Monday, July 30, 2012

Donate Your Data: Make Every Ride A Vote For Cycling

Quick Note On Why Data Matters
If you cycle often enough in the U.S., eventually you either hear about or experience a close call with a car and/or a confrontation with antagonistic pedestrians, drivers, or police. Here's an incident captured on video that occurred on my home bike commute (Tunnel Ride) just a few months ago.

This kind of thing often instills a desire for more support from law enforcement and better bicycle infrastructure. It begs the question of how to get more dedicated bicycle paths, more bicycle lanes, or at least more respect from police and motorists.

It Takes More Than Good Intentions
UPDATE: 2014/06: Looks like some municipalities have the same idea and have created a market for the data. That should spur easier data collection and better data mining: Strava’s Cycling App Is Helping Cities Build Better Bike Lanes. Two years since this post. So glad to see this catching on.

UPDATE 2012/08/08:  Portland, OR has installed their first automated bike counter. According to, this is the first one in the U.S. However, some claim that Arlington, VA has had automated bike counters since 2009 (as shown here).

UPDATE 2012/07/30: Since posting this, I noticed a number of programs that leverage smartphones for cyclists. Cool stuff but it begs two big questions two consider when donating your bike data:
  • Do they make it easy to query all the data you provide to them? In other words, do they share what you give them so you or some other organization can use it?
  • Do they support all the major smartphones (e.g. Android and iPhone)? In other words, are they leaving out half the bike population because they don't have all the software support?
General GPS sharing sites have resolved both these issues:
  • shares data but makes you join their "partner program" first.
  • shares data through their REST API ( i.e. a set of simple web addresses that spew data). You can see charts generated from strava data below.
By contrast, these incentive/mile sites, don't have these issues resolved because their focus is on their drive, not long-term data sharing. Ideally, we want incentives for reporting data but we also want to keep this data handy for advocacy:

Unfortunately, what quickly becomes apparent when you try to advocate for those things is that your interests must compete with the interests of all the non-cyclists or anti-cyclists out there, and that competition is stiff. "Think we need more bike lanes for all the new cyclists on the road?", those competitors will say, "Prove it."

Even when representatives are sold on the idea in general, figuring out where and how to design a new bicycle plan or legislation is still a tough question to answer without a lot of data.

Data: An Essential Tool For Advocacy
For these reasons and more, advocates are desperate for good data on cycling activity. Many schedule regular "bike counts" where they literally sit on street corners and tally the number of riders that go by.

Monitoring: An Essential Tool for Data
Of course, there are hi-tech ways to automate this. Some cities, mostly outside the U.S., have invested in video monitoring systems that use sophisticated software to distinguish what types of vehicles go by: essentially, fixed data recorders scattered around a given city.

The Problems With Monitoring Systems
However, these are very costly, not trivial to install, and can present privacy concerns. That's not exactly a slam dunk to cash-strapped car-loving municipalities in the states.  New systems like BitCarrier attempt to sidestep the cost and privacy issues but they still involve a significant commitment to install and run. All this can make the monitoring system itself a political decision and, thus, a perpetually deferred one. 

iPhone GPS App
Android GPS App
So what to do? The goal of this blog is to find ways to engage in and promote cycling right now regardless of what legislators are doing or failing to do. Until political will shows up to properly monitor cycling activity, people who care about cycling have to monitor themselves. However, that doesn't mean they can't enlist their own high tech solutions. To that end, there's a sophisticated bike monitor right under our noses, literally, that most cyclists are still not using.

New Tools Automate Self-Monitoring
In recent years, sport cyclists have become addicted to recording all their rides using GPS-enabled cycling computers or smartphones apps that do the same thing. Not only do these devices help with navigation, they record the latitude, longitude, and altitude of all the points on the ride. 

That trend has led to websites catering to these sport riders that allow them to upload the GPS data. The sites not only display a map of the ride, they graphically compare each riders path and aggregate that activity by "segment" on the website.

Currently, this is most often done so wannabe racers can compare their times against other riders. However, this also provides wannabe advocates with excellent data on who is riding where and how often.

Bike Culture Clash
Geeking out with all this data collection can make certain cyclist's skin crawl. BikeSnobNYC recently tweeted, sardonically: "Every ride on your high-end bicycle is important. Be sure to document it by means of a cycling-based social networking application." His comment got retweeted over 100 times.

Self-Monitor: If Not For Your Ego, Then For Advocacy
Although it is clear why some cyclists want to distinguish themselves from those they might perceive as spandexed, "weight weenies", obsessing over ride times, cycling in general still desperately needs the data that all cyclists can provide. In fact, it is urban cycling in particular that could benefit most from adopting this practice since it is the city where so many of cycling's competing interests reside.

