Monday, December 14, 2009

Interurban Trail - Where Are You?

On a recent day off from work my wife and I decided to check out the Interurban Trail north of Seattle. According to maps obtainable here, the trail runs continuously from just north of Lake Ballinger in Mountlake Terrace all the way up to Everett. Sounded like fun.

We easily found the south end of the trail and jumped on. It took us through some pretty woodsy areas and past the outdoor batting cages of Funtasia on 220th. Then, after only a mile or so, it abruptly ended on 212th. No signs were posted anywhere suggesting where we should go next.

So we worked our way north on side streets, hoping to intercept the trail again at some point. Unfortunately I hadn't brought a map with me, so it was pure guesswork, and by lunch time we still hadn't found it.

After lunch we headed back by a different route and happened across a different section of the trail purely by accident. We hopped on, and in less than a mile it too ended, again with no signage of any kind. But we recognized where we were, and this time we were able to navigate along the streets (two left turns and then a right) to the first segment of the trail we had ridden.

Alright, I know this Interurban Trail is still a work in progress, but does no one in Lynnwood have any concept of helpful signage? If not, I suggest you take an educational tour of the Burke-Gilman trail and note all the helpful signs posted along the way.

We hope to give it another try some time this month, and this time I'll take a map with me. It feels a little like leaving civilization and embarking on a quest, like Lewis and Clark's search for a route to the Pacific. I'll make sure to have a camera along to record our adventure. Wish us luck!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why the Zig-Zag Route?

A new section of the Interurban trail opened about two years ago, offering a welcome overpass over the busy intersection of Aurora and 155th, and another one over Aurora itself just a long block to the north. For a north-south commuter like me this is a great addition to the trail system. In 1993 I used to commute this route without any trails, and the best option at the time was to ride right on Aurora between 155th and 145th. Ah, to be young and foolish!

So why am I getting ready to complain? Am I never satisfied?

Here's why: to cover the short stretch from the southwest corner of 155th and Aurora to the east side of Aurora at 157th, a biker must negotiate a tight 180° off-ramp that sends you away from where you want to go, around a blind corner at the base of the bridge to head back north again, to a stop sign that doesn't seem to serve any useful purpose (since changed to a yield sign, through a fit of common sense), back up a tight 315° on-ramp, and finally down a more rational north-facing ramp back to street level.

Walkers can shorten the trip by using stairs, but bikes (and wheelchairs) have to follow this tortuous route. I have to ask: why all the zig-zags?I can think of a couple reasons, both of them cynical:
  1. The powers that be do not want bikes traveling at a high rate of speed, so obstructions were put there intentionally. There is a precedent for this: the Burke-Gilman trail through Lake Forest Park was "unstraightened" to slow bikes down as they approached driveway crossings. This is a sin that appears on its way to being corrected; why do more of the same in Shoreline?
  2. The powers that be are clueless about what makes a suitable bike trail.
Although the situation at 155th and Aurora seems almost intentionally obstructionist, I'm leaning toward the second explanation, chiefly based on evidence from the very same trail just a mile farther north. Between 175th and 182nd the trail makes its way along a wide grassy expanse between Aurora to the west and Midvale to the east. Though the two roads are perfectly straight along this stretch, the trail meanders left and right between the two, no doubt for obscure aesthetic reasons. Just before 182nd it lurches to the right towards Midvale, lurches left across 182nd, followed immediately by 90°, 135°, and 45° turns before heading north again. What the...?

It looks for all the world like someone penned in a gracefully meandering trail to serve as counterpoint to the surrounding Cartesian asphalt grid, then smacked their head at 182nd and said, "Whoa, there, we can't cross here next to Aurora, it's too dangerous! Better head over to Midvale!" The result just seems too lame to be diabolical; it must be incompetence.

So as a public service, I hereby offer my expertise as a dedicated bicycle commuter to the poor clueless schmucks trying to spend the trail dollars we've approved. I have a couple principles that, if followed, will make life better for everyone:

  1. Straighter is better. Meandering trails are great for hikes in the country; for commutes through the city they just mean added distance and reduced speed.

  2. Wider is better, too. Pedestrians are safer, collisions are reduced, and bikers are happier.

  3. When bike traffic exceeds car traffic at an intersection, aim the stop signs toward the cars, not the bikes.

  4. Sectioned concrete is great for sidewalks, but it's terrible for bike trails. Use asphalt, please.
In many places bikes are still not seen as real vehicles, doing real business. Eventually the word will get out that there are large numbers of us for whom bike riding is a way of life, not a weekend diversion. Shoreline hasn't got the message yet, but the changes coming to the Burke-Gilman trail in Lake Forest Park give me hope that other places have. The future is on our side. Let's all do our best to make it come sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Top Ten Things I want in my Next Bike

It's bound to happen. I'm going to need a new bike. Putting 4500 miles a year on a bike takes a toll, and eventually the cost and trouble to keep the ever-deteriorating wreck in good working condition is going to exceed the cost and trouble of just replacing it. I'm four years into my latest commuter bike, a 2005 Specialized Crossroads, and it's holding up relatively well; but it's definitely well into middle age by now. The front fork shocks have frozen in place; one brake lever is crooked after my 16-year-old son accidentally rammed it into the lawnmower with a '74 beetle; the brakes shriek; mysterious rattles are appearing.

I purchased this bike without a great deal of research, and I've come to regret that decision. By not fully checking out its ergonomic suitability, I've consigned myself to chronically aching wrists and elbows. My next bike will be precisely the bike I want, scientifically fitted to my body dimensions and commuting habits. Although it's a year or two off yet, now's the time to figure out exactly what it is I value in a bike. For no particularly good reason, I've decided to list my desires in the form of a top ten list. Let's get started...

10. Economical

Since this is a count-down, the fact that "Economical" heads the list means that it's the least important attribute. At this time in my life I have a bit of disposable income, and I'm more willing to pay for and less willing to compromise on features that are important to me. That said, we're still talking low thousands here, not top-of-the-line, diamond-encrusted opulence. I'm all about practicality, not sparkle.

9. Performance

Performance is a nice-to-have, but it will be the first thing I compromise on if it means getting items 1-8. I'm not about to suddenly develop an interest in racing that was completely absent in my first 49 years of life.

8. Comfort

This is a hard one to define, actually. You'll notice I've got "Ergonomic" higher in the list as a separate item. The distinction I see is that a comfortable ride may not necessarily be the one that's best for my body over hundreds of hours of riding. It's certainly more comfortable to ride upright, but my experience has been that my spine must be in a horizontalish, suspended position, rather than an upright, compressed position, or I'll get back pains.

But within the constraints of an ergonomic position, I want a comfortable bike. How about a nice seat that doesn't iron permanent wrinkles in my bum? Cushioned handlebars, shock absorbers — bring 'em on!

7. Minimal Maintenance

I've written before about the high monetary cost of maintenance. Of equal concern to me is the high time cost. Every two weeks (about every 200 miles) I clean and oil my chain. This is a sort of middle-of-the-road position — I know some people to do it after every ride! — but for the kind of riding I do every two weeks seems sufficient. Every three months I replace my chain. Brakes need readjusting, wheels need truing, and cables stretch, requiring adjustments in gearing; these things I leave to the professionals, whom I visit a couple times a year.

Contrast this to my car. Aside from the need to keep feeding it gas, it pretty much just runs. Once a year I get a major tuneup and replace the synthetic oil, and it's good for 10,000 more miles. There's no reason a bike can't be equally reliable — for the right cost, of course.

Here's where my desires start to diverge pretty far from your standard off-the-shelf bike. The only good way to avoid frequent chain maintenance is to get rid of the chain, or at least enclose it to protect it from the elements. I think my next bike will have to have one of these features.

6. Pimpability

I attach quite a lot of peripherals to my bike:
  • a comp
  • a rack
  • a waterproof, lockable, removable trunk
  • a bell
  • a kickstand
  • fenders (decent ones, not those ridiculous 1-point-of-attachment toys)
  • a water bottle
  • strong headlight with a 6-hour battery
  • taillight
  • Kryptonite lock
  • toolkit
Not every bike is amenable to taking so many attachments. It was pretty tricky keeping my rear rack attachment from interfering with the disc brakes on my current bike. So my next bike will have to be able to accept all of the above attachments without undue hardship.

5. Reliability

This is similar to Minimal Maintenance, but on a shorter time scale. When I leave in the morning, I want to be assured (as much as possible) that I will arrive at my destination without a breakdown. This means no flat tires, no broken chains, no broken spokes, no snapped cables. After replacing the inferior rear wheel on my Specialized and installing flat-resistant tires, my current bike has been quite reliable. I can only remember two incidents in four years that cut short my commute. One was a broken shifter that would let me shift to a higher gear but not back to a lower gear (no way I could climb the final hill to my house!), and one was a flat tire that went unnoticed for so long that I totally destroyed the sidewall, making tube replacement impossible.

4. Ruggedness

This is similar to reliability, but is more related to the load I put on it. I tend to carry a lot of stuff with me when I commute: a change of clothes, my lunch, a notebook, whatever book(s) I'm currently reading, my medicine kit, etc. This adds up to enough weight that a normal aluminum rack won't stand up to the strain. After snapping three or four $40 aluminum racks I finally bought a hefty $100 stainless steel rack from Germany (rated at 100+ pounds) that can handle the abuse I give it. My bike needs to be made of similar stuff.

I've had skinny-tired racers that go out of true if you ride over too large a pebble; I need something that doesn't mind if I ride off (or onto) a curb, or hit a pothole full-tilt with a 30-pound load.

I want dray horse that just works day after day, not a temperamental thoroughbred that can race like the wind but whose leg is apt to snap at any moment.

3. Ergonomic

Now we're getting to the really important stuff. I'm getting tired of sore wrists and elbows, and I think it can be fixed if I get a bike better fitted to my riding habits. (Of course, I might just be getting old, in which case there's nothing I can do about it. But it's worth a try).

I have never had a bike fitting, but I'll be getting one for my next bike. I hope they know what they're doing...

2. Safety

You might think that safety is more a matter of riding habits than a characteristic of a bike, and you may be right, but that's not the whole story. I've toyed with the idea of getting toe clips, but this trades off safety for performance. (Don't try to tell me toe clips are just as safe once you get used to them. They just aren't. Admit it, you know it's true). Since Safety is #2 and Performance is way back at #9, toe clips lose out. I want to be free to jump clear of my bike whenever I want and as quickly as I can.

This also plays into the decision about whether to go for an incumbent-style bike. It seems like a neat idea, and Ergonomic is way up at #3, but I'm worried that a low-slung rider is less visible on a city street that an upright one. Let me know if you think I'm wrong about this, but it seems logical.

1. Practical in the Rain

Since I ride in all weather conditions except snow, I need a bike that can handle wet Seattle winters. Most bikes have all their mechanical bits right out there in the weather, making them subject to rust, grit buildup, and water damage. An automobile, by contrast, protects all the sensitive stuff inside a weather-proof cocoon. What's wrong with doing the same thing for a bike?

I've touched on this already, but chain and gear maintenance are some of the most onerous things about regular bike commuting. What if you put all that stuff inside a cocoon? There are a few types of bikes out there now that either enclose the chain in a weather-resistant housing, or do away with it altogether with a direct-drive mechanism. Gearing can also be enclosed in a hub like the 3-speeds of old. I wish there were a greater variety and a longer history on these innovations so I could be more confident of their long-term durability, but I must say that they attract my attention strongly. I may have to experiment with one on my next purchase.

