Five Takeaways from the ReImagine Reno Focus Group

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From the cover of the ReImagine Reno Draft Guiding Principles and Goals [PDF]. A bike:kayak:car ratio of 3:2:1 seems about right to me.
As previously mentioned, I participated in the ReImagine Reno focus group at City Hall on Tuesday night. The format was decent, snacks were provided, and I think we got some good work done. Rather than marching through a recap, I thought I’d share a few things I took away from the session:

  1. There are a lot of people in Reno who are way more awesome than I am. Don’t worry, I was already aware of this, but it was brought home at the focus group. I spoke with people who are regularly biking more than a dozen miles each way to get to work, in spite of substandard bike infrastructure. I spoke with people who have owned businesses in MidTown for years and have been steering the city toward transit-friendliness and walkable neighborhoods the whole time. I spoke with retirees who are active and invested in the reinvigoration of Downtown as a walkable, attractive neighborhood. Renoites are a great bunch, and I feel lucky to have stumbled into their weird and wonderful ranks.
  2. Planning takes forever, and parts of it are boring. We are in Phase 2 of the ReImagine Reno process, where we are trying to define the specific goals that will guide the Master Plan. As in, we are literally dithering over the wording of the goals. This meant that most of the evening was spent debating the relative merits of words like “functional” and “comprehensive” and whether “encouraging” something is the same thing as “incentivizing” it (spoiler alert: it’s not!). I am a professional copywriter and I still found this shit crazy boring. However…
  3. Words are really important. The reason we spent a whole boring evening parsing synonyms is that the words that we choose to define the City’s overarching goals really do have substantive meaning. When we decide to develop a “functional” transportation system for all modes of travel, rather than a “balanced” system, we are deciding to focus on actual results – can I use this system to get from A to B? is it functional? – rather than on perceived equity. Much later in the process, when we’re trying to establish actual policies based on the overarching goals, we can point to this wording and show that it’s not enough that you put in a few bike lanes (there are lanes for bikes and lanes for cars: see? balanced!). Those bike lanes need to connect to each other and get me safely all the way to my destination (that’s a functional system).
  4. We all basically want the same stuff. I haven’t met a single person who wants Reno to become a dystopian resource-annihilating hellscape, and yet that seems to be what we all suspect of others who don’t share our views on the nuanced topics of city planning. I don’t want cars to be wiped off this earth – I get a lot of benefit from mine and I recognize that even if I went car-free, the society I depend on could not. At the same time, the more car-oriented transit advocates at these meetings probably don’t just want to pave over the entire state and call it good. We just need to see that there really are ways to accommodate everyone. Proper street design and thoughtful planning can allow us to have a 20-minute town that you can still navigate safely and easily by bike or on foot. We all basically just want to get around a pleasant city without fearing for our lives or sanity. We can get there.
  5. Everyone is appalled by the current treatment of the majestic Truckee River. Can we just start here? Can we make it so that no crappy institution can ever back itself up against the Truckee ever again? Can we as a metropolis make a pact to dust off this natural and economic jewel and to never mistreat it for as long as we live? The new Virginia Street bridge is a great start. I vote for more of that, forever.

You can learn more about the ReImagine Reno effort here. I’m hoping to participate and update throughout the process, and as always your thoughts and input are welcome in the comments.

Life at Biking Speed: The Hobo Art Walk on Riverside Drive

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One of my favorite things about riding a bike is that it really combines the best of all transportation worlds. For errands within town, I often find walking to be prohibitively slow, which could point driving as the obvious choice. When I’m driving, though, I miss the level of observation that I get when I’m on foot – I like to be able to slow down and say hello to people that I know (read: pet all the dogs) or check out a shop or an event without the hassle of maneuvering the car and finding parking. Bikes shine because they get you around town almost as quickly as cars do, but they’re super nimble when you want to stop and explore. This came home to me this weekend when, while biking home from a grocery run, I stumbled upon the Hobo Art Walk.

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Several times as I’ve walked, jogged or biked along Riverside between the Hub and the Booth Street bridge, I’ve noticed little piles of river rocks that suddenly come into focus as mini sculptures. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a cute one-off. Then I started seeing them more and more frequently, though always just one or two at a time. This weekend as I biked by, I noticed that there were a whole bunch of them dotting the grass up and down the riverbank. When I actually saw a guy tinkering with one, I pulled my bike over to say hi and check them out more closely.

It turns out the force behind the rock sculptures is a friendly guy named Cyrus, who was happy for me to take some photos and stop for a chat. I was surprised to learn that he’s been making this kind of art off and on for more than 25 years. Even more surprising was that he takes the sculptures down every night and puts them back up every morning. He seemed to like the ephemeral nature of the project, making little adjustments and moving his figures around as the seasons and the river change. As I spoke to him, he was adjusting the posture of one of his reclining figures, and it was basically magic how fast he was able to shuffle the rocks around and give the piece a whole new attitude. This guy probably knows the physical dynamics of river rocks better than anyone on the planet.

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Cyrus, the artist, was perfecting this little guy’s coiff when I rolled up.
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Gah!

Cyrus told me he had just hosted his fifth “Hobo Art Love” event the day before. For these events, he makes more permanent sculptures (still made from river rock, but bolted together) and sells them on Riverside. But instead of keeping all the proceeds, he asks the buyers to pay the price forward to those on the street that need help. He estimated that the weekend’s event put $500 into needy hands. Regardless of your opinions of the Downtown homeless population and the ethics of giving money to people who beg, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer guy who’s making a more positive impact in a community that matters to him.

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My favorite, of course.

Cyrus seemed genuinely content to see people out enjoying his creations, but he also had a bucket for donations, so next time I go by I’m definitely going to bring a few bucks to contribute. When I got home I found a nice KOLO piece with a little more information about the Hobo Art Walk, which you can check out here. If you’d like to see it in person, take your bike down to the Hub on Riverside for a coffee and have a wander along the river. It’s such a mellow, positive, community-based way to spend a half-hour: in short, all the things I love about bikes and Reno.

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ReImagine This: Bikes Pay for Our Roads, Too

 

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…because it’s nice to share, but especially because we all paid for it.

 

I’m a little irked today, friends.

This week, we received the draft of the ReImagine Reno Guiding Principles & Goals [PDF], which will be discussed in a focus group at City Hall next Tuesday. As far as I can tell, this is a document designed to guide the ReImagine Reno initiative, which itself is a multi-year effort to redesign the city’s Master Plan, which is supposedly informed by but does not fully include the Reno Sparks Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan [PDF]. Never mind this telescoping set of initiatives and plans-to-create-plans-to-guide-plans; what’s ruffled my feathers is a little one-off comment included in the Transportation section of the guiding principles document (page 17, bottom right, for those of you following along):

“Nobody rides a bike in Reno. Stop narrowing the streets to inconvenience thousands of people a day for one bicyclist, who doesn’t pay any road tax. Focus on the 99%: the drivers.”

First, is it no cyclists, or one cyclist, or a minimum of 20 cyclists (1% of 2,000)? Mathematical mockery aside, what the hell is up with the City of Reno including blatantly counterfactual statements in its discussion section, couched as “what we’ve heard”? Whoever wrote this comment clearly doesn’t believe that cyclists shouldn’t be considered in road design. That’s their opinion, and they’re free to share it. But when they start tossing around one-offs like “bicyclists don’t pay road tax”, and the City chooses to incorporate that comment as if it’s a valid opinion and not simply a false statement, I get annoyed.

I’m not going to write a super-thorough explanation of how cyclists do pay, and in fact over pay, for the roads crisscrossing our cities, states and nation because the point has been so well made in so many other venues. If you want a nice, broad technical analysis of the subject, go read this 2003 paper [PDF] from the Brookings Institution. Otherwise, here are the highlights of the argument:

  • The money to build roads in this country comes from a variety of sources, including but not limited to vehicle taxes and fees, property taxes, general income and sales taxes, tolls and gas taxes. As you can see, some of these sources are specific to car drivers, but some are general, paid for by everyone, regardless of whether they walk or bike or drive or never leave their house.
  • Most of us who regularly bike also own cars, which means that we pay for roads through the same licensing and registration costs that regular drivers do. The only things we pay proportionally less are gas taxes and tolls.
  • Motorized vehicles cause far, far more damage to the roads we all share than bikes do – this should be pretty intuitive. Check out this handy infographic from the Oregon Bicycle Transportation Alliance – according to their sources, it would take nearly 10,000 bikes travelling along a road to equal the damage done by just one car.
  • When you look at the share of road funding that comes from car-specific taxes vs. general taxes and compare that to the relative damage (i.e. road-building and maintenance costs) that drivers, bikers, transiters and walkers incur, it turns out that non-drivers are actually heavily subsidizing drivers on the roads. If we all actually paid for the costs we incurred, I’d be looking for my refund check in the mail. Surprise!

These are the facts. They’re readily available and they’re actually pretty obvious. But if you’re not familiar with the issue and you read a breezy, thoughtless, totally false comment in an official city document discussing the future of transportation in our region, even if it’s couched as an opinion, then your starting point for thinking about transit is that bikes are freeloaders who are just taking advantage of the rest of us and yeah, maybe they should get off our roads. That’s why I’m disappointed that this comment is taking up precious space in this document, and why I’ll be there on Tuesday, attempting to make sure that the plan that guides the plan that informs the real plan reflects the facts as well as the opinions of all who live in Reno.

What Motivates People to Give Bikes a Try?

As I mentioned last week, I haven’t always been a bike rider. One of the things I’m interested in exploring in this blog is what motivates people to start thinking of bikes as transportation options, so I’ll share how I got started.

In spite of growing up in an incredibly bikeable area (the East Bay) and subsequently living in two of the bike-friendliest cities in the country (Berkeley and San Francisco), riding a bike for any reason at all basically didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties. Three things were key in motivating me to make the shift:

First, I started dating a guy who biked. The night I met my now-husband, I remember walking out of the concert where we’d been randomly seated next to each other and following him up to the bike valet so he could pick up his cool grey road bike. At the time, the only thoughts that passed through my head were “Jesus, a valet just for bikes? Get over yourselves.” and “That guy looks pretty cute leaning up against his bike, asking for my number.” As we started dating, I thought it was neat that he often biked to get around, but mainly considered it a quirk or a novelty. Even after we started living together, biking wasn’t a thing that we shared. It was in the back of my mind that I should probably get a bike someday so we could get around in the same way, but my established inability to ride without crashing and my cluelessness about where one finds a bike to ride kept these thoughts theoretical. I was going to need some external motivation to give two wheels a try, which brings me to my second key motivator…

I rode the bus to and from work every day, and it was absolute hell. I should clarify right off the bat that I think public transit is a fantastic resource, and that Bay Area Rapid Transit and all of the MUNI lightrail lines are top-notch. But as someone who suffers from pretty gnarly motion sickness, riding MUNI surface-street busses was grim. Even on lightly-used lines where I could nab a window seat close to the driver, I would have to spend the entire ride with my forehead pressed against the window, focusing on deep, slow breathing, if I wanted to get off the bus without feeling nauseous. The line I took to work, however, was not lightly used – it was one of the most popular routes in the city and most days I would wind up standing in the middle of the aisle, craning my head around someone else’s armpit to try to catch a glimpse of window for the entire 40-minute ride so I didn’t throw up right there on the bus. Every time I got off at my stop after work, I’d be green to the gills for an hour.

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Misery in action: The 38L churning around the streets of San Francisco.

I realize that this is hardly the worst commute disaster ever suffered – after all, I was spending very little money riding a generally on-time, conveniently-located transit line through a gorgeous city. But the fact remains that I started and ended every working day feeling really ill, and that started to eat away at my normally sunny-ish outlook on life. I bitched to Morgan about this on a near-constant basis, and his reply was usually a mix of mild concern and no-pressure encouragement to think about maybe riding a bike to work one of these days. I ignored this advice until one super horrible bus commute (in which a blackout drunk guy in a business suit had fallen backward out of the open doors at a stop, his skull thwacking against the pavement with a sickening sound I can still hear now, five years later) finally pushed me over the edge. “Where would I even get a bike?!” I asked Morgan, exasperated. “I don’t know where to start.”

“If you want to give it a try, I have a spare bike,” replied my ever-calm partner. “My friend borrowed it, but it’s been sitting on his balcony for a year. You can have it. We’ll tune it up and you can try it out next week.” And that brings me to my final motivator…

A bike basically fell into my lap. Knowing nothing about bikes and being generally afraid of technical subjects, I wasn’t going to go out and figure out which bike was right for me. The only way I was ever going to start riding was if a bike magically appeared under me, and that’s essentially what happened. Morgan got the bike from his friend, his dad tuned it up and fit it to my octopus legs, and I scooted off to work by bike for the first time on December 1, 2011. I didn’t know how to come to a complete stop, I was terrified of going downhill, and I had to get off and walk the last mile to work because I couldn’t navigate downtown traffic. But what I remember from that very first ride was feeling thrilled, amazed, utterly elated to walk into work and not feel sick.

I’ve ridden my bike almost every day since. All it took for me was regular exposure to a happy, healthy biker, a significant daily struggle that could be easily avoided by riding a bike, and the presence of a free bike, tuned to my specifications, in my garage. I’m hoping that not everyone is as oblivious as me, but I’m curious, for those of you who ride: what motivated you to give it a try, and to stick with it?

But, Isn’t Biking Dangerous?!

“Hello beautiful. You be careful. People don’t care about bikes and it’s dangerous out there so you just be careful.”

Those words were directed at me the other day as I tootled home for lunch on my bike. I was able to clearly hear the whole rambling comment because I was riding at low speed on a nearly empty street in the middle of a sunny, quiet day. I was wearing a helmet, riding an upright cruiser bike, moving predictably and signaling my turns to the nonexistent traffic around me. I guess I could have swaddled myself in thick layers of cotton gauze, but other than that I can’t think of a way I could have been much safer at that moment.

And yet, “biking is dangerous, you be careful”.

Obviously, there’s only so much mental space to be spared for the opinion of a disheveled dude lobbing leery and unsolicited comments at lady bikers in the middle of a Tuesday. The reason I’ve fixated on it is that I hear some version of this statement, minus the beautiful bit, on a very regular basis. I hear it yelled at me from strangers on the street at least once a week. I hear it from my well-meaning coworkers anytime I bike in the most minorly inclement weather. I’m lucky that I have parents who basically share my views on biking and who have firm grasps of statistics and human health, so I don’t hear it from them, but I’m sure plenty of other parents dish out their fears about urban biking to their kids. The knee-jerk reaction against biking is pervasive: “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”

It’s really hard to pin down accurate statistics on just how much safety you gain or lose by riding a bike every day. I was able to find studies and articles across the internet to support any position I wanted to argue on the subject. That said, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, has a great collection of numbers and analysis of ped/bike injuries and fatalities. According to that analysis, “Bicycle fatalities represent less than two percent of all traffic fatalities, and yet bicycle trips account for only one percent of all trips in the United States.” This generally agrees with the sentiment that I was finding across the board: trip for trip, cycling is probably a little riskier than driving, strictly in terms of traffic fatalities.

So we should all hop in our cars, right? Absolutely, unequivocally not. Here’s why:

The safest thing you can do in terms of reducing your risk of dying or getting injured in traffic is to stay home. If you absolutely must leave the house, you daredevil, then obviously you’ll take transit, since public transit is routinely shown to be much safer than travelling by private passenger vehicle and therefore is safer than biking and walking per the FHA link above. And yet, I don’t see that many of you lined up at the bus stop dressed head-to-toe in bubble wrap these days. That’s because we’ve all decided that there are risks worth taking in order to enjoy our lives and participate in modern society. Your risk of dying on the way to work today is very, very small, no matter what mode of transportation you choose. Even if cycling were 10 times more dangerous than driving, which it isn’t, it would still be a very statistically safe activity.

Guess what is statistically likely to kill you? Heart disease! Stroke! Diabetes! Biking doesn’t guarantee your freedom from these ailments, but it is well established that regular biking will reduce your potential risk. My personal hero, Mr. Money Mustache, has written a fantastic if slightly insane post showing that when you take into account all risk, from the risk of getting right hooked to death by an SUV to the risk of early death due to decades of inactivity, biking is demonstrably the safest way you can get yourself from A to B.

Most importantly, there is biking and then there is biking. The way you choose to bike has a tremendous effect on your safety as a cyclist, just as the way you choose to drive has a tremendous effect on your safety and that of others when you’re in a car. If you choose to weave unpredictably in and out of traffic, salmon, ride with headphones in, ride without lights, ride drunk or participate in any number of other stupid cycling behaviors, then I fully support people on the side of the street who yell out at you to be careful. What pisses me off about getting heckled about my safety is that I very visibly take safety precautions every time I get on a bike. I bike defensively, assuming that drivers don’t see me and prioritizing my safety over my right of way. I don’t ride with headphones in so that I can use all of my senses to assess what’s around me. I ride as slowly as the situation merits, and I move predictably, signaling my lefts, rights and stops. I take the lane when I need to and, thanks to a recent public shame campaign, I wear my goddamn helmet. The way I ride, I feel as safe as I do walking down the block, driving to the store or sitting at my desk eating a doughnut. 

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The dangers are real if you bike like an idiot. Artwork by Isaac Martin.

As I left my office on the same day that anonymous weirdo told me to be careful, one of my favorite coworkers saw me wheeling my bike out.

“Riding home?” she asked.

“Every day,” I said.

“Awesome!” she replied, “Ride on, girl.”

That’s the spirit. Biking is awesome, and as long as you’re not a fool, biking is safe. Ride on.

You Don’t Have to Be a Lifelong Biker to Start Biking

I think that a fairly common misconception among cyclists and non-cyclists alike is that people who are “into biking” have always been that way or have consistently had bikes in their day-to-day lives. It can be pretty daunting to think about biking as transportation if you don’t know the first thing about bikes and everyone who does seems to have been biking forever.

Luckily for the uninitiated, you absolutely don’t have to have a history with cycling in order to dive in and try it. I offer myself up as an example. I haven’t always been into riding bikes. In fact, until I went all-in five years ago, my track record with bikes was unusually poor. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but throughout my childhood and well into my 20s, I found the simple act of riding a bike to be terrifying. I’m uncoordinated, physically timid, proportioned like a zaftig octopus, intimidated by traffic and generally scared moving at speeds beyond a brisk walking pace. With that in mind, here’s a brief history of Jo on a bike:

1991
I am five and I have just received my first bike. It has training wheels. I happily pedal it up and down our flat, quiet block, but I have to get off and push it up the “hill” on the adjacent street (this hill rises maybe three feet over a 100-foot stretch of road). One day, while riding next to my (walking) mum on the way to the schoolyard near our house, I come to a moderately steep section of path next to the bank of a creek. In what will become a typical, almost trademark move over the next 20 years of physical activity, I freeze in terror, remove my feet from the pedals so that they’re just dangling in the air, and pitch myself into the creek, bike and all. I wind up with a cool-looking scar on the bridge of my nose and a full-fledged fear of biking. Away goes the bike.

2007
I’m in college, I work nights at our campus newspaper and usually end up walking a mile or so home through a slightly unsavory part of town at 3am by myself, which isn’t ideal. There is a spare bike kicking around my boyfriend’s apartment, so I think I’ll try using it for that commute. I manage to wobble the bike over to the paper using flat, paved paths, but I have absolutely zero biking skills so I have to get off and walk it whenever there are people around or I come to a turn that’s more than 45 degrees. On the way home, I ambitiously decide to take a shortcut across a path that consists of paving stones set in tanbark. I crash almost immediately, limp home and return the bike the next day.

2010
I am on vacation with my parents in Uganda (we are pretty cool) and I decide to have a wander around town one afternoon. I see a little shop that’s renting out bikes for some ridiculously low fee, the equivalent of pennies an hour. I imagine myself as an effortlessly chic world citizen cruising around foreign streets with the wind in my hair and a benevolent, wise smile around my eyes. I shell out the pennies and rent the bike, which turns out to be something of a rust bucket, but I assume that will just add to the charm. I throw a leg over the bike and wobble off down the street, surprised at how much coordination riding seems to require. After about a block I decide to get off the street onto an adjacent path. Having practically zero experience whatsoever with bicycling as an adult, I take the four-inch curb at maybe a five degree angle, assuming the bike will somehow just hop up over it. Due to basic laws of physics and common sense, the bike does not just hop over it. Bike and I both clatter to the rough dirt and are immediately surrounded by Ugandan children with facial expressions ranging from mild concern to unrestrained delight. I shuffle back to the shop less than three minutes after I’d left and swear off biking for a while.

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Showing off some raspberries after biting it in Uganda. Photo by Kevin Copley.

And seriously, that’s it. Until I suddenly started biking everywhere, everyday at age 25 (which I’ll write about in an upcoming post), my history with bikes was essentially three attempts, three failures. So if you’re thinking that you’ve already missed the boat because you didn’t grow up biking, think again.

Friday Bike Droolin’

It’s Friday everybody! Thanks a bunch to everyone who stopped by to check out the blog during its first few days on the internet – there were way more of you than I expected and it’s nice to know that there are so many bike-minded people out there. It’s been a long week, so here are a couple trips that are making me want to flip my desk over, put my dog in the trailer and hit the open road:

From farther afield…

Long Haul Trekker’s recent post on cycle touring in Bulgaria awakened a desire to see eastern Europe that I didn’t even know existed. Endless dedicated cycle track through bucolic countryside, readily available vegetarian eats and cheap, comfy accommodation? I was googling flights to Sofia within minutes. I assumed that since it’s out of the way and relatively unvisited, getting to Bulgaria would be prohibitively expensive, so I was surprised and pleased to see that you can get from SFO to SOF for around $850. Sofia also has the coolest collection of “entire home or apartment” Airbnbs right in the center of town for less than $50/night that I’ve seen in any city, anywhere. So Bulgaria, I’m coming for you, and I’m bringing my bike. I’m trying to talk Morgan into a multi-city southeastern European tour in 2017.

…and closer to home…

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Zion National Park, I will ride all over you. Photo from here.

We’re planning a little bike tour in southwestern Utah at the end of May, and I can’t wait to get out there and see some colors in the desert. We’re planning to roughly follow the Adventure Cycling Association’s Utah Cliffs Loop, featuring nearly 300 miles of paved and dirt trails through cliff and canyon country. I’ve never spent any time in this area so I’m excited to check it out and eat my body weight in baked goods and frozen custard. There aren’t a ton of trip reports from this loop online, so we’re trying to decide which bikes to take and how many miles per day to plan for. If anyone has done this route or any other riding in southwestern Utah, let me know in the comments!