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.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The neophyte park-and-rider

After 23 years of riding buses and in the neighborhood of 20,000 bus rides, I think I can size up fellow riders fairly well. In particular, I can identify a neophyte rider in a couple of seconds. Today was no exception. I was on bicycle, racing the 8 Perrysville from where I'd seen it coming out of the plaza as I carried my bike up the steps, hoping to intercept it at the park & ride. As I came flying down the hill to the intersection where the 8 turns to continue down Perry/Perrysville, I see a woman walking out of the extended parking lot for the P&R. I slow to a stop at the bus shelter and ask, "Did you see a bus just turn off that street?" She had not.

As I didn't know if I'd just missed it by 30 seconds or the bus was a mere 30 seconds away, I opted to wait, which allowed us to engage in a little small talk. She apparently had little idea what the bus schedule was, only that if she parked there, she'd get into town eventually. She'd seen a bus go by on the main road, but it didn't stop. OK, that marked her as a neophyte, as she apparently didn't know that about 20 buses go past here at the end of rush hour, returning to the garage a mile down the street. Not a big deal, I just decided that she likely would not have known that she, like me, probably just missed the same 8 Perrysville.

She remarked that she was surprised to see someone riding on the road. I replied that I lived about four miles away, and with the last round of service cuts, there no longer is a bus that gets me to town from my house, so I bike. We talked a bit about riding on the road, and that it is neither difficult nor dangerous once you learn to deal with traffic effectively, but I could sense that cycling was not where this conversation was going.

Her bigger problem is that she was just about clueless to the ways of the Port Authority of Allegheny County bus system, and in that, she needed a bunch of information, and quickly. She didn't know where to get off downtown, what the fare was, or where to get the bus back at the end of the day, all of which are critically important to a neophyte rider. On that, I supplied all the details she needed, the better to allay her concerns about being stranded, lost, late, and paid for the privilege.

I didn't press the cycling issue. I could sense she likely had not been on a bicycle in 15 years, and barring a simple stroll around North Park Lake, wasn't ever going to be on one anytime soon. I stuck to answering questions about getting around by bus.

A second big issue for her was that she apparently got the last, or about the last, parking space in the lot, and wondered where she'd park if not there. I suggested West View Plaza, but with the proviso that that was not looked highly upon. Yet it could easily be done, provided you employed the "hide-and-ride" method: Park near K-Mart or Giant Eagle, but not too closely. Most shoppers will try to park as near the entrance as possible, so don't do that. Go about five rows away, and take the farthest out space that has a car next to it. Then walk into the store, perhaps buy something trivial if your conscience deems it worthy, then come out and go to the bus stop to get on the bus. Nobody will question your going into the store, nor will they question your coming out of the store and waiting for the bus. Chances are better than 98% that you could walk directly from car to bus stop and await the bus without being questioned, too. The important piece is to neither take a desirable spot nor park so far out as to draw attention.

She at least had the sense to park the car at a park & ride at all, so props to her for trying.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Half a journey, so only half a bicycle needed

It was past 1:30, the pharmacy closed at 2, and I wasn't ready to leave yet. I knew it would be 1:45 before I got out the door, and had a bunch of things to look for up there. I can walk there -- it's only 3/8 of a mile -- but I'd get there faster on wheels. Yet it seemed overkill to take the bicycle.

So, unicycle it was.

I tested the tire; it wasn't flat, but way down. It took all of 30 seconds to pump it up to 50#. Then, off I rolled, as usual not bothering with the helmet. I've never used the helmet when unicycling. I don't feel it necessary. After 40 years of falling off the thing, I have yet to clonk my head on anything. Skinned elbows, hands, knees, even going backward on my keister, all of that is common, but not my head.


Five minutes after leaving the house, I was at the pharmacy. It took me close to 10 minutes to gather and pay for all my stuff, by which time they were starting to pack things up to close for the day. They were starting to flip off the lights on my way out.

Five minutes later, I was home. Carrying a bag of stuff is easier on a unicycle than a bicycle anyway.

Total mileage: 0.72 miles. It was a short but successful trip.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Going to the mall -- ack!

I think I get to Ross Park Mall about once a year to actually purchase anything. Some of this is by default -- I just don't go shopping much -- but some is by choice, as well -- I don't like malls, Simon Properties malls in particular. Yet here I was, on a small family celebration dinner. I am pretty sure it was the first time in calendar 2013 I was at the mall to spend money. I got there maybe once each in 2012, 2011 and 2010, as well. Entire years go by and I do not get to that mall at all.

