Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Ideas from 2009

The New York Times Magazine has just published it's annual Year in Ideas, and some of the 'best ideas' in design have an interesting take on the built environment.

I can attest that The Bicycle Highway is in fact "every cyclists fantasy." And while the reviews acknowledge the US planners' musings about national bicycle corridors, they gush over Copenhagen:
Copenhagen... began last month to create the real thing: a system of as many as 15 extra-wide, segregated bike routes connecting the suburbs to the center of the city. These are not bucolic touring paths; Copenhagen's bike highways are meant to move traffic. Nearly 40 percent of Copenhagen rides a bike to work. On Norrebrogade, a two-mile street in the center of the city, 36,000 cyclists clog the bike lane every day.

The Bicycle Office of Copenhagen's design calls for service stations (with air pumps and tools for simple repairs) and plans to employ so-called intelligent transportation systems — not unlike the technology that makes the E-ZPass possible. Using handlebar-mounted RFID or GPS technology, for example, commuters could detect other riders on the routes, helping them to assemble into pelotons or "bike buses." These groups could in turn emit signals that trip traffic lights in their favor, resulting in a "green wave" of bicycle momentum.
That's awesome. A handlebar mounted I-Pass would look killer on my bike! And a commuter peloton? This should be a "Year in Ideas" feature in its own right. We'll work on that for 2010.

Next up is The Cul-de-Sac Ban:
Virginia, under the leadership of Gov. Tim Kaine, became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments. New rules require that all new subdivisions attain a certain level of "connectivity," with ample through streets connecting them to other neighborhoods and nearby commercial areas.
This is great news for the walkability of future suburbs, but here is my nomination for the best idea for reforming our existing infrastructure:

The folks over a newgeography addressed this issue in an October article. One of the main inefficiencies of the suburbs is that they are typically single use zoning; when residents leave their homes for work in the morning, infrastructure is unused all day until the commute home. Changing zoning regulations to permit mixed uses (home-based offices, light manufacturing, business centers) can help us make better use of our current infrastructure and shorten commutes for many people who prefer suburban life by bringing their offices into their neighborhood. This could even affect the density challenge of suburban mass transit. Check out their solutions in detail at: the residential-business zoning model and the cyber-village.

Bicycle culture is going mainstream and rethinking urban design is becoming a national conversation - fantastic ideas from 2009.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bike Lanes: now you see them, now you don't.

It's been widely reported that New York City's DOT recently removed 14 blocks of on-street bike lanes on Bedford Ave in Hasidic Williamsburg.

Bike infrastructure was sandblasted off the streets with seemingly little opportunity for public comment or public notice. Some in the cycling community suspect a secret reelection deal between Mayor Bloomsburg and the Hasidic community, some of whom have made their dislike for the bike lanes known from the start. The semi-offical reason for the removal is recent investment in nearby cycling infrastructure.

As Streetsblog reports:
"This is a really heavily used segment of the Brooklyn bike network," said Transportation Alternatives' Wiley Norvell. "Calling it redundant is a bit like saying it's redundant to have sidewalks on the street. It's a necessary part of the transportation system. Cyclists are still going to use Bedford Avenue in large numbers, and they deserve a safe route."
Well, it turns out some cyclists have taken it upon themselves to maintain a safe cycling route. Earlier this week, several people we detained by police while attempting to repaint the bike lanes on Bedford Ave.

On the "brighter" side, some places are actually investing in bike infrastructure to improve safety for cyclists. Copenhagen, bicycling capitol of the world, is not content to rest on its laurels. Rather, they have developed (bike) pressure-activated LED lights that flash in the presence of a cyclist. The flashing LEDs alert drivers attempting to make a right turn across an on-street bicycle lane that cyclists are proceeding through an intersection and the automobile must yield, reducing the risk of the dreaded right-hook. Brilliant.

(LED Bike lane lights in Copenhagen via Copenhagenize)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Examining the data: #CarFreeReps (Part II)

Originally posted at, where I work as a sales representative in the outdoor recreation industry.

In #CarFreeReps (Part I), we explored our motivation for working towards a car-free (or at least a car-lite) future. In a nutshell, it's good for the environment, it's important to our customers, and it might possibly help us pick up cute girls/boys.

But we're a business. If we're going to make a serious commitment to a car-free future it certainly cannot prove to be bad for business or we'll be out on the street. If we're going to convince anyone else to join us, we will have to demonstrate that this can be good for business! Here's a case study:

In early October 2009, Brad (our principle representative) was heading to Chicago to attend a national planning meeting for one of our vendors. Our main office in Madison, Wisconsin isn't too far away and there are a number of travel options: automobile is generally the default, but it isn't unusual for business travelers to fly, intercity bus service is very direct, I have made the trip by bicycle (not the most practical mode, granted!), and we're working on high-speed rail (maybe next time).

Brad decided to give the intercity bus a go. A typical Chicago trip would include visiting accounts across the region, but in this case he was traveling to sit in a conference room for a couple days - there wasn't going to be much need for a car once he arrived. Traveling by plane over such a short distance seemed a bit extravagant. Not to be outdone by my Chicago-Madison cycling adventure, Brad brought his folding bike along for the ride and used it to solve transit's "last mile conundrum," referring to the challenge of mobility between the start/finish of trips and mass-transit hubs. (Think the folding bike is dorky? It could be worse!)

Ready for adventures in Downtown Chicago, outside of Union Station.

The trip was a success, and aside from some gentle ribbing for arriving on this unusual looking contraption, the bike-bus-bike solution went off without a hitch. But how did it compare to the other options: car and plane? Let's examine the data:

Direct Expenses

The direct costs of travel is an obvious first measure, and the roundtrip expenses represented here make a compelling case for intercity bus travel:

Car expenses calculated using GSA personal vehicle reimbursement schedule, 2009:

Furthermore, there are a number of indirect costs not reflected in this chart. Parking at Chicago's Hampton Inn is $25 a day ($75 for the trip). Neither the bus nor the plane consider travel to and from the destination. A taxi from O'Hare Airport to Chicago's Loop is $40, one-way. The bus station was just 1.5 miles from the hotel, so the folding bike proved an economical and enjoyable solution!


Productivity is an important metric to consider. Between wifi hotspots and 3G-enabled devices, the geography of “the office” is changing; with some discipline we are able to work effectively from almost anywhere now. A couple years ago, we'd have to look at this chart and conclude that driving is the best way to get to Chicago; flying and intercity bus just consume too much precious time. However, we can now break out the productive time from each transportation option, and the bus is looking even more attractive:

Travel time assumes neither traffic congestion nor airport delays - generous assumptions in Chicagoland

I've defined productive time as time on-line (3G on the bus) or with the laptop open (on the plane). Seasoned road-warriors may contest the lack of productive time in a car; granted mobile phones can help get some business done on the road, but in my experience these are low-value conversations, immediate follow-up is impossible, and it is increasingly illegal. Further, some time-management experts suggest uninterrupted blocks of time (focused work, such as on an intercity bus) can be far more productive than multitasking in the office.

(Note we could rework our expenses chart to include the lost opportunities from this 'wasted time.' The boss's time is valued at $100/hr - that's his opportunity cost, not salary. This would add about $200 to the cost of traveling by bus and $400 to the cost of plane and automobile travel. The intercity bus is looking even better.)

CO2 Emissions

Barack Obama has pledged to create a carbon market to incorporate some of the costs of climate change into the costs of doing business. Until then, putting a dollar value on this externality is almost impossible, but as a company we have decided that certain goals are worth pursuing. Our business and our passions are in the outdoors, and climate change is an existential threat to the health of ecosystems and of our business. Minimizing our CO2 footprint is a top priority. Air travel, especially short trips, are particularly deleterious. Studies have found intercity bus to be among the least-worst options, and our analysis of this case study supports this:

Uses vehicle emission data from Native Energy (, a carbon offset organization promoted within the Outdoor Industry by Outdoor Retailer and Canoecopia.

(For the record, we are leery of carbon-credit/carbon-trading schemes; purchasing carbon credits in the first-class lounge is akin to buying indulgences from the Catholic Church in 1500. It's better than nothing, but no substitute for meaningful lifestyle changes.)

So in conclusion, for this trip, intercity bus was the right decision - for the environment, for our values, and for our bottom line. Sometime that's not going to be the case, but we need to keep an open mind about taking the bus or train, and keep following the metrics to see when it makes economic sense to hop on the bike or bus. We're also going to keep the conversation going. As we speak, our colleague Bryan is riding from La Crosse, WI to Minneapolis, MN to attend Midwest Mountaineering's Winter Expo; visit him at the Expo or follow his journey on Twitter.

Click through here for a one-page summary of this case study, including the charts. Post it in the break room and start thinking outside the car.

