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Not-quite post-pandemic, lots of people (including me) are not going to be super-enthusiastic about taking the T to get to work; unless everyone on the bus/train is wearing a mask and wearing it well, there’s some risk.  And with many other people sharing this opinion and electing to drive instead, it’s very likely that the roads and parking lots will be filled beyond capacity; driving will be slow and un-fun.  That doesn’t leave too many choices, a lot of people will be biking, I read that bikes are flying off the shelves.  If not biking, then perhaps using a skateboard, or some other small thing with a small electric motor in it; except for the reduced exertion, very much like a bicycle, much of what I say here will still apply.

Cambridge and Somerville have also recently designated some streets for no-through-car-traffic.

In my case I was already riding my bike most places  (literally, my everyday commute plus on-the-way shopping, over 3000 miles per year) so this is no change.  But for some other people this is a new thing.  Here’s my advice for how to enjoy it more. Why should you listen to me?  I’ve been biking for over 50 years, been commuting by bike on and off for over 30 years, over 2500 miles per year for the last 14 years, and exclusively by bike for the last five years.  I raced a little bit when I was a kid, worked in a bike shop for a little bit, I understand the logic and assumptions behind a lot of popular advice that I now think is wrong.  I have (ahem) made some mistakes, some of them painful.

And before someone gets fired up about how “I cannot possibly bike because reasons, you are clearly an out-of-touch idealistic dirty hippie” — the first section below is all about things that will make a commute difficult on a bicycle and perhaps make it not your choice.  So not you.  But maybe, if you want traffic flowing faster than a walking speed, and some place to park when you finally arrive, somebody else might ride a bike?

I’d separate my advice into three parts — things that generally hurt a bike commute (that you can’t do much to control), bad things you can avoid, and things that help.  All of this is specific to the area where I live, and to commutes that are roughly parallel to mine, into Cambridge towards Kendall Square.

Things that hurt a bike commute

These things are part of your situation, that you cannot easily change, that will affect whether your commute is pleasant or not.  If too many of these are negative, you might not have a good time biking to work.

Long commutes.  Too long means it will take too long, and you’ll be too tired (especially at first) and perhaps more sweaty than you can tolerate.  I am a middling-speed rider, nowhere near as fast as I used to be when I raced.  I did a 10.5 mile commute a few days per week for about 9 years, so it’s possible, but notice how I didn’t do it every day.  It took too much time out of my week.  On the other hand, my current commute is just over 6 miles (almost exactly 10 km) and I am quite happy to do it every day, it takes less time than driving at peak rush hour, only a little more when traffic is flowing freely.  BUT — I’ve been doing this for years.  If your commute is five miles or longer, maybe start off by biking it on the worst days for driving, till you feel stronger.

Hills.  Hills tend to be somewhat demoralizing, especially at first.  Shortest route for my old commute (9.5 instead of 10.5 miles) was up Belmont Hill to Park Avenue and up to the water tower in Arlington.  I could save a few minutes that way, but it was too much like work so I almost never did it and took the long way Instead.  This was actually a shame, because from an exercise point of view that sort of serious heart-pounding work is very good for you — but it was just too unpleasant to do it every day.

One additional problem with hills, especially if you are a (re)new rider — you can go very fast on the downhill side.  High speeds are much less safe than low speeds; drivers will misjudge your speed, you‘ll have less time to react, and if something goes wrong, the resulting crash will be much, much worse.  So, should you find yourself descending a hill at a good pace just coasting, then just coast, enjoy the short rest.

Lack of good bike parking. Ideally, there will be some place secure and protected from the weather.  A room or “cage” where the door requires a card for access is good, video monitoring is good.  You’ll need to lock your bike up anyway, because thieves sometimes manage to work their way past the door lock.  Bonus points for clean and well-lit; that’s often not the case.  For smaller vehicles, like electric skateboards, hover boards, or mono wheels, you might be able to store them at your desk instead, and you might want to charge them anyway.  One thing to be wary of is building (landlord) policies; where I work, bikes are not allowed indoors, and it’s possible that the electric batteries on some of these devices would be banned for safety reasons.  One problem with asking is that you might accidentally generate an  anti-policy, as in “better to ask forgiveness than seek denial”.  So inquire carefully.

Despite all this, I frequently day-park a $2000 bicycle on the street in Kendall Square.  It’s near a cab stand, the cabbies know me, it’s also within view of the security guard’s desk.  It helps that it’s a weird bike (difficult to fence, easier to trace) that doesn’t look like it’s worth $2000.

Bad weather. Weather is less of a problem than people who drive think, but it can take some getting used to.  In the beginning, maybe you only bike when the weather is nice in the morning and predicted to be nice in the afternoon.  After a while, maybe you bike in the morning if the weather is nice, and if it turns bad (that is, rainy) on the ride home, that’s fine, change out of your wet clothes when you get home.  Eventually, you might just ride in the rain. There’s two reasons for this approach.  One is that it does take a certain mental load to do a new thing, and adding rain (and puddles, and potholes, and drivers who fail to adequately compensate for their reduced traction and vision) can be more than you want to deal with.  Second is that rain can be cold, and in the beginning you won’t be as strong.  “Strong” in this case has an aerobic component to it, and the stronger you are, the more heat you can make, and you can keep yourself warm.  But in the beginning this won’t work, and instead you’ll be cold and miserable.

Weather also includes high winds, and snow.  For large enough values of “high wind”, you can’t ride a bike, you’ll just be blown off of it.  For likely values of high wind, it will definitely interfere with your steering, and no-hands will be off the menu.  For snow, if there’s any chance of ice at all, you’ll want studded tires.  This is why you don’t start biking in the winter; studded tires are noisy and draggy, and when storing the bike you have to be more careful because they scratch everything.  The good ones (Schwalbe Marathon Winter) are also expensive.

Really hot weather will tend to make you sweaty, and the longer and hillier the commute, the more this is true.  If there’s showers at work, that can help, otherwise, many people bring or leave a change of clothes at work, and change.  Slowing down also helps.  But this can be a problem.

High-stress traffic.  There are higher- and lower-stress roads  My old commute was completely tolerable for the first eight miles, but the last 2.5 were horrible (out the Middlesex Turnpike into Burlington, past the mall).  Bad hills, bad traffic, and in the winter, terrible snow clearing.  My newer commute has no big hills, quiet neighborhood streets, a separate section, more quiet neighborhood streets, and finally a 2-lane stretch where there’s room for a bike but the car traffic is so clogged it must go slow.  Slow traffic is good because slow traffic is safe.  But, imagine if you have a commute that is entirely on terrible roads — is that really something you want to do every day?

Too much stuff to carry.  I put this here because it’s a common problem that isn’t really a problem if you decide that you really want to ride a bike —  with a cargo bike, or a trailer, a moderately experienced biker can carry silly amounts of stuff.  But this advice is not for the moderately experienced biker, this is someone starting from near-scratch.  It is generally a good idea to get a rack, front or rear, so you don’t have to carry a backpack all time; those can make your back all sweaty, and wear on your clothing.

Things to avoid

These things make your commute worse, but you can avoid them, either when they appear, or by choosing routes where they are rarer.

Big trucks. Big trucks are deadly.  In the unlikely event of a crash with a car, your odds of survival are actually pretty good, walking away with bruises is actually common.  That’s not so with a big truck — anything with exposed wheels that can roll over you, can kill you in an instant.  If it seems like a truck driver might want to pass you, find a way to make it easy, find a way to get lots of clearance.  Pulling off to the side is one way to do this.  One place to never, ever be is to the right of a truck at an intersection; when they turn right the rear of the truck tracks a tighter line than the front, and that might end up rolling over you.

Massachusetts Avenue.  Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, especially west of Harvard Square, is not a safe place to ride a bicycle.  It is better now in places because some protected lanes have been added, but they’re not continuous.  It helps to know why Mass Ave is so unsafe, because it’s not the only unsafe road around here, it’s just the one you’re most likely to end up on.  First, it is mostly businesses, meaning parking for shopping, so cars are constantly parking and leaving and every time a car parks, its door opens.  That is, the risk of dooring is relatively high.  Second, it has more than one lane in each direction, which means that drivers have more things to keep track of besides you on a bicycle, and also that they will be looking for ways to use the other lane to go faster.   There’s other roads, use them when they get the job done.

Trolley and railroad tracks.  Trolley tracks and railroad tracks can grab your bicycle’s tires if you are traveling nearly parallel to the track and attempt to cross it.  This will throw you off your bike, it’s not fun.  So, avoid these, if you cannot avoid these, try to swerve so that you are nearly perpendicular to the track when you cross it.  If all that fails, stop, wait for traffic to clear, or just walk across.  Wider tires help, but it’s more a matter of better odds than solid protection.

Riding too close to the curb.  If it’s been a while since you were on a bike, you’re going to tend more wobbly.  At the same time, because you want to stay away from moving cars, you’ll tend to ride close to the curb or the edge of the road.  If you wobble into it accidentally, you’ll probably crash.  In time you’ll wobble less and can ride closer to the curb, but in the beginning it is about as dangerous as cars are.

Things to do

Get good tires.  If you’re commuting, you want the fattest smooth tires that will fit on your bike.  Thin tires aren’t good at tolerating potholes, require frequent reinflation, and you’ll feel every bump in the road.  They’re easier to get caught in cracks, and their rolling resistance is higher, which matters at typical commuting speeds (this is not conventional wisdom, but I’ve actually measured.  People use skinny tires for racing because at 20+mph the smaller tires have lower wind resistance.)  If you want a specific brand recommendation, Schwalbe.  One of the easiest bike upgrades is to replace the knobby tires on a mountain bike with Schwalbe Big Apples, Big Bens, or Fat Franks.

Get good lights.  Get spare lights.  You don’t want to be caught in the dark without lights, ever.  And it appears, based on one study of good quality, that running your lights in the daytime is also very helpful.  If you consider that cars and motorcycles tend to have daytime lights nowadays, and the number of times drivers will claim not to have seen the bicycle that they just hit, this makes a certain amount of sense.  If possible, get lights with a shaped beam so you can illuminate the road and be noticed by drivers, but also so you don’t blind pedestrians and other cyclist.

Consider “upright” handlebars. You may discover, as an adult, that your hands and back are not as happy about that aerodynamic bent-over posture as they were when you were younger.  One fix for this is to replace racing handlebars with something “upright” — specific recommendations include Velo-Orange “Left Bank”, Rivendell/Nitto “Bosco” 52cm.  Sitting more upright is easier on your hands and back, makes it easier for you to see what’s going on, makes it a little easier for other people to see you, and if you need to stop fast, makes it a little less likely that you’ll go over the front of the bike (or so one study of moderate quality says).

Be nice to pedestrians. This ought to go without saying, but having watched other people and listened to how they describe these interactions, it needs to be said.  Be nice to pedestrians.  Stop for them when they are in a crosswalk (don’t just swerve around, the law says stop, they expect stop, so stop).  When you do pass them outside a crosswalk, try to pass wide, and try to pass behind, ideally both but at least one.  If you really really think that you need to say “on your left”, do you plan to wait for them to acknowledge you?  What if they are deaf? What if they are not paying attention? (That is legal, for pedestrians.)  What if they are listening to music or reading a book as they walk? (Also legal.)  It’s not your business to be the police for imaginary walking laws, and if not for you on a bike, there would be no problem, so yield, wait, be nice.

If you see small children or dogs, don’t assume that they are paying attention or using the same plan you are, assume that they could do something completely, nonsensically random.  My rule is that 3 kids or dogs means I should be traveling under 5mph with my fingers positioned on the brake levers — fast enough to pass someone walking, but also slow enough to stop on a dime.

Don’t run red lights.  It would be nice if we had Idaho stop, but we don’t.  The Cambridge police will ticket you for this, I have seen it.  All-ways pedestrian scramble is more ambiguous; technically you are running a red light if you ride, I have seen the Somerville police do this at the Mossland-Somerville-Beacon intersection (officer on bridge, over the railroad tracks, waiting to catch people coming from Mossland left onto Somerville, then taking a right onto Beacon).  It is, however, legal to walk your bike on a pedestrian scramble, since you are then a pedestrian.

Three simple tricks for saving time. For hills, work as hard as you can on the uphill, get your wind back on the down hill.  At stops, get yourself back up to a comfortable speed as quickly as possible.  Learn the light timings, and you’ll eventually figure out which lights you can make with a little extra effort, and which you cannot.  A block-long strategic push is easier, safer, and more effective than a last-minute sprint.

Consider slowing down.  If you feel like you’re too sweaty when you arrive at work, or the ride tires you out too much (especially at first), consider slowing down.  You’ll sweat less, be less tired, and you won’t be that much later anyhow — 6 miles at 12mph is 30 minutes, six miles at 10mph is 36 minutes (both of these, plus stops).

Other advice

https://bostoncyclistsunion.org/learn-to-bike-boston

https://www.rivbike.com/products/just-ride

I also enjoyed Bike Snob’s first book.

Tech guy here, not a real doctor, officially out of my area.  That said, I wish to rant.

For this pandemic, there are a lot of things we can do to control it, and a common criticism is “but X won’t handle Y” (and this is true), and the criticism is posed as if it is a deal-breaker, we should just abandon X, it won’t work.  This is wrong.  Pile on enough imperfect measures, and you can shut down the epidemic, and as long as those half measures continue to be employed we might be able to “open up” many parts of the economy once the infection rate is low enough.  One thing that motivates this criticism is a misplaced focus on what things like masks are for — the mask on your face is not to protect you, that mask is intended to protect other people from you.  If the only thing protecting you is the single mask on your face, then it has to be supremely good, and nope, a cloth mask does not meet that standard, those good masks are relatively scarce and doctors and nurses need them because they are exposed to nearly 100% actual sick people.  If, on the other hand, you are protected by the dozens to thousands of masks on the faces of all the people you might encounter in a given day, those masks don’t have to be nearly so good, just good enough (in combination with other measures) to stop the epidemic.  

So, first, a discussion about how an infection apparently progresses and spreads.  To start, you get some virus in your mouth or eye or up your nose or whatever.  A few days go by, and you become infectious.  A few more days go by, and you may start to feel generic symptoms, maybe a fever, and are infectious.  A few more days go by, and you may start to feel terrible symptoms, check with a doctor, whatever, you’re really darn sick, and infectious.  Some people never show symptoms, and they may or may not be as infectious as the sick people, but we’ll assume they are.  We’ll also assume that the number of people who don’t show symptoms is “about half”, meaning anywhere from 25% to 75% (this, from randomized sampling in Iceland, and from cruise ships full of old-ish people where everyone was tested and from naval ships full of healthy young-ish people where everyone was tested).  There’s guaranteed to be a few days when you’re infectious but don’t feel sick, or think it might just be allergies, and it’s possible that you might be infectious for more than a week without ever feeling sick at all.

The fact that so many infected people are asymptomatic is not good news; it means that it’s much harder to rely on people feeling sick and staying home.  It also means that nobody should assume that they are uninfected, which can be hard for some people to understand.

So, now, consider “half measures”:

  • Cloth masks.  Cloth masks are far from perfect at stopping inbound, atomized virus (for example, measles).  Atomized virus particles are tiny, and require an N95 mask to get someone to the point where they might feel “safe”.  Depending on the cloth, cloth masks may not be that good at stopping even bacteria.  Or they may be worn too loose to seal properly, or worn in a way that doesn’t cover the nose.  But: cloth masks are pretty good at stopping you from projecting infection; if you happen to spray it instead of saying it, it stays in the mask.  If you cough or talk loudly, the airflow is thwarted, the larger drops are captured, the medium-sized drops fall to the ground closer to you, the smallest ones are at least not propelled away from you in a puff of air.  Perfect?  No.  But better.  Suppose it cuts the rate of outbound infections by half per mask-wearer, and 2/3 of the people wear masks well enough to do this.  That means the revised infection rate R’ is R0 * 2/3 * 1/2 + R0 * 1/3 * 1 = 2/3 R0.  If R0 was 3, R’ is 2.  The virus is still spreading, but not as fast, despite half-effective masks only mostly-worn correctly.
  • Contact tracing.
    The old way: Suppose, crudely, 1/2 the people with the virus have symptoms, and when this causes them to seek medical help,  they are asked about their contacts.  Suppose that they remember 1/2 of their contacts, who are then re-contacted, and quarantined.  I.e., 1/4 of all cases, that would ultimately be both symptomatic and asymptomatic, are now intercepted and quarantined before they can spread the virus.  I.e, R’ = 3/4 R0.
    With an app:  Assume half the population uses the Google/Apple tracing app (this is actually very optimistic).  Now, symptomatic cases, half (1/4 of total) do it the old way and half (1/4 of total) use the app.  Naively, the app will yield perfect results for the half of the contacts that also use the app, and the other half have to be done the old way. It’s messy arithmetic, but R’ = 11/16 R0.  We’d want more, but this is “free” — one reason to use the app is that it is far less costly, and quick.  If we were lucky enough to get 70% of the population using the app, the math is even messier, but the factor is now:
            0.5 [asymptomatic, never traced] + 0.15 * 0.5 [no app, missed half of contacts] + 0.35 * 0.3 [contacts not using app] * 0.5 [half found through old-way tracing]
    or about 5/8.  Suppose we couldn’t afford to do detailed person-by-person contact tracing — if 70% of the population used the contact-tracing app and we only relied on the app, the factor is still slightly below 11/16.  What this means is that the app can still help when the number of infections is more than can be managed with person-by-person tracing.  But if you don’t have at least half the population using the app, it isn’t helping that much.
  • Partial work-from-home.  Not everyone can work from home, but many people can.  If 1/8 of the workforce that would normally show up at work can stay home, that reduces the infection rate; everything is less crowded.  Crudely, if 1/8 stays home, the infection rate is reduced by a factor of 7/8.
  • Partial testing.  Testing every person every week or every two weeks is an enormous undertaking, and it doesn’t look like that’s happening soon in the US (I’d love to be wrong).  Some jobs require lots of interaction with other people, which creates a high risk of infection for the person working that job and a risk of spreading that infection widely.  Assume for the moment that this is the source of 1/4 of infections, mostly on the outbound side.  To reduce the risk of infections, test these people frequently (for example, every Monday and every Thursday), and if they show positive, they are quarantined to prevent further spread.

Nothing here is perfect, but enough layers attacking infection spread from different directions can win.  Take all these factors and multiply them: 2/3 * 11/16 * 7/8 * 0.75 = 0.3.  Together, these are adequate to stop an epidemic that has a reproduction rate of 3, though it would take months (3 * 0.3 = 0.9 which is less than 1, but it would take 0.9 to the 11th power to get reduce the infection rate by 90%).  Any improvement — more mask wearing, better mask wearing, wider use of a tracing app, more work from home, more widespread testing — means it can shut down the same epidemic more quickly, or stop a bug with more spread.  Small changes matter a lot; if the reduced R0 is 0.8 instead of 0.9, an epidemic is stopped twice as fast (0.9 * 0.9 = 0.81).

Because small changes matter enormously, it’s helpful to examine why people might not do what they need to do, and think of ways to improve.  Realistically, some people won’t stay quarantined.  Some people might not quarantine immediately, which reduces its effectiveness.  Suppose, you’re on your way to pick up your kid from day-care (will we have day care while we’re doing this?  Pretend we will) and your phone buzzes and says “you were in close contact with someone who had COVID.  Please quarantine immediately, then call this number.”  So, do you pick up your kid?  If you don’t, who does?  If you arrange for someone else to do it, who pays the late pickup penalty?  If the “quarantine now” demand comes with some assistance for unwinding your immediate obligations, you’ll be much more likely to do it.  If you’re quarantined, what if you don’t have two weeks of food in your pantry?  (Or, you don’t have a pantry.) Who does the shopping?  This would be a good thing for a public health department to backstop (in some countries, they do just that).  And what if someone has a job that cannot be done from home — do they lose their job if they stay home?  Who covers their costs for the two weeks they’re not working?  If there aren’t good answers to these questions, more people will either cheat on their quarantine, or try to avoid contact with public health officials altogether.  That’s not how we stop an epidemic.

Or consider masks.  Depending on how they are made and used, they filter inbound and outbound infections with varying efficiency.  Workshop N-95 masks do a great job of protecting the wearer, but usually have a valve that allows them to bypass the filter when they exhale, so they hardly stop outbound infections at all.  Surgical masks (not medical N-95 masks, which are another step up in quality) are quite good in both directions.  On the other hand, surgical and N-95 masks don’t tolerate washing, so they’re harder to reuse. Cloth masks appear to be better at reducing outbound infection than they are at reducing inbound infection, but they can be washed.   If people can get good masks, they will, but if they have to make their own, the materials and fit will be somewhat random. For all kinds of masks the fit matters; if it’s not properly seated to your face, or if the nose piece isn’t snug around your nose, or if someone has the wrong arrangement of facial hair, they can leak around the edges pretty easily, and both transmit and receive infection.

One problem with masks is that many places actually have laws against wearing masks in public, and if people (in particular, not-white people) believe that mask-wearing will create a pretext for harassing them, they might not wear masks.  Or, instead, if mask-wearing is the law, how is it enforced?  If the first step in enforcement is arrest instead of handing out free masks, that’s not necessarily helpful.  If the arrested person is actually infected, the steps to arrest them are quite likely to spread the infection, whereas handing them a mask reduces the spread right then.  The traditional enforcement approach does not directly fix the problem, it instead (at outsized expense) “creates incentives” for other people to fix the problem, and just assumes that they have the means and ability to comply.  What if they don’t?

Contact-tracing apps don’t work if they’re not widely used, and if they are opt-in they won’t be widely used, especially if people have fears about being tracked or spied on.  It’s possible to design a protocol that is resistant to spying and hacking, but how many people will believe that claim?  One “solution” to this is to make the app opt-out, or even mandatory; this will cause all sorts of loud objections from a tiny number of well-meaning people who care a lot about privacy, but in practice mandatory or opt-out will save lives.   The traditional contact-tracing process is not exactly privacy-preserving, either.  On-the-other hand, a larger fraction of asymptomatic infections will reduce the effectiveness of contact tracing in general, because without frequent and widespread testing, nobody will ever check the contacts of asymptomatic infected people.

Another attack on the transmission problem is to try to remove some of the high-risk infection points altogether.  Amazon has experimented with checkout-less shopping; the cart knows what you put in it and know who you are, and you are billed as you walk out the door.  There is no cashier, either to be infected, or to spread infection.  Bus drivers are at high risk; do they actually need to collect fares?  Could collection be automated?  Do there need to be fares? (No fares might result in crowding; perhaps we declare that a “full” bus need not pick up new passengers.)  Jails and prisons are terrible for transmitting this infection; one way to fix this is to only jail people who really, truly need to be jailed — so for example, unless someone is arrested for a violent crime, maybe they don’t spend time in jail before trial, period.  I.e., change it so the default is not to arrest — take the entire process, and make it as if you were arrested, had a bail hearing, posted bail, and were released.  The current process is actually bullshit, because it pretends to merely be necessary process and not punishment all by itself, when obviously it is also punishment administered by police with plenty of bias and not much oversight.  I’m sure there’s tons more of these, where “we’ve always done it this way” or “we have a process” get in the way of less infection and fewer dead people (I mean, seriously, what about traffic stops?  “License and registration, please?” All the information’s on line in law enforcement databases, why should we be tasked with carrying around stupid little pieces of paper?)

It was useful to push some plausible (I hope they are plausible) numbers through and see what popped out.  One result of this exercise is that I am much more gung-ho about mask-wearing than I was, and much more worried that contact-tracing will not be nearly as useful as people seem to think.  I understand why people like contact tracing; they assume that they’ll never get infected, so it won’t be them having their privacy invaded by a public health official taking notes on exactly where they spent the previous week, and therefore they don’t have to do anything different at all, life will be great.  “And why should I let Google and Apple spy on me, I’m sure they’ll just try to sell me more stuff,” so they won’t want to run any app, either.  But if half the cases are asymptomatic and we’re not testing very thoroughly, contact tracing cannot reduce the reproduction rate by a better factor than 0.5.  In addition, I think any work-from-home that can easily be continued after the economy opens up more is a good thing; it gives us a slight edge in preventing disease spread, where a “slight edge” might end outbreaks twice as quickly.

