Monthly Archives: April 2012

A perpetual tailwind?


“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia …”
H.G. Wells, British futurist, 1866-1946

I came across a YouTube video of Bill Nye, the Science Guy, expounding on the cities of the future. Those future cities, says the guy in the bowtie, will make many more accommodations for cyclists than most American cities now do.

Bill Nye

His predictions, some of which are already available in a few bike-friendly communities: designated places to park bikes securely, showers for bicycle commuters, laundries that cater to cyclists wanting clean clothes for the ride home from work, low-cost roads designated for bicycles.
And perhaps the most fanciful, one that he calls a “nutty, way-out-there idea”: enclosed bicycle thoroughfares protected from the weather. Some of them, he says, might even have louvers through which air currents could be directed so that cyclists always have a tailwind.
H.G. Wells’ predictions coming closer to fruition? Sounds good!

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Putting a road on a diet


I’ve long been a fan of “complete streets.” That, essentially, is the notion – sometimes considered radical or even socialist in car-centric Texas — that streets aren’t only for cars.
The National Complete Streets Coalition perhaps says it best:
“The streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities. They ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams.”
A good example is in my neighborhood on Fort Worth’s Near South Side: Mistletoe Heights.
Passing through Mistletoe Heights and the adjacent Berkeley Place neighborhood just to the south is a busy thoroughfare called Forest Park Boulevard.
It’s a major north-south artery that carries a lot of traffic from south Fort Worth into nearby downtown. It bisects Mistletoe Heights and makes crossing during peak hours very problematic, particularly with children in tow.
The speed limit on the four-lane boulevard is 35 mph. But drivers – including residents of Mistletoe Heights and Berkeley Place – frequently exceed that limit because the design of the street encourages speed.
Now, the two neighborhoods are taking some first steps to transform that busy boulevard into a “complete street.”
Friend, fellow blogger and urbanologist Kevin Buchanan has done a nice post on the effort for his blog, Fort Worthology.
Resolutions passed by the neighborhood associations of Mistletoe Heights and Berkeley Place have urged the city to implement what is called a “road diet.”
Essentially, that means that Forest Park Boulevard would be reduced to two traffic lanes – one northbound and one southbound – and have a dedicated turn lane in the middle. The leftover space on either side would be used for bicycle lanes.
“What I find most impressive about this proposal is that it’s entirely neighborhood-driven,” Kevin writes in Fort Worthology.
“The residents who want the street to be safer and a better fit for their neighborhood have put together this proposal, completely grassroots, and have been working for months now getting support from their neighbors and the neighborhood associations. One of the residents putting the plan together contacted Fort Worthology to help get the word out, and here we are.”
That is also the reason for this blog post. But Kevin’s post brings to the topic more expertise and background than I possess. It’s worth a read.
Kevin also includes a video that explains what a “road diet” means. Check it out.

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Two splendid adventures


Some readers of this blog may have noticed an absence of posts from Feb. 10 to March 17. The reason: I was editing a book.
The book isn’t by me or about bicycling. But it has a direct bearing on this blog. It chronicles an adventure that I wrote about in Jim’s Bike Blog several times because it overlapped to some extent with my bicycle ride across the United States in the autumn of 2009, and because it was undertaken by a friend.
The book, by Neal Moore and Cindy Lovell, is about Neal’s solo canoe trip down the Mississippi River, from the headwaters of the river at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to New Orleans.
In the spring of 2009, as I was preparing for my bike trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., my oldest son, Ben, who teaches English in Taiwan, told me of Neal, a fellow teacher who also was planning an extended journey through America.
Two splendid adventures, two unlikely dreams, I thought, coming to fruition at about the same time!
A line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has stuck with me since high school: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Thoreau may have overstated the condition of his fellow New Englanders in his musings about a sojourn in a one-room cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847.
But it is probably true that relatively few people get to live their dreams, especially if the dream is, in the view of some, a bit eccentric, bizarre or just plain crazy.

The infant Mississippi at the outset of Neal's journey. Photo by Neal Moore

For some, the chance may come late in life, as with my post-retirement bicycle ride across the United States. For others, it comes earlier, as was the case with Neal.
In a succession of emails, Neal told me of his plans to canoe the Mississippi – a journey that he estimated would take about 150 days, from early July to late November or early December of 2009.
I was born and grew up on the Mississippi River, in Alton, Ill., just upstream from St. Louis. My own childhood fantasies about making my way down the river by raft or towboat never materialized. And as I grew older, I came to understand how dangerous the river can be, especially for a traveler in a small craft.
Jonathan Raban, an Englishman who journeyed down the Mississippi in 1980, described some of the dangers in a wonderful book called Old Glory: An American Voyage. I suggested to Neal that he read that book before he set out, thinking — maybe hoping — that he might reconsider.
Even in an aluminum 16-foot motorized johnboat, Raban faced such dangers as severe turbulence caused by the collision of a downstream current with an upstream wind; partially submerged jetties called wing dams that jut out from the banks to guide water into the main channel; waterlogged tree trunks barely floating just below the surface; huge boils, or domes of water, that swell up from the depths of the river; vicious whirlpools that form in eddies at bends in the river; and, of course, the wakes of monster towboats pushing acres of barges loaded with such cargoes as grain, iron ore, coal or gravel.
By comparison, a bicycle ride across the United States seemed like a safe and simple undertaking.
As plans for our adventures progressed, we realized that our journeys would overlap for a time in the fall of 2009. What a bit of serendipity if we should meet!
We began to entertain the fanciful notion that, with the concurrence of the river and road gods, we might cross paths at St. Francisville in southeastern Louisiana.
St. Francisville, a jewel of a town in West Feliciana Parish, was the place where my fellow cyclists and I would cross the Mississippi River on our transcontinental journey along the southern tier of the United States. Neal, of course, would have to paddle past St. Francisville on his way to the Big Easy.
But our rendezvous on the river didn’t take place at the time and place we had hoped for.
When my bicycling companions and I reached the Mississippi on Nov. 4, 2009, Neal was still further up the river in Mississippi doing video stories as an iReporter for CNN and for his blog, Flash River Safari.
We took a ferry across the Mississippi, a major milestone in our cross-country trek. I thought of Neal that day as we waited on the western bank for the ferry to take us across to St. Francisville.
The Mississippi, probably a mile wide at that point, is in the final stages of its 2,300-mile odyssey across the midsection of the United States. It has gathered water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces from the Rockies to the Appalachians, all funneling into feeder rivers along the way – the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas and myriad others – and is rushing full bore to the sea.
For good reason, the Mississippi is called the Father of Waters.
After heavy rains upstream, the Mississippi was running high and fast that day, and two men in a canoe were riding the swift current downriver. Their craft seemed so frail on that mighty, mercurial river. I marveled at their skill and courage and was struck anew by the audacity of Neal’s solo journey.

Neal Moore at Tom Sawyer's fence in Hannibal

Although our rendezvous didn’t occur when and where Neal and I had hoped for, when it did happen it was in a town very fitting for two people who have a deep association with and affection for the Mississippi: Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s boyhood home.
The graduation of a family friend from the University of Missouri at Columbia in May 2010 prompted a trip to Missouri. After the graduation, I drove to Hannibal.
Neal had been working on this book in Oxford, Miss., but he had decamped to Hannibal to tap the expertise of Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Cindy’s main role in the book project was to cull the works of Twain for passages relevant to Neal’s journey and to place them strategically throughout the narrative.
“Dr. Moore, I presume,” I said when I found Neal in the Java Jive coffee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street. He had been hunched over his laptop working on his book amid the couches and easy chairs at the back of the shop.
Through Neal’s good offices and Cindy’s hospitality, I lodged in the Becky Thatcher Room at Cindy’s rambling 1890s home filled with Twain memorabilia.
Cindy, a self-described “Twainiac” with encyclopedic knowledge of Twain and his times, has hung her favorite Twain quote above the door leading from the living room into the kitchen: “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
During my brief visit to Hannibal, Neal and I walked along the waterfront as the rising Mississippi, swollen by seasonal flooding, crept up the brick-paved landing where steamboats once put in. We toured Twain’s boyhood home and the nearby home of Tom Blankenship, son of the town drunk and an outcast from polite society who was the model for Huckleberry Finn.
We signed the whitewashed fence immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and talked Twain with museum curator Henry Sweets.

