Posts Tagged 'Bicycles'

Post-Olympics Beijing: Car Bans Continue

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

SEOUL — AS IT SWEATS OFF the last of the Summer Olympics fever, Beijing is beginning to shift its environmental policy paradigm. In the cold, smoggy light of morning, the city must now face all that it has become, and re-orient itself with the needs of its citizens.

Last January, I expressed hope that residents of the Chinese capital would take a cue from a planned ban of over a million cars during the Games and dust off their bicycles. While a two-wheeled revolution has yet to take place, the municipality has shown surprising initiative in keeping the skies blue (China Daily via China Digital Times):

Under the new traffic restrictions, 30 percent of government vehicles will be sealed off as of October 1 […] The remaining 70 percent of government vehicles, as well as all corporate and private cars, will take turns off the roads one out of the five weekdays as of October 11, it said.

The plan is not completely without its flaws. And while many Beijingers were willing to put up with public transport during the Games, the Daily says their patience has now worn thin.

While most people applaud the ban on government and corporate vehicles, the ban on private cars, however, has sparked an outcry from car owners, many of whom complain it is “unfair”.

“I need to take my daughter home from boarding school on Friday night,” said Beijing bank clerk Zhang Min, whose number plate ends with “0” and will be banned on Friday. “Probably we need to buy another car.”

The restrictions appear to be mostly aimed at easing congestion, with a nod to the effect they will have on air quality. But that’s a start. The city is taking a progressive approach by first cutting municipal traffic, and the kinks will get worked out as people and policies adjust. Auto-owning residents may be loathe to relinquish the wheel for now, but they might change their minds in a couple months when they’re able to drink in a lung-full of oxygen.

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In Seattle, of Bicycles and Tree Assassins

photo by miss nikichan

SEOUL — IT WAS A GOOD THING that my life fit neatly into two large neoprene tubs. The apartment left room for little more. When I unfolded my built-in “kitchen” table from the wall, it blocked the entry way. The place had only one sink (in the bathroom) and my stovetop fit inside a small closet. But the floors were hardwood, and the location was prime: 42nd & Brooklyn, two blocks from campus.

About three years ago this September, I was hauling my stuff into this tiny space, picking up the pieces of a life I’d left behind in Seattle and bringing back some of who I’d become in Korea (this would be after my second sojourn in the country), along with a newfound love from Beijing: cycling. My future wife and I had rented old, rattling bicycles from a hotel during our trip there, and spent a day cruising around the city’s famous hutong. We stopped near Qian Hai Lake to eat peaches we’d bought from a local vendor, passed by the Drum Tower and wound up at a nameless tea shop on the west side of the Forbidden City. I felt a sense of freedom and ease that I’d long abandoned for a stick-shift.

One of the first things I’d done when I returned to the States was resurrect my old GT mountain bike from its resting place in my parents’ basement. Some oil and new tires and, behold! — it spins again. Not long after I moved up into my apartment, I could be found humming along the Seattle pavement, rushing unhindered by traffic through the city’s concrete veins.

My favorite route was the Burke-Gilman trail; a 20-some-mile path running from Fremont, through the University District and out along Lake Washington towards the northeastern suburbs of Kenmore and Bothell. For a good chunk of the ride, the trail was shaded by lush trees, a good number of which were deciduous — notably so, as much of the Northwest is wrapped up in firs and evergreens. As summer gave way to fall, I remember rolling over the brown pulp of jilted leaves, defying the fog and seasonal drizzle.

One particularly brisk morning, the orange, angular light of dawn cut through the changing foliage, highlighting the burning colors of the trees. It was absolutely beautiful, so much so that I nearly lost track of where I was going. Despite my pace, I felt frozen for a moment, my thoughts strung up between the technicolor branches.

The memory makes this recent news all the more saddening: someone is killing trees along the Burke-Gilman. The Seattle P-I reports:

Quarter-inch holes spaced about an inch apart were drilled around the tree trunks. Three poplars and two Douglas firs are dead, and two firs are starting to turn brown. The leaves on the poplars turned black, Mead said, indicating a rapid death likely caused by an herbicide.

“They were pretty thorough,” he said of whomever damaged the trees. “It would indicate a professional” did the poisoning.

The deaths of the trees reportedly came after unidentified persons in the neighborhood requested the trees be taken down.

While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things the downing of a few trees is minuscule, what is ultimately more depressing is the attitude this act reflects; the viewing of nature as an obstruction, and a disrespect for public space. It is perhaps a similar mentality that drives urban sprawl, that great plowing of humanity out where the wilderness would be better left to its own devices, the compartmentalizing of land into blocks of private property.

Here in Seoul, as in Beijing, greenspace is a hot commodity — my wife and I stumbled across a patch of grass the other day and took a picture as proof that it actually grows here. Without the luxury of yards, Seoul’s residents enjoy what little nature the city affords by picnicking next to the river or up in the mountains, and savor the few breaths that smell of pine instead of smog. In contrast, it seems that even some among the famously eco-friendly Seattlelites have gotten spoiled; perhaps they ought to go out for a ride, and remember what makes the city what it is.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • A new rail service between Thailand and neighboring Laos will start this April. According to Xinhua, there will be two intial passenger train services running from Bankok to Nong Khai and Ban Thanaleng.
  • Newsweek posts a sobering photo gallery that captures the brutal human scars left by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
  • From staying in Sumatran solar-powered lodges to touring Thai national forests, Forbes covers what’s going on in Southeast Asian Ecotourism.
  • In the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise talks about the importance of a new photo collection that tackles the many meanings of being Turkish.
  • And in Chicago, a new ordinance is passed giving cyclists more rights. Drivers can now be fined up to $500 for “dooring” bikers, turning in front of them, or not passing with more than three feet of room.

For more links, check out my del.icio.us — safe travels.

This Week’s Wandering News

THIS BLOG HAS NEVER really had a strict format — and it likely never will. But in an effort to make things just a smidgen more consistent and a tad more daily, I’m making a few tentative changes. The first is the return of This Week’s Wandering News, a collection of links from around the interweb that relate to travel and world news. This will be posted every Sunday. If you can’t wait a week to get your hands on what TDT’s been reading, then check out my del.icio.us. Enjoy!

  • Going to be in the Rainy City for St. Patty’s Day? Then check out the bar guide over at The Stranger to go “beyond green beer.” Molly Macguire’s in Ballard is my personal favorite.
  • Korean burritos? Steak and bleu cheese dumplings? A new fusion restaurant in Chicago called “Crisp” is blaspheming traditional Korean dishes and making some delicious-looking concoctions.
  • An eerie capture of devotees dancing at an Indian festival celebrating the Hindu god Shiva is one among many fascinating photos in a Chicago Tribune collection.
  • The Philharmonic has left, the desperation continues. Fifteen people were shot by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese border. According to reports, some of the victims had been trying to flee the country while others had simply been aiding their escape into China.
  • Cycling groups are gaining popularity in Indonesia, as thousands of Jakartans are biking to work.

A Bicycle, $1.50, and the Greatest Afternoon

IT WAS SHAPING UP to be a disappointing morning. I stumbled sleepily from bed and into the kitchen, knocking over the recycle bin along the way and littering a blizzard of hole punches onto the carpet. Sitting on the floor and trying to gather them into a pile, I grumbled to myself about how all I wanted was some juice…

Things got a little better when I noticed a note that my fiancee had left me, telling me I was her “hottie from hottingham.” I had the day off from work and so the hours were all mine – I just had no idea where to begin. For a checklist-making man like myself, this was a very bad thing.

In the back of my mind I knew there were things that needed done: research for articles I wanted to write, studying Korean, blogging, emails. I started by doing none of that and browsing pictures on flickr instead, sipping coffee and being jealous of a friend’s recent trip to Berlin. Then came the inevitable waves of restlessness. By the time I sat down to do a bit of study my work ethic had crumbled, and after scribbling a few sentences of Korean all I wanted to do was sit in bed and eat cookies. I took a shower.

I was a mess of procrastination. I did laundry. I washed dishes. I downloaded music. I checked my email at least ten times. It was coming up on 12:30 and I hadn’t done a damn thing worth doing, and I was suddenly reminded of what co-worker had said to me the previous night: “It’s ironic that we spend all our time at work wishing we were doing something else, and then when we have our own time we just end up taking a nap.” I was like a dog spinning circles trying to find the perfect spot to lay down – only I never found it. I got back in bed, and wished for a do-over.

After 15 minutes of breathing deeply and seeking my inner calm, I came to a realization. In doing each of my menial chores I had been seeking an escape from my restlessness. Before each activity I had convinced myself that it was utterly necessary to finish it before starting my day, and meanwhile the hours had slithered by. What I really needed was to do something simply for the sake of doing – something I could throw myself into for my own enjoyment. Taking the advice of a recent commenter, I did what few would think to do in the days following a torrential snowfall; I went for a spin on my bicycle.

In the middle of my third Wisconsin winter my enthusiasm for riding had been dwindling; slushy streets and below-zero windchills meant I only hopped on my bike when necessary, and it was rarely a joyful event. But with cycling being my only source of exercise this also meant I had become a bit sloth-like, with fitful cabin fever. And so determined to again feel the wind on my face and the the joy of gliding over the streets, I set out.

For the first mile or so I pedaled uneasily over the snow, nearly biffing it as I rounded a corner and hit a chunk of ice. Internally I fought with myself over whether this was really a good idea – my legs continued to spin through sheer unconscious will, like passing prayer beads between my fingers.