So where does this leave me? I don't have a particular bike in mind yet, but I'm certainly open to suggestions.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spare Time

Commuting by bike takes time. It takes me two hours and fifteen minutes to get to work from the time I wake up. So to be at work at 8:00, I have to wake up at 5:45. If I were to drive I could sleep until 6:30 and on most days still get to work by 8:00. Multiply this difference by two and it amounts to an hour and a half of lost time every work day. Ouch!

Time is a precious commodity for most people who have both a job and a family, and I'm no exception. I can't count how many books I could have read or projects I could have accomplished if only there were more hours in a day. As my kids have matured I've begun to experience more free time, but it still isn't enough. How can I justify losing an hour and a half every day of the week just so I can ride my bike?

One justification could be that I'm in better shape because of it, so I feel better and have more energy, so it's not really that much time, blah, blah, blah. While there's some truth in that, it's far too fuzzy an analysis for my taste. Who's to say I couldn't come up with an equally good way to get exercise that doesn't take so much time? Like, say, join the Sound Mind & Body gym across the street and work out during lunch. Or do yoga while watching the 10:00 news.

Instead, I'm just going to start from the fact that I like bike commuting and I'm going to do it regardless, and then try to estimate the true cost in terms of free time, similar to the way I estimated the true financial cost of bike commuting. I maintain that I lose far less than an hour and a half, once all factors are taken into account.

I used to be a dedicated bus commuter when I worked in Bellevue and had a decent, transfer-free route to take.  This was when the kids were small and free time at home was nearly non-existent. It got so I looked forward to the bus ride because then I finally got to sit down and work on whatever project I wanted to for nearly an hour, uninterrupted. I intentionally avoided getting to know my fellow commuters, the better to read books, study whatever my latest kick was, and basically have two hours of total self-indulgence. It kept me sane.

When I became a full-time bike commuter I had to give that up, and it was painful. Though the ride was still cathartic, I got less reading and studying done, and I missed it. If there had been a decent bus route I would probably still be primarily a bus rider, but there wasn't, so I'm stuck with the bike commute.

(Okay, so I'm not "stuck" with it. I could drive, but driving is simply not an option at this point. Just jumping back into the rat race once a week so I can join my coworkers after work for golf at Interbay feels yucky. I could also ride a van pool, but I find even that doesn't allow me to escape the stress of the commute, because my fellow riders seem to be obsessed with finding the best way to beat traffic every day. It's nothing like the anonymous, care-free bus commute I gave up).

Well, then. After a couple years I decided to start listening to the radio during my commute. I found a nice over-ear radio that doesn't interfere with the helmet, and started listening to NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Eventually I realized that I was getting all my need for news fulfilled, and didn't get much out of the daily paper anymore. So I reduced my newspaper-reading to a quick skim, or sometimes didn't read it at all.  That's a half-hour saved.

Eventually the news got too depressing (starting late 2002 — you figure it out), and I decided two hours a day of this stuff was too much. Talk radio was out (how can anyone can stand to listen to that stuff?), and baseball wasn't on frequently enough. I started listening to music more. But I didn't really hit on the right solution until a year ago or so when I discovered audio books. Put them on an iPod and away you go!

In the space of a few months I had listened to Jules Verne's "The Master of the World," Chesterton's "The Man who was Thursday," Thoreau's "Walden", and Wodehouse's "My Man Jeeves," all of which are in the public domain and available for free from Librivox. OK, so the quality of the volunteer readers isn't uniformly excellent, but most of them aren't bad at all.

Later in the year I learned how to record streaming audio as an mp3 file using the excellent program Audio Hijack Pro (available only for Mac, sadly). I have it set up to automatically record A Prairie Home Companion from KUOW's streaming audio every Saturday from 3-5 p.m., and it takes just a minute to transfer it to my iPod. I've been adding the occasional podcast also — two shows I listen to regularly are This American Life and CBC Radio's The Vinyl Cafe.

