Monday, December 14, 2015

A conversation on the new Belfast bike path

I imagine it might have gone something like this. . .

"The plans say there should be a bike path along this new road."

"Okay, bike lanes are easy, just pave it up to the raised curb and paint a centre line, eh?"

"Shit, guys, there's a manhole right where the curb's supposed to go!"

"Dangit . . ."

"Right. nice work dealing with that manhole cover problem, guys. The rest of this path should be fine, right?"



"This stabilizing wire thing. . . "

"Just run it into the asphalt, Jim! What's so hard about that? Jeez." 

"Kay. But we should probably make sure we paint the yellow line first, 'cause we won't be able to get the machine through after the wire goes in."

"Good thinking, Jim. It's problem solving skills like that we need in this town."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Strava or not to Strava?

The City of Ottawa just announced that it's partnering with to collect cycling data over the next two years. (In case you're one of the non-cyclists reading this, Strava is a training app for cyclists and runners that tracks your activity using a GPS device or the GPS on your smartphone and posts it to an online community.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a "cycling gold medal" city in pursuit of better cycling infrastructure must be in want of data. You need to know where people are riding, what routes are heavily used, where people have to take awkward or roundabout paths to avoid hazards, what their destinations are. You need to know what people are actually doing on their bikes if you're going to find ways to make it easier for them to do it.

There are a bunch of ways you can try to collect this data. They used to put students on street corners to count traffic. Now there are the ride counters that have been popping up all over town since the first ones went up in 2009. The City had a goal of 30 counters on major routes by the end of this year: not sure how close they are to that goal. There are also occasional bike audits being done, like the Cycle In project I was involved in this fall, in which people ride their usual commute and note where problems are. 

But all of these are complicated or expensive or otherwise a hassle, compared to having Strava do it for you. This information will just be generated by local cyclists as a matter of their daily lives, harnessing the power of every GPS device that's hooked up to it. It will be uploaded and aggregated and anonymized, and it's automatically free to use by the terms of the end user licensing agreement no one reads. 

Sounds great, right? Yeah, it kind of is. It's going to give the City much better data than they had, just based on the fact that bike counters only track people passing a particular point, and this tracks larger behaviour and patterns. But there are a couple of things that bug me.

One: Strava's whole culture is athletic. It's a training app for people who (primarily) cycle as a sport. Go to the splash page: you're invited to "join a worldwide community of athletes and train like never before." Leaderboards and challenges encourage you to set goals and to go further and faster and train harder. Members' profiles are "athlete profiles." You can get a "vanity URL" with the path:[yournamehere], as though you were part of some stable sponsored by Strava. Rides are tracked on distance, speed, and climb. Automated emails from Strava are ego-patting, motivational silliness.

"Whoa, you're kind of a big deal! X is now following you on Strava. Click to follow X back. Let's show him/her what you can do."

Generally, then, its target demographic is a specific subset of cyclist: those who go fast and far, who are generally confident, fit, and very accustomed to riding. They won't be avoiding main drags by ducking along winding side streets. They probably also don't haul trailers, or have shopping panniers on back racks. They're probably not riding cargo bikes to the corner store through downtown streets, they're not Strava-ing their trip to pick the kids up from school, and their activity feeds aren't crammed with 15 km/h rides to the library, with frequent stops for intersections. 

This skewed representation isn't lost on Ottawa bike folks (well, the ones I keep in touch with, who are quite the most entertaining), and they are, perhaps predictably, queering the whole process. Soon after the City's announcement, quite a few cyclists (yes, including me) signed up, specifically in order to track the kind of riding we do and make sure it shows up against the sea of Spandex. And we started encouraging others to do the same, shouting "We are here! We are here!" like the Whos in Whoville. There's an #ottbike Strava club now (yes, I joined) to remind people to log their short, slow, urban trips, to generate the kind of data we want generated. But that takes me to the second thing that bugs me.

Two: Strava's making money off this, and off us. They're not just sharing this data out of the goodness of their bikey hearts. I don't know how much Ottawa's paying them, but in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation paid them $20,000 for a year's worth of Portland's cycling data (the first agreement of this kind between Strava and a state transportation agency). In fact, Strava wins two ways here: they get money from the City, and they get a whole bunch of new people signing on to the service (yes, including me) and using it actively because they want their data to be counted. This boosts their numbers and activity, which in turn encourages advertisers, which is their main source of revenue.

But then, the amounts we're talking about aren't really massive amounts of money for a city or for an internet data corporation. And users don't pay for the app, so it's no shock at all that big data companies are making money off the information we give up to them. That's their business model, after all. That's how it works, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest to Strava. Welcome to the cyberpunk age: information actually is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit.

So, am I just being an old man yelling at a cloud when I'm a little uncomfortable that we're being forced, if we want our cycling patterns to count, to sign on to a specific data collection site and hand our data over to them? That you have to change your habits and patterns to fit Big Data? That this data won't include people who don't have smartphones or Garmins, who can't afford the data plans to upload this stuff, who aren't online and connected to the cycling community and won't have gotten the memo? 

Yeah, maybe. I'm already on Facebook; I can't really complain about the Big Data end of it. And at least, in Portland, they submitted the data with the caveat that Strava users were not representative of cyclists at large, and I can hope they take those factors into account here too. And, it's a way to provide the City with information it does need to make changes to infrastructure. So here I am, on Strava, logging my ride to the gym, or to my office, or to my evening meeting.

I can hope that if information actually is power and currency, I'll get some of my investment back in infrastructure improvements and benefits to me as a cyclist: and that's the best way one of these data-mining relationships can work out. 

Besides, the cyclists who've signed on for Strava in spite of its sportsiness, and because they want people to know that not everyone on a bike is training for a century, are having some fun with it. They're giving the rides they log sarcastic names. They're making a point of the ordinariness of their ride to get cat food or toilet paper or bagels. They're speculating on whether, at some point, an engineer at Strava will stop and wonder why there's suddenly been this spike in slow, short, meandering, un-athletic trips in the Ottawa area.

