Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sometimes the mousetrap you've got works just fine...

I keep coming across nifty bike inventions and innovations online: they're sent to me by friends or I see them referenced on Twitter or whatever. This latest was posted by a friend to my Facebook wall, and instantly struck me as the sort of overengineering that gets dreamed up by design classes as a midterm project. Flashy, and utterly impractical.

First there was the LightLane (a mashup of sort-of-cool, vaguely-useful, and frankly-geeky), then there was the GPS Citibike-station-finding helmet (which was downright odd). Now, the internet has brought you: Lumigrids.

Seriously, the design people from Tron have so much to answer for. An entire generation of early-adopting computer nerds see a grid like that and it's practically Pavlovian. It must be awesome! Look at those glowing blue lines!

Okay, it's hard not to let the sarcasm hounds off the leash. It's just so overbuilt. The idea here is that a light on the front of your bike projects this grid at the ground in front of you. On a flat road (I'm told there is such a thing) it shows up as a regular grid. If there's a concavity or convexity (as in the picture above) the lines break in a way that, trained by decades of early computer graphics, we're supposed to recognize, interpret, and thus avoid the pothole.
If you're over a certain age, somewhere in your deepest memories an image like this says 'supercomputer' with a side helping of 'Airwolf.' It's sad but true.
But just imagine it's night. You're on your way home down the average North American street. You have a glowing blue grid projected in front of your bike. It doesn't actually illuminate much, and what it does cover is only about six feet in front of you. And because you need to be watching it for changes in the grid, you can't really look away from the space six to eight feet in front of you. So you don't even see the parked car ahead of you until it's too late to slam on the brakes.

Also, I haven't got data to back this up, but it seems to me like your brain probably wouldn't be able to process the grid and changes in its pattern fast enough to be of much use. Look at the first picture again. Quick, quick, where's the bump and where's the hole? And the edges are slanted: where does the slanting start? How high/deep are any of those features? You have a split second to figure that out and decide whether to avoid or take the bump. And there's a car behind you, the speed of which you can't quite gauge by ear.

By the way, you've distracted that driver with the weird-ass glowing grid on the pavement in front of you, which she has never seen before and will undoubtedly do a double-take over.

And to be fair, you've distracted yourself, because as you zip along the street, staring at the blue grid, trying to read it for information as to the pavement in front of you, you're not attending to much else. You've dedicated rather a lot of cognitive resource to reading and interpreting a four-foot-square pattern. 

Not only that, but it looks to me as though the grid lines would be okay at picking out large, fairly regular features (the most encouraging of their demo pictures is the one that shows where a sharp curb is) but I can easily imagine what they'd look like when faced with gravel, a really serious set of potholes, the average uneven and broken-up Ottawa street - I'm thinking of Main Street in particular here - or snow. And that's not even getting into what would happen if it were actually raining or snowing, with your bright blue projection catching every little raindrop or snowflake and making the area immediately in front of you into a disco ball.

Nice try, design folks. But, you see, I could just go get a couple of these for $30. Having used them to ride along the unlit and forested River Path at two in the morning, I can attest they do the job quite adequately.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Vehicular profiling

I admit to a prejudice. I'm prejudiced against black pickup trucks. Particularly the big ones. The bigger, blacker, and shinier your pickup truck is, the more likely I am to expect fear, surprise, and bad citizenship. I've had black pickups pass me on the right when I was in left turn lanes, then cut me off in the middle of the intersection. I've had them blaze past me at high speed without their outside tires so much as brushing the centre line. I've had them charge me as I was walking my bike through pedestrian crosswalks.

And this morning on my way down Bank Street I was sharing a block with three black pickups. One of them with a Harley-Davidson decal on the back windshield. So yeah, I engaged in a little profiling, when one of them crowded me close to the door zone. I even started writing a vague, grumpy blog post in my head about black pickups.

And then I realized that the one behind me - a different black pickup - was staying back to give me room to come into the lane and get out of the door zone on the hill past Hopewell Ave. School. And then as we made our way up to the Lansdowne Bridge (which is currently my least favorite part of the city because of construction) I realized that the truck wasn't passing. It was hanging back, by a couple of car lengths, because there were parked cars and I would have to swing out around them. Normally I have to race cars into the single lane of the construction zone over the bridge, but this driver let me go ahead, and even though there is room for cars to pass, he didn't. I noticed a worker at the top of the bridge with a 'stop' sign, and pulled up to where she was and stopped. As I put a foot on the curb, I looked back. The truck was still keeping a more than safe distance. When the worker turned her sign back to "slow" and stepped back, I presumed the truck would pass me on the downslope of the bridge, but instead, I found myself in a wide open lane, encouraged to take it, and completely unworried about space as I moved into the narrower construction lane past Lansdowne Park, the one where I usually have to summon a little pigheadedness in order to take up my lane.

The truck was still unthreateningly far behind me, and apparently the driver was unconcerned. Touched, I tried to move quickly through the constricted lane, so I could get out of his way faster, wanting to be as courteous to him as he was being to me, and once we were into the Glebe on the other side of the bridge I moved over as much as I could to let him pass, where there were spaces with no parked cars. But he didn't: eventually he put on a left turn signal and turned off the street behind me.

So, AE 37092: Thanks for being a mensch. And sorry for vehicular profiling you.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

London streets, English roads, and cyclists with nerves of titanium

I just spent a couple of weeks in England and Scotland on a climbing trip that took me to London, the Peak District, the Lake District, the Highlands, Aberdeenshire, and eventually Edinburgh. While I didn't do any biking (I was bombing around in an SUV packed with gear and three other climbers for most of the trip), I can't help noticing bikes. And bike infrastructure. This photo was from the train on the way from Aberdeen to Edinburgh: I was sitting in the area where there were bike racks, and I did see one guy get on with his bike, load it onto the rack, and grab a seat.

But mostly things looked kind of terrifying. I can't imagine biking in London. The streets there are fairly chaotic, since everyone has right of way. This means that at intersections the pedestrians do hit the 'request' buttons, but then they walk across the street anyway, as soon as there's an opening. The cyclists are sharing narrow roads with cars, buses, and random pedestrians. Near Hyde Park Corner I watched a woman in a roundabout start to merge right on her bike, swerve a little, nearly get merged into by a car who didn't give way, then hold up a hand in a "hey, wait" sort of gesture, maneuver in front of the cab behind her . . . and then continue up and onto the sidewalk at the crosswalk. The whole thing looked like lunacy to me.

And yet apparently bikes are the most efficient way to get around in London. God help us.

In the Lake District, there were mountain and road bikers everywhere: it's a big mountain-sport area, full of hikers, bikers, fell runners and rock climbers, especially in high summer. But Lake District roads look like this:

Or like this:
Which makes coming upon a cyclist a bit of a hair-raising experience for me (as a passenger: I tensed up and got a bit testy with our driver for getting way too close behind one woman on a road bike, I admit). I can't imagine what it was like for the brave and Spandex-clad souls we came up behind and passed. Speed limits on these roads are 60 mph. But they didn't seem to flinch or falter in their pedaling, even with a large SUV bearing down on them from around a corner with nowhere to go to avoid them.

The road system in the UK is also slightly baffling, although our British friend tried to explain: apparently minor roads can be up- or downgraded from "A" class to "M" class and back, and that means changes in speeds, patrolling, and who's allowed to use them, I guess. I assume cyclists aren't allowed on the "M" class highways, but if that's the case, what about an "A" road that's been redesignated an "M" road? What about those six-exit, three-lane spiraling roundabouts? What about the absolute lack of things like road shoulders (or, for that matter, bike lanes wider than two feet)?

It's all a bit confusing. And I know that I'm seeing all this with North American eyes: coming from a place where we're so used to having space that we complain about three-metre-wide sidewalks - "there's just no space!" In parts of England, the whole road isn't three metres wide. So really, I tell myself, suck it up, buttercup. And I watch in awe as we pass cyclists on tiny, single-lane country roads in the Lake District. Or as they navigate roundabouts in the mid-range highway system.

But the close crush of bikes and cars is definitely unnerving to me as a visitor to a place like London, or Aberdeen, where the official bike route past the docks is a painted line designating a tiny, two-foot-wide chunk of the street as a space you 'might want to consider leaving for bikes' (although to be fair the first 'bike box' I ever saw in situ was in Aberdeen, too.)

And yet, the route I took on the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh ran, at least for some of the way, along the Fife Coastal Path, which seemed to have space, info and accommodation for bikes - it's a trail I'm very tempted to try someday, if I can find a way to hire a bike in Edinburgh the next time I go to see my sister in Aberdeen.

It would have the advantage of not being on the roads. The tiny, tiny roads.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Another ghost

I rode right past this this afternoon. I was on my way north on Bank; cursing the lousy pavement, the large cargo trucks, the narrowness of the road. As I went across the bridge at Riverside, I remember thinking about the new sharrows that were painted on it just a couple of months ago, and how they completely fail to make me feel any safer when the dump trucks rumble past on their way to the construction site at Lansdowne, a mile down the road.

So I rode right past this. It was on the other side of Bank, at the corner of Riverside where the bike path crosses and then continues along the river. I didn't see it: I was looking ahead for potholes, checking behind for cars. I was feeling jumpier than usual because after a two-week vacation out of the country, I hadn't been on the bike in a while, and it always takes a while to get the courage back up and running.

On the way home, though, I saw it, as I pulled up at the red light. I knew it had to have happened in the last two weeks: I would have heard about a cycling death if I'd been in the city. So I stopped.

As I stopped, so did a few other people. A woman in a motorized wheechair, and a girl on a bike with white tires. "Did someone die?" the girl asked, and the woman nodded, solemnly. I didn't say anything. A couple of other bikes pulled up; they continued on when the light switched to green. I didn't, for a moment. Bikes swung by, crossing Bank on their way along the multi-user path on the river, or continuing with the traffic along Bank. I leaned Mike against the streetlight, walked up to the ghost bike, and read some of the news articles and obituaries tucked into the basket and sheathed in plastic sleeves.

The other cyclists and pedestrians moved on, and eventually so did I: what else was there to do? I kicked my leg back over my bike, and I headed back out into the rush hour traffic heading south on Bank.