Sunday, June 30, 2013

Comparing Cycling in the U.S. and the Netherlands - Valid?

I am reading In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist" that turns out to be more of a history of this subject and less of a memoir than I was expecting. I will write a review of it when I am finished.

As someone who reads and thinks about how cycling could be better supported in the U.S., the Netherlands comes up as a model often, although I have to wonder about its validity as such. In some cases, people make comparisons or talk about aspects of cycling in the Netherlands and it isn't clear if they are holding the Netherlands approach up as a model or simply an example of how it can be different than it is here. The later seems more useful to me since the likelihood of our ending up with anything vaguely like what the Netherlands has to support urban (and interurban) cycling absent their 100+ history in this area along (not to mention all the other factors) seems rather low.

With that in mind, however, it can be interesting to look at examples of this "conversation."

Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective from this blogger

The above video provides a quick understanding of how at least one Dutch cyclist views the American approach to cycling. I don't disagree with any of this analysis as such but in a short overview like this he presumably includes those points that he considers most significant and leaves others out. In my own experience, it has been difficult to transition from an automobile-centered way of thinking to actually using bicycles for more routine day-to-day transportation needs. I have several bikes that I use for commuting the 20 miles round trip (~34 km) to and from work, but these bikes have pedals requiring special shoes and as road bikes are not very good for riding a mile to the grocery store or library for those kinds of errands. So for many years I have ridden a bike consistently to and from work over a fairly long distance, with special clothing and appearing to be in a great hurry (since this doubles as my exercise program) but then I drive very short distances to do things where I would want to arrive wearing street clothes. Kind of strange.

Recently I have started using another bike that is a much more upright one, with a three speed hub shift (and therefore incapable of speedsterish activity), to ride back and forth to places a mile or less away to do errands, without changing into some special cycling clothes. I have been surprised and I suppose a little amused at how enjoyable this is.

Capital Bikeshare arrives in my extendedneighborhood, but closer to my typical destination for short rides-still, nice to have it around

In a roundabout way of thinking, I feel that bikeshare programs, such as the Capital Bikeshare program here in the Washington DC area, are very helpful with modeling and enabling this kind of cycling.

"Infamous" video of bicycle commuters at an intersection in Ultrecht (not Amsterdam) illustrating the level of cycling in an urban setting in the Netherlands

This video serves as a counterpoint to the first video looking at cycling in the U.S., illustrating the significant differences in the scale of cycling as an activity. While I don't think the Netherlands can be our "model" for where we want cycling in the U.S. to end up, it certainly illustrates that cycling on a scale that rivals and even exceeds use of motor vehicles is possible and that specialized infrastructure (or as the video's narrator says, "infra") can be created to support that level of activity. (It's noteworthy that the Dutch observer in his video takes the benefits of specialized infrastructure to support cycling as a given - no "vehicular cycling" for him.)

It's also interesting to see how the Dutch cyclists comply with their traffic signals in this video, for the most part. At a few points there are riders who ignore the light, but the vast majority comply.

This syncs with a recent report that in Portland stoplight cameras studied showed that there was 94 percent compliance with stop lights by cyclists. What?? Really?? Yes. Of course the obvious reason for why this could be true in Portland (and not quite what I observe around here) is that they have a larger number of cyclists and that as a community they act to informally enforce or support good (or anyway legal) behavior while in situations that I see often here of one or two cyclists and a zillion cars, it is much more tempting or attractive not to.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"The Prudent Buyer Selects The Shirk"-1890s Bicycle Poster

I found the poster in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog - The Prudent buyer selects the Shirk, the latest, neatest, and lightest bicycle in the world - It cures the blues. It saves the shoes. It brings content and merriment.

The full record for it is here.

Cropped Shirk Poster
My cropped version of this poster from the Library of Congress

Even though the Library of Congress has determined with reasonable certainty that this item was published in the 1890s and is well out of U.S. Copyright coverage (that is, before 1923) it is still not made available off the LC campus for some reason (other than a thumbnail). However various businesses that publish reproduction posters have had someone visit the Library in person and copy a high resolution file and although I can't make the 4.5 megabyte tiff available here I can at least provide a better image than the tiny thumbnail gif.

The colors as shown in this image are probably not accurate - below is an uncropped version where you can see a color strip but I can't interpret that since I don't have an original one handy to compare to. The main problem here is that this is a scan of a color slide made of the poster and not a scan of the original poster. In other words, a reproduction of a reproduction. It's better than nothing (much better!) but not as good as it could be.

