Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Bike, I Vote: 2014 Wisconsin Bike Summit

Last Friday I attended the 2014 edition of the annual Wisconsin Bike Summit in Madison. Having just recently relocated to Madison, I figured the summit would be a great opportunity to connect with the local and state-wide bike advocacy scene. The schedule of the summit was packed, with three concurrent tracks. First, however, were the opening remarks by Michael Johnson. Johnson is the highly charismatic CEO of the Dane County Boys & Girls Club—and also an avid cyclist who goes on weekly group rides at 4:30 in the morning!

Dave Cieslewicz in a great outfit: Suit, bike tie, Sidis

The first panel I attended was on increasing the share of women amongst cyclists. The fact that women on average bike less than men (and the larger issue of equity; see below) has received quite a bit of attention lately, and the Bike Fed started a program for Women & Bikes. The panel was introduced by Carolyn Dvorak, the ambassador for the La Crosse group. Krista Crum from the Madison bike share system B-cycle presented data on how bike share in general and the system in Madison in particular can be a tool for increasing the proportion of women cycling. Whereas the overall share amongst cyclists in the US is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, the Madison B-cycle system is much closer to gender parity. Cassandra Habel, the Madison ambassador of Women & Bikes and the person behind Spokehaven, then presented the wide range of activities that she has started in Madison to offer a variety of ways for women to engage with cycling at any skill level—fix-a-flat clinics, no-drop group rides, support for women racers, ...

The future of car travel

“A Vision for Wisconsin’s Transportation System” was the title of the second panel I attended, and it probably had the least bike-focus. Ashwat Narayanan from the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and Bruce Speight from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group presented their research into the misguided transportation policies in Wisconsin: a stagnating or declining number of miles driven in cars is met with costly highway capacity expansions that cost billions. As a regular Streetsblog reader I was quite familiar with their work and would have appreciated it if the speakers had explicitly the role of cycling in the big picture. But maybe that is the conclusion: Highway building is such a behemoth that active transportation investments simply pale in significance.

After a lunch break speech by RT Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, I went to a panel that presented a number of statistics about bike commuting and potential strategies to increase them. I love this kind of research, and the work by Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at UW–Milwaukee, was very interesting: He analyzed the 100 census tracts with the highest share of bike commuters and tried to distill what distinguished those neighborhoods from ones with lower bike commute shares. While some factors aren't easily changed, for example the proportion of university students that characterizes cities like Davis, CA, I think this kind of work has enormous promise for informing future policy and advocacy.

Image credit: Adventure Cycling Association

Another panel that promised to be very interesting was about the US Bicycle Route (USBR) System and its implementation in Wisconsin. The USBRs are an effort to create a US-wide network of long-distance bike routes. As a volunteer mapper for OpenStreetMap (OSM) I had earlier agreed to help getting the planned Wisconsin routes into the OSM database, but never heard back from the people in charge. At the panel a representative of WisDOT and the Department of Natural Resources presented the three corridors planned for Wisconsin, two going east–west and one going north–south. Somewhat confusingly, there is also a fourth route in the plan, USBR 30 through Madison, but that one is planned not by state agencies but by the Bike Fed and was not mentioned at all during the panel. The second presentation was by the president of Rails-to-Trails.  Their work to convert abandoned rail corridors around the country into trails for active transportation is quite impressive. I was also intrigued by the fact that they have a detailed, volunteer-created database of both rail corridors and trails, including surface information. This seems like a great opportunity for collaboration with OpenStreetMap.

The final panel of the day returned to the topic touched upon in the first panel: Equity. The Milwaukee coordinator of the SmartTrips program, Shea Schachameyer, presented her efforts on data collection about biking and walking in a low-income neighborhood. How many people of color or people with low income already bike? What do they consider to be barriers to biking and walking more? And how can those barriers be overcome? Keith Holt of the Bike Fed addressed the question of equity more generally. How can equity be defined in the world of bike advocacy? How can the momentum around the topic that recently popped up around the topic be translated into effective action? As one can imagine, there are way more questions than answer. One example of equity work done right that Holt presented was the creation of the Underground Railroad bike route. Despite Holt's initial skepticism about the very-white-and-from-Missoula bike touring organization Adventure Cycling Association, he described how the cooperation with the University Pittsburgh's Center of Minority Health ultimately led to a successful project beyond appropriation of Black history.

Eleanor McMahon in front of the Capitol

The summit concluded with a group ride to the State Capitol where Eleanor McMahon, a member of the Canadian legislature and founder of the Share the Road Ontario gave a short speech.

I really enjoyed the summit. The only slight criticism I have is that, as it not uncommon with these types of events, the schedule was so packed that discussion and socializing often came up short. Probably a lot of that happened at the Saris Gala that happened in the evening and that I unfortunately couldn't attend. It also would have been helpful if the name tags had stated the organization or location of the participants. Especially for newcomers to the Wisconsin bike advocacy scene this made it hard to figure out who was who.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Finally, the first S24O! Blue Mound State Park

So it's September 2014, and the Ride or Pie?! crew still hasn't ever done a "Sub-24 Overnight" (S24O), the bike camping format "for the time challenged," introduced in a 2007 article by Grant Petersen of Rivendell. The idea had great appeal to us. We have done a good number of multi-day bike camping trip over the years, but they do require a good amount of planning, preparation, and coordination. The idea of the S24O, one the other hand, is that it's possible to just head out sometime in the afternoon, with little prior planning, camp overnight, and be back home in less than 24 hours.
When we still lived in Montreal, we had made several attempts to actually do a S24O, but —ironically enough— they somehow always fell through because we were too busy or something. So it was high time to make use of the last warm days of the year and finally head out there.

The post-mortem analysis of the earlier attempts seemed to indicate that packing all the gear was one factor that had led to failure. It's not really a S24O when you have to spend 4 hours putting lowrider racks on the bike, digging for camp gear in various closets, and then neatly packing it into your four Ortliebs. For that reason I decided to just take along the trailer this time. The trailer is nothing fancy, just a Y frame with a flat deck and rattly wheels, but I figured it would certainly make it through the 45 kilometers from Madison to Blue Mound State Park and back.


Tent, sleeping bags and pads, a towel, and some pillows were just stuffed into an old mail bag and strapped onto the trailer. This left of plenty of space in the panniers for half a change of cloths and cooking gear—no optimization required. The Biketopus only carried one mostly empty pannier for groceries that we would buy on the way. 

Right on time, at 2 p.m., we were on the road. That unfortunately was also the time when the Badgers football game ended, and there were throngs of people dressed in red everywhere. Soon, however, we were past that and on the bike path towards Verona. The new extension of the Cannonball Path seems to get close to completion, but for now we still had to take the detour on the US-18 frontage route. After that section, it was 100% car-free bike trail all the way to the State Park.

The weather was terrific, and there was even a bit of a tailwind to compensate for the gentle uphill. We were going quite fast, and probably a little too fast. I had forgotten to bring any on-the-road snacks, and at some point first signs of bonkage appeared. By the time we arrived at the Grumpy Troll brew pub in Mount Horeb, there sure was some grumpiness to be had, as evidenced by this picture:
Grumpy troll biketopus

A pint and some cheese curds later, we continued the last 10 kilometers to our campground. To our surprise, there were already several other bike campers at the site. Dinner consisted of beans and Tofurky sausages cooked on the fire pit. Because it was so warm and the sky was clear, we decided to leave off the rain fly and watch the stars before falling asleep.


 As per usual, I didn't sleep that well and got up around 6. This gave me plenty of time to turn the damp firewood into a nice morning fire and prepare coffee, tea, and oatmeal.

Unwilling biketopus is unwilling to get out of the tent...

...but breakfast and sunshine make everything better.

