Author: Tom Babin (Page 1 of 8)

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. 

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. 



If this Russian oil town can become a bike haven, what’s your city’s problem?

Three years ago, you probably had never heard of Almetyevsk, the central Russian city of 150,00 that was founded in 1953 to serve the petroleum industry. I know I hadn’t. But since then, Almetyevsk has become a kind of legend in the bike world by transforming itself into the best bike city in Russia, and one that is probably a hell of a lot more bike-friendly than your city.

Copenhagenize Almetyevsk / Альме́тьевск

Photos by Copenhagenize showing the transformation of Almetyevsk into a bicycle haven.

Two years ago, the city had basically no bike infrastructure. Today, it has a bike network of 83 kilometres long (with plans for more), much of it separated from cars, cleared of snow in winter, and filled with bike-friendly amenities like footrests and angled garbage bins. And much of it was planned and built within a matter of months, and paid for by Tataneft, the oil company that is the driver of the city’s economy.

It’s a remarkable story that has as much to do with the visoinary young mayor who drove the idea as the unique circumstances around it.

That mayor is Ayrat Khayrullin, a charismatic young politician who sold the idea to Tataneft based on the health benefits of cycling, and then harnessed the force of his personality to push the idea through decades of planning inertia.

Almetyevsk Mayor Ayrat Khayrullin, speaking about the transformation of his city. Photo by Andrey Burkov.

“I wouldn’t say we have a lot of traffic congestion in Alymtask, but our goal was not congestion,” Khayrullin said during the Winter Cycling Congress in Moscow earlier this year, through a translator. “Tataneft thought that ‘We want all of our employees to be happy and healthy.’ ”

Khayrullin speaks as if reared in Amsterdam. He rattles off statistics about modal share and lane widths and buffer zones like a lifelong urbanist, some of it no doubt picked up from the mantra of Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who consulted on the project. “We want a five-year-old to be able to ride safely across the city, and their parents to not be afraid,” Khayrullin said.



It’s an inspiring story for those who have lived through the glacial pace of bike-lane development elsewhere, but the conditions in Almetyevsk are unique, to say the least. Not only was funding provided by an oil giant, Russian cities aren’t quite renowned for their consultations with citizens.

Still, the mayor is already touting health benefits, including reductions in asthma, neurological disorders and mortality (although, to be fair, it feels early for such pronouncements, so take them with a grain of salt). He hopes that seven per cent of people will use bikes to get to work by 2020, a massive increase from the start of the project when that number was essentially zero.

It’s easy to think that such a feat can never be duplicated in a western city, and that may be right. But looked at another way, if an industrial Russian oil town sees the benefits in cycling, what are we waiting for?

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

Here’s how my ‘perfect’ winter bike held up through its first (brutal) winter

At the tail end of last season, I did what I once thought I would never do: I bought a winter bike.

For nearly a decade, I rode a crappy, 20-year-old single-speed mountain bike because, mostly, I feared riding a good bike. Winter in my city rust: salt, slush, muck and grime that eat components unimaginably fast. I learned my lesson the hard way, and after I buried that old beloved bike, I vowed never to destroy a good machine again.

IMG_1894

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Still. In the back of my mind, I always thought that some day, I would find a bike that had what I considered the perfect specs for a rust-repellent winter machine: Aluminum frame, belt drive, internal gears, disc brakes and an overall winter hardiness. Then, unimaginably, I came across a bike with all those components in the Priority Continuum. I snapped the bike up at the tail end of last season, but didn’t really get a chance to test it through a real winter.



That wasn’t a problem this year. Though one of the coldest and snowiest winters I can remember, I rode the Continuum through it all. With the season coming to an end, a few people have asked me about it. So I made the video above to give an update on how the bike has held up.

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

More tips for keeping your feet warm while riding a bike

My blog earlier this winter offering tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike prompted some questions, so I thought I would expand a bit in video format. So here it is: Five tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike: the expanded edition.

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We need to choose what kind of city we want before we let the robots do it for us

Parked bikes in Quebec City

Will bicycles be a part of the future of our cities? Photo by Tom Babin.

