Good Reads : Week of 31 January 2016

It’s ridiculous—and it’s actually happened.

No, not the San Diego Chargers wandering from San Diego to Los Angeles back to San Diego in the space of the month. The feckless Chargers should be forced to play the 2016 season on a rudderless barge floating in the Pacific.

Rather, I’m talking about an elite-level cyclist getting busted this weekend for a motor in a bicycle. That’s right, a motor inside a leg-powered bicycle. Just when you think you’ve heard it all about illegal performance enhancement in sports, here comes … vroooooooooom … perhaps the goofiest scandal ever.

Femke Van den Driessche was flagged for what the UCI termed a ‘technological fraud.’ Photo: YORICK JANSENS/Getty Images

The news that Seattle’s bike share program is insolvent only a year after opening is, symbolically anyway, a wound to Seattle’s green psyche.

It could be due to mismanagement. Or a lame rollout. These were some of the reasons offered for how a bicycling program could falter so badly in a place that fancies itself as Bike City, USA.

But what if the real problem is that our self-image is mistaken?

Pronto, the nonprofit system of 54 stations downtown and the U District where you can grab a bike for short-term rental, now has to be bailed out by the City Council for $1.4 million. Or allowed to die.

That’s not very much money, which is why I called this a symbolic issue. The city can pony that up without breaking into a budget sweat.

But there’s a more vexing problem: Nobody’s riding the bikes.

In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes. That’s only 391 rides per day. It’s about seven rides taken at each station per day. Each station brought in only an average $30 a day in revenue.

These are terrible figures considering the bike stations are dotted around places like the Amazon jungle, which we imagine should be meccas of alternative transportation. For a particularly unflattering comparison, the Washington, D.C., bike share logged more than a million rides in its first year (although it did have twice as many stations).

“Washington, D.C., is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting,” says Tom Fucoloro, editor of the excellent Seattle Bike Blog.

I called Fucoloro because he’s an evangelist for Seattle bicycling, but also a realist. Could it be that Seattle with its rain and hills and bad traffic is maybe not the bicycling city it purports to be?

We are falling a bit in the rankings. In the latest bike commuting surveys, Seattle dropped to number five among big cities. That’s still pretty good, but since 2000, bicycling to work has grown twice as fast in Washington, D.C., and three times as fast in Portland.

Recently researchers found the bikingest neighborhoods in the U.S. They looked at bike commuting rates by census tract and ranked the top 100 in the nation (a neighborhood near Stanford University is number one). Portland has 11 of these neighborhoods, Philadelphia five, Chicago two. Even car-crazy Los Angeles has one. Seattle? None.

After years of growth, the number of bikes going over the Fremont Bridge surprisingly dropped 2 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, other surveys have shown that what’s really soaring in popularity around here is walking.

Fucoloro supports saving Pronto. But he said the system is mostly for the casual bike rider, not the hard-core commuter. It could be that biking is rugged enough in Seattle that if you’re going to do it, you’re committed enough to already have your own bike.

But in his view the problem isn’t that Seattle has hit peak bicycling or something. It’s that after decades of talking and fighting about it, the city still hasn’t done much to make biking here better or safer.

“You can’t spray some sharrows and call it good,” he said. “If you’re considering trying out a Pronto bike, but you know you have to go elbow to elbow with cars on Fifth Avenue, are you going to try that?”

Probably not. D.C. has a connected network of bike lanes and paths. Calgary, Alberta, of all places, just put in a network of bike lanes. Here, whatever bike lanes get installed (annoying many drivers) tend to be short and disconnected from the others (which annoys the bicyclists).

The city wants to grow the bike share to save it. OK, if we’re going to have a bike share, it is nuts that there are no stations in places like Fremont or Wallingford. Another idea is to bring in electric bikes, but this involves even greater capital expense. I’ve written before that we should repeal the helmet law if we really want this to work.

It’s all an experiment. With the added tension that Seattle’s sensibilities about itself are hanging in the balance.

At some point, as much as it hurts our green pride, we might have to concede that unlike Paris, Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., and the other bicycling capitals of the world, the one thing we’ll never be is flat.

The Bicycle Shop business in the U.S. is tough. Margins are thin, future sales tough to predict, good employees hard to find, and manufacturers refuse to protect bricks & mortar dealers from lower price online competitors. To owners, shops often seem more a labor of love than a source of income[1].

The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) recently published a report that really brings this to light. It focused on the continuing decline of bicycling and bicycle sales in the U.S. for the past 12 to 14 years. In 2000, 43.1 million people rode bicycles six or more days which is 148 riders per thousand population; by 2014 this had declined to 35.6 million or 111 riders per thousand[2].

In 2005, 67 bicycles were sold per thousand people and in 2014 this had fallen to 57 per thousand[3]. Perhaps worse, sales of bicycles with a 20” or larger wheel size have fallen from a high of 67 per thousand population around 1974 to just 39 per thousand in 2014. The number of bicycle shops has fallen by 18% over the past decade while combined sales floor square footage has remained stagnant.

None of this is new. It’s been the number one topic of conversation for over a decade among bicycle shop owners.

Myopic Vision?

I often wonder if the major impediment to sales growth is that U.S. shops are largely and often exclusively focused on recreation rather than transportation. U.S. shops are selling something that isn’t very critical nor even very useful for many people, instead of selling a valuable necessity.

An average person will only do something recreational for a short bit before they move on to something else. Many are also hesitant to spend money on recreational pursuits. This does not a broad, diverse market make.

There are certainly people who are devoted cyclists who will ride frequently throughout their lives and buy a lot of cycling stuff. These are very few, though, and unfortunately for local bicycle shops are also more likely than the average consumer to purchase online, especially highly profitable accessories.

Photo: Henry Cutler, Workcycles (Amsterdam)

Even the majority of papers and articles about getting more women riding bicycles (and buying bicycles and accessories) focuses on fitness and recreation rather than daily transportation. One woman told me that she’s visited two woman-owned shops in other cities and both were great at telling her about women-specific bicycles and lycra and classes for adjusting a derailleur, but neither had a clue about her need to take her children to school, bring groceries home and not wanting to worry about anything mechanical beyond air in her tires. This, by the way, goes for most guys as well.

The Death Cycle

Our current recreational focus has resulted in people having a garage full of bikes that aren’t very durable, go out of adjustment quickly, are uncomfortable to ride, and can’t easily be ridden in ordinary clothes.

So, we have millions of bikes hanging in garages, collecting dust and rarely ridden. Who wants to change in to shorts, search for wherever they put their helmet last year and struggle to get their bicycle down from the ceiling before trying to find the pump for the now flat tires and all only to then ride a bicycle that’s uncomfortable and has out of adjustment clackity-clacking gears? And this is the simple process for those who don’t load them on their car to drive to some place that they feel is safe enough to ride (I’ve always found it fascinating how many more bikes on cars I see in the U.S. than The Netherlands).

Worse, because people don’t want to ride their uncomfortable pants-leg eating bicycles, they are missing out on what may be the best source of routine activity available and they become overweight or obese. If you’re overweight, you’re even less likely to want to ride your out-of-adjustment bicycle. BTW, I’m not blaming our poor health and obesity on the bicycle industry; Wendy’s Baconator, among many others, contributes it’s share.

Plus, we’re also ending up with bikes that either can’t carry anything or get squirrelly when more than a loaf of bread is squished on the rack. So much for useful transportation.

Time for a new bicycle? Hardly. If you already have a rarely-used bicycle collecting dust in the garage, you’re unlikely to want to spend more money on another for fear that it, too, will do nothing but hang in the garage, collect dust and it remind you of this every day it hangs there. That’s not good for sales.

The Fraternity

Many people don’t want to be ‘cyclists’. They don’t want to wear lycra or clackety shoes. They don’t want to wear helmets or get helmet hair or drip sweat all over the floor in their favorite cafe. They don’t want to abide by The Rules or build a bicycle repair station in their garage.

Perhaps most of all they don’t want to be associated with ‘those cyclists‘ — the ones who run red lights when others have right-of-way or block traffic because they-have-a-right-to-the-road (Note: they do have a right to the road, but that’s another topic). They don’t want to be associated with people who have irritatingly bright blinkie strobe lights that blind them when they’re driving. They don’t want to be confused with people whose common pose is an anti-social fist up in the air gesticulating to the car that just passed them too close.

They’ve heard enough anti-cyclist rhetoric on radio and at dinner parties to know that this is a group that perhaps they don’t want to be associated with.

This isn’t a criticism of people who wear lycra and helmets, I have a closetful myself, but simply a note that ‘cyclists’ are not always viewed very positively and this might not be the lifestyle to be selling.

What’s a bike shop to do?

Today we have the wrong bikes for the wrong reason and no place to ride. No wonder sales have been flat, and declining per capita, for 15 years.

What if we turn this around? Give people a good reason and purpose to ride often — transportation. Build safe and comfortable places to ride — protected bikeways. Provide people with proper bicycles that are simple and durable.

1) Sell the idea of riding for transportation. Give people a reason and a purpose to ride every week or every day. Plant the seed that a bicycle is much more than a recreational toy. Someone who rides frequently, like to dinner once per week, is more likely to want to invest in an upgraded bicycle in a few years and more likely become interested in other bicycling, like racing or off-road.

2) Do everything you can to make bicycling in your neighborhood and sales area comfortable and safe for normal average people. There’s a reason that The Netherlands has a busy bicycle shop on just about every corner. Get copies of the CROW Design Manual For Bicycle Traffic, learn it, and promote it. Get involved with the NBDA’s Green Lane Project. Read A View From The Cycle Path and Bicycle Dutch.

3) Sell bicycles that work for average people. KISS is important — don’t make bicycling complicated. Start each sale with a good city bike. Sell them something that will always be easy and ready to ride and they are more likely to ride often rather than just a couple of times per year. A bicycle that can be ridden in any clothes, that won’t eat their jeans, and that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.

4A) Hide your inner cyclist (and the associated accessories). Don’t appear to be part of the fraternity. Don’t use buzz words. Don’t try to impress customers with how much they don’t know about The Fraternity.

Don’t tell them to HTFU and learn to drive their bike with 4000 lb weapons disguised as cars. Acknowledge that riding on most of our U.S. roads is dangerous, uncomfortable, and sometimes terrifying. Let them know what you are doing to change this (and maybe enlist their help).

Help average people feel comfortable when they walk in. Don’t make them feel like they’re out of their element and in a place they don’t belong. Rather than posters of racers and off-road folk, maybe have posters of average people riding a bicycle wearing nothing but the normal clothes they wear to work or dinner.

4B) Put bicycle fraternity accessories in a corner or separate room, if you carry them at all. This includes clothing, shoes, helmets, nutrition, and parts.

Recreational Cars

Imagine if car dealers only sold recreational cars. Cars for racing and off-roading. Cars not really suited to daily use. If part of every sale included a lecture on the need to buy and wear a helmet and safety vest and take a class on repair and maintenance? If your car came without lights or locks or fenders or anywhere to carry anything home from the store. And if it were suggested that you HTFU and learn to operate your car among 200 mph trains.

A bike that’s easy and comfortable to ride is more likely to be ridden, less likely to collect dust, more likely to result in a healthy fit customer, more likely to be replaced with an upgraded model, and more likely to result in people seeing others riding and want one themselves.

* Photos (unless noted): Franz-Michael S. Melbin, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.


[1] And of course, the best way to make a million bucks is to start with two million and open a bike shop.

[2] This and other data is from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, July 1, 2015, The 2015 NBDA Specialty Bicycle Retail Study ( and the NBDA U.S. Bicycle Market 2014 (

[3] Total bicycle and accessories sales was $7.4 billion in 2014 of which $4.7 billion or 63% was from local bicycle shops. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

What has to be answered is why Copenhagen Bikes here in Chicago and other shops like it could not sell the prototypical that is pictured throughout this article. It would seem that even in the heart of the ‘hipster highway‘ area in our fair city even a bike that works for average people is unable to gain traction.

More than 10 million rides were taken on a Citi Bike in New York City in 2015, and public data released by Citi Bike suggests that many of those trips were commutes to or from work.

Todd Schneider, who writes software at Genius, analyzed the data gathered between July 2013, when the bike-share began sharing data publicly, and November 2015, a total of 22.2 million rides. Schneider only included trips where the bike was dropped off at a different station than where it was initially taken out, and also assumed that riders follow Google Maps biking directions between the two stations. Naturally, this doesn’t account for people who take a meandering route between stations for any number of reasons.

In all, the times and routes of rides follow commuting trends, suggesting that the bikes are used primarily for utilitarian purposes. Most rides take place during weekdays, with peak hours during 8 to 9 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m., and follow similar traffic patterns as cars. For example, while the bikes are predominantly used in Manhattan (88 percent of trips start and end in Manhattan), there is a strong peak in trips from Brooklyn to Manhattan in the morning, while the reverse is true in evenings. Rides taken during weekends tend to be spread out during the afternoon.

Schneider found the primary routes in Manhattan heavily favor roads with bike lanes:

“[Primary routes include] 8th and 9th avenues heading uptown and downtown, respectively, on the west side, and 1st and 2nd avenues heading uptown and downtown, respectively, on the east side. The single road segment most trafficked by Citi Bikes lies along 8th Avenue, from W 28th Street to W 29th Street. Other main bike routes include Broadway, cutting diagonally across Midtown Manhattan, and the west side bike path along the Hudson River.

Not surprisingly, rides dropped during colder months, rainy days and particularly on days with any snow at all.

The 10 million Citi Bike rides taken in 2015 is significantly less than the 175 million taxi trips or 35 million Uber rides New Yorkers took last year, but does mark a 24 percent increase in ridership from 2014. Part of that increase is probably from the addition of 2,400 bikes and 138 new docking stations throughout NYC during the past year. There are currently 7,500 bicycles in the system, and Citi Bike plans to have 12,000 bikes and more than 700 docking stations by the end of 2017.

Schneider’s analysis lends statistical support to the Bikeshare Transit Act,introduced by two U.S. representatives earlier this month. The bill would define bike-shares as transit to further open the gates to federal funding. Supporters of the bill say that bike-shares are an important mode of transportation for many, and shouldn’t be treated as businesses catering primarily to tourists.

For a deep breakdown of how he calculated his data, and to see a mesmerizing animation mapping out rides taken over a 24-hour period in September, visit Schneider’s blog.

Life Through Spokes (Video)

After a century of pumping themselves full of all sorts of performance-enhancing (and other!) drugs, it appears that at least one pro cyclist has found an easier way to cheat: hiding a motor inside the bicycle frame.

The Union Cycliste International (UCI), cycling’s governing body, confirmed reports today that it found a motorized bicycle being used by one of the competitors in the cyclocross World Championships on Saturday. The rider was Femke Van den Driessche, a 19-year-old Belgian cyclocross star.

In a press conference today, UCI President Brian Cookson only confirmed the existence of a motor: “It is no secret that a motor was found…we believe that it was indeed technological doping.”

According to a newspaper report, the UCI used some kind of radio-frequency-detecting tablet to examine the bike, before removing the bottom bracket, and finding a motor hidden inside.

It’s a big day for cycling: the sport has famously had its problems with cheating, and ‘technological doping’ has been an urban legend for years. With electric bike tech advancing fast, and the margins in road racing so tight, people have been accused for years, although nothing’s ever come close to being proven.

For her part, Van den Driessche says the bike belonged to a friend, and mistakenly found its way into her race-day bike lineup. The UCI will be investigating thoroughly, but whether it turns out to be an innocent mistake or not, it’s clear that mechanical doping is a real thing now.

[Cycling News]

A decade ago, TV writer John Rodgers was trying to figure out how low George W. Bush’s approval ratings would go. A friend predicted 27 percent, because that was the percentage of the vote the hapless Alan Keyes received in his comically lopsided Senate race against Barack Obama. “Twenty-seven percent of the population of Illinois voted for him,” his friend said. “They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgment.” (Bush would drop to 25 percent in the Gallup poll, making it a pretty impressive prediction.)

The Tribune just polled Rahm Emanuel’s approval rating. What do you know: it is 27 percent.

It’s a big poll for a local politician, almost 1,000 respondents, and Emanuel gets killed on basically every question. The only thing resembling a bright spot is that “only” 41 percent of respondents think he should resign, versus 51 percent who don’t. But the racial breakdown is dramatic. Whites are 26 percent for resigning versus 69 percent against, while blacks and Hispanics have basically same split: 51 percent and 50 percent for resignation, respectively, versus 40 percent against. It’s a big blow for a politician who needed the black vote to win a surprisingly contested second term.

How bad is 27 percent? It’s real bad. According to my search of Tribune job approval polls, since the era of Daley dominance began no mayor has ever been this unpopular. In fact, it’s so bad that it’s six points below the previous worst.

Richard J. Daley

He served before the age of regular job-approval polling, but a Gallup poll taken 10 years after his death in 1986 gave him a 73 percent job-approval rating. Before his last election, Daley won a Trib poll in a four-way mayoral primary with 55 percent.

