Join the Club!

Author’s note: this is the last of my Town Crier columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, published at the end of my two-year stint as a volunteer columnist. Sorry to keep you waiting for it!

Cyclists Need A Place to Call Home

In my first column I proposed a four-point plan for improved bicycling around Pullman and Moscow: connect the hotspots, upgrade the network, bring back the shuttle, and keep it local. True to my word,  today I describe the fourth element of the plan, the community bike clinic.

One vision I have is of a co-op or member’s club, either free or with a nominal membership fee. Membership would provide full access to the facility’s resources of parts, tools, and space; a number of “guest passes” to invite friends or friendly strangers to use the facility; and a sense of belonging to, and ownership of, the facility. The space would only be open when responsible supervision was available; and members would have to volunteer some of their time for supervision and maintenance. Those bike parts aren’t going to sort themselves! This facility should be accessibly located, ideally along one of the existing bike paths. I recall some interesting buildings along the Grand Avenue Greenway that might serve the purpose.

I have seen this system in place and working. Olympia, for instance, hosts three such facilities: one at The Evergreen State College; one in a downtown storefront; and one in a neighborhood barn, sponsored by a local bike shop. All are free and open to the public. All rely on volunteer effort and self-policing. All provide a safe and supportive atmosphere to the novice bicyclist. Here in Vancouver, Bike Clark County began with a slightly different emphasis, working mostly with low-income youth to teach bike safety and maintenance. They have since evolved into a fully-fledged “Education, Advocacy, and Adventure” organization looking to expand.

Who in this community might use such a resource? Considering all the students living in all those apartments, there might be quite a lot of interested people. Anyone with a desire to turn their own wrenches but without the space to do so, or without the wrenches themselves, would benefit. The community gardens have been successful; why not a community workshop? For that matter, why stop at bikes? An expanded space might well include sewing machines and large tables for craft work; a supervised kitchen for holiday prepping or seasonal canning; woodworking space; perhaps even an oil-change bay for those pesky but essential motor vehicles; but I digress.

As to where the initial inventory of bikes will come from, I have ideas on that. Having been to the WSU Surplus store in the summer, and having seen dozens of salvageable bicycles languishing in the open air, I suspect that a decent start could be made from the excess of what’s left over after spring cleanup. I also remember the piles of bikes and parts left for collection by the Village Bicycle Project, which ships them to far-off Africa for what I propose be done right on the Palouse: educate, enable, and empower people to get about under their own steam. Maybe we could share with them and keep half the donations at home?

Would a free bike co-op hurt local business? Judging from Olympia’s example and the many bike shops it supports, I suspect the two entities can coexist. The Palouse’s local bike shops are great community resources and place to do business, and I would not advocate taking anything away from them. They are also very much in favor of improving cycling conditions and bicycle culture. More people with bikes should mean more potential customers for them; more citizen-cyclists to access the community’s infrastructure; and more advocates for even better bicycle facilities. That’s what I call up-cycling!



Help Wanted for Winter Riding

Here is my essay for March.

I’m not going to gloat about the weather. Granted, we in Vancouver got a good taste of it, but not the double-heaped platter-full that everybody else did. I’m not going to attribute our moving back west of the Cascades, seemingly the only spot on the continent which hasn’t felt the brunt of this year’s chaotic winter weather, to anything but dumb luck. Still, winter weather can wreak havoc on transportation, be it via snow-covered streets or dangerously high winds. I have to admit I haven’t ridden nearly as much as I wanted to, or told myself I would, over the past few months. I have, however, had time to think of a few things to make winter biking a bit more tolerable.

Proper clothing and bike equipment top the list, of course. A good pair of gloves, for instance, can keep a pleasant jaunt from becoming a painful ordeal. Simple plastic safety glasses, available for ten dollars at the local hardware store, do an excellent job of keeping wind-blown snow and rain out of the rider’s eyes. The amber glasses cut glare and help vision in low light conditions, too.

So much for the low-hanging fruit; I’m more interested in how the whole system can be improved. We can’t change the weather but maybe we can buttress our bike paths against it. After all, better infrastructure will bring reluctant riders out of their shells better than anything else. I see three major issues which require mitigation: traction, wind, and motor vehicles.

Poor traction is naturally due to ice build-up, especially on corners and hills. My idea is to install some sort of “defroster” on bike paths. What I have in mind is a low-voltage, conductive grid, either stretched over a pathway like a cargo net or permanently installed by scoring the road surface and laying the conductive material into the grooves. I imagine that solar power, such as is used for street-sign lighting, would be sufficient for this. To make sure that the system only gets power when necessary, though, will require some clever engineering: precise controls of power flow based on temperature and moisture readings. Decagon, I’m looking at you here.

Wind is a tricky creature, but on the Palouse its habits are rather well-known. It cranks in from the south and west, hard and harder, yet always seems to be going against the rider. Perhaps certain vulnerable stretches of bike path could be shielded by an extended “fence” of light, clear plastic. If placed along the curb line, this wind fence would also serve as a buffer against motor vehicles, keeping their vibration and splashing at bay. And, with that sort of barrier in place, the more cautious cyclists might just be lured out to partake of a ride.

I’m not going to pretend that any of this will be easy or cheap. However, the Palouse is blessed with two outstanding universities, full of bright minds eager to change the world. Washington State University, for one, is planning to use its long-term growth plan as a teaching tool, encouraging new ideas and methods in renovating and expanding the campus. Tying that mind-set in with upgrading the bicycle and pedestrian network, both on campus and in town, could lead in all sorts of interesting directions.

December’s Newspaper Essay

Start the Bus to a Rosy Future

 For a while I entertained the idea that Pullman plays Vancouver to Moscow’s Portland, and to a certain extent that is true. The political and cultural parallels are obvious enough, but the Vancouver-Portland relationship is both more complicated and more rancorous than Pullman and Moscow’s should ever be. Nevertheless, two cities which share a border will also share population, commerce, and a host of other things as well. The key element, as with wildlife habitat, is connectivity. But while a mere few miles of picturesque terrain separate Moscow and Pullman, Portland and Vancouver rest up against a different sort of border and barrier: the Columbia River.

 Space and time constraints prevent my telling the full story of the Columbia River bridges, including the often-delayed replacement proposal for the current Interstate 5 span. But at 130,000 cars per day, this corridor is an essential piece of the region’s infrastructure. It also puts the bicyclist in a precarious position: 72 feet above the river, on a narrow strip of concrete, for the 1,000-plus yards of the span. Further south on I-5, crossing the Willamette River, the bike lane is in the space between the northbound and southbound traffic lanes. It’s not the Bill Chipman Trail, I can tell you. It is more gauntlet than greenway, an ordeal to be endured rather than a jaunt to enjoy.

 Yet there is another way to get from Vancouver to Portland with a bike, and thereby explore the Rose city on two wheels. There is bus service between the two cities. It’s really rather clever: for less than the cost of parking and gas, you get to ride down the freeway while you nap, read, or what-have-you, and end up right downtown. Granted, the first time I tried it the bus was an hour late and marked as out of service, but we got through those bits well enough. Since there is not yet any commuter rail service across the river, the bus is a welcome option for those who cannot or prefer not to drive into Portland.

 I know some of my readers are old enough to remember when there was bus service between Pullman and Moscow, too. As I recall, it was sponsored by our local universities in an effort to reduce students’ dependence on cars for personal transportation. Has the situation changed so drastically? Has enrollment dropped so low that crowding the side streets of Pullman and Moscow with students’ personal vehicles is no longer a worry? I doubt it.

 Anyway, there are others in the community besides the undergraduates who would use the service, were it available. Teens, seniors, and graduate students could expand their retail and recreation options without driving. Biking in Moscow would no longer require biking to Moscow along the weather-dependent Chipman Trail route. It might even bring the airport closer, with a midpoint stop at Airport Road. In conversation with my friends and neighbors, the idea of bringing back the shuttle was universally popular. People were willing to pay, too. The sweet spot for fares, from what I heard around town, was between two and three dollars. Surely there is a way for this to work.

 University enrollment will grow again, and so will the town; the question is whether this growth will be smart and sustainable, or haphazard and ungainly. Do we want a rose garden or a blackberry patch? Smart transportation options will help keep the weeds at bay.

But…why bikes?

Since the last few bits I’ve posted have had to do with bicycling, and since it’s much on my mind these days, and since I really really really miss writing, I’ve decided to write about bikes and bicycling for a while. I know, another poncy bike-commuter blog, all about gear ratios and crosswinds and the cool new gear I bought last week. Or, this being me and all, maybe not. After all, I’ve got my own take on things, bikes especially.

Bikes are funny things, though. They can be as cheap and simple as a single-speed cruiser, bought at a thrift shop for just a few bucks, or they can be exotic, high-tech wonders that run into the thousands of dollars. Bike riders run the gamut, too; from “get-on-and-go” types who hardly think more about it than about falling out of bed, to people even I consider over-the-top obsessed with minutiae…and I’ve even  overhauled a bicycle bell.

I find so much in bikes and bicycling, in fact, that it’s hard for me to narrow my focus down to a single aspect. Instead, I turn the whole thing around and use bicycling as a lens through which to see something else. I may be bad with names and iffy with faces, but I never forget a bike. I don’t think I’ve forgotten any of my bikes, either, and I’ve had dozens over the years.

I’m also going to tell some of the stories of the bikes I’ve had and how I acquired them, as I think there is some insight to be had there. I want to show folks that bicycling can be a relatively cheap and easy way to get around; save money; add years to one’s life, and life to one’s years.

Notes on my new town

The following is the essay I wrote for my September Town Crier column. 

How Does Vancouver Do It?

A new school year has brought the expected flood of students back into Pullman and Moscow; but the tide washes both ways, and some, including me, have left town. My wife received an opportunity to continue her graduate studies at WSU-Vancouver, so at the end of July the family packed up and headed west. Before that, though, she and I took a weekend to drive out there to go house-hunting, and I could not help but notice the extensive network of bike lanes and multi-use paths. What a pleasant surprise, on my first proper visit to the city, to find functional bike infrastructure and a live-and-let-go attitude! Right off the bat, I noticed three key elements that make the system work.

First, naturally, are connections. Several arterial bike paths link different sections of this sprawling city together. The various neighborhoods have a scaled-down version of this, with bike lanes and traffic controls incorporated into their design. Detailed maps of both the city and county routes are widely available, and both interstate highway routes across the Columbia River incorporate bicycle access.

The second ingredient is directions. Along the bikeways are actual street signs, clearly marked with distance and direction to key destinations. On a practical level, the benefit here is obvious, but there is a subtle psychological angle too. The subtext of the trail signs, in their classic white-on-green livery, is that riding a bike around Vancouver is a perfectly normal way to get around town, one that the community endorses. These signs are so helpful, in fact, that we have used them for guidance while driving.

The third element is attitude. It may come as a shock to readers, given what a contrast it is to the “dare you” style of street crossing employed in Pullman and Moscow, but pedestrians in Vancouver actually have the right-of-way. More than once we noticed cars backing up off the sidewalk to accommodate people walking past a driveway or business exit. Bicycles and their riders are forgiven their trespass onto public roads, and allowed safe passage.

Now that I live here, I think the fourth element in Vancouver’s alchemy is grass roots. Members of the community have taken an active stance on keeping this city accessible by active transportation. I recently volunteered for such an event, called “Sunday Streets Alive,” which closed off over four miles of roadway to motor vehicle traffic. People got to walk, skate, and ride through the city’s neighborhoods, meeting neighbors and enjoying street fairs at key locations. It was a great way to bring a city of over 100,000 people back to a more approachable scale.

I’m not making this up. Is it something in the water? Could it be the calming effect of the evergreen trees? Some of it must be spillover from Vancouver’s nutty neighbor to the south: Portland. Being located next to one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States is sure to have an effect on planning and development, if only to stay competitive in the job and housing markets. Beyond that, there must be some cultural cross-over happening as well. The answer will require further research. Here lies the challenge and opportunity of being a transplant: learning not just a new neighborhood, but a new history, geography, and culture. One cannot be fully engaged in the act of citizenship without doing some homework first. My mission to learn what makes Vancouver tick and Portland tock should help me see what other lessons these cities may hold for my former stomping grounds.

A Little Etiquette Goes a Long Way

So far, so good. Spring has finally arrived on the Palouse, with summer close behind. Most of the students have left; some for the season, some for good. Seemingly overnight, the leaves emerged on the trees and the green grass returned to the river.  The Swainson’s hawks have returned, as have the bicyclists, and they are both a sight for sore eyes. My own hope is to see the cyclists working together as well as the hawks do. To that end, here is some wisdom and encouragement for those of you who may be tired of traffic, parking, and just not moving enough; and would like to see the world from a finer point of view.


Give it a shot. Dust off that old ten-speed, mountain bike, or cruiser in the basement or garage. Oil the chain, fill the tires, and go somewhere. The hardest part of any journey is often leaving home.

Be prepared. Think of a bike ride as a “hike on wheels.” Water, snacks, a few tools, and the right clothing can make a world of difference.

Gear up. All my bikes get four standard upgrades: fenders, a rack, lights, and a signal bell. The increase in utility is astounding. Your local downtown bike shop has everything you need, and then some, and will be happy to help you get your ride in top shape. A word or two on the bell: use it. Signaling your approach to those ahead of you is not only common etiquette, it’s an excellent safety practice too.

Create a demand. The more regular folks out riding to work, school,  the grocery store, or the coffee shop, the more normal bicycling becomes. Drivers learn to see bikes, and municipalities and businesses learn that their citizens and customers want a usable bike infrastructure. Safeway and Dissmore’s, for instance, have covered bike parking close to the main entrance.


Be “That Guy.” You know who I mean. The one who runs red lights, darts in and out of traffic, and zips past the slowpokes on the bike path with nary a sound or signal to precede him. The one with no headlight, going the wrong way in a dark jacket at night. The one who leads others to believe that cyclists are jerks. Road masters, I respect both your wattage and your grit. But the full-on, low-clearance pass with not a speck of noise is both disrespectful and dangerous. Not all of us can hold a perfectly steady line on a bike, and I hate to think of what would happen if there were an accidental swerve. Bells are both cheap and light, and is there a sweeter sound on a summer’s day? I think not.

Tune Out. Music is a wonderful accompaniment to life and a great companion for exercise, but negotiating a wheeled contrivance takes a certain degree of attentiveness. The envelope of earbud-delivered sonic bliss tends to inhibit such a state, judging from my own experience on both sides of the wall of sound. So, do everyone a favor and keep the music to background level. Unless you’re playing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which case you’d better be singing all the parts out loud. In which case I’ll join you. And air guitar? Not a good idea.

Knock it… until you’ve tried it. I know, the hills and the weather are daunting challenges, but whither the pioneer spirit? I realize, too, that there are many who simply can’t manage it due to illness or infirmity. It is not them to whom I speak. It is the able-bodied, single-occupant drivers, who line Grand Avenue every day; and to them I say, as Freddie Mercury put it so well: “Get on your bikes and ride!”

So, What’s the Plan?

My newest essay is in the local paper this morning and, as promised, here is the text of it for all of you who can’t buy or don’t subscribe to the M-P-D-N.

Don’t let the cold and snow dissuade you from believing that spring is around the corner. Pitchers and catchers have reported; gardeners are perusing their seed catalogs; backpackers are prepping their gear for the next adventure; and the cyclists of the Palouse are replacing tires, inspecting chains, and keeping an eye out for clear days- and roads- for an early-season ride.

Institutions are making plans, too. Washington State University has hired ALTA Transportation, a professional consulting firm, to work with them on an updated bicycle route network. An enterprising Civil Engineering student named Andrew Stephenson has come up with a plan to adapt campus bike routes to the contours of the landscape. He envisions lifts or elevators at critical junctions to help mitigate the difficulty of the hills. The city of Moscow is  looking ahead as well, its “Moscow on the Move” program dedicated to implementing the vision of the city’s Comprehensive Plan of 2009.

The city of Pullman has a plan, too. It was just updated…in 1996. I think it’s fair to say that the city has changed somewhat since then, considering that the population has risen by some 5,000 people. Still, the plan is both an interesting glimpse into the recent past and a potential blueprint for the future. It’s worth dusting off, updating, and using as a springboard to launch Pullman into a new era of bicycle accessibility that could put the city on the map as an example of how to enhance alternative transportation. As WSU moves forward, the city of Pullman needs to pick up and move along with it. The campus cannot be left to become an island, cut off from its surroundings, for city and school grow best when they grow together. The border between city and campus is so permeable as to be nonexistent in some areas, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

As I discussed in my previous essay, open borders make for easy migration and dispersal, while barriers don’t have to be large to be effective. Something as mundane as a gravel-covered street or a bumper curb in the wrong place can ruin an otherwise good bicycle route, to say nothing of streets without bike lanes or multi-use paths that ultimately lead nowhere.

The 1996 pedestrian/bicycle plan does a good job of identifying the high-traffic areas where conflicts are likely to occur, and while there has been notable improvement (the Grand Avenue Greenway, for instance), some notorious tangles remain (like crossing Stadium Way on said path). Comparing the ideas in the plan to the reality on the ground, it is easy to see that the plan has been followed only partially and sporadically. It seems reasonable to expect more progress after sixteen years, especially considering how many other ways the community has grown. We have to ask ourselves, and our representatives in city government, why. Perhaps the answer lies in the truism that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and other wheels have squeaked more loudly. Is it because cycling is still seen more as recreation than transportation? Has it to do with revenue? I noticed a fee-based registration proposal in the plan, yet I have never heard of it elsewhere.

Maybe it is best, then, that WSU is leading the way on this issue. We need to make sure that the city follows closely. To that end, there is an open house this Thursday, March 7, in the WSU CUB Junior Ballroom (210 East) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring the transportation consultants the university has hired for its  Bike and Ped plan. Considering that the world is run by those who show up, I intend to be there. But first, I have to fix my bike chain.

Everyone Loves a Shortcut

 Here is the essay I wrote in December.

As the daylight fades, the winds pick up, and we prepare to settle in for another long Northwest winter, readers may find it an odd time to think about bicycling. I will reluctantly admit that the riding season may be winding down, and snow-covered streets may soon end it altogether. But, as gardeners and baseball fans can attest, winter is the time to argue, plan, and dream about next year. So, let’s start the conversation about what we want our community to look like and how we can get there. The “hot stove league” is just warming up.

Viewing the world from the seat of my bicycle, as I often do, puts me in a different frame of mind from most folks. I often compete for access and space with powerful, multi-ton behemoths possessing minds and agendas of their own. Sometimes I feel like a very small animal indeed. In fact, I often look at human activity as though I were studying a complex, exotic species; for isn’t that what we are? Part of my undergraduate studies included wildlife corridor ecology, and I find it a useful lens through which to view personal transportation. In the case of commuting, let us argue that we are examining human migratory and dispersal patterns through a mixed-use landscape.

One common trait with animals, and in this humans are no exception, is the tendency to take the easiest route possible between two points. The needs to conserve energy and save time are prime directives in the wilderness, and serve to guide animal behavior. Obstacles and impediments are to be avoided, and helpful resources like food, water and shelter should be nearby. No wonder, then, that valleys and riverbanks have been such popular travel routes since time out of mind. It’s not just the scenery; it’s the convenience. The “path of least resistance” is the shortest, safest, and healthiest way to go. This is part of the reason why wildlife corridors and “critter crossings” have become a popular solution for reducing human-wildlife conflict and loss.

The same principle applies within the human sphere too. Sidewalks, crossings, and multi-use paths are pieces of infrastructure designed to provide safe access points and travel options. However, it is all too easy for auto-centric thinking to dominate city and highway planning, choking off vital avenues for alternative transportation. Asking a pedestrian or cyclist to cross four unmarked lanes of traffic is like asking a deer to swim a river. They’ll do it once or twice if they have to, but it’s not likely to become a habit. Study after study reveals that the number-one impediment to people getting out on their bicycles in their own communities is their concern about safety.

“But wait!” you say. “What about the bike paths? Why can’t riders just stay on them?” I’m glad you brought that up. The Grand Avenue Greenway and the Bill Chipman Trail are both wonderful assets and get their fair share of use, but they don’t always go where they are needed. Try going from Terre View Drive to Bishop Boulevard on a bike sometime and you’ll see what I mean. There are a few of us who are fearless or foolish enough to navigate the narrow streets and dicey intersections along the way, but most recreational riders I know prefer not to play in traffic. Getting around the WSU campus is more of the same story. Bike lanes appear and disappear randomly, multi-use paths shrink into sidewalks with no warning, and the sheer density of automotive traffic is rather intimidating.

I intend to address specific trouble spots in a future essay. My point here is to put the issue into a different perspective, and to try and get interested parties thinking “outside the lines” when it comes to the future of transportation in Pullman.

Improving the Palouse Bike Experience

 I recently received the honor of being one of several guest columnists from the community for our local newspaper. Our only restrictions are the deadline, word count, and politeness, though we are encouraged to focus on local issues. Since access to the actual paper is restricted to subscribers, I am re-posting my essay here. You’re welcome.

Since moving out to the Palouse two years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the contrasts between the “fraternal twin” cities of Pullman and Moscow. Though similar on the surface, both being small towns hosting major universities, difference large and small abound. I am sure that many factors over the years have played a role in this divergence, and that unfolding story fascinates me; especially from the seat of my bicycle.

I came here from Olympia and a four-year stint as a nearly full-time bike commuter, so I am used to looking at a city from that point of view. I have shared road and sidewalk with pedestrians and panhandlers; logging trucks and limos. I have studied maps for shortcuts and bike routes, ridden through driving rain and bitter cold, and built functional bikes from piles of parts. In short, I am something of a bike nut. Judging from the popularity of WSU’s “Green Bike” program and the delightful variety of bikes I see on my visits to Moscow, I am not the only one. Yet Moscow is well ahead of Pullman in its bike-friendliness, and there is but a tenuous connection between the two towns.

Pullman’s hilly contours and narrow streets do their fair share to discourage bike traffic, as do distracted drivers and Old Man Winter. But while geography plays a role in a city’s development, it is no guarantor of destiny. If places as diverse as Copenhagen, San Francisco, and New York City have adapted to bicycles, and vise versa, Pullman and Moscow are surely able to transform from merely bike-tolerant to truly bike-friendly. This would have benefits for both the land and the people of the Palouse, not to mention the rest of the wider world. First, though, a few kinks need to be ironed out. Over my next several Town Crier columns I will propose some solutions, based on these four main ideas:

1. Connect the hotspots. The essence of transportation is getting products and people where they want to go, not sticking them where they don’t want to be. I have noticed some significant gaps and interruptions in trying to bike around Pullman, and I will detail them in a future article.

2. Upgrade the network. The basic framework of a trail system is in place, but it is currently more suited to summer recreation than year-round transit. I have some ideas that could improve usability for commuters as well as joyriders.

3. Restore the shuttle. The lack of a public-transit link between Pullman and Moscow puts more cars on the road, more pollution in the air, and more parking headaches into our community. Surely there is sufficient demand for a fare-based bus service connecting these two cities? I plan to investigate this question.

4. Keep it local. Sending used bikes and bike parts to far-off Africa is a good-hearted undertaking, but charity begins at home. Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for an inferior box-store bicycle unsuited to the realities of urban commuting, what if low-income riders could build their own custom bike at minimal cost with existing materials? I have seen it happen, and I believe it can work here as well.

Improving the Moscow-Pullman bicycling experience in these ways would help ease motor vehicle traffic in the crowded downtown areas; reduce pressure on an overcrowded transit system; improve the health and well-being of our citizenry; highlight the Palouse as a forward-thinking region, dedicated to responsible, sustainable development; make the city an even more attractive destination; and help mitigate the effects of global climate change and resource scarcity. We owe it both to ourselves and to future generations to make this beautiful corner of the world as good as it can be.