Posts Tagged ‘ cycling

Bike Share

Last weekend, for the first time, I took advantage of one of the city bike programs that seem to be spreading from city to city throughout the US. I never really had cause to use it in Minneapolis and still don’t in San Francisco, as that’s what my own bike is for. I’d thought about jumping on one when the initially unveiled it in the Twin Cities, just to see what those giant green bikes were like, but I guess my curiosity wasn’t worth whatever it cost then. But in Chicago, I had a great opportunity to try them out. At $7 a day with unlimited rides under 30 minutes, it wasn’t much more expensive than trying to take the bus and figure all of that out, and it certainly gave me a good deal of flexibility. Here are some observations based on a couple days of pedaling around Chicago on a Divvy:

The kinds of trips I took were just about perfect for these sorts of bikes. It was about 4 miles from where I was staying to Union Park, where I was going every day, with a direct route down a road that (mostly) had a bike lane. With the 30 minute cap before you incur a fee, that’s seems to be the idea behind it, or at least the intent behind the fees, to keep you from riding too long, to keep the bikes in circulation, whatever. Anything under a mile feels fairly walkable to me (well, that’s not true…everything is walkable in San Francisco). But a bike really helps make those trips between 2-5 miles a bit more manageable. Honestly, I doubt it would have taken me much less time to drive the same distance, especially factoring in parking by the festival. Not that a car was an option I had on the table this weekend. Just comparatively speaking.

Speaking of driving time, I think that is one of the most worthwhile aspects to these kinda of programs. I already know that it doesn’t take much longer to ride on those short trips. In many cases it can be shorter. Hopefully more people realize that after some time in these.

The stations themselves were frequent enough that I didn’t have to think about it too much. While it would have been more difficult 10 years ago to implement an idea like this, now you’re a smartphone app away from being able to not only find the nearest station, but the availability of bikes. Of course, you still have to have that smartphone. The stations also do a good job of telling you where nearby stations are if you have issues (no space to park, no bikes, etc.), provided you know the city in question. Each morning, I was able to pick a station appropriately close to wherever I had breakfast, and I even was able to entertain the notion of hopping on one of the bikes to go a bit further to get my breakfast. The access really broadened my thoughts about where I could go in the city without dealing with cars or transit.

Nothing will ever break those bikes. It felt like pedaling a solid mound of stone. But that’s what they are designed for, aren’t they? They need to withstand multiple rides from people in addition to the streets of Chicago. Halsted had some potholes that would put Interstate Park to shame. While I’m sure they do have issues occasionally (and I did pull one that had a seat that would not adjust), on the whole, they are built to withstand whatever abuse you might put them through. Which is good, because I’m guessing they need to be.

You aren’t going anywhere too quickly on them. Because of their weight and their relative simplicity (three gears), you aren’t gonna see anyone whipping through city streets on those. Again, I’m sure that’s somewhat by design. I had to make some minor mental adjustments as I rode because of that; I saw lights that my brain said I could make only to remember that I was not on my own bike and I was not getting this thing through the intersection in time. That is probably okay especially for safety’s sake.

I can’t make a direct line comparison (I haven’t ridden my bike in Chicago), but it’s easy to imagine that other vehicles on the road treated me differently than they would have had I been on my bike. Again, it was just a thought I had. I don’t really have a way to test that, so take that as you will.

The process isn’t that hard, but it still feels a bit long. I get why they need some of that information. I get they have to ask those questions. Perhaps I could have registered some information online to make it quicker. And it wasn’t that much. Just that the menus took a bit more navigation. I don’t know why they asked for my zip code, whether it was to run the card or to run some metrics, or perhaps both. But it also didn’t feel like much more than the CTA asked me when I tried to get train passes. So perhaps I’m just spoiled with my own bike and a Clipper card.

The app is a pretty great thing. It’s nice to be able to look up the stations, and more importantly whether or not there are any bikes there. Unfortunately, it didn’t save me any time because…

I discovered multiple stations in Chicago where the card readers didn’t work. Due to the nature of the system, you have to dip your card (their terminology) every time you get a bike. Which makes sense, but is unfortunate when you find a station that doesn’t work. I had to go to three stations both Friday and Saturday night before I found a bike either due to that issue or lack of availability by the time I got to the next station.

