Tag Archives: cycling

Thoughts on the London Transit Strike

Image courtesy HuffingtonPost.com, which has a number of Tube Strike photos

Regular media and social media are abuzz with ‘Why you really don’t want to be a Londoner right now’ and ‘Top ten worst images from the London Tube strike.’ And its true its caused a little bit of hysteria: the London Underground is running a skeleton service Wednesday and Thursday (scheduled to end in a few hours) to protest staffing changes, including closing ticket offices (possibly to turn them into Amazon or grocery pick-up facilities, which I think sounds kind of awesome). The Tube workers say that the move will make the Tube less hospitable to elderly, disabled and female riders; I did see a Tweet from a disabled-advocacy group so there must be something that I’m missing.

Anyway. The strike is the first of 2 scheduled walk-outs in protest of the changes, and has resulted in a fair amount of chaos around the city, with bus queues stretching down streets and YouTube videos of arterial roads turned into parking lots.

That said, there was far less chaos than I was expecting. In my two days of commuting around London (one in heavy rain – awesome!), there were noticeably more people on foot. And larger were noticeably more aggressive – I saw a white van almost take out a woman my mother’s age on a left turn this morning.  It was so egregious I tried to note down the plate, only to be enraged at the next street when a Royal Mail van did almost exactly the same thing.   That said, motorized traffic through the city centre did not seem substantially worse than normal. And while there were loads of pedestrians around King’s Cross and around UCL, that’s pretty much standard, as well. In general, the most common comment I’ve seen on Facebook in response to ‘look at these crazy crowds!’ is ‘looks about normal to me.’

There have been noticeably more cyclists, though.  Use of the cycle hire scheme is up 50% (with staffing to match) and there was a noticeable uptick in novice cyclists, both on personal and cycle-hire bikes, tooling around the city.  Not only were they novices, they were jerks: lots more cycling on the sidewalk (or pavements, as they’re called here) and the wrong way down one-ways.  There were also a number of efforts to encourage safe cycling, the most notable being the #bikethestrike campaign on Twitter, where regular commuters publicised their routes and led ‘rusty riders’ home like ducklings.  Some of my coworkers have said they wish such a service existed all the time, so I’m hopeful that despite today’s awful weather, some of the cyclists will stick.

On the whole, I think efforts like #bikethestrike and seasoned cyclists’ desire to publicise the benefits have led to really lovely behavior.  I had a nice chat with a man yesterday where I showed him how to work the machines and wished him well in his new job (it was his first day. Poor bastard.)  Later, when I inadvertently cut off a lycra-clad, lithe young man in an expensive helmet, I turned around to apologise, and he said ‘no worries, I liked the look of you.’ While my initial reaction was ‘STILL GOT IT!” I realise now he was probably not flirting with me, after all.  Of course, moments later, as I was cycling down Tavistock Road reflecting on how lovely people can be, a pedestrian stepped in front of a cyclist, who snarled ‘get out of the fucking way!’

Not that it excuses his behavior, but he totally had the right-of-way and the walked was behaving really dangerously by stepping in front of about a dozen cyclists, all accelerating to make it through the light.

While I think the Tube strike was unwarranted, and that ticket offices probably are outdated and expensive to maintain, I also think that things more or less went okay, given my expectations.  If you were stuck in a car, I have no sympathy for you. And if some more people cycled…that’s great.  The Tube transports about 4 million people every day, so I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t an important means of transport. Clearly, it’s one of the world’s great urban transpo networks.  But the city didn’t grind to a halt without it – people walked, rode bikes, and found ways around it, and that’s what they (we) will do again in the event of another strike next week.

 

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A friend recently told me that, with the birth of their second child looming, they’re looking at minivans.  Thankfully, she told me via email so she couldn’t see the look that flashed across my face. Upon reflection, I can see why a minivan makes sense for her lifestyle.  But I have also spent the last few days feeling more smug than ever that a minivan isn’t in my future.

Obviously, this has meant exchanges: less house for more neighbourhood, fewer comforts (like a clothes dryer…) for more ‘character’; and less car for more bikes.  In our case, my husband and I have let our grace period lapse and are now no longer eligible for UK insurance, so we’ve settled into an entirely car-free lifestyle without even intending to.  We live in a walking neighbourhood in a biking city, near a commercial street that caters to most of our needs (fruit, chocolate, and sushi) and near local retail that caters to the rest (pastries, pubs, dumplings).

