The ‘Keystone Kop’ Approach to Cycling Advocacy

Background Reading

Summary

It is not the musings of John Kass or the video diatribes of Dorothy Rabinowitz that will ultimately bring down the Cycling Revolution. If it should fail it will be because those “in charge” are far too focused on press conferences and delivering “happy talk” to reporters to deal with the mundane, nitty-gritty, day-to-day problems of getting a system working that no one knows the weaknesses of, as yet.

Whenever your Grand Solution is based on “funny money” people treat the whole enterprise the way a spoiled rich kid does the apartment leased for him by his parents as part of his trust fund account. That is happening in spades with everything from BikeShare to street infrastructure creation. What you need are anal types running the day-to-day operations, and these folks also have to be or at least understand cyclists and cycling. Failing that all bets are off.

So a long dormant thread has resurfaced at the ChainLink that allows us to see what the supporters of Cycling Infrastructure really think about the “so-called” progress being achieved by our Grand Solution for Chicago.

The story begins with this original posting:

Protected Bike Lane Frack-Up: Marshall Boulevard
Posted by h’ 1.0 on October 31, 2012 at 1:41pm

It looks like striping was completed yesterday for a protected lane on Marshall… at least from the south end of Douglas park to the bend towards 24th street (I personally don’t have much use for a bike lane on the boulevard so can’t speak to how far it extends either way…).

(11/20– subject line edited to reflect the surrent status)

You can translate this to mean that we are about to install something in a place where nobody living in the location desires to have it. And the “situation on the ground” is such that people who really need on-street parking are losing it to cycling infrastructure that they neither asked for nor want. Things move much more circumspectly on the North Side, why are they being rammed through in this location?

What got things off to a ripe mess was the sudden ticketing of vehicles. The situation was a foul-up of major proportions and did nothing to endear cycling to this community:

Reply by h’ 1.0 on November 30, 2012 at 1:14pm
Spoke to 12th ward office. A few details:

  • the ticketing happened because some resident called 911 to complain about the parked cars and the police that responded to that call didn’t know that they were not supposed to ticket yet.
  • people who received tickets ($150) are basically on their own to contest them; they need to so so before the fine doubles to $300 because once it does there is no way to get it out of the system
  • there will be some sort of study to determine what to do at this point, but the person I spoke to seemed to be pretty sure the outcome was going to be to restore the striping to the way it was before, as there is no way to have a protected lane without losing a very significant amount of automobile parking.
  • In the meantime, no signage is going in.

This was botched on so many levels it’s hard to really care much about the outcome, as it’s hard to believe the buffered lane will persevere. The majority of boulevard residents have no off-street parking and the situation already sucked for them; removing more than 1/2 of the parking from the Boulevard (by my informal estimate) is basically akin to telling sidestreet residents that one half of their entire street can no longer be used for parking. Of course, I’d be fine with some hard-ass lefty-greeny mayor banning on-street parking for anything but commercial vehicles, but the current chain of events and lack of foresight on the part of whoever decided to put a buffered lane here has guaranteed an irreversible groundswell of resident animosity, IMO.

So just recently the whole mess begins again in earnest:

Reply by Dan Korn 10 hours ago
Another round of tickets was issued on Sunday. The signs still don’t match the paint on the road.

Last time this happened, people were yelling at me while I was riding on Marshall, as if it was my fault. This whole thing sucks, and it’s not helping to garner support for cycling at all.

Who can we talk to to get some straight answers about what’s going on?

Reply by h’ 1.0 10 hours ago
See the post immediately above yours. I have no reason to think anything other than that we’re just in the usual limbo waiting for the protected lanes to be removed.

Since you seem to be one of the privileged few who can receive an e-mail response from Gabe Klein, I look forward to what he has to say about it.

Do you get the feeling that nobody is really in charge of things? These lanes are now being “removed“! Who exactly authorized their installation and what was their reasoning? Oh, wait! You only have to be “an activist” and not necessarily a “thinker” if you want to see cycling succeed.

I take back what I said about Dorothy Rabinowitz. She was flat out wrong on the issue of the “Cycling Lobby“. Their biggest problem is their ineptness, not the fact that they want to “ban on-street parking“. They simply do not bother or perhaps do not have the capacity to think through the steps that are involved in playing their particular brand of “Bicycle Chess“.

Reply by Dan Korn 6 hours ago
Well, I guess I’m impatient about this “limbo” period. If they’re going to remove the lane, or they’re going to finish it, either way, they should just get on with it. Leaving it half-finished for months and months is BS.

I’m glad that CDOT is being so aggressive about installing this cycling infrastructure, even though it seems heavy-handed, because usually, once the lanes are put in, most of the knee-jerk people who opposed them realize that they’re not really so bad. Unless they do a half-ass job with it and then everyone gets mad.

So while it’s nice to see more infrastructure in the city in general, it’s frustrating to see project after project finished and touted, while right outside my front door, there’s this giant mess.

Ever the optomists (on somebody else’s dime):

Reply by Jim Freeman 2 hours ago
limbo period? it’s been seven months… What could possibly cause a seven month hold up?

This is simply a case of Liberal Social Engineering gone awry. It is a revisitation of the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green all over again. Trying to “force feed” entire communities with the notion that bicycle lanes that disrupt their lives are “good for the community” is a bit like trying to convince people that vaccines are 100% safe even when we know they are not.

Chicago Is Not An Isolated Issue

We are currently watching the same sort of nonsense unfold in New York with respect to its BikeShare program. Another case of more “funny money” and lack of planning running headlong into each other. Take for instance this thread:

Bike share delayed for 2 weeks Sun Times story
Posted by Ace Mann on June 11, 2013 at 9:38pm

So much for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to launch Chicago’s long-stalled bike-sharing program in time for Friday’s Bike-to-Work Day rally at the Daley Center Plaza.

The program that Emanuel hopes to build into the nation’s largest bike sharing program has been delayed yet again—this time until June 28.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein disclosed the two-week delay on Tuesday, just as Divvy was informing its Chicago members of the latest pothole.

Klein said “a few components showed up a little bit late,” but that’s not the reason for the latest delay. It’s about guaranteeing a smooth launch of a solar-powered system that has many technical components.

“It would have been great to launch on Bike to Work day, but we realized it’s better to have it as ride-ready as possible. We have all the equipment now on the ground, but we have not had a chance to test it,” Klein said.

With any large-scale deployment of any technology or transit system—and this is both—you want to avoid glitches as much as possible. The more we can test in our environment, the more we can ensure it’s as seamless as possible.”

Klein said the city is “still selling memberships” and “still on track” to install 75 stations by the end of the month.

“What we’re delaying is the actual go-live of the system because we want to have more time to do extensive testing on the ground with our software, our management and our communications system,” he said.

Operated by Portland, Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share, the bike-sharing program was originally scheduled to offer 3,000 bikes for rental at 300 stations last summer.

Now, it’s been delayed, yet again. How disappointed is Klein?

On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a two,” he said.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said Chicago’s start-up problems are nothing new. Other cities, including New York, have experienced similar hiccups.

“They told me they need more time to test the system to make sure everything is going to work properly: checking out bikes, re-docking bikes, being able to sweep your credit card to get a bike,” Burke said.

“We would rather the city delay a couple weeks than risk a sub-par service. This is sort of like the grand opening for the latest, coolest roller-coaster at the amusement park. The line just got a little longer. But I’m not getting out of line. A two-week delay in a system that will be around for decades is disappointing, but it’s not that big a deal.”

The Chicago Sun-Times last fall that the program that was supposed to offer 3,000 bikes for rental at 300 stations last summer had been put off until spring.

The delay came as Inspector General Joe Ferguson continued to investigate a rival bidder’s claim that the bid process was greased for Alta, an Oregon company that once hired Klein as a consultant.

At the time, problems with Alta’s newly-developed software to keep track of rented bikes and accept rider payments had also stalled the company’s 10,000-bike rental program in New York City.

The Emanuel administration insisted then that neither complication played any role in the Chicago slowdown.

‘Happy Talk’ Is Not My Specialty

On the positive side I welcome the idea that this time around the CDOT is actually doing some “testing“. Everything else about the roll-out of showcase PBLs like Dearborn Street have left me flat. But what I worry about is that the Urban Cycling Community is unable or perhaps unwilling to apply pressure to the tender parts of its “friends” the way it does to those it considers “impediments to progress“.

