Posts tagged ‘infrastructure’

January 14, 2012

Seeing with New Eyes

Sometimes I Would Like New Eyes, by Andrew Coulter Enright. Used under Creative Commons license.

Taking up biking for transportation has given me the same experience that becoming a mother did. No, not endless anxiety, sleepless nights, and sh**—well, at least not too much of the latter—but rather the experience of learning just how much the world was designed not for you, but against you, by people who do not share your particular circumstances.

You chose these circumstances. You love these circumstances and they bring you joy no matter what. But better design would make it a bit easier to enjoy these circumstances.

Disclaimer: I do not present these thoughts under the assumption that the entire world should be redesigned for new moms and women on bikes (although heavens, what a civilized world that would make).

I ask you only to consider what it might be like for someone whose circumstances differ from yours—to try to look through their eyes a bit and consider whether you can make some adjustments that accommodate more ways of viewing the world. We all wear blinders; can you take yours off?

I have never taken part in one of those days where you take on a particular disability to learn what the world can feel like from that vantage point, the way City Councilman Jon Snyder did when he spent the day in a wheelchair. But wrestling a baby stroller into and out of buildings that lacked automatic doors certainly made me wonder how people in wheelchairs could possibly manage (and probably made me a better Idaho state legislator and later a better grantwriter for a disability rights organization).

When I had my first baby (who’s all grown up now!) I began a voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust would have it: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” 

Dealing with the needs of a baby or child when surrounded by people who don’t have one, as any parent can tell you, often gives you a new lens through which to view the world.

Riding a bike for transportation has taken me on another voyage and given me new eyes as well. Most parts of this voyage give me great joy. What I get to do on my bike:

  • See my city from a fresh vantage point, without the isolating barrier of over 3,000 pounds of steel, glass, and assorted petroleum products wrapped around me.
  • Make actual eye contact with people out walking, biking, or driving. smile, and connect.
  • Give directions to lost drivers who can’t ask another driver, because how would you?
  • Notice details I never saw in all the years I drove: architectural features on buildings, interesting signage, side streets that offer a different route to my destination.
  • Spot businesses I had no idea even existed that I make a mental note about so I can come back and check them out—or I stop on the spot because I don’t have to search for a parking place so I feel free to make these spontaneous decisions.

If you have never ridden a bike on streets you usually drive, you have no idea what you don’t see.

Then there’s the flip side—the one created by design that leaves you out.

I remember pushing my stroller into a crowded conference room and realizing there was nowhere to stash it—because women with babies were not expected in those particular marble hallways.

Similarly, taking your bike to a destination that has nowhere to lock your bike or store it securely presents you with something you have to figure out. People who don’t have strollers or bikes to deal with don’t see the lack of facilities.

While the vast majority of the time it’s easier to stow my bike than it was to stow my baby stroller (which I could never have left locked to a signpost on the street), I still encounter obstructions, lack of a good fixture to lock to, bike racks installed too close to the wall of the building to be usable, and other design barriers.

That’s just one example.

Then there are the other barriers: The ones not presented by design of things but rather design of events.

If you’re a new mom, is the event held at a location that permits you to step aside and breastfeed discreetly? (Somewhere other than in the bathroom, please—would you want to eat your lunch in the can?) Will the bathroom have a space for diaper changes?

If you’re riding your bike to a destination, did the organizers send out any transportation information other than where to park your (assumed) car? Say, telling you about the availability of bike racks or the transit route and stop that serve the destination? Is the location even served by transit? If there are no bike facilities will you be allowed to bring your bike inside for safe storage?

Is the event meant to go late into the night so you end up with a fussy child or an expensive babysitting tab?

Is the event meant to go late into the night so you’re biking home in the dark? I enjoy riding in the dark but it can present more hazards than daytime riding and not everyone is comfortable with it.

The next time you’re designing something, whether it’s a building or a meeting, take a look at it with new eyes. If you weren’t you­—if you were someone with very different circumstances—how would it work for you?

And if you haven’t gone out to take a look at your world from the saddle of a bicycle, I highly recommend it. That’s a set of lenses you may just never want to take off.

(As for parenthood, that’s a call you’d better make on your own.)

Afterthought: Perhaps this metaphor has particular power for me because I’ve worn glasses since I was five years old. I’m terribly nearsighted–and now have the joy of adding farsightedness to the mix as I get just an eensy-teensy bit older. Being able to see clearly is not something I can afford to take for granted.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • What design issues have you encountered–of places, events, or other things?
  • What parallels between biking and some other activity do you see?
January 13, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. Way Is a Great Street–Hypothetically, That Is

On Pine Street looking south. You can tell these streets will get one more layer of asphalt--look at that sewage access plate sticking up.