We’ve spent our first two+ years here cycling, but our mobility is going to be seriously curtailed with the birth of our first child this spring.  Newborns don’t ride bikes, and typically, neither do their mums.  When I was in Denmark earlier this year, I saw an amazing cargo bike with bassinet and OH DANG DID I WANT ONE.  In fact, I’ve always assumed that when the time came, I’d buy a cargo bike – obviously.

So why am I telling you this, rather than raving about my sweet new cargo bike?

How much do you think they cost?

No, seriously. Think of a specific number.

The bikes I have seen – via Google – tend to run about £2500, or $4000; the cheapest model I’ve seen is £1710.  There is also a bizarrely anaemic resale market (though if you’re looking, Ebay seems to be your best bet). I’ve had my current road bike for a decade, but I can’t imagine that I’ll want a cargo bike after my children are old enough to cycle on their own steam – say, when they turn five or six.  And these bikes are really the most useful when you have two children – when you have one, there are simpler, easier methods; when you have an older one, why would you ferry them around when they can power themselves? So the window of time in which cargo bikes are truly useful is very small – higher if you have twins, but five or six years at the outside.

I do not understand why these things are so expensive. Over the course of their lifetimes, they are more cost-effective than a car, of course, but the up-front cost is nearly the same (or at least, for $4000 you can buy a car. A car with a roof and a trunk and a gas pedal that requires no physical exertion to use). I am one of the most enthusiastic and committed cyclists I know, and if I’m balking…who are the people buying these things?

There are, of course, cheaper alternatives for those interested in cycling with kids.  The Guardian Bike Blog did a lovely feature last summer about the various options for carting children around via bicycle, from age 9 months to 9 years (I tried to figure out how to embed the video and failed). Plenty of parents have carried children around on standard rear-mounted bike seats or in those pull-behind trailers, which are much more affordable alternatives.  But it seems to me that the economics of cargo bikes are completely misaligned.  If I could find a cheaper bike – especially new – I would snap it up tomorrow, and I suspect many of the people I know in my position would, as well. Obviously cargo bikes are a commodity, so this isn’t something that can be fixed by government policy.  And there is a chicken-and-egg issue: without more demand, carriers are unlikely to diversify their supply.  But I do wonder why the market, even in places where cycling is an established way of life, has been so slow to address the need for family-friendly cycling.  And given that there is so little to do except wait for the market to catch up, what can cycling advocates and government-provided infrastructure do to help bridge the gap?

Cambridge has a unique policy where parents of young children can exchange their bicycle for a stroller/buggy at a city-run cycle parking facility, though its not well-publicised (and people are crazy snobby about strollers). Maybe providing cargo-bike specific parking would help; so would wider, or – better yet – segregated bike lanes, though Cambridge already has quite a few off-road cycle paths.  The general wisdom in the cycling world is that if you make everything about cycling better, you will attract more women and parents of young children, which is undoubtedly true.  But there’s been a major uptick in cycling in the last several years without a commensurate increase in cargo bike use, so I’m inclined to think that someone is missing a trick.

Bikes, Children, Parents: Navigating the City with Babies

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Boris Bikes!

Courtesy agreenerfestival.com

Hello Internet.

It’s been a quiet month on Ink & Compass because its been a busy month in the actual lives of its editors.  Franny started a new job and Izzy spent two months touring Canada with her band, The Strumbellas.  As her sister, but also as a fan of indie country pop, I cannot pimp this band enough.  You can stream the album off their website.

I wrote about my old job, coordinating design review for the east of England, in a post a few months ago. My new job is at a small planning consultancy in London; the thing they do that I’m most excited about is university facilities planning. I have a small project in Cambridge to start with, which is super great news. I’m really eager to get going.

The commute to London is not fabulous, but the best discovery so far has been the London Cycle Hire scheme.  In the space of three weeks, I have become evangelical about cycle hire. I pick the bikes up from a station on Belgrove Street, hop on the separated cycle lane on Tavistock Place, and after one slightly nervous-making right-left turn combo, cruise down residential streets until I get to my new Office Neighbourhood.  I park the cycles around the corner from work.