Case in point:

Reply by Jim Freeman 2 hours ago
no biggie. I would only have been surprised if it launched on time.

I’m super stoked about bike share. better late than never.

Whatever this guy is smoking must be good. The very fact that the launch date was deemed by him to be impractical tells me loads about the nature of the planning that goes into such enterprises. Just imagine if weddings were handled in this fashion.

You know a couple waltzes into a shop and orders her dress and then asks the wedding planner to secure a banquet hall and a church and a photographer for the Big Day. And of course that means that food and a cake have to be prepared and brides maids and groomsmen have to be flown in to attend the nuptials. And then there are the guests who have to rearrange their lives (and buy presents) to attend the ceremony.

And then the bride says “we need a couple more weeks or maybe months“. And when asked about this turn of events the Father says “no biggie. I would only have been surprised if it launched on time.

More “Happy Talk”:

Reply by SlowCoachOnTheRoad 43 minutes ago
I think we animals find too much to complain about. They need more time and that is understandable. This is an amazing gift for Chicago and if the biking community is not going to be supportive from the get-go then no one else will. So far the Mayor has been as bike friendly as the last one. Changes take time. So far 1,000 people have signed up, which means that even if they all paid the $125 founder fee, that is only $125,000 trickling in for something that clearly must have cost millions. Imagine on a stormy day like today when I will probably chicken out of biking to work as I have to meet a friend for dinner after work – I could have hopped on the bus there, and rode the Divvy to the dinner date if I suddenly found I had a short rain-free window later after work. This is going to be COOL!

Spare me the Junior High School patter. They are the ones who gave us the timetable. It was not imposed on them. The very best that can be said is that their planning was to ambitious.

This is not some “gift for Chicago“! This did not fall from the sky into our laps and we are simply creaming ourselves over our good fortune. Nope. This is our money being squandered at various points by politicians and hacks who are attempting to shape our future according to their notions and not even doing a great job of it. This is “funny money” at its best.

I am happy that you see that there is far too little capital coming into this system from the users. What that tells me is that we are doomed at the outset to see deficits from the system. At best it will be a summer-time affair. The users will either be tourists or a few die-hards who would rather bike in the winter than take a cab. But I do not see a system that can necessarily thrive on its own, at least not yet.

Reply by Lisa Curcio 6.5 mi 30 minutes ago
Actually, not complaining about it being late, just disappointed. It is better to have it be right when it is launched. I am pretty sure this segment of the cycling community was a big part of the early adopters who signed up already. We are very much looking forward to Divvy!

Do you get the idea that either nobody knows what’s going on or there are not enough golf tee times to satisfy the needs of the “funny money” crowd? These folks get enormous salaries for what they are supposed to be doing and they seem unable to meet their own deadlines. Yikes!

Sure these are big enterprises. And sure they are filled with uncertainties. So why not let the public in on the joke before you start “blowing smoke up our collective dresses“? The worst thing is that we spend countless hours churning out drivel from Active Transportation Alliance’s offices to combat bad press or to fire yet another salvo across the bow of John Kass or Dorothy Rabinowitz while presiding over what we know to be a “ripe mess“.

Tell the general public that despite all appearances you are winging this with their tax dollars. You have not got a clue as to whether this will work in Chicago the way it has in New York or DC or wherever and quit trying to shout down your critics, you need them. They are the folks who can and will say what you evidently won’t say about the chances of success.

Take advantage of their approach in “speaking truth to power” and embrace it.

Mark My Words

The BikeShare situation is not going to work out as well as might have been hoped. Given that Alta has a track record upon which it should have been building I am forced to admit that it is not learning from its previous mistakes. They are running into hiring issues (because they are probably paying too little) and the logistics of this kind of enterprise takes a good deal more savvy that what I expect out of CDOT.

We are poised to either smell the roses or wish we could wash the stink off our clothing. I am not holding out much hope that the former will be the outcome.

A Glimpse Behind The Curtain

Here is an excerpt from the Montreal Gazette that details the fundamental reasons behind this current Chicago delay:

Citi Bike NYC

Citi Bike NYC

First Chattanooga, now New York City.