Interested in going car-free? All-aboard!

Three Chicagoland shops, all on the train line. 11/16/09 #carfreereps

Starting the discussion: #CarFreeReps (Part I)

Originally posted at, where I work as a sales representative in the outdoor recreation industry.

As manufacturer representatives in the outdoor industry, one important part of our job is to spend time in our retailers shops: supporting their business, training their staff on the proper use of our equipment, and how to sell it to their customers. As individuals and as a business concerned about the environmental, health, and national security problems caused by our automobile-centric culture, we have taken many steps to reduce our car use in our personal lives.

Most of us bicycle, walk, or carpool to the office - and those of us who work out of our homes have a head start! This is an important step; I am convinced that meaningful changes have to start with small-but-committed changes in routine, and the daily commute is a great place to explore alternative transportation.

However, it is hard not to notice that for us, with our jobs, the daily commute is just the little toe of our carbon footprint; our seasonal roadtrips through the upper Midwest and biannual flights to national tradeshows and national sales meetings are our biggest source of emissions. But these are job requirements, and as a small business trying to maximize efficiency while conserving time and money, perhaps we've done enough?

This short video produced by the Outdoor Alliance (a coalition of groups working for public access to and environmental protection of America's rivers, trails, mountains, and crags) reminds us why we care:

1) We are these climbers, hikers, skiers, and paddlers - I'd like to keep enjoying my snowmelt Western rivers.

2) Our customers are also these people - we sell harnesses, jackets, tents, and boots - it would be great if there is somewhere for our customers to use them.

3) It's an issue of culture. Improving the way we conduct business is part of Pemba Serves' culture. Environmental conservation, including alternative transportation, is increasingly part of our retailers' cultures - it's our job is to support this. Finally, the Outdoor Industry is uniquely positioned to start changing the mainstream culture - if we can't make it here, we're in trouble!

So what does it mean for a rep to go car-free? We have lots of ideas about what it could mean in 5 or 10 years, but here's what it means for us, right now:

1) Our cars are still parked in the driveway. We're not totally car-free, that's just the ideal. Small steps, remember? Many of us are single car households, with partners sharing our car-lite values. When we do need an extra car, car-sharing programs like Madison's Community Car and Chicago's I-GO are always available.

Brad rocks out Milwaukee clinics, car-lite.
Brad rocks out Milwaukee clinics, car-lite.

2) We all live or work within 3 miles of a customer. I just moved to Chicago; I have six accounts within three miles from home. And it is substantially faster to bike to all of them. These are easy. There are an additional 10 accounts within 25 miles. This trip is longer by bike, and not all are on bike-friendly routes, but most are on 'L' or Metra train lines.

One of many Chicago shops within biking distance for Pete.
One of many Chicago shops within biking distance for Pete.

3) We've been able to make a couple of bigger trips this year on intercity bus and Amtrak. When we're traveling longer distances to attend a meeting or support a specific event, we don't need a car once we're there. Intercity bus and train turn out to have many advantages; we'll explore some of the data in Part II.

Brads intercity, car-free. Bus+Bike
Brad's intercity, car-free. Bus+Bike

4) Getting out of the car isn't just about saving the environment... I'm sure every sales rep, retail employee, and manufacturer sales manager in the outdoor industry has has this conversation with a cute boy/girl at a party:
CUTE GIRL: "So tell me, what do you do for a living?"

ME: "Oh, I'm a sales rep/salesperson/etc in the outdoor recreation industry. We sell mountaineering, skiing, kayaking, and camping equipment."

CUTE GIRL: "Wow, that is so cool! You must get to go on some amazing trips! You know, for 'product testing' and stuff? Tell me about your last adventure!"

ME: "Well, umm... there was this trip to Utah a couple months ago, but it's not what you think..."

For me, creating space in my work life to get outside and use our gear - even if just to ride across town in Gore-Tex waterproof goodness - makes me better at my job and feel better about my life. And most of all, I have a better response for the cute girl at the party:
ME: "Remember that record snow storm last winter? Well, I had this really important meeting on the other side of town, and all of the bridges were closed, and ...."
Pete skis to work, 3/08.
Pete skis to work, post-snowstorm 3/08.

Join the conversation on Twitter, just tag your posts with the hashtag: #carfreereps. And check in next week for Part II where we'll examine some of the other benefits of going car-free or car-lite. We are a business after all; we'll be talking time and money.

