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.

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