The little compromises that can ruin your bike commute

Gaps in bike infrastructure can add up to big problems for cyclists. Photo by Tom Babin.

If you commute by bike, you’ve come across the little compromises. These are the little bits of missing bike infrastructure – a lane that ends prematurely, a painted lane instead of a separated lane, a gap between two bike paths. In many North American cities, these little compromises are everywhere.

On their own, they are no big deal. But when you’re trying to get around a city on a bike, these little one-offs add up to a system that, frankly, sucks. On a practical level, they can be dangerous. On a philosophical level, each one is like a little poke reminding you that, as a cyclist, you aren’t as important as other road users.

Here are two little compromises on my regular commute that illustrate just how irksome they can be. On their own, they are nothing big. But taken together, they are part of a pattern that makes riding a bike unnecessarily difficult.

Check out more in the video below:



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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

How to make a left turn on a bike

Turning left on a busy road is the most difficult thing you’ll do on a bike. Photo by Toom Babin.

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a new idea that delivery company UPS came up with to save time and fuel while delivering cargo in busy cities. It was so simple that it seemed almost too dumb to be true, yet the company insisted that it was already paying dividends: Stop making left turns.

Rather than staying stuck in the middle of an intersection awaiting a gap in traffic in order to turn left, drivers were instructed to instead take right turns only. That would send them around the block in the opposite direction, until they reached the destination. The company found this was faster and more efficient than the more direct route via left-turns.

Considering that making a left turn in busy traffic is one of the most harrowing and difficult things a cyclist can do, that UPS idea isn’t a bad one for cyclists too. It may add to your mileage, but you’ll avoid that terrifying moment when you are straddling your bike in the middle of a busy intersection, with traffic zooming by in two directions, awaiting a gap in traffic while an impatient motorist tailgates you needlessly just to assert their dominance.

You’re not buying it, are you? As logical as that UPS advice sounds, you’re thinking that, eventually, you’re going to have to make a left turn. And you’re probably right. So you best start practicing now.

There are two challenges with making a left turn. First is the lead-up. To properly execute a left turn, you need to get your bike in a position to do so. That means getting into the left lane. On a single lane with light traffic, this isn’t such a problem. Just await a gap, signal your intentions and move into position.

But what if the road has two lanes, and you are currently minding your business over in the far right lane where it’s safe and comfortable? That means you need to cross two lanes to get where you need to be, and that ain’t easy on a busy road. This is where those vehicular cycling lessons come in. Vehicular cycling – the philosophy of riding a bike in the same manner as you’d drive an automobile – has fallen out of favour, for good reason: it didn’t work on a mass scale because it’s terrifying to most people. But in the moment when you need to cross two lanes of busy traffic is the time to invoke its principles. Be bold! Be assertive! Be confident! Hold your left arm out straight to signal your intentions, wait until it’s safe and change lanes. Never mind the screaming of self-preservation going on in your reptilian brain because you’re cutting into a lane of fast-moving traffic – vehicular cycling means claiming your lawful place on the road, and expecting other road users to do the same. There, you did it! But you still have another lane to get to, so do it again. Still alive? Great work!

The second challenge of making a left turn is executing the final turn. Again, this is where you channel your inner John Forester and be bold – roll into the middle of the intersection, just as you would in a car, and pedal swiftly to make your turn when it’s safe. Try to ignore the fact that you are a baby bird in a stream of crocodiles. Uncertainty at this moment is dangerous. Confidence is what you need!



Congratulations. You made your left turn. Now that you have a moment to ponder your mortality, consider the place of effective bike infrastructure in it. Enter: the Copenhagen left. This is a concept from the great bike city that creates a completely different left-turning experience than what you just survived. In a city full of safe, separated bike lanes, a left turn has been developed that is safer and saner. Here’s how it works:

Three ways of executing a left turn. The one labeled in blue is an example of the Copenhagen left. Illustration is from the Cascade Bicycle Club.

You are rolling down a dedicated Copenhagen bike route safely separated from moving automobiles in a stream of fellow cyclists who, like you, look effortlessly chic while pedaling quickly with a coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other and nonchalantly chatting on ear buds. You approach the intersection, you know making a left turn will be difficult because you’d be holding up the stream of bike traffic behind you when encounter a tiny off-ramp to the right that removes you from the flow of traffic, swings you around and stops you at a red light facing the direction you want to turn. The light turns green, and off you go, having successfully made your left turn without taking your life in your hands.

