Thursday, September 22, 2005

Happy World Car Free Day!

Today is World Car Free Day. But I didn't need to look at a calendar to know that. On my 2.5-mile ride to work this morning, I shared the streets with hundreds of other cyclists. All sorts of people were on all sorts of bicycles, including several Free Spirit 10-speeds, still covered with dust from decades of slumber in the dark corners of Savannah's garages.

Bicycles were everywhere. In fact, the only motor vehicles I saw were the local bike shops' support trucks slowly prowling Habersham Street. The trucks were soon parked and the air compressors, tools and other repair gear transferred to a fleet of Xtracycles, from which volunteer mechanics continued lending aid to cyclists whose long-neglected rides weren't quite prepared for the morning commute.

Shops and restaurants all over town were brimming with customers. Unencumbered by the need to find suitable storage places for their automobiles, they easily wheeled up to bike racks that had been deployed in advance of today's event. And they didn't even worry about locking their bikes. A wave of goodwill had spread among the cycling citizens, making the prospect of theft very unlikely.

Around 8:30 a.m., President Bush announced in a press conference that he wanted all spending on new road construction, included in the $286 billion federal highway bill passed in July, redirected to fund mass transit and to begin modification of our nation's roadways to safely accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic. In an announcement that shocked just about everyone, President Bush said, "It's sort of like I've been born again, again. I now realize that continued spending on automobile-exclusive infrastructure only digs us deeper into a hole from which America would never emerge."

After the press conference, Bush hopped on his mountain bike and rode from the White House to Capitol Hill to discuss his epiphany with legislators, who were also commuting to work by bicycle.


My 2.5-mile ride to work looked pretty much like it did yesterday. I saw a city worker headed south on an old blue Schwinn. I saw man riding against traffic on a child's bike. I saw a handful of SCAD students cycling to class. I saw a Trek road bike being loaded into the cargo hold of a Chevy Suburban. I saw one other bicycle in the rack outside my office.

On a more positive note, here's this and this.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Free from cars, but not from responsibility

I learned last week about Car Free Savannah, a new local advocacy organization focused on "human powered transportation." There's a lot to like in the group's mission statement and I'm looking forward to seeing what they accomplish. However, I disagree with some of the advice for pedestrians and cyclists dispensed in the "How Not to Drive" section of the Car Free Savannah Web site. For example I offer this passage:

Same road, same rules, same rights?

Kind of.

A bicycle is supposed to follow all the rules of traffic, just like a car. In practice, though...

Experienced cyclists rarely wait for a red light to change. Cyclists don't require signals to tell them about what other cars are going to do. They have no blind spots, can hear their surroundings, and aren't likely to be moving more than 20 miles an hour. If they are, they're definitely paying attention.

If you watch an intersection where cyclists regularly cross, you'll notice that they're watching traffic, not lights. It doesn't matter what color some bulb is, either a vehicle is coming, or it isn't. Car accidents happen because drivers trust that a glowing bulb means the coast is clear, or that a one-way sign will keep traffic flowing in one direction.

Bicycles are not often considered when traffic laws are written, roads are built, or communities are 'planned'. After riding for a while, most cyclists see traffic laws as rules to a game they're not invited to play.

Yesterday on my ride home from work, I was passed by a cyclist who was taking the lane. No problem there, except that he sailed straight across Victory Drive against the light in the left turn lane. From there he continued riding the centerline of Habersham Street, so that cars were squeezing between him and another cyclist riding in the bike lane. I presume he was making up his own rules to a game he wasn't invited to play.

About an hour later, I took a spin around the neighborhood on my new single speed bicycle (more about it in a future post). I nearly collided with a cyclist in full costume who crashed a stop sign at the corner of 49th Street and Atlantic Avenue. The only thing that alerted him to my presence was the shriek of a 26-year-old Mafac Racer brake. If I had been driving a car, he would have likely ended up on its hood. I suppose he didn't require a sign to tell him what to do.

If these two characters are "experienced cyclists," I hope I never become one.

It seems to me that bicyclists sometimes want it both ways. We want respect from motorists and full access to the streets. Yet, we exempt ourselves from the rules of the road. Which is it? I don't see how we can expect to be protected by the law while simultaneously placing ourselves above it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bike Year down shifts to one gear

I had to work last weekend and I rode my 1979 Peugeot UO-10 instead of my normal utility bicycle. On the way home Sunday afternoon, a guy in bike shorts and a jersey pulled up beside me on his nice Trek. We rode along enjoying a pleasant discussion about local cycling routes. Eventually he became impatient with my leisurely pace and took his leave. Still, this is the most contact I've had with a roadie to date. I ride in street clothes and I'm slow, so I sometimes perceive that the people in full cycling costumes flying past me on their slick road bikes are looking down their noses at me and my humble conveyance.

Riding the UO-10 for the first time in months made me aware that my utility bike is pretty clunky. I realize that the person riding the bike is the predominant factor in how fast it goes, but the Peugeot certainly ate up the pavement in big bites. I don't know exactly what came over me when I got home, but I got the notion that I should convert the UO-10 into a single speed bike.

