Making Sure We Are Not Buying An Over-priced ‘Knock-Off’

Background Reading

Summary

Let’s first take a listen and look at how a native Dutchman (my wife is Dutch on her mother’s side and German on the father’s) responds to the changes were are making in the U.S. “bicycle infrastructure“.

Our Pace

Any number of folks who have visited either Copenhagen or Amsterdam take an initial dislike to something we Americans take for granted our impatience. You notice this in the downtown area of Chicago on any given day of the weekend. Perhaps the cause is the overwhelming gender skew towards younger males? Whatever the cause the lack of a laid-back pace makes the riding seem overly hurried and far less casual.

The impatience is reflected in how upset we can and do get with having to wait for traffic controls. What you hear from cyclists reflects a disconnect in their minds from the complaints about motorists. In a recent video under discussion on the ChainLink. As one respondent in the video (Alex) noted it was amazing that a motorist thought so very much more about saving 30 seconds that guarding her life. I suppose the “flip side” of that sentiment is how very important saving 30 seconds seems to be to cyclist who would rather “run a red light” than wait.

On the ChainLink you are often reading about cyclists who complain that an impatient cyclist took needless risks only to be caught by the riders who actually waited until the light changed. You might chalk this up to there being inexperienced (i.e. slower riders) versus the ones who are experienced (i.e. faster riders) but I think it is more of a cultural thing in America. We drive our cars and ride our bikes at frenetic paces and we seem to have little tolerance for “Sunday Drivers” or “slow, heavy rental bikes or even bakfiets“.

Our ‘Infra’

The author seems to think pretty highly of Dearborn Street PBL here in Chicago. He was less impressed with the lack of specific bicycle infrastructure (or as he pronounces it “infra“) of Davis California. And he said he felt more comfortable in the ‘green painted‘ lanes. Yes these lanes offered cosmetic hints at what the Dutch are familiar with (raised paved lanes with actual curbing) but he liked the direction in which they were moving.

But there is a serious disconnect for Dutch riders with our willingness to “mix it up” with traffic in high speed situations. I have been in California in the very areas he mentioned and to some degree think he underestimates the reality of the safety issues of wider roadways. But I have long been a fan of trails like the Chicago Lakefront Trail as alternatives to traveling alongside traffic on Lake Shore Drive.

What prevents us from gaining more of that kind of infrastructure is cost. It takes money and lots of it to buy the land that would support a bicycle highway across town. And it really takes a great deal of skill to develop the kinds of  exchanges needed to allow bicycle traffic from such a roadway to merge back and forth onto streets. The British have an elevated track idea that they envision doing the trick for them. I would love to see that come to the US. But I am willing to see how it works out for them before paying for such an expensive option here.

Our Head Space

So long as Americans (especially those in the hipster communities around the country) glorify and emulate the messenger mentality represented by the movie Premium Rush there really is going to be an uphill battle to bring greater involvement in cycling. If you stop and think about it making the activity more broadly available and participated in by people will obviously mean that more elderly people, females and younger riders will have to be in the mix.

The author of the video kept talking (and I think rightly so) about the racer mentality that seems to engulf our riding experience. He decries the use of helmets and Lycra™. He is more at home with people pulling children in trailers and carrying things in cargo bikes (including children). And by definition this means that speediness will have to take a back seat to ‘safety‘.

At present the notion of saving a few seconds on our way by running red lights and stop signs is neither a signal that we are interested in casual slow-paced saunters through Manhattan nor indications that we are willing to replace a headlong rush through traffic (more like that sought by motorists than I would care to admit). We have taken to being more concerned about whether we need to detour a block or two to avoid riding the wrong way down one-way streets than we are about the transportation aspects.

What I mean here is that if bicycles are indeed to be considered transportation and not merely toys, we are going to have to change how they look and how we ride them. If we for instance are going to build bicycle superhighways that are perhaps elevated trails (like the Bloomingdale Trail) it will mean having to go out of your way to reach that cycle track. And then once you are on it the pace will be slower because there will be lots of riders who are perhaps carrying cargo or children or pets or groceries or laptops or whatever on bikes that are heavy and plodding because it takes that kind of design to withstand daily heavy use on a year round basis.

The Dutch know this and that goes a long way to explaining why their bikes look the way they do. No self-respecting hipster would be caught dead with anything so quaint. Much preferred is to ride a color-coordinated fixed gear bike with matching handlebar tape and rims and even a painted chain! And of course you have to style on the bike. You know ride like they do in the alley cat videos so that you complete the illusion that you are a bike messenger level rider.

TakeAways

I believe that the helmet issue will persist here in the US for the foreseeable future. Frankly there is money to be made in selling ever more expensive versions that do in fact deal more effectively with the sudden decelerations that can concuss. And let’s face it Lycra™ is still the quickest way for suburban and city males alike to channel their heroes bike racers. Pace-lines are the things suburban riders and even some urban riders (on the Chicago Lakefront Trail) dream about.

What will be most telling is the interaction between Divvy users here in Chicago and young male hipsters. The Divvy crowd will ultimately be more tourist-oriented and probably older and maybe more female. But whatever the demographics it will be slower and more plodding. The emphasis will be on getting from point A to point B and with the exception of the time penalties impatience will take a bad seat to simply “getting there“.

I short I sense that a culture clash is waiting in the wings. There is going to be a problem simply because of the increased numbers of riders. We already know that urban riders are not happy with the influx of suburbanites and tourists who flock to the Chicago Lakefront Trail. That many people creates tensions for impatient riders.

What already happens is that the impatient riders are heading over to side streets where they hope to find a clearer lane with extra speed. But if the ridership is in fact increasing that will not be a real solution either. Everyone will have to get used to leaving a few minutes earlier to get to work on time because as with the highways that lead into the city traffic is not exactly flying along during Rush Hour.

In essence the bicycle community is going to have to learn to deal with that ‘stuck in traffic‘ feeling so common to motorists. Yes, there will be a bit of increased freedom for bicyclists but even those who run red lights are going to have a greater contention from other scofflaws at intersections because there will be more of them. And either the number of auto-vs-bicycle collisions will increase or the bicycle-vs-bicycle type will increase also. Either way having more people on the roads invites a greater opportunity for chaos.

Parking for bicycles will become a bone of contention for cyclists with other cyclists. Those who use Divvy will have the best possible on-street parking. So much so that “free parking racks” will be either squeezed out or displaced to less ideal locations. But what I suspect will eventually become the norm are bicycle sections in car parking lots.

People riding bicycles will actually learn to pay for the privilege of parking their bikes and be glad of it. Theft from an on-street level parking lot should be reduced simply because there will be someone to keep an eye on things. The attendants will get to know your face and recognize your bike and that will make all the difference.

I suspect that to in fact encourage the success rate of Divvy there will be subtle changes to make them a more viable choice than bringing your own. Parking is the most obvious. But soon bicyclists will have to learn to actually walk perhaps as many as four or five blocks (in much the same manner as do commuters exiting Metra trains). It is in this situation that folks who work in buildings that provide indoor parking (paid or free) will feel the most fortunate. And those whose parking is non-existent will start to consider long and hard the use of folding bikes like the Brompton.

What I would love to see and I think will come to pass is that cycling because less of an end-to-end option and more of a leg-to-leg option for transportation. People with folding bikes like the Brompton will able to sit beside their bike on the elevated train or bus or commuter train and ride in comfort. And when they debark from their multi-modal train or bus experience they will ride the gap between where that conveyance stops to the door of their building and fold their bike and park it under their desks or in the hallway closet.

The Dutch are the beneficiaries of a smaller landmass country than is ours. The same is true of the Danes. So they have far more people who live in places like Oak Park who can commute into the central city for work and en masse make their way home in the evenings. We can accomplish much the same trip but our economically disparate landscape places rings of poverty around the central cities. That makes it more advantageous to not attempt an end-to-end trip especially at non-peak hours.

Eventually we may have something of which to be proud for the benefit of our children. But that day will take a bit longer to reach if we are not more serious about our commitment first to “safety“. We simply cannot afford to get bogged down in campaigns and controversies about whether or not one should run a red light or a stop sign. Being able to do either does not in anyway make your trip “safer” so far as I can tell. It might save you some time, but again the pace of the ridership will change to something much slower as the numbers of riders increases.

So learning to think about the “safety” of cycling and its practitioners must move to the front of the line. Anything else like the color of clothing or the style of bike being ridden or the presence or lack of a helmet is a distraction if it does not make the ride from point A to point B, safer. I would expect the ChainLink Forum to shift its concerns to think more attuned to the vehicle. Questions like what tires offer the best traction in winter and the fewest punctures over the course of their life is more of what I would think to be germane.

There ought to be fewer arguments and queries over what gear selections should be needed for a fixed gear bike than perhaps where can I get a good deal on a Dutch-style bike. And that makes me also think that knowing where you can get bicycle service at a good price and of high quality will certainly outstrip discussions of where the best craft brews can be had and when the next group ride for intoxication will occur.

If you think about how motorists do things, they consider getting good prices on insurance quite important. After that the cheapest places to buy gas. After that where is the safest and cheapest place to park if you drive to the Loop. But if driving is either not an option or too costly then motorists consider multi-modal trips. They do not sit on the commuter train comparing trim packages and steering wheel tape colors with one another.

Cars are nice but they are not part of their conversation. They are far more sanguine about their modes of transportation than are cyclists. They certainly do not look around the bus or car and nod to one another about the fact that they are part of the automobile culture. Cars are almost appliances despite the attempts by the car companies to sell them as dream machines, that ship has sailed.

The day that bikes are more or less required to have certain accessories (lights of a certain wattage front and rear, front and rear racks and even perhaps horns or bells) is the day that you will know that cycling has arrived here as more than a youth fad and instead something that real people can use. When you see bikes for sale with ads touting that they contain skirt guards you will know that women have reached equality with men in regards to travel by bicycle.