So, that’s my rant.  Don’t dismiss infection control half-measures, combine a few of them and you get some real results.  And don’t quit with the half-measure you’re doing just because some new control has been added, the old and the new can work together.

 

Dear Motorists,

You have surely noticed that streets have many fewer cars on them, and that the edges have many more cyclists and pedestrians.  I realize that it is tempting to indulge the fantasy that we have suddenly landed on the open roads of a car commercial and zoom freely, but please let’s not.

With the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home, many people are not getting the exercise that they used to, whether at the gym, walking to transit, or biking to work.  Kids are stuck at home — no recess, no Phys. Ed., and playgrounds and town fields are closed to prevent the spread of infection.  Ordinary socializing, at dinner, at church, in coffee shops, wherever, has also stopped for the same reasons.  As a result, people are walking, jogging, and biking, often with their kids, far more than they did before, and also socializing (at a safe distance) with friends that they encounter on the way.  If they didn’t, they’d go buggy, and probably be a lot less happy.

But the sidewalks are tiny; if people walking are to maintain a 6 foot separation, someone has to step into the street when they pass, and if someone is biking in the street they also need to separate from that pedestrian that just stepped in the road.  People now need to use the street for purposes other than driving; it’s a public way, meaning everyone, and transportation in general (and because these are primarily town roads, they’re paid for with property taxes, not gas taxes).

At the same time, because of what this pandemic has done to the hospitals, the risk is greater if anyone makes a bad mistake, and mistakes involving cars are extra-bad.  Hospitals are full of people capable of spreading COVID-19, and medical resources have been allocated away from everything else.  It’s a bad time to visit an ER.  Crashes are rare, but they happen, and right now any crash is a worse crash because medical care is compromised.  The biggest source of risk comes from cars; we (I am a driver — did you think I was not?) need to drive extra-carefully to compensate for the increased medical risk, and for the increased number of pedestrians and cyclists on the road.

And yes, asking drivers to slow down and take more time at intersections is an imposition, but your car does a lot for you that isn’t zooming down the road, and it still does all those things if you drive more carefully.  It still keeps the rain off.  If you don’t like the temperature, it still fixes that for you.  If you’d like to listen to music, it comes with a stereo.  Maybe you need to carry two weeks worth of groceries — it does that, too.  If you hit a pothole, it’s damage to the car, not your ankle —the car ER is not full of coronavirus, and they’d probably really appreciate the business right now.  And in this pandemic, it is downright relaxing to not have to think about masks or separation or any of that stuff.  And also in this pandemic, at least for now, you have all the parking you could want — so enjoy that, it’s just like being in a car commercial.  Just, please, don’t drive like you’re in a car commercial; take your time, go extra slow, be prepared for other people to be using the road, and share it with them.

And also, thank you very much for driving so much less.  The air is much cleaner, it’s a good deal quieter, most drivers are decently careful, but not quite enough people, and it is so easy to be seduced into speeding by the big empty road.

Teleportation

January 17, 2020

I saw this awesome piece of research on twitter, where someone asked people whether they would prefer to use a teleporter for their work commute.  Step in a booth, ZAP!, you’re there.

And, the cool thing was that not everyone said yes, and depending on how they commute already, they are more or less likely to say yes.  Some people were worried it might be dangerous, others simply refused to believe it would work. Some people liked aspects of their current commute ennough that they’d rather not switch, even if teleportation was instant.

I wish they had asked some more teleportation questions.  For example,

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  Every time you use it, there’s a one in six million chances of it killing you, and a 1 in 50,000 chance of being seriously injured in some way.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  Overuse is bad for your health, and increases your annual risk of death (from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, that sort of thing) by 25%.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  When you use it, it emits some sort of radiation that is harmful to other people.  If everyone used it, there would be about 50,000 early deaths per year in the US from this radiation.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

One thing that amazed me once I noticed it was how fast roads fall part if they have a decent-sized pothole filled with water.  Each car that drives through jets a little water out as their tire fills the pothole, and the water jet carries some of the gravel that makes up the road asphalt.  If you look at this picture, you can see all the gravel accumulating next to the curb and sprayed up onto the cycle track.  I think the presence of the pothole also degrades the pavement nearby; I can’t tell if it’s a lack of support from the side, or if water is getting access to the roadbed and making it less firm.  Either way, damage accumulates fast.

IMG 20200103 112228

 I’ve been completely unable to find any research or analysis of how this damage might depend on car speed; greater speed is certainly a cause of more vigorous splashing to the side.  It seems like reducing speed might also reduce the rate of pothole growth, but apparently this is not studied, not published, or not findable.  As near as I can tell with search engines, the internet consensus is that potholes arise spontaneously and are inflicted on cars, not vice-versa.

I’ve been trying to imagine how I would make the pitch to our town, Belmont,  (e.g., our town meeting) to increase the number of people who live here.  That is, I’d like to make the case for greater density.  I’ve been trying to get this organized for a while now, I hardly think that this will make the case all by itself, but I’d love it if people at least thought about this, maybe had better ideas.

I think the pitch has several parts — why we need more density, what the obstacles are (there are several), and how we deal with those obstacles, rather than going “oh, shucks, obstacles, guess we can’t do that density thing”. 

To begin, why.  The main reason is that skyrocketing housing prices are socially bad, and given enough time to skyrocket, they start to be bad for the quality of life in town as “normal” people find it harder and harder to live anywhere near by.  And the longer we wait to act, the harder it is to fix the problem.

I take some of my conclusions from my experience living in Silicon Valley, which we left when we felt unable to buy a home (25 years ago) and which has since become even more unaffordable.  I recently learned that our favorite bakery in Palo Alto was closing, not because of high rent like you might normally expect, but because they could no longer hire qualified bakers; none could afford to live a reasonable commuting distance from the bakery.  This could happen here, too, in time.  Another problem is the difficulty that our children will have living anywhere in the area, unless they’re lucky enough to get a very lucrative job with one of the wealthier tech companies or strike it rich at a startup.  That’s how things are in Silicon Valley now; even as a senior employee at one of those wealthy tech companies, I’d be very reluctant to commit myself to a mortgage in Silicon Valley at today’s prices.  For most young people it’s simply impossible. That could happen here, too.  It’s a little harder to imagine this happening if you haven’t seen it happen, but I have seen it happen, I think we should very much take the Silicon Valley experience as something that is possible and should be avoided.

High housing prices are also socially bad.  Inequality is up for various reasons, but a spike in housing prices makes the inequality that much worse; unless you’re very wealthy, you probably have a rotten commute because you cannot live anywhere near your job.  Long commutes are bad for everyone; they’re bad for the children of parents with rotten commutes (who don’t get to see their parents, whose parents burn some of their patience just getting to and from work), they’re bad for the health of the commuters, and they’re bad for everyone who lives near the roads that the commuters drive on.  In Belmont, Cambridge, and Boston, because we lack adequate transit options to affordable suburbs, we suffer from all that traffic.  And of course, rotten commutes in not-electric cars spew pollution and greenhouse gases (electric car market share is about 2% in the US), and rotten commutes tear up our roads and cost money for maintenance, more than is collected from gas taxes and tolls (should we raise those taxes?  Seems like we should, but that also hardly seems fair to all those people forced into long commutes by our choice to let housing prices soar by capping supply).

We can attempt to mitigate cost-of-housing problems by reserving some units for affordable housing, but the higher the price of market-rate housing, the more costly (for someone) those units will be, and we don’t build nearly enough to make a dent in demand.

What these means for Belmont is that the town changes; what once was a town with a solid middle class and even a decently-housed and employed not-so-middle class, becomes instead a town of the very wealthy and the very lucky.  Because we are so adamant about not liking teardown and relatively strict zoning, the configuration of all the houses stays very much the same, but the people living in them are completely different.  I think the people are more important than a particular configuration of houses, and I think the character of the town depends more on the people living in it than on the size and shape of the houses they live in.

