The Mechanic Speaks

The Cargo Van Bike Garage

It started with just a mountain bike, then I added a commuter bike, and then a road bike.  Then I moved in with my SO who had a commuter bike and a road bike of her own.  We recently added a mountain bike for her and now we are a 6-bike household in a small apartment.  Where to park all these bikes!?

soooo not happening

soooo not happening

A rented storage unit is too expensive ($1,200/yr for a 5×5) and too far away to be handy.  There’s no way that my apartment management would consider installing bike lockers, and the bike racks that exist on the property are cluttered piles of department store bikes rusting into the ground.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that my property allows one free parking space per unit.  Too bad I can’t put a Home Depot storage shed in a parking space.  But then I realised I had another option that was nearly as good… the Cargo Van Bike Garage!

a bike rack on the apartment property... a tangled mess

a bike rack on the property… a tangled mess

I searched craigslist and found a used contractor van with no back windows and a steel bulkhead separating the driver’s compartment from the storage area.  It’s a high-mileage vehicle with a few mechanical problems, but I got it to pass the emissions inspection, bolted an enormous lock on the rear doors, secured the sliding side door from the inside, and voilà!  Instant bike garage.  Since it’s already an old vehicle and pretty much fully depreciated, I expect to be able to sell it whenever I no longer need it for the same (or close) to what I paid for it.  The monthly liability insurance and amortized registration/inspection fee/etc works out to still be cheaper than a mini-storage unit, and of course, it’s right outside my door rather than halfway across the city.  An additional benefit that the cargo van bike garage has over an actual storage shed is that I can use it to take my mountain bike out to the trails, or take our road bikes out somewhere for a scenic ride.  It’s also more secure on roadtrips than a trunk rack on a rental car.  I used about $30 of lumber and hardware to make supports for 4 bikes in the back, so now we only have to find room for 2 bikes inside our little apartment.  Much more manageable!

In action!

In action!

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.”

fdghfdgh

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.

The Way Forward: Complete Streets

So far in this blog series I’ve gone over a number of problems with road infrastructure in the US.  Today I’d like to look at some of the solutions that are emerging as the way forward.  “Complete streets” is a title that encompasses a range of components including facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit with the overarching theme of moving people, not just moving cars.

Lawyers Road in Fairfax County, before Road Diet (L) and after (R).

Lawyers Road in Fairfax County: before Road Diet (L), and after (R)

One method of creating complete streets is called the Road Diet.  This generally seems to be used when starting with a four-lane road with no turn lane and no shoulders.  The Road Diet typically reduces the travel lanes down to two, one in each direction, but importantly adds a center turn lane.  The remaining space left over from the fourth travel lane is turned into shoulders or bike lanes.  In the DC/NOVA area there are tons of four-lane roads like this.  Despite having been maximized for car traffic, they can be aggravating to drive on because a single left-turning car can shut down the left lane for a minute or more, waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic.  The queue of cars behind the left-turner then starts to peel off into the right lane, bogging it down as well.  The Road Diet’s added turn lane means that the travel lane is always flowing smoothly.  Cycling is dramatically improved as well, for both cyclists and drivers.  Rather than sharing a narrow right lane with cars, cyclists can pedal safely along the newly created shoulder or bike lane.  In another local road diet project pedestrian islands were added midway across a crosswalk to make crossings easier and safer for foot traffic.

The Road Diet on Lawyers Road, pictured above, was constructed in 2009, meaning that traffic planners have had time to review the results in detail.  VDOT found an 80% reduction in crashes and reduced speeding without increasing travel times.  Possibly the most encouraging result of all is VDOT’s assessment of public approval: from “mixed” before to 74% approval one year after.

An artist's rendition of a living street.

An artist’s rendition of a living street conversion

A step beyond a complete street is a “living street“.  In this model cars are still allowed but are generally restricted to walking speed while pedestrians and cyclists are given priority.  Curbs and striping are absent and the road becomes a social space rather than just a transportation corridor.  Traffic calming measures such as chicanes or bollards are incorporated to avoid leaving a direct path for cars, encouraging low speed driving.  Living streets seem to fall somewhere between a regular street and a pedestrian plaza and are best suited for residential streets or dense shopping areas where through traffic is absent.

One of the best examples of this model is the Dutch Woonerf.  The Dutch observed up to a 40% decline in accidents on streets converted to woonerfs despite encouraging children to use the entire road space for playing.  Woonerfs are becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe, which is perhaps not surprising, but they’re also beginning to take root across the Atlantic.  Toronto will soon be building two such streets.  There are already a handful (warning: PDF) in the US and there is even consideration right here in Alexandria, VA of converting two blocks of busy Union Street into a woonerf!

a sign indicating the entrance to a woonerf

a czech sign indicating the entrance to a woonerf

The number of communities across the US with complete streets policies was nearing 500 (warning: PDF) as of last year and continues to grow.  Despite the occasional false start, complete streets and living streets represent a growing trend that improves public spaces for everyone.

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

About me:

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

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