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London traffic

So as most of you probably already know, I’m back in the US. I didn’t post any entries on this blog while actually in Europe, mainly because I didn’t want to spend a bunch of time on computers while I was there (sorry!). I did take notes though, so now I will do my best to recap my impressions of the various places I visited, starting with London. (You can pretend I’m still there, if you want 🙂

I think I once heard someone say that cycling in London is suicide – or maybe that’s just a common sentiment for most big cities. I would disagree, and saw plenty of other people who weren’t deterred from riding bikes here. I will agree, it probably isn’t for the faint of heart – motor traffic in London is heavy, and those painted lines on the streets seem to be mere suggestions – cars, trucks and those staggering double-decker buses weave in and out of lanes when they encounter stopped taxis or buses or delivery trucks in their way. I saw few bike markings on streets, and often bike paths would be marked for only a few meters on the street (such as the bike lane that ends mid-bridge in the photo at left). I also saw few separated bike paths. (They do apparently exist – for example, Transport for London has several “bicycle superhighways” planned to get traffic from outer London to the center of town; I was mostly biking around the center of town already, though.) 

Also, biking around London smells like it could cause a slow death by asphyxiation – vehicle emissions were particularly noticeable on the busy roads. I saw a number of people wearing masks while riding – looking a bit silly but probably breathing easier than the rest of us. (Sadly I didn’t get a picture, but here’s someone’s post that summarizes one person’s experience with different kinds of masks.)

Despite all this, I really enjoyed riding around central London. I’m not generally a brave or “assertive” rider, I am more comfortable with plenty of space around me. But I found that taking the lane in heavy traffic got me nowhere, and had me breathing more smog. So I decided to copy the other bike riders I saw and squeeze between cars and buses. Much more efficient at getting places, and kind of thrilling, in the sense that you might have one of those red double-decker buses six inches to your left and cars a foot to your right. But no one could really go fast on these streets, so it didn’t really feel unsafe. It just required good balance and constant attention.

Here’s one thing I really liked: the rental bikes were really easy, and really cheap, to check out. No membership is required (though you could have one if you lived there); it costs one pound to get access for 24 hours, and then you can check bikes out 30-minute increments at no extra cost all day long. Als0, they were everywhere throughout central London. People fondly refer to them as “Boris’s bikes”, after the mayor. (According to a couple of Londoners I talked to on the train, it’s one of the few initiatives of his that have been popular.) I’ve wondered whether bike-sharing systems like this can really be effective, because wouldn’t people rather just own their own bike? But I could easily picture this as an extension of the extensive public transit network.

London seems to be on a good track towards making cycling nicer – political support with plans for more bike paths, and a willingness to make driving less attractive, for example with the congestion charge. (Though that may have been simply necessary – as congested as the roads already are, I can’t imagine how bad traffic would be in central London without that charge.) Granted, I didn’t get much of a sense of how the outlying neighborhoods were for cycling. But it seems like there’s a ways to go before more than 2% of the population is ready to hop on a bike.

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Portland to Astoria – Ladies on Bikes

Or… How I rediscovered the joys of recreational cycling. Or… If people who ride bikes on highway shoulders are crazy, then count me in.

I’ll confess, I tend not to think about bicycling for exercise or just for fun or for any other reason than to get from Point A to Point B (school, work, the coffee shop…) I do occasionally join “bike trains” with friends for social activities, but even then we’re usually headed for a destination. Why expend lots of energy just for the sake of expending lots of energy? (There are times when my brain likes to put things into purely functional, literal boxes. It may be a fault, and it frequently leads me to misunderstand sarcasm. And don’t let this post make you think that I’m a workaholic – I am frequently very lazy! – but I tend to compartmentalize my lazy activies separately from my functional activities. But I digress…)

Astoria, Oregon

Despite my functional approach to bicycling, I have been thinking for a while now that I’d like to give the “bicycle touring” thing a try. It is, or can be, still a functional use of the bicycle – still trying to get from Point A to Point B – just the points are further apart. So when my friend said she was planning a “ladies-only” bike trip to Astoria to end the school term, I thought this was the perfect opportunity. Astoria is about 90 miles from Portland, give or take a bit depending on your route. To explain the “ladies-only” part, I should clarify that most of us who went on the trip had never biked more than maybe 15-20 miles per day. We figured it would be a less stressful ride if we could go slower and stop more often than most of our male bicycling friends were likely to do.