As I've moved away from news and into podcasts and audio books, I find I'm reading the newspaper a little more frequently again, though it's not really equivalent. The newspaper is very similar in content and depth to what I read on Yahoo News at odd moments during the day. NPR gives me much deeper reporting. But in general I'm getting my weekly news fix partly during my commute and partly other ways, and still finding plenty of time for my podcasts and the occasional audio book.

So let's get scientific about this and compare the free-time cost of driving versus bike commuting. The bike commute takes about 15 hours/week and the car commute 7.5 hours/week. Here's how that time is spent:

Activity     Bike          Car
Preparation (changing clothes, etc.)3:000:00
Listening to NPR/other news4:006:30
Radio shows3:300:00
Audio books1:300:00

These are rough estimates, and it varies widely week to week. But I think it's clear that I make good use of the time spent on my bike, and my "lost time" is really only the roughly three hours extra preparation per week it takes — rolling up my work clothes into a bundle, packing up my bike trunk, filling the water bottle, changing three times a day. (You'd think all that would take less than 3 hours, but the stats don't lie).

Now we can talk about whether the sacrifice is worth it. Three hours a week to stay in shape, feel better, get ten hours/week of biking in the fresh air (hey, I like to do this), escape the rat race — well, what do you think?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trail Types

When you ride the same route day after day, year after year, you start to notice patterns of behavior in your fellow travelers. I've been keeping a mental list of "trail types" for years, and I finally decided it's time to put some of these observations down in writing. Some types are comical, others irritating, and some are just plain weird. I hope you find this amusing.

The Regular (Pedestrian)
A Regular is a pedestrian who knows what's what on the trail. Regulars always walk in straight lines, usually on the right side of the trail; they never bunch up and block traffic; they generally move steadily and briskly. They usually are either alone or with a single companion.

Regular walkers recognize and greet us regular riders when we pass. Sometimes friendships are formed. I often see Suzie (not her real name) exchange hand-slaps with each of the Old Geezers (see below) as they ride past, and they sometimes stop to talk. The trail is a real, if mobile, community.

The Foghorn (Bike)
This one's a puzzle to me. You know how when cell phones first started getting popular it took users awhile to figure out that you didn't have to shout into one to be heard, regardless of how difficult a time you were having hearing? The cell phone shouter seems to be fading into the past, but his bike-riding cousin is alive and well. The Foghorn can be heard approaching from 200 yards away, gabbing constantly and LOUDLY to his companion(s). Here's a typical conversation:

COMPANION:  (inaudible reply)
COMPANION:  (barely audible mumble)

and so on. It sounds like one side of a phone conversation until they get within a few feet, when I might catch a word or two from the companion before they pass.

This type is always a hard rider, which makes me wonder whether there's some physical connection between the leg muscles and the diaphragm that expels the words out forcefully during a hard workout. Or possibly the Foghorns are loud all the time; I'll never know since they disappear so fast.

The Old Geezers (Bike)
There's a group of retirement-age men who ride the trail every day from somewhere around Matthews beach up to Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. I don't believe they ever miss a day, regardless of how nasty the weather is.

They're a class unto themselves, and a wonderful addition to the trail culture. They ride slowly, usually two-by-two, but are conscientious to make room for anyone who wants to pass. Quirky adornments add to the character of the group, like an amusing bell, or a little flag flying from a helmet.

I once told them I'd like to join their group when I retire. I was informed that would automatically make me president until I could find a newer member to pass the responsibility on to. Here's hoping they're still around when that day comes.

The Commuter (Bike)
This is my group, of course, so I'm probably not qualified to provide an unbiased description. I'm not so sure we commuters really have a whole lot of traits in common, though. One common trait is that we all generally have a waterproof way to transport our clothes. I have a hard plastic trunk, but Ortlieb panniers or packs are more common.

Commuters run the gamut from slow to fast. Some Commuters seem to also be Fitness Geeks or Racers (see below).

