The City Bicycle

The City Bicycle

0 comment Monday, June 23, 2014 |
I was really looking forward to Arkansas. From the year I spent in North Carolina, I gained a certain affection for the South, and so as soon as I heard that my colleague and I would have the opportunity to film there, I started fantasizing about escaping the damp end-of-March New York chill and enjoying some good barbecue and fried catfish.
But most of my experience in Arkansas could have been re-created on any strip mall in America. To their credit, Fayetteville and Little Rock did have small historic downtown areas, but the vast majority of the state appeared to be a continual repetition of the same twenty stores you'd encounter on the Connecticut Post Road or on any other suburban commercial development in America.
In this wasteland of national chain stores, I was excited when we finally encountered one small example of localism - a Chick-Fil-A near our hotel in the strip outside of Fayetteville. But as we were enjoying our sweet tea and chicken sandwiches, my colleague informed me that there is in fact a Chick-Fil-A in the NYU food court, erasing my last hope that we'd found something attributable to the fact that we were south of the Mason-Dixon line.
I recently finished reading Building Suburbia by Yale architecture and urbanism professor Dolores Hayden. In the chapter on "edge nodes" she explains how not only were the creation of suburban commercial strips subsidized by federal dollars for highway construction, but additional federal commercial real-estate tax breaks also created incentives for the construction of cheap, suburban commercial sprawl at the cost of older businesses and building stock in historic downturn urban areas.
In 1954, the Republican controlled Congress re-wrote the tax code to permit a seven-year "accelerated depreciation" period for greenfield income-producing property. Previously, the tax code only allowed "straight-line" depreciation, but this new accounting method allowed companies to defer corporate income taxes by reducing taxable income in current years in exchange for paying increased taxable income in future years. This created a huge incentive for companies to sell the property after the first seven years to another owner who could then repeat the accelerated deprecation cycle.
Hayden writes:
"Commercial real estate became a tax-shelter, and venture capitalist were attracted to it, accelerating the turnover of cheap building. Each new round of accelerated depreciation led to another set of profitable losses. After several rounds, structures were abandoned in favor of new buildings in more distant sites. Nothing could have been more damaging to older business in both big cities and small towns."The accelerated deprecation tax break was created by the Eisenhower Administration as an incentive to encourage more construction and growth, and it served that purpose quite effectively. By the time the Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated the incentive, there was a huge glut of cheaply constructed strip mall commercial real-estate.
The development of commercial development further and further from urban centers created a world where individually-owned automobiles have become an absolute necessity. I like to imagine that with a bicycle, rain gear and a pair of warm gloves, I could manage to get by pretty much anywhere in America. But with a vast majority of its commercial buildings located along the interstate, Arkansas is the kind of place that life without a car seems, even to me, pretty much unfeasible. There is even a certain pride in the car dependent lifestyle: as my colleague, who was born and raised in Arkansas boasted, in the Razorback state you drive ten feet to the end of your driveway to pick up your mail.
Other than an increase in the price of gasoline, I'm really not sure what could create the kind of incentive needed to encourage urban density. As long as we a have steady supply of cheap gas and undeveloped rural acreage, it seems inevitable that strip-mall development will continue to consume Arkansas and the rest of rural America.
Photo: Entering Bentonville, Arkansas, the birthplace of Wal-Mart.

