Gone Fishin'


I'm not actively blogging here anymore. But if you got here because you were searching for something about bikes, you might want to check out my latest project, Vermont Goldsprints. In summer of 2014, I bought a used goldsprints racing setup and have made it a mission to get more bikes in more people's faces by putting on fun races in unexpected places. Come join me!


I Need a Sign!

There is a great deal of discussion happening in my area about transportation improvements. The short version of the story is that a long-anticipated "ring road" has been officially pronounced dead, as in it will not be built. A process has begun to examine improvements to existing roads and intersections in the area the ring road would have served as an alternative. 

Even if you believe, like I do, that there is no way you can build your way out of traffic congestion,*  there is safety to be considered. People do dumb things when intersections are over capacity and crashes happen. Congested intersections are harder to navigate for cyclists and pedestrians, too. So I'm not going to rail against any improvements at all, or advocate a gas tax or that we should punish people for choosing to drive by leaving the roads in poor shape. I accept that work needs to be done.

At intersections this often involves the addition of "turn-only" lanes, and as a cyclist, I get worried we'll get left out of the equation, despite the adoption of "Complete Streets" as policy in Vermont.

This morning, I biked on a road where one lane becomes two, with the right lane designated as a "right-turn only" lane:
The graphics department at re-turn LLC is on strike, what are you going to do?  

Your first instinct as a cyclist is to "keep right at all times."  The law generally requires it, with a whole pile of exceptions that most cyclists and even a few motorists understand.**

On this road, "keeping right" is going to put a cyclist on a path to make a turn they do not want to make (unless they want to go to Old Navy!). If you are going to go straight, the best (and legal) option is to stay reasonably to the right in the "straight ahead" lane. It is arguable whether that "straight ahead" lane is a "take the lane" situation or not. I usually try to keep as far to the right in that lane and let people pass, but I wouldn't fault anyone for "taking the lane" there either. 

This morning as I made my way through this piece of street, a frustrated motorist behind me who did not feel he had room to pass me honked his horn. It was a pretty aggressive gesture, given his proximity to me and the duration of the "honk." I looked back and yelled "I"M NOT TURNING!" and continued in my lane as before. The motorist faded away behind me, never passed me. I'm not sure where he was headed but I was glad our time together had passed so quickly. I'm sure he had no idea that not only did I have a right to be in the lane I was in, but I was in the ONLY lane I should have been in as a safe responsible, legal user of the public roadway. I found myself wishing there was a sign explaining my actions. 

Lo and behold:
I'd be looking for sign "R4-4."

Now, that sign does presuppose the existence of a bike lane. Which I'd be totally in support of as well. Here is an example:

This brings me back around to the dead ring road proposal, the study of intersection improvements, and "Complete Streets." We are talking about spending an incredible amount of money to improve streets and intersections to make up for the ring road we are not going to build. As a state, we have adopted a policy that says all users of the road should be considered when we make these improvements. We also know that getting more people on bikes will reduce the burden on our streets and intersections and will lessen congestion.

So, if you want people on bikes, you have got to fix places like the place where I got honked at today.  This kind of "right-only' lane is everywhere, and we might be building more of them. A lane configuration like the one above (without the signs and bike lanes) coupled with motorist misunderstandings about cyclists' rights is the sort of barrier that turns a first-time bike commuter right back into a single-occupant vehicle driver. This stuff is important, not just to me as a cyclist but to me as a user and beneficiary of the entire transportation and to me as a taxpayer. If we are going to spend even more money on roads, let's do it right!***

*Short version again: building better roads causes people to decide to drive more, and the new de-congested roads rapidly become congested again, absent some other factor like higher gas prices.
**Summary of the exceptions here.
** And yes, even if you don't pay gas taxes, you pay for roads out of income and property taxes. Link here.


Strava Thoughts

Some cyclists like Strava, some don't. Cycling seems to attract Luddites and purists in an equal proportion to technophiles and gear geeks, so I guess that's no surprise. I signed up, even threw a widget on the blog here so the dear reader may be underwhelmed by my efforts of cycling heroism ====>

A guy died recently while trying to "win" a downhill Strava segment in California. His family is suing the company.  I personally don't really see the point of the downhill segments, as downhill speed can be as much about willingness to take risks as they are about bike handling. Uphill segments are about physical fitness, unless somebody drives up one, having forgotten to turn their GPS off.

When I first started using Strava, my 305 was still working. I recorded every ride, each and every little commute, and dutifully uploaded it as soon as I could connect the GPS to the computer. Then, the 305 died for the last time and I had no GPS for awhile. I managed to "ungift" an old Forerunner 201 from my iPhone-having Brother-in-Law and I was off to the races again. Except. The 201 is horrible at picking up satellites. It worked OK for a while, (often taking up to 10 minutes to get a fix, resulting in much standing around in driveways and office parking lots, waiting to take off for/leave from work while time was a-wasting), and then it just stopped getting a signal at all.

