Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Need more gorillas

Star Bike Shop opened at 1 p.m. Sunday and I was there around 1:03 p.m. with my badly bent wheel and ruptured tire pump. Chuck Larcom, the owner, sold me a new wheel and told me to pick out a new pump from the sales floor, despite the fact that my damaged pump was more than a year old and had been heavily used. He said he'd take it up with the manufacturer. Star is an old school shop and off the beaten path. The hipsters seem to prefer The Bicycle Link, but I'm loyal to Star because the scenario described above is typical of my experiences there.

Chuck also gave me some very good advice to help avoid future encounters with cars. He said, "Ride like you're invisible." In other words, never assume someone sees you, even if they are staring straight at you. Sometimes motorists look directly at cyclists, he explained, but don't see them because they are so focused on scanning for other cars. It sounds like folksy bike store owner advice, but the inability of motorists to see cyclists (and pedestrians) may be due to something called "change-blindness," which is described here. A snip:

Working with Christopher Chabris at Harvard University, Simons came up with another demonstration that has now become a classic, based on a videotape of a handful of people playing basketball. They played the tape to subjects and asked them to count the passes made by one of the teams.

Around half failed to spot a woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walked slowly across the scene for nine seconds, even though this hairy interloper had passed between the players and stopped to face the camera and thump her chest.

However, if people were simply asked to view the tape, they noticed the gorilla easily. The effect is so striking that some of them refused to accept they were looking at the same tape and thought that it was a different version of the video, one edited to include the ape.

So, folks focusing on basketball passes don't see gorillas on the court and motorists watching exclusively for other cars may not see cyclists, even if they look them in the face and thump their chests. I think a possible cure for change-blindness is to get more gorillas on the court. Perhaps then, drivers won't focus so narrowly on spotting other cars. Looks like there will be plenty of cyclists on the street this weekend. Nonetheless, I'm still going to pretend I'm invisible.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hit by a car

Today around 6 p.m. I was riding east on 49th Street when I was hit by a westbound motorist making a left turn onto Reynolds Street. I am fine, aside from a scrape on my elbow. Unfortunately, my front wheel wound up under one of the car's tires. Looks like I'll need a new one of those. The driver was completely mortified and extremely apologetic.

I still needed to go to the grocery store, so I pulled my 1979 Peugeot UE-8 out of the bike shed and put the panniers on it. Unfortunately, when I was inflating the tires, something broke in the bottom of the pump. Rats! I wound up driving to the grocery store for the first time in about two months. It was not a very satisfying trip.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Meet my utility cycle

This is the bicycle I've been riding most of this Bike Year. It's an L.L. Bean-branded steel frame hybrid, manufactured in China. It's known on the street as the "Acadia Multi-Terrain." Sounds tough, right? I traded a $20 bill for this bicycle at a garage sale earlier this summer.

The Acadia features legendary Shimano Altus C-20 components and grip shifters (I'm pretty sure Lance LeMond was running the Altus package the first time he won the French Open). I've modified the bike with parts from the sale and clearance areas of Nashbar, unless otherwise noted below.

I replaced the dry-rotted Kendas with Panaracer CTX 700x37C tires and new tubes, and installed Zefal Cab fenders. I swapped out the flat steel bar for one item I really splurged on: Nitto North Road aluminum upright bars from Harris Cyclery. The rack is a Nashbar LDT with Nashbar grocery bag panniers (shown in the folded-up position here). My headlight is a Cateye EL200. My taillight is a Planet Bike BRT-1 from my local bike shop of choice, Star Bike.

The unusual red water bottle you see in the cage is actually the reservoir for the incredibly loud AirZound horn, also from Harris Cylclery. Last week, I added a Planet Bike Protege 9.0 computer purchased at Star Bike. This will allow me to keep more a accurate measure of "Miles This Bike Year," for all of you playing along at home. This Acadia came to me with a nearly-new Serfas comfort saddle, which my wife wanted for her Raleigh M-40DX mountain bike. So, the saddle you see in the picture is the Avenir that came from her bike. That's probably the next thing I want to switch out. Also, for this project, I purchased my third bicycle-specific tool, a Park Tools FR-1 freewheel remover.

Last night on my commute home, I encountered a beach cruiser piloted by a guy wearing a turquoise-colored hardhat and an orange safety vest. At first I thought he was sporting some sort of improvised cycling outfit. But as I got closer, I examined his bike and noticed it had lights and a rear rack with really nice panniers. He was a TIC employee returning from a job site. That's right, this a confirmed sighting of a bicycle commuter dressed in his work attire. Are high gasoline prices leading more people to commute on bicycles? Oil is for Sissies is gathering evidence, Treehugger conducted a survey and Adrian endorses bicycle use. You decide.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

New Urbanism, same old habits?

Somewhere in this morning's edition your local newspaper there's probably a wire story about a report released by the Trust for America's Health. The report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America, 2005," does not contain good news. The Savannah Morning News published an Associated Press story localized by reporter Eric Curl. He talked with Regina A. Cochran, the American Diabetes Association's local marketing manager. Here's a snip from the story:
Cochran added that Savannah isn't very exercise friendly once you get out of the historic district, but that may be changing.

"Some of the newer subdivisions seem to be doing a wonderful job of incorporating sidewalks and bike trails."

And she's right. The new developments erupting on the west side of Chatham County and in Effingham County are sprinkled with a few selected ingredients from the New Urbanism cookbook, including sidewalks and even parks. But are the residents of these communities actually using them?

Andre Natta knows a lot about communities and how they work. In this blog entry, he describes his experiences on a recent visit to Mount Laurel, Alabama. I'll offer a taste, if you promise to read the whole thing on Andre's Blog:
Here's what I don't get: people move out here to this community, buy their new old house out in this ideal town layout, get into their cars and drive 30-50 minutes due to traffic congestion to their jobs in the big city, get in their cars again at the end of the day to come home while stopping at the big boxes for their needs and the grocery stores for pre-prepared meals and then pull into their garages and roll up the sidewalks in their ideal world to surf the Internet and take part in a virtual community while ignoring the beauty surrounding them. This effective takes away from the walkability factor that many of these communities are based upon.
Has Andre accurately described the habits of this community's residents? If so, I suspect similar behavior can be observed in the new Savannah-area developments that so excite Cochran. When the Armada docks in the carport and discharges its passengers and cargo directly into the Beazer, Centex or Genesis, what happens next? Do the passengers and pilot emerge later to use the parks, trails and sidewalks? Or do they remain inside until the Armada sails again the next morning?

Last night I ran some errands and ended up putting about 13 miles on the bicycle. This morning, the little bug in the corner of my television screen featured the number 73, which I presumed indicated the relative humidity. But it turns out 73 was the temperature at 7:30 a.m. (The relative humidity was 84 percent). I took advantage of the "cool" weather and became a bicycle commuter, something I hope to be more often when the temperatures cool off again. That should happen sometime in November.

I usually do most of my bicycling in the evening, so I noticed some differences on my morning commute. Most notably, the traffic is heavier. I think I spied what might have been another bicycle commuter. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but his work clothes could have been in that messenger bag. Also, I saw a former mayor of Savannah walking into Pete's Sandwich shop for breakfast.

Friday, August 19, 2005

It's a long ride to Minnesota

My father-in-law says that it's good to have hobbies because they keep you young. If he's right, I'm pretty close to immortal by now. At any given time, I'm likely to be devoting some attention to shortwave radio listening, photography, surf fishing, camping, bird watching, making my own light bulbs, collecting Enoch Light records, amassing large inventories of reel-to-reel tape decks, cultivating bamboo, making dioramas of Civil War battles using ceramic clown figurines, armchair urban planning, or crashing remote control airplanes. And bicycles.

Rarely do any of my disparate pursuits align and that's why I'm jealous that I can't attend a event that Nathan mentioned last month on his blog. Everything about Bike-In at the Bell has my name on it. Except for the location. Bicycles! Rock music! Bizarre safety films from 1963! I wish I could be there.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Utility bikes, off the rack?

While I was waiting my turn at the counter at the LBS yesterday, I wandered around the shop and looked at the bicycles on display. They could be divided into four categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, comfort bikes (I've included "beach cruisers" in this category) and children's bikes. I suppose there could be a fifth that includes recumbents, folding bicycles and other flavors that don't fit into the other four categories. But there weren't any of those on display at my local bike shop, which I believe to be fairly typical of most.

