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Bicycles

I spent the last two months in Europe — mostly in Berlin, Germany. While I was there, I had the opportunity to use a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation, and it was a great experience. I looked forward to biking because every trip was a revelation: about urban design, road planning, and building on a human scale.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to bike from my home north of Annapolis, Maryland into the city. This is a trip I’ve made on previous occasions and I’d found it underwhelming for a variety of reasons. But with an extensive (and positive) biking experience under my belt in the last few weeks, I’m now able to articulate the reasons why the experience of biking is so much different between the US and Europe.

First let me briefly describe my biking experiences in Europe. Besides incidental daily biking to execute routine tasks, in one two day period I biked from Berlin’s center (Mitte district) to Potsdam and back. Potsdam, as you may know, is a city roughly 27km to the west of Berlin. The following day I biked extensively around Berlin’s northeastern suburbs (Weißensee, Pankow, Schloss Schönhauser). Here’s where I went:


View Larger Map
August 30, 2008


View Larger Map
August 31, 2008

This turns out to be well over 50 miles (80km) and a really significant trip by most non-athletes’ standards. I am a healthy person, but like many Americans (and people in their 30′s), I am carrying around a few more pounds than I’d like. Regardless, I found these two days of bicycling (and the subsequent time I spent doing much shorter daily trips) to be relatively easy, enjoyable, and for the most part, effortless fun.

And I did it on a 3-speed beach cruiser.

To be fair, some of this is because Berlin is mercifully flat; its geological history left it scrubbed flat and sandy by glaciers long before the first urban planners showed up, and certainly before World War II decimated the city, leaving it open to reinterpretation by modern eyes. However, the experience of urban biking in Berlin is entirely pleasant — even on some of the city’s busiest, high-traffic streets llike Kufurstendamm and Unter den Linden — because care has been taken with urban design to incorporate bicycles into the city’s rich and multihued transportation fabric.

Every time the “bicycling context” changed (for example, when road conditions dictate a switch from cycling in traffic to cycling in a road-based dedicated lane, to cycling on a sidewalk-based dedicated bike lane), the signage was very clear. When you are in traffic, cars accept your presence; some bike lanes are shared lanes with buses.

Deadly potholes are nearly nonexistent. Sidewalks almost all have ramps to the road surface, and are wide, with easy access to shops and services. Bike racks abound, and locking bikes to signs and fences is commonplace and accepted practice. Bicyclists can easily obey traffic rules by either a) following the signals that apply to car traffic, or b) using dedicated signals that apply only to bicycle traffic, which are typically installed where car traffic signals don’t make sense for cyclists.

Dedicated directional signage for bicyclists is everywhere; you can follow your way into Mitte from anywhere around Berlin by following route signs placed just for bicycles.

In short, the cycling experience or UX (as we tech design geeks might call it) has been considered. You get the feeling that every mile of road in Berlin was traveled on bike by a qualified urban planner who took notes and then went back and obtained budget to make all infrastructure improvements necessary to support a pleasant and well-reasoned bicycling experience. Incremental improvements were then made over the years, evolving into what is today an entirely civilized mode of transportation used by professionals, students, children, and senior citizens to execute the very human business of their daily lives.

Let me tell you about my short trip to Annapolis with my wife.

I live near a McDonald’s. On the way out we stopped by for a cup of coffee. No bike rack at all. Competing with cars in a hot, blacktopped parking lot. Dash in and dash out for your life.

Back out to the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail, a hiking-biking path that connects (in the loosest possible terms) the two cities. It’s pretty — an old tree-lined railroad right of way, now paved. It’s a straight-shot downgrade run to the end of the trail, where it must now join with a highway in order to cross the Severn River into Annapolis (the associated railroad bridge was taken out of service in roughly 1950).

Once you’re off the B&A Trail, you’re on your own. Steep hills (unlike those on the trail, which had to accomodate rail locomotives) and traffic accompany you as you make your way across the hot pavement downhill to the river. As you zoom down to the Rt. 450 Severn River Bridge, it rises before you like the great pyramids or a mirage in a hot concrete desert. Your speed — 25mph, 20, 16, 10, 7, 6 — slowly drops as you struggle to find the right gear that will keep you from being toppled over and blown into the slipstream of constant SUV’s careening over the bridge 20 miles above the 40mph speed limit.

The hot sun beats down and radiates off the concrete, and while you might try to steal a glimpse of the “scenic” Severn River splayed out alongside you on both sides, you’d best worry about your survival. You begin to think you will soon reach the peak of the 80ft tall bridge, and when you do, you realize that you’re exhausted from the climb, even in the lowest gear. You push ahead and let your stored energy zip you down the far side of the bridge, hurtling towards the US Naval Academy at speeds that seem unjustified.

But you quickly lose the 25mph you’ve built up and face yet another daunting hill up from the bridge, only now with no “bike lane” (which seems to be what they had been calling the shoulder along this stretch). You earnestly try to fit in with car traffic, after all of this exertion and changing speeds. Yeah, now you’re pretending to be a car with all the rules of the road that apply to them. No warning, no transition, no refuge.

We wanted to turn left down King George Street, past St. John’s College, and go grab a sandwich for lunch. So, we did our best to fit in with the car traffic and waited in the left turn lane, trying mightily to look impressive to the SUVs and trucks that surrounded us.

We made it down there and had lunch, then headed back, which is essentially the same experience, only somewhat more tiresome because the overall grade from Annapolis back north is uphill. After the bridge, my bike chain slipped off and had to be reset. The only comment on my mind by this time was a subtly nuanced, “this sucks,” and we headed back home, rather demoralized and feeling glad to be alive in the same way that prey must feel when they narrowly escape the jaws of a predator.

Bear in mind this trip to Annapolis and back was a total of 10 miles (16km); nothing compared to the runs I made in Berlin, but considerably more taxing emotionally and physically.

We Americans are too fat, and the best solution we seem to be able to come up with is to drive our SUVs to the gym, where we pay money year after year (a permanent health tax) to work out on idiotic machines and burn off the calories that industrial food production insists we consume. And this is exactly how America’s corporations want you. They create your problems, and then you pay them to try to solve them.

If we could simply incorporate human-powered transportation into our daily lives, we would feel better, live longer, and dramatically cut back on fuel dependence and on carbon output. For this to be possible, we have a tremendous amount of work to do not just in planning better bike routes, but in unraveling 75 years worth of toxic urban-suburban design and road building.

Don’t even get me started on what it’s like to try to bicycle in a city like Baltimore, where road surfaces, curbs, and lane markings seem to have last been considered in roughly 1953.

So. Bicycling is for bicyclists. It’s not supposed to be about anything. It’s not supposed to have a purpose. You’re just supposed to ride around in circles, or back and forth, on what my late father-in-law called the “Goddamn linear squirrel cage” of the B&A trail. Why? Because that’s what you do to exercise. Fair enough.

But, what if we could actually use it for something practical, rather than just as a drug delivery device for the endorphin-addicted madmen who careen along our highways, high as kites, helmeted and hunched in sweaty spandex, ignoring the world around them while they try to beat their last best time? Again, nothing against them — it’s a free country — but these cyclists bear little in common with most people who might want to use a bike for their everyday lives.

Another way to look at it: when I bike around central Berlin, there’s lots of stuff to look at (including a good assortment of cute girls in heels, many on bikes), many possibilities for places to stop off and get something to drink (coffee, beer, water, depending on time of day), and it’s flat and accessible. The experience here is quite different. Everything is a trek: a trial of man vs. car vs. pavement, a contest of wit and will between competing modes of transport, with little to soften the journey or add interest.

We have a lot to learn from the rest of the world with respect to our relationship with our own landscape, and we could start by making bicycling a more usable, more human experience for average people.

Berlin’s Wild for Obama

Last year our family spent most of the summer in Berlin, and we decided to return this year as well. Coincidentally, we arrived the day before Barack Obama was scheduled to speak, and were eager to be a part of this historic opportunity. We just returned and I have a few reflections.

To be fair, it was a bit odd: a presidential candidate seeking to speak in Berlin, before a column that had been relocated by Hitler, to a group of people who for the most part could not vote for him even if they wanted to. It was a presumptive end-run by the presumptive nominee to take on a speaking gig that was all but presidential. Realistically, his only standing here was as a private citizen, and even less coherently, as a Senator from Illinois.

Yet, Berlin and indeed Europe seemed eager for his message. And his message was strikingly simple: the nations of the world share a common destiny, and we need to start to act that way.

America needs to listen to its allies in Europe, and America needs to start acting in a spirit of cooperation with them. America needs to pay attention to what it’s doing to the environment, and start leading the push for sustainable energy rather than acting as the last defender of an unsustainable legacy of foreign oil. And the world should “look at Berlin” as an example of what happens when freedom is allowed to flourish in the context of responsibility to the world and the environment.

All in all, if you really take the substance of the speech item by item, there was nothing not to like. He was calling for a restoration of common sense and unity in our relationships with Europe and the world, and this is impossible to argue with. The only reason why anyone would argue with his message is for political or partisan reasons, and anyone has a right to do so.

However, this was a message that Europe and the world needed to hear. When America has walked around with swagger, spouting platitudes about spreading freedom, about curing our addiction to oil by drilling for more oil, and pretending to listen to allies and ultimately ignoring their input, we have eroded our credibility around the world, and ultimately made America its laughing stock.

Fortunately, America and the ideals it represents still have some value in the minds of free people; and free people, people of reason, are willing to give second chances to a country that was founded on laws and ideals.

Whether Barack Obama is capable of restoring the America we once knew — a “can do” America, an America of ideas, an America of laws, an America of cooperation, an America that doesn’t resort to torture and war crimes, no matter the perceived threat — is impossible to say right now. What we can say right now is that the world desperately wants that America back. For it’s that America that freed Europe (twice), wrote the Declaration of Independence, won the revolution, and welcomes immigrants. It’s that America that orchestrated the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan and founded modern Europe.

Today’s America — hobbled by its energy policy, fettered by Chinese imports, ignoring geopolitical facts in favor of political ideology, burdened by the housing crisis pyramid scheme — is not inspiring much of anyone. We’re succeeding in spite of all this. But one thing is telling: when you walk the streets of Berlin (or any European capital) the symbols of American culture are everywhere. New York Yankees, the Washington Nationals, University of Virginia, LA Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and countless other icons are represented repeatedly. New York in particular looms large in the mythology of the culture of the world. Why?

Because New York welcomes everyone. Because New York is the crazy-quilt of diversity that everyone believes America stands for and can be. If you see references to Berlin, Paris or Rome in other cities it is because of culture or history or art; all valid, but New York conveys a sense of freedom of the human spirit that is present nowhere else. And it’s that America, idealized by New York, that is our proudest and most resilient export. The world will never tire of it.

The Germans here were giddy for Obama, and acted as though he were already president. They just want to see America return to its former self and be an honest partner as we face a very challenging future together. Everyone wants that so badly. It’s a big burden to put on one man’s shoulders.

As the crowd of 200,000 dissipated after the fairly short speech (30 minutes or so), we attempted to return down the avenue between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate, through the center of the Tiergarten park. Everyone was stuck. But, off to one side, the crowd started to pour forth through the fence, into the trees of the Tiergarten.

The fence was pushed open wider, and at first police resisted it. But, the fence opened again, and this time it was not repaired. We poured forth through this breach in the wall, and people took turns helping each other over the 3-foot jump they had to make to the path below. We escaped the mass of the Strasse des 17 Juni into the calm, quiet green of the Tiergarten.

It just goes to show you: in a fight between a bunch of Berliners and a wall, bet on the Berliners.

The Connections Episode: Pulver TV, The Tech Tax, Berlin!

This was another action-packed week for me which I’m just recovering from now.

On Tuesday, I headed up to New York to be a part of another of Jeff Pulver’s social media breakfasts. This one was at Friend of a Farmer (Gramercy Park area) and featured about 100 of New York’s most active social networkers. I had a great time and met a ton of people, some of whom could become potential collaborators.

Jeff’s onto something with these breakfasts. It’s not rocket science — it’s getting people together who are preselected via a common medium — but his belief in turning online connections into real human connections is powerful, and it will be the basis of much of how we all do business in the future. The world is re-sorting itself. More on that in a minute.

After the breakfast I headed over to Jeff’s offices in Melville, NY to be on Jeff’s online TV program, Pulver.TV. I was a featured guest, as was Ann Bernard from whygosolo.com, a new social networking service (and Facebook app) that “makes spontaneous connections happen”. More on that in a minute too.

Interview with Dave Troy:

Interview with Ann Bernard:

On Wednesday, I made an important appearance in Annapolis, Maryland at Save Maryland IT Day. For those of you reading this from outside Maryland (I dare say most of you), our state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has passed a law that imposes a 6% sales tax on all “computer services” — whatever that means. Anyway, it applies to me and what I do and I have been part of a team of technology business leaders fighting this law. There are several bills pending that would repeal this tax, but it won’t be easy to do. We need to get the word out about this to everybody in Maryland. This tax is bad, bad, bad! Learn more at the website for the Maryland Computer Services Association.

I developed a tool to help fight this tax: Call your legislator for free and express your opposition to the tax.

The World is Re-Sorting Itself
I’m active in my local technology business community. I think that’s all part of good citizenship, and it’s good business and common sense to connect with people who are close-by and like-minded.

But things are changing. The two local technology councils, and the economic development agencies who help to fund them, are primarily geared towards old-school, big-iron economic development. Convince a big company to put a corporate headquarters in your state (or county) and you’ve got a lot of jobs, tax base, and capital investment for years to come. This is not a criticism; this is naturally what they would want to encourage and it’s great as far as it goes.

But that world is slipping away. Today, geography is no longer a primary concern for companies. Small, focused companies can be virtual, or distributed, and this is more functional than it’s ever been. I am struck that Maryland wants to push its technology activities outside its borders.

Meanwhile, I am meeting my most valuable collaborators in places like New York, London, or Berlin, and finding that they live all over the world. I am more likely to start a company with people from six states and three countries than I am to start one entirely headquartered in Maryland.

Collaboration of subject-matter experts is what drives excellence in business and we are no longer likely to be able to convince these experts to co-locate near each other for years at a time. People choose where to live for a host of reasons that, ideally, should and can be disconnected from their professions.

Social networking tools now make it possible for us to locate and stay connected to our peers wherever they may be.

Likewise, Ann Bernard’s brilliant WhyGoSolo concept helps connect people in an orderly way to share experiences. It’s not a dating site; I described it as kind of like couchsurfing.com, only standing up. Meet new people, experience new things, grow your network, push your mind. A lot of people gravitate towards the more libidinous aspects of ideas like this, and hey, what happens between consenting adults is their business.

But again, that’s not the point. We’ve only got about 80 years on the ship here, and life’s too short not to use every last minute to its fullest. To the extent that social networking can help us make new connections — both business and personal — shouldn’t we milk it for everything it’s worth?

All these concepts — Jeff’s breakfasts, WhyGoSolo, couchsurfing.com — help us make connections and maximize our life ROI.

Noel Hidalgo’s Trip Around the World: CoWorking
As an experiment, I spent summer 2007 living in Berlin with my family. I got to know several ex-pats who were living there, or just passing through.

Coincidentally, I met up with Noel Hidalgo, whose “Luck of Seven” project was taking him on a trip around the world. Here’s video I just found on blip.tv of my interview with Noel in Berlin in July 2007.

Noel did a beautiful job editing this video. The kid with the accordion, the windmills, the street scenes — he captured the zeitgeist of Berlin, summer 2007 perfectly.

Also with us that day was my friend Travis Todd, who coincidentally (and completely unbeknownst to me before meeting him there that day) is from Annapolis, Maryland and was a customer of mine years ago when I owned an ISP. And his little brother went to pre-school with my son.

See, Maryland? We don’t need you. Tax us and we’ll move to Berlin.