Monday, December 8, 2014

Deconstructing Heron and Bank

Easily, my least favorite intersection in all of Ottawa. Probably because, on the way home, I frequently have to go through it.

Coming home, I'm traveling on Bank, southbound. Traffic averages around 75 kph here, I'd say: faster at night, slower at rush hour with the high volume. To get onto Heron, I need to either a) merge across two lanes into the left turn lane and wait at the light (feasible at night or off peak) or b) cross to the southwest pedestrian island, then turn, join the traffic when the light turns green and head uphill eastward on Heron.

Check out the lines on that second option. Check out the way the road narrows, so that the southeast pedestrian island is further in than the one I just left. That pinch point is nasty. And if you don't bike with guts and fortitude, you get two pinch points: one at the pedestrian island, and another further up when the merge lane runs out. And by then traffic's gotten up a head of steam. And if you're really lucky, there's a bus at the bus stop that shares the merge lane. Or someone trying to turn out of the Tim Hortons parking lot.

The pinch point is made especially sketchy if you moved right to put a foot on the curb to wait for the light at the southwest corner, and if the vehicles behind you are accelerating away from their stop (and coming from a stretch of Heron that moves even faster, on average, than Bank does). There is also a lot of heavy commercial traffic on Heron.

So if I can, I like to merge over and use the left turn lane. It keeps me further right at that initial base of the small hill heading west on Heron, so I don't get crushed over into the pedestrian island, and it positions me so I'm already taking up space, and visible, without having to swerve further left (which is unnerving, against faster traffic).

However, the merge just isn't possible in rush hour traffic. Okay, maybe it's possible. I'm not going to do it. To signal, move over one lane, check again with traffic on both sides of me, and move over again, then check (again with traffic on both sides of me), and finally edge into a left turn lane? In bumper to bumper? Nope.

When the merge is possible - at 11:00 pm when the road is blissfully empty and I can just swing across - it's great. Except for the amount of time I spend waiting at the light and nervously looking behind me in case the person coming up through the long turn lane didn't notice the blinking taillights and reflective patches. Then I get the advance green and go. Right?

Unless it's the middle of the night and there are no other cars in the lane. In which case my bike doesn't trigger the sensor, and I sit through two or three light changes without getting an advance green, and have to figure out a way out of the intersection.

So many things about this intersection are Not Good.

I started thinking this afternoon about what would make this intersection less terrible. Obviously, bike lanes would be a start, but the streets are pretty narrow already and would need to be widened (involving rather a lot of dirtmoving) to get lanes in. Further east on Heron, any widening would really cut into the tiny patches of green space that make up most people's front lawns. And the last thing this part of town needs is another bike lane that only lasts for an intersection.

Moving that southeast pedestrian island - even only a couple of feet further south - would be amazing, removing the most hair-raising pinch point in my day.

Failing that, speed limits further west on Heron, slowing traffic before it hits the narrow, more residential areas west of Bank, might help.

Admittedly, I also thought about the fact that when you get out where I am, the volume of cyclists isn't that high, and so maybe cycling infrastructure isn't a huge priority. I mean, I've been riding in this neighbourhood for years, and aside from an early, nerves-induced spill, I haven't had any accidents. (Some scares, but no accidents.)

But there are, what, five schools in the immediate area? Could those kids be riding to school if the road design wasn't so deadly? Maybe. Take a look at the masterful way that suburb design in the area has caused the main roads - Heron, Walkely, Bank, Conroy - to slice between classic little self-contained street pods, all full of crescents and loops that only have one way out, onto the Regional Roads.

If you want to get from one of those little street pods to, say, your high school, you're taking one of the four-lane, commercial-traffic-laden deathtraps to get there. Or riding on the sidewalk. No wonder I see choking herds of cars around those schools at bell time in the afternoon. Or buses crammed with St. Pat's uniforms in the morning.

You can't change where those residential streets are: there are houses on them. But you could try to make Heron, Walkley, Conroy, and Bank less miserable. A start might be checking out where they intersect and noting little, teeny-tiny problems, like that pedestrian island that, if it was only two feet further south, would be so much less terrifying to a cyclist heading west on Heron.

The first five minutes

Whether my ride to work (or wherever) is good or bad often hangs on the first five minutes. I get my bike on the road, I swing out onto the main street by my place, and the enjoyment level of my ride gets determined within a few blocks. If I get rattled, I might not get my good mood back. If I have a smooth first few blocks, I'm zooming along humming "The Bike Song."

Unfortunately, the main street by my place is Heron Road, which looks kind of like this: 

Four lanes, bus bays, and oh, right, one end of this road takes you right to the highway exit, so some of these drivers are fresh off a 120-kph drive from Montreal (and also there are transport trucks). There aren't any bike lanes or even sharrows. And the pavement's not great. 

But that's not always a problem. Sometimes, Heron Road is just fine, and in fact, the "zoom" factor of being on a big road can sometimes start my ride off right, when I'm feeling bold and taking up my space.

And there can also be that one encounter that sets the course of your ride. Take this morning. I worked at home a bit, so as to let rush hour clear, then got on the bike to head to my office downtown. It was down below -10, with a windchill bringing it to -22, sunny, dry, clear. I was actually really looking forward to the ride.

But I was also having a strangely anxious morning, so I didn't know: would the ride help to relax me, or would a couple of close passes or a car rolling through a stop toward me reduce me to a ball of jangling nerves? 

About a block in, I was feeling okay. But I heard the unmistakeable roar of a big truck behind me. Maybe a dump truck, maybe a transport. I was at a stoplight, so I twisted right around to look (and to show the driver my face). 

Transport. And in the outside lane - my lane. I tried to give it the old "I am here" eyebeams, then turned and started pedaling when the light turned green. The sound of a truck working its way up through the lower gears behind you is really unnerving, but I try to remind myself they're not doing it to be aggressive, they're not revving, they're just gearing up freaking enormous diesel engines.

