Author: Tom Babin Page 1 of 11

Urban transportation is being disrupted, but it isn’t big tech that’s doing it

The idea that big-tech will revolutionize urban transportation is fading more every day. Photo by Tom Babin.

The cry went out as soon as the news hit Twitter: “No! Now I’m going to have to buy a second car!”

That was the response from a co-worker when the news broke recently that Calgary, where I live, was among the handful of North American cities being abandoned by car-sharing company Car2go. When the company launched in Calgary in 2012, it was an unexpected hit. A car-centric oil town with middling transit, the fact car-sharing was an immediate success here (it was reported that Calgary had the second-highest number of Car2go members in North America) had people re-assessing the city’s culture of obligatory car ownership. 

Yet it was short-lived. The announcement of the company’s withdrawal from Calgary hit many people hard, particularly those living close to downtown who had come to rely on it as a second (or even first) vehicle. I felt that pain. Although my family has yet to cast off the yoke of the second family vehicle, I was a regular Car2go user and its convenience had always been a source of inspiration for that day when my family too could own one less car.

But the timing of Car2go’s change came at an interesting time, and it’s easy to see the withdrawal as a harbinger of a bigger change. Or if not a harbinger, at least a symbol of an imagined future that is getting more and more unlikely. 

As recently as a year ago, it was easy to envision a future in which technology truly changed the way we get around our cities. We seemed to be on the cusp of changing that old 1970s image of car-clogged freeways spewing carbon and chasing pedestrians away with a new future of transportation in which self-driving electric robot cars whisk us down safe, clean free-flowing streets. 

Uber was winning its fights against the taxi establishment. Tesla was rolling out cars with auto-pilot. Ford was investing in car-sharing and putting out ads like the one above. Silicon Valley companies were dropping off cheap and clean scooters all over our cities.  

Those days seem like a mirage now; an embarrassingly naive vision of an impossible future. Let’s count the ways in which this futurism bubble has been burst recently: 

You might be forgiven for cynically thinking that we just spend a decade and billions of investor dollars to figure out what society learned 80 years ago: Urban transportation is really hard, and perhaps impossible to make profitable. So far, we’ve yet to find a system of mass transportation that can survive without public subsidies (yes, that includes the private automobile and its subsidies in the form of the billions we spend to build a road network almost exclusively for them.)

Yet something else has been happening at the same time. Despite all of these problems, our cities are changing. But it has nothing to do with technology. 

Increasingly, cities are finally realizing that cars are ruining their downtowns and are doing something about it. After a cycling renaissance under its last civic administration, New York is turning some streets over to transit-only, and announced plans for congestion pricing, whereby all vehicles entering downtown would pay a fee, similar to other programs that have been in place for years in cities such as London. Madrid has banned many types of vehicles from its downtown in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. Paris is heading down the same path. Other cities, such as Stockholm, have already banned cars

Bike-share programs like Montreal’s Bixi are different than dockless programs in many ways, including the support and subsidization of the municipal government. Photo by Tom Babin

And although it’s still unfathomable to see Calgary take such measures in the short-term, my old-fashioned bicycle commute has slowly but surely gotten better in recent years. After the much-ballyhooed construction of a cycle-track network a half-decade ago, and a subsequent stalling of new infrastructure, tiny investments in improving bike infrastructure are finally paying off and making my commute safer and easier. By next year, it will be possible my ride to work will be nearly 100 per cent on bike paths and separated bike lanes.

So while it’s painful for many people to see that techo-upotian transportation future fade from vision, perhaps there’s a future vision that had always been there but had been nearly forgotten beneath the hype of transportation tech. This new/old vision is built on the idea that people, not cars, need to get around a city and that public investments are perhaps best made on the public. 

We’re a long way from achieving that vision — most of our cities still treat transit like welfare, investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are still bedevilled with petty arguments, and it’s still nearly impossible to live in many parts of the continent without a car. As future visions, it’s not as sexy as the one Silicon Valley trumpeted. But this is the only one proven to work. 

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

Testing the best ways to get around a city: Bike, e-bike and e-scooter

It’s an urban challenge we’ll all run into at some point: You need to get across the city quickly. What’s the best way?

To answer that, I decided to test three transportation options.

  1. My own bike.
  2. A dockless shared e-bike from Lime.
  3. A dockless shared e-scooter from Lime.

This isn’t only about speed. I’m also factoring in things such as costs and the all-important sweat factor. Any predictions?

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

A single-speed bike may be the key to your ultimate bike commute

It’s the forgotten step-child of the bike-commuting world, overlooked in favour of flashier models loaded with extras, like, you know, gears and shifters.

But there’s something magical about the simplicity of a single-speed bike. Lacking derailleurs and all the associated mechanics that come with them, single-speeds are the kind of bike you never have to think about. They rarely need maintenance. Your gears never go out of tune. Your derailleur never clicks in maladjustment. Your cassette never gets clogged with mud or ice. It just works.

But is all that worth the trade-off of never having a second gear? That was the question that drove the latest video in my commuter-challenge series. The goal of this series is to give you information about different kinds of bikes so you can make better decisions about your bike life. So far, I’ve tested the speed, effort and overall ride of a number of bikes: Road bikes, city bikes, electric bikes, mountain bikes. This time, the wild card was the single-speed.

Check it out below. You can see the other videos in my series here.

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

Bike racer or city cruiser: Who has the best bike commute?

Is going as fast as possible the best way to commute to work on a bike? That’s the question we’re testing in this video, thanks to a guest appearance by former pro cyclocross racer, current coach and all-around amazing guy Mark McConnell, aka Hot Sauce (go check out his website here.)

Here’s how we tested the question. Mark, in athletic clothing and riding a fast bike, agreed to commute as fast as possible. Following the same route, I commute in my work clothes on my comfortable three-speed city bike. Who will have the better commute? Watch to find out.

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

My summer mission: Photographing utility-box art in my city

More than a decade ago, the City of Calgary commissioned artists to paint utility boxes. You’ve seen these nondescript grey things that electricity runs through, even if you’ve never consciously noticed them before. I hadn’t. They are part of the overlooked underpinnings of city infrastructure, like telephone poles or storm drains.

But dozens of artists have painted them in Calgary as part of this project, and, one day, while perusing the city’s open data site (I don’t have a lot of hobbies), I came across a list of the commissioned painted boxes and their locations. After a little spreadsheet work and some Google magic, voila, I had a map of every one of those 68 boxes.

This isn’t all of the painted boxes in the city. Apparently, the map hasn’t been updated in some time. But still, I kind of like these utility boxes. And I like maps. So I decided that I would make it my summer project to visit each of the points on this map on my bicycle and take a look at the art. And since I’m there, I’ll snap a photo and post it to Instagram, in a style inspired by Behind Handlebars. By the end of summer, hopefully, I’ll have a gallery of 68 artfully painted utility boxes.

Even as I type this I’m struggling to come up with an answer for the inevitable question that will follow: Why? Beats me. Ask me when I’m finished.

If you lead an empty life and want to follow along, Instagram is your best bet. And I’m taking a bit of time away from my usual blogging and vlogging this summer as a creative recharge, so this may be all you’ll get from me for a while. Enjoy your summer.

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

Why multiuse pathways sometimes suck for cyclists

Why would a person on a bike choose a road over a pathway designed specifically for cycling? After being yelled at by a motorist for riding my bike on a road adjacent to a shared multiuse pathway, I decided to bicycle commute home using only pathways to show the good, the bad and the ugly about multiuse pathways.

The results show that the good and the bad about pathways. The good? For recreation, they can be fantastic: usually placed in beautiful places and rolling through parks, they are looping routes that allow for connections to nature and slow, easy rides perfect for hauling a picnic or visiting relatives.

For transportation? Not so much. They tend to be indirect, full of gaps, and rarely get you directly where you need to go. And as some followers have also pointed out, they tend to have slow speed limits and be full of pedestrians, both of which slow a commute.


Check out the video below for more.

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

City bike, road bike or e-bike? What’s best for bicycle commuting?

What’s the best bike for commuting? This is the second video in which I test different types of bikes on my commute. This time, instead of a mountain, road or city bike, like I did last time, I tested these bikes: A slow, comfortable city bike, a light and fast road bike and a pedelec , a.k.a an electric pedal-assist bike.

Which one is best? I measure my commutes on all of the bikes and compare the numbers.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are some of the numbers:
City bike: Riding time: 66:61, average speed of 20.2 km/hr
Road bike: Riding time: 58:65, average speed of 22 km.hr
Electric bike: Riding time: 56:31, average speed of 24.6 km/hr

Speed, however, is not the only factor in bike commuting. In the video, I also examine a number of other factors around bike commuting, such as comfort, costs and the sweat factor.

I hope this video helps you become a better bike commuters.

Also: You’ll probably notice that my math is weird on some of the calculations. I have an accumulated time of 58:65, for example, which should be expressed as 56:05. The larger point I’m trying to make still stands, but, yeah, I messed up.

Here’s my first bike commute challenge.

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

Why it’s time to stop building painted bike lanes

Two thing caught my eye recently and led to the question: do painted bike lanes suck? In fact, the question might go even farther: is a painted bike lane more dangerous than nothing at all?

You know what I’m talking about. It’s those bike lanes that are created just with a strip of paint and nothing else. No protection or separation from passing motors vehicles as all. Just a strip of paint.

The first came when I saw a talk recently by Dr. Jennifer Dill from Portland State University, who has done a ton of research into urban cycling. And one of the things she did recently was to survey people’s impressions of different types of bike infrastructure.

One of those question was to ask people if the presence of a different types of bike infrastructure made them more likely to ride a bike in a city. She asked about things like painted bike lanes, bike paths or protected bike lanes. And among the lowest results was painted hike lanes. People didn’t like them. They just don’t feel safe in them.

One of the vehicles that passed my while riding in this painted bike lane. Photo by Tom Babin.

Which is interesting. Bike lanes are explicitly designed to accommodate cyclists, but most people perceive them as unsafe.

But maybe that’s just perception. Are they actually unsafe?

A different new study looked at this question. It looked at passing distance. Basically, the researchers hooked up a device to cyclists that measures the distance of passing vehicles. They sent those cyclists riding on different types of roads to see if drivers gave the cyclist more space when there was a bike lane.

What do you think happened? Yep, researchers found that motorists passed cyclists closest in two situations: Around parked cars, and in painted bike lanes.

I found this bizarre. Not only did people perceive painted bike lanes as among the most unsafe types of bike infrastructure, they are probably right.

So I did a little experiment and recorded one day of my bike commute. I then examined the video to see if this research bears out. Guess what? On just one day of commuting, I found that research is probably correct. The closest calls with cars came around parked cars and in painted bike lanes.

Which leads to a natural question: If painted bike lanes suck so bad, why do we build them? My theory? Because they are easy. Even though they do nothing to help cyclists, they are cheap, easy to implement and make cities feel like they are helping.

But it’s time to move on. Let’s drop the painted bike lanes in favour of infrastructure that actually works. Separate bikes from cars and people will ride bikes. It’s simple. Now, we just have to do it.

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


Can a cargo bike fit your urban life? Maybe this one can. Plus, it’s electric!

True cargo bikes are amazing. They can haul just about anything, including furniture, children and that Tinder date you just swiped on. But their size can sometimes be limiting for those living smaller urban lifestyles. That’s why I wanted to try out this bike, the Tern GSD S00, a kind of smaller and more portable cargo bike. With features of a folding bike and a great Bosch electric pedal-assist motor, this is a pedelec that may just fit an urban life.

Also check out Power in Motion. This Calgary company loaned me this bike, and they do the most amazing overviews of all their bikes on YouTube. Great info (and they make amazing heated clothing too, for you winter riders).

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

This lawyer has detailed all the ways the law subsidizes car drivers, and it’s staggering

When changes to traffic laws were approved in my city recently
— little things like requiring drivers to give more space to cyclists when passing — it was heralded as a step forward for bike friendliness.

But after reading a fascinating new paper, my enthusiasm for these new laws feels dwarfed by a realization that these are but tiny changes in a massive system that has rigged society toward automobile supremacy.

That may sound like hyperbole, but only if you haven’t read the paper. It was written by Gregory Shill, a law professor at the University of Iowa, titled Should Law Subsidize Driving? Basically, it’s an examination of the myriad ways that our laws favour automobiles. Not just traffic rules, but everything from liability to law enforcement to zoning regulations.

Photo by Tom Babin.

There has long been discussion about the things that encourage automobile use, from the ways we’ve build our suburban cities to the design of our houses. But I’ve rarely seen an argument this comprehensive detailing how our legal system subsidises driving as well.

“These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively re-assigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large,” Shill writes in the paper. “They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law.”

By “subsidizing” driving, Shill is looking at the myriad ways our legal system favours cars. For example, he examines the history of speed limits and argues they are set with the goal of keeping automobiles moving despite clear evidence they often worsen road safety when set arbitrarily high. In that case, the law favours fast-moving automobiles over the safety of other road users.

He examines the ways we have spread the costs of driving, such as road construction, across all of society, making driving seem free while, at the same time, governments starve public transit and treat it as a “welfare” system. “On 99.7% of lane miles in America,” he writes, “the cost to the driver is zero and the marginal cost is zero, because policymakers socialized the costs across the entire population.” But driving is not free. He puts the costs of subsidising driving at “$100 billion, or between $1,012 and $1,488 per household per year (in the U.S.).”

Our laws also favour motor vehicles in the way we zone and use land. Zoning rules encourage low-density housing that favours autocentric lifestyles. Parking requirements assign public space to car storage. “A thousand local-level choices … took billions of acres of public space along streets—especially scarce, tree-lined, urban spaces where children played in safety—and redefined them as places to used exclusively for the passive storage of motor vehicles.”

Even the legal language we use in our transportation system favours automobiles, from calling collisions “accidents” to describing a person crossing a public road as a “jaywalker.”



Lax enforcement of traffic rules, environmental laws that absurdly encourage motor vehicle use, pollution restrictions that externalize hidden costs onto all of society, tepid prosecution of motor-vehicle crimes contrary to written statutes — when compiled, the myriad ways the legal system encourages automobile use is staggering.

None of that would be a problem if motor-vehicle use was benign. And perhaps it once was. But this system has, not surprisingly, evolved alongside the legal system that supports it to a point where the balance is off. And it’s destructive.

I don’t take this as a war-against-cars legal rant. There’s a place for automobiles in modern life, obviously. But we often fail to see, not only the destructive properties of the transportation system we’ve created, but its supportive regime. The goal of this paper is to at least open our eyes to that regime.

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


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