It's the curse of the Web 2.0 cohort that we're constantly using applications that weren't exactly designed for what we want to do with them. We make DropBox work as a wiki; we sneak private conversations onto Google Calendar Invites to circumvent office blockouts on email; we make WordPress try to be a website when it was (really, let's face it) meant to be a blogging platform. And we just might turn Strava into a tracker for workaday commuting, quaxing, going to shows, and meeting friends for coffee. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP!!!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Safer (paradoxically)

People I'm connected with on social media and the like probably know by now that I was in a fairly spectacular car accident this week. It was pretty dramatic, and both vehicles were absolutely totaled, although, amazingly, everyone involved walked away (gratitude is due to crash test engineers). 

So, that happened. I was fine: no real injuries, no whiplash even. But I didn't get on my bike for a couple of days because I was being careful in case my stiff neck was something worse, and because I hurt my left hand enough that I didn't think I wanted to squeeze brake levers with it for a bit. I did drive (my car wasn't the one that was wrecked) and observed that although I didn't consciously have a problem with it, I did have some slight physical symptoms of anxiety walking to the car with the keys in my hand. 

But I rode my bike downtown for a meeting yesterday. I was kind of interested to see how I'd react. Riding a bike, especially near my apartment where the roads are big, wide and fast, usually feels vulnerable. I'm usually on alert, and on a bad, jumpy day my trip can be hellish in spots. I wondered if, having just been through a car crash, I would have any problems. 

Short answer - no. I felt relaxed, almost relieved. In part, I think, because I was only going about 10 miles an hour. That feeling of being less trapped on a bike? Yeah, there was that, too. I was far less tense than I'd been driving the day before.

It wasn't like it was a breeze, but it was all the normal stuff. A guy decided to squeeze past me two abreast with another vehicle, without slowing down, on Heron, and made me shout. A woman merging onto Bank rolled slowly forward, not looking at me, as I zipped by in front of her with my hand up in a "stop" gesture, calling out "whoa, whoa, whoa." On my way home, some idiot crossing Bank from a side street in a sedan exhibited all the signs of "bike blindness" as he started to cross the street just as I passed in front of him. A police car (sigh) ignored my signal that I was moving left to avoid parked cars, and just cruised on past me, cutting me off between the parked cars and his lane. 

All normal. I yelled when I had to, to get the dude in the sedan's attention (he stopped). I shouted "asshole!" when I was startled by the old guy in the station wagon who buzzed right past me as I was nearly on the Billings Bridge (I also rolled up beside him as he was stopped in traffic at the bridge, glared in the side window at him, and caught his eye - but stopped short of tapping on the window and starting a conversation.) All normal: the everyday startles and shouts of my regular commute.

In fact, being on my bike was comforting. I was going at a reasonable, human speed. I felt less trapped - by the road, by the vehicles around me, by my momentum and vector. If I needed to stop, I could: right at the side of the road if I had to. I don't think I've ever before really appreciated the way bikes can just cruise along at the edges of that stream of cars, without having to be caught up in it. I felt totally in control. I felt safe. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lights on Bikes - 2015 edition

Got this photo from the @BikeOttawa Twitter feed.
In only two hours this afternoon, the City of Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling and Safer Roads Ottawa set up on the Somerset side of the Corktown Footbridge and handed out something like 450 sets of bike lights - 900 or so lights in all, and that's not counting the taillights donated by one of CfSC's members, and the pedestrian and dog lights that were also given out.

I was there as a volunteer with CfSC, and I might have been the first person to get bike lights, in fact, because I was there on my spare bike, one I'd spent a couple of hours getting roadworthy the night before, and it didn't have any lights yet.

(Mike, you see, is getting to be downright unsafe. I discovered recently that his brake cables were distressingly frayed, his back brakes are seized up, his handlebars appear to be corroded . . . anyway, I wasn't really willing to ride him very far in his current condition, and there was no way I was driving a car downtown to volunteer for Lights on Bikes. That would just be tacky. So, I had done a quick tuneup on my spare bike, an unnamed Nakamura Profile (who I think, now, will henceforth be known as Akito), but didn't have any working lights. So, Akito may have been the first bike to get little blinky red and white lights strapped on to his frame.)

Felicity, from CfSC, at right, talking with a passing cyclist.
It actually amazes me how many people are riding around with no lights. Even leaving aside that it's illegal not to have lights, it just freaks me out to go anywhere without lights after dark. I guess when I first started riding, I thought having lights blinking away on my bike was kind of dorky. But a few years on the road has driven that right out of my head. Now, I can't face the idea of riding home along South Bank Street if I know my taillight is out. I will get on the sidewalk.

In part, it's because I've been riding a while, and I have a much better idea of what is involved in riding in traffic. I have also been driving more since getting my first car a couple of years ago, and I have seen first hand how invisible a cyclist is if they don't have any lights. It's frightening to be driving along (especially if, like me, you're also a cyclist) and have someone in a black hoodie on a bike with no lights, and maybe a couple of half-assed, dirt-encrusted, dim reflectors, suddenly emerge from the dark at the side of the road. Or, worse, cross the road in front of you, or pop out from the sidewalk at an intersection.

Seriously, how do people ignore how invisible they are?

So I was happy to flag people down - lots and lots of people - and ask them if they wanted some free lights. A couple of people just said "nothanksIdon'twantany," the way you do when you think accepting the free gift will then end up with you signing up for some mailing list or getting roped into something else you don't really want. Most people, though, stopped, and said, "What? Free lights? Yes, please! Mine just broke down," or, "Someone stole my lights yesterday, I'd love some!" or "Absolutely, thank you, this is amazing!"

I was particularly happy when the people I was handing lights to seemed like folks who might not otherwise have spent the $5 or so that these lights cost. People who would have had to think, "yeah, so. . . bike lights? Or an extra meal today?"

It's something to seriously think about, actually. A bike is just about the cheapest mode of transport you can have, other than your feet, and once you have one you can ride it for years without having to put much money into it. If $5 is going to make or break your daily, or weekly, budget, you're not going to buy lights for your bike - and what exactly will you do when you get a $100 ticket for not having lights? We're giving people free safety. I kind of wish we could do another blitz to give out bike lights in specifically targeted, low-income areas. Somehow find the people who wouldn't buy bike lights because they have to pay rent and buy food instead, and give them lights. There's got to be a way to do that.

