Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Note to Saint Paul Bicyclists: Your Lights Suck

The last few months on the second Tuesday I have been bicycle counting as part of the Transit for Livable Communities' monthly bike counts. Several of us from the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition have been doing counts along University Avenue. I took University just west of Raymond Avenue where I can conveniently sit in the front window of The Edge Coffeesop and do my counting. In the summer, this was nicely air-conditioned. They play fun music, Edith Piaf yesterday for a while, I settle in with my coffee, and for two hours am on high alert, counting bicyclists and bikes on bus racks (my own addition). It's kind of nice to quietly observe the neighborhood traffic for two hours once a month, you notice things.

Anyway, with the end of Daylight Savings Time, sunset now happens in the middle of the 4:00 to 6:00PM counting period. The sun disappeared behind the horizon at 4:50 and at 5:00 I went outside to be able to see better, since we classify cyclists by helmet/no helmet, gender, road or sidewalk and 15-minute period.

I had to be extra vigilant. There were 28 cyclists in the 5:00 to 6:00 hour, lower volume now than in the lighter/warmer months even though it was unseasonably warm, and I think maybe 6 or 8 had adequate lights. I didn't formally count light quality, but maybe half the people showed no lights at all and most of the remainder had dim tailights.

People, this is a busy four-lane street with lots of truck traffic. There is a left turn lane for people wanting to get on Highway 280/I-94, with brake lights and turn signals. There is a utility truck parked along the side of the roads with blinking strobe lights and a big yellow arrow telling traffic to move over. There's traffic lights and a big flamboyant neon sign on the liquor store. Throw into this mix an old, dim, mis-aimed blinkie and you are just about invisible.

Look, I know you can see fine. That's because you're 25 and your eyes are young. The people driving these motor vehicles are 40 and 60 and 80 years old and I can tell you that night vision doesn't improve with age. Don't rely just on reflectors or your own mad cycling skillz, get a damn light! If your blinky is more than about 2 years old, get a new one, the LEDs have been improving tremendously in brightness.

About 750 cyclists are killed by motor vehicles each year in the U.S. Stats aren't kept on the fault in these accidents, but reading daily accounts for a while leads me to believe that in about half the cases, the cyclist is heavily complicit through some sort of bad behaviour. It's easy to fix; don't run Stop signs and red lights, don't ride drunk, ride with traffic and not against it and put on some damn lights.

Trying to count the stealth cyclists riding by lightless makes this obvious. I was absolutely alert and looking to see you and it was a challenge. Think about the motorists driving home from work, going to the grocery store, fiddling with the radio, looking to see if they can change lanes left. They're worried about all sorts of things besides trying to acquire visual contact with unlit cyclists.

I don't know all the lights the lit people were showing but the Planet Bike SuperFlash has a pretty distinctive flash pattern (we have 4 or 5 of these lying around the house for use in the fleet) and the most visible cyclist was a young lady showing two SuperFlashes, one low on the bike (rack or seatpost?), and one high (on a backpack or helmet). I could see her for several blocks after she went by even amongst the cavalcade of lights on University. She is a model to us all.

I personally like to run two taillights, one blinking (a SuperFlash) and one steady (Busch & Müller 4D Toplight). A lot of people don't seem to care and run nothing at all. If you're one of them and get hit, I will feel the same lack of sympathy for you as I do for drivers who text while driving and run off the road and get killed. Remember, stupidity has a way of catching up with people.

Don't be stupid.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Indirect Commute

So I went to the dentist yesterday. My dentist is in downtown Minneapolis, a holdover from when I worked down there 15 years ago, but twice a year I go down and get my choppers looked at. Unbeknownst to me, yesterday whilst sitting at the desk after the appointment, I dropped my cell phone. It's not really mine; my iPhone 3G took an untimely plunge into the Des Moines River last week while I was leaning over a bridge railing taking a photo of the floodwaters (they've had a lot of rain down there). I have an iPhone 4 on order but it hasn't come yet so I have a temporary SIM in my daughter's old Pantech.

