Friday, November 30, 2012

Courage is a muscle

About four months ago, I got a work contract that has me commuting out to Val-des-Monts roughly three days a week. It's 40km each way, on the highway - not something I can do on the bike. So, I drive. Which means I'm commuting by bike a whole lot less than usual. And lately, as I head out onto the road on the days I do bike, I'm noticing a difference.

I'm jumpier.

I've experienced the same thing in the springtime, when the outdoor rock climbing season starts and I've been indoors all winter. Climbing real rock is a whole other headgame from climbing plastic in a gym, and the first time I get out there on the real thing, I feel this weird flurry of nerves. The first time I lead a route (yet another headgame) it's even worse. Time away means you get a lot nervier.

And lately, when I get out onto the fast, wide, scary road right outside my building, I'm way more tense than usual. I can be fairly sure that traffic hasn't gotten faster or more reckless in the last few months, so it's a gimme that what's changed is my nerve. Cars coming up behind me drive me way too close to the curb, so when they pass I feel trapped and flinchy. I've screeched to a stop a couple of times as large trucks rumble by me. When they pass, I feel my left hand flex the way it does when I'm spooked. I've screamed out loud a couple of times as cars and trucks have gone whizzing past too close for comfort, and I stopped at the side of the road to call OC Transpo and report a bus that gave me a little over a foot of clearance a couple of weeks ago.

And when I get on the road and feel that tension and fear creeping in (it doesn't help that the first mile of my commute is the worst) I remember that it wasn't always quite this bad.

It seems like a no-brainer, but maybe worth saying: Courage is a muscle. You use it, it gets bigger. You don't use it, it slacks off. I keep insisting I'm no braver than anyone else, and when people tell me "I'd be far too scared to bike to work," I tell them it's not that bad and "you get used to it," but the last few months have reminded me that courage - the ability to hold your space on the road, the ability to ignore the roar of the truck you know is approaching you from behind, the ability to shoulder check and make the call before you merge left, the pigheaded refusal to cede your lane just because the driver behind you is breathing down your neck - all of that is something you have to do regularly, every day, or it starts to be harder to do. 

And why that really matters is for all the new riders, trying to get out there on the road - or the folks that put their bikes away over the winter and get them out again in the spring. It takes some time to get confident, or to readjust if you were confident once and have been away.

Good news is, like any other muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. 

Best thing

Okay, sorry, but this is totally the best thing ever. EVER.

I heard about it on CBC's As It Happens yesterday, I think it was, and then today it cropped up in my Facebook feed, reminding me that I had meant to go look it up.

I mean, come on. How is this not the best thing ever?

And how soon would it bash itself into little tiny pieces trying to keep up with the speeds I get up to on my way into town? Ah, never mind physics and practicality. Come, Patsy!

*cue the epic music*

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Only in Montreal

Just stumbled upon this. . . It's total Montréal.

Check out the website here.
There's also a pretty cute video that goes with it:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Standing in the dark in the middle of the road

Mike and his new big sister, Frederika.
For those of you that haven't heard, I got a car. Not all that recently, really: it was back in February or March that my parents said they were getting rid of their 2001 VW Jetta and did I want it? I said I did, partly because I have a soft spot in my heart for that car (her name is Frederika, and she's been with the family a long time, clearly, since my parents bought her new) and partly because as a self-employed (and sometimes semi-employed) individual, a car is a rather nice tick on the job application. Also, it's very useful for getting to rock climbing areas.

Anyway, I have a car now. And one of my most recent work contracts requires me to drive about 80km round trip to a gig in Val-des-Monts, Quebec, a few times a week. I'm riding a lot less, and I'm kind of sad about that (although, I still ride to my office downtown, and to shows and events, as often as I can). But also, I'm driving around cyclists a lot more. And seriously? Some of them do my head in. No lights, running reds, riding the wrong way. It's worse because I'm hyperaware of my status as the big scary car, and I give bikes a wide berth.

Just as an example: this evening, I was on Carleton University Campus, coming up the main road into campus. It's four or five lanes wide, with a right turn lane on each side and a left-only lane heading west, and two through lanes. I was in the through lane, and it was dark. There aren't even any streetlights there. Suddenly, I saw the faint glimmer of reflectors and realized there was a cyclist, standing, walking her bike, at the yellow line in the middle of the five-lane road, waiting for her moment to continue crossing.

I felt a little touch of panic when I saw the wheel of the bike in my headlights. I slammed on my brakes (causing the driver behind me to slam on theirs to avoid rear-ending me: I realized later how lucky I was). I stared at the cyclist in disbelief, and she took that as her cue to start across in front of me, with a little thank-you wave like I'd stopped to let her cross. Illegally. Nowhere near a crossing or traffic light.

We were about 500 metres south of the ghost bike erected about a month ago where a cyclist - a Carleton student - was killed going north in the southbound lane of Bronson Ave.

Maybe someone needs to rethink how bikes get across Carleton campus?

I also wondered what would have happened had the car behind me rear-ended me because of my sudden braking. Who covers damage, if a cyclist causes an accident between two motor vehicles? A quick Google got me an article from the CBC which says, among other things, "The next for the cyclist to look into whatever accident benefits they may have, especially if they have auto insurance, to cover physiotherapy, income loss and other costs."Their car insurance will pay for that," Hollingsworth said. "They often don't realize that, but that's available." And if the cyclist involved doesn't have auto insurance, Hollingsworth said accident benefits can often be accessed through a relative, and failing that, through the auto insurance of the other motorist involved in the crash, even if the cyclist is at fault." I assume that means if I was hit by another car because a cyclist was standing in the middle of the road in the dark like a moron, the cyclist would at least be likely to have insurance to cover the damage. I hope anyway.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What I wish the drivers knew

This list has been building itself in my head for ages, and on a rainy day like this, when I'm trying to get home and it's twilight and rush hour AND raining, it comes up to the forefront of my mind and starts getting refined... the things I wish people behind the wheels of cars knew. Or at least remembered at crucial times:

1. You're scary. No matter how in control of your car you feel, when you come buzzing past me with a couple of feet to spare, you scare me. And I might flinch. Which could be bad.

2. It's not you, it's your engine. If you have a very loud engine, you're even scarier. Maybe don't rev it just as you pass me.

3. On an uphill grade, I'm going to take a little more effort to get going after a stop light. I may wobble a bit. If you accelerate right off the bat, I feel like I might wobble into you.

4. When I pull away from anything really, I might wobble a bit to get going. I try not to. Still - that is not my most stable moment.

5. When you see me stand up a bit on my pedals, that's because I'm on a very bumpy or potholed bit of pavement, and trying not to get my brains rattled by it. Not a good time to step on the gas.

6. When there's a whole other lane you could be in to pass me, with no risk to yourself, I will swear at you if you don't use it.

7. When it's raining, or very windy, I blink a lot. There are obstructions to my vision. This is both distracting and scary. Be nice.

8. There are potholes, sewer drains, chunks of debris, dead animals, six-inch nails, and broken glass at the edge of the road. You can't be certain I'm going to travel in a straight line. Give me space.

9. When you're inching slowly through a left turn, I'm not sure you see me coming. I basically continue across your path by virtue of blind faith. If you're not rolling through your stop, I love you just that little bit more.

10. I am more afraid of parked cars than I am of moving ones. Please don't shove me off into the door zone because you think I have no problem with being there.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One year later

I've been pretty silent here for a while now - I blame a heavy workload, but I hate going on about how long I've been away, so I won't.

Today I went to the Danielle Naçu Community Ride: it was one year ago today that she was struck by a car door, knocked into traffic, and killed on Queen Street. I couldn't ride: I sprained my ankle badly last weekend and I'm not quite up to riding, but I walked, and took pictures (I was also covering the ride for the Centretown BUZZ).

I wasn't sure how many people would be there: but there was an encouraging number. The ride started off from Sparks and O'Connor, and headed along Queen to behind the NAC, with a stop at the ghost bike (which has been redecorated: it's still considered a temporary monument, and a more permanent memorial, for Danielle and other cyclists, is planned for sometime next year.)

The ride ended at City Hall, where the cyclists all wheeled their bikes inside and gathered for speeches - a friend and colleague of Danielle's hosted, and there were speeches by the mayor, three survivors of the Kanata 5 crash (poignantly, one still uses a walker and is clearly impaired, three years later), and Danielle's mother. The Kanata survivors got a standing ovation from the crowd.