That's part of what pissed me off about the one and only belligerent person I encountered: a guy on rollerblades who completely lost it when I hesitated after he asked if he could have a set of lights for his wife, who, he said, rode her bike every day. (See, we'd been told that we could only give out lights to people with bikes - no extra lights for a person's whole family, no lights for someone with a bike somewhere else.) He got angry right off the jump, and before I even knew what was going on, he was shouting. "My wife is an executive," he said, "she rides her bike every day, and she doesn't get off work at 4:00 like these people," and he indicated everyone else on the path, "she's very busy. Are you working with the City? Do you work for the City? Do they subsidize this? We pay taxes! Do you have a manager, someone with some sense I can talk to? I go just as fast on these rollerblades as any cyclist, and my wife's life and my life are just as important as these people's . . ." Honestly, I'd tuned him out at that point - in fact, well before that point, as soon as I realized he was actually going into a full-blown entitlement temper tantrum over a $2 set of blinky lights. I mean, seriously: if his wife is some hotshot executive, surely, surely she can actually buy her own bike lights. Nicer ones. Bigger ones. And probably already has.

Yup, that's Somerset Ward Councillor McKenney
in the blue jacket. She's cool. 
Aside from Ranty Rollerblade Man, who I suppose must just have been having a really bad day or something, pretty much everyone else responded to, "Hey, would you like some lights for your bike?" with a hearty, "Absolutely, hell yeah!" It was amazing how much happier people were after you'd flagged them down, stuck a couple of lights on their bike that they didn't have before, and waved them off on their way.

And after a while, we actually started to run out of lights. By 5:30, when we were due to stop anyway, there were only a handful of lights left. Since we had 1,000 lights to start with, and some of them turned out to be duds, we figured that was about 900 lights, or 450 sets, we'd handed out over a couple of hours. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The police officer who was on site for the event, putting a collar light on a Yorkie who happened by. We also put a lot of lights on dog collars, joggers, and pedestrians this evening. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bring on the winter biking comments.... sigh

So, Councillor Tobi Nussbaum wants to have more bike paths cleared in the winter. That's awesome! But the minute I saw the article, I knew what I'd find in the comments. Wincing, I scrolled down to have a look because I'm mean to myself like that.

And I find:

"You have to be really brain dead to ride a bike in the Winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow bikers loosing control. Clear the streets and that's it. That`s where you can cycle if you want to risk it."

Okay. Point one: when you start out like that, what it says to me is that you don't ride a bike, therefore by definition you know nothing about it. You're just blowing hot air about something you think you have an Opinion about. But that's okay. That's what the comments section is for. That's why I braced myself before scrolling. That's why we cyclists play "Bike Comment Bingo."

Point two: if your problem is with people riding bikes in the winter in the streets, because of "accidents," then you should be all for clearing the bike paths. Keeps us out of the street. Where we can probably agree we would all rather have bikes be, especially in the winter. Unless you're just bitter towards people who ride their bikes in the winter because, for whatever reason, you think they mock you with their very existence and should stop.

Point three: how many accidents last winter were caused by a cyclist losing control? Hm. Well, it's hard to find those statistics, but so far I can only find a case from this spring when a cyclist went off the bike path and into the Rideau Canal, and people speculated there might have been a patch of ice involved. However, I'm also looking at a report from last February in which there were 140 automobile collisions in a matter of hours and oddly enough no one mentioned any bicycles. The footage accompanying the article is of the Queensway. On which, if I'm not mistaken, bikes aren't allowed. 

And looking at that number of accidents - wow. You have to be really brain dead to drive a car in the winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow drivers losing control.

I mean, why would we clear the streets if you're just going to drive too fast for the conditions anyway? Seriously, if you want to risk it, just get a four wheel drive vehicle and chains on your tires and you can drive through the snow if you're so all-fired determined to keep using your car in the winter. We'd save literally millions on road maintenance.

(Or you could just get one of these maybe.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Near miss with a motorcycle

"Dear Momentum Magazine: I never thought it would happen to me . . . "

In something like ten years of riding, I don't think I've ever really had one of these. An all-out confrontation with someone else who did something incredibly dangerous. And, improbably, I actually had my GoPro running. It was a classic "YouTube bike moment."

Here's the setup: I was on my way to the office and taking my Cycle In route in order to get it on camera (I missed filming it on the actual day), which meant I had to take the construction detour from Main Street over to Echo Drive. The signed detour route takes you along Mutchmor, a wide, very quiet residential street. Detached houses with good-sized lawns, a school zone. Super quiet.

As you can see below, there's a Y intersection at the west end: bikes stay left, and in a block you're on Echo and can turn right and head for the new, lovely, bike-signal intersection to get you across Colonel By Drive and onto the Rideau Canal path.

I have never once conflicted with another vehicle on Mutchmor. I don't think I've even encountered anything but bikes.

Until this.

I sort of wish I'd thought to walk up to him, because shouting across a huge intersection did nothing but disturb the neighbours. Once you're yelling, you can't talk sense to anyone. He wasn't listening anyway, he just wanted to yell at me that it was my fault. (Because he was going under the speed limit. Still working on the logic behind that one.)

If I give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he assumed I was going right (though you can see the detour signs in the video, directing bikes left). I didn't signal: but that's because I didn't hear him coming and had no idea he was even there until suddenly he was in front of me. And did I mention it was a super quiet street?

Or maybe he pulled this dumbass move and realized a fraction of a second later how stupid it was - and that if he'd hit me he would have taken himself out too. Then, out of defensiveness and adrenaline, he decided to blame me and scream that it was all my fault. At the time, I thought maybe I had been way out in the road - but looking at the video, I wasn't really. I had just started through the intersection on the way to the left-hand street.

A friend who rides motorcycles said that an inexperienced rider can't brake quickly without spilling, so maybe that's why he cut me off rather than turning behind me. But if he was going "20 km/h under the speed limit" like he claims, I'd think even a novice would have had time to see me, slow down, and go through the intersection behind me.

