Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Out-and-About, Fall 2013



Some months ago, I was asked by a community member just how long I was planning to keep this fairly mundane blog about utility cycling going. My interlocutor was trying to get me to take a more purposeful approach, advocating for some causes in town and perhaps making more of a "statement."

I appreciated his interest and his sense that we all have a rĂ´le to play in improving the community, and I've written a bit here and there about some of the transportation issues around town as I see them. But, at heart, my purpose in Upright Cycling runs in other directions.

Writing a cycling blog is an open invitation to self-importance, I suppose. After all, who would (or should) be interested in reading about the ramblings of a middle-aged cleric in a mid-sized Oregon city on a three-speed bike? 

So, the temptation is to try and pack this blog with all sorts of serious-minded, "breaking-news" frippery. I'll admit...this impulse sometimes gets the better of me. But I just can't stay there. It isn't my style.

The real purpose of these writings is a sort of personal chronicle of what it means to view transportation as an interactive experience--connecting with one's own body, nature, physical space, other people, the spiritual life, and the meaning of movement from place-to-place itself.

The "statement" I am making is really more about the potential significance, beauty, and (yikes!) even holiness of the world we encounter every day. Think of it as a sort of spiritualized "small-is-beautiful" journal, with slow upright bikes--if this makes any sense.

In writing these posts, I am inviting readers wherever they are to find their own environment and surroundings anew via "active transportation."

The person asking me about my blog wondered how long I could keep such a humble and rather dull project going. Well, I don't know for sure. But there seems to be an endless stream of discoveries and delights for those open to it. So, here are some of these moments in my travels during recent weeks:

Architecture:

The civic dimension of architecture has long fascinated me. I enjoy cycling in part because of how it puts me in much more direct contact with architecture...good, bad, and (yes) indifferent. I am fascinated by experiencing how buildings connect with the space around them, the people using them, and our civic memory itself. 


Some buildings, like the old portion of the Oregon State Hospital, proclaim an enormous amount about the confidence of their era, the belief those who built them had in their project, and the degree to which their purpose was understood to be connected with other ages or places. This example points up the often complex stories involved with not only a building, but a movement or an institution.

Then, there are the effects of lighting and weather on familiar structures, suddenly revealed to have new dimensions. 

I pass by this brick structure, called The Dome Building, quite regularly. One day I was peddling along towards the crossing on Center Street (tellingly, once called "Asylum Street") when I was struck by the amazing shadows caste by the September afternoon sun. The pattern of surface and void made a sudden impression.



That is an example of the best of such moments. There are others, of course...


Cycling does reveal the hidden places between architecture...alleys like this one downtown, looking like a close-up of the space between a sugar-junkie's unflossed teeth. These are reminders that everything, and everyone, has a hidden aspect that may belie all the effort put into making the frontage sparkle with up-to-date swank.

Accommodation:

When I am out biking I occasionally come upon neat projects that allow people access or service, really improving things. Some of these are recent, others old and perhaps a bit forgotten. Sometimes, it is just an interestingly-themed bike rack, like this one at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife:


Another time it might be a public works project like this new pedestrian/cycle access point for the River Road trail to Minto-Brown Park:


Things like this can restore a bit of confidence in our society, where we are pummeled with bad news, grudges, and endless rehashes of failure.

Sorrow:

When I am in my car, I simply don't have the time or opportunity to take in the needs of the environment around me. I am mostly busy with arriving, not the getting there part. When cycling, that changes. I notice things...sometimes really seeing what is reduced to a blur when motoring about. An example would be the concrete wasteland downtown by the old Boise Cascade property between the Willamette River and Commercial street:


This wasteland is likely to stay here, in much the current shape, until Salem decides to do something about it. It is a kind of mute testimony to all that has been wrong with the Euro-American treatment of nature and the footprint we leave behind when done extracting what we can from it. 

Encased in concrete, hampered by creosoted pilings, celebrated as a treasure few blocks East with parks and shoreside paths yet treated as a dump at its mouth, Pringle Creek still arrives at the Willamette here; but what a sorrowful last few yards!

