Friday, April 24, 2015


The ride downtown today involved temperatures hovering around freezing, shite pavement, potholes, aggro drivers, a howling headwind (which seems to have persisted for days, and seems to be against me no matter what direction I'm going in), sluggish tires, watering eyes, and one asshole in a Maserati buzzing me too close and annoying me even more because of his satin-finish silver luxury Italian car.

And yet, I do not regret not choosing the car. Not one bit. I may be a little ticked off and shaky from a few close passes and the fact that a headwind shuts off your hearing (far more than music does, o thou distracted-cycling worriers). But that doesn't mean I would rather have taken the car.

We're too hung up on being comfortable, for one thing. I recently responded to a writer who'd sent me a series of questions about riding and found myself actually self-editing out references to rain, snow, ice, traffic, cold - basically discomfort - even though those are things I feel good about dealing with, because I thought it wouldn't encourage new riders. And maybe it wouldn't. But in fact, what is so bad about doing things that are not comfortable?

When I get stuck in a blizzard on the way home and have to pick my way along the wheel track blinking ice pellets out of my eyes, that is certainly not comfortable. But "fun" and "comfortable," at least for me, aren't necessarily synonymous. I also like to spend my Saturday dragging my ass up steep hills, possibly braving wind and rain, being anxious-to-downright-scared at times, and clinging to small edges of rock at unnerving heights above the ground. That is not comfortable. And yet, it's the best thing I can think of to do with a Saturday.

And when I get on the bike and it's -35C out there, or traffic sucks, or it's raining, or whatever, there's an elation to knowing that shit like that will not stop you. That in fact, you eat adverse conditions for breakfast and feel more alive because of it.

And if I took the car? I'd be sheltered from the wind and the aggro drivers. But I'd be in the car. Feeling more and more sluggish. Missing out on the sharper focus you get from riding, from the cold wind, from the blood circulating, even from being buzzed by the jackass in the Maserati. I would feel duller. I would think, as I parked somewhere downtown and paid for it, that I probably should have been on the bike.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Trodden toes

It probably sounded great at the marketing meeting. Maybe it was even done with the best of intentions. But this #zibibike thing is leaving me feeling like someone's stomped into my living room and started crashing around talking loudly about something no one else had been talking about.

Recently, Windmill Developments bought the islands in the river between Ottawa and Gatineau (and bits of the Gatineau-side mainland), which used to be the site of the old Domtar plant and are now basically covered in abandoned industrial buildings (and one rock climbing gym). The idea was to construct a development a bit like the Distillery District in Toronto, "upcycling" the old plant buildings, creating a pedestrian commercial zone, and adding condos.

When I heard about this I was pretty excited. It sounded like the kind of interesting, attractive - and green! - showpiece district that Ottawa could frankly use a lot more of.

But since then there have been some fumbles. For one thing, they proudly announced, not long ago, that the site would be called "Zibi," which is the Algonquin word for "river." Only to have the chief of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation point out that the site was disputed as sacred land way before Windmill bought it, the band has not agreed to support the development, and using the name might give the false impression that they do support it. Still, over the objections of, you know, the people whose language it is, they went forward with the name.

Then a few days ago, someone noticed a bike spraypainted orange with the Zibi logo on it, on a ring-and-post.
It didn't take long for other cyclists to notice that the bikes were taking up bike parking. And they were popping up all over.
After some initial confusion, it started becoming clear that this was a marketing stunt. Relying on word of mouth, Zibi was getting people to post pictures of themselves on social media with the bikes. For each post, Zibi would donate $1 to Causeway, which is an organization that helps people with barriers to work, like disabilities, find employment. All fine. And maybe undertaken with good intentions. Demonstrate good corporate citizenship by doing something really visible for charity and get visibility for your green development at the same time, all while "harnessing the power of social media." But it leaves a bad taste.
For one thing, the number of people actually taking selfies looks pretty minimal. The money going to Causeway, so far, is negligible, it seems (at $1 a post: how many posts were they expecting?). It's not even clear what gets the money donated - mentioning the hashtag, or do you have to post a picture? And in fact, a lot of the selfies I did see posted seemed like maybe they were posted by social media plants, to "get the ball rolling." (That's just a guess on my part: how can you tell if a tweet is for real or forced, aside from subtle stuff like who is tagged in it and how it's written?)

And the bikes, spraypainted orange and locked to bike parking, are rubbing some of the people Zibi would want on their side the wrong way. The bikes have been ruined. Even if they were junkers to start with, they're now definitely going to end up in a landfill when the stunt is over. And they're taking up bike parking in a city where there are already too few bike racks. Inconveniencing the very people you want, eventually, to ride their environmentally conscious bikes to your shiny new eco-district to ethically spend their dollars.

It's like spraypainting books shut and nailing them to public shelves to advertise your new library.

It also smacks heavily of greenwashing. Donating to Causeway is just an excuse to get Zibi's name and brand colour out there and disseminated: they're hijacking people's charity and willingness to participate in a good cause for advertising. And it also feels like they're trying to hijack me as a cyclist. Maybe that's just because I know that the active cycling community in Ottawa is pretty strong and chatty and maybe they knew that too and thought we'd all jump on board. We're behind painting bikes white as memorials to fallen cyclists, after all, so why wouldn't we be behind painting bikes orange to advertise a new development?

But they might have been better off not going for the "organic" word of mouth factor and instead launching this campaign more publicly. It would have given them a chance to get people on side, rather than having them find out about the campaign when they can't lock their bike up to a local rack. It would have felt more like they were engaging with the community and less like they were sneaking in with their terribly clever marketing scheme to trick us into boosting their brand for them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Right turns are the greyest areas

On the limited evidence, I'm going to guess that last night's collision on Maitland was a right hook. I'm guessing that because it's reported as "a turn at low speed" and from where the bike wound up in the picture:

The cyclist is in the hospital, last I heard, in serious condition.

Right turns. At night, in the rain . . . they're treacherous.

In an interview I just did for radio, I would up saying that you're way safer in front of a car than beside it. The host sounded surprised about that. But this is a classic example. If the bike is already beside the car, the rider may not see the turning signal come on (I know I sometimes don't) and can't know the driver intends to turn. At that point, it's up to the driver to check that the turn is clear - and it's pretty easy for a driver just to check a visual angle taking in the corner ahead of them, but not necessarily behind or beside. With the cyclist riding, say, in line with the passenger side door, the driver might not have seen him, blocked by the window frames or just a little behind the range of the driver's visual sweep.

The driver probably passed the cyclist, though, before turning, and should have taken note of him. Moment of absentmindedness? Dark clothing? No signal from the driver - or the cyclist not seeing the signal? I don't know any of that stuff.

Right turns are another case where the rules fail, where the grey areas get messy. Vehicles aren't supposed to pass on the right, yet a cyclist going straight will necessarily be to the right of a driver turning. Are you "passing" on the right if the car to your left brakes in preparation for a turn while you're beside it? Not really. But it still puts you in an unexpected position relative to the other vehicle.

Technically, I suppose, at all intersections the cyclist would be safest to take the lane before going through the intersection - but imagine all the weaving in and out that would result, as the cyclist moves back to the right for a block to let faster traffic pass, then takes the lane again at each intersection. It would drive the people in cars crazy, not to mention being pretty nervewracking for the constantly lane-changing cyclist trying to find gaps in the traffic to squeeze in between cars. Nope.

I didn't want to land automatically on "the onus is on the person in the car" but . . . the onus is on the person in the car. To see the cyclist in the first place as you pass (here, some responsibility is on the cyclist to have lights or be otherwise visible), to judge when you will each wind up at the intersection, to signal enough in advance that the cyclist knows what you're doing, and let the cyclist go ahead if you're beside him, or move over in front of him so you can make the turn before he winds up between you and the curb. And to thoroughly shoulder check (when 99 times out of 100 you will probably not discover you were about to clip a bike).

