Saturday, March 24, 2007

of bikes and cities

My morning commute improves as the seasons progress from the sub-20, pre-dawn hours of midwinter. As the hours of daylight grow, so grows my anticipation of the day when shorts and short-sleeve shirts are the norm. Along the way, I look forward to the spring equinox when the sun rises in my face on the distant horizon -- popping up down a broad east-west boulevard as I crest Capitol Hill. I look forward to the day the water again flows in the bronze-sculpture fountains in front of the Jefferson Building. I look forward to sufficient morning light to ride through rather than beside Rock Creek Park, free of street lights and thus too dark most of the year.

{photo sources: left, center, right. Click to enlarge. The left photo is merely reminiscent of the scene.}

Of course this year the glorious equinoctal sunrise occurred after I'd already settled in and begun my work day, Congress having moved up the switch to daylight saving time supposedly to save energy (but see this for some qualifying data).

During my decades of bike commuting street congestion has steadily increased (of course), but my early hours are still very quiet. I've seen some efforts to make bicycling easier and safer, but not many. Recently, some white paint marks out bike lanes between parked cars and the traffic on streets (very few) that are wide enough for them. The benefit of these is debatable since they appear only to quickly disappear when the street narrows and because drivers tend to ignore them. The city does have quite a few off-street bike paths, but these have lots of drawbacks and I keep off them entirely.

Washington DC, and most other US cities could do much better to entice commuters out of their cages of steel, fostering -- as they do -- this era of anomie and isolation, of road rage, pollution, global warming, and depletion fossil-fuel resources. Unlike drivers, bike riders are immersed in the environments through which they progress. In my case these are woodsy-rural, residential-urban, and bureaucratic-monumental. Like pedestrians, they're part of these environments. It's as Jane Jacobs wanted city life to be.

These pleasures come with trade-offs: the discomforts of cold and wet rides; the impoliteness and occasional scary behaviour of car-fiends; the time required to climb into and out of cycle-specific clothing. But not, in my case anyway, any loss of time. My bike commute is generally not much slower than the corresponding commute by car -- and it can be much faster when traffic conditions deteriorate, as often happens. It's always faster than my commute by public transportation (though that's convenient and easy for me). I found this to be true in London when I lived there as well.

London copes with the overcrowding of its streets by imposing a congestion charge on drivers. Now I read that Paris, imitating Lyon, will be improving urban ambience by another method, one that encourages people to use bicyles rather than discouraging them from using cars. Here are extracts from the Washington Post article on the subject:
Paris Embraces Plan to Become City of Bikes

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007; Page A10

On July 15, the day after Bastille Day, Parisians will wake up to discover thousands of low-cost rental bikes at hundreds of high-tech bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, an ambitious program to cut traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking and enhance the city's image as a greener, quieter, more relaxed place.

By the end of the year, organizers and city officials say, there should be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. Based on experience elsewhere -- particularly in Lyon, France's third-largest city, which launched a similar system two years ago -- regular users of the bikes will ride them almost for free.

Based on statistics from Lyon, officials estimate that each bicycle in Paris will be used on average 12 times a day, for a total of about 250,000 trips a day, or 91 million trips a year.

In Lyon, according to deputy mayor Touraine, the city's 3,000 rental bikes have logged about 10 million miles since the program started in May 2005, saving an estimated 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the air. Overall, vehicle traffic in the city is down 4 percent, he said, and bicycle use has tripled, not just on account of Cyclocity, but also because the program has prompted a boom in private bicycle use and sales.
The WaPo article doesn't mention it but Brussels, like Lyon, already has Cyclocity service, Dublin gets it this summer, and it's been proposed for Edinburgh. An article in The Independent gives a downside to the program: JC Decaux, the parent of Cyclocity, gets "exclusive access to several hundred billboards in the city" as part of the deal it makes to provide the bikes.

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