27 January 2014

How Am I Biking In This Weather?

Slowly.  And carefully.

If roads are wet, I slow down.  If they're icy I slow down even more.  Wet brakes don't work very well, and ice, slush, and snow make falls inevitable.  And it's much better to fall while moving slowly.

In the on-going effort to encourage drivers and pedestrians to notice my presence, I thought about getting an air horn. 

A decade or so ago, hiking in Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness, the proprietors of a lodge tied an air horn to a sign a mile away on the other side of a lake. A blast or two brought them chugging over in an outboard motorboat, and they brought my hiking companions and me to the lodge so we could pick up food and supplies we'd mailed there before starting the trip.

Then I saw a biker using an air horn near Penn Station.  Notice I said "saw," not "heard."  The blast, piercing in the Maine woods, barely penetrated the cacophony of midtown Manhattan. I gave up on the air horn and bought better lights instead, investing in rechargeable, painfully bright lights for both front and rear.

The other challenge of winter biking is keeping warm.  Or at the very least, avoiding frostbite and hypothermia.

I've spent a lot of time outdoors in the winter -- skiing, snowshoeing, stacking wood, shoveling, hiking, sledding, walking, skating, jogging. I find biking to be the most difficult to stay comfortable -- though it must be said I've never hunted in the winter, or gone ice fishing.

The goal is to keep hands, feet and face warm, but not overheat the core, so you're supposed to dress so you start chilly, or ride slow so you don't break a sweat.  That's the theory.  In practice, I can't manage it much: either I sweat, or I have cold fingers and toes.  So I keep several blazers and a can of deodorant at my office, and carry a clean shirt.

I don't own super-duper high-tech warm winter gear, so it's all about layers. At 40 degrees, dress wool pants or tights covered with rain pants, a shirt, a sweater, a windbreaker.  At 30 degrees, I add long underwear, or rain pants if there's any precipitation in the forecast; at 20, sweatpants over the dress pants; at 10 degrees, rain pants over all three.  For upper body, same deal: wicking layer against the skin, one or more layers of fleece or wool depending on the temperature, and wind/waterproof neon-yellow jacket.

For the feet, wool socks, heavier as it gets colder, and leather boots, which I lace looser than I would for walking or hiking to make room for insulating air inside.  For the hands, windblock fleece covered by wind/waterproof mittens for the coldest weather.  A headband for my ears in milder weather; a lightweight hat as it gets colder, plus a waterproof cover over my helmet all winter long.

I use glasses in all weather to protect my eyes, but the rest of the face is tricky: I sometimes cover up with a scarf, but the glasses fog up, and if it's cold enough, the fog freezes on the glasses.  Bad visibility in bad conditions is, well, a bad idea.  Below about 25 degrees, I use Dermatone, a Swedish miracle product that's basically chapstick for your whole face.

Biking in winter weather isn't as much fun as biking on a nice sunny 75-degree day.  But driving in rain and sleet and snow is pretty awful, too.  Riding a bike in cold, wet weather isn't as bad as it sounds: it's fifty percent clothing and fifty percent attitude.

24 January 2014

Vision Zero

New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, wants to bring Vision Zero, an approach to traffic that prioritizes pedestrian safety over vehicular convenience, to New York, with the goal of eliminating pedestrian and bike fatalities.

He's going to need a lot of popular support.

There's not a lot of corporate and capitalist infrastructure that supports walking or riding.  But there's an immense amount of it behind driving cars and trucks, and the interest groups and lobbyists that work for those infrastructures are going to oppose anything that interferes with profit.  (See: climate change denial.)

It's also going to require a sea change in driving -- and pedestrian -- cultures.  I'll spare you the bruise obtained while biking the other day, when I braked to avoid a pedestrian who stepped right in front of me, and hit the pavement instead.  Had I hit the pedestrian, I'd likely have been charged.

Unlike the vehicular driver who hit my friend Karen, the Poor Princess.  Karen was proceeding legally across the street in a crosswalk somewhere in New Jersey.  The driver stopped for a traffic light and then started up again without bothering to check if anyone was in the crosswalk, and hit the Princess, sending her to the doctor's office and her bike to the repair shop.  The driver of the car was not charged.  Like most drivers in such situations, unless they're falling-down drunk or leave the scene, the driver said, "oops, sorry" and got off.

But Karen was on a bike at the time. 

And so the responding police officer *issued HER a ticket* for ... I don't know, riding a bike with two wheels on the street.  After a day in court the ticket was dismissed.  Meanwhile on the Upper West Side, three pedestrians died in traffic accidents last week, and the NYPD responded by giving out more tickets for jaywalking.

Jaywalking pedestrians are part of the problem, indeed.  But what needs to happen is for traffic engineers to find ways to de-incentivize jaywalking by, for instance, making crosswalks, where most pedestrian deaths occur, safer: right now in NYC, most crosswalks require people crossing on foot to compete with cars turning off cross streets, with parked cars making them invisible to each other. 

The focus needs to be on changing a culture that treats pedestrian and other deaths as "accidents."  the focus needs to be on changing infrastructures so that pedestrians can move through neighborhoods safely, quickly, and confidently in ways that make sense to a human being, not to cars in a grid.

You can support de Blasio and Vision Zero by making phone calls or writing letters to the Mayor's office.  You can join Transportation Alternatives or the Complete Streets Coalition, advocacy groups fighting for safer streets.  Or contact your local policy makers and urge them to prioritize pedestrian safety.

One more death in traffic is one too many.

22 January 2014

Why Am I Biking In This Weather?

The Mate would really like to know.  There are probably a few other people who think I'm nuts. They might not be wrong.

It comes to this: curiosity; stubbornness; solidarity; convenience; that car accident; environment.

The service industries have a whole raft of employees whose job it is to keep moving, whatever the weather.  People who are largely invisible to the middle class except when they make headlines by biking on sidewalks or the wrong way in traffic.  I ride in solidarity.

I biked to the train to get to work yesterday in the beginning of the snowstorm, and discovered my bike handles pretty well in just a couple of inches of fluffy stuff.  In the middle of the snowstorm on the way home, I discovered my bike doesn't handle so well in four inches of snow that's been driven in.  Also, the derailleur freezes and doesn't work so well.  I pushed my bike where I had to, I rode it where I could; I made it home.

I grew up in New Hampshire, and played and skied and snow-shoed and walked in conditions considerably colder than what New Yorkers consider reasonable.  I'm also aware that people live in far colder climates.  The saying is, there's no bad weather, only bad clothes, and there's a fair amount of truth in that.  People typically own clothing appropriate to their own climate, so dressing for significantly colder temperatures can be a little complicated.  Lots of layers is a good start.

I biked to my physical therapy appointment this morning because it's the quickest way to get there.  Public transit takes at least an hour; I could walk the distance in somewhat under an hour.  Plus, curiosity again.  Turns out bike lanes were plowed but not salted, and blocked by the usual obstacles such as parked trucks.  Also, people were shoveling snow into them off the sidewalk (plowed and salted) and their parked cars (buried).

Plus, after an "accident"* in which my car was nearly totaled by a runaway truck, I still have a phobia about getting in a car, any car.  (I also still have chronic pain, weakness, limited range of movement.  Hence the above-mentioned PT.)  If I can avoid it by taking my bike and/or public transit, I'll almost always choose that option.

Finally, the environment.  Riding my bike and taking mass transit require far less fuel than driving a car.  I'm committed to doing what I can to reverse climate change.  On my own, it's not much.  Biking in all kinds of crazy weather gets people's attention and, I hope, gets them thinking, "I can do that too!"  (I would recommend that anyone who hasn't been biking regularly wait until April.)

Even I have my limits, however.  I'll be driving to my 4:30 class this afternoon.  And I'm grateful I have the option.

*The NYPD has recently started using the word "collision" instead of "accident," in recognition of the fact that at least one of the drivers screwed up almost every time.

15 January 2014

On (Not) Logging Exercise

For years, decades, I kept lists and logs of the exercise I'd done each day: runs, bike rides, trips to the weight room, swims, hikes, in preparation for triathlons, running races, backpacking trips or biking vacations.

A few months ago, I quit.  Quit making notes and deleted all the records from my iPad.

Because for the past several years, this has been a cyclical record of getting sick, too sick to do any exercise, and then recovering slowly, and then working slowly back up to a moderate amount of exercise.

I came to the conclusion that keeping these records wasn't functioning as encouragement to get more exercise, but rather making me feel inadequate for not getting more exercise.  Kind of like keeping records of my periods during the long years of infertility wasn't doing anything to get me pregnant, but just making me attend to each failure to conceive, month after month, year after year.

I like exercise. I feel better if I'm active every day, and the more the better.  I work out to the extent I can, given a full-time job, a relatively high-needs child, and the sometimes disabling demands posed by living with chronic illness.

I don't think I'm getting any more or less exercise than I would be if I were still recording it all.  Yet not keeping these logs feels lighter.  The change feels incremental, and I suspect there's going to be additional evolution that goes with letting that go.  I'm curious about what it might be.

12 January 2014

Pedestrian Fatalities

That would be pedestrians killed by cars.  Because let's face it, pedestrians aren't killed in collisions with each other.  One pedestrian in New York was killed in a collision with a cyclist several years ago, and what with the publicity surrounding the event, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was part of a plague of bike-related pedestrian deaths.  But no, as far as I can tell that one was a unique event, in the actual unmodified sense of the word.

Pedestrians are routinely killed by cars, however.  It seems every week there's another report of a kid killed in NYC, usually crossing at an intersection in the company of a parent or older sibling.  The number of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in New York State has been static over the past five years, hovering at around 300 deaths a year.

And most of the time, the driver isn't charged.  Unless the driver leaves the scene, or is drunk or on drugs, he (usually) apologizes, expresses his horror, and walks away.

Under Bloomberg, New York City's response to pedestrian deaths was to put in new traffic signals, with countdowns telling pedestrians it was time to get out of the way.  But the problem that pedestrians cross the street at the same time that cars turn from cross streets was not addressed.

There is no time when pedestrians are the only legal occupants of crosswalks: they always have to compete with motor vehicles.

So there's a simple solution: the city needs to re-time the lights, so that there are opportunities for people to cross without having to compete with turning cars.

Limiting street parking near intersections would also help, as it can now be difficult to see if someone is in a crosswalk when turning from a cross street.

This is going to be my advocacy issue of the year: letters, phone calls, blog entries until you're sick of them devoted to trying to persuade public officials to make real infrastructure changes to end this plague of pedestrian deaths.

Are you with me?

07 January 2014

What Professors Do: Winter Break

Some of the stuff I've been doing since submission of Fall grades, and have to work on before the start of spring semester:

Read textbooks
Spider Solitaire
Work on syllabi
New toilet seats
Vacuum clean apartment
Sleep in
Try to remember research plan
Read a book, for fun
Catch up on email
New shower curtain
Write assessment document 
Write an email explaining why I can't write the assessment document
Schedule appointments with doctors
Build on-line course environments
Go to bed early
Review page proofs for an article
Watch a movie
Write a paper proposal
Think about curriculum
Edit articles for special issue of journal
Play with the kid
Review MA program applications
Hire graduate assistants
Finish research report

I also have to find my marriage certificate (from 1991) to prove that The Mate is eligible for health coverage on my plan.  I also need to submit The Offspring's birth certificate to prove that I'm his mother.  Bureaucracy is charming.

06 January 2014

Plastic, Again

You can crush glass or melt aluminum and make another bottle or can, and it takes a lot less energy than making either from scratch.  But did you know that you can't recycle a soda bottle into another soda bottle? 

You can recycle the plastic into a fleece jacket or plastic wood-like composite that in turn can be used to make deck flooring or picnic tables, and that takes less energy than starting with raw crude.  The promises of recycling aside, all those soda and water bottles are single-use items.

The mantra of environmentalists has long been "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."  Recently, though, people have been adding a fourth "R," "Refuse."  We need to refuse plastic packaging as much as possible.  Yet it's almost inescapable, unless maybe you make

Vegetables, for one, don't need to be packaged in styrofoam.  If your local supermarket does it that way, have a little chat with the manager, and then write a letter to corporate.  A lot of other supermarket food comes packed in plastic.  Farmer's markets, CSAs, and coops are an alternative, if there's one in your area.

For things like yogurt, ketchup, peanut butter, and mustard, I don't know of good alternatives.  Making your own is a possibility, but for most of us not a feasible one.

Iced coffee doesn't require a single-use plastic cup.  Make your own at home, or get a reusable container, preferably made out of double-walled stainless steel, which will keep your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot and can double as a water bottle when not filled with coffee.

When did all the laundry detergent manufacturers switch over to liquid detergent packaged in plastic, rather than powder packed in cardboard boxes?  Besides the unnecessary plastic packaging (and probably not either #1 or #2, which are the only types that most communities accept for recycling), the water mixed with the powder drastically increases the weight, and therefore the energy required for shipping.

Consider switching back to powder.  If it doesn't work as well, let me know.

Another big source of plastic packaging is personal care items: liquid soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste.  Some of these are available in non-liquid forms packaged in paper.  Others are difficult.

So, do me a favor and think about it.  Is there one thing you can do to refuse single-use plastic packaging in your life?