I’ve been riding the bikes for two weeks, and for the most part have been blown away by how easy it is, and how pleasant the experience of riding through London has turned out to be.  The cycle lane on Tavistock is jam-packed; on Friday it took my several traffic light cycles to cross the street, because there were 15 people ahead of me.  In my last post, I complained about the cycle traffic in Amsterdam, and how stressful it was. There is an element of that in London, but for the most part the cycles are just short of overwhelming.  Instead, the hordes of cyclists make riding a bike safer and more pleasant, and if it occasionally takes me a little longer to cross the street, its a price I’m willing to pay.

On all but one occasion, picking up and returning a bike has been easy-peasy, and the one time it wasn’t, I just walked to the next docking station.

While I’ve used bike share before (in Chicago, Dublin, Valencia and Toronto), this is the first time I’ve used it in any sustained, regular way, and also the first experience I’ve had cycling in London.  I registered online, and received a plastic key in the post three days later. Only annual subscribers get the key, but it makes a huge difference in its functionality.  You stick the key into the docking station of the cycle you want, and a moment later a green light goes on, indicating that the cycle is released.  Then there’s an awkward moment where you have to pull the back wheel straight up (heave, really) and roll it out – and then you’re good to go.  Short-term users have to check in at a solar-powered tower and enter a code every time, which adds a couple minutes to the journey.

Here are some stats:

– cyclists on Boris Bikes (so called for Boris Johnson, the mayor of London) are 3x less likely to be in accidents, presumably due to the fact that these bikes signal to everyone that the cyclist is possibly a tourist and probably an idiot (that’s me!)
– on the busiest day in the scheme’s history (during the 2012 Olympics), the bikes were used for more than 47,000 discrete trips
– a yearlong subscription to the scheme costs £45, although this is set to increase to £90 in 2013
an article from last January gives some stats on the riders themselves, who are overwhelmingly male and wealthy

What are the cons? Well, there was that one day when I couldn’t get a bike at my usual station.  A crowd of sad commuters stood next to the docking station, gazing mournfully at the lack of bikes. In the scheme of things – even in the scheme of the last leg of my commute – it was a minor inconvenience, but in the moment it was briefly, intensely frustrating.  A common complaint of cycle hire schemes is The Helmet Issue.  I ride my bike from my house to the Cambridge train station, and just bring my helmet with me on the train, so I have yet to ride the streets of London with an unadorned head.  I see a number of people on Boris bikes wearing helmets, but it is an issue that has plagued all the cycle hire schemes in the world.  There has been talk in Boston of helmet vending machines, or some sort of complementary Helmet Hire Scheme.  Boston also ran  special uber-cheap helmet offer in conjunction with local bike shops when they unveiled Hubway last summer.  But in general, helmets are an unresolved issue.

The other major con is the design of the bikes themselves.  They are heavy – 28 kilos (51 lbs).  While I appreciate the heft of the bikes, which leaves me rosy-cheeked after my 16 min, 2 mile trip, it also means that they are hard to get going and heaven help you if you have to go up a hill. The other frustrating thing is the gearbox. There are only three gears, and they’re all low.  This was intentional, to keep speeds down (another reason, presumably, the Boris bikers have fewer accidents than other cyclists).  But they really keep speeds down.  These things are tanks.

Another obvious complaint is that the IT support for the bikes has not quite kept up.  Transport for London has a live map (with smartphone app) showing the locations of all the docking stations and indicating how much space is available, but I’ve found it to be inaccurate as often as not (fortunately, this hasn’t been an issue for me as of yet). And for whatever reason, the TfL map isn’t synced with Google Maps. Google lists Tube and bus stations, and cycle hire is, fundamentally, public transportation, so even if they don’t add the “how many bikes are available” feature, I hope that Google at least upgrades its maps to indicate where the stations are. It’s a pretty egregious oversight on the part of TfL and Google.

While I’ve been amazed at the popularity of the bikes (I see dozens on my way to work every day), its also clear that the system could support more intensive use.  To me, the bikes are a totally viable system of public transport, and everyone should start treating them as such.

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