Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do You Have Reliable Transportation?

As much as I might like to go off the grid, I can’t (how else could I write this blog); therefore, the job search has begun.  During an interview today, I was asked a strange question:  “do you have reliable transportation?”  Ostensibly, they’re asking, “can you get to work on time?” but what they really mean is, “do you own an automobile?”

Admittedly, this is not a strange question for some jobs.  Someone applying for a traveling salesperson position would understandably be expected to have a vehicle.  However, for a position that does not require traveling—you know, most jobs in America, the kind where you show up to an office and stay in one location all day—how you come and go from that office should be of little concern to your employer.  They shouldn’t care if you wanted to get to work in this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Just kidding.  No sane person rollerblades, even if they are motorized.  Anyway, society’s general perception is that the only way to consistently get to work on time is to drive your own personal vehicle.  Even if you’re driving this beater:

Let’s see if we can find any evidence to show that cars are actually more reliable than other forms of transportation.

The first thing to consider, of course, is commute times.  In some big cities with heavy automobile traffic, bikes, trains, and even walking make for faster commutes than driving.  However, even I will concede that this isn’t the case in most areas; most automobile commutes are probably faster than biking or walking commutes of the same distance.  Although not according to this report from the Public Policy Institute of California:

Again, though, I’m sure there’s an explanation there.  For one, California has several large cities, where people generally tend to commute shorter distances, and over short distances biking has a time advantage over vehicles.  Also, it can be reasonably hypothesized that those who commute by bike probably have shorter distances to commute than those who go by car.  For example, a commute from my home in South Bossier to downtown is 7.6 miles and would take 16 minutes by car, according to Google Maps.  The same trip by bike, however, would take about 45 minutes according to Google.  So there, I’ve said it:  automobiles are a faster way to get to work than biking.  But does that necessarily mean more reliable?  No, it just means that someone biking to work needs to leave earlier than one who drives.

So if the distance/time of a commute does not make a particular commute more or less reliable, then let’s examine the things that do create delays in a commute and cause a person to be late to work.

First, and probably the excuse most used by drivers:  “I got caught by a train.”  I’ve used it once or twice myself.  And it’s understandable.  Look at the following screenshot from an Idaho commission planning a railroad overpass:

One train intersection, in IDAHO, causes an estimated 110,286 minutes in delays a year (sure, that’s an estimate for 2025, but I think the point still stands.  So, keep that one railroad crossing in mind when you consider this:  according to the Federal Railroad Commission, there are about 228,000 at grade railroad crossings in this country.  That’s a whole lot of minutes.  Before you point out the obvious, I’m not suggesting that bicycles can magically cross a railroad crossing that is occupied by a speeding freight train (although that would only be slightly less dangerous than a typical bicycle commute).  However, the cyclist does have the advantage of being able to skip to the front of that long line of traffic that will accumulate at the crossing.  And that waiting for that long line of traffic to clear after the train passes takes almost as long as it took for the train to go through the intersection.

Another common cause for tardiness (or at least, excuse for tardiness) is the flat tire excuse.  Yes, it’s amazing that anyone can drive anywhere at all based on the number of alleged flats that motorists receive each year.  In fact, according to (only the most reliable source on the internet), there are seven flats per second in this country, resulting in 220 million flat tires per year.  Again, this is not to say that bicycle tires do not also get flat; I’ve had more than my fair share of flats.  But I am saying—no, more than saying, I would even bet—that I can fix a flat bike tire faster than you can change your car’s flat tire to the spare.  I’d even bet that half the drivers out there couldn’t change their own flat tire.  Bottom line, if you leave at your normal time driving, and I leave at my normal time biking, and we each get a flat, I’ll probably still be there on time, and you’ll be late.

Then, of course, there are those creaks and clunks and strange lights on the dashboard—uh-oh, your car needs work.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any statistics as to the average length of time per year that an average car is in the shop.  However, I didn’t find an AAA stat that the average driver spends $7,000 in car repairs for every 15,000 miles driven, so we know it’s expensive.  But we’ll save that for a different post.  Whatever the actual number is, though, I feel confident in saying that my bike will spend less of its life in the shop than your car.  Most bicycle repair problems can be prevented by simple home maintenance, and even issues requiring a shop visit are usually quick trips.  For example, on Monday I noticed that my bike had a loose headset.  A quick trip to Scooter’s Bike Shop and it was fixed, for no charge, in less than five minutes.  Try to get anything on your car fixed in five minutes.

So those are the first three delay causes that I could think of, mainly because those are the three that I used regularly back when I drove a car.  To me, it’s plainly obvious that bicycles are actually a more reliable form of transportation than cars.  Actually, the only way to be completely free from mechanical problems is to walk.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Great Shreveport Biking Experiment: 24-Hour Check-in

Well, the Great Shreveport Biking Experiment has begun.  For those just tuning in, the experiment is:  can this Chicagoan readjust to life in Shreveport, without sacrificing the lifestyle that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past several years—mainly cycling and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (decent organic food and great coffee come in as close seconds on the lifestyle priorities).

There’s no update on the PBR front yet (check back tomorrow), so today we’ll just cover the cycling.

In anticipating the move, I had two main concerns about riding in Shreveport:  1) hostile traffic that’s unaccustomed to cyclists, and 2) the not exactly ideal bridge/river crossing situation.  Well, I’ve covered about 40 miles now over the past 24 hours, and first impression is that I was wrong about one, and right about another.

The traffic isn’t so bad.  For one, there are a lot fewer cars on the road than in Chicago.  For another, there aren’t any parked cars to open doors into traffic.  Also, so far, drivers don’t really seem too concerned with a cyclist on the road.  In fact, at this point the horn-honking tally is at four.  That’s roughly a 10-miles/honk ratio, which is par for the course in Chicago.  I have two guesses as to why this is:  1) drivers see so few cyclists that they’re confused, and their minds are so occupied with the confusing sight of a grown man on a bicycle they forget to yell something, and 2) since there aren’t many cyclists here, the drivers have not been cut off by this person:

I was right that the bridge situation sucks.  If you don’t know anything about Shreveport-Bossier, here’s the deal:  Shreveport and Bossier are divided by a big river.  Not Mississippi River big, but a lot bigger than the Chicago River.  Also, unlike the Chicago River, the Red is not crossed by thirty or so bridges.  Instead, it’s crossed by five.  Here’s a map for your understanding:

Of the five, two of them are Interstate Highways, and one is a two-lane road with traffic at speeds of about 60 mph; that one is also out of the question.  On the above map, the red dots represent unusable bridges, and green represents the usable pair of bridges.  So that leaves two viable options for bicycle traffic, each fairly close to downtown.  I suppose that isn’t the worst thing in the world if your starting point or destination is downtown.  However, if, like today, you’re in south Shreveport ("School" on the map) and trying to go to south Bossier ("Dad's House"), the bridge situation results in an extra 10 miles or so of riding.  Also, the bridges are bigger hills than any in Illinois.  However, there are worse things in the world than getting to be on the bike a little longer with a good hill climb thrown in.

Finally, though, there is one negative that I never expected:  bike racks.  Specifically, the lack thereof.  Really, is there one anywhere in Shreveport?  I can’t continue to park like this:

That's it for today.  To anyone reading in Shreveport, if you see a guy in a black helmet on a black bike, feel free to say hello.  For everyone else, please be considerate to the cyclists you see on the road.  Remember, all we're trying to do is get to work and get home, just like anyone else.  Some have families to get home to, and all of us are somebody's sons or daughters.  Spare the 15 seconds it may cost you in order to slow down and pass safely.  After all, bikes belong on the road, not chained up and painted white:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Are Bikes Cool? (buckle up, it's a long read)

Ask ten people why they don’t ride a bike and you’ll likely get ten different reasons:  “I don’t want to get to work sweaty,” “I’m afraid of traffic,” “it takes too long,” or even, “I don’t know how to ride a bike.”  However, I believe that it all really comes back to a singular underlying issue:  Bicycle riding is not cool.  At least not in America, not yet.

Sure, Lance Armstrong is cool enough.  But he may be the only cool cyclist in America, and that’s setting the bar pretty high for coolness.  As badly as I want to be cool, I’m not going to climb the Alps and beat 150 other people across France SEVEN TIMES.  Unless you’ve done that, to most of America, you’re just some weird guy that wears spandex and shaves his legs.  (Important note:  not all cyclists wear spandex and shave their legs).

Don’t believe me?  Fine.  Let’s look at the evidence.  And by evidence, I mean the most solid, undeniable way to prove anything in America—Hollywood.

Exhibit A:  The 40 Year Old Virgin.  One of the great comedies of the past 10 years, and also one of the great examples of the prototypical uncool cyclist:

Note the nerdy grin, the ultradork helmet, and the windbreaker.  (Seriously, James Dean would be rolling in his grave; I didn’t realize it was even possible to dork-up a red windbreaker).

For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s a story about a dorky guy, who is, as you could guess, a 40-year-old virgin.  The fact that he rides a bicycle is used as a punchline repeatedly throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s not the only thing that makes the character a dork, but it works.  And it works because Americans already think bike riding is dorky.

Then, there’s the epic TV series Arrested Development.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  Last I checked, the whole series was streaming on Netflix.  Watch it.  And when you do watch it, you’ll notice that in the early episodes the main character, Michael Bluth, rides a bike to work.  When I first saw the show about six months ago, I thought that was awesome.  I thought, “Here we have a normal, semi-cool, average American who has made the great decision to improve his life by riding a bike to work.”  It only took a couple episodes for the show to make me wrong.  His bike riding soon became a joke, as he was shown sweating profusely on the way to work:

Yeah, he’s sweating—he’s also wearing a full business suit in Los Angeles.  Hell, I sweat just sitting at my desk while wearing a suit.  Throw a change of clothes in a backpack and change at work, Mr. Bluth!

In fact, he decided that riding a bike to work was so unpractical that the only thing left to do was buy a car.  But, unfortunately, cars are expensive and his family was broke, so this is what he ended up with:

Really, Michael?  Even the stair-car is preferable to riding a bike?

Wait a minute, you say, surely Hollywood can’t be that biased against cycling.  Hasn’t there ever been a movie with a cool guy on a bike?  Well, there was one, once, sort of.  In Two For the Money, Matthew McConaughey is a laid back former football player (you know, his character in every movie) who rides a bike to his job as a small time sports betting advice guy.

Early in the trailer, you see several scenes of him riding his bike, and damn does he make it look cool.  Of course, it’s McConaughey, who makes damn near anything look cool.  But, as soon as he gets into the big leagues and goes to work in New York, he has to project a different image, an image that only a Mercedes (or is it a Porsche) can project.  So, no more bike.  The message?  Bikes are cool enough if you’re living some sort of simple, no frills life with little responsibility and no real status, but if you want people to take you seriously, you’ve got to ditch the toy and get a real means of transportation.

Okay, so Hollywood hates cyclists.  So what?  All the cool urban kids on the east coast ride bikes.  Fixies are cool now.  Who cares about Hollywood?  Well, the truth is that while bikes have experienced a huge boom in popularity in major urban environments, mainstream Americans in flyover country still see them as toys, the province of children and dorks.  And as long as that’s the case, no large amount of people will choose to ride bikes, and drivers will continue to see cyclists as inferior.  Luckily, though, there’s a way to change this, and it starts with… Hollywood!  Yes, the cause of the problem can also be the solution!

Remember ten years ago, back when street drag racing had been extinct since the 60s, and “tuning” was only for car dorks who desperately hoped that having a faster car would somehow make them more attractive?  Remember, back before The Fast and the Furious?  But now, based on the high number of modified Civics and Corollas out there, it’s hard to imagine a time when wasting money on your $4,000 1993 Civic Del Sol wasn’t cool.  That’s what The Fast and the Furious did for car tuning.  Nothing makes something popular quite like Vin Diesel cracking skulls.  Of course, the die-hard original nerds may resent the movie for making it trendy, but I bet they are also secretly thankful, because now there’s a much larger group of society that thinks they are cool (note:  I’m not part of this much larger group.  I still think they’re dorks).

I’m convinced that all cycling needs to blow up is for Brad Pitt to saddle up on a fixie, kick some bad guy ass, then ride off into the sunset with (insert up and coming hot girl actress here).  Well, I’ll settle for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This could well be the first movie ever to prominently feature a cycling protagonist who is not nerdy, or a loser, or a hippie, or any combination of those.  Will the movie suck?  Most likely.  Will hipsters and cyclists hate it?  Definitely (see also: skateboarders’ opinions of the film Grind).  But will it also rake in ridiculous returns at the box office?  I hope so.  Gordon-Levitt fresh off his Inception success, as well as a couple other indie pictures that look decent, could have enough star power to carry a movie to box office success.

Am I worried that this movie will inspire a wave of cycling in America, as Fast and Furious did for tuner cars?  Not at all.  Other cyclists may scoff at the newbies and call them posers, but as far as I’m concerned, more bike riders is better for biking.  Especially if it’s more cool cyclists, and less spandex.  Finally, I should add that I’m not knocking spandex—it’s the best stuff out there for riding if you're trying to go a long way quickly, but it also scares the hell out of most Americans.  No one wants or needs to see your junk.  Save the spandex for racing.  There are plenty of cycling specific clothing options that look like normal clothes:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hello, Shreveport

On June 5, 2007, I packed everything I owned into my (Dad’s) Honda Accord and put Shreveport in my rear view.  To hear me tell it then, I was leaving for good—the world was wide, the opportunities boundless, and by God I was going to conquer.

My head was filled with visions of suits, power, and money.  Back then, success was measured only by the amount of overtime hours I put in, the value of my car, and the thread count of my suits (super 120s or bust).

Then something strange and unexpected happened—I changed.  Gradually, other things became more important.  More hours at work meant more money, but also less time home with my best friend, Rameses.

Call it disillusionment, call it burnout, or call it my transition to full-fledged hipster.  Whatever.  I’m moving back home, back to Shreveport, back to where it all started, back to refocus and reassess and rediscover the important things in life.  Bottom line, success to me is now about the content of my life, not the contents.  I want to spend time with family, split a six-pack with my brother, do some writing, and ride my bike.  I’m getting back to basics.

Of course, I’m not going off the grid, even if it seems like I’ve gone off the deep end.  I’m refocusing my efforts on finishing college and getting my accounting degree (probably the most practical, least-hipster degree choice there is).  I’m not giving up my love of suits.  I still want to be someone that makes a difference in the world, that provides for my family, that people look up to and respect.  But I’m going to do it on my terms.  I’m going to make things happen instead of having things happen to me.

Now, it’s easy to think that moving back to Shreveport will be easy.  After all, it’s where I’m from, it’s familiar, I’ve got family there, I’ve got a support system, and I’ve got opportunities.  But it’s not going to be all easy.  Specifically, I know that I’ve changed a lot over the past five years, and it’ll be a serious readjustment to acclimate myself to life in Shreveport.  Some serious issues that I’ve been stressing about:  will there be Pabst Blue Ribbon? will there be hipster clothing available? will there be others to discuss fixed gear bikes and obscure foreign films? can I really continue to ride my bike everywhere?

My blog is going to become a sort of experiment in change, as I try to find a way to assimilate without losing the lessons and experience that I’ve gained since living in Chicago.  I feel that I can really help Shreveport in a positive way.  In fact, sometimes it seems as if I was meant to take the life course that I did only so that I could return to Shreveport wizened by life in the big city.  And you know what, I think Shreveport is ready for it.  Groups such as A Better Shreveport (<a href=>Link here</a>) show that there is a strong movement to help Shreveport make the leap and become a 21st century city.  There’s farmers’ markets, community gardens, bike lanes, dog parks, neighborhood cleanups, and lots of other great developments there, and I look forward to doing what I can to help.