Friday, June 04, 2010

Picking the Right Bike, Part One

What kind of bike is best for commuting and running errands around Savannah? A bike is a bike is a bike, right? Aren't they all pretty much the same? You certainly might get that impression from reading sellers' vague descriptions of their bicycles for sale on Savannah Craiglist. An ad for an automobile written in a similar fashion would look like this:
Car is red in color with some black. Looks nice. Has gears. Just put air in tires. I haven't driven it too much. One of the breaks [sic] doesn't always work. Don't need it anymore so I am selling. E-mail to see photo. Location: Savannah. It's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests.

Try to picture this car in your head. My image is a 1991 Toyota station wagon. Yours could be a 1975 Pontiac Gran Prix. When asked what they drive, most people will tell you the make, model and year. But ask some people to describe their bicycles and they'll lapse into some sort of bicycular prosopagnosia. "I don't know, I think it's a Huffy? It's blue!"

The truth is not all bicycles are the same and some are better for commuting and utility cycling than others. Some brands and models are better than others. And when it comes to bikes, newer isn't always better. Make, model and year are details you need to know. And there's more. Bikes set up specifically to transport you and your stuff to work and around town, day or night, have features that are usually missing from bikes designed for purely recreational use.

Back when I stated this blog, I lamented the fact that it was nearly impossible to buy a bicycle equipped for commuting and daily transportation. Installation of aftermarket parts was almost always necessary. But that's all changed now. Almost every major bicycle manufacturer offers at least one such model, like the Trek Belleville above. Some offer complete lines. Today you should be able to walk into most of our local bike shops* and ride out on a proper commuting/utility bike.

Sometimes described as "urban bikes," they usually share some common characteristics that make them ideally suited for safe and comfortable daily use:

  • Rigid forks (No shocks or other sproingy things)
  • Fenders
  • Front and rear lights
  • Front and rear (or both) cargo racks
  • Wide but smooth (not knobby) tires
  • A single gear or limited number of gears
  • An upright riding position

"But I've seen bikes that have 124 gears," you say. "Don't I need all those cogs and chainrings?"

No. It's flat here and many people do just fine on single speed bikes. Others like three- or five-speed drive trains. Ten speeds is the absolute ceiling. Anything more than that is overkill.

"But I've seen bikes with springs or shocks on the seat, seat post, handlebar stem, and front and rear wheels," you say. "Won't I be uncomfortable on a bike without them?"

Unless your daily commute includes riding over River Street's cobblestones or you have spine or other joint problems, the answer is no. Rigid frame bikes are perfectly capable of navigating most of our streets. And there's more good news. Without all the shocks and springs to absorb your pedaling efforts, more of your energy is transmitted into moving the bike. I strongly recommend tires on the wider end of the spectrum. They'll cushion the ride a bit. But more importantly, street surfaces and other road features such as drainage grates can grab and hold narrow tires. The bike will stop moving but you won't. I like a tire that can roll over, not into these obstacles.

* I should note here that buying a bicycle from a bicycle shop is far and away a better idea than buying a bike from Walmart or K-Mart. I know, I know. They sell bikes for less than $100. Yes, Yes. I saw that bike at Target that has almost all of the things on the list above. But here's the thing: You get what you pay for in terms of product and service. The bikes at discount stores are generally made of the cheapest components and materials, then assembled by bored teenagers. Meanwhile, the least expensive bike on the sales floor at a reputable local bike shop will always be superior to anything you find in the sporting goods department or toy aisle at the big box. What's more, the professionals at the local bike shop will see that your bike is properly assembled and adjusted before you wheel it away. Finally, they will make sure you buy a bike that fits you. This is critically important and will be discussed in a future post.

Now you're asking, "What if I can't afford a brand new 'urban' bike?" Or maybe, "I already have a bike or know someone who will give me one. How can I tell if it is good candidate for conversion to commuting and transportational use?

We'll answer these questions in the next exciting installment.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Taking responsibility for my role in the oil spill catastrophe

I've never been to coastal Louisiana, but I have spent plenty of time in Florida's Gulf waters. For instance, a childhood friend and I snorkeled in the Santa Rosa Sound for days on end during annual vacations with his family. We kept notebooks in which we logged the species of fish we'd seen. These are fond boyhood memories. Generations of children will likely be denied the chance to create similar memories of their own.

Oil could begin washing up on the beaches of Pensacola as soon as today.

There's plenty of anger to go around with blame being focused on BP, the federal government and even "Extreme Greenies." I'm angry, too. But I have no right to be. The truth is I am partially to blame for what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico. Each of us, who grasps a steering wheel when we have other means to get where we are going, has oil on our hands.

It's true that many of us must drive every single day because of job requirements or health issues. Others — by choice or circumstance — live in places where automobiles are the only way in and out of our neighborhoods. As a nation we have spent the last half century and untold fortunes reconfiguring our lifestyles, landscapes and livelihoods around cars. As a result, many of us have no choice but to keep filling up our gas tanks as the oil keeps gushing into the gulf and washing up on beaches.

Still, many of us do have a choice and we choose to keep driving. In a written statement to the House Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming last year, League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke presented these findings from the Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey:

"In our metropolitan areas, more than 40 percent of all trips are two miles or less – a very manageable bike ride – and more than one-quarter are just one mile or less. Furthermore, the data shows that within that 28.3 percent of the trips that are one mile or less in urbanized areas, 65.7 percent are made by auto. This means that 18.6 percent of all trips in metropolitan areas are auto trips that are one mile or less."

How many daily car trips in Savannah do these statistics describe? How many of my car trips fall into this category? Too many. I helped increase the insatiable demand for oil that turned risky propositions like the Deepwater Horizon into viable (and profitable) ventures. I can feel guilty or hopeless about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Or I can begin to wash the oil off my hands. Bob Herbert wrote about the choice yesterday in the New York Times:

"The first thing we can do is conserve more. That’s the low-hanging fruit in any clean-energy strategy. It’s fast, cheap and easy. It’s something that all Americans, young and old, can be asked to participate in immediately. In that sense, it’s a way of combating the pervasive feelings of helplessness that have become so demoralizing and so destructive to our long-term interests."

Since I started this blog almost five years ago, transportational bicycling has become part of my daily life. So much so that it became too unremarkable to write about. I have, however, yielded to the temptation to drive more often than I like to admit. Perhaps I was pressed for time, worried about the weather or simply being lazy. Each time I've climbed behind the wheel when I really didn't have to, I increased my share of responsibility for the now unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. What's more, by choosing to drive I forfeited the health, economic and overall happiness benefits I could have enjoyed if I'd ridden my bike instead.

I'll continue to post at Sustainable Savannah, but I will again start using this blog to track my personal progress toward the goal of riding more and driving less. I hope I can inspire others to do the same. I'm not kidding myself. I know that I will have to drive for longer trips and that oil is part of almost everything I buy. It's even a part of nearly everything I eat. While I can and will take steps to reduce my consumption of oil in these areas, I can exercise greater and more immediate control over how I move around my community.

I am not helpless. I have a choice. Join me.