Another category not available for purchase: utility bikes. There were plenty of bicycles that could be used for recreational purposes, but none that were properly set up to serve as a person's primary or sole mode of transportation and cargo hauling. It's true that by modifying bicycles of the first three categories, with parts and accessories available at the store, a customer could create a utility cycle. However, there weren't any available "off the rack."

From my short tenure in the realm of utility cycling, I've learned that most people start with a road, mountain or comfort bike and repurpose it for utility cycling. And I must admit that fiddling with a bike, looking through bicycle accessory catalogs and fine-tuning my rig are appealing rituals of the UC cult. Yet it also occurs to me that the roll-your-own ethic of utility cycling may pose a barrier to potential converts. Some folks don't want to mess with all the details.

After all, when you pick out a new Toyota Camry on the lot, you don't then have to walk to another part of the dealership to select a trunk or order the headlights from third party vendor. I expect some potential utility cyclists would like to ride their purchases straight off the sales floor and to the grocery store. That's the way it works when you buy a car, right? You settle on the price, sign on the line and drive it off the lot.

If we want people to replace their cars with bikes, I think the buying experience should be similar. (Except for the price). I am aware of some manufacturers, such as Breezer, that are producing nearly complete utility bicycles. I suspect some high volume shops in larger communities are bundling bikes with accessories and displaying them this way. I hope this trickles down into more modest shops in smaller towns.

Meanwhile, in the background, operations like Xtracycle and Cleverchimp are really expanding the notion of what a bike can do. I think their products occupy the same place in the market today that early SUVs like the International Harvester Scout did in the early 1970s. They were specialized vehicles available to consumers who needed their particular capabilities, but not something people generally drove around town.

We all know the rest of the story. Today you don't need to go to a ranch or wilderness preserve to see the Scout's contemporary counterparts in action. Perhaps one day sport utility bikes (to borrow a term used by the Xtracycle people) will be as ubiquitous as SUVs are today. I look forward to walking into the local bike store and seeing Strokemonkey-equipped Xtracycles and other SUBs parked along models from the other categories.

After work today, I headed to the Jen Library to do a little research. Saw only one other cyclist on the way there, a dude on a beach cruiser weaving from one side of the street to the other as he slowly made his way. There were plenty of students' bicycles in the racks at the library, as usual. On the way home, near the corner of Habersham and Henry streets, I saw I gentleman stepping back to admire his beach cruiser, which was parked on the sidewalk. It had so many blinking red and blue lights on the back, it looked like a thin slice of a squad car. "Looks good," I said. "Alright now!" was his reply.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Atlanta commuters consider drastic measures

Yesterday the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story on high gas prices. This is big news allover, of course, but is particularly worrisome to folks who live in Atlanta, one of the most automobile-dependent cities on the planet. I use the phrase "live in Atlanta" loosely. Most Atlantans don't actually live in Atlanta proper, but rather in part of what Kunstler called a giant hairball of a thirteen-county demolition derby. The hairball now stretches all the way to Chattanooga.

The term "city" is also problematic when describing the metropolitan area that I have called home twice in the last decade. Think of a major American city and you can usually conjure an image of something that makes it unique, that adds to a sense of place. When I lived in Atlanta and entertained out of town guests, I struggled when they asked me to take them to a unique local attraction. You know, the real Atlanta. Problem is, Altanta is so much like everywhere else, it's not really a distinct city anymore. It's everywhere USA! Most anything that might have made it different was long ago sacrificed so that Atlanta's economic engine could surge ahead, unimpeded by outmoded buildings, landscapes or local character.

At any rate, the thing that interested me about this news item was not the story itself, but a blog-style "forum" in which readers were asked to describe what kind of cars they drive, the length of their daily commutes and what, if any, changes in their motoring routines they had made in the face of high gasoline prices. Naturally, the banner at the top of the Web page was occupied by an advertisement for a local Hummer dealership.

The responses were surprising: Atlantans were actually using previously taboo words like "MARTA" and "carpooling." Still, I got the feeling that such drastic measures as these were to be employed only until gas prices returned to a "reasonable" level. One satisfied respondent boasted about the fuel efficiency of his motorcycle. "There wouldn't be a problem if we all rode motorcycles," he wrote. Substitute "bicycle" for "motorcycle" and he'd be right.

