Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A brief encounter, and the damn sensor loops

Tonight, on my way home fairly late, I was too tired, stressed and hungry to deal with the infamous Heron/Bank intersection. The one where you have to merge left across three lanes to get into a left-turn lane. So I did what I usually do when I can't face that move: I rode along on the outside of the intersection and used the pedestrian crosswalk on the opposite corner. As I waited on the pedestrian refuge for the light, I saw another cyclist pull up to wait in the left turn lane.

I had a moment of guilt - she was being a "better" cyclist than me, following all the rules, brave and determined, unlike my tired, schlubby self who couldn't face the extra fear and tension at that hour - and then I realized, as the light changed for me and I rode across the crosswalk, that she wasn't going to get the advance green.

She was even signalling a left turn, bless her, waiting patiently and properly, just the way I hadn't, doing all the things she was supposed to, and she wasn't going to get that green light.

I stopped. Turned around, rode back to the intersection, crossed on the pedestrian crosswalk, and in a lull in the traffic noise, I shouted over to her: "That light is on a sensor. Bikes don't set it off. You could get stuck there for several cycles."

As soon as she heard me, she said, "Thanks so much," and, with a certain amount of relief, I think, took the pedestrian crosswalk out of the middle of the intersection. We crossed with the pedestrian light, she went her way and I went mine, up the hill.

Good deed for the day done. She coulda been stuck there half the night.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bike donation bonanza!

So this is what the back of a Suzuki Aerio looks like when you have five bikes loaded in and on it. . .


It was a Wheels4Refugees pickup blitz tonight. I've just started a new, full-time, regular-people-working-hours job, which is making it a little trickier to get around to pick up bikes but. . . people keep donating them. And I think I'm now the only person driving around to do pickups. So I work it out. Tonight, that meant emailing back and forth with three different donors and arranging to do a circuit, from Maitland and the Queensway to Sandy Hill to Alta Vista, picking bikes up and loading them onto an increasingly groaning bike rack.

First was that little blue bike. That was donated by Katie, who I think was maybe about ten or eleven years old, and her father Al. Her dad was out in front of the house with her and (I presume) her brother and sister when I got there, and he made a point of asking whether I knew who, specifically, was getting the bike (I didn't) for her, and bringing her along to help get the bike out of the garage and load it into the car. She told me it would be a "third-hand" bike now, since she got it second-hand in the first place.

Next I stopped off in Sandy Hill, where Peter unloaded two solid old bikes, and helped me get them onto the rack, then asked if I wanted one that was missing handlebars and seat. I said it could at least be used for parts, so we loaded it into the back of the car too.

Then it was off to Alta Vista, where Elaine and her husband were already waiting outside their house with a silver road bike, which just fit on the rack behind the other two, and I hitched it to the other two with a spare climbing sling and a carabiner. And then I drove very, very carefully home.

This is what the outside of a Suzuki Aerio with five bikes on and in it looks like:


Next, to get them to 350 Sparks. That will probably entail driving downtown in the morning and dropping them off before I go to work. 

More donations are still needed! And if you want to volunteer to help pick up bikes, get in touch with them and let them know: they'll be happy to have you. 


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The street's so insensitive

Coming home from work, I almost always end up at the intersection of Riverdale and Bank. It's a T intersection, with a lane turning left toward Billings Bridge and a lane turning right, up through Old Ottawa South. I need to go left, so I roll over into the middle of the left turn lane and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Because the traffic light is on a sensor loop, and the sensor loop doesn't pick up my bike.

Yesterday I was sitting there waiting when a guy in a big SUV-style company car finally came up behind me. I edged the bike forward, to give him room to come up and set off the sensor, but he stayed - politely, respectfully, considerately - back. I turned and beckoned him up. He waved his hand, like, "no, it's okay, I'll stay back. "

I called out, "I can't set off the sensor," and made some incomprehensible gestures, trying to indicate by sign language what the problem was. He shook his head, then rolled his window down and leaned out. "I can't hear you," he said.

"If you move up, you can set off the sensor," I said. "It doesn't pick up the bike. This happens every time, it's a pain."

"Oh!" he said, and edged forward with the car. Within seconds the light had turned green and we could both go on our way.

But every day? I try to obey the traffic rules, but if I can't ever get a light to change, what am I supposed to do but use the pedestrian beg button and crosswalk? Or run the red light, from the left turn lane, when the coast is clear? (Which I will admit is what I usually do.)

Seventy percent of the intersections in the city have these loops, but they are hardly ever indicated, or marked. Sometimes there are three little yellow dots painted on the pavement, indicating the most sensitive part of the loop, the bit that's supposed to be set off even by a bicycle. But a lot of the time the dots are worn off or may never have been painted. (At Bank and Heron I have no idea where they might be, if they even exist, to set off the advance green. Late at night, I can sit through a couple of cycles before realizing I'm never going to get the light. And then, I'm stuck trying to get out of the middle of five or six lanes each way.) And at this particular intersection, Bank and Riverdale, the dots are still faintly visible, but they are in the wrong place.

They're there.... do you see them?
By "the wrong place" I mean that the dots are smack in the middle of the right-turning lane. Which is stupid, because you don't need a green light to turn right, and if a cyclist, wanting to turn left, stations herself over the dots in order to trigger a green light, she is blocking any driver who comes up behind. And worse, the driver won't know why she's in the middle of the lane preventing all right turns. Frustration, horn-blowing, and maybe even nudging with a car could ensue.

Presumably they wanted to only have one cyclist position for both lanes. It's simpler. So the position marked out puts the cyclist on the outside of the left-turn lane, and the centre of the right-turn lane.

Yeah, they fit two lanes in that bit to the left of the median.

Legally, cars are not allowed to turn right past a cyclist who is stopped in front of them, regardless of whether the cyclist is over at the curb or in the middle of the lane. So, from a design standpoint, going only from what the rules are, and not from how people (who are bloody ignorant apes) behave, there's no problem.

Except that what a driver sees is one of those damn cyclists hogging the road and blocking their way. Except that very few people even know that you're not allowed to pass a cyclist to turn right. Except that when I sit at that intersection on the dots, hoping the light will change, I feel a huge target painted on my back because I'm right where the drivers least expect or want me to be. Except that even as I sit there, I have no faith the sensors will pick me up.

And in fact, that was proven tonight. I decided to test a theory, around 9:00 pm. I pulled up to the intersection. I dutifully stationed myself right on top of the three faint dots. And I waited.

And waited

How close I am to the right curb.
And waited

Yup, that's me. Just waiting smack in the middle of the wrong lane.

And then a car was coming behind me, so I scootched over to the curb to let it by. Seconds after it came to a stop, the lights changed. Proving, to me anyway, that the stupid yellow dots are less than pointless.

This is how far to the left of the yellow dots the left-turning car was. . .
by this point, I'd ducked to the curb to let him by.
Did you know that in 16 states in the United States, it is legal to run a red light if the sensor doesn't detect your vehicle? They're called "dead red" laws. They were enacted precisely because it's the safest thing to do in this situation and it gives you something you can legally do to get the hell out of the middle of the road when the lights have trapped you. And in a city where 70% of the signals have sensors, and a lot of those obviously don't detect bikes, we need those laws.

From now on, I will stop at that intersection and then "dead red" that MF, and if a cop wants to talk to me about it, I'll make him try to summon a green light by invoking the Triune God of the Yellow Dots with anything lower steel-content than a Yaris.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Movin' bikes: the continuing story

Got my first pickup completed this afternoon - all the way out in Barrhaven. It was a lovely classic 80s road bike, ram's horn handles and all. The donor said it had covered hundreds - maybe thousands - of kilometers and was still in great shape. "I just got older and stopped riding it," she said. "It's been in the garage ten years. Isn't that terrible?" But then she'd seen the CBC News spot on Wheels4Refugees and got in touch with them.

So I got it up onto the rack, and strapped down with some of the extra slings and biners I had with me. "Oh, are you a rock climber too?" she asked, and when I said yes she asked if I'd read Into Thin Air. I told her not yet but I'd heard it was really good.


She was getting started on a new phase of her life, she said. On her own and loving it, getting on with the next thing. Donating the bike seemed like the right thing to do. "I'm really glad a piece of my old life can go on and become part of someone else's," she said. And she asked me to thank everyone at Wheels4Refugees for "rolling out the welcome" and helping people get started on a new life. Including her.

So I headed off, keeping an eye on the rack in my rearview to make sure nothing was shifting in flight, and gingerly took the 417 downtown to swing by 350 Sparks and drop it off, along with the bike lock, helmet and lights she had given me as well. 

Pictured here, at the dropoff point. Come on, isn't it lovely? 

Got a couple more to pick up tomorrow and then we're just waiting for more donors. (If you want to donate a bike, get in touch with them and let them know!)


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bike donating update: or, Old Man Winter dissents

After I posted yesterday's blog about donating the tiny bike, in which I mentioned I might need to borrow a bike rack so I can help collect other people's donated bikes, I got a PM on Twitter from one of the folks at Citizens for Safe Cycling, who said she had a spare rack I could borrow. So I swung by her place this afternoon to get it, threw it in the back of my car, retreated to my parking garage to get out of the snowstorm that was getting up a head of steam outside, and mounted it.


Seemed pretty simple, though I've never used a car rack before. There aren't really any individual cradles on it, so the bikes just sort of rest on the posts (and I think I'll have to lower them one more notch, closer to horizontal), but I think I can pad things out with some old T-shirts to wrap the tubes in, and tie things down with some of my climbing slings and a short chunk of rope, because I know at least how to make things pretty secure using slings and rope.

Test run was supposed to be tonight, when I was going to go to Kanata to get a couple of donated bikes. . .

However. Then this happened.


I didn't think the snow looked that bad, but it took me about half an hour to get from Carleton University to Carling. Yeah, that's about a kilometre and a half. The radio was announcing collisions and pileups and cars in the median all over the city, and said the highway (which I was going to need to take) was at a standstill. So I said screw it, turned around, and inched home, stopping to call the donor and tell her I'd have to reschedule. She sounded a little relieved that she didn't have to worry about me on the roads, and I felt better about not forcing anyone to stand in a snowstorm while we loaded a couple of bikes up on the rack.

So, we'll have to reschedule. The bike donation saga continues!

Meanwhile: Seriously, how do people who drive to work stand it? I almost never have to drive at rush hour, or in bad weather. . . it's hellish. Just that half hour of inching slowly down Bronson, getting annoyed at other people trying to budge in front of me, hitting the gas, hitting the brake, hitting the gas, hitting the brake, popping it in neutral to try and flex my clutch foot, listening to the radio announcing, again, all the roads that were slow or stopped -- if I had to do that every day I'd be a wreck.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wheels4Refugees (bikes are a force for good)

This morning I was going to be in the car anyway giving a friend a lift, so I loaded this tiny little bike into the back and swung by 350 Sparks Street to drop it off at Wheels4Refugees.



I found out about Wheels4Refugees at Spring.Bike.Ottawa (of which more in a future post) and instantly thought of this bike, which I found abandoned in my parking garage last year and picked up because I couldn't just leave it there. It's so cute. It's so tiny. It's so pink and white. The seat says "Magic Dust" on it. It really should have handlebar streamers.

I fixed it up last year thinking I might give it to a friend with a little girl (or a little boy who really likes pink and white), but that never really worked out, and besides - my friends are fine, they can afford to buy tiny bikes for their own daughters. I feel pretty good that this particular tiny bike will go to a kid who's been through hell.



A family arriving in Ottawa fleeing a war zone gets here with nothing. Instead of settling them here with the expectation that they'll have to get a car, Wheels4Refugees wants to give them the option of biking, which saves a lot of money on transportation. It also gives them a chance to get to know their new neighbourhoods that might not happen by car or transit. Kids who have been through traumatic experiences benefit from outdoor play, and some of the kids coming here haven't been able to go outside and play in, literally, years. Now, with bikes and some street-safety training, they can start exploring independently and hopefully gain some confidence and start to recover from what they've been through. Parents can get to work and language classes and other services without having to pay for and navigate transit, or ask their sponsors for rides; older kids can get themselves to school.

You can donate bikes any time at 350 Sparks Street, which used to be a hotel and is now the headquarters for CapitalWelcomes. They also need bike lights, reflectors and bells. I've got some extra inner tubes I may drop off. They'll also take cash donations. If you're keen and have time, they're looking for volunteers to teach cycling skills and help people find safe bike routes, Arabic speakers to help with training and translation, volunteer bike mechanics, and people with cars and racks to help pick up and drop off bikes, (I may not be able to speak Arabic, but I do have a car, so I've signed up for that last one. If you've got a bike rack you can loan me, let's talk.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Happy International Women's Day!

It's International Women's Day, and for some reason - well, really, for obvious reasons - I'm thinking about bicycles.

Bicycles are quiet, easily overlooked, unassuming heroes in the history of women's independence. I'd never really thought about them as the emblems of freedom that they are until I got into cycling, discovered the late-1800s European cycling craze, and then discovered what its impact was on women. It's hard to do much reading about cycling without coming across Susan B. Anthony's famous quote that bicycling had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."

Check this piece out at annielondonderry.com - Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s - for a decent overview.

(I have to add, too, that while I was poking around the 1890s, I discovered that H.G. Wells wrote a novel about bicycling: The Wheels of Chance. It's here on Gutenberg.org for your reading pleasure.)

It wasn't just that bicycles gave women a way to get around independently. They also normalized women - not just labourers but all women - being physically active (and oh, the panic about "bicycle face" and the strains of cycling on the female body). And they paved the way for less restrictive clothing, as women wheelers realized that voluminous skirts were a total pain in the ass and started hitching them up, or giving them up entirely in favour of more practical bloomers. "The bicycle will accomplish more for women's sensible dress than all the reform movements that have ever been waged," said Demerarest's Family Magazine in 1895.

Anyway, there is all that history in Europe, but bikes are also still fulfilling that role all over the world. Bikes are still subversive. 

Just as a couple of examples: apparently, there are laws - patchily applied, but on the books - against women riding bikes in North Korea. I like to think it's because deep down, authoritarians know a woman on a bike is a dangerous woman on some level. And last year, in Yemen, a woman tried to organize an event to encourage more women to ride bicycles in the face of a fuel shortage - women are allowed to bike, by law, but it's still a social taboo. Some people (koff, "men," koff) found the idea of women on bikes so unthinkable that they insisted the photos of the event must be Photoshopped or that the women must actually be men in disguise. 


And in many places a bicycle actually represents a chance for a girl to go to school, or for a woman to run a business. World Vision has a "Donate a Bicycle for a Girl" campaign to provide bikes in countries like India and Cambodia where girls might live too far from school to walk, or the trip might be too dangerous. Bicycles for Humanity does something similar.

So for IWD, it's worth paging through World Bicycle Relief's Women In Motion list: women competitors, entrepreneurs, students, and philanthropists all over the world, all with that one thing in common. . . bikes. Still being subversive, still causing social change, still fostering independence.