Archive for January, 2010

Who’s biking? Choice or necessity

I made contact this week with a fellow bike commuter I’ve seen nearly every day since last summer. His is a rare sight on a bicycle on the rural roads outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro – an older Latino man that we dubbed Cristobal so that we could talk about him between us. When the temperature and day light permitted the 20-mile ride to town, we’d cross paths with this man going the opposite direction. My partner and I would both wave from our tandem across the busy road, and eventually he started waving back.

As a sort of complement to this story, a new report called “Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2010 Benchmarking Report” was released today by the Alliance for Biking & Walking, which uses what (limited) available data there is to look at how many people are biking and walking in the U.S., and who they are. Well, there’s us. And there’s Cristobal.

Before we met Cristobal, we speculated that he was Mexican, probably from a certain state where most of the latinos in this part of North Carolina come from. (It helps that my partner works with migrant populations in this area of Mexico). We also figured that he was commuting by bicycle to work at a farm or quarry 12-15 miles out into the countryside because he didn’t have a car. In my head, I was happy for Cristobal, and hoped that he enjoyed the choice of bicycling as much as I do. I thought, he must be one of the most fit guys in his neighborhood.

He rides an older, beat-up blue bike with cruiser handlebars and baskets on his rear rack. Until recently he wore a cap rather than helmet, and still he wears a helmet only occasionally. When we would pass by on our tandem in warmer months, he seemed comfortable on the bike, even a bit amused. We stopped riding for the winter, but we see him every day on our drive. The morning temperatures are in the 20s and 30s. He has a thick coat, mittens, and a helmet sits atop a knit cap. He looks miserable.

As we were traveling home in the early winter dark, we didn’t see him. Not because he wasn’t there, but because he had no lights or reflectors. I decided to buy him a set of front and rear lights. I was worried for his safety, but I also took this as my opportunity to meet him. There’s a gas station where we often see his bike where he probably stops for a snack on the way to and from work. After weeks of driving by, we finally passed the store while he was there. We stopped and met Cristobal.

First off, his name’s not Cristobal, but it’ll do for this blog. We approached with big awkward grins and the set of lights. Luckily my partner is also fluent in Spanish. While I set to installing the lights on his bike, she was able to get Cristobal’s story. As she guessed, Cristobal is from Guanajuato. He’s a bit older than the typical recent Mexican immigrant, though he’s probably younger than he looks. He moved here two years ago and lives with his son who’s in his 20s. I shook Cristobal’s hand, and it was rough and chalky.

We introduced ourselves as the tandem couple that waved to him when we passed him back in the warmer months – he seemed to remember us. We told him that we were impressed he biked so far out everyday, that he must be strong, and that he’s a better person than us for dealing with the winter. The private bicycle cheerleader in my head was shouting RAH-RAH, but Cristobal’s take on it was different. He said he hates biking. That he only does it because he needs the job, the job is far from town, and he has no car. But he said he was grateful for the lights, shook our hands with genuine warmth, and mounted his bike to ride back home in the dark.

We passed him on our way home today and were glad to see his new lights flashing from the side of the road. It was a warmer afternoon, in the 50s, but tomorrow they are predicting snow, which at least means cold and precipitation. Trucks were spraying “brine” along the road.

Without speculating about Cristobal’s personal circumstances, we know that North Carolina makes it difficult for immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses now – a reckless conflation of poor immigration policy with public safety, which is what the license process should really be about – but that’s a problematic topic for another post. According to what I can gather from this new “Benchmarks” report from the Alliance for Biking & Walking (ABW), Cristobal’s reasons for bike commuting are at least as common as all of us folks now blogging about our conscious decisions to commute by bike. Mine is a choice, his is not.

As I said at the beginning, Cristobal, the Latino immigrant bike commuting out of necessity, is a rare sight out on the country roads. But it’s not so rare in cities and towns across this country. According to the ABW report, while Hispanics now make up 15% of the U.S. population, they account for 22% of total bike trips. If this data is accurate, then that population is overrepresented among bicyclists, while perhaps underrepresented in the popular media image of who bicyclists are.

The ABW report also attempts to break down bike trips by socioeconomic brackets, but that data seems to come from 2001 numbers, which may or may not be relevant anymore. For what they’re worth, those old numbers indicate that across income levels, the share of bike trips is basically the same. What is even harder to capture is the reason (utility or recreation or some combination of those) for the bike trip. ABW speculates that the lower-income share of bike trips may be more for utility, while higher income classes may bike more for recreation. Given that Hispanics have a very high poverty rate in North Carolina and the rest of the U.S., it’s probably not a wildly irresponsible assumption that among Hispanic bikers, utility trips out of necessity make up a large proportion of their total trips by bike, like Cristobal.

There’s another image of the bicyclist that I don’t see represented in the media and bike blog community that much, but was probably the most prevalent when I was a kid growing up in rural Maine, and may still be the popular image of bicyclists among certain communities, such as low-income communities and rural areas. My childhood mind remembers basically three types of bicyclists: kids like me on their bmx’s; the occasional odd-ball adult in neon lycra; and, more commonly, the slovenly-looking fellow biking against traffic. Bikes in this last category were known as DUI-machines, and I bet their popularity has not waxed or waned one way or the other.

I’m happy, and exceedingly lucky, to have the choice to ride my bike (er… choice of one of many bikes) for utility or for fun. (I’m even luckier to have a partner to ride a tandem with, who has by and large the same motivation as me, plus can speak Spanish…). There’s probably at least as many bicyclists who ride out of necessity, as out of choice. As our society looks at products to market, services and education to offer, and new transportation plans and policies, I hope that a major demographic of the bicyclist population doesn’t get lost on the side streets.


Sensory overload

I saw a vexing thing as I rode along the paved Bolin Creek Greenway in Chapel Hill today. What I saw I have ambivalent feelings about – a man who appeared to be blind led by his service dog, with the tell-tale Apple-white cords dangling from his ears.

Most of the greenway users I observe are joggers and walkers, and lots of people walking dogs. And, most of those folks that are out there solo have some sort of device to their ears, like a cell phone or ipods. Since it’s basically a recreational space with a lot of users, I take it easy on the bike rather than treat the path like a closed race course. I came from behind the man with the service dog and slowed to his pace. As I got closer, the man suddenly spooked and pulled at his dog, then settled down. I waited to pass slowly until I could be sure the way around him was clear. That’s when I confirmed that yes, he was blind, and yes, he had ipod buds in his ears.

On the one hand, I have to say that it’s perfectly acceptable that a visually-impaired person would partake of the same pleasures and activities as anyone on the path – in this case a pleasant stroll with his dog along a car-free path by a stream, whilst listening to favorite music, news, or comment.

On the other hand, the more I think about it, the more I’m opposed to blocking out any of my senses – hearing, sight, metal focus – while I’m out there ambulating and locomoting on streets and paths. I wrote about my feelings about using devices like cell phones and ipods while driving and biking a while back. I admitted that I’d tried biking with headphones for a while and realized that was pretty dangerous. And, I confessed to running or dog-walking while listening to music. As I’m exposed to more miles traveled via bike, foot, or car, (and hear about more studies and news stories) I’m convinced that I need all available senses at my disposal.

The winter days and the proximity of a gym have given me a chance to experiment with one alternative to running outside along paths or streets while listening to music – running while listening to music on the treadmill. Treadmills pose their own risks I discovered. If I think about it too hard, staying balanced on the moving walkway seems fairly improbable, but perhaps only as improbable as staying within the lines on the pavement while driving – don’t think about it too much and you’ll be fine.

I found that the danger on the treadmill in fact lies, yes, with the ipod. There I am, clicking through my podcasts, just settling into the comforting nasal tones of Ira Glass’s sensitive observations when the ipod slips from my hand, hits the treadmill track and is shot backward from the apparatus. I flail my arms in an attempt to snatch it back like a jedi, but forget to coordinate the pace of my legs with the pace of the moving belt below me. I jump, pirouette, spin, end up running backwards a few steps while still on the treadmill before I, too, am spewed off the end.

At least all I tumbled onto was a padded mat, rather than into the path of a car. Alas, the treadmill is so boring and running is so painful that I’m still willing to risk the twisted ankle by mixing the personal running device with the personal listening device.

Radio piece on empowering people through bikes, Worldview 1/22/2010

Listening to a fascinating piece on the work of World Bicycle Relief.

via Worldview 1/22/2010.


I was looking forward to moving back to North Carolina from Chicago for many reasons: mainly to begin living with my fiancee, but not the least, I was looking forward to a full 12-month year of bikeable weather. When I originally left NC a few years ago, I rejoiced at returning to the land of four distinct seasons, each resplendent with their respective glories and miseries. In the south, winter seemed to flatten into a continuum between fall and spring, basically stretching the entire period into one long season, that is just kinda nice.

I quickly realized, however, that the previous years in North Carolina and a couple in mild western Oregon, had permanently shaped my expectations. Snowy landscapes are indeed beautiful, and I have a bizarre sort of nostalgia for shoveling the driveway (formerly a bane of my childhood spent in Maine). But I want to stay active year-round in the physical activity I had chosen – that being biking.

Yes, you can bike in Chicago throughout the winter, and I’ve seen a few news articles lately giving tips (here and here), but I’d say that’s mainly for urban commuters who go a few miles at a clip, or for daredevil masochists. I’m talking about getting those long country miles under my wheels without the threat of snow plows and ice hazards.

The short days have obviated the 20-mile bike commute, until the light begins to hold out long enough for safer passage on the rural roads, and I’m left with a 3-mile bike ride from the park-and-ride lot. I also have to admit that the unusually cold days that struck the south the past month did a number on my and my tandem partner’s motivation to take weekend leisure rides (I realize there’s no excuse for this given the above comments about the north).

In any event, despite the colder than normal temps and the short days, we have occasionally gotten out for a tandem ride. And this is what I’ve found out: the less frequent bike rides during this season have given me a new perspective that there is indeed something that is distinct about the southern winter. This season, chilly if not cold, darker and rainier than the others, uncovers an environment that I can’t see during the other seasons. Here, the fall leaves hang on long, and spring bursts forth with an explosion of green come March. But right now, I can actually see the landscape around me that, for the other 9 months of the year, I literally can’t see for the trees.