And then I looked back and saw that the truck was hanging back - way back - and waiting for a line of cars to pass on the inside lane before changing lanes entirely to pass me. I grinned and waved as it went by, hoping the driver saw me. I thought I heard a little "toot" in answer, but then again, I don't think truck horns do "little," so it might have been something else. Whatever: at any rate, I felt a moment of friendly connection with that driver, whoever he or she was, just because they'd pulled over and given me a ton of space.

One courteous transport truck driver, and the rest of my ride was fun, confident. The cold air was invigorating, merging through traffic was easy, and I got to the office in a much better mood than the one I left the house with. Even with the taxi who crowded me for space on Bank and the pickup that crowded me at a red light by the highway underpass. None of that fazed me much, because of one friendly transport truck driver in the first five minutes. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Honk if you - wait, no, don't.

Saw this on Twitter just now and chuckled, and retweeted:
Although, to be fair, I don't think I run into many drivers who do. I haven't even heard the vague and faint "friendly tap on the horn to alert them to your presence" argument in years. Maybe that's just Canada, or Ontario, or Ottawa.  I don't remember it being mentioned in my drivers ed class way back when (though, really, I don't remember any advice at all regarding cyclists in my drivers ed class). But someone in the responses to this tweet did:
So apparently the misconception is still out there. I think I was honked at the other day for being in the left turn lane, but it was a quiet honk. Maybe that was a driver "letting me know" they were there. Though I'd already turned around on the saddle, while waiting for the advance green, to look back, so they should have known I knew they were there. (I'm a big believer that eye contact and seeing a cyclist's face goes a long way toward humanizing us in the eyes of drivers, so I do it when I can.)

Drivers, I gotta tell you: if you think that you're drifting up quietly behind us, more lightly than the zephyrs of spring, and we have no idea you're there. . . you're wrong. We know you're there. Most of us - with the exception of the hearing impaired, I guess - have been listening to you with half our concentration for the last couple hundred metres, and we're trying to calculate based on the sound of your engine how big your vehicle is, how fast you're going, and how much of an asshole you're likely to be. (We can also hear - and hate it - when there are two of you rolling up behind us side by side, incidentally.) So yes, the horn is pointless. And honking will almost always be read as aggressive by cyclists. It will also startle them, which is hazardous. So don't.

The best things you can do?

Give us lots of space. If you have a free lane on your left, what is keeping you from moving into it for a few seconds as you go by me? What magic forces you to keep your tire on the right side of the painted line?

Be patient if you have to slow down for a bit to wait for the right moment to pass. I promise you, you won't lose more than a few seconds. Stop and enjoy your surroundings for a moment. It'll all be over soon.

And for the love of Pete, wait until you've completely passed us before you hit the accelerator. I jump so often when a driver hits the gas right beside me, assuming they've "cleared" me and can now race on ahead.

Don't worry about letting us know you're there. Believe me. We know.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Winter is coming . . .

Hell, it's here. This is the view out my window as I type:

It's been fun watching the conversation online as winter comes in: do you get studded tires? When? One or two? Why are the bike racks on the 4-season Laurier lane taken out in winter?

And who's still riding? Defiantly?

Somehow, it feels like a switch was thrown about a week ago. Round about the first day the cyclists started warning each other via Twitter about black ice on the morning commute.  I had a conversation about winter gear with a friend in Ann Arbor over Facebook, reminded myself, reluctantly, of the location of my splash pants, and climbed on a chair to dig in the upper shelf of my front closet and look for a matching pair of gloves or mittens (a failed search: time to go shopping again) and my Toque of Sending +2, which also serves as my early-winter under-helmet hat.

Last night, I biked home from the Mayfair in blattery, sloppy big snowflakes, in the dark, at 6:00 pm, and remembered the way your bike gets quieter in the slush. Here we go!

One win of the season: I can't believe I didn't get one of these before, but I was at the moving sale at Tommy & Lefebvre on Saturday and they had North Face down mid-layers for 40% off. There was one left - and it just happened to be in my size.

Review time!

Vamping a little on a hike.
A hardcore back country backpacker I know raved about his a year ago or so, but I never really thought much about getting one. I'm a makeshift kind of person. I'm notoriously slow to adopt specialized gear. But then one of my climbing buddies got cold while at the base of the crag on belay, late in the season, and she borrowed one from another of my friends. The next weekend, she had gone out and bought one. Instant convert. And I was at the T&L sale with another friend who had also borrowed the jacket and had decided she needed one. And it was 40% off. . . so I got one. And wow. Why didn't I have one before? It's like when I discovered merino.

So far, I've worn it on its own, rather than under a shell, in temperatures around freezing, on a hike and a couple of bike rides. And I love it.

The thing about the down insulation is that it warms up fast with body heat, and it holds heat really well, but it also breathes and dries out really fast. So I'm warm, but I can stop moving, and not have that sweat-cooling chilling effect. I also wore it on the above-mentioned blattery, snowy ride home, and it's waterproof enough to shake off wet snow. Plus it's light and it packs down, so the idea is, I can put it under another jacket or a shell when it gets colder. With the merino underneath I kinda get the feeling I'll feel invincible once the thermometer plunges.

So, bring it, winter.  I got my big tires, I got my Toque of Sending, I got my thermal jacket.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TV time! Adam Savage geeks out over bike riding in San Francisco and New York. And Cannondales.

It's geeks talking about bikes! (More specifically, it's Adam Savage from Mythbusters talking about bikes with a couple of buddies. . . and points to anyone who spots the Dune reference!) It's like they made this episode for me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thin yellow line: update!

On the way back from the office, I stopped to take a picture of the construction site, because I had the camera handy (I'd just been doing some photography for the Centretown BUZZ.) The pylons were all still there and the same woman was even standing there with her sign.

It's your general construction chaos zone.

But look! Look there in the middle!. . . someone actually tied little flags onto the rope, just like I suggested! (And if I'm seeing it right, they moved the poles holding the rope a little further toward the curb so the area where you can't ride isn't right in front of you coming off the bridge, giving bikes a bit more room between the cordon and the cars.)

So maybe the woman I talked to wasn't actually as dismissive as I thought she was. Or maybe some other cyclist had the same problem after I did, and they realized it really was an issue. I don't know. But: hooray, steps were taken to make it safer for us cyclists! 

