Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not having a car, in the suburbs, at all

For over 20 years, we have been a one-car household, living in the suburbs. We upped that game, effective today, by continuing to be a one-car household, but with that car somewhat permanently being 180 miles away.

You read that right: No car. At all. In the suburbs. For the foreseeable future. How will we survive? How did we get this way? Will this ever change? All good questions. But maybe we should start at the beginning.

A generation ago, we lived in rural New Stanton and had four cars on the road for the three drivers in the family. One by one, the cars ceased to be, coincident with a move to McCandless following a year of using public transit from a second home in Robinson. Transit worked for the Robinson to Monroeville commute, accomplished by leaving the second car in Monroeville, and using the bus to get from Robinson to the car, left in a park-and-ride lot overnight. This continued for a couple of years after the McCandless move.

We went down to one car after the second was wrecked, and we chose not to replace it. For 1994, this was a rather chancy move, as I still had a three-mile trip on foot from the bus to work, often but not always assisted by friends and co-workers who knew my plight. That job ended soon after, and from there on, there was no turning back. I was transit dependent by choice, and reveled in it. The $5,000/year I figured I was saving, over 20 years, paid for the house several years early and helped me pay for a Masters degree.

We replaced the one aging car in 2012, but still have almost half the principal yet to pay on it. Because of that, and because of paying my daughter's tuition, the purchase of a second car was and is out of the question. But then something else unexpected happened: My wife was in a should-have-been-minor parking lot bump, but which resulted in a concussion, and a medically ordered long-term vacation from driving. On top of this, my son does not drive at all, and I hardly ever drive except for one weekly errand.

Meanwhile, daughter off at college is in an educational program that requires use of a car to get her to a remote practicum a couple times a week. She needs the car. We need use of a car for the occasional shopping or medical trip, but otherwise, no, we do not need to always have a car in the driveway.

To reiterate, this is a big decision. The nearest grocery is 0.7 mile away; the grocery of choice is 1.6 miles away. Any other shopping, any other voluntary trip -- social, entertainment, religious, pretty much anything -- is going to be ... interesting.

I bike to get around, so does Gabe, but Sarah does not. In addition, it is the dead of winter. As I write this, the outside air is 14 F. Travel by bike probably isn't going to happen for any of us until it gets a little warmer, and even then, is not going to help her.

I do have a motorcycle, but it too has a major problem at the moment. I was rear-ended a few weeks ago, and so it is in need of major repairs. I haven't even obtained an estimate on the damage yet, partly due to the cold and snow. But even if it was warm and repaired, that still doesn't help much with bringing home bags of groceries.

One option is ZipCar, the rent-by-the-hour car-sharing program. This isn't cheap, at about $10/hour beyond the $55 sign-up fees, and presents its own set of problems in addition to providing a potential solution to being stranded. Since Sarah doesn't drive, if I wanted to use ZipCar to take her somewhere, I would need to bus or bike downtown, take out a ZipCar, drive it home, drive her wherever, wait until she's done,  then drive the car back downtown. All of this would likely have to compete with employment for my time. Can I afford to take a half-day off so I can spend $50 or more to borrow a ZipCar to take her somewhere? That can get expensive.

Of course, there are taxis, and the good hearts of friends. Both too have their benefits and drawbacks, and costs in either money or the limits of those good hearts. At this writing, Sarah cannot even walk any distance from the house on foot, let alone drive, so both of those have to be on the table as viable options.

In short, I have a quandary.

Shopping will likely require the use of the large pannier I took out of service a year ago because it was in such bad shape. Possibly I can reassemble it, but it might just be easier to buy another. A second capital expense may have to be a bike trailer, which would make some sense for when I need to transport any substantive amount of groceries. Meanwhile, I should plan on smaller trips a couple times a week to pick up the occasional gallon of milk or dozen oranges, that I can carry in the pannier or a backpack. However I do it, it will likely be mine to do.

Unknowns at this point include any idea of cost. Amy will be driving some, but likely less than we would be if the car was here. Aldi might be the cheapest grocery, but if grocery trips on foot have to occur, they will be at the Shop & Save in Pines Plaza, which can be half-again more expensive than Aldi. Noplace else is close enough to consider.

That, however, is the game we will play until at least March, and maybe May. It would be nice if a couple dozen thousand landed in our laps so we could go car shopping, but I don't see that happening. Even if it did, I don't know if I would spend it on a second car so much as paying off the first and making some major house repairs.

