Monday, March 30, 2015

Thrust for Bike Justice

Make bike racks a priority
Or risk the return of the Elvis Direct Action Fan Club

Hamilton Spectator
By Randy Kay

In my younger days, I was part of a clandestine "direct-action" group. Our first action, carried out under cover of darkness, of course, was to relocate a bicycle rack placed in an isolated and neglected corner of campus; we dragged it to the front of the student centre.

The next morning the rack was filled with bikes. The university had assumed cyclists would run over pedestrian classmates — leading to lawyers — and had no plans for racks in this location. After a few weeks, they added several more racks, and they too filled up. No negotiations. No pleas. No problem.

Yes, the Elvis Direct Action Fan Club had struck our first blow against bureaucracy and poor planning.

We were never much of a club, and I only made up the name since I had a ceramic Elvis bust in the office that we had tried to give to then-mayor Larry Di Ianni — a prize for keeping a bad 1950s idea alive (i.e. the urban expressway known as Red Hill). Who knew it was so difficult to register a delegation to deliver a satirical prize to the mayor at city hall?

The spirit of the Elvis Direct Action Fan Club surges like a hunk of burning passion every time I see a poorly installed bike rack. In Dundas, it's mostly the way they hide the racks down little alleyways, away from the protective gaze of shoppers, not to mention the shops a cyclist would actually visit.

My daughter fought for racks to replace the 1930s wheel-bender racks at her high school. A good rack allows you to lock your wheel and frame to a supportive structure, a minimal standard which the current low-to-the-ground, rusty racks did not achieve. It took two years, but when they finally replaced them, it was with racks that didn't meet this low bar of expectation, resulting in only a marginal improvement on the older racks.

What get's my lip twitching is the racks that can hold several bicycles, but get installed with one side against a wall, reducing the capacity by half. To its credit, McMaster installs the racks properly, leaving space for cyclists to access from both sides. Elsewhere in the city, the results are less than inspiring.

After waiting for years, an upgrade to Coronation pool — in cycle-friendly Westdale — was completed, yet when they finally got around to putting in the bike rack, they did the wall thing. An improvement on no racks? Sure, but against the wall? I complained to my councillor and city cycling staff, and shortly thereafter they responsibly relocated the rack to a location that would allow full use of the functionally designed metal rings.

With this action I realized I had moved out of the shadowy, direct-action world, into the more mainstream, compromising and potentially more boring world of advocacy.

So let me advocate: bike racks in the city should be a short-term priority for capital expenditures. Fill in the abundant missing spaces, the way SOBI bike share — in a matter of months — has. Go all out. It wasn't that long ago that Westdale lacked bike parking, and the racks installed to make up for it are now hitting capacity. We could use more here, and everywhere.

The current practice of using a private advertising company to install advertising racks (often in a location that serves advertising rather than cyclists) should be scuttled, and stylish, advertising-free racks — paid through the city cycling budget — placed where they are most needed. Get artists involved. Be creative, make it something to talk about. Have fun with it with site specific designs. Functional public art rather than rusty advertising racks for the win.

Arm installers with a city-approved design guide and a site plan. Bolt those suckers to the ground in a way that doubles the value. We turned Ivor Wynne Stadium into Tim Hortons Field by doing the same 90 degree shift, at the expense of millions of dollars. Surely we can install racks in the city (and on private property, like plazas) in a way that benefits the maximum number of cycling citizens at very little expense.

Until standards for bicycle parking are outlined and enforced, we will have to put up with a houndog's breakfast of bike parking that defies common sense.

There's a rack at University Plaza, against the wall of the supermarket. Room for four or five bikes, when eight or 10 could be accommodated. I was there recently and beheld a rare sight: no bikes in the rack. Since the rack is not bolted to the pavement, I walked over, adjusted it 90 degrees, and then went on with my business. Simple. Easy. Doubled the capacity, so efficient, like a little pelvic twist. Elvis Direct Action lives.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Plugged Up and Plugged In: Productivity in a time of sniffles

The connectivity-productivity equation

We don’t need desks and four walls to get things done, just a little cloud

Hamilton Spectator, March 9, 2015
By Randy Kay

Is there a correlation between time spent at a desk in an office and productivity?

I have a terrible cold. Mucus is the focus of my fevered body. In PJs, with a box of tissues and a mug of hot tea, I call in sick then crack open my laptop. I send some work emails and then update the website. I upload an article emailed by a volunteer to a blog. I book the data projector for a volunteer using a cloud-based calendar.

I can Facebook, tweet, and Instagram for work and play, measuring reach using analytics. After padding around in slippers feeling sorry for myself, I upload a video created by another volunteer to our YouTube channel. I scan some paper documents I brought home, transfer them to Google drive and then upload them to our online history blog. Then I have a coughing fit.

Two new volunteers filled out an online form, both of them requesting work they could do remotely. I may never meet them in person, yet they will create posters, Facebook banner graphics, edit newsletter copy. I have a few valued volunteers like that: I've never met them, they live in different parts of the world. They are part of our connected world. I rely on them as I do other volunteers.

I am down with a virus, but technology allows me to contribute despite the phlegmy cough. Not infecting others is just a side benefit, plus they don't need to see my ravaged face, unless you want to Skype. Is this really a sick day?

I schedule some face-to-face appointments for later in the week when I hope to feel better. What is an office for? Is it really a place to do your most focused work?

My workplace functions as an office with large desks, a small resource library with books, magazines and videos and, with some dragging of furniture, a cramped meeting space.

We keep regular hours in the McMaster Student Centre, Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sometimes the office closes for an hour for a staff lunch.

Does productivity or inspiration happen during those five to six hours? Are we overvaluing time spent at a large desk over the ninja world of mobility? No, and I think so, respectively.

Not many people are signing out books or even videos from our collection these days. Could it be that streaming and podcasts and a host of on-demand online resources are in practically everyone's pocket? Why trek through the snow and cold to the student centre to search for a DVD — flash drives are replacing optical drives, making the future of DVDs a question of obsolescence anyway — when you can stream that same documentary in the coffee shop, a co-working space or even the bus on your laptop or phone?

Libraries have adjusted to the new realities, creating space for collaboration, recording studios with editing software, movie sets with green screens for video production, signing out everything from camcorders and microphones to bicycle helmets. Books? They still have them, but expectations are evolving.

Sari Feldman, president-elect of the American Library Association, sums it up with her observation that "in the future libraries will be less about what we have for people and more about what we do for people."

Why cling to outdated modes of filing? I have a dedicated team of volunteers working on our history archive. They have consigned drawers full of paper documents — stretching back into the 1970s — to the recycling bin of history. Instead, they scan documents and put them online. Now searchable on a blog, valuable for research or for sharing on social media. That grey filing cabinet taking up a corner in our small office just became obsolete. Everything is now stored in the cloud, safe from the ravages of time, mould, dust and neglect.

I'm not arguing that technology should replace the office or that I want to stay home on the couch every day, but technology can transform how we use the real estate formerly called "office" — creating more versatile space for a wider range of activity.

I used to prepare weekly event listings to send to email subscribers, copying and pasting text, adding hyperlinks to a table of contents, it took hours each week. Now it's all done by an invisible script running behind the scenes on our website.

With new free time I've started hosting weekly drop-in sessions with free coffee and tea for volunteers. We create a small space for idea exchanges, using old technology such as sitting in a circle, writing notes on a whiteboard, telling stories, listening, making connections. Desks are just in the way.

It works because technology creates opportunity. Turn on, tune in and pass the tissues.

Randy Kay has been OPIRG McMaster’s co-ordinator of volunteers since 1998 and remembers nervously sending his very first email from the work computer and worrying about what might happen. Now he tries to keep up with the plugged-in students in a variety of software environments.