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!)


  1. Excellent article, Kate! I think Nova Scotia (and from the sounds of it Ontario too) could learn a lot from Scotland and Iceland. It wasn't just infrastructure, but the attitude towards biking that I appreciated. Drivers seemed more aware and bikers were appreciated and marketed to :) near the Cairngorms there was that whole system of mountain biking trails, for instance, and loads of maps and signage... Come on, Canada

  2. Clark in VancouverJuly 26, 2015 at 12:18 PM

    This is great to see. In fact we never get to see what urban places look like in Iceland. All the images we ever see are of the remote looking places with volcanos and the tectonic plate rift.
    I'd love to cycle there someday.

  3. I'm afraid that those separated paths in your last photo are almost certainly for pedestrians only, and it would be illegal to cycle on them (unless such paths have been specifically designated shared use, when there would be little blue signs to indicate this. I don't see any such signs in your photo).

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