Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trails to Friendship

My heart was pounding as we reached the highest point of the Peace Bridge; my fear of heights and of Customs was nearly overwhelming.  I'd never taken my bicycle over a large bridge before, with such traffic constantly flying by.  I looked ahead at Jon and wondered how he always stayed so calm.  "Focus, and enjoy this experience," I told myself.  I turned to glimpse the Buffalo skyline in the haze, then the sparkling water below, dotted with boats filled with people out for a pleasure cruise.  After that, things went much more smoothly. A painless pass through the Customs booth, with a glance at our passports, and we were off to find ourselves on the Friendship Trail.  A simple but stunningly beautiful view of the park, the rugged stone breakwall, overlooking the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Soon enough, we were off our bikes, as the path had been converted to a lane full of artisans and vendors set up for Canada Day celebrations.

Further along, a glance to the right offered an historical scene: Old Fort Erie. Its stone fortifications visible from the street, it loomed over the hill, and I could understand why they built it there so many generations ago.  As we moved along, I kept marveling at the smoothly paved path, which wound us along the lakeshore in an easy fashion.  Vibrant wildflowers were sprinkled across ancient shoreline rocks, while other landscaped areas offered the scent of roses and hydrangeas.  After about four miles of comfortable riding, Jon was surprised to see the path turn in a new direction since he last rode it, the previous summer.  We found it led us back down the the shore, where ruins of all sorts sat in the calmly lapping water; guardians of the past.  I noted Victorian-era photographs and letters on the interpretive plaques as we sailed by; but we had somewhere to be.

We moved on, cycling past secluded beaches, stands of solemn trees, and then into an area of lush forest filled with birdsong, creeks, and other smiling people enjoying their time off. Stop sign after stop sign came, and I wondered "How much further to Crystal Beach?"  Each segment of trail was its own discovery, and sometimes Jon and I could ride alongside one another, discussing everything from history to the politics of bicycle infrastructure.  It was glorious, but once we reached our turn for Crystal Beach, I was ready for another part of the day.

Upon arrival in the village, we were greeted by our friends, whose perfect summer beachwear made the sentimental child inside me grin.  Despite the short distance we were from home, I was reassured to see familiar faces.  We picnicked, in a sense, sharing stories and laughter in the sun.  Then, we trudged up the sandy path to the beach itself, laid out our mismatched towels and blankets, wrote ridiculous stories, and took the same photographs that thousands of other people take.  We savored each other's company and for once, didn't hurry, think about work, or deadlines that must be met.  Wading out into the freezing lake, I looked hard at each one of their faces, committing them to memory in a way I'd never done before.  As a kindred spirit once said, "You fall in love with your friends."

Eventually, we went our separate ways, them waving to us from the car as they drove off toward home.  Jon and I knew that we had a much slower trip ahead of us, but neither of us minded.  We meandered back to home, exiting the path to view classic Main Street scenes, considering the architecture and perfection of many small, local shops.  We paused back on Erie Beach to read the interpretive plaques, and the hair on my arms stood up, understanding the importance of the site to so many thousands, so many years ago.  We did not take much time to be sad for history lost. Winding our way through a carnival that seemed to suddenly appear, we managed to figure out the way back to the bridge, and made a last push to ride (rather than walk) our bikes all the way up to the peak.  Another simple exchange with Customs, and we were back on Buffalo city streets, yet the perfection of the afternoon still clung to me. I believe it will stay for quite some time.

Photo Credits:
1.) Erie Beach midway entrance:
2.) Erie Beach map via Western New York Heritage Press
3.) Friendship trail photograph:

Friday, May 6, 2011

What I Learned from Crashing

Hi!  It's Dana.  A few days ago, my illusions about being invincible were shattered.  Crazy, right?  You thought I was invincible too, I bet!  Anyway, I am apparently human after all, and being human, I have a tendency to make mistakes.

