Monday, February 29, 2016

War on Zombies

A new, miniature stop sign (in front of the white car). The Hike/Bike path can be seen passing just behind the car. This new sign instructs cyclists to stop before crossing the roadway.

The original title of this post was "War on Cyclists", a reference to the "War on Christmas" that worries Fox News (among others). The "war" in these cases is a culture war, wherein one part of the culture ("secular humanists" or "automobile drivers") makes a political or social assault on another ("folks who celebrate a Merry Christmas rather than a Happy Holiday" or "Cyclists"). The infrastructure problems I complain about in this post are not, in my judgment, part of a deliberate assault on cyclists, I am using the phrase humorously. In that context, I worried that my title would be taken too literally. Thus, I changed the title to the obviously satirical "War on Zombies."

So who are the Zombies? I am the Zombie Cyclist who "died" as a cyclist in the late 1970s and came back from the dead in 2008. That said, my wife had joined me in cycling by the early 70's, quit at the same time as I did, and restarted the same time as well. Does she not also deserve the title of "Zombie?" I say that she does, so she and I are the Zombies in the title of this post.

So what is the war? It is a temporary setback in the availability of cycling infrastructure which we suffered over the last few weeks. My wife and I differ significantly in our cycling habits. My cycling is purely recreational (with a health motivation.) Although my wife rides recreationally with me on the weekends, the bulk of her cycling is for transportation, commuting to and from work. Given that difference, we are impacted by different battles in the infrastructure war, and so I will discuss them separately.

Just last week, I posted on how I was struggling to keep riding, and how one strategy I use to keep riding is to pick rides that are easy to start, of which there are two; Braes Bayou and the Rice Track. On Monday, I picked Braes Bayou. The first thing I encountered were midget stop signs, newly installed wherever the bike path crossed the road (see the photo at the top of the post). In theory, there is no reason I should be upset by these, most intersections are controlled by some kind of light or sign, why should these be any exception? First off, I would have preferred a yield sign over a stop sign. It is much harder to come to a full stop on a bike than it is in a car, a bike is going much slower and thus is easier to stop than a car, and a cyclists presents much less risk to others than do cars, but these are minor points. The main reason I found these signs irritating is the implication. Why these signs, why now? To me, it smacks of a reprimand to lawless cyclists who go rushing in front of cars with no concern for the havoc they cause. The fact of the matter is that cyclists are no more lawless than motorists. Yes, I know, I am projecting; there was no reason for me to jump to the conclusion that I did. But unfortunately, that is how I felt when I saw them. And then, I got to what used to be the end of the trail, at Gessner Avenue, and found a sign saying that the newly created extension to that trail was closed. My 22 mile ride was now back down to 18 miles. Firstly, I have no idea why the trail was closed, which is a problem in and of itself. I wish there was a website I could go to to find out the status of Houston's trails with some explanation of what was closed, why it is closed, and when it is expected to reopen. Secondly, it sends me the message that cyclists are not taken seriously. I have bad memories of the White Oak Bayou trail, which was closed for two years so that the highway department could store dirt on it. It is as if cycling infrastructure is a gift bestowed upon us by the City of Houston as opposed to a critical piece of infrastructure, part of a commitment to multimodal transportation in which cycling is a mode just as important (if not yet as large) as automobiles, busses, and light rail. Again, I am projecting, but that is how I feel.

Note both the trail closure sign and the attractive waterfall to the right of the trail.

On Tuesday, I decided to ride the Rice Track. Now, I may have a right to complain about the Braes Bayou path as it is a public facility, but I have no right to complain about the Rice Track at all. It is a facility of Rice University, a private institution, and I am not a Rice University student, faculty member or staff member; I am just grateful that Rice allows me to use their track. But still, it hurt when I got there and found that the track was under construction. The construction workers were gone for the day, the track was still usable (if narrower) and it was not clear that the track was closed, so I assumed it wasn't and completed my ride, but I probably won't be back until I think they are done. If I get there when the workers are there I am sure it will be closed, so it is not worth the trouble to go there not knowing. So, I am sitting here writing this blog post rather than riding my bike because neither of my go to bike rides is available. This Zombie certainly feels that he is under attack.

In progress repairs to the Rice Track temporarily reduce its width.

When my wife first started bike commuting a few years ago, she and I spent a Sunday test riding various routes from our house to her work, looking for one that felt safe to her. When we considered traffic levels and lights at busy street crossings, we found exactly one route, and that is the route she has been riding for the past four years. In contrast to their behavior with respect to bike paths, the City of Houston does share its plans for roadways, and some months ago we read that a critical piece of that route was due for repaving. Due it most certainly was, being plagued with potholes, but that nonetheless put us in a dilemma as to what to do when the work began. Although we were warned in general, the work actually began with no warning. My wife went to work one day and by the time she came home, work had commenced. The city did not shut down the street, but left it a mess. The biggest holes in the pavement were covered by the traditional giant steel plates. It had been raining, the plates were wet, and when my wife attempted to ride over one, her bike slid out from underneath her, causing her to injure her hip, an injury that bothers her to this day. We know how fortunate we are that her hip was not broken, or worse, that there was not a car nearby that could have run over her, but the injury is annoying nonetheless. Since this happened, we have been searching for a ride-around so that she can continue bike commuting to work. For now, however, both Zombies feel under attack.

A standard, steel plate used to temporarily cover a hole in the road. This example is on my wife's daily commute. 

Is it fair of us to complain about these steel plates? In general, this is much too big a question to fit in as a part of this blog post. In short, however, if you believe as I do that bicycles either are or should be a real part of the transportation infrastructure, then the answer is yes. Steel plates work fairly well for cars and trucks, but don't work at all well for bicycles, as my wife found out. That does not mean steel plates should never be used, but that when street repairs are planned, bicycle commuters should be considered. This may well lead to steel plates being used less frequently, especially where alternate routes are not available. This leads to the second issue, the paucity of bicycle-safe routes. Under state and local law, almost all city streets usable by automobiles should be usable by bicycles, but unfortunately, theory and practice diverge, as we found out when we scouted a route to work for my wife. In theory, almost all routes available to automobiles are available to bicycles. In practice, however, automobile drivers would be the first to object if my wife acted on that assumption. As a consequence, the only safe route we found from our home to my wife's work is currently interrupted by construction and steel plates. Again, outlining possible solutions is much too long a discussion to squeeze in here, but a solution is needed.

One final point: I began this post by noting that my wife is primarily a utility cyclist and I am primarily a recreational cyclist. Some may have sympathy for my wife, heading off to work, but feel that I am just a MAMIL who should not be indulged. Let me point out that we don't segregate automobile drivers in that way, many automobile drivers are on the road for reasons that are recreational. Consider, for example, a driver heading to the gym to take part in a spin class. Thus, I feel I have as much a right to be considered as a normal part of the transportation infrastructure as my wife does. Simply put, under the law, cyclists and automobile drivers have an equal right to use the roadways. Were this true in practice!

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