Two apps for choosing bike routes: one good, one bad

img_0873-1.jpgOne of the single most important lessons I’ve learned about riding a bike in a big city in the U.S. is that you’ve got to choose your route carefully. Pick quiet streets and you can avoid speeding, angry motorists. Even in a car-centric city like Los Angeles, if you do your homework, you can find residential alternatives to major arterials that will make you think you’re in Amsterdam. Well, almost.

Before going somewhere unfamiliar, I used to pour over bike maps to figure out where the bike lanes and paths were. Now, there are apps for that.

The Good: Google Maps
In 2010, a bike option was added to Google Maps. While not perfect, it works surprisingly well. Combined with a little familiarity with what streets are good and bad to ride on, I now find that I rarely look at the city’s bike maps anymore.

Here’s an example: one weekend this month, Kelly needed the car and I had to across town, from the La Brea Expo line station to the new Westchester Community Oven.

The route Google Maps suggested was excellent:

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It routed me on to the La Ballona creek bike path and from there to a reasonably calm street and then to a bike and pedestrian path that I didn’t know existed. The path gets you up a steep hill quickly and avoids a not so fun to bike on major boulevard. Now, it just so happens that I know a drainage ditch that’s better than the path Google Maps suggested, but that’s splitting hairs:

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Google maps also talks to you, so you can keep your attention on the road. I’ve compared it to a number of routes that I routinely ride and Google Maps’ suggestions are just as good, sometimes better. One feature that I wish it had was a way to combine transit and bike routes together rather than separately.

The bad: Go LA
Xerox and the city of LA just came out with an app called Go LA that, in addition to driving and public transit options, also suggests bike routes.

Unfortunately, like so many other initiatives in Los Angeles, the bike portion of Go LA is just an afterthought. If you like your bike rides to be like a meat world version of Frogger, you’ll love what Go LA suggests. I compared a number of trips that I commonly take on my bike in both Go LA and Google Maps. Google suggested routes were much better. Go LA seems to just suggest the shortest routes, which are most often really unpleasant streets to bike on. Here’s the same route as above, but in Go LA:

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It’s obvious that Go LA doesn’t have any data for bike paths, lanes or routes. The route it suggested would be high-stress and, possibly, dangerous.

Perhaps they have plans to improve the bike portion of this app in the future, but they have a lot of catching up to do with Google. And I was excited, at first, to see that Go LA suggests combined bike/public transit options. But, again, until they improve the bike routing portion of this app, it’s basically useless. A press release from Xerox alluded to improvements that will let you track fitness, but why do that when there are so many other apps that already track calories and effort? Giving cyclists the tools they need to find peaceful routes for useful trips will be much more valuable in the long run.

In my search for apps I came across a number of cities around the world that have dedicated bike apps. If you’ve tried any of those, please leave a comment. If the city you live in doesn’t have a good app, give Google Maps a try.

Weekend Tweets: The Orchid Mantis, Self-sufficiency and Self Driving Cars

How to Mix and Shape Dough Explained Without Words in Two Minutes

Some things to note about this video:

  1. Bakers use scales and so should you.
  2. Mixing dough entails making an incredible mess.
  3. Learning to shape dough requires practice.

As regards point #3, my plan is to mix up some practice dough (I use the dead dough recipe in the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook but any bread dough will do) and practice over and over. As a professional once told me when I complimented her on her pizza shaping prowess, “It’s because I’ve done it 10,000 times.” Practicing with dough you’re not going to bake takes out the fear of failure problem.

Thanks to Kathy Turk for alerting me to this video.

081 Foraging for Wild Foods With Leda Meredith

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Did you know that you can eat bark? Make a foam from the common mallow weed? Use dandelion as a hops substitute in beer? Our topic this week is foraging and our guest is Leda Meredith. Leda has a certificate in Ethnobotany from the New York Botanical Garden, where she is also an instructor. She is also the author of five books including Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. Her new book is The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles. During the podcast we discuss:

  • The ethics of foraging in city parks
  • Eating invasives
  • Is foraging sustainable?
  • Mallow foam
  • Vegan mallow mayonnaise
  • Dandelion beer
  • Foraging in Israel
  • Foraging in the winter
  • Eating bark
  • . . . and, of course, prickly pear

Leda’s website is ledameredith.com and her Youtube channel is here.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

The Best Way to Get Bees For Free

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Free bees in my swarm box.

Since 2009, when our beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson showed up with some bees in a shop vac, I’ve kept our bee stock going and helped other people establish apiaries in just about every way you can. I’ve cut hives out of walls (a lot of work that fails most of the time). I’ve trapped them out (a huge pain in the ass). I’ve captured swarms (easy, but they often take off the next day). The only thing I haven’t done is purchase bees. At about $125 a pop, it’s an expensive option considering they often don’t make it. By far, the best way to get bees is to invite them to settle down on their own. Here’s how to do it.

Build it and they will come
Set up your bee housing (Langstroth hive or top bar hive) and the bees might just move in on their own. It’s happened to me twice now in seven years. You should have your boxes ready to go anyway, since you can never predict the day someone will call with a swarm that needs a home. This readiness applies to tools too. Have all your bee tools in an easily accessible toolbox, always ready to go.

Where to set up your hives is one of the great mysteries of beekeeping. Here in Southern California they seem to prefer some sun and some shade. But I’ve found feral hives both in total shade and full sun. Your results will vary, depending on your climate, but they probably won’t do well in the bottom of a cold canyon or the top of a windy mountain.

swarm blox plansSwarm boxes
Instead of setting up a proper hive, bait a bunch of boxes and place them in your yard, in your friends yards and in random places and you might just capture a swarm or two. You can buy or make swarm boxes. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has estimated that bees show up in around 10% of the swarm boxes he sets up. He also suggests hanging them up around 10 feet high for best results. I like swarm boxes that hold frames so that you can transfer the bees easily to your hive boxes without having to do a cutout.

And guess what? A bee swarm box and a birdhouse are pretty much the same thing. So get friendly with birdhouse enthusiasts.

Baiting swarm boxes
You can buy swarm lure, a kind of synthetic pheromone, but it’s expensive and doesn’t last long. Some folks suggest a cotton swab dipped in lemongrass oil and stuck in a medicine bottle with holes in it. Better, I think, is to mix wax and lemongrass oil and paint that on your frames.

Used equipment that once held bees is also a powerful attractant. Once bees figure out a good space they will come back to it.

Where to put a swarm box
Something that happened to us last week will show you how random and inexplicable bees can be when it comes to occupying a swarm box. I had a swarm box up on top of our shed roof, near our neighbor’s orange trees, because bee swarms have landed there in the past. But even though that box has been up there for years, bees never moved in. So, about a month ago, I finally took the swarm box off the roof and tossed in haphazardly, upside-down, in a large plastic pot that was half filled with chicken litter. I intended to throw the box out at some later date.

Then, a few days later, as a neighbor was telling me about his favorite climbing roses, Kelly called me from the porch, saying there was a”bee situation” going on in the back yard.  I ran up the stairs and behind the house to see one of the awe inspiring miracles of nature: a hive moving into their new home–that new home being the upside-down swarm box in the plastic pot half full of dirty chicken litter. Being bloggers, Kelly and I should have whipped out our smart phones to catch some video. Instead, we sat on the patio and watched the swarm buzz around for ten minutes before they settled in the box.

I put a bee suit on (swarms are usually docile, but it’s best to be safe) and took the box out of the pot and righted it carefully, setting it near my established hives. I’m going to give the queen plenty of time to settle in and start laying eggs –at least 28 days–during which time I won’t touch or look at these bees. Since I already have two hives, I’m going to give these bees away. Anyone want bees?

Have you had a swarm move in on its own?