Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ya' May Like the Pictures, but the Debate Rages On

I can only guess that since noone commented on the last article, each word--as intended--must have been deeply moving genius that warrants little discussion and no debate.  Instead, simple awe must have washed over each of my readers.

Or nobody read it, a much more likely answer to the number 0 beside the comment line.   

Regardless, I want to contextualize the thoughts in that article using a story by Gretchen Reynolds that ran this week in The New York Times

This debate about whether to increase the amount of bicycle infrastructure in America, that is, whether to lobby political institutions for increased spending on bicycle facilities, is not a new debate; and it is not a debate that appears to be coming to a close.  

The Times article, in it's full glory, is entitled:

Reynolds actually answers "no" to this question when looking at the empirical evidence from European nations.  The simple conclusion?  More riders mean less accidents.  This is the widely accepted view amongst transportation experts and advocates, and it is a conclusion affirmed by loads of studies, some of which are cited by Reynolds.  

Still, why does she toss out this rhetorical question a bit later, a question essentially refuted by evidence presented earlier?  

Reynolds writes:  
“Transportation experts cannot agree, for instance, about whether to segregate bicycle and automobile traffic, using concrete barriers along bike paths or creating separate bikeways.”

This much is true, sure. Advocates do disagree about this, and I would argue that the debate has hindered the efforts at increasing safety for cyclists over the years as it has split the advocacy community into seemingly un-agreeable halves.

But then comes the moot question:
“In the short term, (the segregated bike path) approach should protect cyclists. But if if drivers are not given the opportunity to acclimate to riders, will it actually make it more dangerous for bikers in the long run? No one knows. ‘We need studies; we need data,’ Dr. Willett said.”

Of course we know--Reynolds made the point (if not explicitly) earlier in the article.  This is not an issue we need to study or debate to death. The results are in.  

As she wrote earlier, in places where people cycle often (one third to one half of the mode share), we find segregated bicycle infrastructure as a dominant planning pattern.   In those same places, the number of injuries are far fewer per kilometer cycled.  

What, then, is the debate?  Bike lanes in Denver may be contributing to more injuries, but bike lanes are not the same things as the raised and separated cycle tracks we find in Europe.  

There is a direct link between great numbers of bicyclists, separated bicycle infrastructure, and bicycle safety.  This combination, I think, is the ideal.  

Reynolds is clear towards the conclusion of the article about a city's  inability to control the unpredictable nature of cars.  We can, however, create more places for bicyclists to ride safely out of the way of car traffic. 

Cars and bikes will, of course, still interact at intersections.  But by increasing the number of bicycles on the road through protected bike infrastructure, we can increase the awareness among motorists of bicycles passing through those intersections.

Am I simply building a straw man to burn in this and the previous article?  

I wish...The people forwarding the debate about the potential "problem" with increasing protected bike infrastructure have a deceitful name: "vehicular cyclists."   They even have their own wiki page.  

I call the name deceitful because by arguing against this camp of advocates, one might assume I am arguing against vehicular cycling.  But that would be absurd: I rode my bicycle as a commuter nearly every day for 10 years in Memphis, Tennessee, where nary a piece of "European" bicycle infrastructure exists.  Heck, we got our less than 3 miles of bike lane just this past year!  Lets be clear: vehicular cycling is a necessity in Memphis and countless cities across the United States.  

What I am arguing is this: bicycle advocates should advocate for separated bicycle infrastructure.  Otherwise, what are we saying?  That car signals and streets created for automobiles work well for bicycles too?  

Maybe the true vehicular cyclists among us believe this, but it is clear that few Americans think this way.  Otherwise, why aren't more Americans braving city streets with wide outside lanes? 

Of course, as the vehicular cyclists maintain, we must train cyclists to ride well and predictably (note: in the Netherlands and Denmark children received required bicycle lessons in elementary school), but this is not going to help America get over the seemingly insurmountable "safety barrier;" the barrier of insecurity and discomfort with traffic that keeps Americans from taking the bike.  

