Category Archives: Cycling

2019 Excellent Adventure – Encore Edition

Yep, you read this right: we did it again, an encore to the Excellent Adventure 2019. Since I’m a software guy, I versioned it as Excellent Adventure 2.1.

It was a four day trip around northeastern PA using primarily – but with a LOT of holes – the Delaware & Lehigh and Schuylkill River Trails. That’s what makes these trips fun; if it were all just smooth rail trails without some kind of “deviation” it would just be tedious. This ride was definitely not that. Read on!

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Charles’ and Alex’s Excellent Adventure – 2019 Edition

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4 trails, 3 days, 2 people, 1 excellent adventure! Charles and I just completed our three day bikepacking trip through the Monongahela National Forest from Lewisburg WV (near the Greenbrier Inn) to Deep Creek Lake in MD. It was a fantastic tour of about 210 miles over very remote terrain, mostly rail trails, but some rural chip and seal roads, gravel and finally smooth pavement into DCL. Lots of great industrial history in the area in addition to the riding, which included the gently sloped rail trails and some fairly steep hills that we used to connect the trails. These were very hard with a fairly loaded touring rig. And of course we found local beer at all of our overnight stops, which were not camping… The short version in video form:


For the long version, read on!
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Charles’ and Alex’s Excellent Adventure – 2018 Edition

A little late here, but before I publish the 2019 Edition, I had to at least get the basics of the 2018 Edition published. I’m not going to publish a lot about the experience because this ride is a well trodden, eh hem, path. However, it did happen to be the wettest spring in recorded history so we experienced at best wet or at worst hard rain the whole time. In brief:

Any readers of this blog – Bueller, Bueller, Bueller – are sure to know I’ve been talking about some long distance bike touring for some time. Finally some motivation, in the form of an email from an ABRT teammate, came along: “Hey, let’s ride from Pittsburgh to DC in 4 days.” Of course without thinking too much, I was IN. We went back and forth on the details but in the end we picked the third weekend in June to do the GAP/C&O.

We ended up riding the roughly 340 miles in 4 days. A bit on the aggressive side (most people do this ride in 5-8 days) with two long days to start, followed by two medium days:

Day 1: Pittsburgh to Confluence – 90 miles (Strava: GAP/C&O day one, Champagne Ride)

Day 2: Confluence to Little Orleans – 104 miles (Strava: GAP/C&O day two, the Little Orleans Shit Show)

Day 3: Little Orleans to Shepherdstown – 73 miles (Strava: GAP/C&O day three, hours of cyclocross mud, yee hah)

Day 4: Shepherdstown to Washington – 77 miles (Strava: GAP/C&O Day 4: A bit less mud 🙂)

It was a fun trip but hard, especially when getting to Little Orleans as there was a massive power outage in the area and 15 Mile Creek was way over its banks which made getting to the lodging and dinner, uh, difficult, thus the name of the Strava ride. But as they say, “What happens in Little Orleans, stays in Little Orleans”.

For a full album of photos see: https://photos.app.goo.gl/3vdfUU61LZHcNh4H9

Bikes: A Proxy For Change

Appearing on Eye On Annapolis, September 13, 2018

All the brouhaha around the Main Street bike lane has a very strong cultural component that is bubbling just below the surface of the discussion about the project. Sure there are issues of cost and process which are certainly understandable, but most of the visceral dislike revolves around the cultural perceptions of people riding bikes. These same reactions are occurring with bike infrastructure in Washington DC and Baltimore and around the country, so are not limited to our corner of the world. Cultural change is hard and when it happens, there is always a sense of loss.

The cultural change that I see people reacting to is two-fold: first, the perception of a “DC-ification” of Annapolis and second, that bikes are a recreational toy. The more the bike lane is discussed, the less it is about the lane itself, but the change it represents.

The popular local view that “Yuppies” have invaded and taken over the city since 1980 is very prevalent. People have called me a “carpetbagger” even though I have been here 20+ years, raised two kids here through public schools and been actively involved in the community in a variety of ways. People, especially of my generation and older – I am at the end of the boomer years – resent popular hipster culture and those they perceive as part of it, as it waters down the “Annapolitan” identity. Biking by young people for transportation and by “MAMILs” (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) on expensive bikes is viewed as the canary in the coal mine for a litany of undesirable changes from urbanization and traffic to increased costs of living and the death of traditional mom/pop retail, typically expressed in the coded phrase “destroying our quality of life”.