I previously wrote about my irritation with Simon Properties. For all the snarling we did about transit access in 2007, Simon won that argument, at this mall and the other two it owns in the Pittsburgh area. Beyond that, I'm just not that fond of food courts. They have not the ambience of a coffee shop, and all seem to be variations on overpriced food that isn't all that interesting or different from one another. We ended up dropping $30 for what amounted to three hamburgers, three drinks, and an order of fries. I think we would have spent as much at a real restaurant, for much better food.

What really got to me, though, wasn't the food or even the food court, but that there seemed to be nothing *to* do there but spend money. I foolishly forgot to bring pen and paper on which to compose a blog post, so walked around the mall, solo, the better part of a half hour trying to find a pen or pencil dropped on the floor. I did eventually find one, but it took much longer that I thought it would.

Once found, I discovered I could not get it to write on the receipt from the food court, as it was of that shiny thermographic paper that does not play nicely with ball-point pens. I spent another 10 minutes trying to find a piece of paper. This too proved fruitless. No flyers, no discarded shopping bags, nothing. Nothing on sales floors, nothing in trash cans, no odd scraps of writable paper under random furniture.

Even if I had had pen and paper, the place is not set up to do any writing. There are plenty of chairs dispersed at random locations throughout the mall, but I don't fancy doing any actual writing while seated on any of them. They are places to sit down for a bit before you get up to spend more money.

Eventually, time was up, family found me and we went home. Dinner with the family was nice, but I could have done without the subsequent 45 minutes.

Malls. You can have them.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why I wanted the slower bus

I walked to the bus today instead of biking, but more importantly, while waiting for the O12 McKnight Rd express to arrive, the slower 12 McKnight Shopper showed up one stop away, so I ran to catch that. Why ride a slower bus? Because it's empty, while the O12 would have already been almost full.

Both routes start at the cinema complex three miles up the road. Since the last big round of service cuts, the last inbound express goes past my stop at 8:00, whereas before the last express was at 9:00, with a couple more in between. Since that change, that last express gets filled to the brim, even with the 60-seat articulated bus in service. Standard 40-foot buses only have about 38 seats. Even though I am about the fifth bus stop on a 12-mile trip, that last O12 is full enough most of the time that I'm lucky to sit at all.

I have always put my commute time to good use, if possible. It's one of the biggest selling points about transit. Between leaving my house and getting to work, I can study, do pleasure reading, prepare my day, prepare Toastmasters speeches, even take a nap. I've sewn on buttons, figured out the family budget, addressed Christmas cards, any number of things. But it's a lot easier to do if I can spread out over two or three seats. Just having the ability to extend one's elbows makes doing anything a lot easier.

By the time the 12 Shopper gets downtown, there will be quite a few people on it, but it won't be jammed full. I was the first one on, and had the bus to myself for the first mile or so. It's the same bus I catch when I bike to Northway Mall, so I'm familiar enough with it. It's just nice to have options, and especially nice to have room to work.

As it turned out, it was quite full upon arriving downtown, but by that point, I had already put my materials away, so it wasn't an issue.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Winter riding, Day 2

We got a bit of snow again last night, less than yesterday but it was colder, so between that and yesterday's melt, there was a thin coating of ice on steps and pavement this morning. "Black ice" (frozen melt, invisible to the untrained eye) was prevalent, but other parts of town had it worse than I did.

I had no real trouble navigating down my steps (see picture below), and upon getting the bike in motion, as always, I tested my brakes on the 50 feet of downhill between my sidewalk and my driveway. No matter what the weather, I always check the brakes here. If something is amiss, I just pull back in the driveway. On bad days I will park the bike and walk, but today it was not necessary. I could stop and turn, I just needed to be careful.

On the road, I found myself trying to edge out into the lane more than usual, since the very edge of the road was the most icy. If I got in the right tire track, I was fine; that was just wet. I got no horns in my 1.62-mile trip over to the mall, and I could discern care in motorists approaching from behind.

All told, it took the usual 10 minutes to make the ride over, uneventful, unexciting, as it should be.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

First snow ride of the season

They warned us. We knew it was coming. We had been preparing for it. Yet, here it was, and the very reality of it was a matter of both some concern and light-hearted ribbing. (To wit: Gaaah! Gotta run out and stock up on milk and batteries and TP!) Of course it snows in Pittsburgh, especially by the middle of November. It's perfectly normal and reasonable.