Last night the pedal-gazing cyclist passed me again, just inches away from my left elbow. I watched him reach the intersection of Habersham Street and Derenne Avenue, then U-Turn, put his head down and push back north. I guess he's training for something. Also, a guy with a cell phone pressed to the side of his melon turned his bike onto Habersham about a half block ahead of me. He seemed to be having trouble operating his bicycle with one hand on the bars and the other on his Nokia. As I passed him, I saw the name Eddy Merckx on the side of his bicycle. Looks like that's a pretty nice bike.

Before I left, I thought about topping off the tires, but I was too lazy. I could really detect the extra rolling resistance and regretted having neglected this chore. Jim at Oil is for Sissies offers a terrific bicycle maintenance primer, which includes a lesson on proper tire inflation. It's probably a good thing to print out and tack to the wall of the bike shed. Too bad I read it this morning and not last night.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

From Southeast to Downeast. And back.

I've returned from my longest vacation in 12 years. I missed six whole days of work and put more miles on my car in 10 days than I will in the next 20 weeks. The ultimate destination of this trip was Downeast Maine.

I can report that our nation's interstate highways are brimming with bicycles. Of course, they are not being ridden (except for the shirtless dude riding against traffic in the emergency lane of I-84 outside of Hartford). Rather, these bikes are attached to automobiles and trucks, most commonly via trailer hitch mounted racks.

I saw plenty of bicycles in use on Mount Desert Island, however, as well as on U.S. Highway 1. Some of these folks had their bicycles loaded down with luggage and camping gear, which had me wondering if they'd ever heard of the Xtracycle. In Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, bicycle traffic was common and most motorists were courteous.

One type of bike that I did not enjoy seeing (or hearing) all over Mount Desert Island: Harley-Davidson and other "loud pipe" motorcycles, with which the place is positively infested. Their obnoxious roar was constant on the streets of Bar Harbor. At night in the otherwise quiet Lamoine State Park, I could hear the bellow of the bikes as they barreled down the causeway, miles away from my tent. In my city, the noise generated by loud car stereos is a popular complaint. Still, no one seems to mind the roar of status symbol motorcycles, which I find much more annoying than the average teenager's subwoofer.

Last night I went to the grocery store after dark and encountered four other cyclists on my trip. None were running with lights. One was riding against traffic on a particularly dark stretch of Habersham Street. Another passed me on the left with about an inch to spare. He had his head down and was really pedaling hard. He sailed through the red light at 63rd Street without looking up.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The "J" factor?

Obviously in direct response to my Saturday post about suburban development, reporters and editors at the Savannah Morning News stayed up all night in order to have the first part of their series "Chatham's New Direction" ready on Sunday morning. Today's installment looks at the new residential construction erupting in the west part of Chatham County and asks, "Who's going to live in all these new houses?" It's a question Bill Dawers asked in his "City Talk" column several weeks ago. As usual, Bill's ahead of the curve.

In this morning's paper, a developer shares his theory about the origin of the folks who will be moving into these far-flung communities:

"It's what we call the 'J factor' -- the pattern of snowbirds coming down to retire in Florida, becoming disillusioned with the congestion and other things, and then hooking back up the coast into Georgia."

If I understand this correctly, retirees are fleeing the sprawl they helped to create in Florida, by moving up to Georgia to start the process all over again. In 5-10 years, their refuge will be indistinguishable from the environment they hoped to escape. I guess they figure they'll be dead before the sprawl gets bad enough to force them to move again. In the meantime, the J-factor crowd and their neighbors should get used to increased traffic on 1-16, I-95 and other limited access arteries that represent the only way in and out of these communities. Already, a morning pile up on eastbound I-16 results in empty desks all over Savannah at the start of the workday. And it's only going to get worse.

Back to Sunday's paper for a moment, I was pleased to see a wire story about Merlin Mann and his Hipster PDA. Finally people around here will understand what I'm doing with these index cards! I don't expect anyone to take advice on organization and efficiency from a guy who wastes trips to the library because he can't remember to take his library card or bicycle lock with him, but trust me, without Merlin's GTD hacks I probably wouldn't have remembered to bring my bicycle.

I discovered the good work Merlin's been doing after I woke up in the middle of the night worrying that I owed him $50 from a gig a decade ago. After I Googled him and read a little about his religion, I realized that waking up in the middle of the night and worrying over 10-year old debts is what GTD is supposed to prevent. Like the man says, get it out of your head and into a system you can trust. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer.