Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bike Shops for a Better World

My husband and I once took a bicycle tour of Soweto, the famous township in Johannesburg, former home to Nelson Mandela. (But that’s another story) Today I’m telling you about Afribike, , the nonprofit organization the conducted the tour. We met these amazing folks at their display booth during the World Summit on Sustainability in 2002. Afribike’s motto is, “Freedom is nothing without access.” Its purpose is to promote biking, not over driving a car, but rather over walking. That’s because thousands of South African women have to walk miles every day touting huge bundles on their heads and babies on their backs. To help these women out of poverty, Afribike gives them a course in bike repair and, at low cost, sells them a bike and, if needed, a small bike trailer. With this advanced transportation technology, the women can go to college, commute to jobs, take their children to day care and do all sorts of errands for which many American moms think vans and/or SUV’s are indispensable.

Afribike’s supply of donated used bikes comes in shipping containers from places like New York and London. Now and then one of the shipping containers is reincarnated as a small bike shops in a village or township and staffed with an Afribike trained mechanics who now has a job.

But nonprofit bike shops are not confined to the developing world. There are two on my way down town. I stop often at Bike Works in the Columbia City neighborhood. It’s located in a small New England style house. Fronting on the sidewalk is its garage which has been converted to a store front with a big window full of bikes and all sorts of accessories from head lamps to chain grease to derailers. From this shop, Bike Works conducts normal day to day business for customers like me who push their bikes in from the street. Bike Works is where I have had most of my former repairs done. If I have to leave my bike there for extended repairs, it’s only a ten minute bus ride home.

But Bike Works has a higher purpose than just replacing my brake pads. A stairway leads up from the shop to where a room of the house has been converted to a class room. Kids and adults come there and learn to fix bikes. After a child takes the course and volunteers seventeen hours, they get a free bike. People from all over the city and beyond donate old bikes which Bike Works volunteers repair. Some of the refurbished bikes are sold in the shop, but many go to nonprofit organizations like Tree House and Fair Start that help poor kids. Thanks to Bike Works some poor children may find bikes under their Christmas trees.

Bike Works also partners with an organization called, The Village Bicycle Project a nonprofit organization similar to Afribike. Bike Works donates used bikes which the VPP ships to places like Ghana and El Salvador. The Project conducts a day long bike maintenance course for poor villagers. Anyone who completes the course gets a bike for half price.

Also on my way downtown on 14th Street just north of Jackson is a store front dubbed The Bikery. The shop consists of one lofty spacious room. Along its walls are large clearly labeled wooden boxes of carefully sorted bike parts, one box for derailers, one for chains, one for seats, etc. In the center of the busy room are several bike mechanic stands, most in use. This bike shop has no paid employees. Everyone is a volunteer.

I have not yet taken advantage of The Bikery’s services. That’s because you have to fix your own bike. Surely any self respecting old lady on a bike should try it sometime. The rental of a bike stand costs only $5.00 per hour and there are always expert mechanics on hand to help. My temporary excuse is that my Dahon folding bike is quite new and (knock on wood) does not yet need repairs.. In fact, I was a bit embarrassed about my shiny, new and expensive Dahon parked by the The Bikery door. The Bikery’s purpose is to make bicycling accessible to everyone at low cost. The most expensive bike in there costs $100 and can be paid for at least partly with volunteer hours.

But I have other excuses for owning this fancy bike in a world of poverty and want. Dahon is my accommodation for being an old lady with a piece of metal instead of a real ball joint in her hip. Besides my bike cost a lot less than a car and is friendlier to the planet.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cycling Through Hard Times

Hard times, like everything else, come in cycles. For instance, the end of daylight savings time and the cycle into darkness comes round this time of year as dependably as the death and taxes. This dark side of the sun cycle is tough on bicyclists. We have to go out again and buy a new head lamp which must be the world’s most popular target of theft. Then we have to check the rain gear to make sure its waterproofing survived the last cycle through the washing machine. For me the darkness cycle is pretty tough. I think I have what they call seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In summer I’m the happiest person on the planet. In winter I verge upon clinical depression-—except, of course, when I’m on my bike. It is impossible to depress while riding a bike. In fact, it’s hard to ride a bike without a smile on your face.

But sun and mood cycles are benevolent compared with the really hard ones, namely economic cycles. I was born in 1939 as the world was slowly cycling out of the Great Depression,and from the terrifying economic news these days, it looks like we might be cycling into another one. Judging from the length of the last Great Depression, my life cycle might be up before the hard times are over.

Throughout out my lifetime, there have been minor economic cycles of boom and bust, regulation and deregulation that unfettered the robber barons who then barreled right over the rest of us. Closely related to economic cycles are election cycles. As the Republicans cycled in and the Democrats cycled out, the ideology of deregulation and laissez faire capitalism usually rises while the social safety net tumbles. Maybe in a few days the Dems will cycle back in and clamp the breaks on today’s robber barons. I can at least hope.

But there are tougher cycles yet. Whole civilizations come and go as the major energy resources upon which they depend are depleted. Petroleum geologists believe our civilization is at the peak of its major energy source which will begin to decline. My children may live to see the fall of civilization as we know it. Those will be hard times indeed. Luckily my offspring are cyclists so not as petroleum dependant as many. Still no matter how hard times get on the down cycles, we humans seem to cycle right on through. We have our familial cycles of grandparents, parents and children. We have our friends, our communities, our love and faith in one another. We have our bicycles.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

“Back in the Saddle again. Out where a friend is a friend. Whoopy-ty-aye-ay I go my way. Back in the saddle again.”

When two months after the clavicle fracture, my no biking sentence finally ended, that old cowboy song burst joyously out of distant memory into the most brilliant sunlight of an Indian summer that I can recall in many years. The saddle refers to a horse, of course, but coincidentally, bike seats are also called saddles.

Recently converted to the bike-to-work religion, my friend Linda reclaimed the sweet little Burley (Birdy) folding bike she had lent me last winter to rehabilitate from my hip fracture. So I bought REI’s new model, the Dahon folding bike. A honey in her own right, Dahon is not very much like Birdy. She has her own peculiar personality and charm at half the price.

In lots of ways, Dahon is friendlier than Birdy. As I probably mentioned in early entries, cute as she is, Birdy won’t fit on a bus rack. She has eighteen inch wheels, too small for the slots, and her big chunky chain and derailer hang way low like cow’s udder at milking time. So there’s no way of putting her on the bus, short of folding her up.

Dahon has a tidy black business woman look to her. Her twenty inch wheels fit neatly into any bus rack. Her chain is barely visible, mostly hidden by a dainty chain guard. That same shiny piece of metal also hides Dahon’s hub shifter. There is no derailer to get in the way, even with my big old panniers fully loaded, of hoisting her gracefully onto a bus rack.

As for ease of folding there’s no contest. Some sadistic male engineer designed Birdy’s folding system. Several steps must be executed in a rigid sequence or you screw the whole thing up and have to start all over. Birdy’s main folding process consists of lifting the bike twice while folding each wheel separately inward and under. The front one has a tricky double hinge. With Dahon, you just release a lever on the bar and she basically folds in half. Even so, why fold? She fits on the bus rack unfolded. Just pull up in front of the bus and lift her on. I’m really very mobile with this bike.

Dahon has only one disadvantage. Her gear range is a bit narrower than Birdy’s. It’s pretty wide for a bike with only eight gears instead of twenty-one like Birdy. But I would judge from uphill pedal resistance that Dahon’s lowest gear is somewhere in the low mid-range of Birdy’s. Never mind. Dahon’s is adequate. I can pedal her right up to the top of Capitol Hill after the #48 bus lets me off at 23rd and John.

In fact, I’m sitting up here now having a latte at the Victrola Coffee Shop on 15th Ave. Be sure to check this pace out on a sweet sunny afternoon.

I have to admit that I didn’t come up here just for a latte. I had an appointment at Group Health this morning so I’m killing some time before my ride up Broadway to Yesler for my volunteer job as an English as a Second Language teacher. Then it will be back up to the top of Beacon Hill for a community group meeting this evening. There are lots of hilly days in my life as a biking old lady who refuses to quit. But as a friend of mine pointed out, “Hills are why they made buses.” I’ll be taking the #36 up to Beacon Hill for an evening ride along the Chief Sealth Trail with its great views of the mountains and the lake.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Another Bicycle Booboo

“You are a poor advertisement for alternative transportation!”

A fellow book club member slapped me with this insult at a vulnerable moment. Now,

not only was my body devastated but so was my ego. I already knew that. I didn’t have to be told. After having fallen and broken my left hip only last December, now in July I had fallen again and done something else. I didn’t know what I had done to myself this time, but the rising pain in my right shoulder told me it was not good.

On route to the book club meeting, I had been cruising happily alone in the “sharrow” lane on Beacon Avenue when my right handle bar clipped the rear view mirror of a parked car. A nano-second later I slammed into the concrete. I lay there screaming and moaning for maybe a full minute before I looked up and noticed that a line of cars had stopped and were waiting for me to get out of their way. So, cringing with pain, I raised myself up gingerly and slowly pulled my pack back onto my shoulders, loaded as is was with heavy things like books, bike lock, head lamp, etc. Thus encumbered, I gripped the handle bars and managed somehow to tolerate the excruciating torment for a couple of miles until I reached my friend’s house where the meeting was already in session.

Someone lent me a cell phone to call the Group Health Consulting Nurse.

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain?” she asked.


“Can you lift your arm?”

I tried but could not lift it forward, only out to the side.

“You’d better go to Urgent Care right away,” she said.

A friend, (not the one who accused me of being a poor advertisement) drove me there in her car. Sian was an angel, insisting upon staying with me through the three hour ordeal. We had to wait more than an hour just to see the doctor, and then the pain medication was not dispensed until after the X-Rays and definitive diagnosis.
I wonder what it would be like if you showed up in Urgent Care all bloody and with a limb hanging off.

The diagnosis was a broken clavical. On the X-Ray my collar bone looked something like an artist’s pain brush all splayed out and frayed at the end.

Prognosis and treatment for a broken collar bone is fairly simple. They just put you in a sling and off you go with a bottle of pain pills. The worst part is that you’re grounded from biking for two months. Still, compared with last December when I broke the ball joint off my femur and it had to be replaced with a metal one, this was not that serious. Never mind that my daughter and I had planned to bike on Cape Cod and around Nantucket Island together the next week. I’m doing everything I had planned to do only a little slower on foot.

My daughter bought me a pedometer and suggested that, for optimum health, I should walk at least 10,000 steps per day. It’s fun to keep score. I have been exceeding that by two or three thousand. This past week I went with my husband and some friends on a six day hiking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness. They carried my stuff.

But the bad part is what people say to me. The Urgent Care Physician put it this way: “Maybe you should research other forms of transportation.’

“It won’t take any research, I said. “ I already know. It’s called Metro.”

People don’t understand what they’re saying to me when they suggest I give up bicycling. They are asking me to give up my joy, my freedom, my independence, the love of my life. They are asking me to surrender my soul. That would be a pretty difficult adjustment. I might have to make it some day, but not yet. It has been nearly a month since my fall. Only one more month to go.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Does Bicycle Heaven Exist

Does Bicycle Heaven Exist?

This is a theological question and therefore could not be answered in this brief blog entry, but nevertheless it’s one for an old lady on a bike to consider. The simple one word answer is “yes.” Earth is bicycle heaven. It has a good many warm sunny days and a few decent roads with shoulders. That’s about all it takes to qualify as bicycle heaven. End of story.

That was a short blog entry.

But, come to think of it, some parts of the planet are a lot more bicycle heavenly than others. The Netherlands is a prime example of a bicycle paradise. It was designed and built with bicycles in mind. We once biked all the way across Holland without ever needing to get off a protected bicycle path. And those paths were all signed clearly with route numbers, better than motor vehicle highways in most countries.

Cities like Amsterdam and The Hague have separate bicycle paths along nearly all their major thoroughfares. Many thousands of bicycles are parked at train stations in suburban towns on any given day. That’s because the most common method of commuting to work from the suburbs is to bike from home to the train station and take the train the rest of the way into the city.

No, they don’t commute in cars on the freeway.

So to really qualify as a bicycle heaven, a place needs to be designed for bikes. How can you have a heaven that wasn’t designed for you? This reminds me of an awakening I once had in my former career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor working with people who lacked vision. These people were extremely capable. The problem was not that they were blind. The problem was that the world was designed for sight dependent people. Heaven, for a blind person, would have audible traffic signals, variably embossed paving materials, tactile signage, and the like. It would have to be designed for the other four senses. And, of course, as with bicycle heaven, blind heaven wouldn’t have a lot of automobile drivers charging around acting like they owned the place. Cars would be few and their drivers would be mindful of other travelers and treat them with respect.

If you happen to be a U.S. bicyclist reading this, you may be thinking of studying Dutch and expatriating to Holland. Maybe you feel cheated like the gentleman who emailed me after my blog on how to load your bike on the bus. He complained that buses where he lives have no bike racks and the roads have no shoulders. If you live in a bicycle purgatory like that, instead of moving to the Netherlands, another option would be to become a bicycle heaven advocate in your community. You could work toward the goal of qualifying your city for a League of American Cyclists “platinum award.” That’s a sort of bicycle heaven prize.

Currently only a couple of U.S. cities have achieved platinum status, Portland, Oregon and Davis, California. I have had the pleasure of bicycling briefly in both of those towns, and, believe me it felt like true heaven. Portland has bike lanes and bike paths that go everywhere. To get from the train station to my nephew’s house in the Hawthorne district, we had a pleasant ride on the bike path across the Hawthorne Bridge and up a gentle incline all the way. In fact four of the bridges crossing the Willamette River in Portland have bike paths.
In Davis we rode from one end of town to the other on a bike path through a park-like green belt. When we got out onto the city streets, there were bike lanes wide enough for three or four bikes abreast. Whole families casually biked together through the down town area. Motorists didn’t growl and honk at bicycles the way they do in Seattle. They just smiled and waited politely for us to pass, just as they would have done if we had been driving a BMW.

I hope we can get Seattle a platinum award like Portland and Davis one of these days, maybe your town too. Let’s make the whole of planet earth into a true bicycle heaven, one street, one city, one country at a time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This is Freedom

There are two mini bumper stickers on my bike. One says, “I have no country to fight for. My country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.” The other one says, “This is freedom.” I’ll talk about the first one in a later blog entry. This one is about freedom.

I never experienced freedom until about the age of nine when my parents finally got round to buying me a bike. It was one of those big blue single speed girl’s bikes with balloon tires. I loved her dearly. After my dad taught me to ride, they forbad me to go out onto Chambers Road, the major arterial where we lived. They said it was too dangerous. But that was not a problem for me. The alleyway behind the house connected to a network of gravel roads beckoning me off into infinity. At every possible chance, I would get on my bike and take long rides through that flat Missouri countryside.

This was the late 1940’s just before the dawn of urban sprawl. We lived in a two story white brick New England style house. in the middle of an isolated block of seven homes in north St. Louis County. That was the first city street so to speak that had popped up in the rural countryside waiting as it was to be filled in over the ensuing years with millions of ranch style cracker boxes stretching as far as the eye could see.

But when I first got my bike the area was still rural, with distant destinations for a child to explore. There were friends to visit and mulberry trees to climb, ponds for catching frogs and shallow muddy streams wiggling with crayfish. (We called them crawdeads for some reason.) Using only back roads so as not to break my parent’s rule, I even found my way to the nearby town of Ferguson where there was a great library and Deckmeyer’s Drug Store. I didn’t have any money, but the pharmacist’s daughter, Lisa Deckmeyer, was one of my best friends at school so we sat side by side on ebony black stools leaning against their white marble fountain and drank free chocolate sodas and cherry cokes.

Freedom, after all, is getting to do what you want to do. It’s not being limited by what a parent, teacher, boss, or the norms of society want you to. It’s being open to sunshine and sailing through wind all on your own. It’s moving your limbs and growing stronger every day. It’s living life. My bicycle gave me that for the first time.

That was sixty years ago. But it’s still the same. I’m sitting up here in my office staring at this darned computer screen for hours on end. But then I look out the window and see Mount Rainier’s ice-blue glaciers shining against the sky. So I dream up an errand I need to run on my bike. Maybe I need to drop a book off at the library or go to the post office. Even though it’s a little out of the way, I just have to stop off at Kwik Cup Espresso, my favorite coffee shop, and have a latte. That way I might have another great conversation with Allen, the owner and connect some more with his wonderful spirit. After that, I’ll have to take a spin or two around the park on the way back so I can commune with nature for a bit. Freedom calls and she’s a bike.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

April in Paris or Wherever Happen to Be Biking When

If you spent the first part of your life in other places and came lately to the Pacific Northwest, you soon realize that you can’t tell the seasons by the calendar. One year it was 53 on Christmas and only 50 on the Fourth of July. So I have other ways of marking the seasons. For instance, the first day I put on my bike shorts is the first day of summer. I see lots of young male cyclists with bare knees toughing the November rain, but not me. It has to be summer.

This year the first day of summer was this past Thursday, May 14. That was when I tossed my long polypropylene bike pants in the laundry and donned my shorts. Then I headed for downtown shopping via the west sidewalk of Rainier Avenue S. Because it was summer, that gave me an excuse to stop at Baskin Robbins for a “small vanilla milk shake.” Well at least I asked for a small one. But never mind, the proprietor filled a half gallon blender jar better half full of ice cream. Then he charged me five bucks.

I sat at the little cafĂ© table in front of the big Baskin Robins window wall sipping the lovely thing while the CD player filled the shop with a jazz piano/vocal arrangement of “April in Paris.” It used to be that whenever I heard that tune, I immediately started dreaming of Paris with its baroque architecture along the Seine and side walk cafes beneath chestnut trees and started feeling nostalgic and wander lusty. But this time I stopped myself. Because suddenly I realized that no matter how beautiful it was whenever I was in Paris, I wasn’t any happier then than I was at that moment on Thursday in Baskin Robbins on Rainier Avenue South. That’s because ever since I broke my hip and thought I’d never ride again, I know how lucky I am just to be alive and riding my bike.

Mind you the scene outside the Baskin Robbins window wall on Rainier was a far cry from Paris. It was mostly crumbling concrete and chain link fencing with barbed wire. Many of the tumble down commercial establishments were being demolished for hopefully better days to come with the nearby McClellan Light Rail Station. In fact dominating the scene was a giant bull dozer across the street looking like some tyrannosaurus rex gobbling up big mouthful of old concrete.
But it was beautiful. It was warm and sunny. I was perfectly comfortable in bike shorts. What more could I ask?

This morning my husband and I rode our tandem down around the Seward Park Peninsula and on up Lake Washington Boulevard. Everybody was out in force, sitting on grassy slopes, picnicking beside the Lake, walking the paths, riding their bikes. The Cascade Range lined its snowy peaks up along the horizon and Mt. Rainier floated in the haze above it all majestically surveying her realm. Paris has no beauty to rival this, our home.

We stopped in Leschi at Pert’s Deli, an old tradition of ours, and arguably the most popular bicycling destination in Seattle. We sat at one of the umbrella tables on the side walk pretending we were in Paris. Who would know the difference?
The tables were all full of cyclists, young and old from many walks of life. There were rich cyclists with those brightly colored helmets that have lots of air holes and are swept way back like duck’s butts. And there were poor cyclists making do with round dumpy helmets carried over from other sports. One guy wearing a construction hard hat leaned over to lovingly help his young wife or girl friend adjust the strap of her Mickey Mouse back pack. Rich or poor, young or old, everyone was happy. That was because they were alive and bicycling, and it was summer.
I just heard they’re calling off summer tomorrow. Clouds are moving in already. That’s okay. There’s still lots of life and bicycling miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Seeing the World by Bikes and Books

The only way to really see the world is on foot. That’s the way Jesus and Buddha traveled. Because to really be someplace, you have to move very slowly, observe everything, talk to everybody. On the other hand, the world is a rather large place so you might not have enough time left to see it all the right way. By car, it’s a waste of time to even try. Confining yourself to a little motorized wheel cage, you’re bound to miss almost everything. Your best bet is to use a bike. It’s faster than walking and there are no walls to cut you off from anything. You have free access to the world and vice versa.

Although we have barely scratched the surface of the globe on our Bike Friday tandem Project Q, my husband, Dick Burkhart and I have made a few stabs at it and hope to do more. In the spring of 2003, while George Bush was busy wreaking havoc in Iraq, we biked along the east coast of the United States from Miami, Florida to Bar Harbor, Maine. We discovered the Southern peace movement, learned a lot about our nation’s history, experienced amazing little pockets of civilization like the Gullah culture, the grace of Savannah, the southern coastal islands and much more. We jolly well took our time doing that, sitting around camp fires and sharing stories way into the night.

In subsequent adventures we biked along the sunny east coast of Brazil from Curitiba to Porto Allegre ending up at the World Social forum of 2005. Later that year we biked from Toronto to Montreal, then from Paris to the Hague where we toured the Peace Palace and the Chambers of the World Court. Once we even biked across my home state using the Kady bike trail that follows Lewis and Clark’s route along the wide Missouri.

Our most interesting adventure was the trip from Agra to Mumbai, India ending at the 2004 World Social Forum. By choice, if not necessity, we bike alone with no support vehicle nor guide other than Dick’s magical map reading powers. I wrote a book about the India trip. It’s called “Humbler than Dust; A Retired Couple Visits the Real India by Tandem Bicycle (available through as well as Barnes&

The pace of our global circumnavigation was curtailed last December when I fell and broke my hip. The ball joint broke completely off my left femur and had to be replaced by a fake metal one. To assess the progress of my rehabilitation, we’ll be back in the saddle again next winter (2008-2009) for a tamer expedition from Tampa, Florida to Key West. Besides orthopedic assessment, that trip will serve as prevention plan for my Seasonal Affective Disorder. That affliction hit hard this past winter when my convalescence forbad biking from December 5 through February 25. Imagine trying to survive a dismal Seattle winter with darkness descending at 4:30PM without being allowed to ride your bike! Now that’s depression!

Every bicycle traveler has a unique system. Ours is the Bike Friday Project Q made in Eugene, Oregon. It’s a tandem bike that can be disassembled, packed in one suitcase and checked on a plane or train. When you’re biking, the suit case serves as a trailer to haul your stuff. We don’t take much, maybe a change of clothes, a small back packing tent, a sleeping bag, and rain gear. My most essential article of clothing is a pair of neoprene rain booties. Cold, wet feet can completely spoil the fun! We don’t carry cooking utensils, just stop for food at grocery stores, restaurants, and deli’s all of which are great venues for chatting with the locals.

Maybe it’s frivolous to spend weeks on end just “infotaining” ourselves by bike travel. But we have a cause. We call it “Bike for Global Democracy.” Dick and I have a strong belief that what the world needs most is a global democratic government elected by the peoples of the world. So we hand out leaflets and give talks along the way, another excuse to meet the locals.

Before “Humbler than Dust” I had published another book, a novel called “Alien Child” which visions toward global democratic governance. It’s also available through In case you think I chose the topic of this blog entry as a shameless excuse to plug my books, you may be right. I think you might enjoy these timeless adventure stories sprung from the imagination and real life experiences of an old lady on a bike.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bike Racks, The Third Generation

A couple of days after my blog entry about loading a bike on the bus, I received a call from Eilene Kadish at Metro. She asked me if I would like to come to their bike safety meeting and try the up coming racks still being designed and tested. I hesitated about as long as it took to inhale and blurt out “Yes!” This was the opportunity of a lifetime! Most things we use were designed by someone else far away and long ago. Have you ever been phoned in advance by a manufacturer and asked to come test a product like a vacuum cleaner, dish washer or even a bike before it went on the market? I don’t know about you, but all I ever get to do is complain about it afterwards.

My enthusiastic response came even before Kadish told me where the privileged event would take place. Turned out it was just a few miles from my home. All I had to do was show up at the Metro Safety Training Center on East Marginal Way south of the Boeing Access Road. Well, if you’ve ever rolled over the ironically named Boeing “Access” Road on a bike, you know it isn’t very “accessible.” Young strong cyclists with steel reflexes use a method about as safe as taking a left turn off a freeway. Never mind. There’s the old lady way. That’s to hug the far right edge of the road as tightly as you can. Whenever you come to an off ramp, stop and make sure there are no cars coming before crossing.

I started out early and arrived for the meeting in plenty of time. I had expected to compete for my turn with a line of other eager guinea pig cyclists all the way to Tukwila. But besides me, there was only one member of “the public” at the meeting. That was Chris Cameron, Commuting Specialist for the Cascade Bicycle Club. I guess they figured an old lady guinea pig with a broken hip was all they needed. If I could do this, anyone could.

Perhaps a dozen “official” folks were there either from Metro or Sportsworks, the company that makes the racks. I guess I didn’t look eager or anything. They let me go first.

A big bus pulled up with an enormous triple bike rack in front. Instead of bike slots made of the old fashioned metal railings, the new ones are black rubber-plastic troughs that kind of fan out like Darth Vadar helmets. Instead of being packed in parallel to one another like the old rail racks, these rubber troughs are staggered at slight angles leaving a bit of room to squeeze between.

Someone hauled out several tester bikes of various sizes and shapes. Showing off for the audience, I picked up the first one by it’s seat and handle bar posts just as though I were I strong young guinea pig instead of an old lady one. That smarted a little in my lower back, but I didn’t let on. I lifted the first bike gracefully into the trough, and fastened it down with the metal arm clamp. Next I leaned over the rear wheel of the second bike and grabbed the axel arm using my full body strength to create leverage. As mentioned in my last entry, this easier lifting technique works with first but not second generation racks wherein the bike tends to fall off into the street. To my delight, it worked beautifully on the new and improved third generation variety The rear wheel rested safely in its slot while I wiggled the front wheel into place. No back strain. No dumping in street.

An innovation on the new racks is a knob a knob on the arm clamp that needs to be pushed in before the arm can be released and lifted over the wheel. I presume this is to clamp the bike down tighter into the trough because there are no metal railings to hold it on. Another advantage of the new design is that, whereas first and second generation racks could hold no smaller than twenty inch wheels, these new ones of the future will accomodate any size. I even tried the 18 inch wheels on my borrowed Birdy folding bike with its low hanging derailer. This type of bike is untenable and strictly forbidden on both first and second generation racks. But It fit in nicely on the new one.

I asked Kadish how long it will be before before most Metro buses sport the new racks. She shrugged and said, “Not for awhile.” Even though “Not for awhile” is an imprecise date, I’m counting the days.

There was, however, a bus driver guinea pig there who didn’t seem as enthusiastic as I was. He reportedly had been testing the sample on his bus around the city and had found his passengers were a bit slower and clumsier than with the old models. In fact, I did find the clamp arm a little stiff to operate. I hope they don’t have to go back to the drawing board. Maybe it just needs a few drops of oil.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

How to Load a Bike on a Bus (Old Lady Style)

I guess it would make good slap stick comedy act. A street show with this old lady loading her bike on a Metro bus is good for laughs even at those rare times when I feel graceful performing it. So I phoned the Metro before writing this blog entry and asked, “Can someone give me instructions on how to properly load a bike on the bus?”

“It’s on our website,” answered a patient female voice.

I asked her whether she was referring to: which reads as follows:
1)As the bus approaches, have your bike ready to load.
2)Talk to the driver before stepping in front of the bus with your bike. Make sure the driver acknowledges your desire to load.
3)Remove any bicycle accessories, including panniers, that prevent safe operation of the bus or may fall off when bus is moving.
4)Squeeze the rack handle and lower rack to release the folded bike rack.
5)Lift your bike onto the rack, fitting the wheels into the slots. Each slot is labeled for front and rear wheels. Load your bike into the outside slot if it is vacant.
6)Raise and release the support arm over the front tire. Make sure the support arm is resting on the tire and not on the fender or frame.
7)Be sure to sit near the front of the bus and keep an eye on your bike

“Yes that’s the one.”

I yawned. “That tells me everything I need to know except how to load on the bike,”

“I don’t understand. That’s what it’s about, how to load your bike,” said the incredulous voice. How could I be so stupid?

“Those instructions tell you how to operate the rack mechanism, but not how to lift the bike on,” I pointed out.

“Well, that’s obvious.! You just lift it on!” The patient tone had risen to a note of exasperation.

But it isn’t obvious. I’ve watched lots of people putting bikes on buses, and have witnessed a variety of methods. The straight forward way is to grasp the seat post with your left hand and the handle bar post with your right hand, lift, and plop both wheels in the slots at the same time. I’ve seen lots of big strong guys do it that way. Not me. I tried it a time or two, but even if my skinny old wrists managed the maneuver, my lower back objected to the pain, especially if I had left on the panniers full of shopping loot or books from the library.

So I developed a completely different system that may have looked a bit clumsy but worked painlessly and effectively. Standing on the right side of the bike I would reach my right arm over the rear wheel, grab hold of the metal arm leading to the axel, and lift the rear wheel into its slot. This method gave me enough leverage to easily handle the bike’s entire weight. It used my full body strength instead of relying on weak little wrists. Finally, with the rear wheel thus steadied, I would drop the wobblier front wheel into place. Voila!

That went well for nearly twenty years. But then along came the modern buses with their shiny stainless steel new fangled racks. Some brilliant designer had the novel idea of chopping the end off the rear wheel slots. So if you try to put the rear wheel in first, the bike falls off the rack. You have to take the wobblier front wheel with no metal arm to steady it and put that on first. I guess the point of the new design is to make it quicker to remove the bike when you leave. It sure works. All you have to do is lift the front wheel and off comes the bike. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t fall in the street.

But that rendered obsolete my old dependable loading system. I had to come up with a new procedure. Namely I had to figure out how to put the wobblier front wheel on first because there was a whole slot to put it in . Luckily, even though my wrists are weak, I do have long fingers. So I could take hold of the frame and the front wheel both in my left hand, thus steadying the wobbly wheel. Also this system of grasping the bike at a lower level gave me sufficient leverage to get the bike on. It was not as easy as my old method but worked well enough provided, of course, that I had taken Metro’s advice and removed the panniers first.

All went okay until December 5, 2007. That was when I fell and broke my hip. (I’ll tell more about that in a later entry.) That is the bad news. The good news is that doctors are amazing mechanics. I have a new ball joint and I’m already back on my bike. Well, actually it isn’t my bike. A friend lent me a cute little bike made by Burley. It’s called a Birdy. Now I don’t use panniers at all. I am limited to a small back pack for carrying shopping loot and/or books. But the bad news is I can’t even use the bike rack at all. Birdy’s derailer is in the way. The rear wheel won’t fit on the bus rack. However, the good news is that it’s a folding bike. I can dismantle the thing and get the bus driver to lower the wheel chair ramp to haul us up. Can you imagine what a Charlie Chapman act that is?
Salvation is on the horizon. In July I’m planning to buy a similar cute little contraption that REI has on back order. It’s called the Novara Buzz Fly-By Foldable Bike. That one has a hub shifter so there will be no derailer in the way of putting it on a bus rack. Maybe that way my street performance will get fewer laughs.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Last Time I Ever Drove a Car

I was driving east just below the high hill on South Gennesee St. and starting to turn left into one of the side streets. Suddenly I hit the break as a small gray vehicle sped by blocking my turn. I don’t know how it got there. A nanosecond before, the coast had been clear. It was as if the car had materialized out of the void of that dreary November afternoon. I inhaled a sigh of relief that I did not hit the car, but exhaled cold shock as the car veered right off the street busting a telephone pole in half. The upper half of the pole hung limply from its wires balancing itself against the lower half.

A small Vietnamese woman climbed out of the car followed by about half dozen pre-school aged children. The woman stood with hands on hips glaring at me in rage. The children stared wide eyed and trembling. One slight waif of a girl in a white silk party dress and ski jacket started crying uncontrollably, a high pitched wail that cut through the city noise like a police siren.

The date was Sunday, November 28, 1999, two days before the big World Trade Organization protests. It was one of those winter days in Seattle that never quite achieve true dayness but remain in a state of perpetual twilight. The sky glowed gray like the light in a mirror reflector microscope with an untimely darkness already beginning to pull down the unwelcome curtain of night. But I had been on a mission, driving my husband’s charcoal gray 1990 Oldsmobile mini-van around town borrowing bedding to accommodate twelve Pilipino activists scheduled to spend the week camped on my living room floor. My last stop was to be at the home of my friend, Jan, who had promised me the loan of a comfortable air mattress. That would have to wait.

I don’t know how long I just sat there in the van in the middle of the street, unable to move a muscle. It was as though, like Lot’s wife, I had turned] into a pillar of salt. But soon I began to tremble and my teeth to chatter. Cars from both directions scolded with their horns. It crossed my mind that I ought to stay put until the police came, but I was blocking traffic in both directions. So after the cars had edged around me and the coast was surely clear, I crept on into the side street and parked the van along side the curb.

Despite my state of shock, I decide to get out and go check on the woman and her children. A crowd was gathering around the family all giving me evil, angry looks. One woman ran out of her house, her long blonde pony bobbing up and down. She pointed a long skinny finger at me and shrieked, “She cut her off!”

I was still trembling and my teeth chattering. “I -- .I’m so, so sorry,” I stammered over and over as people glared at me vindictively and fired criticisms like, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going? “What’s wrong with you? Are you drunk?”

Soon a policeman pulled up and got out of his car. His round red face and tiny eyes gazed at me with a stoic, almost sympathetic expression as though a severed phone pole were an every day occurrence. He gave me some forms and told me to get back in the van, fill them out and wait. From inside the van, I could see him talking to people and taking notes. An ambulance showed up. The family all piled into it together and were taken away. Still the policeman continued listening to the spectators, or should I say witnesses. I am not a judgmental person myself, but I could sympathize with them. Most people in this neighborhood were of a progressive frame of mind and would be eager to defend an innocent minority family against the careless infractions of a tall white woman in a big automobile.

I waited for what seemed an eternity, continuing to tremble especially as I got colder with the engine off. I reached for one of the blankets from my borrowed collection in back of the van and wrapped it around me. Then I closed my eyes to calm myself. Now I could think about the possible consequences of all this and what to do. Our car insurance company would be sued. They would either cancel our insurance or drastically raise the premiums. It did not look like anyone had been hurt, but, if not, why the ambulance?

It did not take me long to make a decision that has drastically changed my life. The solution was obvious. I would finish my final errand for the day and drive the van home. I would place the keys in the little china dish with the lid where we kept such things, and I would never drive again.

In the last several years I had only driven a car as a last resort anyway. I preferred going to work and almost everywhere else by bike and/or bus. The reason I happened to be driving that day was because my bicycle panniers were too small for the cargo I was carrying. I could get a week’s groceries on my bike, but not piles of blankets and pillows. Besides the fact that I loved bicycling and hated driving, I did not feel safe operating large fast vehicles because of my exotropia (wall eyedness). Every couple of years there had been a fender bender. Now this. I did not need this.

It was after dark by the time the police officer returned to my vehicle. I rolled down the window and he handed me a citation for “inattentive driving.”

“Was anyone hurt?” I asked.

The officer shook his head. “Naw, I don’t think so. The medics checked them out and said they were okay. But they took them to the emergency room anyway just in case.”

“Thank God,” I said.

Thinking back on the incident with the hind sight of so many years, I wonder if I really was entirely to blame for the accident. Maybe I should have defended myself. After all, the other woman must have been driving like a bat out of purgatory to get over the hill and in front of my car before I saw it. If she had not been speeding, she might have been able to control her car and not hit the phone pole, or at least the impact might not have broken the thing in half. But I am timid about sticking up for myself. Besides I have never regretted my hastily made decision. It has been a great relief to remove driving from my life.

That evening I went to a Unitarian church service where people get up, light candles and talk about joys and sorrows of their lives. I lit a candle and explained that due to my vision problems, I had caused an accident that day. I promised to surrender my driver’s license and never drive again. I said my only concern was that I might not be able to get as much done if I had to spend more time on the bus.

After the service a young woman came up to me and said she did not drive a car because she could not afford one. “But,” she said, “There are lots of things you can do on the bus. I don’t trim my toe nails on the bus,” she laughed, “But I have thought of it.” Me, I just read on the bus, observe the world, and relax. That is more fun than driving and not nearly so dangerous. .

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Rewards of Bike-Busing

Some people stare in wide eyed wonder at the sight of a wrinkly faced female biker pumping up the street with little tufts of white hair sticking out the sides of her helmet. It’s as if they think an older woman doesn’t belong on a bike. I don’t understand this. Back in the seventies I lived in Germany where a bike was considered the most normal and natural way for an old lady to get around. A common site in villages and along the Berg Strasse was that of a typical gray haired widow pedaling by in her calf length black mourning dress and woolen head scarf with a wire rack of groceries on the handle bars of a one speed bike. By contrast, it’s pretty easy to run errands on a twenty one geared Diamondback City-Cross equipped with flashing lights and water proof panniers big enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries.
When I tell people I don’t have a license to drive a car, jaws drop. ”What a shame! How do you manage?” They feel sorry for me.
“They don’t understand. It’s the other way around. I feel sorry for them!” Automobile drivers put themselves under an awful lot of stress and shorten their life expectancy. Besides, they miss so much joie de vivre by condemning themselves to solitary confinement in one of those motorized wheel cages to get around town.

Now be honest. Can you really see where you’re going on a rainy night when the water gushing down your windshield picks up the glare of street lamps and headlights from thousands of other cars? On such a night, try putting on good gortex rain gear, getting out of your car and onto a bike. Your vision will improve a hundred percent. Instead of blinding you, the street lights will turn rain puddles into pools of molten gold. Traffic lights and headlights will blink at you cheerily from the distance. Rain drops will turn into tiny fairy lanterns falling past the bike lamp on your handle bars. Others will touch your cheeks like little elf kisses, soft and cool.. Suddenly you will come alive, experiencing the weather the way the Universe meant for you to.
I feel especially sorry for automobilers boarding the ferry. They miss all the fun. They don’t get to stand on the landing and watch the attendants wind the giant lines around the mammoth cleats. They don’t get to see how deftly the big boat slips into its mooring. They can’t talk with the attendants, hear their jokes and gossip nor eaves-drop on other peoples’ lives.

That’s the worst part about an single occupancy vehicle! You don’t get to talk to anybody. If you were to wave or say hello, no one would see or hear you. The best part about bike-bussing is that it’s social. Another old lady notices how much fun I’m having and gives me thumbs up with a grin. Strangers stop to talk with me as I wait at traffic lights. How lonely life would be without the occasional chat with a neighbor at the corner bus stop!

Once a friend asked me how much extra time it takes to bike-bus to work instead of driving a car. I thought about that for a second. “None,” I said. When I’m on the bus, that’s when I get my reading done. When I’m biking, that’s when I get my exercise. If I drove a car to work, when I got home I would have to figure out when I was going to get my reading and exercise done.” It has always puzzled me that people drive cars to the gym for exercise.

Some people look at me and say, “She’s a tough old broad!.”
On the contrary, I’m a wimp. I avoid uphills whenever possible. And contrary to prevailing myth, you can circumvent a lot of Seattle’s hills with a well planned route. For instance, if I’m going up to Beacon Hill, I can take bus #106 up there and bike the Chief Sealth Trail back down. But even without using the bus, there are lots of ways to go around hills. I’ll go a couple of miles out of my way to avoid a steep incline. Strong, young bikers tend to chose Beacon Hill as the route down town from my neighborhood. Not me. I take Rainier Ave and/or MLK.

“What? You take the busiest arterials?!”.

“Yes but I bike much of the way on sidewalks.”

“The manual says bikers are supposed to act like cars and NEVER ride on the sidewalk!”

That rule was made for young fast bikers. There is an unwritten dispensation for pokey old ladies. Most of the sidewalks around here are rarely used by pedestrians. They’re virtual bicycle freeways. At my snail’s pace, how could I choose to stumble along the gutter of a busy street with raucous speedy monsters breathing foul engine smoke down my neck when I could be on an endless stretch of adjacent empty sidewalk?
Another mistaken assumption is that a bike-bus life style is a badge of courage because you have to be outdoors in cold, wet weather. As I arrive at a destination, someone will ask whether I’m cold. Obviously that person has never been on a bike. Actually I am the most cold-intolerant sissy on the planet. But all bundled up in polypropylene and gortex, I am more likely to be too hot than too cold pedaling my bike. And I never wait long on a cold, dark street corner for a bus. A bus route across town may feature as many as three busses, thus requiring two waits at transfer points. Not so for the bike-busser. If the expected wait is longer than five minutes, I bike that stretch instead. Then when I get where I’m going I don’t have to waste time searching for a parking space.
In fact, it is a best kept secret that one of the most time efficient ways to get around Puget Sound is by a combination of bike, bus, and ferry. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t publish this because then the secret will be out. After all, there are only two bike rack spaces on the average bus. But that’s alright. If bike-bussing gets too popular, Metro will just have to install more.

Besides being economical with time, bike bussing is incredibly easy on your pocket book. If a bus ride is part of my trip, I only have to pay a quarter – yes, that’s just twenty five cents – with my senior citizen pass. Then biking fuel is free, except for maybe the cost of an extra banana or two. Not to mention the low environmental cost. Bikes don’t give off green house gases, and for obvious reasons, I tend to shop locally whenever possible. You aren’t likely to find me patronizing big warehouses out along the freeway. Bike-bussing is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon foot print and help save Mother Earth .
Try it. You might like it.