Before I knew it, I'd removed the rear brake, a chain ring, the front and rear derailers, shifters and all associated cables. I shortened the chain. I wrapped the chain around one of the cogs (This is an inelegant solution, I know). The 27 inch Rigida rims were replaced by 700c Arayas from a donor bike. I rode it around the neighborhood and liked the results.

Phase two of the transformation is scheduled for tomorrow. It will include a procedure I've never undertaken before: a pedal transplant. Below is a photo of the UO-10 before I started removing parts. I'll post a post-op photo once the patient is in recovery.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Making like a car

I was handily overtaken on my way to work this morning by a real bicycle commuter. He was clearly bound for the office (necktie flapping over his shoulder, messenger bag slung across his back) and he was in a hurry. Dude was riding what appeared to be a single speed road bike with flat bars and he was really making it move. I thought to myself, "One day that will be me, averaging 20 mph instead of my current 13. One day."

I watched him approach the traffic signal at Habersham and Anderson streets and then my admiration diminished dramatically. He snaked his way to the front of the line of cars waiting at the light, spied a momentary hole in traffic and squirted across the intersection. He did the same thing a block north at the next intersection.

Listen, I know that motorists run red lights all the time. However, even people who purposely gun their cars through red lights know they shouldn't do it. They know it's against the law. Yet, this obviously experienced cyclist was probably unencumbered by any such feelings.

I admit it. I've rolled through stop signs in my quiet neighborhood when the streets were totally absent of traffic. I confess. I've peddled across intersections against the light when there was not a car within sight or earshot (or when my bike would not trigger the sensors located in the pavement). But when I'm on a busy urban street during the morning rush hour, well, I make like a car. That means waiting my turn to proceed through the intersection, just like all the people sitting in their cars waiting for the light to change. Why? Because I want to be treated just like all the people sitting in their cars waiting for the light to change.

There are plenty of folks out there who believe my bicycle and I belong on the sidewalk or on some recreational bike trail to nowhere, but certainly not on the streets of this city. If I behave in a way that suggests that I am doing anything other than operating a street legal vehicle in a lawful manner, I think I've done myself and other cyclists a disservice. If I bend or ignore the rules of the road, I perpetuate the misguided notion that cyclists are irresponsible intruders in the exclusive realm of automobiles. Sure, it's unfair that individual motorists can be as inept, distracted and aggressive as they want, without calling into question whether cars should be allowed on the streets. Sadly, cyclists don't enjoy that luxury. Kurtis Blow might describe this situation as "the breaks."

Monday, September 05, 2005

The world has changed

I lived in a very different place when I last posted here. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I was astonished to see the effect on people in my community, so far away from the storm's path. Early last week, rumors of gasoline shortages circulated around Savannah and surrounding towns, causing long lines at convenience stores and near fisticuffs in some places as neighbors jostled with each other to horde their "fair share" of gasoline. One local auto parts store reportedly sold out of gas cans.

Later in the week, Gov. Sonny Perdue suspended the state's gasoline tax, already the lowest in the country. This is, no doubt, a comfort to many people. However, I can't help but think that it rewards the kind of bad behavior described above. Still, there was some good news: I was very pleased to see a full-page ad in Monday's Savannah Morning News, which announced that Publix grocery stores would be adopting energy conservation measures. I hope this will become standard practice.

It's been frustrating to watch local, state and federal officials try to pin on each other responsibility for bungled relief efforts in New Orleans. These blamestorming exercises have also produced sharp criticism of the people who defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. I'm certain there are some who foolishly remained in the city by choice. For others, though, evacuation simply was not an option. The end of the month, when this hurricane hit, is often a lean time for people who live paycheck to paycheck. It's the time to go on the all Ramen diet or to decide which personal possessions must be taken to the pawnshop. It's not the time to embark on extended road trips with associated expenses for fuel, meals and motel rooms.

What's more, those who stayed in New Orleans surely made the exodus out of the city easier for residents who could afford to evacuate. Every person stranded in the Superdome was one less person evacuees had to compete with for gas, food and lodging. Because they stayed, others were able to escape more quickly.

It has taken longer than I anticipated to get my utility cycle up and running after being hit by a car last week. Only after installing my new front rim did I discover that the rear rim was also bent. I probably would have noticed this earlier, had I not carried the bike home on my shoulder from the scene of the accident. The mechanics at Star Bike worked their magic on the rear rim and I was back in business by the end of the week. At first, I felt a slight wobble and sensed that the right pedal peg might be bent. After about 10 miles I became used to these flaws and ceased to notice them. The bicycle is truly as good as new.

On the way back from Jones Red and White market yesterday morning, I had to brake sharply to avoid what would have been a wonderfully exotic traffic accident. A southbound cyclist riding against traffic, a man on a zero turning radius riding mower crossing Habersham Street diagonally at mid block, a northbound 32-foot Tiffin Allegro Bay motor home, and your narrator all converged on the same stretch of pavement at the same moment in time.