The thin yellow line doesn't cut it: construction signage FAIL

There was a brief shining moment there when both lanes of the bridge at Lansdowne, and the road in front of the big shiny new Lansdowne Park, were open. No lanes closed, no pylons, no construction workers.

That brief shining moment coincided with the launch of the Redblacks and the football season. It was wonderful. I crossed the bridge without fear or stress: I didn't have to worry about jockeying for space in a single lane, drivers who would try to pass me, or choking construction dust.

Today, though, on my way downtown, I got to the top of the hill in Old Ottawa South, and thought to myself, "ah, dangit, not again." The pylons were back: the northbound lanes were down to one; the lefthand, centre lane  was blocked off.

There was a minivan behind me that was fantastic as we crossed the bridge: never even considered passing me, let me take the lane because it wasn't wide enough to share, and held back behind me, staying way outside my personal space. I waved on the other side of the bridge as the minivan turned left off Bank on the other side of the bridge.

But, then the lane closure got complicated. There were pylons all over, blocking the right hand lane this time, and a construction worker with a "slow" sign diverting traffic into the middle lane. I was following another cyclist, and we both came down the other side of the bridge at a decent clip, passed the sign holder on the right, and rolled along a stretch of pavement between lines of pylons. Then I saw the guy ahead of me swerve sharply, like he'd lost control, and slam on the brakes. I hit my brakes too, and then saw that he'd run straight into a length of yellow rope strung between two pylons to block off that section of the road. It had been caught up on his front wheel and a section was wrapped up under the fork.

He untangled it, then lifted the rope so I could get under, but I looked ahead and saw that there was a length of tape closing off the other end of that section of the lane, so we went around, on the inside. At the far end, I stopped to talk to a worker standing near the far barrier. "Have you had any cyclists crash back there?" I asked her.

"No," she said, "it's kind of obvious you're not supposed to go there." (She sounded pretty confrontational about that.)

"I don't see how they would know that," I said, "it wasn't at all clear to me that you couldn't go that side."

"Well, I didn't build it," she said, dismissively. "But you're not supposed to go there. It's there because the trucks need to get in to access the site."

"I'm just saying it could have been a lot more clear," I said. "And cyclists are usually going to try to stay out of sharing a single lane with cars in a construction site, so it's just natural for us to go in where there's less risk. That rope across there really isn't visible. I didn't see it at all until that guy hit it. You could make it more obvious with some bright tape, or maybe just some flags along the rope."

And she made some "mm-hm, yep, thank you," noises which clearly indicated to me that she was just waiting for me to shut up and go away. Which I did. Wishing that she'd seen why I was so concerned. Why that length of rope was a hazard. Wishing that she gave a crap whether cyclists were safe (and pretty sure she didn't, and wouldn't say anything to anyone about my concern.)

I know that when I can, in a construction site, I'll get myself out of the pinch point where the cars are being diverted into a narrow lane because the drivers might be confused or distracted by the signage, the pylons, the directions, the people waving flags at them to tell them where to go: and I'm pretty distracted by all of that too. Trying to change lanes, negotiate cars, and worry about whether an impatient or inattentive driver is going to blow past some marker or other, is pretty stressful. So, if I see something that looks like a clear space away from the cars, I'll naturally head for it.

If the entrance to that section of the lane had been blocked with bright tape, I and the other guy would have seen it, and we'd have gone around. But that stretch of plastic yellow rope didn't cut it - and could have caused a really serious accident. That cyclist in front of me reacted only just in time: he ran into the rope and got it caught up on his bike. Luckily, he didn't go over.

I'm not sure if there are any rules about how traffic diversions need to be signaled and marked, and if this would count as a violation, but I think I'm going to write to the City about it anyway.

And yearn for the day when there are no longer any pylons, or lane closures, or ripped-up sections of road, or confusing signs, or dump trucks backing up, or blowing clouds of grit and tar fumes, in front of that park. Because it's on my commute, and I'm utterly sick of dealing with it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Observed, but not understood

I've been trying to come up with a charitable explanation for the actions of a driver I saw this morning.

I have to drive to work a few times a week, because it's so far out of town. So I was doing that, this morning, on a bright, sunny, 20-degree day. Perfect for biking, and I was clearly not the only person that thought so, because there were a lot of bikes out.

One was on Heron Road heading west. I had two whole lanes to work with, so I moved over into the inside lane to pass him. I admit to sometimes making big, deliberate, obvious, signaled lane changes to give bikes room when I'm in a car, because I feel like I'm setting a precedent for the cars around me. So I did that. And I admit, I watched in the rearview to see what the little white sedan that I'd seen coming up a bit quickly in the outside lane would do.

And so I watched as the little white sedan moved even further right, toward the curb, got in behind the cyclist, slowed down to the speed the bike was going, and continued along behind him. Close(ish) behind, pulled way over.

I swear I saw him flash his headlights (which, if it was intended as a "speed up" signal to the cyclist, is both nonsensical and not very useful, since cyclists often have no way of watching what's happening behind them).

And I couldn't figure out what was going on. Was the car slowing up behind the bike as an exaggerated, "you're holding everyone UP!!!" kind of gesture (in which case, fail)? Or was the driver being some weird form of passive-aggressive? Or did they think if they slowed up behind the bike, they'd force passing traffic to change lanes, and so were, oddly, trying to protect the cyclist? (In which case, thanks, I guess, but you really don't need to mess up the flow of traffic for someone who was doing just fine without you. We're good, really we are.)

I couldn't help watching in my rearview, until it got distracting and I had to stop. It was too weird. Two or three blocks later I had to turn off, so I lost sight of them, but the sedan was still, to the best of my knowledge, crawling along behind the cyclist.

You choose: Misguided aggressive driver? Or misguided considerate driver?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Apparently they get it in Idaho

I found this awesome article on the “Idaho stop” today (my friend Jon-o posted it on Facebook) and it was like a bolt from the blue. For years, I've been arguing that cyclists should be allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs: they should be able to slow down but roll through them if there is no oncoming traffic. It seemed totally sensible to me. Especially at this one 4-way stop on Alta Vista, where there's a bike lane on either side of the street. At that point, if bikes and cars are all equal in the eyes of the intersection, who, exactly, has right of way if I stop at the sign at the same time as the car right next to me?

I've dealt with confusion at stop signs where drivers have clearly not known what to do with me being there. I've waved drivers angrily through when they had the right of way. I've had drivers shout at me for heading out, alongside another car, into a four-way, and then being there in the middle of the intersection when my “shield car” accelerated faster than me, so a car turning left suddenly had to deal with a cyclist who was hidden behind another car and was now unexpectedly in front of them. I've cursed stop signs so many times.

And – rather often, I'll admit – I've executed a rolling stop, looking side to side for anything oncoming, seeing there was nothing, and cruising through without coming to a full stop.

Then I discover that in Idaho, this is totally legal (and in some other states variants of the law apply). What? Logic, apparently, has infected their legislators. I had no idea that what I already, instinctively, knew was the smarter and more efficient way of dealing with intersections, was actually legal in some parts of the continent.

But, interestingly, after I reposted the piece on my own wall, I discovered that, while my cycling friends mostly respond with a “well, DUH, finally someone gets it!”, responses like this one (on Facebook) are also rife:

“What is this now? Bikers want the same treatment and now you want more? If it was a good idea, shouldn't they allow cars the same privilege? It just infuriates drivers to see a blazen [sic] disregard for the law. The same laws which, if we break, we drivers get heavily penalized.”

Where do I start with this?

This is not “special privileges.” This is not, “oh, damn, those pesky cyclists want to use our roads and now they want to butt in front of us in line TOO?!?” (Although, if you feel that way, brace yourself: nearly all smart bike infrastructure allows bikes to filter up in front of cars at intersections.)

Bikes and cars are two different modes of travel. They have different speeds, and necessitate different intersection behaviour. Rolling through a stop sign is not a “privilege,” if that's what the rules say you should do: it's just the rules. And no, they shouldn't allow cars “the same privilege,” because of some basic stuff.

Like, cars approach an intersection at about 50kph if they're doing the speed limit in most places (80kph on rural roads, usually). Bikes, in contrast, approach the same intersection at about 12-20kph.

Approaching the intersection at 50kph, you really don't have time to see another car, at about the same distance from the middle of the intersection, also coming in at the same speed. Reaction time to hit the brakes (about 1.5 seconds on average, in braking tests) is probably about the same as a cyclist's. But your braking distance is much longer than a cyclist's (it will take you about 14 metres to stop once you hit the brakes, if you're going 50kph. That's roughly 40 feet).

Even if cars slowed down approaching stop signs (assuming the roll-through law applied to them), they'd probably slow to about 40, maybe 30kph (5m braking distance). You're still coming at that intersection faster than me, on my mountain bike, doing about 18kph.

Meanwhile, I have time to see the stop sign up ahead. I can look up. Listen for the engines of unseen cars approaching (something a driver can't do). I begin to brake, slowing up preemptively. As I get closer, I look up and down for cars that might be getting to the intersection at the same time as me. If I see none, I release the brakes, accelerate back up, and cross the intersection at about my usual cruising speed, which gets me out of the danger zone much faster than if I'd come to a complete stop and had to pedal hard to crank back up to speed. But, if I see that I'm going to reach the intersection at the same time as a car, I come to a stop. Then the usual rules about right of way kick in (the vehicle on the right has the right of way). If that's me, I go first. If that's the car, I let it go first.

If there is a car, the predictable rules (in the driver's experience) apply. If there are no cars, I don't spend unnecessary and dangerous extra time in the line of fire of an intersection. And in what way is this inconveniencing any drivers?

Much of the same logic applies to red lights. As the rule stands now, at a red light, the cyclist has to stop with the rest of traffic, then try to get back up to speed (a time when even the most experienced cyclists can experience some wobbling, especially on an uphill) in the midst of traffic which is also accelerating right next to her. If I could approach a red light, come to a stop, look around, see that it's clear and head on through the intersection, I would be clear of the intersection when the car traffic started collecting at the light, and when the intersection is at its most crowded, right after it turns green, I wouldn't be there on my bike adding to the crush. And I wouldn't have to stop and wait – which I've done – for all the cars to roar past me before I stepped on the pedals and started off. And the drivers wouldn't have to worry about the cyclist so close to them at what is so often a pinch point in traffic flow.

As for the last point about how ”it just infuriates drivers to see a brazen disregard for the law” - well. That's the point, innit? If the law encodes the smarter, more efficient behaviour at stop signs and red lights, then it's not a disregard for the law to execute a rolling stop, because it's legal. Or to cross a clear intersection when the light's red. This law would only legitimize what is already the smarter thing to do.

Oh, right. And cyclists get penalized for breaking the law too, by the way. Besides, I watch drivers run red lights on literally a daily basis. Usually many, many times a day. I don't then turn around and assume that all drivers are flagrant scofflaws.

The upshot is, cars and bikes are two different modes of transportation with different physics and practical considerations. And the rules of the road shouldn't be designed to make them equal: they should be designed to make both as safe as possible. If that means the rules are different for different modes, so be it. That's not special privilege, that's logic, and this isn't a pissing match about who gets to be first through the intersection.

I for one would be happy to see the Idaho stop come to Ontario: I've argued many times that bikes should treat stop signs as yields. I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. But it's nice to know that there are jurisdictions out there that have realized what I knew instinctively from a season or so of riding, and had the guts to put it into the law.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring cleaning and n+1

I had the day off today, so I took Mike out to the balcony for a cleanup: degreasing and relubricating the gears and the chain, washing off all the accumulated crap on the frame, that kind of thing. It went fine until I got to the rear brakes: they were seized up and barely moved. So I sighed, and went into the apartment to wash off my hands and look online for the best way to fix them (even though I knew it was probably going to involve wrestling the entire brake system apart, washing it, and reassembling it).

But, in the process, a friend popped up on chat, and I bemoaned having to tear down the brakes. He promptly offered the loan of his bike, which he bought several years ago and never really got around to riding. So I suggested that I'd been thinking of asking if he wanted to sell it, since I knew he wasn't really into riding it, and he practically said I could have it for free, although I will pay him something for it.

It may actually be the case that I will soon have a summer bike and a winter bike. Or at the very least, a road bike and a mountain bike.

And I realized that the joke I've been repeating for a while now, and which I repeated while being certain it didn't apply to me, now actually does apply to me: "The number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number of bikes you already have." I feel like this is some kind of rite of passage.

Friday, April 4, 2014

So I was wrong.

I was riding down to South Keys to see a movie this afternoon. To get there I have to go over a bridge, crossing some train tracks, and it's a bit harrowing on the best day. Right now, in early spring, the whole "bike space" area is coated in grit, broken pavement and mud, so it's a little sketchy to ride on. And traffic along this road usually goes somewhere around 70 or 80 kph. So I was on edge as I headed down the far side of the bridge, and toward the first right turn into the parking lot in front of the big-box strip mall.

And naturally, asI was trying to negotiate the strip of grit and mud, the potholes, and everything else, with cars zipping past me, I was passed by a brown UPS delivery van. He honked his horn: I shrank as he blasted past me, and I shouted, got mad, and gave him the finger as I coasted on down the slope. He cut over and turned right into the parking lot, a little in front of me. I turned right at the same spot, and decided I was going to follow him: guessing, since the van headed off to the back of the strip mall, that he was going somewhere in the mall and I could catch him. I gave chase. For once, I thought, I was going to confront the driver. Make him look the cyclist in the eye and explain himself. Even if it was scary, I was going to do it.

I followed him around behind the mall, and most of the way along its length. He parked, and got out, and started walking, and I kept after him, and then rode up alongside him. "Excuse me, sir," I said, as I got close, and he stopped. "I just had to ask. Why'd you have to honk at me?"

And he explained. He'd seen me, started to move left to give me some room, and some other driver had popped out of his blind spot, and not given him space to get over. "I was thinking, are you nuts? Don't you see the lady on the bike?" he said to me. "So I honked, to tell him to get out of the way so I could move over, but he just didn't," he said.

I felt awful. For assuming that the honk was meant for me. For not having seen what was going on just behind my left shoulder. For not being able to see past the big brown van to the cars on the other side and what they were doing, and mostly for assuming that all interactions are directed - and with hostility - at me. I thanked him for making the effort to give me space, and I went on my way. Chagrined.

Something to remember: it's so easy to assume all drivers are against you. I try to smile and wave at the drivers I see making an effort to give me room, but I don't see all of them. I need to remember how many drivers do see us, and try to give us space, and how many of them we just don't notice, for that very reason: because they gave us space and didn't scare us. How many of them are just as freaked out by the convergence of bikes and cars as we are. And not every honking horn is aimed at us. In fact, assuming the drivers are on our side might make everyone feel a whole lot better.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How did she do this I don't even

I'll admit, I stole that title. It was a tweet by Cassandra Fulgham (@cfulgham) in response to this:

I'll give you a chance to look at that. Maybe another angle?

Or an aerial view perhaps?

(The pictures are courtesy @auxonic, @rjeschmi, and @chrisjschmitt, respectively.)

Yup, folks. That is someone who actually drove down Laurier Ave., needed to park, and somehow pulled up into the space in front of the alley on the right, between the concrete dividers, and verrrrry carefully backed into the segregated bike lane, between the divider and the curb. Then got out of her car, fed the meter, and headed off to do whatever she was on Laurier to do. (I say "she" because the license plate reads "CF MOM" and I assume she was doing something in the Canadian Forces office at 66 Slater.) 

Unless, of course, she'd been driving in the bike lane for the last couple of blocks, thinking it was just some sort of . . . collector lane. Who knows.

What goes through this person's head? "Oh, look, segregated parking, how nice!" I can't begin to go through the things that hurt my brain about this. For one thing, if it's "segregated parking," how in the name of all that's holy would anyone else get in to use it, now that she's parked in the opening? Also, how did she miss the bike lane signs? What did she think the concrete dividers were for? How tricky was it, exactly, to back in between them? Did she wonder why the other two cars were parked on the other side of the barriers?

It's a baffling (and giggle-inducing) mystery. But also, it really kind of points out to me: this is one of only two segregated bike lanes in the city that I'm aware of (the other being on Wellington near the War Museum). Like the green bike boxes, it's not something people immediately understand when they see it. (Apparently.)

I'll give this person the benefit of the doubt: maybe she didn't see the bike lane signs, in the cluster of street signs that are all over downtown. Maybe she doesn't come downtown often, and hadn't known that Laurier had an SBL. If this kind of thing were more common, people would know how to use it, but like any new system, there's a learning curve. The fact that this lady, when confronted with an SBL, had no idea what to do with it, is maybe more of a sign that there's still a long way to go in informing the general public about the increasing amount of bike infrastructure.

I'm reminded of my father's metaphor (from a totally different context) of having someone over for dinner and, when the dinner's over, they get up, thank the hosts, and stuff all the silverware in their pockets as they're getting ready to go. They're not being malicious or criminal, they are just from a totally different culture.

We're in a world where drivers still think bikes aren't allowed on the streets, where they're utterly oblivious to the existence and use of bike boxes, and where they think it's okay to undertake a bike on a left turn, as long as they leave a metre of space.

There's a lot of misinformation and ignorance out there. It's just that very seldom is it as obvious and entertaining as this bit of boneheadedness.

(It should also be noticed that this whole flurry of pictures and the resulting Twitter conversation also illustrated something: if you want to get Mayor Watson's attention, tweet him. He reads those suckers, and responds, and passes the information along to the right people. He's a bit of a twitterbeast.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Student driver - no duh

Heading west on Heron tonight around 7:30, I was, as usual, preoccupied with dodging potholes while keeping an ear out for traffic behind me. It was twilight, a tetchy time of day, but I had all the lights going: a turtle on my helmet, a big flashing taillight, reflective patches on my pant legs and pannier.

And then, as I was coming up on a big field of potholes, I heard the engine behind me. I didn't realize it was an eighteen-wheeler until the massive cab loomed up beside me, far too close. Way, way too close. And then I hit the brakes hard, because there were potholes ahead of me and a gigantic transport truck passing me really, really close, and the damn thing just kept coming and coming like the Star Destroyer at the start of Star Wars.

When it was finally past me and I could start pedaling again, I found I was muttering, "'How's my driving? Call 1-800-yadda-yadda'" under my breath.

The truck had a left turn signal on that never seemed to amount to anything, although I wondered why the hell it hadn't gotten into the left lane before passing me: it's not like there was a ton of traffic. But I started to realize I was going to catch up to the truck, because it was at Heron and Bank waiting - and waiting and waiting - to turn right.

And then I saw the sign on the back that said, "Student Driver."


I whipped out my iPhone and got a picture of it before the light even turned green, hoping to get enough information off the back of the truck to identify the student driver in question, contact his trainers, and bring to their attention the fact that a transport truck should always, if possible, get over a lane to pass a cyclist, especially if their truck has no side guards.

But sadly, I'm not sure which bits of information on the back of this truck are actually useful: anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Meg's bike

So, a comment on this blog, on March 9, said, about Meg's ghost bike at Bank and Riverside:

its still up..... its the most obnoxious and long standing memorial I have ever scene. I pass by it everyday and am utterly irritated that its been almost a year and its still there as if it was mother Theresa that died.

Hey, Anonymous (brave choice of ID, that): Cordially - wait, no, not cordially, not at all - fuck you. You have a problem with having to pass Meg's ghost bike? Does it bring you down? Oh, I'm so terribly sorry for you.

Meg's bike has been decorated since she was killed last July (incidentally, that was less than eight months ago). And it's not like the decorations are causing any problems to anyone: unless, of course, you find being reminded of the existence of cyclists to be a problem. And as a bike rider who goes by that intersection a few times a week, the tributes and the care lavished on her memorial have touched and encouraged me. In the fall, it was decorated with pumpkins and bats and ghosties and orange-and-black streamers. At Christmas it was decorated with pine and holly and ribbons. Last week, I took a picture of the bike festooned with Irish flags and green crepe paper for Saint Patrick's Day. Someone is going to that intersection and showing that the woman who was killed there is still a part of their lives. They're including her in their seasonal celebrations: “Hey, it's Winterlude, let's go put an ice inukshuk at Meg's bike.” Why, in all the worlds, would you have a problem with that?

That ghost bike reminds me, every time I pass it (on my bike, or in my car), that someone's deeply beloved sister, daughter, friend, and aunt was killed at that intersection. As a sister, daughter, friend, and aunt myself, I can only hope that if the unthinkable were to happen, the least that could come of it would be that the spot where it happened might be turned into a reminder, to cyclists and drivers alike, to look out for each other. No one should have to take their lives into their hands to get home from work. Not in a car, not on a bike, not on a bus or a subway.

I'm absolutely glad Meg's memorial is still standing. I'm glad that her family and friends look after her ghost bike the way they do. If you're irritated by it, maybe you need to think about why you are. What possible reason could you come up with to be angry with people for loving and remembering someone who's gone? If you've got a real corker of a reason, let me know. Otherwise, I'm just going to assume that you're made uncomfortable by the very presence of cyclists who - God forbid - feel they should be able to get around town without running the risk of dying.

Yes, we (as a group) remember our dead. Even the ones we were never lucky enough to know personally. That's because every day, when we get on our bikes, we feel like we're under threat. We're cut off, we're honked at, we're sped past, we're yelled at, and we're startled and scared on a regular basis, even though we keep telling ourselves we know the rules and we should be okay, because we read the comments (though we shouldn't) and we feel like if we got run down by a cement truck, like Meg was, there would be a frightening number of assholes like you who would say, “Come on, take the memorial down already, it's not like they were someone important.”

Also, ghost bikes are way better at signalling a dangerous stretch of road than any municipal sign: and, sadly, they're more common. Every time I pass Meg's bike, in my mind, I'm passing Meg: I didn't know her, but I know she rode a bike, and she was a daughter and a sister and a friend and an aunt, and I promise her – and the people that love me – that I will be careful.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Look, Ma, no gloves!

... I wasn't wearing a hat, either! And that's my spring jacket!

Admittedly, the weather people are calling for somewhere around 15 cm of snow for tomorrow, and someone said -20 is in the forecast, but today I biked to the office and back with no gloves or hat on. It was filthy and gritty and wet and the puddles hid deadly potholes, but I wasn't wearing gloves!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cabbie confusion (or, why can't people just treat me like a car?)

I was mostly okay with the two ladies who slowed down behind me as I climbed Bank today, only to suddenly decide, just as I turned around to smile at them for hanging back, to accelerate past me fairly close so they could cut me off turning right into the Farm Boy parking lot. I mean, it seemed a little dumb to hang back for fifty feet, then suddenly decide you couldn't do it for another twenty, but what the hey.

But what happened with the cabbie a couple of blocks later baffles me.

Just as I swerved to the left to get around a particularly nasty cluster of potholes, a cab (what's the one with the orange signs?) passed me uncomfortably close. "Jerk," I said to myself, and shook my head. But then he put on his right turn signal, slowed in front of me, then swerved a little bit left - and stopped. In the middle of the street.

I had been moving left so I could pass him as he made his right turn, but when he didn't turn right, and in fact moved out and into my way again, I had to slam on the brakes and skid to a stop behind him. "What are you doing?" I said, loudly, and the driver waved at me to pass him on the right. He rolled his window down. Meanwhile I was trying to decide whether to pull out around him on the left, as I'd been going to do anyway, but as I was not at all sure what he thought he was doing I didn't think it was safe. So when the window rolled down, I moved up beside him and said, "What are you doing?" again. He waved at me to continue. "What are you doing?" I asked again, really, honestly, because I wanted to know what his thought process had been. He didn't answer, just kept flapping his hand at me to move on. So I did, and then he turned in to the driveway.

So, again, he'd passed me in order to start cutting me off, only to decide against it and wave me through, and when I stopped behind him he didn't just finish making his right into the driveway, he decided to sit there and engage in some utterly confusing signals.

Because he thought I had the right of way to undertake him while he was turning right (I don't)? Because he'd suddenly thought better of overtaking me and then trying to cut me off (if so, kudos, but don't try to make it right after the fact, buddy, just don't do it again)? Because I was on a bike and he just wanted me out of the way because he didn't know what to do with me (most likely, to be honest)?

This. This is why I wish people knew the rules about bikes. The well-meaning, the ignorant, and the just plain careless are kind of hard to tell apart and they're really hard to figure out or predict. If he'd just treated me like a slower-moving car (i.e., hung back and turned right behind me, or passed me, turned right, and expected me to move left to give him clearance) no one would have been confused, or wound up stopping in the middle of a major street.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Springy (and therefore splashy)

It's coming, it really is. Spring, I mean. Today I biked to the office and came back sometime around 7:00 pm, after dark. And the air didn't hurt my face!

Not that I've been desperately longing for spring. Really, I have been kind of annoyingly (I'm sure) chipper about the temperatures and the unrelenting snow this winter. I actually like winter, yo. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I like snowshoeing, skiing and skating, and to do all of those things, you need it to be cold and snowy. I wasn't always like this, and I'll admit the darkness gets to me at times, but this is Ontario and it's winter for like five or six months, which is way too much time to spend being miserable because the air hurts your face. 

And for most of this winter, I've actually been happier about biking when it's really cold out, because that means the puddles are slush, and slush doesn't splosh as much. But that has all changed, meaning I can now also enjoy the warming temperatures that are creating puddles on the canal ice and in the potholes and all over the gutters.

See, my long-suffering waterproof pants gave up the ghost a while back. But I wore them anyway, even though they had holes in the butt and had actually gotten too small. It got so I didn't want to have to wrestle them on and then ride in them, with them making it hard to actually lift my legs. I was actually reluctant to bike if I had to wear them, and I realized that was A Bad Thing. So, a little while ago I went out to MEC and got a fairly inexpensive pair of MEC-brand waterproof pants to replace them that were nice and big. 

Freedom! The new pants mean I get where I'm going without jeans soaked to the knee, and since they're really big, I have the same kind of freedom of movement I have when I'm not wearing an extra pair of pants. Joy! 

I mention this because today, coming home from the office, I zipped. I zoomed. I splashed through puddles and I cut through slush and I took up my lane and I dodged potholes and I had that springtime feeling of my shoulders being free, being able to turn my head, without scarves and hats and hoods and mittens locking me into one single position on the bike. It was somewhere around 0. Usually, what I like about riding in the winter is the cold on my face and in my throat, and the moment when the blood gets going enough to flood through my fingers and replace the ache with a burn, and the challenge of controlling the bike through ice and snow. But tonight I got the springtime fun of being able to zip through the dark without worrying too much about sliding or the cold.

We've got four seasons - unless we've actually got six, or seven: who knows? I had someone tell me it wasn't spring yet today and I responded by saying that when I can feel the sun through a window, and have to wear rain pants to ride, and can see the hollows in the snow around trees and rocks, then I start thinking about spring. However many seasons we actually get in this northern country, we might as well enjoy them all for their various pleasures.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A white bike with blue spots

It was a little slushy this weekend. A little salty. A bit, well, February-ish. And so now Mike looks like this:

Note that Mike is, technically, theoretically, dark blue. But suddenly this evening, in an email to my family, I realized: he's not a blue bike with white spots anymore. Now he's a white bike with blue spots!

Cue the childhood flashback:

And just to add to the fun of this trip down memory lane, here's Betty White reading it. You're welcome.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Never a dull moment on a winter street

It snowed rather heavily again last weekend: 15 cm or something came down on Sunday. It was sliptastic. Today, though, the temperature had soared up to the -5 to -8 range and there had been enough traffic up and down the roads that I figured it wouldn't be that bad on the way downtown to my office. It was early afternoon when I headed down there (hooray for jobs that let me avoid rush hour the day after a big snow) and although my pants got wet to the knees it was pretty nice.

That is, until I got to the narrowed lanes due to construction going over the Bank Street Canal Bridge. It goes down to one lane now. There's a sign there reminding drivers not to pass bikes, for just that reason.

For a bit, it's wide enough to pass a bike safely, so I stay to one side, but as I got toward the middle of the bridge and the cars kept passing me, making it impossible for me to move over and take up the lane, I started looking behind me almost as much as in front, trying to find a gap in the passing motor traffic to get out and into the lane. When a white cargo van came up behind me and gave every sign of intending to pass me. At this point the lane was probably only a couple of meters across. I turned as I started to move left, saw the van attempting to gun for the narrowing space between me and the median, and shouted, "No you do not, you DO NOT PASS ME!"

He faltered, and I moved into the middle of the lane, and he backed off, and I rode firmly in the dead middle of the lane all the way to the stoplight, where the street goes back to two lanes. Then let the van past.

But, once I was downtown and the streets slowed down a little, I was comfy, even with the stretches of slush that had somehow been missed by the plows. I got to the office, did the things I needed to do, and decided to head home before sunset because of the lousy condition of the roads (pothole city).

But by now I was into rush hour. And it was an - eventful - ride home. First there was the odd phenomenon that while the east side of the street (Bank, which runs north/south) was relatively clear of slush, the west side had a thin layer of slush spread over the entire right lane for most of it, getting more and less dense and more and less thickly spread, but pretty consistent. (I guessed that the east side had had more sun during the day, which probably melted it.) So I had to concentrate a bit more when I hit the slushy patches, or come further out.

In the Glebe, a big black pickup (no lift kit, I don't think, but it was a tall truck) passed me, as I was sluicing through one of these stretches of slush, then slowed down, almost as though pacing me. I looked over, trying to figure out what they were doing. The passenger was looking out the window straight at me, smiling I think, saying something to the driver - his mom maybe. Then they accelerated a bit, moving over into my lane as though trying to cut me off. (No turning signal, of course.) I said out loud, "What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?" and then shouted out loud as they really started moving into my space. I guess they thought I'd just hit the brakes and let them cut me off.

Yeah, right, I'm going to hit the brakes in the middle of an inch-deep patch of slush.

So I kept going, and they had to get back into their lane and let me by and then do whatever boneheaded thing they'd been going to do. At the next light, I heard a voice behind me. "You ever just shout and swear at em?"

I turned around and the guy behind me winked. Older than me, with a beard and a nicely craggy face, and kitted up for winter riding. I nodded and said, "Yeah, all the time." He commiserated about people who just do stupid shit, and mentioned he was visiting from Vancouver. Told me a story about getting right hooked by some idiot a couple of days back in Vancouver, and I said something about how annoyed I am that they don't hear you when you shout, and he said, "sometimes they do, it's the best thing you can do most of the time, just shout at them and wake them up to what they're doing." I told him about my cargo van from earlier, and that I thought maybe screaming at it had made the driver back off. We talked for a while, even though the light had gone green, then I said, "Hey, have a great visit," and he said, "Ride safe," and we both pedaled off.

Which made up, in part, for the moron who decided it was a good idea to get mad about waiting for the car ahead to make a left turn, yanked the wheel over, and slammed on the gas to pull out and around him - cutting me off as I came by in the through lane. Or the man that zoomed past me with a couple of inches (really) to spare when I was trying to avoid a foot-wide, two-inch-deep pothole just before the Billings Bridge. And the several other cars that did not, although they had the space to, move a lane over while I climbed Bank Street past the river. And in particular the shouting, throat-hurting climb up Heron Road in which I screamed out loud at two consecutive cars (one of them a Blue Line taxi) that sped past me at about 70 kph and about a foot from my leg.

See, the right-hand lane had been narrowed down by snowbanks - two- or three-foot-high snowbanks - to only about as wide as a car. Not as wide as a car plus a bike. Not that many of these drivers had decided to make any concessions to that.

And then finally there was the burst of sheer rage in which I shouted, "Fine, to hell with all of you, I'm riding right here in the exact fucking middle of the lane and you can all just DEAL!" And I did, on a burst of rather cathartic fury, the rest of the way home.

Because that is, in fact, in actual really for true fact, the only safe place you can be when the snow has made the roads this narrow. If you move right even a couple of inches off that right-hand tire track, the drivers will think they can pass you, safe or not. It's way safer to be slap bang in the middle of the lane, pissing drivers off, causing them to rant impotently on comment boards and Twitter about asshole cyclists who don't know any better than to get off the roads in the winter (and there was a recent poll on that reported around 45% of respondents were in favour of actually banning cycling in the winter, if you can believe it). Own it. Take up that lane. You'll feel better, and you'll be safer.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


As I was leaving my apartment complex's recreation centre this evening, a man going by saw me unlocking my bike from a tree, putting it on the pavement and switching on the lights. "You still riding?" he asked.

"Well, yeah!" I answered.

"Seriously?" (He said, incredulously.)

"Definitely!" (I said, brightly.) "All year."

What I didn't say, and thought of about three seconds later:

No, in the winter I just take the bike out into the parking lot so it can pee.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Why it's so much harder in the cold

I rode down to a friend's place in Chinatown yesterday to go snowshoeing. Packed the snowshoes into the panniers and headed downtown. But it was sludgy, hard work. I got ice in my eyelashes and I kept getting my throat uncomfortably clogged because I was breathing hard and it was -30 out (or something like that). It just felt like I was towing a refrigerator (except without the welcome extra boost a refrigerator might have given me on the downhills). I kept checking to see if my back tire was flat, it was that hard to pedal. And by the time I got to my friend's place I was trembly-tired and my lungs were killing me. 

And, unfortunately, I'd been sweating, thereby soaking my wool base layer, which meant I started shivering as I cooled down in my friend's car on the way to Gatineau Park. (That is something to seriously, seriously think about when biking in the cold: when you stop, do you have a change of base clothes, or long enough inside to dry out before you have to go back outside again?) 

But, happily, I got myself nice and warm again pretty fast with a vigorous snowshoe up about 150m of vertical gain, then a moonwalking romp back down all the steepest bits.

Anyway. Why, oh why, I thought to myself, is it such hard work to bike in the cold? It's not just me: a friend of mine quit biking when it got really cold last year because it was such hard going. So I went out looking for answers. 

According to Lennard Zinn at Velo News, air resistance actually plays a part: as an aerodynamicist he consulted says, "Temperature has a much more pronounced effect on air density than humidity: cold air contains more molecules per cubic meter." Another points out that "The drag you experience at 25 degrees Fahrenheit is about 10-percent greater than you would experience at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This is approximately equivalent to the difference between riding at 20 mph and increasing your speed to 21 mph." 

So at -40F? Eek. 

Add to that what I found out at Fit Werx: tire rolling resistance is lower in the cold, making your tires sludgy. "Tire rolling resistance measures how much energy it takes to roll your tires over the pavement. When a tire contacts the ground it deforms and then springs back to its original shape. Every time this happens energy is lost in the form of heat. A warmer tire has improved elasticity and will lose less energy during this contact with the pavement."

The folks at Icebike also agree with my friends' theory that colder grease & bearings will affect you as well, making it harder for the whole drive train to turn, thereby making you suffer. (And look! a website devoted to winter biking! Hooray!)

Then there's the psychology: the way your scarf and jacket and hood and hat and helmet all combine to make it more or less impossible to turn your head to shoulder check. The only turns you can manage look a bit like Michael Keaton's Batman: shoulders and neck and head as a single molded-plastic unit. That just adds to your feeling of clumsiness and lumbering. And there's the sore lungs (after a pretty high-activity day yesterday, my lungs still feel just slightly sore from all the work in the cold air).

But. BUT. I was riding back home from my friend's place yesterday, after dark, down Bank Street through the Glebe, and as I went past a cluster of bundled people standing at a bus stop, I heard one of them say, "Nice!" and threw him a grin. Sure, I had to downshift, a lot, to get up that mile-long hill before my house. But I felt pretty badass when I got home.