Then the other day it turned on and everything was fine. Solar Flares? Russians jamming the signal? Who knows?
Old Tech is Old

So I'm back, but having followed my usual pattern with new technology (rapid adoption, fervent use, total abandonment, and eventual, moderate integration) I doubt I'll be recording every commute any more. It just isn't worth the hassle. I ride 13 miles a day, Monday through Friday, same route, usually 15-16 miles per hour. There is one segment on the ride in that I care about, so sometimes I'll record a sprint on that segment just to see if I can move up the leaderboard. Mostly, though, I'll probably use Strava for running and longer bike rides. It's a fun tool, I enjoy being able to share my cycling exploits without always having to verbalize them, and I hope it might even be a tool to help promote Vermont Indoor Cycling some more next winter.

What I like about Strava is that I get a chance to know what my fellow riders are up to and to tell them the same. We don't get to ride together very often, as our schedules rarely line up, and it keeps us in touch. That and sometimes it inspires me to sprint the last hill into Williston Village at stomach-churning, taste-of-pennies-in-the-back-of-your-mouth levels of effort when I would otherwise never do so.


Getting Honked at for Taking the Lane

I have mentioned before that my commute takes me through a small roundabout every day. That roundabout is small and narrow, part of a section of 25mph streets that surround the Maple Tree Place development in Williston. Further, when I travel through it on the way to work, exiting the roundabout takes me up a small hill and around a blind corner on those same 25mph streets. 

There is no safe way for a vehicle to pass a cyclist on the approach to the roundabout, in the roundabout, or on the blind curve exiting it. I have ridden through it a couple of hundred times in the last four years, and I can say from experience that staying too far to the right here only encourages drivers to attempt to squeeze by you with far less than "due care" clearance, as mandated by Vermont State Law. In fact, I had started to ride pretty far to the right recently. Then, a nice lady in a Volvo (with two kids bikes in the back!) squeezed me the other day with an illegal (six inches of clearance just cannot be "due care" as the term is used in VSA 1039(a)) pass that really scared me. Back out into the lane I went:
The Maple Tree Place Roundabout in Williston

This morning, I found myself approaching the roundabout from the west, moderating my speed behind a slow-moving Honda CRV pulling a trailer. I matched his speed with a car length of clearance, centering myself in the lane before, during, and after the roundabout, all the way until the road straightens out and a safe pass by a vehicle is possible again. The guy in the big pickup behind me apparently thought I was in his way, even though he would have had to pass both me and the CRV/trailer to make any headway down the 25mph street (I'd say we were all going 20 already anyway, so he probably would have had to speed, too).  He laid on his horn as we crested the hill. No matter how far over to the right I could have been here, he would have had to go into the oncoming lane  to pass me, which would not ave been safe for him or me. 

So I took the lane. I didn't get over to the right until it was safe to pass. His open window means he probably heard me shout "NO SAFE PASS!" and "IT'S CALLED TAKING THE LANE!" as he went by me. 
A Cyclist Safely and Legally Taking the Lane. 

I probably sounded pretty angry. Sometimes, I feel pretty angry when I'm riding on busy roads. The motoring public, on average, are simply clueless about bikes, about pedestrians, about sharing the road, and about the laws that govern those things. More than half of them are actively using some sort of handheld device. Not talking on the phone mind you, but using the keypad/touchscreen to input some sort of data while driving. Smart phones have created a new phenomenon: drivers talking on the phone while holding it up in front of them. What are they doing, video chat?  I rode by a woman waiting at a stop sign on a side street the other day as she was sitting in the drivers' seat, eating something with a knife and fork. Really? 

So yeah, given that I'm just another guy trying to get to and from work and home safely and efficiently, given that our household's one-car status is not entirely by choice but is also something of an economic necessity (and by extension my riding to work is as well), I think I have a right to be angry when someone's inattention, lack of care, or simple ignorance behind the wheel compromises my safety. If I had a chance, I'd much rather not yell. I'd rather pull up and have a quick and more pointed conversation about the rules of the road, and explain why I was "out in the middle of the road" on that street. Maybe I should just print a bunch of these up and be ready to hand them out. 


Enlightenment in 15 miles

It had been a long day at work.  I had a pounding headache, the sort of one you get from three or four days of early summer allergic coughing, fluorescent lights, and office air. It was time to ride home. Routine. Off with the office clothes, on with the bike clothes. Ready to do battle through the busiest part of Williston, Vermont during the busiest time of day.

Williston is the often maligned suburb of Utopian Burlington. Williston-  the town that caught all the big-box sprawl pressure of the early 1990's and the town whose rapid growth then was foretold by some to spell doom for Burlington's vibrant downtown. I ride through the heart of it every day, past Maple Tree Place, once the proposed site for the largest indoor mall in the state, instead developed after years of legal wrangling into a set of brick buildings with retail and restaurants on their bottom floors and offices above, all surrounding a green with benches and wide sidewalks.  I ride across Route 2a to Marshall Avenue, trying to make the very, very short green light there. The state controls the light timing, and the priority is moving cars up and down 2A, not across it, so I am told. Then down the hill past a host of those dreaded big boxes and off into South Burlington.

