Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Goals for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achieving world domination

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Playing "Thread-the-Needle"

On Monday, Dec 8, a series of drivers played “thread-the-needle” with me and oncoming traffic. Explanation: On any given road, in any given lane, only one vehicle may be in that lane at a time. Specifically, a car and a bike cannot both be in a 12-foot-wide lane, side by side, at the same time. There was no crash or other altercation, but the incident serves as an example of the problem.

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

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

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

Front video:
Rear video: (rotate 90 degrees)

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

Here is what I want to see happen:

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

This bit of road is maintained by Allegheny County.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 10 Nov 2014 edition - Aliquippa speech, first draft

[N.B.: On November 1, a 23-year-old cyclist, Taylor Lee Banks, was killed on PA Route 51, riding from his job in Aliquippa to his mother's home in Rochester. A Ride of Silence and placement of a ghost bike in his memory is planned for November 16. I plan to be there, prepared to stand in front of any media present, and speak the following.]

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

We have created a world in which the only acceptable method for getting from Point A to Point B is in a car. And that's wrong. Why is it unsafe to use a bike to get back and forth to work?

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

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

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

Three, the roads themselves are designed to kill, by inviting people to drive too fast to accommodate any users other than cars and large-engined motorcycles. Why do we do that? We shouldn't need speed traps to force people to obey the law, the roads should be designed to enforce themselves with an appropriate speed.

The roads are there for public use, and that use is supposed to include everyone, including cyclists. If cyclists are indeed supposed to be able to bike along here, then modify the road, the speed limits, the signage, and make the public aware of that fact, so that we safely can.

Taxpayers might object to any money being spent for special accommodations for cyclists. Fine, we do not need special accommodations. We do, however, require normal accommodations, which means you have to accept what the law already says in Section 3301c1, that we will be on the road, and we will be in the traffic lane, and that since it's a four-lane road, we will be in the center of that right lane. It should be possible for 18-wheelers and cyclists to share the same road.

Share the road does not mean share the lane. If there is a cyclist in the right lane, get in the left lane and pass us. When you pass a cyclist, you have to give him four feet of space. Why? Because, if for no other reason, the gust of wind accompanying your moving car or truck is enough to push a cyclist off course, into a curb or off the road altogether. If you are on a two-lane road, Section 3301a6 lets you legally cross a double yellow to pass a cyclist, if you can see it's otherwise safe to do so. So when you come up behind a cyclist, either change lanes and pass, or patiently get in line, same as you would behind a tractor or backhoe, until you can. We will control that lane until we decide it is safe to let you pass, and then and only then we will pull to the right, as Section 3301c1 allows.

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 09 Nov 2014 edition - Surveys

I was completing one of those on-line surveys yesterday. While the topic is irrelevant, one question is not: "How many vehicles are in your household?" OK, how am I supposed to answer that? There is one car in the driveway, true; I suspect "1" is the answer they were looking for.

But it isn't accurate. In our house, three entirely different modes of transport, that are not cars, provide at least half of the family's travel needs -- bicycles, a motorcycle, and public transit -- and two of those are technically household vehicles. Even if I lump all the bikes as one, that would bump that answer to "3".

I want to contact the survey company, A.C. Nielsen, and ask them why they would even ask that question, and point out that our non-car travel fleet results in a lot of money being spent on goods and services related to them. Further, our non-car travel methods results in a skew of where we shop. Getting in the car to drive to the mall is so 1980s. We don't do that, even with the car.

But the vehicles are the focus of my complaint. I want to ask them, why aren't you asking about the non-car vehicles? I know that you are asking about vehicles for reasons other than demographics. I know you make your money by selling information about people's travel habits to potential advertisers. So, ask! There is money in us non-car-drivers, and our numbers are growing.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 08 November 2014 edition - Knotweed and pumpkins

In 2013, I cleared a few square yards of an established stand of Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant which grows eight feet in height and totally overwhelms its environment. I did not try to do too good a job of clearing it, just yanking out as much root as would come with a strong pull. It was a "proof of concept" experiment, intended to see how solidly the area would grow back in 2014.

The experiment was successful. Certainly there was grow-back, as I knew there would be, but it was much less dense. It took less than an hour to re-pull the area I put five or six hours into clearing in 2013. A few yards away, I began a second experimental clearing, this time trying very hard to yank out every bit of root and rhizome, to be evaluated in 2015.

What else I learned in 2014 is that pumpkins can be used as a replacement cover crop. I'm not sure about this, but am willing to try it out. Theoretically it should have some beneficial effect, as pumpkins spread sideways and cover the ground well, where they get established. The problem I see is that knotweed starts coming up in April, long before pumpkins get started, and by July are taller than a human adult.

To that end, I am gathering as many pumpkins as I can, now that Hallowe'en is over. My intent is to outdo the knotweed in those couple of experimental clearings. If I get enough of a supply, I might just toss a pumpkin or two into an uncleared stand, just to see what happens. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Right now, though, it's pumpkin gathering time. I know I can carry a 10-pounder to my clearing. I will see how easily I can carry anything larger. My clearing isn't too far away to walk to, but it is rather secluded. But I will get them there, one way or another, and keep my eye on developments next year.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 07 November edition - The Ninja Pedestrian

It was still dark as I walked Perrymont to catch the bus this morning. I've walked it thousands of times before, and this trip was no different, except for walking instead of biking. I know the shoulder of the road well, I know what cars do at every spot, I know where to anticipate wildlife making an appearance, I know every barking dog and motion-sensor light. There isn't much to surprise me.

Except this morning, I saw a shape appear out of the gloom, walking toward me. In those first hundredths of a second, my mind tried to make any sense out of the signals my eyes were sending it, and not succeeding. It probably did take a full second to realize the shape was human, and another to size up what was happening.

In short, nothing. It was just a pedestrian, walking westward as I was walking eastward, on my side of the road. Tall, male, maybe 40s. The problem was, he was dressed about as darkly as one could imagine, and was walking on the wrong side. Contrast this with me, who not only was wearing a light colored jacket, but also had on a flashing amber light which reflected off the road signs 200 meters ahead of me.

Cyclists and non-cyclists alike gripe about "ninja" bike riders, all in black, neither lights nor reflectors, not following the rules. Same applies to pedestrians. If I couldn't see him, moving 3 mph, how would a motorist moving 35 mph? Of course if he was hit, the driver would be faulted, but pedestrians (and cyclists) being stupid do not help matters any. Heck, even a white baseball cap would have helped.

Walking Perrymont is no picnic. Being on the wrong side is actually necessary in a couple of places because it's safer to be, no matter the weather, or lighting or road conditions. But not there. I follow the rules when it makes sense to, and act safely when the rules make it less safe.

But safety starts with making it possible for anyone else not to hit you, thus highlighting the first component in my mantra of "Be Visible, Be Predictable, Be Responsible."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bike lights and batteries

I figure I have $100 tied up in bike lights and batteries. Actually, that's an underestimate, as I've spent a good bit more over the years in failed attempts to get a set of lights that get the job done and do not self-destruct.

A long while back, I stopped buying alkaline batteries. I hate alkalines. They are little time bombs, only instead of going bang, they start leaking, and in so doing, corroding every contact and switch, every bit of circuitry, every thread of anything threaded. Here's a photo of one of the house's clocks -- still working, despite all the leakage. You just never know if your light has been destroyed until you take it apart and find it such.

I started getting serious about being lit properly after a late evening trip home. It was only a couple of miles, but I had no light, and someone very nearly left-crossed me. Of course I was at fault, but at the time I neither knew the rules nor had the money to buy any light, let alone a good one. But so began the quest to put and keep a functional light on my bike, front and rear.

Long ago, I lost count of the failed attempts. I will, however, try to inventory what I do have now, and what it cost me. If you have a C-note, this would be a good place to spend it to get one bike lit properly.
* Pack of four rechargeable AA cells, plus recharging unit  ($20)
* Pack of four rechargeable AAA cells, plus recharging unit ($20)
* Planet Bike Superflash taillight ($35)
* Planet Bike Beamer 3 headlight ($25)
That's $100, roughly. One charger goes to work, the second stays home. Two of the AAs go in the light, the other two go in your toolbag. Two of the AAAs go in the taillight, the other two in the bag.

About once a week, depending on how much night riding you do, switch out the pairs in use for the others, and put the depleted ones on the charger.


In actuality, I employ far more than the above. I have two headlights, and three taillights. One of those taillight sets is clipped to my helmet. One of the headlights is an older but very bright model which requires a heavy battery pack, and must be plugged in every couple of days. They make newer, brighter, much lighter light systems; buy them if you can afford to.

Do not skimp on lights, though. If you cannot afford the $100 up front, plan to spend $15 to $25/month until you do have all the pieces you need.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

NaBloPoMo, 02 November edition: Suburban road diets, en masse

About those three girls killed in California last night. The speed limit on that residential street is 45, though it drops to 25 right at that corner. 45? Are you fucking kidding me? FORTY-FIVE is the speed limit in a residential area? If it's posted 45, then what's the ambient speed? 55? What constitutes "speeding", then? 60? 80?

The article says the speed limit there is 35, but a quick look on StreetView shows a 45 sign just a block away, followed immediately by a sign for the school zone. The girls were killed crossing the street in front of the school (which had closed for the day).
StreetView link:,-117.8523303,3a,75y,90h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sKAc3XqZK7V-Pu4FoVxuuOw!2e0

In the news story, one estimate is that the car was going 70 mph (twice the incorrectly stated 35). Double 45 would be 90. How fast do you need to be going to throw a human body 100 feet, as happened here? Whatever the number, how does anyone justify traveling even close to the posted limit in a residential area, adjacent to a school? Some of this is stupidity by design. Four, five lanes across? Those sidewalks are amazingly narrow, with no separation between them and the street, and beyond that, have utility poles and stabilizing wires sharing that space. Seriously. Knock out an entire lane of street in both directions, and drop the speed limit to TWENTY-FIVE for that main drag. Thirty, tops.

I've driven all over suburbia, growing up in metro Buffalo, living in Pittsburgh 30 years, and being sent all over to Sunnyvale CA, Beaumont TX, Orlando and Daytona Beach FL, Tucson AZ, and many other places. They're all much the same. Suburban main drags are posted way too high, ambient speeds are much faster, and the cops don't even care until you're 15 over. Always and always, the traffic engineers, from bottom to top, talk about "improved traffic flow". That's code talk for Push-As-Many-Cars-Through-Here-As-Possible-As-Fast-As-We-Can. Which, sorry, is just plain fucking wrong. SAFETY is more important than speed.

Why do we build roads this way? Why is it public policy that we do so? Lives and the living of it does appear to matter, at least sometimes, but we're not consistent about it. We've gone out of our minds about one person dying of ebola, but we routinely kill five people a day in vehicle collisions in every city in the country, and outside immediate family, nobody gives a flying fuck. They're forgotten by the next rush hour's newscast.

It's not just design, but practice. I see this in my own neighborhood. Perrymont is posted 35, and I can't count the number of times the county has repaired or replaced the guardrail by the dogleg turn at the bottom of the hill. Downhill on a 7% grade, with a dogleg turn at the bottom, hourly, people floor it coming down off of Perry Highway. They must be on the high side of 50 as they pass the end of my street, only 150 feet from that dogleg curve. Never mind that speed kills, what seems to matter is that speed thrills.

I used to think Babcock Boulevard, on my routine trip to work, was pretty chill, but I get the most grief on that half mile stretch, just outside Millvale from Rita's Ices to the Shop & Save. It's posted 35, but outbound it's just gone up from 25 so people see that 35 like it says 85, and inbound, it opens up into a flat, level stretch just after a tight S-curve, so people see it and think "dragstrip"!

In the 1980s, when some significant noise started being made about repealing the national 55 mph speed limit, I started noting the statistics for traffic deaths during holiday weekends, which always spike. Almost without exception each fatality occurred on a local road where the speed limit was 45 or less. Every holiday, every year, for years and years. Most fatal wrecks happen on local roads, and always have.

So there's speeding, and insanely high posted speed limits. Not the same thing, two almost separate arguments, but unarguably interconnected. The very idea of driving the speed limit, anywhere, is so foreign. Speed limits are usually set by the rate of travel that 85% of people would go, absent a sign. So, by default, speeding sets the speed limit.

I propose the exact opposite. Decide what the proper speed should be for each road segment, without any regard to demand, set the speed limit to that, and change the number, width and shape of the lanes so that people would go that speed, absent a sign.

In Santa Ana, Fairhaven should be one lane each way, with provision for a center turn lane. Eliminate that outside lane, extend the sidewalk a couple of feet, maybe even with a grass separator. No parking. Possibly recover some of that space for a bike lane, much as I don't care for them. I'm sure everyone there will howl about losing a driving lane, and having the speed limit lowered by almost half. But really, too bad so sad. And same goes for nearly every other suburban four/five-lane street in the country, particularly ones that scream through the center of a residential area.

Our roads are death traps, by design. Design them differently (by changing the design specs), get people to drive a reasonable speed without having to police it (by making them less amenable to speeding), and make it possible not to have to drive in the first place (by making them safer to walk or bike). We can care. We can change. We just have to decide to do it, and hold state departments of transportation to that.

NaBloPoMo, 01 Nov edition: Halloween 2014

2014 marks the 24th year I've given out coins at Hallowe'en. You would think that after all this time, I'd have lines at my door, but no, last night only nine kids. For all that, I thought turnout was pretty good, given that we had a light rain all evening. I have never had more than 20 kids at the door.

This year's treats were British threepence coins. While nothing special, I thinkit's something the kids can relate to. Each coin was in a simple 2x2. This I felt necessary so some tiny kid would not choke on a bare coin. Usually I label the 2x2, but that didn't happen this time. (It was all I could do t get the stapler to work properly and not leave sharp edges.)

Perhaps I should simply let my handout explain things further:

Halloween 2014
For children:
What you have is a British three pence coin. Three pence means “three pennies”. In the old British money system, this was roughly equal to our nickel, and at the time had about the buying power of today’s quarter. The coin has 12 sides. Pictured on it is either Queen Elizabeth II (queen since 1952) or her father, King George VI (king from 1936 to 1952). The last such coin was made in 1967. They became obsolete in 1971 when Great Britain “went decimal”, meaning they replaced their pence-shillings-pounds system (12 pence=1 shilling, 20 shillings=1 pound) with 100 pence equals a pound. The first threepences were minted in the 1540s.

For parents and children:
I give out coins at Halloween to interest children in the hobby of coin collecting. I’ve done it every year since I moved here in 1991. My idea is that by studying coins, a child will be able to relate everything they learn in school to some aspect of coins. The more you learn about coins, the more interesting each school subject becomes. On this one coin alone:
Languages: Both Latin and English inscriptions are used, just as on every U.S. coin. And a penny is denoted with a “d” (for Latin denarius), so a threepence is abbreviated 3d. We still use this system in this country in measuring construction nails.
Chemistry: It is made out of brass, an alloy (a mix) of copper (79%), zinc (20%), and nickel (1%).
History: An interesting story of how Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, came to be king. His brother, known as King Edward VIII, was only king for a few months then stepped down to hand the throne to George. A couple of Edward VIII threepence exist, and are extremely rare.
Physics: Quite a bit of technology went into manufacturing a coin with 12 sides, and ensuring it would hold up to daily use.
Art: Someone had to design the coin, both front (obverse) and back (reverse).
Economics: Why was this coin once made out of silver, as recently as about 100 years ago, and why did they stop?
Architecture: Look up “No. 1 Croydon” on Wikipedia. It’s a skyscraper in London, affectionately called the Threepenny Bit Building, because it looks like a stack of threepence coins.
Mathematics: A “thruppence” is 1/80th of a pound. Find out about all the other ways the British have divided up their old pound into pennies, shillings, farthings, crowns, groats, florins, and several others.
Please learn about coins. The more you study, the more interesting everything else will become. I would be happy to visit classrooms, scout troops, and other community organizations to help kids learn about coins. I am selling nothing; I have nothing to sell. I am just trying to interest people in an enjoyable hobby.
Stuart Strickland · [address and phone number]

One mom said she looks forward to my annual handout, and has each of them in a safety deposit box. Um, that's actually counterproductive to my goals. I would rather the kids have and hold them, ask questions. Plus, I don't see any point in so carefully safeguarding a coin worth 40 cents. But if the kids really are not old enough to learn much yet (some were pre-school), yeah, there's not much point.
Ah well, I will keep up hope. When they do have questions, at least they will know whom to ask.

Monday, September 22, 2014

PA state bicycle laws, in a nutshell

I sent the following to the members of the bicycle-and-pedestrian committee in Millvale a few weeks ago as input to a newsletter and cycling course they are planning. While I am not a Millvale resident and thus not a member of the committee, I am very interested in what Millvale plans to do concerning cycling there, as I bike through it a half dozen times a week.

* * *

I hope I can attend tonight's meeting, but there's a chance I cannot. That said, I have a few thoughts on the residents' manual on safe use of the roads.

State vehicle law directs how things should work. Here is a link to Title 75, Chapter 33, which contains many of the relevant statutes:
Modify the 33 to 31, 35, 37, or 38, as necessary, to see the other relevant statutes.

* Cyclists do need to stop at red lights and stop signs. (3111a)
* Cyclists in business districts should be in the street, not on the sidewalk (3508b)
* Cyclists who are on the sidewalk must give right-of-way to pedestrians (3508a)
* Cyclists have to use the right-hand lane, if there is more than one, but may use the full lane, at any time. (3301b2ii, 3301c1). 

The "as close as practicable" *does not mean* to hug the right edge of the road or ride very close to cars. That is dangerous. On every street in Millvale that I can think of, it is too narrow for cyclists to be anywhere but squarely in the center of the lane. Motorists simply have to change lanes to pass a cyclist if they can see to safely pass, and if they cannot, to get in line behind the cyclist and go his or her speed. This is not negotiable. (Also not popular, but too bad.)

The safest place for a cyclist to be, on any street, at any time, is in the left tire track, or just a couple inches to the right. NOT on the right edge.

There is no need to "get out of the way". It is perfectly legal to ride a bicycle 12 mph on a 25 mph street.

