey
Since this post, BART has disseminated a link to this bicycle survey. Please offer your feedback to BART through this tool. It is good to see BART taking an interest in cyclists. I applaud those involved with this at BART and encourage them to do all they can to support some of BART's most loyal patrons.

Beautiful Partnership When Allowed
Bikes and trains are such a powerful combination. Trains cover the longer parts of a trip and bikes polish off the last mile(s). Yet, this incredibly elegant partnership proves elusive on many train systems because of poor train policies relating to bicycles.

BART Not Onboard For Bikes
One system in the San Francisco Bay Area is particularly unfriendly to bicycles. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) bike rules spell out the bicycle hostility in clear detail. No bikes allowed to San Francisco during commute hours and/or crowded trains. In other words, bikes are banned at the precise time when all modes of alternative transport should be working together to minimize car use.

Other Offenders
BART is certainly not the only offender. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver's brand new metro system was equally hostile to bikes.  No bikes were allowed on the system between February 8 and March 3, 2010. In other words, no bikes were allowed during the Olympics when the city needed all the help it could get to deal with added traffic congestion.

Separate, Don't Eliminate
Keeping bikes and regular train passengers separate during crowded conditions is understandable enough. No regular passenger should risk cutting their shin on a bicycle when they ride the train. Likewise, bicyclists deserve facilities that ensure they and their bicycles safely board the trains without damage. Banning bikes altogether during congested time periods is NOT a solution.

Beat The Flexibility Benchmark
One obvious reason cars are so popular around the world is the flexibility they provide to their passengers as to when and where they can travel. Of course, their popularity has largely negated that flexibility by way of traffic jams. Given that, alternative transport is essential.

However, no form of transport is a true alternative to cars unless it can match the flexibility that the car provides. Since no single  mode of alternative transportation can do this alone, it is essential that all modes support one another. In other words, trains, buses, bikes, etc., MUST work together to create a collective web of passenger support.

Neighbor Metros Refute BART Excuses 
BART is clearly not on board with this idea. Whereas Caltrain, a separate commuter train system in the bay area, just added a second dedicated bike car to each train it runs, BART has yet to add one.

BART always cites cost and space (for longer trains) as reasons why they have not provided similar bike support but those reasons are clearly false.

Caltrain has achieved its superb bicycle support despite desperate budgetary concerns this year.

Good Enough for LA and NY Metro But Not For BART?
Both the Los Angeles Metro and New York Subway systems welcome bicycles "on Metro rail trains at all times."  Why are bicycles good enough for them but not BART? BART claims that adding a bicycle car (or just more cars in general) would cause trains to be too long for some of its stations.

This claim supposes that longer trains are even necessary.  Look inside a Caltrain bike car at rush hour and you see how efficiently bicycles can be stored. If bicycles were not scattered throughout the BART train, they wouldn't use as much space.

Fewer Excuses, More Efficiency
Even with the current infrastructure and budget there are a variety of simple ways to deliver better service if not more capacity.

Shorter Intervals
BART could try to find a way to run current train lengths at shorter intervals the way LA Metro does. Their platforms are no longer than BART's.

BART's current 15+ minute train interval is too long as it is. LA Metro targets a 12-minute interval. Recently, it renamed its "12-minute map" to "15-minute (or less) map". Nevertheless, LA Metro ensures that a rider will not wait more than 15 minutes for a ride within a large portion of central LA. That's impressive for the former car mecca. If Los Angeles can do this, can BART really do no better? Please...

Longer Trains That Reposition For Bike Car
Some commenters point out that BART's routes across the bay and through downtown are at max capacity and, therefore, cannot support shorter intervals. The experience of others during those times make this debatable. Regardless, that doesn't preclude BART from finding innovative ways to support long trains. Trains often reposition 2 or 3 times at a station as it is. One of those repositionings could be for a bike car.

Boosting Capacity Is Inevitable, Start Now
Even if more tunnel capacity is needed to support tighter intervals, this is something any transit system should constantly be planning to address. It is done perpetually to freeways. As of this writing, crews are boring new tunnels on both sides of the bay (i.e. the Caldecott and Muni upgrades). Why not for BART?

Stop digging this hole
Not surprisingly, BART has experienced major ridership declines in recent years. BART chooses to address this with cheesy ticket giveaways during holiday periods and failing to re-upholster absolutely filthy seats.

Stop giving the service away and use the money to make the service more useful. Specifically, stop turning away some of the most impassioned transit riders at times and places when all commuters most need them to travel.

Low Hanging Fruit
Until the train car/capacity issue is resolved, BART can focus on "low hanging fruit" to provide proper bicycle support. Namely, it can improve basic sanitation and improve the ways that riders of all types can get in and out of the stations.