LC record
Title The Prudent buyer selects the Shirk, the latest, neatest, and lightest bicycle in the world / Ottman, Chic.
Date Created/Published [189-]
Medium 1 print (poster) : color.
Summary Woman riding bicycle.
Reproduction Number LC-USZC4-3017 (color film copy transparency)
Call Number POS - US .O87, no. 1 (B size) [P&P]

One reason I was surprised to find this poster was that it is for a bicycle company I had not heard of before - generally bicycle posters from the 1890s seen now are for companies that were relatively well known then and anyone (like me) reading a bit about cycling in those days would know of them. I had not heard of the "Shirk" bicycle company.

To see if I could find any references to it, I searched The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review volume for 1897 and found passing two mentions of it (in 1,088 pages of text) - one was this somewhat amusing description of a suspicious bicycle sales company, where Shirk appears in a list of bicycle manufacturers of the day available from that dealer.

The New York Cycle Co., of 434 Ninth, don't seem to care to talk very much about where they get their wheels or about their business methods in general. They offer "unredeemed" bicycles at "one-third" value, but just what they mean is past guessing. Among the cycles noted are Columbias, Syracuse, Pacers, Rambler, Spalding, March, Worlds, Flyers, Niagaras, Shirk, Liberty, Victors, etc., men's, women's and children's wheels. They also exchange or buy outright and take wheels for storage. Their advent has caused some under-surface speculation among the "regulars," and their plans are carefully noted, as this is about the first time, so far, that anything of the kind has been observed here.
Full article is available here.

At this distance in time (and given the relatively small amount of research I have done) I can't understand who the main target audience for this bicycle company was - the bicycle is described as the "latest and the neatest and the lightest" - would these have been considered particularly good sales values for women, since the poster features a woman rider? Other than "it saves the shoes" it makes no mention of this particular bicycle being a good value, which was often a theme of bicycle ads at this time. A puzzle.

"The Prudent Buyer selects the Shirk"
Version as presented uncropped by the Library of Congress

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Muddy Conditions After Record Rain

Muddy bike at work
No fenders! I can't imagine where this person was riding on the way to work


Black frame is now mostly brown. Wheels and rims coated in mud. I did ride through some mud from where Four Mile Run had been flooded, leaving a muddy mess, but fenders reduce this sort of thing.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Bike Snob Abroad: Strange Customs, Incredible Fiets, and the Quest for Cycling Paradise (Book Review)

Bike Snob Abroad: Strange Customs, Incredible Fiets, and the Quest for Cycling ParadiseBike Snob Abroad: Strange Customs, Incredible Fiets, and the Quest for Cycling Paradise by BikeSnobNYC

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In his third book, Mr. Snob produces a book that looks like it will make observations about cycling outside the United States, but it is really more about cycling with his family - to the extent that it is about anything in particular.

Having produced a first book that was fairly focused and seemed a reasonable variation on his blogging style, he then quickly produced a second book that was much the same but . . . boring. This third book lacks any structure and is 191 pages of stream of conscious.

Mr. Snob's wants to answer the question, "why can't we (motorists, pedestrians, cyclists) all get along?" based on his analysis of evidence gathered from his foreign travels. Foreign readers of his blog have paid for him to visit Gothenburg (Sweden) and San Vito dei Normanni (Italy) for a few days and he also spent a few weeks in London and Amsterdam and on the basis of three weeks in four countries, he decides that it is some kind of national American character fault - we don't like "weak stuff." (Really, that's what he concludes.)

The publisher blurb refers to "his trademark biting wit and wisdom" - I'm doubtful Mr. Snob would claim his wit and wisdom are his strong points in his blog writing. What he does well in his blog it to make some observations, generally of the "isn't that amazingly dumb?" variety, on a number of disparate cycling topics, and then tie them together at the end of the blog post, occasionally quite cleverly. He also is often somewhat potty mouthed, which isn't really necessary but is integral to his writing style (such as it is). This book has little of any of that, it hardly seems like the same author.

I checked this one out of the library, so at least it didn't cost me anything.

View my reviews of cycling books on Goodreads

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Presidents' Race on Capital Bikeshare Bikes at Nationals Ballpark

I don't know how those guys managed to stay upright on heavy CaBi bikes while wearing those large scale bobble-head like costumes.

