Wednesday, November 18, 2009


When I landed in Australia, I was quite sure I had arrived in something of a new world.  Besides the now inane and frankly quite annoying hoodie that was hung over my shoulders, there were other more frank signs.  The scrubby landscape dotted with short, squat trees that spread out before the plane was one, and the bus ride from the airport was another.  On the 40 minute trip I saw that far from the charming townships of Western Europe, Melbourne appeared to be a replicate of a sprawling American town.  McDonalds and Pizza Huts dotted the off ramps, which aside from the traffic moving on the left side of the road, appeared exactly the same as the exits in America.  Arriving at the Southern Cross station in Downtown Melbourne, my suspicions were confirmed--I wasn't in Kansas anymore.  Not to mention I'd been quite spoiled by Western Europe's bicycle cultures.

I uttered an audible "My God..."  Instead of the thousands of bicycles found outside Amsterdam Centraal, I saw this lonely looking pile of bikes just inside the Southern Cross Station.  This photo manages to portray many of my initial thoughts on Australia: a small number of well made and carefully placed bike racks that are used to capacity represents a bicycle culture struggling to be born. 

Regardless of how mainstream cycling is in Melbourne, there is no doubt that the cycling subcultures are strong.  Within three days of my arrival, I had the great fortune of staffing a checkpoint at an all-girls Halloween alleycat.  

We were stationed at the Melbourne General Cemetary and asked to administer the wrapping of costumed, racing ladies in toilet paper.  The indistinguishable white block at the bottom of this photo is a full 8 rolls of toilet paper.  We had a great time; that is, we the checkpoint operators had a great time.  The girls, on the other hand, were less than enthused upon arriving--huffing and puffing--to find that they were required to wrap their partner in toilet paper.  Our guess is their chagrin was heightened in part due to the use of eco-friendly toilet paper, which while undoubtedly extraordinary for the fishes of the sea, was excessively frail for sweaty girls in a hurry.  The flimsy toilet paper tore if you just looked at it wrong.  Still, we had a helluva time watching the madness:  
Among the racing ladies were two courageous folks riding a tandem.  Though they passed through our checkpoint dead last, we decided they were our favorite--and should win a handsome prize.  What, with the fact that they rode a damn tandem in an alleycat race!   

After the all-girls alleycat concluded, the first in a three-part race called the "Courier Cup" took place.   As with the girl's race, costumes were encouraged--and a prize was awarded for the best male costume.  Checkpoints were selected based on their ability to form a pentagram on the map.  Again working as a volunteer checkpointer, I was stationed this time across from the cemetery at an appropriately evil address: 666 Lygon St.  I snapped one photo of the racers, and it so happened that it was the photo of none other than the man who won the costume contest.  Ya know him, you love him: The Lone Ranger! 

So you're wondering, 'Is he riding a horse in the alleycate?'  Well, yes...Sorta.  He attached a carboard cut-out horse to his bicycle frame, which along with his handcuffs and mock-up pistol made for a fetching outfit!  

In appropriate alleycat style, a massive after-party was organized at "Pony Bikes." The shop is relatively new and appears to cater to the single speed and fixed gear crowd.  Our master of ceremonies at said fiesta can be seen below wearing an attractive sundress.  
The crowd was wild with anticipation as our bearded man in a dress handed out prizes to the winners.  Obscured by the rabble here is a barbecue where sausages and vegan soup were served up for 5 bucks.  
And of course, there's the bike polo.  Because Melbourne will host the Australian Bicycle Polo National Championships at the end of this month, there is a ton of excitement in the South Australian air.  The crew here in Melbourne, as with all bike polo people I've met so far, is filled with spectacular humans.  They play twice a week, on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons into the evening, and as with other polo folks nobody can seem to get enough.  

The court pictured above is outside of a primary school in the suburb of Carlton.  The courts here aren't nearly as perfect for polo as the courts I saw in Amsterdam and London, so we have to pull boards out of storage and lug them to the courts to create proper sides.  It's a bit of a pain, but once the game is on its worth all the effort.  

The Nationals are gonna be great.  I've sustained a bit of a hip injury, but I'm hoping to be up to par within the next week or so.  As some of you have reminded me, and as I've confirmed, I have become a bit of a bike polo nut.

In other news, I've found an amazing community bike project here in Melbourne.  It's located at "Ceres," a center for the promotion of environmentally sustainable practices built on an old trash dump.  The bike program is simply called "The Bikeshed."  
It's a lot like Revolutions was before Mr. Kyle Wagenschutz helped the shop to formalize and run more smoothly.  Folks show up, they pay a small fee, and we help them fix up their bikes.  The bikes pictured here are available for sale and repair.  

After a long day of bike repair in the increasingly warm Australian atmosphere, it's necessary to take part in that oh so important aspect of bicycle cultures: 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Chaos in Oregon

I read an interesting story today originally published on Oregonian reporter Jospeh Rose's commuter blog, "Hard Drive".

The article, entitled "Chaos: A roundabout way to defeat traffic," documented what has been called "a traffic miracle" in Clackamas County.

An intersection previously plagued by traffic queues was transformed recently by introducing a traffic circle at an intersection formerly controlled by a blinking four-way stop.  Rather than calling it a mircale, Rose wrote 

"...traffic engineers lean on a more scientific explanation: Fighting chaos with chaos, a strategy that's increasingly being applied to the region's troubled intersections."
With four churches and a buddhist temple within a half mile of the intersection, parishoners were arriving late to services because of gridlock traffic. 
"'Not anymore,' said Paul Osborn, a pastor at Rolling Hills, which gave $1.5 million to fix the intersection so that its parishioners could get to church on time. 'Something very good has happened.'
The miracle?

Last October, the county removed all the signals. In their place, workers built a $4 million two-lane roundabout where uncertainty now breeds caution and mostly free-flowing traffic.

Suddenly, unsafe is safe.

Thank God. Or thank Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who has long argued that ripping out traditional traffic controls is the way to deal with gridlock.

The theory: Drivers behave more responsibly when faced with uncertainty, becoming more aware of others. The evidence from Holland shows crashes are now far less serious, mostly because open-range roundabouts have taken the place of stop signals and signs."
I've spoken to planners in Memphis who believe in the "less safe is more safe" planning practice, and I've ridden through the stop-sign-less Dutch intersections mentioned in the article above.  The evidence and the anecdotes, alongside my own experience, tend to support this idea that less traffic predictability actually leads to an increase in caution.

While it's arguable that traffic circles are the same thing--or even similar--to four-way intersections with no calming infrastructure, the idea of introducing chaos into traffic patterns raises a bigger question for cyclists.

Among the fundamental tenants of bicycle education in the United States is the mantra, "Ride Predictably".  But is it possible that predictable cycling may actually lead to more dangerous roadways?

In the Netherlands--arguably the most bike friendly place in the western world--I observed that the traffic functioned according to a sort of controlled chaos.  Sure the infrastructure was developed to provide every user with their place in traffic and give them clear indicators for how they should behave. 

Nonetheless, traffic often felt like a pot of water at a rolling boil, perking up and splashing around, but never quite spilling over the edge.  Cyclists and pedestrians appeared to behave according to their own rules, disregarding signals and lanes and directional patterns and curbs.  It worked well--effeciently, actually--largely because cyclists (and pedestrians) broke the rules with an air of caution that was accomodated by motorists.

Perhaps, then, all those these lawless cyclists whon run red lights and ignore stop signs, those riders the "haters" continuously cite in newspaper articles, are actually doing society a favor! 

Probably not.  

Still, China should provide an interesting immersion experience in controlled traffic chaos.  China boasts the world's most interconnected system of bicycle lanes in the world, but they also have cities that are huge and over-populated--cities increasingly filled with cars.  On the other hand, my perception of China as a country moving more towards automobile use was dispelled a bit by this article from the New York Times, which put a price on the growing Chinese rail system.   

Still, a look at bicycle crash rates and safety perceptions in the most bicycle dense place in the world should provide a perfect opportunity to test the chaos theory.    

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cities Come and Gone

Having just arrived in Australia, the second of four continents on my itinerary, I've a particularly poignant moment at hand to provide a brief re-cap of cities come and gone.  A sort of backwards glance back at las cosas observed, utilized, and duly noted.

Being a Watson Fellow is a privilege.  It's an extraordinary opportunity to explore the culture of a people, to learn the simple habits that constitute a composite human structure.  The fellowship allows me the liberty to gently drift into the lives of people who don't know me, who get to know me, and who say goodbye with less than a brief glimpse of me and my often mysterious journey.  Mysterious not because I don't explain what it is I'm doing; rather, mystifying because the trip is so unrealistically true.  They, and I, often can't really believe what it is I'm doing. 

If anything can ground my trip it's concrete.  Asphalt carefully poured; pieces of ground meticulously planned; concrete praised and lauded around the globe.  A double wide bike crossing at an intersection on Norrebrogade just in advance of the bridge across the lakes, these tracks were widened in the wake of a death caused by a bus.  A young woman was squeezed out of an overflowing bicycle track by herds of Danish cyclists.                         

When you're there, it seems so simple and so normal.  Not the culture; and not the people, exactly.  People are complicated everywhere, simultaneously driven and fickle, both oriented and drifting in the same moment, yet almost always kind.  In places where I didn't speak the native tongue, history and cultures often hung around me like a damp cave, both comforting in it's immensity yet crowding in the same moment. 

It wasn't the people or cultures that were simple.  Rather, it was the bicycle infrastructure.  It simply existed.  There was no apparent struggle in the atmosphere, no serious commitment or work went into using it; no dues had to be paid and no traffic had to be fought. The infrastructure just eased me into the city, allowed me to take experience life at 18k, carried me through to the city's best and brightest spots.  

I didn't encounter much debate about the merits of a raised bicycle tracks versus on-road facilities.  The cyclists were just kinda happy with what they had.  Not all of them, but the vast majority.  Parking was almost always on the outside of a raised, separated bike specific lane (with the occasional scooter excepted) while cars and buses and trams negotiated the prized space in the center of the roadway.  Women and children rode along without hurry or worry, and I never once saw or heard of an accident between a bicycle and a car amongst the bicycle people I met while in the City of Copenhagen.   

The cyclists in Amsterdam waited in queues at light after light; or they didn't.  They broke rules.  They rode backwards in the bicycle tracks. They ran into me on their bicycles.  They rode with squeaky bikes and unreliable brakes, and generally played by their own set of rules.  And people complained.  Publicly.  But new bike tracks were always in construction, and as the head of cycling policy for the city of Amsterdam told me, it would be political suicide to stand against an increase in bicycle spending.    

The library in Amsterdam was amazing.  An 8 or so story modern monstrosity dedicated to public learning and enlightenment.  Even better was the bike/ped specific bridge that led patrons from the Centraal Station to the entry way and front steps.  Hundreds of bicycles lined the guardrails along the canal, while thousands more slept quietly in a secure underground parking garage.  

Bicycles were clearly a priority in the Netherlands.  No one gave you queer looks for carrying a bike on the train, and even when I took the train to Rotterdam for the "Ride yer bike or Walk the plank" alleycat, the wheels disassembled and chained to the frame in an effort to give the look of a folding bike, the train conductor simply asked me to buy a ticket for the bike--which I did.  I then had a whole car to myself. 

As with Denmark, the infrastructure was predominantly built to keep bicyclists and pedestrians on the inside of parked cars, leaving the cars and trams and buses to negotiate busy street centers. 

Still, bike lanes aren't extinct in Amsterdam.  You can find the occasional stretch of inner city road lined with a simple stripe designating the cyclists' space.  
Bikes maintain their own specific place in the Netherlands.  In traffic circles, they've their own space, their own colored pavement, and their own right of way.  If the triangles are pointing towards you, ya'd better stop. 

Most of the bicycle tracks are designated by red pavement, a different type of surface that tends to be softer than asphalt and much less slippery.

Traffic signals and stop signs are often abandoned in favor of right of way blocks, simple white squares that protect users within their confines through conditioning, mutual understanding, training, and grave consequences for perpetrators creating accidents in motor vehicles.  In the Netherlands, if you hit a bicyclist with your car you are always at fault.  And you pay dearly. 
When there's construction, a way is made where often no way seems possible.  Cyclists depend on the routes they use day to day, and even a simple detour can cost precious minutes, the same valued time that makes the bike the transport mode of choice for almost half of inner city Amsterdamers.  
The ways in which convenience and speed are catered to by the municipality are manifold; to ease the anxiety of lights that seem endless, the city has installed countdown clocks.  Why run the light if you know it's gonna change in 19 seconds?   

Mostly, though, the places I've been are beautiful.  Sure they're grey and rainy at times, often choked with traffic and drifters and one-timers trying to get over.  Such is life.  

It's really about seeing what's there, which is to say that Copenhagen and Amsterdam are very unique places, places filled with sights and sounds and wonders that so much of the world stands before in awe.  Among those magnificent creations are the most incredible public bike infrastructure systems in the world.

It often seems like the Watson is just a series of departures.  The following particular point of leaving was the Eurolines Bus terminal at the Amstelveen station in Amsterdam.  

That bike never made it to Australia.  Instead, it will be on an airplane bound for the United States by the weekend.  Try as you might, you can't take everything with you on this thing; some stuff is just too big, even for a trip that allows big dreams, and even grander adventures.