Americans: You Actually Live In A Free Country

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

We’ve had some exciting and tragic events over the last few weeks here in the United States of America. A few weeks ago a white racist gunman murdered 7 black people in a North Carolina Church, that was tragic. However, that massacre was followed by a final recognition around the country that Confederate Flag flying above many Southern State Houses is a symbol of racism that has no business pretending to represent American sentiments. Now those flags are finally coming down in many places.

Another historic blow for liberty has been a Supreme Court decision establishing that Gay and Lesbian couples have a nationwide right to get married.

Here’s the thing: we have in America a number of people who call themselves “conservative” in one way or another. From the Tea Party to Libertarian’s we have these people who claim to be supreme patriots who bravely defend individual liberty and freedom. Yet almost every time we expand freedom and liberty, be it marriage rights, or the right to sit on any available seat on a public bus, or recognizing a woman’s right to vote, these same people practically fall into hysterical fits crying that nation is coming apart at the seams. Every time we recognize individual right or liberty in some major way, these champions of freedom decry that recognition as a decent into chaos and tyranny?

Obviously racism, bigotry, and intolerance play a major role in this reactionary response to expanding freedom, but I think there’s something even weirder going on.  My experience over the decades boils down to the bizarre realization that these self-declared super patriots who claim to have superior expertise about the Nation’s history, its Founding Fathers, and the USS Constitution (sic) don’t actually seem to be aware of the fact that they live in the United States of America. From legal “Originalists” to Libertarians, to Tea Partiers, these folks seem to think they live the Twilight Zone or some other country.

Check it out:  Look at the reaction to the Marriage equality ruling and the Confederate Flag…  as usual conservatives all over the country are reacting as if these developments somehow make them victims of persecution. Well, there is a reason we refer to such people as: “reactionaries” so let’s not paint all conservatives with same brush.  But the reactionaries speak the loudest and conservatives seem to be happy to let them do so. So here we have reactions like this one from the MN “Family Council”:

“… the Supreme Court today stripped Americans of the freedom to democratically address one of the most important social issues of the day by creating a constitutional “right” to same-sex “marriage” in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision…  Just as many thought wrongly that Roe v. Wade would end the debate over abortion, Obergefell v. Hodges will not end the debate over marriage in America. Similarly, just as many thought incorrectly that people of faith would “get over” their belief in the sanctity of human life beginning at conception, people of faith simply cannot “get over” their belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. “

Likewise Southern States have seen some pretty big demonstrations and complaints that their “right” to fly the Confederate Flag has been obliterated by “liberals” and their undemocratic tyranny.

In both cases you have clear examples of the democratic process being denounced as anti-democratic.

These claims about the loss of democracy are simply bizarre on a very basic level. The fact that people who claim to be champions of American Democracy are the ones making such claims is little more than Grand Irony. Any basic review or our Constitution (which is the blue-print of our democratic government) reveals the fact that Supreme Court Justices are a huge part of our democratic system and that they are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing when they make rulings. Whether you like the ruling or not; the rulings are not anti-democratic.  One of the whole points of the court mechanism as  a check or balance is that they protect minorities and individuals from the tyranny of the masses. So if Montana passed a law tomorrow converting every woman in the state into a sex slave, the Supreme Court would strike it down.  That wouldn’t be a betrayal of our democracy, THAT would be a victory for individual liberty and freedom. Indeed the fact that our erstwhile champions of individual liberty constantly find themselves denouncing the branch of government that has emerged as the strongest defendant of individual liberty is simply bizarre… and a little ironic.  From “Gitmo” to Rosa Parks the courts have taken a stand against oppression and every time they do reactionaries denounce them. Go figure.

So I’ve decided that someone needs to tell these people that they actually live in the United States of America. This is a Democracy that protects and defends individual freedom and liberty. It’s not perfect but if anyone has a gripe it’s NOT Christians or republicans. You can believe whatever you want to believe in this country. You can believe in the Confederate Flag, or the idea that the only legitimate marriage is one between a man and woman, no one expects you to “get over” those beliefs.

Part of the problem is that reactionaries like to stomp on minorities, so they fear becoming a minority. Again, I remind you, this is the United States of America. The impulse to stomp on minorities isn’t universal and our government and Constitution is actually designed and tasked with the mission of protecting and defending minorities. And guess what? In a country that doesn’t stomp on minorities we don’t have to worry about being minorities. THAT’S why we don’t want to stomp on minorities in a free country.

Here’s the thing: You can believe whatever you want about marriage, you just can’t expect the government to impose your personal beliefs on EVERYONE else. The fact that other people exist who don’t share your beliefs doesn’t make you a victim of oppression or tyranny, and it doesn’t mean you don’t live in a democracy. On the contrary.

You can “believe” in the Confederate Flag if you want. You can fly it above your property, put it on your car, wear it on your head, or tattoo it somewhere on your body. But if you want to fly that flag over the State Capital your personal belief doesn’t give you that right because YOU are not the State. It’s my Capital as well and that gives ME a dog in the race. If you want to fly that flag above MY state capital we’re going to have to talk about it. We have people in this country who “believe” in the Nazi Swastika, that’s fine, a little toxic but perfectly legal. Those people don’t get to fly their Swastika’s above our government buildings without clearing it with their fellow citizens first. THAT’S called “Democracy”.  The fact that you may not get to fly your Swastika above the State Capital does not make you a victim of oppression and it doesn’t mean you don’t live in a democracy. Remember, citizens of democracies sometimes change their minds about stuff like slavery and who gets to vote… the ability change things is an integral part of democracy, not a sign of chaos.

Look, if you want to be an intolerant bigot and racist frankly, that’s your problem. Just remember, nations that are ruled by intolerance and bigotry are never “Free” countries or democracies. Quit panicking every time our democracy makes itself a little more “free” than it used to be. And stop worrying about being a minority because no matter how toxic and noxious you are, we don’t believe in oppressing minorities in this country. In fact, we tend to give them their own TV and radio shows on Clear Channel and Fox.  And the name of this country you live in? The United States of America. Please try to remember that.

And by the way, we’re not going to stop making this country a better country with more equalities and liberties just because it might push you out of your comfort zone a little… maybe it’s your comfort zone not our democracy that’s the problem?



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Riding a Bicycle Through an Intersection in America: Not So Simple.

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

In my previous annual bicycle safety blog I discussed the fact our road infrastructure is by and large not designed to accommodate people riding bicycles.  People driving cars often get frustrated with cyclists for not following the rules so I thought I come back to this subject with an illustration.

Here’s a typical intersection by the West End in St. Louis Park. I live nearby and I’ve ridden my bike through this intersection, and I’ve driven my car through it many times; I’m telling you, those are two completely different experiences. Bear in mind this is NOT an old intersection, it was built when the West End was built.

The intersection of W. 16th Street and Park Blvd in St. Louis Park Minnesota. Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The intersection of W. 16th Street and Park Blvd in St. Louis Park Minnesota. Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The street on the right, leading to the shopping district didn’t exist 6-8 years ago, there was a racket club of some kind there if I remember correctly. Even when we have a chance to design new streets and intersections with bicycles in mind we don’t do it. This intersection has all the modern bells and whistles, striped pedestrian crosswalks with audible signals for the vision impaired, nice wide sidewalks, plenty of lanes for cars and trucks, fancy lights, etc. NOTHING for cyclists. As cyclist you just have to figure out how to get through this intersection on your own, safely and legally.

If you’re in a car, or walking across this intersection it’s very simple, you just go when the signal tells you to go. On a bike, this is a much more complex problem than many people may realize.

Let’s say for instance that you’re trying to get to the super market (marked by the green “X”) to buy a gallon of Milk. According to the law, a cyclist (represented by the yellow line) is supposed to obey the traffic signal and ride as far to the right as is practicable.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Note that there is no bike lane here, nor are the car lanes very wide. This means a cyclist would practically ride in the gutter while cars squeeze by to the left. Then, having arrived at the next intersection, the cyclist has make a left turn and cross four lanes of traffic, (two from the opposite direction), in order to get over to the supermarket. By the way, that second intersection, is NOT a controlled intersection; there are no stop signs there to stop the traffic although there is a crosswalk for pedestrians.

Now a vehicular bike rider who believes in driving his or her bike as-if it’s a car might do it differently. Such a rider would park themselves right in the midst of the cars and ride in the car lane until they got to the crosswalk and then turn.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Of course this is the kind of cyclist that car drivers love to hate as they poke along at 15-20 mph waiting to see where the bike rider is going. This option is actually illegal because it blocks and otherwise interferes with traffic. It’s also not the safest option in my opinion because it assumes that car drivers will behave reasonably and everyone sees the cyclists. Nevertheless I’ve seen people do it.

A third option, not illustrated here, is that a cyclist cross one way, and then the other along with the pedestrian signal. While that may be safe, it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike.

A fourth option, and the one that I usually choose, is to use the sidewalk, crosswalk and the pedestrian signal on the north side of the intersection.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

It’s permissible in this location to ride on these sidewalks, and as long as you ride with requisite caution and mindful of pedestrians you’re not going to put yourself or anyone else in danger. Some people may not realize that at this location, that option is perfectly legal. I know what you’re thinking, I had to cross traffic to get to my sidewalk, and that’s true, and it’s a good point. It just so happens that it’s easy and safe to cross traffic on this particular street on the approach to this intersection. on a different street in a different location I might not have that option. This just illustrates the fact that each intersection can present its own challenges for a cyclist.

Now let’s look at a slightly different scenario where a cyclist at this intersection is simply trying to make a left turn.

Again, in a car, you just get in the left turn lane and wait for the light to change. As a pedestrian you just wait for the signal and cross the street one way, and then the other.  A cyclist on the other hand is faced with all kinds of problems.

Minnesota law grants bicycle riders status as: “Drivers”, with all the rights and privileges of motorized vehicles on the roads (see the statute here).  However, while cyclists may have the rights, they don’t have necessarily have lanes, so this means in some circumstances we’re supposed to use lanes designed for cars and trucks, or… not.

One way to make a left turn (not pictured) would be to simply use the pedestrian crosswalks (MN law also grant cyclist on sidewalk or crosswalks all the rights and privileges of pedestrians, and you don’t have to dismount).  You cross to one side, and then the other according to the pedestrian signal. However cyclist aren’t required to do that, and again it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike instead of walking.

Another way would be to use the left hand turn lanes and make the turn just like a car. However in this scenario a cyclist is again faced with several problems. If there are two left hand turn lanes, which one do you use? And where do you stop while waiting for the light to change? I’ve used pink lines here to reveal the path of the auto traffic so you can get a feeling for traffic a cyclist might be coping with.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

No matter how you do this you’re in the traffic mix riding among cars and trucks while your make the turn. As you can see, if you use the left-left hand turn lane you’ll have to cross traffic to get over to the right once you make the turn. That’s tangling you up in traffic and not so safe.

If you use the right lane, you still have to decide where to be while waiting for the light to change. Some riders will park in the middle of the lane, right in front of or in between cars and trucks. The theory there is that your physical presence will actually make the driver back off and give you the space you need to get through the intersection.  Most of the time that strategy works.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The problem is that cars and trucks get into thousands of fender-benders in intersections across American every day. Feet slip off of brake pedals, accelerator pedals get mistaken for brake pedals, people hit the gas too hard, a driver might be in a rental with a touchy gas pedal, things go wrong in and around intersections. I personally don’t like to be in front of cars and trucks because a 5 mph fender bender for a car or truck can be a serious or even fatal encounter on a bicycle, it’s just physics.

One way you can minimize the danger of sitting in fender-bender prone traffic is by sitting off to the side of the lane. The problem in this case is that such a position makes you thread the needle between oncoming traffic and traffic going your direction when you proceed through the intersection.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Now I’m not endorsing this, and I’m not saying I’ve ever done it, but I gotta tell you if I’m sitting in that left hand turn lane waiting for a green light, and I can see that there’s no cross traffic approaching, I just might be thinking it’s safer to ride on through an empty intersection than it would to wait until all those cars and trucks are set in motion by a green light. I’m just sayin.

What I would most likely do at this intersection is use the crosswalk and the crosswalk signal on the north side of the intersection. This strategy gets me where I’m going without putting me in the middle of the road with traffic. Think of it this way: would you want to see a ten year old on a bicycle out there in that left hand turn lane?

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Now let’s consider the fact that cyclists encounter these intersections, there are thousands of them, all over the city, every day. I don’t know which of the options I’ve discussed appeals to you, maybe you’d do something else entirely, but the point is there is simply is no single and clearly defined way that is the best and the safest way to get through all intersections under all circumstances. Drivers and pedestrians should appreciate that. Even with the same intersection, the safest way to turn left at 11:00 in the morning may be a bad idea three hours later. My sidewalk strategy for instance doesn’t work downtown or even uptown.

Of course if you can avoid tricky intersections with an alternate route that’s always a good idea. However cyclists point out that we shouldn’t really have to find alternate routes that may take longer just to be safe. We ought to be able to use our streets like everyone else does.

Keep in mind this isn’t necessarily as spooky at it looks. Thousands of cyclists get through intersections safely every day, most of the time car drivers back off for a few seconds and give cyclist the space they need to be safe.  Nevertheless the majority of serious bicycle accidents and fatalities occur in intersections. When you look at this one example I think you can see why. I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, my point is to draw your attention to the complications a cyclist can face simply trying to get a gallon of milk.

My idea of a safe light controlled intersection would be to have bicycle lanes clearly drawn and give cyclists their own signal. There is a moment in every light controlled intersection when all traffic is stopped by red lights, that’s the best time for cyclist to make a left turn. If we simply lengthened that time frame for few moments and worked out some kind of “go” signal (maybe a flashing green arrow?) for cyclists, these intersections could be perfectly safe with little additional traffic delays.

Where do you put the bike lane? Personally I would make the bike lanes start on the right hand side of the road, and then cross the intersection. The problem with putting bike lanes out on the left turn lanes is that cyclist have to get out there somehow, and that usually means crossing traffic. If everyone could just stay as far to the right as is practicable I think you minimize confusion and problems.

Hopefully if you’re a driver reading this you now have little more appreciation for the dilemma’s cyclists can face in otherwise unremarkable intersections. A street can look a lot different when you sitting on top of a bike instead of behind a steering wheel. Sometimes when you see cyclists bending the rules try to keep in mind that they’re not necessarily being careless or rebellious, they may just be trying to get a gallon of milk without getting smushed.

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Twin Cities Bicycle Riding: The Safe Way

Riding with the Dog

Riding with the Dog Photo by Paul Udstrand 2014

Well it’s that time of year when temperatures here in Twin Cities edge above freezing and that means hoard’s of people will be digging out their bicycles and hitting the roads and trails for the next few months. Of course there are a surprisingly large number of intrepid riders who kept peddling all winter and those riders put the Twin Cities on the map as the #1 or #2 bicycle cities in the United States. It’s actually amazing given our climate that we can have the largest cycling population in the nation. But there you have it… I salute you intrepid winter riders!

Cycling may be incredibly popular in the Twin Cities, but our fine metro area like the rest of the country is still experiencing growing pains and culture clashes between cyclists and everyone else out on those roads and trails. For now this is just kind of an American thing, we’ve had an explosion of people riding bicycles in a country that for decades was designed around automobiles. We’ve also had an explosion of exercise in the last couple of decades.  Millions of people started walking and running and cycling in communities that were largely designed or redesigned around automobiles. There is some “tension” out there… to say the least.

The idea of sharing our roads, sidewalks, and trails, is kind of an afterthought here in the United States so we have a lot of catching up to do with places like Europe where cycling has always been a major part of the transportation mix. Of course all of this makes safety a dodgy proposition at times so every year as a cyclist myself, I like to dash off a refresher blog about safe cycling.

As usual some of my advice is a little controversial, but that’s actually a reflection of the culture clashes and infrastructure deficiencies we’ve been experiencing for almost three decades. Some riders will disagree with my suggestions but that’s OK, they’re suggestions, all I ask is some consideration.

To begin with, we do have laws in MN, and here’s a link:

The basic requirements are that you follow all the traffic laws, obey signs, and ride as far to the right as is “practicable” when riding on streets with traffic.  You’re also not supposed to ride side by side unless it won’t crowd others on a trail or impede traffic.

A lot of drivers get frustrated with cyclists who seem to ignore traffic laws, and that contributes to some of the tension. I personally get frustrated with cyclists who ride so far out in the street that they slow down or otherwise impede traffic.  Some cyclists do this deliberately as an attempt to “defend” their lane, or “calm” traffic. This was actually a theory of bike “driving” or vehicular riding that was popular in some circles a few years ago.  The philosophy of vehicular riding was based on possibly fraudulent research that no one has ever managed to replicate. The claim was that riding on the streets in traffic, and riding assertively, challenging traffic, was safer than riding on bike trails. That was simply a false claim, subsequent research has shown that the safest way to cycle is to stay out of traffic and use dedicated bike trails and lanes.  I’ve discussed this in more detail in previous cycling blogs, you review that here.

The problem is, and many auto drivers don’t appreciate this, we don’t have dedicated bicycle lanes and trails everywhere. This means cyclists sometimes have to ride in traffic on streets that aren’t designed to accommodate bicycles. This means that a cyclist has to make safety decisions on occasion that can be contrary to the rules that car drivers must follow. I’m not endorsing anything- but in a given intersection, under certain circumstances, it can be safer for a cyclist to get through that intersection when there’s no traffic moving, even if it’s still a red light. Left hand turns in busy intersection can be quite dangerous and cyclists can sometimes feel like they either have to risk their life in traffic or ride through when they can see that it’s safest to do so. A cyclist has certain advantages that driver’s don’t have. We’re not enclosed in a cabin surrounded by blind spots and we sit up higher than people sitting in a car. It can be easier to reliably survey an intersection on a bicycle than it is sitting in a car. Until our streets and intersections are better designed to accommodate bicycle traffic, cyclists sometimes will face the dilemma of following traffic laws to the letter or deploying the safest maneuver under the circumstances. Of course other times cyclists are simply ignoring the law, and that’s just annoying, and maybe even dangerous.

One thing you may have seen more recently around the lakes (Cedar, Isles, Calhoun, etc.), is cyclists riding on the LEFT side of the one-way parkway. If a cyclist needs to go the opposite direction of the bike path, they have to ride on the street going the other way, so that’s why they’re on the street instead of the bike path. Technically it’s illegal to ride on the left side of the street, but the problem is that all the parked cars are on the right side, and this presents certain hazards because cyclists are more difficult to see (and hear) than automobile traffic.  People will fling their doors open, pull out, or even step out from between parked cars right in front of a cyclists without seeing them.  I’m not saying I like the idea of riding on the left side of the street, but I can see the logic behind it. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen at least two near collisions with other bikes or pedestrians at the lagoon bridge on Lake of the Isles because speed demon cyclists riding on the left ignored the stop sign at that crosswalk. If you’re going to ride on the left, you need to obey the signs Mr. speedy, you’re not on a race track. Personally I think all of those bike paths should be two-way so people can go whichever direction they need to safely without having to mix with traffic.

Stay out of traffic as much as possible. If you’re riding for fun or exercise use the bike trails or dedicated lanes. If you’re commuting, and have to ride on streets without dedicated bike lanes, plan routes that minimize mixing with traffic, better to take a little extra time on a safer route with less traffic than get banged up on a busy street. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ride on the street on the parkways unless you have to because of the aforementioned one-ways.  The parkways are too narrow and curvy, use the bike path; it’s only ten feet away (or less). If you want to be Mr. Sirspeedalot ride somewhere else.

The majority of collisions happen in intersections so enter all intersections with caution, prepared to brake.  Never assume anything in an intersection no matter what color the light is, or what any sign says. And by intersection I mean any kind of intersection, not just those on the streets.

Speaking of breaks, keep your hands in the proper position. If you’re riding a road bike with swept down handlebars your hands should almost always be on the break hoods.

Photo Courtesy of Lovelybicycle blog

Photo Courtesy of Lovelybicycle blog

I still see people riding with those “aerobars” on the streets and bike paths (specially the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and Greenway) and that’s a really bad idea.

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Those bars are only allowed in time trials for racing because they’re so dangerous, you can’t maneuver and you can’t reach your brakes in an emergency. None of our bike paths or streets are safe enough to ride with those handle bars.  I would almost support a law of some kind banning aerobars I think they’re so dangerous.

Speaking of aerobars, other kinds of extensions are also a bad idea. People will fit their handle bars with all kinds of funky extensions because their wrists get sore but the problem is the bike fit, not the handle bars. Buy the right bicycle, don’t buy the wrong bicycle and try to make it fit. Just think about it, can you reach your brakes in an emergency when your hands are up on those extensions?

Keep your bike tuned. Bikes are very simple mechanical devices, they’re not difficult to maintain. For the most part a tune up is simply inspecting the rims, repacking the bearings every so often, and adjusting or inspecting your brakes and derailleur. Specialized tools aren’t that expensive, there are a million how-to videos on YouTube, and it doesn’t cost much to have a bike shop do it for you.  A malfunctioning bike can be dangerous and distracting.

If you feel safer wearing a helmet, wear one; but helmets are not essential safety gear for EVERYONE. Better to ride safely and avoid collisions than gear up for a collision. The vast majority of cyclist never have a serious crash, and if they do crash, they don’t hit their heads.  It may seem odd but there’s actually no evidence that requiring helmets is even a good idea. I’ve written about this more extensively here.  I’m not telling anyone not to wear a helmet, but I am saying it’s OK to ride without one.  The important thing is to ride, and ride safe.

Final points:

Light up and vis-up. One of the biggest causes of collisions is failure to see a cyclist in the first place. Make yourself visible.  Lights are cheap, and hi-vis gear has gotten much cheaper. For instance if you want to wear a helmet, make it a high-vis helmet, the increased visibility may be more important than the Styrofoam.

Sound off. Always exercise a little extra caution when in close proximity to pedestrians.  You’re supposed to make pedestrians aware of your presence when you pass them, and oblivious pedestrians are a standard feature on our bike paths and streets. I prefer a voice warning because I don’t think American pedestrians know what to do when they hear a little bell ring, but if more people use bells maybe pedestrians will learn.  Maybe bells combined with a voice warning?

Slow down.  A lot of bikers are simply traveling too fast for the conditions they’re  riding in, and that’s easy to do with modern bikes, you can easily coast 15 mph on even a slight downward slope.  Don’t pretend you’re in a race when you’re riding on city streets or bike paths. In races, streets and intersections are blocked, and pedestrians and bystanders are cordoned off. In the REAL world, traffic and pedestrians are all over the place and you have to share the streets and trails. You want to race, enter a race. Don’t jump onto our streets and trails with thousands of other people and pretend you’re racing.

Little known facts about cycling in Minnesota:

  1. a) In Minnesota you do NOT have to walk your bike through intersections or crosswalks. You can (and I think should) ride rather than dismount and walk through an intersection. Just give any pedestrians crossing with you plenty of space, maybe ride next to the crosswalk rather than inside it.
  2. b) If there is no approaching traffic you can proceed through an intersection against a red light as long as you come to a complete stop. Minnesota lawmakers realized that a person on bike won’t trip the mechanism that changes the light, nor can the crosswalk button be reached from the street. You don’t have to sit there and wait for an unreasonable period of time, you can go. ( Subdivision 9)

All this talk about safety can sometimes obscure the fact that riding bike is one of the safest things you can do, and it’s certainly one of the healthiest things you can do. For the most part safety is common sense, ride with some caution and courtesy,  and be aware of your surroundings. It’s a slow process but Americans are getting more and more accustomed to the new mix of transportation, and we’re starting to design and redesign streets and trails with Bicycles in mind. Riding a bike is safe, and it’s getting safer every year, so go out and have fun.






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Assault On Integrity: Oklahoma Lawmakers Try to Ban Critical Thinking

ronald Reagan painting-Edalisse Hirst (Flickr)

Ronald Reagan painting-Edalisse Hirst (Flickr)

Maybe you’ve heard about a recent initiative by Oklahoma lawmakers? Seems republicans in Oklahoma have decided to ban the Advanced Placement United States History Curriculum in the state’s public schools because those courses don’t celebrate America enough. You can read an article about it here. This is nothing new; republicans have been complaining about school curriculums for decades, it’s been part of their “Culture War” for as long as I can remember.

It goes without saying that this is nonsense, but it’s persistent nonsense that’s been flowing out of reactionary American circles for decades so it’s kind of interesting deconstruct on some levels. The targets for these attacks change once and while, but the cognitive style that produces these attacks is remarkably stable.

There are actually two consistent glitches in some conservative mentalities that produce this kind of nonsense, both are related to a certain type of religious mindset.

For one thing, some religious people have trouble sorting out the difference between secular and religious human activity. Religion is all about celebrating religious principles, scriptures, leaders, historical figures, and events. Religious music, writing, gatherings, worship, are all about celebration. In the Christian religion for instance, it’s not just about celebration but also proselytization, or promotion of Christ. Fine, no problem there, that’s religion.

Secular activity on the other hand is not always celebratory. For instance whereas Christian music is supposed to celebrate Christ for the most part, Blues music doesn’t necessarily celebrate anything. Nor is secular expression necessarily promoting anything. We’ve seen this over the years when religious leaders try to censor secular books, music, etc. because they assume that a song or book about sex, violence, drugs, etc. is celebrating or promoting sex, drugs, and violence. Secular books, movies, or songs that depict some types of immoral activity may actually be attempting to condemn that behavior by providing an unfiltered and un-glamorous depiction. Even if a song or movie does glamorize or endorse questionable behavior, that’s actually OK in the secular world because of our whole “free speech” thing. In religion, that would be blasphemy.

On a basic level the difference between religious and secular education can best be distinguished by recognizing that religious education celebrates its subject (God), whereas secular education studies its subject (whatever that might be). Religious education allows critical thinking within certain limits, secular education in theory, places no limits on critical thinking. Conservative and reactionary mentalities frequently look at secular critical thought and conclude that it’s exceeded its limits.

We see this celebratory religious impulse expressing itself in Oklahoma when the conservative mentality mistakenly assumes that secular history is supposed to celebrate its subject rather than study it. Basically it’s an impulse to convert history text into a form of religious scripture.

A lot of people confuse critical thinking with negativity, but that’s another discussion. Suffice to say that thinking critically about history isn’t the same being negative or even judgmental about history.

Returning to the discussion at hand; the other related problem with some religious mentatilities is the failure to understand that secular education isn’t about teaching people what to think or believe, it’s about teaching people how to think. Again, you have to step outside of the religious mentality to get your head around this. Religion is all about teaching people what to believe, that’s kind of the whole point. However we don’t teach people math because we want them to “believe” that two plus two equals four. Nor do we don’t teach people how to read for the sole purpose of studying religious scripture. When we teach history it’s not about teaching people to “believe” in America, it’s about teaching people how to study and understand historical events and figures. History is also about training intellect by studying complex realities, and developing intellectual integrity with dispassionate observation skills. The difference between propaganda and history after all is that propaganda is intellectually dishonest.

Oklahoma lawmakers are developing a curriculum of propaganda, not history. Not only is this endeavor itself intellectually dishonest, but if successful, it will impede the intellectual abilities and integrity of their students.

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Ending Torture Would Be Nice: But Really We Need To Put An End To Our Criminal Regimes

Bush War Cabinet Annie Leibovitz 2001

Photo by Annie Leibovitz 2001

For the benefit of everyone who’s been living in a cave for the last decade or so the US Senate finally (after an 8 month delay) released the results of its investigation into the US government’s illegal detentions and interrogations in the wake of the Sept. 2001 attacks (Between 2001 and 2006, and it’s not clear if the torture actually stopped in 2006 or was simply outsourced for a few more years). Let’s be clear about this, the fact that illegal torture and secret and illegal methods of capture and detention were part of the regime, has been public for almost a decade.  By 2006, in response to revelations about waterboarding, Congress was passing legislation “clarifying” that:

“… all individuals acting under the color of U.S. law categorically are prohibited from engaging in or authorizing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. “ (1)

By 2005 major news outlets and human rights organizations had already revealed the Extraordinary Rendition program, and within the year European “allies” were publishing investigations and withdrawing from the program due to legal and human rights concerns. (2) In 2007 Hollywood actually started making movies about it, one starring Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhall (3)

I’m not going to detail an indictment here, you can “google” all of this for yourself. Suffice to say that illegality of all of this is not in dispute, and hasn’t been since at least 2006. The recent report doesn’t alert us to something we didn’t already know. What this report does provide is yet another confirmation that it is indeed possible to have a criminal regime in a democracy like ours; it confirms the fact that the Bush II Presidency was a criminal regime. It wasn’t the first criminal regime, but it was arguably the worst criminal regime in US History.

The thing that bothers me is the fact that this was the third criminal regime in my lifetime, and these regimes are getting worse. Nixon was the first (Watergate, Allende’s murder etc.). Reagan was the second (Iran Contra, drug smuggling, and various other crimes committed against people in El Salvador and Nicaragua). And then we get to Bush II and it was like a free-for-all for thugs and sociopaths. From illegal wire-tapping to the trumped-up war on Iraq Bush II was an illegal rampage that would have made Nixon and Reagan blush.*

While Nixon had Kissinger and a secret team of “plumbers” and Reagan had a semi-rogue team of terrorist (Ollie North and company), the crimes of Nixon and Reagan were compartmentalized. The number of Bush executives that could be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even domestic crimes, is without precedent. The Attorney General, White House Council, Secretaries of Defense and State, National Security Advisor, FBI, NSA, and CIA directors, not to mention the President and Vice President themselves, all complicit; and that’s not even a complete list. If we use standards comparable to those of the Nuremberg or Tokyo trials, hundreds of people from private contractors to the newly created Department of Homeland Security personnel would qualify for prosecution.

The Nixon and Reagan regimes faced consequences such as impeachment and indictments (although limited in scope and severity). Bush II? Despite numerous instances of everything from gross incompetence to treason only one Bush official, “Scooter” Libby, has been prosecuted (resulting in a commuted sentence with no jail time). For all practical purposes the Bush regime has faced zero accountability; the only semblances of accountability thus far have been a few instances where Condi Rice and George Tenet appear to have been somewhat uncomfortable in interviews or public forums. Tenet squirmed a little while declaring that: “We do not torture” in his 2007 “60 Minutes” interview (At least he squirmed while lying.) Condoleezza Rice had to withdraw from a Rutgers’s commencement gig but manages to bully her way through other encounters.

Beyond the scale and lack of accountability, Bush’s criminal regime was unique in two other important ways. First, with the exception of Watergate, previous regimes committed crimes under the auspices of the “Cold War” one way or another. The Cold War was a policy problem that spanned multiple administrations involving both major political parties. As the Pentagon Papers revealed there was always plenty of dishonesty involved in all of this, but the scale and nature of the dishonesty was different in important respects. For instance, we know that several consecutive administrations lied about a lot of stuff in Viet Nam, but we were fighting communist who were trying to take over the country. The Soviet Union really did have nuclear weapons (although not as many missiles as the CIA was claiming in the early 60s). Compare that to Iraq where every single justification for the war turned out to be either wildly mistaken or just plain fabricated. While previous administrations exaggerated threats under a static umbrella of the Cold War (Remember Reagan’s warning that Nicaragua was going to be a Soviet Base?), Bush’s regime fabricated threats whole cloth and reacted to those threats with criminal responses.

Bush’s criminal regime was a departure from previous administrations in another important way. While torture has been a standard practice amongst US client states for decades, US agents have rarely if ever actually administered the torture, and never before has the practice of torture or the direct knowledge of torture reached all the way to the Oval Office.

Torture was a standard feature of the South Vietnamese intelligence regime and frequently carried out while US agents observed. Likewise throughout South and Central America torture techniques, many of them learned at the US Army’s School of the America’s ,*  were ubiquitous features of US supported Military Junta’s from Guatemala to Chile. And of course we had the CIA torture manual that was issued to the Contra’s.

The Bush regime brought torture into the white house as far as we know for the first time. Not only did US agents personally engage in torture, but their actions were explicitly and personally authorized and monitored by cabinet members and other high ranking officials. This was a radical departure from the status quo of previous US regimes.

The reader may have noticed that I’m not trying to define torture. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a bunch of sociopathic members of a criminal regime have trouble recognizing torture when they see it, but the rest of us don’t have that problem. Maybe there are worse kinds of torture, but this was torture. The reason previous administrations kept these techniques beyond arm’s length was they knew it was torture, legally and morally.

Who’s responsible for these crimes? We know that these crimes originated in the White House, these polices were created in the White House and pushed down through the ranks. We’ve actually known a lot of details about this for years. We know that ground level CIA, FBI, military personnel, and others pushed back.  We know that by 2004 FBI agents were refusing to participate, and warning that torture was going to produce unreliable intelligence. We know that analysts at the CIA also warned that torture didn’t produce reliable intelligence, and was illegal in a variety of ways. We know that the push-back was significant enough that White House Council eventually had to manufacture legal findings in order to justify the policy. We know that as early as 2002 Colin Powel wrote an extraordinary warning detailing the problems with a torture regime.

The excuses and rationale that former Bush officials have given for their crimes are almost too ridiculous to discuss. Basically when they’re not claiming that the country was happy to live under the warm blanket of protection that torture was providing (A lie because the country was never happy with torture nor was torture protecting us), they’re claiming that they panicked and couldn’t think clearly enough to find other solutions. Such claims are simply not worth our consideration. These claims are sociopathic fantasy masquerading as history.

As for torture providing valuable intelligence, I remind everyone that Bush and Cheney never did find Osama Bin Laden. I think it’s far more likely that unreliable intelligence derived from torture enabled Bin Laden’s escape and evasion rather than led to his location 8 years later. Intelligence was never a strong suit in the Bush II White House.

What to do? Well the idea that a crime isn’t a crime when the president does it goes back at least as far as Nixon. Every time we create “safeguards” criminal regimes just set them aside or ignore them. When Bush II came into office we had a bulwark of laws in place ranging from the Military Code of Conduct to FISA, and they all failed. It’s unlikely anyone from the Bush II regime will face charges in a US court.

One thing is for sure. We have thousands of dedicated men and women of integrity working throughout our government who provide invaluable and outstanding service. Criminal regimes never emerge from the bottom up, so the prosecution of criminal regimes (in whatever form it takes) should never work from the bottom up. It is an eternal stain on our justice system for instance that no one above the rank of Staff Sargent was convicted of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

It may be a long shot but one thing we could do is change the Constitution. This Pardon authority that US Presidents have has become corrosive to our justice system. Even when high ranking officials are charged and convicted presidents simply erase the convictions or modify the sentences. This creates a circularity of lawlessness whereby crimes are committed on behalf of the president who then either erases the crime or pardons the offender.  We should limit a president’s ability to interfere with the prosecutions of government officials or those working for government officials.  Maybe if people knew they could actually go to jail, they’d be a little less enthusiastic about ignoring the law.

Beyond the President it’s clear that we’ve become incapable or unwilling as a nation of policing our own presidential administrations. If we can’t do it, we need to let someone else do it. We need to make our high ranking officials accountable to the International Criminal Courts. It’s nice that our criminal regimes eventually pass out of power either by election or term limits, but that’s little comfort to thousands or tens of thousands of victims.

In the meantime, if I was Cheney, or Rice, or Tenet, or any other members of this former regime, I wouldn’t leave the country. There are thousands of victims of this regime world-wide, and other courts are unlikely to accept the feeble arguments these people offer as excuses for their crimes.

*I know there are those who add Bill Clinton’s regime to the list. You can add to the list if you want, but it doesn’t change the problem. I merely note that Clinton was impeached and acquitted. Furthermore his alleged crime, if it was a crime, was of a personal nature, it wasn’t an expression of a criminal regime.

**We know that Torture techniques were part of the curriculum when the School of the America’s was located in the US controlled Canal Zone in Panama. It’s unclear whether or not the techniques are still being taught now that the campus has moved to Fort Benning, GA. The Army denies its teaching torture techniques but other’s report that the curriculum is essentially unchanged.

Posted in Just Thinking | 2 Comments

Forget the Grand Jury: Look at the Grand Indictment

abcI don’t need to fill in the reader in regarding the recent killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson Police Officer and subsequent reactions. Suffice to say that many good citizens seem to think we can solve our racially disparity problems by putting all police shooters on trial without applying to a Grand Jury first. Or, alternatively, we can somehow “tweak” the Grand Jury system and get the indictments so many people are demanding.




Listen: These problems with racially disparate “justice” systems, policed profiling, and militarized police regimes are NOT going to fixed by tweaking or eliminating the Grand Jury system. Dozens of people imprisoned for Satanic Ritual Abuse back in the 90s, and dozens of death row convicts that have been exonerated by DNA evidence will tell you that “trials” aren’t the great arbiters of truth and justice you may think they are.

The problem isn’t going to be fixed at the Grand Jury level because it starts soooooo much farther upstream. The militarization of policing started back in the 70s under the Nixon/Rockefeller “law and order” initiatives. Criminalizing anything we think is a problem and having zero-tolerance for offences began in the 70s, and escalated for decades.

Those of us who were paying attention noticed a big escalation in the 90s after the Rodney King L.A. riots, and then again after the Battle for Seattle against WHO policies. Locally we saw this for the first time in a big way at the Hiawatha Reroute demonstrations. And of course the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks pushed it over the top. But even before Sept. 2001 police fear and paranoia regarding “Anarchists” and “Earth First!” and PETA was palpable.

And don’t think that our gun culture is irrelevant. You send this militarized police force out into an environment with millions of assault weapons floating around and the results are predictable. The police are soooo heavily armed now because criminals are so heavily armed.

Of course when you add racism to the mix you get a whole new set of problems. You militarize a racially bias police regime… you get racially biased policing on a military scale.

So what happens when for whatever reason you make selling cigarettes without a license a crime in New York City? You get a racially biased militarized police force confronting ordinary citizens who are selling perfectly legal product on the streets. You’re surprised this escalates into fatal encounters? You’re surprised people of color are targeted more than anyone else?

But yeah, let’s just tweak the Grand Jury System and have mandatory trials for all cops who shoot anyone in the line of duty. We do that and I’m sure we’ll be ship shape and Bristol fashion in no time. It’s not the Grand Jury’s, it’s the Grand Indictment we’re missing, and I’m not talking about a few cops here and there. This Nation and it’s good citizens created this law enforcement regime, liberals and conservatives alike. You want to indict someone? Look the mirror.

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Here We Go Again? : Lessons of Yankee Interventions and Fear in the Home of the Brave


Bush Declares an end to combat operations? Associated Press Photo

Bush Declares an end to combat operations? Associated Press Photo

Clausewitz was right, war is simply an extension of politics by other means. Accordingly, one can find numerous examples of apparently victorious military operations that ended in strategic defeat.  If control, colonization, or economic dominance (i.e. strategic policy) is the objective of military action, then military action must be judged by that strategic outcome, not the relative military success that may precede the strategic outcome.

In recent decades the United States has racked up an impressive tally of victorious defeats (military victories followed by strategic failure).  Remember our “Peace with Honor” in Viet Nam?  Now it looks like the United States is about add yet another victorious defeat to its list, this time in Iraq. Even if ISIS fails to establish a Caliphate or Islamic state, the odds are Iraq will fall apart or die trying not to in the next few years. This was not the strategic objective when Bush and Cheney put “boots” on the ground back in 2003.

The Iraq War may the most phenomenal victorious defeat in US history. Never before has a presidential team failed so spectacularly in so many ways for such a long time as the Bush Jr. team. Viet Nam at least had a Cold War as an ostensible backdrop, but Iraq was product of unbridled hubris with no defensible rationale.

As spectacular at the Iraq failure has been, It’s critical that Americans remember this isn’t the first time US military power has failed to produce the sought after reality “on the ground”. It’s important to take note of the increasing frequency with which US military adventures are failing in the last few decades. Recognition of such failures should be a cautionary lesson for Americans but fear seems to trump caution all too often in the home of the brave. Now the same people who brought us the stupidest war in American history are panicking in the face of ISIS and demanding yet more military action. We should ignore them.

We’ve seen this before. We fought a vicious and costly war in Viet Nam that got millions of people killed because we were told that dominos would fall and Communism would rise. And anyways we always fight for freedom. So we “won” our military victory, got our peace with honor, and then the government we spent a decade and billions of dollars propping up lasted all of  two weeks when attacked in 1975. Horror of horrors right? Not really.

Wikipedia Public Domain Photo

Making a Vietnamese Hamlet safe for Democracy  Wikipedia Public Domain Photo

We never ended up living in McNamara’s nightmare world of rampant communism and crushing dominos. Instead the Vietnamese ended up making our tennis shoes and T-shirts.

Likewise the US spent decades using direct and proxy military force all over Central and South America. Few Americans know that it was actually the United States that invented the formation of “Banana Republics” on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler penned a speech about our military adventures back in the 1930s: “War is a Racket”

By the time Arbenz in Guatemala was overthrown by the CIA in 1954 the Cold War had become the backdrop for military and proxy military action in Latin America. The US spent decades supporting brutal dictatorships in order to stave off communism or its little sister socialism. Ronald Reagan warned us that Nicaragua was hours driving time away and would become a Soviet base should the Sandinista’s prevail.  Reagan’s team broke several US laws, international laws, and committed multiple crimes against humanity (The Contras were a terrorist proxy army that routinely murdered and terrorized Nicaraguan civilians). All to keep the Sandista’s out of power. So what ended up happening in Latin America? Did totalitarian socialist end up occupying the region and organizing a march on Texas and New Mexico?

Photo by Don Rypka for AFP

Photo by Don Rypka for AFP

Here’s what happened. The United States was eventually forced to abandon it proxy wars on “Leftist’s” throughout the region. Covert (and not so covert) military intervention gave way to elections and things actually got better for most people on Latin America. The Sandista’s in Nicaragua lost elections for a while but the descendants of Somoza turned out to still be corrupt and incompetent. Now the same guy the Contra’s fought to overthrow (Daniel Ortega) has been elected president for the last 8 years or so.

In fact, throughout Latin America with a few exceptions, countries are being run by governments that would have been considered “Leftist” back in the 80s. Here’s the thing…. Did you even know that? You may have heard some rumbles about Chavez in Venezuela but beyond that the fall of “free market” dictatorships has unleashed economic resurgence in Latin America, not catastrophe. The guys we kept overthrowing ended up in power anyways and it’s OK.

Having learned absolutely nothing from these previous fiasco’s in 2003 we invaded Iraq based on fear mongered hysterical visions of mushroom clouds and state sponsored terrorism. We all know how that went. Once again we declared military victory and then came home. Now the whole region is descending into chaos or turning towards military rule to avoid chaos and the fear mongers are back at it. Again, ignore them.

Listen, the problem is that folks like Condoleezza Rice, and McNamara before her, didn’t listen to anyone who actually knew anything. Rice and McNamara weren’t the best and the brightest.  Meanwhile Bush Jr. was apparently allergic to reliable information and knowledge while Cheney was just an asshole who saw potential dollar signs and rolled the dice… oh well, you win some you lose some.

Way back in the beginning, even before the beginning of the Iraq War, guys like Jeremy Scahill, Tariq Ali, and Noam Chomsky told us what would happen if we demolished Saddam Hussein’s government. They warned us that this war would unleash sectarian violence in Iraq that would spread in a variety of ways throughout the region. There was no shortage of historians willing to point out that Iraq itself was an illusion of a nation screwed together by the Brits in order to extract the oil. Even Saddam’s brutal and psychopathic repression couldn’t keep a tight lid on the sectarian conflicts.

There are also a lot of very knowledgeable people around who would tell you that even if you did manage to promote “democracy” in the region, being a region heavily populated by Muslims, those democracies would likely take the shape of a Caliphate. Given a choice, Muslims would set up something that looks more like Iran than Canada… in other words- an Islamic State. To promote “democracy” in this region, is to promote Islamic States. Who knew?

So here we are again. We declared victory and thought we left behind a parliamentary democracy only to find a sectarian civil war that has now spread to Syria. One way or another an Islamic state will probably emerge out of this and according to the guys who started the Iraq war; an Islamic state is even more dangerous to America than Saddam’s regime was. Ironic?

A wise man once said: “Don’t get fooled again”. A communist state emerged from the Viet Nam fiasco and the biggest problem we ended up having was finding a place for the Hmong to live. Leftists took over Latin America and you probably didn’t even know it. Even if another Islamic state emerges in the Middle East they will likely not become a threat to the United States.

It’s actually not as easy to start up a country as some people seem to think. Given the sectarian nature of the Middle East, any Sunni Islamic state will spend its infancy under attack in a variety of ways. This is not a place in the world where people forgive and forget. ISIS will have their hands full just setting up a country for several years. Simply establishing a border could take decades.  Beyond that, the collection of militants that are currently supporting ISIS are all extremists and extremist are not big on cooperation or compromise.  The most likely scenario is that once they establish a nation they’ll starting fighting each other to decide who controls it.

What should the US government do in the meantime? I’m not sure attempts to prop up the Maliki government will be any more successful than previous attempts to prop up our governments of choice. Nor is adding another military action to the list a good idea.

There is actually a well-known response for threats to national security if and when they emerge, it’s called: “Security”. Maybe we should just focus on monitoring the threat, park a few satellite’s above the region, find some human beings who will keep us informed about what going on, and get our act together regarding effective threat and recognition assessment. I know some spooky rhetoric is coming out of ISIS but we’re a big powerful country, and rhetoric is just that. We need to be a country that leads with our heads, not a country that gets fear mongered into military action every time some psychopaths put a speech up on the internet.

Posted in Just Thinking, Politics | 1 Comment

Cycling in the City: The Law, The Dangers, and My Two Cents

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

The long dark evil vortex winter is finally loosening its grip on the poor people of Minnesota. That means the bikes are coming out of storage and the roads and trails are becoming congested with a dizzying array of riders, skaters, walkers, and runners. Even though the Twin Cities is the 1st or 2nd biking community in the nation year-round, we still see a big surge in bike traffic on our streets and trails this time of year. It’s a good time to review some rules and suggestions regarding bike safety and etiquette.  

My perspective may be a little different from yours because I’m not a bikers-biker in a lot of ways, I own but do not wear a helmet, and my only concession to bike “fashion” is high a few high visibility t-shirts and jackets. I ride one 30 year old Gitane and a basic Schwinn Hybrid. My biking attitude is best aligned with Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride” philosophy.  You can read my book review of Peterson’s book here and another long muse about bike safety in America here.

I’ll divide my observations into three sections. First I’ll talk about the actual laws governing bicycles in MN. Then I’ll discuss some basic conditions that make cycling less safe than it could be, and finally I’ll make personal safety recommendations. Some of my suggestions may be more controversial than others and as always I welcome comments and suggestions.

All bike safety discussions should begin by pointing out that riding a bicycle is an incredibly safe activity. It’s one of the safest activities in the world and its fun, healthy, and environmentally friendly. I’ve been riding a bike on city streets and more recently trails for over 45 years and I’ve never been seriously injured.

Let’s get started with the basic laws. You can read the actual statutes pertaining to bicycle riders here.  I won’t go into great detail but in nutshell of sorts:

·         Bikes are vehicles and bike riders are “drivers” under MN law. This means you are NOT a pedestrian. It also means you’re entitled to use drive-through windows by the way.

·         Unless you are in an actual bike lane or making a left hand turn you are required to ride as far to the right as is practicable. Of course you can dodge debris and ride around parked cars.

·         You’re supposed ride single file. In practical terms we all ride side by side on occasion but you need file up when other riders are passing you either from behind or head on. Basically no one should have to maneuver around you beyond a simple passing maneuver.

·         You are supposed to issue an audible warning when passing slower traffic. Now I think we need to use some judgment here, to some extent shouting at everyone can be disturbing, but if someone is wandering around on the trail in front of you or clearly oblivious warn them. Children and pedestrians almost get a warning because they are unpredictable. And of course audible warnings should be issued to anyone who might wander in front of you under any circumstances.

·         You’re supposed to signal your turns. Basically you don’t want your maneuver to take anyone by surprise.  

·         You’re supposed to ride in the same direction as traffic and obey traffic laws.

·         You are NOT required in Minnesota to walk a bike through an intersection even in a crosswalk. Obviously if riding amongst pedestrians, don’t run over them, best to ride next to the crosswalk and give pedestrians a safe distance. I’ve always ridden through intersections because as a general rule they are the most dangerous places for bikers and pedestrians… the less time spent in the middle of intersection the better if you ask me.

·         Stop lights and intersections in the US are simply not designed for bicycle traffic, but as a general rule you follow the traffic lights, not the pedestrian signals.

·         You can ride on some sidewalks. Basically bikes are prohibited from sidewalks in business districts or other places where they high pedestrian traffic.  

·         There is one big exception for bicycle riders at stop lights, and this may surprise you. You can legally proceed through a red light if you come to a complete stop, and it’s safe to do so.  It’s called an “Affirmative Defense” and it arises from the unique characteristics of a bicycle. For one thing, since you’re NOT a pedestrian you can’t be required to push a “walk” button on a stop light. And secondly, you and your bike won’t trigger the light change mechanisms for stop lights so you could end sitting there for a very long time if there’s little or no car traffic. You can read the entire statue here.

So that pretty much covers the laws, there’s nothing very controversial about these recommendations.  I encourage you to check out the statutes for yourself. However safe bike riding isn’t just about following the laws, there are a number of factors that can diminish safety, here are a few of my observations:

1)      Poorly designed traffic control. Our roads are exclusively designed for automobile traffic and there’s just no getting around that fact. We’re starting to improve with painted dedicated bike lanes but we’re decades behind countries with better safety records. This is improving but it’s a contentious and expensive process. Recently a Dutch cyclist has made a number of very insightful observations about biking in the US. You can look at that here.  I recommend watching the video as well.   

 2)    Unfamiliarity. We’ve seen a huge surge in bike riding in the last two decades and we’re just not used this mix of bikes, pedestrians, and automobiles on our streets and trails. Pedestrians in many ways are the biggest hazard to American riders.  This will improve with time

 3)    Biker profile. We have a lot of riders who are very “proficient” when it comes to biking skills, but lack the experience that builds expertise.  Proficiency is acquired much fast than expertise. By comparison the insurance industry estimates that it actually take up to five years for a person to really learn how to drive a car. I think cycling is very similar especially if you don’t ride frequently. Most American riders are NOT lifetime riders. Most of today’s cyclists had bikes for toys as children but didn’t actually start riding till later in life. Compare that to European riders who start riding as children and ride more or less without interruption for their entire lives.

4)      Vehicular riding. Too many Americans riding their bikes in traffic as if they’re driving cars or racing.

The whole vehicular riding craze was started by John Forester back in the 1970’s. It’s kind of unique American mentality. The idea is that bikers are safer when they ride amongst traffic and “drive” their bikes as if they’re cars. This method of riding was based on a flawed data that appeared to indicate that cyclists on dedicated bike paths got injured at higher rates than those who rode with traffic. Unfortunately although the data itself was junk and has yet to be replicated by other research, the idea took hold in a big way. This is why you see “aggressive” riders in traffic, encroaching on car lanes or even swerving out into traffic on occasion in efforts “defend” their lanes and make drivers slow down or at least be aware of their presence.  There’s certain logic to this riding style, but it’s divorced from the reality of traffic. For one thing it always assumes that the driver that hits you is the one who’s watching you ride your bike, not so. Secondly it just ignores physics, any collision between a 40LB bike with a 160LB rider and a 1+ ton vehicle is going end badly for the biker, with or without a helmet. Vehicular bike riding just closes the distance between a biker and an increasingly distracted population of car and truck drivers, thus decreasing the margin of safety.

Vehicular riding is losing its popularity and more and more cyclists are abandoning the mentality while fewer enthusiasts are recommending it. 

 5)   Bike models. Too many Americans are riding road or touring bikes with swept down handles.

Road bikes were designed almost 100 years ago for racing. Originally they weren’t even equipped with brakes. They are not designed for traffic situations where a rider needs to maintain a 360 degree field of awareness. The very design of a road bike actually encourages a rider to keep their head down and fly. In many cases people riding these bikes can cruise at very high speeds that are completely unsafe for the conditions their riding on and the bike design itself actually encourages this. This way we end up with proficient riders cruising at unsafe speeds because they lack the expertise to ride at an appropriate speed for the given conditions. The popularity of road bikes is peculiar to the United States. I think it grows out of the fact that for years, between the mid-1980s and late 1990s the majority of people riding bikes in the US were cyclist rather than commuters or recreational riders. Touring or road bikes appealed to cyclists for a variety of reasons during this era.  A change in consumer choices towards more comfortable and appropriate bike designs will eventually put fewer racing bikes on the roads and trails.

Now that we’ve discussed the law, and some of the factors contributing to safety problems, let’s look at a few of my personal safety suggestions.

1)      Use the bike trails and lanes when available.  Don’t ride on the parkway streets unless you need to commute and the bike trail is running the wrong way.  Those roads are narrow, curvy, and congested with distracted drivers, you’re never more than one distracted driver away from having a really bad day if you ride on those streets.  I realize many of the bike trails are one way affairs so if you need to go the opposite direction around one of the lakes for instance, you’re better off riding on the street than the wrong way on the bike path, keep your time on the parkway as short as possible and consider alternate routes.

2)      Try to avoid heavy traffic streets. In most places our streets are laid out on a grid and you can find a parallel street with far less traffic to ride down. Plan a route that avoids tricky traffic conditions as much as possible. Bikes aren’t the fastest mode of transport so it’s better to take a slightly longer ride than ride in more dangerous conditions.

3)      If you have to ride in traffic, don’t ride “assertively” by encroaching on traffic, remember you’re supposed ride as far to the right as practicable, and stay in the bike lane. You don’t want to be fearful but don’t try to modify traffic behavior with riding techniques, all that does is put you in danger.

4)      There are situations where a sidewalk might be safer than the street, and legal. I’m thinking for instance along University Ave. over by 280 and KSTP TV. It’s a nasty stretch of road and there’s almost never anyone walking on the sidewalk there. The thing about sidewalks is you have to watch for driveways and pedestrians.

5)      Slow down. Ride at an appropriate speed. Outside of races and tracks I’d keep it to around 15MPH on average, of course you can easily exceed that at times, 18 – 20MPH can be safe in certain conditions for a period of time. I reach 25MPH just coasting down the river road under the Washington Ave. bridge.

6)      Approach all intersections with caution and take advantage of the fact that you have a better field of view and are not inside a vehicle.  You can see AND hear potential hazards. Always be prepared to brake at an intersection.  

7)      Watch for pedestrians, they are by and large clueless. If I had a dollar for every pedestrian who sauntered in front of me I’d be a millionaire.

8)      Make others aware of you, light up at night, and bright up during the day. And give those audible warnings.

9)      Learn to anticipate hazards, you can read body language of pedestrians and other riders and even drivers. Don’t put yourself in front of a car than can hit you unless you know that cars going to stop, don’t assume it’s going to stop.

10)   Be prepared to stop and slow down. Especially if you riding a road bike. One other problem with road bikes is the position of the brakes. Many bikers ride with their hands out of position for braking. You need to have your hands on the hoods unless you have the old style combination brakes (see photo). If your hands are out of position you may not be able to reach your brakes in an emergency. I suspect a lot of road bikers have collisions because they didn’t or couldn’t brake in time.

Photo Courtesy of Lovelybicycle blog

Photo Courtesy of LovelyBicycle! blog

11)   I’ve already mentioned, our controlled intersections are a disaster for bikes, especially if you want to make a left hand turn. You have use your judgment, sometimes a modified pedestrian cross from one side and then to the other is the best way to go. If you decide to use the left hand turn lane, don’t put yourself in between or in front of cars and trucks, get off to the side. Remember a very high percentage of auto collisions happen in intersections for a variety of reasons ranging from inattention to feet slipping off of brake pedals.  If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you’re gonna get smushed. A fender bender for a car is potentially fatal for someone on a bicycle.  

12)   I believe in rear view mirrors on bikes, especially if you’re riding on city bike trails. I know they’re kinda dorky but they make it a lot easier to check your six o-clock, and you should always glance behind you before making left hand turns, passing someone, or slowing down because of traffic or responding to a potential hazard.  Bikes are quiet, and they’re fast enough to pop up behind you unexpectedly.

13)   Don’t assume other bikers aren’t going to do anything stupid. Again, many cyclists are proficient riders but lack expertise; just because they’re riding 25mph with $2000 worth of equipment doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Riders acquire proficiency must faster than they acquire expertise.  Safe riding isn’t just about reflexes and balance, experience and anticipation are critical and can take years to acquire depending on how often your ride.    

14)   Tunes on a bike. You can listen to music but don’t wear noise cancelling ear-buds and keep the volume down so you can hear audible warnings and traffic. It’s not uncommon to hear a hazard before you see it.

15)   Keep your bike tuned up. Unlike cars bikes are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. A malfunctioning bike can distract you at just the wrong time and otherwise cause accidents.

16)   Finally, no one should be riding anywhere but a time trial on a track with those triathlon handle bars (pictured below) or “aerobars”. I see people riding with them on the Greenway and Cedar Lake trail and I know what they’re thinking, it’s flat, it’s pretty straight, and you have good visibility. Problem is I’ve seen everything from stray dogs to homeless people stumble out of the woods and tall grass along those trails. With those handlebars you can’t maneuver. And look how far out of position the hands are in relation to the brakes. Those handlebars have actually been banned in for road racing because they’re too dangerous, they don’t belong on any trails or roads in a city. At the very least you might kill or injure something accidentally and it’s bad Karma to kill or injure something with your bike.

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Before we go I’ll just say a quick word about helmets. I personally don’t believe helmets are an essential piece of safely equipment unless you’re riding off road or racing. I actually think lights and high visibility are more important. The actual data on helmets and injuries is surprisingly inconclusive. You can read a more thorough discussion of the issue here. I simply think it’s more important and ultimately safer to focus on riding safely and building expertise, avoid accidents rather than to equip for them. However I don’t discourage people from wearing helmets, if you feel more comfortable with a helmet by all means wear one. And you can always wear them some times and not others. If you do wear a helmet, (or put one on your kids head) make sure it’s tight and in position on top of the head. One thing we do know about helmets is that they are useless or maybe even worse if they’re flopping around or out of position when you hit your head on something.

So that’s my advice. Ride safe, ride polite, and have fun. You’re riding through a beautiful world so don’t just speed by it without looking. Don’t be afraid to talk to people once and while and its good Karma to help a person out every now and then.  Sometimes those folks on the green Nice Ride bikes need directions or recommendations.          

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Drifting Around Our Frozen Lakes: Snow Shoeing in the Vortex

vortex3RLC-2Say what you will about the never ending Polar Vortex winter of 2013-2014 but you have admit it’s not boring. Two weeks or so ago I wrote about the unique post Winter Loppet conditions on our chain of lakes (Calhoun, Cedar Lake, and Lake of the Isles).  At that time the Vortex had produced solid conditions that made exploring the lakes extremely easy, but I warned it might not last. Guess what, those days are gone.

Our latest nine to ten inch snow storm obliterated all the trails and even the groomed cross country ski trails. Many of the Loppet’s ice sculptures still survive but the sidewalk –like conditions on the lake have been replaced by beautiful (sometimes deep) snow drifts.  The best way to explore the lake now is with snow shoes or cross country skis.

The best thing about this time of year is that the sun is always low enough on the horizon that any time of day the angle of light yields interesting shadows. The best part is that the shadows shift with the sun so the same landscape will look different depending on what time of day you visit.

I strapped on my snow shoes and went for a stroll with my camera. If you do the same don’t forget to bring a walking stick or poles. I forgot mine and got careless and distracted and… you guessed it, I went down. If you’ve ever fallen into deep snow while wearing snow shoes you know hard it is to get back up. With those shoes on you can’t just snap your feet back under you and pop up. I also discovered that there’s a layer of extremely wet mush about 16 inches under that snow.  Furthermore I discovered that when you’re gloves totally saturated with water (when you fall you put your hands out in front of you) in these temperatures they start to freeze solid. Who knew? 

You can see more photos on my Facebook Photography page


People have built little snow men and families all over the lakes

People have built little snow men and families all over the lakes

Canoes waiting for the thaw on Lake Calhoun

Canoes waiting for the thaw on Lake Calhoun


The Lagoon between Lake of the Isles and Calhoun.

The Lagoon between Lake of the Isles and Calhoun.

The snow drifts on the lakes are like waves frozen in time

The snow drifts on the lakes are like waves frozen in time

Easter Island on Lake of the Isles. One of the surviving Winter Loppet ice sculptures

Easter Island on Lake of the Isles. One of the surviving Winter Loppet ice sculptures

The snow storm started out above freezing, that meant the snow stuck to the trees. Usually it would fall off in a matter of hours but the temperatures dropped quickly freezing it in place

The snow storm started out above freezing, that meant the snow stuck to the trees. Usually it would fall off in a matter of hours but the temperatures dropped quickly freezing it in place

Aaron Shaffer of Weathernation TV was exploring the lakes on skis

Aaron Shaffer of Weathernation TV was exploring the lakes on skis

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Walking on Water: Visitiing the Frozen City Lakes of Minneapolis

Lake Serpent on Lake of the Isles

Lake Serpent on Lake of the Isles

It’s been a cool winter thus far, very cold. Not the coldest I’ve seen but the coldest in a while. There’s a lot of complaining going on but there are some definite advantages to this cold weather.  If you’re willing to bundle up and venture out into the latest Vortex you can find some unique winter experiences here in the cities.

 We try to make something out of our winters in MN; we have dog sled races and Winter Carnivals amongst other things. A couple weeks ago the Annual Winter Loppet took place in Minneapolis. This is a three day cross country ski event that takes place in the Uptown area, around the lakes, and in Theo Wirth Park.  One of the Loppet events is a “Luminary” evening that’s quite beautiful.  The Loppet Foundation builds a track around Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. That trail is lined with ice installations and sculptures that are lit with candles on the night of the Luminary.  Participants can ski, walk, or snow shoe along the trails where bon fires, hot chocolate stations, and fire dancers await. On the night of the actual Luminary you have to pay in order to go out on the lake, but during winters like this one, the trails and sculptures survive for weeks afterwards and provide wonderful free and completely public opportunity for anyone who wants to venture out and explore one of our greatest urban assets.

The best thing about this weather is that it creates fantastic trail conditions. The cold temps and lack of fresh snow mean that the trails are very solid and compacted. It’s like walking on a sidewalk out there. That may not be ideal for cross country skiing but its great for the rest of us. You can easily walk, run, or bike all over the lakes and get a different perspective on one of our most beautiful public spaces.  I’d guess there’s about 7-10 miles of trails out there and there’s a lot to explore.

Warmer weather and or several inches of fresh snow will turn this into slush or obliterate the paths so jump out there while you can. Right now you don’t need skis or snow shoes. 

I’d like to thank my trusty canine companions Ole the Lab and Liffey the Boarder Collie for adding a little something to my photos. You can look at more photos from our expedition on my Paul’s Photography Facebook Page.

The Channel Leading from Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake

The Channel Leading from Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake

Cedar Lakes is the Wildest of the Lakes. There are a lot of woods surrounding it that you can explore

Cedar Lakes is the Wildest of the Lakes. There are a lot of woods surrounding it that you (and your dogs) can explore


The view of "Ice Henge" on the way from Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

The view of “Ice Henge” on the way from Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

The ice sculptures in the "Enchanted Forest" on Lake of the Isles have survived thus far because of the cold temps

The ice sculptures in the “Enchanted Forest” on Lake of the Isles have survived thus far because of the cold temps

The ice Pyramid on Lake of the Isles with downtown Minneapolis in the background

The ice Pyramid on Lake of the Isles with downtown Minneapolis in the background

The approach to Lake Calhoun from the lagoon between Calhoun and lake of the Isles.

The approach to Lake Calhoun from the lagoon between Calhoun and lake of the Isles.

In the lagoon again returning to Lake of the Isles from Calhoun. You can see the pyramid.

In the lagoon again returning to Lake of the Isles from Calhoun. You can see the pyramid












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