But still. To bicycle in it? Yes, that does take some preparation, both material and mental.

3:00 a.m., as I often do, I was up to check on things at work (and not to then spend an hour on social media), and looking out the window, I saw white. Yep, it snowed, about an inch, by the looks of it. I crawled back in bed for another three hours. Daylight came, and I got a better look at it. Still no snow on the street, and since I hadn't heard a salt truck, it could not have been too cold. If it hit grass, it stuck. If it hit pavement, even a cement sidewalk, it melted. This is the type of snow you can clear your car off in four seconds with an old windshield wiper blade.

For the bike, though, preparations were really no different from any day with a cold rain. The streets would be wet, and what little snow was there would be melting, so I could expect things like thermoplastic paint stripes to be slippy (Pittsburghese for slippery).

For myself, again, really nothing different from any cold day, though not bitter cold. I knew I'd only be riding three miles or so, so did not try to dress too warmly. Still, in the last two minutes before going out the door, I started to get a bit too warm. That's good. It mainly meant I'd be fine once I got outside.

Once on the bike, it was simple to adjust the height of the zipper on my light jacket. I started with it down about two inches, which proved adequate. Too high up, I'd get too warm. Too far down, I'd be cold right away.

As expected, I was fine in the three miles to the bus stop. Sitting on the bus, my toes are a tad chilly, but nothing serious. If I had tried to bike the whole 11 miles, it might be a different story, but this was good enough.

OK, one down, 100 more snowy days to go.

Monday, November 11, 2013

About cyclists "running red lights and stop signs"

In the bicycle world, there are a lot of different types of stopping at red lights and stop signs.

I make distinctions among:
  1. proceeding through a red light or stop sign without looking or changing speeds;
  2. proceeding through a red light or stop sign without changing speeds but ensuring that there is no traffic to interfere, in any direction;
  3. proceeding through a red light or stop sign after slowing down considerably, verifying that there is no traffic to interfere, in any direction;
  4. coming to a complete stop at a red light or stop sign, briefly enough not to put my foot down, making sure there is no traffic to interfere, in any direction, then proceeding through;
  5. coming to a complete stop at a red light, at least one foot planted on the ground for several seconds, then after verifying there is no traffic to interfere, in any direction, proceeding through.
  6. coming to a complete stop at a red light and waiting until the light turns green before proceeding.
The law does not allow for any of the first five. People who complain about cyclists “running red lights and stop signs” make no distinction, equating the first five, insisting upon the sixth.

I do not do #1. I do #2, #3, #4 and #5, depending on situation. I employ #6 anytime there is traffic to interfere.

I could go on for 2,000 words explaining the difference in each, their relative merits of safety, and justifying my actions thereon, but that is irrelevant. If you cannot understand the distinction thus far, there is no point in having a conversation.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Testing Amtrak's roll-on bike service

On Tuesday, I participated in an historic opportunity, to be part of a pilot project to test roll-on/roll-off bicycle transport service via Amtrak. It is not generally available to the public yet, but Amtrak wanted to see how well their idea would work in a real time situation. Some 20 cyclists were recruited to ride segments of the Capitol Limited between here and Washington DC to try it out.

As background, I have been asking Amtrak for years for just such service. For our silver wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, I had hoped to be able to have my bride and I do a day trip from Pittsburgh to Altoona. The plan was to bus our bikes into the city, hop on a train, exit in Altoona, two hours to the east, grab our bikes and ride three miles across Altoona to Lakemont Park to ride the wooden rollercoaster and other rides for a few hours, followed by a short bike ride back to the train station, picking up an ice cream sundae along the way somewhere, hop aboard a train, ride Amtrak two hours back to Pittsburgh,  and finally a bus ride home. It would have been a wonderful plan, if it were only possible. But having to disassemble a bike and put it in a box, and ship it, and reassemble at destination, times two bikes, times two trips, made it a non-starter. Ever since, I've tracked the progress of the request on the Bike-Pgh message board ( I can't count how many times I would have ridden Amtrak if such a trip were possible. Instead I've ridden zero.

I boarded Amtrak #30 in Pittsburgh, bound for Connellsville, 60 miles down the line. This was arranged by personal invitation over two weeks ago, for which I was emailed instructions and a ticket. I arrived at the Amtrak station at the appointed time, where I met up with the other five cyclists invited. Two I knew well, the other three I had not met. I knew a couple of others who would be getting on in Connellsville when we were exiting.

The train was almost an hour late, which I knew about from an overnight email directly from Amtrak. Harris Cohen, from Amtrak's Chicago office, with two other officials, Don Skinner from D.C., and Derrick James from Chicago, were to assist us with boarding, then ride with us, and assist with exiting, as well. I sensed that they were less hands-on people and more the type who arranged the whole affair and wanted to watch things unfold, first-hand, as they would develop and implement any changes needed, and/or worked with those who did.

We previously were emailed a diagram explaining how to use the racks. In short, bikes ride suspended from a hook on the wall, with a swinging arm secured to the floor on a spring to hold the rear wheel against the wall. I watched the first five bikes go in and up, and from that, was able to figure out how *not* to do it. When it was my turn, my bike went in and up, and was secured, in 10 to 15 seconds. I captured the entire loading process on video via my hand-held helmet camera [].

Once in place, we continued walking through the bike loading area, climbed a staircase to the passenger area, and seated ourselves in an observation car in which the seats swiveled 360 degrees. Mr. James gave a brief speech explaining the program and what they hoped to accomplish []. We filled out a paper survey which asked several relevant questions. It seemed quite well designed, with plenty of opportunity for detailed explanations. We gave it to them right then.

A small coffee shop was open, and a bit later on, the restaurant opened. There was not time to eat a meal on our short trip, but I did make use of a coffee and cinnamon roll to rack up a bonus Coffeeneuring excursion []. I think the 60-mile trip back counts, and it was a day off, though more a vacation day than a routine day off.

We arrived in Connellsville, and with video again rolling [], retrieved our bicycles in a mere 3:50. This involved the six of us getting our bikes off, us off the train, and boarding and loading six more. One of the main concerns Amtrak has is increased dwell time, especially on a train that is already running an hour late, as this one was. If that was their worry, I think we allayed their fears. That sub-four minutes was from when the train came to a halt to when it was moving again, as the video shows.

From there on, we were on our own. Amtrak mission accomplished. V, SR and I then had a most wonderful excursion down the Great Allegheny Passage on a soaringly beautiful early autumn day.

So how do we get to have this system wide? Money. They need to fit or retrofit eight cars (seven beyond this one) to support the service on the Capitol Limited. A similar number would need to be done for every other line in the system. Getting Amtrak funded properly would make this a lot easier, just like public transit. The money to do this competes with such other trivialities as rebuilding track, repairing rolling stock, fixing landslides, and fuel. To my way of thinking, though, the money is there; it is just being diverted to other things, other transportation things. The cost of retrofitting a couple thousand cars is probably a low-end eight-digit number, maybe $20 million. In the overall scheme of things, that's chump change. One big bridge repair, somewhere in the U.S. One rebuild of a big suburban intersection, somewhere. One lane-mile of expressway somewhere. If they didn't rebuild or expand one lane-mile of an expressway, somewhere in the country, once, we could retrofit the fleet, effectively forever. Any new ones would just have them. It's crazy that money is standing in the way. Surely we need to spend some car mode money on making rail mode truly usable.

It happened once, though, it seems to work, and the demand is already there and growing. Our time will come. I just hope my wife and I can still ride bicycles when we can finally make that trip to Altoona.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The ghost of the blue Toyota

In August of 1982, I bought a 1976 Toyota Corona for my then-girlfriend Sarah. I think I paid $2,200 for it. It was the first time in my life I had bought a car on my own, and the first time I sat across from a bank loan officer to finance a purchase. This was the bad old days, when banks actually cared about credit, and though I had a good job with a good company, I hadn't had it that long, so got the Riot Act read to me about making darn sure I paid that loan back. That conversation alone could make for a good blog post, but the one sentence version is that from then on, no matter how dire my finances were, I made darn sure never to miss a payment on anything, and can now brag of a spotless credit history.

The car itself served us pretty well for the next five years. It got her back and forth to college, it got us to our wedding, to her first full-time permanent job, to nursing school every day, and I occasionally used it for the carpool to and from my own work. We didn't junk it, either, selling it to some kid for I think $750 to be his own first car.

But here I am, 31 years later, still paying on that car. How? First, I paid for that car with the bank loan, of course. I made payments on that 15% interest loan over the next year or so, paying it off early, in fact, but part of the payoff was actually the proceeds from another loan with better terms, now that I had a year or two of solid work experience. That loan, in turn, was paid off early a few years later when I consolidated that and a couple of Sarah's school loans. Years after that, as part of a home equity loan after we bought the house, that loan was replaced.

Through that whole time, we've had some sort of debt. In a way, then, we never did fully pay off the blue Toyota. Some fraction of the outstanding balance of every loan payment over the last 30 years was derived from that unpaid balance of $800 from the 1982 car loan. Until now, that is.

Next month, we will make the final payment on all that legacy debt, and in so doing, finally bury the ghost of the blue Toyota. Maybe someday I will figure out the fraction of each loan payment, and the interest from each -- it shouldn't be difficult, since I kept all the loan records -- and total up what that car really cost me over the last 30 years. Factor in inflation, and I'm sure it's an enormous sum in today's dollars. A dollar in 1982 is over $2 today.

In any event, I will be happy to be *almost* debt-free. Almost! Because I still owe a five-digit figure on a car!
Our 1976 Toyota Corona at SUNY Geneseo, May 1983.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hey PennDOT, DON'T Fix West Carson Street

May 29, 2013

Mr. Dan Cessna
District Executive
45 Thoms Run Road
Bridgeville, PA 15017

Dear Dan:

About the proposed West Carson Street rebuild: Having attended the December 7, 2011, presentation in the West End and talked to project engineers, then reviewed both the preliminary plans in March 2012 and the final plans, I have but one thing to say on the project:


As I understand it, the motivating concern on the project is a failing bridge over Chartiers Creek. In short, I think you should replace the bridge and do nothing else. What I do not want to happen is to spend $20 million on a rebuild that does not work, and then not be able to do anything to reverse the error for 20 years because “we just worked on that.” In other words, leave West Carson in its broken condition until an acceptable project plan is developed. This is not it.

I suppose I must explain my conclusions. First, I am aware that this stretch of West Carson, between the West End Circle and McKees Rocks, has not seen any significant work since the trolleys and the Point Bridge were pulled out in the 1950s. However, as a regular user in several modes – driver, motorcyclist, transit user (daily trips to Robinson and Moon on the busway), bicyclist and pedestrian – I can state unequivocally that the new design is a waste of money. Aside from new pavement and drainage, there is nothing to make the road any safer for anyone. It will remain an unenforceable, cars-only speedway.

As a cyclist, I am hoping to be able to bike as easily and comfortably to McKees Rocks as I can now do to Millvale. That cannot happen in this design. Sharrows do not work at 35 mph, traffic speeds on West Carson routinely exceed 50, and will continue to. That is a deadly combination. Do not do it.

Look at The Waterfront in Homestead. That design works there and would work here. Put a sidewalk and a bi-directional bike lane on one side (the river side), and two traffic lanes. That’s all you need, except for the junction at the West Busway and at Corliss Street, where I agree you need a left turn lane. Everyplace else from Stanhope to the West End Bridge, that turn lane is completely unnecessary. You far more need to provide the future constant stream of cyclists and pedestrians a safe place to move, than a turn lane anywhere other than those two spots.

Again, if you cannot consider doing the above, do nothing but fix the broken Chartiers Creek bridge.

Thank you for your consideration.

Stuart M. Strickland

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Towards another bicycle parking facility in Downtown Pittsburgh

We could use another major bike parking facility downtown. There are a few racks here and there, but I am thinking about taking this to a new level: Repurpose that vacant storefront in the Union Trust Building at Fifth and Grant.

Until not long ago, it was an upscale men's clothing store. I do not quite know why it closed. Perhaps it was the lack of other nearby retail, or maybe because of it, as Macy's is almost across the street. In any case, the space is just the size for storing a couple hundred bikes. It is also right in the middle of a very dense employment district, with several large buildings nearby that have no or nearly no bike parking facilities. BNY Mellon 2 a block away does, but that cannot be used by anyone else.

I work directly across Fifth Avenue in the Frick Building, 20 floors full of office workers with no bike facilities at all, nor any obvious place to put them nearby. For a while, I was tying up my low-end bike in an old "toaster" rack on the portico of the City-County Building, diagonally across Forbes and Grant, but even that is undersized, insecure, and subject to pre-emption by events. If even 10 more people tried to tie up there, from Frick or City-County or the Courthouse, that would be overcapacity. More recently, I have begun locking up a more expensive bike to a sturdy railing in a parking garage on Cherry Way, but the strong smell of stale urine in that corner hardly makes for a warm welcome each day or a reassuring feeling upon departure. For all that, it too can only hold about 20 bikes.

The Union Trust corner storefront is an odd shape, with an even odder split level section, and window fronts that take up a lot of square footage. With a little thought and inspired architecture, that spot could handle a couple hundred bikes. Maybe on hooks? I don't care specifically how; that's a design issue best left to the experts. I would rather address establishing that the need exists, or inducing it, and initiating discussion of initial financing and ongoing operations. Yes, I do think there is a market for storing 500 bikes.

One thing such a space would do is provide legitimacy. Sure, here and there we can ask for and get a smattering of bike racks, and Bike-Pgh has done a wonderful job of getting hundreds of these installed throughout the city. These are excellent for the quick shopper -- the ice cream cone, the cup of coffee, a quick lunch. Less obvious is the need to tie up a nice bike for 10 hours straight, for all-day workers. Or 100 bikes. Or 500 bikes. Putting a formal bike parking facility in a high visibility location like this promotes the concept itself. In short, just having it there establishes the need.

There would be startup costs: Design, legalities, renovation, equipment purchase, installation. There would be operating costs: Leasing, electricity, communications, security. I am not trying for an exhaustive list so much as to acknowledge that they exist, and somehow must be paid for. Nor is it untrod territory, as we already have something like it on 7th Street. I suspect it will not pay for itself, at least at first, and perhaps not ever. It's a problem, but solvable. What's it to the city to be able to accommodate 500 cyclists? What's it to PAT to either accommodate cyclists who bus their bike downtown, or who bike all the way downtown so as to free up a seat for someone who cannot bike in from a bikeable area? Would the owners, property managers, and tenants of the Frick and Union Trust Buildings, the William Penn Hotel, the Courthouse, BNY Mellon 1, and Macy's, kick in a few bucks apiece to make it easier to tie up there? Can those called for jury duty be assigned temporary access for the few days they will need to be in town? All of these could be asked. Should be asked.

Amenities? We at least need a spot to tie up a $1,500 bike with the reasonable assurance that it will be there to ride home, with all the pieces still attached and intact, nine hours later. Video record everything from several angles 24/7/365 so any attempts at wrongdoing will be captured to pass along to law enforcement. Maybe this will not guarantee no thefts will occur, but it can make it a lot harder to get away with. Let's also have, at minimum, some tools available so minor repairs can be made. I would like to see a fully operational bike repair shop there, too, but I at least need to be able to pump up a low tire at 8 p.m. after the shop staff has gone home. I would like to be able to wipe the chain grease off my hands before I walk into work. No toilet necessary, just a unisex sink with soap.

Pittsburgh is not the first place to do this, nor would this be the first place in Pittsburgh. But it may be the first at this level of seriousness, a public accessible central storage facility. Could it be expanded to handle a 1,000-bike jukebox? Shower facilities? Cleaning and detailing service? Maybe. Let's learn how to walk before we try running, though. We more need to accommodate the growing bike population than someplace to purchase an Ermenegildo Zegna shirt.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mild rant about driving

N.B.: This started off as a post on the Bike-Pgh message board, where the topic concerned a child who was run over by a woman in an SUV. The conversation was going on about the relative merits of various shapes of cars, when my contention was that if the driver was not driving at all, there would not have been a kid run over.


Not enough attention is being paid, IMHO, to my contention: Why EVER drive? What made this trip, or anyone’s trip in a car, necessary? I’m sure a few trips can only be accomplished by using an automobile, but the more you try not to, the more you find out that indeed it is possible.

Change some things.