A no-car suburbanite, for real this time. Let's see how this goes.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Reflecting on 3,359 miles biked in 2014

Final 2014 numbers. This is what 3,359 miles looks like.

The monthly bus pass subscription expired 2/28/2014.

What 414 miles in October looks like. That Saturday hole was there all year. Sundays were pretty spotty for riding, too.

One random day in October. Biked in on Babcock, home on Federal and Perrysville. Something like this, every day you see 20+ miles.

Here is a day when I biked in but took the bus home. Most days with about 12 miles are like this. The "Half mile across downtown" was any of about 10 ways to get from City-County Building to whichever bus stop I used, all of which land in the .39-.61 mile range.

What does this prove? That it can be done. I bike as much as I can, but I use the bus when I want to. Each 11-mile trip is $3.75 in bus fare I didn't spend. Every day I went in by bike was $15 in parking I didn't spend, nor was any fuel involved.

The number of miles traveled exceeded 2013's total by over 800 miles, which exceeded the previous year by about 650. Theoretically, I could bike 5,000 miles in a year and not do anything remarkably different, merely commuting more, particularly in the winter. I don't know if I will, but I could, and probably could hold myself to it if I really wanted to. But for here, anyway, I will simply leave it at that I have shown it can be done, regularly, by a non-athletic man in his mid-50s without any special clothing or equipment. That should be message enough.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Goals for 2015

Every year, I draw up a wish list or plan to strive for in the coming 12 months. No exception this year, though my rough sketch is only taking shape as I type this. As ever, it's all about the bicycle, though the larger goal is trying not to drive.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to make it possible for everyone not to have to drive.

#1: Bike 3,000 miles, mainly on public streets. In 2014 at this writing, I am just short of 3,300. In 2013, I managed over 2,500 miles. In 2012, I put 1,900+ miles under me. Assuming no other big changes, this should be do-able.

#2: Be in at least as good physical condition on December 31, 2015, as I am on January 1, 2015. During the year, I will turn 57. I'm doing okay so far. I've never been anything close to an athlete. Being able to think about biking 3,000+ miles, mainly through commuting, I suspect is more than some people half my age would attempt. Well, more power to them, too.

#3: Write a blog post about my car-lite municipal travel experiences, at least once a week.

#4: Video record my everyday travels as often as my technology allows, and share any bits I consider relevant to others' edification.

#5: Continue experimenting with knotweed control on trails and other spaces impeding bike and pedestrian travel. Document what I learn.

#6: Video record every street and trail in McCandless Township, by bicycle, and make my knowledge and experiences known via a blog.

#7: Lead Critical Mass rides just as I did in 2014 and 2013, and document my experiences.

#8: Enhance working relationships with the Pittsburgh cycling community, and others in leadership positions for furthering cycling, transit, and pedestrian transportation.

#9: Employ my speaking abilities developed through Toastmasters to speak publicly about cycling, transit, and pedestrian transportation.

#10. Press to get the Wabash Tunnel opened for routine unrestricted bicycle travel.

I could go on, but it's safe to say that anything I said I would try to do in past years is still in play in the coming year. Contacting legislators. Participating on rides and marshaling. Fleet maintenance. Being a leader.

Achieving world domination

I am not really a fan of the People For Bikes plan for installing exclusive bike lanes on Pittsburgh streets. I can understand their point, but have no desire to rehash here their good and bad points. All that matters is that we have a couple miles of these tracks now, which are great for publicity and promoting the idea of cycling as a normal, acceptable, expected, and respected way of getting around. So far, so good, I think, but it does not come close to accomplishing world domination.

They are ballyhooed as being safer, but from what I've seen of them so far, I don't buy the safer bit. Safety aside, for all their cost, both monetary and political, they do not even start to address cyclists' need to travel on the thousands of miles of streets that do not have and will not ever get such lanes. It is to those other thousands of miles of streets that I direct your attention.

The way I see it, the paramount issue facing cyclists everywhere is not being able to bike down any street they want or need to. They face opposition from all levels. Whether motorists, truckers, police, highway departments at all levels, media figures, politicians, pedestrians, or even other cyclists, nobody, it seems, is willing to grant that cyclists have the right to travel everywhere they already do have that right. The opposition takes different forms, but all forms share the central belief that we are not supposed to be there.

That must change. It will. I will help it change.

Here's the thing: By accomplishing that, I am achieving world domination. By cyclists. And we will prevail.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Playing "Thread-the-Needle"

On Monday, Dec 8, a series of drivers played “thread-the-needle” with me and oncoming traffic. Explanation: On any given road, in any given lane, only one vehicle may be in that lane at a time. Specifically, a car and a bike cannot both be in a 14-foot-wide lane, side by side, at the same time. There was no crash or other altercation, but the incident serves as an example of the problem.

In PA, if a motorist wants to pass a bicycle, PA law requires the motorist to pass at least four feet from the cyclist. Really, this means change lanes first, pass the other vehicle (the bicycle), then pull back in, same as you would when passing a car. Other restrictions about having sufficient space for oncoming traffic still apply. Not to do that is unsafe passing, also a ticketable offense (§3305) .

I was inbound between the Shop ‘n Save and Rita’s Italian Ices shop on Babcock Blvd at the north edge of Millvale. The first of four cars passed me with a decent amount of space probably about three feet. The second and third were more like two feet off. The fourth managed to squeeze between me and oncoming traffic, maybe a foot away. All of them were going close to 35, the posted limit, but certainly not “within not less than four feet at a careful and prudent reduced speed”, as directed by §3303a3.

Fortunately, both front and rear video cameras captured what happened. Here are two-minute excerpts of each. I tried to align them such that I reach the end of a bridge at the 10-second mark.

Front video:
Rear video:

These start at Babcock and Douglas, about a quarter mile north of the Shop ‘n Save. Note the decently wide shoulder at the start of the video. I am on the shoulder here, as I have been for about the past mile. It’s paved and six feet wide, so why not.
0:08 – This bridge was rebuilt Summer 2014.
0:15 – Car passes me without incident by the “1717 Sigmas” building. I often use this building as a landmark.
0:25 – The shoulder narrows considerably after the “Around the Corner Bar”, so I merge into the traffic lane. (I did signal to the car behind me.)
0:28 – Unrideable shoulder. Car passes me a bit close, but not a problem. I choose to ride in the right tire track.
0:36 – Large hole on edge of traffic lane on bridge. No shoulder at all. I remain in right tire track for the duration of this video. (I really should fully take the lane.)
0:50 – Passing Shop ‘n Save. Dark-orange SUV waits for traffic; this becomes the fourth car, which passes me very closely.
0:55 – First of four cars passes me, maybe three feet clearance. Could’ve/Should’ve gotten fully over, there is no oncoming traffic.
0:59 – Note the huge hole, which is actually a drain grate I reported on the dangerous-drain-grates thread several years ago.
0:59 – Second car passes me, only about two feet clearance. This one, too, was not in imminent danger from oncoming traffic, though a lot closer than the first one.
1:06 – Third car, a black Jeep, also only about two feet off my elbow, playing thread-the-needle between me and oncoming traffic.
1:18 – Fourth car passes me much too closely, only about a foot away, with oncoming traffic right there. PA plate HVX-6133. A screen shot at the 10:54:15 timestamp in my front video shows that the oncoming car was itself on the white line. However, HVX-6133 is not over the yellow. It’s just narrow through here.
1:44 – As soon as I pass the light at Rita’s, the lane widens considerably.

Here is what I want to see happen:

  1. Reduce the speed limit from 35 to 25 from the 1717 Sigmas building to the existing 25 zone at the north end of Millvale, by Rita's.
  2. Enforce that.
  3. Fix those drain grates so they won't throw a cyclist, as well as other transient holes in the road.
  4. Sharrow the road at least up to the Shop 'n Save.

This bit of road is maintained by Allegheny County.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

NaBloPoMo - 29 Nov 2014 - Upon being pushed off my bicycle

I need to record some thoughts about Tuesday's incident and what I think should happen as a result. To recap, I got a super close pass, followed by the guy stopping his car, jumping out, and pushing me off the bicycle. The event was captured on my dual video cameras. I reported it to the police straightaway and they will press a harassment charge.

It wasn't an assault charge; not my decision. The evening desk sergeant's reasoning was that I was not injured. I did want them to press the four-foot violation, but I don't think that that is going to happen. Well, let's see how far this goes.