Fix The Stairs
Currently, BART bicyclists must carry (yes carry) their bicycles up 2 and 3 flights of stairs. The staircase at the Embarcadero station is a steep decent more than 25 yards long. I am tall and my bicycle is light so I have no problem with this. However, for many others this is a show stopper for bike/train commuting.

Given the weight of many commuter bicycles, climbing stairs with one is something many cyclists physically cannot do. My friend Christine is in pretty good shape but, given her petite frame and the weight of her commuter bicycle, she struggles to make it down these stairs without falling.

Elevators are available for those with disabilities and they are also available to bicycles but elevators cannot move bicyclists in the volume necessary to successfully get people to and from their trains during congested times. Again, the solution is not to ban certain riders at those times. The solution is to properly design stairways to be more bicycle-compatible.

In fact, BART already does this at some, but definitely not all, of its stations. At the Mission street station, troughs exist along the sides of the staircase where cyclists can wheel their bicycles up and down. This is an effective, dirt-cheap, solution so BART should use it.

Fix The Ticket Gates
The final component of proper bicycle support is proper ticket gate configuration. Never mind that many metro systems around the world function just fine without ticket gates, any system using them should provide a simple way for cyclists, luggage carriers, wheelchair users, etc., to get through them.

As of June 12, 2011, Rockridge BART station (a very busy station) has no extra wide ticket gate. Passing through the narrow ticket gate is a needlessly cumbersome experience for cyclists, those with disabilities, or just those with luggage.
Because of the lack of wide ticket gates, BART requires cyclists to:

  1. park their bike
  2. pass through a regular ticket gate
  3. move back through an emergency gate
  4. retrieve their bike (assuming it hasn't been stolen), 
  5. bring the bike back through the emergency gate. 
Aside from being unpleasant and time-consuming, this process produces the excessive congestion that BART claims it is trying to avoid.

The solution is simple, have at least one extra wide ticket gate at all stations. The fact that they are at most, but not all, stations doesn't do anyone needing one much good if they reach a station without one.

Learn From The Bad Lessons
Let BART be a lesson to other transit systems for how not to do things. Frequent train intervals and heavy coordination with all other alternative transportation modes, not gift cards, are the keys to ridership revenues. Some of BART's own transit partners, like Caltrain, and neighbors, like LA Metro, show it can be done under the same geographic, political and budgetary conditions.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Bicycle Safety Within: Watchout For Spokes

External Safety Risks
There is is a lot of information and debate about bicycle safety these days. Most of it, except for the helmet debate, is focused on protecting bicycles from external risks: cars. All good stuff to talk about. I've profiled my friend Johan's ordeal after he put his knee through a car that pulled in front of him.

Internal Safety Risks
Nevertheless, the recent experience of another friend of mine reminded me to stay focused on the internal risks as well. Her experience, in particular, may become more common as all of us start using our bikes for more than sport.

She did something a lot of us have done at one time or another. It looks harmless enough when you see it but it is a potentially harmful way to travel on a bike.

Broken Elbow
First, let's highlight the risk. On this page, is an x-ray of her broken elbow from the accident: a displaced fracture. It shows the metal plate and screws holding her arm together.

Mind-bending Pain
When she first did this, she said the pain was so bad it took over her entire consciousness for several minutes. She lay in shock right outside her office next to her bike. No one was around to help. When numbness finally kicked in, she was able to get up and then some co-workers finally found her and helped.

Just Steps From Work
She had just left her office and had only been riding for a few seconds. No other vehicles or people were involved. The thing that caused all this was her purse. She had hung it on her handlebars for a second. It somehow got caught between the front wheel and the fork and locked up the wheel. That threw her over the handlebars and plunged her elbow squarely into the pavement.

It's been 8 weeks since the accident.  The surgery went well. The cast is off. She still has a metal band threaded under her skin that must be taken out in a few weeks. But, otherwise, she is fine.

Back in the Saddle
To her credit, she hasn't been the least bit shell-shocked by the incident. She is already riding again. Insanely, she started riding within a week of the accident. This is so not recommended since another crash could damage the repaired elbow. However, it demonstrates this stuff doesn't have to deter you from bicycle commuting.

The one change she has made to her cycling is the installation of a rack and basket on the *back* of her bike. I've been urging her to install an enclosed pack on the back because things can fall through the wired basket and catch on the wheel. Until then, even if that happens, on the back wheel it should not launch her so badly.

