Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A (Nearly) Bike-Free Month

What's it like to not be a bike commuter? I got a glimpse of it this month. For various reasons, I have biked to work only a couple of times this month so far. The reasons aren't all that interesting, but here they are anyway:

  1. I had a breakdown in my Inclement Weather Management System (my waterproof bicycle trunk doesn't fit my new rack so I'm back to plastic bags).
  2. It's National Novel Writing Month and I need every spare hour I can get.
  3. My youngest moved into a dorm at the UW and I now have sole use of our spare vehicle.
It didn't take long to (re-)discover the downside of car commuting. Last Tuesday I was driving southbound on Aurora approaching 125th when I slowed down to let someone in who was waiting in a parking lot to my right. The light at 125th was red and I was slowing to a stop anyway, so it was no big deal. Suddenly a horn sounded behind me, repeatedly. Looking in the rearview mirror I saw an irate woman gesticulating wildly and mouthing, "GO! GO!" I held out my hands in the universal "what the...?" gesture, but she only grew more irate. I waved the driver in anyway, then looked back again: more irate still! The 'F' word was clearly discernible on her lips this time, and her wild gesticulations had grown even more exaggerated.

Traffic was starting to move by this time, but I turned around to mouth "chill out" a couple of times. More 'F' words followed. Once we were moving she aggressively passed me on the left and cut in front of me at the earliest opportunity, nearly clipping a bus that was stopped at the bus stop just past 125th. She turned right a couple blocks later. All that to gain two car-lengths!

If I ever needed a reminder why I hate car-commuting, I got it that morning. The rat-race mentality that kicks in whenever you can't go where you want, when you want, is blissfully absent on my bike commute. A bicycle, 99% of the time, can go where it wants, when it wants. Sure, we have to stop for red lights (and yes, I do), but rarely is our mobility hampered by the behavior of other commuters. Bike-riding, simply put, fits the human psyche better than car-commuting.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bike Safety, Part II

In a previous post I made an attempt to quantify how safe bicycle commuting was for me, personally. I concluded that for my specific situation it was probably safer than driving, and that the lifetime risk of death was at an acceptable level.

Since then, the north end of the Burke-Gilman trail has been closed for much-needed repairs and improvements, and the lack of a good detour has forced me out onto the streets for a shorter but more harrowing commute down the Interurban corridor. After two months of deprivation I have a renewed appreciation of how great an asset the Burke-Gilman trail is. And an incident this week underscored just how hazardous it is when bicycles and cars share the same pavement.

The Interurban trail is a work in progress. I get on just north of 185th and enjoy uninterrupted (if less than ideal) trail riding until 145th. Then it's onto the streets to 130th, back onto a dedicated trail, and then back to the streets for good at 110th and Fremont. This is where things get dicey.

Fremont Avenue north of Woodland Park is a low-traffic street, presumably good for bicycling. The problem is that every minor intersection is uncontrolled, with a small central barrier serving to slow traffic and suggesting (but hardly enforcing) a roundabout pattern of traffic flow. Bicycles can cruise straight through - but they shouldn't. In most cases visibility down cross-streets is poor until you get really close to the intersection, so the only way to ride safely is to cross at low speed. For southbound riders the geography is uniformly downhill from 105th through 85th, so this means continual braking.

On Thursday this week a young woman passed me at 105th. Concerned, I watched her slow down as she approached 104th, so I stopped worrying. Six blocks later I found her on the ground, in the middle of the street, with a car stopped by the central barrier and a concerned couple ministering to her needs. I didn't see the accident, which evidently was mercifully minor, but it was clear what had happened. My unease with the route increased.

South of 85th I head east to Greenwood, where I share the bike lane with buses and opening car doors. It concludes with an exhilarating, high-speed bomb down Fremont Avenue south of Woodland Park where the safest course of action is to share the lane with traffic, which in general is aware of and quite tolerant of us numerous bicyclists.

I haven't tried to recalculate my odds of survival over the next 10-20 years, since this is a temporary situation, but in just two months it has become abundantly clear that my ride is far less safe now. Unfortunately, just about the time the Burke-Gilman trail is scheduled to reopen my company will be moving its office out of Fremont to the International district, way down on the south end of downtown. I haven't tried to work out the best route there yet, but I really needn't bother: there's no question it will be much worse, worse even than my current commute.

Two months of street riding have me all but convinced that this is no way to spend two hours of every weekday. Sad though it is, I think my bike-commuting days may be numbered. My tentative plan now is to bike six miles to Edmonds and take the Sounder train downtown when the weather is good, and walk a mile and take a Community Transit express bus when it isn't. I'll have to get in my biking some other way.

I've worked my way through the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief scale (though I think I skipped stage 3, Bargaining - just who would I bargain with?) and have now arrived at stage 5, Acceptance. I'm already finding upsides: less joint pain, more time to read, less total commute time. But I know I'll have to find some other way to stay in shape, and I'd like that to involve bicycling in some manner. Weekend rides with my wife to Redmond for breakfast? The occasional bike tour? Maybe I'll even finally sign up for one of the Cascade Bicycle Club rides I read about in their monthly newsletter.

Whatever happens, 2011 will go down as a Year of Change: a daughter married off, our son heading off to college leaving us in an empty nest, a historic Scandinavian tour...and the end of a decade of bicycle commuting.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Biking in Copenhagen

Copenhagen, the most bicycle-friendly city in the world - and I got to see it this summer.

Within five minutes of arriving it was clear that this city was like none other I'd seen. Check out the bikes parked in front of the train station:


A block away I encountered a full-width lane dedicated for bicycles, physically separated from car traffic. Turns out the whole city is like that - and the lanes are packed.

Sounds great, doesn't it? But if you picked up a Seattle biker and dropped him in the middle of Copenhagen the response might not be as euphoric as you'd think.

Did I mention the bike lanes are packed? That means that a substantial portion of the population (the city itself claims 35%) is commuting by bicycle. And it looks it - the bicyclists represent a true cross-section of humanity. High-heel wearing, cell-phone-toting commuters abound, sometimes texting while they pedal. They pile up in great crowds at stop lights.

I suspect a Seattle cyclist would be pulling his hair out in frustration if he thought he could make the same kind of time getting from point A to point B in Copenhagen as an equivalent trip would take in Seattle.

I floated this theory to a friend I met up with who had moved to Copenhagen a year ago. He rolled up to our rendezvous point by bicycle and deftly locked it to a stand with a one-handed flick, acting impressively native, I thought. He confirmed that it took him a while to adjust his expectations and adopt an "I'll get there when I get there" attitude.

The good thing is that everyone seems to have adopted this attitude. I saw no evidence of the short tempers and aggressive weaving I would have expected (and have at rare times experienced) in such a crowded field of cyclists. Somehow, despite the crowding, the Danes have avoided creating a bicycle rat race.

This gives me hope that such a fate can be avoided in Seattle, too, as bicycle usage rises and our routes get crowded with ordinary people (i.e. not Racers and Fitness Geeks). Let it be so.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Dose of Sanity

With some trepidation, I checked out the details of the Burke Gilman Trail capital improvement project set to begin construction next month. The project summary says all the right things: twelve-foot-wide asphalt surface, a gravel side path, improved sight distances. The descriptors that I wasn't sure how to interpret were "improved intersection and crossing treatments" and "new signage."

As a resident of Lake Forest Park I've long suffered the ignominy of residing in one of the most backward-looking communities of the trail system. Six stop signs dot a half-mile section of the trail between 147th and about 155th, some of them protecting nothing more than driveways. 1300 - 2200 bicycles per day are expected to stop for a dozen or two cars per day? Insanity! Welcome to Lake Forest Park.

King County has long wanted to bring the LFP section of the trail into conformance with the rest of it, but has been strenuously resisted. In 2006, after lengthy discussions and debates with residents, the Lake Forest Park city council passed Ordinance 951, which attempted to regulate the section of the Burke-Gilman trail that passes through the city as a "conditional-use" trail, subject to restrictive local regulations such as:
  • A speed limit of 10 mph (the trail standard is 15 mph)
  • Yield or stop signs for bike traffic at street crossings, even if the crossings were no more than driveways
  • Setback standards from adjacent property, even if that meant narrow trails and poor sight distances
To legal arguments that the Burke-Gilman trail was an "essential public facility," giving it enhanced standing over purely local pathways, the council gave a collective shrug. It was as if the city of Lake Forest Park decided to take control of a section of Interstate 5 and impose a 40-mph speed limit, traffic signals, and lane restrictions.

I participated in a public hearing prior to its passing, in which roughly three-quarters of the public comments were vehemently against the ordinance. Nearly everyone who spoke in favor of the ordinance resided along the trail and presented classic NIMBY arguments. A lawyer assured the council that the ordinance would be challenged and almost certainly overturned (it was); a traffic expert pointed out that the proposed signage was contrary to common practice and common sense.  Nevertheless the council (one of whose members actually lives adjacent to the trail) passed the resolution.

Shortly after its passing, the Cascade Bicycle Club joined King County in challenging the ordinance, and in 2007 it was overturned by the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board. King County subsequently embarked on the improvement project, and four years later they're ready to break ground.

So what about the "improved intersection and crossing treatments" and "new signage"? The future state is specified in great detail in the project documents, and after looking them over in detail I can report that the future is bright, indeed:
  • All trail-facing stop signs will be removed from 147th through 165th (I hadn't dared hope for 165th), to be replaced by "Look" warning signs.
  • All roads and driveways crossing the trail from 147th through 165th will have stop signs and improved visibility of the trail.
Score one for common sense!

Now if someone could just help Shoreline out a little...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bright (bike) lights, big city

The Burke-Gilman trail is poorly-lit north of the University of Washington campus, necessitating the use of headlights for night-time travel. This has resulted in a biking etiquette challenge: how best to enhance your own vision without blinding others?

The brightest bicycle lights out there are blinding indeed. When faced with an oncoming 1000-lumen mini-star aimed straight at my forehead I can't see the trail, the pedestrians, or the hand in front of my face unless—well, unless I put my hand in front of my face for shielding. And the problem with a bike trail is that it's difficult to illuminate that narrow ribbon of pavement in front of you without also illuminating the oncoming traffic.

Biker behavior varies. North of the UW, most riders sporting bright headlights will shade them as they approach each other, though it's hardly universal. But on the southern stretch between Fremont and the UW the ambient lighting is bright enough that oncoming headlights aren't totally blinding, and no one bothers to shade.

As usual in the biking culture, aberrant behavior invites vocal criticism. I'm no exception, having informed a great many passing riders that their light was luminous to the point of discomfort, and would they mind ever so much shading it upon subsequent encounters. Actually, my wording might have been somewhat more terse. Although I try myself to err on the side of shading more than I need to, I've also been occasionally chastised for my 200-lumen Cygolite Hi-Flux LED headlight, which is aimed, I admit, somewhat higher than necessary (I'll explain why later).

A recent Cascade Bicycle Club blog by Miss Panniers gives some bicycle lighting guidelines that are eminently reasonable, though the online version doesn't discuss whether to shade or not to shade, as the print version did. The print version claimed that if your light is properly oriented to illuminate the surface in front of you, it will not be blinding to oncoming traffic. Since shading my light is no fun and even a little dangerous (try hitting a pothole while holding on to the handlebar with just one hand), I thought I'd put that assertion to the test.

I turned off all outside lights this evening and parked my bike such that its headlight was aimed straight down my driveway. Then I walked down the driveway and turned and looked, and it was, in fact, rather blinding. I then readjusted the light to point more downwards, walked back out, and the light seemed less blinding.

All well and good, but that was kind of unsatisfying. How much less blinding was it? I needed some way to measure. So I set up a camera on a tripod and took some pictures (f2.4, 1 second exposure). The camera was about 35 feet away from the headlight. Here are the results:

Glare when the light is aimed straight ahead


Glare when the light is aimed at the pavement about 20 feet in front


Glare when the light is aimed at the pavement about 12 feet in front

Clearly there's a massive difference between aiming the light straight ahead (top picture) and aiming it downwards. There's less of a difference between the two downwards-facing cases, although aiming the light at a spot 12 feet in front is noticeably better than aiming it 20 feet in front.

I don't know where I originally had the light aimed (I neglected to measure it before I started fiddling with it), but it was closer to 20 feet than 12, and probably even farther out than that. The reason I had it aimed so far out was that the first part of my commute is a rapid sprint down steep, dark Perkins Way in Lake Forest Park on which I effortlessly achieve speeds of 25-30 mph. A light aimed 12 feet in front of me would give me all of 0.27 seconds to react to upcoming potholes, downed branches, and crossing squirrels and raccoons (all of which I've seen). That's simply not enough time. I need at least 25-30 feet of warning.

This raises a dilemma. I want to be a good bicycling citizen; but I also want to be safe. Neither re-aiming my light to 12 feet nor shading my light and riding one-handed are safe for my particular commute. A better option would be to have a way to click from one setting to another, but my light doesn't offer that. Another possibility would be to build some kind of slideable shade; I may try that (though my mechanical abilities are nothing to shout about).

In the meantime, I'm keeping my light fastened loosely enough that I can manually re-aim as needed. I'll try aiming it outwards while I sail down Perkins, and then aiming it downwards once I get on the trail. If it turns out I can get away without shading my light, then I'll look for a more permanent solution. However it turns out, I have no doubt my friendly fellow-commuters will let me know how well it's working.