Moi, in my usual morning cheerfulness, especially with a cup of coffee
 Breaking down tent, as everything, wet and dirty or not, was stuffed into the mail bag.
Sunrise plus turning leaves: Awesome colors





Back in Mount Horeb, we stopped for a second breakfast at Schubert's. And after pretty much exactly 22 hours we were back home in Madison. Full success!


So I think we have this S24O thing down now. The one improvement I'll make for the next season is to buy a huge tote box, in which we can store all the camping gear and that then I can just strap onto the trailer. The mail bag worked okay but was a bit difficult to strap down, and the storage box should also further reduce prep time.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

15 Bike-friendly Businesses In and Around Madison

Please excuse the horrible headline—I can assure you that Ride or Pie?! has not been acquired by Buzzfeed. But this post actually is about the fifteen businesses and organizations that have been awarded the bike-friendly designation by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).

Each year the League awards one of four levels of recognition to companies and organizations that are especially bike-friendly for their employees. The awards are based on an 14-page questionnaire covering the four E's: encouragement, engineering, education, and evaluation and planning. In contrast to some other bike-related awards or rankings based on dubious data, this process makes the bike-friendly business designation a meaningful measure. Potential employees can use the awards as one factor in deciding where they want to work. For companies and their current employees, on the other hand, the survey provides a tool for evaluating and improving bike-friendliness.

This year's new awards were announced yesterday, and there are now over 800 bike-friendly businesses (BFBs) in the US. Wisconsin currently ranks fifth among the states, with 43 BFB's, and a sizable number of those businesses are in and around Madison.

Here is a map of all of the ones in Madison. The size of the bubble represents the number of employees, ranging from 5 to 23,000; and the color represents the level of bike-friendliness: bronze, silver, or gold. We currently don't have a platinum level BFB, but maybe that will change in the 2015 edition of the competition.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Have we reached a plateau? Latest figures on bike commuting in Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin

There is much anticipation in the bike advocacy world around the annual release of the American Community Survey (ACS) by the US Census Bureau. Among a wealth of other data on the US and its population, the ACS also asks by which means of transportation people get to work. I decided to look at the data for my home town, county, and state—Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin.

There are a multiple caveats on the data quality, but since there aren't many alternatives available, the ACS is still a valuable source of information of bicycle use and transportation trends. Some of the limitations become clear when we look at the actual question asked:
How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK? If this person usually used more than one method of of transportation during the trip, mark (X) the box of the one used for most of the distance.
So someone who bikes to work on two days and takes her car on three would count as a car commuter. Similarly, a person who rides 5 miles to the commuter rail station, takes the train downtown, and then walks to their office, would count as a train commuter. The other, less obvious limitation, which is especially relevant for Madison, is that students' trip to their university are not considered commutes and therefore not counted. And of course, trips to work constitute only part of all trips made.

That said, let's look at the data, beginning at the state level.
Maybe unsurprisingly, at the state level the picture for bike commuting appears rather bleak. Between 2006 and 2013 the rate of bike commuters has been basically flat and far below one percent. However, one must keep in mind that there are only six states in the whole of the United States that have a mode share of one percent or more, and the national average is 0.62%. Nonetheless, the flat trend raises some uncomfortable questions for bike advocates.

 How do things look in Dane County? The proportion of people riding their bike to work is significantly higher than at the state level, and over the seven-year period there also is a small but noticeable increase in bike commuting.
This pattern repeats itself at a higher level in Madison. Given that Madison respondents make up roughly half of those of Dane County, this comes as no surprise. As you can see with the dotted lines in the charts, at the county and city level the margins of error are quite sizable, and conclusions about trends should be taken with a grain of salt. But when we compare the Dane and Madison data with cities with a similarly high rate of bike commuting, it appears that the growth in bike commuting may have plateaued over the past couple of years. Cities with a initially low bike commute share, such as New York City or Washington DC, continue their growth, but once the rate reaches around five percent, growth appears harder to attain.