Michael Bilandic

Remember him? He was the machine politician whose handling of the 1979 blizzard—both logistically and politically—is a famous cautionary tale for urban leaders. Prior to it, he had a 48-percent approval rating, according to a WBBM poll; afterwards, he fell to 33 percent.

Jane Byrne

She won because of Bilandic’s collapse, but a year later had a mere 35 percent job-approval rating—and, according to the Tribune in 1980, her good/excellent numbers were actually lower than Bilandic’s.

Harold Washington

Racial tensions caused problems for Washington in City Council, but his top-line numbers were good: 54 percent approval versus 36 percent disapproval in 1985 (though the split was 33/58 for whites), and 67 percent approval in 1987. The Trib used the northwest and southwest sides as a proxy for white voter approval that year, and he notched 47 percent in the former and 32 percent in the latter.

Eugene Sawyer

Washington’s successor was unable to fill his shoes, but his numbers weren’t atrocious. In 1988 the Tribune polled residents on a number of questions about his performance; 55 percent thought he was not “strong, decisive, and independent”; 54 percent thought he was not an “effective leader”; and 45 percent said he wasn’t “good at getting things done.”

Richard M. Daley

For most of his tenure, Da Mare maintained high approval ratings: 80 percent in 1991, 79 percent in 1999. After the Hired Truck scandal, arguably the biggest of his time in office, it slipped to 53 percent in 2005. By late 2009, after the parking-meter deal turned into a disaster, even the great Daley slipped to a Byrne-level 35 percent.

As for Rahm? His highest job approval ratings are among whites, but they’re bad, too: 37 percent, a mere four points above Harold Washington’s approval rating among whites in 1985.

Protesters march on downtown Chicago in December. PHOTO: ARMANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Here in NYC, kick scooters are becoming a more and more popular way of getting around town. All different types of people of all different age groups are hitting the streets on KickPedsCity Kicker, and Micros – from parents who want to keep up with their kids, to young professionals who need a faster way to get to work.

When someone comes into the shop looking for a kick scooter, the most common questions are about durability and speed. Will this scooter be safe to ride, how fast will it go, and can it really hold up on New York’s quintessentially rough-and-tumble sidewalks?

Is a Kick Scooter a substitute for a bike? What exactly can this thing do?

MILLENNIUM PARK — A new animal “species” has invaded Chicago.

At least that’s what its creator, Dutch artist Theo Jansen, is calling them.

Jansen brought one of his walking, wind-powered sculptures to Millennium Park Thursday in advance of an exhibition of the creations that opens Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The “strandbeests,” as Jansen has named them, have become something of an international phenomenon after videos surfaced of the massive sculptures roaming European beaches without human intervention. The Chicago show, titled “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines Of Theo Jansen,” is the first major American exhibition of the sculptures, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said in a news release.

Made almost entirely of zip ties and plastic piping that resembles bamboo shoots from afar, the strandbeests, or “beach creatures,” are designed to walk themselves over a number of relatively flat surfaces, all powered by wind.

Ultimately, Jansen said he hopes the sculptures will be able to walk on their own on beaches where he frequently gives them test runs, just like any other animal might.

“When I leave this planet, I want to leave a new species for the world,” Jansen said. “You could say it’s a utopian dream. They’re getting better and better.”

The strandbeest that was displayed near the Bean Thursday moved extremely fluidly, though it had to be pushed along because of a lack of wind. (Other designs have plastic bottles in their “stomachs” that can hold compressed air to be used when it is less windy, one of Jansen’s aides said.)

The movement of the sculptures is hypnotic, especially if one pays attention to all the different, moving parts that help guide it.

“They are poetic in how they move,” said Daniel Schulman, a program director for the department of cultural affairs. “They engage the public in a number of broad ways.”

The sculptures are the perfect blend of art and science, Schulman said. An algorithm was developed that helps Jansen’s team design sculptures that can walk. Jansen said he studied physics for seven years before turning to art.

“I wasn’t a very good student,” he said.

The Cultural Center will host a “STEAM” night — that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics — for school-aged kids to learn about the project on Saturday.

Though there isn’t any wind in the Cultural Center, Jansen’s sculptures will go for a stroll in the exhibit. At certain times during the day, the center will put compressed air inside the sculptures to power them, Jansen said.

“They will come alive,” he said.

The general public can check out the exhibit starting Friday at 5 p.m. at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. The exhibit will run through May 1 and is free to the public.

For more information on the exhibit, check out the Chicago Cultural Center website here.