In the 1970s biking was marketed as a recreational activity and not for transportation. Cars are for doing serious work and we have all graduated to “big boy underpants” by driving cars to get around. There are many reasons for this, but suburbanization and its reliance on the automobile is seen as progress in the post-war era and is a predominant attitude of baby boomers. This along with the mom and pop retail stores, muscle cars, a working waterfront and the old Market House is emblematic of the pining for the “real” Annapolis of the 1970s before the “Yuppies” came.

The cover of the 1971 Schwinn Catalog showing the kids riding bikes on vacation strongly markets cycling as a recreational activity, not as a means of transportation.

Deep down, people know change is coming. We see it everywhere. The retail industry has been turned on its head. People are moving into the area. New things are being built. The city is urbanizing. Values for public space and transportation differ for younger people. These are all regional and national trends not specific to Annapolis. When these changes happen, especially disruptive economic ones, the fear is more change can only be bad so we need to keep the status quo to prevent losing more. There is very little credence given to the possibility that change can be economically positive. So much of this was expressed in public testimony at the City Council meeting on September 10, 2018 where there was an ad hoc hearing on the temporary bike lane experiment. It was always about losing something, parking, customers, historic value and the underlying “our way of life”. The resulting reaction is all what’s called Loss Aversion (from Wikipedia):

In cognitive psychology and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. The principle is very prominent in the domain of economics. What distinguishes loss aversion from risk aversion is that the utility of a monetary payoff depends on what was previously experienced or was expected to happen. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

The ban on smoking in restaurants mentioned at the hearing is a great example of this. Restaurants claimed loudly that their business would be dead in a week if the ban was passed. The reality ended up being that it greatly improved restaurant business because it brought out all the people who refused to go because of smoking. Ultimately, there is pent up demand the status quo suppresses. This is also true for local recreational trails such as the B&A, Poplar and the trail around the Navy Stadium. These were all opposed because of the perceived negative consequences, but are now seen and sold as “amenities”. With respect to protected bike lanes, NYC has shown virtually no negative consequences of reducing vehicle lanes in lieu of protected bike lanes. At the time the conventional wisdom was this would result in gridlock and be an economic catastrophe.

There are changes happening in Annapolis that people do not like, I certainly get that; even some I may personally not like. But change is inevitable. Are these changes good or bad? That’s obviously a matter of opinion, but think of it this way: would you rather have an Annapolis that is experiencing severe economic distress like many of the small towns throughout the country that have been depopulated over the last 30 years, or a town that is experiencing distress at the opposite end of the spectrum where population is increasing and there is economic vibrancy? I certainly would like more of the later than the former. I don’t want Annapolis to be known as the place that always says “no” when it requires us to change our habits.

Everyone wants change until it requires us to change. From ifunny.com

And finally, some parting words on the changing attitudes towards cycling in the United States. Eben Weiss, known as “Bike Snob NYC” an acerbic commentator on cycling culture hopes we can just make cycling seem normal in this country as is common place in other parts of the world.

We’re able to comprehend riding bikes only as a means of recreation; confounded by the practical; aghast at the notion that women and children should be exposed to this high-risk action sport. Hey, I’ll take being told I’m doing the coolest thing somebody’s ever seen, and it sure beats having things thrown at me from car windows (this has happened to every cyclist), but what I’d like even more would be if what I was doing was so commonplace as to be utterly not worth mentioning.

For Annapolis, I too share this hope.

Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study

The City of Annapolis Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study, one of the “neighborhood” plans that rolls up in the city comprehensive plan is in full swing. There were a number of public meetings which I attended and a variety of presentations and work sessions with the Planning Commission, some of which I have also attended.

My main comments on the plan over time – the area is in general the newest part of the city and the most auto oriented as outlined in a prior piece on street grids – revolve around a bifurcated view of the goal of the plan. People who just pass through the area (both city and county residents) do not want any changes that affect auto mobility. They focus almost exclusively on the traffic engineering portion of the plan and only comment on the land use and other parts in so far as they don’t want changes that bring people and in their opinion, more cars. There is the other side of the street that would like to see the area more urban in nature with less emphasis on auto mobility and more on traditional urban development with a more human scaled setting for buildings, economic and residential activity, and mobility. It is this dichotomy that causes some cognitive dissonance in the plan. Strong Towns points out as a core principal that these two are fundamentally incompatible and result in a STROAD which we currently have. The worst of both worlds, people, auto oriented commerce and fast moving cars.

I have expressed this philosophically in public meetings and to staff, but I’m not sure there is really anything fundamental that will come out of that. Because of this dichotomy, I assume the plan will pretty split the difference (status quo) or attempt to do both which will read with the same cognitive dissonance I see now.

