Cycling in Austin

Tikit to the Capitol

While I was in Austin last week, I managed to get out for a couple or rides and get a bit of a feel for cycling in the area. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect in the way of cycling infrastructure in the city: my cycling friends all said that Austin is a very bikeable city with cyclists everywhere, whereas all of the drivers I know who have been there said that the only cyclists to be seen were large groups of spandex-wearing racers who took over the thoroughfares heading out of the city every weekend. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

Like Toronto, Austin is split between a bike-friendly core and somewhat bike-hostile suburbs. There are recreational trails all over the place, but actually getting by bike from one place in the suburbs to another requires you to grit your teeth and put up with a lot of fast-moving traffic. The bike lanes and racks of downtown quickly give way to turning lanes and parking lots when you leave the core. Sidewalks also largely disappear, leaving car travel as the only practical way of getting from A to B in the suburbs. A lot of roads in the burbs have what most people would call shoulders, but what many Austinites seem to think of  as passing lanes: what looks at first glance to be a safe suburban haven for cyclists is actually home to lots of cars going really fast with drivers probably not expecting slow-moving  bikes in front of them.

It’s hard to tell from a short visit whether Austin has really embraced the practicality of cycling, but I do know that in just five days, I saw three different cars with “Please be kind to cyclists” bumper stickers, which is three more than I’ve seen in a lifetime in Toronto.

Yield to bikes

One of the major cycling routes downtown goes down Guadalupe St, seen above at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. There were a lot of bike lanes downtown, both on major arterials and on quieter side streets. But compared to the state of the road paint in Toronto, most of the lane lines were faded almost to invisibility. Several times while riding in a barely-discernable bike lane, I was unsure that drivers in the cars behind me could see the same markings that I could. The sign above, telling drivers entering a right-turn lane to yield to cyclists in the bike lane, is rare in Toronto, but common in Austin.

Area map on a bike route sign

One nice touch on some of the signed bike routes was an area map, showing not only where you where, but connecting routes and nearby attractions.

Bike racks with integrated cable locks

Another interesting feature was bike racks with integrated cable locks for securing your wheels without having to carry a second lock around. I only saw these in two locations, but it would be great to have these city-wide.

Bike frames made into a bike rack

Unlike Toronto’s iconic post and ring racks, there doesn’t seem to be a single standard design for bike racks in Austin. Many racks are provided by private businesses and can take interesting forms. I was especially taken by this excellent re-purposing of old frames into a functional sculpture.

The war on texting?

Just when I was starting to think that Austinites had fully embraced (or at least tolerated) cycling as a form of transportation, I read the above letter to the editor in the local newspaper as I sat down to my last breakfast in the city. Apparently, Toronto isn’t the only place where anything done in a car is more important than safe cycling routes.

How to take your bike on a business trip (or vacation)

Tikit at home

Step 1: Get a folding bike. Mine is a Bike Friday Tikit. This bike has a million options, from the most basic Model T (the one I have) all the way up to a fully tricked-out road bike with drop handlebars, lots of gear inches, and just about any component choice you could imagine. The hyperfold model folds in five seconds. I don’t have that one, so my Tikit takes a full 15 seconds to fold. The best thing about the Tikit is that although it looks weird and the wheels are tiny (just sixteen inches), it feels and rides like a normal-sized bike. My riding position on this bike is basically the same as on my mountain bike, which is perfect for commuting and tootling around the city. But don’t take my word for it, get yourself to Urbane Cyclist and give one a test ride for yourself.

Samsonite 30-inch Flite case

Step 2: Get a suitcase that your folded bike will fit into. The 30″ Samsonite F’Lite GT is the case that Bike Friday designs their bikes to fit into, so it seemed like a good choice. With only minor disassembly (one wheel removed and a half-dozen bolts loosened or removed), the bike fits neatly into the case with lots of room left over for a repair kit, pump, locks, and other cycling gear. Because the bike is designed to fit into a suitcase, there’s no guesswork involved; the manual shows the packing process in detail, right down to the correct way to orient the cranks. I didn’t manage to squeeze my helmet in, but I’m sure I could with a bit of practice. Practice could also get my packing time down from around 45 minutes the first time to maybe 15.

Homemade crush protector

Step 3: Get a crush protector to keep the side of the suitcase from collapsing on your fragile bike. Even a hard-sided suitcase like the F’Lite has a lot of give in it and given the way that baggage handlers toss luggage around, it would be pretty easy to end up with a bent wheel or chainring after a flight. The crush protector is just a support that keeps the sides of the suitcase from compressing, ensuring that there’s never any weight bearing down on the sensitive bits of the bike itself. Bike Friday sells crush protectors for $7, or you can make your own for about the same cost from parts available at any hardware store with a decent stock of electrical supplies. That meant Home Depot for me.

All packed up

Step 4: Pack the bike in the case, following the instructions in the manual. Bike Friday sells packing kits that include little fabric bags and sleeves to help protect the sensitive bits, but I found that a short length of packing foam, some old rags, and a few elastic bands did the same job.

Step 5: Check your bike at the airport, now indistinguishable from any other piece of luggage, and laugh at those ridiculous charges for bike boxes that airlines love to charge.

Ready to go

Step 6: Unpack at your destination. It only took me about 20 minutes to unpack and reassemble. I didn’t do too badly for my first-time packing: the rear reflector was broken in transit, but everything else survived without a scratch.

At the Texas Capitol, 2200 km from home

Step 7: Have a good ride!

So I’m in Austin, Texas at the moment, midway through a week of working hard, eating meat, and riding a bit. The Texas Capitol is about 2200 km from home, or a much more reasonable 10-minute ride from my hotel. Work commitments are keeping my exploring to a minimum, but I’m trying to get as much in as I can. There’ll be some more random posts about Austin in the days ahead.

Moose-oween

The once proud Toronto Moose, now relegated to playing bit parts in off-Bayview productions

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Toronto was overrun by Moose in the City. Why, I remember it like it was ten years ago…

There are still a few moose dotting the city in various states of disrepair, but you can almost see the sadness in this one’s eyes as he gazes back on his glory days as a tourist attraction from his current position as a Halloween prop near the corner of Bayview and Moore. Hang in there, buddy; Halloween’s here in a week and I’m sure you won’t have to wear any silly Christmas costumes afterward. Besides, this getup is much more dignified than the one Google Street View caught you in. They didn’t even have the courtesy to blur your face.

Which way to Mount Pleasant Sema…Seme…Cema…Ceme…burial ground?

A misspelled wayfinding sign in Toronto

This wayfinding sign recently appeared on the Belt Line, just outside the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. At least the arrow, complete with hand-lettered spelling correction, is pointing in the right direction, unlike some other signs I could mention. There’s an old saying in woodworking: measure twice, cut once. Surely there’s a similar axiom in the sign-making business.

Best (& Worst) business name, 2010

Dead People's Stuff Antiques

Finally, some truth in advertising; after all, what are antiques if not (usually) the stuff of dead people? Calling this spade a spade is brilliant (& daft), so “Dead People’s Stuff” in Bloomfield is the clear winner in the race to the zenith (& nadir) of business names I’ve encountered in 2010. I’m not entirely sure how this came to be an annual tradition, but I’ve bestowed the honour (& disgrace) on a different business for four years running. Congratulations (& condemnations).

Play us out, Pudgy

Betty Boop wears a piano while Pudgy plays

From the “People put the damnedest things on their lawns” file comes this wonderful front yard display in Brighton, on the road leading to Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Nothing like seeing Betty Boop striking a pose while Pudgy belts out some tunes. Too bad (or not, depending on your point of view) there was no soundtrack accompanying the visual feast.

The evidence on Google Street View suggests that the piano stays, but the scene rotates. Betty may have moved on next year.

Warning or invitation?

Dangerous unmaintained road sign

These signs are scattered all around Hamilton Township at the entrances to many dirt roads  that run between two or more adjacent farms. They’re municipal roads that are used primarily for access to back fields, so the only traffic that they really see are tractors and the occasional dirt bike or ATV. Most are only 1-2 km long and are classified as “summer maintained” or “unopened road allowance” by the township. Some, like the one above, are navigable by your average family sedan. Others, like the one below, call for more of a sense of adventure and either a larger or smaller vehicle:

The road here just kind of disappears into weeds and neatly growing rows of wheat, bordered by trees on one side and a corn field on the other.

Some of the roads not only seem well-maintained in the summer, but also form part of the snowmobile trails that criss-cross Ontario? in the winter:

Country lane

So, is “Dangerous unmaintained road” a warning or invitation? It depends what you’ve got underneath you at the time.  The roadies that I passed on the asphalt a couple of clicks back would have nothing to do with roads like these. A rider on a touring motorcycle was checking one out, but probably wouldn’t take another. But for a guy exploring on a mountain bike, they’re just about irresistible.

Recycling nostalgia

Consumers Distributing display casesI’m usually one to appreciate and advocate both recycling and heritage preservation, but I’m not so sure it’s a wise move in the case of these display cabinets still in use in a Port Hope store. I remember Consumers Distributing as an eminently frustrating place to shop. Cheaper than department stores, but impossible to tell whether anything was in stock or see any merchandise without filling out a little paper slip.  Couple that with waiting in line for somewhere between five and thirty minutes before being disappointed, and going to Consumers was always a bit of a crapshoot, a problem that only seemed to get worse as I got older. Still, the local Consumers at Main and Danforth was the primary supplier of AFX slot car sets and Timex watches to my youth.

End of the Road: Steeles Avenue East. Really, really East

It’s not called Steeles Avenue all the way out here (we even left the street’s other moniker, Taunton Road, behind a long time ago), but if you start at Yonge Street and travel east for 79 km on the same road across the top of Toronto and through Pickering, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Taunton, Hampton, and Orono, you eventually end up on Concession Road 6  just past Gilmore Road, looking at this sign and wondering if your car has better traction than farm equipment. The answer? The road is fine for a little while, but a soft and sandy stretch was enough to turn me back today. I would have investigated the extra half-block, but I was both bikeless and time-constrained. That’s the problem with exploring in a car: you’ve definitely got more range, but it’s much harder to make detours. Also, if your car gets bogged down in mud, you can’t just throw it over your shoulder and carry it back to more solid ground.

Transporting Dodgeville by the numbers, 2009

Overall distance travelled (km): 18,685

  • by airplane: 6,083
  • by bike: 5,395
  • by car: 4,840
  • by foot 1,319
  • by train: 688
  • by TTC: 294
  • by non-TTC transit: 49
  • by horse: 8
  • by Ice Explorer: 6
  • by canoe: 3

Days I walked: 319
Days I rode my bike: 275
Days I was a passenger in a car: 41
Days I drove a car: 25
Longest ride ( km): 154.4
Shortest ride (km): 2.22
Times I needed rescue by car: 1
Rides longer than 100 km: 5
Rides 10-20 km: 184
Rides shorter than 10 km: 18
Days I rode without a helmet: 1
Flat tires: 2
Tire blowouts: 1
Broken chains: 1
Broken derailleurs: 1
Broken bells: 2
Broken pedals: 2
New wheels: 3
New drivetrains: 2
New brake pads: 6
Bottles of Ice Wax lube: 3
Bikes I currently own: 7
Bikes I actually rode last year: 5
More bikes I want to buy: 2
Chance that I’ll convince Risa that I need to buy more bikes: 0

At the beginning of 2009, I embarked on a year-long project to record the distances I travelled by various means of transportation. I expected cycling to come out on top by a wide margin. My mileage estimates a year ago were 5000 km by bike, 2000 km by car, 1000 km on foot, and 500 by TTC. I got the order right, but some of the numbers were way off. In particular, I hadn’t anticipated flying anywhere, and my car mileage was bumped up considerably by our (ultimately successful) hunt for a cottage this fall; two months accounted for more than 2600 km of the 4840 km total I spent sitting in cars, and 1300 km of that came in just four days of visiting, revisiting, and inspecting.

It’s a lot of work keeping track of everywhere you go for a year. The spreadsheet I used to record every trip is 787 lines long, with calculations being done on a separate sheet before being uploaded automatically every night to my web server. My cycling log will continue to survive into the new year (as it has every year since 1991), but I think I’ll be dropping the rest of the tracking.