Hannibal ambassador Alex Addison as Tom Sawyer. Photo by Neal Moore

We tramped through the cave where young Sam Clemens played and where Tom and Becky got lost.
That evening, we sat on Cindy’s front porch swapping mostly true tales about our respective adventures, drank some robust but flat stout that I had schlepped in a growler from a brew pub in Columbia and watched as a large, well-fed raccoon repeatedly raided the bowls of food that Cindy had set out for the neighborhood cats.
As the book project progressed, Neal and Cindy asked if I would write the introduction – part of which is recycled for this blog post – and then asked if I would edit the manuscript. I also got to help with the cover design and to edit Neal’s photos for the book.
The book is now in the final stages of publication. It will be the first book published by the Mark Twain Museum Press and is to be launched in Hannibal on July 28.
Neal will soon leave Taiwan for an extended visit to the United States before taking up residence in Cape Town, South Africa. On July 24, he plans to fly from Houston to Dallas, where I will pick up him at Dallas Love Field. After a night in Fort Worth, we plan to drive up to Hannibal for the launch event.
I was proud to be a part of the project and hope the book does well. As I followed Neal’s adventure from inception to completion, I never imagined that I’d have the opportunity to help shape it into a book. Thanks, Neal and Cindy. It’s been a pleasure.

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A cinematic trail


Remember the scene from the 1986 film Stand By Me, in which four boys scramble to get off a river-spanning rail trestle as a freight train bears down on them?
Well, in the not-too-distant future, bicyclists and hikers will be able to ride or walk across that same trestle in northeastern California without having to worry about trains. It will be part of the Great Shasta Rail Trail.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy announced earlier this month that the Shasta Land Trust has purchased the right-of-way along an 80-mile section of the McCloud Railway between the towns of McCloud in Siskiyou County and Burney in Shasta County.
The previous owner of the right-of-way, 4 Rails Inc., abandoned use of that section of track in 2005. The line previously had been used to haul timber.
Since 2009, said the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Shasta Land Trust “has been working with a coalition of local partners, Save Burney Falls, McCloud Local First Network, the Volcanic Legacy Community Partnership and the McCloud Trail Association, with the express intention of converting the corridor into a public recreation trail.”
The film, set in Oregon in 1959, is directed by Rob Reiner and based on a Stephen King novella, The Body. With a great soundtrack of period rock ‘n’ roll hits, it tells the story of four boys who set out on Labor Day weekend to find the body of a missing kid they had read about in the newspaper.
Check out the trestle scene below.

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Notre Dame’s velocipede


Notre Dame prides itself on being one of the nation’s preeminent research universities. So I guess it’s no surprise that in 1869 some students at the still-new school in South Bend, Ind., were researching a new-fangled European contraption that would soon take America by storm: the bicycle.

David Herlihy

The intriguing tale of how one of the first bicycles to reach the United States landed at Notre Dame is told by friend and bicycle historian David V. Herlihy in an article in the spring edition of Notre Dame Magazine.
The Rev. Edward Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, had founded Notre Dame in November 1842. In 1868, after he had retired as president, he returned to his native France for a prolonged visit.
“Shortly after his arrival, while strolling the streets of Paris, he heard a frightening rumble,” Herlihy writes. “Wheeling around, he saw a man flash by, straddling a curious contraption. ‘What is that?’ he asked his companion. ‘A velocipede? I must have one for Notre Dame.’’’
Sorin wrote to Notre Dame students that he wished he could have bought a dozen of the machines, but could afford only one, and that it was on its way to South Bend. The bicycle in question had a solid iron frame, two wooden carriage wheels and pedals affixed to the axle of the front wheel. It weighed 80 pounds and cost 250 francs, the equivalent of about $50, “fully a third of the room, board and tuition that Notre Dame charged for an entire semester” at the time, Herlihy writes.
The bicycle finally arrived on Jan. 11, 1869. But — at least at first — it was not a big hit with Notre Dame’s students and staff. Several of them suffered scrapes and bruises as they tried to tame the “people’s nag,” as some called early bicycles because they were seen as replacements for horses.
A student committee, replying to Sorin, Herlihy writes, tactfully acknowledged their struggles: “Many thanks for the beautiful velocipede which you have so kindly sent. That it will be the source of immense amusement we have no doubt, but as yet it has not been found.”
A faculty committee also wrote to Sorin, expressing hope that he would return from France in time for the university’s silver jubilee in the spring and thanking him for the gift of the velocipede: “The only danger is that the reckless swift-footed creature may carry us all to destruction before your return.”
Despite Notre Dame’s misgivings about the velocipede, Herlihy writes, bicycle mania spread across the United States barely a month after Father Sorin’s gift arrived on campus. “The New York Times proclaimed, ‘Never before in the history of manufactures in this country has there arisen such a demand for an article.’ American carriage-makers worked around the clock to produce bicycles. Rinks opened in every major city to teach the new art.”
The St. Joseph Valley Register, published in South Bend, seemed to welcome the trend: “Those who have tried the velocipede say it doesn’t require any more strength and exertion to run it than it does to saw hard wood with a dull saw.”
“The Notre Dame faculty, however, found their model neither fast nor bearable,” Herlihy writes. “In May 1869, the student magazine Scholastic reported that several members had pedaled “some distance from the College,” but that “nearly every one of them returned limping, wincing, and rubbing parts affected.”
It’s too bad that Father Sorin didn’t dispatch a velocipede to St. Edward’s University, which he founded in 1878 in Austin, Texas. By that time, the bicycle was about to entire a golden age, before being displaced by automobiles in the early years of the 20th century. A bicycle from Father Sorin would have been a marvelous historical nugget in the story of Austin becoming the foremost city in Texas for cyclists and the hometown of Lance Armstrong.

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It’s called a Nubrella


Our Sunday morning neighborhood bike ride was cancelled today because of storm squalls that rolled though the Dallas-Fort Worth area until after lunchtime.
And then I saw this, from The Telegraph of Britain: a hands-free umbrella that sits on your head like a collapsible bubble.

Photo by Solent News

Called a Nubrella, the contraption was invented by Alan Kaufman, 49, of Florida, The Telegraph reported.
“The major advantage is the wearer doesn’t have to carry anything when not in use as it goes behind the head like a hood,” the newspaper quoted Kaufman as saying.
“The umbrella was long overdue for some innovation, now people can ride their bikes and work outdoors completely hands free while staying protected. Millions of people are required to work outdoors no matter what the conditions are and simply can’t hold an umbrella and perform their tasks.”
I guess it’s no more dorky looking than spandex shiny-heinie shorts and those little rear-view mirrors that stick out to the side of your helmet.

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Without a word being spoken …


In advance of this summer’s London Olympics, British Airways has run a competition to showcase the work of “Great Britons.”

A still from the film

The winner in the film category is a 10-minute movie called Boy. It’s a beautiful, poignant film about a father’s love for his bicycling son, killed by a truck while on a training ride.
Boy was scripted by Prasanna Puwanarajah, directed by Justin Chadwick and photographed by Danny Cohen, with a score by Alex Heffes. It stars Timothy Spall as a carpenter who devises a way to pay tribute to his son, who had hoped to race at the Olympics Velodrome.
The film packs a tremendous emotional wallop, without a word being spoken.
Check out the trailer and the film.

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Courtesy goes a long way


The May issue of Bicycling magazine has an article of interest for any city planning or implementing bicycle lanes — like my hometown, Fort Worth.
The story, “We Have Met the Enemy” by Matt Seaton, focuses on New York and the controversy that accompanied that city’s installation of nearly 300 miles of bike lanes since 2007 in an effort to calm and decrease motorized traffic.

Bike sign in Lower Manhattan

“In many cities and towns, the construction of new bike lanes faces vicious opposition – but the most tenacious obstacle is also the most surprising one,” says a subhead on the story.
It suggests that simple courtesy by bicyclists and self-enforcement of the rules of the road by cyclists go a long way to alleviating the opposition.
“The backlash was a direct result of cyclists who don’t abide by the rules,” said Ken Podziba, the CEO of Bike New York, a nonprofit advocacy organization that stages the annual Five Boro Bike Tour, to be held this year on May 6.
The Bicycling story quoted Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us). He cited a Harvard study that identified four stages in the change of social norms – such as the implementation of bike lanes: silly, controversial, progressive, and, finally, obvious.
“In the first stage, we had a sort of reflexive denial: New York isn’t Europe, that won’t work here, etc.,” Vanderbilt said.
“I think we’re somewhere between the second and third stage when it comes to cycling in New York; opponents are finding they can’t make viable arguments against cycling as a transportation mode on safety or traffic-flow reasons, so now it’s more about the left-wing, Copenhagenizing cabal.”
I spent a week in New York last month and was very impressed by the emerging infrastructure for cyclists and the number of bikes out on the streets and bike lanes.
I like to think that Fort Worth, too, is somewhere between the second and third stages in the change of social norms – between “controversial” and “progressive.”
The city has long had an excellent network of paved trails, mostly along the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River. It has in place a comprehensive plan to promote bicycling “as a safe and attractive transportation alternative.” It’s considering a bike-sharing program. And it has been busy delineating bike lanes on major thoroughfares to and around downtown.
The icing on the cake: Mayor Betsy Price is an avid cyclist who leads bicycle rides around the city.
Fort Worth has come a long way since 2008 when Bicycling magazine called Dallas-Fort Worth one of the worst places in the nation to ride a bike. But we still live in a car-centric region and have a way to go before bike lanes become an “obvious” solution to congestion and pollution.
In that process, maybe we can learn something from New York. The courtesy of cyclists can go a long way in changing people’s attitudes toward bicycles on the road.

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Riders of the night


I was pleased to see this morning that my hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is taking note of the city’s emerging, eclectic bicycling culture.
The main story on the newspaper’s Life & Arts cover was about the Night Riders, a group of fun-loving cyclists who ride Wednesday and Sunday evenings after gathering at the Chat Room pub on Fort Worth’s Near South Side.
What I like about the Night Riders, whom I’ve ridden with quite a few times, is that they’re not at all like some of the macho types that I’ve encountered in many years of bicycle riding: those who are interested mostly in speed, the latest high-tech gear, shaving a gram or two off the bike’s rolling weight, the rate of caloric burn, etc. Some of that stuff gets pretty boring around a table or a campsite at the end of the day on a multiday ride.
No, the Night Riders are simply into having fun on bikes. And some of their rigs – cargo bikes, heavy beach cruisers, bikes put together from discarded frames and components found at swap meets – might be anathema to roadies who favor sleek carbon-fiber frames, color-coordinated spandex livery, heart monitors and $200 helmets. Some of the Night Riders, much to my chagrin, don’t even wear helmets.
The Wednesday night rides are usually briskly paced excursions through neighborhood streets and along the city’s fine network of bicycle trails. The Sunday night rides are essentially pub crawls, with a couple stops at local bars. The rule is “one and done” – no more than one beer at each stop.
The Night Riders are also ambassadors for the local cycling community. They try to obey all traffic laws, wave to passing motorists and the people they see in neighborhoods and encourage anyone who asks what they’re up to to get on a bike and give it a try.
The Star-Telegram article, by Eric Griffey, noted that in 2008 Bicycling magazine called the Dallas-Fort Worth are one of the worst places in the nation to ride a bike, citing such impediments to cycling as heavy traffic and lack of institutional support.
“Flash-forward to 2012, however,” the article said, “and Fort Worth is one of a growing number of U.S. cities that has adopted a more aggressive bike plan and started to take bicycling seriously as an alternative form of transportation.”
The Night Riders have been hugely instrumental in making that happen.

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