Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vélib, a trip report

A week or so ago I went to a two-day meeting in Paris. Things ended early on Friday and I found myself with most of an afternoon and evening free. What to do? During lunch I was given a suggestion to go see an exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo (Keith Haring retrospective; really amazing. I hope it travels, see it if you can.) It was a beautiful day but it seemed a bit too far to walk from where I was staying. I had been informed that it would be 30-60 mins but it was not what the map was telling me. But a short walk from the hotel would get me to a bike-share stand. The choice was obvious... 

[Corner of Rue Françoise Dolto and Rue Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weil-Halle on the Université Paris Diderot campus. All the street around here are named for individuals who contributed, one way or another to intellectual history. Dolto was a disciple of Lacan and did psycho-therapeutic work with infants and mothers (according to the Wikipedia). Weil-Halle was a gynecologist known for her contributions to family planning. The street sign have capsule descriptions of the people involved.. It's not Elm or Maple; kind of cool. When I got back here in the evening most of the bikes were gone; people biking home for the night...]
The Vélib system is easy to start using: scan in your credit card and get a 1-day ticket for 1,70 €. My Visa card didn't work (no microchip); fortunately the kiosk took my Amex card (which doesn't have a chip either, go figure). And that's it! The pricing is like for other such systems (free for the first 30 mins, then rapidly escalating). Getting the bike out of the rack is similarly straightforward. But now came the hard part, cruising the streets of Paris, or so I thought.

[This is a rather interesting interchange that weaves a fast road, a side road and bikes. I'm not sure that the photo really does it justice, but most of the bike action happens in the upper left where 4 streams of bike paths weave into something that's intended to make things work. I don't know; I was not there during bike rush hour (though there were several bikers in there when I was passing through). 
In preparation, when checking up on things on the interwebs I kept running across dire warnings about the impossible streets of Paris and its bloodthirsty drivers so I was a bit apprehensive. I was pleasantly surprised. Cars were very well behaved even when there's tons of them around. And I did venture out during rush hour. But the drivers are all quite observant and are aware that you're there. I never got buzzed, expect maybe by a couple of cabs. It's way better than in Pittsburgh. Motorbikes are a different story. I got buzzed really close a couple of times, enough to experience a sympathetic reaction (in the clinical sense). On reflection I think they were just doing what motorbikes normally do, without especially gunning for the cyclists. If you've driven in Paris or on its ring road you'll know what I mean: those guys are scary. Buses were generally good. 

A bus+bike lane. This one is special in that the lane is physically separate from the car lanes. More often it's the curb lane with bus and bike symbols. The cobble/brick streets are pretty reasonable; the bricks are quite smooth and easy to bike over. Also, I can't recall any significant potholes. I don't get it: Paris gets cold and they have snow but they don't have potholes. What are we doing wrong?  I'm not quite sure where this is (Bd Montparnasse? Port-Royal?), but anyway that's the Tour Montparnasse in the distance. 
One of the solution to the bike lane problem in Paris is to combine them with the bus lanes. This initially made me a bit nervous but the bus drivers were very polite and never tried to honk me off the road. On the other hand, some motor bikes seemed to think that they were bicycles, while some taxis thought that they were buses.  So you never quite knew what was happening. As well, on one boulevard that I traveled the bus lane somehow switched from curb-side to middle of the road, with no signage that was obvious enough for me to notice. Exciting. 

On the other hand, I did get comfortable cruising the roundabouts. They look daunting but I think you simply need to close your eyes (figuratively, of course) and pedal out into the traffic. The generally high level of driver awareness and the slower traffic speeds (compared to the US) makes it work.

Some observations on the Vélib system:

1. Most rack stands are pretty big and have many slots. It made me feel like it would be unlikely to end up someplace with no bikes or no slots.

2. The system includes "V+" racks, which, if you leave a bike at one gets you a credit. (It was something like 10 minutes extra ride time for free.) What a great idea for managing distribution! Although it didn't seem to be the case I could easily imagine some sort of dynamic version that allocated credits according to need. 

3. The bikes appear instrumented and maybe even do self-diagnosis of problems. "Good" bikes have a little green light that turns red when somethings gone wrong. (Or maybe something else is going on; didn't look into it.)

Some observations on biking on Paris:

1. Awsome. Do it. I did close to 20 miles and got to see much more of the city than I had ever done previously. The bike-share scheme removes a whole layer of complexity from getting around. Feel like going to that restaurant a couple of kms away? No problem, just hop on a bike. 

 2. Not a big deal: The only problem I noticed was that going down narrow side streets didn't work that well, as cars couldn't get around you. And side streets (at least the districts I rode in) are full-fledged streets. So I ended up mostly riding down the boulevards. Lots of room for everyone though maybe not as picturesque. 

Some observations about the other riders:

1. Lots of people out there, but they're not really bikers in our sense, they're just people who need to get from place to place. I think I saw only one bike-share person with a helmet  I found this distinctly pleasing (that is, biking is not a special thing; it's just what you do to get around). 