George, who remains seated, wins - Abe demonstrates that unless you are super strong that getting up off the seat to apply more power usually doesn't result in an increase in speed. At the end you see him rise up and instead of passing Washington he loses the race.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Hains Point & Cycling, 1942

The Library of Congress has some photographs in its U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) collection from 1942 that are in the public domain, including these of cyclists on a weekend in June or July of 1942 on Haines Point.

Title: Washington, D.C. Sunday cyclists at Haines Point
Creator(s): Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1942 June-July
Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.

Cyclists at Haines Point, 1942
Title: Washington, D.C. Sunday cyclist at Haines Point
Creator(s): Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1942 June-July
Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.

Bicycling on Haines Point, 1942
Title: Washington, D.C. Bicycling on Sunday at Haines Point
Creator(s): Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1942 June-July
Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.

Oddly the Library of Congress records all refer to Hains Point as "Haines Point."

Riders I saw today at Hains Point

Sharing the road with cars on Hains Point

Plywood Trail Replacement Wearing Out

The problem as of June 1 2013 - 100s of pounds of cyclists pounding these plywood sheets, day after day

About 1 3/4 miles from my house, along Four Mile Run on the bike (or mixed use) trail, Arlington County installed a temporary (one hopes) bypass storm drain pipe across the trail during the first week of May (2013). They built a ramp (or bridge) over this so that the trail is still usable. It is built out of plywood and the construction techniques leave something to be desired now that it is clear that it is going to be up for longer than say a week. The construction, not great in the first place, is gradually failing. Lawsuit alert!

The original execution had plain sheets of unpainted or treated plywood such that when it rained they were a bit slick. It struck me as obvious that the boards should be painted or treated with something and at that time throw some sand into the mix to add some traction. So I contacted this County with this brilliant observation:

My comment, made May 8 2013

Subject : WEBSITE COMMENT: Temp bridge over pipe -- ATTN: trails

Comments : On the bike trail along s glebe rd about 1/4 mile s of I-395 there is a new temporary plywood ramp over a pipe. This ramp is getting tire residue and is plain wood. When wet it is slick for bicycles. Can't you paint it and throw some sand on the paint for safety?

Thank you.

The County is fairly responsive. I was slightly amused by the notion that "exterior surfaces are slippery when wet" as being something they couldn't address but whatever.

First reply, May 9 2013:


Thank you for writing about the ramp on the Four Mile Run Trail at South Glebe Road. Most exterior surfaces will be slippery when wet, but I will forward your observation to the unit who is working with the contractor. They may have a surfacing material with more traction for the ramp.

I was surprised (and I suppose pleased) to get a follow-up message soon after.

Second reply, May 10 2013:

Good Morning Michael,

Again, thank you for notifying trails of the condition of the bike trail ramp during the rain. The contractor has placed non-skid mats on the ramp to increase friction when bikes ride over it. Please see the attached picture for your reference. If you have any additional concerns in regards to the temporary bike ramp on S Glebe Rd, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Photo sent me by County showing how they solved the problem of slickness during rain (as of May 10)

This is a case of what happens when one (in this case me) is not very clear. I don't really see how strips like this solve the overall problem since there is plenty of area that is not covered by the traction material. And it doesn't address what is turning out to be more of a problem, which is that the untreated/unpainted boards are suffering under a higher level of pounding/usage than the County or this contractor imagined. I would not have guessed that a temporary structure of this quality was intended to serve this long - and apparently longer. Who knows how long.

June 1 - looks OK at this distance, although one railing clearly bowing in

Closer examination reveals somewhat wavy deck

The contractor chose to run the plywood longwise but it wasn't wide enough to cover the entire deck, so they have two sheets of plywood, one larger and one smaller, running side by side. Amazingly dumb. It would have been much better to run the plywood sideways so there is no "seam" running the same direction as the direction of travel.

Looking in other direction, clear that main sheet of plywood coming up

In the first picture in this blog post, another problem is clear, if you think about it. Cyclists are mostly are not used to riding on ramps like this and it isn't that wide - so they pretty much want to be in the middle (notwithstanding the little yellow striping that suggests this is some sort of miniature divided highway). Because many cyclists are apparently not used to be presented with problems of this sort, they try to cross in both directions at the same time as other cyclists or as pedestrians even though common sense would suggest that it is a bit risky. The County supplied signage warns as you approach in one direction "bump" (???) and "slow" (that's OK, I guess) in the other.

I will send the County a link to this blog post and perhaps they will make it better.

Or not. We'll see. . . . .