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0 comment Sunday, June 22, 2014 |
On Thursday I returned to New York and to urban commuter cycling after a month-long yoga training and retreat in Connecticut. As I coasted down 2nd Avenue from Grand Central to my office building downtown, I realized something was wrong. Instead of soaking up the lazy hum of NYC's late-August doldrums, I was stressed.
Every metal grate and lip of the manhole cover signaled impending doom. Every cab was attempting to sandwich me into the giant churning wheels of a tour bus. In every parked car lurked out-of-towners waiting to obliviously open car doors into the traffic stream. It was a clear, sunny morning and I was miserable.
It's not that there weren't days when I dreaded getting on my bike before my break, but usually as soon as I'd start to ride, the adrenaline would kick-in and I'd feel great. Now something was different. I wondered if after a month of yoga and meditation, my stress tolerance skills were out of practice. But then I realized that the real trouble was that I was finally being honest with myself about how stressful riding in the city can really be.
I didn't ride my bike every day because it was always a pleasant and enjoyable experience. I rode because I had some notion of toughness tied up with my ego telling me I needed to ride even when it was icy or raining or late at night and I was exhausted.
I'd hardly had time to go online over the past month and so it was with great anticipation that I logged on to Streetsblog on Monday to catch up on the latest transit and biking news. The top post, however, was a sobering piece about the death of James Langergaard, an experienced NYC cyclists who was killed by a car while crossing Queens Boulevard at 69th Street.
I'm always a little troubled after hearing about a cyclist's death, but usually I can manufacture a reason why I'm a safer cyclist than he or she was. However, James had years of city cycling under his belt and was a committed bike advocate who had spent countless hours helping other cyclists learn how to ride safely in the city. This time there was no rational for my own survival - only good fortune.
Shortly after I'd read about James, a coworker approached me in the office kitchen and said she is inspired by my commuting and was considering starting to bike to work as well. It would save her a lot of time, she said, but she'd never tried because she had a lot of fear about riding in the city.
Before, I would have vociferously encouraged her to overcome the fear. It's not as bad as you think it is out there on the streets, I would have urged. You'll feel terrific.
But now, having just been reminded of our tenuous mortality, I acknowledged that biking in the city is scary and stressful. Sometimes, I told her, that little bit of fear is terrific - it makes you feel alive before you plop down in front of a computer monitor for the next eight hours. But you have to weigh that juiced up feeling with the risks of the endeavor, and if you really don't feel safe, it's just not worth it.

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0 comment Saturday, June 21, 2014 |
In the bicycling portion of my brain, wedged between the Daredevil Lobe and the This Is Good For Me Cortex, there exists much neuronal traffic dedicated to picking a line of travel that keeps me alive. It can be a fine line between being courteous to other traffic and being run off the road. Between making sure motorists are aware of your presence and intentions and causing a flare up of road rage. Nothing like a middle finger fully deployed from a truck revving its engine that then whizzes by you leaving only an inch or two of clearance so that you ruminate the 20x difference in mass and 40x difference in inertia between the Ford Excursion/EnviroDestroyer and you to really make you feel alive.
If I could, I�d always bike in a way that is unobtrusive as possible. I�ll be over as far right as possible on the tarmac to let autos pass. However, there are times when hugging that line will make one�s path of travel quite erratic. Pictured in the photo is an example of the physical narrowing of a roadway, which can happen for all sorts of silly design or design fault reasons. The portion of the road in the foreground has allowance for parallel parking on the right hand side, giving just about enough room for there to be proper bike lane if the city were to put some paint down. Is that a good idea here? Maybe not. It would certainly be a "door" lane (sorry Anna, and RIP Peugeot), and as you can see, it would come to an abrupt end where the road narrows ahead.
One option is to follow the yellow path, hugging the right side the entire way. While this may allow more drivers to pass more easily, it also results in the biker jutting out into the lane resulting in A) car swerving over the yellow line to pass, B) car hitting the brakes, C) bike running into curb, telephone poll, trip to ER, getting $7,000 bill in the mail because hospital missed a number on your ID number, etc. As much as an adventure as C is, sometimes I have prior commitments.
I like follow the red line and make my move to where I�ll have to be riding in the narrower road ahead gradually and early enough to leave some buffer. I like to think this makes cars more conscious of both you and the upcoming change in the roadway. If I know there�s just one car behind me and about to pass, I�ll sometimes hug the right until the road narrows. Aren�t I nice guy? But that�s only if I�m certain there�s just one car. If not, sorry cars. I�ll take my chances on a bird flying out the window.

