The Mechanic Gets Political

In my previous post I wrote about the fate of the “following too closely” bill (HB 82) and the email that I sent to the senators on the transportation committee who voted to kill it.  Mostly those emails did not elicit any response, but Senator McWaters (R – Virginia Beach) replied to say that he had, in fact, voted in favor or HB 82.  Looking more closely at HB 82′s history, it seems that it was voted on by the transportation committee twice.

The explanation for this double vote comes from this post by PolitiFact: after the first defeat of the bill on Feb 19th, Senator Alexander (D – Norfolk) proposed a change to the text to remove “reasonable and prudent” and replace it with an exact measurement.  This is a bad idea for several reasons.  First, an appropriate following distance should be based on speed; an exact measurement would apply to all circumstances regardless of speed and wold likely satisfy no one.  Second, just look at all the trouble that passing a change to the 2-foot passing law required: five years of work by the Virginia Bicycling Federation!  Imagine trying to update a new “following too closely” regulation if the distance chosen by the committee was found to be too short.

With this more complete understanding of what happened to HB 82 in the senate committee, it becomes apparent that the first vote on Feb 19th was the critical vote that killed the bill.  The second vote on Feb 26th was over the bill with Sen. Alexander’s modifications.  So finally then, here is the bad-guy list of those senators who voted to kill HB 82 on Feb 19th: Deeds (Committee Chair), Marsh, Newman, Watkins, Puckett, Smith, Miller, Carrico, and Alexander.  (As before, their official email addresses can be found here.)  All of these senators voted to kill a bill that served only to protect vulnerable road users.  Furthermore, if Delegate Comstock’s claim is true that senate Democrats voted against her bill out of spite, then Senators Deeds, Marsh, Miller, Puckett, and Alexander are deserving of special reprobation for playing political games with cyclists’ legal protections.

Closing notes: I would like to thank Senator McWaters and his staff for their time corresponding about this issue and would like to note that Sen. McWaters voted for HB 82 on Feb 19th, and also was one of three co-patrons for SB 97, the 3-foot passing bill that is currently on its way to the Governor’s desk.

Baby Steps

There is reason for celebration for cyclists in Virginia this month: the “3 feet to pass” bill was just passed by the legislature and will head to Gov. McAuliffe’s desk!  VBF says 5 years of work went into this bill, it was presented to the legislature over and over and defeated every time.

The broader cycling legislation scene, however, is less bright.  The Washington Post wrote an article recently about the fate of the “following too closely” bill.  This year the bill seemed off to a great start: it had a well-known republican sponsor (Barbara Comstock), made it past the House of Delegates, and then to everyone’s surprise died in the Senate Transportation Committee.  The final voting results are here (link updated): Senators Deeds (Committee Chair), Marsh, Newman, Watkins, Puckett, Smith, Miller, Carrico, and Alexander all voted to kill it.  The official email addresses for all of these senators can be found here.  I sent each one of them the following email:

Dear Senator ______,

I am writing to you today to express my disappointment that you, as a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, voted to pass by HB 82 (Driver of motor vehicle following too closely; includes non-motor vehicles).

Virginia is the only state that doesn’t protect cyclists from being tailgated, and this legislation merely served to correct an embarrassing omission in the existing Code. This bill addressed a very basic and important safety issue for Virginians lawfully utilizing our public roads. There is absolutely no reason to have opposed this bill.

I understand there was discussion about “enforceability” regarding this bill. This is an invalid argument. There is no more or less difficulty in enforcing this law with regards to following too closely behind a cyclist than with the current law which forbids following too closely behind motor vehicles. Following too closely laws are often invoked in the instance of a rear-end collision. Anytime a car rear-ends another car the driver will be cited for following too closely, even if they were not speeding or breaking any other laws. This practice helps determine fault for insurance purposes. Currently, if a cyclist is rear-ended by a driver there is often little that a police officer can cite the driver for, even if the collision was clearly the driver’s fault. This can mean the driver’s insurance will not pay for the cyclist’s injuries, which is a great injustice against already vulnerable road users.

Please think very carefully before you cast a vote that leaves certain Virginians unprotected by the law. I hope you will reconsider your position on this issue before it comes up for a vote again next year.


I borrowed a bit of the text from VBF’s post here, and you can read more about the “enforceability” discussion in their writeup here.

Closing notes: I would like to say that as a resident of Arlington I am very proud of Senator Barbara Favola who cast one of the 4 votes in favor of the bill, and also that Delegate Comstock of Fairfax deserves a thank-you email for her work championing the following too closely bill, despite its ultimate failure in the senate committee. Delegate Comstock is a new convert to the bike cause, she frequently opposed bike bills in the past and it’s important to recognize her efforts this year.

