Saturday, November 22, 2008

Threats and Hindrances to Bicycle Commuting

Of all the potentially helpful responses to climate change, Peak Oil and financial collapse, bicycle commuting is one of the handiest. Bicycles do not require liquid petroleum fuel to operate. Their usefulness in combating climate change is obvious – operating a bicycle generates no pollution. But there's much more. According to Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord, the family car consumes three times more space than the family home. But eight bicycles can be parked into the space occupied by one parked car. Other sources state that the energy and resources used to make one car can make up to 100 bicycles. Then there is the cost of owning a car, a cost which is often underestimated, but which runs into several thousands of dollars per year for each car when depreciation, maintenance, repairs, road taxes, insurance and licensing fees are considered in addition to fuel costs. A car-free person can commute by bicycle for under $100 a year.

But like all good things in this present fallen world, the bicycle faces threats and challenges. Those who wish to rely on the bicycle as transportation would do well to be aware of these hindrances, in order that they may cope with them. Therefore this post will consider a few threats and hindrances to bicycle commuting.

The American Bicycle Culture

Strange as it may seem, one of the first and most insidious threats to bicycle commuting in America is the American bicycle culture as it is represented by bike sellers. A newbie who is just getting into bike commuting is more than likely to encounter this culture upon his first visit to a local bike shop (also known as an LBS among bikers). I believe that this is especially true in Southern California. I believe that most bike shops are owned and staffed by people who still view the bicycle primarily as a means of recreation, and not as a utilitarian means of transportation.

Therefore people who walk into an LBS looking for a commuter bike will be confronted by several rows of lightweight carbon-fiber racer bikes costing over $1,000 apiece, or full-suspension mountain bikes in the same price range. If they don't find what they want in these two selections, they will find a row of old-school beach cruisers, or if they're really desperate, a row of kids' BMX bikes. Most of these bikes do not come with fenders or rack already installed, because it's clear that the manufacturers of these bikes never intended their riders to carry anything substantial.

The problem with all of these bikes is that they were not designed for rugged day-in-and-day-out, year-round use as everyday commuters. The racing bikes are particularly “particular.” Their skinny tires require very high pressure in order to reduce rolling resistance, and they are very vulnerable to flats. (I saw a guy fixing a flat this morning.) Their carbon-fiber frames and dainty wheel rims are quickly thrashed by a daily commute. These bikes are not very practical for riding anywhere else than a well-manicured velodrome. Bikes with a suspension fork or a full suspension are also problematic, since the extra componentry and complexity means extra maintenance headaches. It is also harder to mount fenders and racks on bikes with suspension components.

Those who ask the staff at most LBS's for commuting advice can usually gain clues to what the staff might say just by looking at the decorations on the walls of the LBS. These decorations usually consist of posters of sweaty, grim-faced skinny men in multicolored lycra bike racing clothes, riding in competition against each other. Or they are posters of people in full body suits almost like motorcycle sport suits, wearing helmets with face masks, riding mountain bikes down “technical” trails and covered in mud from head to toe. The word “extreme” is seen in lots of places on these posters. The staffers are usually hired on the basis of their devotion to the sport of “extreme” cycling, and they are of almost no use in advising people of how to commute by bike.

Ask them about what kind of fenders to put on a bike so that you will arrive at work relatively clean instead of having two muddy stripes on your body, and they will likely answer, “Dude! Fenders add weight – they slow you down!” Or ask about lights and you will get the same answer, or they will sell you a small, inadequate set of “safety” lights. (The next time I go to an LBS and hear a lecture about how what I want for my bike “adds weight and slows the bike,” I am going to say, “What kind of car do you drive?” When the LBS tech answers, I will say, “Man, your car has seats and doors! Don't they add weight? That'll slow you down!”)

Large bike manufacturers are also to blame for this culture of bike-as-toy. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to make a bike that is simple, utilitarian, incredibly hard-wearing and maintenance-free. But large manufacturers such as Trek and Giant are not terribly interested in simply making utilitarian bikes, since the market for such bikes would be quickly saturated, and since these manufacturers base their business model on unending growth, like the rest of the players of the game of capitalism. Therefore they are always stylistically “tweaking” their products, in order to make previous versions “obsolete.” The variations introduced into their products are not always practical or durable.

Take weight-saving innovations, for instance. Because of the industry-wide obsession with weight and speed, plastic and carbon-fiber components are increasingly being used, not only for racers but for hybrid and mountain bikes. However, carbon fiber is not as durable as advertised. Components made of resin-impregnated carbon fiber are not as durable as those made of steel. Minor scratches can render carbon-fiber forks unsafe and render carbon fiber bikes unrideable. And exposure to rain, ice, snow and solar UV radiation can introduce microscopic voids into the surface of such components, voids which grow over time until they have seriously weakened these components. When carbon fiber fails, it usually does so without warning (like the seatpost I used to have on my Surly LHT, which failed after only one rainy winter in Oregon). A failed carbon-fiber component cannot be repaired; it must be thrown away.

But last year Trek decided to capitalize on the recent strong surge in interest in commuting, and the company began marketing the Trek “Portland,” a “commuter-specific” bike with disc brakes and carbon fiber front fork. I discussed the potential disadvantages of disc brakes in my previous post, “Depression Bicycling.” In this post I am wondering why Trek decided to make a commuter bike with a carbon-fiber front fork, when it is an unnecessary innovation. I suspect that the disc brakes and carbon fiber were chosen simply to make the bike look “sexy” and “cutting-edge,” in order to sell more product to a saturated market. Now Trek is pushing “chainless” bikes which will have a carbon-fiber drive belt instead of a chain. Multi-speed models will have an internally-geared rear hub. However, in the event of a sudden worsening of our economic situation or a sudden drop in our oil supply, maintaining and/or replacing these carbon-fiber gizmos will turn into a nightmare.