Lighting: Cyclists do need to be properly lit, with a headlight on the front, and at least a reflector in the back, if not also a blinking light. (3507a)

Traffic lights: If a traffic signal is supposed to detect the presence of a waiting vehicle, and does not detect a bicycle, the cyclist may proceed through the red signal after coming to a complete stop and ensuring there is no conflicting traffic. (3112c2)

* Motorists need to give four feet of space to pass a cyclist (3303a3), but may legally cross a double yellow center line (3301a6) if it is otherwise safe to do so (3305, 3307b1).
* Motorists may not "right-hook" a cyclist, i.e., drive just past them and turn right, nor "left-cross" a cyclist, i.e., turn left across an oncoming rider. (3331e)
* Motorists may not "door" a cyclist, i.e., open a car door such that the cyclist would hit it, or be knocked into the path of a following vehicle. (3705)

I'm sure I missed a couple, but this should provide a good start.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, August 2014: East Street

[still technically an unfinished draft; I haven't written the part from Perrysville and East to back into the city, and out Penn Ave to 16th Street]

My plan was to tackle riding a couple of difficult streets in a law-abiding manner. CM in other cities is an in-your-face taking over of the streets by as many bicycles as can be assembled in one spot. We don't do that here, at least not on this ride. (The closest to that is the Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which I regularly ride, and recommend heartily.) CM here is about cyclists re-claiming the streets, which is the point of CM, but by assertively taking the lane and adhering to traffic laws, we intend to gain the respect of motorists. Other locations' CM rides which do not do this do the cause of cyclist rights as much harm as good.

Our turnout was tiny, only five at the start, though we picked up two more on the North Side. This is OK by me. I'm for quality, not quantity. Our plan was to ride up East Street, a 35 mph street which few cyclists tackle. Why so few? I wanted to find out. The whole point of our CM is to figure out what makes certain streets undesirable, and so to devise any recommendations.

From our start at Dippy (the dinosaur statue next to the Carnegie Museums and Library in Oakland), we headed first out Forbes and left onto Craig Street. It's a narrow street, so there is no question that we would fill the lane. Since there were only five of us, there is also no concern about corking, as we can stay together and pass as one through any change of a traffic signal. For all that, we have decided we will not cork, should we ever get large enough, but split into groups so as to pass through each corner legally.

After we got past the Baum Blvd corner, the lane widens a bit, so we took the full lane. Why? Because there are two lanes. The law requires us to use the right-most lane or as far to the right as practicable. On a multi-lane street, the first half of that "or" clause applies, so we used the whole lane, without apology. It's also safer that way.

We continued doing that after the merge with Bigelow Blvd, but upon taking the split to get on the Bloomfield Bridge, we fully occupied the single lane prior to the merge point for traffic from outbound Bigelow. There, we are using the other half of that "or", but in doing that, "as far to the right as practicable" means, literally, for us to take the lane, forcing any cars that come up behind us to stay behind us. It is not safe for anyone to pass us here. We take the lane, we get into the merged lane as one, and any cars that were there, just had to follow us. This is both legal and desirable, because to do anything else would be unsafe.

Once on the bridge, the lane we were in was the left of the two forward lanes. We maintained course in the left lane, which would seem to defy the law, but what we are doing is also preparing to make a left turn, and the law does allow that pedalcycles may use the left lane when preparing to make a left turn. It would also be unsafe to try to get over to the right, as we would only have to get back over to the left in 300 yards. While the bridge is posted 25 mph, ambient motor traffic speeds are more like 45 mph on a routine basis. Maintaining course in that left lane is the only safe way to travel. Once again, CM is claiming our rightful use of the streets.

A left onto Liberty Avenue, and we had what would seem to be a good thing, but is not. Liberty has a "door zone bike lane" from here down to Herron Avenue. Bike lanes might seem like a good thing, but when they are plastered right up against a line of parked cars, as is the case here, the bike lane is precisely where NOT to ride. The traffic lane itself is also not wide enough for bikes and cars to ride side-by-side within the lane. But the two together do provide enough horizontal space to keep a safe distance from the cars while at the same time allow unfettered passing by motorists, them giving us the requisite four feet of horizontal space. To do this, I got right on top of the white line marking the left edge of the bike lane. Really, that lane should be moved left a couple of feet, and a buffer placed between the parking lane and the bike lane.

At the corner of 40th Street, the parking lane is replaced by a right-turn-only lane for cars turning onto 40th. Bikes and buses can continue straight from this lane. This is a tad confusing for people, motorists and cyclists alike. Cyclists have to make sure that cars are not going to cut them off while trying to make a right turn. What motorists making a right are supposed to do is merge into any bike traffic in the bike lane, giving any cyclists the right of way if the cyclist is there first. OTOH, cyclists should yield right of way to any motorist who is there first. Cyclists actually have to get slightly left as they go through the intersection, as the parking lane resumes immediately after the corner, and the DZBL appears to be a bit left of where they typically end up when approaching that corner. Even for side by side cyclists and motorists, it's still a bit sticky as the cyclist has to travel those few horizontal feet closer to that car.

Past 40th, the downhill on Liberty gets scary. Cyclists should actually abandon the bike lane and just get in the traffic lane here. There is no room for error in the bike lane; if a motorist opened a door into a cyclist going down the hill at 25 mph or better, the resulting collision would send the cyclist airborne for several yards, and the result would be major injuries, or worse. Motorists, too, should be cognizant of this possibility, and understand and accept that the safest place for a cyclist to be is fully in the driving lane. If that means they must operate their cars below the posted limit of 35, then so be it.

After Herron, Liberty becomes one wide inbound lane but without a marked bike lane, so it becomes easier for cyclists to co-exist with same-direction motorists for the couple hundred yards down to where we turned at 32nd Street. We could have turned at 33rd, but it comes up quick and is banked slightly the wrong way. 31st is very busy because of the bridge over the river. But 32nd is one way from Liberty to Penn, so that's the cross street we took. It was easy to get in the left lane of 32nd, to make the left onto Penn.

Penn is two-way at 32nd (one wide lane each direction) but becomes one-way at 31st, so we got into and stayed in the right lane. Somewhere between 31st and 25th, two cyclists unaffiliated with the ride passed us, the first on the left, the second on the right. The guy passing us on the left had no problem at all -- he just got in the left lane, gunned it, and got right past us without any problem. The guy passing us on the right had to call out several times to let us know he was there, and even then, it wasn't obvious who was saying what, or why. Only after he got in among us did I realize he was unaffiliated. Frankly, I preferred the passer on the left. He did not need anyone's OK or attention. Just like a motorist should, he changed lanes, passed us, and got back in the lane in front of us.

