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:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Up and down the Swabian Jura

The Schwäbische Alp, in English known as the Swabian Jura, is a mountain range in the southwest of Germany, only a few kilometers from where my parents live. While the mountains are not particularly tall, they offer lots of punishing climbs, especially when leaving the paved roads and ride on the numerous gravel paths.

My original plan had been to ride to Heubach, traversing a steep incline I found on the German quaeldich pass database, and then figuring out the return route as I went. On the way to the incline I took a familiar way to the Rems valley and then started a gentle climb up on a rail trail. The little connecting path from rail trail to a lower road offered a rare 30% incline warning sign. However, I'm fairly sure that that was greatly exaggerated.

The way towards Bargau started climbing again and offered nice views of the mountains I would soon ascend.

The Himmelreich climb starts in Bargau, and with a length of 2.7km and 203m of elevation its quaeldich rating is at 3/5 toughness points. It certainly felt tough enough to me. My front derailer has some issues with getting onto the small ring, and at some point the was not low enough any more and I had to stop and manually shift onto the ring. Dripping with sweat I arrived at the intersection where I would have turned down towards Heubach. I saw, however, that I could also continue straight on a paved road with a grade no less relentless than the previous one. The pavement soon ended, and with the gravel came even steeper grades, maxing at somewhere between 25 and 30%!
The steepest part, requiring a photo break.
At the top I was greeted by a large crucifix, and even as an atheist I was tempted to pray: “Dear Lord, please have mercy and spare me any further climbs like this!”

The high plateau of the Alb, the Albhochfläche, provided much needed recovery. I had planned to take the main road back down to Heubach, but it was closed due to construction. I knew that there was an alternative route on forest trails but didn't quite know how to find it. In the little village of Bartholomä I found a hiking map and a sign-posted route in the right direction.

As this was supposed to be a hiking trail I was a little concerned if I would actually be able to ride it all.  In the end, though, it was mostly comfortable gravel trails through fields and forests with only a short section of grassy single trail—not a problem even for someone of my mediocre mountain biking skills.

In Heubach it was time for a longer stop, first at the Triumph factory outlet and then at a bakery. The two options I considered for the way back home were either to ride north and then take the new Leintal bike path to Welzheim or to climb the Alb again and continue towards Geislingen—the much longer option. Feeling adventurous, I opted for the latter. The first step was to climb back up the Rosenstein mountain.

Ruins of Rosenstein Castle
 In spite of the 13% warning sign, the climb wasn't particularly bad. A quick detour led me to castle ruins, providing stunning views.

Heubach from above

Bridge to the castle

Through the castle window
 From here on it was rolling hills and a final descent to Geislingen on either trails or quiet roads. In Geislingen I got a little lost but eventually found my destination, the WMF factory outlet cafeteria, where I refueled with Espresso from a futuristic machine, fries, and a Weizenbier.
Former granary, now housing a “treasure chest museum&rdqou;

WMF 8000 S—starting at 13 500EUR...

From Geislingen I followed the Fils valley downstream. The valley is densely populated and therefore the bike trail had lots of twists and turns. Fortunately, the signage was good, though, and I didn't get lost.

Bath and wash house of the 19th century worker housing project in Kuchen
 I wasn't quite sure how to best get from the Fils to the Rems valley and decided to just do it by sight-and-go: Aim at the Hohenstaufen mountain, located in between the two valleys, and try to get through somehow. This worked reasonably well but involved plenty more climbing, some of it in the 20+% range. In the village of Hohenstaufen I figured I might as well try to make it all the way up the summit but couldn't find a way that looked ridable. Oh well.

Tiger duck Club :-)

The elusive summit of the Hohenstaufen

View towards the Rems valley
 Through switchbacks I descended into the Rems valley, and after a final climb I was back in Welzheim. My legs and myself were pretty toast. Too bad we only had about an hour before riding another 15 kilometers to visit an old friend...