Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cycling in Ohio

Been visiting the in-laws in Ohio this week and observing the bike culture while I am here.  Apparently, the local bicycle shop does a pretty brisk business.  I took the family there for bike rentals--for them, I brought my bike--and also for canoe rentals.  The cycling seems primarily a recreational thing, which is fine, but a limited use of bicycle potential.  I haven't seen many street cyclists, except for youths.  Youths don't really count the same because folks generally make allowances for them--even the law does, as it should.  I believe the rules in NYC about not riding on the sidewalk, which is indeed enforced, does not apply to minors and children's bicycles (under 24" wheels).  The youth riders are important.  They are a wedge in the struggle to gain road space from drivers.  They soften up motorists to sharing the road with bicycles.  Much of today's cycling movement can probably be traced to college students who kept on riding while in school because it was a cheap form of local transportation--same reason the kids do it.  The college students hopefully graduate and come out learning that bikes are really useful machines.  Bicycle commuters just like to expand that definition of "local" a little bit.

I did see one street cyclist.  He was pedaling right on Main Street in North Canton, Ohio.  He was the only one I saw on my entire week-long visit.  That said, I must have been the second one in town.  I rode on Main Street along a less busy stretch, but I found that the same things I did at home were working in Ohio--essentially staying out of the way.  Two differences: I was not riding during rush hour and there was no shoulder or bike lane to ride in.  The latter was only a minor problem--I used the rain gutter, which was dry and pretty smooth for riding, or the right lane depending on traffic.  I can see some of the trouble with cycling out here, but the road layout isn't the main problem--it's the distances involved.  When I drive out here it puts NYC in geographical perspective.  The US is still a big country and the car is king--it probably always will be.  This just makes reforming the internal combustion engine that much more imperative and urgent.

I do think the bicycle has a place in the North Canton, Ohio universe of transportation, but it is not going to replace the automobile.  It may reduce congestion, which has picked up in the years I've been visiting, but the bicycle is practical mainly in town.  I did see bike racks at various establishments and I sincerely hope to find biking more common in future visits. 

As an aside, I hate to see bicycles used against greening automobiles as done here: http://finance.yahoo.com/tech-ticker/telsa-is-%22silly-...-a-stupid-idea%22-lindzon-says-govt.-better-off-investing-in-bikes-520397.html?tickers=TSLA,F,AAPL,NKE,INTC,GS,TM--bikes are great, but not the solution to everything.  One thing the segment doesn't touch on is the fact that bicycles are generally not made in America, while the Tesla electric cars would be.  It an entirely other matter that taxpayer money is going to start a  business in which some folks are going to get rich and claim they did it through the free market.  However, in visiting a state like Ohio, which has been ever so hard hit by the manufacturing void in America, it is hard to justify sending a cent overseas in "economic development."  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

NYC Bicycle Commuter Tip#8: Bike Lanes are not a Panacea

Okay, I'll say it, I am not all that crazy about bike lanes.  I hate to say so because folks are so excited about it and all, but as a bicycle commuter I don't think bike lanes are such a great idea.  As an urban motorist I like them even less.  In an already congested city they only add to the congestion and the confusion--I can't make sense of some of the markings on some streets, which is not only confusing but dangerous.  There is an effort to micromanage traffic that is ill-advised, however well intended.  I will try to confine my comments to bike lanes and add the caveat that I really do get some of the many complications of trying to address this problem, and even why lanes seem like the way to go.  I am going to try and keep out of the policy debate on this one for now and focus on why the cyclist should be wary of bike lanes. 

There are several kinds of bike lanes in the City of New York, but I am only concerned with the ones that are actually where people want to go--the ones in the actual street.  I am not interested in the recreational multi-use paths, which cyclists share with pedestrians and I think serve to sour relations between them.  These are pleasure paths as far as I am concerned (Unfortunately, I don't have much time for pleasure.), but some cyclists think they are race courses--I live here and I don't care for the attitude.  The street offers far more opportunity for speeding, but generally, the population density of the city doesn't make it a good idea.  The the most common, real bike lanes, generally consist of two solid white lines along the right edge of the road with about a yard's width between them.  This three foot lane--between the traffic and the parked cars--is the assigned domain of the street cyclist.  It is a crude attempt to solve several problems, it also creates problems though. 

The first and most significant problem is that the system is too inflexible.  The two solid white lines, as any motorist knows, are not to be crossed.  Certainly, there are extenuating circumstances to everything, however, in the event of an accident outside those lines, the onus is on the cyclist and proving otherwise as again, any motorist knows, is difficult without witnesses that are actually willing to step up.  Folks would say, "Well just stay in the lane and you're fine."  Not really.  I find that on a daily basis the right is the right place to be most of the time, but about 20-30% of the time it is not.  First, in rush hour gridlock, I am often not the slowest vehicle on the road and passing on the right is often not safe.  Second, the bike lanes are constantly blocked.  Third, how do make a left turn?  Finally, there is the danger of getting "doored."  As stated throughout this blog, I do believe shared roads or "sharrows" make more sense for bicycle commuting.  They are easier to implement, do not contribute to traffic congestion, and can be implemented at a much lower cost.  They have the same effect of serving notice on motorists that bicycles belong on the roads.

The admitted advantage of bike lanes is that they force a space for the cyclist and give the cyclist a sense of greater safety.  I also realize that folks don't share space well.  These are important matters to cyclists, but let's be honest biking has been popular in NYC for a long time.  The ones who took the streets for cycling in NYC were the bike messengers.  They were detested, but besides a little risky behavior on their part, they endangered mainly themselves and enraged motorists who didn't want to be bothered looking out for them.  They demonstrated that cyclists can handle traffic.  They elicited negative reactions mainly, I think, because they were people of color--I think folks are, and always have been, ruder on the subway than cyclists were on the street.  Everyone is riding "fixies" because of the messengers.  There are still bike messengers, but the money isn't there like it used to be, or so I am told. 

Don't get me wrong, the NYC DOT has worked hard on these lanes.  It shows.  Some of these lanes make a lot of sense and are very well placed.  The effort to dedicate one side of the Williamsburg Bridge multi-use path to cyclists is a good idea.  There is a lane that is separate from traffic en route to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, which takes a little getting used to, but it makes sense because the area is very congested and connected to and transitions from highways, so shared roads are not ideal, but the two lines on the side of the road are way overused and might hurt more than help.