NYC's new bike share program equips all its bikes with GPS for just such a purpose (see this StreetsBlog article about that). What's more, cyclists are already wearing video cameras to record accidents and infractions by motorists (see this New York Times article).

This video monitoring is analogous to a flight recorder on an airplane. Using a GPS to record rides simply amounts to having a data recorder as well. What's more, this kind of monitoring is "opt-in" whereas other systems tend  to record you whether you want them to or not.

Recording all your bike rides for speed may seem distasteful to some but letting that preclude the recording of rides for advocacy's sake seems more so. More ride data will result in a wealth of detail on cycling activity. With this simple act on the part of cyclists, advocates can show legislators the hardest data they've ever seen on cyclist ride patterns:
  • ride paths
  • ride dates
  • ride times
  • number of unique riders (aka voters) on a given route in a given time. 
Data like that is essential when justifying the existence and the placement of bicycle infrastructure and legislation.

There's Already A Lot Of Data Out There
Some of this GPS data already includes urban cycling routes. Below, is but a sampling of the data found after a few minutes of searching. Imagine what kind of data will result when more cyclists and cycling advocates start recording their rides the same way.

Potential Bonanza For Bike Advocacy Data
Given all the potential for cycling data and its impact, advocacy groups will hopefully adopt the practice of creating and/or identifying key segments of their roadways on these websites and encourage all riders, sport or otherwise, to record every ride they take. At the very least, doing so, would be a great supplement to official bike counts. The detail on cycling activity, if not total number of rides tallied, will increase exponentially.

Smartphones As Bike Computer/Monitoring Tool
Until recently, the need for an expensive bike computer might have prevented a lot of riders from engaging in bike trip monitoring. However, most people now have GPS-enabled smartphones. Websites like already have apps that allow these smartphones to record rides and upload data just the way the GPS computers do. In fact, there's little bike computers do that a smartphone app can't anymore.

Below are some sample charts generated from aggregate ride data on

Data On Oakland, CA
Rides/Day: Tunnel Road
Oakland, CA
Most Popular Hours
Tunnel Road
 Oakland, CA

Bike To Work Day North
Chicago, IL
Most Popular Hours
Bike To Work Day North
Chicago, IL

Rides/Day Los Feliz Corner
Los Angeles, CA
Most Popular Hours
Los Feliz Corner
Los Angeles, CA
The first set of charts shows all the rides recorded for the "Tunnel Road" ride in the last 2 months. This is a sport ride but it is also my commute home. The first chart in the set shows rides per day with the total number of unique riders. The second tallies the most popular hours of the day. These show the course gets heavy usage by cyclists every day all day long.

Given that two cyclists were recently hit on this course, many of us would like something done to improve safety. These charts clearly document the demand and ride patterns that will be affected.

Data for Chicago, IL
The second set of charts shows all the rides recorded for the "Bike To Work North" ride in Chicago, IL. I'm not familiar with the terrain but this is a short ride that appears to go right to downtown: not exactly a sport ride. The rider volume is not very high but that is what is so easy to fix if everyone starts getting a "data receipt" for all of their rides.

Data for Los Angeles, CA
The third set of charts shows all the rides recorded for the "Los Feliz Corner" ride in Los Angeles, CA. This looks to be another urban course. This chart even shows activity over several years. The daily activity appears very low but, even so, the number of unique cyclists is not. Again, so much more could be gained for advocacy if all of LA's urban riders participate.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fly, Land, Bike! Look Ma, no transit, no rental car.

Whenever I fly somewhere, I dream of just landing and riding my bike from the airport. I've been flying with my bike in tow for a couple of years now but, for a variety of reasons chronicled on this blog, that hasn't been practical. Until now...(cue Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" from 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Yesterday, I landed at Ontario International Airport, in Ontario, California (not Canada). I walked off the plane with two modestly-sized carry-ons. After retrieving a typically-sized suitcase from baggage claim, I walked to a quiet corner of the airport. In less time than it takes to rent a car, ~15 minutes, I was riding off from the airport with all my luggage and still cruising at 30kph. Better still, I incurred no additional baggage charges like I did in D.C. recently.

Prior bike luggage travails:
Dream realized! What made the difference this time were some recent innovations in bicycle design: my folding Tern Verge X20 and my brand new Burley Travoy. Both performed superbly:
  • The Tern Verge X20
    • weighs 9.3kg/20.5lb
    • easily cruises at 36km/20mph
    • fits in a regular suitcase.
      Incredible! Here's a link to my nycewheels review where I gush further.
  • The Burley Travoy
    • weighs 4.4 kg/9.8 lb
    • easily attaches and cruises behind my folding bike
    • fits in a regular carry-on bag (included).
Thanks to these innovations, it is a great time to be alive and cycling. Other folding bikes and trailers have come along but few fold/unfold as fast AND perform as well on the road.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

CHP, please avoid bike lanes.

Dear CHP (California Highway Patrol).

When stopping drivers, please guide them to a spot away from bicycle lanes. Forcing me around you risks my life and implicitly tells other drivers these lanes don't matter.

In this example, I had to pull into a lane between cars going 40 MPH. I'm brave and all but this kind of thing dramatically increases the chances I'll be dead or maimed by someone looking at you as they drive past.

Note the perfectly good turnout 50 yards ahead. You could have used that as the spot to write your citation. This would keep you from getting hit as well.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cycling San Francisco: Lombard Street By Bike [HD VIDEO]

This bright clear day around the bay gave me a great excuse to test out the new GoPro. Here's a video of San Francisco's Lombard Street by bicycle.

Fake Cable Cars Behaving Badly
On the way there, I witnessed a fake cable car picking up passengers in the bike lane. In the time it took for me to chronicle this, two cyclist's had to take the lane. Not a biggie for the seasoned cyclist but it is still how accidents happen.

And I keep hearing how the lack of infrastructure is a dealbreaker for many would-be cyclists. Given that, it is a bummer to continually see existing infrastructure poached by motor vehicles with plenty of alternative places to park.

Hill Training With Extreme Prejudice
I love downtown San Francisco for outrageous hills to climb. Today was no Seven Hills of Hell but it had some tasty climbs.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cycling Washington D.C.: By Night

At the end of Day 2 of the National Bike Summit, the Bicycle Space bike shop hosted a ride for BikeSnobNYC to help launch his new book. The clear, balmy, weather promised to make this a memorable ride through a number of D.C. landmarks at night.

The ride started off across from Bicycle Space just before dusk. It was a good turnout with a nice array of bikes and bicyclists.

Love Bike Demographic: Everybody
Group activities of all kinds are great for building a sense of community but too many attract the same demographic. To really build a true community, you've got to attract young and old, rich and poor, right and left, etc. I saw all that on this ride and see it on many rides I do elsewhere. Love that.

Bike Style On Display
A number of folks were showing off their cool bikes and attire. At one point the folding bikes had a fold-off: that's an amusing thing to watch.

I especially liked the "dress casual" the cargo bike ride rider was sporting. A button down shirt, slacks, and dress shoes are not commonly found on cargo bike riders. Presumably, because they are gonna sweat a lot on that thing but tonight's ride was easy and he looked cool either way.

I also enjoyed the houndstooth bike. Unfortunately, I never got around to finding out where the owner got that but it was super cool.

Police Blockage: Really?
The ride got off to a bizarre start just a few blocks in when a Metro Police car rushed ahead and blocked the seemingly innocuous street in front of us, with extreme prejudice I might add. There was nothing obviously sensitive on that street and it was literally one block that was off limits. That snarled the ride for a few seconds but no biggie.

White House At Sunset
A few minutes later we passed the White House. The setting sun cast a long shadow of the cyclists on the stone panels in front of the White House. It was so gorgeous I wanted to spend the whole evening taking pictures there but I am glad I didn't because of all the good stuff I found ahead.

Noone Knows Your Name But You Feel Like They Do
I just love how relaxed I feel on these group rides no matter where in the world I am on one. I've rarely had so many warm encounters with people I didn't know. Noone knows your name but you feel like they do.

Great Swaths Of Carlessness
Once passed the White House, it was on to the Lincoln Memorial. Like the White House, it has a great wide swath of carless pavement in front.

Lots More Bike Lanes To Go
If only these great swaths were all connected. Too often they are not. Instead, you find an inconsistent mix of plain car-dominated street, narrow bicycle lane, or wide but pedestrian-filled sidewalk. Nevertheless, the traffic jams from the blooming cherry blossoms did a great job of calming traffic in the area so even the streets weren't that bad (for cyclists).

Police Escort: Really?
After cruising down by the Potomac riverfront a bit, a strange site appeared. It was yet another Metro Police car but, this time, it was helping cyclists. It pulled in front of the cars instead of us, then held the traffic at bay until we all got through. What a pleasant surprise.

Nationals Park Garage
As we rode past the Nationals Park baseball stadium, the ride leaders took a counter-intuitive turn into the adjacent parking garage. The garage did have its very own bicycle parking area on the first floor which is very cool. However, there was no way we'd all fit.