2. I also saw "real" bikers, who wore spandex and rode nicer bikes. All had helmets. Oddly many or maybe most of them were doing the Cat-6. Sigh.

3. Bikers are very relaxed about filtering, salmoning and so on. Drivers ignored it. Nobody seems to care. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On the road again (literally)

I managed to get myself into another bike accident.

This time I had come down the Junction Hollow trail and had made my way to Greenfield Ave, turned right under the Parkway and was about to turn right again onto 2nd Ave. Disaster struck. I was going a bit fast and as I rounded the corner I noticed gravel on the pavement... Then I woke up in the hospital.

I've decided to blame the whole think on my bike, a Trek SX 7.7. It might be me, but this was the second time on this bike that I ended up going OTB and landing on my head. Not fun. My previous bike had managed many more miles and I never had problems with it. I think the 7.7 front brakes did not behave predictably (despite replacement and adjustments). On the bright side, I can start looking for a new bike, as soon as the doc tells me I can bike again. Well, she'll never actually say that. But at some point my body should have few enough things wrong with it that I can probably go ahead and do it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Biking in Italy and Spain

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel in Italy and in Spain (it was work-related). I was able to take the time to look around and get a feel for where I was. Some of the things that I saw were bicycling-related and I took pictures. As you might imagine, bicycling is different. In Florence: 1) Issues of salmoning, filtering, riding the sidewalks and so on were moot. All of these were happening and no one seemed to care. 2) Bicycles were utilitarian: no fancy components, with unrecognizable brands (or just bare downtubes) and a general disregard for upkeep. 3) People cycled to get get places and that was about it. I saw one roadie on the ring road but that was unusual. I did notice some cool stuff, like curb-stand parking:
And a really neat bike:

The city has rentals, but the system seems a bit difficult to deal with; there's an attendant and hours are limited (this picture is in the morning, after 9am).

In Granada I saw very few bikes, but I did notice this one. It's a bit hard to see since I didn't get a chance to take a good pic, but this is a street with two moving lanes of traffic. There 's a cyclist right in between the two scooters. I'm just plain impressed by this woman (though note that in these towns traffic speed is generally low by our standards; cars move the slowest, scooters the fastest, with bikes somewhere in between).

In Seville on the other hand biking is an integral part of transportation. The city has an extensive automated bike rental scheme that provides bikes for personal transport. The system is geared towards quick turnover: the first 30 mins are free, the next hour is 1 EUR and after that it's 2 EUR. For 10 EUR a week you get a "membership" that allows you to use the bikes. The bikes are in generally good shape though I learned to check the brakes before checking one out. The only real problem I ran into was racks that were empty or completely full. But the turnover is rapid; within 5 minutes you could leave/get a bike. I love this system.
The above picture shows a bikestand (with rental kiosk). The sidewalks on main streets are very wide, so there's room for a dedicated bike route (marked in green).There's even speed limit signs for the bikes. I like this picture because it's missing a common mode of transportation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The WPW centuries (11 XI 2011)

Did the 67 mile "metric" century. Nice ride, in almost perfect weather. Yummy endorphins.

Things got off to a bad start: I was running late and managed to miss the shelter on my first pass. I drove around randomly for a while (nobody had heard of any bike ride). I think maybe I was just too focused on spotting a parking lot full of cars with bike racks and people wearing too-bright jerseys. I guess everyone had left by the time I showed up (duh). Anyway, I scored the last remaining 65mi cue sheet and off I went. The route was good; that is, except for the stretch along a road that had just been milled.
I started to get tired after 50 miles or so, making the rest of the ride progressively less fun. In hindsight I should probably have skipped that last beer the night before. Though I don't think I would have been able to manage getting more than the 4 hours of sleep that I did. Sigh.  At least for next time I'll have a better idea of what I'm capable of.

I spoke with one of the doers, Al, at the post-ride picnic. I was the only rider there, but he still offered to fire up the grill and make me a burger. I declined (not hungry yet and, besides, I'm in the middle of Michael Pollan's
The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Al told me that they had about 90 riders shown up, with about twenty doing the 35-miler. He wouldn't commit to a 65/100 distribution (I think he said that some people "cheat" when they declare their intended route or otherwise change their mind along the way). I hung around for a bit, sucking down cans of lemonade and listening to bike-geek conversation, then left.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Tour of the Montour, 25 IX 2010

Nice ride, but it felt like a Cat 6 race much of the time.

Biking elsewhere

Over the past two weeks I was in Italy and in Spain, for conferences. In addition to everything else, I tried to keep an eye out for things bicycle out of curiosity about how things were done elsewhere. Unsurprisingly things were different.

Some things that I noticed in Florence:
1) Issues of salmoning, filtering, riding the sidewalks and so on were moot. All of these were happening and non one seemed to care.
2) Bicycles were utilitarian: no fancy components, unrecognizable brands (or just bare downtubes) and a general disregard for upkeep.
3) People cycled to get around and that was about it,. I did see one roadie on the ring road but that was it.