A brief regroup at the red light for 16th Street, then we turned as one and started across the bridge. This seemed a little uncomfortable. If there is supposed to be a lane separation there, I couldn't detect it, not until 150 yards later when the stripes for the lane separations became somewhat apparent. I say somewhat because they were easier to see from behind than when directly upon them. We took the lane, but having said that, there was no clear delineation of which lane we were taking, starting across. Once firmly established on the bridge, it was clearer, and as usual, cars went flying past us at well over the speed limit. Or were they? What is the speed limit on the 16th St Bridge, anyway? There is no sign! Is it 25, the speed limit on outbound Penn? Or 35, the speed limit on Liberty? Or, since there is no sign, so by default, 55? Whatever the number, motorists scream across the bridge. But hey, they scream across every bridge. To make up for crawling through every tunnel, I guess.
Hey city (or whoever owns this bridge): Howsbout making it clearer that 25 is the preferred speed limit, and then enforce that?

16th becomes Chestnut St on the north end of the bridge. A second meetup location was planned for the corner of Chestnut and Progress, but there was nobody there. I'd figured on getting there about 6:35; it was actually about 6:45 when we went past. I doubt anyone would have given up that quickly. (We did pick up two more later, on East St.)

From there, we crossed East Ohio Street, continuing on Chestnut Street, with its bricks and trolley tracks. This is close to dangerous, as it is slightly downhill and so quite easy to move with some velocity. The brick surface is enough to jiggle loose various body parts, and while the rails look nice and smooth, they will surely dump you if you get in them. Edge riding is out of the question, as you are right up against that right rail. There is no question that cyclists have to take the lane and ride between the rails. There is no other way to do it. And motorists damn well better give them some space here! We had no trouble, but others might not be so lucky. I know that when I drive along here, I try to get the car up on the steel rails to smooth out the ride. Cyclists can't do that. But this underscores my belief that rail tracks and cyclists are not a good mix, and uneven bricks make it a most unpleasant and unforgiving a piece of road.

Shortly we came to the corners of first Spring Garden Avenue, then Concord St, where we had to make a left. These are nasty corners. The first is very wide, with a lot of traffic on the cross street. At the second, also very wide, oncoming traffic is coming down a steep hill. Executing a left requires a cyclist to get fully into the middle of the street, which can be unsettling if you're not accustomed to doing that, and it has to be done on a moderate uphill, besides. The group actually came to a standstill in the middle of the corner to get our bearings, rather not on purpose. It might actually be easier to seek out a quasi-legal alternative to getting through here, because the legal way just isn't safe. Adding darkness or any weather condition to the mix would only make it worse. If I had to do this every day, I would try to figure out some of the back streets through this neighborhood.

Concord St itself, once we got onto it, was not difficult, a typical narrow, one-way street, with house fronts that come almost up to the curb. These would be ideal for cycling, if it weren't for all the damned cars.

With a quick right, we were onto what became, one short block later, East Street. At this very spot is also the on-ramp to I-279 north, so traffic speeds approaching from the left were insanely high for a 25 mph street, though most were well to the left, headed for the ramp. The problem isn't the traffic itself headed up East, a steady trickle, but the perception of speed. Once we were around the corner, cars could easily get past us for the one brief block where it is two lanes, but then had to get behind us for about 50 yards (that left lane becomes a left turn over the highway), and that was a little unsettling. Once past that, East is one lane for another tenth of a mile or so before the stripes separate it into two northbound lanes, the right of which we took. As with any other two-lane street, there really is no space for cyclists and motorists to both be in the same lane at the same time, so they had to get behind us. In addition, there is a barely perceptible right bend in the road here, making it difficult to see oncoming traffic too far ahead, though that traffic is posted 15 mph in preparation for a right-turn-only over the aforementioned bridge. Motorists really do have to cross the double yellow to pass us here. But this is also where the speed limit changes to 35, which really means ambient speeds of 45 or more, so drivers are impatient.

East Street was last worked on when it was built -- rebuilt, actually -- as part of the I-279 construction in the 1980s. It is made up of badly eroded concrete slabs. Every piece has the edges ground off, rubber dividers stick up everywhere, and longitudinal slots separate the lanes more than the white stripes do. This street is supposed to be repaved in 2014, but at ride time, this had not happened.

Once East opened up to two outbound lanes, we had little trouble. Cars went flying past us in the left lane continuously, but not a single horn, and no shouts out the window. It is a long but mild climb, not particularly difficult, just a couple of miles of steady 2 or 3% grade, a climb of 380 feet over 2.7 miles. The last little bit, after East splits to go up to its terminus at Perrysville Avenue, is a little steeper, 130 feet over a half mile, for about 5%. We took a breather at the top. Even this last little bit wasn't too bad. While we did not hug the parked cars, we did keep as far right as practicable, single file. Cars coming up behind us did have to cross the double yellow; the lanes are still not wide enough to accommodate both us and them without that being necessary. Even on a wide street, that is still necessary. Sometimes there were a few parking spaces open, allowing us to veer into them briefly, but that is not a sustainable practice, as we do move along continuously, though slowly uphill, and with several of us at once, at least one of us is not going to be in the parking lane.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Critical Mass ride #1, July 2014: McKees Rocks Bridge

I call this C.M. ride #1 because, the night before the ride, I learned that there was a second C.M. ride being arranged, independent of this one. More on that in another post. On this ride, we took on the challenge of riding through a truck-heavy section of the city, and over a long, one-lane-that-direction bridge noted for its high traffic speeds. Our ultimate goal was to ride to Crafton, an inner-ring suburb to Pittsburgh's immediate west, and return to the city.

As on most C.M. rides I've organized over the past year, the idea was to investigate what the typical cyclist would encounter while riding in a legal fashion on common streets. We had a small group, eight at its largest point. While we were not out to tie up traffic or antagonize anyone, there is no way we could be ignored. We rode visibly -- light colored or reflective clothing on ourselves, blinkies and headlights on our bikes and/or helmets. We rode predictably -- signalling turns, taking the lane anywhere necessary, riding single file where called for. We rode responsibly -- we did obey the law, stopping for lights, signs, and crosswalks.

The short version: We did what you were supposed to do, and had no trouble at all riding almost 18 miles on busy streets and bridges.

We are getting better at capturing video of our ride. At least two of us had video posted within 24 hours of the ride, pointed both fore and aft. Links below. While I am happy that nothing serious happened, I am happier still, knowing that our ability is improving to capture evidence. If nothing else, the videos show that we do obey the law, and our method does work in ensuring cyclist safety.

I wrote most of the following as a post on the Bike-Pgh message board within an hour of the ride's end.

  • C.M. ride #1 was wonderful. We started with six riders, picked up a seventh before we got out of Oakland, and an eighth at the Science Center. Most of the ride was seven riders, though, as one dropped off at about the same point as the last rider started.

  • Amazingly little trouble on Chateau. I dealt with three times as much traffic on my pre-ride on Monday.

  • Most riders did not know about the new ramp from Chateau/Beaver/Island up to California/Marshall. Easily bikeable, and I think you can even get a tandem or trailer up it. YMMV.

  • California up to Termon was very quiet. The street is wide, the grade not too difficult, traffic speeds moderate, traffic temper calm.

  • We took the lane on the McKees Rocks Bridge. We must have been going close to 30, but even at that, two cars screamed past at 50+.

  • We were tailed down Island Ave in McKees Rocks by a cement truck whose driver was very calm and patient with us. Chartiers was a bit more challenging, as we got split up into at least three groups, and there was noplace to be except right in line with moving cars.

  • Windgap had a recent paving job, so was velvety smooth. Very little traffic, pleasant speed. Definitely a nice part of town to ride a bike along.

  • Ingram wasn’t too difficult. A couple of lights and signs and turns, but easily navigable, and drivers stopped at the same four-way stop waved us along.

  • Only a couple of us were familiar with Crafton-Ingram Shopping Plaza. Lots of choices of everything: grocery stores, drug stores, dollar stores, restaurants, fast food. We opted to hang for a few minutes at Dunkin Donuts. Refilled the water bottles here.

  • Steuben St headed inbound from there has one ginormous hill that took the group most of 10 minutes to climb. Despite that, we had zero trouble with traffic. The reason? No parking. The inbound lane is 25 feet wide.

  • We grouped together as a tight cluster to go through the West End Circle and ride West Carson. Very little trouble, and again, I am sure it helped that we had about 20 blinkies among us.

I should add more detail, but I think the voluminous video speaks for itself. We had two sets, first from me, a single, rear-facing camera, that ran fine until some point on Windgap Avenue. The second, from Colleen, captures both directions, after she joined the ride at the Science Center. At this writing, I am not aware of others, though I know at least one other rider (Yale) was video-enabled.

My set (copied from the BPMB thread):
Six videos, unedited. Thanks to Marko for helping me zip-tie my helmet cam to my bike rack. Zip-ties (which he had) and duct tape (which I had) fasten anything to anything and keep it there!

Video 1, Dippy to edge of downtown:
Video 2, Downtown to North Shore:
Video 3, North Shore to Manchester:
Video 4, Manchester to McKees Rocks Bridge approach:
Video 5, MRB to Windgap Ave:

Video 6 (brief): some of Windgap Ave:

Colleen had two cameras, and posted her videos on Saturday. She joined the ride at the Science Center, so hers overlap mine from there to Windgap, but also finish the ride, which mine do not. Both of hers also have audio, notably missing from mine. (My audio is on, but the camera is in a tight case, which excludes most sound other than rattles.)

Her front camera: Name: FILE0459
Start: Carnegie Science Center
End: California Ave at Dickson St

Name: FILE0460
Start: California Ave at Dickson St
End: The approach to the McKees Rocks Bridge.

Name: FILE0461
Start: The approach to the McKees Rocks Bridge.
End: Windgap Ave and Bellhurst St, about where my camera quit.

Name: FILE0462
Start: Windgap at Bellhurst
End: Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center

Name: FILE0463
Start: Leaving Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center
End: about to exit Station Square onto West Carson St

Name: FILE0464
Start: Smithfield St and Blvd of the Allies, downtown
The first 2:30 of this, we discuss the ride. Then we disperse.

Her rear camera:

Name: 09170004
Start: California at Marshall
End: starting onto the McKees Rocks Bridge

Name: 09320005
Start: on the McKees Rocks Bridge
End: Wind Gap Ave at Belhurst St

Name: 09470006
Start: Wind Gap Ave at Belhurst St
End: Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center

Name: 10020007
Start: C-I S.C. (all in the plaza)
End: Dunkin Donuts in C-I S.C.

Name: 10280008
Start: leaving the donut shop
End: halfway up the big hill on Steuben Street

Name: 10430009
Start: climbing the hill out of Crafton on Steuben St
End: on the access road into Station Square

Name: 10580010
Start: on the access road into Station Square
End: to the end of the ride at Smithfield at Blvd of the Allies

Most of the ride was within city limits. We also passed through McKees Rocks, Ingram and Crafton. Traffic speeds on the McKees Rocks Bridge are high, and motorists do not respect cyclists doing the speed limit. Chartiers Avenue in the Rocks was busy, with high traffic volume and poor riding surface. Windgap, a city neighborhood, has new pavement but few cyclists; I don't know why. Ingram was pleasant to ride in, with stop signs and lights seemingly at every corner. Crafton as well was trouble-free. The long hill out of Crafton on Steuben Street was a difficult climb physically, but no problem at all in terms of traffic, as there were no parked cars along the side, as on Brownsville Rd, giving us essentially a 25-foot-wide climbing lane. The West End Circle, though intimidating as it is built for high-traffic conditions, was surprisingly easy to deal with, as was West Carson Street from there to the Station Square driveway, normally a nasty, high-speed half mile. Our last street was the inbound traffic lane on the Smithfield Street Bridge, also featuring a lane wide enough for cyclists to have their own space, though most cyclists use the sidewalk.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, June 2014 ride: Brownsville Road

[unfinished, 8:30 p.m EDT., Sunday]

June 27, 2014, the largest CM ride in Pittsburgh in four years -- nine riders! We tackled riding through a difficult part of the city -- Brownsville Road through Mount Oliver, Carrick, and into Brentwood, returning via Streets Run Road, site of a cyclist fatality in 2013. We wanted to see why so few people commute by bicycle around here, and make recommendations as to how to improve cycling mode percentage.

CM has been almost non-existent in Pittsburgh since the law-abiding Flock of Cycles rides started in May 2010. Prior to that, CM rides had an air of anarchy common to many such rides around the world. No leaders, no plan, no guidance, no police help of any kind, and a general sense of lawlessness. The rides were successful in raising awareness, empowering people to get out on bikes, building alliances and friendships, and sharing information. All good, but the anarchy became more liability than asset, so when Flock rides began, almost immediately the momentum moved there, and worked for a common good. More recently, that sense of anarchy reinstated itself in the entirely separate Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which now gathers four times as many as Flock, and double the largest CM ride I know to have existed.

