Monday, March 3, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, February 2014

Short version: Six riders biked from Oakland to Downtown and back, using Fifth and Forbes, and taking the lane. The ride was successful, and several lessons learned in both staging and planning. The weather was good, though cold. A good time was had by all. Now for the details. The first CM in Pittsburgh in almost four years was attended by only six riders, not bad for a day whose sunrise temperature was near zero Fahrenheit. CM disappeared after the April 2010 ride after several years of attracting crowds of 50 to 100. Most joined up with a newly created ride, Flock of Cycles, which is still going strong, but then as now, is more a fun ride than activist. The activist side of CM had largely proved its point, laying the groundwork for a groundswell of regular cyclists commuting to work, school, and other social activities. Most wanted to obey the law and yet have fun, and the defiant, anarchist side of CM wasn't doing it for them, was doing more harm than good. Yet a need still existed, then as now, to keep pressing for acceptance on regular streets. One of the most common needs is to get from Pittsburgh's two major central business districts, the Golden Triangle, where the rivers come together, and Oakland, home to two major universities (Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon) as well as several large hospitals and smaller colleges. Oakland alone draws more traffic than Harrisburg, Erie or Scranton. Plenty of transit service exists between the two, at least 10 parallel bus routes, and plans have existed for over a century to construct a subway or some other high-level transit system. But getting between the two, by bicycle, is not easy, particularly headed from Downtown to Oakland, which is slightly uphill. The purpose of CM, then, was to establish that cyclists can, in fact, use the main city street connecting the two, Forbes Avenue. We planned to ride as tightly together as feasible, the entire length of Fifth Avenue from Oakland, regroup in Point State Park, then ride through Downtown and back out Forbes Avenue, starting and ending at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's life size Diplodocus (see photo). In so doing, we would have to deal with four-lanes-across Fifth through Oakland, a lot of bus traffic in the curb lane, all the while dodging some nasty potholes. Outbound, Forbes is two lanes for most of the way, but narrows to a single lane just past the Birmingham Bridge. Just past this, high speed traffic off the bridge merges from the right, which makes for a particularly challenging piece of the ride. This half mile stretch is also the steepest grade on the route, enough to dissuade most cyclists from even trying. The six of us got out on outbound Forbes for the two short blocks to Craig St, and almost immediately, within a couple seconds, nearly got hit by a large taxi van, one of the shuttle services (Pittsburgh Transportation Company #2035). *Sigh* We opted not to report it, as nothing serious happened, it was just one jerk driver, and we were as yet not a half minute into the ride. Easier to ignore and keep moving. Bigger fish to fry. We got split at the Craig St light, but the front three held up for the rest to catch up. I'm not sure how we'd handle that on a larger ride. Maybe we would have to cork, it just works easier that way after you get any significant number of riders. Or heavy marshaling work. We'll figure that out later. I was just amazed that we ran into that problem on the first turn of the ride with only six of us. Once on Fifth, we had smooth enough sailing, the biggest problem being dodging potholes. Buses were predictable, car traffic was pleasant, we were very visible. Van's bike was equipped with an extremely bright taillight, brighter than many car taillights, so brought up the rear. Fifth through Oakland requires one lane change, where it goes from four to three lanes westbound; not difficult to pull off, but might be tougher to choreograph with a larger group. Perspective from the front: It is difficult for a strong rider like myself to hold back, not race far out in front, and so lose the aspect of group criticality. I am used to gunning it through here, making it from Craig St all the way downtown in less than 15 minutes. It took us closer to 25 to make the trip as a group. Smiles from the crowd: Several onlookers noted the presence of a set of cyclists, possibly because we were there at all, possibly because we were so conspicuous with our bright attire and flashing headlights. An event (hockey game?) at Consol Energy Center induced some congestion and a lot of foot traffic, as did an ambulance working at one corner which had traffic stopped briefly. This facilitated conversation with people on the street and in cars. "What's with all the bikes?" was the question most frequently heard. "Just a group of friends out for a ride on a beautiful night," was our response. "Aren't you guys cold?" "No, not really, we're dressed for it." And so it went. Downtown, too, was busy but not jammed. Fifth through the Golden Triangle is two lanes across but narrows to one after Smithfield because of building construction. We were stopped more often than moving, mainly due to lights and other traffic. We fit in well. A left onto Liberty Avenue, two lanes westbound, also trouble-free, though it was useful to the group that I could predict where individual buses were headed and whether we would have to deal with them passing us, stopping, or turning. "That 61C will be making a left, so shouldn't be a problem, but that G3 over there is going the same way we are, so watch that one." Forewarned is forearmed. We had to wait at the light at Commonwealth, so entered the park as a tight group. This was and would be the breather, if we do this