Bicycling in Shanghai

My sister, Columbine Quillen, is studying in Shanghai, China this summer. She wrote this post about the bicycling culture there for New Urban Habitat.

Let’s hope China does not lose its love for the bicycle as it strives towards modernity and first-nation status. In Chinese cities, rivers of people flow in every direction. So too do the cyclists, who flow with motorbikes in the outside lanes of every major thoroughfare. At rush hour the right lane is densely packed. When a stoplight turns red, the lane quickly becomes a congested mosh pit of sweaty cyclists often swelling to a block long by the time the light turns green.

The wary pedestrian must be hyper aware not only for looming buses and honking cars but also for gung-ho cyclists, as none of these parties will stop even when directly confronted. It’s the pedestrian who must scamper away if he wishes to hold on to his life.

Hundreds of bicycles line the wide sidewalks at every shopping mall, university, library, and bank. There are no bike racks in China, just kickstands and simple light-weight locks connecting wheels to frames. There’s no need for a U-Lock here, as theft is almost non-existent. In the rare case that a bike is stolen, a new one costs around $40.

The cyclists here wear no helmets, yet maneuver through a network of speeding cars, buses, bicycle carts, motorcycles, and electric scooters with ease. Some of the bicycles have large carts attached to them with tarp-covered mounds larger than the cyclist himself.  Sometimes children sit on a rack over the rear wheel clinging on while the peddler chats on a smart phone while maneuvering through a course most Westerners would deem more suited for a stint on Fear Factor.

Bike mechanics have small repair stations on the sidewalks. They carry parts, tubes, and do all sorts of repairs.

Many people in China look fit and young.  It seems as if they’ve discovered the Fountain of Youth. (Poor Ponce de Leon, I’m afraid he might have landed on the wrong continent.) I think there are many things that attribute to the Chinese people’s youth and vitality. Primarily, most people still know how to cook and thus eat whole and unprocessed foods. In addition the culture believes in daily exercise and calisthenics and in getting a good night’s sleep (which Mao supposedly preached to be at least eight hours per night).  But I also like to think it’s because so many people ride a bicycle everyday.

Columbine Quillen is a law student, world traveler, and avid bicycle rider.

Celebrating Spring

frr

We’re bringing in the season this week with lots of gardening, hiking, and spring cleaning. Here are a few scenes from our hike this weekend.

happy spring 060

hug

moss

roots

We also plan to do some biking, now that we’ve inducted the newest member into our bicycling clan.

strider 010

Happy spring to you!

Overcoming Obstacles to the Bicycling Life

According to Bicycling Magazine, I live in the fifth best bicycling city in the United States. It’s true, Eugene boasts bike lanes on nearly every major street, an extensive network of off-street bike paths, and bike traffic signal-changers at most intersections. It’s rare not to see someone out cycling even on the darkest, rainiest days, and on sunny days the bike racks in front of the library, restaurants, and grocery stores overflow. This blog and the artsy video below celebrate some of the funky bike culture in these parts:

Maybe that’s why I sometimes imagine that bicycling predominates across the country. That everyone’s doing it. Then I am reminded of the statistics. Nationwide only one percent of urban trips are made by bike, and only .55 percent of people commute by bike. Even in Eugene only about 10.5 percent of people regularly get to work on their bikes. Obviously there are some significant obstacles to bicycling out there. In the eight months since we ditched our car, we’ve faced and overcome a number of them:

Commuting

I work at home, so I can’t boast much about my bike-commuting prowess. But I did commute on bike or foot to work or school for most of my life, and my husband currently rides his bike about 12 miles a day. In How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, Chris Balish insists that if you can get to work without a car, you can live car-free. The average American spends 46 minutes a day commuting, so it’s understandable that the daily commute could be a deal-breaker – especially in the suburbs or cities without bike infrastructure or adequate public transportation.

But if you live within cycling distance of work, here are a few things my husband has learned (the hard way) as a rain-or-shine bike commuter.