I am not going to address the potential explanations for this plateau effect, but feel free to put forward your theories in the comments, especially as they pertain to the specific situation in Wisconsin and Madison. In the meantime I will try to get access to the Madison bike counter data, which would allow some cross-validation of the ACS data.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Oh world, why do you keep tempting me? N + 1 Elephant

Elephant National Fores Explorer prototype © Elephant Bikes

Two weeks ago I saw an announcement on the iBOB list about a new low-trail, wide-tired 650B frameset, handmade in the US by Elephant Bikes. The National Forest Explorer looks great: Clearance for 42mm wide tires with fenders or 55mm without, disc brakes, braze-ons for front and rear racks, and just $1085 for frame and fork. Now that's still a bit out of my price range, but I was relieved to see that the size only came in sizes small to large, with the large being definitely too small for me. So no real temptation there.

Image © Elephant Bikes
“Unfortunately,” today it was announced that Elephant will scrap the small option in this batch and replace it with an XL—which would be the perfect size for me. I can't really justify nor afford getting this bike, but the temptation is strong. Oh well, I'm sure these will sell really well, and I can maybe get in in a later production run.

PS For another awesome bike made by Elephant, check out this thread on Fred Blasdel's bike.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Adieu Montreal, adieu Québec! My final Laurentian ride

It's time for me to leave Montreal and Quebec. On Moving Day, July 1, our lease ended and soon I'll be moving to Madison (Wisc.). As a proper way of saying goodbye I wanted to do one last long ride through some of my favorite parts of the greater Montreal region.

My previous plan, riding the Corridor Aerobique trail, turned out to be too complicated logistically. Instead I planned a route based on a ride I did last fall, modified in a way that would make it doable from and to the de la Concorde metro station in Laval. In addition I also wanted to avoid some of the really bad gravel sections I encountered last time.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, I am in good shape this year, and so the projected length and elevation gain—250 kilometers and 2500 meters—of the ride didn't scare me too much. Just in case, I also considered leaving early enough in order to have the option to bail by taking the last train back from Saint-Jerôme. But as per usual, I was too tired to get my stuff together the night before and didn't get up early enough to catch the first metro.

I still got out of the station in Laval at quarter past seven, heading north on the bike path. I know the route to Saint-Jerôme quite well, and so I set up the GPS track I had transferred to my device late last night only while already on the bike. Or had I transferred it? Apparently not, as only the second half of the ride appeared on my Etrex! I realized that I had exhausted the device's small memory for track files. Oh well, after some consideration I figured that because I had done a good part of the first half on last fall's ride, I should be able to make it work.

During the first few hours of the ride I didn't feel too great and also had to stop for nature breaks at a ridiculous frequency. Once in Saint-Jerôme it was time to get off the P'tit Train du Nord trail and follow Highway 333 into the mountains. This road was new to me, and it turned out to have a lot of traffic and a mediocre shoulder. The landscape, on the other hand, turned increasingly pretty: The typical Laurentian mix of lakes and wooded hills.

In Saint-Hyppolite, about 55 kilometers into the ride, I met up with my previous route and also left the busy highway. Since I knew that the services for the next stretch of the route would be limited I also made a quick stop at the small local supermarket. From here on a lot of the route profile could be described as a backroad rollercoaster: On quiet roads I would climb a steep incline for two or three minutes, zoom down again for maybe ten seconds, only to repeat the procedure over and over again.

I don't know if it was the pretty scenery, but I started feeling much better and enjoying the ride. My enjoyment was further increased by the meadows full of orange wildflowers and the recent repaving of a formerly bumpy road.

Ah, smoooth pavement!


 Eventually the pavement turned to gravel. On my previous ride out here I was on my road bike with 25mm tires. This time I was on Wolfgang, the Cross-Check, with 35mm tires and lower gears, making for much more comfortable riding.