A raised bike lane or a concrete wall, however, might do the trick.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Value DNA"

Recently, this blogger made comments with regards to the state of bicycle advocacy in the U.S.  In the post, I created the following heading:

"America Lacks not for Best Practices (in bicycle planning); We Lack Political Will" 

Among the most important tasks before American bicycle advocates today, in my estimation, is the need to develop a strong base of political support amongst policy makers and money appropriators for increased bicycle infrastructure.  Even a cursory look at the cities where one-third or one-half of the people go by bicycle each day reveals a sophisticated network of protected bicycle infrastructure that was funded by the national government and/or the local municipality.  And conversely, a glance at cities where there are few bicycles in the street and almost no infrastructure reveals a lack of municipal leadership for creating a bike friendly city.  

This is why the bicycle advocacy community will need political will if we intend to increase the number of bicycles in America's roadways. 

I don't think I'm underestimating the challenge when I describe the work ahead of us in this way.  We're talking about some serious social change here, and social change is tricky business.  

So perhaps I should be clear: I'm not saying there is one method or strategy that will lead to the cultivation of a strong bike culture in the U.S.  We'll need infrastructure alongside education, bike lanes and educated cyclists and drivers.  Such educated people are in fact the very folks that can help to develop political will. 

Yet at the end of the day, catalyzing political will is in my opinion the critical component required to make bicycling into a common activity in America.  In response to this claim, and in response to my recent travels, a reader sent me the following comments.     

I just returned from cycle touring in France (Normandy, Seine River Valley, Paris) and England (London and countryside near Manchester).  My observation is that the culture of Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands related to transportation, social good, an individual's place in the society, life balance and material goods is considerably different than that of the Anglo-Saxon culture.
The following comments are especially significant, I think: 
 Realistically we in America are not going to experience a culture shift that moves us more than infinitesimally closer to Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany.  It's not about political will, it is about who we are and who we are not. Sorry, but we just don't have the same value dna.

As the reader above states, the individual's place in society, the transportation options available to the individual, and the idea of "social good" are all ways by which to measure a society's values.  

But the *literal value* a society places on each of these things can be measured by municipal investment.  In the case of bike infrastructure in Denmark and the Netherlands, it was the municipality--bolstered by the social movements for increased bike infrastructure organized in the wake of the 1970's oil crisis--that began to put a dollar value on their town's ability to be bike friendly. 

Put simply, while you cannot change your DNA, you can change a society.  

When the municipalities of Copenhagen and Amsterdam began to invest too heavily in car infrastructure in the 1960s, advocacy groups organized demonstrations and mobilized thousands in these medieval city squares.  This is not because the Danes and the Dutch have different value DNA; it's because commuting by bike is more practical than going by a car.  

They organized because they didn't want to see their cities consumed by motor vehicles, pushing the people farther and farther away from their Gothic spires. 

They mobilized because they believed the oil crisis was a warning that an over-reliance on fossil fuels could be politically problematic.  

They did not gather in the thousands in their public squares because they had certain ideas about the individual's place in society; they organized because they wanted bike paths that took them to work more quickly.  

My reader goes on:      
...I think I see in England a changing model that is more akin to what we face in America.  The English (can't speak for the Scots, Irish or Welsh) have a love affair with individual motorized vehicles for personal transport.  As compared to Europe, their cars are bigger, more powerful, more in use and more per capita (with the exception of maybe Germany, Swiss) and their roads are more narrow, winding, and less direct.  There are virtually no separate and safe hard paved cycle paths (although there is a growing route system).  I see the cyclists and motorists in England at a pressure point today.  The cycling community voices the same statements and beliefs of the right to the road, the benefits to individuals and society and the need for action as we do in the US.  The motorists voice the same statements and beliefs of right to the road, safety, taxes paid, and cyclist's behavior that we do in the US.  And although there are more bicyclists using roads in England than in the US, they are moving the culture needle very much.  In London there are a lot of cyclists (certainly not like northern Europe) but they are brave, brave souls in commuting spandex (fenderless road bikes or fold up Bromptons where the rider commutes in bike jersey and riding pants then changes at the place of work rather than commuting in work clothes) who mix with the car, London taxi, bus with trepidation.  There are some bike lanes but mostly it's pedaling between the curb and the vehicle.  And the folks are not just the hardcore bikers, but nurses, administrators, etc.  They are just much more brave than I would be.
In so many ways, I think here we can see the symptoms of a strategy that has not and will not work in America.  

I agree that a "transitioning" bicycle culture might provide a helpful model for the United States (see Australia), but the idea that one needs to be brave to ride a bicycle in a U.S. city--or any city--is a problem.  

Bicyclists are not crazy, and they are not super heroes (complete with their own skin-tight suits!).  They are simply bicyclists.  And it doesn't do anyone any good to remain obsessed with fear. 

I can say this from having ridden both in medieval cities--where buses, motor scooters, taxis, pedestrians and bicycles are competing for very limited space--and in the big American cities, where space is abundant though bicycles are not.  

I didn't necessarily feel "safer" riding in one or the other.  In fact, I was hit by a car for the first time in Amsterdam two weeks ago! (It was a minor crash and it certainly wasn't my fault--but thanks for your concern.)  

In sum, neither bravery nor social values will make America into a strong bicycle culture.  It will instead be advocates who make the good arguments and make better connections.  It will be communities organized around a message of how cycling can bring our communities closer together, people who articulate to political leaders how cycling is good for both the individual and the society.  

Developing political will is hard work, much harder I think than settling with the idea that Western Europeans have different "value DNA" than Americans; but it's good work.  

Perhaps most importantly, I believe this is the work before us in America.    

Friday, October 16, 2009

French Bike Polo

The bike polo tournament being held in conjunction with the Bicycle FilmFestival in Paris is scheduled for this weekend, but unfortunately I will not be able to attend. Fortunately, however, I will be spending time with the girl I love in an equally awesome city: Berlin.

But in keeping with the spirit of French Bike Polo, check out the following newscast. It's all in French, but if it was in English, you wouldn't be able to fully absorb that French Polo Spirit. Then again, maybe most of you would be able to understand it....

Once you get past the commentary the video is quite nice.

If anyone has a link to the video short 'Polo Manual' currently traveling the world with the Bike Film Festival, send it my way. My understanding is that 'Manual' is a teaser for a longer film about Bike Polo: the culture, the people, the bikes, the moves and the rules. It was made by a Londoner, so I think it focuses particularly on London. Still, it's a very nice snapshot of the game and the culture.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Yesterday I had the great pleasure of participating in the Polopalooza bike polo tournament in Eindhoven alongside 11 other teams from around Europe. London won, of course. You can read more about their polo scene here.

For a full report on the Polopalooza tourney and the subsequent Rollapalooza event, see the Eindhoven Fixed Gear site.

But check out this video...Yours truly is seen scoring a goal in the opening scenes!


The dog. I think it's something of a universal fear amongst folk who ride bicycles. And tonight, I had a first hand encounter with one of these cycle menaces.

My new friend Aaron was making a pit stop on the side of the road so I was passing the time by circling my bike back around the cycle route. Suddenly, I hear some whistling and a bit of barking. A bit more whistling, a bit more barking and then ZOOM! A dog is headed straight at me, full speed, no holds barred.

I take off. Now, the polo bike has become my main source of transportation these days. I've set it up to work with a 30 x 16 gear ratio, which is some super light gearing that is highly effective in a polo game, but it can ultimately be bad for one's self esteem as all the other bike people give you hell for spinning your cranks like a maniac.

Luckily, a 30 x 16 gear ratio is good for outrunning dogs, too.

I zoomed across a wet bridge with an impossible turn, jumped the edge of the curb and headed heedlessly into traffic. The dog was on my rear wheel for about 12.5 seconds before panting away in a huff of disappointment.

"Are you okay?" Aaron asks as he catches up with me down the bike path. Between heaping laughs, all I can say is 'ya gotta watch for them dogs;' even in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

London Part I

If you'd told me before I left Memphis that I would develop an acute passion for playing bicycle polo, I would have called you crazy; or at least confused.

But after having spent the better part of the last month playing a couple times a week in Amsterdam, the unforeseen has become reality: I absolutely love playing bike polo.

After using a mallet from the collective batch of mallets forged by the Amsterdam bike messengers at Infinity Express, I decided I needed to build something of my own. While the other mallets worked fine, (a bit beat up, sure, but that just gave them character!) I really wanted to have the experience of finding the materials for a mallet and piecing it together myself.

