Tag Archives: Bicycles

Getting Around London

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by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

When Bicycles and Buses Collide

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Cyclists near Buckingham Palace.

by James A. Bacon

My favorite London bicycling story so far comes from the London Evening Standard, which wrote of a bus driver ogling a female pedestrian who failed to notice a cyclist and hit him. That was only one of 25 incidents involving cyclists in complaints lodged with Transport for London over a fortnight last August. In a metropolis of 8.5 million dedicated to building a system of multimodal transportation in narrow streets, I suppose such incidents should come as no surprise.

bike_laneLondon is a bicycle-friendly city, and cyclists are seen with some frequency. Local authorities have done a commendable job of building bicycle lanes; there are even two Cycle Superhighways providing easy access to the central city. And under a new seven-year, £51 million sponsorship by Santander Bank (taken over from Barclay’s), the bus share system is undergoing an expansion. The bike-share stations can be found all over the region, and there is one about a block from our apartment.

According to another article in my new favorite authoritative source on London urbanism, the London Evening Standard, proximity to bike-share stations has joined schools and underground train stations as amenities that drive real estate values.

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An unresolved issue is where to park the bikes. In our Earl’s Court neighborhood, which is rich in ornamental ironwork fences, people bolt their bikes to the ironwork — and homeowners don’t like it. I’ve seen at least a dozen signs threatening to haul away bicycles attached to private fences.

chainsIn a city as large and dense as London, there is no perfect system. Cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians and property owners cannot all be fully accommodated. Trade-offs must be made. While I’m a huge fan of bicycles as a transportation mode, I don’t think they should rule the streets. For every cyclist one sees on the streets of London, there are hundreds of cars and hundreds of pedestrians. I’ve counted more of the ubiquitous red buses than cyclists. It’s great to have bicycles as a transportation option, but London could never evolve into a cyclist’s paradise like Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a multibillion-pound reworking of the urban fabric. Even so, it beats most American cities by a country mile.

Update from the London Evening Standard: A truck driver, 53-year-old Barry Mcyer, is facing jail time for running a red light and striking and killing a woman cyclist. The woman was one of 13 cyclists killed in London in 2013.

Women Flex their Biking Muscles

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Amy George

by Amy George

Riding a bicycle can be transformative to physical and mental well being, to families, to neighborhoods, and beyond. As cycling becomes more popular, more women and girls are enjoying its effects. However, representation among cyclists still tips male — 76% as measured per-ride in the U.S. Yet recent surveys show women overwhelmingly have a positive view of cycling. What is keeping so many women from taking to the streets on two wheels? Furthermore, why should we care, and what can be done about it?

Since 2010, Richmond as a community has taken several big steps in bicycle advocacy. RideRichmond formed that year, as did Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bike, Trail, and Pedestrian Commission. We have seen the creation of the dedicated, professional action and advocacy groups such as  Sportsbackers’ BikeWalkRVA and the VCU RamBikes program. In this landscape of growing bike-positivity, RideRichmond realized that women’s representation still is an underserved aspect of cycling advocacy. As believers in the bicycle, we could not stand by and watch the benefits of cycling distributed unequally to Richmonders. In order to begin this conversation, RideRichmond is hosting the first Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit on October 23 at the Virginia War memorial.

Fortunately, we’re riding a wave of good research and Women’s Cycling efforts across the nation. The long-held line on women’s resistance to cycling was one of “fear and fashion”. (“The cars! The helmet hair!”) It turns out, when you really ask women how they feel about cycling, the answers are much more practical.

The League of American Bicyclists’ excellent Women On A Roll report proposes five C’s that will get more women biking. These address the eight major issues that most surveys report as the barriers to women and cycling. Some highlights:

Convenience. It should be easy to park your bike wherever you go: work, shopping, entertainment destinations. Bike-friendly retail makes good business sense, and women statistically make more shopping trips and control more of their household’s disposable income. At work, access to lockers and showers alleviates concerns about storing clean clothes and grooming. Transit connections, especially express buses, can “multiply mobility” by traversing high-speed arterials and highways, with the bike as a means of transport for the first/last mile. (Biking to the current GRTC Park-and-Ride locations is a daunting prospect.)  Plus, there are other, less tangible needs such as more flexible working hours for parents (both moms and dads), and more walkable neighborhoods that safely allow children to transport themselves to school and after-school activities.

Confidence. Aggressive and distracted drivers threaten everyone, but women are more likely to admit fear. Bike education can begin at school, first in Phys. Ed. and continuing through driver’s education.  One day in a Traffic Skills 101 class can equip young cyclists and their parents with knowledge of skills like proper lane positioning (to prevent “dooring”) and simple, safe evasive maneuvers. Parents can teach basic maintenance techniques like changing a flat tire and secure locking in an afternoon. Even the students that don’t take to cycling will become drivers who know “Share the Road” as a practice, not just a pithy slogan.

Consumer Products. Sixty percent of bicycle owners 17 to 28 are women. Bicycle riding ranked 9th of 47 popular sports for total female participation in 2011, surpassing yoga, tennis, and softball. But many adult bike models don’t include a size small enough to fit a rider under 5’4”. A woman who can find a bike to fit her must then contend with frames and apparel mostly in pink, lavender, powder blue, and florals. These designs might stand on their own, but can you imagine tennis or softball gear selling in these “soft” presentations?

Community. The fun of riding a bicycle is amplified when you ride with others. Whether for enjoyment, fitness, or as transportation, it’s important to frame bicycling as an everyday activity. Invite a friend to go for a ride. Have a destination or reward. Lead no-drop rides. Help your daughters understand that bicycles are fun, but not merely toys. Incorporate cycling into family’s activities.

Consider for yourself whether it’s better to look fat on a bike, working toward your fitness, or in a car, making zero gains to your health. We are all busy, and making the time to dedicate to fitness is a challenge, but cycling is an easy way to workout while also being social, doing errands, or commuting.

On a larger scale, focus on local advocacy with an eye to equity and connecting lower income neighborhoods with access to jobs, food, and services. Vote for candidates that support high levels of funding for alternative transportation and infrastructure.

If the idea of encouraging a healthier, happier, region for all sounds appealing, it is our hope that you  join us on the 23rd to become a part of this growing effort.

Amy George is the Women’s Cycling Summit Coordinator.

Map of the Day: Cycling to Work

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The number of U.S. workers who traveled to work by bicycle increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 in 2008-2012, the largest percentage increase of any transportation mode, according to a new report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau based upon its annual American Community Survey. Fully one percent of the population in the nation’s largest cities commute by bicycle now.

The percentage of Virginians who bicycle to work is lower than the national average, as can be seen in the map above published by the Census Bureau.

Males are twice as likely to bicycle to work as women nationally, and lower income workers are more than two to three times more likely than Americans in higher income brackets. Hispanics and white are twice as likely to use bicycles as African-Americans.

The political economy of bicycling. There are two closely aligned constituencies that agitate for making American cities more bicycle friendly: environmentalists and urbanists. The enviros love cycling because it causes no pollution and emits no greenhouse gases. Urbanists, most of whom are environmentalists as well, also support cycling because it takes automobiles off the road, ameliorating congestion and reducing the demand for automobile parking. Both of these constituencies skew heavily to the educated white demographic.

However, Hispanics are more likely than any ethnic group to ride bicycles to work. That’s all the more interesting when you consider how in many regions Hispanic immigrants have settled in the suburbs. By contrast, African-Americans are less likely than any ethnic group to bicycle to work. Is there a cultural difference here? Do Hispanic immigrants come from countries where riding bicycles to work was a prevalent form of transportation? I don’t know, but it’s worth looking into.