Be that as it may, I did want to comment on one very specific aspect of the study area – the need for bicycle mobility along Forest Drive. This has been a long standing goal, perhaps best documented in the 2011 Bicycle Master Plan being the only online “active” plan that contains explicit reference to this.  The May 31 draft of the report is much more explicit about this, and I am encouraged by the additional focus, but want to supplement the options presented with practical implementation suggestions that will result in the highest return on investment. This is the summary I sent to the Planning Commission and Planning and Zoning Staff to be entered into the June 20 public meeting record:

Leaving or entering the City of Annapolis by bicycle requires crossing the ring of automobile-oriented arterial roadways that surround the historic core of Annapolis, including: Roscoe Rowe Boulevard (MD Highway 70), US Highway 50/301, Solomons Island Road (MD Highway 2), and Aris T Allen Boulevard/ Forest Drive (MD Highway 665). Bicyclists of necessity can be seen in all parts of Annapolis, weaving routes through neighborhoods and often on sidewalks to access commercial and employment destinations. The existing network of off-street bicycle facilities is similarly discontinuous, but provides the initial links in what will be an exemplary regional trail network, connecting neighborhoods and forming the core of Annapolis’s future Bicycle Network.

Desired and Existing Bicycle Network

I appreciate the updates in the May 31 draft of the sector study that brings bicycle mobility to the forefront. Both the short term and long term issues are addressed in section 2.7.2.2, Bike and Pedestrian Networks, as well as the potential solutions in section 3.4 Mobility: Pedestrian and Bikes.

Building on the discussion of the issues and potential solutions, it is important to go into additional detail because the efficacy of bicycle infrastructure for both transportation and recreation is very dependent on the implementation. I refer to an article published on strongtowns.org (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/5/19/follow-the-rules-bikers.html) which discusses the auto-centric cultural bias of planners and engineers and how it affects bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure implementation. Perhaps equally important is how this bias affects public perception of this infrastructure. I encourage you to read the entire article.

“…the concept of a “complete street” as “separate but equal”, not to diminish the despotism of racial segregation but to show the parallel of mindsets with how most of the country treats bikers and walkers. When we build a trail – or a separate drinking fountain – we’re (engineers, planners, drivers, society) doing something within our comfort zone. It allows us to feel like we’ve fairly accommodated others while not really having to change our approach to be accommodating. We can continue to act in a despotic way only now with a tinge of self-righteousness. We paid for them to have theirs, after all.”

“We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.”

With this in mind, when the city begins to implement infrastructure outlined in the sector study, we have to make sure it is done in a way that does not just accommodate bikes in an auto-centric environment, but results in a network that is not only safe, but also contiguous, fast and comfortable. If we expect to shift mode share based on this infrastructure – that is to fully realize the return on investment – there must be a definite “value add” for bike riders. For example, faster transit time, bike parking at the front door of the destination, and/or a more pleasant trip. If we always give priority to the auto mode, why would someone chose to ride a bike? This is the most common criticism. Or worse, it incentivizes breaking the law which is always most unsafe for the bike rider because this infrastructure prioritizes the mistakes of drivers over the mistakes of bike riders. The following examples illustrate this bias towards the auto mode and implementation suggestions that attempt to remove this bias.

An Unrealistic Expectation For Path Users

This bike path requires cyclists to stop at every curb cut. Anyone trying to get down this bike path bike will likely never fully stop, resulting in a very unsafe situation.

Shared Use Path Along Forest Drive

In the study area, the existing path near the Safeway grocery store is typical of US-based infrastructure along arterial roads where it is clear the path users are secondary because the turn radii are large and the auto lanes uninterrupted which promotes fast vehicle movements in an area designed to (minimally) accommodate pedestrians and bike riders.

In a similar vein to the visual examples of community character in the draft document, examples of well-designed bicycle infrastructure – we can look to the Dutch for inspiration – will help guide future implementation. The Dutch are not only leaders in urban bicycle infrastructure, but also suburban bicycle infrastructure. The You Tube Channel “Bicycle Dutch” (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC67YlPrRvsO117gFDM7UePg) is an excellent resource for examples of both.

Contrast the above images with this Dutch junction design where the bicycles are given priority and this priority is supported by the visual treatments on the pavement.

Typical Dutch Junction Design

Additionally, an east/west separated path along the corridor should be as isolated from the major arterial as far as possible. Not only will this make the user experience more pleasant, but will move conflict points away from arterials and allow for vehicle speeds to decrease before a conflict point. This is consistent with the complete streets philosophy and many of these ideas are also discussed in the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide (https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/).

