Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It's all about choice

By Amy Wilburn -- I ride a bicycle for transportation as frequently as I can. When I commute to the office in Wilmington, I most often bike, but sometimes I ride the bus and very occasionally I drive. So I got to thinking about what it takes for bike transportation to become a really viable option. And I realized that’s exactly what it takes: Options. As in choices. Not a one-size-fits-all attitude, but an understanding that no two cyclists are alike and that any given cyclist isn’t alike two days in a row.

Cyclists aren’t all that unlike motorists. Motorists need to get used to driving on the roads. So do cyclists. Practice makes perfect. Motorists need a safe place to put the car at the end of a trip. Motorists need routes that get them where they are going, efficiently and conveniently and comfortably. They don’t always go to and from the same destinations. When they commute to work, they may need to run an errand on the way home. Or they may try to avoid congestion caused by construction. And a bit of variety never hurt anyone. Same thing with cyclists, only more so because there are a number of additional factors that cyclists need to take into consideration when choosing a route. Not to mention that if the trip is longer than a few miles, the terrain is hilly, or the day is hot, there may be a real need for locker room and shower facilities at the end of the ride. Especially if the cyclist is employed in a position that requires contact with the public. Yet on a cooler evening, that same cyclist may bike dressed for a party a few miles away.

In this series of three articles, I hope to use my own experiences to encourage and guide others to transport themselves by bicycle. Exploring the various options is an adventure worth taking. I have discovered amazing aspects about Wilmington and its suburbs that I would never have discovered if I hadn’t been biking.

I also hope to help non-cyclists who are responsible for designing our transportation facilities to understand how important options are to cyclists as well as to begin to see our roads and trails through the eyes of a bicyclist.

Keeping in mind that we are not identical, that we have different ability levels and tolerance for adverse conditions, what are the factors that a cyclist must consider when choosing a route? Some are obvious, but some most people - unless they bike regularly - have probably never considered. Usually one factor isn’t make or break. All of the factors must be weighed together. It’s a cost-benefit analysis, even if only in the subconscious.

Road/Trail conditions
This one is pretty basic, for the most part:
  • Does the road have facilities? A usable shoulder?  Well-designed bike lanes that aren’t in the door zone or only 3 feet wide on a downhill?  Sharrows?  Bike route signage?  Are there obstructions on the shoulder?
  • If it is a trail or sidepath does it have a safe entrance and exit or does it dump users off unceremoniously into the middle of a right turn lane or a busy highway with no shoulders?
  • Are the sight lines good?
  • On both roads and trails, how frequent are intersections and other conflict points?
  • What is the condition of the road surface?  Potholes, deteriorating surface, tar and chip, and micro-surface take more time to traverse and are significantly less comfortable.  They can present a real hazard to cyclists on road bikes, as can debris and poorly designed grates.  Gravel trails, overgrown and deteriorating trails, trails where the pavement is heaved up by roots, trails with obstructions like electric poles, street signs and litter are also a problem.  We may be more tolerant of a poor surface when we’re out riding for fun or exercise, but not so much if we have an important meeting to make and a long day ahead.  In addition, a poor road surface increases the odds that the bicycle will get a dreaded flat tire.
  • Is there road or trail construction?  Does it accommodate cyclists?

Traffic conditions
While some cyclists are comfortable in heavy traffic, others are not.  A road that is comfortable on a Sunday or at 10 in the morning or 9 in the evening may be miserable during rush hour or when school has just let out.  In fact, the school crowd is one of the worst.  Traffic conditions fall into volume and speed.  Many cyclists will feel reasonably comfortable if there is a wide shoulder or a well-designed bike lane, even on higher volume and higher speed roads.  Others not so much.  Sometimes a road without a shoulder is fine when traffic is light, but if you wind up being passed constantly or you wind up being the 11th vehicle in line at a traffic light, not so much.  Even though 10 cyclists can get through a light faster than a line of 10 cars due to size of vehicle and reaction time, the motorists will always blame the cyclist for missing the light.  And because cyclists can’t accelerate as fast as motor vehicles, if there are 10 cars ahead, you can bet we’re going to block the cars behind and we all might miss the light.  No matter what, all of us wind up giving traffic some thought.  And if there is the option to use flex time to avoid rush hour, I say go for it.

Length of route
For cyclists who are strong and fast enough to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, few commutes under 15 or 20 miles seem too long.  Others are not that strong and capable.  Transportation cyclists can’t afford to chill out at the end of the ride.  We need ample energy reserves to do everything everyone else including our coworkers needs to accomplish in a day.  We need a route that is well within our capabilities (which of course improve with time - one of the great things about biking).  When riding for transportation, most cyclists like to take the fastest route.  Often the fastest route is the shortest and most direct route, but sometimes it is not.  So we are going to weigh all the different factors.  How fast are we capable of riding?  How many traffic lights, stop signs, school buses, trails crowded with walkers, and congested intersections are we going to encounter?  Hills tend to reduce average speed.  Which leads me to the next category.

I’ll admit to it.  I like hills, although there are days when I’m tired, have a heavy load, or am confronting a head wind, and I just don’t want to do that stupid hill yet again.  Some cyclists hate hills and will go miles out of the way to avoid them.  Time, safety and scenery are most important to me, but that doesn’t apply to everyone.  Yeah we have hills in northern Delaware and lots of them, but the above photo is not one of them.  I just happen to really like this photo.  The photo was taken in Virginia.  And yes, that hill was a wall.

Time constraints
Yeah, just as it is with motorists, time matters.  Being forced to go way out of your way for a viable route can be a real deal breaker.  If it’s a beautiful day and I have time to spare, or if I’m on my last nerve, that winding trail along the creek or the quaint network of roads with the century old homes is probably going to call my name.  But if I’m late for work, need to make an appointment or run errands, or just plain want to get home fast, that trail and those roads won’t cut it and I’ll be out there with the traffic.  Enough said.

Snow, ice, rain, heat, cold, all of that fun stuff.  Different people have different tolerance levels.  An ice or snow cover, thunderstorms, high winds that are gusty or blowing at an angle, and rain at night are all deal breakers for me.  It’s got to be extremely hot or cold to cause me to sack it, though.  I commute on 100 degree days.  Some roads seem to be perpetually icy in the winter, and the quieter ones aren’t plowed as quickly, while others clear out fast.  Know your roads.  And trails are rarely plowed or otherwise cleaned up.  They can remain alternately icy and muddy for months.  I know folks who will ride through anything, though, and others who hang up their bikes when the temperature drops below 60.  And wind.  Cyclists get used to prevailing winds, that’s for sure.  And they can be a real nuisance.  But when the wind is at my back, life has never been better.

Lighting conditions 
Daylight and dark are what come to mind.  But sun glare is a much bigger issue for me.  I have a bunch of blinking and high intensity lights and have gotten used to riding at night.  It has its own benefits.  The roads are quieter, the night sounds are amazing, riding always feels smoother and faster even though in reality it’s a bit slower, the full moon or the Christmas lights are well. . . .  Sun glare is something else all together.  That feels uncomfortable and dangerous.  Different routes are more subject to it than others, not only depending on direction, but also on the buildings and trees that line the road.  Sunny days mean glare, cloudy days get dark earlier, winter days lack sun blocking foliage, and the sun always seems to be low and weakly glaring in December and January.  Time of year is a big factor.  It’s dark at 6:45 AM in October, but in November 6:45 means sun glare.  Just one more reason why it’s important to have a choice of routes.

Isolation and crime
This speaks for itself.  In addition to the obvious, I avoid off-road trails at night.  I’d definitely rather take the lane when it’s quiet and dark.  Not to mention that many of the trails in the parks are closed.

I definitely think about this one.  Some cyclists do and some don’t.  But having choices and variety so that I don’t have to look at the same stuff every day is a plus.  Still, in the end, no scene is the same twice in a row.  Lighting, weather, time of year add variety.  When you’re biking, you really get to know your world.  I can’t emphasize the joy and benefits of that enough.

So putting it all together, what does it mean? There are roads I absolutely love at 9:30 AM or 6 AM or 8 PM that I won’t ride at 5 PM, especially when sun glare is present, at least not unless I’m in a real hurry and it’s the only speedy choice. It could be a large part of the route, or it could be a short but hair-raising section which could and should be fixed, that nixes it in my mind. And that trail that is too crowded on a sunny June afternoon, too icy in January, too dark and isolated on a November evening, is just perfect on a warm October morning.

And now for the end of the ride
At my destination, are there good options for parking?  Or am I afraid that my bike will get damaged or stolen even if I lock it?  Can I put my bike on a bus if the weather takes a turn for the worse?  If I’m going to work, is there a locker room, place to change and wash up?

So you see, it all comes down to choices.  Getting where I need to go when I need to go, and getting there reasonably comfortably.  Just like it is for motorists.  And when I get there, having the right facilities.  If I had fewer options and choices of route, if I had inadequate end of the ride facilities, I’m sure that I’d still bike, but probably not nearly as much.

My commute is a great example of the need for choices.  I’m fortunate to have several viable routes, and each of them can be altered slightly for variety.  Some in Delaware aren’t so lucky.  But each of my routes has pluses and minuses, and barriers that could and should be eliminated.  Another great example is a trip to Downingtown.  Not exactly in Delaware, but well, you’ll see. . . . .


Amy Wilburn is Chair of the Delaware Bicycle Council

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