I'll try and go through the video later and see if I can pull anything else to ID the guy, and I've reported the incident, but it's not like I expect the police to do anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Save me from the Good Samaritan left turn.

I was riding up the hill in Old Ottawa South this morning, amid the stream of traffic that there always is on the hill in Old Ottawa South, just behind a big white Dodge van of some sort. Traffic's usually slow enough there that I can ride just out of the door zone, usually just off the left taillight of the vehicle in front of me. 

Suddenly, the driver of the Dodge slammed on the brakes. Startled, I swerved so as not to run into it, then continued my climb, filtering past it. As I got to the nose of the van, I realized the driver had stopped to let someone turn left across their path, mid-block. I hit the brakes myself, because there was a car about to turn left into me, and the driver of the car waved her hand at me in a "go ahead" gesture. So I did, while the left-turning car and the waiting Dodge held up traffic. 

I get that the driver of the Dodge saw the woman waiting to turn and decided let her go ahead. And I get that I probably wasn't all that visible, behind the van, to the driver (though the van had passed me earlier, and so should have been aware of my presence), and filtering is a weird, liminal sort of space for cyclists to be in, albeit one they're in a lot. And maybe everything was going slow enough that slamming on the brakes mid-block wouldn't cause the car behind to hit the van. But come on - use your rear-view. People so often don't think about what's behind them in traffic - they react to what's in front of them.

I've seen people do the same thing in four-lane traffic: stopping to let someone turn without thinking about the traffic coming up in the left lane who won't know why you're stopped. It happens all the time further south on Bank Street, where people stop in rush hour congestion to let others turn across two lanes to get into the Farm Boy parking lot. I'll be cranking up the hill, passing the slower car traffic, and at the entrance to the parking lot I regularly see someone nosing through traffic to turn left. Often, by the time they get across to the section of the street where the cyclists are riding, they've decided "all clear" and hit the gas to get out of the street and stop holding everyone else up - and if there's suddenly a bike in the way. . . 

(I know some people will tell me that I shouldn't filter. But filtering is actually a bit of a grey area in Ontario law, and my rule is, if there's room and traffic's slow or stopped, I will filter until the last few cars before the light. If any of those cars have right turn signals on, I stop behind them. If not, I ride up right beside the first car so I'm in the driver's peripheral vision when the light turns green.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Happy New Highway Code day!

. . . or, not so happy. Since a lot of the coverage I've seen indicates that the police blitz, intended to inform drivers about the distracted driving laws, is actually serving to inform the police just how many people are driving distracted. All the time. And how little they care about it.

One driver was quoted on the radio this morning referring to the distracted driving fines as "just the cost of doing business." (Though, the host did mention that the demerit points might rack up pretty fast.) Wonder if the court case when he hits someone is also the cost of doing business?

And the blitz may not actually be stopping anyone. Apparently, the phone is so addictive, even getting hit with a $500 fine doesn't deter some people. In the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an officer reported that he pulled a guy over who claimed he couldn't be fined, because he'd just been fined for the same thing. Ten minutes earlier. So, apparently, the deterrent factor lasts less than ten minutes. (They didn't say whether his ass got slapped with a second fine: I sure hope so.)

What the hell is so important that it can't wait till you're stopped?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Easier said than done

Last week, I was on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning for a short interview about the new markings on Wellington Street near Parkdale. The city has painted bike sharrows, flanked by lane lines, down the middle of each lane, and the words "DOORING ZONE" alongside the street parking area. The idea is to encourage cyclists to go into the middle of the lane in that stretch, because there is really no room for a bike and car to travel side by side.

Since I've written recently about taking the lane, they called me up, and I rode down there and met up with a reporter on a corner and talked to her about it.

On the way there, in Old Ottawa South near the Lansdowne Bridge, I was squeezed and forced out of my space on the road twice.

I talk a good game about taking the lane. I believe what I say, too. It's safer. When I have the guts to do it, I feel the bubble of space around me expand. It's almost as though drivers coming up behind me see the distance between my tire and the curb, and match it, out of some strange instinct for symmetry.

(I would love to see a study backing up whether that's what happens: it probably isn't.)

But since my column and radio interview, I've been more and more conscious of the amount of will it takes to stay in the lane. And of the fact that if you waver, even a little, things start to feel very dangerous. You're either right out there about a metre from the curb, and cars are giving you some clearance, or you waver a few inches and suddenly you've given them the proverbial inch. You're being herded into potholes, squeezed into pinch points, and riding in the door zone, and it's really hard to get it back. I don't know what the sweet spot is, exactly: but I can feel when I've lost it.

And even though I am such a big proponent of taking up space on the road, often I lose my nerve. I let myself cringe away from the cars, and then it's happened again, and on top of being annoyed at the traffic, I'm annoyed at myself. For caving. For giving in. For letting my courage slip for just a second or two, long enough to let my wheel drift leftward, until suddenly that pickup driver thinks there's enough room to squeeze past.

But then I get mad because it shouldn't be an ongoing, conscious act of courage just to be in the section of the road you're supposed to be in. Sometimes, that's enough to get me back in position.

Friday, July 31, 2015

So, about stop signs. . .

Coming next week in my Metro column: a call to get rid of stop signs, for cars and for bikes.

In part, the column was written because I live right above an all-way-stop T intersection. Sitting on my balcony, I get to see exactly how people really treat stop signs. I've been there on the days a cop car has taken up position on Cedarwood and taken down car after car running the stop. I've also been there on the days when there's no cop. I have yet to see an accident.

This is a video I took in around four minutes earlier this week. I only cut out some lulls where there was no traffic. Otherwise, this is an average afternoon:

Why shouldn't that intersection be a roundabout? My friend Christopher Doyle has even helpfully supplied some visual inspiration:

Doesn't that look nice? And civilized? And would it change anything about the way people go through it? Not really. It would just codify it.

Anyway. There are a lot of things that people hold, dogmatically, to be true about stop signs that just ain't so. "Those damn cyclists" that roll through the stop signs are doing it right alongside an equal number of drivers that do. But a rolling stop in a car is somehow perceived differently.

And then there's the dangerous confusion that can happen because people have motor programs for stop signs that don't include bicycles.

