Tag Archives: cycling

The Bike Question: Access versus Ownership

30 Jul P1040682

I’ve done an awful lot of talking about how great I think the Barclay’s Cycle Hire program (known as “Boris Bikes” for short, after London Mayor Boris Johnson) is. I think bike-sharing systems are, in general, a great asset for any city dense enough to have homes, jobs and places to shop within an easy biking distance of one another (and of course a large enough population to take advantage of the investment). Among the cities that already boast bike-sharing in some form are Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Minneapolis, Washington DC, Denver … the list goes on, and I’m sure it will continue to grow.

I sure love the idea. But until Wednesday, I had never actually used a bike-sharing system.

My Boris bike initiation was not without flaws, but the shakiness of that first ride was mostly due to my own inexperience. The pay-as-you-go kiosks are simple to use: prompted by the touch-screen, I paid my £1 tax to cover a 24-hour rental, and received a ticket displaying my bike release code. After several minutes of vigorously tugging on three bikes that I couldn’t seem to budge from their docks (humiliating!), I freed my humble, creaky steed and careened through Shoreditch in rush hour for an unnerving 30 minutes. Let alone the insanity of British drivers, it’s hard to retrain your North American mind to stay on the left side of the road!

Click here for a video I shot while riding on cobblestones in the safety of Hoxton Square. All the clatter and groaning you can hear is coming directly from my bicycle. Also, I rode around the entire time on a very, very short bike, wondering how taller cyclists could ever get on. I realized later that the seats are easily raised and lowered – see the variety of heights in the photo below?

The experience was enough to convince me to commit to keeping my feet on the ground, in a bus or on the tube for the year. I even invested in an unlimited transit travelcard – an absolute necessity for anyone who uses the tube daily, and a good incentive to explore as many areas of the city as possible before classes start. I was ready to give up the dream of bike ownership.

And then we bumped into a friend Wednesday night – on his bike, no less – who won me back to the fold with one statement. “Oh, but this city really opens up for you when you travel by bike.” Access to a secret local London? I can’t deny myself that.

The very next morning, I decided to give Boris another try. I checked out the bike (expertly this time), raised the seat and took off for the canal. I rode east along the water, then through the center of Hackney, hit a few side streets and wound back through expansive Victoria Park before taking the canal route back to Shoreditch.

Not ready to give up just yet, I decided to check out Brick Lane in the daytime:

Outside of  peak traffic, and as I got more comfortable finding and following the left-hand bike lanes and side-road routes, the ride was a lot more fun.

For the right user, Boris Bikes provide immense convenience – the ability to cycle without buying a lock or lights, finding space to store the bike at home, spending time or money on routine maintenance, or worrying about the very real threat of bike theft. But the system is deliberately designed to accommodate and encourage commuter cycling. If you know your start and endpoints and plan to take a direct route, they’re perfect; if you can get from dockstation to dockstation in less than half an hour, the ride also costs you nothing. But keep the bike out for more than 60 minutes and the price quickly climbs. Most importantly for me, the Boris docking stations are concentrated exclusively in central London, making them impractical for trips to the Eastern neighborhoods where I think I’d like to use a bike the most.

It seems that, at least until I have a set daily routine, ownership trumps access. Which all leaves me back where I started: in the quest for a perfect secondhand Dutch cruiser with a big wicker basket.

Barcelona: Bikes, Parks and Public Life

21 Jul image238

On Monday afternoon, Carrie and I rented bikes and spent almost five hours taking a self-guided tour of Barcelona’s parks and plazas. In retrospect, it was absolutely my favorite part of the five-day trip.

Our first challenge was biking north through the Gracia neighborhood to Parc Güell. On our way there, we encountered some hills that were so major, we took advantage of a public outdoor escalator built into the climb – no easy feat while holding a clumsy rental bike.

Parc Güell, I’m reading now, actually has an interesting history from a real estate perspective. Antoni Gaudí was commissioned to design the park for the businessman Eusebi Guëll, who intended to develop the property as a “garden village” with 60 park-facing homes for Barcelona’s aristocrats. The development project failed, however, and the land was instead acquired by the city and opened to the public in 1922. Only two homes were actually completed on the site, one of which became Gaudí’s residence for two decades, and has since been turned into a museum devoted to the designer’s life.

Our first impression of the park was that it took a bit too much work to enjoy – a series of pathways wind away from the entryway — mainly uphill — and required more energy than we had after dragging our bikes to this point. After a few minutes of exploring, however, the real advantages and intention behind the design began to reveal themselves to us. Throughout the park a series of carefully plotted, lushly planted, narrow pathways heighten the drama of opening onto wide-open spaces with stunning views, such as this one:

Close-up of tile mosaics

Clearly a popular place to sit.

The park is an impressive balance between public and private space, which packs a real element of delight and personalization. Off of the winding footpaths there are endless options for seating in hidden or slightly removed spaces where you could spend hours in conversation or quiet reflection.


We left Güell and coasted downhill, back toward the city center. At a busy intersection, we found one of our favorite surprises: an outdoor bocce court with stadium lighting for 24-hour play! A small audience had collected to watch this group of elderly Catalonian men, deeply absorbed in their game and their cigars.

I unfortunately didn’t remember to take down the name of the intersection, but after searching for the sculpture I photographed below, I think we may have been in the Plaça de Lesseps.

Continuing south, we biked along Passeig de St. Joan, another broad boulevard. I loved this public open space because of its integrated and accessible location, on a wide strip right down the center of two lanes of traffic. Trees and hedges form a barrier between plaza activity and moving cars, and bike lanes run up and down along the inner sides of the pedestrian area. At the intersection edges, fountains or planted features provide another buffer between pedestrians and traffic.

A buffer of trees and hedges (green arrow); bike lane (orange arrow); main pedestrian corridor (yellow arrow)

The large feature creates interest, a place to stop, and a buffer against the busy intersection.

In addition to shade trees, ample seating, grassy stretches and spaces for walking, several block lengths contained active children’s playgrounds. This one even had a ping-pong table for outdoor play! Not only are the boulevard plazas convenient to use as park and social space during a walk, a commute or on a lunch break; they also contribute a vibrant social scene on what otherwise would have been a plain stretch of roadway, or a simple median strip.

The arrow points to a long row of well-utilized benches. The playground is difficult to see in this photo, but it's within the yellow circle.

Ping pong.

We enjoyed getting a peek into Barcelona’s bike culture:

A devoted teenager gives his precariously balanced girlfriend a ride.

Another bike lane down Passeig de St. Joan – this time, just the bike lane cuts through the center of car traffic, safely separated by curbs and visible planting strips on both sides.

Traffic lights give cyclists comfortable places to balance while waiting for the signal.

Really the best spot of the day, however, is the jewel at the end of the Passeig de St. Joan: the Arc de Triomf and the expansive public plaza and Parc de la Ciutadella at its base. I made an attempt to shoot film of activity in the plaza (actually the Passeig de Lluís Companys) from the seat of my moving bike — please excuse the choppiness!

Biking Through Arc de Triomf: Video Link

The lush Parc de la Ciutadella was a delight in itself. We passed a yoga class taking place behind an interesting art installation…

a tranquil lake for boating…

and yet another unexpected and spectacular monument, hidden just around a bend:

The sun was still out at 8:30 when we returned our bikes and toted a picnic dinner up to our final park. We took the Metro to the Funicular de Montjuïc, a train that shoots up and down through a tunnel cut into the mountainside. It deposited us on the mountaintop park, and we hiked a short distance at dusk to the Castle garden for an outdoor cinema:

We earned our Estrellas that evening!

When the movie ended at midnight, shuttle buses transported the crowds down to Plaça d’Espanya, where we treated ourselves to a cab because Metro service had ended for the night. All in all, it was an incredible summer day – though we were just two travelers in an unfamiliar city, we felt completely, effortlessly absorbed by Barcelona’s infectious social atmosphere.


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