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?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The case of the vanishing bike lane

In my column this week, I wrote about the sudden disappearance of the bike lane from the Glebe section of the O'Connor Bikeway. Due to "parking concerns" (sigh), the City announced that the painted, designated bike lane was suddenly now "no longer considered" and the lanes would go back to being "shared lanes" which, at best, means magic painted bike symbols, and at worst means the street stays exactly the same as things are now.

They announced the pretty-much-solidified plan on, what, April 9? Early enough that we ran a story on it in the last issue of the Centretown BUZZ. Then on April 21, the bike lanes were gone. Bike lanes which had been in the plan for the last . . . oh . . . three years. 

It's not like that stretch of O'Connor is all that busy or dangerous, to be fair. I rode down it a few days ago, and it's a fairly quiet street: quiet in part because it's awkward to get onto and off of, particularly if you're heading north. At the south end, you have to do some wandering near Lansdowne to switch from Bank to O'Connor, or at least I did, not knowing which streets would connect up between the two: 

And then at the north end of the section, where O'Connor suddenly turns into a one-way street heading south, you're stuck. The two-way street ends, and you're facing O'Connor heading the wrong way. The cross street (Strathcona) is one-way and takes you even further from Bank Street (and would only get you to Metcalfe, where you would have to make a left turn onto a busy main street, which would in turn only take you a block past the Queensway and bottom out at Argyle). And so you wind up riding (or walking) your bike for two blocks on the sidewalk, the wrong way, across Strathcona and Pretoria, then crossing Chamberlain, which is basically a highway on/off ramp. Then you go under the highway on the laughably short "bike lane," which also goes the wrong way, stopping at a confusing double pedestrian crosswalk to cross the on ramp and then Catherine, then making a left (remounting your bike at some point) onto Catherine (a very busy one-way street that's basically an off ramp) and heading back down to Bank.

The intersection to the east is just as bad. And takes you further off route if you meant to go to Bank Street. 

All that will be mitigated somewhat, I hope, by the bidirectional, segregated bike lane which is planned (so far) for O'Connor north of Strathcona, where it's a one-way street. And you'll be able to continue north on O'Connor for the rest of its length instead of having to deke back over to Bank Street and compete with truck and bus traffic. 

That's assuming the bidirectional bike lane survives the round of complaints that are bound to surface now that the City's announced the plan they've spent the last seven years constructing. It apparently only took them a week and a half to back off on the painted lanes planned for the Glebe, after all, citing a "unique need" for parking and the fact that it's a quiet residential street. 

No, the bike lane isn't as desperately needed on O'Connor as it is lots of other places. If you ask me, where the bike lane needs to be is Bank Street where the actual destinations are, but tell that to the businesses that (probably wrongly) think losing parking will destroy them. So, okay, put it on O'Connor, but if you're going to put it there, then go ahead and do it. I don't know how much more expensive it would be to add bike lanes: given all the bus bulbs along that street I guess it will involve some construction. But it was in the budget, right?

Besides, this bike lane has already been shuffled off onto the lowest impact street: if you can't do it here, where can you? And look at the benefits. You're removing parking for about five to ten cars, but in return you're adding a buffer zone between car traffic and pedestrians on the narrow sidewalk, creating a more pleasant street for everyone, and demonstrating that there's actual political will behind creating bike infrastructure, and not just a mechanical, "we ought to do this, the optics are good, cycling is 'trending,' but we don't really want the hassle" attitude about it. 

When I talked to people about this for my column, the recurring attitude was, "This is just the beginning." Now that the Bikeway plan is firmed up enough that it's being covered in the media, the objections will begin to roll in, people seemed to feel: it's not over yet, not by a long shot. 

Before tomorrow, you might be able to have some influence on the June 3 Transportation Committee report: email to let him know what you think. (Cc. and, too.) 

Friday, April 24, 2015


The ride downtown today involved temperatures hovering around freezing, shite pavement, potholes, aggro drivers, a howling headwind (which seems to have persisted for days, and seems to be against me no matter what direction I'm going in), sluggish tires, watering eyes, and one asshole in a Maserati buzzing me too close and annoying me even more because of his satin-finish silver luxury Italian car.

And yet, I do not regret not choosing the car. Not one bit. I may be a little ticked off and shaky from a few close passes and the fact that a headwind shuts off your hearing (far more than music does, o thou distracted-cycling worriers). But that doesn't mean I would rather have taken the car.

We're too hung up on being comfortable, for one thing. I recently responded to a writer who'd sent me a series of questions about riding and found myself actually self-editing out references to rain, snow, ice, traffic, cold - basically discomfort - even though those are things I feel good about dealing with, because I thought it wouldn't encourage new riders. And maybe it wouldn't. But in fact, what is so bad about doing things that are not comfortable?

When I get stuck in a blizzard on the way home and have to pick my way along the wheel track blinking ice pellets out of my eyes, that is certainly not comfortable. But "fun" and "comfortable," at least for me, aren't necessarily synonymous. I also like to spend my Saturday dragging my ass up steep hills, possibly braving wind and rain, being anxious-to-downright-scared at times, and clinging to small edges of rock at unnerving heights above the ground. That is not comfortable. And yet, it's the best thing I can think of to do with a Saturday.

And when I get on the bike and it's -35C out there, or traffic sucks, or it's raining, or whatever, there's an elation to knowing that shit like that will not stop you. That in fact, you eat adverse conditions for breakfast and feel more alive because of it.

And if I took the car? I'd be sheltered from the wind and the aggro drivers. But I'd be in the car. Feeling more and more sluggish. Missing out on the sharper focus you get from riding, from the cold wind, from the blood circulating, even from being buzzed by the jackass in the Maserati. I would feel duller. I would think, as I parked somewhere downtown and paid for it, that I probably should have been on the bike.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Trodden toes

It probably sounded great at the marketing meeting. Maybe it was even done with the best of intentions. But this #zibibike thing is leaving me feeling like someone's stomped into my living room and started crashing around talking loudly about something no one else had been talking about.

Recently, Windmill Developments bought the islands in the river between Ottawa and Gatineau (and bits of the Gatineau-side mainland), which used to be the site of the old Domtar plant and are now basically covered in abandoned industrial buildings (and one rock climbing gym). The idea was to construct a development a bit like the Distillery District in Toronto, "upcycling" the old plant buildings, creating a pedestrian commercial zone, and adding condos.

When I heard about this I was pretty excited. It sounded like the kind of interesting, attractive - and green! - showpiece district that Ottawa could frankly use a lot more of.

But since then there have been some fumbles. For one thing, they proudly announced, not long ago, that the site would be called "Zibi," which is the Algonquin word for "river." Only to have the chief of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation point out that the site was disputed as sacred land way before Windmill bought it, the band has not agreed to support the development, and using the name might give the false impression that they do support it. Still, over the objections of, you know, the people whose language it is, they went forward with the name.

Then a few days ago, someone noticed a bike spraypainted orange with the Zibi logo on it, on a ring-and-post.
It didn't take long for other cyclists to notice that the bikes were taking up bike parking. And they were popping up all over.
After some initial confusion, it started becoming clear that this was a marketing stunt. Relying on word of mouth, Zibi was getting people to post pictures of themselves on social media with the bikes. For each post, Zibi would donate $1 to Causeway, which is an organization that helps people with barriers to work, like disabilities, find employment. All fine. And maybe undertaken with good intentions. Demonstrate good corporate citizenship by doing something really visible for charity and get visibility for your green development at the same time, all while "harnessing the power of social media." But it leaves a bad taste.
For one thing, the number of people actually taking selfies looks pretty minimal. The money going to Causeway, so far, is negligible, it seems (at $1 a post: how many posts were they expecting?). It's not even clear what gets the money donated - mentioning the hashtag, or do you have to post a picture? And in fact, a lot of the selfies I did see posted seemed like maybe they were posted by social media plants, to "get the ball rolling." (That's just a guess on my part: how can you tell if a tweet is for real or forced, aside from subtle stuff like who is tagged in it and how it's written?)

And the bikes, spraypainted orange and locked to bike parking, are rubbing some of the people Zibi would want on their side the wrong way. The bikes have been ruined. Even if they were junkers to start with, they're now definitely going to end up in a landfill when the stunt is over. And they're taking up bike parking in a city where there are already too few bike racks. Inconveniencing the very people you want, eventually, to ride their environmentally conscious bikes to your shiny new eco-district to ethically spend their dollars.

It's like spraypainting books shut and nailing them to public shelves to advertise your new library.

It also smacks heavily of greenwashing. Donating to Causeway is just an excuse to get Zibi's name and brand colour out there and disseminated: they're hijacking people's charity and willingness to participate in a good cause for advertising. And it also feels like they're trying to hijack me as a cyclist. Maybe that's just because I know that the active cycling community in Ottawa is pretty strong and chatty and maybe they knew that too and thought we'd all jump on board. We're behind painting bikes white as memorials to fallen cyclists, after all, so why wouldn't we be behind painting bikes orange to advertise a new development?

But they might have been better off not going for the "organic" word of mouth factor and instead launching this campaign more publicly. It would have given them a chance to get people on side, rather than having them find out about the campaign when they can't lock their bike up to a local rack. It would have felt more like they were engaging with the community and less like they were sneaking in with their terribly clever marketing scheme to trick us into boosting their brand for them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Right turns are the greyest areas

On the limited evidence, I'm going to guess that last night's collision on Maitland was a right hook. I'm guessing that because it's reported as "a turn at low speed" and from where the bike wound up in the picture:

The cyclist is in the hospital, last I heard, in serious condition.

Right turns. At night, in the rain . . . they're treacherous.

In an interview I just did for radio, I would up saying that you're way safer in front of a car than beside it. The host sounded surprised about that. But this is a classic example. If the bike is already beside the car, the rider may not see the turning signal come on (I know I sometimes don't) and can't know the driver intends to turn. At that point, it's up to the driver to check that the turn is clear - and it's pretty easy for a driver just to check a visual angle taking in the corner ahead of them, but not necessarily behind or beside. With the cyclist riding, say, in line with the passenger side door, the driver might not have seen him, blocked by the window frames or just a little behind the range of the driver's visual sweep.

The driver probably passed the cyclist, though, before turning, and should have taken note of him. Moment of absentmindedness? Dark clothing? No signal from the driver - or the cyclist not seeing the signal? I don't know any of that stuff.

Right turns are another case where the rules fail, where the grey areas get messy. Vehicles aren't supposed to pass on the right, yet a cyclist going straight will necessarily be to the right of a driver turning. Are you "passing" on the right if the car to your left brakes in preparation for a turn while you're beside it? Not really. But it still puts you in an unexpected position relative to the other vehicle.

Technically, I suppose, at all intersections the cyclist would be safest to take the lane before going through the intersection - but imagine all the weaving in and out that would result, as the cyclist moves back to the right for a block to let faster traffic pass, then takes the lane again at each intersection. It would drive the people in cars crazy, not to mention being pretty nervewracking for the constantly lane-changing cyclist trying to find gaps in the traffic to squeeze in between cars. Nope.

I didn't want to land automatically on "the onus is on the person in the car" but . . . the onus is on the person in the car. To see the cyclist in the first place as you pass (here, some responsibility is on the cyclist to have lights or be otherwise visible), to judge when you will each wind up at the intersection, to signal enough in advance that the cyclist knows what you're doing, and let the cyclist go ahead if you're beside him, or move over in front of him so you can make the turn before he winds up between you and the curb. And to thoroughly shoulder check (when 99 times out of 100 you will probably not discover you were about to clip a bike).

As far as I can tell, the HTA tells you how to signal, and not to change lanes in mid-turn, but there is nothing explicitly covering the fact that a cyclist occupies, essentially, a "virtual" lane on the outside of the road which doesn't quite mesh with the rules of the other lanes. (I've got similar gripes about how to handle four-way stops when there's a bike lane. Who has right of way, between a cyclist going straight and a car turning right, both coming in from the same direction at a four-way stop?)

Grey areas. In my radio interview, I was talking about separate rules for cyclists. What I really think is the problem is these grey areas: places where the rules don't take cyclists into account. I didn't mention how a left-turning cyclist has to move to the outside lane, while a left-turning car has to move to the inside lane (I have had drivers try to overtake me on the right, mid-turn, as I went through a left turn - it's terrifying). And I didn't mention that invisible, virtual outside "lane."

Sorry, no answers here. Having bikes and cars on the same roads keeps pointing out these glitches. The more bikes we have on the road the more obvious they become. It's a matter of when and how we start deciding to make fixes that make sense.