wishful thinking

It’s hard to believe it was just a week ago that I took these pictures after a long ride from Somerville to South Boston at the end of a gorgeous weekend. I’m going to ignore the wind and rain outside for now and just stare at these until it goes away.


syrup in the city

photo courtesy nuanc via flickr

Spring (or maybe just a temporary reprieve) has come early to Boston this year. Yesterday marked my first day of gloveless riding, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Along with warm sun and snow-free streets, another sign that winter is wrapping up: maple sugaring. Tapping maple trees may be associated more with the backwoods of Quebec than with metro Boston, but there’s plenty of it around here. I’ve heard about several towns in the nearby suburbs that have been tapping their trees, but I’m most excited about the Somerville Maple Syrup Project right in my backyard. This is a great project that brings together Groundwork Somerville, the Friends of the Somerville Community Growing Center, Somerville Public Schools, and Tufts University. The sap has been flowing since early in February, and will be turned into maple syrup next Saturday, March 13 at a Boil Down at the Somerville Community Growing Center.

If you can’t make it to the boil down, keep an eye out for the syrup this summer at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, where it will be sold at the Grown in Somerville booth.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself talking about farmer’s markets. I’m sure we’ll have more snow before winter is really over, but for now I’ll enjoy the sunshine.

Biking in heels?

Since entering the biking blogosphere, I have discovered just how many beautiful, inspirational blogs there are out there promoting the use of bicycles for everyday transportation by those of us who don’t want to wear spandex or break any records (or even a sweat).

Now, I love the image of a woman in a dress on a vintage bike, hair blowing in the wind, just as much as anyone. After spending some time drooling over vintage bicycle accessories and picturesque images on said blogs, I began to think of my modern hybrid bicycle as very boring and lacking in romance. My typical winter biking outfit of tights, jeans, heavy socks, t-shirt, and parka seemed even worse. I think of myself as an aesthetically-minded person and generally am all for a little romance in the everyday, so I wondered what had brought me down this practical path.

I’ve realized, though, that since the beauty of biking for me is more about the freedom a bicycle can offer than it is about the bicycle itself, comfort and ease have always been paramount. Biking is also something that I love for its simplicity. It’s practical transport without having to think about fuel or train schedules or (at least not much) even parking. That means I don’t want to spend hours thinking about the material accessories that biking can bring into my life, but would rather think about where I’m going to go next.

I hope that the average biking novice realizes that they don’t have to ride a road bike if that makes them uncomfortable, but I also hope that their only alternative isn’t a sit-up-and-beg style vintage bike. While these may be perfect for short journeys under a couple of miles, I know I feel much more comfortable, and travel faster, on my hybrid commuter. And while, yes, the idea of travelling slowly in my work clothes, arriving at work refreshed-but-not-sweaty sounds wonderful, I know that I’m not always going to leave enough time to accommodate that kind of trip, and that I’ll be much more comfortable in casual clothes that I can take off at work and replace with clean work clothes. This is at least partly due to my particular trip, which is almost six miles. I’m sure if I wasn’t travelling so far, biking in my work clothes might be more appealing.

There was a time in my past when I commuted to a job that was four miles from my apartment. It was springtime, and I would travel in my work clothes. Not even heels, but just flats. Twice, I lost a shoe en route, and felt like a fool. The shoe got run over by at least one car and was really dirty by the time I could run into the road (barefoot – ick – why am I even admitting this?) and get it back. Maybe the lesson here is just that I chose the wrong work shoes to wear on my bike, but my point is that I am much more comfortable on my bicycle wearing some practical, casual, and (gasp) maybe even slightly sporty clothing, if I’m going to be travelling any distance.

In general, I’m all for people getting on a bicycle in whatever they would normally be wearing. If you always wear heels, by all means, I suppose, don’t feel you have to take them off to get on a bike. I think, though, that we could encourage more non-bikers to choose bicycle transport by pointing out those things that would make them that little bit more comfortable. Maybe my problem is just that I’m never fully comfortable in heels, even when I’m standing on solid ground, but I really can’t imagine getting on a bike in them.

improvements in my neighborhood

Those locally may be equally cheered by an article I saw on Boston.com today about plans for the North Cambridge stretch of Mass Ave. Apparently, bike lanes and bike parking may be in the works, as well as trees and more retail space!

lycra louts

I just learned this new expression for describing “rogue cyclists” who flout the rules of the road. It’s employed in serious articles in British newspapers, as I’ve discovered, and these louts seem to be considered a widespread menace in London. Saying it out loud still makes me laugh, but I’m glad we don’t seem to have an equivalent expression in Boston (or have I just missed it?).

“Lycra lout” behavior includes running red lights, biking on sidewalks, and biking the wrong way down one-way streets. This makes me wonder why there isn’t a similar outrage in this country (or at least this city) over cyclists who disobey traffic laws. There are certainly people who will be happy to tell you about all the “crazy bikers” they’ve witnessed from their car, but overall it seems like there’s no real expectation that those on bikes will obey traffic rules. Bostonians who tell these stories seem more amused than furious, unlike their counterparts in the British press.

Apparently fines for bicycle violations in London may be raised from £30 to £100, as £30 was considered too lenient. This is far higher than the $20 fine in Cambridge for bicycle violations, and I have yet to actually see anyone in Cambridge being stopped on their bicycle. In fact, a Boston traffic cop once laughed at me when I stopped at a red light. When I was in London in 2007, I once saw a cyclist chastised by a cop just for stopping in front of a “stop here” line at a red light, rather than behind it.

I’ve always been an advocate for vehicular cycling, but I often feel alone when others on bikes fly past me at red lights.

Now I wonder if the British are just generally more angered by rule-breaking than we are, or if these low expectations mean that cyclists are still too small a minority to be considered any real threat. Should I long for an American campaign against lycra louts, to prove that we’re capable of making an impact on the local psyche? Or is this just another indication that nothing good can come of wearing lycra?


After playing tourist in Boston last weekend, I headed off to Chicago for a few days of the real thing. Of course, I was interested in checking out the bicycle situation, and was curious to see who would be biking in another northern city in February.  There seemed to be few on bikes in the downtown area, and no bike lanes that I could see (from the sidewalks – I never actually got on a bike myself), but there were some hardy souls out and a plethora of parking options for them to take advantage of. For some reason this bicycle owner chose a trash bin instead.

A little further out, in Wicker Park, there were a lot more people on bicycles and a greater diversity of riders (in that they weren’t all male), as well as plenty of indicators of bike-pride. Note the fabulous wooden fenders!

playing tourist

This weekend I took a longer-than-normal bike ride and ended up travelling from Somerville to Roxbury and back again, about 15 miles round trip. I had agreed to do some tutoring and knew cycling there would be faster than taking public transportation, so the trip was a practical one. After the tutoring, which included re-learning the rules for exponents (has it been 8 years since I used that word?), I did some meandering and picture-taking. It’s always fun to see a neighborhood on bicycle for the first time.

First things first: how was the cycling? Tremont Street and Columbus Ave, which were the most direct way for me to get where I was going, proved less than ideal on a bike. The traffic on these streets moves fast, there is no bike lane, and where cars were parked, there was nowhere for a bicycle other than directly in the lane of traffic. A lovely raised ridge running parallel to the curb next to the parked cars contributed some extra drama to the ride (what causes these? they’re scary). On the way back I chose to ride along the Southwest Corridor Park until I got to Ruggles Street, where I got back on the roads. After that it was smooth sailing apart from a less-than-fun trip over the BU Bridge, which has gotten even narrower with more construction. At least the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs made me feel like someone was backing me up.

Along the way I saw a Victorian water tower that I thought was a minaret (apparently the Victorians had very different ideas about what a water tower should look like), and some interesting street decor outside a mysterious office, which was right up my alley.

bicycle commuter act

This is apparently very old news, but somehow I just heard about it today. Way back in 2008, a Bicycle Commuter Act was passed as part of the Renewable Energy Tax Credit legislation that went into effect on January 1, 2009.  This allows for a reimbursement (from your employer) of up to $20/month for bicycle related expenses, assuming you commute by bicycle regularly.

How this reimbursement happens seems a little hazy and is apparently for each employer to figure out themselves. I haven’t heard a peep about this benefit yet from my employer, so am assuming that it’s not something they actually offer at this point. I sent an inquiry to my HR office and am awaiting a reply…

Even if they do offer it, it’s unlikely that I would ever actually take advantage of the benefit, as you can’t receive this reimbursement in the same month that you receive another transportation benefit (i.e. a transit pass or parking reimbursements), and I really love my subsidized MBTA pass. It seems a shame that these things can’t be combined, since $20 a month is pretty meagre anyway, compared to the $115/month that’s allowed for transit and the $210/month to help drivers. As soon as I heard about this I thought about a beautiful new saddle bag I’ve had my eye on, but I guess I’m going to have to spend my own taxed income on that one.

I doubt that this kind of benefit is enough to encourage those who don’t commute by bike to start, but it does seem like it could be helpful for those who are already doing so.

urban fowl

Check out this post about a current debate in Cambridge over backyard chickens and ducks, and then visit the owners’ website to sign a petition to support the keeping of “a reasonable number of hens on residential property.”

This issue will be addressed by the Cambridge Zoning Board of Appeals this Thursday.

streets for whom?

On Thursday I went to a “StreetTalk” at the Livable Streets Alliance in Cambridge. Barbara Knecht, the Director of Design at the Institute for Human Centered Design spoke about who and what streets should really be designed for (short answer: people). Barbara spoke about the need for everyone – not just drivers and bikers – to maneuver around the city, and the need for streets and sidewalks that can accommodate all the different devices that people use for travel, from wheelchairs and strollers to Segways and roller blades. One point that really resonated was about the vast amount baby boomers who will no longer be capable of driving safely in the future and will need other practical modes of transportation. The talk was hopeful, touching on all the small changes that are helpful and the speed with which attitudes can turn around. She spoke about the bicycle-friendly changes that were made in New York in a relatively short amount of time, and the relatively low cost associated with a lot of bicycle infrastructure. All of this was encouraging, as was the energy and optimism in the packed room filled with rosy-cheeked cyclists. I felt guilty that I had arrived by bus, and was inspired to bike to work on Friday for the first time in months.

Somewhat apprehensive about whether I had chosen the right clothes, I set off Friday morning with my new neck warmer almost covering my face, but quickly warmed up and had a great ride in, arriving at work awake, alert, and full of camaraderie after one of those instant-solidarity run-ins with a co-worker at the bike rack. When I left work I was feeling somewhat less exuberant. The day had been stressful and I was glad to be getting some exercise on my way home. As I rode down Mass Ave, approaching the bridge, I was thinking how happy I was that I had biked and how beautiful the city was. Suddenly, as I went through a green light at an intersection, the oncoming car made a fast left turn, clearly oblivious to the fact that I was there. I screamed, brakes screeched, the car stopped inches from my bike, and I felt incredibly vulnerable. The woman at the wheel of the car gave me an exasperated look, as though, really, what did I expect? I pointed at the green light, also exasperated, and rode off. Shaky and tearful, suddenly every car looked ominous and seemed to be driving incredibly fast. I thought of Barbara Knecht’s comments about the need to slow down city traffic, and with longing of the European cities that have been lowering city speed limits.

Driving in traffic has never bothered me, and I’ve never understood those people who cite “Boston drivers” as a reason not to bike. Honestly, I’ve always found biking in traffic a little thrilling. Aside from its practicality, I think that’s why urban biking hooked me in a way that cycling down rural roads never would have. This incident was the closest I had ever come to an accident, though, and it definitely shook me up. I’ll admit, I even got a ride home. Nobody was hurt, my bike hadn’t even been damaged, but I suddenly felt a lot less optimistic.