I was headed around the lake, a familiar 12-mile route through Madison’s suburbs – an easy cruise in the summertime, now made interesting by gaping potholes and unrideable stretches of heavy snow. Within the first mile my shoes were soaked through, but I welcomed the stimulation, the invigorating cold and racing pulse. It was my tiny adventure, my personal escape. I felt giddy as I careered down slippery hills, conquering the abandoned streets.

As I rode, threads of blue were woven into the sky’s patchwork grey – there was even a smattering of sunshine. Having almost completed my circumnavigation, I paused at an empty park that was covered in knee-high snow – it caked onto the cuffs of my pants as I trudged through, my feet now partially numb. I noticed sled tracks spilling down the nearby hill and suddenly wished for my old plastic toboggan.

Cruising back into downtown I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. Stopping into a neighborhood market the first thing that caught my eye was the pastry case, and I began to salivate over the seductive glaze of the apple fritters. I bought one for myself, and a plain glazed to take home for my fiancee – the fact that any bakery purchase came with a free cup of coffee sealed the deal, and for $1.50 I was a happy man.

I stepped outside, inhaling my sweet lunch and warming up with slurps of coffee. Though I’d left my list of tasks untouched, the afternoon had been properly siezed – and I felt content with that. Sensation tingled back into my toes, and I hopped back up on the saddle to pedal the rest of the way home.

Photo: lake monona, by click-see. madison.

Transportation Resolution

IT IS THE RARE person who would hope to see gas prices skyrocket to $11 per gallon in the coming year, but such is the wish of Michael Barrett. The Madison-based urban geographer recently told ISTHMUS, a local weekly paper, that what would ensue would be a “cascade of Very Good Things”:

First, we might finally see the lazy asses get out of their cars and walk it off. (Their attitudes and asses, that is.) Second, those rivers of death — a.k.a. highways — would become streams of life, full of people biking, rollerblading, walking, skateboarding and cross-country skiing. Third, we could all finally breathe.”

While I may not be so extreme as to hope for a cripplingly high price of gas (the chain reaction would create a surge in energy costs and would mean prohibitive prices for air travel), I get what Barrett is saying; he’s certainly got recent evidence for the “rivers of death” claim, and I’ve often fantasized about how lovely it would be if highways were transformed into thriving bikeways.

Barrett works for Urban Thoreau, a firm that looks to shift urban infrastructure so that it fosters human interaction – that long forgotten art. One of the company’s biggest projects is pushing a “Parking Cashout” policy, which enables employees to receive a cash stipend for the cost of their company-subsidized parking space if they choose not to drive to work. Modeled after a 1992 California law that has been loosely enforced, Urban Thoreau is trying to implement the practice locally, with some success, in an effort to get people out of their cars and into fresh air.

My last trip home I realized how stifled I felt after a couple weeks of driving on a regular basis from my suburban hometown to downtown Seattle. My moments of stillness in the outdoors were the ones that made me appreciate where I was. In the same vein with Barrett’s wish, I hope that as a society we would take a collective pause and reevaluate where we’re going – and how we’re getting there.

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work whether of the head or the hands. I love a broad margin in my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in the undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

Henry David Thoreau

As Long as You Ride It….

YESTERDAY MARKED THE INAUGURAL run of the South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle, opening a 1.3 mile track in the downtown area for public use. The completion of the streetcar is the first in a string of several projects to give the traffic-choked Seattle area better transportation alternatives.

Prior to completion, the streetcar picked up the unfortunate (if logical) name, the South Lake Union Trolley – or S.L.U.T. A neighborhood coffee shop began printing t-shirts reading “Ride the S.L.U.T.,” which have been selling out. It’s unlikely that Mayor Greg Nickels was too thrilled about the acronym, though he concedes that it’s here to stay. “I don’t care what you call it,” he said, “as long as you ride it.” (P.I.)

On the more serious end, the trolley has gotten flak from the local cycling community, which argues that the embedded metal tracks are hazardous. From experience riding in the area, and in Portland and San Francisco – where tracks are much more ubiquitous – a little extra caution near the rails and you should be fine. Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club has pushed for future trolly tracks to take either inside lanes or the median, so riders don’t get pinched – I wholeheartedly agree.

Amid all the hubbub about the streetcar being a new viable transporation alternative, it’s also worth pointing out that the track could easily be walked from start to finish – one has to wonder how much this will really affect traffic conditions.

But the new trolley system should be looked at within its greater context; when the area’s light rail system is completed in 2009, travelers will be able to step off a plane at Seatac and be zipped from the southern suburbs to north downtown without setting foot inside a car or bus. As the Seattle area grows as both a city and tourist destination, this is a step in the right direction towards cutting carbon emissions and creating a better quality of life.

Learn more about the Seattle Streetcar.


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