Increasingly Common Site
Today, I saw a guy pedaling home from the grocery store with 3 bags swinging from his handlebars. He also had a U-Lock dangling over his back wheel. I tried to warn him about the danger but he didn't believe me. That inspired this post. Hopefully, this will help some folks avoid a lot of pain and hassle.

Mundane Matters
We hear about dramatic bike crashes and fatalities all the time but the mundane stuff is no less dangerous so it seems like a good cautionary tale to feature. Since I'm the one who introduced her to cycling I feel responsible that I didn't warn her about this so I'm venting that guilt by way of this caution to others.

While pushing for greater safety in our bicycle infrastructure, we've got to stay focused on the safety within. Sometimes, it's the little stuff that gets you.

I've heard similar stories about headphone wires falling out and snagging. If it swings or dangles it can snag. Watch out.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Does the Cycling Epiphany Hold Water?

Cycling Epiphany
Posts like this one claim that a simple bicycle ride through an urban landscape will do more to educate about urban ills/joys, and sell the joy of cycling better, than any other kind of communication. It contends the bicycle is "an instrument of experiential understanding" through which complex civic and environmental issues are graphically conveyed.

There is no question that the experience of cycling as serious transport is powerful stuff (see #1,3,4,5,6, and 8 of Why I Ride). It is also true that, like many things, actually trying something may be the best way to understand it's value and that cycling revolutionizes ones view of ones surroundings.

Back to Reality
However, it is still a massive challenge to get enough people in the saddle long enough to have that revelation.

Acquired Taste
I've been actively recruiting new cyclists for years but I can still count the converts from my personal life on one hand.

Even when you get new butts in the saddles, the first thing those butts do is complain that they are sore. It can take more than a couple rides for the epiphany to kick in.

Then, there's hair. For those who care, if the helmets don't ruin it, the wind does. That knocks out a surprising number of recruits.

And, heaven forbid it rains. Even avid cyclists complain about rain and/or don't ride in it. The cycling epiphany is quite definitely waterproof but this is not apparent even to many of the initiated (those folks need to see these photos of European cyclists in winter).

A prerequisite to the cycling epiphany seems to be a reintroduction to one's own body and  the physical world. That can happen at the same time but that is too much for some.

Feeling Threatened
Amongst all the recent hype about cycling are sobering articles like this: Expansion of Bike Lanes in City Brings Backlash. This article, and many like it, show that a formidable number of Americans are still far away from having a cycling epiphany even when the opportunity is right in front of them.

Gratification Guarantee
Like a lot of great experiences out there, most folks are skipping "experiential understanding" in favor of driving home to eat something tasty and watch TV. After a hard days work, most folks want guaranteed satisfaction not a mere chance at satisfaction through something new.

Perception Issues Persist
What's more, many Americans still assume most cyclists are simply people who can't drive, e.g. the poor, the drunk or the under age. At best, they see them as over-educated nerds naively trying to save the planet.

The entertainment media embellishes this. explains this in: "Dude, Where's Your Car?" Most movies still portray bicycles as emasculating. The "40 Year Old Virgin" is a classic example. This leaves many thinking cycling is not sexy at all. Car advertisements take it from there.

Perceptions are changing on their own in certain pockets of the U.S. And some celebrities like Katy Perry make cycling sexy by wearing their bicycles well. However, that's not putting enough butts in the saddles either.
Proven Motivators
Ironically, what compels many to start cycling are the nuts and bolts justifications downplayed by some. The FRONTLINE story "Poisoned Waters" describes this well. Although it is about the relationship between urban centers and water quality, it includes details about what swayed voters on green urban design and "livable streets". It wasn't new positive experiences or visions, it was known pain points like health, safety, and taxes.

This jibes with my personal experience. One recruited cyclist I know is a hardcore republican. The environmentalist arguments fell flat with her but after much of my nagging she tried cycling to work and found that, combined with CalTrain, the bike got her to work 20 minutes faster than the jam packed 101 freeway. After that, she was sold. She has since had the Cycling Epiphany alluded to earlier. This has led her to initiate trash cleanups of things she sees on her ride, etc.

All this makes it pretty clear, to me at least, that cycling cannot sell itself. And no single aspect of cycling is more compelling than any other. The experience of cycling is indeed profound but most people are surprisingly far from ready to appreciate it. Consequently, every catalyst must be leveraged. In fact, we need to find more of them if cycling is to become a serious mode of transport in North America.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why I ride

I ride because:
  1. I can get from A to B without spewing carcinogens at anyone who dares go outside
  2. My money stimulates more economic growth when 1/5 does not go to oil, cars, and loans
  3. My commute is my workout and my lack of any other ride home is my discipline
  4. 100 years with the 24 hour din of combustion engines is enough
  5. You don't know a city until you can see, hear, and smell it
  6. Everyone treats one another better when there's no steel or glass between us
  7. It gets blood pumping fast enough to prevent a host of diseases and make me thin quick
  8. Any mistakes I make while riding may hurt but will rarely kill anybody
  9. I never worry about parking
  10. It is fun even at night, in rain, and in snow

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Heaven on Earth: Bike Transport in Switzerland and Austria

On a recent ski trip to Switzerland and Austria, I decided to devote a little time to sampling the bike transport experiences there. I managed to get out for a look in Basel, Switzerland and Innsbruck, Austria.

