Monthly Archives: February 2011

Be careful out there!


Any bicyclist who has ever been jeered or threatened by an angry driver will probably want to read an article in the March issue of Outside magazine, “Rage Against Your Machine.”
“What is it about cyclists that can turn sane, law-abiding drivers into shrieking maniacs?” asks a subheadline on the piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who aims to “open a window into what it means to be a cyclist in a country where the bicycle struggles for the barest acceptance as a means of transportation.”

Joe Simonetti

Vanderbilt focuses on Joe Simonetti, a 57-year-old psychotherapist who lives with his wife in Pound Ridge, N.Y. Simonetti commutes by bicycle twice a week from his home in northern Westchester County to his office in Manhattan just south of Central Park. The one-way trip is about 45 miles and takes about 3 1/2 hours. But Simonetti doesn’t ride home the same day; he has a place in the city to shower and sleep.
“Over the years and the miles,” Vanderbilt writes, “Simonetti has experienced just about everything a cyclist can on the roads today: honked horns, cramped bike lanes, close calls with cars, and even a few crashes — the last one landing him in the hospital. I was curious to ride with him for the sheer novelty of it, and also to get a handle on what seemed to be an increasingly prevalent culture war between cyclists and drivers, one that was claiming actual lives.”
Vanderbilt — author of a 2008 book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) — cites figures from 2009, the last year for which records are available, showing that 630 cyclists were killed by cars in the United States.
“That’s arguably a big improvement over the 1,003 cyclist fatalities that occurred in 1975, when, as Census data hint, far fewer people were commuting by bike and still fewer wore helmets,” the article says. “And yet, even if things have gotten safer, at least in terms of absolute deaths (which are easier to measure than where or how much people are actually cycling), a sense of hostility — and sometimes outright violence — seems to be on the rise.
“When accidents do happen,” Vanderbilt says, “they can generate as much vitriol as concern, as drivers circle their station wagons and trot out now familiar arguments: that the roads are meant for cars, or that cyclists don’t pay for the roads — a particularly unwarranted charge, given that local streets are paid for primarily by sales and property taxes. There’s a feeling among many drivers that cyclists, either by their ignorance of the law or by their blatant disregard for it, are asking for trouble. ‘If the door opens into a bicycle rider,’ opined Rush Limbaugh on his radio show in 2009, ‘I won’t care.'”
The many online comments on Vanderbilt’s piece reflect the tension between cyclists and drivers. But one anonymous common-sense observation pretty well sums up my view on the topic:
“At the end of the day, two things seem self-evident. Drivers need to understand and respect the vulnerability of a cyclist and cyclists need to understand and respect the primary purpose of roads. This should not be that difficult for either ‘group’ to understand.”
Take a look at Vanderbilt’s article. It’s a good read.

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Der rollende Biergarten


“It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile.”
— German proverb

I remarked at the end of my Feb. 23 post — about a portable sauna pulled around by a bicycle in Prague — that such a device would be of little use in Texas, save for a few frosty days each winter, because the heat and humidity of a Texas summer sometimes makes the whole state a gigantic sauna.
That prompted a comment from a reader: “Maybe a rolling beer garden?”
Well, in fact, rolling beer gardens, propelled by pedaling patrons, are already a fixture on the streets of Germany and the Netherlands. I even mentioned the BierBike in a post on Sept. 14, 2009.
It seems that my German forebears have mastered the concept of combining biking and beer.
BierBikes, sometimes called “pedal pubs” or “mobile conference tables,” usually feature a barrel of beer at the front and a dozen seats modeled on bicycle saddles around a bar. The imbibing patrons crank away at the pedals at their seats to keep the BeirBike moving. When they get thirsty — and of course they get thirsty — they help themselves at the beer tap. Music from a sound system aboard Der Rollende Biergarten keeps the party lively. A non-drinking driver is supposed to keep the BeirBike on course.
These bizarre conveyances apparently first appeared in the Netherlands, but have become especially popular in Germany, where they’re offered to tourists in more than 30 cities. (See the TV news report below about a BierBike in Frankfurt.)
Some German officials, however, contend that the rolling beer gardens are a monumental nuisance and a safety hazard to boot.
“These rolling beer bars take up the width of a car and are real traffic impediments,” Klaus-Peter von Lüdeke, deputy leader of the Berlin Free Democrats, told the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel last August and urged that they be banned. The drivers are required to remain sober as they guide the tours, but Lüdeke said they still can’t be trusted to negotiate traffic.
The Rhineland city of Düsseldorf, concerned about “indiscriminate peeing,” the noise that accompanies the beer bike tours and beer glasses — and guests — falling onto the street, became the first in Germany to outlaw the rolling beer gardens. Other cities were expected to follow suit.