As far as I can tell, the HTA tells you how to signal, and not to change lanes in mid-turn, but there is nothing explicitly covering the fact that a cyclist occupies, essentially, a "virtual" lane on the outside of the road which doesn't quite mesh with the rules of the other lanes. (I've got similar gripes about how to handle four-way stops when there's a bike lane. Who has right of way, between a cyclist going straight and a car turning right, both coming in from the same direction at a four-way stop?)

Grey areas. In my radio interview, I was talking about separate rules for cyclists. What I really think is the problem is these grey areas: places where the rules don't take cyclists into account. I didn't mention how a left-turning cyclist has to move to the outside lane, while a left-turning car has to move to the inside lane (I have had drivers try to overtake me on the right, mid-turn, as I went through a left turn - it's terrifying). And I didn't mention that invisible, virtual outside "lane."

Sorry, no answers here. Having bikes and cars on the same roads keeps pointing out these glitches. The more bikes we have on the road the more obvious they become. It's a matter of when and how we start deciding to make fixes that make sense.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Sure, it was the first day of spring, and today was the day of Spring.Bike.Ottawa. That, of course, meant the view out my window was this:

And after I just cleaned my drive train and replaced my brakes.
But I think I actually kind of enjoy riding in adverse weather. On a Saturday, a little warm slushy snow isn't a big deal. So I hopped on the bike. It was a bit sploshy, but not bad riding, and the receding snowbanks are such a joy.

Spring.Bike.Ottawa is an annual event put on by Citizens for Safe Cycling to present some bike talks and information (and encourage advocacy, naturally). I hadn't been before, but I knew about it from the Winter Bike Parade.

There were a series of talks: Councillor McKenney said a few words (apparently there are as many active cyclists on city council as there are women: unfortunately, that means there are four, only one of them - McKenney - being both.)

The first half of the event was a panel discussion covering local and provincial advocacy updates and legal issues. I thought that last topic was particularly interesting: Nicole Laviolette, who's a law professor at U of O, talked authoritatively about the laws around cycling, and gave some sense of how, if a law doesn't actually make sense, you might go about trying to change it. (She has a book - Every Cyclist's Guide to Canadian Law - that I think I'm going to have to look for next time I'm at MEC.)

It was a packed room with a few familiar faces: people I've run into before around other bike events mostly. I wound up sitting next to Councillor David Chernushenko (he may not remember it, but once I played Puck against his Titania in a semi-staged reading of the first act of A Midsummer Night's Dream in a basement bar in Centretown, hosted by a reading series I once worked with. I didn't mention this to him this afternoon).

The funny thing is, though, that a lot of the people there were people I know - and who know me - from Twitter handles and blogs. So I don't always have faces to attach to the names that I have fairly robust relationships with online.

At the break I wandered over to where a big map of the city was getting festooned with radiating strings of different colours: there were instructions to match how you got there - car, transit, walk, bike - to a string colour, then pin the string between the McNabb Centre and where you'd come from.

I pinned my string, and for a brief moment I was the longest green (bike) string. Didn't last, of course.

I also got to talk to someone from the EcoDistrict, trying to create a more sustainable downtown, and a representative from, an initiative to map bike hazards, accidents and near misses in order to collect data for planners and bike advocates, and to help people plan around dangerous stretches of road.

After the break there was a really interesting talk by Glen Gobuyan, a designer who had some fascinating (to me anyway) things to say about wayfinding: what makes sense to people and helps them find their way around, how Ottawa's bike signage was planned, and how it could be improved (big hint: stop assuming that cycling is tourist-destination oriented and start telling people how to get to various neighbourhoods instead of landmarks. And tell people where the routes go: I've always wondered, coming up on those ambiguous green signs that say "Bike Route" and have an arrow. . . bike route to what? To where? Will it take me where I'm going? Am I not supposed to take this other street right here?)

His slide with possible neighbourhood-oriented signage actually got a couple of pleased, oh-my-god-of course murmurs out of the crowd.

After his talk, Trevor Haché gave an update on what's been happening with the Healthy Transportation Coalition, which is a wide-ranging organization he started last year to tie together a number of different interests - anti-poverty organizations, seniors, community health centres, supported housing, cyclists, etc.

And then there were some updates about other CfSC events coming up, and then it was time to promise the nice volunteer at the CfSC table that yes, I really was going to sign up as a member when I got home (I did: it's about time), pull my damp rain gear back on, and head back out into the alternating rain and snow and sleet to head home.

There are days where you feel more like you belong on the road, and days where you feel less secure. Days where you've been around a lot of other dedicated cyclists tend to make you feel more like you belong. I took up my space and flowed with traffic on the way home. I had the "swoosh."

Somewhere near Lansdowne, I was caught up to by someone who'd arrived at the event at the same time as me: we'd spoken briefly inside the event as well. He said hello and grinned as he caught up to me. "Hey, hi!" I said, and waved as he passed, and headed off southward ahead of me, tail light flashing in the light rain.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An email I just wrote to RITE ON Driving School

I just wrote this. I'm still a bit pissed. More than a bit, really. Bad drivers is one thing. Bad driving being tacitly inculcated by driving instructors? Whoa nelly. 

Hello -

I wanted to bring your attention to something that just happened this afternoon on Heron Road. I was riding my bike eastward on Heron in front of the Heron Community Centre when I was passed by one of your cars at a dangerously close distance. It was a light yellow sedan driven by a student with an instructor in the passenger seat. In case you can identify the instructor, it was around 4:10 pm: the student was a woman, and the instructor was a man who looked to be middle-aged with curly black hair and a mustache.

The car passed less than a foot from the end of my handlebars, and I was already riding uncomfortably close to the curb due to rush hour traffic. The car was running two abreast with another car in the inside lane, so had no room to avoid me if I had struck a pothole. That stretch of Heron Road is full of deep potholes at this time of year, and I often have to move out to avoid them. This car did in fact roll over a set of them just ahead of me. I screamed out loud as they passed (it's been at least twenty minutes: my throat is still sore).

I then followed the car as it turned right onto Baycrest, chased it along Baycrest, and caught up as they were waiting to turn left at the light. I pulled up beside the car, on the left, and signalled that I wanted to talk to them: the instructor looked up and saw me, but ignored me and they continued onto Walkley Road. I gave chase but lost them on Heatherington.

I understand that the one-metre rule hasn't been legislated in yet, but I am concerned that your instructor is not teaching students reasonable safe behaviour around cyclists. No one should pass a cyclist that close, especially not on bad pavement and on a high-speed road. If students don't learn how to share the road safely with cyclists during driver training, when will they?

I'm an experienced cyclist and I'm accustomed to riding on high speed roads, as I live in the area. This wasn't a case of spring jitters either - I ride year-round. I'm angry about this because it was a student driver accompanied by one of your instructors, who should have known better.

I'm also angry that, after I had chased them down to talk to them, your instructor chose to ignore me. Perhaps he didn't hear my scream, but he must have noticed that the woman on a bike in a bright pink jacket who they passed on Heron was chasing them down.

I hope someone can speak to this instructor, or maybe remind your instructors in general that safe driving includes sharing the road with cyclists. Driving schools have a responsibility to train new drivers to be as safe and respectful as they can, of all road users. Let me know if there is any other information you need from me.

Thank you -
Kathryn Hunt
[contact info so they can get back in touch if they're going to]

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spring has sploshed!

Monday, the canal skateway closed. Yesterday, the temperature went soaring up above zero, and when I went downtown, I didn't wear gloves, or a hat. The dirty snowbanks were dissolving into the pothole puddles, and my front tire kicked up a pinwheel of greyish droplets, and that was all okay, because I was flying.

Welcome to the season of squelch: the truly dirty, bike-punishing season, where you're so glad to be going faster and not wearing four layers that you don't mind at all showing up at your destination splattered with gritty, salty water.

My pants, after the ride to the office, looked like this (they're supposed to be black):

I did see one woman downtown with a clean bike, wearing a lovely blue wool coat and some nice high boots, and wondered how she'd managed it: there were a few spatters on her boots but I looked like a 4WD in a truck commercial. A few blocks on, when I got caught up in a traffic jam in Old Ottawa South, she breezed by me on the sidewalk and I realized that was probably how she stayed so clean. . .

Meanwhile, us riding in the street are going to have to pack wet wipes and find places to shake grit off our pants when we get where we're going - it's the dirtiest time of the year. But I don't complain much, because I go so much faster. All winter, I've been going about 5 km/h slower than I went yesterday.

I also stopped on the way home for new brake pads, a new chain, a chain cleaning kit, and fenders for the second bike, because it's on days like this that you hear the pads grinding down every time you brake. You can actually hear the damage happening to your bike. And you get the urge to grab a radio and get out on the balcony and scrub all the dirt and crap and gunk of the winter off.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The thing I get tired of

Prepared - I hope - for anything.
Riding through the winter eventually does start to wear on you. But the thing I get tired of isn't the narrower streets (though that's a pain) or my running nose (though constantly sniffling through my commute isn't fun) or the increase in focus you need to watch for patches of ice, snow or sludge.

The thing I get tired of is the constant need to analyse the weather. And plan for the weather. And prepare for the weather. And dress for the weather and all its moods. And anticipate what the weather's going to do, not just in terms of the temperature going up and down, but in terms of where I will be, whether the humidity will change, what I will have been doing, whether I'm likely to be delayed, and how far I'll need to go to get home.

Today was practically balmy by Winter-of-2014/2015 standards: wind chill above -20, temperatures in the single digits (-9 or so). So I decided around noon that I would go down for a skate on the canal to break up the workday ('cause I was working from home and I can do that kind of thing). There was a snowstorm predicted to start around 4:00 pm, but I figured I could be out and back before that. So I jumped on the bike.

I considered, because it was only -9, only dressing in a base layer and my down jacket, but decided against it because I thought I might stop off downtown to take some photos at a construction site I'm planning to write about, and maybe stop at my office, and if I did that, the down jacket would cool down pretty quick when I stopped exerting myself. Also, it's only early March: who am I kidding with my down jacket?

So eventually, I headed out in the usual: t-shirt, fleece pullover, ski jacket, waterproof pants over some light cargos. And the Toque of Sending, under my helmet. I have been losing gloves all winter, and was down to a pair of those stretchy knit ones you can get for $3 at the grocery store, but it was warm ("warm" is relative, in The Winter Of The Day After Tomorrow, you know).

I was comfortable. However, by the time I'd done 12 km on the canal, I'd gotten myself sweaty - T-shirt and fleece not a good combo, under the jacket. I was starting to get chilled. Taking off my skates I could sense the shutdown, like the Terminator when it gets hit with liquid nitrogen. Still, it was okay, I thought, I would just get on the bike and keep the core temperature up.

But I hadn't remembered the snowstorm. And the fact that, just before a snowstorm, the temperature dips, the wind picks up, and the humidity screams upward, rendering a nice comfortable -10 bitterly cold. Especially if you're already a bit sweaty (and tired) from 12 km of skating. And if your thin knit gloves are also sweaty. And your hat. And basically everything that's supposed to be keeping you warm.

So, let's just say that one hazard of winter riding is the amount of mental concentration taken up by your fingers screaming at you in pain. Seriously, it's exhausting. Freezing cold fingers will make your core muscles clench up, your neck, your back. They'll make you nauseated.

Did you know there's nowhere in the Billings Bridge Mall you can buy mittens? I didn't.

Early in the winter, I am religious about listening to the weather forecasts. I check the Weather Network and Environment Canada, I stop what I'm doing and turn the radio up when the weather comes on, and I stop before heading out and think through what's going to happen and what I need to pack. And I attune myself to all that crap about what the humidity and wind are going to do before the 10 cm of snow comes whirling down. These are not really things most city people need to know. Cyclists, though. . . it's good to remember them all.

But I am tired of the responsibility. I want to ignore the weather report. I don't want to have to interpret it all the time, in terms of what those words mean for my actual senses. In the summer, if they say it might rain, you decide whether you're worried about being damp when you get where you're going. In the winter, every little change in the weather is going to have some major impact on your comfort.

That? That, I'm tired of. Otherwise, I might be a sick puppy, but I've been enjoying the Fimbulwinter.