No worries. The ride leaders were just adding a bit of drama to the ride by taking us up to the roof for a spectacular sunset view of the stadium and surrounding area.

Bicycle Space made the whole experience even better with excellent tunes and with free popsicles for everyone. These guys are obviously professionals.

Once down from the roof, real darkness had set in but the light show was just beginning. We cruised down to the neighboring Yards Park.

Yards Park
At Yards Park, an elegant new foot bridge gleamed in the night. I was told the whole area there was only recently constructed so there weren't any restaurants open yet. It is already a great place to languish.

Capitol Finale
After Yards Park, it was time for the finale: the back of the Capitol. The front was a moving site in broad daylight during the Ride On Washington but approaching it at night was really spectacular. Again, the balmy temperature was perfect. You didn't care that it was getting late.

Once there, folks started circling in front of it. The collection of bicycle lights under the capitol created a dream-like vision. It truly beautiful and hopeful to see people spending their evenings this way instead of behind a bar, TV, or steering wheel. It was what Spaulding Gray might call a perfect moment. I was so happy to be a part of it.

After that, it was time to head home. Didn't find a bike lane on this road but it was all smiles on the way, nevertheless.

More D.C. photos: 
More ride photos:

P.S. Special thanks to Lisa, whom I met on this ride. You were a wealth of information about cycling and D.C.  It was a real pleasure to meet you. Thanks.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cycling Washington D.C.: Ride On Washington

First order of business while in D.C. for the National Bike Summit was to participate in the finale of Tim Johnson's Ride On WashingtonThis is a 500 mile journey from Boston to Washington D.C. to raise funds for Bikes Belong. Tim Johnson invites all comers to ride with him for the finale into Washington D.C. on the first day of the National Bike Summit. 

People Power
Last year, the "Occupy" demonstrations reignited, in many, a long lost passion for fundamental change to our economy and society.  The movement grabbed international attention just by forming stationary groups in points of political interest.

Bike Power
Since then, many have realized what many cyclists already knew: that cycling is a great instrument for affecting economic and social change. Even before any stimulus,  legislation, or demonstration, a single cyclist immediately diverts money spent on financing, maintaining and fueling a car to something more stimulating, economically or otherwise. Whenever many cyclists do this, people see dramatic improvements to health, community, and economy.

Powers Combined
Tim Johnson's Ride On Washington is a unique chance to illustrate both the power of assembly and the power of cycling, and do it right in front of national legislators. What better way to begin the National Bike Summit?

Starting the Finale
First though, I had to get to the start of the finale ride. It began 18 miles out in the D.C. suburb of College Park, MD. That should have been a piece of cake. Google Maps showed me a bicycle-friendly way to Proteus Bicycles: the shop hosting the start. I had 90 minutes to get there. No problem.

Bike Trouble
Unfortunately, my reassembly of my folding bike had my derailleur missing 12 out of 20 gears. Ugh!!!!  My 90 minutes was going fast.

Devlin and Jimmy at Rollin Cycles
Persevering, I tapped Google Maps once again for nearby bike shops. Thankfully, one was 2 blocks away. Many thanks to Jimmy and Devlin at Rollin Bicycles for fixing my derailleur in seconds, at no charge. Thanks to them, I was able to make it out in time for the finale. I wound up taking the metro out to Greenbelt but I made it. 

Proteus Bicycles
Proteus Cycles: start of the finale
When I got to College Park, I found the utterly charming Proteus bicycle shop. This place is a fabulous combination of cement floors, folksy signage, and old wall hangings that reflect many years focused on the fun of cycling. 

Proteus Bicycles: Ride On Washington
Today was no different. Proteus was throwing a party in Tim's honor and contributed lots of support for the ride. Many thanks to them for their part in making it a truly pleasant experience.

Cycling Group Grows As We Hit Town

The finale ride meandered pleasantly through the suburbs of D.C. picking up more cyclists along the way. I especially dug one rider's 2 foot high head dress. It makes me wonder how helmet laws reconcile helmets with religious head dress.

Cycling Pennsylvania Avenue
Capitol View
The real highlight for me was the experience of cycling down Pennsylvania avenue with the capital building in the background. It was truly a dream come true. What a sight: the capitol, the bike lane smack dab in the middle of the street, and all these cyclists showing their support for more lanes. It fills one with pride and excitement.

D.C. Police Support?
D.C's Finest?
That said, there were a few surprises on this ride. The first was the lack of police support. It is not uncommon for rides of this type to get a police escort to secure intersections until the entire group has passed. Instead, police were found parked in the middle of a separated bike lane, forcing our group to ride in the gutter, literally.

