Archive for the ‘Bicycles’ Category

Mon 14 Sep 2009 9:00 am   //   Posted in: Bicycles

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance

bikelightNote: I’m riding in the Bike MS ride on October 4. (Info.) Since I’ve got cycling on the brain, I’m declaring it Bike Week on the blog! Every day at 9 a.m., Monday through Friday, I’ll have a new post about biking.

I recently read the 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. It was a fascinating read, and kind of a head trip. Amid some heavy philosophy and reflections on family and mental illness, Pirsig offers some sound advice about taking care of a motorcycle. He argues that it’s better to know your machine and work on it yourself than take it to a mechanic.

When it comes to bicycles, I generally agree. I always try to do as much bike maintenance as I can by myself. It saves money, it’s more convenient, and it’s personally satisfying. My bike is also simple and solidly built, so it usually only requires minor adjustments.

This past weekend, in preparation for my big ride next month, I decided to upgrade a few components on my bike. I installed new brake pads and adjusted the brakes. I mended a rip in the seat covering. I oiled the chain and wiped some of that sooty New York City street grime off the frame. And I decided to replace my cheap plastic pedals with lightweight metal ones with toe clips. A helpful guy at the friendly neighborhood bike shop, Brooklyn Bicycles, sold me a good, inexpensive set of metal pedals and clips. I decided to install them myself. Easy, right?


Fri 14 Nov 2008 5:33 pm   //   Posted in: Art, Bicycles

I totally called the winning bike rack design

Last month I wrote about the New York City bike rack design competition. After seeing all the experimental bike racks installed in the Astor Place traffic island near my office, my favorite was the circular rack seen here…

Recently they announced the winning design, and guess what won? Right! From the design competition blog:

“Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve’s design reflects a modern simplicity that will greatly enhance the City’s streetscape. The rack is round with a horizontal crossbar, evoking an abstracted bicycle tire. Constructed of cast-metal, the design is elegant yet sturdy enough to withstand the harshest street environments.”

Here’s hoping the city installs these racks in pairs, both for convenience and aesthetics.

(From The Times, spotted first at Cityspecific.)

Tue 14 Oct 2008 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Art, Bicycles

Reinventing the bike rack

Seen in the picture above is the standard New York City bike rack. It’s simple, ugly, indestructible, and barely functional. NYCDOT thinks we can do better, so they’re having a contest to redesign the bike rack. Prototypes of all the finalists have been installed around The Cube in the traffic island at Astor Place.

None of the prototypes proposes an elegant solution to the biggest problems facing the current racks: They can only host two or three bikes at a time, and bikes can fall over and bang up against each other. The present racks are sometimes hijacked by fools who hitch both tires of their bike parallel to the rack, rather than perpendicular to it.

Only one proposed rack looks like a fool-proof way to host four bikes, and it is also the biggest and ugliest.

The rest of the bike racks seem resigned to only accommodate two bikes, but if installed in pairs this could work. Something about the circular racks is appealing. They evoke bicycle wheels, they offer hitching space at a variety of heights to accommodate different-size bikes and chains, and they seem like they’d be durable. I think there is a quiet genius to this design:

Interestingly, one of the judges for the bike rack contest is David Byrne. He even proposed a few bike rack designs of his own just for fun, seen here.

The winner will be announced October 24.

Wed 10 Sep 2008 8:35 am   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Transit, Travel

Viva Velib!

Last year when I went to Paris, the city had just installed the Velib bicycle sharing program. I was so amazed by this idea I couldn’t stop telling people about it. When I visited France last week, it was clear the system is still humming along, but some cracks in the infrastructure have started to appear. More about that in a minute. First, here’s the rundown on how it works.

In short: You walk up to a kiosk, tap a few buttons, and the computer unlocks a bike from an electronic rack. You can ride the bike as much as you want and return it to any one of hundreds of other racks just like it scattered around the city. The computer charges you a Euro or two (or nothing) depending on how long you use the bike, and charges you 150 Euro if you fail to return the bike at all. (The bikes are heavy, fat-tire cruisers with ugly fenders. You can buy a better bike for 150 Euro.)