After asking around about materials, I found that Straight Edge Pat, a lovely polo player in the Amsterdam scene, had all the necessary parts for a mallet. Within a day, I had purchased the necessary parts: a ski pole, a piece of gas pipe, handlebar tape and a bolt.
What I didn't have was a drill and the drill bits required to make the mallet, so I scurried over to Infinity Express for some help. Lester is pictured here helping me get the mallet head straight. Though we tried, the finished product was about as straight Forrest Gump's childhood legs. Still, it wasn't bad for a first go.

I met a fantastic young lady named Bianca at the bike polo tournament held in Amsterdam a couple weeks ago, and she encouraged me to come to a tournament being held in London during the bike film fest. Intrigued, I began making plans....

First, how to get the bike there. My friend South African James suggested a bike bag, which I could claim as luggage if I took the bus. So, I bought a EuroLines bus ticket to London, snagged the bike bag, and made ready for my trip across the English Channel.

At the bus station, I disassembled my bicycle to fit it inside the bag. The wheels had to come off along with the pedals and handlebars, so I used a crescent wrenches and a hand tool to make the bike into a packable shape.
On top of the wheels you can see the shaft of my freshly assembled bike polo mallet.
Feeling quite proud of my work, I boarded the bus at 22:30 for an 8 hour overnight trip to Great Britain.

I slept well on the bus, which started out nearly empty in Amsterdam, but grew steadily more packed as we made stops in coastal Dutch towns and Belgium. By 1 a.m., the bus was packed, and I found myself next to a nice lady who smelled of fried onions. She must have had a sandwich or something in her luggage.

When I arrived at the Bow Road station in London via the Victoria Station it was 8 a.m. This was wicked early for my host, Emily, who had enjoyed the festivities surrounding the Bicycle Film Festival until just a few hours before he came to pick me up. A super sweet guy, Em, and one hell of a bicycle polo player.
I found this poster just outside the Bow Road station. London has done a lot to improve the image of cycling over the last five years, concurrently alongside the improvement of their bicycle infrastructure, and I really like this message: catch up with the bicycle! It's a bit like saying, "get with the program yall! The bike is the only way to fly!"

On the day I arrived, I asked Em what was on the day's agenda. His reply was simple: "playing polo." Indeed. Polo was played, and competitively at that, for almost a full 8 hours.
I brought my mallet and threw it into the grand shuffle, which is exactly as it sounds: a grand shuffling of all the polo mallets which results in the separation of teams. The mallets are separated into groups of three, and then each group faces off against another. The gentleman pictured above, presiding over a grand shuffle in later afternoon, had his hands full.
The tournament started bright and early the next day with close to 30 teams registered. You can (sorta) see them listed here on the blackboard.
Because polo is often a fierce game, Brixton Cycles--a full blown worker owned bicycle cooperative--sent out a mechanic to help repair any broken bikes. Nat, the Brixton mechanic, rode a Surly Big Dummy to the event with a complete tool set (and truing stand!) on the extended rear rack. It was quite impressive.
My team, "Lopsided Titillating Loins," won in the first round. You can see our abbreviated name (Lopsided) advanced to play (polo) "Fiasco," a team of three youngsters that did REALLY well in the tournament. And because 2 of the 3 were barely at drinking age, the team was a crowd favorite throughout the night.
Fiasco defeated us 5-3 in the second round, which put our team in the losers bracket where after winning one game we played team Zombie--veterans of London Bike Polo. We lost to Zombie, 5-2. I managed to maintain my dignity throughout the day largely because our record in the tournament was 2-2--not bad for a French guy, an American guy and an Australian guy who had never played as a team before!
After many, many games of polo, an intermission was had in which the stepper bikes (pictured here) squared off with an all girls team on BMX bikes.

A good time was had by all.

Stay tuned for part II of the London post!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The 2009 London Bike Polo Tournament Final

Last weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to London for the Bicycle Film Festival and the accompanying Bike Polo Tournament. In advance of a longer post, I thought you might enjoy watching a video of the final game in the tournament:

Netto Superstars vs. Bad.

BFF 2009 Bike Polo Tournament Final from Iain Pate on Vimeo.

These guys can really swing mallets while riding their bikes.