One has to look hard to find independent bike shops and bike manufacturers who understand the concept of the bicycle as transportation And many of the manufacturers of transportation bicycles are overseas. Yet there are places in the United States which have a large concentration of understanding bike shops. The Pacific Northwest is one place in particular which has a large number of sellers of new transportation bikes and used, reconditioned steel-frame bikes, as well as a thriving, intelligent bike commuting culture. Perhaps the Northwest can be a light to the rest of the nation.

The Lack of Widespread Bicycle Infrastructure

Europe is frequently touted as the best region for bicycle commuting, because of the forethought shown by European urban and transportation planners in making a place for the bicycle. Europeans have been forced to do many intelligent things that are shunned by most of America. This has been due to the long-standing high cost of many resources in modern European society, resources like motor fuel, land, and living space. High costs and resource scarcity have only recently been experienced by Americans, and most of us refused to plan for the days now upon us, even though the warning signs have been evident for many years.

Therefore the transportation infrastructure in most American metropolitan areas is conducive to car transportation only, and is inconvenient if not downright dangerous to other forms of transit. In many cities and suburbs, there are no bike lanes at all. In some of these places there are not even sidewalks. Those who travel by means other than a car on roads in these areas are risking their lives. Katie Alvord's Divorce Your Car! sheds light on why this is so, and on the evil role that the major U.S. automakers have had in the design of much of the modern American urban/suburban landscape.

To be sure, there are remedies for this condition, but they involve diverting resources now devoted to automotive transport. For instance, many state vehicle codes mandate that bicycles be treated as traffic, with all the respect due to motorized traffic. And in order to make biking safer, bike lanes can be painted in many streets which do not have dedicated bike lanes. This would of course involve narrowing the lanes devoted to cars. On streets which are too narrow for a separate bike lane, “sharrows” could be painted on the extreme right hand lane to indicate that these lanes were to be shared by cars and bikes, and to reinforce the fact that bikes in such lanes had the right to “take” the whole lane in order to prevent unsafe passing. Also, city planners could devise a grid of complete routes throughout their urban areas so that bikes could get to any necessary place by practical, safe routes, and transportation departments could install the necessary signs and striping to complete these routes. This would remedy the situation seen in many urban/suburban areas nowadays where a bike lane goes for several blocks, then ends in a place that's dangerous for bikes.

Making such provisions for bikes will generate opposition, especially when space now devoted to cars is narrowed in order to provide space for bike transportation. Therefore, a key to seeing such provisions enacted is to build a strong bike advocacy presence in your locality, to push local governments to take the necessary steps to make room for bikes. It is ironic that places like Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and Chicago, Illinois have seen the successful implementation of some of these measures, while a sunny, normally dry, seemingly ideal place like Southern California lags so far behind in making the road safe for cyclists.

Murderous Motorists

Sharrows, marked bike lanes and special signage are all good tools – yet they are worthless unless motorists respect and obey the message presented by these tools. The problem we have in this country is that there has been a general erosion of morals, ethics and care for others, and a general elevation of selfishness, impulsiveness and the pursuit of instant gratification. Ours is a nation of people who “do not fear God, nor respect man,” like the unrighteous judge in Luke 18:2. Such a nation buys the biggest, fastest, most powerful, most intimidating vehicles its members can afford, and these people engage in a daily game of “chicken” with each other. They believe the false promise that modern technology always delivers instant gratification, and when real life shows that this is not true, they throw adult-sized temper tantrums. Frequently these temper tantrums are expressed in the way people drive. “WHAT!!? You crossed the street on a WALK signal as I was waiting to make a right turn??! You dirty #@%*$& pedestrian!!! You slowed me down by three seconds!!! I'll cream you with the front bumper of my new Dodge Ram HEMI!!!”

As Dmitri Orlov said in a recent radio interview, Americans have a much stronger need than people of many other nations to be protected from each other. The police are supposed to do this, but nowadays one rarely sees the police on the street unless one calls the police oneself. Therefore one usually doesn't see the police enforcing traffic laws – including traffic laws designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists. In Portland, Oregon, city traffic engineers have devised several marked zones to protect bicyclists from being “right-hooked” by motorists, and have designated these zones by special signage and road striping. But look at the pictures below and you can see several motorists flagrantly disregarding these zones. I wonder if any of the Portland Police read The Well Run Dry...

These three pictures are of the intersection of Terwilliger Avenue and Taylor's Ferry Road in Portland, Oregon. The city recently painted bike boxes at this intersection to prevent cyclists from being right-hooked by motorists. The way it works is that when the light is red, cyclists move up to the front of the box, directly in front of waiting cars. The cars are prohibited by law from occupying the bike box while their light is red, and are forbidden to make a right turn on a red signal. Once the light turns green, bikes proceed forward and cars in the rear are free to turn right. Here we see motorists who either can't read English or couldn't bring themselves to wait. The lady in the silver car was talking on a cell phone while driving...

Here's a shot of another woman talking on a cell phone and violating the bike box on my side of the street.

Here's a guy who was about to run through the green bicycle crossing zone on the Hawthorne Bridge in front of a cyclist. A lady nearly right-hooked me in that very same zone about a month ago.

As I have said before, the bicycle holds great promise as a tool of adaptation to Peak Oil, financial collapse and the threat of climate change. Yet the tragedy is that the threats and hindrances I have mentioned may thwart the promise of the bicycle and hinder its effectiveness in addressing the challenges many Americans now face. The bicycle is like many of the other strategies of a safety net of alternative systems – strategies that hold great promise, yet which face significant threats and hindrances from an “official,” yet breaking system.


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