There are several obstacles to greater density.  The hardest and most important obstacle is how we handle many more children in our schools.  Belmont’s motto is “town of homes” (whatever that means — town of poor tax base, perhaps?) but in practice what we’re known for, and what drives demand to live here, is the quality of our schools.  Another important problem is how we would deal with additional traffic, but I think this is much more tractable.  A third problem is simply expectations; people assume that if the zoning rules are changed, they’ll be changed in a way that shortchanges them.

Zoning

I don’t think that zoning should be treated as if it were stone tablets handed down from a mountain top, because it’s not — we tweak it every few years, and recent history suggests that if every grandfathered structure in town were replaced with something that could be built by-right, quite a few lots would go vacant, and we’d complain about the ugliness and bulk of most of the rest.   People prefer the look and size of older non-conforming structures to the new ones that conform.  The same seems to be true of Somerville and Cambridge — almost every small residential property in Somerville is grandfathered and non-conforming.  What we actually dislike is change, any change.  

Neighborhoods can change in several ways — a neighborhood can maintain the same sort of people over time (locksmiths, principals, newspapermen, bartenders, electricians) and perhaps get more dense over time, or it can maintain the same density, but as property becomes more expensive, the middle class can no longer afford to buy, and all the new residents look more and more like the most-wealthy 1%, and also tend older because almost nobody earns that much money when they are young.  Over time, as the town demographics change, town preferences and policies will change, too.  Older residents might stay, but as the reward for selling goes higher and higher, and as their children end up living far away in more affordable places, the incentives to leave eventually win.  Either way, something will change.

The original purpose of zoning was also socially dubious — “poor folk” were viewed as a detriment to neighborhoods — but that doesn’t have to be the case.  We can change our zoning to reflect social needs, like a need for more housing, or a need to let people live closer to where they work.

Traffic

One big worry about increasing density is that if the new people behave like the current people, we’ll just end up with more traffic and more competition for a fixed amount of parking.  This is a risk, but I think two things mitigate it.  

The first is that the main point of adding density is that it will make the alternatives to driving more feasible.  More people taking transit means buses can run more often; in our town, there are two buses to two parts of town, and the bus that serves the dense part of town runs every 7 minutes at rush hour, and no worse than 17 minute intervals in the middle of the day; the bus that serves the not-dense part of town runs every 20 minutes at rush hour, and up to 35 minute intervals in the middle of the day.  Recently, to improve service, a lane was reserved for the more-frequent bus in a critical portion of its route because more people were traveling that section of the road by bus than by car.  The large number of people using that bus was part of what made this reserved lane politically possible — it was not “better for the planet” or “mass transit is good for social equity” or “mass transit is safer for other people” — it was literally, “this will move more people along this road in a given amount of time”.  Similarly, for bicycles, more people trying to bike to work and bike places will generate the political will to make it easier, and it might not even impede automobile travel.  The Mass Central Rail Trail is off-road, so takes no space from cars. In quite a few cases the impediment to car travel is competition for intersection time, not competition for road lanes (this is true on the Middlesex Turnpike/Lowell Street through Lexington, this is also true for Concord Avenue from Belmont to the Fresh Pond Rotary).

That is, one of the reasons for increased density is to make not-car transportation physically and politically feasible, and to create more options.  The bus that you don’t take because 20-minute intervals are not convenient, might become the bus that you do take because 10 minute intervals are convenient.  And by creating those options, we also create the option to not care so much about traffic; if you ride a bike, car traffic jams are just something that you ride through or ride past.  If you ride the bus, there can be a bus lane so you’re not delayed, and even if you are delayed, at least you’re not driving.

The second thing that might mitigate the traffic impact of increased density is that induced demand is a two-way street — if travel on a road gets easier, more people will drive there, but if travel on a road gets harder, fewer people will drive there.  Another way of phrasing this is that traffic will be pretty awful no matter what we do (till we ban it, block it, or price it), so traffic doesn’t actually matter. If, somehow, we kicked 10% of the population out of town, fewer people from in town would be clogging the roads — but more people from out-of-town would use the newly available road capacity to get to Cambridge and Boston.  This effect is becoming larger and faster-acting as more and more people use apps like Waze to quickly seek free-flowing routes and avoid traffic.  If, on the other hand, we added 10% to our population, more people who lived here would be clogging the roads — and cut-through traffic would seek other routes, commuters would reconsider using mass transit, car pool, etc, and the total traffic increase would be somewhat blunted.  At the same time, if we cut our population by 10%, our existing bus routes might have their frequency reduced because of the reduced demand, whereas increasing population increases demands, and ultimately leads to increased frequency. The #73 arrives more often because the #73 fills up.

Creating these options to get people out of cars is one of the reasons to favor increased density near jobs and transit; cars are entirely a personal good, not a social good.  Anyone in a bus wishes the cars were out of their way.  Anyone living near a road wishes fewer cars used it because cars are noisy and create and raise dust.  Anyone walking near a road would prefer fewer cars for all those reasons, plus the difficulty of crossing a road quickly and safely, especially with children.  Anyone biking on a road definitely prefers fewer cars (especially with children).  And even someone driving on a road, if they are stuck in traffic, would prefer that enough other people (but not them) would choose not to drive right then, so that they could drive faster.  And to the extent that most cars (98%) are not electric, cars pollute somewhat and emit greenhouse gases.

Another way to look at this is that our current traffic problems are in some sense a product of our zoning; we’ve zoned in a way that makes bus transit to half the town far less effective, so few or no buses run there, thus people drive instead.  

Education 

Education is a much stickier problem.  Anyone who’s rah-rah density and wonders why those bozos in Belmont don’t do their part, read this section carefully, and imagine coming up with an answer that’s not glib.

At least in Massachusetts, K-12 education is largely funded from local property taxes, and education is relatively expensive.  For Massachusetts, in 2017, average per-pupil spending was almost $16,000, but the average single-family tax bill was well lower than that, not quite $6000 in 2019.  This may be misleading because cities have both large non-residential tax bases and also large populations that proportionally influence the average.  I will instead work with the figures for Belmont, both because they are available, and because its proximity to Cambridge and Boston make it an obvious candidate for “why not greater density?”

In Belmont, the average tax bill in FY2019 was $12,720, so double the state average — there’s little business or industry in town, so almost all of the property taxes are paid by homeowners.  The tax rate is a low percentage because land is expensive.  Education spending is below the state average, and below neighboring peers, but still $13,581.74 per student in FY2017 — that is, more than the average residential property tax bill. In FY2019 the state subsidized about 1/6 of our school spending ($9.5 million out of about $60 million). That is, households with multiple school-aged children cost the town more in school spending than they pay in property taxes.  This is mentioned every time zoning changes or affordable housing are brought up at town meeting, and both the we-hate-taxes crowd and the spend-for-schools crowds unite, because the school supporters know well that our schools run very lean and are not sure how many more students they can support. (Results above average, spending below average, we have a goose that is laying golden eggs but gosh it costs so much to feed it.)

An additional constraint is the size of the school facilities themselves; there are four K-4 elementary schools, one middle school (5-8) and a high school (9-12). The middle school was rebuilt after a fire in 1995, but the school’s size was limited by state projections of declining enrollment in future years.  These projections turned out to be incorrect (the town lobbied hard for larger but was turned down, as I was told a few years ago by a member of the school committee then) and the middle school has been using additional modular classrooms since early 2017, when middle school enrollment was 1389 students.  Middle school enrollment this school year (2018/2019) was 1489 students (from belmont_public_schools_FY20.pdf, a copy of the annually updated original), and peak enrollment (based on real estate trends and the existing elementary school pipeline) is expected to be 1621 in school year 2021/2022.  That is, middle school enrollment grew by 7.2% in the last two years.

Overall enrollment, in the nine years starting at 2018/2019, is projected to increase by 7.77%, or 0.835% per year, compounded.Screen Shot 2019 06 10 at 9 13 13 PM

This increase is not a result of greater density, but changing demographics, but it is still an increase.  The number of school-aged children is expected to grow at a moderate rate over the next decade, and until the new high school is completely finished, the schools (especially elementary and middle) are pretty much full.  The new high school is necessary because the old high school has become impractical to maintain, but it is designed to accommodate two more grades to take pressure off the middle and elementary schools — elementary schools become K-3, the middle school becomes 4-6, and the upper school becomes 7-12.  This change is not reflected in any of the projections above, and it will reduce the space crunch in all the schools.  We’re spending plenty of money to make this happen.