I cannot imagine using a bike like that in a city like San Francisco. Chicago is blessedly flat. I already bike everywhere. I’ve gotten used to the constant hill-climbing that is riding anywhere in San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong, the payoff on the downhill is nice. But it was a nice change of pace to be someplace where there was almost no climbing the entire 4 miles. On one of these bikes, it just seems like it’d be a slow and tiring affair. That is probably why there only seem to be stations down in the Financial District, SoMa, and such. The converse is they are much better suited for a city like Chicago.

Who compromises the annual user base? I saw a few of them. Or at least, that seemed to be why people could just go up and use something (a key?) directly next to the bike to get one while I dipped my card and waited for a new code. I am mostly curious what the reasons. $75 isn’t that much (which is what I think the annual fee was), but I wonder who those people are. Because if you were doing a lot of riding, it seems like even just finding a cheap beater bike at a local shop or on Craigslist would also be an effective option. Then again, if all the rides they are doing are short distances, and they don’t have the space, and more importantly, they don’t want to deal with the occasional hassle of owning a bike, I can totally see any of that. There are definitely valid reasons for not wanting to own a bike. I feel like they are less extreme than not wanting to own a car (it’s definitely significantly cheaper), but they are still valid. And now I’m just a bit curious. I hope they gather that kind of into to strengthen these programs.

I saw quite a few people on them. This is a good thing. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to not ride a bike, and for plenty of people it’s not a good option. But for a lot of people they are a good option. So if this is something that gets them out there using them more, that seems like a great thing to me. Even with the dipping and the codes and finding the station, it’s a pretty quick to get the bike and get moving. It’s even easier to get rid of the bike when you are done, just find a station and lock it in. Bikes are a great way to get around for short trips. And having a system that makes that easy is a good thing. These systems definitely make it easy.

It’s not like I’m trading in my bike tomorrow. But I can see the appeal of these sorts of programs. And I’m glad to see they are finding users. More people on bikes hopefully helps beget better infrastructure for bikes. More people on bikes hopefully helps those people recognize what it’s like to be a bike on the road the next time they get in their car. More people on bikes is a good thing. I can’t wait to see more of it.


When Nextbus says that the 31BX is 5 or 6 minutes away, that’s when I should be out the door. When it says it’s 4 minutes, I have to hustle, but I can still make it if I leg it. Otherwise, I may as well plan an alternate or wait for the next bus. Yesterday, I left when it said 4 minutes, made it down to the bus stop, and proceeded to wait another 14 minutes for the bus. By the time it came, there was another 31BX immediately behind it. At least my ride wasn’t overfull as I got on the second one and waited to get to the Financial District. After 9 am instead of before like usual. It’s not like I’ve got anyone watching the clock telling me I have to be there at a certain time (though some people do), so it doesn’t matter which of the morning buses I hit in that regard. And yeah, I have my phone, so I can see what everyone’s been saying all morning on Twitter instead of just standing around. While it’s not how I plan to use 14 minutes, as a now-everyday rider, I know I am going to get lots of chances to use small bits of time like that. For me, the challenge has been deciding what to do with those small spaces. Mostly, I’ve decided to use them to read and write since I have the time and technology to do that.

There aren’t many other buses that I always try to catch at the same time, so it’s less pronounced. But at least once a week, I spend 10 minutes longer at 6th and Balboa than I had any intention to. I understand that is currently part of being a bus rider. What I also understand is if, as a society, we truly want people to embrace the use of mass transit, that needs to change. It seems to be a paradoxical situation, with ridership being hard to come by if one can’t count on the bus and transit systems and tax payers not necessarily excited about pouring more money into a system that people aren’t taking advantage of. That certainly felt like an issue in the Twin Cities with the buses unless you had the fortune of taking the right route. I rode them on occasion, mostly after I lived in Saint Paul and lived, but I never depended on them like I currently do in my carless state. Technology has made it easier, for sure, as I can actually check on the times, but it just seemed like a lot of the buses I wanted in the Twin Cities were every 30 or 60 minutes. And while there inclement weather could make a frustrating ride even worse, here in San Francisco, we don’t have that excuse. So what do we have?