The Big Apple this week admitted it will not be able to launch its Bixi bike-sharing system in July, as originally promised.

The bike systems were sold to Chattanooga and New York by the Public Bike System Co., a company controlled and financially supported by the city of Montreal.

Chattanooga, Tenn., has blamed its delay on a glitch in Bixi’s new software. Bike Chattanooga missed its scheduled May 1 launch and is still not operating.

In New York City, officials have not explained the delay, saying only that the launch of its Citi Bike system has been delayed until August.

Contacted by The Gazette on Tuesday, Bixi spokesperson Michel Philibert said he could not comment on the delay in New York.

Asked if New York’s delay is related to a software problem, Philibert said: “What I can tell you is that we are in line with our delivery schedule – we are delivering the bikes and stations,” he said. “We are respecting our contract with Alta Bike Share.”

Alta Bike Share is Bixi’s Oregon-based U.S. partner.

The PBSC provides the bikes and bike stations. Alta installs and operates the systems in the U.S. Alta has done so in Boston and Washington and is responsible for the set-ups in Chattanooga and New York.

Alta Bike Share did not respond to a request for comment from The Gazette.

Bixi is in a legal dispute with 8D Technologies Inc., the Montreal firm that, until recently, provided the software for all Bixi stations.

8D has launched a $26-million lawsuit against Bixi, and Bixi is suing 8D for $2.5 million.

8D’s software is still used in Montreal’s Bixi stations and all other previously-sold Bixi systems around the world.

Bixi has developed new software to replace 8D’s software. That new software is used for Chattanooga’s bike stations and also will be used in New York’s system.

Philibert said software testing in Chattanooga “has now been completed and it’ll be launching in the coming days or weeks.”

Bike-sharing is getting a bit of a rough ride in Chattanooga and New York.

This Goes From Bad To Worse

Whoa! Imagine that the U.S. Military was about to deploy a missile system whose software had been written by outside contractors and was now being replaced by in-house developers. As anyone in the software business knows, programming is difficult in the best of cases and a beast when you have a tiny cadre of folks trying to churn out a replacement by pulling a series of “all-nighters” for weeks on end. Be there and done that!

This is a more fundamental problem than having a few disgruntled workers who want better pay. This is something that strikes at the heart of the business model upon which this enterprise is founded. You cannot run a bicycle sharing system without the following:

  • You need accurate and instantaneous connections to your credit card sources to ensure that users have an experience not unlike that at your average ATM.
  • The more difficult to control issues will be the readers that detect the presence of bikes inserted into the racks to shut down the fee cycle for a given user.
  • You also need to have the system indicate the precise location and condition of the bike being returned because it will be that information that the drivers use to reassign bike locations.

There are many more issues that this system has to negotiate on behalf of the users and the company but suffice it to say that the worst scenario would be complications relating to the charges placed on credit cards.

Users for instance are not going to be very happy if a bike returned is charged for extended use when it was in fact returned on time. Hanging onto the phone line to get those charges removed is not my idea of how a good system should work. Yet that is exactly what on wag at the ChainLink thought to be just fine.

One of the more profound replies to the “happy talk fest” surrounding this debacle was this one:

Reply by Tony Adams 7 mi (dirtbag hipstr) 1 hour ago

Sure, but one of the reasons the City cites for outsourcing and privatizing this stuff is to control risk isn’t it? And here is more evidence that sending Chicago dollars out of state to Portland (Alta) and out of the country to China (bikes) wasn’t necessarily the best approach.

Yes this is what strikes terror into the hearts of business owners around the world. You often are forced (because of lack of expertise) to contract with foreign entities whose loyalty is to their country and not you. So here we have a Canadian, Chinese and American set of firms trying to navigate the shoals of the bicycle sharing world with software that has not had to reveal it worst problems. One would think perhaps that everyone though much less of the difficulty in getting something like this up and running than they do of other projects.

The irony is that bicycles are probably being viewed as more of a nuisance factor in running a large city than anything else. I doubt seriously that anyone in office really expects these systems to actually turn a profit anytime soon. So for the foreseeable future these will be deficits in the making with the added problem of being a source of irritation because they do not work well. They will be the face of the city to tourists who will ask themselves how these guys ever landed anyone on the moon.