  • Bring a patch kit, pump, and tools with you everyday.
  • Tighten all of the nuts and bolts on your bike once a week.
  • Learn about bike maintenance. Many cities have bike-repair coops that offer affordable classes, tools, and repair areas.
  • Invest in water-proof panniers or some other way to carry cargo on board instead of on your back.
  • Choose the safest route, not the fastest one.

Grocery Getting

Okay, I hate to admit this, but my husband deserves the credit in this category as well. He and my son usually do our once-a-week grocery runs – probably the second biggest challenge of car-free living. Since we have a Burley trailer to carry our most precious cargo, we use that to haul our groceries. But there are all kinds of cool ways to carry cargo on bikes. Check out this site for some of the commercial and more cobbled-together options out there.

The single biggest thing we’ve learned about shopping on two wheels is: plan, plan, plan. Trust me, you don’t want to have to make four trips to the hardware store in the pouring rain.

Night-Riding

With these long spring days, it’s easy for me to forget when those stormy, pitch-black January nights made staying in sound sublime. I opted out of evenings out and writers’ group meetings on a few particularly dreary nights. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. Negotiating the world without two tons of metal between you and the elements demands that you become more in tune with the weather, nature, and the seasons. Now that the days are warmer and longer, we’re making up for all of those cozy evenings at home by getting out every chance we get. 

Weather

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned rain about four times already. Oh yes, we do face one minor challenge here in the fifth best bicycling city in the U.S – about 141 days of rain a year. I can’t complain. When I lived in Colorado, my bike was parked for much of the winter, because of snow or ice. Rain is entirely manageable and probably one of the major reasons the Northwest is a cycling mecca.

In our household we all own decent rain gear, none of it new or fancy. It’s the difference between getting to our destination feeling like wet cats and peeling off a quick layer and strolling in dry. I probably don’t have to say this, but in rainy terrain, fenders are a huge plus, as are lights, reflectors, neon vests, and anything else that keeps you visible on gray days. My son or I walk or ride every day, rain or sun.

You can find tips on winter riding in chillier climes here.

Safety

Honestly bicycling can be scary. This website puts some of the fear and safety concerns into perspective, but pedaling on roadways with cars, some whose drivers are invariably distracted, tired, or impaired, has inherent dangers. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to mitigate them:

  • Stay off the sidewalks. The major cause of bicycle-car collisions is when a bike comes out of a driveway or off a sidewalk.
  • Avoid dangerous intersections.
  • Embrace slow. (Leave plenty of time to get places. Don’t try to beat orange lights. Enjoy the journey.)
  • Be visible and follow all of the rules of the road.
  • Use hand signals, make eye contact with drivers, smile, be friendly.

Poor City-Planning

I’ve been fortunate to live in pedestrian and bike-friendly locales my entire life, and to be able to choose neighborhoods and places of employment that facilitate a human-powered life. But there’s a reason the U.S. does not boast the high ridership of many European countries. Fifty percent of Americans live in the suburbs, and many simply do not have the option to walk or ride a bike. Many American cities are also far from bike-friendly.

Is there anything we can do about poor city planning? Yes, although it’s not a quick fix. We can get involved in the planning process, support bike advocacy groups, write our congressmen and city council people, tell Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood we favor more livable communities, and otherwise campaign for a more bike-friendly country.

For all of the obstacles of biking, it comes with huge rewards. Most of all, in a world rife with problems, I often feel like part of the solution. And that’s an awesome feeling.

What obstacles keep you from riding a bike? What obstacles have you overcome?

Happy National Bike Month

Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales, 1937

What’s not to love about May? Spring flowers, budding trees, longer days, warmer weather…. and it’s National Bike Month!

I’ve written so much about bikes that I fear anything I have to say here will be redundant. But as we wax on about all of the seemingly intractable societal ills – global warming, pollution, traffic accidents, road rage, obesity, runaway health care costs, a flailing economy, an energy crisis, declining social connectedness, foreign wars – I am continually inspired that there is a simple, humble solution for all the above. Bicycles.

They are the perfect technology – cheap, easy to ride, energy efficient, and emission free. They require far fewer resources to produce than automobiles, and they can even be made of renewable materials like bamboo. Most people can learn to ride one, and doing so keeps the body healthy and the mind sharp. Plus, in my experience, bicycling has a way of inspiring that cheerful enthusiasm for life the French call joie de vivre.

I tend to favor vintage and urban bikes with kid seats and baskets overflowing with flowers and fresh vegetables. But really, all bikes are cool. So here’s to May! I’ll be celebrating the way I do everyday – by choosing two wheels over four. How about you?

"A brush salesman and his bicycle," Photo courtesy of Nationaal Archeif, 1957

Want some inspiration? Here’s a round up of some of my favorite bike stuff on the web:

Bike advocacy:

Bike news:

Beautiful Urban Biking Blogs:

Awesome bicycling families:

"Letter carrier delivering mail by bicycle," Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute, 1890

Bike adventurists:

Inspiration for the bicycle way of life:

Some of my writings about bikes:

"The Coles sisters on a bicycle trip from Montreal to Ottawa," Courtesy of McCord Museum, 1916

How are you celebrating National Bike Month?

When Bicycle Trailers are Outlawed…

To some, these scenes of a leisurely Kidical Mass ride may represent a wholesome, healthy way for parents to spend a summer afternoon with their kids. But one Oregon congressman sees something altogether more sinister happening here.

Representative Mitch Greenlick has proposed a state law, punishable by a $90 fine, that will, if passed, make it illegal for parents to bicycle with a child under six in a bike seat, trailer, or on a tow-along bike.

Portland has long been revered by bicycle enthusiasts for its bike-friendly culture and infrastructure. It boasts the highest number of bike commuters of any large U.S. city, and it’s the only city in the nation that has been awarded with the League of American Bicyclists’ platinum status. The city council unanimously approved the 2030 Bicycle Master Plan last year, envisioning Portland as a “world-class bicycling city” and outlining a goal of building three times as many bicycle routes as the city currently has.

So why would Greenlick, a Democrat representing Northwest Portland, introduce a bill that would keep a large segment of the cycling population from using their bicycles as transportation?

Greenlick cites child safety. He says that while there’s no data to suggest children are unsafe in bike trailers, bike seats, or on tow-along bikes, he wants to “start a conversation” about the topic and hopes his proposed bill will compel a study. He points to a recent study of serious male riders who bike to work on a regular basis, which he says found that 30 percent of riders suffer a “traumatic injury” each year and eight percent suffer an injury serious enough to require medical attention.

“I was not able to resist asking myself what would have happened to a young child strapped into a seat on the bike when the rider suffered that serious traumatic injury,” Greenlick wrote in a statement. “The study clearly leads us to work to reduce the environmental hazards that make those injuries more likely.”

The study Greenlick cites actually found that 20 percent of serious cyclists experienced a traumatic injury each year and 5 percent required medical attention. And, Mia Burk, the former bicycle coordinator of the city of Portland and current CEO of Alta Planning and Design, points out that the language in the study is misleading, because the emotionally-loaded words “traumatic injury” actually denote minor injuries, like bumps, bruises, and scrapes. As she points out, doing any sort of outdoor athletic activity brings some risk of minor injury, as does cooking. Moreover, the study says nothing about the safety of bike trailers, tow-along bikes, or bike seats.

Greenlick is simply concerned that transporting kids on bikes may be dangerous. I’ve heard the same concerns before, notably from my own parents. And here’s where, at the risk of destroying my status amongst adventurists and the free- range parenting community, I have a little confession to make. My husband and I are, um, cautious. Okay I said it. We’re not into heli-skiing or sky-diving, bull-riding or rugby, motocross or sword swallowing. I teasingly call my husband “Safety Dad”, because he seems to have the vision of a condor when it comes to detecting danger. “Be really careful,” were some of our son’s first words, which perhaps tells you how often he’s heard that phrase.

When we ride our bikes, we take quiet roads and bike paths, wear helmets, and look both ways before we cross streets. And we – cue the scary music – strap our son into a bike trailer, which we both feel is safe, and which my son loves riding in.

Not surprisingly Greenlick’s bill has outraged Oregon’s cycling community, including the small but growing number of people who live car-free. Greenlick says he’s received hundreds of angry letters in the last week, and he’s already considering amending the bill to get rid of the violation portion and instead ask for a study on child safety.

I’m glad Greenlick is reconsidering this bill, because I believe it is misguided on a number of levels. Oregon is suffering during this economy, and the bill would hurt one of the most economically vulnerable populations – those who can’t afford cars.

I agree with Greenlick that we should have a conversation about bicycle safety, because we should be encouraging more people to ride bikes. We know that bicycling is good for the health of people, society, and the environment. We also know that a large percentage of Americans say in surveys that they would like to ride a bike, but feel scared doing so. Bicycling does not have to be as risky as it is in most American cities.

I like to envision a city, a new urban habitat if you will, where the roads and sidewalks are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists. This is a city with lots of bike lanes, bike paths, bike boulevards, and bike boxes. A city where goods and services are within walking distance of where people live. A city where sprawling parking lots, 12-lane highways, and neighborhoods without sidewalks, which are deadly to non-motorists, are replaced with human-scale development. A city where the air and water are clean and people are healthy.

If it’s hard to imagine such a city, my vision looks a little bit like this:

I hope Greenlick’s bill will start a conversation about how we can get closer to this vision. Criminalizing riding bikes with children is certainly not that way.

Besides, as my husband, points out, “When bicycle trailers are outlawed, only outlaws will tote their kids in bicycle trailers.” So true.

What do you think of Greenlick’s bill? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Plan a Car-free Vacation

Credit: Tammy Strobel

Do you want to leave the traffic jams, parking, and high gas prices at home when you head out for your vacation this summer? Make it a car-free trip. (Bonus: you’ll feel great about conserving gasoline as we watch oil spew into the Gulf.)

Here are a few tips for a successful get-away sans the automobile:

  • Travel to a car-free destination or a pedestrian and bike-friendly locale.

Did you know that there are a number of car-free islands off the coast of the United States? One is 50 miles from Manhattan, another is 60 miles from L.A., and there are also some near North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Michigan. You can find out more about them here.

Even if you can’t escape from the internal combustion engine entirely, you can get around just fine in many American cities without a car. My husband and I have explored Manhattan, Portland, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Vancouver and a few other cities without a car, and we had a great time. Looking for a good car-free destination? Check out Bicycling Magazine’s Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities or America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods on WalkScore.com.

  • Bring, rent, or share a bike

In Bicycle Diaries, the musician David Byrne, writes about exploring the world’s cities by bike when he toured with his band The Talking Heads:

I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or on some sort of public transportation: I could stop whenever I wanted to; it was often (very often) faster than a car or taxi for getting from point A to point B; and I didn’t have to follow any set route. The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive.

No matter how you get to your destination, consider bringing along your own two-wheeled transit. Check out bikeaccess.net for information on traveling with your bike. Or, if you don’t want to or can’t bring your own, most bike shops rent bikes by the hour or day. And some cities have bicycle sharing systems that provide free or affordable access to bicycles for city transport. You can find a list of those programs here.

  • Take public transportation

Many cities have excellent, efficient public transportation. And now Google Maps will help you get from point A to point B. If you have a smart phone, traveling by public transit couldn’t be easier. But I managed to get around a number of cities by bus or train with no cell phone and just a little advance planning. (And as my husband will tell you, if someone with my sense of direction can get around in a strange place without getting lost, you probably can too.)

  • Consider taking the train

According to the UIC, a Paris-based international organization of the railway sector, trains are three to ten times less CO2-intensive than road or air travel. Sadly the United States lags far behind much of the world when it comes to train travel, and Amtrak is usually not the most economical or reliable option. (It probably doesn’t surprise you that the Federal Highway Administration budget for 2010 was 50 billion as compared to 1.5 billion for the Federal Railway Administration.)

That said, my husband and I have taken Amtrak from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia and from Denver to San Francisco and we had comfortable and enjoyable (albeit long) journeys each time. And because train stations are often in the downtown centers of cities, it’s usually easy to find a hotel or hostel nearby. So, you might consider traveling by rail in the U.S. And if you’re heading to Europe or Asia, train travel is a comfortable, green, and efficient way to get around.