The number of beautiful lakes in the Laurentians is stunning. With some difficulty I figured out at which intersection to depart from the old course and head toward Lac à l'Orignal. On the short stretch before reaching Highway 329 a combination of a steep hill and loose gravel, forced me off the bike for the first—and last time today.



Somewhere on Chemin du Lac de l'Orignal I finally picked up on the new GPS track. This was a good thing, as for most of the time I didn't have a clue where exactly I was and in which direction I was heading. Again, the road turned from asphalt to gravel, and the rollercoastering continued.


 Eventually the roads got better and busier again, indicating the proximity of the Transcanada Highway and the village of Saint-Faustin. It was high time for a longer break and after some circling around I picked up water and a Pepsi at a gas station.
Unfortunately closed.
 I was still confused about my whereabouts, compounded by the fact that I missed the intersection with the P'tit Train trail. I knew that I had been nearby on my previous ride but after a while all roads through the forest and alongside lakes start to look the same, no matter how pretty they are. Oh well, I had my little electronic helper offering me sufficient guidance

 The climb out of Saint-Faustin was tough, and I couldn't even enjoy the following downhill much because of rough gravel in a construction zone.

Eventually I had my lightbulb moment and figured out where I was in comparison to last year's ride, and after a few more kilometers I was back on the previous route. My plan worked: I had avoided all the bad gravel!

In Saint-Adolphe-d'Howard I spotted a great looking park on the lake. What a great spot for a break!

Back at the metro station I had clocked 245 kilometers, the longest ride so far on my Cross-Check, and a great Adieu to Montreal and Quebec!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Critical Mass in Stuttgart: Quite different

My first and only Critical Mass (CM) until yesterday had been in Berlin, sometime around 2007 I think. It wasn't all exactly great: The police had a history of being assholes, leading to a low turnout and a confrontational atmosphere. In the cities I've lived in since there either were not CMs, or they had similar issues as the ones in Berlin. When I saw that there would be a CM in Stuttgart, I thought I'd give it another try.

Because I currently live almost 50 kilometers from Stuttgart, I had to leave quite early to make it in time. The weather forecast predicted rain, but I was determined to go—and the rain never materialized anyway. When I arrived at the meeting point, it quickly became clear that this CM experience would be quite different. The crowd was way larger and it consisted of a quite different demographic. There were kids, there were lots of middle-aged and older folks, some of them on very fancy bikes, and the hipster-on-a-fixie ratio was pretty low. 



The political situation and the attitudes of drivers apparently makes it necessary to not follow the principle of “CM is not a protest” but instead run the ride as a political manifestation with a fixed route and a police escort. The upside is that this reduces confrontations and makes the ride appealing to a wider audience; the downside is that it also reduces the spontaneity and led to constant stop-and-go when the police escort made us wait at many intersections.


 It's hard to estimate how large the crowd was, but I guess it was well over 500, maybe even close to a 1000 people.
Shaft drive bike completely wrapped in inner tubes...
One of the few hipsters, or: me




One of two awesome mobile soundsystems!

Stuttgart is pretty hilly


It's not Critical Mass if there aren't any tallbikes

Approaching the Schwabtunnel connecting Stuttgart West and Stuttgart East


It was nice riding on some roads that are usually off-limits to cyclists, including two tunnels and one of the main arterial going through Stuttgart. Corking worked pretty well and the amount of angry honks wasn't too bad.

Making a U-turn and occupying both sides of the road
At around 9:30 we reached our final destination, the warehouse of Fahrräder für Afrika, a charity that upcycles donated bikes and ships them to partner organizations in different African countries. Their shop is huge and literally has heaps of bikes in it! There was beer, music, pizza, and a presentation about biking in Copenhagen. All in all, I had a great experience, despite having to bike another 50 kilometers back home on my dad's bike that's way too small for me.




Edit: Stuggi.tv had a nice segment (in German), too: