commuting · Cycling · Life

Biking Madison AL

A comprehensive guide to biking the city of Madison, Alabama

Madison is trying to improve their bicycle infrastructure. They’re trying, but struggling. As with any civic project, money is the driving factor. As cyclist are aware, bike infrastructure often takes a back seat to other projects. I’m often confused by the city’s efforts. On the one hand, they’ve put in some great greenways and the County Line Rd. paths. On the other, they continue to install traffic lights without bike sensors or pedestrian crossings.

Traveling North-South through Madison

County Line Road
With the recent (2017) revamp of County Line Rd., Madison added its first full-fledged bike route. The idea was good. The execution could have been better. Both sides of County Line Rd. now support a multi-use (cycle/pedestrian) path. Unlike the motor lanes, the bike path has posted stop signs at every, single side street. If it was possible to use the motor lanes, a cyclist would have traffic lights less than half as often as the bike path’s stop signs. However, in Alabama, cyclist may NOT use the motor lanes if an adjacent bike path/lane is available (Code of AL Section 32-5A-263c). This basically means that the County Line paths were designed for failure, at least where commuter traffic is concerned. They do provide a slow-paced corridor to the neighborhoods and shopping along County Line Rd.

Don’t. Just don’t. Wall-Triana, at least north of Mill Rd. is a cycling nightmare, see also “death trap.” It is Madison’s most heavily used road. There are no shoulders, no turning lanes to speak of, and no passing opportunities for cars. Avoid Wall-Triana north of Mill Rd. at all costs. South of Mill Rd. Wall-Triana, or as it is known in Madison, Sullivan St., supports a third, left-turn lane giving motor traffic room to pass. Watch for the pinch point created by the bollards at the railroad crossing. South of Royal Dr., Sullivan widens to 5 lanes, but traffic is very heavy in this area approaching the 565 interstate. Proceed south with extreme caution. Though there are 5 lanes south of the interstate, the speed limit increases to 50 mph (80 kph).

Side note: Royal Dr. has Madison’s only painted bike lanes. They go absolutely no where and connect to absolutely nothing. But they do run the entire length of Royal Dr.

Hughes Road
You might assume that the second most heavily used road in the city would be a bicycle no-go, but Hughes Rd. is quite forgiving to bicycle traffic. It is 4 lanes south of Browns-Ferry Rd. and 3 lanes north of that intersection. The 3rd lane is a center, left-turn lane. It provides ample passing room for motor traffic to pass cyclists. You should remain aware of the forward road situation. If there is a car waiting in the center, left-turn lane, it can cause a pinch-point situation. With enough forward awareness, a cyclist has time to take center lane and discourage squeeze passes.

The 4 lane section from Browns-Ferry to Mill allows cyclist to use the full, right-hand lane. This section of road gives access to City Hall and Madison Cycles, my recommended go-to for repairs and equipment.

It’s recommended you avoid Hughes Rd. south of Portal Ln./Mill Rd. unless you’re just trying to get to Skate Park Dr. which is also accessible from Mill Rd. Once south of Skate Park, you will encounter a formidable hill in the form of the train track overpass. The speed limit increases to 45 mph (72 kph). It is unfortunate that this is one of only two routes to the post office and shopping along Madison Blvd. The post office is best accessed via Lanier Dr./Will Halsey Way from Old Town Madison.

Note: The path running the length of Hughes Road’s west side is NOT a multi-use path. According to the Madison City engineer’s office, it is a pedestrian-only sidewalk. The Alabama Traffic Code, Section 32-5A-52, forbids cycling on a sidewalk.

Nance to Hughes via Bradford Farms
The hill on Grand Vista Dr. is fairly steep. However, there is an alternative when schools are not in session. On the back (west) side of Rainbow Elementary is a sidewalk that connects to Green Springs Ln. in the Bradford Farms neighborhood. Do NOT attempt this shortcut when school is in session.

Old Town Madison Access
From Hughes and Plaza, take Plaza to Landers to Sturdivant to Church to Main. I recommend Sturdivant Street instead of Church especially if you’re northbound because the light at Church and Mill will not change for bikes and there’s less of a hill. Landers Rd. is not well maintained so watch for potholes and over-patched asphalt. Once downtown, it’s an easy connection through the stadium parking lot using an old construction path off Shorter St at the end of Garner St. This will connect with Celtic Dr and Madison Blvd. Alternatively, you can use Lanier Rd. to get to the post office. If Redstone Arsenal is your destination, Madison Blvd connects with Intergraph Way just one block east of Celtic. See “Arsenal Access” below for further tips.

Traveling East-West through Madison

North of Hwy 72
The shopping centers and cinema between Wall-Triana and Nance Rd., north of Hwy 72, are all interconnected. Using parking lots and the connecting streets makes shopping access by bicycle quite easy. Crossing 72 can be accomplished on Wall-Triana or Hughes Rd. since there is almost always car traffic to change the lights. The traffic light on Nance Rd., south of 72, will not change for a northbound bicycle and there is little northbound car traffic to trigger the lights. The southbound bike sensor are functional on Nance Rd.

Gooch Lane
Gooch Ln. is about the safest east-west corridor on the north side of Madison. The speed limit is 35 mph (56 kph). The lower speed limit and residential nature of the road make it one of the few choices for an east-west connection. Once Gooch ends at Balch Rd., you can access the medical district with a short ride north on five lanes or with a short ride south, use residential streets (Kentucky, Thoroughbred, Small Creek, and Joe Phillips) to connect to County Line Rd. There is also a sidewalk at the end of Eastfield Dr. that connects to the Shoppes of Madison (Target shopping center) on the shopping center’s west end.

Brown’s Ferry/Madison Pike
From Wall-Triana to Bridgestreet/Research Park West, Old Madison Pike is your only choice. There is a center left-turn lane that provides passing opportunities for cars for the entire length of the route. The Indian Creek Greenway also connects to the road just east of Slaughter Rd. You will encounter one decent hill between Dublin Park and Shelton Rd.

This is the southern most of the east-west connections. From Mill Park Ln. west to the Bradford Creek Greenway, there is a multi-use path. East of Mill Park Ln., Mill Rd. is two lanes and 45 mph (72 kph) until you reach Wall-Triana (Sullivan St.) where the speed limit drops. Portal Ln. is a residential, 25 mph (40 kph) zone and there is parallel parking on either side. This provides space if you wish to pull over and allow passing, but it is one of the few places in Madison where cyclist must watch the door zone. Portal connects to Shelton Rd. on the east end. This provides access to the shopping center at the corner of Shelton and Madison Blvd.

Other Considerations

Traffic signals
With one exception, I’ve yet to find a bike sensor in the city of Madison. Traffic lights will not change for cyclist unless they are on a timer. This is a major oversight in the city’s planning and infrastructure. I have quizzed the streets department on the matter and their response is simply, “Treat the red light as a stop sign.” I note that this advice won’t hold water with the police department simply because the streets department can’t be bothered to put in a manual button to activate the lights.

The one working bike sensor I know of is at Madison Blvd and Intergraph Way. There are bike sensor on Intergraph Way and exiting the Walmart parking lot at that same intersection.

Arsenal Access
Redstone Arsenal is best accessed from Madison via Gate 7 on Martin Rd. at the Zierdt Rd. intersection. Gate 7 is open for inbound traffic from 05:30 to 14:00 and outbound traffic from 05:30 to 19:00. There is a gravel path shortcut from Dunlop Blvd. to The Reserve neighborhood. This eventually connects to Nature’s Way and on to Zierdt Rd. The gravel path connects to a sidewalk, so dismounting is recommended and required. Thin-tire bikes are discouraged from riding the gravel due to potential flats and the adjacent pond. Watch for families and children going to and from the playground adjacent to the path. Also, reduce any noise/music levels out of respect for the houses near the secret sidewalk. Note: The hill out of The Reserve on Nature’s Way (east end) can be a daunting, but short climb.

Practical Cycling Map of Madison AL

Alabama Traffic Code Excerpts
Section 32-5A-52
Driving upon sidewalk.
No person shall drive any vehicle upon a sidewalk or sidewalk area except upon a permanent or duly authorized temporary driveway.

Section 32-5A-263
Riding on roadways and bicycle paths; right side signalling.
(a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.
(b) Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.
(c) Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.
(d) A person riding a bicycle may give a hand signal for a right turn by extending his or her right arm and hand horizontally on the right side of the bicycle. A child under the age of sixteen shall not be required to comply with the right side signalling.

Cycling · e-bike · Life

8 Reasons Why You’ll Be Riding an E-Bike in the Future

Current battery technology gives most affordable e-bikes a range of 20-40 miles (32-65 km). This puts the average errand well within the e-bikes range. It also makes commuting more attractive. Most bicycle commuters don’t go far beyond 10 miles, but an e-bike changes that paradigm.

The average speed of an e-bike is 50% faster than a regular bicycle. What would take an hour and a half on a regular bike only takes an hour on an e-bike. This makes commuting longer distance more attractive and practical.

The price of gas only seems to go up. Every day you ride your bike is money in your pocket that you’re not spending on gas.

No, e-bikes are not as much exercise as a regular bike, but they do provide a decent cardio workout. If you’re feeling frisky, you can turn the motor power down and choose to pedal harder. Why pay money for a gym, take hours out of your week, drive to said gym, just to get the exercise you could get from combining your regular routine with an e-bike?

Sweat, or the lack, thereof
With and e-bike, you have the option not to exert yourself so much that you need a shower at the end of your ride. Bike commuting often requires a shower and change of clothes before you can really get to work. E-bikes eliminate the sweat factor. You lock your bike and go to work in the clothes your rode in. Plus, you usually have the best parking spot at the building.

Wide Appeal
Cycling brings to mind a particular picture of some Lycra-clad, weekend warrior slowing down traffic on country roads while pretending he’s in the Tour de France. E-bikes don’t fit in that niche. They are for a broader audience. No special clothing is required. Exceptional health is not a prerequisite, either. If you have minor health concerns that would keep you off a regular bike, an e-bike mitigates those problems. Almost anyone can confidently mount an e-bike and make a 10 km run.

The prices of e-bikes are coming down. Direct internet sales and standardization like common battery designs are putting the prices of e-bikes on par with regular bikes. Even conversion kits are becoming reasonable. You might find converting your regular bike to an e-bike to be a practical alternative.

The shear joy of cruising down the road in the open air is intoxicating. An e-bike is great for capturing that childhood feeling of freedom, but in a practical, adult-minded way. The simple chore of getting groceries becomes an opportunity to breath in some roadside honeysuckle and speak to some neighbors you’ve never met.

Life · traffic

An Argument For the Idaho Stop

As many drivers will tell you, usually in angrily posted internet comments, roads were built for cars. This factoid comes from the latest New York Times bestseller, The Big Book of Thank You Letters to Doctor Obvious. The lanes are car-width. The speed limits are car-powered. The loop-induction traffic signals are car-weighted. Yes, it’s all very obvious that roads were made for cars.

Also made for cars are traffic-calming devices. Traffic-calming is the concept of creating a safer environment for all road users. It mainly consists of narrowing lanes and putting obstructions like speed humps (“sleeping policeman” for you Brits), islands, and curves into the traffic flow. The intended result is to slow the speed of cars and make drivers aware of other road users. Note that pedestrians and cyclist have no need for speed-reducing devices because they are rarely traveling above the speed limit.

Here in The States, we haven’t fully embraces the roundabout. We have opted for right-angle intersections with light or sign control. This makes the stop sign a ubiquitous fixture on American streets. For example, my neighborhood, which has only one connection to the highway, consists of four longish streets and seven cul-du-sacs. There are fewer than 300 houses. All traffic is local since it is essentially a dead-end. The speed limit is 25 mph as are most residential areas. There are 15 stop signs, not including the one at the main highway. Every single traffic sign in my neighborhood is a stop sign. I have to ask, “Why”

The only conclusion is, the stop signs are there to interrupt cars so they don’t build up speed past the 25 mph limit. If there was some other device, say a computer controlled car, that ensured the cars never got over 25 mph, every intersection could be controlled with a simple yield sign. The fact is, most drivers treat the stop signs as if they were yield signs because it makes no damned sense to come to a full stop to turn right when the only possible cross traffic is coming from two houses that have driveways to the left, on a dead-end street. The rolling or “California” stop for cars is alive and well. It’s normally a perfectly safe exercise and the only penalty is if a cop sees it.

The Idaho Stop
The name derives from a recent change to the Idaho traffic code that allows cyclist to treat stop signs as yield signs with the caveat that if another vehicle is already stopped at the intersection, they have the right-of-way. It’s not as crazy as it first sounds. Since bicycles are moving at a car-relative slow speed, the cyclist has more time to assess the intersection and continue without stopping if the assessment is “all clear.” Idaho recognizes that stop signs are traffic-calming devices designed for cars. The Idaho Stop doesn’t give cyclist carte-blanche to run every stop sign. It doesn’t give them the right-of-way at all intersections. It simply puts the responsibility for their safety in their hands and allows them to continue unimpeded if they can do so safely.

The next time you see a cyclist cautiously run a stop sign, remember that most stop signs are simply traffic-calming devices for cars. The next time you see a cyclist jump a red light, consider that they have probably waited through 3 cycles without a green light because they can’t trigger the loop-induction sensor. Indeed, roads were built for cars and what quickly followed were devices to make drivers behave. These devices don’t always apply to non-car traffic.

Share the road and keep chasing the odd, little happy.

Cycling · e-bike · exercise · Life

Decisions. Decisions. How I bought an E-bike.

Like with all things, buying a bike has to meet a need. You have to ask yourself, “Why do I need or want this bike?” Bicycles can serve multiple needs, but normally there is one, paramount requirement that will trump all others. When I began my search for alternative conveyance, I was seriously considering a small scooter like the Honda PCX150. I weighed the pros and cons and seriously thought about my needs when e-bikes entered the mix.

What floated to the top of my needs list was commuting. I really wanted to get out of my car, at least a few days per week. I calculated the savings in gasoline and found that a $1500 e-bike would pay for itself in about 2-3 years, depending on how many days per week I commuted. At that point, I was still vacillating between a gas-powered scooter and e-bike. The health benefits to cycling, even on an e-bike, obviously outweighed the scooter. So e-bike 2, scooter 1.

The thing that made me finally settle on an e-bike was the fact that my wife and I camp often. We have a travel trailer and love getting away 4 or 5 times a year, even if it’s just to a local campground where I can still make it to work. While camping, I enjoy hiking, but having another activity like cycling as an option finally did score the final point in the e-bike’s favor.

So there’s my criteria for my decision.
1. Save gas and maybe the planet.
2. Commute to work without needing a shower.
3. Get some exercise, but not kill myself.
4. Have a little recreational fun.
5. Maybe my wife will like it and use it a little.

Now the search for the right e-bike was on. There are as many different choices as there are buyers. Getting it right is a matter of research, research, research. I read hundreds of product reviews, looked into dozens of different companies, and watched an endless stream of Youtube videos, especially the Electric Bike Review Youtube channel.

The first thing I learned is that there are a lot of cheap, Chinese bikes with a motor and battery slapped on them being pawned off as really, cool e-bikes. I even saw one company get outed on Youtube when their oh-so-slick model was found on a Chinese wholesaler’s site. The Stateside company was just slapping cheap batteries and iffy motors on them and selling them with a slick ad. I’m not naming names, but the company rhymes with Bave Wikes.

The second thing I learned is there are different motors (mid-mount, rear-wheel, etc.) and different advantages/prices for each. There are even different types of assist sensors, cadence being the most common, but even then the number of magnets can vary in those sensors. The motors commonly vary from 250 to 1000 watts, too. So finding the right power output for battery life was another research project on the side.

Thirdly, I learned there is pedal-assist and throttled features. Not all e-bike have both and I wanted a model that did. I still wanted to pedal for the exercise, but I needed a throttle that could take over if the commute was making me sweat too hard. My number 2 requirement was not needing a shower when I got to work.

Lastly, I was stunned to see the price variance. $579 for a cheapy model on Amazon. $579? A decent Li-ion battery is going to cost $400-$500. How can that be a decent product at $579? Flag on the play! $2500 for a really nice commuter-oriented model. Looks good, but $2500 is getting into “my wife is going to kill me” range. $10,000?! Holy smoldering tire fire! Oh, good, it’s illegal for road use in my country because it has a 5 KILOWATT system and can do 65 KPH (40 MPH). Crikey those Aussies live dangerously. I guess when everything in your country is trying to kill you, doing 65 KPH on a bicycle is the least of your worries.

I don’t even know where I found the company I finally ended up buying from. It’s all still a blur of websites, blogs, and videos. RadPowerBikes had 4 products to choose from, all for different purposes, 3 models at $1499 and 1 at $1599. It was easy to zero in on their commuter model and match it with my needs. Sure, their fat-tire Rover looked cool and tackled the trails, but I was tackling asphalt. The RadCity came with fenders (a must for commuting and staying clean and dry), a standard rack (a bonus for commuting and not wearing a backpack), a rear-wheel 750 watt motor (enough to give me the boost I needed), and a battery that promised a 20-40 mile range (enough to get me to work and back if necessary even without recharging at the office).

So, that’s how I made my decision and I’m sure someone out there is going through the same process. An e-bike isn’t a one-off purchase. You’re going to sink some serious money into one. Your decision should be weighed and measured before investing. Outline your needs and wants and match those to the endless companies and models available. There’s no one-size-fits-all unit out there. When budgeting, keep in mind that you’re going to spend another $200-$500 outfitting your bike with safety, comfort, and emergency equipment. Find a price you’re comfortable with, but if it comes down to price versus quality, choose quality. Those cheap, Chinese models, no matter how well disguised, will break your heart every time.

Keep chasing the odd, little happy. You might catch it on a bike.

Here you can see some of the gear I outfitted my bike with.

Here you can enjoy the wonder of a Christmas morning in March as I unbox my RadCity.