Friday, June 29, 2012

Physics: the eternal enemy! No, really!

I let it sit for a few days, but I've got to respond to this column in the Ottawa Citizen. I suppose I shouldn't actually expect much from a column that starts out by referring to "nutbar bicycle activists," and I know it's an opinion piece, but it really rankled me. The media leapt onto the "mandatory helmets" reccommendation that came out of the Ontario Coroner's Report on bike deaths, predictably, and for the most part ignored the other 13 recommendations that were made. Seems obvious to me that helmets would get all the airtime: making them mandatory requires minimal effort or accommodation by non-cyclists, and allows the government to brush their hands off and say, "There. We did something about bike safety: we made them all wear helmets." Whew, no infrastructure costs, no long-drawn-out civic fights over street redesigns, and you can even make a little revenue on fines!

But you can always hope for better out of the media. I live in hope. I also live in hope that some day you won't read the words, "The victim was/was not wearing a helmet" in the first paragraph of a report on a cyclist hit by a drunk driver, or a speeder, or someone texting or reaching for a quarter on the floor of their car.

But this article - wow, is it ever typical of the attitude. People who object to helmets are pissed off because helmets ruin their "sense of freedom," apparently. She paints a picture of the freedom of a kid on a bike with the wind in their hair, and thereby implies that cyclists need to grow up and stop being selfish. "Share the road? Hah. The cycling fanatics currently in a lather don’t seem to believe in sharing the road with anyone," she says, as though wearing a helmet had anything to do with sharing the road.

My first main objection is that I think she's lumping a huge group of mandatory-helmet objectors, unjustly, into one set of motivations. I'm certainly not screaming that the "dad-gum gummint" is trying to take away my freedom. I personally see no reason not to wear one, and so I do, but I also don't think they're a panacaea (two friends have been in fairly serious accidents in the last year or so: one broke his rib, the other's doctor told her if she had been wearing a helmet she might have been killed) and I object to making them mandatory because I see it as a cop-out by the government. But it's when she resorts to the good old chestnut that "physics will win every time" that I roll my eyes:

"In any case, that road to be “shared” is actually a transportation corridor, not a leisure route for committed non-drivers with no sense of self-preservation. The concept of sharing it is absurd, like elephants and kittens sharing a cot. The elephant doesn’t mean to crush the kitten to death, but that’s what happens when absurdly disparate sizes and strengths are crammed into a contained space. Flimsy bicycles with unprotected operators have no place on strips of pavement filled with tons of hurtling metal. (And don’t get me started on winter biking. Or those infant carriers, dragged along busy streets by parents righteously clear on their road rights and the environmental virtues of cycling, but somehow less clear on the terrifying vulnerability of their precious cargo.)"

Problems with this whole paragraph:

1. I don't have the numbers, but I'll bet a damn high proportion of cyclists are not "leisure" riders. My bike is transportation.

2. What's wrong with being a committed non-driver? It feels to me like there's an implied judgment there.

3. I have a perfectly healthy sense of self-preservation, thanks.

4. Presuming that the idea of sharing the road is absurd only works if you have already presumed that preferential treatment of cars is the natural order of things. There was once a time when cars did not have priority, and there will be again, I think.

5. "The elephant doesn't mean to crush the kitten to death, but that's what happens." I couldn't find an elephant, but will a Saint Bernard do? They seem to have worked it out.

6. "Flimsy bicycles with unprotected operators" versus "tons of hurtling metal": see my previous post on physics. And check out some of Mikael Colville-Andersen's TED talk data that seem to suggest that proportionally more drivers suffer head injuries on the roads than cyclists. But boy, was that a dramatic description. Really got at the ganglia. So kudos for that.

7. On winter biking: seems to me that cars and bicycles are both operating under the exact same weather conditions, so if it's a bit tougher for bikes, it's absoutely the same amount tougher for cars. So, with all due respect, I won't get you started on winter biking if lyou don't get me started on winter driving.

8. And won't somebody think of the children! Way to go after "irresponsible parents" who clearly have their priorities way screwed up, just look at their (self-righteous, elitist, selfish) cycling! Clearly they don't actually care about their kids. Because that's the sort of assumption you can just make.

Thanks for comparing me to a kitten, though.

I'll embed Colville-Andersen's talk, because it certainly raised some interesting points for me: things I hadn't thought about before, and questions I hadn't asked myself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Women aren't fraidy-cats

This article just showed up in Momentum Magazine, and it's not anything we haven't seen before: women as an "indicator species" for how bike-friendly a city is. To make cycling more popular, focus on getting more women on bikes, these articles say: look at the Netherlands where more than 50% of the bike ridership is female (and we all know the Netherlands is a sort of cyling utopia.)

Not arguing with the data, me. But, articles like this both interest me and make me a little itchy, in about equal measure. As a woman, and, I think, not an unusually courageous woman, it seems weird to me when people claim that women are scared away from cycling by the danger of it. Or, at least, that they're more scared off it than men are. I've had conversations with plenty of male friends who are too spooked by traffic to ride their bikes in the street, and my informal and totally unscientific observations have shown far more men than women riding on the sidewalks. (Although, whether that's because a higher proportion of male riders are on the sidewalk, or because a higher proportion of riders are men, is up for debate. I did say it was an unscientific observation.)

But it seems a bit pat to say that making cycling safer will encourage women, because women are eek! so easily scared. That's what bugs me.

Maybe it's not the danger, maybe it's that society as a whole isn't really constructed to make women think of cycling as a possibility. From the assumption that you can't ride in a dress (because some women really love to wear dresses) to the idea that a helmet will mess up your hair (and the last cyclist I heard using that as an excuse to not wear a helmet was a man) there are societal assumptions that make it so some people just don't think of cycling when they're considering how to get around. Not just women - lots of people. Then, there's the hurdle that people think of cyclists as middle-aged men in Spandex (a ridiculous stereotype, but one that's often reinforced.) So maybe a more representative proportion of Dutch cyclists are women because cycling is seen as a thing regular folks - not just male athletes - do, as much as it is because there's a separate and safer lane for them to be in.

I like that idea far more than the idea that women are "naturally more timid," for sure.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Oh, come on, Scott Street. Seriously?

I was on my way westward from downtown, on Sunday afternoon, and wound up on the "multi-user" "path" that runs along Scott Street. Coming off Bronson, you hang a left (with a convenient advance green) onto Scott - or is it still Albert at that point? - and after about a block a pathway appears on the right, which is pretty easy to just deke onto. Except that you cruise along for about 20 seconds, and come across this:

By the time you've realized that your path has turned into sidewalk and you're supposed to be walking your bike, you're already on it (and cruising right through the waiting area in front of a bus shelter.) In fact, as you can tell from the direction I'm facing - looking back eastward - that's exactly what happened to me.

And then again (you can't see, but the two-way path starts up again just past the bus shelter in the distance):

And then again:

Every time there's an intersection, you get twenty feet or so of non-path sidewalk, signposted to tell you to walk your bike, and a pedestrian crossing, which you're not legally allowed to ride through.

And five seconds' pedalling later the path disappears entirely and you have to hop the curb into the street, in a bus bay (not busy now, but this street at rush hour is a madhouse) ...

Now, I understand that you're supposed to get off and walk your bike. I understand that that's the law. But be honest, who does that? Get off the bike, walk it forty feet, stop, get back on, pedal for six to ten seconds, stop, get off the bike, walk it another forty feet, pedal another six to ten seconds, stop, walk across an intersection, get back on... you get the idea. It's not that it's impossible: it's just that it's a little like asking a pedestrian to stop and crawl every minute or so. It's extremely, extremely inconvenient.

And yet there's a path there, and it's marked as a bike path, and I'd much rather use it than the speedy and busy (albeit wide) street beside me. There's got to be a better way to arrange things along this stretch of street - it would be great to have an easy car-free corridor westwards from downtown, when your next direct east/west street is probably, what, Somerset? Crowded, old, sketchy Somerset?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The "nervous" check

Someone suggested a while back, on one of the Internet threads I follow, that the "nervous" shoulder check might actually keep cars a little further from you as they pass. I noticed that, because I'd started to get the same impression myself. In fact, I'd started doing it deliberately as a means of making cars give me a little more space.

The comment came up in a conversation about eye contact, which I think is important. The more you make eye contact with drivers, the more they see you as a person rather than an object: that's a no-brainer. Better yet, if you make eye contact and communicate - a wave of the hand or a hand signal or a nod saying, "no, you go ahead," or "I'm turning that way" you're more likely to have a, well, human interaction with the driver.

(Even when it's not a particularly friendly one: yesterday, as I was trying to navigate a construction zone and the lane was narrow, a couple sped past me about six inches from my leg. I shouted in fear - then noticed that their window was open and I could assume they'd heard me (for once.) I also had the chance to catch up to them (it was a construction zone, and passing me had gained them exactly zero ground) to shout "That was WAY too close!" through the open window. My eyes met the driver's. He looked... startled? Lost for words? Maybe angry, maybe defensive, I don't know. He was leaning toward me, like he wanted to see me too - I got the feeling he didn't quite know how to react. Good, I thought. With luck he'll think about the next cyclist he passes.)

Anyway, I had found, just before reading someone else's observation of the same thing, that when I was coming toward an intersection, swinging out to avoid a pothole, or even just moving fast, down a hill or something, and I looked back over my shoulder a little more frequently, it seemed like cars gave me more space.

It's totally unscientific, I know. But it does make some kind of sense. The drivers see me turn to look. The change in state - from "faceless cyclist" to "person on bike" - is subtle but I think it's important. They see the side of my face, not the back of my helmet. They see that I'm aware of them, in the way that I assume a "faceless cyclist" appears not to be. There's a subtle interaction. They think, subconsciously maybe, about the relative positions of their car and my bicycle. And they probably interpret my shoulder check as a signal that they've made me nervous, which puts them, momentarily, subtly, in my shoes. And they back off a bit.

At least, that's how it seems to me.