I was biking home from an ELAB meeting (Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo) at 464 Gallery on Amherst Street.  I turned onto Elmwood Ave, and headed south.  When I was near McKinley High School, I tried to go over a curb that was flat to the road (but a different, more slippery material), and- bam!- I was on the ground before I knew it.  This happened because I didn't follow Jon's VERY specific instructions about NEVER crossing a curb without turning sharply into it!  This video explains the situation in greater detail:

The point of sharing this with you is to bring awareness to a.) the importance of learning AND PRACTICING proper and safe biking maneuvers, like crossing a curb at LEAST at a 45 degree angle (but preferably a 90), and b.) the importance of wearing a helmet.  My helmet saved me from a possible concussion- who knows?  I tell you, after this experience I will NEVER be without it, and yes, you now have permission to yell at me if you see me riding sans helmet.  :)

I also made some silly stick figure sketches of the accident reconstruction so that you and I can laugh at me together.  Enjoy!  In the meantime, please learn and follow the rules of the road on your bike, and don't be like me.  Cheers!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Learning how to ride a bicycle. Again.

I thought I learned how best to ride a bike when I was a kid. It's possible I learned incorrectly or just developed bad habits over the years.  In the last year or so, I've been doing a great deal of research on biking in general, and came across Sheldon Brown's website which is loaded with articles, tips, and even a bike glossary!  Here, I have summarized a few tips from his site, so that first-time cyclists and those just getting back into it will have an easier time, while developing good habits for a lifetime of enjoyable riding.

It may seem like the simplest part of cycling, but starting is the most crucial to master. The most basic skill of riding balanced, without wobbling or swerving, takes patience and practice, but it also takes a little bit of speed. It's much more difficult to balance on a bike that's not moving or barely moving, and that's why effective, consistent form will help you get that little bit of momentum for a smooth, balanced start.
1. Straddle the bike with both feet on the ground. You shouldn't be on the seat at this point- if you are, then it's most likely not set to the correct height. I'll cover adjusting the seat later.
2. Using your foot, rotate the pedals so that they are at a 45 degree angle from straight up and down.
3. To start, place your foot on the pedal that is in the high position and press down hard. Step up so you can get in the saddle, all while applying force to the chain, making the bike propel forward.
Your other foot will come off the ground, which then should be placed onto the other pedal in order to press down on that one to maintain/increase forward momentum.

It takes a bit of practice to get balanced while starting out, especially on a bike you're not familiar with, so take your time and do it a few times in an empty parking lot, or driveway. Once you get this technique mastered and form the habit, you won't even need to think about it.

This may not be as difficult as starting, but it's one of those things that seem simple enough, but when done incorrectly, it can be dangerous.
1. Downshift. If your bike has gears, and, assuming you know that you're coming to a stop, it may be necessary to downshift your gears. It's a good habit to get into so that once you're stopped you'll be in a reasonable gear to start up again.
Of course, in an emergency stop, you'll just stop and not worry about gears.
2. Put your foot down. When you're completing your stop, you'll want to have one foot on a pedal in the lowest position that will hold your weight as you come off the saddle, meanwhile taking the other foot and placing on the ground, timing it so it touches the ground just as your bicycle comes to a halt.

Some people want to put their foot down too early and this can be dangerous. If you haven't come to a complete stop, the instant you take your weight off the bike and place it on the ground, your bike is going to come to an abrupt halt. This is because it's much lighter without your weight and you're still applying the same braking force. Meanwhile, your body's momentum will keep you moving forward, and possibly into the handlebar stem, or worse, you may even lose your balance completely and that won't produce an elegant or graceful fall by any means.

Adjusting the saddle (or "seat")
Correct saddle placement is crucial in getting the most efficient cadence while not placing too much stress on your knees. Here's a brief guideline.

I figure out where my saddle needs to be by leaning my bike against a wall while a friend steadies it. I then get on the bike as if I'm going to ride, but the pedals are in an up and down position. While seated on the bicycle in a riding position (hands on handlebars), hips level on the saddle (not reaching for the pedal) with the balls of the foot centered over the pedal axle, the knee should be bent at about 10 degrees. If the knee is bent more than that, your saddle needs to be adjusted up. If it's not bent or you can't reach the pedals, lower it. Adjust it only about a half inch at a time until you get close to that 10 degree goal. Once you do, take it for a test ride around the block and fine tune it, if necessary, so you feel comfortable.

I hope this short guide will help you develop some good habits that make biking easier and more enjoyable. While it may take some time to get used to them, hang in there and you'll eventually reach a point where you won't have to think about how you ride, you'll just be able to enjoy everything else around you! The key to becoming a better rider is practice!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Green Code Connections

Who says that being a responsible citizen is boring?  We had a great time last night at the Buffalo Green Code meeting (Central) at Hutch Tech High School.  What's a Green Code, you ask?  Well, it's an initiative that the City of Buffalo is implementing to revamp, indeed completely restructure, our city's zoning codes and land-use plan.  The idea is that we should be the ones to direct how and where development will happen in our city, as well as ensuring that the type of development fits the character of the neighborhood and the space.  For example, the Green Code, once it becomes law, will have the ability to prevent an intrusive, say, gas station, on a corner of your block if you have told the Green Code team that it doesn't fit with the historic character, or pedestrian-centered feel of your neighborhood.  It is being created through an ambitious series of public meetings (the first of which happened last fall), intended to get the input of ALL residents. 

While the first part of the meeting that was held in the auditorium was an introduction, we got to the heart of the matter in the cafeteria after a short break.  There was such a high level of energy in the room that it was practically humming.  We were broken out into small groups at the tables, each around a map of the neighborhood in question (which included downtown/West Village/outer harbor).  Each group had a moderator, an experienced urban planner, etc who helped interpret and write our views about each neighborhood and block's particular strengths and weaknesses.  Bit by bit, we decided what we liked (historic character, walkability, diversity), what we disliked (blight, lost potential, lack of access to the waterfront), and what we want to see more of (pocket parks, bike lanes, mixed-use and small corner specialty shops).  It was an empowering process that I hope the city will truly listen to when they finalize the Code.

Chris Hawley, an urban planner working with the City of Buffalo (and author of the Hydraulics Press blog), was our break-out group's guide through the exercise.  He was skilled in understanding and translating our comments into useful notes on the board, which they will later compile once all the meetings are complete.  While there was a lot of excitement and energy at the meeting, we would have liked to have seen a greater diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds; perhaps this will be different at other locations.  Maybe the organizers need to do a better job of getting the word out to those who do not have access to the internet (billboards, posters, inserts in mailings from the city).  There was a fairly good mix of age groups represented, and we met several neighbors.  We look forward to following along with the process, and encourage you to participate, and invite your neighbors or block club!  You can click on the link above to check out the Green Code website, which gives details of the process, and the meeting locations.  Take an active role in shaping the future of YOUR city!

Here is a link to local coverage of the first meeting:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Emptying Our Pockets to Fill Our Cupboard

Author's note: I will begin this post by venting some frustration, but will wrap things up by looking for collaborative solutions to the problem.

Hello, everyone; it's Dana posting.  I feel as though I've been losing my sanity over grocery shopping lately.  How can this be, you ask?  Well, I am frustrated beyond belief by the amount of money we find ourselves spending, even though we're doing so many things to keep it reasonable.  We make our weekly menu plan, shop at different stores, pay attention to sales, harvest home-grown vegetables in the summer, etc., etc, etc.  Somehow tonight we walked out of Tops (admittedly not the best place to save money on groceries- and yes, please do take that as a challenge, Tops!) with a HUGE bill, and only about 5% of it was organic.  Poor Jon is frequently the brunt of my angry tirades about the ridiculous price of groceries and the weekly anxiety I feel, knowing we have a very small income.

Frequently, we shop at the Lexington Co-Op, and while I love the feeling I get buying beautiful organic food (and encountering the wonderful employees), I nearly experience a panic attack when I see the receipt.  I will qualify this by saying that the co-op has some of the best prices on bulk foods, but we spend WAY more on produce and other grocery items there.  So we try to balance this by shopping elsewhere for the non-organic items on our list (if we were independently wealthy, we'd probably buy everything at the co-op and not bat an eyelash).  Yet somehow, we're STILL hemorrhaging cash at the check-out. 