* Choose not to shop at a place that can only be gotten to by car.
* Choose to plan expected trips, like shopping, such that you only need to do it once every two weeks instead of weekly or almost daily.
* Choose to commute by bus, carpool, bicycle, feet, or some combination thereof.
* Better yet, telecommute when at all possible so you don’t lose valuable time at 100% capacity doing something useless like merely getting there. Demand it, when the job allows it.
* Downsize your fleet. Your household only needs one car, tops. I’m making it work in McCandless, have been for 20+ years. Stop thinking “I own a car” and rather “My household has a car, shared among multiple drivers.”
* Stop making trips to “pick someone up” when they can walk or bike or bus.
* Decide that Suzy and Danny *can* get to piano lesson on their own. Think “they’re already 10″ instead of “they’re only 10″.
* Cease to tolerate bad driving behavior. Call people out on it. If you want to stand at red lights with a baseball bat and take out a windshield or two of drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians, it might be worth the court battle and media coverage.
* When cycling, TAKE THE DAMN LANE. Refuse to concede to having to hug parked cars (with doors opening), the curb, etc. You are MUCH safer smack dab in front of someone’s steering wheel than off to the side where they *think* they can get past you.
* Buy bus fare. I didn’t say ride the bus. (Well, I did, earlier, but this is different.) Buy a monthly pass. Then another. Figure out how the system works without having to figure out fares. Make it work. The more people they have paying into the system, whether they ride it or not, the more likely they will keep routes in place and maybe even expand service.
* Learn how to use the buses’ bike racks. Bike to the bus, use the bus to get past the suckiest traffic, then bike the rest of the way to your destination.

I was at the park for that little gathering. I rode from McCandless, up by CCAC North, by way of downtown where I work. I took a bus to the busway’s Homewood station and biked to Reynolds & S Lex. Then I rode back downtown, using Fifth, taking the lane (nearly) the whole way. (One spot, I let a bunch of cars and a bus past. One.)

Stop driving. I’m serious. Figure out how. Make it work. I don’t care what you’re driving. When we stop driving, we will stop running people over. It’s that simple.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dirty Dozen 2012 (written Nov 16, 2012)

It felt good to marshal this year's Dirty Dozen. The DD is a bicycle race, but it's not speed that matters, but hill climbing. Points are scored by the first three male and female riders to get to the top of 13 hills (12 this year) of gargantuan proportion. Each is scored separately. At the end, he and she with the most points wins. Top three of each gender get a prize.

Marshaling is traffic control. Each group ride is a little different, but they all have in common the need to keep people safe and keep traffic moving. In DD's case, riders flow as tight packs most of the time, so marshaling means corking auto traffic so a large, tightly packed group can clear an intersection. It is safer for all involved if the pack can travel as a pack -- something cars do not do -- so we bend the law to accommodate this.

Let me make that more clear: Safety first, and that includes the traffic rules. Let me make that even clearer: It is more important to keep groups of riders safe than it is to obey the law. When a pack of 50 riders -- or 150 riders -- comes through, marshals hold car traffic stopped for a half minute, poor babies.

Don't care for that? Too flippin' bad. A half minute a year, if you have the luck to be right there right then. A truck stuck in an intersection will slow you down more.

But I digress.

But I don't. Because that's what I did. At four corners, widely spaced in distance and time, I held up traffic for one minute so that these bunches of riders could safely traverse one traffic light.

As late as Friday, I had not committed to assisting, but when the rest of the family said they had other plans, I emailed my offer of help. My plan was to leap out of bed by 6 and get on the road by 7:45 to get to the marshals' meeting at the Highland Park Oval by 9. But with one delay after another, it was 8:30 before I got out the door, then had no fewer than five mechanical or safety problems in the first 1/2 mile of the trip. It had snowed overnight, so roads and trails were slick. I turned back. I saw no point in pushing 100% for 14 miles for a meeting I would miss most of, only to turn right around and chase halfway back from whence I came.

Two hours later, I was ready for another go. The snow had stopped, streets were clear, and earlier mechanical issues were mainly behind me. After verifying that Hill 6 (usually 7) was next, I aimed for there. I arrived just as the first riders were clearing the top. I found the head marshal and rode with him (ahead of the pack) to the first corner where they needed help, the lower Perrysville-Federal intersection. Once clear of that, I helped at the Sixth Street Bridge and Fort Duquesne Blvd corner.

From there, I just rode with the pack, as it wasn't possible to get much ahead of 200 cyclists riding through downtown, and other marshals took care of other corners. At the base of Sycamore Street, I split off, and headed well upstream of the riders, but in doing this, essentially got lost in the Banksville-Dormont part of town. More by chance than design, I happened upon another marshal I know well (Dan B), who suggested I man one corner on the South Side, 18th and Sarah, but I was far enough ahead of the pack that I actually had time to get some lunch.