  • Pack light

One trick for successful car-free voyages is to only take along what you need. Bags with wheels might be a good idea too, especially if you’re planning to switch accommodations mid-trip. My husband and I have logged some miles on foot from train terminals to hostels to transit stations with our bags. But because they’re on wheels, it wasn’t a big deal. Eco and thrifty bonus: small bags make buying trinkets less attractive.

More eco-travel tips:

Have you taken a car-free vacation? I’d love to hear about it.

Hopeful Weekend Links for National Bike Month

Photo Credit: bfick

Pedal Powered Move — Yellow Bike Project, Austin, TX (video)

Two-Wheel Wonders — Ode Magazine

Future Bikes: 10 Bold, Brilliant Bicycle Concepts — The Coolist

World Carfree Video — Carbusters (video)

Welcome to the Path Less Pedaled — Path Less Pedaled

The Book Bike — Shareable.net

Bamboo Bicycles

(Originally published March 1, 2010, reprinted in celebration of National Bike Month.)

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were going to plant running bamboo along our back fence. Then we casually mentioned the idea to our next-door neighbor. She looked, well, terrified.

Bamboo is an amazing plant. It’s used to make musical instruments, toys, tools, weapons, flooring, paper, food, cooking oil, vinegar, and alcohol. But it’s also a bit noxious, at least in these parts.

When we were thinking of growing it, we visited a peaceful bamboo garden on the outskirts of town. The gardener showed us around and explained the difference between the many varieties of bamboo that rustled overhead in the slight breeze.

Then the conversation turned to warfare.

“You’ll need to dig a two-foot-deep trench all the way around your bamboo and bury this in it.” He held up a roll of thick, black plastic. “This needs to stick up at least three inches above the soil. The bamboo’s rhizomes will try to jump it. So leave a foot or so of bare ground all the way around the trench. That way you can see them coming over. When they do, mow them down immediately.”

It sounded more like prison-tower watch duty than gardening.

But there’s an upside to bamboo’s invasive nature. It is not only a useful plant; it’s an incredibly renewable resource.

And now you can get a bike made out of it.

Although riding a bike is considerably more environmentally-sound than driving a car, most bike frames are constructed out of materials that are decidedly not renewable. Think: steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, molybdenum, and titanium. Extracting these elements is labor-intensive, environmentally destructive, and can threaten public health.

For instance, I grew up 60 miles down-river of Leadville, Colorado, where the mining industry allowed heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc to leach into the soil and water. The Environmental Protection Agency declared Leadville and the 20 square-miles around the town a Superfund site.

So imagine if we could make strong, light-weight, functional bicycles without mining, not to mention out of plants that grow like weeds. Well, we’re getting closer to that reality, although most bamboo bicycles contain some metal components.

You can purchase your own custom-made bamboo bicycle from Calfree Design. They claim that their bikes are tough, and they offer a ten-year warranty on them. They’re expensive though. All of the frames that are “on special” on Calfree’s website cost well over $1,000. But “if there were an award for ‘Bicycle with lowest carbon footprint’ (least amount of carbon dioxide emissions in the production of the frame), this frame would win, hands down,” Calfree’s site boasts.

You can also learn how to build a bamboo bicycle yourself.

Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn offers workshops where you can learn to build one in a weekend. They’re also not cheap. The full bike workshop costs $932 and the frame-only workshop costs $632.

But some of the proceeds go to a great cause. The Bamboo Bike Studio is working with partners, including the Bamboo Bike Project, to establish bamboo bicycle factories in “Millennium Cities, starting with Kumasi, Ghana, Kisumu, Kenya, and Quito, Ecuador.” They hope the factories will, “provide a lower-cost, more durable, locally manufactured form of transport specifically designed for local terrain.” Unfortunately you’ll have to wait awhile to attend one of their workshops. They’re full through September.

But if you’re seriously into do-it-yourself, you could check out this how-to on Instructables. (However, as the disclaimer says, “Death or serious injury can result from a bicycle frame failure. … Be smart.)