ride again, as planned. In warmer months, there would be porta-potties available, but not so yet, and the permanent facilities by the fountain at the point were not yet open. It was a gorgeous night, though, now just after sunset, so we took a few minutes down by the Point to warm our fingers, take a couple pictures, and collect our thoughts. For the ride back, we took Commonwealth, left on Liberty (again, me noting where individual buses were headed), then right onto Stanwix, which can be a bit tricky. It's a signaled turn lane, no right on red, with a lot of pedestrian traffic, so adherence to law would be a good idea. Then Stanwix, which we are on for only a single block followed by a left turn without a light. Some buses coming at us turn on Stanwix, some don't, and many have a stop there. As a seasoned rider, I never have a problem here, but getting a group through there might be tricky. It might really help to cork southbound Stanwix, just to make it easier if we had a sizable group. It might help to cork northbound Stanwix if we had a sizable group, just to get everyone across. Not a problem with six; just thinking ahead. Fourth Ave is a quiet street most of the time and has a signaled pedestrian crossing which slows traffic. That notwithstanding, it didn't take long before someone had to go screaming up Fourth at 40 mph. No harm done, but still, we shouldn't have to deal with that sort of thing. Otherwise, an uneventful trip up Fourth, which has a noticeable grade between Smithfield and Grant. No problems making the left onto Grant and right onto Forbes, though we did say goodbye to one rider here. OK, down to five for the tougher second half of the ride. Forbes out to Duquesne U is not too challenging, lots of traffic lights and bus stops to calm traffic. After Duquesne U, with south- and northbound traffic now split off (at the Armstrong Tunnel and Washington Plaza, respectively), traffic assumes a more determined feeling, now a headlong dash east to Oakland. Here, just taking the right lane works quite well. I did this same trip an hour earlier and also had little trouble. The five of us got separated in the one spot where we should have stayed close together, just after the downhill to the Birmingham Bridge. Forbes narrows to a single outbound lane on an uphill. It's a wide lane, but still substandard width. Riders who allow drivers to pass are asking for close passes and getting shoved into the curb. It would really have helped if we had stuck together as a tight group through here. This chunk of road needs some help. There is a small divider blocking access to a dead lane which would be super helpful for cyclists to use, but getting into it is tricky, and certainly would be difficult for inexperienced cyclists in low-light and low-traction situations. If cuts could be made, and cyclists directed to that, that would help cycling immensely. But even spread out, we didn't have any trouble claiming the lane. It might have been a different story if traffic had been heavier. The next difficulty is the dangerous situation of 50 mph traffic approaching off the bridge from the right. Whether cyclists are in the main lane on Forbes or the dead lane, they have to deal with high speed cars, and do it on an uphill. As an experienced, assertive cyclist, I know how to force my way into traffic, but this is a learned art, and not what anyone else does naturally. This is the crux of the ride. It's a spot where cyclists need to learn how to do this. It's a spot where individual motorists need to learn to slow down from 50 to sub-25 and expect to see cyclists. It's a major issue for traffic engineers to figure out how to redesign this merge point so that cyclists have a way to do this safely. That said, this is the weakest point of the current street system infrastructure. If this is not fixed, there will be no cycling traffic. The simplest thing would be a stop sign at the end of the ramp. The next simplest thing would be to enforce speed limits on the bridge so they aren't doing 50 to slow down *from*. We managed to regroup by the light at Craft Ave, a significant uphill, the closest thing to a tough climb on this ride, though short. It's also where Forbes becomes three lanes outbound, and traffic is always difficult. Lots of cars in the right lane are making a right onto Craft, and lots of buses going straight are pulling to the curb at the stop for Magee Hospital just after the light. As experienced road cyclists, we five had no problems here, but this would be a challenge for many others. Again, some road re-design would help here, and the bicycle contingent needs to be part of the discussion. Once past Magee Hospital, holding to the right lane is fairly easy, as bus traffic and cars stacking for turns onto residential side streets reduces right-lane traffic speed markedly as compared to the other two lanes. A mile and six lights later, we were back at the dinosaur. A quick debriefing, thank yous and good-byes, and we were on our way. A successful first ride accomplished! Some post-scripts: * On Sunday, in a snowstorm, I found myself again biking on Forbes through Oakland. Still not difficult in terms of traffic, though I did not have to deal with the piece from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. * Also Sunday, having lunch with several other cyclists, I learned that many had not heard about it. Apparently Facebook, Twitter, and the Bike-Pgh message board is not sufficient to get such word out. * The Sunday ride featured an alternative to outbound Forbes, the use of the Fifth Avenue sidewalk from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. Despite two inches of fresh snow, this worked pretty well. Getting to that from outbound Forbes would be troublesome, though.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bus 5616 61C vs. the Flock

This is an open letter to Port Authority of Allegheny County, to be used by anyone who drives a bus, and the trainers of those drivers. It concerns an incident the evening of Friday, February 21, 2014, involving a bus and a couple dozen bike riders on the monthly Flock of Cycles ride. I was one of the cyclists.

The roughly 25 cyclists were riding inbound on Forbes Ave together near CMU in the right lane, and stopped at the light at Morewood. Two cars were in the left inbound lane. A bus approached, inbound 61C, bus 5616, and waited behind the two cars. A rider on the bus was already standing, waiting to get off. It's a "far side" stop, meaning the bus stop is on the inbound side of the corner.

The light turned green, the two cars in the left lane started, followed by the bus, whose male driver tried to get ahead of the lead set of cyclists and cut them off, so as to be able to discharge the passenger and board about four others who were waiting. The line of cyclists started off at a normal pace and got to the stop about even with the bus, making it impossible for the bus driver to cut off the line of cyclists. He was slightly into the right lane, making it a bit narrow for the bikes to get through, but not dangerously so, so it wasn't difficult for the line to pass. So he waited, and in about 15 seconds, the whole line of cyclists got past, he pulled in, discharged and boarded passengers, and then continued on Forbes, accelerating hard to try again to get ahead of the group.

A few hundred yards later is another inbound stop, opposite Hamburg Hall. There were 10 people waiting to board here. As before, though, this wasn't going to happen. There is a slight downhill here, and the group of cyclists had gathered quite a bit of speed. The bus, still in the left lane, simply blew off the stop, with 10 people jumping and waving and yelling, and several starting off running after the bus to try to catch it at Craig Street. They didn't; they ended up walking Craig St, too. I had stopped to tweet the incident (1, 2), and passed them on my way to catch up with the rest of the cyclists.

Here is what should have happened. Back before Morewood, the driver should have seen the group of cyclists. There is no way the driver did not see the cyclists. One guy had on a lighted jacket you could see from a mile away. That is in addition to every other cyclist having at least one, often several, flashing lights. Upon seeing that there is a group of cyclists, he should have realized that it was not going to be possible to get ahead of a group like that, and got in behind them. Had that happened, there would not have been a lane pinch for the cyclists at the Morewood stop, and being behind the group, there would have been no problem at the Hamburg stop. Everyone could have boarded and exited without incident.

Port Authority, please talk with this driver and explain the above. If trainers in particular do not understand this, I will be happy to come in and explain and discuss it in person. I am both a frequent transit rider and an experienced street cyclist, and while I haven't actually driven a bus, I sat in the simulator once, so have a pretty good idea what bus drivers can see.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let transit management manage

Early this morning, I saw a tweet from someone complaining that a Port Authority bus driver went off-route and had to be helped to get back on-route by passengers. In so doing, this made the bus quite late, and one passenger was concerned about being late enough to get in trouble at work. I offered the observation that if a trip legitimately has to go off-route -- perhaps because of a fire or police activity -- the driver should announce it to passengers. That way, if ornery supervisors ask questions later, the story can be checked out.

