Monday, April 23, 2018

Spring is here! Spring is here! (And so are some supercool maps)

No but really, this spring has taken so very, very long to get going that this morning, cyclists in Ottawa (mostly winter cyclists who no longer feel alone) were deliriously describing to each other how many other bikes they'd seen on the road on the way to work. There is actual green to be seen in the grass, if you look close, and the Riverside MUP might actually be clear of snow by now. It feels like cold, windy chains of bondage have been broken. Some of us might even have the courage to take our studded tires off this week.

And with spring come all those enthusiasm-building "Cycling New Year" events. Like Spring.Bike.Ottawa, which was the weekend before last, and which was really good: the theme was "Be Your Own Best Advocate" and the main event was a panel bringing together cycling advocates and representatives from the City and the NCC to talk about how best to get things done in the rather complicated political environment of Ottawa-Gatineau. We have two cities (Ottawa and Gatineau), two provinces (Ontario and Quebec), the National Capital Commission, which handles some aspects on both sides of the river, and the fact that we're a national capital, all having varying amounts of influence on decision making. It's enough to make an advocate's head spin. Weirdly enough, though, it seems to be working: at least, there are huge gains being made.

The other big reveal for Spring.Bike.Ottawa was Bike Ottawa's new interactive maps. These have been in the works a long time, and it was pretty cool to see the final result, as explained by Heather Shearer, Bike Ottawa's president, at the event.

Bike Ottawa's data group have taken a whole lot of street level data and crunched it all together into four different maps. One shows you the level of traffic stress (from 1, meaning fine for children, to 4, meaning even experienced cyclists would be uncomfortable) for every street in the city. Another allows you to put in your origin and destination points and select what level of traffic stress you're comfortable with. Then the map plots you a route, similar to Google Directions, that can get you to your destination comfortably (or maybe it can't: in which case you know where we need a safe cycling link, and you can start talking to your councillor about that.)

The third map is an isochrone map, where you can pick a point anywhere in the city and see how far you can get in any direction, within a set range of times, and at a specific level of traffic stress. I find my neighbourhood enlightening here: If you want to travel at LTS 3, you can get far further, far easier, if you're going north. If you're going south there's a distinct border. Once you drop the stress level to 2, you are just not going south at all. Imagine the rail line at Ledbury as The Wall, and you're the wildlings.

The fourth map tracks the City's collision data and gives you a heatmap, which you can filter by collision type: involving pedestrians, cyclists, motor traffic, and "all." Grim, but useful. Also, those are all just the collisions reported to the City, which likely means most of them were fairly serious: lots of collisions go unreported unless someone gets hurt.

My first slide, up and ready to go.
So, for the next round of spring events, I could go in armed. . .

This last weekend I led a workshop on sustainable transportation at Ecology Ottawa's Old Home Earth Day event. This is the second annual edition of this event, and it focuses mostly on people living in older homes (specifically in the Glebe and Centretown) who want to reduce their environmental impact.

To be honest, I wasn't entirely certain what my role was going to be, but as it turned out I was a sort of MC and main presenter. I was pretty happy I had the new maps to bring to this, because I figured I would be preaching to the choir on biking, more or less, and wanted to have something to bring people that they might not know and would probably be able to use.

So after an initial intro, and having Councillor Chenushenko get up to speak about optimizing modes of transit (essentially, use the mode that works best for you and the planet at that precise time), I got to do a 15-minute talk on why biking is awesome and how, if you're a bit nervous about cycling, these maps can be part of your toolkit to get out there and try it. I also talked a bit about the usual objections to cycling ("it's too far," "I have kids," "what about cargo?") and gave some options. The maps went over really well - I got questions during the talk about them and a couple of people wanted to talk to me after the workshop was over. We also heard from a Vrtucar user and someone from the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa.

And then I stepped outside and it was properly spring, and so I went the long way home, taking 25 km to get from the Glebe to Herongate, just because it was sunny, I was in a T-shirt, and I could.

Spring is here.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why Old Ottawa South is awful: a theory

I have a theory. This theory came to me after only my most recent encounter with a bullying driver on Bank Street between the canal and the Rideau River. The driver was in a silver Infiniti with a modified muffler.
This is, sadly, not all that uncommon on this stretch of street. It's about eleven blocks long, and I dread it most of the time. I have consistently had encounters with more more close-passing, horn-honking, finger-pointing, bullying drivers on this stretch than maybe anywhere else I ride.


But after this last one, I was struck by an observation. This eleven blocks is narrower, denser, and more full of visual friction than the stretch north of it, past Lansdowne Park, or south of it, over the river and past the Billings Bridge Mall.

Here's Bank Street north of the canal, by Lansdowne:

And here's Bank south of the Rideau River:


 In between those two stretches of wide, open streets with two full lanes in each direction, large setbacks from the street, and longer blocks, there's Old Ottawa South - narrow, with buildings right up to the sidewalk, trees near the street, side streets intersecting on both sides, more buildings per block, more pedestrians, kids, bikes, you name it.


 See the difference?

My theory is, drivers coming though this stretch aren't even aware of the stressing effect of the sudden appearance of parked cars, trees, storefronts, pedestrians, and patio furniture as they leave the drag-strip environments to the north and south of this neighbourhood. But suddenly, they're having to process more visual input. It makes them twitchy. They can't go as fast as they could a second ago (note: the speed limits don't change as you enter this neighbourhood, but speeds of 80 km/h on the Lansdowne Bridge or at Billings Bridge are not uncommon.) It all combines to make them, unconsciously, more aggressive. I see them bob and weave even around other drivers. Then there's a cyclist in The Middle Of My Goddamn Lane, and the impatience boils over into revving engines and near-miss passes to express frustration.

There you have it: the nastiness of Old Ottawa South, explained.

By no means am I saying that Bank in Old Ottawa South should be widened, the trees cut down, the parking lane given over to travel. No. Definitely not. If anything, I'm saying that on either side of it, where drivers get so much psychological permission to speed, we need to at least complicate their field of vision enough to slow them up. More trees, closer to the road; separated cycle tracks with barrier elements; narrower car lanes. Ease them into the denser neighbourhood, get their speed down, and maybe they won't be quite so edgy when they have to put the brakes on for a cyclist.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fake News

Weird conversation with a cashier on the way home. He was a very tall, grey-haired older man. We'd exchanged a couple of comments: he'd mentioned he couldn't reach too far over the counter because he had a hernia and was going in tomorrow to find out what was wrong. I'd expressed sympathy. He asked if I wanted a bag, and I said no, my backpack was fine and if I needed extra space I had two bags on my bike. He'd obviously already seen the helmet hung over my wrist. Then he said, "Biking at this time of year?"
"Sure," I said, as usual. "At every time of year."
"I don't agree with it," he said flatly. "It's too dangerous."
It's a little jarring to have someone do that, but I've had people I thought of as friends say that kind of thing, so it doesn't bug me much. I was about to do my usual light, bike-ambassador response: "It's not really that dangerous, you just have to watch what you're doing a bit more," etc., and he added, "Especially during that storm last week. They were falling down all over the place. I nearly killed two of them. And of course they told me to eff off."
"Well --" I almost started, then backed off. And I just said, "Well, it's how I get pretty much everywhere," as I packed my bag up. This is a cashier conversation, after all. You can't really ask the guy if maybe he shouldn't have been following a cyclist close enough to hit them in a snowstorm, when there's someone waiting in line behind you. Cashier conversations are time-limited, socially constrained and, frankly, a little performative. You're subjecting the person behind you to whatever happens as well.
"It's too dangerous in the winter. There's a bylaw against it, anyway," he said then. "They just don't enforce it."
I stopped then. Gave him an actual raised eyebrow, sort of a pitying one. (A writer I follow recently commented that no one actually raises an eyebrow. I beg to differ. I, and Leonard Nimoy, are proof positive that people do.) "There is no bylaw," I informed him.
"Yes, there is," he said.
"No. There isn't," I answered. Do I even start on the many, many reasons I am pretty sure I know more than he does about this? Do I go there? I thought.
"Yeah, there is," he said patronizingly.
"No, there really isn't," I said, as I walked away, because there is a time limit on cashier conversations and we had reached the point where, paid up and with purchases in my bag, I was supposed to walk away. And so I did.
There were a lot of weird things about that conversation. I'm struck by the fact that, while talking to a woman with a helmet hung off her wrist, who had just stated she was on her way out to her bike, he still kept saying "they" about cyclists. Something I've seen before, actually. It's a variation on "oh, well, I'm sure *you're* fine and you ride safely but, let me tell you, cyclists never obey the rules." It makes it a lot easier for someone to tell you that you, your experience and your choices are all wrong, without them having to feel like they're confronting you directly.
Then there was the mansplaininess of it all. I mean, older, avuncular man trying to tell me there's a bylaw against riding in the winter, when I'm standing there with a helmet in my hand in February, and I'm on the board of directors of a bike advocacy group that enjoys a great working relationship with the City, several councillors, and the police, and that actively encourages and works toward more winter cycling? Yeah, you tell me all about the things you know to be true, sir.
And then there's the unnerving thought that over and over, you meet people who honestly think you are breaking the law by being on the street. And whether they mean it or not, that might affect how they act. That might affect whether they decide to express their annoyance with a close pass, or an angry rev of the engine, or a lean on the horn if you take the lane. That driver behind me might honestly, misguidedly, believe that I'm breaking the law by going from point to point on a bike between the months of November and March.
And maybe I could have stopped and schooled the guy. But there wasn't time to do that in a way that would change minds, there would only have been time to get in a flame war, because someone was in line behind me. So I headed out, and got on my bike, still convinced that the safest bet is to assume that every driver thinks I'm not supposed to be where I am, and to act accordingly.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Southwest Passage

I'm heading into week three at my new job - which, incidentally, I'm thoroughly enjoying - and I have finally, finally cracked the code, put the pieces together, and traced one warm line through a land so wide and savage, and made a Southwest Passage to. . . well, to the Skyline Complex at Baseline and Merivale.

It doesn't help when your first weeks at a new workplace come with one of those deadly January weather combinations: major snow, then rain, then a deep freeze which calcifies all that rutted slush and pooled water into sheets of unrideable glassy crap. Last week I tried getting to work via Carleton University and the canal path west to Hog's Back. It was terrible. The canal was a glassy treacherous rink, I wound up walking lots of it, and I got turned around at Hog's Back and Prince of Wales, and then ended up a long way out of my way on Meadowlands, where this happened:

Anyway, I was late for work and starting to despair. When you can drive to work in 15 minutes and park there for about the same cost as bus fare, and you can bus in 45 minutes which is actually faster than riding, but you really, really want to keep biking because you enjoy riding your bike, it's a little scary to have a week and a half or so where you don't, actually, enjoy riding your bike and can't see a decent reason not to just drive or bus.

But I'd been asking around, to find out from other bikers who know the area whether the fabled Brookfield connection was cleared in winter. They said it was, and over the weekend there was a thaw that cleared some of the really impassable ice, so on Sunday, with the help of a MapMyRide route worked out on my computer and downloaded to my phone. I set off to see if I could find the link and track down a non-terrible route.

The ice is still pretty bad (especially if you're still waiting for your bike shop to get you in a set of 700X40 studded tires), but there are two things that make this route manageable: a small paved pathway that cuts between Bank Street and Brookfield on the east end, and the multi-use pathway that connects Brookfield on the east side of the train tracks and the Airport parkway to Brookfield on the west side.

Brookfield turns into Hog's Back and joins Fisher, where I can duck over onto some quieter side streets (which are still full of ridges and islands of ice that are an inch or two deep, but you can ride it with some focus, determination, and the occasional dropped foot to skid along the icy bits and provide some stability: man I enjoy having those skills). At the far end I cut through a parking lot and across Baseline, and I'm at work. There's a bike cage in the parking garage.

It's still got its moments: if you want to stay on the roads, you get to have a fun five or six minutes on Hog's Back, where you pedal madly up and over the bridge in the middle of the lane, holding up the cars behind you, knowing that the minute there's a break in the line of cars coming the other way all the drivers behind you will be gunning it to pass, closely and in quick succession. But this evening I decided that the pathway running alongside Hog's Back between Mooney's Bay and the traffic circle is fair game to ride on, thus improving the route considerably.