From our back deck, we have a clear view of the Haw river, and the dam over which the river swollen from repeated heavy rains continues to thunder. And bike rides down roads regularly pedaled throughout the year yield discoveries otherwise invisible to us: junk yards usually hidden in the woods; houses deep into properties we didn’t know where there; farm fields that extend farther and support more livestock than we realized. Basically, more cars, people, and cows surrounding us. On the bike, we pass through these areas, stealthily glancing into back yards, seeing our world more clearly.

One of my early complaints about the piedmont landscape was that the mild hills and dense trees prevented me from ever getting a grasp on what the environment around me was shaped like and what it contained. Winter provides that chance.

And then, when rides become more rare, things happen on usually familiar roads that totally change our ride. E.g.:

bridge out

Uh oh... bridge is out.

Note to local readers: bridge is out on McBane Mill for the foreseeable future.

Pedal/brake errors: car < bike < tandem

I’ve been reading news stories from the past few years about car crashes caused by pedal application errors – that is, when a driver accidentally stomps on the wrong pedal, either gas or brake. The only stories out of the hundred I’ve seen so far are of drivers hitting the gas when they meant to brake, and then careening catastrophically into whatever happens to be in front of them. It’s pretty grisly stuff to spend my day reading. The majority of these cars go sailing into store fronts as the drivers are trying to park somewhere, but they also run down pedestrians on sidewalks, crosswalks, playgrounds, parking lots, and inside struck buildings, like businesses, homes, and elementary schools. [Saw this blog post recently suggesting, perhaps accurately, that Wal-Mart parking lots may be the most dangerous places in America.] The least of it is that thousands of dollars in damage are done to property and vehicles in each wreck; worst are the disfiguring injuries and deaths.

Age and experience seem to play a big role in these accidents. Drivers in their first couple years often make the mistake, but more than anyone seem to be drivers over 60. However, it could happen to anyone anytime in moments of panic, frustration, dullness, or total distracted absorption in things other than driving.

These crashes are often described by witnesses as explosions, bombs going off, or tornadoes ripping through a building. Other things that are described like this are explosions, bombs going off, tornadoes leveling towns, and terrorist acts. I’m just saying…

There’s really nothing amusing about these stories I have to sift through. So I had to change the game in my mind to deal with it a little, and I tried to think about corollaries in bicycling. Bicycles don’t really present the opportunity of mixing up the force of acceleration with the force of deceleration. We’re not likely to have an instance in which a cyclist has to explain to a terrified crowd that they accidentally pedaled too hard when they actually meant to slow down, and ended up making a crater in the side of an office building.

The only nearly related mistakes I can envision on a bike are 1) choosing which brake to use when you have a front and rear hand brake, and 2) forgetting you can’t coast on a fixed gear when you’re used to riding a free wheel/hub. Of course, the scale of the mistake between a car versus a bike makes this comparison basically worthless.

When I lived in the Chicago in the past few years, I did a lot of my commuting and night-out going on a fixed gear that I’d built especially for being the city, like I now realize a lot of idiots (like myself) do, but have no business doing. It seemed to make sense to have an uncomplicated bike with less to steal and less moving parts to get destroyed in the ridiculous weather and salted streets up there. I only had one major mishap during my first tentative week of riding the fixed gear around the city. I was moving pretty fast and then realized I needed to stop quickly at an intersection, and my bicycle-muscle-memory automatically decided that I should coast first. This bucked my feet off the pedals, crunched my boys on the top tube, and and bruised my calf when the metal pedal came back around and actually dented to the shape of my leg.

Now about those brake levers. There’s lots of debate about proper brake application: when to use the front or rear or both in certain situations. But when you’re a new rider, it seems like the basic (and not necessarily correct) advice you receive is to avoid using the front brake alone lest you flip yourself over the handlebars. (The late great Sheldon Brown has a thing or two to say about this.)

I got my first bike with brake levers when I was twelve, having ridden coaster brakes since I was 5, so making the switch was a little awkward. I remember tottering around on that bike in my driveway trying to get the hang of it before hitting the neighborhood streets. I ran into the family cars a few times, mainly because I remembered too late that I even had brake levers to squeeze, but of course nothing explosive happened. Then there was the time about 10 years ago when I was house-sitting and decided to take the owners fancy (at the time) carbon racing bike for my first ever carbon racing bike experience. I wasn’t used to light road bikes at the time either, nor was I used to how quickly I could sail over the handlebars if I panicked and squeezed the front brake too quickly. I guess that crash could have been catastrophic, for me at least, as I landed like a sack of potatoes in front of a car at an intersection.

Now I realize that once again, the tandem is the ultimate solution for all my biking needs: in this case, for brake application errors. Sure, the decision to apply the front or rear brake in specific situations can effect handling through turns, or on various pavement conditions. However, with my partner on the back, I’ll never have to worry about the endo ever again.