That is not what happened here. The P76 driver really did miss a turn and got stuck in Parkway East traffic instead of exiting at the Wilkinsburg exit and wending his way to the East Busway like many east suburban express routes do and have done since the Busway opened in 1983. I don't know what happened; it's irrelevant. Whether proper training was at fault, or the driver was not qualified on the route, or was not paying attention -- whatever, doesn't matter. No excuse. But let's move beyond that. I'm not in the finger pointing business at that level.

What matters to me is that Port Authority is 15 years behind the times on being able to monitor things like this. In Spring 2000 at Pitt, I studied existing case histories of GPS technology installed on all manner of equipment, from snowplows to garbage trucks to mining equipment to farm tractors, all at least recording where the vehicles were at any given time. In the snowplow case, the municipality that was doing this was able to defend itself successfully against suits claiming the plows damaged parked cars.

My point: This was off-the-shelf technology in 1999. We couldn't get it and implement it because of funding battles over providing the service at all. From 1997 to late 2013, funding transit was the constant and often only topic of conversation.

With this technology in hand, any time a driver goes off-route, it is recorded. Even if it is not uploaded in real time, but merely gathered at day's end for later processing, having the data at all makes it possible for Management to do its job: Manage the system. Without this data, as they've been without it all along, it is not possible to detect errors like this unless someone complains, and most riders do not. If the complaint is phoned in, there is a well established "black hole" where complaints land, either never to be seen and acted upon by whoever can fix it, or seen and not acted upon, or seen and acted upon but never followed up on to indicate it has been handled. To the public, it didn't get fixed, even if it did, whatever "it" was. Even if the same problem occurred seven days out of 10 and each was reported, there was still no way to aggregate the reports and identify their commonality.

This is what Information Science is all about. This is why I went back to get my Masters almost 20 years ago. This is what I wanted to be able to do for Port Authority when I got out of school in 2002. Shortly after getting my degree, I lost my job the very same day Port Authority implemented a hiring freeze, June 20, 2002. Ten-plus years later, we are *still* having the problems I wanted to solve TWENTY years ago. In trying to solve them, I spent $15,000 of my own money on tuition in pursuing that goal. Can you perhaps sense the seething, searing heat coming off my fingertips right about now?

With this data, however, every instance can be recorded, and, if managed effectively, counted and tracked. The right questions can then be asked: Is this a per-driver issue, i.e., is it just one single driver with a history of such errors? Or is it rather a single spot where different drivers tend to make the same error? meaning perhaps PennDOT or the county highway department has a signage problem they need to fix. Or is it general to a class of drivers, for example that this happens only to drivers in their first pick? indicating perhaps that the training is unclear. Whatever the actual cause is, management cannot manage without information to work from, because for over 10 years they have not getting it, because money.

I have been saying publicly since 1997, and at ACTC meetings since 1999, and directly to PAT brass since 2002 in the form of public testimony and a 3.5" diskette, that Port Authority badly needs to implement a slew of technology applications. This is one of them, and to reiterate, this was not a new app 14 years ago. Buses long ago had GPS receiving equipment, so as to be able to show the next bus stop on a route while in motion, to riders inside the bus. However, they could not send that data back to HQ, for whatever reasons. Other reasons I was made aware of over the years was that it was a labor-management dispute, and that there was a patent troll who kept transit companies from actively using such technology ideas for commercial use. Some of this may have some validity. I don't care now; it's water over the dam. More than that: The rain that fell on Duluth has since flowed past the Bay of Gaspé.

But never mind that. We are finally getting some of that in place, at long last, with some of the buses running the P1 East Busway All-Stops route now being so equipped. Maybe in a year's time, we can finally provide some of that internal monitoring.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Deciding not to renew the bus pass

For years, I’ve tweeted every transit trip I took, continuing a tradition I began in the 1990s of logging each transit trip in a paper notebook. Since I began seriously using the bicycle as a commute mode, I wondered if I was still getting my money’s worth out of the bus pass, like I used to when all I did was bus. To that end, I downloaded all my archived tweets, tallied up every transit trip in 2013, and crunched the numbers.

Short answer: No, not even close. The bus pass cost me $1,608.75, but I only used $1,230 in equivalent, full cash fare. In only one month, March, did my cash equivalent fare exceed the $146.25 cost of a Zone 2 monthly pass, and even then, by less than two days' riding.

My son as well has a ConnectCard fare card, but has only ever had cash equivalent fare on it. It did not take long for him to burn through the $50 or $100 he had on it. During the year, if we were both paying attention, we would arrange for him to borrow mine with its unlimited riding annual pass on it, and I would take the bicycle (or motorcycle). But this too had its drawbacks, as the next day I would go to get on a bus, only to find I did not get the pass back from him, and he had no travel plans for that day.

After crunching the numbers, we arrived at a decision. The solution is to let the annual pass expire at the end of February. Instead of slapping down the equivalent of 11 monthly passes all at once, we will put 1/3 of a monthly pass on his card right now, $50 in non-expiring cash-equivalent fare. At the end of February, we will put the other 2/3 of that monthly on mine, also in cash-equivalent fare. He does not travel daily, and I have the bike and motorcycle, so this should allow us more flexibility in travel. $100 will get me around town for at least a month, and every day I bike saves me $7.50.

In addition, this allows my wife and me to travel around town easier, as she can borrow his pass. For example, on Saturdays when he works (up the street, within walking distance, not needing the pass), she and I can travel around the city to visit museums and other attractions.

Twitter has thus helped us make a significant household business decision, which may actually help us ride transit more, not less, and save us hundreds of dollars in the process. In a larger sense, though, I've gone through yet another transition, from four cars to two cars, to primarily transit usage with car backup, to using the bike some, to using the bike a lot, and now to using the bike as primary with bus as backup.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A cold day for a motorcycle ride

How cold is too cold to take a 20-mile ride on the motorcycle? 50? 40? 32? 25? How about 15?

I'm sure it's been done by somebody somewhere who lived to tell about riding in even colder weather than 15 Fahrenheit, and for longer distances than 20 miles each direction, but for me this was a first. I knew that a motorcycle trip was do-able, from discussions with others, but as the day approached when I might actually need to make the trip, I thought I'd better get ready.

The matter at hand was a semi-annual Toastmasters convention involving participants from about a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. I motorcycled to last January's event, too, but that was on a day when it was 40 to 45, not 15, even if it was twice the distance. This time, it was a simple 21-mile ride straight up Perry Highway, four right turns from driveway to driveway. But how to prepare for that kind of cold? The weather forecast all week changed remarkably little: a bit of snow overnight, with a low of 12 to 15. The snow might be a deal breaker, but the cold was not, so I got ready.

First thing, a week out, I made sure I could get the bike started. The last I rode it was just after I got the tire fixed around Thanksgiving, so last Saturday, I made a short trip into West View. Three out, three back. It ran fine. Next, twice during the week, I rode it into the city, about 10 to 12 miles each way. This was to test riding in chilly, though not frigid, weather. I wanted to see what got cold. Gloves were an issue, as was some exposed skin around face, wrists and ankles. Getting feet and hands wet was itself a deal breaker, even in five miles. It was good that I practiced.

Saturday morning, I got up very early, prior to 5:00, and set to work getting the bike ready. Even before breakfast, I wanted to make sure it would start. No new snow since last evening, so the (one) road would be fine. Overnight temp: 14F. The engine turned over, but even on a good day it's hard to start. It wasn't long before the battery gave out, so again, even before breakfast, I dug out the long extension cord and battery charger, and got that humming. Only then did I have breakfast, shave, and so forth. It started easily enough with a good hour on the charger. I let it warm up while I set out my riding gear.

Getting dressed properly was paramount. I would be in a high school all day among casually dressed professionals, so figured on it being rather chilly but prepared for overheating. Schools can be like that. So, layers, but look nice. What I wore to work on Friday would be fine for the publicly visible layer.

Under that, I donned long johns top and bottom, with three pairs of socks. Innermost was wool, so as to wick away any moisture from my feet, particularly perspiration. Next was a tall pair of socks, possibly belonging to my wife or daughter, which went nearly up to my knees, for the earlier concern about wind exposure around my shins and ankles. Third, just another layer for warmth, but also to secure the bottom of the longjohns. Getting all this into my shoes took more than the usual amount of loosening laces, but it got done.

Top half, just the usual T-shirt, LJ top, and dress shirt, but then also a thick vest. I looked for my motorcycle rain gear to go over everything but managed to misplace it, so donned a set of waist-to-ankle bright orange waders with suspenders, which held everything together quite well. Over the top went my motorcycle rain jacket, which does an OK job of being a windbreaker as well. Add a knitted gaiter and balaclava, and I was just about ready.

Final things: helmet, gloves, and plastic covers for my hands and feet. Being pure ghetto, I went for plain old grocery bags for the feet (again, could not find my motorcycle rain boots) and the long bags newspapers come in to go over my hands and arms up to my elbows. With everything tied in place, out the door I went. The last I looked at the thermometer, it said 15F.

I knew in the first half mile that things were going to work, not even needing adjustment. Nothing even chilly a mile out. Two miles out, I could tell that I wouldn't last 100 miles on the very ends of my fingers, and there was a bit too much breeze around my eye sockets, but I could make it 20. Around mile 10, my fingertips were uncomfortable, but not dangerously so, and I was beginning to feel like I'd like this to be over soon. The last mile, I was still in much better shape than wet Wednesday night when my hands froze four miles out of downtown with seven to go. I arrived, parked the bike, pulled off my foot and hand covering, and walked in like I owned the world.

Once inside, I found a nice corner and peeled off all the extraneous layers, which rolled up into a ball I could stash in my helmet. I might have been an orange and yellow astronaut going up Perry Highway (oh, the looks on some people's faces, some of whom followed me into the parking lot), but inside, I looked normal enough.

I was cold, but not dangerously so. Two cups of hot coffee, the first chugged as quickly as I could get it in me, got me stable enough to conduct business. I wasn't late, but I would not have minded getting there 30 minutes sooner. Stupid battery.

Six hours later, it had only warmed to 19, and true to form, the bike wouldn't start. I had gotten back into the riding gear quickly enough, but then got overheated trying to push start it in the parking lot. Twenty minutes of frustration. Eventually, with a little help, it was running, so I re-donned the bags and was on my way. One of the grocery bags sliced open in the cold, so was troublesome in trying to stay on my feet. This was a bit of a problem, as there was still some standing snow in the driving lanes, and I really did not want my foot to get wet. I finally threw in the towel about three miles from home and stuffed it in my right hand to finish the last five minutes. Other than that, the trip went fine.

Back at home, I parked the bike and went in, feeling quite normal, not chilled beyond what one cup of something hot would serve in recovery.

Mission accomplished. If I had to do it over again, I would make sure I had proper hand and foot coverings, but I could surely handle 20, and likely a lot more mileage, and/or a lot colder.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2,500 bicycle commuting miles in 2013

I never left metro Pittsburgh. I never went on a long trip. Yet by the end of 2013 I'd racked up 2,554 miles under my own power, but like the guy in the double rainbows video, I find myself asking, "what does it meeeean?"

It means that a regular working guy can just about go without an automobile for purposes of commuting and regular around-town travel. If I lived in the city proper, that would beg the question, why have a car at all? With some deft planning and proper equipment, even grocery shopping could conceivably be done by bike and transit. That isn't my exact situation, though, so let's stick to script.

I live in the suburbs and work downtown. Transit service exists but is not convenient, most of a mile walk to a bus at rush hour, and almost two miles to the bus at off-peak and weekends. Alternatives exist at distances of three and four miles. To utilize any of these, I employ the bicycle. That 0.86-mile trip, some 17 minutes on foot, becomes a mere six on bicycle. The 1.62-mile off-peak trip takes about 10. The three-mile trip takes about 20, four about 30. Since all buses have bike racks, I take the bike with me on the bus for a seamless trip.

Once downtown, I ride a half mile through city streets to one of a couple of bike racks. The preferred one is a specially built locking station which opened only a year or so ago, accommodating about 50 bikes in a parking garage. Another is at the City-County Building only a block away from my office, but a decidedly less secure old iron rack of 1950s design that isn't even bolted to the floor. With the bike secured to either rack, however, chances of theft are minimal.

Many days, I biked the entire way into the city. This wasn't that much different, in terms of time, from walking to my usual rush-hour bus. The exact path varied, but was about 10 to 11 miles, exclusive of errands and experimentation. Not as many days, I biked home, as well. More often, I bused home, for a total of about 14 miles for that day, but 22 to 25 if I biked both ways. If all I did was bike to the bus and back, it was more like 3 or 4.

I biked all year. As would be expected, I biked less in winter than summer, but it was spring and autumn when I biked the most.

But again, what does it mean? It means I have some experience from which to discuss the topic of road riding intelligently. It means I have dealt with a lot of things, both good and bad, from which others can learn. It means I know when not to ride, when to adapt to conditions, and when to just jump on and go. I've carried items from kayak paddles to high chairs. I've pulled knotweed that was blocking the trail. I've dealt with my share of stupid drivers who insisted I not be there. I've identified permanent hazards like drain grates with slots that eat wheels. I've assisted on several organized bike rides.

All this is to say, if I can do it, it can be done, and others would be advised to listen.

Friday, December 27, 2013

40 years of the unicycle

Christmas 1973 brought the family a real game changer, a 24" unicycle.  Ostensibly my sister Claudia's present, within a couple of months, both sisters and I had figured out how to wobble along on it unassisted. For me, though, it went on to define me.

I had always been a scrawny kid, underweight, undersize, underpowered, yet more agile than most, and more accustomed to play alone than on teams, thus it was only natural that I would master this quickly. This was metro Buffalo, NY, so of course it was snowy outside, meaning we learned in the house. Our house had a long narrow hallway, just perfect for holding one's balance by pressing against the wall. With some practice, the balance came, and before long, we were navigating across the living room, around the kitchen, and over to the front doorknob. Lather, rinse, repeat.

New Year's Eve 1973, I was atop the wheel at the stroke of midnight, a tradition I would continue for another 15 years or more, no matter where I was.

When the weather got better, I graduated to holding onto the mailbox at the edge of the street (a 55 mph country road, but with light traffic and good sight lines). Wobble 20 feet. Fall off, walk back, grab mailbox, remount. Then 30 feet. Then 40. Then 100. Then routinely far enough that I was spending more time walking back to the mailbox than riding, so I practiced getting on without it. This took a few days.

By mid-February, I was riding the half mile to a nearby school, where a hopscotch court and a large spiral were painted on the sidewalk. Over and over, I would traverse each, trying to hit every number or stay within the ever-tightening lines. One day, I had to manage a near-gale-force side wind to get there and back, but I did it. I was 15, and for the first time in my life, I could do something nobody else could, and do it well. The one-wheel world was mine.

Each time I tried something, I got a bit more attention:
* April: A bike hike for charity. It was shortened to 10 miles because it took place in a downpour, but I made it, among dozens of bicyclists. (Artist Tom Toles did some of the promo work for this, one of his first assignments in Buffalo. I recall the poster as having five large heads riding tiny bicycles.)
* Riding to school: I was the first kid picked up on my very long bus route. I found I could unk the four miles to school faster than the bus could travel 15 miles. End of day, I helped shelve books in the library, after which one of the school staff would ride me to the end of my street to save time. Even at 15, I was experimenting with multi-modal transportation!
* May 9, 1975 (+- a day or so): WKBW-TV reporters visit my school to interview the kid who unicycled to school. I got a full minute on the 11 p.m. news. I also got to hold the news camera and toodle around the parking lot for a minute with the camera pointed at the wheel. This was a big 16mm film camera which must have weighed 10 pounds, in today's dollars must have been worth $15,000, and the cameraman was scared to death that I would drop it. (I didn't.)
* About a week later, I zipped across the stage in the school's variety show to kill time and provide entertainment while sets were changed.