Regardless, I would suggest that the bicycle lobby — I can only hope that it will one day grow to become known as Big Bicycle — expand its advocacy of bicycles beyond the environmental and urbanist justifications, as legitimate as they are. Bicycles also should be a means of mobility for the poor. There is no cheaper form of transportation. Even poor people can afford to purchase bicycles; charitable organizations in Richmond are collecting used bicycles and giving them to poor people for free. For poor workers lacking access to automobiles, bicycles expand the range they can cover on foot by a factor of three or four.

All I hear from the anti-poverty groups is the need to expand and subsidize mass transit. You could turn the average city into a bicycler’s paradise for the fraction of the cost of adding Bus Rapid Transit or light rail — and you wouldn’t incur the same operating deficits year after year. As for Republicans, conservatives and others who are reflexively skeptical of investing in bicycle infrastructure, I’m surprised they haven’t positioned bicycles as an alternative means of helping the poor access jobs at a fraction of the cost. Let’s see a little more imagination, guys!

– JAB

Map of the Day: Where the Cyclists Are

Source: Strava Global Heatmap

Source: Strava Global Heatmap. (Click for larger image.)

Strava Labs maintains a database of where runners and cyclists using its smart-phone fitness app are running and riding. The data set includes nearly 77 million rides and 20 million runs. The heat map above shows where cycling activity is the most intense across the state. (Sorry about cutting off Southwest Virginia and the Virginia Creeper Trail!) Clearly, more cycling occurs where there are more people — the activity occurs mainly within metropolitan and micropolitan regions. The biggest surprise to me is how strong, relatively speaking, cycling is in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area. Less surprisingly, the activity is strong in the college towns of Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. east_coast A higher altitude perspective gives quite a different picture. Virginia looks like a relative wasteland set between the Washington-Boston corridor and even the Raleigh-Atlanta corridor. The City of Richmond may have hosted the college cycling championship and is prepping to hold the world cycling championship but the metropolitan region barely registers on the heat map. Hampton Roads also makes a poor showing. (Hat tip:Streetsblog USA.) – JAB

Where In the World Is Jim Bacon?

citibike2Nowhere as exciting as the places Matt Lauer goes… but pretty exciting for Jim Bacon. The spouse and I stopped here on the way to our final destination for one evening to help a friend celebrate her 60th birthday. I could not visit without snapping at least one photo pertaining to transportation and human settlement patterns. Three guesses where we are… and the last two don’t count.

– JAB

 

Bicycling in Paradise

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One of California’s greatest assets is its climate, and San Francisco, though foggier than nearby locales, is no exception. Climatically speaking, the city is as close to paradise as any location on the planet, which makes it a great place to spend outdoors and a great place to bicycle. As one would expect, San Francisco has an advanced bicycle infrastructure, with some dedicated bike lanes and lots of sharrows. Also bicycling is embedded deeply enough in the transportation system that you don’t feel like you’re taking your life into your hands when you share the roads with cars.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Having spent only a couple of days here, I cannot profess any expertise on the biking scene, but it seems pretty clear that with all the mass transit — between buses, light rail, trolley cars and cable cars, San Francisco may have more different types of mass transit than any other city in the world — not to mention ZipCar and Uber, anyone can get around perfectly well owning a bicycle instead of a car. The main drawback to establishing a strong bicycling culture here is the hills — they’re not for the weak.

One of the things I like about San Francisco is that, although it is very dense (the second densest city after New York City, as I recall), it is as not automobile-hostile as Manhattan. Owning your own car is not an act of folly, as it would be for most Gothamites. Thus, the city offers the widest possible array of transportation choices. (The way the city handles parking is particularly interesting. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.)

Clearly, the end product is something that people value highly. Between the superior economic opportunities afforded by the technology- and innovation-economy in the San Francisco Bay region, the divine climate and the quality of human settlement patterns, people have bid up the price of real estate to astronomical levels.

– JAB

Bacon Bits: Bicycles and Baseball Stadiums

bacon_bitsThe Easy Out. Writing in Henrico Monthly John Gerner, a Richmond-based leisure industry consultant, takes Richmond City Hall’s assumption that building a new baseball stadium requires public funding. Ballparks are often built with little or no public funding, he writes:

Greensboro’s privately financed ballpark that was built to accommodate a AA minor league baseball team, just like the Richmond Flying Squirrels. There are other ballparks currently being planned elsewhere in Virginia, but only Richmond’s would be publicly funded. Often, the development costs are lower when stadiums are privately financed. The developer takes the risks. If it doesn’t work, the private developer takes the hit financially. If it does work, the developer keeps the cost savings.

A privately financed ballpark in Richmond would likely return its location back to the Boulevard, where the region wants it. For the long-term viability of baseball in Richmond, it needs regional support. Most of the fans come from outside the city, primarily from Chesterfield and Henrico. Political leaders in the suburbs know this. If the location were shifted back to the Boulevard, there would likely be another opportunity to forge a regional effort there through shared incentives for this privately financed ballpark.

Huh? Life-Cycle Costs? Meanwhile, in his WTVR blog, Paul Goldman points out a flaw in City Hall’s proposed financing for the proposed Shockoe Bottom location of the stadium. The city’s bond financing will stretch 30 years. That makes sense, if you believe the city’s assertion that the stadium will have a useful life of 35 years. Just one problem, Goldman points out: No stadium has a useful life of 35 years.

The Diamond opened in 1985. Twenty-nine years later, it’s supposedly obsolete. Writes Goldman:

“After 20 years, technology advances, changing fan demands, local business needs, and more makes a Stadium obsolete. This is why we have seen all those new stadiums around the country in the last 20 years!

Within the 30-year lease signed by the Squirrels, the “new” stadium is going to be in need of hugely expensive renovations unless Mayor Jones’ secret plan is to build a new one back on the Boulevard!

Won’t it be fun 20 years from now if the Richmond Flying Squirrels proclaim the “new” Shockoe stadium to be obsolete and asks the city to make millions of dollars in renovations…. or else. Just one problem — Richmond still will have 10 years to run on its bonds for the old ballpark!

You’re Busting my Bikes! Writing on his blog, “Mapping the Commonwealth,” Luke Juday is all fired up by the large fines and penalties his Charlottesville friends are paying for traffic infractions. He offers four reasons why the system is a bad one:

1. The cost of a ticket is disproportionate to the cost of owning and riding a bicycle.

2. Bicycles are not 2-ton hunks of metal that go 70 m.p.h. and kill thousands of people a year. It is often difficult or impossible for bicyclists to follow the rules safely.

4. Motorists are rarely held responsible for collisions with bicycles, making it awfully hypocritical to charge them as if they are equals on the road.

I’m all in favor of making our streets “complete streets” shared by cars, pedestrians and bicycles. We need to shift the “rules of the road” in city streets back in favor of bikes and pedestrians. But in fairness, automobiles do not normally travel 70 m.p.h. in 25 m.p.h. speed zones. And many bicyclists often do behave recklessly (not Luke’s friends, of course, but other cyclists). I suspect we’re facing years of trench warfare between drivers and cyclists before we reach a new equilibrium.

– JAB

Bicycle Wars

Alexandria street scene. (Image credit: Wall Street Journal.)

Alexandria street scene. (Image credit: Wall Street Journal.)

by James A. Bacon

The bicycle wars are coming to Virginia as cyclists literally fight to take back the streets.

For decades the issue was settled — the streets belonged to automobiles, with pedestrians confined to sidewalks as second-class citizens. Bicycles didn’t figure into street design at all. But those days are over as increasingly assertive cyclists agitate to carve out space for bicycle lanes and bicycle parking.

In an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, F.H. Buckley conveys a flavor of the struggle for King Street in Alexandria. The City of Alexandria has proposed taking away the street’s parking spaces to make way for a bike lane. Buckley portrays his neighbors and himself as victims of politically organized biking activists who utilize blogs and Twitter to mobilize for public protests and City Council hearings. 

Homeowners feel aggrieved because they are accustomed to having free parking on their streets. “We’re really attached to our parking spot,” Buckley writes. “We like to tell our friends to drop by anytime. We don’t want to send out plumbers to park a few blocks over, on streets that are already congested.” The city’s response — get visitors a special parking permit from city hall, or hire valet parking — is not geared to sooth homeowners’ distress.

Buckley sees this local controversy, not inaccurately, a part of a “growing national movement that pits local homeowners and businesses against cyclists and their trendy allies on city councils.”

The cyclist retort is that American streets once were open to all comers — cars, pedestrians, cyclists… even horses and buggies. But in the pre-World War II era, access was increasingly restricted to cars. Over time, urban transportation arteries took on an entirely new look as street widths, lane widths, turning radii and parking spaces were configured for the exclusive care and feeding automobiles. In a highly political process, local boards and councils advanced the automobile agenda street by street. Now the wheel (so to speak) is turning.

Sad to say, the King Street bicycle controversy seems destined to get emotional because the struggle over public space is a zero-sum game — space for bicycles comes from space formerly dedicated to cars. There seems to be little room for compromise.

Personally, I am a big proponent of making urban communities more bicycle friendly. But having been an urban homeowner in a neighborhood with a parking shortage, I am also sympathetic to homeowners distraught at the prospect of losing parking spaces. Homeowners feel that they have a “right” to parking in their neighborhoods — perhaps not always directly in front of their houses, but at least within a reasonable distance. No one likes parking a block or more away and carrying home grocery bags in the rain. (My wife cited precisely that reason as justification for moving to the suburbs to a house with an attached garage.) Likewise, bicyclists don’t want to pay for access to public streets. Cars drive for free (unless you count the taxes drivers pay), why shouldn’t they?

Here is the root problem: If an asset, such as space on a public street, is publicly owned, people will fight over that space in the political arena. One group’s gain means another group loses. There is no win-win here, only win-lose.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but there has to be something than better than one side triumphing over the other through raw political power. Perhaps there is some way to convert parking spaces into a form of property that can be bought, sold, traded, bartered and even condemned through eminent domain. In an ideal world, the space would evolve to its highest and greatest use as measured by how much people are willing to pay to use it. Of course, that won’t satisfy either homeowners or cyclists who think they have a right to access that valuable urban space for free.

If we don’t find a better way, neighborhood battles over cylists’ rights to the road will get ugly and bitter, and the ill feelings engendered actually could impede what cyclists desire, which is the integration of bikes into the fabric of urban transportation. Cyclists need to remember — there are a lot  more homeowners and motorists than cyclists. If the bicycle wars get too polarized, the homeowners and motorists likely will win.

Update: Tanya Snyder over at D.C. Streets Blog blasts the Buckley op-ed. “When there are too many cars for the roads in your town, the problem is that there are too many cars — not that there are too few roads. Eliminating the one sliver of roadway where people are riding bikes is not going to solve motorists’ problems.”

More Awesomeness in Richmond

Another reason I love my home town: Richmond has 40 miles of world-class single-track bicycle trails. I’ve been on a few of them, although, I do confess, I don’t ride nearly as fast as the two guys in this short video! (Nor can I do the neat wheelie tricks up and down stairs.)

What I find especially cool is that the biking enthusiasts — trail gnomes, in their own parlance — help maintain the trails for everyone’s benefit. They clear routes of fallen trees and debris (as shown in the clip), prune vegetation and repair sections worn away by run-off. It’s an all-volunteer effort.

Biking trails in wild public spaces in the center of the city are a rarity and a gem.

– JAB