Joy:


I count on October each year to deliver one of the most delightful sounds I know: the crunch of dry leaves under my bicycle tires. The crisp air, low sun, foggy mornings, extraordinary scents, and carpet of colorful leaves provides a sensory experience second to none in Upright Cycling. When was the last time you took the kid inside you out for a ride? This is the time for it.

Amusement/Wonder/Curiosity:

I haven't yet figured out what these two-dimensional wolves on the State Hospital grounds are about, but they make an interesting stopping point on my way home. They manage to be whimsical and unsettling, all at once:



The metal flamingos are quite interesting and attractive, as well:


All of this on the grounds of the State Hospital and the Corrections Department's Parole Division: a place many find very painful. With such different associations, I enjoy it. This, too, is an ambivalent fact we must live with.

Cycle of Nature:

The bicycle is really a "cycle of nature" itself, as it puts one in such direct contact with the elements. This time of year, that means when I return from an evening Bible study that I am in the dark. Having a great set of lights really does help; but the slightly surreal atmosphere of overhanging branches festooned with bunches of golden and red leaves backlit by the glare of street lamps is utterly different from the daytime scene: 


The quiet and peacefulness on a street like this is something I treasure after a long day. Why do we deny ourselves this sort of experience by creating cities, suburbs, and "lifestyles" isolating us in our cars? It is a pity.

The Steel Steed, Itself:

Upright Cycling isn't about the "bling" of bikes; it's about the experience of active transport and what it allows for. In the process utility cycling turns a bicycle from a toy or a sporting good into something akin to an appliance. This is not to say that one is completely unsentimental about one's bike. No, indeed: 


Hugo has been kitted out pretty carefully over the last two years, and is now in fine fettle, though soon to be spattered with the effects of Oregon's rainy season. For now, though, he looks grand against Autumn's fallen leaves.

The relative simplicity of a bicycle, combined with the "sweat equity" of actually making it go, has a great attractiveness to it. The miles I put on my bike feel much more like an investment in transportation and the community through which I pedal than an escape from these things.

Finally, I think one of the effects of utility cycling is an ever-greater appreciation for simple things, such as direct contact with people and the environment in which I live. All of that makes a bike a strangely beautiful utilitarian object to me. 

What similar moments have you encountered out there this season?








Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Foggy Day in Salem Town



October is a particularly glorious month. In the succession of seasons it draws attention to time's passage and the earth's rhythms in a delightful variety of ways, especially on bicycle.

Like its mid-Spring antipode, October's waning sun provides warmth, but the air is cooler than in September and filled with a constantly-varying succession of very distinct and earthy scents: wood-smoke, leaves, fungus, wet pavement, and pine straw.  Rains have settled the dust, giving trees moisture to put on an even more riotous display of color. The senses are dazzled in a final burst of Summer's energetic momentum.

That added moisture contributes to another aspect of October I find particularly pleasing: fog. My morning journey to church this time of year is often made enveloped in a blanket of innumerable water droplets. They collect on my glasses (somewhat annoying), but mostly they provide an atmosphere of mystery, distorting my experience of space and placing the focus on the near-at-hand. Fog plays wonderfully with light, sound, and perspective, creating dramatic effects in the most mundane places.

Take the 12th Street Promenade, for example. This pathway made necessary by a railroad can become, briefly, a study in flaring lights and muted surfaces--all wrapped in a ghostly silence and stillness. Grey, yellow, orange, brown, blue combine to make an unlikely and evanescent palette worthy of Whistler. The transience of the scene, so often populated by only a handful of people, becomes one more reason to be thankful for the experience.

Cycling through town is thought of as an essentially practical matter of transport; this is obviously true when we speak of motivation. But the aesthetics of the journey, though uneven, are often significant as well. Travel by auto makes it difficult or dangerous to experience this; being on a bicycle encourages it. In turn, such experiences change one's perspective on the familiar...both in term of places and people. The extraordinary and mysterious potential of both is revealed in myriad ways by something so simple as a ride to the office. Because no dollar value can be put on this, it remains lost in the discussions of livability and planning.

