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Friday, January 16, 2009

Light Rail: Not Really Cyclist-Friendly

This is partly a rant, and partly a description of an "adventure" a few days ago due to some mistakes on my part, both in trip planning and in cargo pod design, among other things. There will be a second and possibly third part detailing the replacement trip I did today, posted later when I'm not so exhausted from the ride, because today, Friday, was an adventure I could have lived without, and technically it started on Tuesday.

Someone on Freecycle was giving away a number of things including a car battery (useful for many things, potentially even for a version of the bike project), at around 52nd Street and McDowell, which is only about 16 miles away via main streets, and only about 12 miles via one of the canal paths which runs diagonally southeast across the city from about a mile north of my house. Not that far compared to some places I've been for freecycled items, but far enough to be expected to take the better part out of my day.

The battery in particular would be worth the trip, but I didn't want to have to use the trailer (very long trips with the trailer are not much fun, partly due to it's design, which is one reason I'm designing a new one ), so I verified it's dimensions and weight would fit in my single completed leftside cargo pod, with the caveat that I would have to be careful about left turns, bumps, and potholes with that much weight on one side. ;)

Since it happens to run from only about three miles southeast of my house to passing about a mile south my destination, I tried out our new light rail system, which supposedly has bike-friendly facilities on the train and such, and discovered that the system as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

First, unless you are getting on or off at one of the two end-of-line stops (where it waits for at least 10 minutes, maybe more), you've only got a few seconds after the doors close to get a seat or hold onto something before the train starts up, and when it does, there is enough acceleration to be comparable to a bus slamming on it's brakes to avoid a collision--people and things go skidding, falling, and rolling down the aisle and into each other and parts of the train interior. The drivers not only do not seem to care (I rode different trains on the way there and back, so have experienced only two of the several drivers they have), they even have a label above the door to the effect of "Do Not Disturb Driver", and it is locked, like an airplane cockpit door. I assume pounding on the door would still get their attention, and they would come out to help someone in real need, but they obviously designed the system to not have any interaction between driver and passengers (unlike the buses), which is not helpful.

The acceleration is not quite as bad as the braking, which is sharp and sudden, and can jerk bags out of unwary passengers' hands, sending them flying down the aisle. It can also knock down any passenger silly enough to try standing up when the announcement "Arriving at (whatever) Station" comes up. The braking and acceleration happen just as if the train were actually in traffic, though it is not, really--it is on tracks in the centerlanes of some major roads, and does obey traffic signals at major intersections, but it does not have to speed up or slow down for traffic around it, as no one is allowed to drive on the tracks except the trains, and thus there is nothing for it to have to avoid (at least, not while I was onboard and watching).

This means it is almost impossible for any cyclist not born of Herculean ancestry to actually put their bike up on the hanging racks inside the center section of the train (or in some cases, to even reach that section of the train), which is supposed to be where all cyclists are to go once on the train. The racks are made so one could (in theory) roll the bike up the wall and hang it by the front wheel's rim on the hook provided at the ceiling, next to and across from the seats. However, unless one has a very light bike (not all that common) it is difficult to lift it in that orientation that far up by oneself even when the train is absolutely still. While it is moving it is almost impossible, and it is extremely unsafe. The wheels also don't stay in their little troughs during the trip up the wall unless you're tall enough to hold onto the fork or the handlebars the entire trip, which for most people is probably not easy and for many might be impossible, while still providing lift to get the bike up to the hook. It's pretty hard to keep lifting heavy unstably-rolling objects when at least one arm is at or over your head, even when everything is perfectly still!

Now, mind you, the actual *ride* of the train is pretty smooth, much moreso than a bus, if only it weren't accelerating and braking so suddenly and so unnecessarily often!

