Thursday, March 25, 2010

Debate on LaHood's Decleration that Bikes and Peds be Treated as Eqauls in the Transportation Hierarchy

This debate, which includes transport experts from around the nation, highlights both the challenges to increasing bicycling and walking in the US as well as some of the most popular--if sometimes ineffective--arguments used by advocates and opponents of walking and bicycling.

I've noticed a few broad themes:

1) Those less than pleased with LaHood's announcement argue that bicycles should pay for their road use. You will see pro-bike people arguing that the low-impact of bicycles combined with their public health savings more than outweigh the need to tax bicycles.   According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking's latest benchmarking report, only 1.2% of federal funds are dedicated to bike/ped infrastructure.

On a related note, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and other congresspeople--including Steve Cohen (D-TN), my representative in Memphis!--have introduced a new bill that would allow a pool of federal transportation money to be dedicated to funding projects that improve the ability of people to walk or bike.  See the bill, which has been sent to committee, here

2) Pro-bicycle people point out that half of all trips in the U.S. are within a 20 minute bike ride. That is, these trips are less than 2 miles.  Those arguing against strong federal bicycle policy wield this same argument to contend that all bicycle policy should be local; that the federal government should fund highway projects while allowing states, counties and cities to focus on the development of urban bikeways.

3) In the U.S., as Andy Clarke points out, only 15% of transport trips are to and from work. Thus, for bike advocates, broadening the focus of encouragement to include efforts to increase bike use on those trips of less than two miles appears promising.

4) The health argument will become the most important argument in favor of increasing funding for bicycling and walking.  Almost every bike advocate in the debate mentions the health argument, and it's an argument that reaches across the aisle. It's fiscally conservative and as American as Apple Pie.

5) Finally, traffic congestion is growing worse, a fact acknowledged by both bike advocates and highway transport advocates alike. But as Andy Clarke points out, congestion will only increase as more people move into cities. Increased biking and walking has been proven to mitigate congestion.

What do you think about LaHood's new policy of making bikes and pedestrians equal to cars in the transport hierarchy?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shanghai Bike Polo

Last week, my English friend Yanis and I set out across Shanghai in search of a place to play a bit of pick-up polo.  I was fiending for a game, even a game of one on one, as I hadn't had a chance to play since leaving Australia.  So while Yanis had never even heard of bicycle polo before meeting me, much less played, he was still keen to have a go if we could find a place.  So he on his ladies cruiser with a front basket and rear luggage carrier and me on my Giant ATX cheap Chinese mountain bike, we set out in search of a smooth, flat surface.  

Heading north through the city, we reached the river before I realized I'd forgotten the ball.  Unimpressed with what we saw heading north, I suggested we head south from the hostel.  It turned out to be a great idea.  With the tower of Isengard in the distance (see the pointy spire rising upwards into the sky), we found the perfect, rounded, recessed surface; a place seemingly made for bicycle polo. 
The court, a public square (circle) in front of the Metropolitan Theatre, seemed an unlikely place to have a polo match.  It was too open, too public.  But as Yannis and I observed a half dozen skateboarders grinding the marble stairs we thought, all things considered, smashing a small rubber ball around and off the steps would be fairly harmless.   

Turns out we were right...sort of.  That day, as Yanis and I rode around playing one on one, the police and local security guards all passed us by.  None of them gave us a thought, much less a look.  The people who did give us a hard glance were mostly intrigued.  And so it was with great joy that I texted Tyler with the news that I'd found a fantastic, central spot to play some polo.

Tyler created a post detailing the space and calling for a session on the upcoming Sunday.   The stage was set for epic bike polo. 

And then the police showed up.  
Actually, it was the security guards who turned up first, blowing their whistles and speaking Shanghainese at me.   I didn't have to pretend I didn't understand.  But as more polo freaks turned up, polo freaks who could speak Shanghainese, it became clear that they wanted us gone.  
It wasn't necessary to speak Mandarin or Shanghainese to understand that this guy wanted my bike off the court.  Or maybe he just wanted to have a go at polo.  

It worked out quite well that the skateboarders stuck around until the police turned up.  I think it was their complicity in clearing the court that made it possible for us to stick around.  
So while skateboarding is not a crime, it turns out bike polo is less of a crime.  

At any rate, being the insolent non-conformists we are, us polo peeps didn't follow orders.  We instead stuck around until the 5-0 buzzed off.  Which meant we played some polo. 
Tyler has a full re-cap of the day, complete with a couple videos here.   In both videos you can watch as Rich, riding an orange fixed gear, takes me out.  Legal contact?  You decide.

Jue Hou also took some amazing photos of the day, the last two of the above set being a representative sample.   

One of the best parts of bicycle polo, in my opinion, is its ability to appeal to a variety of people.  When I turned up to polo in Melbourne, I saw a couple of older men--gray hairs, as it were (no offense, Pete!)--rolling around the court smashing the ball.  It was amazing to see older and younger people enjoying the game in a healthy spirit of competition.  When I arrived here in Shanghai, I was again pleased to see that one of the younger fellows, Nelson, had both his parent's turn up to the polo match.  Chris, Nelson's father, is pictured below.
Chris was fantastic at polo.  He rolled up to the polo match on his tricycle, which you can see on Tyler's blog, carrying the cones and assorted other polo equipment--along with his polo bike, of course.  He had such a nice style of play, bumping shoulders when necessary and shooting through gaps where possible, and he heckled me with relentless enthusiasm.  While bike polo is still primarily a sub-cultural realm dominated by bike messengers and bike freaks across the world, it's inspiring to see non-traditional bike people taking up the sport.  Here's to more diversity on the court! 

Monday, March 22, 2010

United States Radically Alters its Bicycle Policy

"...Regardless of regional, climate, and population density differences, it is important that pedestrian and bicycle facilities be integrated into transportation systems."  
Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, United States Department of Transportation.

Bicycling and Walking received an unprecedented boost at the National Bicycle Summit this past month.  As reported by, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood delivered a "table-top speech" to advocates and community leaders gathered in the Senate Chamber to push for federal dedication to walkable and bikeable communities.  "What an effort a year makes," he said.  "All of the work all of you have been doing for so long has paid huge huge dividends. People get it. People want to live in livable communities."

He praised the efforts of the advocates gathered in Washington, grateful for their push to create what he estimates most Americans desire: "I’ve been all over America, and where I’ve been in America I’ve been very proud to talk about the fact that people do want alternatives. They want out of their cars; they want out of congestion; they want to live in livable neighborhoods. And we would not be where we’re at today without you…. I’m very, very grateful!”

Hear the full speech here:

Just days after this rousing speech, LaHood posted a major transportation policy revision aimed at promoting bicycling and walking on his blog.

The entire policy memo can be viewed here, but the most significant parts of the new policy are outlined below. 

The statement wastes no time in asserting the significance of bicycling and walking:
"Walking and bicycling foster safer, more livable, family-friendly communities; promote physical activity and health; and reduce vehicle emissions and fuel use....Accordingly, transportation agencies should plan, fund, and implement improvements to their walking and bicycling networks, including linkages to transit. In addition, DOT encourages transportation agencies to go beyond the minimum requirements, and proactively provide convenient, safe, and context-sensitive facilities that foster increased use by bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities, and utilize universal design characteristics when appropriate."
LaHood has done well to point out the need to go beyond "tokenism" in the inclusion of bicycle and pedestrian facilities.  Too often a bike path/track/lane starts a mile from attractive spots, and ends two miles before you arrive at your destination.  Such poorly designed, haphazard bike facilities are as bad at increasing bicycling as no facilities at all. 

The document continues with an outright policy statement:
"The DOT policy is to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects. Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems. Because of the numerous individual and community benefits that walking and bicycling provide — including health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of life — transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes."
This means that federal projects which include bike/ped facilities will take precedence in the bidding process over those that do not.  Then, nailing the major benefits of active transportation, LaHood again encourages localities to do their best to improve facilities for non-motorized transportation. 

Now, in an era where the clarion call of "states rights!" appears to be making a comeback (if, in fact, it ever went away), some may scoff at the Transportation Secretary's following recommendation: 
"The DOT encourages States, local governments, professional associations, community organizations, public transportation agencies, and other government agencies, to adopt similar policy statements on bicycle and pedestrian accommodation as an indication of their commitment to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians as an integral element of the transportation system."
I, though, see this as wonderful federal support--the heavy artillery as it were--for local advocates looking to implement the increasing demand for active transportation in their communities.   

Finally, the policy line that lit my face with glee.  The Federal Government is now 

Considering walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes...(and) because of the benefits they provide, transportation agencies should give the same priority to walking and bicycling as is given to other transportation modes. Walking and bicycling should not be an afterthought in roadway design.
The entire document is, of course, a historical call to action for transportation planners, municipal leaders, engineers, and active transportation advocates.  