However, if I were a wagering man, I would be willing to put money on the proposition that our society would be much happier, content, and forbearing if more of us experienced our cities and towns from the perspective of a bicycle or on foot. It just makes you think--and feel--differently, appreciating what (and who) is always there in a more hopeful way.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Problem(s) with Bike Lanes



When I am feeling at loose ends and up for some cantankerous reading, I occasionally go to the comments section of the local newspaper, especially when the story involves bicycles. I do this for a combination of amusement and education. The amusement comes from the almost rigidly predictable insights from autoists and cyclists alike…the Greek Drama-like inevitability of comments about bad cycling, bad driving, the environment, moral purity, and whole-group condemnation.

Once in a while, however, I get some education. I learn something new about what folks are thinking and doing out on the asphalt, and what might be done to make auto-bike interaction better (other than banning a large part of the population from driving/biking—or writing comments on web sites). One such educational moment occurred recently.

The author of a comment remarked that what made him so angry with cyclists was their practice of not staying in the center or the curb-side of bike lanes. He found it really frustrating that so many cyclists rode on the traffic-lane side (or even outside) of the bike lane. This seems pretty reasonable—a kind of “stay in the lines” argument. If there are bike lanes, USE THEM. I would generally agree (and try to do so).

However, as someone who both drives and rides, I saw the problem with this argument immediately. The commenter—presumably a person who hasn’t cycled since about age 10—was unfamiliar with what it often means to ride in a bike lane. His comment was educational, so I am returning the favor.

Bike lanes are a great concept—if you believe that bikes and motorized traffic mix naturally and safely (I don’t). However, in practice they have many drawbacks that a habitual driver may not realize. Below are some illustrations.

Dooring zone


Most non-cyclists would see little problem with this situation. Just ride in the bike lane. However, what if a street-side door on the van just ahead suddenly opens when I’m passing by? That’s called “getting doored,” and is one of the more frequent causes of serious injury while cycling. Note, too, the darkened window at the back of the van (an increasingly common auto trend), making it very hard for a cyclist to see if anyone is in the car--a predictor of the door being opened.

What to do? The usual answer is to ride on the traffic-edge of the bike lane in order to avoid getting doored.

Pit-traps


This drainage grate is a “great” example of one of the biggest problems with bike lanes. The grate was once flush with the street surface. Successive re-pavings (and in some examples, the settling of the grate’s supporting structure) have made it a pit trap well below grade. If I were to go over this at anything like normal traveling speed, I would likely be thrown from my bike and/or break a wheel.


Or, for another example, here is a kind of storm water grate that is perfectly designed to catch a bike’s tire and hold it, throwing the rider over the handlebars (this antique example was found on a newly paved street, no less; it combines a totally unsafe design for bikes with the below-grade result of hasty paving). Wow! How does this stuff happen? Couldn’t anyone see the potential for danger here?

Solution: slow down and ride on the traffic side of the lane, or (if the obstacle is big enough) ride in the traffic lane to avoid this hazard or mess.

Debris minefield


This problem is pretty obvious, I should hope. The bike lane is often the place where various nasty and dangerous debris from auto traffic end up. This is especially problematic when it comes to glass shards and sharp metal scraps.


Then there are the dead and/or pulpified animals, or the piles of leaves that hide more serious objects (like a large fallen branch), becoming slick bogs of soggy Wheaties-like slime. Ugh. I don't envy those with the task of keeping up with this problem on the city staff. Generally, they do a good job. Some routes get swept by the city every week, others less often…but such debris get into the bike lane constantly and cannot be predicted.

Evasive action required: move out of lane so as not to puncture a tire, slip and fall, or hit something hidden.

Game Over: sudden endings


This is one of the more bizarre problems with some bike lanes. Occasionally, they end with no clear plan in sight that makes sense. What does this picture of the Mission and Winter intersection even suggest? Is this an “Immediate Rapture Lane" for cyclists?

In practical terms, it means that bikes are not being encouraged to turn right or left (which is sane, considering what Mission Street is like, but then again, the Mission Street viaduct has all sorts of bike and pedestrian infrastructure on it, so why can’t bikes be directed there on Mission?). Yet, following the bike lane and going straight puts one smack into a curb—even though the access to the multi-user path through Bush Park is in fact almost straight across the intersection. (The really galling thing about this intersection and its disappearing bike lane is that the city had a chance to do something about it recently when the curb-cuts for ADA-related pedestrian updates were put in. But, the project instead only reaffirmed the oddity of this much-used bikeway choke-point.)

The required course of action is to veer crazily across the intersection and take the little curb-cut at the end of the pedestrian crosswalk on the right, then make an immediate and tight zig-zag to go up into the parking lot and the multi-user path through the park. Argh.

However, if there are any pedestrians using this crossing (and there very frequently are), this puts everyone at added risk of an accident (at a very short light). Also, this curb cut is often full of debris that makes it very slick.

Finally, there are times in the later evening when this light doesn’t seem to be actuated by a cyclist in the bicycle lane (believe me, I know; it was a highly meditative experience until I walked over and pushed the pedestrian signal button). So, the lane becomes a sort of object lesson in frustration and confusion. Not helpful.
. . .

These are just a few thoughts about the problems regularly encountered by a utility cyclist in bike lanes. I hope it will prove helpful to those drivers who have not had to use this low-budget form of cycling infrastructure. Those white lines don’t make for a magical land without dangers to the cyclist. They don’t require a cyclist to commit suicide by staying in them, and they don’t free drivers from the responsibility of being careful around cyclists. They are just paint that indicates…but neither protects nor assures.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Good News/Bad News




I took this photo while biking to the office recently. It contains what I consider to be both good news and bad.

First, for the good news.

I continue to see more and more people cycling to and from their workplaces around town, and more and more of the bikes being used are upright bikes—often revealing a certain sense of style. This retro-cruiser bike has been parked at the Oregon State Hospital quite often as of late, and I had the good fortune to be able to have a chat with its owner recently. I think this is the first time I have seen a bike parked at OSH.

I like to see more folks use their bikes around town, riding in their normal work clothes and not turning cycling into some sort of specialized hybrid of esoteric sport and a HAZMAT operation. I also like to see bikes that encourage a more leisurely, fun approach to the practical task of getting there and back. This sort of bike reflects the fact that much of the inner core of Salem is quite flat and relatively easy to bike. Bravo (or, Brava, in this case)!

Now, the bad news:

This is the only feasible place to park and lock a bike anywhere in sight on this side of the newly-renovated (at considerable expense) state facility. I have looked for any bike racks nearby—even a simple “staple” style, the most frequent form—but haven’t found anything. It seems a bit odd, given the amount of care to provide for all sorts of access issues at this facility. There may be racks elsewhere on the site, but one looks in vain on this frontage. Perhaps I’ve just missed the rack…but should it be that hard to find?

I applaud the cyclist who uses this bike and this location for parking. I am only sorry that here, as elsewhere, the State Government wouldn’t make the effort to encourage multi-modal access.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why the Upright Cyclist is grateful for all those crosswalks


The crossing at Mission and Church...a regular part of my life,
and something making Mission Street palatable.


In the last few years, the City of Salem has installed a significant number of upgraded pedestrian crossings to aid in navigating the busy streets around town. These are almost all expressly for pedestrians (a point I’ll return to later), but I find them quite useful for cyclists as well.

Like other cities in the USA, though perhaps more so than many our size, Salem has a number of large, fast streets penetrating its inner core. These streets (which I style “speedways”) have many visual cues encouraging travel at higher than posted speeds: they are often quite straight or have fairly easy curves, they tend to be quite wide, lack parking on one or both sides, and/or have a “finish” that gives a subtle likeness to higher-speed roads. This often puts the visual character of these streets at odds with their posted speed limits.

