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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. 


Will cyclists ever get the rolling stops they want?

For 30 years it’s been whispered about, a bicycle urban legend passed among envious cyclists throughout North America, every few years rearing its head with a little piece of news that brings hope, then despair. And now, it’s come up again here, in my city of Calgary.

It’s the Idaho stop law.

In reality, it’s hardly dramatic: a traffic statute that allows cyclists to yield at stop signs rather than coming to a full stop. But because it’s been talked about, teased and killed so many times, it’s become legendary in status.

Photo by James Havard: https://www.flickr.com/photos/64885769@N08/

I first wrote about this idea back in 2015, and I’ll paste that piece of writing below. But because the idea has been greeted here in Calgary with the same old reactions and arguments against it everywhere, I thought I’d spend a little time explaining it a in the video below. Enjoy.

This was originally published in the Calgary Herald on Oct. 16, 2016, under the headline: Is it time to let cyclists roll through stop signs?

Idaho, famous for potatoes and summering beach-deprived Calgarians, is in the news for something different: a 30-year-old traffic statute that is suddenly most-talked about new idea in urban transportation.

In the early 1980s, concerned that trivial traffic matters were cluttering the courts, a magistrate judge in Idaho changed the rules to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields. Rather than forcing people on bikes to come to a full stop at each red octagon, cyclists were allowed to slow and roll through them when safe.

For the next 30 years, Idahoans went yielding on their own merry way without drawing much attention, other than from cycling advocates elsewhere who looked on with envy. In the last few months, however, the “Idaho stop law” has suddenly become a talking point. Both Montreal and San Francisco are considering adopting similar rules, and a subsequent debate has ensued.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of this law to cyclists. Stop signs, to be frank, suck. They are hard work. Coming to a full stop and then pedalling back up to full acceleration is a huge expenditure of energy (this study, pointed out to me by Kay Teschke, found that regular stop signs require so much energy they can drop a cyclist’s speed by 40 per cent). This is especially galling on a bike when there’s good visibility and the stop sign is in an inconvenient location, such as the bottom of a hill, there’s no risk to rolling through, and the sign was clearly intended for motor vehicles. And, let’s face it, the risk posed by a bike in such a situation is much less than a car.

Yet adoption of the law has been pretty much non-existent outside of Idaho. As more cities look to make life easier for cyclists, however, the law is getting a second look. There is, however, some opposition, mostly from car drivers resentful of some perceived advantage being given to people on bikes. Everybody, they say, should obey the same rules.

With that in mind, I called Kurt Holzer to see how the law works in the real world of Idaho. Holzer lives in Boise, is a personal injury attorney who often represents cyclists, and he rides his bike a lot, so he knows of which he speaks. His assessment of the law was simple.

“In my 20 years, I’ve never see a case where the stop-as-yield law has caused a problem,” he told me. As a lawyer, he likes that it “eliminated a bunch of tickets and unnecessary confrontations with police.” As a cyclist, he loves the little boost that comes with rolling through stop signs when safe to do so.

He’s not the only one. For most Idahoans, the law has become a non-issue. In fact, Holzer says it works so well, he’s surprised it hasn’t been more widely adopted.

study was done on the law in 2010. Researcher Jason Meggs at UC Berkeley found that bicycle injuries declined 14.5 per cent the year after the law was adopted. He also found Idaho cities fared 30.4 per cent better in bicycle safety than similar cities that lacked the law. “The law has been beneficial or had no negative effect,” he wrote. Another sign of the  law’s efficacy is its rather low-key success in Idaho over 30 years.

Still, those arguments against the law persist. Holzer dismisses the standard oppositions to the law as “weak arguments.” As for the idea that cyclists would be given preferential treatment, Holzer points out that some road users already have different laws. Some jurisdictions, for example, require school buses to stop at railway crossings, or require big trucks to obey different speed limits than other vehicles. The same approach can apply to cyclists.

Others have argued against the law on the basis of protecting pedestrian rights, but Holzer also likes the law because it better reflects reality. Yes, that means the law acknowledges that some cyclists already roll through stop signs.

The key point in this debate is probably this: The law works in Idaho when people obey it. There are still altercations at intersections, and sometimes cyclists blow through stop signs without yielding, but they are breaking the law. Every problem situation Holzer has seen is because somebody disobeyed the statute. People on bikes are still required to stop for safety. The law is not an excuse to ride like a jerk.

“It’s a rational statute that acknowledges vehicle and human behaviour, and enhances, rather than dismisses, safety on the road,” he said. “And for (vehicle drivers), I can get out of your dang way faster and not pose an obstacle to you because it allows me to . . .  clear the intersection more quickly.”

