Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Living Without a Car: A Mini-Review of Seven Cities and Four States

For readers with places to go and people to meet, the short version of this story is as follows. I rank the bike-friendliness of these places where I’ve lived, from best to worst as:

Gainesville, FL > Denver, CO > Golden, CO > Chicago, IL > Richland, WA > Naples, FL > Orlando, FL

The longer version:

I initially titled this post “Bike commuting: A mini-review…” because at first thought, the bike-friendliness of these places I’ve lived was synonymous with how easy it was to live without a car. A couple years after I started what turned out to be a marathon 16 year-long stay in school, I sold my old Toyota pickup, deciding to rely on my then fairly new 2 x 7 speed Rampar touring bike, Corn Dog. It wasn’t until I moved to Washington state 14 years later that I decided I needed a car again. In the interim, I relied almost completely on a bike for getting around, but at times, mainly in Chicago, I used public transportation extensively. I wanted to capture that part of the bike-free existence in this post, thus the new title.

Back to the ranking:

Gainesville FL is at the top of the list because of a favorable combination of sheer number of bicyclists, a climate that allows biking throughout the year, a relatively compact city center, a good supply of reasonable housing close to campus, and what is now probably a decent bus system. I rarely took the bus while I lived in Gainesville (about 9 years for a BS starting in 1982. Hell yeah!) because I loved to get on the bike and because it seemed like a 45 minute wait for a bus was not uncommon. Other things in Gville’s favor are a progressive attitude towards both the environment and weirdos who don’t own cars. Plus there are very few Seminoles, Dogs, Tigers, or other similar low-lifes to be found.

Denver CO is also a great biking city for many of the same reasons. There are lots of bikes, although they are perhaps not as concentrated as in Gainesville. The one year that I spent downtown at the corner of Washington and 13th St. right behind Wax Trax was a blast and I was close enough (not by accident) to a Wild Oats to do most of my grocery shopping via bike. The climate here makes winter biking a challenge sometimes, however it is doable. With all the sun that we get here the streets usually clear quickly after even heavy snows. Disclaimer: I owned a car while in Denver.

Golden CO is great too for the no car lifestyle, but suffers from being a bit too small. The restaurant scene in particular is pretty dismal, with the exception of a great sushi place. Kelly and I frequently get into the car for a trip into Boulder or Denver for dinner or a show. Also, housing prices in this area never really collapsed like they did in much of the rest of the country. The search for our current home, which was driven primarily by the requirement that it be close to NREL (Kelly works from home), took over a year and had us look at over a hundred different houses. Bicyclists are everywhere here. Dislcaimer: I’ve owned a car while I’ve lived in Golden. Reclaimer: it wasn’t always working. I went car-less for 6 months after my truck broke down and I abandoned it in the Safeway parking lot. It took the onset of winter and a couple cold wet bike commutes to get the motivation to have it fixed. I still don’t understand why Safeway didn’t tow that thing away.

Chicago IL illustrated the full spectrum of what it’s like to live without a car. Many neighborhoods there are self-contained and allow one to grocery shop and conduct everyday business on foot or bike all within a few blocks. Grocery shopping crops up again because I like to cook. During my car-less period I would first look for a good grocery close to school, and then look for a place to live near the store. Another plus for Chicago is the fact that the public transportation system there is great. Between the train and bus systems, it was easy to get around without a car. Still, in my seven years there, I mainly rode my sturdy old Trek 8500 Jeebus everywhere. There are enough bikes around during good weather to make drivers aware of cyclists. On the other hand, I did encounter more than a few aggressive drivers. I was hit twice by truck mirrors. Three times I had partially full 40 oz bottles of beer thrown at me from passing cars (all misses). In my big ring one night on my way back to the UIC campus from Oak Park, I heard the words “Wrong neighborhood!” yelled at me. Part of me actually misses the combative riding environment. My last few months in the area were spent in Des Plaines, and I did a 40 mile round-trip commute to UIC several times a week: Oakton St. to Milwaukee, veering off onto Elston as soon as possible, juking over a few blocks along Chicago Ave to Halsted, taking that to the science building on Taylor St. By the time I got to the lab I was so jacked up from the ride that I had no need for the massive morning coffee input I seem to require now. The counterpoint to that period of crazy long bike (and rail) commutes was 6 months of an ultra short commute from my office, but that’s really a story in its own right.

Richland WA was where I spent two years as a post-doc at a sub-unit of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Richland was not a good place to be without a car. The small community supported minimal public transportation, and the Tri-Cities area is pretty spread out. Probably the main deal-breaker for me was the fact that the laboratory was somewhat isolated from possible apartments, bound on the east by the Columbia River and by the rest of the Hanford site to the north and west. A combination of these factoids, a pay scale slightly above subsistence, and a desire to get up in the Cascades for snowboarding and mountain biking led to the end of my car-less period.

Naples FL was were I was born, where my parents and sister Katie still live, and where I spent quite a few years without a car. When I lived there it was a terrible place to live without a car. Then again, I was a teenager who really wanted a car. Seriously though, I believe it has gotten better. I see more and more bikes and bike paths. A real problem facing the Cars R Coffins crowd in Naples is the very conservative politics there. If you don’t own a giant Cadillac or Hummer, you are not a Real American in the eyes of Sarah Palin or most Neopolitans. Similarly, the idea of controlling growth or having government interfere in any way in the area’s development is repugnant to most people in the area.

Orlando FL comes in at the bottom of the heap in this mini review of cities’ friendliness towards the car-less existence. My experience was (probably unfairly) colored by the fact that I lived outside of the city center near the University of Central Florida. Still, at the time Orlando had poor public transportation, was very spread out, was seemingly populated by crazy bike-hating drivers, had few bikes lanes, and fewer cyclists stupid enough to face rush hour traffic. It really felt dangerous to be riding around that city.

The facts are that you can live without a car in any of these places, it’s just that doing so is easier in some of them. I absolutely love hearing people say “Well, you have to have a car” because I know that for most able-bodied people that statement is total bullshit. I have gone for extended periods of time without a car and I know other people who have done the same. For most people, a car is a convenience, not a necessity.

If readers have different opinions about my rankings, or even better want to send in their own similar reviews, please shoot them my way and I'll post them as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Misery II

At the risk of appearing dramatic, I have to say I might be in a spot of trouble here. After the reconstruction of my ACL the other day I find myself confined to the couch and in the care of two Labrador retrievers and my wife, who despite her being all you could ask for and more in a caregiver, has a bit of a mean streak in her. As documented on my Facebook page, just this morning I was promised a chocolate donut. Instead, what I got was a bag with a donut inside it that was UPSIDE DOWN and that when pulled out HAD NO CHOCOLATE ON IT because ALL the chocolate stuck to the inside of the bag. AND, she gave me a supposedly hot towel that was only lukewarm. It's only going to get worse folks. I'm fully expecting her to start referring to me as "dirty birdy" and burning my manuscripts. There ARE probably manuscripts around here somewhere. She took my phone away too, mumbling some nonsense about my not needing a cleaning service that worked in French maid's outfits. Really at this point I'm pretty much cut off from outside help except for this blog. The only thing keeping me from freaking out is the prospect of getting back on the bike(s). Luckily for me and according to the orthopedic man, biking is excellent physical therapy for ACL-meniscus rehab. I like the symmetry of that - it was biking that got me into this mess to begin with. A full account of that and San Fiasco 2002-2003 will have to wait for another post. I think that last Percocet is kicking in. For now, please to be enjoying this photo of me a few days before Christmas 2002 lying with shattered ankle on a portion of the San Felasco trail system with an EMT and buddies “caring” for me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bean

The new Haul is one of the finest bike-based coffee accessories I've ever used. So far there have been two roasts conducted on the back rack.

A full carafe rides quite nicely back there too.

As far as the roasting goes, in my case this is NOT a trivial use for a new bike. I double dog dare da doubters to find a level spot in our garage that's within three feet of a power outlet. Here at Casa Pepperoncini, coffee roasting needs to be conducted either outside (if it's warm enough) or in the garage. Rigorous experimentation by our staff has determined that the girl Kelly's sensitivity to caffeine is high enough so that the gaseous roasting effluent, presumably containing caffeine, keeps her awake at night. Plus it makes her a bit cranxious.

Let me back up a bit. I got into the coffee roasting for a number of reasons:
  • It's cheaper. You can get excellent green beans for about half the price of already roasted beans in the supermarket. The costs of even an expensive roaster are recuperated quite quickly.
  • It's fresher. The beans go through a peak in their flavor about eight hours after the roast, and you will miss that peak if you're scoring already-roasted bean at the market. Oils brought to the surface of beans by roasting start oxidizing and turning rancid immediately. For these reasons, green beans keep much longer (a year or more).
  • There's more variety. Vendors of green beans like Sweet Maria's offer a massive variety of coffees from all over the world. Even decafs. Plus home roasting allows you to multiply the number of bean varieties by a huge number of different roasting profiles, effectively greatly expanding your possible coffee experiences.
  • It's more sustainable. Purchasing green beans generally means that farmers are getting paid more for their products, especially with the Fair Trade and Direct Trade beans. Many smaller farms supplying high quality green beans grow multiple varieties in the shade of existing forests. In contrast, big coffee agribusinesses are known for using monoculture plots set in areas clear-cut of indigenous species. Check footnote 8 and the short "Coffee and the Environment" section of this report by Oxfam International and partners.
And finally, I have to admit that the quirkiness of home coffee roasting appeals to me in the same way that the quirkiness of the new Haul (aka "Cocoa Puff") appeals to me. Why drink Folgers when you could be styling on a Globe?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Short Rides

The first ride on the new Haul 2 was at walking speed, on a sidewalk, without a helmet, and less than a city block long. I know. There are several party fouls there. Please bear with me, gentle reader. Kelly had pointed out as we were leaving Peak Cycles that the shop around the corner had started carrying some of her wares on consignment. I am very proud of my wife’s skillfully made wares, and I wanted to see this. So it was that I found myself on that first ride, slowly gliding along and keeping pace with the girl’s steps.

During the longer (and helmeted) ride towards Base, I started (again) thinking about how great it was to have access to a true city core, even a small one like we have here in Golden, a town of only 18,000. It is the concentrated collection of businesses, people, and activities in such a core that allow the kind of coincidence we experienced: a bike shop within tens of yards of a gift shop that happened to be selling my wife’s wares. Consider the chances of that happening somewhere deep in the bowels of your nearest soulless hell-hole development like the one below near our old house in Superior.

Where in that picture are the Italian bakeries, the barbershops that give you a shoulder rub after the cut, the nano-breweries? Ain’t none, son. And in those places you ain’t gonna be riding a bike to view wares or sell your wares or go to work or do much of anything of practical value.

Of course I am not the first one to recognize the benefits of population density. It is easy to go on those interwebs and find studies showing how living closer together can enable people to drive less, generate less pollution, and generally lead a higher quality of life. Bicycles can be an important part of that social system as long as the infrastructure – bike specific traffic controls, , “green” corridors for non-motorized traffic (pedestrians, skaters, tricyclists, bicyclists, unicyclists, those weirdos who ride ultimate wheels), adequate bike parking, accommodation on public transit – supports it. And again, I feel grateful. We are living amongst a like minded public here along the Front Range where we the people have voted in the funding to support things like bike racks on buses and much larger projects like FastTracks. Yes, money for this kind of massive project hurts at first, but the long term benefits are increasingly clear. Check out the following excerpt from the NYT article by Kirk Johnson:

"New research about the recession has also bolstered one of transit’s central premises — that highway-driven sprawl is bad for a city’s economic health. Recent studies at the University of Utah, for example, concluded that foreclosure rates in the Washington area were much lower in counties served by the Metro rail system, compared with the next ring of counties farther out, and that home prices in Phoenix had also fallen in direct proportion to the distance from downtown.

'The underlying lesson is that the further out you go, the more vulnerable you are to losing value in your home,' said Arthur C. Nelson, presidential professor of city and metropolitan planning at the university and author of the research. 'Locating near transit and near urban centers is the safer investment.'

If you don't get enough PowerPoint presentations in your day job, here's a link to one of Arthur Nelson's presentations.

At least humans are attempting to quantify the complicated issues associated with typical urban environments. The People are beginning to get it. As H. S. Thompson would say, the pig is in the tunnel. Those who oppose the pig will be crushed like a jelly bean.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Highs and Lows

There can be no light without the darkness, no pleasure without the pain.

Most people who know me were probably tingled by their spidey-senses when they heard that I was lucky enough to be selected for the Globe Experience Project. They knew as did I that there might just be a cloud in front of that silver lining. They were right. Within a couple days of agreeing to write about these great looking bikes in exchange for the actual bike, I was looking at images like the one below.
It turns out that playing hacky-sack is hazardous to your health. At least to the health of your ACL and meniscus, especially for the kids with previously injured knees. After a couple visits with my friendly neighborhood orthopedist, I emailed Jess Meeks and told her that I was going to have to decline their offer. The reconstruction and rehab were going to take ~ 5-6 months and it seemed unlikely I would be able to have much in the way of bike experiences. Much to my surprise, the fine folk at Globe had a quick meeting and decided that they would follow through with their part of the deal as long as I found some way, any way, to write about my new bike. No problem says I!. So we're off. Stay tuned to this blog if you're interested in seeing "unusual" uses for a bike.

I just got word that my Haul 2 is built and ready to go. I'm heading over to Peak Cycles here in Golden this afternoon to pick that sucker up. I have exactly one week before I go under the knife, so it looks like with some help from a brace and my good good friend ibuprofen I'll be able to get some riding in. Woot! Woot!