I’m a little puzzled about how to reconcile the usual recipe for solving “our property taxes are too high” with the need for regional housing growth to match regional job growth.  Normally, the advice for a town like Belmont is to add more commercial property — that is, add jobs, not housing, because businesses on the tax rolls are a budget win.  That’s not going to improve the regional jobs-housing imbalance.  The state’s role in this is also a little puzzling, because Belmont runs a pretty good school system for not much money.  I am certain that a lot of this comes from our history of somewhat better schools and somewhat higher property values than several neighboring towns, which leads to selection for new residents-who-are-parents focused on their children’s education and who have somewhat deep pockets, but this was also true 25 years ago, with our much-more-middle-class 25-years-ago demographics (which we’re not preserving because the price of housing is spiking).  Assuming that the state government sees best-feasible education for the largest number of kids as a public good, it seems like they’d want towns with good school systems to be able to grow and educate even more students, but that’s not current policy.  The spike in housing costs also changes who can buy into towns with better school systems; the middle class is priced out.  This seems like something the state would care about, and if the state sincerely cars, they’d say it with a wheelbarrow full of money.

I don’t see an easy way around this; if we just add housing of all kinds, we’ll strain the school capacities and the school budgets, but if we do nothing the housing scarcity problem remains.

Half-assed ideas

I’m convinced we have to do something, but maintaining a small school system while adding population is a tough problem.  I grew up someplace with regional school funding (Pinellas Country, FL) where the population grew 3.3% per year the entire time I lived there, and they had a hard time keeping up (and that population growth was disproportionately older people, not children).

If the state committed to seriously funding education with state revenues, that would help remove the fiscal reason to oppose density.  In years past that funding source has not been reliable across recessions, whereas property taxes are regarded as intrinsically reliable (without anyone noticing that we defined them that way — Prop 2.5 permits a steady growth in revenues as long as property values do not crash catastrophically).  A wealth tax, i.e., a property tax generalized to cover financial instruments and bank accounts in excess of some threshold, might help here, provided that the state government diverted an adequate fraction of this into its rainy day fund during good times. (Massachusetts is constitutionally prohibited from having income tax brackets).  Or perhaps, some sort of Georgist land value tax at the state level.  I’m not sure what would happen with a wealth tax that allowed variable rates to track a stable revenue stream,like Prop 2.5 does for real estate; in recessions, the tax rate would rise, and that might make them worse.  Or, by prying money loose from people who had accumulated it, it could blunt the effect of the recession.

We have some regional cooperation already; for special ed, LABBB (Lexington Arlington Belmont Bedford Burlington) pools resources for better services and efficiency.  The local vocational education school (Minuteman) is also supported regionally by a larger collection of towns, though Belmont is not currently a member.  If there were a way to make funding more regional, say, by sharing some of the property taxes paid by an employer/employer’s-landlord with the employee’s city or town, that would reduce suburbs’ fiscal incentives for opposing new population growth.  Simply expanding revenue collection out over a larger region would do the same.

Another possibility is to arrange for the new housing to be too small to easily accommodate families, for example studios, and single-bedroom units. Quite a few towns around here do something similar for their affordable housing; they attempt to make it retirement-sized, not family-sized, in hopes of reducing the number of children that move to town.  Assuming we did this but for not-retired people, we’d want to locate it somewhat carefully to increase the chance that these new residents would be less likely to drive to work and common errands. Three obvious choices are Waverley Square (Fitchburg commuter rail line and the very-frequent #73 bus), Belmont Center (Fitchburg commuter rail line, less-frequent #74 bus (also #75), and an easy bicycle ride to Alewife commuter rail station), and the southeast corner of town, roughly Precinct 7, which has a shorter ride on the #73, and plausible bicycle access in several directions (it is past a hill, that helps).  Someone who was not really sure that people would do without cars might favor Precinct 7 because rush hour trips into Cambridge and Boston would traverse only a small bit of Belmont.  Another option might be near Blanchard Street between the railroad tracks and Concord Avenue; that gives easy bicycle access either to Alewife or into Cambridge, and the option of either the #74, #75, or #78 buses into Cambridge.  However, some of that is low, and might be vulnerable to flooding in the future.

I have in the past thought that adding small, higher-density housing would be merely “kicking the can down the road”, because what happens when a couple living in a small apartment decides they want to start a family? Either they will want to move into something larger in town (creating demand) or decide to make do with the smaller apartment that they have (increasing the school population).  I think this still adds students to the school system, but perhaps in lower proportion to added population than if we built additional family-sized housing.

Belmont has two lower-density areas that I think are problematic for adding people.  Belmont Hill is quite low density (zoned that way), but it has no transit connections, is problematic for biking because the hill is so steep, and if someone there drives into Cambridge or Boston, they travel all the way across town.  The northeast corner of town, across Little Pond from the rest of town, has some recently-built housing, and has a plausible walk to the Alewife T station, but is otherwise disconnected from the rest of town. It’s also quite low, and if sea levels rise much in the next few decades will be correspondingly more vulnerable to floods (5 feet shown, assuming some combination of sea level rise and bad storm).

One thing we might need to also do is get over the idea that a “home” (what Belmont is a town of) is a single-family detached residence.  I know that our motto is going to generate a little bit of resistance to building something that isn’t “homes” as we usually think of them here.  We in fact have quite a few 2 and 3 family homes in precincts 3, 4, 5, and 7, especially closer to Trapelo Road and Belmont Street.  Those are homes, and larger collections of smaller apartments would also be homes, and many people would be glad to live there.

So, people who come here to complain about cyclist behavior, why?

  1. Can you actually show us it’s a problem with actual harms? So far it is incredibly anecdotal, nationwide we get one or two pedestrian deaths per year from a bike crash, usually in a crosswalk, usually with a bike moving 20mph or faster. For comparison, last year car crashes killed about 6200 pedestrians, if you average this out to per-trip, driving is about 15 times more dangerous for pedestrians. “I’m an avid cyclist and I have feels” is not enough evidence. I have feels too, what makes your feels more important than mine? Collect video, collect statistics, make your case.
  2. If you claim it’s about bike safety, have you noticed that the stats don’t support you? Most crashes in Cambridge are car problems — doorings, driver failures to see bikes in the road or yield to them if they do. Even in cases where cyclist law breaking was a factor, there are other mitigations that also work, like separate infrastructure and truck wheel guards. Humans cut corners and make mistakes, concrete is there all the time.
  3. If your claim is it’s about road respect, where’s your evidence? Nothing else works this way, we don’t hear “take away crosswalks and shorten crossing times because pedestrians jaywalk.” We don’t hear “let’s not add more lanes to the road because drivers speed”. What’s so special about bikes that this would be different?  An excess of car crashes on a road where everyone speeds is actually used as justification to spend millions of dollars on road improvements, for example, Route 2 at Crosby’s Corner.
  4. EVEN IF THESE WERE TRUE, what the heck do you expect anyone here to do about it? I’ve actually tried, twice, it’s hard work to catch a light-running cyclist (they run lights, after all) and when you do and say “this makes us all look bad”, they just ignore you, and god knows that does not scale. Drivers do not then recognize that you are an awesome scofflaw-correcting cyclist and let you take the whole lane w/o honking, turns out actually they just want you out of the way.

Lest you think I am some scruffy law-breaking cyclist, no, I was Very Effective for about 30-35 years, I helped gather information about bicycle laws in other states to support Brownsberger’s changes to bike laws a few years back. I’m an actual Avid Motorist, driven in many parts of the US (drove stick in SF!), drove to work for years, worked on engines, transmissions, brakes, did some on-road rallying when I was a kid.  It was after chasing down scofflaw #2 above that I realized most of the points above — that “cyclists need to obey the laws if they want respect” is a scam; we don’t apply that rule to anyone else on the road, and there’s no way that I myself can obtain group perfection, and my efforts to obtain that impossible goal would go unrecognized.  