There are a number of areas that are slated for development along the corridor that the city should require this type of design as a condition for the development such as The Village at Providence Point and Rocky Gorge (at least garnering an easement for when a path can practically be extended along Aris T Allen). Furthermore, around Annapolis Middle School, there is copious right of way owned by Anne Arundel County that could easily be used for this path and would significantly benefit the children who attend the school. This would also mitigate the current safety concerns resulting from the recent crashes involving school children. Funding for this area of the trail could be sought through the federal Safe Routes to Schools part of the Transportation Alternatives Program.

Given the corridor is a priority residential development area, the large number of existing commercial services and the lack of non-auto infrastructure, construction of this path along the entire corridor should be the highest priority in the capital improvement project recommendations.

Alex Pline Talks Parking, Transportation and Biking in Annapolis

Sitting around the 'Dirty Kitchen Table' with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton

Sitting around the ‘Dirty Kitchen Table’ with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton

I recently appeared on The Maryland Crabs Podcast, a podcast that covers the waterfront of local topics, to discuss parking, transportation and biking in Annapolis. In my role as Chair of the Annapolis Transportation Board, the subject of parking comes up at almost every monthly meeting. Since I’ve been in Annapolis, parking has always been handled in a fractious and ad hoc manner by the city. There have been many studies and virtually every transition team for an incoming mayor has recommended reforming the parking policy to be “holistic” so that all of the parking facilities (metered spots, residential parking permits and parking garages) all work together as a “system”. Despite these recommendations, the city has never been able to accomplish this goal on its own.

The Pantelides Administration made it a goal to implement this idea and actually did through a contract with SP+ Municipal Services, a national player in parking management. Of course people in Annapolis hate change – any change of any sort – so the implementation of the contract has not been without its detractors. One of the goals of hiring a “playa” in the parking management business is that they, as subject matter experts, can bring state of the art ideas in parking management to the table and in fact one of their contract deliverables is a Parking Utilization Analysis (full report, large PDF)  in Annapolis that would contain recommendations for parking policy changes in the city (summary in The Capital).

As these recommendations filtered out to the public opinions on social media were abound. I got into it with John Frenaye and Tim Hamilton over their assertion that this contract was a “money grab” by SP+ and the city and other misunderstandings about the effort. So they invited me on the podcast to talk about this and my other passion, transportation cycling.  It was a fun experience and a great conversation to bring some perspective to this activity for people who have not been intimately involved.

Unfortunately, we did not have as much time to talk about biking, which could fill an entire podcast itself, but I did make a few key points about transportation cycling in Annapolis (we need more connectivity!).

It was a lot of fun and we had a great conversation. According to Tim, there has been very positive feedback and a higher than usual download rate. I hope to be back on in the future to discuss the nexus of transportation, land use and municipal finances, because these are typically viewed as separate, siloed issues, when in reality they are different facets of the same issue that interplay in ways that most people don’t really understand.

Give it a listen!

Or subscribe via iTunes or Google Play

Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern

Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.

As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?

Largest Gains

There are four types of transportation cyclists: Strong and Fearless (<1%), Enthused and Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%) and No Way No How (33%). To this I would add a fifth group: “Unseen Bicyclists”, who have no particular interest in cycling other than as a nearly free mode of transportation that is faster than walking. In order to get to work they often must ride in inhospitable areas for cyclists.

In years past, transportation cycling in urban areas has included the three of the five smallest groups, personified by the bike messenger (Strong and Fearless), the racer who decides to commute (Enthused and Confident) and the guy riding the squeaky mountain bike on the sidewalk late at night (Unseen Bicyclist). Together, these groups never reach the critical mass/tipping point where transportation cycling would be seen as something normal people do. The question is how to encourage the largest untapped group (Interested but Concerned) to embrace transportation cycling as a way of life?

Infrastructure Is The Key

I use the word “infrastructure” here as it captures the Zeitgeist, but to be more precise, I mean the built environment that cyclists experience trying to get from place A to place B. Interested but Concerned cyclists who would definitely drive to a safe place to ride recreationally, first and foremost, need to feel safe in order to participate in transportation cycling. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that, if not met, significantly degrades the return on investment of any infrastructure as it will not be widely used. Critics will point out that there s no demand, and thus a waste of money. The largest factor in achieving this perception of safety is separating cyclists from fast moving vehicles. An on road bike lane on a 6 lane arterial with speeds of 40+ mph, often the result of Complete Streets efforts implemented by state DOTs, while fine for a fast road cyclist, is not going to make the average Interested but Concerned cyclist feel safe.

md2 bike lane

On road bike lane on MD 2 in Edgewater, Maryland. I ride here often, but I am in the Strong and Fearless Group. (Google)

The second condition that must be met to entice Interested but Concerned cyclists is that the routes need to be direct and efficient from a time standpoint. Dedicated cyclists inherently like cycling as an activity and as a result are willing to “pay extra” in terms of time and effort to do it, but in order for regular people to take up transportation cycling, there has to be real value over other modes. Most recreational bicycle facilities that feel safe are often circuitous or if they are direct, require cyclists to stop at every cross street or curb cut or even worse require pressing a beg button and waiting a full light cycle, making the trip an annoying and time consuming process. As Strong Towns pointed out in the “Follow the Rules Bikers” piece, typically our cycling infrastructure is geared to automobiles, which puts bicycles on the same footing as cars. If there is no time saving advantage, why not just drive? That’s what the Interested but Concerned cyclist would do.

Residential neighborhoods with low and slow traffic offer acceptable routes for the Interested but Concerned cyclists and can be direct if the development pattern is a grid of streets with good connectivity. But so often local subdivision regulations or requests by residents close off streets to through traffic and once they are closed, very hard to reopen even for pedestrian or bicycle access. Yet, they can have a significant positive impact on the efficiency of a route.

victor parkway

Victor Parkway in Annapolis, Maryland has a fence between adjacent neighborhoods. The only way around is using a notorious five lane arterial that adds a half mile distance. It took a significant effort with the City of Annapolis to get even the pedestrian gate opened. It helps but is still unpleasant for cyclists. (Google)

Start With An Insider

A decidedly un-Strong Towns approach to getting Interested but Concerned cyclists engaged in transportation cycling would be to advocate for a huge pot of Federal transportation dollars and plan a perfect Shangri La bicycle network. Municipal governments often won’t do anything because of the perfect solution fallacy. They know this approach is not workable so anything incremental is rejected because it isn’t a complete plan and problems would still exist.

A better Strong Towns approach would be to work incrementally starting initially with a “do no harm” mantra and building on that to address the issues mentioned above. The number one action a municipal government can take to prevent further harm is adding a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle planner to the staff who has a seat at the table for any infrastructure development and maintenance projects. The singular focus of a subject matter expert who really understands the perspective of the Interested but Concerned, can point out bad designs before they are implemented. Additionally, the insider cultivating relationships with local cycling advocacy groups can be a force multiplier in this regard, utilizing a broad network of people who understand issues at a hyper-local level. This is the foot in the door that will provide internal advocacy for early input to projects. Collectively that will improve the infrastructure over time to raise the interest and reduce the concern in transportation cycling.

An Illustrative Project

I will end with a local example that highlights how a cycling subject matter expert might have prevented a disaster from happening. In Anne Arundel County, there is an on road bike lane along a well-traveled recreational route to view the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis Maryland where I live. It’s essentially a 4-5’ shoulder with bike lane markings. Not great, but good enough to make the average recreational cyclist comfortable, and sadly one of only two marked bike lanes in a county with 4000 lane miles of road under its jurisdiction.

bay_ridge

Bay Ridge Avenue immediately south of Annapolis, Maryland. The driveway on the right is being expanded to accommodate a church expansion.

The expansion of a local church required a turn lane according to the County code. However, this situation was complicated by the presence of a park next door. The park has some recreational paths that are contained within the park and do not serve a transportation purpose in any way. The engineering company that did the design work is a respected regional firm, but the design that was approved by the County makes very little sense from a transportation cyclist’s point of view.

bike squeeze

The bike lane prior to the driveway was replaced with a turn lane. Although common when turn lanes are added, not a good situation for cyclists. But the most egregious change was after the driveway, where the bike lane was blocked with a concrete curb and only resumes after the curb radius where the park path exists to the road. Since virtually all cyclists will be going through, this presents an extremely dangerous situation for cyclists who can get squeezed into the curb by a passing car.

The design makes an assumption that due to the proximity of the park all cyclists are going to be riding on the path around the park – the standard recreational assumption. Because the County does not have a subject matter expert on staff, they assumed that extending the park path in lieu of the bike lane was a benefit, not a detriment. Anyone with local/contextual knowledge would have flagged this design as unresponsive to the typical cyclist pattern and it could have been easily corrected prior to construction with no adverse effect to the church by maintaining the bike lane straight through. Sadly, it was not seen until after concrete had been poured, making a correction difficult and costly.