This is the Copenhagen left, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people in the city ride bikes. It’s safe, intuitive and easy. No special skills needed. Maybe it’s time your city started using these.

Get more practical advice in our series called Bike Life Advice

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Smart bike challenge: $12 iPhone bike mount verses $200 SmartHalo

Can the new SmartHalo replace your smartphone as your bike’s best friend?

In testing out the cool new SmartHalo on my bike, two questions struck me:
1. Is SmartHalo better than your phone?
2. Do you need a smart bike?
So I put the questions to the test, by comparing what you get on your phone to what you get on a SmartHalo synced with a phone.

Thanks to SmartHalo for providing the device to test.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Here’s what happens when you ride a bike without worrying about being run over

What I’ve noticed about bicycle riding in the city is the city. This is especially true and vivid in parts of the city that have protected cycle tracks. I notice more of my city on my bike. The open architecture of the bicycle makes this possible. The safe infrastructure of a bike lane can make it quite real.

My friend Chris has an engineering mind. He says it’s an equation: Fewer perceived vehicle threats from fewer directions equals more time to feel happy and have the city strike you. In a good way. This formula is why I love pedalling my bike on the Oliverbahn in Edmonton. The Oliverbahn is a stretch of protected, treed, life-lined bicycle lane that runs along the north side of 102 Ave in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood. There’s a lot of city to notice and consider on the way to and from Edmonton’s downtown core.

Here’s what I noticed today.

A neighbourhood that provides space for pedestrians, bicycle riders, bus passengers, motorists, and, with all the stately elm trees, birds.

Families awheel.

Homes for fans of Hobbiton.

Hobbits.

Two built for a bicycle built for two.

The cool Lord Simcoe apartment font on brick.

Trees with bark and bite.

Walkers who wave hello.

Automobile drivers who wave hello.

A boy who says “cool bike” to his mom about me and hears me say “cool bike” right back to him.

People on bikes.

The 1913 telephone exchange building by Alan Jeffers.

Signed but self-regulated intersections that reveal where we’re at with each other:

People on bikes:

A tipi above the hedgeline in the Christ Church yard:

At the end of the story, a wedding:

With a bicycle in the picture 💚
A version of this post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Check it out here.

7 ways to choose the right route for your bike commute

Sometimes, getting around on a bike requires some advance planning. Photos by Tom Babin.

Veteran hard-core commuter cyclists are good at many things. Telling you exactly how much mileage they’ve logged far this year, for example. Clip-clopping in their stiff-soled cycling shoes in places where that is totally inappropriate. And offering the simplest advice to anyone who has ever expressed interest in riding their bike more: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”

This is, actually, pretty great advice. Cycling needn’t be complicated, especially if you’re style of cycling tends toward the utility side, rather than the athletic side. You don’t really need any special gear or advice. Just give it a try.

OK, got it? Great. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll offer you some hard-won advice that took me years to figure out. Choosing the right route for that urban bike ride can be uber-important, especially if you live in a city with minimal safe routes for bikes.

Most of us have built up a mental map of our cities. Unfortunately, most of us have built that map while driving a car, which means our mental map doesn’t always include the things we need to know for a  bike ride. Does your mental map include information about the width of the shoulder on a busy route? Does your mental map include a tally of left-turns across multiple lanes of traffic? Then it might be time to adjust that mental map in a bikeward direction.

Before you get riding, stop and think about the route, especially if you’re still coming to grips with the fact that much of your ride will be beside fast-moving boxes of steel that can kill you. Here are a few things to ponder in that moment before you kick off:

There’s a hierarchy of bike infrastructure to take into account.

Traffic volume

In general, choose the roads that have the fewest number of moving vehicles. If you must venture on to a busy road, at least bookend that time with some quiet routes that offer some decompression time.

Road width

This may be counter-intuitive, but the narrow streets are often preferable. While a wide street feels like it should give you more room to avoid being flattened by a car, wide roads also encourage drivers to go fast. Narrow streets, particularly those full of parked cars in residential areas, are a car driver’s worst nightmare – conjuring those old driving-school images of children darting into the street after a ball. As a cyclist, this is a good thing. It means drivers may actually slow down. They may even pay you respect on the road. Maybe.



Off-road

Your car-driver mental map probably has blank areas for things like parks, schoolyards and wooded areas. Your bike map, however, needn’t be so. A shortcut through a park on a bike isn’t just efficient, it’s safe and fun.

Roads with sharrows

Sharrows are those roads that have designated to be shared by automobile drivers and cyclists (the word is an amalgam of “shared right-of-way), often marked with road paint or signage of a bike with a couple of arrows coming out of the sky. Lazy city planners love sharrows because it makes them feel like they are accommodating bikes without actually doing anything to accommodate bikes. Don’t be fooled: sharrows suck. Don’t think of a sharrow route as a safe route. It’s the same as any other road and, in fact, may be more dangerous.

Bike lanes

Yes, of course you’ll choose routes that have been designated for bikes, right? These are the safe and direct routes, right? Aw, you’re so cute when you live in a fantasy world. Down here the real world, cities are full of badly planned, badly marked bike lanes that do little to improve safety. So get your city’s map of bike lanes, but use it to plan your route with a grain of salt. Create a hierarchy of bike lanes in your planning with the safest routes at the top of the priority list, like this:

  1. Bike lanes separated from traffic with a physical barrier, such as concrete or bollards. Parked cars also work as a good physical barrier, if cities are smart enough to build this way.
  2. Bike lanes with a buffer of some sort, such as a metre or two of space between the car lane.
  3. Painted bike lanes. Having a designated route is nice, but without a barrier between the lane and moving vehicles, painted lanes are bit like watching the latter Police Academy movies – better than nothing, but they just don’t measure up to the ones with Steve Guttenberg.
  4. Community bike routes: These residential roads that have been designated as bike routes go by many names, but they are all versions of the idea that calling a quiet road a bike route will somehow make it safer. This can be true. If the road is embraced by cyclists and becomes busy with bikes, car drivers tend to slow and the road will be safer. Sometimes cities even install traffic calming devices such as speed bumps or roundabouts. Great! But if this is just a regular road that’s been decorated with signs featuring bikes, don’t forget: this is just a regular road.

Busy roads

OK, you’ve exhausted all of your bike lanes, quiet roads and safe choices, but you are still forced to venture on to a road with all kinds of fast-moving cars. This is the sad reality for many of us. But there are a few things you can do to ease this pain. Minimize the number of left turns you must make. Keep your time short. And finally, as a last resort, do something I never thought I’d advise: Pick up the skills of a vehicular cyclist. This idea, that cyclists should ride in the same manner as automobiles, was the dominant idea in cycling in North America for much of the 20th century, but has now been thoroughly debunked. Why? Because it didn’t work. After 40 years of trying, we’ve realized that riding a bike like a car is really hard, and most of us are too scared to do it. Yet, vehicular cycling still has skills to teach us: Be visible, keep up your speed, ride with confidence, signal your intentions, be predictable. These skills take time to develop, but if you find yourself on busy roads, you will thank those grumpy old vehicular cyclists for showing us how it can work.

Just do it

If all of this seems like too much thinking for a simple bike ride, then take the advice of those wily veteran cyclists: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Proof you can haul pretty much anything on a bike

It started as a well-meaning attempt to offer some alternatives to backpacks. Backpacks are great, obviously, but sometimes when using a bicycle for getting around a city, a backpack can be a burden. A sweaty, heavy, burden.

With a front basket and a back rack, your bike is primed for hauling stuff. Photo by Tom Babin.

Things went a little awry, however, when Doug got involved. Doug is a guy in my neighbourhood who has seen the cargo-bike light. When he got wind of my attempts at offering advice on hauling stuff on a bike, he rolled in. A few days later, I was recording him helping his friend move a couch on that bike, thereby offering further evidence that there is very little that can’t be hauled on a bicycle in your day-to-day life.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

The health benefits of e-bikes should kill the idea that riding them is ‘cheating’

E-bikes are one of the fastest growing segments of the bike world. Photo courtesy of Bikeberry.com.

Ever since electric bikes were introduced and started gaining popularity, there has been an ongoing argument among traditional bicycle riders and those who prefer electric bikes about whether riding a motorized bicycle counts as an exercise and has health benefits as a traditional bike.

Some traditionalists claim that riding an electric bike is almost like “cheating” and has little or no health benefits.

Here are some facts about the important health benefits of electric bikes, which will hopefully rebuke this idea:

Riding an electric bike counts as an aerobic exercise

There are so many studies that have proven that regular exercise can significantly improve our well-being and health, as well as reduce the risk of serious illnesses which are usually associated with sedentary lives and unhealthy diets.

Chronic illnesses such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes type II, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and others are known to be the leading killers of the population of the U.S. The U.S. government has officially recommended getting about 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise with moderate intensity, or 1 hour and 15 minutes of intensive aerobic exercise, per week in order to reduce the risk of developing these life-threatening diseases.

Cycling is an excellent way to meet these recommendations. For the many people who struggle to ride for long distances or extended periods of time because of health or age-related issues or low fitness levels, electric bikes are a great alternative to get pedaling.

They do make the job easier thanks to the motor and throttle which helps the cyclist along the way, especially when climbing hills or riding against a strong wind. But riding an e-bike still involves some pedaling, so when people use them for commuting, for running errands or for fun, they still get moderate amounts of aerobic exercise.

For people who usually lead sedentary lives, riding an e-bike three times per week for about 40 minutes can add up to two hours of moderate aerobic exercise, which is much more than they usually do.

The heart rate of new electric bike riders rises by an average of 75% of their maximum which equals the rate during an easy jog or brisk walk.

This type of exercise helps reduce body fat and reduce blood-sugar levels, plus it strengthens the heart and improves lung capacity.

Plus, e-bikes are fun, which encourages people to ride. For average non-athletes, riding an e-bike will definitely help improve your fitness level and your health.

For cyclists with problems related to mobility, age or simply fitness, electric bikes can help motivate bike rides. Photo courtesy of Bikeberry.com.

People with e-bikes ride more

Studies show that, mainly due to the fun involved in riding an e-bike, people who choose this type of cycling tend to ride much more than those who rely on regular bicycles.

More people are using them to cover longer distances on a daily basis, such as for commuting or for running errands, rather than using their cars. Electric bikes also save a lot of time and money as compared to driving through heavy traffic every day, paying for gas, parking, insurance, and car maintenance.

Plus, with electric bikes, people can carry heavy cargo, groceries and their children as well, which is another reason why the army of e-bikers is growing on a daily basis.

More miles means more pedaling, and more pedaling means more exercise and improved fitness levels.

Your bones, muscles, and joints will become stronger too

Since e-bikes are quite heftier than regular bicycles, pedaling, steering and balancing on them requires quite a bit more effort, which can strengthen bones, muscles and joints. This can significantly reduce the risk of osteoporosis-related injuries and fractures.

Riding an electric bike helps reduce stress and builds up confidence

Yes, your mental health can improve once you start riding an e-bike regularly. Many people who feel intimidated about riding a regular bike find their confidence levels will grow along with their strength as they ride an e-bike.

You may even become ready to get back to regular cycling once again. This is especially true for people with injuries, disabled people or those who are not fit enough to ride a bicycle for miles and miles.

Once your stress levels decrease, and your confidence in yourself increases, you will feel much readier to face new challenges!

E-bikes are proving to be valuable transportation tools for urbanites looking for practical transportation options. Photo contributed by Bikeberry.com.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are some serious health benefits of riding an e-bike, especially if you are not all that active and fit to begin with.

Riding an e-bike will help you lose any extra weight you are carrying, it will strengthen your bone structure as well as your muscles and joints. Also, regular riding will make your heart stronger and less prone to problems and illnesses. Your blood pressure and blood sugar levels will get back to normal, and so will your quality of life.

Hopefully, these pointers will help traditional cyclists understand the growing popularity of e-bikes, begin to appreciate their health benefits, and get over the idea that e-bikes are not “real” bikes. Besides, anything that gets more people to ride a bike makes the world a better place!

This sponsored content was created in partnership with BikeBerry.com.

How to ride your kids to school in a cargo bike

“I’d like to ride my bike more, but I’ve got to take the kids everywhere.”

That’s a pretty common sentiment among parents these days, and it’s easy to see why. Kids today are scheduled and busy and in need of transportation constantly.

Lindsay Bliek certainly understands it. She’s mom to two busy young girls. But Bliek has also realized that using her bike to get around makes a whole lot of sense.

I tagged along with Lindsay recently while she rolled her kids to school in a cargo bike, and she offered a little insight into how (and why) she (and her girls) love their bike.

Linday writes a great blog at This Mom Bikes (which you should read), and some of her work has been adapted here on Shifter. You can also follow her on Twitter.

That’s Lindsay Bliek and her kids on their bike in their Halloween costumes. Photo swiped from her awesome blog, thismombikes.net.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Maybe children ride bikes less often today because their bikes make it hard

Sure those clouds look ominous on Stranger Things, but look at those dope bikes!

One of the things I love about watching Stranger things on Netflix is the scenes of the preteen heroes riding their bikes around their messed-up town. Yes, I’m a bike nerd.

The kids’ bikes are more than just props. The bikes separate the kids from the adult world and give them the freedom to explore. It’s an old Spielbergian trope—think of the scenes in E.T. and The Goonies in which bikes are the vehicle to escape the destructiveness of the adult world. It wasn’t a coincidence that E.T.’s defining scene is a bike rising off the ground to escape the adults.

That ain’t no carbon-fiber full-suspension downhill bike Elliot rode in E.T.

These days, there’s a kind of sad nostalgia to these scenes in Stranger Things because they seem so far off the lives of kids today. It’s easy to glorify the past, but the decline in bicycle use among kids, especially riding to school, is well documented and severe: Our irrational fear of abduction, our (slightly more) rational fear of cars, the proliferation of automobiles, the abandonment of local schools (both by choice and by poor city planning), our automobile-centric lives.

But a more practical thought dawned on me while watching Stranger Things. Maybe the bikes we give kids to ride these days are part of the problem.

Look back at those bikes being used by those on-screen kids: Single-speed steel-frames. Banana-seats. Chopper handlebars. First-gen BMX.



Compare that to the kids bikes you see at bike shops today. Full-suspension mountain bikes. Carbon parts. Front and back derailleurs overloaded with gears. Specialty frames. It’s even worse at the local Wal-Mart: Horribly built mountain bikes with faux suspension systems and never-in-tune gears.

While the technology on these bikes has no doubt improved, something feels like it’s been lost in this transition. These are purpose-built machines, and as such, they aren’t always practical. They can’t take a beating like those old bikes. Sensitive derailleurs are constantly getting knocked out of whack. There’s no place to double a friend. They can’t carry stuff. The chainrings eat jean cuffs. They need regular tune-ups. Scratches ruin their resale value and infuriate parents hoping to recoup their costs.

Perhaps even worse is that bikes have changed from an implement of childhood to an implement of sports. Bikes can expand the limits of a kids’ world. They can offer freedom, self-reliance, exploration and risk, all things that kids are starved for these days. But when bikes are only used for sports or when it’s time to “go for a bike ride,” those other elements are lost.

Bicycle culture among kids has changed, so most pre-teens would probably rather be caught dead than ride one of those Stranger Things bikes. But if there’s a kid in your life, give some thought to a sturdy single speed with a chain guard and a rack for carrying stuff. It may not impress much alongside those expensive carbon-framed full-suspension mountain bikes at the school bike rack. But it will stand up to the weather, it won’t stop working if it gets dropped in the wrong spot, and parents won’t freak out if it gets a scratch. It may just become what it once was: the vehicle of childhood.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

How your commute can contribute to a long and healthy life

Montreal Biking in summer

You can turn your commute into a force for good in your life. Photo by Tom Babin.

You could drive a car to work every day. But then you’d be missing out on an opportunity to make your life both safer and healthier.

So says research from the team of Dr. Kay Teschke from the University of British Columbia, who looked at the relative safety of different modes of transportation. When it comes to fatality rates, which mode is safest? Here’s a hint: It’s not motorcycling. Check out the video for more.

And check out the research that inspired this video here and here. It’s fascinating stuff.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 



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