Monthly Archives: November 2008

What Is an “Urban” Bike?

Several of my less bike-literate friends have asked me to explain this latest trend in bicycles. Basically, I would define an “urban bike” as any bicycle that survives in the urban environment. This is tougher than it sounds because the hazards are many. A bike that somehow  avoids being stolen might be destroyed by or quickly discarded because it is too heavy, too slow, or too temperamental for commuting use. In a moment, I will explain three different takes on the concept (including my own). Always keep in mind, however, that the bike that works for you is always the perfect bike. I currently belong to a bike club at work. There are about 5 active members and no two of us have bikes that similar. All of these bikes are ridden in group rides every week however in places like East LA, Hollywood, and Whittier. By my rule, they are all “urban” bikes because they work for their riders.

When the bicycle industry talks about urban bikes, they usually mean a kind of all-around bicycle. These bikes are a bit lighter than a mountain bike, a bit sportier than a comfort bike, and cheaper than most road bikes. The bars are usually flat, the forks are usually rigid, and the tires are medium wide. Actually, I think this sort of bike has much to recommend it. For the last two decades most bikes sold in this country have been mountain bikes that were ridiculously unsuited to city riding. I can think of few things sillier than riding a full suspension mountain bike in the city. Most people will rarely go on single track and are best served by a simple all-around bike.

There is another paradigm which comes not from the bike companies, but from the bike subculture itself. Bicycle messengers have been common in North American cities for many years. Many of them started out with more-or less stock road and mountain bikes. As time passed however, they created a very distinctive style of bike. In the last few years many of younger riders who have never worked as messengers have adopted this style. In general, these bikes are built on light-weight frames, usually steel (the better to survive the inevitable wrecks). They tend to have drop bars, or sometimes “bull horns”. Quick release wheels and seat post clamps are shunned because they make it too easy to steel parts off the bike. A front brake is considered optional. A rear break is considered a nuisance. Most importantly of all, these bikes are single-speed or, even more commonly, fixed gear. Dérailleurs are simply not considered worth the weight, expense, and hassle.

Urban fixed gear bikes are highly optimized for aggressive riding in the thick of inner-city traffic. Their riders tend to have a high level of physical fitness and technique (or else they don’t last long in that kind of riding anyway). They are certainly not appropriate for all riders. However, if you are an advanced cyclist who regularly needs to get around a downtown area in a hurry, you should probably check into them.

A few months ago, when I felt recuperated enough from my injuries to begin riding again, I was faced with the need to choose a bike. I have owned dozens of them over the years and worked on hundreds for other people, so I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. Unfortunately, I had one big constraint: I only had about $100 to blow. Lucky for me, I almost immediately found an early ’90s Nishiki at the goodwill for $30. I repacked all the bearings, put cushy commuter tires on it, and chopped the original steel bars into bull horns, and threw away the back brake (it drags on the new tires and I never use it anyway). I had enough money left over to get a good pair of break levers and some bar tape. (I put on both levers so it wouldn’t look lopsided).

My bike doesn’t look like much (a big plus, because bike thieves are less likely to notice it). I have been very happy with it, however. It keeps up quite easily with my friend’s nice road bikes, not to mention Hollywood traffic. My only beef is that, at 25.5 lbs, it is a little heavy to carry up subway staircases. I plan to swap on more allow components as time goes on. So far, I have resisted the urge to convert it to a single speed/fixed gear. I can’t say what will happen as I get in better shape, however.

I realize that my answer to the original question of “what is an urban bike” lacks brevity. I hope, though, that I have at least demonstrated the range of possibilities within the class.

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West Hollywood Halloween Parade 2008

Last night my friends and I went to the West Hollywood Halloween parade. Oddly, the event is not a parade—more of a huge costume party in the middle of Santa Monica boulevard with many thousands of participants, food, cover bands, and dance music. What a blast!

One overwhelming observation gripped me: I like Santa Monica Boulevard eminently better without cars. With the roadblocks up we were able to walk right up to shops that we can barely get to by car (because of the impossible parking situation). More than that, its just a much friendlier place when it isn’t blighted by the automobile.

The obvious question is, “why don’t we just close it off for good?” Santa Monica did it with the 3rd street promenade and created a shopping and entertainment mecca for the whole west side. Why not West Hollywood? Why not every town in the country?

I noticed another phenomenon. As soon as the barriers were up pedestrians started reclaiming not just the Boulevard, but all of its cross streets as well. Only a few of these streets had officially been closed, yet people suddenly felt like they could begin walking in the middle of the street again. The lesson is, once you get cars off your main arterial streets, you can take back your town.

Lets do it. Keep pressuring your city governments to put up bollards and close main thoroughfares. We need more downtown walking malls. Get the cars out of our cities—for an event or forever—and everyone will be the better for it.

Big SUV? Get a Commercial License

Our goal is to get all cars out of private hands. In the beginning, however, it might be worthwhile to target the most dangerous, the most environmentally damaging, and the most outright obnoxious cars. In other words: the biggest cars.