Until then, ride on.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Illinois gets $13 million for Safe Routes to School

The Associated Press reports that $13.1 million in federal funding has been secured for statewide Safe Routes to School initiatives. Gov. Pat Quinn says the SRTS program "reaches out to youth, instilling in them the healthy habits of physical activity." The money will be used in communities across the state to improve sidewalks, for outreach, and police training.

Investing in the health of our children while we make our streets safer? Sounds like a pretty good use of stimulus money: healthcare, education, infrastructure.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Crashes Are Not Accidents

The Ghost Bikes movement endeavors to remind us that crashes are not accidents. Accidents are by definition unintentional, and we think of them as being unpredictable and thus unavoidable. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his book (which I'm currently reading), "Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)," do accidents really just happen, or are there steps we can take to avoid them, or at least minimize their likelihood? If so, this suggests that accidents are neither wholly unpredictable nor unavoidable.

Having just moved to Chicago (and with a budding interest in transportation planning), I'm fascinated by traffic here. As a cyclist, I find it intriguing that automobile commuters are willing to sit so long in rush-hour traffic.

In Chicago, as in most places, there is a bias against bicycles as legitimate means of transportation. Chicago is far better than I anticipated, but these two articles from today's news hint at an institutionalized bias:

Bicyclist Hurt in Hit-and-Run Accident

Police are looking for the driver and vehicle involved in a hit-and-run crash which severely injured a west suburban man as he rode a bicycle Sunday night.

Officers found that the 52-year-old man had been on a bicycle when he suffered serious injuries to his legs and head after being struck by a car, according to a release from police.

Traffic investigators responded to the scene and recovered some evidence, but as of noon Monday, the car and driver had not been identified. Anyone who witnessed the accident or has information that will assist in locating the offender, is asked to call police at (630) 801-6610 or Aurora Area Crime Stoppers at (630) 892-1000.

Father, son hurt in Brown County park bike crash

NASHVILLE, Ind. - Authorities say a 15-year-old boy and his father suffered extensive injuries when they crashed down a steep hill while bicycling at Brown County State Park.

Forty-four-year-old Edward Brizendine and his son Ely were taken by helicopter to Methodist Hospital after the accident Sunday afternoon.

State conservation officers say the two were at the park near Nashville with several other members of the Mooresville High School cross county team as part of a weekend training outing.

Conservation Officer Jeff Atwood says the hill where the two crashed is marked with signs urging bike riders to dismount before going down.

The headlines suggest that the driver who struck a cyclist, resulting in serious injuries and hospitalization, and who then fled the scene, had an accident.

The cyclists in the second story apparently failed to heed the posted warnings of a steep and dangerous slope. They, too, were hospitalized as a result of their crash.

Accidents and crashes may both be employed to refer to the same incident, but they carry presumptions of culpability and evitability.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Safe Routes to School? Biking to school results in reprimand.

The Saratogian reports that in Saratoga Springs, NY, a mother and her son were reprimanded by school officials for biking to school in observance of national "Bike to Work Day."

Janette Kaddo Marino and her son, Adam, 12, wanted to participate in the commuting event, so the two set off to Maple Avenue Middle School on bicycles May 15. The two pedaled the 7 miles from their east side home, riding along a path that extends north from North Broadway straight onto school property.

After they arrived, mother and son were approached first by school security and then school administrators, who informed Marino that students are not permitted to ride their bikes to school.

The policy, according to the principal, stems from traffic safety concerns and an attempted child abduction in the district several years ago. From the comments, it sounds as if the traffic in the area presents legitimate challenges to developing a safe route to school for all students, but banning a student from riding with a parent infringes on parents' rights and transportation choices, and the article suggests there is at least one bicycle/pedestrian path crossing school grounds.

As the author and commentators note, automobile-dependency contributes to other very real safety concerns for children, including childhood obesity. These policies reinforce the perception that unsupervised children are at risk from predators and our streets are unsafe for alternative transportation. Moreover, such policies seek only to address the symptoms of these concerns. Creating livable cities - with real neighbors to keep the community safe - can provide a level of supervision that permits children to explore with minimal risk. Removing people from the streets does not make the streets safer; rather we should be discouraging automobile use, enforcing traffic laws, and educating drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians of their rights and responsibilities on the road.

And as for this active mother in Saratoga? "School officials took her son’s bike and stored it in the boiler room. They told her she would have to return with a car to retrieve the bike later in the day." We have a lot of work to do.