In my work as a planner for the town of Williston over the last four years, I have come to know these places intimately, from the invisible lines of ownership to the varied interests, deals, plans, master plans and dreams of those who have been involved in its development. What you see on the ground, the streets, the buildings, the open spaces, etc- all of that is what we planners call the "built environment."  So many different circumstances have gone into making this part of Williston what it is today.

 The "big box" part of Williston is close to a highway exit. It is close to enough people who want to shop there to keep the stores in business. The land there is almost entirely privately owned, meaning that any public control over what happens there must happen via a regulatory system that operates within the bounds of constitutional rights and the limits various laws place upon it. Many of the sites within this part of town were developed after long, drawn out regulatory processes, and sometimes legal battles as well. What you see on the ground there is a result of these processes working themselves out to a final conclusion: buildings and streets and parking lots on the ground.

In my work, I often hear people say something about a new store or building that involves an anonymous, omnipotent "they."

"Why don't "they" put that building somewhere else?"
"Why do "they" need another big-box store in Williston?
"I wish "they" would do something about the traffic."

There is no "they." More accurately, all of us are in some way "they."  All together, through participation in Town Meetings, on Planning Commissions, in the decisions we make about where and how we shop, in the decisions we make about where we are going to live and whether it will be close to or far away from where we work, we create the place we live in. That commercial center in Williston is one such place.

A law professor I once knew referred to being a lawyer as having "special glasses you can never take off" that cause you to see the world in a different way. Being a planner is much the same. On that ride I take every day through the center of Williston, I see not just what is there now, but what I know is coming. I know that our revised zoning bylaw will require new sites to incorporate a number of design elements that will help soften this place and make it more pedestrian friendly. We'll see more urban parks, public art, and wide sidewalks. We'll see more mixed-use buildings and, dearest to my cyclist heart, required bike commuter showers and indoor storage in every new commercial building that gets built in town. It's nice to know that if another big-box applicant shows up, they too will have to find a way to meet these requirements. Some days, that thought alone makes my urban commute home more pleasant.

But today, with my fluorescent headache and grumpy mood, I need a longer ride. I turn right out of my office driveway in historic Williston Village instead of left, and immediately have to queue up in the backed traffic heading out of town. Many of the traffic problems in Williston have nothing to do with the town itself. People want the high pay of Burlington and the pee-off-your-back-porch privacy of Richmond and Underhill and points beyond. So they commute by car, and many of them commute through Williston. Remember those special glasses? They mean that I've looked at the traffic studies, and the numbers bear this out. During the busiest times in Williston, it isn't the things in Williston that generate the backup- it's the rural residential sprawl beyond our borders.

Sprawl is such an ugly word. It gets thrown around, and at, Williston a lot. When you see Williston from Interstate 89, as many people do, you look over numerous subdivisions and condominiums and then down into the big box area I ride through every day. That isn't even half of what the town really is.  Here's another element of those special glasses: There's a map of the town on the wall of my office, about three feet wide by four feet tall. On that map, I can cover that big-box area with the palm of my hand. If I lean in closer, I can cover most of that high-density residential area with my forearm. The rest of the map, three feet wide by four feet tall, is mostly green.

That's where I'm headed today, the green part of the map. I climb the big hill out of the Village, southbound out over the highway. Mount Mansfield comes into view. Before long I'm going down through a little hollow and then huffing up another hill, past a field of dairy cows so close I could hand them up some grass without getting off my bike. Out here, the zoning requires new subdivisions to set aside three quarters of their land as permanently-protected open space. The law also requires new subdivisions to provide public trail easements and dictates that new homes have to be kept out of parts of the land that are important habitat or viewshed areas.

I take a turn onto a dirt road at one of those properties- a hundred acres or so of pasture where the owner once proposed a new lot that would have plunked a house straight into the middle of the field. For that and other reasons, the project stalled. It wasn't pretty. This guy runs his farm solo, is 50 years old, looks like he's 80, and leaves a smell of cow barn so strong that I know when he's been in the corner store before me when I go in to get my lunchtime cup of coffee. I hope in the future we can work with him to design something that will meet his needs and the needs of the town. His land is beautiful, and it's his only asset.

Mud season is long past. The trees are all leafed out and the road, although dirt, is riding like glass. My headache is gone, and as the land around me turns to shady woods, I'm smiling. There is nothing but the sound of the tires and the whoosh of the north wind above me. The dappled sun plays tricks with the few potholes, so I stay loose. This is Williston, too. By acreage, this is what most of Williston looks like. The whole town is the result of 50 years of conversation:

"Grow here, under the palm of my hand."
"Walkable neighborhoods there, under my forearm."
"The rest of this map, let's try to keep our farms and quiet roads and gorgeous views."
"Let's try to keep those cows and working landscapes."
"Let's make sure our farmers have the flexibility to be diverse enough in their enterprise that they can prosper, too."

A framed newspaper clipping hangs in the front of our office. "Attention Shoppers: Williston is not all mall" it proclaims. In fact, most of it isn't just "all mall." Most of the town is a rural working landscape, a place of natural beauty that enjoys a high level of protection, a place three feet wide by four feet tall, where all of those new people who will live under the palm of my hand can jump on their bikes and ride through, feeling the sun on their faces and hearing the song of their tires on this aromatic dirt road.