Monday, September 26, 2011

Bus bike racks, kind of a big deal

Pittsburgh's Port Authority of Allegheny County bus system announced last Friday (Sept. 23, 2011) that it had completed outfitting each of its buses with racks that can hold two bicycles. As one who's been trying to use the Rack-Ride-Roll system since its earliest days, I can provide some helpful perspective.

First of all, for many of us, bicycles are transportation, not recreation. Tools, not toys. Whether we own cars or not (a good many of us do not), or whether we even have driver's licenses or not (you might be surprised how many of us choose this, emphasis upon choose), the bike is an integral part of how we get around. Ignore our backstories. We bike by choice.

Occasionally we also use transit. Being able to combine the two worlds improves options for both modes of travel. Living some distance from a bus stop is less a problem when a bike can cover that distance quickly. Traversing nasty traffic, a big hill, or a long distance between work and home would be difficult on a bike but easy when the bus handles all that. The bus also proves handy on the day when the morning trip in has nice weather but the trip home is stormy.

Back in 2001, fewer than 1 in 10 buses had racks, but they tried to dispatch those that did on just a few heavily used transit routes. These routes also connected to a few of the regional trails that existed at that time. For me, since many of the rack routes ran out of the same bus garage as the non-rack-designated routes I used, it was a bit more common to see a bus with a rack, maybe 1 in 4, purely by chance. Thus I sometimes tried bringing the bike with me to the stop, and either using the rack if present, or just hiding it behind a handy bush. Needless to say, this was hardly adequate, and made a bike trip home much more likely than not.

Things began to improve in 2007 when new buses with racks began replacing old ones without. For me, odds became 3 in 5 that a bus would have a rack, leading to a lot more attempted rack usage. Several early experiments demonstrated that the idea had promise. I made bus-bike excursions to such far-flung destinations as Monroeville, Braddock and Squirrel Hill, with varying degrees of success. But even so, I got stranded routinely by having bus after bus go by sans rack, making me late and frustrated. As recently as Spring 2011, easily 1 in 6 trips system-wide lacked a rack. Racks were thus common enough to make using them attractive, but absent enough to be unreliable. Service cuts in 2007 and 2011 reduced service on many routes to only one an hour, so not being able to rack the bike often meant a very long trip home.

Now, nearly all buses are equipped. Only about a dozen out of 700 are still on the road without racks, most being old buses whose inspection expires in a few weeks, and which will then be scrapped.

The big deal is this: Even if you live or work a mile or two from a bus stop, you can use the transit system a lot easier now. You might be able to jettison a car. This can save you some serious money, perhaps thousands of dollars a year! Please try it out. The more we use it, the fewer cars are on the road, and that benefits everyone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The motorcycle

A few months ago I purchased a motorcycle, a used Suzuki GZ250, a small road bike. I've had a motorcycle license since my teens, but had been off two motorized wheels since I moved out of my parents' house after college. After the FedEx job in 2009-2010, though, with its very long duration commutes, I felt I needed to expand my ability to get back and forth to work, since buying a car at the moment was out of the question.

But where to get one? I really did not want to spend day after day chasing all over to look at bikes. Turns out my daughter made the connection through a co-worker at her job who was contemplating a move, but did not want to have to move a motorcycle, too. The bike, her husband's, had been off the road a couple of years, and had been off the road several years before that because the woman he bought it from had dumped it after driving it only a few hundred miles. Consequently, here was this 10-year-old bike with fewer than 1,000 miles on it, looking for a home. Calls were made, I looked it over, we made the necessary arrangements, and here I am with a motorcycle.

It did need some work. The brakes were grabby from disuse. The bent handlebars didn't pass inspection but were repairable. Batteries do not age well. The gas in it was old, making it hard to start. Also, I needed a helmet. But by digging around on Craigslist and otherwise shopping for parts and repairs, I got the needed things done, including insurance and inspection. Most of the costs came out of a savings account I built up years ago for just such a purchase. After driving it for a couple of weeks on the odd trip here and there, I put some fresh gas in it and it ran much better.

