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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Signing off for now

Maintaining this blog doesn't really require much effort from me, as evidenced by the infrequency of my posts and their generally low quality. However, feeling guilty about not updating the site is surprisingly time consuming. In addition, my situation as a cyclist is much changed since I started Bike Year, as described in my last post. So for now, I've decided to discontinue updating the site and reallocate the time and mental energy I previously used worrying over it. I'm going to need all I can get as a new doctoral student. I will continue posting, often about bicycle related issues, at Sustainable Savannah.

I recognize that folks still somehow find their way Bike Year (again, despite my failure to update it) and sometimes find it useful, so I'm not planning to take it down. I hope to pick it up again after the end of fall semester in December. Maybe I'll even offer another installment of the Tentative Utility Cyclist Gift Guide series, which the all-seeing eye of Google Analytics tells me are some of the most viewed posts on the site. Before I go away, however, I'd like to answer Adam's questions. He wrote:
"I moved here in May and am planning to join you in your commuting as soon as I get a bike for it. Besides Habersham and Lincoln, are there any other streets that you know of that have bike lanes or perhaps know of a map of Savannah with bike lanes marked? Also, I think it would be nice to have a list of places that have bike racks in town. Any idea if such a list exists?"
Welcome to Savannah, Adam! The answers to both your questions are yes and no.

First, as you have no doubt discovered, Savannah has very few pavement marked bicycle lanes. However, you can see a map of all designated bike routes in the county by downloading the 2000 Chatham County Bikeway Plan from the Metropolitan Planning Commission Web site. Click here for the .pdf. A word of caution about this document: As the title suggests, it is nearly a decade old and in dire need of updating.

Another option is a map created earlier this year by the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority as part of its Dump the Pump alternative commuting promotion. Kristin Hyser may have some left over. She can be contacted through the SDRA Web site. Or you can download a .pdf by clicking here.But another caveat: The map shows bike route and rack locations only in the National Historic Landmark District. And it will be out of date soon, as the City of Savannah will be deploying new bike racks, thanks to the hard work of the city's director of parking and mobility and daily bicycle commuter, Sean Brandon.

I suppose, Adam, the real answer to both your questions is the Savannah Bicycle Campaign. Bicycle facilities, including parking, are high on the group's priority list. Please consider getting involved or coming out for one of our events. We'd love to have your help in making Savannah a better place for cyclists, which will make it a better place for everyone.

And with that, I'll say so long for now. See you in December.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I've found my people

Whoops! Another Bike Year has expired and I totally forgot to mark this historic occasion with a post of some kind. In June 2006 I asked readers if I should continue it past the one year mark. An overwhelming surge of public support (five comments) convinced me to continue. But at least I'm doing better than last year, when I waited until the middle of August to acknowledge the passage of another Bike Year. I'm almost a whole month ahead of schedule.

If I could identify one trend in my bicycle experiences over the last year, it would be this: My cycling life has become a lot less solitary. Previously I saw myself as existing apart of the rest of the cycling world. As a transportational cyclist, I didn't fit well into the other local cycling tribes.

But I'm no longer a lone wolf.

You see, I've been able to meet more of my fellow cyclists. And by "meet" I mean that I've actually met with them. And ridden bikes with them. And stood around waiting for television reporters with them. This is very different from Bike Year One, when most of my bicycle pals lived on the Internet. Before April of this year, the largest group I'd ever ridden with included three other cyclists (Well, at least as an adult. I remember riding in some large pods of BMX bikes as a kid). Over the last three months I've shared pleasant rides with groups ranging from 30 to 250 others. And there's another ride coming up this Sunday.

What accounts from the remarkable change in direction? Three words: Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Better car designs needed

While there have been advancements in automobile designs over the years, they remain in many ways very primitive machines. Sure, you can have an in-car theater system installed or get a GPS thingy to tell you where to turn, but the modern motorist still faces the same old problems as his or her ancestors back in the caveman days.

For instance, facing forward is good for seeing what's in front of the car and all, but there are certain situations in which it is a major hassle. Imagine that you are trying to steer your car while simultaneously screaming obscenities at a bicyclist who is following in your starboard wake. There are really no good options. The only practical way to handle this is to stick your head out of the window, turn to your right and try to yell over the top of the car with your chin hovering above the roof.

Detroit, can you help with this, please?

I discovered recently how this serious limitation in car design impacts motorists. I watched a woman endure great difficulty as she offered a lengthy critique of how I was operating my vehicle, while at the same time trying to drive her own. Some of the only bits of her lecture I was able to make out were, "get your dumb ass out of the road," and what a presume was a threat. At least I think that she was insinuating with, "I'll run your ass over."