There’s a scene in the 1942 Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons that has some eerie parallels to today. The scene, set around the early part of the 20th century, is a confrontation between the maker of new-fangled “horseless carriages” (automobiles) and the old guard.

In the film, the automobile is a metaphor for the conflict between the old and the new, but watch the scene and think about the state of our cities today.

This monologue has particular resonance at this moment, because it feels like we’re in another of those periods of transformational transportation change. This time, it’s not the automobile replacing the horse, but the robots replacing the humans.

Autonomous cars are imminent, which seems to have created two competing visions for the future. The first, which has been gaining steam for the past 20 years, is defined by urbanism. It’s the future that most readers of this blog probably envision: less automobile-dependent streets where we focus on accommodating humans before cars. That means a grand rethinking of our streets and how we get around. More public transit, more cycling, more walking, and fewer cars. This is the vision that is driving change in many cities, from Paris to Copenhagen to Vancouver and Bogota.



But a competing vision has emerged in more recent years. This is a future that is built on technology, and its seductiveness is undeniable. Self-driving cars that arrive at your door to transport you to your smartphone-chosen destination. The end of car ownership in favour of transportation service. Fleets of robot cars roaming the streets to pick up and deliver people and packages.

These two visions don’t have to be at odds, but the closer we get to the realization of these visions, the more it seems they are. The promise of the first vision is a realignment of the transportation priorities of our cities, away from automobiles in favour of a more equitable balance between other modes.

The other, however, despite its promise, risks simply being a replacement of the status quo: swapping human-piloted vehicles for those driven by computers. Even the debate around this month’s tragic killing of a pedestrian by a self-driving Uber car comes down, fundamentally, to a debate over this vision. I’m in the camp that sees potential benefits to the technology, particularly the reduction of automobile collisions, but this isn’t a question of whether we use the technology or not. It’s about the fundamental problems of living in a society too reliant on automobiles—congestion, collisions, hostile streets and, despite our best intentions, deaths—may actually be exacerbated by this vision.

IMG_9812

Bicycles are a big part of one vision of the future of our cities. Photo by Tom Babin.

Think about congestion. In New York, for example, it has gotten worse in the last decade, not better, attributable mostly to the proliferation of ride-sharing services like Uber, which will no doubt grow as autonomous vehicles emerge. Filling the streets with empty vehicles on their way to pick up a fare is unlikely to reduce those fundamental problems. In London, the story is the same, as seen in this tweet:

Both visions seem to have momentum these days, but even as the benefits of urbanism are increasingly accepted by the broader public, its a vision that’s expensive, sometimes contentious, inherently political and requires long-term thinking heavy on public input and taxpayer investment. It’s not easy.

The robot future, by contrast, seems to be arriving almost by the force of its own will. Enthusiasm for the technology has brought it to our doorstep with a sense of inevitability. In the same way we dove headlong into a world defined by Facebook before we started thinking about its impacts on our lives, our brains, our politics, our news and our children, our zeal for technology has brought robot cars to our door before we’ve really considered the implications of opening it.

The good news is that these visions needn’t be at odds. A better balance between automobiles and humans in our urban settings can no doubt be improved by driverless technology. In fact, the most prominent proponent of this driverless future, Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has seemed dismissive of transit and active transportation in the past, may be coming around. There is much skepticism around his vision for the future, but optimists may see this recent tweet as a sign that he is starting to see these two visions coming together.

But this coming together can only happen if we recognize that the future isn’t driven by inevitabilities and momentum. It’s created by the decisions we make. And now is the time to make those decisions for the future.

Thanks to Dave Cohen of VBike for opening my eyes to The Magnificent Ambersons.

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

We built an ice-bike to ride on frozen ponds. And it’s amazing

It’s been a long, cold winter for many of us, so it felt like the perfect time to add a little bicycle fun to the world.

The challenge: Build a bike that will smoothly roll over ice.

The result: Success! Mostly. Check out the video to see more.



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

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