Anyway, I didn't notice this until yesterday afternoon, when I called the dentist and sure enough, they had my phone. I said I'd pop in and get it. So this morning I rolled out a little after 7:00 and, rather than the usual 4.9-mile run directly north to work, headed downtown, about an 8-mile ride.

This is kind of fun. I see a limited number of other cyclists on my simple commute and it hardly feels like an urban commute at all. Nobody is ever going to film riding through Roseville to Arden Hills and then set it to "Welcome to the Jungle". Going to downtown Minneapolis is different, lots more cyclists of all ages and bike types, much more traffic, buses, light rail, the Missisippi River. I rode through the Fairgrounds and the Saint Paul University of Minnesota campus, down Como, across the Stone Arch Bridge and to the dentist's at Fifth and Marquette, then rode back across the Stone Arch Bridge, a little ways up Como Avenue, then cut off to catch the Minneapolis Diagonal Trail. I hardly ever ride this (usually going to work from the dentist's or to Home Depot from work). It's pretty pastoral and there wasn't much traffic on in this morning. I went along County C, up Cleveland, over to and around Lake Johanna and then to work.

My Atlantis doesn't have a computer on it at the moment (I'm about to do a bunch of work on it, including reinstalling the computer) but Google Maps tells me I rode about 19 or 20 miles. I rolled in at 8:45 or so, showered and went to work.

When I ride to work, which is not all the time by any means, I usually ride directly there and directly home. Sometimes I pop into a store or go to a meeting afterwards, but I have never incorporated a longer recreational ride into the commute. I might think about it. It requires an earlier departure but it's kind of fun to get out and about in the cycling ecosystem in areas I hardly ever travel during the work week.

I'll be riding home, and then to a meeting this evening for the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition. On the off-chance somebody reads this before then, we're meeting at the Jimmy Lee/Oxford Rec Center at Lexington and Marshall in Saint Paul at 7:00 to 8:30. We are an outgrowth of the Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board, which is now on hiatus, but independent of the City and looking to become an advocacy organization. Come and join us if you have an interest, we're there every second Tuesday. You can check out our website which is pretty lame at the moment (I did it) but which we expect to improve quite a lot in the near future.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Perfect Computer for the Cyclist?

I got an iPad 3G the day they came out and have been using it a lot in the subsequent few weeks. I think it could be the ideal computer for the cyclist (though not a cycling computer!). I have a MacBook Pro which I occasionally have taken with me to meetings and work and stuff and I worry about it because it's got a 500 Gig hard drive in it which is getting bumped and jostled. Sure, you can buy big solid state hard drives, but they cost a fortune. Sure, the odd ride here and there isn't going to hurt it, but a day-in, day-out commute can't be healthy for the hard drive. Also, it weights like 5 pounds.

You could do a MacBook Air (with SSD if you're worried about the hard drive) but those are even more expensive and still weigh three pounds.

Or you can do an iPad. It weighs 1.6 pounds and the separate BlueTooth keyboard I have must take it over 2, although you can at least leave the keyboard behind if you don't need it on a given day. The battery life is nice and long, the screen is lovely and big, the Maps feature is superb when mated with the 3G's GPS, and there's no moving parts. Worried about dampness? Get an Orltieb document case for it, basically a heavy-duty roll top ZipLoc baggie. I know, I know, it's not a real computer, you can't run the heavy-duty spreadsheets on it that I routinely work with, the Pages word processor has it's limitations and it's not possible to print at the moment (there are third-party software packages for this, but I haven't tried them), but for note taking and email and web reading and writing this blog entry, the device works great.

I still use the MacBook for the serious work in life, long documents and big Excel spreadsheets (run in Windows on the Mac) at home, photo editing and all that sort of thing, but the iPad makes a smaller, lighter and surprisingly useful device for the cycling geek.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Snow Clearing on Marshall Avenue: A Meeting

No, our snow is all gone. Rather, this entry is about the snow clearing project on Marshall Avenue this past winter. There is a meeting this evening regarding the project, at:

Concordia University
Buenger Education Center
275 Syndicate St N
Saint Paul, MN 55104

Monday April 26, 7:00PM

The topic is the pilot to keep Marshall Avenue clear of snow from the Lake/Marshall bridge up to Cretin or Cleveland (I forget how far exactly). The bridge is one of the few Mississippi River crossings in the Cities, and Marshall Avenue is the street on the Saint Paul side. Heading into Saint Paul, the street climbs a hundred feet or so, meaning eastbound bicycles are slogging uphill.