The Clueless (Pedestrian, usually)
The first really warm spring day brings out the Clueless in droves. They wander all over the trail or stride right down the middle, huddle in packs, dart unpredictably, and generally raise the danger level on the trail for everyone, especially themselves.

Another prime viewing time for the Clueless seeker is the first week of fall quarter at the UW. Clueless freshmen (particularly athletes, for some reason) have no idea what "shared use" means, and they show up in incredible numbers. They provide a valuable source of data for researching how long it takes to clue in. Next fall I hope to conduct some experiments, but from memory I'd say it generally takes about two weeks to convert them all to fine, upstanding members of the trail community. Here's a rough outline of their progress:

Day 1: Unresponsive to voice or bell; appear confused when they hear, "On your left."

Day 3: Look annoyed when you ask them to make room; but at least they notice you.

Day 5: Look resigned when you ask them to make room; start to walk in straighter lines near the edge of the trail.

Day 10: No longer plug the trail in packs; look over their shoulder before crossing.

The Newb (Bike, Pedestrian)
The Newb is clueless but enthusiastically interested in the "trail" experience. They smile at and greet everyone they pass, which is sort of nice but you just can't keep that up forever. Newb bikers make copious use of their new bell, often unintentionally frightening pedestrians by not signaling soon enough. They tend to weave back and forth, sometimes in cadence with the downstroke on their pedals. Be nice to them; they mean well.

The Fitness Geek (Bike)
The Fitness Geek is on a schedule, and woe to the biker or pedestrian who becomes an obstacle in his path. You can see the heart rate monitor strapped to his arm as he blows past, head down so he can keep track of the readouts on his comp. Sometimes they're on some kind of program with varying intensity levels, because I'll see them later, riding slowly and actually looking around a little.

The Racer (Bike)
This type is closely related to the fitness geek. He, too, is very goal-oriented, but the goal isn't related to heart rate or time, but to the destination. Anything that slows the Racer down is an intense irritant: traffic lights, Clueless pedestrians, even slower riders like myself.

A Racer is not thrilled about sharing the trail with you. You are tolerated only if you are conveniently off to the side and by yourself, so that he can pass without breaking stride.

Here's a diagnostic trait: when riding past Gasworks Park, a Racer eschews the official trail because of its sinuous path from road to sidewalk and back, and instead just rides on Northlake Way, a pot-holed two-lane road with no shoulder. I estimate they save at most two seconds by this maneuver. I haven't yet discovered the calculus by which they conclude that this is worth the risk.

The Quirks
This is just a catch-all category for the interesting unclassifiables I run into. You've got your power-assist bikers here, your unicyclists, your shopping cart ladies, your tai-chi practitioners. For a year or so I was seeing someone riding a hyper-tall bike — no idea where he came from or why. I used to see a woman regularly running the trail near 77th — backwards.

The trail is for everyone. Why not add your own quirky self to the mix? We'll all be the better for it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The (Un)Reliability of Bikes

In an earlier post I tallied up the maintenance cost of my bicycle, and concluded that it came to an average of $0.067/mile over the lifetime of the bike. In this post I'd like to address the question as to whether this is reasonable.

How much should one spend for maintenance? It turns out that in the engineering world there is an answer to this question. When I worked as a consulting engineer for the pulp & paper industry we used to estimate annual maintenance costs for any piece of major equipment at between two and five percent of the installed cost. So say you put in a shiny new oxygen delignification system for $40 million; you can expect to pay $800,000 - $2 million annually to keep that baby in top running form.

But much of the installed cost of major equipment is stuff that just sits there: big tanks with tons of expensive steel. What about something with moving parts, like a pump? One estimate for pump maintenance costs is $13-18 per horsepower per year. A typical installed cost for an industrial-scale 100 horsepower pump is around $60,000, based on EPA cost curves. Put these together and you have an annual maintenance cost factor of ... 2-3%. Hmm, pretty much the same.
OK, well maybe vehicles are just more complicated. Let's see what maintenance costs are for a car. In my earlier post I had determined that the cost of maintaining my 2003 Honda Accord was $0.042/mile. This was based on total maintenance cost of $2,086 over 5 years and total mileage of 50,000 miles. With a purchase price of $17,500, the annual maintenance as a percent of the purchase cost is 2.4%. I'm noticing a trend here!

OK, I won't keep you in suspense any longer. When I run the same calculation on my bike, I get 40.5%.

WHAT??  Can that be right? Let's double-check: $975 total maintenance costs in 3.4 years of operation, purchase cost of $707:

     (975/3.4)/707 = 0.405

Yes, it's true: the maintenance cost of a bike is TEN TIMES as high as other moving machinery. This is such a stunning statistic that it's worth digging a bit into the details. Here is my complete list of bicycle maintenance costs, rounded to the nearest dollar:
8-29-05   Chain, fender   47
3-2-06Chain, tuneup86
5-26-06Tuneup, new rear wheel224
9-21-06Chain, tuneup98
3-15-07Chain, disk brake, tuneup128
4-30-07Tube, tire39
4-29-08Chain, tuneup, rear cassette224
variousChains & tubes85

What can we conclude from this? Simply, that even supposedly "quality" bikes are the equivalent of Yugos.

This is actually a fairly apt comparison, not just another cheap shot at the Yugo. The Yugo was a perfectly functional car, so long as you rigorously maintained it. According to Wikipedia,
One critical issue specific to the Yugo was the need for regular replacement of the interference engine's timing belt — every 40,000 miles (64,000 km). In a non-interference engine, timing belt failure does not cause further damage to the engine. In an interference engine, however, timing belt failure disrupts synchronization between pistons and valves, causing them to smash into each other (hence the name interference engine), thus destroying the engine. Though this requirement was stressed in owners' manuals, it was too frequently overlooked by owners.

In the same way, a bicycle will slowly become non-functional (though not in such a catastrophic fashion as the Yugo) if not given regular maintenance. Where a car can go months between lubes, a commuter bike has to be lubed every few weeks. A car's tires last five years; a bike's last one or two. And on, and on, and on. This despite the fact that a bike is much simpler, mechanically, than a car.

But maybe that last point is part of the problem. There are many people who actually enjoy working on their bikes. A bike is simple enough that it doesn't take a shop computer to tune it up. I have several friends with a bicycle stand and a full complement of tools who do all their own maintenance.

I'm not like that.

Every hour I spend working on my bike is an hour lost from reading Cryptonomicon. This weekend I replaced the chain on my bike, only to discover that I had threaded it incorrectly and had to redo it. When I finally managed to unhook the special gold link, a piece of it fell off and disappeared. The next day I found it, rethreaded the chain, found I had done it incorrectly again, unhooked it a second time, and finally got it right on the third try. Say what you want about my mechanical skills — I will happily admit to it all — but I want an industrial-strength bike that just works.

Fortunately, there's a new movement afoot with just this aim in mind. As more and more of us take up bike commuting, our voices are beginning to be heard above the roar of the racers and mountain bikers. Bikes are being produced with chain guards and enclosed hubs that better keep road grit away from the chain. Some even do away with the chain altogether. Disc brakes are an incremental improvement, though they still require too-frequent adjustment. Self-sealing tubes and puncture-resistant tires are easy to find, so flat tires are quite a rarity for me now.

I'm looking forward to the day, maybe not far away, when I plop down good money for a truly industrial-strength commuter bike. Every six months or so I'll get a quick tune-up for $50, and that will be it for maintenance. Let's say that through superior design, materials, and workmanship the maintenance cost of a commuter bike is reduced to 5% of its purchase price. That implies my dream bike would cost $2,000, three times what I paid for my current bike. But it would be worth it. Simple economics shows that I'd get my money back after seven years. If a seven-year payback is good enough for the paper industry (and it was, when I worked in it), then it's good enough for me. And besides, I'll get more reading done.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Unwritten Rules of the Road

My son has been learning to drive. It has been an education both for him and for me. For him, of course, everything is new, and he has been soaking up the rules of the road like a sponge. He has surprised me with a few things that you'd think I'd know by now. (For example, did you know that yield signs are not yellow, but are actually red and white? Blew my mind.).

But, as in any learning situation, there are rules that can be written down, and then there are rules that defy codification and can only be learned through experience. The example that came up with us recently occurred at a four-way stop. Here the written rules are clear:
  1. First one to the stop sign gets to go first.
  2. If it's a tie, the driver on the right gets to go first.
Three cars were approaching the stop. The first to arrive was the car directly across from us; we were second; and the car to our right was last (see diagram). So according to the
 rules, we should have proceeded in the same order in which we arrived. But there was a twist:  the first car, shown in green, was turning left in front of us, and the third car (yellow) was signaling a right turn.

So instead of waiting his turn, the yellow car started to go while the green car was still in front of us. My son got steaming mad (he is 16) and honked, incensed that the yellow car had gone out of turn. After he cooled down a bit I explained that it made more sense in this situation for the yellow car to go before us because he had freedom of movement while we were still blocked by the green car.

In other words, this case presented an exception to the written rules. Although the case of a four-way stop is probably small enough in scope that you could, if you wanted, write a comprehensive set of rules that covered every possible arrival sequence and turning pattern, it's more efficient to just lay out the main rules as guidelines, and learn the specifics in practice.

In biking, there are even fewer written rules than there are in driving. One rule is, "bicycles should follow the same traffic laws as cars." But in Seattle there is an explicit exception to this rule that gives bicyclists permission to ride on sidewalks, where cars are prohibited. And there are other exceptions that prohibit bikes (and pedestrians) from going onto freeways. These rules recognize the fact that bicycles are not exactly like cars, and they're not exactly like pedestrians. They are something in between.

Unfortunately, no one has ever really tried to write down what the rules should be, exactly, for bikes. The law, as far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong), has very few bike-specific rules. So once in awhile some misguided cop decides to start enforcing vehicle traffic laws on bikes, which most of the time make no sense. (A full defense of this statement would take another entire column. But anyone who has regularly ridden the infamous"many-driveways" portion of the Burke-Gilman trail in Lake Forest Park will understand how absurd it is to try to enforce the many stop-signs along that stretch). 

I've been riding 4,000 miles a year for many years now, and through experience I have learned many of these unwritten rules. For example, when coming to a legitimate stop-sign such as the one on the Burke-Gilman trail at 65th (unlike the illegitimate ones in Lake Forest Park), the most reasonable thing to do is slow down enough that you could stop if you had to, and then either proceed, if there is no traffic, or, if there is approaching traffic, wait for a clear signal from drivers to either proceed or stop. Any variation from this rule only causes more problems.

Let me take one paragraph to defend this statement. First, let's say you, as a newbie biker, decide to follow traffic laws rigorously and come to a full stop every time. Now if a car happens to be approaching the crosswalk while you are slowing down, chances are it's going to slow down and wait for you; 75% of cars do just that. The driver's expectation is that you will proceed across with dispatch, causing him minimal delay. When you act contrary to his expectations, you increase his delay (and probably his aggravation). Furthermore, you will make him less likely to slow down next time he approaches the crosswalk, surprising the next biker to come along. When it comes to traffic flow, causing surprise is the worst thing you can do. Behaving in a predictable way is the best thing you can do. Only experience can teach you what the "expected" behavior is.

I'm completely comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the rule, "do what's expected." But there are certain personality types that can't stand such fuzzy logic. (I think traffic cops are disproportionately of that type). All I can say is, get over it. This is life, and life is complicated. Stop acting like a sixteen-year-old.