It's such a relief to enjoy the ride again.

It also helps that the sun goes down a couple of minutes after five right now, and I'm not riding in the dark in the icy suburbs. Hey, tonight there was even a Super Blue Moon lighting my way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Navigating the Baseline Wilderness

It's been a rough week, bike-wise.

It's been a great week otherwise: I just started a new job, at Agriculture Canada, working in my field (editing and communications) and on a project I think I'm going to enjoy, once I really settle in to it. All good things.

There is one downside. And its name is Baseline Road.

The building where I'm working is about seven kilometres from my house, directly along Heron (which turns into Baseline somewhere along the way). Heron/Baseline is four or more lanes of high volume traffic, with side streets, on- and off-ramps, and various other crap along its entire length. I've been trying to find a reasonable way to avoid Baseline. So far, I've come up short.

In a couple of months, things will be just fine: the Experimental Farm, an utter pastoral jewel in the heart of the city, will be clear of snow and will make up most of my trip. I'll zip along quiet country roads and pathways bordered by friendly cows, red barns and fields of corn, and that's not even a poetic exaggeration.

But they don't plow the roads or the paths in the Farm in the winter.

This leaves me with a couple of options. I ride straight down Baseline, in the snow, crowded by cars and sharing the outside lane with buses. Or, I find another route that will probably take twice as long (but be nicer). Or, I bow my head, surrender my badass card, and take the bus. So far, my solution has been a mix of all three.

On the first day, I drove. I had repairs to do on my winter bike, and I didn't know how long it would take to get there, and you can't be late on your first day.

On the second day, I took the winter bike, but stuck to the sidewalks (as no one actually walks on them.) Unfortunately, the winter bike's drive train took that opportunity to melt down spectacularly. Painful, back-wrenching gear-skipping ensued, and about a kilometre or two from the office the chain actually stopped speaking to the back wheel. I wound up pushing the bike a lot of the way. I was late for work and the bike is no longer rideable. My back is also still killing me. I took the bus home - surprisingly efficient, only took me about 45 minutes to get home.

So, this morning, I took the summer bike. I still stuck to the sidewalks, unwilling to risk sharing the road with crowded traffic on summer tires. Riding on the sidewalk sucks. It's covered in snow, and you're constantly skidding and slipping, or getting off to walk the bike across crosswalks that don't have curb cuts. Google Directions said it should take 25 minutes by bike. . . I made it in about 45. Good thing I left the house early. I locked the summer bike up with the winter bike and headed in to the office.

An hour into the day, an emergency with my other job came up, which meant I had to get home and re-export a file that needed - NEEDED - to be delivered by 1:00. There was no way I could bike home and back in that time. Plus, my back was still killing me from Day 2. So, I ducked out for a lunch break, called a cab, and went home. I exported and uploaded the file, confirmed with the recipient that all was well, and then grabbed my car and drove back to the office.

Now, I had three vehicles, all parked at the same building. If I had a bike rack, I'd have brought the bikes home with me. But I don't. SO. . . the bikes are at the office. I drove home. Tomorrow I will catch the bus to work, and take one of the bikes back with me at the end of the day.

So: so far, in order to negotiate a stinking traffic sewer of a road, I've used five different modes of transportation in the course of three days.

I can't keep this up.

Tomorrow night I find a way from the office to downtown, because I want to see a show at the NAC. And I will ride home from that show on the canal path, with a renewed appreciation for its glories. And then -- then I start looking for some route that will get me seven kilometres from my house without taking an hour or risking my life.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The brave little summer bike

Because I am a procrastinator (it is known), and also because it's been a weirdly snow-free winter so far and I could get away with it, my winter bike, Mike the Specialized HardRock, is currently hoisted on a borrowed repair stand in my living room with his brake-tendons ripped out and new ones waiting to be put in. Unfortunately, I discovered that I need one particular little part, the dongle thing that creates the V-pull, for his front brakes. So, for the sake of five inches of cable and a little joint thingy, I was caught, this morning, by the first proper snowstorm of the year, with only my summer bike (Long John, the lanky and laconic ProFlex).

I considered taking the bus, when I woke up and couldn't make out the windows of the apartment building down the street. I got ready, listening to the terrible-sounding traffic reports on CBC, looking out the window occasionally, certain that I was going to take the bus. I packed a book to read while I was on the bus. I got bus change out of the jar.

Then, just as I was about to leave, I thought, "No, I don't wanna take the bus!"

So I didn't.

Skinny tires and softtail suspension and dodgy, prone-to-freezing derailleur and all, I took the summer bike.

It was fine. Sure, I was a little less steady than I might have been on Mike's wide studded tires: the front wheel skidded around and the back wheel fishtailed a bit, but only on the sections of street that had been driven over enough to create that unsteady, uneven slurry stuff. On back streets I was fine: on the canal path, which had had one pass with a sidewalk plow, I was fine. Though I did wipe out once, heading down Kilborn Hill, when I tried to brake on the steep part and the front wheel slowed faster than the back wheel and, well, I skidded out. Hit the pavement, picked myself and the bike back up, looked around to see if anyone saw me, decided I didn't care, walked the bike the rest of the steep bit, and got back on. I wasn't even down long enough to set off the Incident Protection system on my camera.

I took the sidewalk on Bank between the Diocesan Centre and Riverdale because I value safety, and peace, and serenity, and because people in cars are not to be trusted ever, much less during the first snow.

And in all, it took me about 50 minutes to cover the 9.5 or so kilometres to work (a trip that usually takes about 30-35): I averaged about 11.5 km/h, according to my trusty Strava, and Long John really stepped up. I'm proud of him.

Which isn't to say that I shouldn't probably buy that little dongle and get Mike back on the road, with actual studded tires. ASAP. But for a summer bike, John didn't do half bad.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The first step is admitting you like it

At work last week, someone asked me about riding in to the office. "Well, you won't be doing it for much longer, right?" she said.

"Oh, no," I said. "I go all winter."

She said all those things, like "Isn't it difficult?" and "What about cars?" and whatever else, and I said, as I usually do, "It's just like riding in the summer except you need more clothing."

"Well, you're either very dedicated, or very crazy," she said.

I don't think I'm either of those things. "Crazy" I've been trying to disavow for a while, because it really isn't helpful when you're trying to normalize biking as a way people actually go places. I know people mean it admiringly. But I am not an adrenaline-crazed lunatic badass blasting "You Bet Your Life" while I dodge traffic for kicks. I'm just an editor on her way to her office, or a nerd on her way to her D&D game, or a radio host heading back from the studio.

And "dedicated" makes it seem like I do this out of some kind of moral conviction, a martyr for the cause of, I don't know, climate change or congestion or health or something. Someone who does a thing every day because it's the right thing to do.

Me, I just like riding my bike in the winter.

I mean, to be fair, I also like riding my bike in the summer. And in the fall. And in the spring. But in the winter I have the added advantage of that cold air. I spend a lot of time (at home and at work) online, at a desk, writing, editing, farting around on social media, listening to the radio, dealing with email, whatever, in a climate-controlled environment.

When I go outside, I get that little dose of . . . reality. The real world. It's cold, or the sun is super bright and all the heating vents are steaming, or it's snowing, or there's gusting wind. There's ice or snow on the ground, or there's dry salty pavement. There might be a challenge involved in getting where I want to go, or it might be a clean quiet ride. My fingers are cold and my cheeks tingle: my eyes water. Whatever it is, it's the real world.

I like being outside: in the spring, summer and fall, I'm usually out on the weekends hiking or rock climbing. Maybe that's given me a taste for things that some people might consider uncomfortable: cold fingers, wet clothes, fighting a headwind. I don't think those things are bad - I like them. They're real. Bring along a thermos of hot tea sometime, and stop for a second to swig some. It's AMAZING. That feeling when your cold fingers and toes suddenly get a rush of warmth back into them because you're moving? It's really nice.

I'm a lazy-ass person if I don't like the thing I'm doing. Ask my parents what it was like trying to get me to clean my room. I suck at doing anything solely "because it's the right thing to do." I would honestly not be out there pedaling through the -20 windchill if I didn't like it.