The problem is that in the winter, snow is scraped off to the side of the road. As happens, the angle of repose is such that it tumbles back in. Cars park out so they can open their passenger-side doors and bicycles get shifted farther and farther out into traffic, annoying to motor vehicles and less safe for cyclists. The plan was to have No Parking on the street during snow emergencies so that the street could be plowed full width, allowing room for the parked cars and for bicycle traffic as well.

This didn't work out.

Part of the reason was that on Christmas, when we had a decent snowfall followed by drizzly rain, the City decided not to be Scrooge-like on Christmas and declare a snow emergency. This holiday gift meant that the piles of snow, then soaked with rain, subsequently froze into immovable ice castles. It certainly happened at our house, where the width that I blew the driveway out Christmas Day was the width it would remain until well into March when it all finally melted away.

It may have been aggravated by Public Works employees slacking off when they should have been working, caught on tape by a local tv station and precipitating the resignation of Public Works Director Bruce Brees from that position (although he fell comfortably back into his old $111,000 a year job as "Administrative Manager for Public Works", man, no wonder my property taxes keep going up!). To be fair, the actual video was people who were supposed to be filling potholes, but one wonders if the same level of effort went into the snow clearing. And commications between departments wasn't very good, so that Traffic Enforcement wasn't aware of the parking ban until quite late in the winter.

Tonight's hearing, on short notice for those of us who don't live in the immediate area, is asking for input on the project. The main effect on the neighbors was the parking ban on selected days, and the way these things are likely to go, those will be the people who show up to complain about it. Not represented unless you and I go there will be people who use the street but don't live right there. We're taxpayers too, remember, it's our street as well, and if you are a Lake/Marshall user, you would be smart to show up and have your say.

If you can't be there in person, you can submit a comment to the Union Park District Council here. You can read about the meeting on the Union Park District Council website.

In summary, Marshall is an important bicycling route year-round because it is one of the few Mississippi Crossings. The road width is such that, if left not fully plowed, parking and then bicycle traffic gets shifted out further and further into the road as the winter goes on. The pilot project and the proposal is not to ban parking entirely; rather, it is to ban parking on specific days so our hard-working Public Works employees can clear the road full width, keeping it safe for all users. For a variety of reasons, it didn't work very well this year. It deserves to be tried again with a better effort next snow season.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Earth Day from the NYPD

President Obama was in New York yesterday giving a talk on the need to pass some inadequate financial reform with insufficient consumer protection. Before he came, the New York Police Department went along the route his motorcade would take and removed all the bicycles, citing fears that they could contain pipe bombs because, you know, there have been so many bicycle-based terrorist attacks in this country. And those mouth-foaming Obama haters are all such big cyclists. There are a couple of photos posted here. I wonder if they told the workers these might be pipe bombs, since they seem to be protected only by nylon windbreakers.

Would it be unworthy to wonder if this has something to do with the current trial on one of New York's finest who assaulted a Critical Mass rider a couple of years ago in what looks to be an episode of douche-on-douche assault, then lied about what he did (what? cops lie?) but was caught on video and has since, umm, retired. Or the other recent NYPD-to-cyclist payouts, like the one at the end of March where the city paid $40,002 to two people who filmed police cutting locks and removing bikes in 2007. Police and the security state hate the first amendment, and these two were arrested for disorderly conduct for refusing a lawful order to disperse and blocking the sidewalk. These charges were later adjourned and dismissed, and the city spent an estimated $72,000 defending the case and for the payout. And just last week another $98,000 was paid to five cyclists for being harassed during a Critical Mass including another case of a cop knocking a cyclist off his bike.

Fortunately, the NYPD Bomb Squad seems to have managed to defuse all the pipe bombs without any injury.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gee! Maps!

I heard on the radio this morning that Google Maps now has an option to map routes for bicycles. This sounded cool; I've been generally impressed with their auto mapping and even their transit mapping works well here in the Twin Cities, telling you which bus you need and when the next one should arrive at your location. It would be an exaggeration to say I leapt immediately out of bed to give the bicycle routing a try, but once I did slither sluglike from my repose and completed my elaborate morning ablutions I did give it a common destination pair for me, between church and home. This is about 14 miles one way, crosses the Mississippi and can involve several bicycle-specific shortcuts or route options. How would Google do?

Google did pretty well. From north of Como Lake in Saint Paul to just east of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis it selected a route that used both the Intercampus Transitway and the Midtown Greenway. The Intercampus Transitway runs between the Saint Paul and Minneapolis East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota and is limited to buses, emergency vehicles and bicycles. As a cyclist, it took me a while to notice it because it was so off my radar as a motorist, but it is a useful shortcut and google selected it.

The Midtown Greenway is a bicycle and pedestrian path from the Mississippi to Lake Calhoun that runs parallel to the very busy Lake Street in an old railway trench. It's like a bicycle Interstate, with limited on and off ramps and it goes under dozens of bridges carrying the surface streets. It even has a big swoopy bridge over Hiawatha/Highway 55/the Light Rail line just for bikes and pedestrians. It's not open to motorized traffic at all.

Google didn't select my usual route, down Hoyt and through the State Fairgrounds to either the Transitway or Raymond, but, to be fair, the fairgrounds aren't open all the time. They shut down for most of August for the State Fair and for selected weekends when they have boat shows or classic auto rendezvoux. The rest of the time, bicycles and pedestrians can slip through the NE gate (always open about 3 feet wide) and cruise through the grounds in splendid solitude.

I have to say Google does a much better job than my GPS unit. I have a Garmin Nuvi 275. I got this last year in anticipation of a trip to the UK and France because it has both the North American and European maps built in. I got it a bit early to see how well it did locally on roads and destinations I know, and I have to say, it did really well. It knows all the little back roads and residential streets in the Twin Cities (not sure about the bleeding edge of suburban sprawl, but certainly in our area it was good). It has lots of businesses in it. Once in Europe, I was delighted to find that it knew its way around medieval York, Winchester and Bayeaux as well as it did around 1950s Roseville. It knew speed limits, traffic camera locations and the number of exits out of roundabouts. It was particularly delightful that I could load in the Campaign for Real Ale's (CAMRA's) Good Pub Guide point of interest file, which cost six pounds, and the GPS would ding whenever we got within a mile or two of one of the pubs. You could select the pub and it would set it as a waypoint and guide you there, off the main roads and down the lanes to The Swan or whatever back in the countryside. All this of course is built into the GPS, it isn't picking up data downloads like the iPhone maps application, data downloads that can cost the unwary a fortune whilst overseas. I think the GPS unit is the single most impressive piece of computer gear I've ever used and is extremely useful in a country where the only straight roads are the ones the Romans built.

Anyway, back from our sojourns, I decided to try selecting "bicycle" as the vehicle type and see how it worked. It was hopeless. Basically, the route selection algorithm is the same but the average speed used to calculate time of arrival is much lower and it doesn't use Interstate highways. Put in home and church and tell it you're a bicycle and it sends you down every major arterial street clogged with traffic, transit, doorzones, intersection conflicts and highway on and off ramps. It even sends you down Snelling, perhaps the most gruesome bit of bicycling roadway in Saint Paul. It doesn't use the Intercampus Transitway or the Midtown Greenway at all. As brilliant as the GPS is for motor vehicle navigation, it really is pretty useless for bicycle navigation where, in my opinion, thoughtful route selection that is almost always different from what you do in a car is key to happy and safe cycling.

The only bad news about the bicycle option on google maps? It's not in the iPhone Maps application yet, where the choices are still motor vehicle, transit or walking (and yes, I checked the App Store for updates). I suppose it's still a beta product (I think gmail is too) so maybe they're going to get some feedback first, but it would be very useful for cyclists on the iPhone.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hummer? Bummer.

The Hummer in many ways represented the worst of the excesses of the last decade, consumerist, credit-driven, confusing militaristic with patriotic, fuel-guzzling, road-hogging, wannabe SUV. I remember seeing them in one of their original breeding grounds, an actual H1 (the military-sized and highly capable off-road vehicle) being driven by a cute blond in Sun Valley in 1996. Later, GM grafted a lookalike body on a Tahoe frame and charged the earth for them as H2s, then later yet, added a more compact H3 for those with the Hummer personality defect who couldn't cough up the $50K+ for the H2. They had a bunch of dealers build special Hummer areas including big rocky things to park them on out front.

Well, it didn't work. Gas got expensive, leading to the ironic situation where the biggest complaints about both the Hummer H2 and the Toyota Prius was the mileage, the H2 because it guzzled gas so voraciously, the Prius because it would turn in 43 mpg and not 52 as its buyers had so fervently hoped.

Gas got cheaper, but then credit got expensive, unemployment went up, houses went underwater, repo men got busy and Hummer sales tanked. The rugged image of the highly-capable military vehicle was diluted as it became an under-armoured deathtrap susceptible to Iraqi IEDs mid-decade. GM would have gone belly up if the government hadn't stepped in to rescue it, and the company has ruthlessly cut brands, closed plants and terminated dealers. A deal was reached to sell the Hummer division to some Chinese company, but even they don't want it. From today's New York Times:

DETROIT — General Motors said Wednesday that it would shut down Hummer, the brand of big sport-utility vehicles that became synonymous with the term “gas guzzler,” after a deal to sell it to a Chinese manufacturer fell apart.

The buyer, Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines, said in a statement that it withdrew its bid because it was unable to get approval from the Chinese government, which is trying to put a new emphasis on limiting China’s dependence on imported oil and protecting the environment.

In addition, people close to the negotiations had said that the biggest obstacle to emerge in the last few days was not regulatory approval, but rather bank financing. While Tengzhong has the cash to pay for the Hummer brand, it needed bank financing to operate the division, redesign vehicles and set up new production plants in China.

A spokesman for Hummer, Nick Richards, said G.M. had no specific timetable for completing the wind down, but left open the possibility that G.M. would be open to new bids...

About 3,000 jobs in the United States could be affected by the shutdown, including positions at G.M. and the brand’s dealerships. A factory in Shreveport, La., that builds the Hummer H3 and H3T and other G.M. trucks already was scheduled to close by 2012. The larger H2 was built for G.M. by A. M. General in Mishawaka, Ind., until December, when production was temporarily halted to allow for the sale process to conclude.

The deal would have made Tengzhong the first Chinese company to sell vehicles in North America, though it planned to keep Hummer’s operations in the United States.
“Tengzhong worked earnestly to achieve an acquisition that it believed to be a tremendous opportunity to acquire a global brand at an attractive price,” Tengzhong said in its statement. “The renewed investment to be made by Tengzhong and other investors would have provided Hummer’s existing management team the ability to build greener utility vehicles that would have been attractive and useful in new markets such as China as well as the existing core markets.”

Mr. Richards said Hummer dealers in the United States have about 2,500 vehicles in their inventories. In January, the brand made just 265 sales in the United States. Hummer sales plunged 67 percent in 2009, to a total of 9,046.

I won't miss them, but I was never the market anyway. I have to say that for all the hatred Hummers inspired (and it merited it's own site,, consisting of photos of people flipping off Hummers), I've never been yelled at or otherwise abused by a Hummer driver. It may be because there aren't that many of them compared to, say, pickup trucks, who as a class are the most frequent communicators with me while cycling. And once, while looking at some actual facts, I noted that the footprint of a Hummer was actually slightly less than that of a Honda Odyssey minivan, though the H2 was wider and therefore blocked the views from behind more than the minivan. Maybe it was the whole fake-military attitude at a time when a bunch of chickenhawks had taken us to war that was so aggravating. Anyway, may those Hummers rest in peace.

Friday, February 19, 2010

On the Manliness of Cycling

I liked this comment on the inestimable BikeSnobNYC blog, by a guy watching the Olympics:
I'm really enjoying these winter Olympics in Vancouver, between men's figure skating and short track speed skating relay, these sports make road cycling in lycra and shaved legs look like Aussie Rules football.