The situation at present
All of this has led to a strong cycling culture, even in a town with monster hills and a brutal, four-season climate. Our local advocacy organization, Bike-Pgh, works with governments, businesses, engineers, and civil planners to make it easier to get around by bike, leading to a Bronze designation from the League of American Bicyclists. Clearly, we have a lot of good stuff happening here. Yet there is so much work to be done, because while cycling in some areas is easy, even preferable (the East End, Oakland, Lawrenceville), bikes are still a rare occurrence in others, and this is where a revived CM comes into play. As in the "old days" of CM (think 2007), we wanted to assert our right to use the public streets as if we belonged there, as indeed we do. So why is it so hard to bike south of Mount Washington? We set out to find out, and sure enough, we found out why.

The terrain
We wanted to explore the southern part of the city, but not the well-biked South Side Flats. We needed to get south of Arlington Avenue, which runs along the high ridge that runs parallel to "The Mon" (the Monongahela River). The best way there is South 18th Street, which snakes its way up the 460-foot hillside. It takes a cyclist 15-25 minutes to make that climb, 1.7 miles of continuous 7+% grade. That might be reason enough to dissuade any but the most hardy cyclists from heading south, but it gets worse. After Arlington, where 18th becomes Brownsville Road, the way south contains 283 more feet of vertical climb in only four more miles, at least to Wainwright Street in Brentwood, just short of the PA51 corner, where we turned off for the return trip to town.

That's not all. At present, pavement conditions along here are horrible, with potholes, patches, gravel from rain wash, and sunken longitudinal ruts that can knock a cyclist over into parked cars one way or traffic the other. Some of this road is to be re-paved in 2014, though we do not know when. This should help, as it has on other city streets with a high cyclist mode share, but right now it takes some guts to ride this regularly.

Beyond this, the traffic along here is not used to seeing bikes on a regular basis, as they do in the East End. Brownsville is one lane each way, with on-street parking on both sides, and with hills and curves everywhere, there is no spot along this road with anything but a double yellow line down the middle. While the state law requiring four feet of space to pass a bicycle is increasingly known, fewer know that a motorist may legally cross the double yellow to pass a bicycle, if it is otherwise safe to do so. Cyclists often ride in the parking lane, which is fine if empty, but often is not. Thus, this practice is not sustainable, forcing cyclists to merge back into moving traffic.

The route 
Part 1 - Oakland to South Side. The group started in Oakland, next to the huge dinosaur statue adjacent to the Carnegie Museum, then rolled through Panther Hollow between the museum and Carnegie-Mellon University to the South Side, where a second meeting point brought our contingent up to nine riders.
Part 2 - Climbing. We set out climbing South 18th Street, as described above. As we had riders of widely varying ability and equipment, from women in their 50s to a guy on a fixed gear, to men who spend their weekends climbing hills around Pittsburgh, we got fairly stretched out on the hill. We regrouped in the parking lot of a gas station at Arlington Ave to catch our breath.
Part 3 - Brownsville Road. The 4.25 miles south of Arlington consists of lots of ups and downs through Mount Oliver Boro (a suburb surrounded on all sides by the City of Pittsburgh), Carrick (a city neighborhood), and on into Brentwood, an adjacent suburb. We turned onto Wainwright Avenue, one block before a major intersection, Clairton Road. We had neither need nor desire to fight with that corner.
Part 4 - Downhill. We threaded our way through a residential neighborhood to a long downhill stretch consisting mainly of Doyle and Streets Run Roads. The 2013 fatality occurred on the latter, so we were curious to inspect that bit of road to try to reconstruct, first hand, what might have happened.
Part 5 - Back to the trail and the city. We were able to make a simple, seamless connection to the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) trail, past the Hays eagle nest, and in a few short minutes, were back at the Hot Metal Bridge, where we thanked one another for a good ride, and parted ways.
Statistics. About 20 miles from Dippy the Dinosaur to Hot Metal. From MapMyRide: "This is a 19.3-mile route in Pittsburgh, PA. The route has a total ascent of 1,065 feet and a maximum elevation of 1,282 feet."

Some quick observations
* Motorists who rarely encounter bicycles do not know what to do when they do encounter one (or nine). Most simply slow down and/or give us the space we need. A few know about the passing rules, but fewer know about the crossing-the-double-yellow part.
* Few drivers understand what life is like on a bike, so do not appreciate that the safest spot on the road for a cyclist to be is fully in the lane. Hugging cars can get you doored. The side of the road is usually full of loose gravel that can cause us to fall, broken glass that can blow a tire and cause us to fall, carrion that can be big enough to dump us, as well as other hazards such as downed branches, and drain grates with slots in line with the path of travel. "As far to the right as is practicable," the wording of the law, means "as far to the right as can be safely put into practice", and that DOES NOT mean "as far right as possible at all times". It means we may legally "take the lane" and keep it until such time as we may safely pull to the right to release that lane to you so you can get by us easier. If this means you drive 14 mph behind us for a while, then so you do. Treat us like you'd treat a backhoe traveling down the street. They would be taking the lane, same as us, and going the same speed. We are not holding up traffic, it is that traffic is going 14 mph right there. We are traffic. Understand that, accept that, and life gets easier for everyone.
* On-street parking is a pain. We had the least trouble when we could use the curb lane for travel.
* Sidewalk parking is a pain. I can't imagine trying to walk along parts of this road on the sidewalk. Both on South 18th and Brownsville, there were parked cars either half on or fully on the sidewalk. In some cases, the sidewalk was being used as a storage area for wrecked cars at an auto body shop. Granted that bikes should not use the sidewalk (even if it is not a business district), but the presence of the cars would put people out in the street, too. This limits the usability of public transit.
* Speaking of which, there is an amazing amount of transit service along 18th and Brownsville. The 51 Carrick runs every 10 minutes until well into the evening, and the 54C runs along much of this, too. One has to ask, why do you even need a car if you live anywhere along here? This service level is almost as good as on the East Busway, and the Downtown-Oakland corridor.
* Taking a step back and considering the above, not using a car should be a goal to strive for in these neighborhoods, and identifying why people choose to, anyway, would be a worthy project. Plus follow-up.

Some specific issues
Many thanks to Colleen Spiegler, who recorded some of the ride with a fender-mounted, rear-facing camera. I wish I had been similarly prepared with a front-mounted camera.
* Video 1, South 18th from Mary Street to Quarry Street
* Video 2, South 18th at Quarry to Brownsville Road [somewhere in Carrick]
* Video 5, downhill on Doyle Road then Streets Run Road

Monday, June 2, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, May 2014 ride: East Carson out to Becks Run Rd

Our two-person Critical Mass ride tonight tackled East Carson Street between the Sarah Street merge point and Becks Run Rd, a most bike-unfriendly bit of road. Four cars passed us unsafely. Thanks to Dino Angelici, who knows this area better than I do.

I had long wanted to try a nasty piece of road like this. First, a brief description. East Carson through the South Side is a narrow, two-lane city street, where it's generally not possible ever to exceed the posted 25 mph limit. It widens a bit through the recent development known locally as South Side Works, on the site of a former steel plant. There, with turn lanes and much wider single lanes, 35 mph is not all that untypical. A bike lane exists for a short while. It is not particularly horrible.

Things get interesting the farther out you go. Sarah Street, which parallels Carson through most of the South Side, merges into Carson just as the road, also known as PA Route 885, develops into a moderate speed connector to the South Hills. The two outbound lanes are squeezed into a single lane, with 
neither shoulder nor sidewalk, but equipped with an eight-inch curb and various storm water drain grates. Here is a screen grab from Google StreetView:

Clearly a no-passing zone, and nowhere for anyone to go if there is any sort of slowdown, other than to get in line behind what's in front of you.

This was our challenge.

Fortunately, this mean piece of road is less than a half mile in length. The next traffic light is at Becks Run Road, which would be a pleasant destination, as there is an ice cream shop on the corner. Becks Run Road itself is a fairly pleasant climb into Carrick and Baldwin. But there is no real way to get there.

The only alternative means of getting to this point is to ride the Baldwin Boro Trail out to a gate in a fence, and scramble across a pair of live, high-speed railroad tracks. Trains are frequent, as this is the main line between Pittsburgh and the Baltimore/D.C. area, and far enough out of the city that trains are up to full traveling speed of 40+ mph. Crossing tracks is technically illegal, but that aside, if they're that frequent and that fast, it's not safe.

Now, as to the ride. Dino and I met at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's full-size diplodocus carnegii statue, and rode out on Forbes, left on South Craig, left onto Fifth Avenue inbound, to ride side-by-side in one of the four lanes on Fifth, as allowed by law. This is not particularly difficult, not all that challenging, though being passed on both sides by traffic can be a bit unsettling to some people. It's posted 25, though, and the lights are timed to that, so traffic is not that difficult. It gets a bit more interesting after the curve at Robinson Street, where inbound traffic arbitrarily splits. I usually take the right split, as most of the cars slow to make a left onto the I-376 on-ramp, then the remaining traffic speeds up a lot. The only safe thing to do here is to take the right split and take the lane, where the downhill easily allows you to get to the posted 25 and then some.

We signaled a left, got in the left lane, and made a left onto the Birmingham Bridge. Again, for cyclists who feel confident taking the lane, there is no problem with this at all. If you hug the right side of the road, you will find it intimidating and difficult to make this turn. Once on the bridge, though, a buffered bike lane appears on the right, separating you from bridge traffic. Highly welcome bike infrastructure, even if it is only paint. However, there is an on-ramp from Forbes that comes up from the right, and cars have right-of-way over cyclists, so cyclists need to be prepared to stop, and rightly so. Sight lines are decent, though, so by checking at the right point, it is possible to safely fly through the yield sign at the crossing if no cars are approaching. On the far end of the bridge, similar to getting on the bridge, it is necessary to signal left and get over into the center lane. The right lane turns right onto inbound East Carson; we were going outbound. Really we should have gotten over two lanes,as the center lane becomes a right-turn-only lane a block later on Carson.

As stated above, Carson for the next 10 blocks is not too bad. Even at the Sarah Street merge point, it's still two lanes, outbound. It becomes miserable 100 or so yards later where that squeezes to one and the shoulder disappears. For the next half mile, you get what you see in the StreetView image above, and everyone is trying to go 50 mph.

We took the lane, two abreast. Almost immediately, we got a horn. Shortly thereafter, someone passed us. Note, this is on a gentle bend to the right. There is no way anyone can pass safely here. But a second did it. And a third. And a fourth. Dino and I were riding full-out, probably 25 to 30 mph. It's posted 35 (modified to say 85 on one sign). The fourth passing car came dangerously close to a head-on with a northbound car. I waved back a fifth when I wondered if the fourth might not make it. Wrecks aside, the last thing I needed was to get shoved into the hillside by someone who wouldn't make it.

Four-tenths of a mile later, we were at the ice cream shop. One of the cars that passed us also pulled in, not to argue, but to get ice cream. Really. They risked their lives to pass us to get to the ice cream shop maybe 10 seconds sooner.

That was with two of us. What if there had been four, or six, or 20? Or just one?

We are entitled to ride on the road. The trail to here is not an option. It matters not that we were getting ice cream. We may well have been wanting to head up Becks Run Road.

How do backhoes and other slow-moving vehicles manage along here? I don't drive out this way that often, but the next time I do, I might try driving at 30 mph and see what happens. The road configuration continues in this fashion for most of another mile to the Glenwood Bridge. We did not investigate further.

After our ice cream cones, Dino showed me the path across from the end of Becks Run Rd that leads to the tracks. We had to wait for a train. One had passed in the same direction while we were eating our ice cream, and another had passed while we were rolling through South Side Works. Busy tracks! Once across, we rolled our bikes along about 100 yards of track, downstream, until we found the break in the fence. Sometimes it's locked; this time it was not.

After a bit of pulling knotweed, Dino and I went our separate ways, happy that we'd tried this, with plans to try another one sometime soon.

I'd done zero planning for this, no Event in Facebook, no message board thread, no posters or anything. Next time, we'll have at least one of those three. In fact, it's up already!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like

Final numbers for May: 336 miles, including a couple of Saturday trips to the pharmacy on unicycle. Second best personal month ever!

This is what an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like. Each trip in or out of the city is 10 miles. Add in a few group rides of 10 to 15 miles. A few bus trips, a couple motorcycle trips, and one, ONE, car ride.

I tend to stay home on weekend days. The 11th, 18th, 25th and 26th -- Sundays and a long-weekend Monday -- I do not remember leaving the property. FWIW, June is off to a similar start. Another Sunday come and gone and I didn't leave the house.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, February 2014 ride: Fifth and Forbes

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.