I had help of a big burly train conductor at the northwest endpoint station getting the bike onto the rack, or else I could not have used the rack at all. Getting it off the rack was almost disastrous to the passenger sitting across from the rack, because the jerking of the train yanked it out of my hands and only the fact my cargo box hangs out even with the rear wheel stopped it from rolling back into the poor person's lap, as the box edge caught the edge of the shelf under the rack just long enough for me to re-grab the handlebars and front wheel. Keep in mind that in order to do this at all, I had to be standing on the actual seat next to the rack. If that seat were occupied by someone else, I would not have been able to get the bike off the rack AT ALL.

There were other cyclists both before and after I got on, and each of the ones that tried to use the rack gave up, because even with little 20" "trick" bikes they couldn't lift them up far enough to reach the hook, because when they got them up that high, they could only reach the frame and rear wheel, so the front wheel would just fall over and there was then no way to get it onto the hook. The ONLY way one can do this is by standing on the seat next to the rack, unless one is about 7 feet tall. (I'm about average, I guess, at about 5'7", I think). Given that the seats themselves seem sized for children and small adults, rather than the common body types that most use public transportation, it seems rather silly.

With bikes in the aisle, it's very difficult to safely get past them to go from one half of the train to the other. Normally, one wouldn't need to do that, as there are two sets of doors in each half of the train, and the same amount of space in each half for people/etc, as one end is essentially a mirror of the other. Being new, though, I guess no one is yet used to looking in the windows or glancing thru the open door before rushing into the back of the train, because that is where almost everyone seems to prefer to board, leaving the front half nearly empty while packing the back (because the cyclists have their bikes blocking the aisle due to being unable to safely get their bikes up on the racks out of the way). Sometimes people just clamber over and around the bikes, complaining all the way, but mostly they just stay in the back. They don't have the option of getting off the train and going up to the front half, because the trains only stop for just long enough to get people on and off, then they pull out--sometimes this is as short as fifteen or twenty seconds, possibly less (I didn't time them all, but some untimed early stops seemed much shorter than the ones I timed later). If they got off, they probably wouldn't be able to get back on before the train pulled out, and since the operators don't seem to be paying attention to anything happening inside the train, they probably wouldn't see what happened and wait (and no one can signal them to do so, either--there are no provisions for any passenger interactions except emergencies).

Anyhow, I did eventually get off, but at a stop a mile farther than I'd planned, because it took a whole mile's worth of time to get the bike off the rack without hurting anyone with it due to the train's repeated unnecessary jerking acceleration and braking.

I rode off down the street, then when closer to my destination, I got out the map...well, I would have, but I somehow managed to lose it (possibly during the train ride either loading or unloading the bike from the rack), and had forgotten my celphone on the charger at home. Clever. :( I tried a payphone, which was out of order, then found another half a mile farther on that worked, and tried calling home to have someone pull up the map on my computer (I'd left it onscreen), but no one answered even after the 3 whole minutes the payphone let me talk. I decided that since I was already here, so far from home, I'd just try to remember what I could of the address and find it anyway. I rode around for a couple of hours before I had to give up in frustration, and headed back to the station I'd *intended* to get off on originally, so I could go back home.

On my way back to the station, on a heavily-trafficked section of a street just past a freeway interchange, I was forced to ride in some very poor condition road edge, with pretty deep potholes. One of those almost crashed me, as it was much deeper than it looked, and during my wobbly recovery from crossing it I felt the rear brake pulling and slowing me down--when I looked back I could see the cargo pod was hanging loose, broken away from the bike frame completely. I had to keep riding for a ways, then pulled over when there was room off the road. I found the aluminum pop-rivets I had used to attach the mounting plate to the bike frame's seatstays and chainstays had already been cracked thru and then been ripped out by the force of the pothole impact. The frame itself was not visibly damaged, but I couldn't ride home this way, and used some self-tapping screws of a slightly larger diameter than the rivet holes to temporarily secure the plate back to the frame. I was lucky I had them with me, as I had partly disassembled some appliance someone had left to rust on the side of the road a few weeks ago for the small parts I could carry and left all the screws I removed in my toolbag (not uncommon, as you really never know when you'll need a good spare screw).

Since I had been inspecting those rivets at every trip I carried anything heavy in the pod, expecting failure, and up to that day nothing had happened, I think having it hanging in the wrong orientation (from the train's rack) and banging around all during the train ride against the stanchion next to the rack, then having the bike fall onto the cargo pod while trying to get it off the rack, is what cracked the rivets. Normally, they don't get anything like that kind of abuse, and would probably have gone for many more rides before failure (even with potholes). But given how it failed, and with no warning, I have some ideas for improving the mounting points by using small radiator-hose-clamps thru slits in the mounting plate on either side of where it would rivet to the frame, and clamping it to the frame. Should be much tougher.

The good thing about having forgotten the map and being unable to pick up the battery is that if I had had it in the pod when the pod cut loose, I would probably have crashed into traffic, if the pod had stayed attached to the rack above it as it did during the actual failure. If it came completely off (a possibility) it would have just bounced into traffic by itself, which wouldn't have hurt me but likely would have damaged at least the car it hit, and would probably have caused a chain-reaction wreck amongst several cars, as all were going too fast for the road (50MPH, at a guess) and too closely spaced (perhaps a foot or two between most of them) to be able to stop if anyone in front of them slowed too quickly.

Anyhow, regarding the ride home, and arriving by bike at the station.... Riding up to the area, there are bike lanes. However, there is no place for a cyclist to pull over and get off the bike safely, and onto the sidewalk to get to the station (which is in the middle of the road, and can ONLY be accessed via crosswalk from the intersection--technically one could ride up to the station but that requires illegally riding on the tracks, or changing lanes leftward out of the bike lane to the centerward lane, and then illegally and very unsafely just riding right up onto the station platform via the handicapped ramp). There is a bus pull-out, which is what I used as there was no other place to do it, but if a bus had been there, I couldn't have done that. Since all the stations are at intersections on busy roads, and none seem to have any kind of way to safely transition from cycling on the road's bike lane (or anywhere else on the road) to walking on the sidewalk, I'd say that whoever decided to call the light rail "cyclist friendly" didn't do any actual thinking or planning before they said that. Same goes for the "bike racks" on the trains themselves.

Once I did get onto the station and thus to the train, I found much of the train empty *except* for the area where cyclists are supposed to go, which is the very center of the train. There were a number of non-cyclists there, and no cyclists on the train at all. I expect that the train was pretty full when they got on, leaving them only there to sit, and as is the norm, no one ever moves to give their seat to anyone else, not even the handicapped, unless forced to do so by someone else. Anyhow, with the people there, I could not even attempt to use the racks, as I would probably drop the bike a number of times trying to put it on the hook, what with the train jerking around and all, so I just sat down and held the bike as best I could, which was not easy at all. Even before I finished sitting, it was jerked out of my hands and almost into the legs of someone else, by the sudden accelleration of moving away from the station. I managed to grab the brake handle and squeeze it, which skidded it to a stop. But I couldn't hold that lever very long, and the ride is about 40 minutes from where I boarded to where I was going. If I didnt' hold it, then every time the train jerked (a lot, remember--usually every few seconds at the least), the bike was going to roll forward or backward into some other passenger. Even leaning on the bike with my arm wrapped around the vertical stanchion between the seats and the rack was not enough to stop it--only by holding the brake fully engaged. I ended up fishing a zip tie out of my toolkit and using that to clamp the brake lever down on the front wheel (which I could then lift off the ground and still roll the bike off the train, and cut the tie once off the train).

"Afterthought" is possibly the closest single word I can think of to describe the way they have implemented cyclist access to the light rail. I doubt it will get any better, either, as it's tough to get the public transit system to make changes that actually help the public want to ride it, by making it easier, safer, or more useful. I won't be trying it again until I see from someone else that it's better, and see movies of them loading their bike on a new style of rack with ease, and in the video I don't see passengers being thrown around by the acceleration and braking.

The single hardest thing about getting the bike on and off the rack is lifting it high enough in a straight line to get the wheel on the hook, so if they would change it so a pulley system giving a lift advantage to the user provided a hook on a cable down at waist level, then allowed the user to pull the cable downward to lift the bike up, and fasten the cable into a locking mechanism, almost anyone could then use the bike rack, and fix the problems caused by that. But that kind of system would require significantly more maintenance than the existing fixed-hook system, and would be more susceptible to vandalism (despite the security cameras on all transit vehicles, it still occurs--with no interaction between operator and passenger, it is certain to happen more on the trains than on the buses, eventually). It would also probably cost a lot to redo the rack on each train, in addition to the wasted money on the poor design they already bought and installed.


  1. Oh Mike, I'm sorry you've had such a rotten couple days...

    Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't address a couple things in this post. I think you may have been laboring under unrealistic expectations. Never been on a commuter train before, have you?

    The acceleration of the light rail is comparable to other rail-based subways and light rails. You, of all people, should know what you get with electric motors: fast acceleration. That's why there are handles and rails everywhere. If you're not seated, you'd better hang on or have a very good center of balance. The driver is sealed away for a reason, if you'd needed emergency assistance, hit the red call button.

    If you're just off balance, the driver's not there to pick you up and dust you off. Again, you won't find driver interaction on a train... many don't have drivers at all.

    There are too many stops and starts - that's mostly because of improperly timed traffic lights - the trains are catching red lights too often - or, in some cases, idiots are getting onto the rails with their cars and left turns and such. (Despite having Red Arrows prohibiting left turns)

    So, you couldn't get your "bike" on the racks. For cryin' out loud, you aren't riding a bike, you're riding a moped! No, you're riding a mopedized tank. I thought that was the whole point of your exercise. How much does that leviathan you've built weigh? I've seen several people lift their bikes on and off the train hooks with little or no problem. (There is a problem with people sitting in front of the bike racks, and the hooks are a bit small for maneuvering the front wheel onto the hook.) They've all done it in the time alloted or, with little difficulty, after the train starts. No doubt that practice will improve their adeptness, just as you can always spot a new bike rider trying to mount their bike on the front of a bus.

    You're not even required to put your bike in the rack, you can stand by the door (not in the aisle) and hold your bike. Probably a better option for you.

    While the bike racks aren't perfect, I'm amazed they have them at all, it's far from common. Few allow bikes on them at all, or do so in weird and wondrous ways. (Taipei, as an example: Bikes only can get on or off at every other station, and only on weekends.)

  2. While I haven't ever ridden any train other than this new light rail, I just think that no matter how it is done *already*, here or elsewhere, it could be improved dramatically with some simple improvements, including a tad more courtesy towards the passengers by easing up on acceleration and braking.

    It's one thing I don't quite get about many people's attitudes about things--just because something currently works one way, that isn't all that easy to deal with, they don't seem to believe it could (or should!) be improved. Doesn't make sense to me. I'm not sure how *you* feel about the potential for improving a system as new as our own, but I think that right now, when it is just beginning, is the very best time to make it a better more usable system for everyone, rather than just copying what other places already have, whatever their faults.

    As to the power of electric motors, just because massive power is available does not mean it is necessary to apply it instantaneously rather than gradually. Yes, it is less efficient in a number of ways to do that, and it causes more heating in the motor windings during a slower startup (because more current is drawn for a longer period).

    Having handles and rails everywhere doesn't help if A) you aren't strong enough to hold yourself up with them, or B) you have your hands already full with other things, which could range from a purse and your cane or crutch, to a walker requiring both hands, to a pair of children, to a bicycle you're trying to keep from rolling onto other passengers. Or any number of other things you can't just let go of to grab a rail, at least not as fast as they seem to expect you to.

    I don't expect the driver to be there to pick anyone up to dust them off because they're off balance. I do expect that since there is the possibility to not always suddenly start and stop, but rather to gradually do so with minimal loss of time on the route, that they do that. Not having any driver interaction at all means they are less likely to care (not that most of the transit drivers on buses generally do anyway) whether or not their passengers are falling down.

    The stops and starts due to lights and cars and such are a small part of the acceleration/braking problem--the drivers seem to do it even when there is no visible reason to do so, or even when vehicle traffic is not near the train (very rare). Again, it wouldn't matter so much if it were not so sudden and severe.

  3. As for the bike on the racks, as I said--I was certainly not the only one with the problem--much smaller bikes were not put up there, both those that did not try and those that did and could not. I was the only one on either the trip out or the trip back to use the rack at all, in a total of about 80 minutes of travel time. Not a big sample to base things on at all, but the only one I have.

    Mine is not currently motorized, nor does it have the heavy batteries or motor on it--as an earlier post describes, it was removed due to the old batteries finally wearing out so much that I could not get any useful power out of them, plus one motor shaft (of two) breaking. It is not all that heavy (compared to some configurations), if it is lifted by the frame horizontally. I can pretty quickly lift it onto the bike racks on the front of buses (which is quite difficult when it has the motor and SLA batteries on it).

    It looks quite unwieldy due to the large cargo box on the rear, but that and all the attaching plates are aluminum, and don't add that much weight to it. Maybe 15 pounds, total, including some of the items I always keep inside the box for trips.

    The base bike is probably 20 to 25 pounds. I haven't weighed it in a while, and have changed out some of the accessories and both wheels (for narrower lighter ones). The SLA battery for the lights is 8 pounds including it's mounting hardware and wiring/etc. So worst case, 50 pounds or so in it's current configuration. It's closer to 75 or 80 pounds with the SLA batteries and motor configuration I had on it before.

    At work, I weekly move several pallets of dog food, cat litter, and assorted canned foods weighing from 30 to 40 pounds each bag, from the pallets to a Uboat in the stockroom and then after there's about 500 to 700 pounds stacked up to head-height on the Uboat, roll it out to the sales floor and unload it onto the various aisles. So while this is exhausting and often painful to my knees and sometimes my back, it ensures I have enough strength to be able to lift the bike up--but not to over my head like that, while trying to keep the front wheel straight and then hook it on that rack, in the allotted 15 to 30 seconds before the train moves (if you're lucky).

  4. I'm glad to hear that at least some people can manage the bike racks, but definitely not everyone can, and not only with monsters like mine, but with normal small bikes. I do wonder how many people using bikes on the train's racks have cheap ones (walmart-style) that are heavy steel or aluminum, and how many have more expensive ones made of light steel or aluminum, or even composites? I expect that more people own heavy bikes (20-30 pounds) than light ones, that might want to use the light rail, but I don't actually know.

    BTW, the point of my project isn't to make a "mopedized tank", it's just to add an assist to the bike that will help me do my daily travels. Preferably out of recycled parts, meaning it won't likely be as light as possible with purchasing things specifically to that end. There are other subprojects such as creating usable lockable cargo pods to enable me to stop at more than one place for shopping/etc, without having to take everything in with me each time (as many places do not allow backpacks or other bags/etc to be carried in, even if left at the front, due to shoplifting concerns), or risk someone stealing my stuff while I'm inside (as happened to my bungee cords on my baskets not that long ago, before I put the new cargo pod on in place of them).

    Standing and holding the bike is really the only option I have on the train as it currently is designed (both the bike and their racks), but the only place I could stand with it would be in the way of everyone getting on and off the train or trying to get into or out of whichever section of train the end of the bike would be blocking. As I really dislike being cussed at by people under their breath, I chose to not do that but instead to take the bike to the aisle in the middle of the bike section, just as I had seen the other cyclists do previously. I had already read up on the "rules" via the bus book and the light rail guide booklet, and neither one said *where* to be with the bike when the rack couldn't be used for whatever reason, only not to block ailes or doorways, which I didn't see a place I could actually do that at--I'd be blocking one or the other either way. :-(

    If bike racks and allowing bikes on trains at all are rare, so be it. Still doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. :-)


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