Truth be told, I invited the chain of events that led to her impromptu, but impassioned speech. There's a squeeze point on my homeward bound commute just south of Anderson Street. Because there are almost always cars parked on the street around the intersection, my habit is to take the lane, communicating to motorists that it is not safe to pass. In almost every case motorists recognize what I'm doing and wait until I clear the row of parked cars and move right before passing me.

I guess I didn't move far enough left in the lane, because the motorist I've described above decided to pass me with just inches between her right fender and my left elbow. Displeased, I sounded my horn. This startled her front seat passenger, who — since he was not wearing a seat belt — nearly jumped into her lap. It took her a couple seconds to take stock of the situation, but once she had a read on it, her head and torso were outside the car. Luckily, she was not wearing a seat belt either, so she was able to quickly assume screaming position.

She kept it up for about a block, periodically swerving into the other lane. I pedaled along watching her grapple with her car's obvious design flaw. She'd launch a burst of profanity, then pop back into the car to check her rear view mirror for my reaction. Employing a strategy I'd read about on the Internet, each time she emerged to deliver her missives, I smiled and waved. This spurred her to on to several encores. Until she eventually turned onto a side street.

Meanwhile, the hit and run driver who injured two cyclists on Tybee Road is still at large.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Two cyclists injured in hit and run on Tybee Road, driver sought by police

WTOC-TV and WSAV-TV report that two cyclists were hit on U.S. Highway 80 near Fort Pulaski on Friday. From one of the victims:
"I've been told it was a white van and it's missing the passenger rear view mirror and passenger head lamp," said Chiang. "I hope they turn themselves in or someone find them because it's not right to leave two kids when they have been hit by a car, not right at all."
Read the full story here and here.

A story in today's Savannah Morning News gives more information and reports the driver is still at large:

"You hate to think it was intentional, but it sure looked that way," said Jim Pedrick, who witnessed the incident along with his wife. Pedrick, a Lafarge Cement Co. worker, said his wife alerted him of the bicyclists on the shoulder of U.S. 80, so he changed lanes to allow for more room. "I was going 50 miles per hour, so the truck had to be going faster than me," Pedrick said After the pickup struck both bicyclists, the driver sped off toward Savannah, Pedrick said.

Anyone with information on the hit and run is asked contact the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department or Crime Stoppers 912-234-2020.

This is the second time this year a motorist has hit a cyclist and left the scene. Back in January a cyclist was hit and seriously injured by a hit and run driver downtown. And last night a child was killed by a hit and run driver on Abercorn Street. That murderous motorist is also still at large.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Exposing the media bicycle bias

Recently on a television program called "Fox & Friends," I caught the end of a report from a youthful correspondent, who interviewed other young people about their use of bicycles for transportation. Her conclusion: While there are some benefits to getting around on a bike, that doesn't change the fact that riding bicycles is, as everyone knows, for nerds.

Thanks for telling it like it is, Fox!

Yet this morning on "Today," NBC's man in Miami approvingly covered the "growing popularity" of bicycle commuting. Kerry Sanders was actually aboard a bicycle as he filed his report, which included an adult female who rides her bike to work and — get this — also rides the thing to the grocery store and uses it to handle other errands. No mention was made of her social awkwardness or fan fiction hobby.

I became suspicious.

Meanwhile, back over on "Fox & Friends," the crew welcomed "radio heavyweights Rick and Bubba" for a segment that Fox Friend Brian Kilmeade proclaimed "flat out fun." Take heart Americans! The "two sexiest fat men alive" have a three pronged plan to solve the problem of high fuel prices. And no, nerds, none of them involve bicycles:

1. Eliminate all taxes on gasoline.
2. Drill for all the oil that's sloshing around under our feet here right here in the U.S.A.
3. Invade other countries and take their oil by force. This idea, they admitted, might be "a little controversial."

Now that's some first class "family entertainment with Christian values" for you!

Inspired by Rick and Bubba, I set out to expose the "Today" show's pro-bicycle propaganda for what it is. I quickly discovered NBC is in the pocket of Big Bike. Don't believe me? Here's something the folks at the Rainbow Chicken network don't want you to know: According to my secret Internet source, Matt Lauer's father was a "bicycle company executive."

Still don't believe Lauer is a member of the shadowy bicycular elite, determined to use his position at the "Today" anchor desk to further the agenda of radical bicyclists? Check out this incriminating photograph of Lauer I found on a blog associated with a company that fabricates large aluminum tubes: