Friday, August 30, 2013

This is Commuting Freedom on My Bicycle

It blazed just like that

I read this week in several popular news outlets that American car culture is waning. In various versions, the articles said that VMT or Vehicle Miles Traveled in the USA, peaked in August of 2007, fell sharply during the Great Recession, and has remained around that plateau level. This is not really that that newsworthy for several reasons, including that the Brookings Institute thought the trend was pretty serious back in December, 2008, when the drop-off was most significant.

Claims in the press included statements like the USA's love affair with the automobile is over, that getting a license is no longer a right of passage for teenagers that it once was, or that the car as a "fetish of masculinity is over" since they are so computerized and complex as compared to my father's fixer-upper. Taking the data behind the story, from this source at the Federal Highway Administration, I created this graph, sticking with their non-zero y-axis origin approach which emphasizes the point:

The data that launched a thousand articles

It does look plateau-like, doesn't it? On another hand, this is USA-only data, I wonder what the world total data graphed would look like. This article popped up in my search results, but doesn't answer the question. I tried, and failed, to find similar data with which to make a global VMT graph. I am sure it would be soaring exuberantly skywards, though, dwarfing the little flattening out on this USA graph. Let me know if you know of any.

OK, back to the photo at the top. One of the statements in the flood of articles was referring to the automobile as a symbol of freedom. While it may be tarnished, and may deserve more tarnishing, it is true that a car, or at least one that's working, and has gas, and insurance, and that you have access to, lets you go pretty much wherever you want, on a whim, if you feel like it, and have the time.

On another hand, when I commuted by car, I always felt as if I was in a hurry, with only one optimal route to travel, down a freeway corridor with thousands of others who felt exactly the same way. On my bicycle, on another hand, I choose from several different routes, based on what I want to look at, what I want to avoid or experience on a given day, since there are several more or less equally good ways for me to meander my way in to the office. When I saw the sun blazing in that blue sky in the top photo, I stopped and just stared at it for a few moments. Long as I felt like it. No one beeping at me from behind, no one running me off the road while texting and rushing to work, no one glaring at me through tinted glass as we all sit immobile in a traffic jam in the shimmering sun broiled air. Just me beneath a wide open blue sky. That's commuting freedom for me, choosing my route, and my mode, for moments like that. Or this.

Stopping next to a Little Free Library, to peruse the day's books, and contemplate clouds

Commute freedom: where and how are you going? Why do you make that choice? Are there others?

What trick of light causes these colors to fringe and shimmer the clouds?

If I need or want to go somewhere hundreds of miles in a day, perhaps with my family or to move a load, I enjoy the freedom of getting into a car to make that journey. I don't always enjoy the journey itself as much as I once did, although by making a kind of game out of being an extra courteous, conscientious, and careful driver in order to see if I can infect others with that virus, it's not so bad. But on my daily commute, a round trip of a dozen or twenty miles, I have many other choices on the list, at the head of which is my bicycle. No gas refills, no monthly payments, no registration fees, no direct insurance costs (although I do have uninsured motorist on my auto policy which covers me if someone without insurance hits me while I'm riding so I guess there's a cost there), and many pleasing routes from which to choose, typically the more beautiful ones with the least traffic, by the way.

I'm just wondering: is it freedom if you don't use it?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Paint That Makes You Go Hmmm

Fresh Paint! Hmmm

There's fresh paint (work in progress) on a route I often ride. I saw the faint marker lines they put down last week, and they made me wonder what the final product will look like. This is not the finished product quite yet, I believe, so some of the "hmmm" may disperse once the rest of it is done. I believe these are buffered or protected bike lanes, but in one stretch (not shown here) it only seemed logical to ride in the space marked with the three lines. So I'll just wait and see how it turns out. But today, this new paint make me go "hmmm".

If the three lines mean "bikes don't ride here, drivers don't drive here," which is what I believe, then it will all become clearer once they paint in the bicycle symbols. But if that's the case, I think they may have to redo a section, where it looked like the three lines were in the wrong space.* Also, there's a section where cars generally parked all the time, which used to have a bike lane running outside the car parking area, which now has a bike lane where the cars park, with a buffer space outside it. If the cars continue parking in the same space, the bike lane won't be usable. Conversely, I'm not sure where the cars are going to park now. Hmmm.

A little more paint will probably make everything clearer. So this is in no way meant as a criticism. It just made me go, hmmm. Although I'm sure some riders would be more comfortable riding where crossing and entering cars can see them better. Particularly at night, or in a low-sun situation. Cyclists that question the efficacy or need for very bright lights need only ride down this street with me in a dark but busy hour to see what catches the attention of crossing or entering drivers, and what doesn't. As a final note, I've had plenty of conflicts on this street with crossing or entering drivers who seemed not to see me, but none, not one, with an overtaking driver getting too close. In my opinion, it's 44th street, just up ahead in the two photos below, where the lanes are narrow and the traffic is moving at 50 mph, that some buffered bike lanes might make more sense. Just a thought.

On another hand, and setting aside my own over-confident road habits, perhaps these are meant to encourage school kids to ride to the elementary school that's farther down this street. I'll be able to report back over the next year if that occurs or not. I tend to see a lot more kids riding from the east side of the school, rather than on this stretch, which is to the west, so perhaps these will help in that area.

Anyway, freshly paved, fresh paint, lovely to ride on.

This one is very clear

That sign is going to change

Don't ride here. I think.

*or perhaps it was just after work and I was brain dead

Monday, August 26, 2013

Crazy Shimmering Silence

Crazy, hectic madhouse in the school zone

Before the storm the clouds were shimmering

Silence, in this particular moment

Saturday, August 24, 2013



When I see a sign or marker like this one, I understand it to be some sort of communication of control, just to let everyone know who can go there, and who gets to decide what to do with the property. You know, to straighten out someone who might think otherwise. Tell everyone who's boss in these here parts. This one along the new canal path seemed full of portents which I could not decode. Who wants to do what and why THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is saying NO WAY JOSE, I don't know.

balance in all things

Just then, though, as I was becoming probably overly concerned with concepts beyond my control or comprehension, this bunny hopped right by me and the sign, letting me know that she lives there, dines there, mates there, and raises younguns there, which defacto makes this BUNNYLAND, regardless of the signage, or cyclists passing through. Sorry, USA: better check with bunny first.

The boss in these here parts.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

These Brief and Driven Moments

Arizona Trail (AZT) near Flagstaff

My family and I spent a few hours in this place, not hiking, which sounded hard and repetitious, but rather nature exploring, which allowed us to move without a set destination or goal, other than stopping as often as possible to ferret out wild flowers, gently lift logs in search of interesting fungi, and following paw prints into the woods to see if they connected with legs, or other evidence of passages--tree scrapings, dirt scratchings, food raiding, scat making, night bedding, all of these we found signs of, just by looking a bit. It rained on us, gently at first, then more insistent, peppered with hail, and turning the trail into a muddy imprint recorder in which we left our own sign: family of four, meandering in the woods, doubling back and venturing into some insignificant corners for no apparent reason, with possible indication of tentative snare-making practice, or perhaps knot tying, or just cloud gazing. We spent a few hours then hurried on to the next thing, the next planned destination, an inside place, constructed and enclosed, without mud or signs of wild animals. I wonder what our hurry was. I question our planning, our thoughts, our rushed exit from here: why not linger longer? Why not keep on the same program for days, poking under rocks, wandering along the AZT, seeing what's there, feeding wonder with wonder, to each other. Did you see that? Should we follow? Why not? 

Something drove us onwards and away. A habit, I think, of throwing mental darts at ways to fill up our days, then clinging to the targets which they happen to strike as "plans" which we then execute, fairly robotically if I am honest, not asking our hearts what they would prefer to do with the next hours (wander in the woods and up and around the mountains and perhaps up to the snows and then back down for some splashing in the streams), but instead expending the designated hours on the designated tasks, following through if you will, but in so doing pushing down a little more of what the heart wanted, making it subservient to schedules and destinations, beginnings, routes, endings.

It was a great afternoon, but I have a regret. I regret that there was not splashing in streams and hiking up to find the snow, that we didn't let the nature exploration explore itself farther, ourselves, inwards and outwards, a continuation of the destination-free, schedule-free we moved for some hours, anyway. We quit fresh on a trail and in a place that wanted for us to give much more to it, until our legs burned, our lungs were spent, and our minds sated on a thousand and one unstructured images of trees and paw prints and plants and things. It was good, but it wasn't enough, because we let the schedule be the schedule too much. These brief moments were too driven by what was outside of them. Push away, outside, push away. Next time, before we start: a meditation on trees, and mud, and outside places, in and for themselves, and as long as they need. As long as it needs.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Man is the Broken Giant

of paradise reflect

"Man is the broken giant, and in all his weakness both his body and his mind are invigorated by habits of conversation with nature." --Emerson, Essays: History

With Emerson in my head, I set out on a hot Saturday morning Tri-city tour to seek out evidence of history, or nature, in search of the One Mind. Just before going out the door, I had a quick conversation with my wife about how we have way too many water bottles. One of our cupboards is full, overflowing, with water bottles, and my suggestion was that all we really need is one or two good ones per person.

The evidence of nature I encountered on this ride was best heard in the songs of the last of the cicadas, buzzing their hearts out for the sake of it, since by now they are far between and few enough that it seems unlikely they will find a mate. Yet they still sing.

The One Mind...of cycling

In terms of the One Mind, I did find a stray water bottle of my favorite kind on  the path, which struck me as significant, and potentially Emersonian in its being. Also, a bit farther along, a nice set of Park Tool tire levers. Which I posed on this newish bench which implores the passerby to imagine watering the desert. With my newish bottle, and my nifty levers, I did, I did.

Yet to each his or her own visions of paradise, I assume

It was very hot at midday to be out on a bicycle ride, yet, I encountered many other cyclists out and about, all sorts, riding at all speeds, all basking in the glory that is August in Phoenix: 105°F, 5% humidity, blazing sunshine. One Mind.

A cairn of most imposing humanhood, marking a nature trail for mountain bicyclists and hikers

Nature directed down watery paths to generate power, and to water fields

Bring it on, Man and Nature, I got my Gatorskin hardshells, and shall not be punctured

Nature washes out, man repaves, over and over. the cycle continues

Find the cost of Freedom

Seeking  history: one of flood, and recreation, and flood again

My box of connectivity: you would think that I could heal the broken giant with all this

Friday, August 16, 2013

Happy Friday, Tiny Friend

Hanging out

This little guy, hanging around my back door upside down, reminds me of the variety of life, its adaptability and tenaciousness. He moves like lightning. And eats bugs. And keeps a wary eye on me as I get on my bicycle to ride off to work on this Friday morning. Hello, gecko. May your day be filled with delicious bugs.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Basic Questions are Seldom Explored

You're in the Photo Enforcement Zone now. Within a school zone. Here in Ari-zone. Said like a true zonie.

Basic questions are seldom explored.
And even less often subjected to simple, rational analysis*.
For example: what's the evidence, what's your source for that information, can I take a closer look at those numbers, what makes you certain about that?

I think I may have to go and ask some of those basic questions. And, if I have the energy, subject them to simple, rational analysis.

I'm sure I'll get kicked out for doing that. But: why?