Not quite "roughing it" at Stub Stewart

9 Hardy - yet Feminine - Travelers

So last weekend I joined the eight other ladies on this ride, and we took our time, breaking the trip up over two days. The first night we started late in the day, after most people were done with their last final, and we stayed in cabins at Stub Stewart State Park (about 25 miles past our starting point at the last light rail station in Hillsboro). The second day was much longer – about 75 miles – and more painful. When we finally pulled into Astoria, we were all pedaling pretty slow. But we all made it, with very few mishaps (a couple of tipovers on tight curves, since we’re not used to all the extra weight in our panniers, but all of these happened off-street).

It’s all downhill from here

 When I got back on my bike to ride back to Portland on the third day, I had to admit that I wasn’t riding for the sake of getting somewhere – getting to Astoria was not the point. Bicycling was the point. Giving myself permission to do nothing but ride my bike for the weekend was the point. And it was a lot of fun. (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?) In some ways I enjoyed the ride back even more. Nine women rode to Astoria, but only two rode back. I really enjoyed the company of my fellow-cyclists, and we had a great time riding, camping, stopping for beers and burgers at a biker-bar kind of restaurant (the other kind of biker) in Birkenfeld, and flying down the side of the mountain after huffing and puffing up. But the ride back was only about pushing the pedals forward, listening to birds and wheels on the pavement. Although my perspective may be skewed by the fact that, according to most people who’ve done multi-day bike trips, it takes a few days to get into a stride and stop noticing the pain in your knees, hands, back, and everywhere else… And it helped that a good chunk of the ride back to Portland was slightly downhill.

Birkenfeld Country Store - You can't see it from here, but a popular place for friendly motorcyclists!

(I feel the need to insert a quick plug – the Birkenfeld restaurant, was Awesome. The owners were super nice, the other patrons entertainingly interested in our travels, and they wanted to find a campsite for us right there so we could stay and listen to their live music that night. In no way do I intend to sound disparaging when I call it a “biker bar”.)

In any case – it was a good reminder that bicycling is fun as much as it is functional. The other realization/reminder I got from this ride was that it is possible to ride on the shoulder (or occasionally non-existant shoulder) of a state highway and not be killed, or even made very uncomfortable. You just have to pick the right highways, apparently. One of the other riders, who has actually done some longer tours, selected a very nice, very low traffic route for us. About 20 miles of the route was on the Banks-Vernonia trail, completely off-street (which is a whole other topic), but most of it was on the Nehalem Highway (OR-47 and OR-202). These highways had very few cars, and a few logging trucks, and everyone slowed down and gave us plenty of space when they passed us. (Compare that to the middle of the city – I’d been thinking it was crazy to be on a 55mph highway, but it turns out it may be crazier to be on a 35mph city street).

I will say, now that I’ve had a taste of it, I can’t wait to do some more long distances – in Amsterdam, with the group, and when I get back to Oregon.

Logging Trucks on the road: not as scary as I thought

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Why visit Amsterdam?

In answer to the question, why should I want to visit Amsterdam – there are obvious reasons, of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Amsterdam!?) I’ve identified as a “bike commuter” for the past ten years in Portland, Oregon and have been studying bicycle planning at school. I continuously hear references to how great bicycling is in Amsterdam. People who love biking want to import every idea they can from there (or from the nearby Copenhagen). People who hate (or at least are annoyed by) biking like to tell those of us who want make biking safer and easier to “move to Amsterdam”. So when there’s a chance for me to go see what all the hoopla is about, with the added bonus of getting to hear the bicycle planning and design wisdom straight from the folks who do it over there, of course I’m going to go.

I don’t really know what to expect or all the questions I will evenutally have. But I’ll start with this one, because it’s been on my mind lately: What are lawsuits against bicycle planners like in the Netherlands? That is, if a bicycle planner/traffic engineer puts a bike path down somewhere and a bicyclist gets hurt riding on it, do they sue the city or the traffic engineer for putting the bike path there in the first place? It seems to me that traffic engineers and planners in the U.S. are somewhat restricted in what they’re willing to build because of liability. I’m not saying I DON’T want engineers and planners to be careful in how they design bike paths – but at what point are individuals no longer responsible for their own safety?

It’s not an easy ethical question (and presumably the legal question is related to the ethics). And it’s not a question that can be boiled down to just the bicycle laws in the U.S. and in the Netherlands; it stems from the overarching cultural approach to liability and lawsuits and personal responsibility. It also can’t be separated from the differing cultural values surrounding automobile and bicycle transportation. There are never just two sides to any story (or lawsuit) – there may be a dozen or more.

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