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Friday, 22 August 2008
Kudos for the Omnium

All of Rochester owes the good folks at Full Moon Vista a big round of applause and a few high-fives. The Rochester Omnium, sponsored by the downtown bike shop and steered to victory by FMV owner Scott Page, has already become a local tradition - and an international attraction.

As a commuter and solo/family bike tourist, I've never been involved in bike racing, except marginally, through watching events like the Tour de France on TV - i.e. being a velo-couch-potato. But I took in all three Omnium events this year and loved every minute.

First came the time trials in Charlotte Friday afternoon. I approached the event the right way: biking out St. Paul St., then taking the designated trail through Maplewood Park and the Turning Point, and ending up at the harbor. Things were pretty quiet that morning along the trail, and also along Lake Avenue, which had been cordoned off. (What a contrast to the "other" Lake Avenue, which thunders with beer-powered motorcycles on Boys' Nights Out.) The contestants were amazing: the winning average speed over the 4.4 mile course was, if my calculator doesn't lie, a hair under 36 mph. Damn showoffs. Hell, I probably hit 36 mph for a good twenty seconds as I coasted down the big hill at the southern approach to Turning Point Park. I won't discuss the 3.6 mph I achieved on a notorious short uphill stretch on my way back.

My brother came in from Buffalo Saturday night to join me at the Criterium downtown. He's been riding the Riverwalk in Buffalo and Tonawanda and is showing more and more interest in longer excursions. But he'd never seen a live bike race - and so, as you'd expect, he was blown away. Just like anybody who considers the pure athleticism of the pro riders. Talk about muscle tone and lung capacity.

I had an unusual experience during the Sunday road race, a 101-miler that ended with a few rousing 6-mile loops in and near Genesee Valley Park. There I was on Wilson Boulevard at the north end of the River Campus, innocently minding my own business and trying to get near the action, when I was "drafted" by an RPD officer to monitor an exit from the UR's back parking lot. Actually, I volunteered; I seen my duty and I done it - keeping errant vehicles and pedestrians from wandering onto the closed course. Well, the errant traffic never materialized, so I was left standing there, a solitary sentinel - though I did have a great view of the racers as they flew down the slope toward the boulevard. More showoffs! They ride a hundred miles in a leisurely four hours and then, as if from the ultimate caffeine rush, really pour on the speed.

When things got preternaturally quiet, I figured the race was over. And so it was: I got to the finish line, a half mile from my guardpost, just as the awards ceremony was starting. Too bad I missed the winner crossing the line, but I have no regrets. The event was a success, the weather was cooperative, and the crowd was lively. Actually, that brings up one regret. I wish more people had come out to watch the end of the road race, and I wish the same about the Charlotte time trials. Each of these deserves a crowd of thousands, the kind that swarms downtown for the "Crit." I'll bet the turnout will be better next year, because the Omnium seems to be on a steep upward curve.

This piece first appeared at RocBike.com.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:06 EDT
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Plowing through the Farm Bill: much more than empty calories

Whoever first said that "the more you watch the news, the less you know" must have been thinking of how the media treat the Farm Bill. But now that we're safely past the latest chapter of this ongoing story - a couple months back, Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact the Farm Bill of 2008 - we can make some sense out of it all.

Start with what the Farm Bill is and is not. Yes, it is indeed a $300 billion measure, as many stories have told us, including a widely circulated May 21 Associated Press story that reported on the Bush veto. But the latter report repeated a common error: it neglected to mention that the bill covers a five-year period (and some items in the bill actually cover ten years). So in terms of annual spending, which is the usual and most intelligible framework for understanding what's in the federal budget, the bill runs to average of about $60 billion.

Yes, that's still real money, but put it into perspective. It's less than an eighth of the Pentagon budget, and much less even than the annual "supplemental" outlays in recent years for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, if we look at what's actually in the bill and where the money goes, we find the bill is misnamed. Since two-thirds of the spending goes for Food Stamps (now gone higher-tech via debit cards) and other nutrition programs, we really should call it the Food Bill. This rhetorical shift would transfer the emphasis to tens of millions of American families directly impacted by provisions of the bill - and contradict the parochial view that the bill exists only to benefit special interests like the Farm Belt states, their Congressional delegations and lobbyists, and a constellation of corporatized commodity producers (corn, soy, cotton, etc.) who reap humongous subsidies.

Questions about subsidies surely need to be debated - for example, why many big farmers bring home a ton of bacon while small vegetable, fruit and dairy farms that could be saved from extinction by targeted assistance are put on a low-cal diet. But thanks to years of hard slogging by progressive advocates, there's much in the Farm Bill to celebrate, starting with things that will benefit those small farms.

In its review of the bill, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (sustainableagriculture.net) has identified many provisions worth celebrating: an enhanced Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program to boost rural businesses through "micro-credit" (analogous to development strategies in South Asia, inspired by the work of economist Muhammad Yunus, co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize); more money for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, with new targeted funds for small and medium-sized farms; more funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program; mandatory funding for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, which includes technical and other forms of assistance; and similarly, a shot in the arm for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Many people, journalists and laypeople alike, wax indignant about spending for conservation programs - usually reduced to a shorthand phrase, encouraging farmers to "idle their land." True, in worst-case scenarios this might translate to paying farmers for doing nothing. Yet the public has a real interest in conservation programs that help preserve topsoil, streambanks and watersheds, and other vital habitats/ecosystems. And the Farm Bill does some of this through its Conservation Security Program, which strikes a balance between "working farmland" and broad environmental values.

Last but not remotely least are the new Farm Bill's supports for organic agriculture, the new and quickly sprouting kid on the block. The bill has some provisions to facilitate organic conversion (that is, moving land from conventional chemical methods to certifiably organic cultivation), including a cost-share program that helps small farmers cross that potentially expensive bridge. There's also a four-year, $78-million Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative, which will, among other things, help develop new seed varieties well-suited to organic ag. And a new "classical plant and animal breeding" initiative will help organic farmers' efforts to save traditional strains of crops and livestock that conventional, industrialized ag has left to wither.

No legislation this massive and comprehensive can be all "wins," of course. Organic advocates like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture lists some notable losses, from a progressive point of view. For example, regarding contamination of crops by "genetically modified organisms," which is an increasingly serious problem for organic farmers located near conventional farms, the bill failed to assign liability to those responsible for the contamination - namely, 800-pound companies like Monsanto that develop and patent the risky, aggressive genetic invaders.

So the next time you get news about the Farm Bill -  make that the Food Bill - remember there's almost certainly more to the story than what you're hearing. And if you deplore some of the bill's priorities, remember that in many significant respects the bill is right on the money - and that much of the money will pay back the taxpayer many times over, in terms of environmental, personal, and community health.

This article, which was commissioned by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (nofa.org), first appeared at RochesterEnvironment.com and CounterPunch.org.

 

 


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:00 EDT
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Monday, 14 July 2008
Notes from Italy

It seems like I've been away from my blog for a long time - and yes, it's been more than a couple weeks since I even checked in. But my absence was for a good cause: a trip to Italy, with lots of biking there (I brought my Dahon folder, which fits easily into a couple suitcases for air travel) and now some impressions to pass along.

My trip took me to several northern Italian cities: first to Modena, home of fabled tenor Luciano Pavarotti, almost equally fabled soprano Mirella Freni, and oddly fabled, expensive, gas-guzzling Maserati, whose headquarters are not far from downtown. Modena's population is about 177,000, and I'll bet the figure includes about 40,000 regular cyclists. As in many European communities, regular Modenites in huge numbers get around by bike, doing the shopping, dropping around to the caffe/café, going on dates (two per bike, and not on tandems), and otherwise getting through the day. If you wander the deliciously narrow and pedestrian-friendly streets and alleyways of the old parts of town, you see hundreds of bikes locked up everywhere. The bikes tend to be utilitarian, affordable models, some of them decades old and well-worn. (It's only out in countryside, on the beautiful but narrow ancient roadways, that you see helmeted, bright-jerseyed riders on fancy road bikes.) Partly for economic reasons, and helped along by a human-scaled urbanscape and bike-friendly traditions, Italians depend heavily on appropriate transport technology.

The principle held true for two other communities I visited: the small city of Vignola, the mid-sized Parma, and sizable Bologna (ca. 400,000 people in the urban core). I recommend all three to bikers and walkers - again, it's the traditional urbanscape that makes the difference. Bologna, with plenty of piazzas and 38 km of "arcades," i.e. Gothic-arched covered walkways, is especially attractive to pedestrians. I think this town's Renaissance and Baroque architects could teach our RenSquare planners a thing or three. (And isn't it odd that not long ago, Rochester was courting Parma interests for a deal to redevelop Midtown Plaza - without so much as considering the physical features that makes the city of Parma a resounding success?)

Not that Italy is a total Paradiso for bikers. At least in the Emilia Romagna region that I toured, the secondary highways are miserably clogged with trucks and cars moving at excessive speed, and there's precious little space for bikers or pedestrians. But in town, everything's rosy: ample bike paths and lanes, urban traffic that's respectful of cyclists, and an official commitment to alternative transportation. Modena also has begun a bike-borrowing/rental program. You just put down a deposit and get a key, then access publicly-owned bikes at any number of parking stations around town. There's no fee for the first three days - perfect for travelers, though I must say the bikes themselves are a little stodgy in design, not suitable for serious riding.

Well, I'm now coping with transpo-culture shock. I went to the Rochester Public Market last Saturday, as usual, and did a few errands. Amazing how few bikes you see around the market (I counted about a dozen), considering the huge turnout (thousands on- or just off-site) on a Saturday morning. Part of this is the durability of the Auto Craze, part is the result of the Rochester's failure to create the infrastructure that would seduce people into going to the market by bike. Why, the city only recently added another parking lot, this one on Railroad St. And still - as any competent traffic planner should have foreseen - the cars and "light trucks" jam the access roads and turn the market grounds into ground zero for air pollution and conflicts with mere persons who make such daring, self-indulgent moves as trying to cross a street! Maybe RocBikers (check out RocBike.com, by the way), joined by Critical Massers and others, should target the market for some kind of actions. City Hall shouldn't be allowed to ignore or downplay bike issues any longer. (I note with pleasure the departure of Dumbass Supremo Steve Minarik, the Republican boss who did something to offend everyone - and did everything to maintain the status quo that barely acknowledges alternative transport. Not that I expect M's replacement will be much better.)

One last note: Italian towns also are home to vast numbers of motorbikes and scooters. This was especially evident in Bologna. But the odd thing is, I didn't hear any straight-pipe monstrosities like those that take over Rochester-area roads every summer. Interpret that as you will.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 08:17 EDT
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Friday, 30 May 2008
My archive: articles from 2000-2004
Topic: Archive: journalism

Some of you may have noticed that the articles and columns I wrote for City Newspaper (ending in spring 2004) are not retrievable on the paper's "improved" website by author search. This is the result of what was originally a technical glitch - somehow the bylines, and not just mine, were not transferred from the old online archive to the new one. But as the months turn into years, the glitch is becoming a more and more serious ethical lapse. To my knowledge, City management has never explained the situation to readers. Nor have they responded adequately to my personal communications. So I'm assuming that the bylines are forever lost. As you can imagine, the situation presents us writers with real practical difficulties; in the internet age, online archives serve as primary research sources not just for readers but for employers and others. Thus a new feature of this blog: I am beginning a long project to scan and save (in my Photo Album; see the left margin of this page) many of my City pieces so they can be retrieved more easily. The first article I've scanned (a March 2004 piece about windmills) is now in the album. Send me your comments - and by the way, I retain hard copies of almost all my articles for City (from the late 1980s to 2004) and can supply you with a scan on request.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:44 EDT
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Friday, 23 May 2008
The Renaissance squares
Topic: urban issues

I made the mistake of going to the Renaissance Square dog-and-pony show this week. The organizers - the seemingly unbreakable coalition of downtown business interests, county government lickspittles, and engineering and construction firms - did a good job of hiding the event in the inner reaches of the Riverside Convention Center. No signs directed the few attendees to the room. But that turned out to be good for social intercourse: you had to ask directions from passersby in the hallway.

You didn't actually need to get into the room, though, to understand what the project - a perennial shapeshifter now hastily reconfigured to meet funding deadlines - is all about. You only needed to meditate on the convention center itself. Remember when the East Main-South Avenue area was packed with historic buildings and storefronts? And remember when so many of them came tumbling down to make way for a, well, conventional design?

That's exactly what the well-connected downtown crowd wants for East Main and Clinton. Go to the Democrat and Chronicle feature on the new RenSquare plan and see for yourself. The plan is pure Suburban Office Park: a series of off-the-shelf, boring facades, varied at the eastern extremity with a few big windows, and shown up big time by the magnificent Granite Building to the west. (The bus station is hidden in the back, with a platform design that will require buses to back up as they leave the bays. I can't wait to stand there and take in the music and fine aromas of the massed diesels.)

Nothing in any of the RenSquare literature or on the dog-and-pony-show placards refers to green features, intermodality (remember the case made long ago for putting the buses at the train station?), accessibility, or bike-and-pedestrian friendliness. Choose your favorite element from the pro-environmental list - and you won't find it at RenSquare.

When I said some of this to a honcho at the unveiling (and put that veil of shame back on, pronto!), I was asked if I wanted to see downtown continue to deteriorate. This is the rhetorical equivalent of what the RenSquare design team has done: deploying the crassest of clichés to weaken the opposition. They surely must understand that downtown's real friends want an entirely different pattern of redevelopment to unfold: compare the incremental growth and repopulation of the East End, accomplished organically and on a human scale - with, admittedly, some aesthetic clunkers thrown in.

But look for RenSquare honchos to stay on message. If you're not on board with their scheme, you're an enemy of downtown and an impediment to economic revitalization. And don't be so cheeky as to talk about transportation policy or green ideas. What do you think this is, a transit center? And where do you think you are, Copenhagen?

In their relentless campaign to saddle us with an example of old-fashioned, white bread Americana, the RenSquare pushers are leading with a rhetorical cousin of "if you're not with us, you're against us." And make no mistake, in regard to the fine points democratic engagement, they have taken more than a little from the playbook of Rove, Cheney, and Bush.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:47 EDT
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