Sunday, January 9, 2011

Elite? Me?

I just came across a blog post by David Reevely at the Citizen, responding to Randall Denley's piece on the perennial conversation about making Ottawa a cycling city, and arguing that decent street design, making cycling safer, is more important than teaching people to cycle properly.

The two pieces are interesting: they illustrate how complicated the question is. If a city wants to get more people cycling, there will probably be a dozen different takes on how to do it. Do you want people who are unused to cycling to feel safer? Do you want to keep bikes off the roads and provide dedicated cycling facilities? Do you want the cyclists to learn and obey the rules of the road? Just how steep should the learning curve be for newbies? Are bike lanes going to cut into the profits of the businesses along the road, or improve them? Who rides anyway? Who will ride once you change things? Can you even predict that?

But what really got my attention was his claim that "conditions for commuter biking in Ottawa are poor, such that most people consider it the province of elite and experienced cyclists who have specialized skills and a lot of courage."

I commute. Not only do I commute about seven and a half miles to work, I do it year round. But none of those adjectives sit right with me. 'Elite?' Hell no. 'Experienced'? Other than the fact that I get on a bike most days of the week and get my ass to work, and have for the last three years or so, I don't think I'd consider myself an 'experienced' cyclist. I certainly don't know how to do anything on a bike that anyone else I know can't, so along with 'experienced' I think I'd rule out 'specialized skills.' And 'courage'? Is this where I admit to the scared yelps that are a routine part of my day?

Basically, I really don't think that conditions, as they stand, are all that poor in Ottawa. I mean, in comparison to what? When I first moved to Ottawa when I was eighteen, I made the jump from recreational cycling on rural roads to making my way around a fairly good-sized city. I managed it. The city's fairly flat, so there isn't that initial barrier of hills to tire a novice out. There are beautiful rec paths. The downtown streets aren't that bad (so there's some nasty pavement, but the side streets are quiet, aesthetically pleasing, and tree-shaded.) Sure, I notice the spots where things are awkward - nothing's perfect, and you might as well fix the stuff that you know needs fixing. But I'm not elite, experienced, particularly skilled or courageous, in my humble opinion, and yet I took to cycling. In fact, I discovered I love it.

Now, about whether you're better off creating safer facilities or teaching cyclists to ride properly: my take on it is that a city can't teach cyclists. How would you do that? Offer lessons - that only some people would take you up on? I certainly wouldn't take time out of my life to take cycling safety lessons. Would you license cyclists? I can only imagine the organizational and bureaucratic nightmare that would be. What a city can do - actually do - is build facilities. So that's what they should spend their time and effort on. Educating people is a lot harder for a municipal government to do. Bike advocacy groups can do that. Bloggers can do it. Journalists can. Bike shops can. The city can create segregated lanes, put up signage, provide information, mark bike routes, make it clear where bike paths will take you, and clear bike lanes and paths of snow. But it can't teach a new cyclist not to be nervous. And that's not its job. It's ours.


  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The response below is kinda copied and pasted to the other two sites as well

    I guess what it all boils down to is: As a policy implementation, bike lanes work. In city after city, the evidence shows that cities that install proper bike lanes have increased cycling. This is the goal, and bike lanes are a proven means to achieve that goal.

    If you're a city gov't looking to increase cycling, bike lanes are proven effective.

  2. You're taking their (Avery Burdett's and Randall Denley's) bait. They're suggesting cyclist education and cycling facilities are an either-or question, when in fact they go hand in hand.

    You need education to teach cyclists how to use the roads when they're not on segregated facilities, and you need to teach motorists how to share the roads safely with cyclists, especially where there are dedicated cycling facilities (which most current motorists didn't learn about when they got their license).

    I also wouldn't be surprised if one went into the Citizen's archives and found Randall Denley complaining about Citizens for Safe Cycling's calls for the City to increase spending on cycling education programs in previous years. Avery Burdett was President of the Ottawa Bicycle Club when that group stopped contributing to cycling education programs operated by CfSC back in the late '80s and early '90s.

    So in terms of Denley's (and Burdett's) opposition to the Segregated Bike Lane project, don't think of it as them being opposed to this project, but being opposed to all dedicated cycling projects. The education argument is a red herring that they say they would support, but probably only because it's not currently on the table.

    (I previously opposed the segregated bike lane because I worried it would take funds away from other cycling projects, but instead I've found it has become a rallying point to draw more attention--and funds--to cycling programs and infrastructure)

    - Charles

  3. Kate, FYI I have set up Twitterfeed to automatically tweet your posts on my twitter account (@Centretowner), since you don't seem to have a Twitter account yourself and your stuff is interesting. The posts will look like: "Incidental Cyclist:" + post title + link + "#cycling"


    - Charles

  4. David's definition of 'elite' isn't clear. I think he might mean 'anyone with special bike clothing or who blogs about biking'. That's us.

    We bike all the time, and more bike lanes is unlikely to actually stop us from biking. But this isn't about us, this is about all the people who don't currently bike. If the facilities make us yelp occasionally, imagine how it is for someone with no experience at all.

    Kate, I think you summed it up nicely at the end. The city has the opportunity to do something using infrastructure.

    Charles, let me understand this. Did Avery push to cancel OBC funding for education funding back in the 80s, and now thinks we should all be investing in education?

    Also, would you consider using #ottcycle or #ottbike?

    - A

  5. Alex - to clarify, I've since learned that Avery was on the OBC Board, but not necessarily the President. This was about $500/year that the Ottawa Bicyle Club contributed to the Cycling Safety & Promotion Program which CfSC ran on a City contract. This went toward ads on buses and other things under the header of "Education Assistance", which he specifically pushed to remove from the OBC budget.

    I've updated the twitter thing to #ottbike (shorter than #ottcycle)

    Kate - sorry if we're hijacking your comments section!

  6. According to:

    Avery was president from 2000-2003. Maybe he was just on the board when OBC pulled that funding.

    - A

  7. I don't know who Centertowner is, possibly Charles Akben-Marchand, but I do know he is a liar.

    He was likely in high school while I was on the Board of the Ottawa Bicycle Club. The fact that he had to "clarify" and then claim something "specific" demonstrates that he knows nothing about why the OBC (not me) withdrew funding of CfSC. I can say it was nothing to do with the club's or my support of training and education.

    Since he doesn't know me, I can only assume the attempt to smear me is because, like others of his ilk, the organization that I have helped found doesn't share his views, and has no response to the facts presented by us.


  8. @Centertowner - I do have a Twitter account, but it's sort of a general one at @k8thek8 - I'll keep an eye out for yours though! And will now use #ottbike, too.

    And nope, you're not hijacking - love to see the conversation happening! I actually did have the phrase "it's not either/or" in this post, then deleted it before publishing. I agree that it's not about one or the other. It's more that there's one that a government body can actually do, and one that it really just can't. IMHO.

  9. Ah, sorry. There are lots of Kathryn Hunts on Twitter! (or whatever spelling I searched for) I'm still pretty new to that medium.

  10. I want to see the city advertise on all possible media to get people to just think about cycling.

    Something like this - 'Don't drive if it's under 5...' I bike 5 KM to work each day of the year and it is so easy to do - no special cloths or fancy bikes are required. Usually I take a longer route along the canal just to get more exercise. 30 percent of people live 5 km from their work and yet 50 percent of these people still drive their own car to work!!!!!

    The city should focus on the best bang for the buck - they are instead building these gorgeous bike lanes along Limebank Road which noone will ever commute along. Why not focus on just getting more people to use what is already there.

    And please - we need city planners to think like cyclists and take our feedback seriously - for example - the utter stupidity of what they have done on Preston and Wellington with respect to cycling. Preston and Wellington are now great for pedestrians and cars and buses but cyclists can no longer use these important cycle routes.

  11. "Don't drive if it's under 5..." hm, kinda catchy. Sounds like the "Twenty's Plenty" campaign I saw in Scotland this summer to keep people from speeding in residential areas. (20 mph, that is.)

    And I think the gorgeous bike lanes might be about optics. The question, for the city, is, 'will people see us doing something?' rather than 'what needs to be done?' Cyclists - people who commute by bike - make up, what, 5% max of the population? That's not a huge voting block. If you do things that convince the drivers that you're doing something about alleviating traffic, you're looking good to a much bigger chunk of the populace. That might *be* the best bang for their (political) buck. IMHO.

  12. Kate, if you think that cycling in Ottawa is pretty good, you should try cycling elsewhere. Montreal recently introduced many km of segregated bike paths and a bikeshare program. The result is a significant increase in cycling throughout the central areas. It is great to see. Even Rob Ford announced that Toronto was going to be investing in cycling lanes recently.
    I have lived and cycled in many cities and Ottawa is one of the worst. Drivers in Ottawa seem more aggressive and intolerant when it comes to cyclists, low density housing makes for many motorists going long distances, cycling infrastructure focused on recreational use rather than transport and the existing bike bike lanes (on streets) are poorly indicated and badly placed. For some reason, bus drivers here are really agressive towards cyclists too.