The new Martin Luther King, Jr. Way–the name for the extension of Riverside Avenue east of Division–isn’t open yet. So of course no one has ridden a bike on it yet.

Hypothetically speaking, the light skiff of snow that fell in mid-December might have lured some wayward person on a bike to take a right off northbound Division onto the untouched snow. Said hypothetical cyclist might have gloried in the absolute freedom to ride anywhere in the street similar to Spokane Summer Parkways, unfettered by the need to look out for larger vehicles.

This hypothetical bike rider could head east to Sherman, where the new street curves northward to connect with Spokane Falls Boulevard near the WSU Spokane Student Bookstore. That’s currently a four-way stop–someday to have a traffic light, or so I hear. Drivers aren’t expecting any traffic out of a closed street, so obviously if someone were coming from that direction, it would behoove that person to exercise due diligence in navigating the intersection.

Should this same nonexistent person have wanted to try MLK Way the other direction, westbound, it would be wise to note that the street lacks its final lift of asphalt so the sewer access plate projects up a good three inches or more, making the usual right tire track position a bad choice. Of course, with a light skiff of snow this would be pretty obvious so no disaster need occur.

Looking west at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (Riverside west of this point) and Division.

It would be tricky to come out of a closed street and re-enter regular traffic, of course. If this hypothetical rider headed west on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way needed to end up heading eastbound on Sprague two options exist.

The first is to walk the bike across Division as a pedestrian with the light, then get back in the lane, ride to Browne, turn left, go a block, and turn left on Sprague. (I hypothesize that one would want to do this as a pedestrian right now because one would otherwise be riding out of a closed street straight into traffic with drivers who think they have a free left turn and no oncoming traffic.)

If, however, this hypothetical rider wanted to take full advantage of the flexibility a bike allows, switching between vehicle and pedestrian modes, a great route might present itself that’s far easier than dealing with the one-way street issues and car commuter traffic.

This is the signage you'll see on the right (east) side of the street just after you come under the railroad tracks at Sprague heading northbound on Division. This will be a nice little public plaza when it's finished.

At the intersection of the new street and Division, where traffic barriers prevent cars from continuing east on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, someone on a bike could get off the bike and use the sidewalk as a pedestrian to walk a tiny half-block south. (The lack of the final layer of asphalt would mean a steep lip between the sidewalk and the street surface, so someone who can’t execute a bunny hop to jump the bike up onto the sidewalk really does need to walk as a pedestrian, which is safer on sidewalks anyway.)

Using the WALK signal to navigate as a southbound pedestrian through the dark and narrow intersection of Sprague and Division, with the light enabling the one-way northbound traffic on Division, the hypothetical cyclist could easily turn the bike onto Sprague, get back on, and pedal eastward, knowing that no traffic would be coming from behind until after the light changed so the rider would have a couple of blocks’ head start and could choose whether to stay on Sprague or drop one block south to use First, with its lower volume of traffic. (Traffic on Division that wants to head east on Sprague has its own lane for their right turn so they shouldn’t interfere with this little maneuver in the lane, which is not something I’d recommend at most regular four-way intersections.)

The bike advantage: Instead of having to loop around the one-way streets, just take to the sidewalk (the University District signage above is to the left of this photo), then get back into the street to head eastbound on Sprague. Drivers can't change modes the way we can.

Thus Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, with its complete streets design of sidewalks, planting strips, and lanes where bike lanes will be striped when the street is finished in spring 2012 might represent some stellar virgin riding along the south edge of the Riverpoint Campus with no cars to contend with. So pleasant, in fact, that this little experiment could have been repeated multiple times in both directions long after that tiny bit of snow melted.

Hypothetically, that is.

October 30, 2011

Becoming a Bike Commuter, Part I: It’s Easy, One Mile at a Time

My early vision of what it meant to dress for a bike ride. (I still dress this way for a ride like this one to Coeur d'Alene and back--84 miles on a sunny day.)

True story: I’m a bicycle commuter because in around 2003, the City of Spokane put a bike path on Cedar, right in front of the house I lived in at the time. After complaining a bit about the lost on-street parking, I realized how convenient it looked.

(Irony alert) I used my car’s odometer to figure out how far it was to work, and started riding my big-box cheapo special, the “Iron Maiden,” a little bit, then a little bit more.

At first my bike commuting took place within strict parameters: very nice weather but not too hot, no meetings outside my office scheduled that day, no after-work events.

Before bike commuting on the selected day, I’d drive the 3.5 miles to work (downhill, then flat) with a couple of outfits and leave them there, and just take my shoes with me in the pannier bag.

Of course, I’d have a little wardrobe agony of the soul figuring out what to leave at work. After all, I wouldn’t be able to change my mind about what I felt like wearing, nor would those outfits be available to me at home on days I planned to drive.

I also underwent the back and forth of moving items such as my wallet with identification, notebook, and other things into and out of the panniers and whatever purse I wanted to carry.

I moved from this “once in a while” commuting to biking “pretty often,” including some slightly longer recreational outings on weekends, when I would amaze myself by going 8 miles or more.

Mind you, this was all on a Costco special: a heavy-duty quasi-mountain bike thing with shocks. It probably weighed 50 pounds before I put on the rack and panniers. So I actually was pushing a fair amount of metal.

And, as I like to point out, it was very definitely uphill on the way home. The first time I tried bike commuting Spokane was experiencing unusually hot weather, 105 degrees or so, in mid-July. Great time to start.

At the time I lived at 13th and Cedar. I hit the steep spot on Maple between 6th and 8th—locals will know exactly what spot I mean—and I had to get off and start pushing the bike uphill.

Some wit (at least, I think I’m half right) said, “Aren’t you supposed to be riding that thing?” I panted, “I have nothing to prove!” and kept pushing.

It became a point of pride to make it just a little farther up that hill each time I rode, until at long last came the day when I actually rode all the way home.

Woohoo! Feel the burn, and the sense of accomplishment.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • What do you remember most about your early days of riding your bike for transportation?
October 29, 2011

Making Soup–Er, Bike Networks

Mia Birk, the author of Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet who will be speaking at WSU Pullman next week, wrote a blog post a while back, “The Bikeway Network Recipe.” She describes several communities, all of which took different routes to achieve increased levels of bike infrastructure and bike use.

Birk concludes that the specifics matter less than simply getting under way and moving quickly. (Kind of like a bike ride, when you think about it—the sooner you start riding the sooner you arrive.)

I’d like to extend the recipe analogy a little more. I make a lot of soup, especially this time of year, because it’s easy to include lots and lots of veggies and healthy grains and beans, it helps me use up leftovers although I can also just start from scratch, it freezes well for lunches, and my whole family is crazy about soup, although of course each person has his or her favorite.

I generally just start with whatever I have on hand. That could be leftovers or it could be a trip to pantry and freezer and a little cooking to prep some kind of grain/protein ingredient such as quinoa, rice or barley.

In thinking about Spokane’s recipe for bike infrastructure I conclude that we are making soup.

Cutting board with knives, open cansStarting with what we have on hand: This is where every improvisational recipe bike network has to start.

Including healthy ingredients: That’s kind of a no-brainer when you’re talking about riding a bike.

Using up leftovers: In a manner of speaking, yes. People on bikes often get the leftovers: the bit of shoulder or lane the driver doesn’t occupy (that day. You hope.).

This is also true in the positive sense of the word. Out of some “leftover” asphalt and paint you can create something wonderful by giving someone on a bike a travel lane.

The cost of adding bike infrastructure elements to a street project is mere pennies on the dollar, in return for which you get transportation that doesn’t create any wear and tear on the roads.

Street engineers will tell you that it isn’t coming up with money for new construction that’s the hardest part of the budget–it’s the maintenance. So a little bit of infrastructure that lets them reduce the hit to the budget and still move people? Magic.

To me this is the strongest parallel to the soup-making process. A magical transformation takes place when you chop up onions, potatoes, and other vegetables, choose some seasonings from the spice drawer, and throw in some leftover rice. Out of elements that others might not have thought of in quite this way you have created something wonderful that people appreciate.

But it doesn’t happen if you don’t start, and it doesn’t happen without any ingredients.

Tomato soup in potStarting from scratch: We need to do this too. In the case of something like the Centennial Trail or the Fish Lake Trail, people had the vision and put together the ingredients to create a new treat for everyone.

Creating something useful both in the short term and in the long run (like the leftovers that remain after a good dinner): Absolutely. In the short term we are piecing together individual stretches of bike lanes and other markings and signage that in the long run will come together in a connected network that provides access across the city.

When you’re in mid-soup sometimes it doesn’t taste like much. In similar fashion the appearance of short stretches of bike lanes in downtown might not appear to represent a huge step forward—it doesn’t take us all the way from raw veggies to soup. But given time those stretches of bike lane will get connected.

The important thing is to remember the goal and stay focused on making soup. Sometimes you don’t have quite the right mix of ingredients and you need to add a little balsamic vinegar or garlic (always garlic). The way the soup changes as the ingredients come together draws on a cook’s skills to keep adapting along the way.

Making different kinds of soup for different people: This will be essential to the long-term growth of bike riding in Spokane. We are not a one-soup-fits-all town.

The “fast and fearless”—those of us who know how to take the lane and who will assert our right to use the road for transportation—get out and ride with only minimal ingredients at hand.

The “interested but concerned” need the support of a more fully detailed recipe that takes into account their allergies (say, to close encounters with careless drivers) and special dietary needs (wayfinding, for example, to encourage the use of bikes on the short trips of 1-2 miles that constitute the majority of U.S. transportation trips).

The “no way no how” people just don’t like soup. But that’s no reason the rest of us can’t have our soup and ride it too.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Have a better metaphor? Do tell!
June 9, 2011

Nice Rack, Lady

A common question I get is what I do with my bike at a destination that doesn’t have bike racks. Since this may come up a lot when we go on our Bikespeditions I thought I’d share my work-arounds.

#1—Vote with your wallet! Take your dollars to places with bike parking and TELL THEM that’s why you did it

My closest grocery store (Rosauers on 29th) has a rack so I like going there. When I set a meeting at a coffee shop I choose one with a bike rack whenever possible (and it’s usually possible).

You’ll find racks next to TasteMadeleine’s, the Rocket Bakery on Main, Main Market Co-op, Santé, and Chairs Coffee for starters. Other spots like Rocket Bakery at 1st and Cedar or Rockwood Bakery on 18th have railings that work for bike rack improv.

Building owners/managers might want to look at this issue to make their facilities more attractive in a tough economy for commercial real estate.

The bonus points for awesomesauce go to the Davenport Hotel, where you can check your bike in at the bell desk and they’ll stash it in the side room they use for luggage. Tip the nice bell staff when you leave!

More bonus points for the Steam Plant Grill, a bike-friendly restaurant that has a rack in their covered parking area and that sponsors Spokane Bikes every year by hosting the Bike to Work Week Wrap-up Bike from Work Party.


Street signs, trees, hand rails, fences, benches (heavy or attached to the ground), external piping (look at the back of the building), and other fixed items enable you to use your lock. Spokane Transit stops have nice tall poles.

Parking meters are a last resort since you could just lift the bike, lock and all, right off the meter so it’s a defense in name only unless it’s one of those funny meter poles you’ll see in a few spots in downtown Spokane that has a little handle on the side through which you can thread your cable.

Think about a couple of things in choosing your lock-up spot:

  • Will you and others be able to see your bike? “Eyes on the street” provide security, so a spot right in front of an establishment is safer than an out of sight, out of mind spot at the back.
  • Will you block the sidewalk at all with your choice of location? Don’t.

#3—Impose, but Nicely

Sometimes I impose just a tad depending on the destination. This is one of those things I find much easier when I’m wearing a skirt and heels than when I’m all kitted out in Spandex and clicky shoes. People just treat me more nicely when I don’t fit their cyclist stereotypes.

I have taken my bike into a couple of grocery stores and asked someone at the closest courtesy desk or checkstand if I can stash it against the wall near them and if they’ll keep an eye on it, explaining that I have to do this since they don’t have a rack (and generally don’t have any signage on handy tall poles out front). So far no one has ever turned me down.

“Would you mind if I just brought my bike in since you don’t have a rack?” with a sweet smile gets me pretty far at an event facility. Every time I’ve asked, staff have let me put it in a side room, a hallway, near the coat rack or somewhere that doesn’t inconvenience others but gives me more peace of mind that my transportation will be there a couple of hours later when I need it.

The key for me is two sides of the same coin:

  • “Entitlement”–I am a customer and they need to make it possible for me to deal with my transportation the way they did for drivers when they paved all those parking spaces.
  • Lack of “entitlement”–I ask politely if they can help me solve this problem and they always do. I think I’d get different (worse) treatment if I got self-righteous or huffy about it.

I also bear in mind that I am almost never dealing with anyone who made a deliberate decision not to put in a bike rack, and they probably can’t make one appear later either.

It’s like dealing with customer service on the phone: they didn’t design the problem so they don’t really own either problem or solution. They’re just there to make you feel better so you’ll keep bringing them your business.

And you’re there to remind them that if they want to continue getting your business and that of other people on bikes, they might want to suggest to management that a bike rack should be installed.

A version of this post first appeared on my personal blog, Bike to Work Barb, in Dec. 2010: No Rack?! Now What?

%d bloggers like this: