Friday, August 18, 2006

Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze

Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze

I've been commuting on bicycles on and off since High School. Off, lately, because I take tools to my job and wear work boots. Although part of me wants to build a commuter with toe clips now that I'm not carrying as much crap as I used to.

But let's rewind to when I was in college and went everywhere on my bike. Santa Cruz is a pretty radical town, with people advocating and protesting just about everything that's there to advocate or protest. Of course there were the car-free and "one less car" folks on one side, and the liberals who quietly drove on the other. The problem I have with a lot of liberals and radicals is that they insist on wearing a hair shirt when they do something.

Let's look at a couple different bikes I'm used to seeing on the street. There's the messenger bike, which is fast, handles well, and tries almost as hard to kill its rider as the cars around do. There's a broad variety of commuters laid out like touring bikes. This is what I rode. In fact, my Dad's old Trek had been designed to be able to be a touring bike. Most of these bikes are in good repair and the riders have rigged compromises between ease of getting stuff on and off the bike and comfort on the bike. Panniers, wire baskets, etc. Then we get into the land of hippie bikes. Rust-covered chains, milk crates precariously attached to the rack, and the inevitable "One less car" bumper sticker. I find the very existence of such a bumper sticker ironic.

I think that a lot of why it's such a problem to make bike commuting work is that there's a perceived enmity between people commuting on bikes and drivers. When most drivers think of people riding bikes on the street, I think they see either messengers, slow-moving hippies, or both. Some messengers, not all, help to create this friction. In my admittedly biased view, the messengers are responding to drivers' sense of entitlement to the city streets. It doesn't help matters that, in my opinion, the hippies are trying to be a nuisance and "raise awareness." Can't we all just get along?

I think that it's important to strip away all the environmentalism, pollution, entitlement, classism, status, and everything else that clouds the issue of bikes and cars sharing the streets. Let's look at it in terms of convenience and efficiency.

Bikes have a couple of major advantages - they're cheap - a used 10-speed can be a $20 purchase, and a partial re-build to make it fast again costs under $100. Compare this to four figures for a used car, with repairs costing in the hundreds when they become necessary. Gas is also expensive, and in most cities that I would live and work in on purpose, parking is difficult and expensive. By contrast, bikes can usually be stashed in an office somewhere or, failing that, locked to a parking meter or even a bike section in many parking garages. And on city streets, a reasonably strong rider can keep up with the speed of traffic.

Of course, commuting on a bike has its disadvantages too. It's physically demanding, it's hard to carry more than a little bit of stuff, and it can be difficult to look like a professional at the end of the commute. It's also has the potential to be dangerous. The first two of these are big issues for me with the type of work I've been doing lately, although I felt differently when I had office jobs. I think a little exercise in the morning helps to wake up. Using a good pannier or messenger bag makes carrying stuff fairly easy, although cargo capacity is definitely an issue. When I had an office job I rode to, I kept a pair of dress shoes at my desk. I'd put those dorky strap things on my pants to keep them out of my drivetrain and ride to work in cycling shoes, then remove the straps and change my shoes when I got to work. I used to wear a bandanna under my helmet, and that helped mitigate helmet hair. Another way I've seen people address this is that in one office I work in on occasion, most of the lawyers wear casual clothes but keep a suit on a hook in their office.

The perceived danger of riding in traffic is still an issue. Within a city, most people are afraid to ride the streets. Riding a bike on city streets can be very dangerous if you don't ride defensively. Drivers frequently miss bikes on the side of the road, and almost never see a bike on the sidewalk. That means that if the bike crosses an intersection, merges, or swerves, it's at a very high risk of getting clipped by a car.

It's true that city streets are dominated by cars. To me, riding defensively means taking the lane when I'm riding close to the speed of traffic or approaching intersections, especially those with complex systems of turn lanes. If I'm in a bike lane when a right-hand turn pocket is added, even if the bike lane breaks and is resumed between the turn pocket and straight lane, it means that cars will be merging across a lane that they don't perceive as existing. If I'm in that lane at the time, I'll be run over. However, if I'm in the middle of a real lane, not only am I seen but cars don't have to travel across my lane to reach their turn pocket. Drivers also complain about having trouble anticipating the actions of riders. I think it's important to always signal turns and merges, just as cars should.

All of which is to say that I think it's important for riders to learn to commute efficiently. At times, I've even thought that a license should be required.

As far as longer distances, where the speed of traffic hits a consistent 30 mph or greater, I'm more in favor of separate lanes or bike trails. A bike that can't keep up with traffic is just in the way, and in the way of something weighing thousands of pounds is a really bad place to be. I think that the article linked to above shows that the planners of MUPs fail to take this into account. While I may weigh less than 30 pounds more on a bike than I do on foot, I'm going a lot faster, giving me the ability to exert many more pounds of force than my own weight. Putting 180 pounds traveling at 20 mph on the same piece of real estate as a soccer mom with an SUV stroller is a really bad idea. The friend who referred me to this article tells me that the path in question was originally envisioned as a bike route. It should remain a bike route. If everyone travels at 15-20 mph, the relative speeds are low and it's safer for everyone concerned. The presence of such routes also addresses the need for alternative routes for bikes when the roads are freeways with heavy traffic and speeds of 45 mph and up.

I think that for commuting on bicycles to be safe and practical, we don't need more traffic calming measures or politics, or electric bikes sold at non-profitable prices to encourage their use. Riders need to make an informed decision as to whether or not they can hang with traffic and then stake a claim to the piece of territory they're using, and advocates need to see bike commuters as a user group distinct from pedestrians.

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