In the long run, however, the law remains appealing because it makes life just a little bit easier for law-abiding cyclists. With so many cities striving to do just that, it may be an Idahoan idea whose time has come.

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

Some good (and bad) parts of winter cycling in cities around the world

I asked some winter-cycling friends from around the world to tell us what they love and, in some cases, hate about winter cycling in their cities. Bike lanes, plowing, bike parking, and reams of people riding in subzero temperatures: Here’s what they had to say in Winnipeg, Montreal, Minneapolis, Tilburg,
and Oulu.



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

What the polar vortex taught us about winter cycling

A group ride at the recent Winter Cycling Congress in Calgary. Photo by Tom Babin.

In the midst of the polar vortex, where frothing meteorologists competed over cold weather hyperbole, I had my most memorable bike rides of the season.

My home city of Calgary recently hosted the 7th annual Winter Cycling Congress, giving me a week of bike-focused learning and activity. The congress touched on myriad aspects of winter cycling, and I’ll be sharing some of what I learned over the coming weeks, but I wanted to start with what will probably be my lasting memories of the event.

Biking through the cold

It t was cold. Freaking cold. Most days hovered around -25 C, although the sun did bring some moments up to a balmy -15 C. On one of the coldest days, I found myself fat-biking with two friends on a day in which the -30 C weather chased everyone else from the trails (technically, this was outside of the “polar vortex” that engulfed the rest of the continent, but it was our longest and coldest blast of winter in years).

Riding through this kind of cold with a range of other people taught me a few things. First: Cold is relative. Comfort isn’t about absolute cold, it’s about expectations. For some people accustomed to this weather, it was no big deal. They had the right gear, the right methods for staying warm and the right attitude. People from other winter cities where this kind of weather is rare struggled a bit more. There isn’t some mythical cut-off temperature where humans stop riding. It’s all about expectations.

I also learned that it’s amazing how you can enjoy a ride even at extremely cold temperatures. With the right winter gear (on feet and hands, especially), there’s almost no limit to enjoying a ride. I often tell reluctant winter cyclists that cold is not even in the top 10 challenges of winter cycling, and the polar vortex confirmed this. As your body moves, it generates an amazing amount of heat. It can keep your body warm and comfortable even in extreme cold. Dress properly, and enjoy.

Finnish delegate Pekka Tahkola biking through a -30 C evening during Calgary’s version of the polar vortex. Photo by Tom Babin.

What the Europeans bring

There’s an impression out there that Europeans have this whole urban bike thing figured out. Thanks to such cities as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, many North Americans have an image of all European cities as bike havens.

Yet the messages from several of the European delegates at the conference was contrary. Take this interview on the local CBC television station with Lars Stromgren, a vice-president of the European Cycling Federation. Stromgren walks the perfect line here, maintaining positivity and conviviality with an air of wisdom that never veers into condescension.

But pay attention to his message. What’s great about this interview, and with Stromgren’s presence at the Winter Cycling Congress, is the fact that he’s from Stockholm, a city that is far from a model for bike friendlness. In talking with Stromgren at the conference, he was critical of his city, which is only beginning to take cycling seriously.


Stromgren may not know this, but I think hearing the message that Stockholm is in the same boat as Calgary (or pretty much every other North American city) in trying to figure out how to make cities more bike friendly is strangely inspiring. A lifetime of being told things are better in Scandinavia has inoculated many North Americans from listening to any message from Europe. It’s like being told by your parents that you really should try to be more like your brain-surgeon sister. But to hear Stromgren say that good bike cities are a work in progress everywhere — even in the homeland of Ikea — is a relatable, inspiring message.



Oh, Oulu.

Check this photo.

It was taken by Pekka Tahkola in his home city of Oulu, and it shows the bikes ridden by students to a suburban elementary school. I’ve written extensively about Oulu, perhaps the most bike-friendly winter city on Earth, but sometimes it takes photos like to really drive home the benefits of building a city around bikes.

Takhola also showed a video from the morning commute at this school that showed streams of kids on bikes rolling toward the school in the snow. The sheer number of kids on bikes drew a gasp from the Congress crowd, who are more accustomed to seeing bleary-eyed children emerging at school from long lines of steaming SUVs. To see so many kids riding — Taklhoa reports that about 1,000 of the school’s 1,200 students ride bikes in this suburban neighbourhood — was shocking and delightful.

Takhola’s photo was so inspiring that it became the viral moment of the congress, retweeted hundreds of times and picked up by news organizations around the world. What I see in this photo is potential. Only a maniac would argue against the benefits of kids riding bikes to school (choose a problem facing kids today —  physical health, mental health, obesity, socialization, independence, screen time, community connection), and part of the solution can be seen in this photo.

This is what Oulu gives us: something to aspire to.

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

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