Hopefully as more companies start to manufacture bamboo bicycles, the prices will come down, making bamboo bicycles a more accessible option for more people.

Would you ride a bamboo bicycle?

May is National Bike Month!

I’m taking a blogging vacation and a mini digital detox this week to hang out with family visiting from out of town. But in honor of National Bike Month, I’ll be celebrating bikes all week by rerunning some of my previous posts about bicycles and car-free living. I hope you enjoy them, and I’ll see you next week!

Credit: Tammy Strobel

Bicycle Love (originally published May 5, 2009)

May is National Bike Month! Oh bikes, how I love thee. Let me count the reasons…..

10.  Bikes are quiet.

You’ll never get woken up at midnight, because your teenage neighbor’s revving his bike engine. And imagine if they replaced that freeway next to your house with a seven-lane bike path.

9.  You can cart groceries home on a bike.

Baskets are classy. Panniers are sophisticated. Cargo bikes are cool. And you can make your own hauling machine with a simple grocery cart.

8.  Bikes run on renewable resources – food, water, and human calories.

With the obesity rate hovering around 35%, quite a few of us have some calories to spare.

7.  Cycling tones your muscles, heart, and lungs.

The American Heart Association says all healthy adults ages 18 to 65 should get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days a week. With a bike, you can probably get that on your commute to work.

6.  Bikes enable you to smile and wave at your neighbors.

Social isolation is growing in the U.S. Let’s get out of our cars and take a spin around our neighborhoods.

5.  Bikes are thrifty.

Check out Bike at Work’s calculator to see how much cash you can save by dumping your car.

4.  Bikes emit zero pollution.

Automobiles belch out 333 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, not to mention nitrogen oxide, sulpher oxide, toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, and more. All bikes emit is a little human sweat.

3.  Once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you never forget.

What can I say … it’s like riding a bike.

2. Bikes are economical.

What’s the world’s most efficient mode of transportation? You guessed it – the bike. For energy burned per miles travelled, cycling is three to five times more efficient than walking. And it trounces running, driving a moped, taking a train, car-pooling, horseback riding, and swimming. (Sadly the least efficient mode of transport seems to be America’s favorite – driving a car with no passengers.)

And finally, the ultimate reason I love the bicycle…..

1. Bikes took down the bustle and the corset.

That’s right, ladies. The bicycle craze in the 1890s changed womens’ fashion forever. Women abandoned their confining corsets and adopted what was known as common-sense dressing.

In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

bicycling not buttons

Let’s celebrate our two-wheeled friends all month by taking them everywhere. Note that Bike-to-Work Week is May 17-21, and Bike–to-Work Day is Friday, May 21. Employers can find out how to participate here.

What are your top reasons for loving bikes?


Adults on Bikes

Shareable.net published my article about three different bike cooperatives today. It starts:

Over a hundred years ago, H.G. Wells famously quipped, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”

When Wells wrote his novel Cycles of Change in 1896, the world was in the throes of a bicycling craze. James Kemp Starley’s 1885 invention of the modern bicycle enabled the working classes to travel quickly and cheaply for the first time. Women who had been constricted in corsets, hoops, and petticoats were donning bloomers and discovering a newfound freedom of movement.

Today in the United States it can be harder to muster Wells’ optimism about the bicycle. Only one percent of urban trips in this country are made by bike, and only 0.55 percent of people commute to work on a bicycle.

And although Susan B. Anthony once credited the bicycle with doing “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” today the vast majority of American cyclists are white males. According to research by John Pucher, American men make three times more trips by bicycle than women. Plus, a 2008 NSGA Sports Performance Study found that while African Americans and Hispanics make up 12 and 15 percent of the U.S. population respectively, each group represents only about six percent of bicyclists.

Obviously there are some huge barriers to bicycling in the United States, especially for women and minorities.

Nevertheless I discovered ample reason for optimism about the future of American bicycling. In cities across the country, people are coming together to form bicycle cooperatives with the mission to make buying, building, and repairing bikes an affordable, accessible, and shareable experience. And many of them are reaching out to women and minorities.

You can read the rest of the article here.