In the three months it's been fully legal and operating properly, it has mainly stayed close to home. The helmet required a trip to the far south suburbs, but it performed fine enough on that trip that I felt comfortable embarking on a long trip. Destination: metro Buffalo, New York, for a high school reunion. Since I've been out of work for a while, I also hoped to take the opportunity to do some job hunting up there. If I got a job there, I could use the bike to commute any day it wasn't too snowy, and could stay with family I still have there.

Preparations made, I was able to pack a week's worth of clothing, tools and supplies to the seat and head north. A 250 is not designed for expressways, and while I could hit 65 on I-279, I did not feel comfortable spending all day at that speed. Thus I took PA Routes 8 and 89 most of the way north, stopping to purchase rain gear the day of the trip. Most of 8 is posted 40 to 50 mph, and I was quite happy rolling along at that rate. I only hoped to make it to the gathering before nightfall. That I did, though took the time to eat dinner on the shore of Lake Erie near North East.

I purchased gas at a tiny store in Amish territory, Buells Corners, on PA 89. The person purchasing fuel ahead of me pulled in with a horse and buggy, clearly not intending to feed it to the horse. The Amish do own some modern implements. They just don't use gasoline for transportation. You would not learn this as you screamed along I-79.

After the reunion party, with the one beer through and out of my system in all accounts, I drove the familiar roads back to the old family house, in the dark, as I had done many a time before. I really had not ridden at night much, but the headlight lit up the road fairly well, provided I kept to posted speed limits.

The trip back a few days later, I again stuck to two-lane roads, but chose a different path. I was somewhat hoping to stop in Jamestown, New York, for the Lucille Ball centennial celebration going on then, but made a wrong straight. Not a great loss; I more wanted to visit the historic ghost town of Pithole, outside Pleasantville, PA, site of one of the earliest oil boom towns. That I did see, and walked around a good half hour or more before getting back on the road for home.

I refueled somewhere around US 6. Imagine my surprise when I found I had used 1.49 gallons of gas to travel 146 miles. Can this be for real? As it turned out, that was a little bit high, as when I refueled after arriving home, averaging the two tanks together, I got 89 mpg. Still, that is amazingly good gas mileage compared to a car! I attribute the number to a combination of a small engine, low road speeds, and not trying to be in a hurry. I can feel how hard I am working the engine, and tried to throttle back to a point where I was still moving along pretty well at the lowest throttle opening. This often meant slowing down on hills, just as I would if I was pedaling a bicycle.

At this writing, I've put about 1,000 miles on the bike, about 500 of which was on that trip. It serves me well, though is still hard to start. I have yet to pull (check, clean, replace)  the spark plug. Chances are good that it's gummed up from disuse over the years and running on stale gasoline. It runs OK if I can get it running, but does sometimes want to stall. Still, it's reliable enough if I use it every couple of days.

All in all, it's a good alternative to dropping a five-digit sum on a car when I can least afford it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Philly Naked Bike Ride 2011

I became aware of naked bike rides years ago, possibly as early as I knew of Critical Mass rides, easily five, possibly seven or eight years ago. The reason anyone would want to is obvious for anyone who rides a bicycle on the street, cares about oil dependency, and doesn't have a headful of nonsense equating nudity with lewdness and indecency. As A and B and the absence of C all applied to me, it was only a matter of time before I began to want to do this myself someday. For readers who need a refresher, this spoke card from the ride sums it up well:

[image: PNBR 2011 spoke card; When I find the image I will post it here. Meanwhile, here's the text:
* We ride to RAISE AWARENESS about FUEL CONSUMPTION and the environmental impact of car culture.
* We ride to PROMOTE ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY as a way of life and a corporate responsibility.
* Why are YOU riding?


* Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Chicago Naked Bike Rides in 2010 and 2011 looked early on like they might happen for me, as did Philadelphia in 2010, but all came and went with me never leaving Pittsburgh. For Philly 2011, though, I resolved to try to make it happen somehow. The opportunity came, as all good bike ideas do, via the Bike-Pgh message board. Joe started a thread saying he wanted to go but lacked a ride. I added a comment saying I was in the same boat. A good friend from the Pgh biking community said she had injured her foot, & so couldn't drive, but her car was available for the borrowing if one of us could drive a manual shift. I can; I grew up driving manuals. Green light!