As I travel the streets of Southern California, I have noticed an interesting correlation: the least competent drivers always want to drive the biggest SUVs and vans. This makes them feel a lot safer, but puts the rest of us in a state of constant risk. How many times have we all nearly been forced off the road by some ultra wide vehicle whose driver can not keep it in their own lane? How man questionable right turns have we made on red lights because (tall and opaque) SUV in the left turn lane has pulled it all the way into the cross walk, blocking our view?

When these vehicles get in a collision, the results are devastating. Kinetic energy is directly proportional to mass. At a given speed, a vehicle that weighs twice as much will transmit twice as much energy to the object with which it collides.

I will not even address the driving habits of red-neck jack asses in jacked-up pickup trucks.

My point is, bigger vehicles are harder to control and more hazardous for other road users. The people who want them most are usually the ones who should not have them.

Environmentally, it is clear that larger vehicles are more damaging. The use a lot more material, all of which will eventually need to be recycled or otherwise disposed up. I would direct you to Katie Alvord’s excellent book Divorce Your Car (New Society Publishers, 2000) for a discussion of the direct and indirect costs of manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of cars. It is likely that most of these costs are proportional to weight.

Obviously, larger vehicles waste much more fossil fuel, which should be a concern to everybody. Likewise, they release many more pollutants into the atmosphere. In the US they are required to meet much laxer emissions standards than normal cars.

There is a simple way to attack the drivers of thees dangerous and wasteful vehicles. Most states currently require commercial drivers licenses for vehicles above a certain gross vehicle weight (GVW). In most states this kicks in around 10,000 lb GVW. A rather simple change in the motor vehicle code would redefine commercial vehicles as being any vehicle over 6,000 GVW. This would include most large SUVs, full sized vans, and pickup trucks.

The change would require that anyone owning one of these vehicles would need to register them as commercial vehicles (which typically costs more and requires more paperwork than private vehicles). Their insurance rates would probably increase. Most importantly, they would be forced to obtain commercial licenses.

Most people who actually need to drive these vehicles for work probably already have a CDL, or could get one fairly easily. It could provide a useful barrier, however, for the sort of driver we have been speaking about.

The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) has guidelines for the issuance of a commercial drivers license. In general applicants must pay extra fees, take an additional multiple choice test, pass a road test in a commercial vehicle (which usually requires a special appointment), pass a comprehensive physical (which they must repeat every two years), and undergo a federal background check.

All of these requirements are perfectly reasonable for someone who wants to operate a vehicle heavier than 6000 lbs. Indeed, they are rather modest considering how dangerous, dirty, and environmentally damaging they are. Hopefully some day we can outlaw them altogether. For now, we can change the laws to make them harder to operate.

The War Against The Car (Introduction)

In 2006 I was a casualty of war. The war I refer to is the struggle of ordinary people like me against the forces of big oil and the automotive companies and the car culture they have created to enslave humanity. I dared to walk along an American road and was run down and crippled by the enemy, a car. Ironically I, who have been car light or car free since I was 15, was forced to use a car extensively for the next two years because of my injuries. Only recently have I returned to the bicycle as my primary means of transportation (supplemented by trains and the bus). The war goes on. I am back on active duty. I still think we can win.

I am not speaking metaphorically. This is a real war. Many people on both sides have been killed by one of mans deadliest weapons—the automobile. Real violence erupts all the time. In the last two weeks two drivers have screamed threats of bodily harm at me because they resented the fact that I was driving in traffic. Even though my left arm is still crippled, I realized that it was my duty to stand and fight. Luckily, they proved less willing than me to suffer physical injury for their beliefs. Had they had superiority of numbers I’m sure I would have suffered a severe beating.

In the last few weeks I have been trying to assess the direction of transportation activism in this country. I’m pleased to see that the ranks of bicycle activists, transportation reformers, and mass transit advocates have swollen in the wake of the latest gas crises. Terrific! They are my brothers in arms and I salute them. Unfortunately, their strategies are critically flawed.

The usual argument goes like this: “If we improve mass transit, build bike paths, improve the bikes themselves, and educate people about fitness then they will all abandon their cars and flock to our side.” This will not work. Here in Los Angeles we have one of the largest and biggest bus and subway systems in the country, yet LA is the very heartland of the evil car culture. Bike paths are great for a nice Sunday morning ride, but they don’t tend to go to any of the places we work or shop or live. Bikes are already awesome. People are lazy. As long as cars are cheap and assessable they are going to drive them. The fact that they are destroying the planet and endangering the lives of themselves and their neighbors will always be secondary to their own comfort and convenience.

The the only way to fight the car culture is a head-on attack. The only way to eliminate cars from the road is to make them hard to acquire, expensive to drive, and eventually illegal to own or produce. In my next few entries I will explore ways to attack the car culture. Few of them will be easy. In fact, most of them will take a lot of time, money, and courage. This is a real war, remember?

I also reserve the right to slip in a few useful bicycle or woodworking shop tips and perhaps an amusing fire sprinkler anecdote or two—just to lighten the mood.