Pedaling patrons keep the BierBike rolling

A court in Düsseldorf issued the ban after complaints from other drivers, said an Oct. 6 story in The Guardian of Britain. “Complainants maintain that the bikes caused traffic jams, which intensified the longer a beer bike journey lasted — in effect, the more the revelers drank — and the more their pedal power tended to be reduced.”
As reported Aug. 16 by The Local, an English-language newsper in Germany: “The beer is flowing, the pedals are turning and the mood aboard the BierBike, or beer bike, is euphoric. But the passengers’ high spirits aren’t shared by nearby car drivers, stuck behind the six-kilometer-per-hour vehicle on Dusseldorf’s main drag, the Königsalle.”
The owners of the vehicles, which cost about 20,000 euros ($27,650), didn’t take the court ruling lightly. “More than 100 jobs are at stake,” said a spokesman for the Cologne-based Bierbike GmbH, which runs tours in more than 36 cities.
It’s a pretty lucrative business. The BeirBike costs 120 euros ($166) per hour to rent, and it’s rented more than 150,000 times per year. BierBike’s manager, Udo Klemt, said the ban would destroy a “pure success story.”
Perhaps the reader of this blog who suggested that a rolling beer garden would be an appropriate antidote to a Texas summer should take his proposal to some of cities in the Texas Hill Country — say New Braunfels or Fredericksburg. They abound with residents of German extraction to supply the beer and summertime cyclists to keep the beer bikes rolling.

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The last snow of the season?


It’s been a tough winter for bicycle commuters and bike messengers in New York, with wave after wave of what weather forecasters like to call “snow events.”
The latest such event was early this week, but it didn’t last long. An old friend and longtime New Yorker, who now lives in Maine but frequently goes back to the Big Apple, snapped the photo below and e-mailed it to me.
“I took this,” he wrote, “at the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and 57th Street with my Droid 2 shortly after noon on Monday, February 21, not long after the snow stopped and the temperature began to climb.”
Is spring finally on the way?

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A rolling steam room


Now here’s something that would have been a welcome sight to my bike-commuting friends, those who rode to work despite the frigid, icy weather of early February: a portable sauna hauled around by pedal power.
Here’s how Jeff Ciabotti of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy described this bizarre contraption on the organization’s website on Tuesday:
“Imagine this: It’s 19 degrees out with a wind chill that would send even the hardiest polar bear swimmers back to their lair for a long winter nap. You are riding fully geared up, but the wind is laughing in your face. As time drags on, your internal conversation is turning ugly. Just when you decide to abort your trip, a fire-spewing capsule suddenly appears that vaguely resembles the landing pod for Apollo 13. You cautiously approach. Upon hearing sounds of merriment, you reach for the hatch, pull it open and step into a rolling hothouse made just for you.”
The “BikeSAUNA” project was a bit of “guerrilla architecture” devised by young Czech architects who work for a firm in Prague called H3T Architects.
The rolling steam room was delivered as a gift to cyclists in the Czech Republic who don’t stop riding in the winter. It can accommodate up to six people at a time and was tested by 30 people last week on the banks of the Moldau River in Prague, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported.
“We in colder sections of the United States can only hope that such a good idea gets imported — and soon!” the organization’s website said.
I’m afraid that a portable hothouse wouldn’t be of much use in Texas — save for a few frosty days each winter. In the heat and humidity of summer, the whole state is sometimes one gigantic sauna.

Bicycle sauna being tested along the Moldau River in Prague

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Cycling in a megacity


“This is a country that has gone from developing to overdeveloped in one generation.”
— Gary Shteyngart writing about South Korea in Travel + Leisure magazine, December 2008

Bike path in Seoul

The prospect of a visit to Seoul this summer, to meet the family of our new daughter-in-law, has prompted me to look into doing some bicycling in one of Asia’s most vibrant, high-tech cities.
The sheer size of the South Korean capital, the fifth-largest city in the world, might be a bit off-putting for anyone daring to venture out on two wheels. (See the video below to get an idea of what it’s like navigating through Seoul’s traffic on a bike.)
With a population of more than 10 million, Seoul is bigger than New York, and it’s the center of the world’s second-largest metropolitan area with more than 24.5 million inhabitants. Only greater Tokyo is larger.
Despite its headlong leap into modernity, embracing everything high-tech from bullet trains to microrobots, this megacity might be more bicycle-friendly than one might think.