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0 comment Friday, June 20, 2014 |
After four years of committed bike commuting, in an effort to reduce the amount of stress in my life, I've pretty much stopped riding into Manhattan on my bike. The Brooklyn Bridge tourist congestion has gotten so out of hand, and to cut over to the West Side bike path from the Manhattan Bridge is such a congested, threatening mess, that I've reached the point where I mostly just use my bike around Brooklyn. (I've also had a series of really nasty run-ins with not only motorists, but also pedestrian tourists and cyclists doing stupid illegal things like riding the wrong way in bike lanes).
I honestly think if the City hopes to increase the number of commuter cyclists, there needs to be a re-configuration of the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian/cyclist path (maybe give cyclists a protected lane on the car deck level). Or if that isn't feasible, we need a safer, more direct way for cyclists using the Manhattan Bridge to get over to all the protected and separated bike lanes on Manhattan's west side.
As an illustration of the commuter's nightmare that is the Brooklyn Bridge cyclists/pedestrian path, here's a video I took yesterday.

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0 comment Thursday, June 19, 2014 |
As I�ve mentioned before, I was born the visual impairment that causes my eyes to wiggle, thus reducing my visual acuity and preventing me from getting a drivers� license. Some cities are well equipped for people like me � cities like New York or San Francisco with functional metro and regional transit networks where many people who can afford to own cars chose not to.
But most cities are not. According to the Brookings Institution's Robert Puentes, 54 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. lack both a rail or subway system and a functional bus system.
As someone who can�t legally drive, I agree with Urbanophile�s recent assessment that not owning a car in such a city is isolating, and I concur with his assessment that residents of such cities who live in the downtown area and choose not to own cars are willfully segregating themselves from the suburban members of their larger regional civic community.
However, for many folks, car ownership isn�t a choice. Not only for the disabled, but low-income families, undocumented immigrants, youth and the elderly often are left to navigate America�s vast suburban and semi-urban wasteland without the protective cocoon of a personal automobile. According to the 2001 National Household Transportation Study, nearly a third of our population doesn�t have drivers� licenses (total population 2.77 million, total drivers� licenses 1.9 million).
The isolation caused by not owning a car was something I experienced acutely while living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and working for a certain (unmentionable) presidential candidate. The campaign was headquartered in Southern Village � a suburban enclave south of Chapel Hill. As I�ve discussed earlier, the problem with Southern Village was its only transit connection to downtown Chapel Hill and the rest of the Triangle area�s sprawling suburbs was a six-lane highway.
Chapel Hill did offer a free shuttle service around the core downtown area surrounding the University of North Carolina, and on weekdays until 8 pm, the NS bus ran once every hour between Southern Village and downtown. However, if you couldn�t sneak out of work till 9 or 10 pm, and then needed to get to the drug store before it closed and back in front of your computer in less than an hour, the free shuttle service wouldn�t get you there. Nor would it, at 11 pm, shuttle you downtown to grab a quick drink with co-workers. And if you needed to go anywhere on the weekend, you�d better wear comfortable shoes. None of the bus routes to Southern Village ran on Saturdays, and, God bless the South, the bus system shut down completely every Sunday.
One dark and rainy Tuesday evening late in January, when moral on the obviously failing campaign was particularly depressed, I�d caught the NS downtown to run an errand thinking I�d finish in time to catch the last bus back to the "Village." The checkout line was longer than I�d hoped, and I�d had to sprint the final block to the bus stop only to see the bus taillights disappear down the hill. Cursing, I was standing at the bus stop, catching my breath and steeling myself to walk home when a CCX bus pulled up at the stop.
The CCX, short for the Chatham County Express, ran later than the NS and, though it wasn�t technically supposed to make a stop at Southern Village, it passed right by it on it�s way to the Chatham County Park 'n Ride a few miles down Highway 15-501.
The doors opened. I weighed the risks � if the conductor refused, I�d end up down the highway five miles south of Southern Village. But if the conductor would make an unscheduled stop, I�d be home in a hot shower in 10 minutes.
I got on the bus. As we merged onto the highway, I walked to the front of the bus and asked if the bus driver could drop me off at the Southern Village exit.
"You know this bus don�t stop there," she said.
"I thought it could stop at night," I lied.
"Well, it don�t," she said. Silence. We were approaching Southern Village. I started to cry, and I wasn�t faking it. I was exhausted and miserable at the thought of jogging five miles in the rain back up the dark country highway.
"What are you gonna do?" she asked.
"Guess I�ll have to walk back up the highway," I replied.
"Well, what are you gonna give me?" I was confused. Was she asking for a bribe? I didn�t have any cash on me. There were just two other passengers on the bus and they were watching our exchange with interest now.
"A gold star in heaven," I said, watching as my bus stop approached. The South is getting to me, I thought, now I�m invoking religious guilt to get home. The bus slowed.
"Don�t tell anyone I did this, okay?" the driver said. "I�ll get in trouble."
"I won�t tell anyone. Thank you so much," I mumbled, pushing through the doors into the damp suburban quiet.
I survived North Carolina carless for another month, and then, after the campaign finally imploded, I moved back to New Haven to live with my partner. Now I had the Metro-North commuter train to get to and from my job in New York, and I could rely on my partner to drive me to the suburban Stop 'n Shop to pick up groceries on the weekends.
If I hadn't had my husband to drive me, navigating New Haven's suburbs on foot or by bus wouldn't have been much easier than North Carolina, which brings me back to the point of how we, as a society, can assure that people without drivers' licenses have some degree of mobility outside of major metropolitan areas.
Of course, ideally the zoning density and transit systems in small and mid-sized American cities would improve to the point that cars wouldn't be the only really practical modes of transport, but this isn't going to happen overnight.
If we're willing to blantantly subsidize car ownership with federal tax dollars, perhaps there could be a parallel "cab voucher" program for those unable to obtain driver's licenses. Such a program would not only make transportation more accessible to those without cars, but it would also create demand for cab and car service providers to expand in smaller urban and suburban communities.