I went off to college and the wheel went with me. I unicycled everywhere, exploring the SUNY Geneseo campus and the town. For the first year, I was the only student with a unicycle.

The highlight my freshman year was the morning of January 28, 1977, a date that will live in infamy in Western New York: The Blizzard of '77! It was a Friday, and my MWF morning was a succession of back-to-back classes in mid-campus, followed by a return to my dorm for lunch. The trip over at 8:45 was fine, just a typical winter day. Class changes at 10 and 11 were not unusual. By 11:50, things were different. A solid gale with heavy snow was coming out of the west, and the only sidewalk was a north-south path between two wide open athletic fields. We called it The Tundra. That trip was amazing! The sidewalk was clear -- no accumulated snow -- but you couldn't see! Having long ago mastered riding in a side wind, all I needed to do was take note of where people's feet were. I made it across without touching anyone else, and in so doing, I think I was the only person in all of Western New York to be riding a unicycle during the height of the Blizzard of '77, arguably the worst snowstorm ever, anywhere. A week later, the area was designated a federal disaster area, the first time in history such a call had ever been made because of a snowstorm.

Further note: In over four years at Geneseo, riding all through each winter, not once did I touch another pedestrian. I might have startled a couple hundred, but I never caused an accident.

Sophomore year, I was riding across the north end of campus one day when suddenly I hear: "You! On the unicycle! Lemme try that!" I handed this sandy blond haired guy the wheel, who promptly jumps on the thing and takes off, riding backward. I had met my match, and his name was Richard Tollner. He and I rapidly became good friends. He also owned a giraffe, a six-foot tall unicycle with a chain-driven wheel. I think I only ever rode the thing five times, but each of those was memorable.

The most memorable occasion was around noontime on Saturday, October 25, 1980. I'd taken a ninth full-time semester to earn more credits, and two hours earlier that day, met a girl in the computer lab. We were taking a lunch break together in the College Union after working on our respective programming assignments, and hitting it off very well. Coming out of the Union snack bar, a rocking chair marathon was going on, and Tollner was the entertainment, on his giraffe. Seeing me, he calls me over, and with him on giraffe and me on his regular 24" wheel, we perform a pas de deux for the rockers. The girl, whose name was Sarah, did not know I rode a unicycle, and here she was, seeing two of us. He figured out immediately that we were a couple. "Whaddya mean, Strickland, not telling your girlfriend you rode a unicycle? How long have you known her?" "Oh, about two hours." "Two HOURS? You guys are perfect for each other!"

Four years later, Richard Tollner would cater our wedding. Of course, there are wedding pictures of me in a white tux with tails, riding the wheel.

Years went by, but every place I ever lived, every place I ever worked, the unicycle made an appearance. Parades, protests, Halloween costumes, company parties, picnics. Most of the time, I did not use it for routine transportation, but it did serve as a handy backup from time to time.

I've owned seven, still have five. The original 1973 Stelber is in really bad shape, more rust than metal, broken spokes, bearings worn beyond repair. Sarah can ride a little bit, as can both my kids, though none of them ever really took to it like I did. Last summer, I tried riding a 36" touring uni. It was difficult! It took me 20 tries to finally get on it. I think I would more like a 29" uni for touring with other bicyclists. I just can't make any speed on the 24".

I've never been particularly proficient. Tricks aren't my bag, but I can do a few things. I can ride with my right foot on the frame. I can ride backward a bit. I can track-stand within a three-foot square essentially forever. I enjoy playing target practice with anyone who will stand stock-still as I fly up to them. Sarah is particularly good at this. It's fun to work in a kiss at a standstill between periods of moving at a jogging pace.

I do ride it a lot. New Year's Day 2013, I rode it 16 miles in the snow as part of the annual Icycle Bicycle ride. November 30, I rode it four miles as part of the annual Menorah Parade, wearing a homemade menorah. I captured some of the ride on video!

But just as in my youth, I've never done too much socially with the wheel. I don't seek out other unicyclists, never gone to conventions, never sought fame. It's just something that's unusual, that I happen to be fairly good at, and that's good enough for me.

Will I be riding when I'm 95? I hope so. I see no reason to stop now.