A lot has been done since Danielle was killed: perhaps it's that her story resonates with people - she was young, talented, clearly a passionate activist and a person who volunteered her time for social causes and environmentalism, and she was also a young public servant working downtown, like so many in Ottawa. And perhaps it's because the people around her have been so determined to bring positive change out of her death. There is a scholarship at the University of Ottawa in her name; Scotiabank has instituted a memorial fund dedicated to helping people who give back to their community; and the City has teamed up with Safer Roads Ottawa to make steps toward public education and awareness, as well as infrastructural changes like the bike box on Wellington and increased bike lanes and bike paths, in an effort to make Ottawa, as Mayor Watson said, "the safest city for cyclists and pedestrians in the country." An initiative was announced at the memorial - the city has printed leaflets about watching for cyclists, which include a transparent sticker that reads "Watch for Bikes" that can be placed on the rearview mirror, to remind drivers to look before opening their doors.

This is actually a safe town for cyclists: I talked last week with a friend who grew up in Windsor, where drivers would yell and throw things at cyclists for daring to be in the road (in Car City) and where there is virtually no infrastructure for them. Things can always be better, but Ottawa's doing pretty well, and reminders like Danielle's memorial ride just keep that impetus going. I hope it's a success next year!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Too much to ask for some people

Apparently, this is a bit too hard for some folks. 

 Construction's still ongoing at Billings Bridge. Generally, I don't have too much trouble there: cars let me take the lane, everyone's pretty polite. But this evening, I noticed as I was heading through the narrow, reduced-lane bit (in the middle of the lane, taking up space all legal and stuff) that the slightly elderly green car behind me was pretty close. I turned and looked back and the car was a couple of feet off my back tire. But whatever: he couldn't pass me, right?

Wrong. At the first small break in oncoming traffic, while still on the bridge, he pulled out into the oncoming lane (in a construction zone!) and gunned it past me, then swung back into the correct lane long enough to turn right onto Riverside. Other drivers honked: I made the "WTF?" gesture. (You know, that despairing-of-humanity, palm-to-the-sky kind of move.)

Should I point out that Billings Bridge is a grand total of 100m long?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Billings Bridge gridlock

Billings Bridge is under construction. A huge concrete barrier runs down the middle; construction workers do something terribly mysterious and plastic-shrouded on the eastern side; and traffic has been diverted into the two western lanes, reducing the bridge, temporarily, to two lanes rather than four.

The first time I came across this on my bike, I thought, "Oh shit." The last bridge near me to get this treatment was the railway bridge at South Keys, and I had a scary time of it some nights trying to get into the single lane and hold my own without some cowboy in a car thinking they should try to pass me.

To give the Billings Bridge construction site its due, there are a lot of signs telling people to share the road, and there are opportunities to escape Bank Street along Riverside which lowers the traffic rate. Still, going through the area is a test of nerves, because you have to take up the full lane. You have to ride right smack dab in the middle so no one thinks to try and pass, and you have to be totally unembarrassed about it.

I've been doing okay with it, but I've come across a couple of awkward things. For one, when traffic narrows to two lanes, I have to nudge in, and generally from later in the game than a car would. I'm resisting feeling like "that guy" - the one that, in a car, races past everyone in the open right hand lane, only to shove over into traffic at the last minute. I don't think I'm that guy: but I do pass a bunch of cars on the right, because I'm in a sort of semi-half-not-really lane, by sheer virtue of being on a bike.

My hat went off this morning to the lady in the dark grey Vrtucar, who left space for me to nudge over and into the single lane, behind another car who really didn't leave any space. This lady hung back enough to let me through. I pedaled along in the single lane, trying to go fast enough not to be holding up anyone behind me, and then came out the other side of the construction, past Riverdale, and headed up the hill. At this point there are parked cars to the right, and I had to come out into traffic a bit again. Looking back, I saw her, hanging back, giving me space to come out around the parked cars as well. As soon as I could I moved to the far right lane to let her by, and gave her a big smile. She waved back. It made my day.

Coming home, I had the opportunity not to take Bank, but just didn't think, and found myself, in the middle of Old Ottawa South, in the most crawling traffic I can remember. For some reason situations like this make me stalwartly not hop onto the sidewalk. There is construction, it sucks for all of us, I'm going to crawl along with all the other traffic. I feel like I'm setting some kind of example, although I fear it was lost on the eight or nine people who passed me, riding on the sidewalk, while I sat still in the fumes. But finally, looking at the snail-trail of cars inching their coughing, exhausted way along the road in fits and starts, I said, "Hell with it, I have the option of walking, these poor bastards don't," and I got off the bike and started walking it along the sidewalk.

I made better time across the bridge than the cars. I know this because I was two cars behind a bus when I got off, and I stayed ahead of that bus the whole way to Riverside. Another cyclist had stopped in traffic behind me just after I started walking. "You're probably better off walking," I called to him.

"Really, eh?" he said.

"I'm making better time," I said, and kept on going. I don't think I saw him again. Not sure if he stayed on the bike or not. I got as far as Riverside and got back on the bike.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Passenger side window shouters

Folks in cars, I feel I need to say this again, just because it happened again this morning.

When you shout something out the window at a cyclist, regardless of whether it's friendly advice, outright harassment, or "hey, didn't we meet at that vernissage last week?" you need to know one thing.

We can't hear you.

Whatever it is you said, it sounds like this:


We just can't hear you. Even if you were going to say something helpful or informative. So don't bother.

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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Too nice can be just as bad

Yesterday morning I caught Ottawa Morning's interview with Luc Lafreniere, one of the three cyclists injured in a crazy flurry of accidents that happened Tuesday morning. He said just about what I would have: that both drivers and cyclists can be accused of bad or careless driving.

But it was how his accident happened that really resonated with me. He was biking along in the designated bike lane on Prince of Wales, when a car traveling in the same direction stopped to let a car coming toward them turn left. He didn't see the oncoming car, and the driver didn't see him, since he was blocked by the vehicle that had stopped, so he T-boned it as it made the turn, totaling his bike, and hitting the pavement face first.

Is this ever familiar. I've seen the "stop to let someone through" move far too many times, while walking, on my bike and when I'm driving. I've found myself, in my car, leaning over the wheel to try and see around the car whose driver has helpfully stopped and is waving me through a left turn, because I can't tell if there are more cars - or bikes - coming from behind it. And I've been the cyclist that passes a stopped car on the right side, only to discover they were letting someone turn, straight into the space I'm about to be in. (I've never been hit that way, thank goodness, but it happens almost on a weekly basis on Bank Street South.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of courtesy in drivers, and in cyclists, but there's a time and a place. I'm a much bigger fan of predictability than of courtesy. This is why four-way stops drive me crazy, because when a car and a bike have both stopped at the same time at a stop sign, there's almost always a confused dance (as illustrated by n00biker in this post) of "you first - no, you - no, you first - well, okay, I'll go - wait, no..." Unpredictable. Difficult to communicate.

And stopping to let pedestrians or cyclists cross the road illegally, to let another car turn left where there is no signal, or to let a cyclist make a turn when she shouldn't, are all, also, unpredictable and difficult to communicate. In Mr. Lafreniere's case, it caused an accident.

A perfect illustration of why this frustrates me happened to me on Tuesday. I was on Main Street at Hawthorne, about to turn left and cross Pretoria Bridge. For once, traffic was light enough that I'd dared to make the leftwards merge into the left turn lane. There's an advance green to turn left there, but I'd just missed it, so I stopped before heading into the intersection, to let the oncoming traffic go ahead before making my left turn.

One small black car coming toward me had a right turn signal on. I looked behind it, and saw another car coming behind it, but if he continued through the turn at regular speed I could come through the intersection, follow it, and be through my turn and out of the way before the car traveling straight got there. Unfortunately, the driver of the black car saw me in the middle of the intersection and slowed down mid-turn, then stopped, obviously waiting for me to go ahead. The problem is, that's not the rule. If I were a car, he would have continued his turn without a second thought because he had the right of way. But he saw a bike, and became too polite. Because cyclists are unpredictable. Because people don't know the rules, or can't be sure that the other person does.

I wound up shouting, "Go, go, go, go, GO!" at the driver, because I was stuck in the middle of the intersection, waiting for him to get out of my way so I could finish my left turn and get out of the way of the car that was coming toward me from behind him. I felt bad about shouting, because he'd honestly been being courteous, and cautious around a cyclist, which normally I would give him a grateful wave for (I do, when I know that a car has slowed up or given me space to pass me, or otherwise been kind: I want to make a point of acknowledging that.) But it had caused him to put me in a slightly more dangerous situation than if he'd treated me like another car and just made his turn.

Courteous is good. Courteous to one other driver or cyclist in particular, without awareness of all the other traffic around you, isn't so good. In Luc Lafreniere's case, he's lucky the consequences of that driver's actions were so mild, really.

And I know it's a pipe dream to wish that drivers could be certain that cyclists knew the rules and obeyed them (how many bikes have I watched sail through red lights, bike down the wrong lane, cut off traffic, or hop the sidewalk in the last week? Don't ask, I lost count) but it would certainly make the roads a lot simpler for all of us.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Too damn close (and why I should have called it in)

Not the truck that passed me, though it's about as close. I got this image from - from a post with a great video showing good and bad driving and cycling.
So it wasn't just me. According to Ken at, three cyclists were injured yesterday in the space of 40 minutes. . . which might explain why I was feeling a little at risk. Drivers, please: think about how scary you can be.

He posted this scary video of a transport truck blowing by him, and a sedan cutting him off at 35km/h on his blog today. I'm reminded of the phone call I didn't make yesterday.

I was on my way south on Bank Street. Bank has been identified, incidentally, as quite possibly being Ottawa's most deadly street for cyclists, by OpenFile's awesome data tool Open Road. I seem to recall that even before Open Road, I found Bank Street south of Riverside on a list of the city's most dangerous cycling areas.

Anyway, I was pedaling along on my way home from work when I was blown past by a full-size transport truck. (At least it wasn't also hauling a trailer, like Ken's was: trailers are the absolute worst. Often wider than the vehicle pulling them, they skim terrifyingly close to a cyclist, and you can never be sure the driver's remembering to account for the extra width.)

This truck appeared on my left out of nowhere, and I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that it was a foot and a half off my handlebars. It felt like a foot. I screamed as it went by, and considered braking reactively (damn good thing I didn't: the truck was too close and my best option was to keep going at the same speed and pray it was all over quickly.) The worst part was that after the cab had gone by, terrifying me, the trailer on the thing just kept going, like the Imperial Star Destroyer at the beginning of Star Wars. People waiting at the bus stop near me jumped and stared, because I was yelling so loud.

The instinct to brake when a huge vehicle buzzes you like that is hard to overcome. I don't know which is safer, really; braking involves a marginal loss of momentum and therefore control over straight travel, but on the sort of bad pavement you've got on Bank Street, the chance of hitting a pothole or drainage grate if you keep going at speed while the truck is screaming past you is frightening.

At any rate, I almost never have the chance to catch up to the people that do this kind of thing and get their license plate. But in this case, I caught up to the truck at the next light. It was being operated by Grant Transport, and the license plate on the trailer (though not the cab) was 870 35R. I know this, because I repeated the license number to myself the whole way home, and as soon as I had reached my building and was waiting by the elevators, I pulled out my phone to call them and report their driver.

I regret this: on the first ring, I hung up. Be honest, I thought to myself, do you really think they'll care? What are you going to report, dangerous driving? They'll just think you're a whining cyclist, or they won't believe that the truck was as close as it was, or they'll dismiss the whole thing, or the receptionist won't have a procedure for reporting this kind of thing. I don't have the cab number.

So I hung up. I regret that. But it's hard to make those calls: I tried it once with Capital Cab. The dispatcher listened to my shaking account, and then told me to call 311, and I didn't have a license plate number or any way of identifying the cab, so I figured 311 wouldn't be able to do anything anyway. I felt like my fear and anger were being dismissed. So this time around, I didn't even call Grant Transport. Although, now that I've written this, I just might. In fact, I should probably just call the police. Hey - at least this one time I actually got a plate number: I should use it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sure, they're pretty...

I randomly stumbled across these this evening. (Weird things wash up on my Internet shoreline.)

These are helmets created by a designer called Coyle. Tree Piece Helmets, they're called. I think they're gorgeous (check out his site for some more pics) but something makes me wonder how safe they are. I had it pretty much drilled into me that bike helmets were made to break up on impact, like the crumple zone of a car. I used my bike helmet for rock climbing, reluctantly, for a couple of months, and it freaked me out before I went out and got a separate helmet to climb in, one that was much more like a hard hat and would stand up better to falling rocks and impact with cliffsides. Bike helmets are for reducing force without transferring it to your body: climbing helmets are for resisting pinpoint impact.

Anyway, wood seems to me to have way more potential for unexpected flaws, weaknesses and break points. It doesn't disintegrate like a bike helmet, and it would certainly get dinged up to hell if I wore one of these climbing - at least I assume so.

Yet they're gorgeous. And according to the maker, they've actually been tested and found to be up to standard. Now the question is, who's got $350 for a helmet?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One of my scary monsters

I was reminded again on the way home tonight, a little after 9:00 pm, of why I took this picture a couple of days ago:

Drivers, imagine that you're me. You're headed uphill, which naturally makes you feel that your steering finesse is just that little bit impaired. You've just come through an intersection where the little island at the corner is a little too far into the street, so it's crushed you out into traffic in a really unnerving way. And let's say it's dark out, so you have to take it on faith that your taillight is working, and visible. Just as the road narrows from the right-turn lane, as you're cranking up the hill (maybe you stood on the pedals, making you a bit more precarious but giving you power) you are faced with this brutal bit of broken pavement. (Oh, yes, and the one beyond it, just visible in this shot.) And coming up behind you, you can hear, distinctly, are two vehicles, side by side, accelerating away from the intersection up the hill.

Yes, I can hear that you're side by side, and I can hear that you're both SUVs. It's amazing what a cyclist is capable of hearing. What I can't hear is how much room you're going to give me. And what I know is that if I swerve out to avoid this cluster of potholes and tire-bending nastiness, I'm swinging into a small space made even smaller by the fact that you can't swerve left either, because you're cruising along cheek by jowl with the vehicle next to you.

So this isn't a post about potholes, so much as it is a post about why they suck so much. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

It's always the big black pickups.

So I needed to get across the road this morning, just near Saint Margaret's on Montreal Road. I'd been working on the south side of the street, and needed to get to the north side to ride downtown. I walked the bike down to the corner and pushed the button for the crosswalk. Waiting for my light to change, I spotted a big pickup, across the street, apparently waiting for the light to turn left. I think I noticed him because he was edging up, anticipating the light. While waiting, I got on the bike: why not?

When the walk sign came on, I started across the crosswalk, and the truck started his left turn, at speed, as though I wasn't even there. I looked up and saw its huge grill coming for me. "Jesus, buddy!" I yelled, as I swerved to try and stay clear of him. He gunned it through the intersection - I got enough of a look to see his dog looking out the open window at me, so this time, just this once, I can assume the driver heard me yell.

I got across the crosswalk and pulled up so I was parallel with the curb, ready to head west, waiting for the light to turn green. "It's one way," I heard someone saying behind me. Not sure what he was talking about, I didn't answer. So he walked up to me, and repeated himself. "It's one way, there."

"What is?" I asked, totally confused.

"That street's one way," he said, and pointed at the street whose corner I'd been standing on waiting for the light. Now, partly I was annoyed that he felt like it was his place to justify the truck driver's assholish behaviour, but also that he had only looked up when I shouted, had no idea what had actually happened, and still thought he'd scold me for something I hadn't done.

"I didn't come from there. I was at the crosswalk." The guy didn't seem to understand, so I gestured at the clearly painted crosswalk. "He saw me waiting. I was never on that street." The guy shrugged, in a what-the-hell, I-don't-care kind of way, and the light was green anyway, and I pedaled off.

I guess it bugged me because the guy assumed he knew what had happened ('stupid crazy cyclist ignoring the rules and just riding wherever she wants.') And also, sure, legally I shouldn't have ridden across the crosswalk, although I'm pretty sure the truck driver would have pulled the same shit had I been on foot. But it really rankled that this other guy thought that, even if I was in the wrong, it was okay for someone to 'teach me a lesson' with an F-150. That someone in a truck that size is allowed to think, "Well, I'm supposed to be driving here, and if you get in my way it's your fault."

I really wish I had the courage, one of these times, to just stop in the middle of the intersection when someone is driving like a bully in that way. Just stop. In front of them. But of course I don't: I scurry out of the way of their great big powermobile. And I bet they love it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I want one!

So, some nice folks in France have sort of achieved the Better Mousetrap of cycling: a folding helmet. It doesn't pack down as tiny as, say, the Hövding, a collar-mounted inflatable 'airbag' helmet. But, to be honest, even having seen all the crash test footage, I'm not sure I would totally trust the Hövding. Plus, this foldable number looks pretty cool.

Scratch that. Really cool.

What also interests me is that in both cases, one of the first things people note as an advantage is the bike share scenario. People using bike share programs don't necessarily plan ahead for it, or want to carry helmets around with them. Hell, I don't particularly enjoy it: finding a place at the restaurant to discreetly stash my helmet (and gloves, and removable headlights); clipping the chin strap to the back of my backpack and having it bounce about back there; dropping the helmet in my shopping basket and then having to stack my groceries in around it. No, it's not a massive problem, but it's an inconvenience. This helmet actually packs down small enough that if I put it in my bag, there would also be room for, gasp, other things. Want one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Another 'why' post

I blew a tire, some days ago. (So badly, not even The Goop could save it: in fact, The Goop oozed unpleasantly out through the gap at the base of the valve when I did change the tire.) And between not really finding the time to fix it and the hideous set of winter storms that descended on Ottawa, turning the streets into, alternately, epic giant Slushies or treacherous ice rinks, I spent a few days taking the bus.

And I was reminded, a couple of times, why I decided not to go back to riding the bus, three winters ago. Once, when I accidentally caught a 144 instead of a 114 and wound up in the furthermost bowels of southern suburban Ottawa, ending up about two hours late for a party. Once, when I was running a little late for my radio show, the bus I was hoping to catch didn't appear, and I spent a quite unpleasant thirty minutes playing the guessing game about whether to get off the bus and take my chances with finding a taxi, or to risk not making the next connection. Which bus to take, and what route my chances would be better with. Once, on Saturday night around midnight, when my feet were killing me after helping to run a fundraiser for about 7 hours, and my iPhone was telling me I'd missed the last direct bus home and would have to walk another 20 minutes or half an hour from Walkley Station, carrying a ballot box, in bad shoes. (I didn't miss the bus: turns out the OC Transpo website is no help for figuring out when the last buses are. Trust the posters in the stations. The posters are more or less accurate.)

But yesterday evening I replaced the tire. And today, I was reminded, not of why I stopped taking the bus, but why I didn't stop riding, three winters ago. I rolled the bike across the caked ice on my building's front step. I put it on the pavement in the driveway. I swung a leg up over, and pedaled off into the street.

What a wonderful feeling biking is. It becomes sort of second nature, so you don't really realize it, but when you stop to think about it, it's pretty damn cool. I've been running three days a week lately, and maybe that's also part of why it felt so good to get on the bike. When you run, there's that jolt as your feet hit the ground. You move forward only as fast as your legs can take you. I, personally, feel most of the time as though I'm lurching along when I run. On the bike, I could feel the amplification of the force from my legs driving the back wheel, floating me along. That comfortable circle of my feet on the pedals. Going faster than my feet could take me. I think I felt for a moment what the first 'wheelers' would have felt like: this machine is sheer magic.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bikeverse forgive me, for I have sinned.

It's been at least a season since my last confession. Today, I rode on the sidewalk all the way home from work. To be fair, it was dark, and my taillight had burnt out, and I figured I was probably better off riding illegally on the sidewalk than invisibly on the icy street. I did stop whenever it looked like I was even close to making a pedestrian step aside, and I called out "Passing on the left!" whenever I needed to. I waited at the crosswalks, and yielded to cars. But the sin still stands: I rode on the sidewalk.

I let my taillight burn out. I know, I shouldn't have. I have batteries in the kitchen drawer, I swear I do.

I have also, at times, ridden through stop signs, only slowing up a little and looking to left and right along the intersection. I know it's wrong. But acceleration takes a long time, and I worry that while I'm stopped a car will arrive and then no one will know what to do exactly and there will be that moment of "you go; no, you go; no, it's your right of way;" which is confusing for both sides... so if there are no cars coming, well, I ride through the stop sign.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I've even run red lights - but only at T intersections when there are no cars coming and I'm not turning. Or at lights that signal only pedestrian crossings, when there are no pedestrians. I always feel bad immediately, though, if that helps.

Bikeverse, forgive me; once or twice I hopped onto the sidewalk to pass stopped traffic on Main Street at rush hour, when there were cars sitting idling with their sidewalls six inches from the curb. I didn't wait, like a virtuous member of traffic, in the clouds of exhaust, behind them. I tried hard not to do it for long, and I always dropped back onto the street when there was room, but I did pass on the sidewalk. I also tried not to draw attention to the fact that I was moving and they weren't, because I know, Bikeverse, that smugness is also a sin, and makes drivers hate us and call us "self-righteous elites."

I also jumped on and off the sidewalk one summer day when I was putting up posters downtown. It was wrong of me. I know that. But it was a beautiful day and I was feeling free. 

I have used the pedestrian crosswalk to make a left. The cars were just too many, and too fast, and merging left across two or three lanes gave me the willies. I've even, I have to confess, thought to myself that the rule ought to be that bikes do that all the time to make lefts: as they do where there are "bike boxes."

I usually cut through the parking lot at Cambridge and Somerset, beneath the Chinatown Gate, to go to a friend's house. It probably isn't even any shorter. And I don't always signal right turns. Sometimes you want both hands on the handlebars, and right turns are really less of a shock to motorists than left turns, right? I do always signal lefts. (When I don't use the crosswalk, that is.)

And sometimes I don't take my lane: sometimes I let the cars crowd me nearly into the curb. I am heartily sorry, but some days are bolder than others. I hope you can understand this, Bikeverse. I don't mean to do these things (mostly.) I just wanted to get it off my chest, because all these things ran through my head, today, as I rode home on the sidewalk, wanting to stop and explain to everyone who saw me that it was really, honestly, because my taillight was out, and I'm not normally like this.

So I just thought you ought to know. I've got a bike chain I could use as a rosary if you want to assign me penance. But you know we do all do this stuff, right? I just wanted to come clean. I feel better now.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What am I thinking?

Okay, it wasn't quite this cold today.
"What am I thinking?" I asked myself yesterday, as I trudged across campus in the freezing wind with the tears that were being squeezed from my eyes crystallizing and sticking my eyelids together. I wasn't on my bike because I'd only just flown back from New Brunswick that morning, and I needed to be at work right after arrival, so had cabbed over from the airport. And I was thinking about the fact that I'd just told my coworkers that I'd be riding in to work the next morning.

But it was cold. Really cold. -29C with the wind chill then, and people were telling me it would be even colder the next day. I stopped on the way home to buy windproof gloves, knowing I'd want them in the morning, and asked myself again, "What am I thinking?"

Up before dawn this morning, I listened to the radio people telling me that it was around -27C out there. I dug my Icebreaker tights out of the dresser, asking myself again just what the hell I was thinking, and pulled on tights, merino shirt, pants, sweater, and coat. Hat for under the helmet, and a huge scarf a friend made for me tied around my neck. Overheating and clumsy with all my layers on, I pulled the bike out though the door. What the hell . . . I thought again, and, sweating, went downstairs.

I set my bike on the road and realized my tires were a bit squishy - good for traction on the icy roads but not so great for speed. I tried to look behind me to merge left, and the hat, scarf, jacket, sweater and everything else made it look a bit like Michael Keaton's Batman trying to look behind himself. Full upper-torso twist. The sides of the road were icy and the traffic didn't seem to slow up much, and my breath froze on my glasses till I got up speed enough that my breath blew behind me, where it formed a white rime on the scarf.

I got to the left turn off Bank onto Cameron, which is usually a separated lane for a few feet. The separated lane did not exist. I made the left and found myself on the plowed sidewalk instead. At the nearest opportunity I got back into the road, planning my "yes, officer, I know but..." explanation for why I was going the wrong way down the cars' side of the road (the contra-flow bike lane was buried.) What was I thinking, when all the bike lanes are buried in snow?

And then I was on the iced-over path through Brewer Park heading for Carleton, and I saw the only other cyclist I'd seen that morning, coming along the path toward me, face half hidden in a black scarf, crunching over the frozen snow. I waved as he got close: he raised his fist in a "right on!" sort of gesture.

And I grinned all the rest of the way to work. That's what I'd been thinking.