Scooter’ing in Winter

The temperatures in Northern Virginia have been super cold lately, and with my classes ending at 10pm I knew I had some cold commutes to look forward to this winter.  My hands are generally the weak point in my winter armor, so I decided to take a shot at my first sewing project by making a pair of handlebar mitts inspired by the excellent Bar Mitts.

I used an old military duffelbag and insulated poncho liner for materials, and some velcro around the handlebar opening to help keep wind out.  The mirror and turn signal brackets were the most challenging part.  My paper mock-up didn’t line up exactly with the finished version and getting the holes in the right places took a bit of effort.  The finished product worked well enough for my first ride home at about 18°F.  My hands were cold even wearing thick ski gloves inside the bar mitts, but I don’t think I would have been able to ride at all in that temperature without the mitts.  So… success!  (In retrospect I probably should have just bought a pair of Bar Mitts, I think the neoprene would have been worth it.)

kickstand frozen into the ice

kickstand frozen into the ice

Besides sorting out my riding gear I also learned a bit about how my scooter works in the extreme cold.

First, the battery wouldn’t crank the engine so I was very glad my scooter has a kickstart.  It’s a fuel-injected Yamaha c3 and it’s fairly unique in having a kickstarter, most fuel-injected scooters don’t.  In fact, Yamaha has removed the kickstarter from their current fuel-injected scooters.  It took over a minute of kicking before the engine started, but it meant that I didn’t have to ride the bus!

The next problem was that my rear brake was frozen solid!  The hand lever wouldn’t move.  I suspect the problem was that water got into the cable housing and froze.  This would explain why it affected the rear brake and not the front, since the rear has a much longer cable.  Also it worked loose gradually over about 10 miles of riding, if the shoes were frozen inside the drum then I expect they would have broken free all at once.  Lucky for me the front brake was fine, or else again I would have been riding the bus.  Most scooters now come with hydraulic disc brakes which aren’t vulnerable to freezing.  Hopefully the bar mitts will help keep water from getting into the cable housing during the rest of the winter.

I recently installed a new set of Kenda 761 tires which have worked great on the few really icy sections in my neighborhood that haven’t been plowed.  I’m about as ready for winter as I can get!

Moped Issues

Mopeds: they’re cheap to buy and cheap to operate.  For starters, they’re fantastically fuel efficient.  The law in Virginia does not require liability insurance, which is a significant cost savings by itself.  Mopeds are also not taxed the normal sales and use tax when registering, and are not subject to yearly personal property taxes either.  Annual safety inspections and emissions tests are not required.  For most legal purposes a moped is treated like a bicycle; they can be legally parked on sidewalks and can use bike lanes.  The exceptions are that helmets are required by law, and starting this July license plates will also be mandatory.

Meet Igloo

Meet Igloo

I recently picked up a used moped for commuting to school.  So far my moped’ing experience has been somewhat less than enjoyable.  It started with DMV when I got a title and was charged sales and use tax.  After going home and double-checking the regulations online, I went back the next day and got it refunded.  This would be a non-issue except that the first DMV employee I encountered insisted very rudely that I was wrong and only through patience and perseverance did I make it through to another DMV employee who then promptly resolved the issue.

Because DMV had mistakenly processed my title application like a motorcycle instead of a moped, it was forwarded on to Arlington County to assess property tax.  So I had to go to the courthouse to have that bill nullified.  Again I was met by an employee who told me I was wrong and only by politely insisting on my case did he finally check the regulation and verify that I did not have to pay property tax.

Both of these issues were easily fixed, but I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that I am an educated white male with years of experience dealing with government.  What if I were a poor immigrant with meager English language skills and without the knowledge and ability to lookup the relevant laws and insist on my case against poorly informed county/state employees?  How successful would a person in that situation have been?

The best part about mopeds is the tremendous benefit they can represent to the very poor.  Cars are expensive to buy and expensive to operate, but some sort of motorized transportation is often necessary in order to hold a job in the transit deserts that exist in the parts of cities where affordable housing can be found.  Not everyone can ride a bicycle to work, whether due to bad knees, hilly terrain, or other factors.  A moped can be the enabling component that allows someone to earn a living.

The police also seem to be aware of this dynamic.  In three years of living in the DC area I have commuted by car and motorcycle and despite breaking many traffic laws in many jurisdictions I’ve never been stopped by the police.  In the first week of owning a moped I was stopped twice for minor violations that would likely have been ignored if I had been driving a car.  Once the school semester starts again and I am commuting every day I will be curious to see if this was just a stroke of bad luck or if it actually represents some degree of police profiling of moped riders.

Any other moped riders out there care to share their experiences?


Updated 06 March:  I was stopped by ACPD again recently.  The officer told me I was not allowed to ride a moped on a road with a speed limit of 45mph or greater.  I told him I was quite certain that was incorrect, he went back to his car to check the statute, came back and said it was taking a long time to download so he would let me go.  Bogus.  I have a printed copy of the Virginia statute under the seat now.