High Expectations
Having been to Europe before, my expectations were high. Denmark and the Netherlands are not the only European countries that take bicycle transport very seriously. On previous visits, I had seen the dedicated bike lanes in places like Munich, Germany.

However, this time I wasn't going to any large metropolis with miles of dense population. Those typically have major traffic congestion problems. Increasingly, even in the U.S., large city governments support bicycle transport as one of their traffic congestion solutions and there's already a decent amount of adoption.

Are Small Cities Any Less Committed?
Smaller cities can be a different story. With less population density, small cities can be less desperate for alternative transport solutions. Back home at least, this can mean support for bike transport is very limited, merely tolerated, or even subject to hostility. The town of Black Hawk, Colorado is now infamous/famous (depending on your perspective) for banning bikes in that small town.

Since Basel and Innsbruck are relatively small, I was not expecting much more than the limited bike support I've experienced in U.S. small cities. I didn't expect the local governments to be as focused on bike transport. I also thought the time of year might limit the cycling activity I would see.

Exceeded Expections
Nevertheless, what I found far exceeded my high expectations for bike transport in any sized town at any time of year. Basel and Innsbruck transport infrastructures not only tolerate but promote cycling as a serious transport alternative by providing comprehensive bike lanes that are not always but frequently separated from BOTH cars and pedestrians.

They also provide facilities that address common challenges with bike transport. The goal is clearly to make bike transport very practical and often more convenient than driving or even riding the train. What's more, all these facilities and services are put to good use year-round at all hours of the day and night by surprisingly active cyclists.

Serious Bike Parking
The first thing that blew my mind was Basel's bike garages. Under their central train station (Hauptbahnhof SBB), is a veritable wonderland for bike commuting enthusiasts. My local friend took me down there and what I saw was a spotless, well-lighted, well-attended, and massive space for intracity and intercity travelers to safely park their bikes at any hour of the day (not just commuter hours).

These garages are found at most train stations including the airport in Zurich. They also rent bicycles there. I was able to rent a bike there for less than 20 CHF/day. In Zurich, I found a sporting goods store willing to rent for much less: 60 CHF/week.

Especially deluxe were the dedicated entry and exit ramps for bikes. I can't describe how riding in and out of the dedicated bike garage ramps instills this bike commuter with a sense of legitimacy. It was truly a profound experience, especially, when contrasted with the cycling experience back home that leaves one feeling like a second-class or even illegitimate member of the transport community.

In the U.S., bike parking is sometimes not available at all. It is an ad hoc affair where you bring your own security in the form of pounds of bike locks. Then you might have to walk great distances looking for somewhere to use it. When bike parking is available it is likely to be sparse, outdoor, unattended, and designed to maximize damage to your bike.

How often would people drive if they had to carry a lock with them and drape that lock around a filthy rack at every location they visited? That is precisely the question that many European cities have answered for bikes. The result is a comprehensive set of facilities that make cycling very practical, clean, and therefore easy and attractive.

Bike parking in Innsbruck wasn't quite as deluxe as Basel but it was still great. Lots of racks all over. Some were outside and unattended but they were still covered and engineered to ensure one bicycle did not damage another. So refreshing. All this and I wasn't even riding the bike yet.

Serious Bike Infrastructure
Once you are out of the garage or off the rack, the support continues in the form of dedicated bike lanes, bike traffic lights, and even bike service stations. All work together to reinforce the idea that bikes aren't just toys that sometimes sneak onto the road to inconvenience cars. They are serious vehicles.

Serious Bike Services
Along those lines, service stations like this one in Basel were a welcome sign. The more ubiquitous bikes become, the more they need ubiquitous services and resources like the ones that autos enjoy.

Serious Bike Usage
The infrastructure certainly did its part to ensure cycling is serious transport. However, that wouldn't matter if people didn't use it. My expectations were exceeded here as well. Day or night, warm or cold, rain or shine, male or female, young or old,  folks were using bikes to go on dates, get groceries, and of course go to work and school.