Who pays for this? No, not taxes. Somebody had a great idea when the contract to manage Paris’s outdoor advertising came up for bid. To win this lucrative contract, companies were required to submit a proposal to create and operate a public bicycle program. Done!

In Paris I had a great time riding around on the Velib bikes. I also saw similar systems in action in Lyon (their Velo’v system was the model for the one in Paris) and Perpignan. These local bike-share programs have been so successful that they are rapidly spreading across Europe. Some U.S. cities have expressed interest. But before we deploy the bikes here, we need to avoid the pitfalls starting to crop up in Paris.

  • First, the system needs way more racks that bikes. Why? Because people tend to ride in the same direction at the same time of day. When I was zipping around Paris last Monday, I found that all of the bike stations near the center of the city were full. I spent about half an hour looking for a station that had an open hitch. The kiosks can display a map showing you where the nearest open bike rack is, but it’s confusing. This problem really gums up the works.
  • Second, the payment system in Paris and Lyon seems needlessly complicated. Most riders buy a special card online, which is mailed to them. Visitors can buy a temporary card right at the kiosk using a credit card. (But only the European kind with a built-in chip. Curiously, the only card in my wallet that worked was my American Express card, and it only worked in Paris.) Perpignan has a much more elegant system. You go online and use your credit card to register for an ID number, which you punch into the kiosk to unlock a bike. (Mine was a four-digit number less than 2,000.) Use it once or use it forever; there’s no card to carry. So simple. I also found the BIP bikes in Perpignan to be better to ride – smaller and lighter, but still sturdy.
  • Third, the system should let the users choose the bikes they want. That was my one gripe with the Perpignan bikes. Sometimes people return damaged bikes to the racks, or bikes with flat tires. The Paris and Lyon systems let you choose the best bike yourself, but the Perpignan system assigns a bike to you.
  • And finally, these bike systems just wouldn’t work in some American cities. Snow and ice – and road salt – would destroy these bikes. That rules out most of the East Coast and Midwest. It has to be a compact city, so forget places like Los Angeles and Miami. What’s left? I’m thinking Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and mid-size southern cities like Austin and Savannah. Let’s make it happen!

(Photo shows a guy waiting for a space to open up at a Velib rack outside the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris.)

Sat 16 Aug 2008 9:23 pm   //   Posted in: Bicycles, New York is different, Transit

Biking the Vanderbilt Parkway

Welcome to part II of my occasional series, “Weird stuff the Vanderbilts built.” (Previously: Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.)

Today I rode my bike to the abandoned Long Island Motor Parkway. It was built by William Vanderbilt II to connect Queens to Long Island; the first segment opened in 1908. (Hey, that was 100 years ago!) The Motor Parkway operated as a toll road until 1938, when it was unable to compete with the free parkway that Robert Moses built. As soon as it closed, Moses turned it into a bike path. And so it remains today, an overgrown strip of blacktop two lanes wide. It looks like any rails-to-trails bike path, though the hills leading up to the overpasses are steeper than a typical railroad grade. I was surprised by how narrow it is; the parkway was only two lanes wide.

The Parkway was one of the first roads to use elevated bridges (grade separation) to create an express highway. Some refer to it as the country’s “first superhighway,” but the Pennsylvania Turnpike, as a divided highway, has a stronger claim that title.

It never fails to amaze me how much abandoned infrastructure there is in Brooklyn and Queens. As I was riding today, I crossed at least three disused railroad rights-of-way. One is the impressive tunnel and open-cut track that runs beneath the elevated L train south of Broadway Junction. The next was the overgrown right-of-way that runs through Forest Park (identifiably by the abandoned utility poles that run beside where the track was). And finally there was the Central Railroad of Long Island Creedmore Branch, which ran through what is now Kissena Park. It operated from 1872 to 1879 – barely six years!

More info:
NYC Parks Vanderbilt Motor Parkway sign. Long Island Motor Parkway page.
Forgotten New York Kissena Park page.

Mon 28 Jul 2008 11:48 pm   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Planet earth, Transit

Critical Mass meets Officer Danger

The last Friday of every month in major cities, a pack of cyclists takes over the streets with the Critical Mass demonstration bike rides. By terrible luck, I got caught in San Francisco’s Critical Mass in my rental car last week.

I support Critical Mass; I participated in it once in New York. But it’s not really my thing, since it reminds me too much of 1990s-style anti-globalization protest politics. I’ve said before that the best way to get people riding bikes is to make cycling so mainstream that practically everybody finds it normal and appealing. And as more people ride bikes, the streets will change to accommodate them, and things will get better for all cyclists. That was the initial idea behind Critical Mass, as I understand it.

But one police officer patrolling the Critical Mass ride in New York last Friday had other ideas, as seen in this YouTube video…

The stupid actions of one violent cop put several cyclists at risk of injury, and will doubtlessly fan a lot of negative feelings in the bike community. Not cool. (The 22-year-old rookie officer, meanwhile, has been stripped of his badge and gun, per the Post.)

Sun 13 Jul 2008 6:25 pm   //   Posted in: Art, Bicycles, Brooklyn

A mighty fine day for a bike ride

Waterfall Williamsburg Bridge

One of the Waterfalls, seen from the Manhattan Bridge bike lane.

Ikea Ferry

Heading home via the free Water Taxi to the Brooklyn Ikea.

Sun 22 Jun 2008 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Art, Bicycles, Planet earth, Transit

Haunted by ghost bikes

Ghost Bike

You’ve heard of ghost bikes? They’re the work of a street art collective that collects scrap bikes, paints them white, and chains them up on city streets where cyclists have died in traffic accidents. They’re comparable to the wooden crosses you sometimes see by highways. Usually, ghost bikes are accompanied by a sign with the cyclist’s name and some other basic facts (“Killed by SUV”). I’m a longtime bike commuter and support almost any activity that makes the streets safer. Do I have an opinion about ghost bikes? You bet.

  1. Doesn’t work for me as art. Too literal.
  2. Ghost bikes clog our sidewalks with mechanical junk. It’s an ugly way to memorialize someone.
  3. This is not a politically smart way to support cycling. The people installing these bikes are portraying biking as some kind of underdog subculture fraught with danger. The use of street art reinforces the stereotype that the “bike community” is an insular group of self-righteous freegan hipsters.
  4. In fact, bike transportation is and should be mainstream. As one example, around Sunset Park I’ve noticed a lot of new immigrants have begun using bikes to get around. These guys on their Huffy’s work harder than anybody, keep our city running, consume zero gasoline, and don’t give a crap about ghost bikes.

I am a safe biker and have no plans to challenge any bigger vehicles any time soon. However, if one day I get smooshed by a sanitation truck, do not put up a ghost bike for me! I swear, my real ghost will torment you!

Thu 29 May 2008 2:47 pm   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Transit

Bike v. car v. subway: Bike wins!

Today was the 7th Annual NYC Commuter Race. The race this year pitted a driver, a bicyclist and a subway/bus rider commuting from Fort Greene, Brooklyn to Union Square. As usual, the cyclist won. Video.

Fri 25 Apr 2008 11:46 am   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Transit

Bike lanes, smart and stupid

New York City has been steadily improving its dismal bike lane situation. In Midtown it’s now possible to travel uptown on 6th Avenue and downtown on Broadway in a clearly marked bike lanes (dodging doors, cabs and delivery trucks, natch). There still isn’t a good way to ride uptown or downtown on the east side, but the bike lane down 2nd Avenue below 14th Street is a good start. Finish it all the way to the Manhattan Bridge, please.

Even if you’re not a cyclist, you might appreciate Slate’s amusing videos about the stupidest bike lanes.