Why it hurts so deeply when our bikes are stolen or vandalized

On my bicycle commute to work, I cross the river on an old iron bridge. During certain times of the year, after the ice has melted but before the spring runoff has muddied the water with sediment, when the light enters the water just right, I can see the floor of the river. There, resting forlornly at the bottom, is a bicycle. I can’t make out much detail beneath the water like that, but it looks like an old mountain bike. Nothing fancy, probably a 12-speed, or maybe 15, one of those default models that North Americans buy because they imagine themselves riding off-road like in the magazines but rarely do. This one, I imagine, spent most of its life being pedaled down pathways on Sundays before it ended up being indignantly tossed in the river. There it lies now, an alien in an underwater world.

Seeing a bike like this always makes me feel a little melancholic. Bicycles are nothing but tools for us, mass-produced items we use for a specific function. But somehow, they become more than that. Unlike, say, a hammer or a microwave oven, bicycles work themselves into our consciousness more than most of our tools. Perhaps it’s our reliance on them that builds that connection. They get us to our destinations. They keep us fit. They provide joy and recreation. They become companions and trusted friends. That’s why, I think, we react so strongly to images and stories of bicycle theft and vandalism, like that bike resting at the bottom of the river.

Des Velos Dans La Ville

Stories like this: In 2008, Toronto police tracked a bicycle thief to a cluttered local repair shop, where the store’s owner purchased the stolen item. They arrested the owner for dealing in stolen goods and unwittingly uncovered a massive and long-running bike theft ring spearheaded by a charismatic conspiracy theorist named Igor Kent. Police eventually recovered more than 3,000 stolen bikes stashed in all manner of repair around the city. What so outraged the city about the crime was its brazenness and the indifference of the police to it. Torontonians seethed over the incident, as if Kenk had come to embody the frustration of every bike theft, every bit of bike vandalism and all those years of police inertia. And yet, Kenk emerged as a somewhat sympathetic character. He even tried to reclaim the stolen goods from police upon his release from incarceration, saying he cared about the bikes more than anyone.

Both sides of this bizarre tale illustrate the special relationship we have with bicycles. For victims, such thefts feel intensely personal, like being robbed of a reliable friend. For the perpetrator, it’s difficult to imagine another device driving such emotional delusions and feelings of misplaced attachment and responsibility.  Driving both emotions, I think, beyond the simple economics of bike theft, is the communal nature of cycling. In most cities these days, to ride a bike makes you part of a club. Riding in a city breeds a kind of fellowship with others on bikes, a feeling that is both welcoming and exclusive. So when that fraternity is broken by theft or vandalism, the sense of betrayal can cut deeply. That’s why seeing those fragments of bikes scattered throughout the city instills such emotions: So many of us have felt the sting of bewilderment and betrayal that comes with bike theft and vandalism.

Yet, as much as our emotions fight the notion, bikes remain commodities. They are products that break and are discarded. They are stolen and stripped and resold. They are vandalized and tossed into rivers. No matter how much we love them, bikes can disappear at any time, so they are never really ours. We are only their stewards. They truly belong to the city. Bikes are part of a city as much as sidewalks and lampposts. Walk the streets and you’ll see the remnants of this relationship. Wheel-less frames still locked to racks. Old wheels rusting away in back alleys. Forgotten machines, stripped of saddles, shivering under blankets of snow. We may buy bikes, and act like we own them, but eventually they’ll be absorbed by the city.


But this isn’t something to lament. This is what makes bicycles such a perfect part of life in the city. There’s an ecosystem at play, and bicycles are part it. The machines may break down, or be picked apart or abandoned, but they can always be reclaimed. Unlike most of the tools in our life these days, from mobile phones to electric cars, bikes remain the beautifully simple mechanical devices they’ve been for 100 years, which means we can understand them. We can tinker. With a few simple tools, they can be taken apart, adjusted, and put back into action by just about anyone. That old frame may look like it’s rusting away, but all it needs is a wrench to bring it back to life.

So that feeling that wells inside of me when I see that bike at the bottom of the river isn’t only loneliness. More importantly, it’s a reaction to the wasted potential of that machine, its removal from the patterns of life of the city. But that’s easy to fix. Someone just has to pull it from the river, fix it up, and take it for one more ride.

This is a translated excerpt from Des Velos Dans La Ville, a French-language photo book featuring the work of Laurent Chambaud and several writers, including the author of this post, Tom Babin. This except is copyrighted by Presses de l’EHESP, and reprinted with permission. You should buy the book! It’s available here.

Why are we so afraid of letting kids ride bikes when statistics prove their safety?

Is riding a bike too risky for kids?

The question nags many parents beyond the typical helicopter-parent anxiety that permeates modern childhood. Cycling has gone from a bedrock part of childhood a few generations ago to something akin to BASE jumping in the eyes of some grownups.

Sometimes, even those trying to promote public health push the sentiment that cycling is inherently dangerous. Alberta Health Service recently removed information from its website after a mini furor over its anti-bike leanings. It warned parents about the potential dangers of cycling with kids, advised parents against using bike trailers or child seats until kids are four years old and to never take kids on streets, even if there is a bike lane. All of this struck some parents as overly cautious for something as simple as going for a bike ride.


I don’t blame a health agency specifically for such advice. Rather it’s part of the bizarrely myopic lens in which we view kids’ cycling in North America, not as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but as a risky adventure sport.

So in wondering about the real risks of riding a bike, I put the question to Dr. Kay Teschke. She’s a prominent researcher at the University of British Columbia, and one of the most prominent researchers of bike safety on the continent. She had some illuminating insight.

First of all, she provided some statistics for context. Teschke recently served on a coroner’s panel that reviewed non-motorized road-related child deaths in British Columbia between 2005 to 2014. Over those 10 years, in the province of 4.5 million people, there were precisely zero toddlers killed while riding with their parents in a bike seat or a trailer.

Looking more broadly, during those 10 years, the review found that 17 children in B.C. were killed while riding a bike. Of those, four were under 10 years old. These are awful stories, but the details are important:

  • A two year old riding a tricycle in a back lane was killed by a speeding driver.
  • A three year old riding a ride-on toy on the sidewalk was killed by an errant driver.
  • An eight-year old at a blind T-junction was hit while riding on a rural road with no shoulders.
  • A 9-year old on a rural road with no shoulders was hit by a speeding driver with a suspended licence in a stolen car.

These are horrific stories, but compare the those numbers to those killed while riding in cars. In that same 10-year period, 280 children were killed in motor vehicles

Even walking was more dangerous: 55 kids were killed by drivers while they were on foot.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking statistic of them all: There were nine toddlers killed in a driveway when a driver backed over them. That’s more than twice as many as were killed while cycling.

Put in another way, here’s the average number of children under 19 killed every year in B.C.:

  • While riding a bike: 1.7.
  • While walking: 5.5.
  • While riding in cars: 28.

Despite those numbers, how often do do we hear warnings about children travelling in cars? It does happen, but rarely is the simple act of being in a car cited as something inherently dangerous (if statistics drove such warnings, we’d be smart to advise kids to never play in a driveway). In fact, when parents are worried about the dangers of children riding a bike or walking to school, they often choose to drive them, as if it is the safer option.

Teschke also mentioned a Quebec study that compared the risks of cycling to other activities, including sports. Only swimming had a lower injury rate than cycling. It sounds silly, but cycling even compares favourably to something as simple as walking down the street. Teschke’s B.C. study found that cycling and walking had similar fatality rates per trip, and bicycling had a lower fatality rate per distance travelled (the pattern was reversed for injury rates).

Yet cycling seems to be singled out as the risky activity. We don’t legislate drivers into wearing helmets, or shame them into wearing high-visibility clothing when walking down the street.

So what gives? Why is our perception of cycling so different than reality? Teschke thinks part of it is because most of us are smart enough to realize we don’t want to end up on the losing end of a collision with a car.

“We do see riding on city streets as risky, because we know that we are vulnerable if we are hit by a motor vehicle,” Teschke told me. “Why we see cycling as so much more dangerous than walking is interesting. Part of it is likely that walking is provided with sidewalk infrastructure along most urban streets. Some research shows that the emphasis on safety clothing, including high visibility gear and helmets, makes us perceive cycling as unsafe.”

I also think that human’s innate inability to properly assess risk plays into this problem. We tend to overestimate the risks of short-term dangers, while remaining indifferent to long-term ones. That’s why so many of us think it’s insane to undertake “risky” activities such as rock climbing or BASE jumping, yet we rarely think twice about more distant risks, even if they are much more likely to harm us, such as the dangers of poor diet or inactive lifestyles.

The latter is why it’s such a shame that cycling is seens as a dangerous activity for kids to participate in. As Teschke, herself a mother, points out, there are many studies that weigh the benefits and risks of cycling, and they “almost universally” find a net benefit from the physical activity of riding a bike, not only physically, but also mentally.

“(Riding a bike) helps children develop decision-making skills, executive function, co-ordination, and social relationships,” she said, citing the work of a colleague, Mariana Brussoni.  “Independent mobility helps children understand the world and their place in it.”

Given the risk-averse nature of our society, perhaps the only way to get over our fear of children riding a bike may be to do something radical: Build safe, separated bike lanes. Yes, they have been shown to reduce injuries, but perhaps just as important is that such bike routes make us feel safe.

“Being a parent does make people (including me) think differently about our roads and their safety,” Teschke said. “Parents worried about their children were the catalyst for building safer routes in Holland starting in the 1970s. Parents seem to be strong advocates of safer conditions for cycling in Canada too.”

Update: Some clarifications were made to ensure accuracy on Oct. 13, 2016.

Here’s how little connections can make big improvements to bike friendliness

A few weeks ago, I criticized cities for failing to build sensible connections between existing bike lanes.

Then I rolled over a relatively new piece of bike infrastructure in my city, and had a bit of a moment. “There,” I thought. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Here’s that new piece of infrastructure.

What do you think of this new link on 5th Avenue N.W.?

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

(Just a little shout out to the dude in the video driving that black pickup truck who hogs the intersection and then accelerates needlessly fast — thanks for re-asserting your dominance of the roads in such a subtle way).

This may not look like much, but this intersection has some history. Back in 2011, the addition of a painted bike lane on one of the streets of this intersection prompted one of the city’s first bike boxes.

The problem was, it was a weird-ass bike box. It was oddly placed, few people understood how to use it, and fewer still actually used it. For several years, city workers gamely tried to “educate” people on proper use of the bike box, but even after watching the video and practicing, I was still a little baffled.

Eventually, the city threw in the towel, and sent some poor road worker to scrape the green paint off the road.

Now, a few years later, a new bike lane on the intersecting road prompted another attempt. This time, a new tactic has been tried, whereby cyclists are directed from the street onto a short shared pathway before being returned to the road.

This thing isn’t perfect. It’s still a little odd, and putting cyclists onto what is basically the sidewalk is a little counter-intuitive, especially when there are a lot of pedestrians.

But if you take a broader look at this, there’s a lot to like. A few weeks ago, this was exactly the kind of missing connection I was ranting about. Now, it’s been fixed — a little creativity and a small amount of asphalt has filled this missing link.

That’s not the only one that has come together in recent weeks. Here’s another connection that has been a problem for years.

Another new #yycbike connection, this one across 17th Avenue SW.

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

These are the kinds of small investments that can make a huge difference in the daily transportation needs of cyclists. They are cheap fixes, done quickly, but these connections do much for improving the reliability of the bike network. This is the kind of thing that improves overall bike friendliness in a city. This is the kind of thing all cities should be doing more of.

Even more fundamentally, these are examples of a city giving things a shot. The first idea didn’t work, so something new is being tried. Even if this one flops like the last one, this is the kind of experimentation that leads to a better city.

Want to build better bike infrastructure? Listen to people riding bikes

Let’s play a little bicycle commuter game.

There are two videos below, both of which I shot, very professionally, by holding up my phone while I rode my bicycle to work.

These videos were shot on two roads that run parallel to each other one block apart.

Here’s the challenge: Guess which road contains bike-specific infrastructure.

Video one shows a quiet residential road with slow-moving cars and — and this is the important part — people on bikes.

The second video is a busy road filled with buses and impatient motorists and, importantly, nobody else on a bike, other than your rather shaky cameraman.

Which one features the dedicated bike route?

Wrong. The road with the dedicated bike lane is seen in the second video . The right-hand lane that I’m riding in is a shared bus/bike lane, as indicated by this sign.


Here’s a closeup of the sign, indicating that, during rush hour, the parking lane turns into a shared lane dedicated to buses and bikes.


Yet, there are no bikes in this lane. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a bike in this lane, mostly because I avoid the lane myself on most days. It’s busy with cars, shared with buses that cut me off regularly to drop passengers, and often filled with illegally parked cars. It’s a poor bike lane.

The first video shows where I usually ride, on a parallel route one block away that is usually filled with fellow cyclists. Many days, I count more bikes than cars, which is rather novel in my city.

So what gives? There’s much to talk about in this scenario (here, I’ll get you started: Shared bus-bike lanes suck, bike lanes that exist only during rush hour suck, people who illegally park their cars in shared bus-bike lanes suck), but the thing that always jumps into my mind is this: If you want to build well-used bike lanes, listen to cyclists. And listening doesn’t always mean talking — paying attention to the way actual people on bikes behave can go a long way to building well-used bike infrastructure.

The shared bus-bike lane was installed on this stretch of road several years ago, to the consternation of nearly everybody who uses the road. Users worried the parking lanes that transformed into shared bus-bike lanes during rush hour would be dangerous and confusing to bus drivers, motorists and cyclists. Since then, there hasn’t been much to those worries, mostly because so few cyclists use it. Cyclists are voting with their feet (well, their wheels) and choosing the nice quiet residential road one block away.

Urban planners often talk about “desire lines,” which is a fancy way of paying attention to where people want to move, rather than where we expect them to. Rather than build a crosswalk where it’s convenient for car traffic, for example, it’s better to watch where people are jaywalking and build a crosswalk there.

With cycling, it can be tricky to assess desire lines before infrastructure is built because so few will brave sections of a city perceived to be dangerous, but there are situations that it makes more sense to accommodate cyclists where they are, rather than where city planners want them to be.

This can be done is ways simple to complex. Surveys can work. So can watching for the tracks of bike in a fresh snowfall. You can also use technology. In my city, planners look at data from fitness-tracking app Strava to see the routes of users, albeit a limited cross-section of users (despite the above example, Calgary does a decent job watching cyclist behaviour). Some cities have developed tracking apps used to collect data from the travels of volunteer users. All of these methods offer insight into the ways cyclists move through cities in the real world.

This isn’t an argument in favour of moving bike lanes off of busy roads. An important part of the success of that residential road — perhaps the most important part — is that it has top-notch connections to a network of separated bike path that brings commuters right downtown.

Rather, this is an argument in favour of cyclist-centric planning, where bike routes are designed for use in the real world, not in ways we might imagine them being used.

A handy guide for avoiding uninformed anti-bike rants

The rant was so out of touch as to be almost quaint. Earlier this month, Canadian Sen. Nicole Eaton, 71, went on a Twitter campaign  against cycling in Toronto, criticizing the construction of bike lanes using the same old arguments that are often thrown around by uninformed reactionaries: Nobody rides a bike, cyclists don’t obey the laws, and bike lanes begrime cities.

What made Eaton’s rant especially rich was its unique combination of laughable ignorance (she tweeted that wasting money on bike lanes was unbecoming of a global city such as New York, London and Paris, which are all actually chock full of cyclists and bike infrastructure) and it’s low-hanging-fruit hypocrisy (Canadians find it ironic to hear tax-fighting arguments from a senator, when the Senate is a largely symbolic piece of government stuffed with elderly patronage appointments who have a horrible history of wasting taxpayer money on enriching themselves).


Still, Eaton’s rant wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. So in the name of public service, we’re here to offer some help. Below are some answers to common misinformed anti-bike criticisms, presented in handy wallet-card format. So if you’re a politician or public figure who has yet to embrace urban cycling, print this card, laminate it, and put it in your wallet or purse. Whenever you are tempted to go on a ridiculous anti-bike rant, pull it out and read the answers before opening your mouth or tweeting. Not only will this save you some embarrassment (and your Twitter account, poor old Sen. Eaton has now deleted hers), it might just elevate the debate over cycling.


The folly of paint: Is it time to give up on painted bike lanes completely?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio call-in show about urban cycling during which a caller expressed her fear that her adult son was going to be killed on the roads. He is a bicycle commuter who had already been struck by cars twice while riding inside a painted bike lane.

I mumbled a rather lame response about how better infrastructure would help. But the caller’s rather terrifying story stuck in my mind. Especially over the past several weeks, when I’ve been watching this scene come together on two different roads that I ride a bike on regularly.

Look what's forming on 20th Street S.W.: a nicely painted area to be doored. #yycbike

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

When public consultations over the idea of making these rather busy single-lane roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly began more than a year ago, I was heartened. I’ve been riding them for years, and I welcomed anything that might make cyclists safer. I dutifully offered my feedback during the consultation process, emphasizing the need to protect cyclists from cars in order to encourage all people to ride, no matter their ability nor confidence.

Weeks later, the plan emerged. Sigh. Some stripes. Some painted stripes on the asphalt. As a cyclist, I’ve been conditioned to be grateful for any miserable old infrastructure crumb thrown my way, but you’ll please forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a painted line. Is this really going to protect cyclists, or encourage anyone to ride?

On some level, I understand why the decision was made to do nothing more here than lay down some paint. Budgets are tight. Not all residents in the area supported bike infrastructure. Building proper segregated bike lanes can be controversial. Business worried about losing too many parking spaces. The streets can be too narrow for anything else under traffic guidelines. Blah, blah, blah — it’s the same arguments in every city over and over again.

To be fair, these projects did offer some improvements to pedestrians and in slowing traffic (the latter done, mostly, by putting cyclists in the way of cars). But if the fundamental purpose of a bike lane is to make it safe enough for people of all type to ride in, no matter their skill, I thought I’d test the theory in the simplest way I knew how. I’d take my 11-year-old son onto one of the new lanes and see what he thought about it.

Before this project, he refused to ride on one of these roads because he felt unsafe. Now? He excitedly gave the bike lane a try (yes, he’s as nerdy about bike infrastructure as his dad). He cares little for the politics and compromise that goes into bike infrastructure. He just wants to ride without getting pancaked by an SUV. On this lane, it didn’t take long before he said he felt trapped between moving cars and the door zone. The verdict? “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s better about this?”

Good question. Were there other options for these projects? Absolutely. The bike lane could have been segregated by a barrier. The bike lane could have been placed between the curb and parked cars, thereby using parked vehicles as a barrier, which was the winning suggestion last year when I asked readers to choose a better design. The bike lane could have been raised a few inches to create an easy barrier, as we’ve seen in other countries. Or, something wacky could have been done, like these others suggestions from readers.

I know how difficult it can be for city planners to get bike infrastructure of any kind built in our political environment. And I understand the argument of incrementalism — painted lanes are a more palatable baby step toward better infrastructure in the future. But let’s not pretend this is anything more than a compromise that doesn’t even meet the first standard of bike infrastructure: encouraging an enthusiastic kid to ride in them.

I understand why lanes like this are installed, but when my son takes his bike down this road, that’s all just noise. My thoughts will be on that worried mom from the call-in show.

What’s your feeling on painted bike lanes? Do you use them? Do you think more should be built? Or is it time to move past them into better, safer infrastructure? Use the comments below, or let the author know what you think on Twitter or Facebook.

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Bike-lane gaps are holding back urban cycling, and they may be getting worse

Say you’re riding your bike in a nice and safe protected bike lane, and you come across something that looks like this.

 So you dutifully follow the instructions on the asphalt, even if it requires you to do something weird and counter-intuitive like roll onto the sidewalk, cross the road, dismount your bike and re-position it to carry on riding on the same road that, suddenly, has no more bike lane, leaving you to inexplicably wrestle with car traffic for dear life.

It gets worse. Now say you encounter, a few blocks later, another perfectly nice bike route, which makes you wonder why you couldn’t just roll from one nice bike route to the next without the stretch of abandonment in between, where you were left to fend for yourself against car traffic.

You’ve just survived the dreaded bike-infrastructure gap.

Your gap may not look exactly like this gap, but you have them in your city. The gaps are the forgotten zones between pieces of bike infrastructure that stand in the way of complete, connected bike routes, and discourage people from riding as surely as a urine collector on a Tour de France bus.

Here’s the bad news: If your city is one of those that has finally come around to building bike lanes, expect your gaps to get worse.

Here’s why: Once cities start laying down bike infrastructure, they tend to measure success based on the number of lanes they build. So the lanes that get built are the easiest and quickest. That can lead to cities full of perfectly fine, but horrifyingly disconnected, bike infrastructure.

In my city of Calgary, city planners and bike advocates are busy patting themselves on the back in celebration of what they expect will be the one-millionth trip on a newly built downtown bike network pilot project. I’m not here to ruin their party, it’s certainly an accomplishment worth celebrating. But this same bike network has some serious connection problems, one of which is detailed above.

The eight-block gap in the above example may be nothing for a confident, experienced cyclist. But if you are a tentative rider who doesn’t feel safe riding with traffic, that gap is an insurmountable chasm. In fact, there’s a not-so-curious connection between the “underperforming” areas of Calgary downtown bike network and a lack of connections in those areas.

Even in cities with more robust cycling cultures, this can be a problem — in fact, it may be even worse in cities where politicians can score political points by crowing about how many bike lanes have been built. In Montreal, one of the few North American cities where politicians can win votes by building bike lanes, I’ve heard several bike advocates complain the city ought to move beyond bragging about how many new kilometres of bike lanes are installed each year, and instead focus on getting more and more people riding.

How does that happen? By thoughtfully and carefully making connections between pieces of infrastructure to ensure there are high quality, safe routes that get people where they need to go.

This may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit. If you are Los Angeles or Edmonton (sorry) or any of the other deadbeat cities that are only now coming around to the realization that bike lanes are good, you’ve got a lot of work to do before this becomes a problem. But for all those cities that are in the midst of building out bike lanes wherever they can, it’s never too early to start thinking about connections.


Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver flourishes as a bike city, while Toronto is mired in yesterday’s battles

A decade ago, riding a bicycle in Toronto and Vancouver was, in some ways, a similar experience.

Two of Canada’s biggest cities, both had dense and walkable urban cores, but little in the way of bike-specific infrastructure, so riding through the city could be a harrowing experience. Both cities had thousands of cyclists who were keen on getting around safely, but there were also those who hated the idea of carving out space for cyclists, so fierce debates played out in the media and the local pubs over the idea of bike lanes.

Since then, the two cities went in different directions, and the results are palpable. At least, they are palpable if you were reading the local papers this weekend.

In Toronto’s Globe and Mail came yet another column lamenting the “Mad Max” scenarios between cars and drivers. After witnessing a frightening confrontation between a motorist and a cyclist, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti said summer in her city feels like “Death Race 2016.”

Over on the west coast, in contrast, the Vancouver Sun ran a long piece about the blossoming of businesses located along new(ish) separated bike lanes. The feature even quoted the leader of a downtown business group that was once hostile to bike lanes, who said there has been a “sea change” in attitudes toward cycling, as many business groups embrace the burgeoning scene and the spendy nature of those cyclists.

Neither piece is, of course, completely representative of their respective cities (Renzetti’s column is a tad dramatic, and the Sun’s piece is a tad optimistic), but they both are further signs of how much their respective cities have changed (or stagnated) for cyclists in the past decade.

First, Toronto: After an ambitious plan from city hall in the 1990s, Toronto went through a bikelash the likes of which few cities have experienced. After making some headway on the plan, late crack-smoking suburban populist Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010, and he promptly went about dismantling what little progress the city had made for cyclists. With typically wrong-headed rhetoric, one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to remove a recently installed bike lane. “The war on cars is over,” he famously said.

Six years later, a more forward thinking and reasonable regime is leading city hall, and the plans for making the city better for cycling are slowly being dusted off. In a city that is filled with so many bicycles only the willfully ignorant could deny their place with a straight face, those lost years are taking their toll. Progress is finally being made, which means the growing pains of its transportation infrastructure are being acutely felt, and the result is those portrayals of a bottled-up sense of hostility on city streets, confrontations, raging debates in the press, and those “Mad Max” analogies.

That scenario might sound familiar to Vancouverites. The city was within the throes of its own George Milleresque dustup over bikes just a couple of years ago, when plans to add a bike route sparked street protests, allegations of class warfare and general unpleasantness directed toward those on two wheels. The turnaround has been swift, with formerly hostile business owners making a complete turnaround, cyclists flocking to the new routes, and city planners trying to keep their I-told-you-so smirks in check.

That may seen a dramatic flip, but it’s not atypical. The controversies that dog bike-lane proposals seldom last long, often because well-planned and well-executed projects quickly prove their worth and then fall from the minds of reasonable people who were once opposed. That tends to leave those dug-in opponents looking like lonely cranks, like this guy.

What worked in Vancouver, and in so many other cities, was the political courage to back a project that was well-conceived but contentious. Not every project will work, but sometimes giving them a try is worth the pain.

Toronto is a different city than Vancouver, with its own unique transportation and political problems, but you can’t help but wonder if those bike plans had been implemented all those years ago, Mad Max would exist only on Netflix.

Here’s what happens to your bike ride when thousands of more cars are added to roads

You’ve been there, even if you haven’t consciously been there: Riding your bike down a typical city street feeling squeezed from all sides, unable to see past the next intersection, worried about being doored and generally unwelcome on what should be public space.

Why do you feel that way? Because the street looks like this:

UntitledThere’s nothing wrong, technically, with this street. These scenes are everywhere. But the reason you feel all those things is so obvious it’s almost invisible. There are cars everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Crammed along the curbs, congested on the street, taking up space everywhere.

I know you know this. Like me, you’ve read all the statistics about the increasing number of cars on our streets. But maybe you were like me and didn’t really stop to think about what that means to your everyday bicycle commute.

What opened my eyes was a comment from a reader named Stu on my piece a couple of weeks ago about vehicular cycling. Here is part of Stu’s comment.

I can barely remember 1976, but what I do remember is that I could bike down most streets and not encounter a motor vehicle. Today it is the (opposite), no matter how ‘residential’ the street, the chance of not meeting up with a MV is slim. Times have changed, everyone seems to own a car or two and they use them for even the shortest of trips.

Something about Stu’s comment stuck in my head. I started imagining my bicycle commute in 1976. I’d be riding a steel-framed 10-speed in tiny shorts and knee socks, my feathered hair unencumbered by a helmet, and I would pass down a residential street with no cars. It’s almost unimaginable (not the hair, the image of a street with no cars).

So I did some digging into the impacts of increasing car ownership rates on the physical space in a city. Beware incoming numbers:

I live in Calgary, Canada. Back in 2008, the number of registered motor vehicles in the city was 829,030, according to this. By 2015, that number had grown to 1,005,109, according to this. That’s an increase of 176,079 vehicles in about seven years.

Think about how much space that takes up in a city. If each vehicle is, say, five metres by two metres (that’s an estimate, mostly to make the math easier, but it’s in the ballpark), that’s 10 square metres we’ve lost for each of those vehicles. I know they aren’t all on the road at the same time, but no matter how you slice it, occupying 10 square metres more than 175,000 times is a lot of space — 1.76 square kilometres, to be exact.

There’s more. According to the 2011 census, the size of Calgary is 704.51 square kilometres. For the sake of argument, let’s say that number didn’t change much between 2008 and 2015 (the city has grown, but not by much: Calgary’s wise but belated push to reduce sprawl, like basically every other city in North America, means there hasn’t been a big annexation since 2011, and the last major one was in the early 2000s).

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years,.

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years.

That means the number of cars per square kilometre had grown to 1,426 in 2015, from 1,176 in 2008.

Think about the square kilometre around your house, and then imagine cramming in an average of 250 more cars in that space. Guess what? That happened over the last seven years, and you probably didn’t realize it.

Here’s one more thing to think about. I couldn’t find car ownership rates going back to 1976 to test Stu’s memory. But I did find this fascinating study from NYU, which compared vehicle ownership rates around the world between 1960 and 2002. In Canada in 1960, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people was 292. By 2002, that had climbed to 581. Based on a 2015 population of 1,230,915, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people in Calgary in 2015 was a whopping 816.

That isn’t an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, so I wouldn’t base your Ph.D thesis on it, but it does give you an idea of how many more motor vehicles are on the roads these days, and it’s a safe bet a similar story is playing out in other North American cities.

It also helps explain why you sometimes feel like an alien, unwelcome and pushed around, on your own street, when you ride a bicycle.

A well-functioning society of course needs motor vehicles, but Stu, it seems was right — our streets are much different now than they were just a few years ago, never mind back in 1976.

Much of this has happened unconsciously, so maybe a first step in making our cities more friendly is to start thinking about what enabled all those cars, and to take the steps necessary to curb the growth of car-ownership. We all, after all, have to share that space.

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Are our irrational consumer tastes holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, Zak Pashak was in the market for a new bike. Not an expensive carbon-fibre race machine, or a $10,000 status symbol. He just wanted a simple, practical bike that wouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, time or money.

But he was quickly turned off by the athletic focus of the bike shops he visited, where salespeople pushed him toward tricked-out bikes well beyond his needs. Eventually, he found a bike that worked, but the experience planted a seed in his brain.

Today, Pashak is a bit of a folk hero of the American bike scene thanks to his company Detroit Bikes, which uses Motor City mechanical know-how to churn out American-made versions of that bike he had such trouble finding all those years ago: Simple, reliable, sturdy, well-made city bikes without needless bells and whistles.

“I just thought there’s people like me who want to buy a bike, and they can’t,” Pashak told me recently.

DetroitBikesManufacturing from Detroit Bikes on Vimeo.


But the market for such bikes in North American remains small, which leads to a bigger question: Why are so many North Americans reluctant to embrace the kind of bikes Pashak is building? And is that reluctance holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, I had an almost identical experience as Pashak. After a tough winter of bike commuting, the constant need to fine-tune my slush-saddled commuter bike had sapped my already limited gearhead tendencies. At that point, I was in desperate need of a bike that wasn’t so damn needy.

Yet, I struggled to find one. After months of searching, I finally came across a bike so nondescript I might have missed it had my state of mind been different: Comfortable steel frame, three-speed internal hub, no-fuss matte black finish. It even had coaster brakes — I didn’t even know foot brakes were even a thing anymore.

Years later, I still ride this bike nearly every day, and I love it. It’s the easiest, most practical and efficient ride I own. Best of all, it demands almost nothing from me. 

The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.

Such city bikes are much easier to come by these days than even five years ago. But when shopping for a new ride, many consumers, especially those not already immersed in the bike world, tend to default to the standard machines we’ve been sold for several generations now: mountain-bike style frames brimming with gears, often upsold to include suspension systems and carbon parts.

These can be great bikes in the right situations (like, say, scaling a mountain), but for some casual city cyclists, they can be expensive, impractical and sensitive. The risk is bigger than just a consumer choice. If you’re trying to use your bike for more than recreation, it can be completely discouraging if that bike doesn’t support that kind of lifestyle. If you’re bike is uncomfortable, you’re less likely to ride on a sore ass. If it can’t carry stuff, you’re less likely to use it for errands and shopping trips. If it’s loaded with needless gears that are in constant need of adjustments to prevent them from annoying rattling and rough shifting, you’re less likely to choose the bike.

So why do so many of us buy them?


Pashak likens it to the consumer demand for impractical SUVs. Most consumers have no need for off-roading gas-guzzling 4x4s, but they still sell by the bucketload. We tend to have a weakness for aspirational consumer goods, and we conflate stuff with lifestyle.

You really see a contrast when visiting the great bike cities of Europe, which are overflowing with practical, unsexy, well-used bikes in all manner of black. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize says Danes see bikes, not as status symbols, but as household appliances (he likens them to vacuum cleaners, which was an apt analogy, until we also managed to turn vacuum cleaners into fetishized status items. Thanks, Dyson).

I’m not saying everybody needs the kind of bike that Pashak is building — hell, I’ve never even tried a Detroit Bikes model — I’ve just seen how my own practical ride has made it easier to choose a bike as my transportation choice more often. I still love my road bike and my mountain bike, but they stay in the garage when I’m headed to the pub or grocery store.

Where I see hope in this scenario is the always reliable North American quality of laziness. Perhaps the only thing we value more than consumer status symbols is convenience. And if you’re looking for convenience, not much beats a reliable, time-tested, ultra-practical, universally unsexy, plain old bicycle.


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