On the way, I also took in a pleasant little *level* ride through the Wabash Tunnel. Someday, hopefully soon, all cyclists will be able to do so legally. I did not see a single car in the tunnel in the five minutes it took me to travel it.

I took a few horns from disgruntled motorists at 18th and Sarah while I held the light. Part of my job. Safety first.

Lastly, I rode out to Hazelwood to handle Second and Elizabeth. This one was tougher. By this point in the ride, nearly at the end, riders were sparse in number and widely spaced. There was not a "critical mass" (lower case) of riders, as there was at 18th and Sarah, so I had to intervene several times. While traffic on Second was busy, it was predictable. Less predictable was traffic coming northbound on Elizabeth. Nearly everyone was making a right, but not all. Situated as I was in the intersection, I could easily see that the front car was making a right, but I could not see if the second or following cars were also turning. One time -- JUST one time -- I let someone make a right on the green, only to discover the second car in line was going *straight*, but at that same moment, a rider came through, and seeing me having the intersection corked, rolled through the red, and I couldn't get the second driver to stop. No collision, but I was shaking. Thinking about this later, one of the following should have happened: A) Prevent everyone on Elizabeth from moving, even right turns; B) Police assistance; C) Someone to assist me; D) Not handled the corner in the first place, since there was a light.

As if that was not bad enough, a church on the opposite corner was holding a church service just then about to get underway, so there were a lot of cars pulling up in front and parking. One person opening a car door very nearly doored a rider coming by. This had nothing to do with me, but it was less than 100 feet away. It coincidentally occurred less than two minutes after the prior incident, so I was not having a good state of mind about then.

Eventually the clean-up van came through, signalling the end of the riders, so I packed up and headed back home.

Would I do it again? Definitely. But next time, I will try to get to the marshals' meeting beforehand to ensure that the best corners get coverage, and let others slide that perhaps might do better unmanned.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

1 unicycle, 5 buses, and a new year

What better way to ring in a new year than to take an epic trip on a unicycle?

For 40-ish years, Pittsburgh cyclists have ridden a group ride called the Icycle Bicycle Ride. No matter how rotten the weather, they ride. The 2013 version offered a very cold morning, a little bit of overnight snow, but a lot of refrozen slop from the several snowfalls last week. No trails were clear, so the ride itself stuck to city streets, for the most part.

I actually showed up to ride on my unicycle, but a flat tire prevented me from starting with the group of over 100 riders. Earlier, I had been able to ride the three miles into West View, but air was leaking out so fast I couldn't even make it two blocks across downtown. Fortunately, someone at the ride had a patch kit and tools, so I was able to patch the tire in about five minutes, without even taking the wheel off. In that brief time, though, the riders took off. No matter; on a 24" uni, I was not going to be able to keep up with them anyway.

Undaunted, I took off down East Carson Street for about 15 blocks, riding alone. When it became clear I was not going to see anyone else, I opted to go off course and explore the city, as best I could. I had already ridden two buses to get to the ride -- one from West View, one from town to the ride -- and now took a third to get back into town.

I wanted to participate in the various photography games on the Bike-Pgh message board, since I so rarely have the wheel with me. Since one of them involved getting a bowl of soup, I wanted somehow to get a bowl of soup and the wheel in the same shot. A second game, Wheelset of Fortune, required I find a "parking chair", a Pittsburgh oddity whereby someone holds a parking space by placing an old chair in it. While I found neither of those in the central city, before the day was out, I was able to get both.

What made the day was being able to combine using the wheel with riding buses. As with the bicycle, which has to ride on the front of the bus, I used my personal transportation to augment the transit system. Or is it the other way around? Whichever, I bring the wheel on with me, storing it right alongside me in the seat. On a quiet day like New Year's, there are usually not that many riders, so it was fairly easy to wedge it into a forward facing seat with me. On busier buses, in the past, I would store it under a side-facing seat, and hope a wheelchair rider did not get on. I've taken it on fully loaded buses with standees, for which I stood astride it (not on it), trying and usually succeeding in not clobbering anyone's shins with the pedals, and taking up no more room than I would without the wheel.

Five buses: West View to town, town to Second & Hot Metal Bridge, ECarson & 13th to town, Federal & North to California & Charles, and finally, from Bellevue to West View. In between, I rode the wheel. The longest piece was from Calif/Charles to Bellevue, almost six miles. But all the pieces together totaled almost 16 miles, not bad for not having been on the thing in the better part of a year.