The Power of Attitudes

cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists all mingling in Prague's town square

cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists all mingling in Prague’s wenceslas square

America vs. Europe: what’s the real difference?  I’ve used several examples from the Old Continent in this blog to illustrate what safe, complete streets look like, and also to hopefully assuage some of the war on cars worries by showing that even in the world’s premier multi-modal transit areas cars are still a critical component of the transportation plan.  But perhaps the most significant contrast between the two places isn’t the obvious differences in infrastructure, but the more subtle differences in attitudes.

propaganda poster from 1937

Cars have been a foundational element of American culture since the early years of the 20th century.  Originally, however, cars were the interlopers on public streets and shared space with horses, buggies, trollies, pedestrians, and cyclists.  As Peter Norton explains in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, a defining change occurred during the 1920s as AAA and other auto groups launched a wildly successful pro-auto lobbying and outreach campaign to redefine streets as the domain of cars and pedestrians as the interlopers.  They introduced the term “jaywalking“, and promoted the passage of laws across the country strictly limiting the legal boundaries of pedestrians.  By 1950 the cultural acceptance of the dominance of cars had so solidified in the American psyche that Disney made a depressingly prescient cartoon called Motor Mania featuring a Jekyll & Hyde comparison of road ragers.

In the years since, the position of pedestrians has eroded to the point that “I didn’t see them!” is often a perfectly acceptable defense in an auto/ped crash.  The police’s “No criminality suspected” line is a mantra of accident reporting.  There is a twitter feed you can follow to be alerted every time a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car in DC; as of the time of this writing we’re on number 225 for the year.  DC police assume that a cyclist hit by a car is guilty of causing the crash until proven innocent.  In Atlanta, a partially blind driver on a mixture of alcohol and pain medications struck and killed Raquel Nelson’s four year old son as she and her children were crossing a road after getting off a city bus a third of a mile away from the nearest crosswalk.  The driver, who fled the scene (making this his third hit-and-run conviction), was sentenced to six months in prison.  Nelson, however, was convicted of vehicular homicide and faced up to three years in prison.  She fought through nearly three years of appeals and eventually accepted a reduction of the charge to jaywalking and paid a $200 fine.

This is the real difference that sets those walkable, livable European cities apart from the US: an underlying respect, coded in law, for the primacy of an unprotected human being.  The attitude is the critical factor, the infrastructure is just the physical manifestation.  Consider that even in the crowded, car-happy UK there are no regulations on jaywalking.  This story of a British professor being tackled and handcuffed for jaywalking while at a conference in Atlanta (really Atlanta, again?) is a perfect illustration.


the rise of the sharing economy

To end on a more positive note, it seems that over the past decade that attitudes in America are starting to change in a meaningful way.  A recent article by Jordan Weissmann begins with the observation that “Americans have… logged fewer miles on the road. They’ve been less likely to get a driver’s license. And they’ve bought fewer vehicles.”  Weissmann concludes that this isn’t just the product of our recent economic recession either, but could be the beginning of a lasting trend.  In a previous article, Weissmann points out that getting a first car is no longer the coming-of-age rite and symbol of freedom for young people that it used to be.  A bike boom is underway and expected to continue growing.  There are indicators that we may be witnessing the beginning of a very real generational shift and that the sharing economy (ZipCar!) may have a significant role to play.  And complete streets policies being adopted all across the country are possibly the most encouraging sign of all.

The Census Bureau expects the US to gain over 25 million more people in just the next 10 years – that’s more than the entire New York City combined statistical area.  We don’t have room on our streets for 25 million more F-150s (yep, even in 2013 the top two best-selling cars in America are still pickups).  Car-only planning doesn’t work now and certainly won’t prepare us for the future.  We need a fundamental shift in the way we perceive and utilize our public spaces.  It begins with a much needed attitude adjustment.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

Of Race and Socioeconomics

I’ve made an effort in this blog so far to talk about the ease/ability of walking/cycling as a basic civil right.  Many of our major cities have made great progress in recent years in improving our roads to make them useful to more people using various modes of transportation.  Unfortunately, these improvements tend to be highly localized to only certain portions of town.  Almost invariably, these are the wealthiest and trendiest portions.  To be clear, adding bike/ped infrastructure is always a good thing, it’s the distribution that causes concern.

a lovely new green bike lane in Arlington, VA

I recently moved to bike-friendly Arlington, VA and I love my new home.  Before that I lived just across the county line in Seven Corners, a neighborhood clustered around a tangled intersection of several major roads that is every bit as heinous as the name would suggest.  The area is home to a combination of large retail stores and apartment housing, much of it low-income.  Despite their close proximity the difference in walk- and bikeability between these two places is stunning.


left: a crosswalk in seven corners, middle & right: approaching seven corners from the west on hwy 50  (click for full size)

I took the pictures above in/around Seven Corners.  The left panel shows a crosswalk leading to a Safeway grocery store; as painted it leads foot traffic right over a curb and grassy median and then to the middle of inbound/outbound traffic.  This is a terrible crosswalk.  The next panel shows normal afternoon traffic approaching Seven Corners from the west on Hwy 50.  Notice the metro bus approaching from the opposite direction; this is a major bus line (pdf) that provides service to Inova Fairfax Hospital.  In the right panel you can see a marked crosswalk near the bus stop with a series of bright yellow signs announcing it.  Drivers are required by law to stop for pedestrians attempting to use these crosswalks, yet it rarely happens on this busy corridor .  If the existence of laws is little help, enforcement isn’t any better: motorists nationwide are rarely charged in the event of a collision with a pedestrian (a recent case in point).


chart from: the new majority – pedaling towards equity

A joint study conducted by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club was recently published that focuses on this topic: The New Majority – Pedaling Towards Equity (summary).  There has been much ado about the bike boom of the past decade, but the chart above suggests that there is another bike boom that has received much less attention.  The report contains some very revealing stats.  The fatality rate for Hispanic cyclists is 23% higher than for whites, and 30% higher for African-American cyclists.  The report notes: “While some residents of a city have access to a variety of transportation options, many communities of color in that same city are in transit deserts that lack safe streets for walking or biking.”


a cyclist navigating an intersection in seven corners

At the same time that the cyclist in the picture above is cautiously making his way across an intersection in Seven Corners, Fairfax County is allocating nearly $1 billion over 20 years to the majority public-funded transformation of Tysons Corner into a walkable urban center.  This is in line with expectations as Tysons Corner is one of the wealthiest areas of Fairfax County.  Contrast this with the report’s findings that “areas with the lowest median household income ($22,656 annually) were also the areas with the highest number of bicycle and pedestrian crashes.”  Again, it’s not the improvement of Tysons Corner that’s the problem, it’s the neglect of low income areas.

The ability to move freely about one’s own neighborhood without fear of sudden death shouldn’t be treated as a luxury for the wealthy.  We can do better than that, we can demand equitable access to safe streets.

Update July 25:  I had to add a link to this fantastic article comparing the enthusiastic response to bike lanes in poorer parts of NYC compared to the ridiculous protests that have met bike lanes and CitiBike in wealthier parts of the city.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

Oxydrive motor fix

I was riding home recently when the motor started making a grinding noise.  I got it home and took the cover off and saw that a C-clip on the right-hand side had broken up into a half-dozen little pieces which were now all stuck to the motor magnets.

broken piece of c-clip stuck to magnet

broken piece of c-clip stuck to magnet

I cleaned out the broken bits, bought a box of C-clips and installed a new one.  I put the side cover back on and noticed that it didn’t sit flush against the side of the motor, there was a tiny gap.  Apparently the bearing in the side cover had been pressing against the C-clip and that was probably what caused it to fail.  Looking at the wear on the axle it’s clear that the bearing was riding a bit too far inboard, too close to the C-clip.

new c-clip installed, bearing wear visible

new c-clip installed, bearing wear visible

I emailed Oxygen about the problem and they offered to repair the motor under warranty, but it would mean shipping it back to the UK.  I looked into shipping costs and decided it wasn’t worth it.  The motor still works fine, if there was a bigger problem then I would have paid for shipping and taken their offer to repair it.  It would be great if Oxygen established a US distributor, but they were totally helpful through this whole process and I still give them high marks for customer service.

I was worried that the side cover pressing on the new C-clip would cause it to fail eventually too.  The big aluminum piece in the picture above is pressed solidly onto the axle and doesn’t move, and even if it did try to move the side bearing would hold it in place.  So I figured that the C-clip really wasn’t doing anything and decided to just remove it.  I’ve put about 150 miles on the motor without the C-clip and it’s been fine.

For reference, my kit is the 2012 version.  For 2013 Oxygen switched to a different motor, so hopefully this problem shouldn’t affect any of the newer ones.

I also managed to badly crack my LCD unit when the bike fell over while I (stupidly) had it balancing without the front wheel.  Oxygen has also switched to a new LCD unit for 2013, so I got a bit of an upgrade with my replacement unit.  The new one is better than the old one on several counts.  It adds an assist level zero, so it can still power the speedo/odo even if I don’t need e-juice.  The whole unit is a bit smaller, which is nice, and it incorporates the buttons into the same unit, which clears up some extra handlebar space.  I’ll add some pictures of it later…


Original review, March 2013.

About me:

Civil Engineering student in Arlington, VA. Interested in watershed management and biking.

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