"Bikes & Infrastructure" Archives

Mar 10 2015

Making Cycling Safer and Easier? It Can Be Done: The Case of Portland, Oregon

A cyclist’s lot in New York’s scrag end is not a happy one. Winter is long and harsh, safe parking is hard to come by, and most municipalities regard an occasional “Share the Road” sign as the epitome of cycling infrastructure. Even when a village proves uncharacteristically generous—invariably with somebody else’s money; the notion of spending local taxpayers’ dollars on cyclist safety would only elicit laughter—the result is seldom anything to celebrate. A case in point:

Bad Bike Lane

This is a North Country college town’s much-ballyhooed bike lane. It’s a narrow, steeply cambered berm, ice-covered in winter, choked with drifts of sand in spring, and garnished with broken beer bottles in summer and fall. It also boasts deeply recessed storm-drain grates scattered along its short length—ideally placed to sharpen cyclists’ bike-handling skills. Best of all, it ends abruptly, leaving the through-rider with little choice but to joust with speeding cars on a shoulderless, serpentine “rat run” between the university campus and the crossroads hamlet that serves as a sort of upmarket dormitory for the college faculty.

Bad as it is, however, this is as good as it gets—in northernmost New York at any rate. Other communities do things differently. Consider Portland, Oregon, for instance. Here is a city that takes cycling—and cyclist safety—seriously. Visit the Bicycling in Portland website to see what I mean. There’s even a handy maintenance and repair guide on offer, free for the downloading. It won’t help you true your wheels or rebuild a balky bar-end shifter, but it will make any beginner’s day a little brighter when she gets her first flat. And the price is certainly right.

Portland also understands that many cyclists use their bikes for more than just raising a sweat and perfecting their form. The Portland Transportation Bureau provides a useful introduction to the nuances of shopping by bike, for instance. Do you need a way to carry the goodies home? No problem. Their website has detailed instructions for DIY bucket panniers. But as important as such things are, they’re just the grace notes in Portland’s transportation medley. By all accounts, the city’s bicycle infrastructure—the place where riders’ rubber meets the road and life hangs in the balance—is truly world-class. Cyclists in Portland aren’t compelled to dodge storm drains while negotiating a sand-clogged gutter.

So it is possible for American municipalities to make cycling safer and easier. But first they have to want to. And that’s where New York’s scrag-end towns and cities fall far short of the mark. They’d rather spend their tax money promoting ATV and snowmobile trails. Cyclists are expendable, after all. Keeping the beer flowing across the bar counters and the gas pumps ringing up ever-higher totals—now that’s what really counts, isn’t it?


Further Reading


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Sep 27 2014

What Happened to Main Street? A Cyclist’s Perspective

If you read the editorial pages of small-town America’s local papers or scan the websites of rural chambers of commerce — an exercise that will appeal to only a tiny minority of masochists, I’d imagine — you’ll encounter a lot of conspicuous lamentation about the decline of Main Street. The villain is usually the latest big-box store to pave over a wetland just outside the town limits. Or else it’s the Internet, that deadly Web spun by corporate spiders for the sole purpose of entrapping innocent citizens in its sticky meshes. If these evil forces didn’t exist, Main Street would be free to flower once again. Or so the boosters’ argument goes.

A mischievous critic might be tempted to ask why the feckless locals abandoned their friendly, accommdating Main Street merchants to rush off to the big-box stores and online retailers in the first place. Lower prices played their part, of course, as did convenience. How many working couples really looked forward to spending half their weekend trudging from shop to shop in search of the necessities of life — and paying through the nose for the privilege, into the bargain? But this certainly wasn’t the whole story. Anyway, it’s much too big a question for me to tackle here, now or ever.

Instead, I’m going to look at a single case study: Myberry, the little college town where I do much of my shopping. Or where I would do most of my shopping, if (1) the shops sold what I need to buy (it may seem strange, but I can go for years without feeling the urge to buy a bong, a scented candle, or a hand-dipped chocolate truffle), (2) I could afford the prices for the few everyday necessities that are still offered for sale on Main Street, and (3) I could find a place to park. Mind you, there are plenty of parking spaces to be had. But they’re for cars, not bikes. And I do a lot of my shopping on a bike. (Yes, even in winter.)

Here’s one example of the way the local business community welcomes cyclist-shoppers:

Abused and Chained

This interesting piece of surrealist art occupied a prominent place on Main Street for days — in front of a bike shop, no less. It reminded me of the “Here Be Dragons” tag that medieval mapmakers occasionally placed at the edge of their mappae mundi, as a warning to any traveler foolish enough to contemplate exchanging the security of the known world for the dangers of trackless, uncharted lands. Or maybe the bike shop owner intended it as a tribute to Salvador Dali. In either case, the display smacked more of warning than welcome.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t have to be that way. When I was still a girl, and my parents were weighing the pros and cons of opening a roadside restaurant, my grandfather offered this sage advice: “If you give them a place to park, they’ll come.” He wasn’t thinking about bikes, of course. But his advice should nonetheless be heeded by any business hoping to attract cyclists as customers. Give us a place to park — and something more than scented candles and bongs to buy — and you’ll see us shopping on Main Street once again.

I’m waiting for Myberry to recognize this, though I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, it should be said that not all of small-town America is clueless. Even some big cites are coming round. Communities from Portland, Oregon, to Schuylerville, New York, are shining examples of what can be done to encourage two-wheeled travel — and save Main Street from itself, as well.

Will Myberry and others like it heed the clarion call? Who knows? But until they do, don’t expect me to feel much sympathy when the next round of hand-wringing over the “decline of Main Street” begins. The gods help those who help themselves, after all. Give us a place to park and we’ll come. Or not. The choice, ladies and gentlemen of the chambers of commerce, is yours.

Anthony T. Jancek Snow Parking

Further Reading

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Jul 12 2014

Wouldn’t It be Wonderful? A Cleaner, Healthier, Safer World —
TNO Southern Hemisphere Correspondent Marcos Netto Makes the Case for Bicycles

You don’t often hear the phrase “Renaissance man” these days, but it’s a pretty fair description of Marcos Netto, TNO‘s Southern Hemisphere Correspondent. His is an enviable CV: corporate executive — he’s a director of Itati, a Brazilian mineral water company — linguist, professional photographer, and Rotarian. But Marcos is also an avid cyclist who regularly saddles up to commute to work. In fact, he’s become a sort of evangelist for cycling, never missing a chance to draw attention to the bicycle’s role in reducing urban pollution, easing traffic congestion, and promoting public health.

Here’s an example: Not long ago, Marcos was asked to take part in a television program on cycling. I could try to summarize what he had to say, but it’s Marcos’ story, so why not let him tell it in his own words?

I was invited by TV Unisinos for a live interview on the Conexão Unisinos 12 O’Clock News to discuss the topic “Bicycling for a Less Polluted World.” The other guest was Professor Felipe Brum de Brito Sousa. Both of us are “regular people” who use bicycles in our everyday lives.

We had a wide-ranging conversation. Felipe and I described how we’d started cycling, talked about the bike tours we’ve taken, and discussed the difficulties we’ve had to overcome in bike commuting. We also suggested steps that city officials could take in order to encourage cycling in the community — incentives they could offer to persuade more people to choose this environmentally friendly form of transportation.

A case in point: Eight-hundred-year-old Paris, France. It has a historical monument on almost every street corner, but it also does a lot to promote cycling, without moving mountains in the process. The result? One of Europe’s largest and oldest cities is now one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and this was done with very few alterations to the urban landscape. It’s a good example for other city administrators around the world.

The program also highlighted the danger to other riders posed by scofflaw cyclists, particularly those who ride against the flow of traffic on busy streets — the so-called “salmon cyclists.” Many of these wrong-way riders think they’re safer because they can see cars coming toward them. But the truth of the matter is very different, and there’s research to back it up: Cyclists who go with the flow are less likely to be hit by cars. I’ve written about this on Itati’s blog, in a post entitled “Pedalar na contramão: muito mais perigoso!” That’s “Salmon Cycling is Dangerous!” in English. (You can find a “Google English” translation of my article here.)

And wrong-way cyclists aren’t just putting themselves at risk. They endanger other cyclists, too. I used to leave for work at 5:00 a.m., but after two close calls with salmon cyclists, both of whom were wearing dark clothing and riding bikes without lights and reflectors, I decided to limit my commutes to the daylight hours. I didn’t want to risk a head-on collision with an invisible cyclist. I no longer take early morning solo rides around town for the same reason.

The bottom line? Making cycling safer isn’t a job for city governments alone. We cyclists have to do our part, too. And putting a stop to wrong-way riding is a good first step.


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Mar 23 2013

No Room at the Curb — A Thought Experiment

Imagine a town without parking lots or designated parking spaces. Any motorist hoping to do business in town would then have to park by stealth, on private property. Often his car would be obstructing a sidewalk or alleyway, and he could never be sure that it wouldn’t suffer damage in his absence — or that he’d find it where he’d left it when he returned. The property owner could have had it towed away. Or the police might have confiscated it. The motorist’s car was almost certain to be parked “illegally,” after all. Which means that his complaints, if indeed he had the temerity to voice them, would at best be met with a shrug of an official shoulder. Outlaws are foolish to expect protection.

Unthinkable? Think again. This is the common experience of anyone who uses a bicycle to commute or do business in the States. With a few happy exceptions, cyclists are condemned to park their bikes on private property, in unsanctioned locations, hoping against hope that their two-wheeled transport will still be there when they return. Even on those rare occasions when a bicycle rack is (grudgingly) provided, it’s likely to be a “wheel-bender,” incapable of accepting any bike with fenders or racks, and — more often than not — tucked away on some squalid scrap of waste ground, littered with dog turds and ideally situated to allow would-be thieves and vandals to work in peace, undisturbed by passers-by.

No motorist would accept this state of affairs, of course. But (almost) all Stateside cyclists have no choice. Is it any wonder, then, that few of us see the bicycle as viable transportation, even for short distances, in smiling summer weather? Americans, by and large, regard bicycles as toys, and by and large that’s how Americans want them to stay.

Too bad. Our compulsory automobility is slowly robbing us of our ability to get around under our own power. Modern man, writer Daniel Behrman once observed, “can pass on a hill at eighty miles per hour, but he can’t climb a flight of stairs.” This isn’t hyperbole. It’s a fair summary of the state of the American nation. (Automobile means “self-moving,” though the “self” in this case is the machine, not the man or woman at the wheel. Nice irony, that, even if it was unintended.)


But I see I’ve strayed from my original point, which was simply that it’s not easy to find a good place to park a bike in most American towns and cities. So, Stateside cyclists… How about it? Are you feeling lucky today? I wish I were.

Park Round Back, Bum

Further Reading


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