Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Strava or not to Strava?

The City of Ottawa just announced that it's partnering with to collect cycling data over the next two years. (In case you're one of the non-cyclists reading this, Strava is a training app for cyclists and runners that tracks your activity using a GPS device or the GPS on your smartphone and posts it to an online community.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a "cycling gold medal" city in pursuit of better cycling infrastructure must be in want of data. You need to know where people are riding, what routes are heavily used, where people have to take awkward or roundabout paths to avoid hazards, what their destinations are. You need to know what people are actually doing on their bikes if you're going to find ways to make it easier for them to do it.

There are a bunch of ways you can try to collect this data. They used to put students on street corners to count traffic. Now there are the ride counters that have been popping up all over town since the first ones went up in 2009. The City had a goal of 30 counters on major routes by the end of this year: not sure how close they are to that goal. There are also occasional bike audits being done, like the Cycle In project I was involved in this fall, in which people ride their usual commute and note where problems are. 

But all of these are complicated or expensive or otherwise a hassle, compared to having Strava do it for you. This information will just be generated by local cyclists as a matter of their daily lives, harnessing the power of every GPS device that's hooked up to it. It will be uploaded and aggregated and anonymized, and it's automatically free to use by the terms of the end user licensing agreement no one reads. 

Sounds great, right? Yeah, it kind of is. It's going to give the City much better data than they had, just based on the fact that bike counters only track people passing a particular point, and this tracks larger behaviour and patterns. But there are a couple of things that bug me.

One: Strava's whole culture is athletic. It's a training app for people who (primarily) cycle as a sport. Go to the splash page: you're invited to "join a worldwide community of athletes and train like never before." Leaderboards and challenges encourage you to set goals and to go further and faster and train harder. Members' profiles are "athlete profiles." You can get a "vanity URL" with the path:[yournamehere], as though you were part of some stable sponsored by Strava. Rides are tracked on distance, speed, and climb. Automated emails from Strava are ego-patting, motivational silliness.

"Whoa, you're kind of a big deal! X is now following you on Strava. Click to follow X back. Let's show him/her what you can do."

Generally, then, its target demographic is a specific subset of cyclist: those who go fast and far, who are generally confident, fit, and very accustomed to riding. They won't be avoiding main drags by ducking along winding side streets. They probably also don't haul trailers, or have shopping panniers on back racks. They're probably not riding cargo bikes to the corner store through downtown streets, they're not Strava-ing their trip to pick the kids up from school, and their activity feeds aren't crammed with 15 km/h rides to the library, with frequent stops for intersections. 

This skewed representation isn't lost on Ottawa bike folks (well, the ones I keep in touch with, who are quite the most entertaining), and they are, perhaps predictably, queering the whole process. Soon after the City's announcement, quite a few cyclists (yes, including me) signed up, specifically in order to track the kind of riding we do and make sure it shows up against the sea of Spandex. And we started encouraging others to do the same, shouting "We are here! We are here!" like the Whos in Whoville. There's an #ottbike Strava club now (yes, I joined) to remind people to log their short, slow, urban trips, to generate the kind of data we want generated. But that takes me to the second thing that bugs me.

Two: Strava's making money off this, and off us. They're not just sharing this data out of the goodness of their bikey hearts. I don't know how much Ottawa's paying them, but in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation paid them $20,000 for a year's worth of Portland's cycling data (the first agreement of this kind between Strava and a state transportation agency). In fact, Strava wins two ways here: they get money from the City, and they get a whole bunch of new people signing on to the service (yes, including me) and using it actively because they want their data to be counted. This boosts their numbers and activity, which in turn encourages advertisers, which is their main source of revenue.

But then, the amounts we're talking about aren't really massive amounts of money for a city or for an internet data corporation. And users don't pay for the app, so it's no shock at all that big data companies are making money off the information we give up to them. That's their business model, after all. That's how it works, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest to Strava. Welcome to the cyberpunk age: information actually is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit.

So, am I just being an old man yelling at a cloud when I'm a little uncomfortable that we're being forced, if we want our cycling patterns to count, to sign on to a specific data collection site and hand our data over to them? That you have to change your habits and patterns to fit Big Data? That this data won't include people who don't have smartphones or Garmins, who can't afford the data plans to upload this stuff, who aren't online and connected to the cycling community and won't have gotten the memo? 

Yeah, maybe. I'm already on Facebook; I can't really complain about the Big Data end of it. And at least, in Portland, they submitted the data with the caveat that Strava users were not representative of cyclists at large, and I can hope they take those factors into account here too. And, it's a way to provide the City with information it does need to make changes to infrastructure. So here I am, on Strava, logging my ride to the gym, or to my office, or to my evening meeting.

I can hope that if information actually is power and currency, I'll get some of my investment back in infrastructure improvements and benefits to me as a cyclist: and that's the best way one of these data-mining relationships can work out. 

Besides, the cyclists who've signed on for Strava in spite of its sportsiness, and because they want people to know that not everyone on a bike is training for a century, are having some fun with it. They're giving the rides they log sarcastic names. They're making a point of the ordinariness of their ride to get cat food or toilet paper or bagels. They're speculating on whether, at some point, an engineer at Strava will stop and wonder why there's suddenly been this spike in slow, short, meandering, un-athletic trips in the Ottawa area.

It's the curse of the Web 2.0 cohort that we're constantly using applications that weren't exactly designed for what we want to do with them. We make DropBox work as a wiki; we sneak private conversations onto Google Calendar Invites to circumvent office blockouts on email; we make WordPress try to be a website when it was (really, let's face it) meant to be a blogging platform. And we just might turn Strava into a tracker for workaday commuting, quaxing, going to shows, and meeting friends for coffee. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP!!!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Safer (paradoxically)

People I'm connected with on social media and the like probably know by now that I was in a fairly spectacular car accident this week. It was pretty dramatic, and both vehicles were absolutely totaled, although, amazingly, everyone involved walked away (gratitude is due to crash test engineers). 

So, that happened. I was fine: no real injuries, no whiplash even. But I didn't get on my bike for a couple of days because I was being careful in case my stiff neck was something worse, and because I hurt my left hand enough that I didn't think I wanted to squeeze brake levers with it for a bit. I did drive (my car wasn't the one that was wrecked) and observed that although I didn't consciously have a problem with it, I did have some slight physical symptoms of anxiety walking to the car with the keys in my hand. 

But I rode my bike downtown for a meeting yesterday. I was kind of interested to see how I'd react. Riding a bike, especially near my apartment where the roads are big, wide and fast, usually feels vulnerable. I'm usually on alert, and on a bad, jumpy day my trip can be hellish in spots. I wondered if, having just been through a car crash, I would have any problems. 

Short answer - no. I felt relaxed, almost relieved. In part, I think, because I was only going about 10 miles an hour. That feeling of being less trapped on a bike? Yeah, there was that, too. I was far less tense than I'd been driving the day before.

It wasn't like it was a breeze, but it was all the normal stuff. A guy decided to squeeze past me two abreast with another vehicle, without slowing down, on Heron, and made me shout. A woman merging onto Bank rolled slowly forward, not looking at me, as I zipped by in front of her with my hand up in a "stop" gesture, calling out "whoa, whoa, whoa." On my way home, some idiot crossing Bank from a side street in a sedan exhibited all the signs of "bike blindness" as he started to cross the street just as I passed in front of him. A police car (sigh) ignored my signal that I was moving left to avoid parked cars, and just cruised on past me, cutting me off between the parked cars and his lane. 

All normal. I yelled when I had to, to get the dude in the sedan's attention (he stopped). I shouted "asshole!" when I was startled by the old guy in the station wagon who buzzed right past me as I was nearly on the Billings Bridge (I also rolled up beside him as he was stopped in traffic at the bridge, glared in the side window at him, and caught his eye - but stopped short of tapping on the window and starting a conversation.) All normal: the everyday startles and shouts of my regular commute.

In fact, being on my bike was comforting. I was going at a reasonable, human speed. I felt less trapped - by the road, by the vehicles around me, by my momentum and vector. If I needed to stop, I could: right at the side of the road if I had to. I don't think I've ever before really appreciated the way bikes can just cruise along at the edges of that stream of cars, without having to be caught up in it. I felt totally in control. I felt safe. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lights on Bikes - 2015 edition

Got this photo from the @BikeOttawa Twitter feed.
In only two hours this afternoon, the City of Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling and Safer Roads Ottawa set up on the Somerset side of the Corktown Footbridge and handed out something like 450 sets of bike lights - 900 or so lights in all, and that's not counting the taillights donated by one of CfSC's members, and the pedestrian and dog lights that were also given out.

I was there as a volunteer with CfSC, and I might have been the first person to get bike lights, in fact, because I was there on my spare bike, one I'd spent a couple of hours getting roadworthy the night before, and it didn't have any lights yet.

(Mike, you see, is getting to be downright unsafe. I discovered recently that his brake cables were distressingly frayed, his back brakes are seized up, his handlebars appear to be corroded . . . anyway, I wasn't really willing to ride him very far in his current condition, and there was no way I was driving a car downtown to volunteer for Lights on Bikes. That would just be tacky. So, I had done a quick tuneup on my spare bike, an unnamed Nakamura Profile (who I think, now, will henceforth be known as Akito), but didn't have any working lights. So, Akito may have been the first bike to get little blinky red and white lights strapped on to his frame.)

Felicity, from CfSC, at right, talking with a passing cyclist.
It actually amazes me how many people are riding around with no lights. Even leaving aside that it's illegal not to have lights, it just freaks me out to go anywhere without lights after dark. I guess when I first started riding, I thought having lights blinking away on my bike was kind of dorky. But a few years on the road has driven that right out of my head. Now, I can't face the idea of riding home along South Bank Street if I know my taillight is out. I will get on the sidewalk.

In part, it's because I've been riding a while, and I have a much better idea of what is involved in riding in traffic. I have also been driving more since getting my first car a couple of years ago, and I have seen first hand how invisible a cyclist is if they don't have any lights. It's frightening to be driving along (especially if, like me, you're also a cyclist) and have someone in a black hoodie on a bike with no lights, and maybe a couple of half-assed, dirt-encrusted, dim reflectors, suddenly emerge from the dark at the side of the road. Or, worse, cross the road in front of you, or pop out from the sidewalk at an intersection.

Seriously, how do people ignore how invisible they are?

So I was happy to flag people down - lots and lots of people - and ask them if they wanted some free lights. A couple of people just said "nothanksIdon'twantany," the way you do when you think accepting the free gift will then end up with you signing up for some mailing list or getting roped into something else you don't really want. Most people, though, stopped, and said, "What? Free lights? Yes, please! Mine just broke down," or, "Someone stole my lights yesterday, I'd love some!" or "Absolutely, thank you, this is amazing!"

I was particularly happy when the people I was handing lights to seemed like folks who might not otherwise have spent the $5 or so that these lights cost. People who would have had to think, "yeah, so. . . bike lights? Or an extra meal today?"

It's something to seriously think about, actually. A bike is just about the cheapest mode of transport you can have, other than your feet, and once you have one you can ride it for years without having to put much money into it. If $5 is going to make or break your daily, or weekly, budget, you're not going to buy lights for your bike - and what exactly will you do when you get a $100 ticket for not having lights? We're giving people free safety. I kind of wish we could do another blitz to give out bike lights in specifically targeted, low-income areas. Somehow find the people who wouldn't buy bike lights because they have to pay rent and buy food instead, and give them lights. There's got to be a way to do that.

That's part of what pissed me off about the one and only belligerent person I encountered: a guy on rollerblades who completely lost it when I hesitated after he asked if he could have a set of lights for his wife, who, he said, rode her bike every day. (See, we'd been told that we could only give out lights to people with bikes - no extra lights for a person's whole family, no lights for someone with a bike somewhere else.) He got angry right off the jump, and before I even knew what was going on, he was shouting. "My wife is an executive," he said, "she rides her bike every day, and she doesn't get off work at 4:00 like these people," and he indicated everyone else on the path, "she's very busy. Are you working with the City? Do you work for the City? Do they subsidize this? We pay taxes! Do you have a manager, someone with some sense I can talk to? I go just as fast on these rollerblades as any cyclist, and my wife's life and my life are just as important as these people's . . ." Honestly, I'd tuned him out at that point - in fact, well before that point, as soon as I realized he was actually going into a full-blown entitlement temper tantrum over a $2 set of blinky lights. I mean, seriously: if his wife is some hotshot executive, surely, surely she can actually buy her own bike lights. Nicer ones. Bigger ones. And probably already has.

Yup, that's Somerset Ward Councillor McKenney
in the blue jacket. She's cool. 
Aside from Ranty Rollerblade Man, who I suppose must just have been having a really bad day or something, pretty much everyone else responded to, "Hey, would you like some lights for your bike?" with a hearty, "Absolutely, hell yeah!" It was amazing how much happier people were after you'd flagged them down, stuck a couple of lights on their bike that they didn't have before, and waved them off on their way.

And after a while, we actually started to run out of lights. By 5:30, when we were due to stop anyway, there were only a handful of lights left. Since we had 1,000 lights to start with, and some of them turned out to be duds, we figured that was about 900 lights, or 450 sets, we'd handed out over a couple of hours. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The police officer who was on site for the event, putting a collar light on a Yorkie who happened by. We also put a lot of lights on dog collars, joggers, and pedestrians this evening. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bring on the winter biking comments.... sigh

So, Councillor Tobi Nussbaum wants to have more bike paths cleared in the winter. That's awesome! But the minute I saw the article, I knew what I'd find in the comments. Wincing, I scrolled down to have a look because I'm mean to myself like that.

And I find:

"You have to be really brain dead to ride a bike in the Winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow bikers loosing control. Clear the streets and that's it. That`s where you can cycle if you want to risk it."

Okay. Point one: when you start out like that, what it says to me is that you don't ride a bike, therefore by definition you know nothing about it. You're just blowing hot air about something you think you have an Opinion about. But that's okay. That's what the comments section is for. That's why I braced myself before scrolling. That's why we cyclists play "Bike Comment Bingo."

Point two: if your problem is with people riding bikes in the winter in the streets, because of "accidents," then you should be all for clearing the bike paths. Keeps us out of the street. Where we can probably agree we would all rather have bikes be, especially in the winter. Unless you're just bitter towards people who ride their bikes in the winter because, for whatever reason, you think they mock you with their very existence and should stop.

Point three: how many accidents last winter were caused by a cyclist losing control? Hm. Well, it's hard to find those statistics, but so far I can only find a case from this spring when a cyclist went off the bike path and into the Rideau Canal, and people speculated there might have been a patch of ice involved. However, I'm also looking at a report from last February in which there were 140 automobile collisions in a matter of hours and oddly enough no one mentioned any bicycles. The footage accompanying the article is of the Queensway. On which, if I'm not mistaken, bikes aren't allowed. 

And looking at that number of accidents - wow. You have to be really brain dead to drive a car in the winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow drivers losing control.

I mean, why would we clear the streets if you're just going to drive too fast for the conditions anyway? Seriously, if you want to risk it, just get a four wheel drive vehicle and chains on your tires and you can drive through the snow if you're so all-fired determined to keep using your car in the winter. We'd save literally millions on road maintenance.

(Or you could just get one of these maybe.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Near miss with a motorcycle

"Dear Momentum Magazine: I never thought it would happen to me . . . "

In something like ten years of riding, I don't think I've ever really had one of these. An all-out confrontation with someone else who did something incredibly dangerous. And, improbably, I actually had my GoPro running. It was a classic "YouTube bike moment."

Here's the setup: I was on my way to the office and taking my Cycle In route in order to get it on camera (I missed filming it on the actual day), which meant I had to take the construction detour from Main Street over to Echo Drive. The signed detour route takes you along Mutchmor, a wide, very quiet residential street. Detached houses with good-sized lawns, a school zone. Super quiet.

As you can see below, there's a Y intersection at the west end: bikes stay left, and in a block you're on Echo and can turn right and head for the new, lovely, bike-signal intersection to get you across Colonel By Drive and onto the Rideau Canal path.

I have never once conflicted with another vehicle on Mutchmor. I don't think I've even encountered anything but bikes.

Until this.

I sort of wish I'd thought to walk up to him, because shouting across a huge intersection did nothing but disturb the neighbours. Once you're yelling, you can't talk sense to anyone. He wasn't listening anyway, he just wanted to yell at me that it was my fault. (Because he was going under the speed limit. Still working on the logic behind that one.)

If I give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he assumed I was going right (though you can see the detour signs in the video, directing bikes left). I didn't signal: but that's because I didn't hear him coming and had no idea he was even there until suddenly he was in front of me. And did I mention it was a super quiet street?

Or maybe he pulled this dumbass move and realized a fraction of a second later how stupid it was - and that if he'd hit me he would have taken himself out too. Then, out of defensiveness and adrenaline, he decided to blame me and scream that it was all my fault. At the time, I thought maybe I had been way out in the road - but looking at the video, I wasn't really. I had just started through the intersection on the way to the left-hand street.

A friend who rides motorcycles said that an inexperienced rider can't brake quickly without spilling, so maybe that's why he cut me off rather than turning behind me. But if he was going "20 km/h under the speed limit" like he claims, I'd think even a novice would have had time to see me, slow down, and go through the intersection behind me.

I'll try and go through the video later and see if I can pull anything else to ID the guy, and I've reported the incident, but it's not like I expect the police to do anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Save me from the Good Samaritan left turn.

I was riding up the hill in Old Ottawa South this morning, amid the stream of traffic that there always is on the hill in Old Ottawa South, just behind a big white Dodge van of some sort. Traffic's usually slow enough there that I can ride just out of the door zone, usually just off the left taillight of the vehicle in front of me. 

Suddenly, the driver of the Dodge slammed on the brakes. Startled, I swerved so as not to run into it, then continued my climb, filtering past it. As I got to the nose of the van, I realized the driver had stopped to let someone turn left across their path, mid-block. I hit the brakes myself, because there was a car about to turn left into me, and the driver of the car waved her hand at me in a "go ahead" gesture. So I did, while the left-turning car and the waiting Dodge held up traffic. 

I get that the driver of the Dodge saw the woman waiting to turn and decided let her go ahead. And I get that I probably wasn't all that visible, behind the van, to the driver (though the van had passed me earlier, and so should have been aware of my presence), and filtering is a weird, liminal sort of space for cyclists to be in, albeit one they're in a lot. And maybe everything was going slow enough that slamming on the brakes mid-block wouldn't cause the car behind to hit the van. But come on - use your rear-view. People so often don't think about what's behind them in traffic - they react to what's in front of them.

I've seen people do the same thing in four-lane traffic: stopping to let someone turn without thinking about the traffic coming up in the left lane who won't know why you're stopped. It happens all the time further south on Bank Street, where people stop in rush hour congestion to let others turn across two lanes to get into the Farm Boy parking lot. I'll be cranking up the hill, passing the slower car traffic, and at the entrance to the parking lot I regularly see someone nosing through traffic to turn left. Often, by the time they get across to the section of the street where the cyclists are riding, they've decided "all clear" and hit the gas to get out of the street and stop holding everyone else up - and if there's suddenly a bike in the way. . . 

(I know some people will tell me that I shouldn't filter. But filtering is actually a bit of a grey area in Ontario law, and my rule is, if there's room and traffic's slow or stopped, I will filter until the last few cars before the light. If any of those cars have right turn signals on, I stop behind them. If not, I ride up right beside the first car so I'm in the driver's peripheral vision when the light turns green.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Happy New Highway Code day!

. . . or, not so happy. Since a lot of the coverage I've seen indicates that the police blitz, intended to inform drivers about the distracted driving laws, is actually serving to inform the police just how many people are driving distracted. All the time. And how little they care about it.

One driver was quoted on the radio this morning referring to the distracted driving fines as "just the cost of doing business." (Though, the host did mention that the demerit points might rack up pretty fast.) Wonder if the court case when he hits someone is also the cost of doing business?

And the blitz may not actually be stopping anyone. Apparently, the phone is so addictive, even getting hit with a $500 fine doesn't deter some people. In the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an officer reported that he pulled a guy over who claimed he couldn't be fined, because he'd just been fined for the same thing. Ten minutes earlier. So, apparently, the deterrent factor lasts less than ten minutes. (They didn't say whether his ass got slapped with a second fine: I sure hope so.)

What the hell is so important that it can't wait till you're stopped?