What I’d like to see is sensible laws, and sensible enforcement. Treating slow, yielding, bikes as pedestrians is a great default, the existing sidewalk bans in Cambridge (Harvard, Central, Inman, Porter, a few other crowded places — probably ought to add Kendall) make plenty of sense. Idaho stop (again, yielding to pedestrians) works fine.

I replied to someone on Twitter with an offhand remark doubting the goodness of the bicycles-as-vehicles principle, I thought I should explain it, because it’s not really simple.

I think we make two principal mistakes, cycling-as-sport, and the emphasis on bicycles-are-vehicles in the context of “vehicular” rules that are actually more automobile-centric than general.

Cycling-as-sport results in impractical bicycles.  A practical bicycle looks much like an English 3-speed, or even more so; wide tires, upright posture, a relatively comfortable saddle, and some provision for carrying stuff.  Also, fenders to keep off the rain, a chain guard to keep your clothes clean, and perhaps a built-in light.  Modern materials make an even fatter tire possible and also make the lights more effective.

In contrast, cycling-as-sport leads to bicycles variously specialized for high speeds on tracks, high speeds in road races, good handling and traction on actual mountain sides, and sometimes, good skills for tricks and stunts.  None of these bikes will keep your clothes clean, none has a fender, and they tend to lack mounting points for racks.  Racing bikes tend to position the rider in a bent-over aerodynamic posture, which is good for speed, but less good for visibility, less good in crashes (head down and forward is not good).  Mountain bikes by default are equipped with knobby tires for traction in mud, which are merely noisy and draggy on paved roads, and with wide handlebars for improved steering leverage on rough downhill terrain, which in urban traffic are a hazard in narrow spaces.  The skinny tires on road and track bikes aren’t noisy and draggy, but they are easily caught in road imperfections, vulnerable to road imperfections, and prevent you from easily riding anywhere except on well-paved roads.  You’ll also have to reinflate those skinny tires much more often.

What this means is that if some well-meaning person hears that they should bike to work, they trot down to their bike shop, and are presented with a wall (or two) of mountain bikes and a wall (or two) of road bikes and triathlon bikes, and perhaps a few “ohyeahtheseareourcitybikes” bikes off to the side.  There’s a good chance they’ll be sold a bike that they’re not comfortable on, and that doesn’t enable them to carry the stuff that they need to carry.  

And likely they’ll see, wonder about, and perhaps be sold, some of the bicycle-specific gloves, and socks, and shoes, and pants, and jackets.  This is mostly a waste of money, and in daily use, more steps added to the bicycle ride that aren’t really necessary.  And in the end, for them, bicycle commuting turns out to be impractical, why did I take the advice of those Dirty F*cking Hippies on the internet?

The sort of bikes we ought to be selling are much more common in Northern Europe; I saw a lot of them in Sweden and Denmark.  The cargo bike that I ride is sort of an extreme version of such a bike; lots of ability to carry things, no expectation that I would carry things in a backpack (my back sometimes does not like backpacks), nice fat tires, fenders, built-in lights, and a chain guard.  Basically I just get on and go, and the bike carries my stuff, and I sit super upright and see everything around me.

The vehicular cycling mistake is harder to describe, because for now, given the roads that we’ve got, vehicular cycling is partly right; roads are public ways, bicycles are a legitimate means of travel, and anyone riding a bike has the right to use those roads.  Vehicular cycling is also right when it points out the need to think about what drivers might be expecting; if you come from an unexpected direction, don’t be too surprised if drivers aren’t looking for you.

But, unfortunately, it fails when its proponents mistake a method that works for some people (including me) for a method that works for everyone. If, for some reason, you don’t feel comfortable riding in traffic, it’s not that vehicular cycling has failed you, instead you have failed vehicular cycling.  Unsurprisingly, this did nothing for improving cycling’s ride share when vehicular cycling was the only game in town, and in practice, the safety that it actually delivered (if/when taught to, and usually rejected by, most actual cyclists on the road) was unimpressive compared to safety improvements in other countries.

Vehicular cycling is also mistaken because the existing vehicular laws were first designed for cars, which means that they’re not necessarily the best fit for bicycles, and the safety margins and safety rules in those laws are often overkill for bicycles.. The need to hammer home “bicycles are vehicles” means that these differences are ignored, because it might undercut the message.  Changes to the laws “for bicycles”, whether Idaho Stop, Copenhagen Left, or bicycles-only counterflow lanes on one-way streets encounter initial default skepticism because “wait, bicycles are vehicles, now you are making special rules?” — there is an assumption that we need the “simple” bicycles-are-vehicles treatment because exceptions are bad and confusing.  And also because bicycles-are-vehicles, rule-following by bicyclists is claimed to be of paramount importance because after all those rules are for safety, and we created those rules so vehicles (ahem, “cars”) would be safe and not run into things and each other.  This is a problem, because in fact, for others on the road if not for themselves, bicycles are far safer than cars, and cyclists can see and hear what’s around them far better than drivers can, and even when they do crash into people or property, do so with orders of magnitude less energy and destructiveness.  But because we’ve made the rules our focus, safety discussions often get derailed into arguments about who follows what rules, and lose track of silly things like how to minimize deaths and serious injuries.

Vehicular cycling also fails because the laws, designed for cars, are in some sense designed more as a framework for blame than as a safety maximizer.  In countries with lower pedestrian fatality rates, “jaywalking” is not a law.  We use that law in the US to provide an excuse for crashing into pedestrians with cars, if we really cared about safety, we would use different laws (because countries that do better use different laws, and we could just copy from them.  There’s no need for research or innovation).  When cyclists, thinking of themselves as vehicles, internalize these same laws, their tendency is to be rude to pedestrians even when there is no need whatsoever and there’s no actual safety issue. “Rude” can mean gratuitous bell-ringing, yelling, or close passes, and it’s completely unnecessary.  It takes only a little forethought to not run into a pedestrian; they are visible, slow moving, we can even communicate with them in real time if we need to coordinate our motions (I do this all the time, it’s easy).  If we accept that rule #1 is to not run into pedestrians, that changes how we bike, and we quit expecting that “jaywalking” pedestrians ought to get out of “our way” (which is a ridiculous concept for a bicycle, we’re stupidly maneuverable).

Furthermore, even if you dispute the extent that our laws are a blame-framework, they are designed around the abilities and limitations of automobiles; someone on a bicycle has several safety options that drivers do not, but these options go unmentioned in the laws because the laws were designed for cars.

It’s important to remember that we’re not infinitely capable, and we’re best at what we practice.  If our default reaction to someone breaking the rules is to follow the framework of vehicular laws, on a bicycle that means it’s not the safest reaction, and in the rare case that time is tight and the default reaction matters, we’ll do the wrong thing.  So instead of thinking about jaywalking, and how it is our job to shame the law-breaking pedestrian (or to shame the wrong-way skateboarder, etc, etc), we should think about what is safest, and what our safety practices should be, and always do those.  Usually, this is some combination of modifying our path so that it passes behind the pedestrian, and so that there is so much clearance that there’s no need to alert them.  It means, if there are several dogs or small children around, that we should slow down, because we cannot possibly keep track of three or more randomly moving objects, and it would be a disaster to hit a child.  It means, in practice, to never ride between a dog and its owner, because (1) it’s common for dogs to turn back towards their owner and (2) invisible leashes are a thing.  In all these cases we can invent rules that other people should be following, or we can directly act to reduce risk.  Vehicular cycling’s emphasis on car-oriented rules leads us towards blame first, risk-reduction second, and when it really matters, that means we don’t do the best possible job of risk reduction.

I could say more, but this is probably enough. There are issues with vehicular cycling’s lack of safety-in-numbers, and with their blind spots regarding speed, and really anything that isn’t “biking like a car”, but, later.

Notes on visiting Copenhagen

December 23, 2018

I got a reduced-cost trip to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and London, thanks to my wife and her work/book-publicity tour.  The longest stop was in Copenhagen, about a week.  I only biked one day, because we were staying a nice 10-minute walk from my employer’s Copenhagen office, and because the bicycle rental that I could find (DonkeyBike) seemed to have a 24-hour rate, not a single-trip rate; i.e., not worth it for a simple to/from work, plus the walk was a shorter distance (bicycles discouraged on pedestrian mall) and quite nice.