Like the other day. I biked up to a four-way stop in Little Italy. The driver in front of me went through the intersection. I pulled up, and just as I started to pedal again to go through, a woman pulled up as well, on the cross street to my right. But I'd definitely been there first, so I kept going. The minute I was directly in front of her, she just started driving forward, straight at me. I yelled, "WhoawhoaWHOA!" at her, and I recall her sort of looking up indignantly at me, my bike, and my warding hand, and then I was out of the intersection, a bit shaken and pissed, but safe.

Many things contributed to that spooky moment: one, I had stopped and taken my turn, so I was accelerating very slowly into the intersection at a time when reaction time is a factor. Two, she may not have recognized that I was at the intersection first because she just didn't register the bike as a vehicle (we navigate stops on autopilot much of the time). Three, she may have thought she was starting to move at a perfectly reasonable time, if the other vehicle was a car and able to speed up like a car.

BAH. This is why stop signs should die. Replace them with yields and roundabouts. Let people use their common sense instead of applying a bunch of learned rules and motor programs.

Or, at least, accept - and codify - the fact that bikes and cars, at intersections, are very different vehicles.

In San Francisco, this week, a bunch of cyclists staged an ingenious protest: They rode according to the rules of the road.

This meant that when they got to a stop sign, they came to a full and complete stop, ensured they had right of way, then proceeded through the intersections. Just like you're supposed to. In minutes, they had drivers honking at them for holding things up, for clogging up the intersection - for behaving according to the law and not, frankly, in the most efficient manner.

I don't think I've come across a more effective demonstration of why the Idaho stop is a good idea. You know what? Cyclists have already, generally, come up with a means of moving around among cars that is safest and most comfortable for the majority. And its rules are actually different in different situations and for different vehicles.

And maybe the law needs to catch up.

Sure, you risk your life, but there are ducklings.

So, I saw a jogger nearly get hit by a car this morning.

I have been relishing the fact that a large portion of my path to work right now takes me on the Rideau Canal pathway. There are baby ducks, there are joggers, there are people fishing and kayakers and paddleboarders and people curled up on the grass with books at Dows Lake. The canal is a great way to get through town.

Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, it's decidedly less pleasant to get to, most of the time, and the places where bikes and foot traffic access it are often downright hazardous.

To get to the Colonel By Drive side, you turn off Bank at Echo (if you're turning left, just use the pedestrian signal, because Lansdowne Bridge north of you is a blind hill), go down a hill (if you're on a bike, you travel against the direction of traffic, illegally: if you're on foot you get a path), stop at the bottom, and then cross Colonel By at an unsignalized, unmarked intersection. Thusly:

Yes, Google Maps apparently thinks there's a Tim's in this intersection.
Sight lines to the left are terrible, as the road vanishes around a curve. And the bridge makes it pretty hard to see what's coming to the right, as well. And I watch people cross it pushing bikes. Or strollers. Skates in hand, in winter, through the snowbanks. With small kids in tow.

This morning I had just made it to the Queen Elizabeth Drive side (a whole other bad intersection in itself), and was heading west, when I heard a squeal of brakes. Looking across the water, I saw that a minivan had just nearly hit a jogger crossing Colonel By at Echo. An SUV, hot on its heels, had also had to slam on their brakes.

The minivan's bumper was maybe four feet from the jogger.

These crossings are all along the canal path. I get it, improvements are bring made. There's a bike/ped crossing at Clegg now. There's a stop sign and crosswalk at Somerset. But so many of these crossings are still not safe.

Colonel By and Queen Elizabeth were designed and conceived as "scenic drives." Pleasure drives. So they wind and curve and have few stops to interfere with the driving experience. All of those things make them extremely dangerous to cross - and yet we have to, to ride or walk or jog or skate along the canal.

On the up side, once you've made it across, there are ducklings.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

If I could make a request of the universe - just a little one . . .

There are a few little things on my wish list. My personal, if-a-genie-popped-out-of-a-bottle wishes. (That is, if the genie was offering me only urban-design-related wishes, because otherwise, sorry, I would wish for the Nile or my own personal pet unicorn or something: I like nicely built streets and all, but come on.)

Anyway, today I realized that one thing, one tiny little thing, that would make me happier as a cyclist, would be a standardized sign letting me know that an intersection has got one of those magnetic loops controlling the lights.

Some intersections have got the three yellow dots for bikes, yes. But you have to know they're there, and know what to do with them. The new bike intersection at Clegg and Riverside, for example, has a wordy sign explaining how to use the dots.

But there are loop-controlled signals for cars, too - 70% of the city's traffic signals have detector loops - and not only is it hard to position over them, because you usually can't see where they are and bikes are usually over to the right anyway, but I have absolutely no faith that my bicycle, with its paltry metal content, will trigger them.

There has been more than one occasion, biking home late, when I've wound up waiting in the left turn lane from Bank to Heron through multiple cycles, because after a certain time at night the advance green reverts to a loop-triggered signal (or maybe it's triggered by a detector all the time, and it's only in the middle of the night that I notice because there are no other cars to set it off). I could sit there all night: it doesn't think I'm a car, and so I don't get a chance to get out of the intersection unless I duck out - against the light - through a gap in the flow of traffic, or use the pedestrian signal when it comes up.

I'm getting good at inching my bike forward until there's enough space behind me that a car could get up to the stop line. Using the metal content of the car behind me to trigger the loop. If there is a car behind me. On quiet nights, you can wait a long time for a car to come along that triggers the signal in the direction you actually want to go.

I don't necessarily need the detectors to be senstive enough to pick up my bike (though that would be great). All I really need is for the intersections that are controlled by a detector to be indicated, so if it's 12:30 am and there are no other cars in sight, I know not to try and wait, invisibly, in traffic position, for a green light that isn't coming.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Incidental Cyclist abroad!

I just got back, earlier this week, from a trip to Scotland to see my younger sister and her family (and climb a mountain). My older sister and I also stopped off in Iceland on the way because, well, heck, we were going that way anyway.

Naturally, among all my photos of geological wonders, historical places and my family, there are pictures of bike infra in both countries. It's a thing. My big sister kept laughing at me for stopping and taking pictures of bike lanes and woonerfs and traffic barricades.

A moveable traffic barricade in Reykjavik.
But I'm always interested in how other countries are doing things. And to be honest, with all the worshipful eyes turned from Canada toward the Netherlands and Denmark, I think I "look to like" in northern countries like Iceland and Scotland: I hope to see good things happening. Especially since both countries have a sizeable "outdoorsy tourism" industry. People travel to Iceland and Scotland expressly to go out into the wilderness, to hike, walk, climb mountains, camp. They take along mountain bikes and touring bikes, or rent them. So, is that reflected in their infrastructure?

Reykjavik looked pretty good, given the conditions. Reykjavik is not a big city. It's not a particularly populous one, either (pop. 119,000 and change). And the rest of Iceland, well. . . there are only about 320,000 people total. So the volume of cyclists is probably pretty small, really. Add to that, it's very dark and fairly cold - though not as cold as Ottawa - for half the year, which probably discourages cycling. (We were there in early July, and while there wasn't midnight sun, it didn't actually ever get dark: even at 1:30 am it was still twilight, maybe even light enough to read by. So I can imagine that in December it must be light for only a few hours a day.)

But the priorities seemed to be in favour of walking and cycling. The streets downtown (I didn't get into the outer areas of the city) are relatively narrow, and twisty, and not at all on a grid. Many of them are one-way with only room for one car at a time to squeeze past a line of parked cars at the side. This pretty much slows down car traffic by default, and it was quite calm and tame. Added to that, the "high street" areas, a set of about three shopping streets radiating downhill from the central Hallgrimskirkja church (in the background of my picture above) were blocked off, when we were there, with moveable car barriers, turning them into pedestrian and, I presume, cycling zones. The pavement and brickwork on some of those streets were brightly painted as well. 

One barometer I have is whether there are stylish cyclists: people just looking classy as hell while riding along. There were classy cyclists in downtown Reykjavik: not a scrap of Spandex to be seen, and plenty of immaculate pea coats and accent scarves. No helmets that I recall.

Down by the harbour I noticed this: separate bike and pedestrian paths. This is something I wrote about in Ottawa Metro a little while back as a spitballing excercise in what-if. Here, they did it. Bikes on the right: walkers on the left. There was also a separate bike traffic signal.  

There were also segregated lanes on a few of the streets, with sizeable medians (and lines of parked cars) separating them from the cars. 

With all that, the city wasn't exactly jam packed with bikes (note: no actual bikes in any of the above pictures). I see far more bikes in use on any given day in Ottawa. But then, Ottawa's population is roughly seven times that of Reykjavik, and I only really had an afternoon to look around and get an impression. The thing was that it certainly did not feel like a city that prioritized cars in any way. (This didn't make it particularly bad to drive there, either, I noticed: we had a car and it was actually pretty easy to navigate.)

Outside of the city, the Spandex did return, but not aggressively. Lots of people bike tour along the "Golden Circle", and my sister and I drove past a lot of them, loaded down with backpacks and panniers. I caught this family out for a loop around one of the fells just outside of the city: 

And this was clearly another family, at Thingvellir National Park, 46 km or so from the city: 

Though this person seemed to be on their own (also at Thingvellir - and note that apparently you need to pack a lot of camping gear if you plan to camp somewhere as chilly as Iceland):

This guy was getting a snack in by his bike near the parking area, as well. 

Despite all the bike touring, the highway was generally narrow: there wasn't much shoulder to work with and no bike lane. Certainly there weren't the separate bike paths alongside the road that I saw later in Scotland. But, given how empty the highways generally were, even on the biggest tourist route in the country, I suppose bike lanes might not be a big priority. The highways also generally twisted and turned too much to allow drivers to get up to any major speeds. Speed limits seemed posted, generally, at around 80 or 90 kmh.

From Iceland we headed on to Scotland, via Glasgow, where I spotted the bright pink nextbike racks just outside Queen Street rail station: 

nextbike is like any other bikeshare system, really: you sign up online or by phone, pay by credit card, and return the bikes to any of 20 stations in Glasgow. It's also available in multiple countries, and once you're registered you can use a nextbike in any of them (they have locations in Europe, the Middle East, and the USA), which is cool. 

We were supposed to take the Harry Potter train (which really does run from Glasgow up to Fort William in the Highlands, and over that pretty viaduct at Glenfinnan) but unbeknownst to us there was a work stoppage among the drivers. So we had to take the bus instead. We wound up in the very front seat, with a view out the huge windshield, so I had a chance to watch Scottish bike infrastructure in action. Mostly, it seemed a little . . . nonsensical. There were bike lanes, some even with paint on the intersections to announce danger zones, but were they ever narrow:  

There just really is no way that bus could possibly get three feet over. At times, the bike lanes would just sort of end, too: I saw at least one "cyclists dismount" sign where the sidewalk/bikelane appeared to just terminate in a grassy verge. Just a "cyclists dismount" sign standing alone at the side of a road next to the hedges. 

You can't quite read it, but that's what it says. Just get off here, cyclists. Pthththtbth. 
Not that surprising, really, since I already follow the account @bollocksinfra on Twitter. 

And yet they ride in Scotland. They ride here: 

But they also ride here: 

And they ride on those single track roads that are pretty much all there is in the Highlands, and up some crazy steep hills. I didn't get pictures of the bike tourists and rec riders, but they were there. But having seen how narrow the roads are, and how aggressive and fast some of the drivers can be, I'm not surprised so many online UK cyclists seem a bit . . . militant. A little vigilantist. 

There was, to be fair, a decent network of these paths running along beside the roads, nicely separated. I think they were for bikes: I did see people riding on them. My older sister remembered using a network of these in Europe, back in the 80s. . . 

I didn't spend a lot of time in any major cities this time around. I remember Aberdeen, on my last visit a couple of years ago, having a few strips of painted lane and a couple of bike boxes, but not much for bikes and narrow streets. I saw nothing but the bike share in Glasgow (and space for bikes made on the trains). Fort William, Ballachulish, and the other smallish towns we visited in the Highlands didn't have anything that I saw (and in fact there were times we thought Fort William could have had a couple more intelligent pedestrian crosswalks, too).

So, Scotland's bike systems are fairly scanty and strange, but Iceland seems to be doing well. And that in a country that measures daylight in hours you can count on one hand in the winter, and where the average July temperature is somewhere around 11 degrees Celsius. (Take that, all you "cycling is impossible in Ottawa for eight months of the year anyway, so why build lanes" people!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A poem repost

I get a regular email from The Writer's Almanac, and it has a poem of the day at the start. This was July 5th's poem. I liked it. I love night biking. I love night biking in the cold even more. And I just spent a while in the mountains. All that sort of works into this poem.

Maybe Alone On My Bike 
by William Stafford

I listen, and the mountain lakes
hear snowflakes come on those winter wings
only the owls are awake to see,
their radar gaze and furred ears
alert. In that stillness a meaning shakes;
And I have thought (maybe alone
on my bike, quaintly on a cold
evening pedaling home), Think!-
the splendor of our life, its current unknown
as those mountains, the scene no one sees.
O citizens of our great amnesty:
we might have died. We live. Marvels
coast by, great veers and swoops of air
so bright the lamps waver in tears,
and I hear in the chain a chuckle I like to hear.

"Maybe Alone On My Bike" by William Stafford from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1999. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The grass ain't always greener on the other side. Exhibit A: Kitchener.

A friend of mine, Shantell Powell, was just interviewed about cycling for CTV in Kitchener.

Now, I've heard her talk about what riding is like in Kitchener. I've heard stories about terrible infrastructure, hostile streets, threatening and abusive drivers. Once, she was followed - tailgated, really - by a woman who screamed at her, attempted to force her off the road, passed her, then came back to start all over again. Shan reported it to the police. The police did nothing.

Having watched the CTV spot, sadly, I know why the police might have done nothing. So this is what it looks like to live in a place that's truly hostile to bikes. Ottawa is starting to look like the freaking Netherlands.

Even the copy for the story is slanted against bikes. "In the battle of bikes against cars, it's pretty simple to guess who wins," is literally the first thing the anchor says. Break out the bike comment bingo cards, people. (And remember: physics will win every time.)

"Tonight, a more difficult question: who is causing the crashes?" Oh, no. No, no. I can see where this is going like oncoming headlights.

Yeah. Because although they're talking about car/bike road sharing, " of the worst incidents Powell can recall didn’t occur on a road at all, but on the Iron Horse Trail. While biking the trail one day, she suddenly found herself on a collision course with a cyclist who came 'out of the bushes' at an unmarked crossing."

Those reckless cyclists, endangering even each other on their headlong, heedless way! 

"In the bulk of these collisions the cyclist is at fault. Usually for failing to yield or just disobeying some sort of traffic control," says the policeman they interviewed.

That doesn't match with, you know, actual studies of actual accident statistics

Let's quote from the Ontario Coroner's Report on cycling deaths, shall we?: 

  • In 44 cases, contributing factors on the part of the cyclist alone were identified. In 33 cases, contributing factors on the part of the driver of a vehicle alone were identified. In 48 cases, contributing factors were identified on the part of both the cyclist and the driver. In three cases, the circumstances of the collision were unclear.
But hey. They're interviewing a committed cyclist (she must be, she rides in Kitchener), so what does she have to say? Well, aside from the fact that they edited the interview so that the first thing she says is "you have terrible cyclists just like you have terrible drivers. . . " they then undercut anything she might later have to say by having the voiceover inform you that "she says she obeys the traffic signs . . . mostly. . . " and then make a point about how rolling through stop signs isn't legal in Ontario. And punctuate it with footage of her rolling through a right turn past a stop sign.

(I stood outside on my balcony this morning and watched five out of six cars roll right on through the three-way stop below my building in less than a minute. Those scofflaw drivers. They think they own the road!)

"Don't forget the right of way, and the right of weight!" says the narrator. Remember: cars outweigh bicycles, ergo, if you are hit by a car, it was your fault. Obvs. The cop even backs that up. "They're gonna win in any collision," he says. 

And it's all about who walks away not crippled, amirite? Like those old trials by combat, where the winner was determined to be morally right because clearly the gods were with him.

Really, what bothers me the most about this story is that it starts from a lazy-ass premise - people on bikes are at fault when they're hit by drivers in cars - and edits to suit. While Shan tries to make a point about why taking the lane in a construction area would make sense and be a reasonable decision on the part of the person riding the bike, the editing makes nonsense of what she's trying to say, then cuts straight to the policeman saying that you should always ride as far to the right as "possible" (and that's another twitch, another point scored on the bike article bingo card, because there is a world of difference between "as far right as possible" and "as far right as is safe.")

"Follow those [the laws], be a little bit courteous, be aware of your surroundings, and you'll have no problems," says Sgt. Whatsisname.

There you go: the attitude of a whole city toward cycling. Summed up as the ghost of Rob Ford saying, "my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ride of Silence

Tonight was the annual Ride of Silence to commemorate cyclists killed or injured in collisions with cars. I've never been before (which is probably why I forgot you're supposed to have a helmet, and showed up without mine, because I came in from the drive-to job and had chucked the bike in the back of the car. Oops). They let me, and a couple of other helmetless folks, ride anyway, of course.

Photo by Jeff Morrison
After a quick reminder of the reason for the ride and the rules, we left City Hall and did two circuits of the Laurier bike lane, all the way to Bronson and back, stopping at stop lights, merging into traffic at the spot where the bike lane's closed by construction, and at one point avoiding a delivery truck which was (of course) parked in the lane. No one spoke, and everyone had a black or red ribbon on their right arm: black in solidarity, red if they'd been injured in a collision. 

Once we all got back to City Hall, people basically went their own ways - turned in their ribbons to use next year; a few stopped to talk; one person, I thought, cried; the group just sort of broke up. I hopped back on the bike and rode back over to my office to get the bike back into my car and home. No fanfare, no speeches, just a quiet dispersal. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

HULK SMASH (or, using your words. Loudly.)

I was just on my way home, going through Old Ottawa South, and signaled and tried to take the lane because it's too narrow through there, and this dude in a red two-seater crowded me. This was just in front of the Mayfair, where everyone tries to squeeze over into the right-hand lane to avoid getting caught behind left-turning cars. (Only to then pinch bikes between them and the parked cars on the other side of the Sunnyside intersection, but that's a whole other complaint I have, and in fact at rush hour the parked cars aren't there, which is a blessing and made the rest of this encounter much better.)

I waved him back and made a big show of shoulder checking, giving all the body language I could that I was moving over. But he still kept trying to squeeze by, while I was, increasingly loudly, shouting, "There isn't room, there isn't room to pass me!" Then this huge, righteously pissed-off voice came out of me, and I bellowed, "THERE IS NOT ROOM TO PASS ME!" I didn't even recognize my own voice, I was just all HULK SMASH.

That voice made me feel pretty powerful, actually. Ironically enough given the massive power difference between my vehicle and his. There was something about knowing I was right. And, also, too often when I find myself shouting at drivers I'm just swearing sharply or reacting with a wordless shout, in fear. This was reacting with Teachable Moment. (Albeit a hulk-smashy teachable moment.) I had words - straight-up, clear, definite, very loud words.

And just after I bellowed, I saw that his windows were down, because, of course, it was a beautiful summer day. So I damn well knew he'd heard me. And he backed off, and I got my ass into the dead centre of that lane, and through the intersection o' doom.

I am bike-woman. Hear me roar.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Why do people feel like they need to improve bikes?

So, way back in the 1800s, something totally revolutionary happened. Bikes got invented. The more I learn about bicycles in the 1800s, the more I'm convinced they really did change the world. A means of transportation, other than your feet, for people who weren't wealthy, a source of independence for women, a step in the massive technology revolution we're still in. . .

And they haven't changed all that much, really. Sure, very, very early on, they didn't have any pedals. The first "Laufmaschine" was pushed along with your feet, a little like kids' balance bikes now.

Then, around the 1860s, some genius in France added pedals to the front wheel, and voila, the first pedal-driven bike. (Although it might have been some genius in Scotland in the 1830s: apparently a rod-driven bike is on display in Glasgow dating to then.)

Anyway, once they'd gotten through the fad for the high wheel (sure, it would go faster, but at the expense of broken bones; besides, pedaling while steering on the same wheel? no thanks) things settled down, and someone came up with the rear-wheel-drive, chain-powered "safety" bike in the 1880s. And if you look at one of those, it's utterly familiar. 

"Whippet Safety Bicycle" by Science museum. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I would be able to ride one of those, no problem. Aside from the odd frame with all its superfluous-looking tubes, it looks a lot like any modern fixie. 

So, that's . . . let's see. . . 1885 to 2015. That's 130 years of basically the same design (even a bakfiets is basically the same thing). It's one of the things I love about the bicycle. It's a simple, elegant machine. It's kind of reached its evolutionary apex, like a shark, and is now just swimming about, unconcerned with having to adapt further.

Until people start thinking they need to improve on the idea. To make the bicycle (already a highly adapted urban vehicle) into, well, a highly adapted urban vehicle.

I mean, there was the ElliptiGO: not an attempt to make bikes better so much as an attempt to make elliptical machines less boring.

And the H-Zontal, which apparently is designed to make you go faster. I can't argue with recumbent bikes, since they seem to have developed and survived and are actually used by people - but this thing looks ridiculous. And uncomfortable (sure, you just lay down along the frame - unless you're a woman with bigger-than-small breasts. Not to mention unexpected bumps look like they would be painful no matter what kind of body you've got). Piloting via mirrors while going really fast doesn't seem like a great idea either.

Also in the go-faster department is the Varibike, which is kind of cool, if you don't mind looking a little silly, though not as silly as on the H-zontal, and at least the engineering doesn't totally overshadow the main point or require you to learn a bunch of new skills.

All of those, though, are about the bike as a means of getting a workout and going long distances, not about the bike as a way of getting around town. And I won't get into things like the YikeBike (the Segway's inline cousin) because that's getting past bikes and into electric vehicles.

Or this, from a patent issued in 2004, which I'm just going to leave here:

And then there are actual urban-life-focused designs like this, which is pretty cool if I want to be totally honest about it, although it doesn't mess with how the bike works, just how you lock it up (I worry, though, about the cable that tightens it up so you can ride it: if it loosens mid-ride you could be in trouble). 

But then someone I know posts a link to something like this - the "Fliz" - and I have to scratch my head. This, apparently, will "encourage more cycling within an urban environment." Look, it's the original "Laufmaschine," only complicated! 

I don't know why people think that the best way to encourage cycling is to get rid of the chain and pedals. The pedals being the thing that originally propelled bikes (see what I did there?) into the world-changing prominence they got in the late 1800s. But people keep thinking that the problem is the chain.

Somehow, I feel like if you're not ready to get on a standard bicycle, this thing won't be much more encouraging or appealing. Strap yourself into a harness hanging from the frame. A frame which severely limits your ability to turn and check behind you. Run, with your upper body at an unnatural angle for running (at least the old 1820s Laufmaschine had you upright) and then try to get your feet onto the rests on the back wheel without catching the wheel with your toes. Coast along. 

In traffic? 

Besides, it doesn't look like going up any major hills would be particularly easy; as a rock climber I can tell you I wouldn't want to be hanging in that harness for very long; you can't carry much in the way of cargo (a dealbreaker for any proposed "improved urban experience"); you couldn't ride this in a dress, or even in a suit - not without creasing anyway; and if you want to stop, you have to get out of the harness in order to walk away. Or hang there, bent over, chatting with people, like the guy in the video. Not to mention the lack of fenders. Just imagine riding this thing in the rain, with a fountain of dirty water splashing up across, oh, your entire body.

And then there's the fact that in an accident, you're literally tied to the machine. Good luck bailing or jumping free. 

It might be fun to play on for a bit, I suppose, and I imagine the sense of flying, hanging from the harness, might be pretty cool. But this thing is a toy. As a practical urban vehicle, I'll take my "safety" any day. We've had 130 years to find something better and so far, we haven't.

And also what the hell?