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Archive for September, 2011

New York City Century Ride: A Few Quick Thoughts

Yesterday I did my first NYC Century ride, 100+ miles of Gotham glory, everything from stunning ocean vistas to broken-bottle-strewn tunnels, from estaurine marshes to riverine gulleys. Given that the event is supposed to demonstrate the joys and possibilities of everyday city cycling, I did it on a bog-standard Trek commuting bike (thank you, Bontrager Hard Case Race Lights, for not flinching as you rode over the detritus of millions). As invigorating as the riding was, the event highlighted something else: The sheer panorama of the spectacle of the city, unfolding at a scale that is beyond the limits of pedestrianism, but more closely-observed than the car. Here, in no certain order, is a sample of the things we saw: Morning tai-chi in Sunset Park; Chinese fisherman in Sheepshead Bay, Russian guys in fatigues in Brighton Beach carrying assault rifles (let’s hope this was for paintball); an apartment building on fire; a woman being dragged unconscious out of a bar in Queens (at ten in the morning); an aerial view of soccer games, looking like Playstation, from the towering bike bath of the Tri-Boro Bridge; the huge bustle of sound, dancing, marching and speechifying that is African Day; the similarly boisterous San Gennaro Festival in Lower Manhattan (whose streets were so traffic-clogged suddenly it was Canal Street that seemed the least chaotic option); white-suited West Indian cricket in Queens; striped-shirted women’s rugby in the Bronx; a motorcycle training course (which we accidentally rode into) in the shadow of the Steinway piano factory; Evangelical storefront churches booming with praise; slack-jawed European shoppers in Soho; the tote-bag clutching patrons of the Brooklyn Literary Festival; the emerald constellation of city parks from Marine to Forest to Van Cortlandt; the Cyclone of Coney Island quiet but proud in the early morning light; pitbulls barking from high terraces; a handful of “ghost bikes” lending sober perspective; the shining Unisphere, which we circled twice looking for the ‘C’ to guide us (a hot dog vendor had pulled over it accidentally)…

I could go on, but you get the picture. And while there were some dodgy connections, some threatening three-way intersections, some fading sharrows, what the event spoke to was the possibility — and promise — of riding in the city. People kept asking, ‘is this a bike-a-thon’?, as if to ride means it must be for something; and of course, it is — for the right and pleasure and utility to ride itself. In the depths of the South Bronx, on some of the least cycling friendly streets, there was always a kid waving, giving a thumb’s up, or shrieking “bikes.” The city felt at once vast and intimate.

Curious to hear of others’ experiences, highlights, low-lights, in comments section.

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Posted on Monday, September 19th, 2011 at 8:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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All About the Docks

Amidst all the bike share discussion in NYC at the moment, I thought I’d post the ‘director’s cut’ of a (very) short article on the subject of bike sharing I have in the current Outside, written of course before yesterday’s (expected) announcement of the program, to be run by Alta.

Faster than you can say “feasibility study,” bike share programs have been popping up in American cities large and small. And we’re not just talking the usual coastal metropoles: Sure, places like D.C. (100,000 trips in its first seven months) and Montreal (3.3 million trips in 10 months) have popular bike share programs, but so too do San Antonio, Des Moines, and, very soon, Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time next year, New York and San Francisco should be on board. Proponents, with an intensity approaching Springfield’s mania for the Monorail, see bike shares as not only a valid mode of sustainable transportation but a veritable economic development tool, while the less enamored see them as a trendy, taxpayer-supported vanity project taking up valuable parking space.

But what makes for a successful bike share program? The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received. But bike sharing in turn makes the city more bike friendly; in the French city of Lyon, for example, more than 90% of people had never biked in the city center prior to bike sharing.
And lest you think bike share seems redundant in an already bike friendly city like Minneapolis, close to 80% of riders on its “Nice Ride” system already own a bike.

But you don’t have to be Portland to have a bike share, argues Alison Cohen, who heads Alta Bike Share, the company that runs the programs in D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. No one ever thinks they’re ready. “We went to Melbourne, Australia, and we were floored by the number of lanes,” she says. “And they were like, ‘how will address the fact that there are no lanes?’ We said, ‘you should see Dallas.’ ” What matters, she says, is political will (and funds). When Boston started looking into bike sharing a few years ago, it had 180 feet of bike lanes — by the time it introduced it, it was up to 38 miles. New York, she notes, delayed its request-for-proposals for a year as it firmed up its bike infrastructure.

This points to another no-brainer: Bikes need to be where people want to go, whether it’s transit hubs or tourist hotspots (a common theme in failed “first generation” bike share programs, often halfheartedly promoted by advertising companies, is that they started too small to be seen as useful).

Then there’s the nitty-gritty details, like capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says Cohen, who says a two-to-one bike-to-dock ratio is ideal. But in crowded cities, finding space downtown to accommodate the morning flow is a challenge (in D.C, users complained when a Groupon promotion brought thousands of new users online). A related issue is distribution — how do you spread bikes throughout the system if users aren’t doing it themselves? Bike-carrying trucks is the brute force solution. But herein lies another problem. “The time when you need the trucks to be most mobile, when the trucks are getting filled up, is rush hour,” Cohen says.

Lastly, as with any consumer transaction, user experience is key, from payment to pricing to pedals. Anything that stands between the rider and a potential ride will dampen the program. Where D.C.’s bikes average five rides a day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, they get just one. The primary reason? A mandatory helmet law. For various reasons (including hygiene), no bike share system in the world provides a helmet. Nor should they, some would argue. But Cohen feels the market may provide a solution — and indeed, a London-based designer, Anirudha Rao, has already crafted the prototype Kranium, an inexpensive, custom-made cardboard helmet which he envisions could be sold in vending machines (replete with 3-d scanners and printers) at bike share stations.

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Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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