But one day I had to do laundry, and the nearest place (The Laundromat Cafe, very nice) was a bit far to walk carrying a bag of laundry.  And I had to bike at least once, so I rented a DonkeyBike.

All the other people on bikes were very skilled, more so I think that the norm among Boston-area commuters.  They rode quite close to each other and quite close to the curb (something I was aware of riding a new-to-me rental bike with a load of laundry on the front end).  By US standards I think I am pretty skilled, and most people in Copenhagen seemed at least as skilled as me.

Donkey Bike rental was pretty good.  It’s dockless-but-has-geofenced drop-off, and the rental is per-day, rather than per-trip.  It may be that doing a timed rental helps them avoid the problem of your (intermediate) destination(s) not being within a geofenced; while you’re renting, it’s “your bike” (you can even add theft insurance to the rental, I did, not wanting to deal with complications and not knowing the local theft rates).  I didn’t see any signs of rebalancing the whole week that we were there, and my walk to work and to the subway station took me past several drop-off zones.

In Copenhagen, they have a sort of two-cycle left turn where you ride straight across to the corner, wait (and turn 90 degrees) and then continue on your way.  There’s a built-in next-cycle delay, except that if the ordinary cycle is straight-then-left, then you have no actual delay.  This works, we might want to do that here, though it does interfere with cross traffic doing right-turn-on-reds, but those are not such a good idea anyhow for cars.  Locally, there’s a similar intersection in Arlington at the intersection of Mass Ave and Pleasant Street, except there I think the left-turn is leading (not sure now, it used to work that way before the redesign) which gives a people on bikes a chance to game the lights, not sure that is the best plan but that’s no surprise here.

There’s huge volumes of bicycles; it helps to count how many go buy in N seconds, and then realize that in a lane of cars, one every two seconds is best base.  Parked, the numbers are scarcely believable; they’re everywhere (before you get all fired up about bicycle clutter, they take far less space than is devoted to cars here in the US, and even in Copenhagen, probably still less space than cars.  We’re used to cars, we don’t even notice the space they take.)  People ride in terrible weather, too, like 40F and raining (speaking from experience, that is much worse than 20F and clear; sooner or later, water gets into things).

Two donkey bikes, in their natural habitat, one with rack, the other without:

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A Dane, on a bike, in the cold rain, with a cello(?) on his back (through a Cafe window):IMG 20181202 140202

A little bike parking and a no-cars gate:

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Bike routes vs where I ride

November 28, 2018

I spoke at a recent meeting of our town’s selectmen about a proposed bike path, and mentioned how planners often have a blind spot about what people on bikes actually want. And to be clear, this is not “what they should settle for” or “what they deserve” or “their fair share” — this is what they want, or at least what I appear to want — and if I don’t get what I want, then I’ll ride somewhere else, or not ride.

These examples are routes that I ride from time to time where I have a choice, and what I chose, and why I made that choice.

The first example compares two routes across the edge of Harvard Square, one using alleged bike routes on Garden, Cambridge, and Broadway, versus the one I take, that uses a stub of Concord Ave, cuts across Cambridge Common, then in front of the Littauer Center, across the Science Plaza, then onto Broadway. The route I take has no cars, but does have plenty of people, sometimes children, and at times I have had to ride for a minute or two at a walking pace (I have video) or do a sharp stop for a child (I have video). If I had to spend two minutes at a walking pace every day I might find another route, but that is not usual.

Why do I prefer this often-slower route? (I’ve measured, it is, by maybe 30 seconds, i.e., the delay of not quite making a green light in Cambridge).

The other route has two problematic sections. On one section, marked in yellow, the lanes are extremely narrow and there is also a line of parked cars. It is not very comfortable, and it seems like I might eventually have some small collision there; not a bad one because everything is slow, but something to avoid. It’s 100% uncomfortable for a new rider, they don’t know what to do (do they squeeze through the tiny gap? Do they just sit in the middle of a lane in a line with the cars, or wait at the edge of a lane?)

In the next section, marked in red, bikes and cars go into an underpass together. In theory the bikes have their own lane, but in practice cars frequently swerve into that lane (video), sometimes when it also has bikes in it. The grooved pavement makes it very noisy, too. Sometimes cars are changing lanes there or swerving around stopped traffic, and that is also unsettling and probably dangerous. If Cambridge were willing to reinforce the painted lane separator with Jersey barriers I’d be more interested in taking it, but for some reason that doesn’t happen (I think that drivers and I both fear that they might drive into the bike lane, and have different feelings about the function of Jersey barriers should that happen — i.e., not only does it feel dangerous, but the use of mere paint in such a scary place makes it clear where bicyclists fit in the safety hierarchy).

The return route is marked in orange, it has the same problems as the red.

In Belmont, there’s a marked bike path on Blanchard that gives the impression that this would be a good place to ride a bike. However, I prefer a different route if I am riding past Concord, especially if my destination is the bike path to Alewife or the businesses near the intersection of Blanchard/Brighton and Hittinger Street. (The arrow marks drawn on the road indicate a grade).

Blanchard is somewhat narrow, yet drivers get the impression that they can move relatively quickly on it. The curbs are sharp-edged granite, which could cause serious injuries in a crash. It feels unwelcoming and unsafe. Bright Road, in contrast, is wide, and traffic is a little slower. It does include a small hill (Blanchard dips, and then rises, so about the same). Across Concord, Blanchard continues to be narrow and trafficky, where Baker is residential and has slower and less traffic. Continuing across Concord, it’s also instructive to notice how drivers cut the chicane so close that the have scrubbed all the paint off the edge of the road. Is that a safe place to ride a bicycle? So I prefer to ride elsewhere.

To ride from Belmont Center to Arlington Heights, the fastest way (saving a few minutes) goes up Belmont Hill and then up Park Avenue into Arlington. This is a steep climb that not too many people do. One sometimes-recommended route is to go up Clifton, to Prospect, to Park. Most of the car traffic, however, also goes up Prospect, and it is narrow and also has sharp-edged granite curbs. A slightly longer route is to continue on Clifton and then up Rutledge. This has several advantages. First, the climb up Belmont Hill is hard, but the section of Clifton after the rotary is flat and gives you a bit of a breather. That route also has much lower traffic (hardly any at all) and no curbs, not that you feel much risk of a crash anyway.

Here are two routes where I have a mild preference, but less experienced riders would probably have a stronger preference. The apparently straight route is Concord, however the higher traffic makes it much less pleasant. Concord is narrow, in the first part (climbing from left to right up to the intersection with Huron), but generally I can squeeze through. There’s also an additional light, compared to Garden.

Garden has much less traffic, which is good and bad. It’s good because it’s not usually necessary to squeeze into tight spots, it is bad because sometimes drivers have an expectation that they should be able to zoom! up or down the road, and will sometimes honk at you for no reason other than you are “in the way”. The fewer lights on Garden are also somewhat more “hackable”, if you happen to be in an inbound hurry. At the intersection with Huron, if you miss your light (easy, it is run by a sensor and cycles quickly if you are not traveling with cars) you can veer left across the fire station parking lot and cross with the last of the traffic from Sherman. At the Linnaean light, the road on the right is very lightly traveled and you can either safely run the light after stopping and looking, or dismount and jaywalk (the socially acceptable way to run a red light). Where Garden and Concord join, the plan is to bear left across the sidewalk onto the stub end of Concord. This is not easy to do if arriving from Concord, but if you arrive on Garden, the light makes it easy, and you also have the option of crossing over to the sidewalk early if you can pass through a gap in traffic.

Traveling westthrough Harvard Square on official bicycle routes requires a bit of a detour, shown in yellow. A shortcut that is possible if the lights are favorably timed is shown in red — take a U turn immediately after the north point of the pedestrian plaza and join the auto traffic there. I decided that was not safe enough and now tend to use the route shown in green, walking where it is dotted. This probably saves time over the official route, and is probably also safer.