But this last bit especially tickles my fancy.  At last, the bicycle is recognized as being equal with the car.  Well done, Mr. LaHood.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Interview on Colombia National Public Radio

A couple days back, I did an interview with the good people from Colombian National Public Radio.  Among other things, we talked about bicycle use in China and the emergence of the Electric Bike.   Have a listen and enjoy! 

Stream it here

Download the Audio

Or, read some Text en espanol.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Melbourne Bicycle Polo Video

This video was shot at the Australian Hardcourt Bicycle Polo Championships in November of 2009.   Produced by a kid's television program called "Totally Wild," it's a nice effort at highlighting most of the "hows" and "whys" of Hardcourt Bicycle Polo.  Not to mention, it features some of my favorite people, including Damon Rao.

Miss you guys. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

For the Love of Bicycle Polo

This year I've developed a sort of un-healthy passion for Hardcourt Bicycle Polo.  Unhealthy in the sense that it's possible I might have ignored the advice of doctors, surgeons, physios and osteos warning that continued competition might not bode well for my torn hip cartilage.  

Living in Melbourne for four months provided me with an amazing opportunity to improve my game while building a community of life long friends.  But perhaps more than any thing else, my time in Melbourne distilled within me a passion for sharing this game with others. 

And so I arrived in Beijing 11 days ago with 3 pre-crafted polo mallets in a narrow cardboard box and 2 hockey balls stuffed into the bottom of my bag, armed with the intention of organizing a few polo games while in Beijing-town.  

But starting up bike polo seems easier said than done in Beijing.  For one, there are few public courts suitable for polo within the inner ring roads; there are some, sure, but it's hard to say whether the neighbors or police will tolerate regular games.  In Shanghai, they rent out an athletic space.

Secondly, finding HDPE and ABS gas piping to create mallet heads has been near impossible.  While most of the piping found on polo courts across the world is manufactured in China, there appears to be no store selling the pipe in Beijing proper.  

So in a creative (desperate) moment, I decided to try something ingenious (rash).  I bought a tea bottle, made of super hard plastic, with the intention of making a mallet head.  
I know what you're polo freaks, you.  Doomed from the start, right?  Well, you'd be right...but I had to try.  

After sawing off the top bit of the water bottle, I started to drill through the sides to make space for the ski pole.   The bottle didn't crack during this process, and actually, the holes turned out to be quite nicely.  A good start.  

Then it was time to attach the bottle to the mallet.  The moment of truth: 
The bottle cracked as I tightened down the bolt.

And so my hopes were dashed, my dreams deferred.  

Without even a single game, the idea of a sippy-cup water bottle mallet fell to the wayside.  Tragedy. 

In brighter news, it appears we've located a source for the pipe.  We've made the order and expect the pipe in two days.  Here's hoping.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tasmania Pt. 2

After a night to remember in the cool, dewy grass of People's Park in Strahan...a night spent gazing at the stars and making massive speculation about the human condition, Chris and I said goodbye to the rest of our mates and headed for Queenstown.  

I'd heard people describe the area around Queenstown as bare and desolate, a landscape poisoned by decades of unsustainable mining.  Some told us the locals preferred to leave the barren brown mountainsides as a reminder...others said we could look closely and find emerging signs of life on the hills surrounding the town.  But while we never got the full story of why, Queenstown looked and felt like like the place it was: a mining town on the wrong side of history. 
Still, it was an amazing place.  When we arrived in town, passing the hulking masses of rusting mining equipment dotting the hillside, Chris and I stopped off for a coffee on Main Street where we watched locals and visitors intermingle somewhat seamlessly.  As with many old mining towns in Tassy, Queenstown nurtures a modest but healthy brand of tourism.  The main street, emanating charm from another era, was a pleasant place to stop for a rest and recoup.  After a flat white and a scone, the kind ladies at the coffee shop offered to fill up our water bladders.  And boy were we gonna need it. 
The day into and out of Queenstown turned out to be the hottest--and hilliest--day of the tour.  The picture above shows the road up and out of Queenstown in the middle of a 10 kilometer climb.  The picture below shows the town in the distance, the road cut into the side of the mountain.  