*and never answered with anything other than shallow diversions

Saturday, August 10, 2013

On the Virtues of DIY Bicycle Mech


Forever ago, I don't even remember when, I bought a set of brake pads for my converted mountain bike commuter's BR-M454 cantilever brakes when I saw them on a popular auction site. The old pads were still good at that time, but I thought that having a spare set on hand would be a good idea for when I did need to replace them. As it turned out, though, these big blocky pads last a long, long time on a commuter bike. Since it seems much harder to find replacements now, I will probably try to recondition the old ones a bit, too, since they still seem to have a lot of material left. While they are currently pretty grooved and glazed-looking, with a big lip on the bottom from where a lazy home mechanic avoided readjusting them as they contacted lower and lower on the braking surface, I think with some sand paper and cleaning up, they could be made usable again. Which sounds like a good idea now in case I need replacements some day.

While I was at it, I shortened the cable housings which had gained some extra due to lower handlebars, and also lowered the straddle wires closer to the fenders, since they had always looked a little high to me. Fenders, by the way, are the perfect antidote to any concerns of the straddle wire falling onto the tire should the main cable break or something. My straddle wires are only a year old or so, so I didn't replace them. The overall effect of shorter housing with less bendy routes was noticeably smoother and easier braking. Yes I fiddled around slightly obsessively to try to get it just right, but I had some nice fresh classic M-System housing laying around just begging to be used.

I went for a test ride up to check out something strange I saw last night on the way home from seeing Elysium, the new movie. A few weeks ago, I went to see another movie, and on the way home, I noticed a car parked in front of a fenced-in, boarded-up building. The car's door was open, and it looked abandoned, in front of  2747 Camelback Road. Last night, same place, I thought I saw the same car, in the same place, with the same door open. I couldn't imagine that it had just been left sitting like that for weeks, so I today I went back to see if it was still there.

Before I left, I looked up 2747 Camelback, and found out that it was once the Fox Animation Studios building (c.1994 - 2000). They animated the movie Anastasia here, among others. When they closed it down, Fox shifted to an animation studio in Connecticut, where they made Ice Age. In any case, I'm glad I looked it up so that there was at least something interesting, since the mystery open-door car was gone when I got there today. My original brake pads were still shiny, fresh and new back when they were starting up their cartoonish practices here, and my bike was performing much more exciting mountain biking related functions than its daily ride back and forth to work now.

The test ride was a success. Great stopping, no squealing, screeching, or wailing banshee sounds from the vicinity of the fresh pads. Combined with a quick clean up and relubing, and the old Fuji was riding nice. 

Oh yeah, I made it sound like I was going to say something about the virtues of DIY bicycle work. I enjoy it. I took my time. I was methodical. It felt virtuous to do it myself, in my own way. I did take the appropriate tools along on the test ride just in case, though, and made the first stops carefully, just in case. The old box implores the purchaser to consult with their Shimano dealer if you don't feel confident about installing or adjusting the pads. Prudence and caution is warranted. I feel like I learn something every time I work on the bike myself, though. This time, it was the advantages of focusing on adjusting the straddle wire length, which now seems like the most direct way to dial in the setup. Oh, and also that Anastasia was made here, in a building that's abandoned now, but that in my probably overactive mind still has some kind of imprint of the powerful imaginations which once worked in it. It's a purplish color, faint, but just visible, as a glow around the edges.

Building where I saw the car

Friday, August 9, 2013

Why don't people want to talk to each other anyway

This documentary about texting and driving, "From One Second to the Next," is by Werner Herzog. Please watch and share it. Not only is it poignant, but it's a great film. It is powerful because it effectively probes the devastating effects of a preventable moment of thoughtless inattention on the lives of normal people going about their daily lives.

I'm posting it not only because it's amazing and thought-provoking, but also because it is making me think about my own bicycle commute. I try to maintain a level of attention to drivers, particularly at intersections and crossings, as if they are all texting, or don't see me, or will run the stop signal for some other reason. But now I really wonder if that's nearly enough. I try to always look. I try to always be aware. But a car traveling at 50mph covers 73 feet per second. Assuming I'm trying to be aware five seconds ahead (which may not be enough anyway), that means I need to watch for cars 365 feet away in both directions. A football field. I find that, particularly when some vehicles are coming to a stop or already stopped at the red light, my attention is drawn to the closer, louder ones as I enter the intersection, rather than the fast ones still a football field away, and all the way across in the far, still open, lane. A couple of times, I've actually seen them coming. Once, I saw an accident about to happen as the car across the intersection, much closer than me to the lane with the driver who clearly was not going to stop, started in as soon as our light turned green. That time, I waved frantically across the intersection, and either they saw me or saw the car coming, and they stopped. Whoom, right through went the car, not even slowing down.

I'm going to make sure that everyone in our household who either drives now, or will drive some day, watches this. And that afterwards, we talk about it, face to face, person to person, which is one way that real change happens.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Antifractious Cycling

Stop light, from center lane, bicycle

Hi, do you have everything? Need a tube or a patch or something? I have tools.

Where do you want to go? Go down there four blocks, turn right by the coffee cart, look for the orange sign with the bicycle under it. Can't miss it.

Good morning! Hello! Looking good.

No, after you, I insist.

Here, take it, I don't need it anyway. I've been carrying it in my commute bag for four years and never used it once. You take it.

You need a light? I have an extra. This one wraps around the handlebar, easy on.

Here, can I make a suggestion? Don't just put that U-lock through the front wheel, see? Someone can just quick release it and take off with the rest of the bike. Through the frame.

No, after you. I am not in any hurry at all. Smile. Wave. I'm enjoying the ride.

Love that basket. Love it. Are those cushions for a puppy or something? Really? Where is he?

No, seriously, if you line up your front tire between the wires in the middle, this light will turn green in one minute and forty-two seconds. I do it every day. Watch this.

That's a Gambel's quail family. The little ones hatched a few weeks ago. They hung out in that big yard over there, but now they seem to run across the street in a frantic line right around commute time. Usually the cars stop.

That's a tiny free library. Take a book, leave a book. I have enough cycling books to give them, I think they will need a tiny shed hanging off the bottom.

I think a car must have hit it. Poor kitty, I think she's gone now. Maybe the owner lives around here. Let's ask that guy to see if he knows who it belongs to.

Yes, I have some Sport Beans. They're sour, but they do the trick.

You look lost. Yes, the map flapping in the wind that you are turning around and around kind of gave it away. British? Yeah? What are you looking for? OK, first, you're walking in exactly the wrong direction. It's about six blocks that way, then take a right.

Art? Yes, what are you interested in?

Yes, you can pick them, a few anyway, no one will care. The ones planted in grids are usually edible, the ones planted in straight lines along the sidewalk are usually sour. There are some public pomegranates about half a block that way, if you're interested.

That restaurant has bike tools, dog watering stations, and good beer. Any questions?

Hey, could I ask you a question?

There are about seven Italian restaurants within a mile of here, can you be more specific?

Food trucks? Why, yes there are.

There's a cold water fountain about half a mile down that way.

Those clouds? Those are August clouds. But this cool weather, it's just freakish.  

Yes, school does start tomorrow. The streets will be just a little bit crazier, won't they. So turn the awareness and patience up a few notches, and the hurry-up down several.

Could I ride slower? I don't know, let's find out.


Friday, August 2, 2013

The August Sky Rule

Palms whipping in thunderstorm winds, 105°F, and this sky: August in Phoenix

I meant it when I told her that it's been so long since I've commuted by car (four years) that I can't imagine being trapped behind a glass barrier, confined in a narrow space, isolated from the outside, and cut off from the clouds and sky. I started to say it in fun, in response to being asked how I could ride on a bike in the heat, but by the time I finished, I felt honest revulsion at the thought: the anger of drivers to each other, the traffic jams, dodging aggressive morons on the freeway, being tailgated, worrying about my precious expensive metal self-image maker getting smacked by some careless driver moving at 80+mph. No, not only do I not miss it, but it's becoming a sincere desire to never resume it. My hour a day flowing in sunshine on my bicycle has changed me.

It's something to do with the hot, fast winds tearing the clouds to shreds in August

You have to be hyper-aware, omnidirectional, to ride in traffic. And I like it. A large SUV dives into the traffic circle a half-beat before I do, and I am timed perfectly to flow in behind her. I wonder if the driver is concerned that I've come in right behind her, but I'm counting on her indifference, valuing it highly, since it means we all get through by doing what we're supposed to and moving on.

I frogger across the busy roads and count on the drivers to be paying more attention to the other frog-squashers moving at high speed around them, because as long as they keep doing that while texting and talking on their mobiles I'm good, moving in behind them, dodging across. I see and hear them. I am close enough to feel the heat reflecting off their sheet metal. There is a kind of infrared sonar interference effect when they pass by me, since they change the feel of the summer heat radiating off the asphalt, the shimmering waves around me bend and pulse when a two ton hydrocarbon burner blobs past. The wind and soundfield and shadow-dance all change at once to mark their passing. I am there. I sense it coming, I wait for it to confirm, then look and move. 

The August winds tear the clouds to shreds. The sound of the palm fronds whipping in the wind forty feet up is what I imagine the clouds sound like getting torn up from fluffy cotton thunderheads into shards which fill the sky.

Insert tree for perfect view

I'm thinking as I roll up to the four-way stop that the fast-moving car with the loud exhaust on the left is coming in fast. I am way ahead of him, so after I come to a complete stop, I go across. I'm about 98% of the way across when out of my peripheral vision I can see he's going to blow the stop and turn left, to exactly where I am. And the following thought sequence meanders through my brain: that dickhead sees me and is going to blow through the stop and turn left to exactly where I am anyway, loud exhaust, and I am totally conscious of where he is and what he's going to do. I could time it right so that just as he passes, I wobble out a little, to let him know that he's an idiot and I am fully aware of what he's doing and don't care, am not intimidated, and could mark the side of his precious metal box self-image maker if I wanted to. And I hear his tires biting the newly poured asphalt as he pulls through the turn, exactly as I anticipated. Where he positioned, I think I that I could even wobble slightly in front of Mr Fast and Furious and get away with it, there's enough space and time for him to react in order to prevent damage to his carefully bondoed racing machine with the exhaust tip and to avoid even higher insurance rates than he already doubtless faces.

But that ain't me. That's not my game plan. I breathe deep and gaze up at the torn up clouds. I've got my hour in the sun on my bike each day to maintain that equanimity that I desire, the peace-flow necessary to foster the happy dreams of the fish roundup. The balance I desire does not allow wobbling in front of morons to make a point about running stop signs. I move six inches to the right to help him observe the three foot law, and we both went on our ways in benign indifference to one another. When he was gone and the street was silent, I stopped beneath the tree in the last picture to take just a moment to enjoy the ability, the opportunity, the good fortune, of having the chance to consider whether or not one can really identify the precise time of the year, perhaps even the specific part of the specific month, by gauging the temperature, listening to the wind rip through the leaves of a tree, and studying the state of the clouds, and I think, maybe. Maybe.

I'm not sure about that, though. I am certain, however, that by not letting the stop sign running guy change me, by not budging from my flowing line, by caring more about the earth's lines of magnetic force and the wavering of the Van Allen belts, and of course about the ripped-up distinctive August sky, than about someone running a stop sign near me on my bicycle, everything keeps spinning right. I keep him in my consciousness from the moment I sense him rushing the stop from the left, as he passes me, and as he continues on his journey, accommodate and blend with him, but wobble not a bit. I shall not wobble. That's the August Sky Rule.