While I was dealing with my normal morning commute, some Google employees in the Mission were getting ready for theirs. In San Francisco, that means quite likely getting on one of the large charter buses that ferry people from San Francisco where they have more of a desire to live down the Peninsula to towns like Mountain View and Sunnyvale where many of the tech companies you’ve actually heard of are, some 35 to 40 miles away. Except, at least at 24th and Valencia yesterday, they were held up by protesters. Protesting what? I am still not entirely sure what the overall effect of the gentrification protest was given the false umbrage that some entity tried to generate with the too-perfect, not real Google employee-protester spat that they just happened to catch on camera. I believe the overall point, though, was to protest the sharplyr raising costs of living and to intimate that these Google employees (and by synechdoche, all techies and tech culture) are destroying the real San Francisco and its spirit, etc as if they somehow single-handedly also influence zoning laws in addition to making money.

Now I have some problems with this because false umbrage is certainly not the way to deal with it. I’m hard pressed ot think of situations where misdirection helps. As annoying as my bus ride is at times, I know I am going to be at work in 35-40 minutes most mornings and I have several different routes I can take if one experiences an issue, all paralleling each other by 2 blocks. I could hop on my bike and be there in 25-30 minutes. Hell, I could even walk to work in a little over an hour if I hustled. Not saying I am about to. Just that I can. I both have the fortune and the desire to live fairly close to where I work, and it still takes a ton of time.

When I was looking at places, I had in mind what I wanted. I like a walkable neighborhood, with amenities and bus stops nearby. BART would have been nicer, because it tends to be a bit more regular, but that’s not a lot of the city when you get down to it. Civic Center, Mission, Glen Park, Balboa Park are the locations I could affordably see finding something near, and any closer in and I am walking distance anyway. I’d previously lived in a moderately walkable area downtown Saint Paul (you need grocers) and a highly walkable area in Uptown in Minneapolis (you I didn’t quite appreciate until the end). I know I like it.

The thing is, I am not alone in that. A lot of people here in San Francisco want similar amenities out of where they live. Not everyone here has the fortune of having a job that’s also located in the city. A lot of those jobs are across the Bay, down the Peninsula, miles away. Now I am a big proponent of living close to work. It’s something I’ve always angled for in my jobs. So I get the argument that people could just live in those cities that dot the Peninsula. But that means giving up a lot of the gains here in terms of walkability and proximity to events and random things that happen because this is San Francisco, dammit. Plus, at least out here, it’s not any cheaper to rent or buy in Mountain View than it is here in the city, which is one of those arguments that exists for suburbs (that I don’t really agree with).

But what about the cost of transit? Short of Caltrain, there’s not a lot of great options for getting south. And I don’t know how that would be for a commute versus a leisurely ride which is what I was in for the last time (and first time) I rode it. Certainly driving down to Silicon Valley isn’t a great option. I know people who do it. But that’s a lot of gas. And a lot of miles sitting in a car, alone, getting stressed as I imagine just about any driver gets. I know I do, and I know I have seen most people I have ridden with in my life have a moment or two, especially in rush hour traffic. So while I get that there are still issues to navigate in terms of where those corporate shuttles pick people up, and whether Muni sees some money back for use of their space (though isn’t that an allotment of civic space?), the actual idea behind the shuttles isn’t really what bothers me.

What bothers me is that those shuttles are the best option for Google or Genetech or whatever other companies use them in a lot of cases. They have a lot of employees who might take a public mass transit option if it were a bit easier, a bit more timely, had less transfers, etc. They are already taking mass transit. Is the umbrage that these companies are doing something to help make it more possible for their employees to live where they want to because our infrastructure, designed for cars, most of them single passenger rides, has let them down? The problem isn’t that Google thought to get a coach. The problem is our society has failed us in the promise of delivering options of getting around almost any way than by car in most of our major cities and greater urban areas in the US.

I know the bus is going to be late some days. Because it’s at the whims of traffic. And I know there’s not really a great dedicated bike route for me. Those are my two realistic options currently. But why aren’t the roads designed to better serve those modes of transit as well? Roads existed well before cars. People still had vehicles to park, though the vehicles were different. They were not invented for cars, though they have certainly been geared toward them in the last century. It does us all a disservice to continue to view them as such. A roadway for cars is a way of getting people from on point to another. So is a train line. So is a bike lane. So is a sidewalk. What seems unique is that when we talk about changing those paths in our cities, it seems to be about what the car has to give up, like it just earned those parking spaces or extra lanes or direct routes. It didn’t. As a society, we allocated that. I, for one, would love to see society allocate a bit differently.

People don’t like buses because they are crowded and late. People don’t like biking because it’s not safe in a lot of places. People don’t like trains and rail cars because it seems unless you live in the right spot they aren’t useful or they’re too infrequent, though they certainly seem to prefer them to buses. People don’t like walking because there’s nowhere to walk to. People don’t like all of those because they take too long. Driving can be faster. Driving can be more direct. Driving can be the best option because there’s nothing else in between. Driving also offers comforting illusions of control. I can try another route. I can leave whenever I want. I don’t have to wait for anything. I get all of those thoughts, I’ve thought all those thoughts. And I like driving when it’s not bumper-to-bumper traffic and non-stop stress. There’s nothing quite like rolling down the open highway, stereo blazing as you head toward wherever. I don’t think there’s a big problem with roads.

But there’s a discussion to be had about how we use our space, especially in denser urban areas where the default assumptions are toward cars and driving and have only recently started to shift back toward other uses. I don’t think corporate buses are an end-all solution to that by any means. Driving is the best way to get from point A to point B if we keep making decisions at a municipal level to support that over other means of transit. Buses might get someplace faster if they had dedicated lanes. Biking would be easier with direct protected bike lanes and might be a more alluring option. As cities, we have options about how we approach that. Personally, I’d like to see some different ideas on the table other than adding a lane to a highway because it’s congested. Why are people on those highways in the first place? What are some options to ameliorate that? Those are more complicated issues that touch not only on road use, but zoning and land use. If more people want to turn toward more urban environments that are more compact and provide the kind of amenities that cities do provide, how can we help create that?

I get that’s not what everyone wants. I personally don’t see myself ever moving back to a suburb. I just don’t see the point for me. I fail to see how they provide the things that I appreciate most out of where I live. If the calculus were skewed such that my job were out in the suburbs, I would still try to live in a city. I’m an urban girl. I know I’m not representative of the whole, though. But it does seem there are a lot of aspects to life in the US that are geared toward a certain way to live. Suburbs haven’t been around forever any more than the roads that wend their ways through them. They were a product of the times. Times have changed. I hope we are changing with them. It’d be nice to live in a city where the buses are on time.

Confessions Of A Serial Cyclist

As I was riding my bike home last night at 2 am, large puffy clouds were cutting across the sky, obscuring most of the stars, but not the 3/4 full moon. It was quite a sight on the occasions that it was in the direction that I was riding, and therefore not unduly risky to look at. The streets were extremely quiet, more than I thought given that it was bar close on a Friday night, but it was appreciated, if unexpected. More than once, it hit me that it’s a bit odd to be riding my bike at 2 am on the way home from something, and it is certainly not something that I would have done a couple years ago, but now, there’s not much more natural than hopping on the bike to get to or from something. Be it work, or a show, or an impromptu gathering at a friend’s, it seems more often than not that I get there by two wheels instead of four these days. But it took quite a while to get to this point. I know a big part of it is motivation; secondarily, there are concerns of many things, but the hardest thing of all for most of us is getting it into our head to do something and then getting it out of our heads and into our lives. Really, this is the fruition of about 6 or 7 years of attempts to make myself do this, and it took me that long to deal with many of the barriers I created for myself to prevent me from doing something that I wanted to do. Biking accomplishes a lot of great things at once, but there’s a trade-off lurking somewhere.

It’s 11 miles one way to work. First off, 11 miles is not that far. I know it seems like it is, but it isn’t. Second, it’s not crazy, so don’t look at me like that. I can feel you across the internet giving me that look, so stop it. I am not riding at any speeds that are going to make anyone blush on either commute. I usually average between 14-15 miles an hour these days, which is good, but is no land speed record. Generally, between trying to make sure that cars don’t hit me, stop lights, pedestrians, obstacles, and the general nonsense that seems to fill roads and bike paths, it takes me about 45-50 minutes to get to work, though the bike timer always says a little less since it doesn’t go when I’m not moving. It takes a little less time to get home, because it’s more downhill and I believe that I’m probably a touch more motivated to get home than to get to work. On the other hand, there’s a lot more traffic of all kinds at 4:30 pm than at 6:30 am. I have gotten a lot more comfortable with road riding and people not paying attention and all the other things that are now a part of my daily commute.

When I drive to work, it takes about 30 minutes in the morning, and usually it’s closer to 40-45 in the afternoon. So you can already see that the time difference isn’t all that great. Yes, I get up at 5:50 am, but I would be getting up 30 minutes later if I were leaving from here, so it’s really only taking me about an hour longer adding together both my morning and afternoon commute. And I spent about 90 minutes of that getting exercise. Sure, I have to take two showers, but even after all of that, I’m home and cleaned up and ready to do something by 5:30 if I really need to be, though usually I’m a little more leisurely about leaving work than that.

As gas settles in around $4 a gallon (and sure it might go down for a bit, but I imagine this will be the norm going forward more than the exception), I spend about $50 to get enough gas in the RAV-4 to get 300 miles. This is probably low compared to a number of people, but it’s the facts as they now stand. Let’s say I ride my bike to work 20 times a month at 22 miles round trip, I’m taking out 440 miles, probably saving myself close to $75 a month on gas. Which is great. Except I’m probably spending at least $100 every couple months on parts, gear, etc. Not including whatever the initial cost of the bike might be (only $600 in this case, so not too bad) and the initial investments on gear and such since those are sunk costs, I’m still probably not saving money as on might think of it. What I am doing is investing my money in something I care about more than my car. The more I bike, the quicker I have to put money back into said bike, which means that if I have a 600 mile month sometime, it’s just that much quicker to the next tune-up and batch of parts. Less gas, but more chains and gears. It has taken me a while to understand that concept, and I still think that’s a big gap for a lot of people. One might routinely take a car in to get it looked at for maintenance, but many view a bike as something you just buy and don’t do anything with until it breaks. Well, actually, looking at that last sentence, a lot of us treat our cars that way. But much like a car (or any vehicle) standard care along the way does a lot to make it work better. You are happier, and your vehicle is happier. So any financial realizations are minimal in the sense of saving. Of course, I feel the money is going a better place, which is a big thing. It’s nice to feel like your money is going to something you care about, not something you just have to do or need.

So no, it’s not a big money saver. As to the other general set of questions I get, no, it’s not that hard. But it is a commitment. I guess one could say that’s true of anything in life. The more effort you put in (and time and money and all those associated variables), the more you might get out of it. And this is the same way. It’s a big hurdle, and a bit of a restructuring to say that I’m going to bike someplace. I have to leave sooner, I have to consider the weather in terms of how it’s going to be to ride in, I have to consider whether I’m going to bring a change of clothes. But I don’t have to do that much more than I would anyway. Plus, it makes me think about what I’m going to carry, what I truly need, and what I just want on the other end. Because those are all different things at different times, and frequently what you need is much less than what you have. I don’t need to do much more than look around my apartment to know that. I, of course, have committed to it, and since I’ve got back on in April post surgery I’ve stopped making the excuses. Not that I didn’t bike a lot before surgery, but post-surgery, I’ve just decided there’s no reason not to bike more. Instead of saying, oh, I don’t have time for it, it’s saying how do I make time for it? How do I structure my activities? How does it impact a trip to Target or a trip to the Fetus? Do I need all the things I get at the store, and if so, how do I account for them? These are all valid questions, and I get there are numerous excuses not to ride. My take-away has been to simply be more honest. I know your workplace might not have a shower. Sure that’s a hurdle. Mine does, and that’s great. Yes, it sucks when it rains. But I get a little wet and I have some rain gear that takes a bit to dry out. My neighbors at work probably don’t like it.

And I guess for me, that’s the big thing to do. There’s no problem with saying you don’t want to bike to work. It might not work for you on simple virtue of the fact that you are not going to move around enough other things in your life to make it work, which is perfectly respectable. Or maybe you just don’t want to, which is also perfectly respectable. But there’s no reason to make excuses about it. And that’s something that I can be better about in my own life. But many people can do what I do. They just don’t want to. Just like I don’t want to do many things that they do in their lives that they make more time for. There’s too much to do in life to go about making excuses about not doing things. That’s more time that you could be doing stuff. But, but if you truly are interested in riding to work, remember that it’s something that takes a long time to get going and instill, like any habit. But mostly, it’s a decision, like any decision? How committed are you? Because if you are, join me out there on the paths and roads of the Twin Cities, and for the sake of all of us, please signal.

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