Maybe I shouldn't be so price-conscious. Maybe it's crazy for us to try to eat healthy, balanced, mostly-organic vegetarian meals.  Maybe NOT!  It should be a right, not a privilege, to have access to reasonably priced natural foods.  And I will FIGHT for this for everyone.  What I would like are your suggestions on ways to work around the exorbitant cost of good food...what do you do to save money?  Where do you shop?  Do you have a CSA membership?  Do you know a farmer?  I welcome any ideas and thoughts, as well as your experiences and feelings about grocery shopping in WNY.  Thanks for reading my rant!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How I Got Over the Car

Dana here.  Ok, so it's been a while.  A LONG while.  I have been pondering many things during our little break...most of all, how I feel now that we've been car-less for nearly three months.  In the last few weeks, I've realized something amazing; I'M OVER IT!  I am so over scraping off, warming up, and trying to navigate a car on snowy streets.  I am over paying nearly $3.50/gallon for gas and feeling angry about supporting big oil companies.  I am over worrying about inspections, repairs, registrations, and licenses.  It is liberating to NOT own a car.

I came to this conclusion slowly.  I used to be all about the car, even for short trips.  I loved the fact that I could be protected from the elements, and yet failed to see that the car was also "protecting" me from many interactions with my environment, my neighbors, and my city.  Now, as I walk (and yes, some winter days I still bike) around town, I get to see Buffalo from a different perspective, and on a human scale.  Does it take me a little while longer to get places?  Sure!  But I use that time to reflect and come up with ideas.  I am much more peaceful than I used to be, not to mention healthier!

I have taken the city bus for the first time, learned to ride the Metro rail, and used CarShare on a handful of occasions when we have to run many errands or buy heavy things.  There really is a decent network of public transportation in this town, if only people learned to use it.  I will gladly take you on a "guided tour", just let me know.

It's Jon writing!  When we first sold our car, I was already open to the idea of other modes of transport, including bike, bus and train.  Since we weren't using the car that often, but biking a lot, it didn't seem like too drastic a change.  Through these months, I've biked when possible, but some days it's too cold/windy, or we need more than we can carry in our bike trailer.  On those days, we ride the bus, take the train, or use CarShare.  During our most recent trip to 464 Gallery, we chose the bus, and I was impressed with the speed at which we arrived.  We passed Guercio's on Grant Street, and I realized how simple it would be to make a grocery run up there.

When I'm on my bike, I have a chance to think and be solitary.  Riding frequently has made me healthier and more motivated to exercise in other ways.  I get a sense of satisfaction knowing that the energy that I'm expending comes only from my body and the healthy, organic food I eat to fuel it.

It's exciting to see how many people have taken an interest in our experiences.  We now know that is is more than just possible to live without a car, but it's GREAT!  There are so many resources and people who have helped us in small and large ways.  We encourage all of you to take small steps, like riding the bus, walking instead of driving to a restaurant, or biking on sunny days when the roads are clear.  You will surprise yourself. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Greening the Census

Dana here.  This past summer, I worked part-time as an Enumerator with the US Census Bureau.  I was excited about it, because, as you all know, I'm a history nerd.  In my role as a genealogist, I have used old census records innumerable times, and they are a very important tool.  I wanted to take my place in history as the person who carefully documented the population and people of Buffalo in the year 2010. 

The actual experience of working as an Enumerator was a bit different than I expected...dealing with an organization as large as the Census Bureau comes with its headaches and red tape.  Lots of things need to be improved for the next go-round: complete computerization, prevention of waste, streamlining of training and operations, etc. etc.  For anyone else out there who worked for, or interacted with, the Census Bureau in 2010, I'm sure you agree.  It was not, in any way, a "green" operation.  In fact, sometimes I was rather embarrassed because of my eco-friendly views, to be representing an organization that just didn't have its eco-act together.

So, I decided when I was completely finished with all assignments, to write a report on my experiences, and those of my colleagues and the public with whom I interacted.  The result is my "Green the Census" report and proposal, found in its entirety here.  It calls for a Presidential Commission to investigate ways to improve the census experience, cut waste, save money and time, and improve the public perception.  Feel free to read through it, and come back here to the blog to leave me YOUR comments, experiences, and stories.  All of these will help strengthen the case and the urgency to make serious changes for 2020.  Thanks!