Some things that I noticed in Granada:
1) Almost no bikes to speak of. This was maybe not entirely surprising: the town is pretty hilly and you'd probably have to be pretty dedicated to bike around all the time.
2) The bikes that I did see were mountain style with big mostly knobby tires.
3) On a trip to the Sierra Nevada (by car) we did run into a large ride puffing up a hill (roadies in lycra, nice bikes, the whole bit). I noticed maybe only a couple of bikes with skinny tires.

In Seville:
1) Tons of bikes but no roadie types. This is actually not very surprising. Many streets are cobbled or brick and really rough to ride on.
2) The city has a well-organized municipal bike rental system. It's actually amazingly simple: you pop in your atm card to buy a 10 EUR 'subscription' (which also puts a 150EUR hold on your account), get a ID number and set up a password and you're all set. Bikes are available at automated stands all around the city. You log-on, select a bike and you're off. The system is set up to short term use: your first 30 mins are free, the next hour is 1EUR, hereafter it's 2EUR/hr. Just perfect to hop on to get somewhere and drop it off at a stand. The bike are big and heavy but surprisingly easy to ride. My hotel was about 2km from the historic area and all I had to do is hop on and off to get there. There were problems: while the bikes were generally in good condition I discovered that it paid to first check the bike before taking it (brakes especially). The empty bikestand happens, and also the full bikestand (nowhere to park!). But turnover is fast; it seemed like something would show up (or leave) within 5 minutes. I ended up not worrying about it

In Malaga:
1) Not many bikers to speak of, at least in the downtown area that I stuck to.

In general:
I noticed that in the urban center cars were the slowest, followed by bikes but both bested by the scooters. It made sense: cars are big and not all that maneuverable. Scooters move fast and generally ignore traffic, scooting between cars and so on. Bikes were slower but more adaptable: salmoning and sidewalks kept you moving and you could get through narrow spaces much easier.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Flock-Style Ride Sunday Jan 2, 1PM, Dippy

Yesterday I went on a ride organized by one of the people of the BikePgh message board (ejwme). We met at the dinosaur outside the Carnegie Institute, seven of us. I took a picture of everyone there (and another one at the end). Of course not everybody appears in both pictures.

ejwme had a route planned, the goal of which was to hit recent improvements in the city's bike infrastructure. We began by going up Forbes and climbed the hill to Squirrel Hill. This showed that we had three types of riders: the "front pack" that made it to the top without much effort, the middle pack that struggled with the grade (about 4-5%, I think) but still managed to ride all the way, and the walkers who knew enough to dismount and just push their bikes up the hill.

We proceeded along Forbes, through the business district and on to Beechwood, turning left and going down to Wilkins, then down to Dallas. We were following recently marked bike lanes and sharrows. It struck me that the first part of our ride, Carnegie Inst to Margaret Morrison didn't have sharrows or lanes; yet this is a rather busy cycling corridor... Anyway we rode down to Hamilton, down to the ELB and up to Highland Avenue. We stopped at the Tasa d'Oro and to warm up I bought myself a hot tea (which, ironically, was too hot to drink). We got to chat a bit, then up to the Park and down to Stanton, turning left at Collins to get back to the ELB. I ended up in front but when I looked back at the next light nobody was behind me. Hmm. I did a quick loop around the block by way of Broad; still nobody. Fortunately they were further up on the ELB and I caught up to them by Hamilton. At Penn we got honked out by some woman in an SUV; I tried to talk to her but she insisted that we should not be taking up a lane. It was a bit hard to piece together her monologue, as her window was down for only part of it. Sigh.

ejwme wanted to see the fabled North-East Passage, and so we headed that way. Stu, unfortunately, managed to get caught in the sinkhole next to the fire hydrant, but made it out ok. Next up was Mellon Park, including a stretch of brick road, then on to Reynolds, with its steep little block up to Linden.

Frick Park at the Museum next, and a ride along the upper trail to reach Braddock. People were getting tired and some ended up walking the last stretch up to Dallas (as well as the next bit up to Beechwood). At this point the group decided no more hills, so we followed Forbes to Murray, then Woodmont, Negley, Solway, Wightman to Wilkins and down  Beeler. Cutting through CMU got us back to the Carnegie, and the end of the ride. A bit over 14 miles.

Overall this was a fun ride. I got to match some faces to names and chat a bit (though I can't say I really got to know anybody). The Flock Ride is supposed to be easy going and open to all riders. Somehow I had expected (given the cold) that only the more resolute cyclists would show up. I guess that the former was the case, but I was still surprised that people were having problems with the hills (which after all are impossible to avoid around here).

I'm also wondering if I'd be able to float a group ride to hit the hills on the north side ("Tour the Reservoirs", if you will). It would be a short one (25-30 min) but would push riders on the climbing (well, at least me).