The brown mountain side stands in stark contrast to the lush, rolling, green hills pictured below.  Queenstown looked and felt old and desolate.  
The day's ride out of Strahan and into Queenstown took us through to the Frankiln Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.  With Pete staying near Strahan and Bec and Leigh bound for Melbourne on bus steered north towards a fairy aimed at Port Philip Bay, Chris and I hit the mountainous west coast interior as a duo.  Below was our first bush camp as a duo, quaint quarters on a four wheel drive track that veered off the main road.  
The camp space pictured here was almost forsaken for space next to the waterfall pictured below.  Nelson Falls had an amazing little spot next to the creek meandering off and away from the falls, but it would have been far too chilly for us to camp directly beside the water in the rainforest.  Not to mention we fielded questions from about 250 tourists in the hour we sat at the falls.  Enough was enough, we decided. So we rode on to our bush camp, climbing up and through Victoria Pass.
Our second full day in the wilderness took us through the Surprise Valley, pictured below in all of it's expansive beauty. 
We camped beside a small body of water called Bronte Lagoon in the midst of the middle highlands. On the lagoon we saw fisherman slowly making their way across the lake as we settled into camp.  This was sunset from our campsite.   
The road from Strahan out towards the interior of Tasmania, the road leading through the Western wilderness, across the western mountain ranges and into a tangle of wild rivers was (somewhat) appropriately called "The West Coast Road."  Opened in 1932, the road provided access for Tasmanian governors to the remote mining towns on the west coast.  It also provided a link to the Western settlement of Strahan for goods requiring movement inland.  Strahan is 12k from the MacQuarie heads, which is the entrance to Strahan's port. Dubbed Hells Gates because of it's narrow, rocky opening, the MacQuarie Heads swallowed up many a ship intent on docking in Strahan. 
The third day of the duo tour was a rough one.  Starting out from Bronte Lagoon, Chris and I headed towards New Norfolk--more than 100k from the lagoon.  The morning and early afternoon went well, a bit hot, but beautiful riding. We stopped for coffee in a small town called Hamilton, recharging our batteries and filling up our tanks with coffee and pastries.  Climbing out of Hamilton in the heat of the day, the third straight day in the 30s, I began to feel a bit faint.  Now on the days previous, Chris and I had taken every opportunity we had to enjoy a frosty adult beverage or a coffee...both of which are diuretics...and both of which will dehydrate you. So after hundreds of meters of climbing, it turned out to be a modest hill outside Hamilton that did me in. I pulled into the shade to take quick rest and realized something wasn't right. It wasn't long before I realized I had become dehydrated.

Pushing on for another 30 kilometers probably wasn't the best decision I've made in life. Nonetheless, near dark, I pedaled feebly into New Norfolk--a city just over 25 K north of Hobart. I could barely stand up.

Turns out, I had suffered a heatstroke. Intensely dehydrated and beaten by the sun, Chris and I decided to take a bus the last 25 k to Hobart. I made the decision to head back to Devonport on the next day while Chris went along to meet the rest of our friends for a tour of the east coast.

The tour was amazing...I saw some beautiful wilderness land and learned a few valuable lands. Perhaps best of all, before leaving Tassy I had the chance to see a sweet band:

This is how the route looks in its entirety:
View Tasmania tour in a larger map

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sharing a Warm Moment on a Cold Night

It was near midnight.  I'm speeding home along a Beijing bike track beside a broad roadway more than a football field wide.  Full of homemade noodles, sauteed eggplant and basted tofu, I'm absorbing the cool night air, enjoying the feeling of my body slowly warming--one revolution at a time. 

As I approach a construction zone, I can hear the sounds of jackhammers and generators.  Flashing directional arrows and florescent clad roadworkers warn against the upcoming  detour.  Hugging the rightside curb, the pounding of concrete eating machines seems to be aimed perfectly at my brain.  Passing through it all, grateful to be emerging from the madness, I tilt my head to have a look at the squeaky drive train approaching on my left. 

A mid-twenties Chinese man, pedaling for his life, lines himself up beside me--bottom bracket to bottom bracket.  He steals a look at me. 

I stay focused on the road ahead, remaining politely disinterested.  Then I think: this fella has ridden beside me for a good 500 meters.  None of the Chinese folk ride this fast...I make a quick check on the make of his bike out the corner of my eye: Giant.  Not entirely surprising; there are heaps of Giants in China.  Still, most folk here ride no name jet black Flying Pigeons. 

He steals another look at me.  I look at my legs and think about my cadence: it's a bit slow.  I'm pushing a hard gear, but pushing it too slowly.  I increase my cadence.  My new road partner has a look at me, and then steps up his own pace. 

Then, I realize he's trying his hardest to keep up with me.  And his looks are coming more quickly now, alternating between my thin road bike tires and my widening grin.  Soon, I've got the biggest, goofiest grin on my face.  I'm amazed that this guy is so unabashedly trying to keep up with me on his Giant cruiser bike with a front basket and rear rack.  Then I see he's grinning too.  Then I laugh.  And can't stop.  He laughs too.  We speed up. 