I'm a little worried about the publicity so far. Ideally there should not be any until the case is closed. I tried to keep a lid on it, but it's out. As soon as the videos got posted to YouTube so the police could see them, they were also on Google Plus and thus publicly available, and everyone knew it.

I am not interested in seeking a punitive damage award. That's not how I operate. I am interested in seeing this guy change his mind about cyclists on the road. There is no reason he could not have passed me. Possibly he did not know he legally could cross the center line. Or maybe he just has a seed under his dentures about cyclists in the street.

Some other specifics:
* He needs to know cyclists have a right to use the road and to use the traffic lane.
* He needs to know that cyclists are most safe if they are not hugging the right edge of the street and parked cars.
* He needs to know that if he's going 38 mph in a 25 zone, and encounters traffic going 23, that he needs to modify a behavior, not the other traffic.
* He needs to deal with anger management. That close pass was intentional, as was his exiting his vehicle, as was pushing me off the bike. All of that was under his control.

I never exited my vehicle. I remained astride it despite going horizontal. Indeed, I never took either hand off my handlebars. Neither did I speak to him, other than a "Yo!" when he passed, and the word "Video!" after he pushed me. In no way did I escalate that situation.

Then there's the police. Neither desk sergeant -- morning or evening -- nor the evening supervisor, was interested in pressing the four-foot violation, despite my video evidence. That's wrong and needs to change.

I want there to be greater publicity about treating cyclists respectably. The videos show that I was and had been fully in compliance with traffic law for the several minutes before the guy appeared.

This whole thing is only getting started. I have no idea how it is going to turn out. I have no hope that anything useful is going to happen. I really do hope anyone learns anything from it, including me, as it's almost certain to happen again.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 15 Nov 2014 edition - Aliquippa speech, final draft

[N.B.: See the earlier version of this speech, posted five days ago. Thanks to V.B. for several constructive comments, as well as input from a few others privately and through social media. I plan to speak the following at the memorial ride and placement of the ghost bike. I believe a copy of this will also be forwarded to the press.]

Taylor Banks was a frequent, strong, experienced cyclist riding a road he knew well, and obeying the rules. Every cyclist here today is also an experienced cyclist who obeys the rules, so just as we are shocked by his death, we are also concerned for our own safety. But mark my words, this was not an accident. This was the result of a lot of things gone wrong, both at the time he was hit, and long before.

Taylor was killed going to his mother’s house after work. In July 2013, Emily Jankart was killed on Route 51 at the Sewickley Bridge, returning home after work. Two deaths, two years, one road, one reason for travel. That is unacceptable. So why is it unsafe to use a bike to get back and forth to work on this road?

Let's be clear. Cyclists do have the right to be on the road and to use the travel lane. Many people, drivers and cyclists alike, do not know that, and a few do not accept it, but it's right there in Section 3301c1 of state traffic law. So how do we prevent drivers killing cyclists?

One, we can start by enforcing speed limits. If people speed, that's a police issue. Cite motorists, show up in court, and prosecute.

Two, this stretch of PA51 is Pennsylvania Bike Route "A". But if the 55 mph speed limit is too high to accommodate bikes safely, then that's a policy issue for PennDOT to resolve with the active participation of the cycling community.

Three, education. It would really help if everyone knew and followed the rules. Mr. Banks was following the rules.

The roads are there for public use, and that includes everyone, including Taylor and other cyclists. If cyclists are indeed supposed to be able to bike along here, then modify the road, the speed limits, the signage, make the public aware of any changes, and patrol it, so that we safely can.

"Share the road" does not mean share the lane. If there is a cyclist in the right lane, get in the left lane and pass us. When you pass a cyclist, you have to give him four feet of space. If you are on a two-lane road, Section 3301a6 says you may legally cross a double yellow line to pass a cyclist, if you can see it's safe to do so.

The crux of the matter is this: When you come up behind a cyclist, either change lanes and pass, or patiently wait, same as you would behind a tractor or backhoe, until you can pass. Getting there safely is more important than getting there quickly, regardless of your mode of travel.

Getting everyone to realize that bicycles really do have the right to use the road at all, any road, and to use the full lane, any time, is going to be hard. But we can start by obeying the speed limit and knowing what the law says.

In closing, let us remember the wise words of Mary Harris Jones, better known as "Mother Jones": "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."

May we all live long, prosperous lives, and ride our bikes in peace.