Seoul sparkles at night

South Korean officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, have been trying to persuade more Koreans to ride bicycles — a low-tech means of transport — as part of the nation’s green growth strategy, which also includes solar and wind power, hybrid gas-electric cars and buses powered by compressed natural gas.
“A city cannot effectively cope with global warming issues and traffic congestion if people commute only by car,” says Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who rides his bicycle to work. “We will develop Seoul into a city where citizens can commute by bicycle.”
Only about 1.6 percent of Seoul’s commuters use bicycles, partly due to a lack of dedicated paths. That compares with nearly 40 percent using bikes to get to work in Amsterdam, the world’s most bike-friendly city, and about 6.4 percent for Portland, Ore., which boasts the highest percentage of bike commuters in the United States.
Seoul’s municipal government announced plans on Oct. 22, 2008, to build 207 kilometers (129 miles) of cycle paths over the next four years.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak waves as he promotes bicycle commuting

The aim is to increase the number of Seoul’s bike commuters to 4.4 percent of the populace in 2012, 7.6 percent in 2016 and 10 percent in 2020.
On Sept. 17, 2009, the city announced plans to introduce a bicycle-rental program modeled on the Velib system in Paris, but on a much larger scale.
“When we build enough bike road networks in 2011, we can test the system for about six months in downtown and then operate the system citywide,” Mayor Oh was quoted as saying.
Because Seoul has a surface area about six times that of Paris, the Koreans plan to integrate the bike paths and rental stations with bus and subway routes to accommodate longer commutes.
The idea is to make bicycle paths only a part of a worker’s commuting route. Bikes could be carried on buses and subway cars or rented at bus and subway stations and returned to any rental station in the city.

A cyclist rides along Seoul's Han River

The paths would reach into all corners of the sprawling city. Bike parks, fitted out with shower rooms and lockers, would be placed at 16 subway stations so Seoulites could use both bicycles and public transit to get to work. In some cases, the number of lanes for motor vehicles on major roads would be cut to create new cycle paths.
Major segments of the current network of bike paths criss-crossing Seoul are those on either side of the Han River, which flows east to west through the city and empties into the Yellow Sea, the West Sea to Koreans.
The bike path on the south side of the river starts upstream around Gwangnaru area on the east side of the metropolis and runs 41.4 kilometers (25.72 miles) to Gangseo Wetland Park near the mouth of the Han River. The bike path on the northern side of the river starts at Gwangjin Bridge on the east and runs 39.3 kilometers (24.4 miles) downstream to Nanji Han River Park.
The English-language newspaper The Korean Herald reports that bicycles can be rented at various places along the riverside near subway stops. A ride along the Han River sounds like a pleasant way to spend at least one day during a visit to Seoul.

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Snow-bound bikes


We’ve been enjoying lovely spring weather in North Texas, perfect for bicycling, although a bit windy. As I write this around noon on Monday, the temperature in Fort Worth is in the mid-60s, on the way to the low 70s.
But other cyclists around the country have not been so fortunate — those in Flagstaff, Ariz., for example. A severe winter storm over the weekend dumped more than a foot of snow on Flagstaff, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet.
Take a look at this photograph by Rob Schumacher of The Arizona Republic, shot on Sunday outside Allen Hall on the campus of Northern Arizona University.

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Bikes vs. cars in China


Despite China’s increasing infatuation with cars, it’s heartening to note that some Chinese city planners are not about to abandon the bicycle as a reliable means of tranportation. In fact, several cities have been making it easier to use bikes.
I wrote in a Feb. 8 post, “China’s ‘visionary’ bike-sharing plan,” about the world’s largest bike-sharing program in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

A bike-rental station in Hangzhou

Started on May 1, 2008, the Hangzhou program offers 50,000 bicycles at more than 1,000 rental stations for a population of about 1.9 million in the urban core. The second-largest bike-sharing network is Velib in Paris, which provides about 20,000 bikes distributed among 1,450 stations for its population of about 2.1 million.
Now, the city of Xiamen, on China’s southeastern coast, plans to follow Hangzhou’s example and build its own bike-sharing system this year, the deputy director of the city’s Urban Planning Bureau, Wang Wei, announced at a news conference on Feb. 18.
The Urban Planning Bureau offered statistics showing that 40 percent of Xiamen residents get around by walking or biking. Thirty percent use public transport and 8.2 percent drive private cars.
The bike-rental system will focus on Xiamen’s urban core and new towns on the city’s outskirts. The bike-rental stations are to be placed at public transportation hubs so that bicycle commuters can connect to commercial centers, hospitals, schools and entertainment and sports venues.
Xiamen, which has a population of about 2.5 million, became one of China’s earliest Special Economic Zones in the 1980s. It is considered one of China’s most livable cities. A bike-sharing program is likely to enhance that reputation.
Take a slide-show tour of Xiamen.

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