We catch two green lights in a row.  Rolling at a steady clip now, I've got a mind to give him a thumbs up.  As my turn approaches and I look to the left, I notice he's gone.  With a speed matched only by his emergence my pedaling friend had disappeared. 

The guy loved to pedal his bike.  Maybe he felt keen to beat the Western dude in an all out two block sprint.  Whatever.  He was enjoying himself on that bike, and so was I.  And for a couple Beijing blocks, we shared that love with the open night. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bicycling in Beijing: Initial Observations

Upon arriving in Beijing, it wasn't long before I saw the emerging insanity that is Chinese driving patterns.

In his new book, "A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory," Peter Hessler writes "It’s hard to imagine another place where people take such joy in driving so badly...They don’t mind if you tailgate, or pass on the right or drive on the sidewalk. You can back down a highway entrance ramp without anybody batting an eyelash. . . . People pass on hills; they pass on turns; they pass in tunnels..."

Indeed, as I took a taxi from the Beijing airport to my hostel on the eastern edge of the Forbidden City, I tried to make small talk with my driver as we sped down the interstate. "Brrrrr," I said, rubbing my hands on the tops of my arms to indicate that it was cold outside. He glared at me. "Cold," I said, repeating the gesture. "Colt," he said--moving to turn up the heater in the already overly hot taxi. Not exactly what I'd intended to achieve...I learned quickly that attempting to make small talk in a language that wasn't my own was pretty much useless.

Left with little to do but stare out the window, we passed a car backing-up on the interstate. As in moving backwards and against traffic. On the interstate. Yeesh.

As we neared the city center, passing each of the ring roads forming the outer perimeter of Beijing, I looked desperately for bikes. I was increasingly dissappointed. The Asian city crawling with bikes, the place that so many people instantly understood to be integral to my project, was consumed by cars. The bikes were outnumbered by cars in the Beijing streets leading from the airport to the city center by 10 to 1.

I'd learned from a friend in Melbourne, a friend who'd lived in Shanghai for years, that traffic patterns in China were fundamentally different than those in most western countries. "In China, the bigger you are the more right of way you have," he explained. "So the bikes must always yield to the cars, and the pedestrians must yield to the bikes. Stick with the motorized scooters," he said. "Because you'll be riding faster than the average Chinese, and because you want to be in a group as often as possible, stick with the motor scooters. The bigger the group, the more right of way you have."

Taking all this in from the relative traffic comfort of Melbourne was pretty easy. Sure, I get that. Just give way to the cars.

But after five days spent riding a bike in the streets of Beijing, the dog-eat-dog insanity of it all has been a bit harder for my western mind to comprehend. Cars turn right at all times and without regard for who or what may be in their way. Cars turning left across crosswalks and forward moving traffic are equally as dangerous. So, after you make it past the right turning traffic, you have to guard your life from left turning traffic. And that's to say nothing of the electric powered three wheel carts that fill the bike lanes. Or the motor scooters going backwards in the bike lane, looking up, down, left, right...every way but straight ahead....In spite of the fact that they are in fact heading the wrong way.

In Amsterdam, the madness that is traffic had a name amongst local bicycle riders: the dance. Everyone moved quickly--but carefully--around everyone else: bikes, peds, cars, scooters, skateboarders. In Beijing it is exactly the opposite. Each person moves as recklessly as possible in the general direction of each other person. And the person who stops is the person with the least nerve. Or the person with the least amount of metal around their precious human exterior.

This morning, to pass a bus that had pulled into the bike lane to deposit passengers, I followed about 6 other riders out into traffic on the left side of the bus.

Now, bus drivers are professional drivers--lest we forget.

As I neared the middle of the bus, the driver began to slowly merge back into traffic--pushing me farther out into the roadway gnarled with cars. Looking the driver directly in the eye using her rear-view mirror, I made sure she could see me. She could. I quickly passed the front of the bus with less than an inch to spare between her bumper and my rear wheel. A bully tactic. I'm bigger, you're smaller...Take that!

Stay tuned for more observations and community based bike tomfoolery...

For now, check the Flickr page for photos. As it is, I can't yet add photos to the posts. Blogspot is blocked in China, so my mate Josh has agreed to post some text until we can sort out a better solution.

Keep them wheels turnin'!

[Just so you know, Anthony is having some trouble with the Great Firewall and asked me to post for him - I'll be relaying these blog updates as they come - JMG]