Where Was Everybody?
A Typical SF Critical Mass Turnout
Seeing a thousand cyclists congregate peacefully is a relatively common site these days. Casual "fun rides" often get great turnouts. Given:

  • the recent turnouts elsewhere 
  • the fact that Tim Johnson just knocked himself out for 500 miles to support cycling
  • the fact that 800+ passionate cycling advocates had just hit town
I had visions of a sea of cyclists filling the streets of D.C. so completely that even the most distracted government representative would have to take notice. 

Nevertheless, by last count, we had 100+. Granted, it was a Tuesday but it is still too bad that so many local cyclists and visiting advocates missed a great opportunity to show support for cycling on a national stage. They also missed a really fun ride.

Great Finish
Regardless, the ride had a great finish. Tim Blumenthal, President of Bikes Belong, and many others joined the ride using bikes from Capital Bikeshare no less. The weather couldn't have been much better. It was a great day and a great ride. I am very grateful to Tim and all the others who made it happen.

More D.C. photos: 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cycling Washington D.C.: Getting There

In 1972 my dad and I toured Washington D.C. by bicycle. That produced fond memories. News in recent years from D.C. about Gabe Klein's appointment to DDOT, the resulting new Capital Bikeshare program, and miles of new bike lanes, made we want to cycle D.C. again. Cycling during the 2012 National Bike Summit in Washington D.C., made for a nice 30 year reunion between my bike and the nation's capital.

More D.C. photos:
What follows are a lot of pictures and a few reflections on this experience. There were so many that I've divided them into separate posts. This is the first one. I just call it "getting there".

Getting There
Cycling to D.C. from California might be nice some day when I have more time to spare but since that day has not yet arrived, I had to fly. That said, the whole point was to ride the city when I got there. Where to get a bike?

Rent or Bring?
Although Capital Bikeshare is a great program for getting around the city proper, I had longer rides planned. A fitted road bike would be more suited to the task.

Although I have rented, and could rent, a proper road bike, I am also tall and oddly proportioned. Most rentals target the average-sized person. I knew from painful experience that I needed a bike that fit really well or I would be laid up with backaches instead of out enjoying my stay. Consequently, I decided to bring my own bike.

Nevertheless, if you are in that sweet spot of 5 feet 2 inches to 6 feet 2 inches, chances are there is a rental bike available no matter what quality level you require.

Flying With Bikes
Full-Size Bikes
Flying with full-size bikes can be an expensive proposition.  For the Olympics, United charged me $100 each way. Granted, that was for a 3 foot by 4 foot rolling bike box but it wasn't as heavy as many regular suitcases and other airlines have charged far less or nothing at all for the same case  (e.g. Southwest and JetBlue).

Folding Bikes
This time I hoped to avoid such expenditures by bringing my folding bike in a regular suitcase. The folding bike suitcase was large but not so large that it could not to be treated like regular luggage, or so I thought.

Unfortunately, I answered honestly when I was asked what was in the suitcase. Once the word "bike" was mentioned, I was kicked out of the normal luggage line and placed with the Australian surfer checking in his surfboard. He got stung for $100. I paid $125 because the ticketing staff suddenly realized that they hadn't been charging the "normal luggage fee" on top of the oversized luggage fee.

Despite the fact that my suitcase was not overweight and could easily fit on the normal conveyor belt, I was assured my bike case could not be treated as regular luggage. Consequently, it was a bitter irony to see my suitcase come out of the normal conveyor belt when it arrived in D.C., i.e. not the oversized luggage door.

My advice: don't fly United with any bike. Other airlines are way more accommodating to bikes. As for folding, make sure the suitcase really is standard size. In my case, that means I have to breakdown my Tern Verge X20 a little more than I hoped. For serious compactness, the Brompton seems good. However, no folding yet matches my Tern for serious long rides.

D.C. Metro: Nice
Ronald Reagan Airport
Thanks to the newish Ronald Reagan Washington Airport, which is surprisingly central and well-connected to D.C.s metro, getting to my hotel downtown took virtually the same amount of time as a cab at rush hour.

The D.C. metro was great. Maybe I was just lucky but I never waited long for a train, not even when I got lost and had to reverse direction. It was also relatively clean and the stations look pretty cool.

I Have Arrived
The first thing I saw as I exited my metro station was a separated bike lane: a welcoming sign. Unfortunately, I couldn't ride it just yet. My bike was packed up in its suitcase.

Note to folding bike makers: build a bike case that you can tow behind your bike so you can extract the bike and ride immediately upon arrival. I've seen a few of these but you have to assemble the wheels. The ideal would be something done in seconds at the airport or metro station.

More D.C. photos: