Saturday, May 29, 2010

Close Encounters of the Capital Kind

I completely, unflinchingly hate the stretch of construction on Bank Street, the bridge where it crosses the railroad. Click here for another cyclist's letter to the Citizen this week about it. I've had to brave it, all told, four times today, twice this afternoon on an errand to the South Keys shopping centre, and twice this evening, going to a friend's house and returning, late, around 11:30 or so actually. And it was as I was returning that my stubbornness lost the fight with my self-preservation. Spectacularly.

The thing is, I know the cars have to bloody well slow up for me on this bridge. This is the only route that will get you across the railroad tracks from South Keys to the rest of Ottawa South, and it's under construction right now. From two lanes each way, it's down to only the outside lanes, with a concrete barrier between cars and construction. The curb is a good five or six inches high - one of the spooky-high curbs - and the bridge was narrow even without the lane closure. There are pylons that gradually narrow the road to one lane, and my stubbornness usually kicks in when I realize that cars are speeding up to gun it past me so as not to get stuck behind me when it gets too narrow to pass. I yelled at a young man who pulled that trick this afternoon, realizing that if it came down to a game of chicken, or a fight for the lane, the bike loses. But as soon as I can reasonably do it, I do swing a little further out into the lane. Take that, cars, I think to myself, you have to go my speed for all of 200 metres. I'm sure it'll do lasting damage to your psyches.

Because my stubbornness insists that I have every right to be on the road. In fact, I am not legally entitled to be on the sidewalk.

But this evening around 11:30 I was coming home, north, along that bridge. I had my tail light and my reflective patches going. I had just reached the end of the 'narrowing' bit and I was into the single lane. I'd already had a couple of cars gun it past me, accelerating, unnervingly, to duck into the lane ahead of me. But I was getting to the narrow bit, and those cars just made me more determined to hold down my chunk of the road. So I was just getting ready to move out and take up my space in the lane. And the scariest thing was that I only heard the Capital Taxi minivan coming up behind me in enough time to register that it wasn't slowing down. The engine was quiet, I suppose. But I heard the whoosh as it came up behind me. Fast. It went by me doing at least 60 km/h. It felt like more.

This was the shaky, dark phone-camera shot I took of the lane, to illustrate just how narrow it is: the dark pavement is the lane, the light is the sidewalk.

I was terrified. I hit the brakes as it screamed by me, and stopped, totally rattled. The worst thing was that I had only barely even heard it coming. A couple more cars whooshed by before I collected myself enough to get out of the lane and up onto the sidewalk, where I got my phone out and called Capital Taxi. The dispatcher I spoke to couldn't do anything about it except tell me to call 311 and promise to send a message to the drivers to be more careful around bikes, but I think I just needed to feel like I'd done something, spoken to someone, explained to someone just how rattled I was. Talked to a human being. Reached out to say, it's the middle of the night and a cab just nearly hit me and I'm all alone on a dark bridge feeling helpless...

And so my stubbornness lost. I took the sidewalk off the bridge. I almost took it all the way home, but I told myself firmly that the chances of another close call in the remaining few blocks were slim enough that I could get back on the street. But I was on high alert, for sure.

And this street - Bank Street - is a posted City bike route? And the only way across the railroad tracks? 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Beyond cool

I just stumbled across this. It's so freaking cool.

Holy pink!

Spotted this picture out on the airwaves this afternoon - Jenn Farr from World Naked Bike Ride Ottawa apparently just picked this new ride up and then proceeded to flock it with glitter.

I sort of want to track her down and tell her about the bejeweled inner tube caps my friend Luna was sent by friends in the UK - now proudly going round and round on the tires of her bike, "Bikey."

Mike, I know, would never forgive me for going at him with gallons of pink glitter. But then, that's just the way Mike is. He likes to think of himself as a guy's guy. But I do have to stop and admire bikes that are so clearly an extension of the rider's style. I paused to tell an elegant older lady with a cream-coloured cruiser (graceful, large, with chocolate brown curly vine patterns on the tubes) how much I liked her bike the other day - even as I was locking up my own battered, dark-blue mountain bike next to hers, mismatched pedal arms and all. Not that I want to own one of those cruisers. Wouldn't get me most of the places I want to go. But they're so lovely, and they're so urbane.

And this one with the pink glitter and streamers makes me smile. I particularly like the spots on the fender. Jenn's doing an informal DIY Handlebar Streamers workshop on Sunday, incidentally, at the corner of Louisa and Booth.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An addendum

I read this blog post today, which makes the point (removing all the weighting of the bike-vs-car angle) that by any lights the justice system broke down in the Bryant/Sheppard case. In that case, it shouldn't be only cyclists that are protesting: but of course, for all the reasons that I talked about, they're the ones that are the most frightened - or, okay, angered, which is pretty much the same thing - by this case. That sense of social powerlessness you feel when the justice system bends to favor those with influence is all too similar to that sense of powerlessness you get when battling roads and infrastructure and attitudes clearly meant to favor motor traffic, right? 

"Remember that Bryant’s hands weren’t completely clean. He fled the scene to a hotel and only called the police after the fact. He left a bleeding Sheppard lying at the side of the road and did nothing to assist him.

Did those delays and evasions cost Sheppard his life? We’ll never know now. Why wasn’t he charged with Failing to Remain at the scene of an accident? We’ll never know that either but I do know that if I ever left the scene of a fatal accident and did nothing to help that I would be charged forthwith. No question. That’s how our system works – or is supposed to work. Allegations are made, charges are laid and defences are advanced. That’s the beauty of our adversarial process. Two sides meet, advance their theories and somewhere in the middle the truth will out. And for the most part, it works – when we allow it to."

The full article is here. 

Added May 28: ThumbShift, a Toronto blog, has another interesting point to make about both the public relations power Bryant wielded (which led to the media's portrayal of Sheppard as a violent addict: she also suggests that a more detailed picture of the incident would have surfaced in a trial than in the 500-word coverage you get in the media), and why we're so quick to ignore the root causes of the road rage that led to the tragedy. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Us, them

I suppose I should say something about the dropping of the charges against Michael Bryant. But I'm not sure what to say. There's so much about this case that can trap you into some black or white, us or them position, and I always try to remember to think in terms of the greys in between.

Bryant is wealthy and important. Sheppard was a bike courier. Bryant panicked: he just happened to be in charge of a much bigger, much more dangerous vehicle. Or maybe he didn't panic: maybe he got angry. I have friends that have witnessed drivers flying off the handle and using their cars to threaten cyclists before. Sheppard was drunk, apparently. He'd just had a fight with his girlfriend. Bryant hit his bike. Or he cut Bryant off. Sheppard probably started the fight. Witnesses say they saw Bryant driving up the wrong side of the road, veering onto the sidewalk to try and knock Sheppard off the car. But then other drivers came forward after the incident to say that Sheppard had attacked them in their cars. And Bryant hired a PR firm to patch his name back together after the incident, which smacks of entitled callousness. I don't know why we would need to be told about Sheppard's drug and alcohol addictions: unless it's so we'll understand that he was a "troubled" person - and are we then to understand that his dying was somehow his fault? It's all just as complicated as real life, and that tends to make people want to revert to a simple version of the story. Cars against bikes. Road rage. Rich against poor, powerful against powerless. Vicious, reckless cyclist. Angry, or panicked, murderous driver. Us. Them.