I was pleasantly surprised to see all ages and genders well represented on bikes late at night in freezing temperatures. Back home, just one of these factors is frequently cited as an excuse for not cycling. Here none are. Couples think nothing of going out to dinner on bikes at night, even in winter.

The fashionable folks I spied on bikes knocked down two more excuses for not cycling: that it trashes hairdos and clothes. This gal was having none of that. I found her chatting with these two gentleman at about 10 p.m. at night in about 30 degree weather with a handsome ensemble and a sweet looking bike.

Even during a day trip to Colmar, France, I found these two in the train station running errands on their bikes. I didn't see enough of France this trip to comment on their bike transport experience but some of the same commitment to bike transport obviously bleeds over the border from Basel.

Back home, bike transport is increasingly more mainstream but it still is most popular among young people in major metropolitan areas. Here, the range of ages and backgrounds is very wide, as is the penetration beyond big cities.

All this demonstrates that, with the right attitude and right clothing, bike commuters can experience physical and social warmth no matter when they ride.

Serious Challenge
This trip reinvigorated my resolve to see this level of bike transport infrastructure and adoption in the U.S. It can be done. It will be done, in the U.S. as it is in bike transport heaven: Europe.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

PlanBike for Motorists: if you must drive, use a bike rack

Confession: This Cyclist Drives
As an avid cyclist and cycling advocate, I have a confession to make: my two-person family has two cars. Even though we live in a metropolitan area, we live high in the hills of Oakland California where there is scant bus or train service. It may as well be the country. When my wife and I both need to quickly return up our 900ft vertical climb (especially with cargo), cars are the only option.

Public Transport: Limited Progress
In many metropolitan areas, there is unprecedented effort to expand public transportation infrastructure and its use. Even places known for their auto-centricity, like Los Angeles, have made incredible strides.

Despite all this, in many situations the automobile is still the only way to get around in a timely matter with kids, groceries, etc. Furthermore, budget cuts, planning bureaucracy, and the sheer sprawling layout of many cities mean that the automobile will continue to play a vital role as transport for the foreseeable future.

Optimizing Suboptimal Transport
Nevertheless, suboptimal public transportation is no excuse to simply drive alone in our cars. Instead, the thing to do is find ways to maximize the utility of an auto-based transportation system while we expand the alternative systems. Folks around the San Francisco Bay Area already do that during commute times with something called "casual carpool".

Casual Carpool
People driving alone into San Francisco, go to one of dozens of casual carpool stops where "riders" (total strangers) climb into their empty cars and share a ride into the city. Voila! The car ride is 4 times more productive than if the driver rode alone. The driver gets a discount on the bridge toll, the bridge and subway systems get less congestion, and the world gets less greenhouse gas. And both the drivers and riders leave the house any time they want: no scheduling.

Distance and Time Gaps
All this without any added cost, fancy technology, or even any formal organization. However, casual carpool does nothing for folks needing to get anywhere outside of commute hours. Nor, does it do anything for folks who need to go beyond a few blocks the car's destination. That leaves a huge gap.

Enter PlanBike for Motorists
What if these casual carpool motorists had bike racks on their car? That would dramatically increase the range of distances and timeframes in which cyclists could travel.

What if these cyclists and rack-enabled motorists identified themselves with PlanBike bumper stickers (or some other tag) so that they could match up anytime anywhere: not just at a given place and time? That would radically improve overall transport efficiency: not to mention motorist/cyclist relations.

That's essentially what a growing number of my motorist and cyclist friends are doing. It is working so fabulously I thought it was time to share this here.

When my friends run various errands, we take our bikes short distances but meetup with a driver for the long stuff when no bus or train is available or there's little time. Having the rack eliminates the need for the car to back track to the original meeting place.

PlanBike for Motorists Benefits
  • instantly boosts cars efficiency dramatically and cheaply
  • instantly boosts bicycles range dramatically and cheaply
  • possible to do quickly: overnight, all motorists can install bike racks
  • possible to do with little money: some racks cost less the $100
  • reduces adversarial relations between motorists and cyclists
Redesigning suburban sprawl will take years of political will, trillions of dollars, and years of construction. Until then, let's leverage the rampant car use make everyone more efficient and improve cyclist/driver relations.

This is something anyone can do right now with very little cost and effort that makes a profound impact on global health and environmental issues. That's the PlanBike mission.

If you are a motorist, I hope you'll join motorists that have installed bike racks and give rides to cyclists whenever possible. It is incredibly easy and often rewarding.

BTW - I'm really not selling here because I'm not making any money but if you want a PlanBike sticker, just click this link. I only charge what it takes to recoup my costs and I only spend this on more stickers. :-)