Once that was set, calls were made to friends and friends of friends to arrange two nights lodging for me, and we even picked up a third guy via Craigslist to help with expenses eastbound. All systems go, all we needed was to get me to the car. That was accomplished by me riding the bike from McCandless to Penn Hills Saturday morning. Twenty miles and one flat tire later, I make final arrangements for the car, load the bike, and head for Joe's place. An hour after that, with bikes loaded and a food stop, we headed east for real. Joe drove the Turnpike and expressways, but didn't feel comfortable rowing a manual through city driving, so I started and ended the trip. By nightfall, we'd delivered rider #3 in the heart of Philadelphia proper, and soon enough were holed up for the night at Joe's fiancée's place in the northern suburbs.

Sunday morning, Joe and I went over the bikes. I patched the flat tube so I'd have a backup. By 1 p.m. the bikes were loaded onto two cars (theirs to return that night, mine not) and we headed into the city to meet up with more friends and friends of friends. With a couple of brief stops to pick up more bikes and people, our cadre of seven or eight were rolling through the streets of Philadelphia, headed to the meetup location. This was not difficult to find, once we got there, as one guy was at the entrance to greet us – without a stitch on. His decoration: Painted on tire tracks across the whole of his torso. It did not take long to find body painting, medical and mechanical, and in general a lot of already naked people.

I chose to get some body paint myself. At the painting area, four people were happily scrawling words on people's backs and decorating faces and body parts. They were working quickly, since people were streaming in continuously. I doffed my shirt at this point and had “Can U C Me Now?” painted orange and black on my back.

By 3:40, it was already getting crowded. This park along the Schuylkill River had flooded during Hurricane Irene a week earlier, making the ground too soft and damp for me to sit on comfortably, so I strolled around to people-watch and tweet. Most people were up in the paved parking lot or the drier grassy areas above this. Of course there was no car parking; nobody arrived by car.

Cameras were everywhere, but the rule was, no pics without explicit permission of those being photographed. I took no pictures, but did tweet dozens of observations. Early on in the meetup mainly men were getting fully naked. Only a couple of painters and organizers could be counted among the few naked women at this point. Most of both genders were like me, peeling off the shorts just as the ride's start was imminent, though many women were topfree soon after arrival. Perhaps that's becoming more acceptable in general as time goes on. While I didn't talk to many people, those I did talk to were aware of topfree activities in New York City, though fewer were aware it applied equally to all of New York State.

One of my early tweets observed that not everyone is beautiful. Male or female, few people have an ideal shape, face or skin. Lots of people droop someplace or other. A few faces stand out as being glamorously attractive, but most of us are average. Many of us need orthodontic work, have crooked noses, knobby knees, spots and moles, unruly hair, various scars or birthmarks, cellulite, veins that stick out, and so forth. All those things that apply to the visible parts of clothed people also apply to the parts of people we do not normally see. Breasts droop too, and never the same way, sometimes not the same way on the same woman. Penises point at various angles from side to side, and no two of them dangle the same way. Unerect, the vast majority are fairly short, protruding only an inch or three. None of this matters on the regularly seen parts, and none of this matters on the parts visible in great numbers here today, either. Why so much attention is paid to stuff that does not matter is beyond me.

Sexuality was entirely absent at this ride. For all the strolling around I did for over an hour and a half, pre-ride, I did not see anything more than a love-check kiss, not one erect penis, not one lewd pose or movement by anyone of either gender. This continued on the ride itself once it got going. All we were doing was riding our bikes down the street with our clothes off.

Back to body parts, actually body acceptance. It's OK to be some shape other than supermodel beautiful. Most women's breasts really are not all that big, and maybe if more women actually came out for a ride like this, they'd see that. Probably half cannot hold a pencil. Is this the cause of so much feminine insecurity from middle school age on up? Not knowing what normal is? Not being able to accept all these shapes from fried egg to eggplant as normal, common, average? Why should you firetrucking care what shape you are? And if you don't firetrucking care what shape you are, why should anyone else? If all these people (not just women, though they're the most insecure in both quality and quantity) were to see several hundred of their own kind in a setting like this, perhaps they would become more accepting of their own bodies as well as the shapes of everyone else. Beyond this, I also observed that about 5% of men had breasts as large as 25% of the women. This whole topic gets far too much attention of exactly the wrong kind, and virtually none of any kind that's helpful.

As 5 o'clock approached, things began happening. The brass band and earlier string band stopped playing. Milling about ceased and bikes began lining up. Casual conversation evolved into whooping and cheering. And last but not least, a lot more flesh became visible. Shorts and bikini bottoms were stowed in packs or tied over seats. More tops came off, too. If we had 1,000 cyclists (at first-draft time I don't have even a semi-official count), then maybe 300 were entirely nude (except for helmets and shoes), another 300 were adorned with mere underwear, lingerie or swimwear, and 50 to 100 had something close to normal walking-around attire. The rest had on shorts. Over 2/3 of the women were topfree, though many were painted, taped over their breasts, or wore pasties.

Once underway, we barely moved. Pedaling was difficult because we weren't moving fast enough. I quickly learned that while actually riding nude is not a problem, for a male (for me, anyway), there are, um, operational issues with getting on and off the seat, especially a high seat like on the road bike I was on. Certain body parts are normally tucked and held in place by clothing, but here were free to hang and to get caught on the front of the bike seat. With a little practice and care, this was soon remedied, and was not a problem the rest of the ride, but those first 200 yards or so were a learning experience. 'Nuff said.

In the first mile, we rode along a blocked-off street through the park and had the street to ourselves, but were soon in traffic. At that first corner, traffic came to a standstill, since they had to make a left at the closure, and there was no turning across over 1,000 bicyclists, naked or not. Even if they could, there was the question of whether they would want to, since the cars' occupants were clearly enjoying the spectacle of so many naked cyclists. On our other side was the Schuylkill Expressway, which also appeared to be having serious traffic issues. Both the shoulder and the right-most traffic lanes were lined with stopped cars, and the left lanes were slowing. Indeed, the opposite direction's traffic was slowing, too, possibly to gawk at the stopped westbound traffic. It would have been hard to see us from that distance. Lots of horns, cheering and cameras from all directions!

We crossed a bridge and were in the city proper. People were everywhere. I was about 2/3 back in the pack, not trying to garner any specific attention, and succeeded at this. I saw nobody I recognized, cyclist or pedestrian, and never once heard my name.

Among the crowd of cars and other vehicles were two city-tour buses. Whether or not their occupants had any advance notice of the ride, they sure knew about it then! Many of the spectators had bicycles, and received urgings from us to join them. I saw one young woman do just that, quickly peeling down to bra & panties and swelled our throng by one more. She was not the only one, I am sure.

Since I've never been to Philadelphia, I don't know streets or neighborhoods, so much of the ride was a blur, and much of my focus was on not colliding with other cyclists. With streets so narrow, and there being so many of us, very often we were reduced to one-pedal operation, the other foot propelling us along on pavement, skateboard style. I had the additional problem of carrying my backpack on the handlebars, since my back was occupied by a message. This made braking difficult, but again, we rarely got any speed that couldn't be slowed by putting a foot down. I could, however, squeeze my little squeaky horn, and did so profusely. One thing a naked bike ride is is noisy!

Ride marshals were visible by having bikes equipped with orange pennants on white poles mounted on the rear axle. Aside from directing traffic at corners (again, with much police help), they urged us to stay in our traffic lane, since often we were on two-way streets. Downtown Philly still has streetcars – old-style PCC cars, in fact (last used in Pittsburgh 12 years ago) – so crossing tracks is a common thing to do. One thing I was happy to see was that no part of the ride paralleled tracks, i.e. we did not have to cross tracks at a narrow angle, only perpendicular. To do so is not safe.

Thousands rode, tens of thousands watched and cheered us on. Exactly one man had cross words for us, that I was aware of, anyway. By himself, 50ish, a bit overweight, white (well, except for the red face), employed, dressed like a blue collar worker would on a day off. He chewed us out, had a swearing rant going the entire time he was in my view. I don't know what his specific problem was, but clearly he didn't like us. Eh. One.

A few turns later put us in the Fifth Street Tunnel, about as long as Pittsburgh's Armstrong Tunnel, but with a downhill and uphill, in addition to a small curve at the beginning. Unlike Armstrong, it's possible for a bike to pull out of the way of traffic, but not enough space to ride apart from traffic. The one tweet I sent mid-ride was keyed from the side of this tunnel. It's short enough that I had signal at least where I stood. The echo chamber effect here provided indescribable noise and joy.

There were maybe two places the entire ride where I could get into top gear range and sail along with a good bit of speed. One was on Market Street, one of Philadelphia's major cross streets, as we approached City Hall. Here, we were able to spread out across four lanes that were otherwise devoid of traffic. It felt most wonderful to feel the breeze everywhere!

Toward the end of the ride we descended a grade for a few blocks. From 2/3 to ¾ back in the pack, it was possible to see the size of the throng. The largest ride I've seen a picture of in Pittsburgh was the 2010 Keg Ride, which approached maybe 800. This was bigger. The front of the pack had made a right turn, but even so we were three blocks long, two lanes wide, and packed together so tightly it was hard to stay apart. In the few hours since I began writing this, I'm told the estimated size was closer to 2,000, and I believe it.

Just before the end, climbing a mild grade, we passed a wedding reception. Many of us were just walking by at this point, so the partiers all got a real good look at us. I'm sure the happy couple and everybody else at that wedding will remember that reception for a long time.

Then it was over. There was no specific endpoint, just a large plaza at an intersection with an assortment of restaurants. They must have known we were coming – even if some of those already eating there were not – for they seemed ready for a throng such as ours. I joined back up with Joe, his fiancée, and friends, we locked up the bikes, and walked around looking for a place to have dinner. For a good long while after the ride, naked people were everywhere. We chose an eatery with outdoor seating, and even though we had re-donned pants (a requirement for being served, a reasonable request), we left shirts off, including one of the women. She felt quite comfortable doing so. As we all had spent the day together and now dinner and the evening as well, nobody else had any issue with it, either. It's rather un-amazing how normal and natural it felt. Actually it's hard to describe the absence of any thought or feeling about it. We just sat and talked and ate, nine people wearing three shirts. Of the other three women, one had on a bikini, one a boa and a mere shell of cloth, the third a wife-beater. I don't remember precisely, it was unimportant. As it should be. I only remember tweeting that I don't think I'd ever had dinner with a topfree woman I had not previously met.

Following dinner, on our way back to the bikes, we noted a party going on at one of the other establishments at this plaza. A couple dozen still naked folks were dancing to a strong beat. Dancing is an understatement; bumping and grinding is a better description. I don't know if I would have wanted to be there, but I think I would have enjoyed seeing more than 20 seconds of this, walking past. Watching people interact is always fascinating regardless of what they're wearing.

We walked our bikes the 12 blocks to the after party in the same fashion we ate, sans shirts, including her. It was dark; few noticed and nobody cared. Apparently it was well known through the city that the event had taken place, so the “so what” attitude prevailed. As it should.

My final concern was trying to remove the paint from my back. It came off easily enough, but I wanted to ensure I had it all off before I used my host's towel to dry off. The solution was to shower once as well as possible, inspect in mirror, then rub the missed parts while still wet, rinsing off in the shower one last time. I suppose if you had a friend to help, this would be easier, but I was not thus blessed.

Tired, fed, showered, and alone but still awake (everyone else having gone to the after party), I ended the night by starting to write this down. All told it was a wonderful day, a wonderful event, with wonderful people. I wouldn't mind doing it all again sometime.

* * * 

Comment #1 below is there for Facebook's benefit. When I link this post to Facebook, it will use the contents of the first comment as the summary, regardless of who wrote it.
Comments #2 and 3 are my Twitter stream from the afternoon, pre- and post-ride.