The radio's been going on all day about whether dropping the charges is 'justice' for Al Sheppard. And there are cyclists protesting the dropped charges all over. Critical Mass, here, is going to be in Sheppard's honor this month. I hear things like "Bryant's rich and important, so he walks," and "apparently it's okay to kill someone if they're drunk." I hear Sheppard's bewildered father saying that he has no idea what would be justice in this case. And I hear the arguments on Bryant's side, that Sheppard started the fight, that Bryant panicked and made a tragically bad decision - or really, made no decision, just stomped on the gas to get away from the angry man who was invading his car. About the best comment I heard was from a spokeswoman for a Toronto cyclist's group who said, "What this verdict says is that it's okay to use your car as a weapon," which at least has nothing to do with the character or the social standing of either person involved: it just speaks to the fears of all cyclists, that cars are not recognized as the dangerous things that they are.

And I keep thinking about what I said when Al Sheppard died last summer. About how this wouldn't be making the news if Bryant wasn't a former Attorney General. Sure, it would have been on the news, the way the boy who was killed by the motorcyclist was: covered for a day or two, until the funeral. But we wouldn't be hearing about it a year later. There are cyclists protesting in Toronto, but somehow it feels to me like deep down, maybe they're not protesting Michael Bryant's release. They're protesting Al Sheppard's death, again. The fact that he died, rather than anything about who was responsible. Because it scares us. It was gruesome, violent. You don't want to think about a cyclist being dragged down the street and then under the back tires of a car. And it symbolized, perfectly, the scary conflict that you sense in the undercurrent every time you get out into traffic. All the power - in terms of money, in terms of social status, in terms of physical power in the form of the car - on the driver's side, all the vulnerability on the cyclist's. What a perfect image of the way we all feel when the van speeds by a little too close to your handlebars or the sedan making a right doesn't bother to look for the cyclist coming through the intersection. So that's what's resonating about this case, and why the cyclists are up in arms. If this case is symbolic of every driver and every cyclist, too, then they don't want to hear that Sheppard might have been at fault as much as Bryant, either. I can sympathize: I cringe at the thought of hearing someone generalize his behaviour to all of us. "Those cyclists have no regard for the rules anyway, they're a menace, they shouldn't be on the streets with cars where this sort of thing can happen."

I think the whole thing was tragic. I wouldn't want to live with the memories that Bryant now has to live with, and nothing's going to bring back Al Sheppard. But I also think that casting every driver as Michael Bryant and every cyclist as Al Sheppard - because as a species we love to latch onto storylines and symbols - is way too full of opportunities to blind yourself, or to claim a side of the story for your own reasons, or to ignore the realities. I don't think either one was innocent in this case, to be totally honest.

But I do think that I might agree with the woman who said that this says it's okay to use your car as a weapon if you feel yourself threatened: and shouldn't part of the responsibility of being in control of a car cover not losing that control in such a way that you end up killing someone? A fight broke out, and someone got killed. But given the odds, and given the situation - and sadly, given who they were - if anyone was going to lose that fight, it was going to be the guy on the bike.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summertime and black fingers

This long weekend has been ridiculously non-strenuous. Usually, given three days off and stunning weather, I would be all about trying to find someone who wanted to get out of town and go for a good long tough hike, or better yet, a day out at the crags on the escarpment. But I really didn't have time to plan anything, and aside from a very long backyard party on Saturday (I got home a little before dawn) I haven't really been summering it up the way I could have. And on Sunday I was dead tired from having been up till after 5 AM on Saturday, so I didn't accomplish much other than a ride out to Hog's Back to hang out at the beach for a while.

But I did manage to get up the will to take Mike out onto the balcony and do some cleaning - partly because I realized how flabby my tires were on the way out to Hog's Back. So I got him outside with the bike pump, a couple of rags and my tools.

You don't realize how much grutch a bike can accumulate until you really get in there, preferably with an old toothbrush, and start making clean spots. The gears were coated in, essentially, a thick slurry of oil and road grime that was indistinguishable from the black metal until you noticed it came off, if you scraped it, in ugly black chunks. It doesn't loosen up with water, so a damp cloth doesn't do much good, and it is fine enough to have worked its way into parts of the mechanism I really won't be able to get into without taking things apart. So I scrubbed off all the gears, front and back, wiped the chain down, got the bike as clean as I could, and I'll go back with some oil before I head out this afternoon. I don't know if it will make a difference to the bike at this point, but it certainly feels good, when I pass the bike standing in my entrance hallway, to see that I can actually see metal on the surface of the gears. It's satisfying.

And having greyish smudges on my forehead from where I brushed my hair out of the way, and having to wash bike grease off totally blackened fingers, is also satisfying. You know what I'm talking about, right? Nothing like a little righteous grime - that smudge of bike black on your jeans or on your arm - to make you feel like maybe it's summer after all.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Road hazards

On my way west on Heron today, I was enjoying the sunshine and actually getting up some speed - not enough, really: I still need to get my gears fixed up - when I looked ahead and realized I was on a collision course with a motorized wheelchair, heading straight for me down the side of the street.

It startled the hell out of me. I gave him a weird look as I swerved out and breezed past him, and his buddy (I think) on the sidewalk gave me a weird look in return. What are the rules governing motorized wheelchairs anyway? Something tells me they probably don't allow for random, counter-traffic, in-the-street motoring. Anyone know? Anyone?

On the same trip, I also encountered a ten-inch galvanized nail in the bike lane (not, sadly, that uncommon an experience, but one does wonder how it got there) and a company van that buzzed me (within at least two feet) going about 60km or more. Also not that uncommon an experience.

The wheelchair, though: that's a new one on me.

Speaking of Heron, that's an intersection I'm going to have to post on Ottawa Biking Problems. Coming east on Walkley, where it converges with Heron, I always wind up with the same choice. Do I stay right as long as possible, then duck across two lanes of  Heron before it splits off from Walkley so I can keep going down Walkley? Or do I stay in the Walkley-bound lanes (with a lane or two on my right) in the middle of high-speed traffic, many of the cars fresh from the highway? If I choose to stay in the "Walkley" lane, I have a good 1000 feet or so to bike with cars on either side of me, and it's kinda scary. If I choose to stick right, I then have to shoulder check, signal, and cross two lanes of traffic to get back into the Walkley lanes as I approach the intersection. This seems to me like a spot where a bike lane, giving bikes a buffer as they continue onto Walkley, would be a really good idea.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


A friend of mine, whose blog I follow for completely un-bike-related reasons, just wrote a great little post about her wipeout on Scott Street yesterday, challenging herself (or not), and how one can interpret just what the universe might be trying to tell you with that unfortunately placed pothole. It's worth a read. Plus, her blog is just generally pretty awesome.

Portaging the Parkway

Two things: I have a much better cell phone camera now, and this week, because of two evening Festival events at the Mayfair, I found myself at this intersection twice. The second time around I got the camera out. This is on the canal path - which is very pretty, but not all that easy to cycle. Between the terrible pavement from U of O to the Pretoria Bridge, and the high volume of pedestrians, joggers, and baby strollers, you should probably not be the sort of cyclist that likes to feel the whoosh of wind in your hair on this path. But that's all right. Slow up, ring your bell, smile, and pretend you're one of those happy, bucolic cyclists you see in those utopian YouTube videos of Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

Anyway. This intersection is where you have to get off if you want to get to Bank Street. You may not be able to see the helpful little sign that says "<--Bank", but it's there, next to the paved, landscaped little slope that clearly indicates you're meant to cross. Opposite that little slope there's a pedestrian stair that follows the steep street that takes you up to Bank Street, with another paved space leading to the edge of the parkway.

Note, though - there is a curve in the road not too far along. Behind me, in this shot, Queen Elizabeth Drive vanishes under the Bank Street Bridge and around a curve, so visibility isn't great that way either.  And, well... note the total lack of indication to the cars that people might be trying to cross here. These intersections occur the whole length of Queen E and Colonel By. . . funneling pedestrians, joggers and cyclists alike across the parkway at unmarked crossings. (They put in signs on Colonel By, just opposite the canal from here, last winter... but only while there was construction going on. When the construction workers finished up, the signage was carted away too.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oh please, oh please pass this bill!

An MPP in Toronto has tabled a private member's bill which would establish minimum distances for cars passing bikes in Ontario! It would require cars going less than 50 km/h to leave about three feet between them and a cyclist, with the minimum distance getting greater the faster the car is moving. Five feet, if they're going faster than 80 km/h.

I know, it's difficult to enforce this kind of thing, and it would be much more effective if that law were part of the driving test and driver education programs... but it's a start. We've had five cyclists die in central Canada this last weekend, one here in Ottawa, and I know I had a couple of moments on my way to work today where that crossed my mind. Are the drivers looking? I thought as I headed into the intersection between Alta Vista and Riverside. Will they see me? Is someone trying to open their Tim Hortons coffee while they drive going to sideswipe me? Normally I don't worry. But when there's a rash of deaths like this I get nervous again.

But, when there's a rash of deaths like this, politicians also start talking more about safety. It's an ill wind, right?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pin it!

A friend of mine just pointed me to this website, which I had not known about before: an interactive map of cycling problems in Ottawa. And of course, I've already commented (being pretty happy that someone else thinks the left turn off Bank onto Wilton, just north of the Lansdowne Bridge, is a disaster waiting to happen.) I'm not sure how long this site's been up, but it's already festooned with those little teardrop-shaped pins you can click for details. Worth a few clicks, just to get an idea of the common problems that keep cropping up.

And it's encouraging me to get my gallery of Bike Lane Fail pulled together.

And while you're getting into the forum spirit, check out the Cycling Debate Forum hosted by Ottawa Citizen writer Kenneth Gray. I know I'm a little scared to read the comments, because these kinds of online forums always attract those murderous, scary drivers who say things like, "damn road warrior cyclists should stay the hell off the city streets, the roads are for cars, I'm not moving over for some guy on a bike." I once actually saw a Facebook group with the slogan "I don't care how far to the side you are, my car is hard and I am not slowing down!"

But, straight back, chin up, don't let them know you're afraid, into the comments we go! Have your say! The NCC does read the Citizen...

Friday, May 14, 2010

May 22nd - Bike Drive!

This popped up out of the online chatter this morning: Bicycles for Humanity Ottawa's Bike Drive is this May 22nd. No, don't worry, I'm not about to give up Mike... even though he might like the chance to see the world. But they are looking for adult-sized mountain bikes: wide tires, because there aren't that many paved roads in Malawi, which is the bikes' destination this year. No thoroughbred-like racing bikes; just the Morgans, Quarter Horses and Percherons, to use an equestrian metaphor. 

I do have a few spare bike parts floating around - crank arms, reflectors, that kind of thing - and they take those too. And tools, inner tubes, spare tires, locks, backpacks, Canadian Tire money (really) and cash donations to help get the bikes to Malawi. Maybe I'll upgrade my lock to a chain, and donate my old combination cable. It's a good excuse to get that better bit of gear you might have been considering, and find a home for the old stuff. In fact, I think this is my excuse to get that spring tune-up I so desperately need, and see how many parts that are still in working order I can scavenge off Mike.

Why send bikes to Malawi? In Canada we think of bikes, for the most part, as recreation. And I said once before in this blog that for a lot of people I know, bikes are like cats: you don't often go to the store for one. They're passed on, found, picked up cheap at yardsales or from friends who are moving. There are always unused bikes. We throw bikes away: a friend of mine found my first bike after coming back to Ottawa in the garbage outside her apartment building (she picked it up, wheeled it, flat tire and all, to my office, and we took it to the Bike Dump to get it fixed up.)

So we sort of take them for granted - and there's still a sense out there that if you bike, you're doing it for your health, or as a hobby, or because you're some kind of virtuous environmentalist (all of which makes me uncomfortable: the last time someone in the elevator nodded at Mike and said something like, 'oh, you're very healthy' I felt that familiar twinge of wanting to say, 'that's not really the point.') But in many communities around the world, a bike is a valuable form of transportation, and something that's out of financial reach for many. Bikes are easy to repair on your own with a little education, they take no gas, electricity, or even extra food to operate, and you can haul more on a bike than you can on foot.

So a bike in Malawi might help a vendor get their products to market, or help someone haul water back to their village, or help someone get to a job. It might help a doctor get around to see patients, or help someone get to a doctor when they need one.

There are several drop off locations for the bikes: check their website for the details.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Caught stylin'

A photo snapped by my friend Shelly on her trip to Ottawa this weekend. I had to share. I mean, how cool is this guy?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jay driving & jay biking

Did you know the term "jaywalking" came from the term "jay driving," which used to mean driving with no regard for the rules, on the wrong side of the road or through a stop sign? It came from back when driving rules were a lot looser, because there weren't so many drivers, so your Model T could rattle along wherever it wanted. I think I ran into a case of "jay biking" last night, and I think that the same pattern applies.

On my way home last night down Montreal Road, I found myself on a collision course with a guy on a bike, heading straight up the street on the wrong side of the road.

My bullheaded and less-well-considered side held on for a good long while, and it became something of a game of chicken. I knew I was in the right, and he was in the wrong. I saw him coming and thought to myself, well, dammit, he's wrong, it's his job to clear out of my way.

So I kept going. He may have been thinking something the same - something like 'stupid bitch get out of my way' - possibly with that added edge of having nowhere to duck out to: he couldn't hop the curb onto the sidewalk, and swerving to his right would have sent him into an oncoming car. It was like a showdown at high noon. If I'd filmed it, I'd do it in very high-speed cuts from extreme closeup of my eyes, to extreme closeup of his.

In the end, I think we both actually swerved, but I'd like to think he swerved more. And I yelled, "Hi! Wrong side of the ROAD!" at him as I passed.

I think I heard him yell something back at me, but without the force of conviction he might have had, had he been anything but dead wrong.

I can be okay with a little rule-bending. On back streets, where there are no cars around, and where it won't harm anyone else. But who thinks it's smart to bike up the wrong side of the road on a busy street like Montreal? It makes me think maybe he's not used to there being other people out there on bikes. But as the cyclist population goes up - and it is: I can tell just from the fact that lately, I've noticed the morning weather report people on CBC saying things like "the wind's very light, which is good news if you're cycling to work" - more and more people are just going to have to change how they bike. It's like back when the car was first introduced. At first, the rules were just guidelines. Then there were so many cars the rules became hard and fast. I think we may see the same thing happen if the increase of bikes on the road continues.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Road repairs

I was walking down Bank Street across from Lansdowne Park last Wednesday evening when I passed a road crew, just in the process of spraying down one of the massive dents in what might be the most egregious pavement in the city. Anyone who's biked down that section of Bank knows what I'm talking about - from Wilbrod to the base of the Lansdowne Bridge is a bone-jarring, tooth-rattling, gear-slipping nightmare. It's worse at night, when you can't quite see the pavement to try and avoid the worst of the tire-grabbing fissures.

But, there was a crew that evening, apparently in the process of fixing it. I actually stopped, walked back a bit, went up to the nearest worker and told him thanks. I don't know how much he understood - the way he repeated "bike?" with a circular pedaling motion with his hands made me think English really wasn't his first language. But I think I was clear enough, with my hands folded in a more or less universal gesture of thanks and a big smile. He smiled back, anyway.

And then as I continued walking, I had to stop and get a picture of the white lines around the crevices, cracks, lumps, chuckholes, and assorted hazards awaiting repair. Like chalk outlines at a crime scene. The truck in the distance is the repair crew - and they had a lot to do before getting to the bit in the foreground, believe me.