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0 comment Wednesday, June 18, 2014 |
I have had my moments of skepticism about whether the designation of May as "Bike to Work" month does more to fill the "we need to look like we're doing something 'green'" publicity desires of businesses and local governments than it does to actually increase the number of people who become regular bicycle commuters.
But recent conversations with my mom, who lives in a small town in Washington State, have put my cynicism in check. Even as a regular year-round bike commuter, she's incredibly enthusiastic about the May bike commuter events organized by her local transportation department and has been obsessively logging her bike commuting miles in hopes of winning the bike-commuter challenge grand prize of a Dutch bicycle. She even mailed me a photocopy (Image 1) of her millage log so I could see how committed she's been to getting in her miles.
My mom also mailed me a copy of her union's May health newsletter, which in honor of bike to work month, dedicated a section to the benefits of bicycling (Image 2). Having worked in the labor movement for a number of years during which time I don't think I ever came across efforts to encourage healthier lifestyles, I got pretty excited to see AFSCME promoting cycling to their membership. I can only hope that other unions will follow their lead once they realize how having a healthier, more physically active membership would decrease long-term health care costs.
So I guess I'm willing to look past all the favorable press hits generated for bike month sponsors and appreciate that having a yearly month dedicated to bicycling may indeed get more people out of their cars and on to the tarmac.

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0 comment Tuesday, June 17, 2014 |
I spent the holidays with my parents in Washington, and although I didn't make it out on a bike to enjoy the unseasonably unrainy (dry is never an adjective that can be used to describe northwest winters), I was inspired by two very dedicated bike commuters.
Last time I wrote about my parents' commuting choices, my mom, who has to be at her job at the grocery store at 5am, said she was too scared to ride the eight miles into town on the dark rural roads every morning. But over the last year, her desire for exercise and a little fresh air motivated her to invest in bright lights and fenders, and so now she's commuting regularly on her vintage Jack Taylor.

Photo 1: My mom holds up the neon t-shirt she wears over her rain gear or jackets. If it gets wet, she just hangs it up to dry when she gets to work.
A few days after Christmas, I was having a conversation with my mom and her good friend Ellie Duffield about the best ways to stay warm, dry and safe during winter biking. Ellie is also a regular bike commuter, traveling from her home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle to her job in the U-District.
Photo 2: Ellie shows off her high-visibility waterproof backpack cover she designed using a piece of neon waterproof fabric.
When so many bike commuters and bike bloggers are young, male or both, it's really encouraging to have conversations with older female cyclists who are out there in the rain and the dark, choosing to use a sustainable form of transit. I only hope I'm as strong and as tough when I'm that age.
Photo 3: Bright lights on rural roads are a total necessity, not only so cars see you, but so you can see the pavement, my mom explains, powering on her external battery pack super bright headlamp.

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