Stockholm Syndrome Gone Awry

As I noted a few days ago, based on personal observationi (and not actually riding) riding a bike in Stockholm is a stress-free pleasure. All road users have their own lane and everybody follows the rules. Nobody rides hell for leather when commuting. The pace is civilized, around 8 -12 miles per hour. I decided to bring Stockholm biking behavior to my DC riding to see if it would work.

  • Riding home from the Nats game Sunday night was an adventure to say the least. As I left the bike valet at the ball park, I was waved into a mob of pedestrians by a traffic control person. I complied but had to ride a weird “S” to avoid hitting anybody.
  • I rode to I Street to take the bike lane west. I managed to get about a block before cars preparing to make a right turn on South Capitol Street clogged the lane. Blocking the bike lane was unnecessary, of course, because there is a right turn lane to the right of the bike lane and the turn lane was empty. To add to the mess, none of the cars that were turning into and across the bike lane had their turn signals on. I suppose the people on bikes in the bike lane were supposed to read the drivers minds.
  • At South Capitol I was about to ride through on the green when I had to stop. A black SUV had intruded on the crosswalk to my left. To allow pedestrians to use the crosswalk, the traffic control person waved the SUV through on a red light without looking to see if there was anyone (like me) in the intersection behind her.
  • A few blocks later a car stopped to make a left turn. The car behind swerved into the bike lane without signalling. I managed to avoid getting hit. See why we need protected bike lanes?
  • About a half mile further on I came to a red light on Maine Avenue at 9th Street. I moved to the left of the left lane and signalled that I would be taking a left turn. The next left turn was about 100 yards ahead. I managed to get 50 yards before the SUV driver behind me became impatient and roared past within inches of my right arm. Despite trying my best to ride like a calm and courteous Swede, I raised my right hand and gave him the bird. Fail. I must try and be more mindful of my Swedishness. For all the driver’s troubles, he made it about 75 yards before he became stopped in traffic again.
  • I turned left and took the sidewalk which is part of the Anacostia River Trail system. The sidewalk was filled with meandering pedestrians. None of them bothered to keep to the right. Toddlers were walking randomly among the adults so it was impossible to pass. Once they finally stepped out of the way I came upon five large young men walking, no, swaggering,  five-abreast across the trail. A thought crossed my mind that I might be mugged. At the very last second, they stepped aside. Macho sidewalk men. Not Swedish.
  • Once free of the wonderfulness of everyday cycling in DC, I was treated to a tailwind on the Mount Vernon Trail. Just south of the bridges into DC, an attractive young woman was riding toward me. The young man behind her pulled out and rode slowly past her, checking her out in the process. Of course, what he wasn’t checking out was the fact that he was about to be in a head-on collision with me. I yelled. He swerved out of the way.
  • On a beautiful spring evening families were hanging out at Gravelley Point. Kids, from three to six, were wandering about, stepping in front of passing bicyclists. Parents paid no attention. A group of four adults stood in the middle of the path watching the planes taking off. Bicyclists were forced to go all over the place to avoid them. The fact that there was ample space on the lawn for them to stand somehow seemed to escape their awareness.
  • This morning, on the Mount Vernon Trail, all was calm. I was enjoying the ride as I rode up the second of two fly-over bridges at National Airport when a cyclist in a black t-shirt came zooming by. The bridge is curved so he couldn’t see the oncoming trail traffic. To avoid a collision he swerved to the right as he passed me, nearly clipping my front wheel.

And so it goes. You can try to ride safely around here, but you almost surely will find yourself in harms way. No wonder nobody follows the rules.

I’ll keep trying to be civil like a Swede. Let’s see if it doesn’t put me in the ER.

Riding in the City – Scandinavian Style

I just spent two weeks in Scandinavia. The itinerary was Stockholm – Oslo – Copenhagen – Malmo – Copenhagen – Stockholm – Reykjavik. In each city, cycling was an unremarkable, no-drama part of life. With the exception of Copenhagen which can be a bit hectic, there was no honking of horns, no cussing, no bird-flipping, no road rage. The food chain is the reverse of the US: pedestrians come first, then bikes, then transit, then cars.

Gas costs upwards of $6 per gallon making for few cars, most of them compacts and subcompacts (except in Iceland where big, offroading vehicles are more common). Except for Reykjavik, transit goes everywhere with incredibly high frequency. And it is integrated in the sense that buses and metros and ferries and commuter trains and intercity trains and high speed trains to the airport all can be connected to without leaving one system for another. In both Stockholm and Copenhagen we bought a single transit card that allowed us access to most local transportation. (The exceptions being the every-ten-minutes high speed train to the airport in Stockholm and the train from Copenhagen to Malmo across the Baltic Strait.)

Bikes were allowed on metro and commuter rail. In Stockholm, each commuter train had at least one bike car (with racks to hold the bikes). In Copenhagen, bike parking at the central train station was absurdly abundant and stuffed to the gills with bikes. The racks were double decked and every other bike slot was offset so that handlebars didn’t clash.

I saw bike share systems in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo.

Copenhagen has the reputation for the best biking city in Scandinavia, but I’ll take Stockholm’s system any day. Copenhagen’s bike traffic is insanely busy. Car traffic is heavier than Stockholm, too.

One thing that surprised me a bit was the fact that about 1/2 the Stockholm rush hour commuters were wearing helmets.

Each mode – pedestrian, bicycle, car, train – had separate traffic signals and separate lanes. Everyone obeyed the rules scrupulously. Pedestrians didn’t look both ways when crossing the street. They just crossed with absolute confidence without the slightest concern about getting hit by a bike or a car or a train. Kids learn to ride in this environment and are much more competent and confident than US kids of the same age. Cyclists give way to pedestrians.

Nearly all bike commuters wore street clothes. Most commuters rode upright bikes with platform pedals and baskets on the front. Bike commuters seemed to go no faster than 10 miles per hour. Slow bikes kept to the right. After work, the lycra crowd showed up.

It is so frustrating coming back to DC and seeing tweet after tweet describing car/bike conflicts, harassment of women cyclists, and horrific stories of cars mowing down cyclists. I wish every state and local DOT head, every mayor, every governor would go to Stockholm and see what I saw: a graceful flow of traffic. No anger. No stress.


Stockholm Mode Separation
Me in Front of Just a Few of the Copenhagen Central Station Bike Racks


Postal Bike in Roskilde Denmark
Postal Delivery Vehicle in Roskilde, Denmark
Stockholm City Bike.JPG
Stockholm City Bike (Bike Share)
Bike Channel on Stairs.JPG
Bike Tracks on Stairs to Copenhagen Metro

I Bike and I Vote

Today was a pretty nice day to be a bike commuter. On the way to work Little Nellie asked me to take her picture at Dyke Marsh. So I did.

Foggy day on #mvt #dykemarsh

I don’t remember much about getting to work. That’s a good sign though. It means I was in my trance.

My body hasn’t adjusted to standard time yet. I woke up at 5:25 and my body said, “Let’s get going.” This meant that I could leave work a little early. About a mile from the office I spotted the Washington Monument bathed in a faint red glow so I stopped and took another picture.

DC aglow #mvt

I wasn’t planning on voting today. I am really, really sick of politics. And my area of Fairfax County is so Democratic that most of the local election results are a fait accompli. During the day, however, I read Bree’s blog post about biking to the polls. It’s important for everyday cyclists like me to show up at the polls, not so much for our vote, but simply to wave our political flag. This year it was a way to demonstrate my support for the brand new bicycle lanes on Parkers Lane which happens to be where the school that houses my polling place is.

One nice residual effect of the bicycle lanes is that drivers are going a lot slower. Unfortunately, one driver, apparently afraid he wouldn’t get to vote, came flying into the school parking lot as I was leaving. My vote won’t matter a whole lot to me if I am dead. It’s going to take more than bike lanes to change the culture in Fairfax County.

Everyday Bicycling Is Creeping into the Mainstream

Riding a bike for everyday transportation often makes me feel like I’m on the fringe of society. Unless you live in Davis, California, bike commuting puts you in a tiny slice of the commuter pie chart. Things are starting to change.

I work in Rosslyn, which is a pretty unniviting place. Tall buildings, lots of construction, car traffic combine to make it a rather harsh streetscape. There are a few bike commuters who work here and quite a few more who pass through on their way to DC. Some of them use Capital Bikeshare.

There are two flat screen TVs in the lobby of my office building. One shows CNN. The other has information on transit. On the bottom right of the screen is a listing of the CaBi bikes available nearby. I think this is pretty cool.

Bikeshare goes mainstream.


Tonight I went to a public meeting in which plans for the US 1 corridor from the Beltway to the Occoquan River were discussed. US 1 is a mess of bike big box stores and car congestion. And it is getting worse by the month. The plans are to put some sort of enhanced transit down the length of the corridor. This will be combined with a redesign of the land use with an emphasis on mixed use development. Bicycling and pedestrian facilities are an integral part of the thinking. (Frankly, some versions of the plans look a lot like the Rosslyn to Ballston corridor of present day Arlington. I (and most of the attendees) will be long gone (either living in a home or six feet under) by the time these plans are fully implemented. It’s refreshing to see Fairfax County openly admit it has a big problem in my area of the county. I predict that as the corridor gets more congested, local politicians are going to see some mighty angry constituents.

A packed house at the US1 meeting. Lots of gray hair and bald spots. (I can say that because I fit right in!)

I had to drive to the meeting (I was running late) but another attendee came in style on a Sun EZ3 delta trike. His Bike E 2-wheeled recumbent was in need of repair, he said.

Sun EZ3 recumbent. It’s a delta, meaning two wheels in back.


Some Suggestions for Improving Everyday Cycling in Fairfax County

A recent comment to the blog from South Lakes Mom asked me if I was attending the Fairfax County Bicycling Summit at George Mason University (GMU) on November 4. I don’t plan on going since the focus of the summit is improving cycling in and around Tysons Corner, 23 miles from my house by bike.  I have been in or through Tysons Corner about 10 times in the last 30 years. (Most of my visits were to a VW dealer to get my  Golf repaired because the repairmen at the dealer near my home were incompetent.) Whether in a car or on a bike, I avoid it like the plague. I commend the County and the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) for trying to improve life in Tysons. No matter what they accomplish it will have no practical relevance to me.

The apparent reason for holding the summit at GMU is that it has lots of meeting facilities and it is centrally located in the county. It is also 25 very cycling unfriendly miles from my house. Go ahead, try and ride cross county from Mount Vernon to Springfield or beyond. I advise that you notify your next of kin before heading out.

But let me stop kvetching and add some suggestions, in no particular order, for better everyday cycling in my part of Fairfax County. Before I begin, let’s set a basic ground rule. I am talking about everyday cycling. Riding a bike to the store, the library, the farmers market, the pool, or the office. I am not talking about the Tour de Fairfax. The objective is to make cycling to these places as safe and convenient as driving. Here’s my list. It goes to eleven.

  1. Put a flyover bridge or a traffic light at the intersection of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Belle View Boulevard. This is a primary connecting point to the Mount Vernon Trail and the intersection has one of the highest rates of vehicular accidents in the DC region. The Parkway is owned by the National Park Service which is more concerned with esthetics than safety.
  2. Allow bike commuters to park in Belle Haven Park (and other National Park Service lots) along the Mount Vernon Trail. Bike commuters currently run the risk of being ticketed so instead they park on the opposite side of the Parkway and have to make a crossing at grade at rush hour.  These parking lots are empty during the week. The Park Service could auction off slots for half the spaces and use the funds for improvements to the trail or parks. All that is needed is a “Yes”.
  3. There is no viable, route connecting Mount Vernon to the Lee District from the Beltway to south of Fort Belvoir.  The only way I know of involves riding over Beacon Hill which is reasonable only to Claudio Chiappucci and Fausto Coppi (and Coppi is dead).  There is a right of way through the northern edge of Huntley Meadows Park that would make a  wonderful, flat trail connecting US 1 to Telegraph Road. Since the county is now plowing up the edge of Huntley Meadows Park near the western terminus of this right of way so that motor vehicles can travel more conveniently, how about showing cyclists a little love. Oh, and to make my case, let’s take the responsible Fairfax and VDOT officials for a ride on the current, on-road route, South Kings Highway, a hilly, high-speed, two lane, shoulderless monstrosity. After their funerals maybe we could get some traction on this idea.
  4. Other than the Mount Vernon Trail there are very few north south bicycle routes in southeastern Fairfax County.  This is a shame because the Hybla Valley area is the lowest income area of the county and cycling is the cheapest form of transportation for distances over one mile. Start by thinking of ways to build trails with switchbacks to get over Beacon Hill from all directions.
  5. Speaking of the Mount Vernon Trail, how about a little plowing and sanding during the winter months? When left unpaved, the trail becomes a long series of icy foot prints that make the trail unusable to everyone.
  6. Connect the US 1 connector trail to something. ANYTHING. This trail connects the Mount Vernon Trail to US 1. Then you are on your own.  Was it designed by Sarah Palin?
  7. Fix the sensors embedded in the road at the traffic light at the Belle Haven Country Club so that users of the trail can get onto Fort Hunt Road without having to run the red light.
  8. How about some shoulders on the roads! And while you’re at it PAVE them! VDOT seems to think that  shoulders are bad road design.  Sometimes (e.g. Fort Hunt Road) the shoulder appears then disappears. When there is a shoulder it is sometimes paved and sometimes not. 
  9. Elected officials should be required to get to their offices by bike once per week. Pretty awful, right. Then have them ride to Old Town Alexandria on the Mount Vernon Trail. See the difference? There shouldn’t be one!
  10. A general note about bike trails: sidewalks are not bike trails. Slapping asphalt over unimproved soil makes for a lousy sidewalk and a lousier bike trail. Don’t try to impress the cycling community with the many miles of slapdash “trails” built in this fashion in the last 20 years. They are worse than worthless; they are dangerous. Stop building them.
  11. The recent addition of bike trail along Fort Hunt Road near the Belle Haven Elementary school is well intentioned and a big improvement over the slapdash trail it replaced. It will get very little use by everyday cyclists because it is too steep and narrow and has too many curves. If you have to ask why, imagine designing  a road for your car that mimics these design features. You wouldn’t drive it. If you think it costs too much to build a better alternative, you have two possible results. Either nobody will use it and you’ve wasted your money. Or, you can build it right a second time after the county gets sued by somebody who loses it on the steep, curvy descent.

If you can sense the tone of impatience in my words, you can see why I have little tolerance of the advocacy process. These changes should patently obvious. Many of them have been suggested and ignored by our elected officials for decades. So lets start with one or two. Can we agree to do that? Then do a couple more next year.