Until recently, pedestrians have had a difficult and dangerous time journeying through parts of the primary region of town. Crosswalks at major intersections with stoplights tend to be fairly widely spaced outside of the innermost core (another cue to drivers that above-average speed is reasonable), and there are very few options of going under or over these roads. Painted crosswalks with dull yellow signs have long existed in many places. These often mark nearby school access routes. These crossings, however, are pretty much legal fictions in day-to-day terms, as very few drivers pay much attention to them and it takes a fairly gutsy person to edge out and essentially dare the steady steam of traffic to stop.

The new crosswalks are a different critter. 

First of all, they include traffic calming features (curb bump-outs and islands, &c.) cueing a driver that speed could be disadvantageous. This is a wonderful and far more effective tool than the usual resort to enforcement that people clamor for, as it appeals to that very human sense of self-interest. If most drivers sense their car could easily be damaged on a given stretch of road, they are going to slow down. Pretty simple. Narrowing the road near a pedestrian crossing (or a school, or major community gathering spot) communicates to most people—more effectively than any sign ever could—that it time to “choke your motor,” so to speak.

More effective, bright optic yellow signs also mark these crossings. They can be seen on sunny and rainy days, when the old “warning yellow” of days gone by seems to get washed out by all the other colors out there today, or by sunlight in summer/grey rainy skies in winter. This new yellow doesn't get washed out nearly as easily.

When more than two lanes of traffic are being crossed, pedestrian-actuated and solar-powered flashing LED warning lights provide a highly effective indication that the crosswalk is in use. This feature in particular has made an astonishing difference not only in visibility to drivers but in emboldening pedestrians to use these accommodations. Where the LED flashers have been installed, I have seen people of all ages adopt a much more confident attitude in the face of what was once a streaming onslaught of Autoist Entitlement. Indeed, some crossings (such as the one at Mill and Twelfth) are amazingly busy now, effectively slowing down what has often been a "wild west" stretch of road rather nicely.

Court Street and the Capitol Mall; an LED-enhanced pedestrian crossing
getting a lot of use

As someone who drives a good deal, I am well aware of how easily such Autoism seduces the mind. Once you get going at a certain rate of speed, every encumbrance to that inertial state starts to seem like a personal insult. It just comes with the territory in American motoring, and such an attitude is neither helpful or healthy. Ways to break that sense of entitlement are quite beneficial, all around.

To the cyclist, it is pretty clear that these accommodations were not really meant for bikes. The approaches to the crossings are often narrow and involve sharp turns and curbs. The assumption seems to be that only people on foot—or walking their bikes—should be using them. This is, I believe, actually the law, so it is entirely appropriate. I can’t really complain about this. However, the fact is that many cyclists, like motorists, tend to forget the law when it comes to such things and try to keep that inertial state going whenever possible.

Salem has very few places clearly prioritizing cycling over other means of transport (the Chemeketa Street railway grade crossing at Twelfth is probably the best example). Putting in that much infrastructure is fairly expensive, and since much of the way such planning is done seems based more on current usage rather than encouraging usage, I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. This makes these new crossings quite valuable.

I cautiously use these crosswalks as primary conduits through town—cautiously, but use them I do. Because of the traffic-calming features, it is much easier to get the eye of motorists. While some folks doggedly continue the old charade of not seeing those trying to cross the road, many more pay attention because of the curbs jutting out and (especially) the flashing LED warning indicators.

These crossings often feel much safer than intersections with bike lanes and traffic lights, partly because of the ability to confirm visually that people see you, and partly because there is less going on at such locations—many intersections are too busy both in terms of traffic movement and in terms of visual clutter.
Center & OSH crossing...a much better way to cross Center Street on a bike.

One final aspect of these crosswalks I appreciate is that they often connect quieter streets or areas of town across major thoroughfares. I like this because it allows me to move about town on the terms of what I like to call “upright cycling.” Namely: at a leisurely pace, in relative peace, taking in the neighborhood while moving through it, and being away from auto-dominated environments.

So, while Salem isn’t exactly Amsterdam or Portland (or Corvallis, for that matter), these pedestrian crossings—meant for people on foot—have helped make this city a bit more cycle-friendly. I hope you have found it so, as well.

The Chemeketa crossing project when it was under
construction; probably the most complete piece of
cycling infrastructure downtown.