Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fun in Philly

It’s hard to believe, but I had not been to Philly since the cycling yogi’s birthday in May. You see, he lives without air conditioning and the summer was, let’s face it, brutal. Even though I braved the heat and humidity to cycle all summer long, I’m not inclined to attempt sleep without air conditioned comfort. So my visit last weekend felt like old times, especially since I left the dogs at home and traveled via Amtrak. I was glad I walked, instead of biked, to Union Station, as every bike rack was full – some with three bikes crowded onto a single “staple.”

Union Station needs more free bike racks!

Some things had changed during my four-month absence. When I hopped the SEPTA train at 30th Street Station to head out to Mount Airy, there were shiny new rail cars, still sporting that “new car” scent – a huge relief after enduring the bad smell of noxious cleaning fluid on the Amtrak train. On Saturday, I was attending the Barrelhouse writers’ conference, located at the University of the Arts in Center City. I still don’t feel confident about finding my way this distance in Philly on my own, via bike. Fortunately, the cycling yogi is always happy to get an extra 10-20 miles of biking and he accompanied me.

I did not like that he avoided traffic by starting out with about a mile of very bumpy, gravelly, trail through the Wissahickon. Although I can’t say I enjoy riding in traffic, I also am no mountain biker and I had to take it very slowly, complaining the whole time. But our trip improved dramatically when we reached the 3-4 mile stretch of no-cars-on-weekends road along the Schuylkill River. That’s the biking life! As we reached the fringes of Center City, I noticed another change: a number of Green Lanes to clearly highlight the previously-existing bike lanes. However, despite the bright green, bicycle-emblazoned lane, a tour bus must have mistaken the bicycle symbol for a big stinkin’ bus, because he proceeded to hog the lane, driving erratically and spewing out exhaust fumes. I made a mental note to report him to his company, but, of course, I don’t remember its name.

There were bike racks galore the entire block in front of the University of the Arts building on Broad Street. However, about half of them were the old fashioned racks designed to stick the front tire between in a narrow slot. Sadly, today’s theft prevention precautions require use of a U lock to secure both the front tire and the frame to the bike rack. As the photo below clearly illustrates, the street-smart Philly bikers know this, as every bike was lifted over the rack, frame resting on top.

Philly cyclists know how to lock up
After my day of workshops, cycling yogi met me, as we’d planned a dinner-and-theater evening. But when I unlocked my bike, the front tire was completely flat. With the help of Siri, we located a bike shop just blocks from us. As it was almost 5:00, and we didn’t’ know how late the shop would be open, cycling yogi quickly detached the tire and carried it on his bike to the shop for repair. Here he is, elegantly bringing it back – good as new.

Isn't he cute?
 When the show was over, there was quite a downpour, and we rode our bikes fast down the sidewalks the mile or so to the SEPTA station. Fortunately, there were few pedestrians. On the new rail car I encountered yet another change. The conductor graciously escorted us to the door we were to enter, and proceeded to fold a long bench up along the wall of the car to reveal designated bike storage on the train! There was even an adjustable seatbelt contraption to strap the bike to the wall – although it was not long enough to secure both bikes. Nevertheless, our two bikes nestled against each other without dislodging.

Guess which bike is mine
A few stops later, two more bike riders came aboard and – surprise – the conductor flipped up the long bench across the aisle to accommodate two more bikes. What I wouldn’t give to have such luxurious amenities on D.C.’s metro!

Easy storage for 4 bikes

 I took the early train back on Monday morning. As I walked from Union Station to my office, I was waiting for the light to change at North Capitol Street. There were no cars moving through the intersection, so pedestrians were jumping out ahead of the changing light. But I could see a young woman on a bike approaching the intersection, with the light. Of course I waited for her to cross, noticing her nice red jeans and pink yoga mat tucked into her backpack. Realizing, I imagine, that it’s primarily fellow-cyclists who resist jumping out in front of an oncoming bike, she rewarded me with a knowing smile as she passed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Another Guest Blog from the Cycling Yogi

Even though he objected last time to being referred to as my "partner," I am nice enough to share another guest blog from the cycling yogi - who thinks that "lover" better describes our relationship. Whatever...his observations can be read along with a recent article in the Philly Inquirer, claiming "more cyclists means fewer accidents"

With cyclist traffic up sharply, the city has set up 220 miles of bike lanes including these at 13th and Spruce Streets.

Photo Credit: RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff
With cyclist traffic up sharply, the city has set up 220 miles of bike lanes including these at 13th and Spruce Streets.

When I started riding in the city forty-something years ago, there were no amenities for cyclists, and I learned to be bold and visible in traffic, giving clear signals and ever watchful for the motorist who wasn't. I had my routes and my habits and so, believe it or not, it kinda went right by me when, umpteen years ago, Philadelphia sprouted bicycle lanes.

Today for the first time, I discovered that Pine St has a full car-sized lane reserved for cyclists, that goes all the way across midtown from West to East. On the way home, I looked for a parallel route and sure 'nuff, found that Spruce St had the same deal East to West.

Both streets have converted what used to be two miles of parking spaces into a bicycle lane, and both have painted lines for a separator zone, a no-man's land about three feet wide. Lights are timed at 20 mph, a little faster than I can manage, but slower than the cars, which tend to zoom from one light to the next, then brake for the red and sit and wait.

As I discovered the bike lanes, I also discovered that they have become a favored landing for every FedEx truck and Coca-cola delivery in the neighborhood. Also people who were parking with their flashers on – just for a minute, I'm sure – while they wait for a date or run in to pick up a friend. Every three blocks or so, I ventured out into traffic to go around somebody or other.

In one place, traffic was tied up, and drivers were sorely tempted to slip into the bike lane to get around the snarl. So I got huffy. I yelled at a driver, and knocked on the roof of an encroacher as I passed him on the right. How quickly I have come to feel entitled!

At the end of the day, I waxed philosophical and came to think that bike lanes are less than perfect, more than useless. Perhaps the best thing they are is an agent for transformation of social attitudes. For now, the city cyclist must remain hyper-vigilant, with brakes at the ready. Most motorists will “be nice” to us, with some sense of liberal condescension. But few will acknowledge – on those rare occasions when we are more of an obstacle to them than they are to us – that we have an equal right to the pavement.

What Counts

            Last Thursday I had eagerly volunteered to help with Arlington County’s annual bicycle and pedestrian count. I was assigned to a busy location, and one that I cycle past almost daily – the beginning of the Custis Trail just after it forks out of the W&OD Trail. I was asked to position myself by the automatic counter, to help validate its accuracy. Although I was provided with an aerial map, I had a great deal of difficulty finding the right location – in large part because I had no idea what the automatic counter looked like.

            Being the diligent do-gooder that I am, I arrived at the intersection at 6:45 a.m. – but could not find where I was supposed to position myself. I rode up the Custis Trail, thinking that maybe the Arlington County fellow had a different idea of what “close to” meant. Let me mention here that, once you round a small bend with a little incline, you then must go up a fairly substantial hill, before which the careful cyclist must slow down considerably, as it requires a 90 degree turn, and downhill cyclists sometimes are found in the uphill lane. So, despite the pleasantly cool 61-degree morning, I was sweating by the time I made it up the hill – and still could not find an automatic counter. So I rode back down, thinking I must have missed it. Nope – I couldn’t find it. Back up the hill, sweating more than ever now – drenching both my “moisture wicking” under layer and the thermal top I wore over it.

            I rode farther, passing George Mason Drive – about a mile from the intersection of the two trails. There was another volunteer counter stationed there, so I felt certain that I had gone much too far. I stopped and showed her my map, and she told me to go back – that my location was, indeed, “very close” to the beginning of the Custis Trail. I still couldn’t find the counter and, by then it was 7:09. I had spent nearly 25 minutes riding back and forth – adding miles and hills to what was to have been a hill free commute day – as I was going on to Crystal City for a conference afterwards – an easier and shorter ride than my normal commute.

            So I plopped down close enough to what I thought was the right place, and started counting. Finally, at 7:53, the Arlington coordinator returned the frantic phone call I had placed at 6:45 – asking for more help in finding my location. He seemed angry that I was counting in the wrong place, reiterating that the manual counts were needed to verify the accuracy of the automatic counts. After being upbraided, downbraided, and generally humiliated, I told him, “ok – I’m just a big dummy!” After that he backed off a bit, and thanked me for VOLUNTEERING to help. He phone-talked me to the correct location, in time to begin recording by 8 a.m.

Finally - the automatic counter (and my nice bike)

             Amazing as it seems, the automatic counters have been on the path for a year and a half or two years and I NEVER ONCE NOTICED THEM. Now that I know what they look like, I am seeing them everywhere.

            But enough, too much, about my mishaps in finding the right location. The results were as follows. Of all the 275 people on bikes, only 13 percent were female. This is a disgraceful percentage and it made me very sad that so few women were on the path on a perfectly gorgeous morning. The percentage held for both the small number of cyclists traveling westward (17 percent) and the great majority traveling east – presumably commuting to D.C. As I had guessed through informal observation – the pedestrians were evenly split between men and women – but cyclists far outnumbered walkers and runners. I only observed 58 pedestrians, total.

            A few other factoids about the Arlington cyclists: out of 275 bikers, only 5 were not wearing helmets. There were only so many things I could keep count of, so I did not record the exact number who were in lycra compared to “street” clothes. But it’s safe to say that the great majority of riders were clad in sports gear. This did not surprise me, given that my location was nearly five miles from D.C. and, thus, most probably had a fairly substantial commute.

            All in all – despite my early confusion and my great disappointment at the small percentage of women who cycle – I enjoyed spending two hours as a volunteer counter. I got lots of friendly waves and smiles, I brought snacks to eat for breakfast, and I got to do some yoga during slow periods. Best of all was getting to see this little girl in a flowered dress on her Dora the Explorer bike, complete with training wheels, protected by a Little Mermaid helmet, accompanied by her dad toting her glittery pink backpack. At the other end of the age spectrum, I saw a heavyset middle-aged woman who had an unfortunate gear malfunction at the bottom of the hill and had to walk her bike up it. I gave her props for the effort and remembered the days – they seem so long ago now – when I had to walk my bike up the big hills, feeling humiliated, but determined.

Maybe she'll continue to be a lifelong bike commuter
            Mostly, though, I remain committed to encouraging more women to experience the joys of bike commuting. It has improved my mental and physical health, it saves me money, and, in a sense, it saves me time – since I used to often go out and ride my bike for an hour in the morning, and then get in my car and drive half an hour to work. How silly was that? What counts for me is not just the number of people who ride their bikes, but the diversity of those who participate. I saw plenty of athletic young-ish men, but also older men, young women, people who struggled slowly, and speedsters. I saw young boys riding to the Catholic school adjacent to the path and a couple of family groups. I saw few people of color – perhaps a reflection of the North Arlington neighborhood. But mostly I saw healthy bodies and happy faces – people enjoying an exhilaration fueled by moving forward on one’s own strength, aided by two smooth wheels.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tornadoes and Asian Pears

All this long summer, despite relentless heat in the 90s and higher, I stuck with bicycle commuting – surprising myself at the temperatures I was able to tolerate, if not enjoy. But when September rolled around, and the heat showed no signs of abating, I began to grow more than weary of it. The humidity weighed on me, turning my limbs to lead and my spirits felt squashed.

On Saturday, after two days of no exercise (prepping for and having a colonoscopy – yay – healthy colon) I felt compelled to make up for my lassitude on Saturday – starting with Pilates, going for my last swim of the season (a mile in the pool) and then biking down to Shirlington to see a show. Part-way through the second act, the power went out and we were informed that a tornado was passing near by. A few minutes later, they told us that the eye of the storm was right above us. I couldn’t feel a thing inside the sturdy theater, but a constellation of cell phones lit up the space, and all around people were checking the weather postings – informing us that a torrential downpour was in progress.

I was starting to worry about how I’d get home on my bike. But shortly, the power was restored, the show went on, and the rain had largely stopped by the time I exited the theater. Its aftermath brought the relief of cool air – something I’d been fantasizing about for months. And even though the rain picked back up, it was just a moderate sprinkle and I was delighted to find weather cold enough to make my ears hurt, just a bit – reminding me that yes, one day again, I will be wearing headbands and ear warmers, long sleeves and leggings.

Water from Four Mile Run Covering the Bike Path

 My route home offers parallel paths – the Four Mile Run path along the stream – usually my preferred route for its shadier and more scenic amenities, and the flatter, faster W&OD. Wisely, I chose the W&OD, as the gushing brown waters of Four Mile Run had overrun the path in many places. Amazingly, someone had already removed piles of branches from the W&OD path and stacked them along the edge.

Piles of Fallen Branches Stacked Along the Path

When I got home, I found that the storm had littered the ground with Asian pears from my huge, ancient tree – whose branches are too high for me to harvest. Usually, the pears that fall to the ground are assaulted by the squirrels – who take one bite out of each pear, apparently forgetting with each new fruit that, in fact, they don’t care for them. I filled a box with my windfall, and brought them inside, lovingly cleaning and drying them and trying to figure out how I would give away the hundred or so more than I’d ever be able to consume.

One Day's Bounty of Asian Pears, Picked for me by the Storm

 Sunday morning dawned crisp and cool, and I filled a pannier with Asian pears, taking them to the yoga studio and exhorting my students to, please, take some. Even though the temperatures are projected to rise again later in the week, I am savoring the pleasant breeze through the open windows, and the incessant chirping of a lovelorn cricket in my basement – signs of the autumn that is sure to come, soon.