Category: Bikes (Page 2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DetroitBikesManufacturing from Detroit Bikes on Vimeo.

 

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

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

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

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

The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.

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

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

So why do so many of us buy them?

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

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

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

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

 

How to pass a bike in a car without killing anyone (or being a dick)

Some things about driving a car are difficult. Doing a 180-degree e-brake slide into a parking space, for example. Or that famous kickflip in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, which was so difficult nobody even attempted to replicate it for 40 years.

Another thing that’s difficult, apparently, is passing a person on a bike. A newish one-metre passing rule that has been adopted in Ontario, but is not yet being enforced, seems so difficult that drivers are outraged. It’s madness, it seems, to think that a grown adult with government-approved driving skills could possibly overtake a cyclist safely. The only options, if you believe the angry reaction, are maiming the cyclist or plunging headlong into oncoming traffic. The law, according to the reasoned comments in this CBC story, is “idiocy,” “sick,” and a “raging double standard.”

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We can empathize with the concern. After dominating the roads for the last 60 years with bully tactics and consequence-free killings, learning to share can be a challenge for some drivers.

But we’re here to help. Here are 10 tips for drivers trying to safely pass a cyclist on a road.

  1. Don’t kill anybody.
  2. If you approach a cyclist from behind, wait until it’s safe and then pass on the left, then give the person on the bike a wide berth, at least a metre (that’s about three feet). It’s OK to venture into the oncoming lane when doing so. Crossing that yellow line in this case is legal, and is preferable to killing that cyclist.
  3. If there are cars in the oncoming lane and you can’t get around that cyclist, just wait. There’s a pedal in your car next to the accelerator. If you press it, your car will slow down. Use it to reduce your speed and wait behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass.
  4. But what if there is a lot of traffic in the oncoming lane, and you can’t safely pass the cyclist? Good question. There are a few options here.
    1. You could lean on the horn to frighten the cyclist out of the way. Poor option: Dick move, and possibly illegal.
    2. You could rev your engine, preferably the six-cylinder type found in a half-ton pickup, and lurch toward the person on the bike to express your displeasure with having to wait. Poor option: Dick move, and possible illegal.
    3. You could accelerate and narrowly pass the cyclist, based on the theory that if you are going to endanger a person on the road, you might as well get it over with quickly. Poor option. Now illegal in Ontario, and many other places. Also a dick move.
    4. You could just wait until it is safe to pass. Good option. Legal, courteous and compliant with tip No. 1.
  5. But what if you want to obey tip 4d, but you have to wait behind that cyclist for a long time, like for 30 seconds, or even — gasp — a minute? That cyclist is slowing you, and all the people behind you, down too. Must you just sit there and wait until it’s safe? Even if you are in a hurry? The answer: Yep. Remember tip No. 1.
  6. But what if you’re really in a hurry? Like, say, you’re driving your daughter to soccer practice and you’re running a little behind, which means she’ll be punished with a set of pushups? Or you’re returning from an evening out and you want to get home in time for the season finale of the Bachelor, which promises the most dramatic rose ceremony ever, and that cyclist is just riding in that lane like she owns it, without even caring that she’s holding up the people behind her? Must you just sit there and wait, even if it annoys you? Yep. See tip No. 1.
  7. Imagine, for a moment, that person on a bike is driving a different vehicle, like a car. Perhaps a little Honda Civic, or, say, a Lada Riva. And she’s driving that Lada a little below the speed limit, and it’s holding you up. What would you do? You might get annoyed. You might vent a little frustration into your dashboard. But you probably wouldn’t try to roar past that Lada in the little space between the car and the traffic in the oncoming lane. You would probably recognize that person in a Lada has a right to the road that trumps your right to drive the maximum posted speed, even if it’s annoying. Got it? The same applies to a person on a bike.
  8. But driving too slow is against the law, you say. You can’t impede traffic. This is true. Kind of. Most jurisdictions have a law that requires road users to travel at a “normal and reasonable” rate to maintain the flow of traffic. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to drive slowly. The posted speed limit is a maximum, not a minimum. And if you are driving slower than that posted speed, you are often required to drive as close to the right of the lane as is practical. If you are on a bike, does “practical” mean that riding unsafely in the door zone, or in a gutter lane filled with dangerous debris and obstacles, just to appease the inpatient drivers behind you? I’m willing to bet most police officers and judges would err on the side of safety, rather than road efficiency or speed (because they see the consequences of reckless driving on the roads). So if you plan on arguing that you absolutely had to squeeze past a cyclist illegally because that cyclist was impeding the normal flow of traffic, good luck. Sure, you might win that argument, but it may be simpler to just wait until it’s safe to pass courteously. See tip No. 1.
  9. If you are a cyclist caught in this situation where you need to ride in such a way that traffic is building up behind you, my sympathies. This situation sucks. It’s stressful and unsafe. Yes, you have a right to do it, but consider those people behind you, and choose to pull out of the way occasionally to let those impatient drivers pass. Or better yet, find another way. Or even better, get your city council to build some separated infrastructure to eliminate such situations.
  10. See tip No. 1. Be safe.

Vehicular cycling is dead, just don’t bury the body yet

The biggest argument in urban cycling of the last 20 years is pretty much settled. So why are we still arguing about it?

After last week’s post about the ways Montreal managed to become one of the continent’s most bike-friendly cities, that old saw fired up again. Much of the commentary focused on the perceived shortfalls and benefits of vehicular cycling, which is a a philosophical and practical guide to getting around a city on a bike, described by its chief proponent John Forester like this: “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

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For a long time, this was a dominant idea among North American bike advocates, but over the last 20 years, a counter theory grew that was, in some ways, the polar opposite. Rather than accepting bicycles as vehicles on a road, the new idea has cyclists being accommodated with dedicated infrastructure that keeps them segregated from cars.

Cue the bicycle culture wars, with factions on each side battling it out like Buckley versus Vidal (or, perhaps more accurately, Hitchens versus Hitchens) to the bafflement of outsiders who could never seem to understand why people who all loved bikes hated each other so much.

Today, the debate is pretty much over. There’s a winner, which means there’s also a loser. Vehicular cycling is dead. As an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops, vehicular cycling is a mastodon. Bike lanes are being built everywhere in North America, and civic politicians are tripping over themselves to be seen as bike builders. 

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So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.

There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.

What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.

And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in bike infrastructure, and I think it needs to be built faster and more extensively in every North American city. I think vehicular cycling has failed, and it failed because it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people interested in cycling. I was almost giddy when I realized that, during a recent trip to Montreal, decent bike infrastructure meant I almost never had to make one of those hair-raising left-hand turns across rows of cars.

Yet, my city remains far from that state. So while I look forward to the day when I no longer have to rely on the tenets of vehicular cycling I have picked up over the years, I know that, from time to time, I’ll still be taking the lane.

Can a cargo bike pass the ultimate test of suburban life: A trip to Costco?

The bag of chips, inhumanely large, groaned under the strain when I heard the passerby say it: “Now that,” she said, “is the kind of bike you need for Costco.”

Mercifully, the bag didn’t explode and send a thousand kilograms of quinoa- and chia-infused tortilla skyward, but instead settled nicely into the saddle bags of my Xtracycle, which gave me a chance to collect my thoughts. “Yes, random passerby,” I thought. “This is exactly the kind of bike you need for a trip to Costco.”

This moment came about halfway into my recent urban cargo-bike experiment. After hearing about the benefits of cargo-bikes for years in Europe, I’m finally seeing more and more on North American streets these days. It’s easy to see why. They’re ultra-practical machines, capable of transporting all those loads of suburban life, from children to shopping bags. They’re the minivans of the bike world.

So I jumped at an offer from local bike shop BikeBike to give a cargo bike a whirl. But I didn’t just want a spin around the block. I needed a challenge; the ultimate test of the cargo bike as a modern suburban family vehicle, where I could test if a bicycle really can support our profligate North American consumerist lifestyles with the absurd conveniences we feel entitled to: Yep, a trip to Costco.

I convinced my 11-year-old son to tag along, both to bear witness and also help pick up the stray groceries that I imagined dropping from the bike as we rode home (I envisioned a slow-mo scene in which a barrel of cranberry juice dislodges itself and bounces down a hill before bursting into a tart tsumani that washes a school bus from the road), but since he was more keen to ride himself than suffer the indignity of watching his old man strain to push him up the hills, I turned down BikeBike’s offer a bakfiets. That’s a cargo-bike model you’ve probably seen in photos from Amsterdam, in which effortlessly sexy moms pedal kids sitting in a wooden box affixed to the front forks. Bikebike had such a model that came installed with a child seat that looked Lay-Z-Boy-esque in comfort, but I instead opted for an Xtracycle. On this model, most of the junk was in the trunk — a frame extension on the back could accommodate everything from straddling children to surfboards to, in my case, some massive panniers primed for bulk foodstuffs.

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Off we went, on a crisp Saturday morning. The Xtracycle handled more smoothly than I expected. Once I got riding, it felt like any other bicycle, save a rather wide turning radius. It’s not the lightest frame in the world, but I barely noticed its girth or weight while riding. Especially when we managed to discover a multiuse pathway that took us from a quiet residential street past the gauntlet of a big-box retail district, right up to the entrance to the Costco parking lot.

Normally I enter such places on a bike the same way a young wildebeest crosses a crocodile-infested African river. Tentative and alert, I ride almost expecting a GMC Suburban to unexpectedly leap from the shallows and clamp its jaws around my tender rump. But riding the Xtracycle felt different. This was where its additional size finally came to mean something to me. I was the king of the road, bitches, and those GMC Suburbans bowed to me for a change.

Amazingly, this Costco had a well-placed bike rack that looked like it had actually been used before. So we locked our machines, flashed our card, and entered the Shangri-La of bulk retail, where the food samples are plentiful and everybody appears tired.

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As far as test experiences go, we knew we had our limits. We wouldn’t be able to revel in an orgy of bulk groceries like we might had we been driving an F-150, but we pushed it as much as we dared. We loaded our cart with the staples on our list and a few giant bags of snacks packaged to make us think they are healthy, and got into the checkout line with hundreds of others who also didn’t want to be there. Before we left, though, we knew we had one more thing to do to make this an authentic Costco experience: I dropped $3 for two foot-long hot dogs, and we headed outside.

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As the hot dog rumbled in my gut, I loaded the panniers with our haul. Months worth of granola bars, prepper’s sized boxes of pasta and those faux-healthy tortillas —  the bike bags opened wide and took everything we threw at them. A few people stopped to gawk, cargo bikes being rare in these parts apparently, but once I cinched up the panniers with the attached straps, we were good to go.

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On the flat bits, the loaded cargo bike felt almost no different than it did before. But I dreaded the uphill, for good reason. This is where I started feeling the weight of all that food. So I quickly gave up any pride in a swift ascent and shifted down to the Xtracycle’s granny gear. With my legs spinning furiously, the hill proved little trouble. Before I knew it, we were cresting the rise near the Lamborghini dealership, where a few bored-by-the-recession salesman stared at us through the windows with dumbfounded looks on their faces. Try hauling this load with your $300,000 Italian engineering, bitches.

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About halfway home, things were going so well I decided we might as well do another errand on our trip. This made perfect sense for my suburban family test — no self-respecting suburban mom has time to restrict herself to just one errand on a Saturday morning. So we would do the same.

I took a slight detour and pedalled toward the shop where my lawn mower was in for a sharpening. My mower isn’t exactly a John Deere — it’s a 15-year-old push model — but still, it’s a lawn mower. After a little rearranging, and the help of a few bungee cords, we had it strapped onto the bike. Off we went, my son expressing a mix of dubiousness and embarrassment at the load that was trailing behind me.

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The Xtracycle, however, barely batted an eye. Loaded with groceries and a lawn mower, we turned toward home barely breaking a sweat (Ok, I sweated a little bit) where a neighbour, out gardening, stood and stared wordlessly as we rolled by.

As we unloaded, I felt a little pride in the Xtracycle. It passed this suburban test with barely a flinch, and I had grown a little attached to this big-hearted giant, in the same way you feel about Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. Only later did I read that the bike is built to haul hundreds of pounds of gear — one person later told me he once used a cargo bike to move all of the furniture from his home — so our load, as impressive as it felt to us, was child’s play.

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But hauling capacity isn’t everything. The experience did prove that cargo bikes can live up to their claims of convenience and versatility. I reluctantly returned the ride after the test, thinking about all kinds of things I could do if I had my own cargo bike. Next stop: Home Depot.

 

The sharing economy comes to bikes, but can it replace the government?

Spinlister is a cool little app that just feels right. It brings the so-called sharing economy to the world of bikes in a no-brainer, intuitive way.

But the company is aiming higher than its modest Airbnb-type success so far, and betting on an even bigger idea, if only it can get it off the ground: Can the convenient borrowing of somebody else’s bike replace the need for a government-operated bike-sharing?

Spinlister already offers an Airbnb-style app, but has bigger plans to make bike-sharing easier.

Company officials sure think so. Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s Chief Marketing Officer, told me the company didn’t set out to replace bike-sharing, rather they were simply trying to solve a customer need.

On its most basic level, Spinlister enables the sharing of personally owned bikes. If you have a bike with some downtime, you list it for rent on the app. People who need a bike log into the app, search for those on offer nearby, and go pick up the bike for the pre-designated rental time, with the app handling the financial transaction. It’s Airbnb for bikes, a slick and easy sharing app (that, not incidentally, also works for snowboards and skis) that makes a whole lot of sense.

But the company has bigger plans, and this is where things get really interesting. Traditional public bike sharing thrives on little, impromptu trips. Unplanned rides rides home from the pub. Commutes on sunny days when the bus is full. Last-mile commutes, from the train station to the front door of the office. Not the stuff Spinlister currently thrives on.

The company, however, has developed a so-called “smart” bike (I know, that term makes me roll my eyes too) that Batey says has the potential to do away with traditional bike-sharing systems and their taxpayer-funded costs.

Spinlister’s “smart bike” enables bike-sharing of privately owned machines.

Here’s how it would work (or skip this paragraph and watch the video below): In a nutshell, it’s Car2go for bikes. The bikes are equipped with GPS and nifty Bluetooth-enabled locks. Using a smartphone app, you locate a bike nearby, track it down, then unlock it. You go about your ride, then lock the bike anywhere you want, while the app takes care of the rental-fee transaction. Another tap on the app makes it available to the next rider. No need for docking stations like a traditional bike-sharing program.

Spinlister – The Global Bike Share: Challenges Traditional and Broken Bike Share Model Through Advanced Technology from Spinlister on Vimeo.

But there’s one more important aspect. Each bike, rather than being bought and paid for by program administrators (which, with traditional bike-sharing programs, tend to be government agencies) is privately owned. The rental fee is split by the owner of the bike and Spinlister.

Batey says this idea eliminates the need for taxpayer-funded programs and big, sometimes controversial, rollouts of docking stations.  

“To date, there has been no bike share (except ours) that is sustainable without government funding and private sponsorship,” Batey wrote to me in an email. “Through back channels, (politicians have) said their reasoning is self preservation. When bike share fails and needs more funding, it will be the problem of another administration. Until then, it’s seen as a win with popular support. That just seems like a significant waste and misuse of funds to me. Especially when a self sufficient option exists, costing the city absolutely nothing to implement.”

If that quote sounds perhaps a tad, well, conspiratorial, Batey might have good reason. Plans to launch the idea in Portland last year were scuttled by the city government, ostensibly over concerns that Spinlister’s plan would have negative impacts on the city, such as the city being forced to pick up the costs of dealing with bikes that are stolen, parked illegally, or left to rust in poor locations. There were other concerns as well, and Batey minces few words (even if others might disagree with his read of the situation): “The city there threatened to create a special tax just for us as they didn’t want us competing with their traditional bike share model they’ve been trying to launch for 10 years.”

Chicago's Divvy Bike Share System

Many traditional bike-share systems, such as Chicago’s Divvy, rely on docking stations that can be difficult to place in dense urban areas.

This kind of reaction seems to be what’s holding Spinlister back. Yes, there are some outstanding questions that even the company acknowledges need to be ironed out in the real world, but the company is largely ready to go. It just can’t find a city willing to give it a shot. Most cities these days have well-established bike-share programs and city governments aren’t interested in competition. Somehow, before it has even had a chance to test its business model, Spinlister has found itself to be the Uber of the bike world, at odds with city governments everywhere.

But there’s little doubt the idea is worth a try somewhere. So what will it take?

What the company really needs is a city that is big enough to sustain the business, with a decent bike culture, a populace that understands the sharing model of Car2go, lacks an established bike-share program, has a soft-spot for entrepreneurialism and a hard-spot for government spending.

Sound like a city you know? 

In fact, I already signed up to buy one of the smart bikes if the idea ever takes hold in my city of Calgary. Perhaps living in a bike-share-laggard city will pay off in the end.

 

Behold: the ultimate tool for transforming our cities, the humble camera

For all the work that goes into making streets safer and more welcoming for cyclists, consider perhaps the greatest and most under-appreciated tool of this transition: The ubiquitous camera.

Street photography is nothing new, of course. From Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Frank, impromptu moments from city life have always been at the forefront of photographic art.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous Hyères, shot in 1932.

You could even argue the first photograph ever taken of people was street photography.

“Boulevard du Temple,” a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, one of the world’s first photographs to include people.

 

That influence has only grown in recent years, from blogging (the Sartorialist) and then social media (Humans of New York, everything on Instagram that isn’t food). And thanks to that little computer in your purse that happens to have a camera lens attached to it, sdtreet photography these days transcends even its own medium and helps define the esthetic of cities.

That’s why it’s evolved into such a powerful tool for urban cycling. Consider Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagen Cycle Chic, which spawned imitators all over the world.

 

Green Light Go - The Birth of Cycle Chic

The original Copenhagen Cycle Chic photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

Cool photos, right? But because these photos involve bicycles, and everything about bicycles these days is political, this type of photography is inherently political.

In Toronto, during 2011 and 2012, photographer Lincoln Clarkes captured dozens of images that became Cyclists, a book of photography of people on two wheels, most of them looking sexily non-plussed despite the hostile environment surrounding them at the time. While not overtly so, the politics of these photographs is obvious considering Clarkes shot them at the height of late mayor Rob Ford’s anti-bike backlash, when the ever-thoughtful mayor compared riding a bike in Toronto to swimming with sharks.

A shot from Lincoln Clarkes’s Cyclists.

In the book’s forward, Clarkes is quoted saying the photographs serve as “sexed-up, environmentalistic, fashionesque portraiture, which is a subtle protest against the petro-chemical and automobile industries.”

Here in Calgary,  a bike-loving man named Peter Oliver has started a formal project to harness the political power of bicycle street photography. He’s part of a group that rallied support for the adoption of a pilot project of downtown bike lanes last year, and now he’s hoping to solidify that support by giving people a glimpse into exactly what those bike lanes have wrought: People on bikes.

#YYC #yycbike Photo by @brycemeyer

A post shared by People on Bikes YYC (@peopleonbikesyyc) on

Oliver hopes showcasing photographs of everyday cyclists in Instagram will help dispel the notion that all cyclists are latte-sipping hipsters or angry Lyca-clad suburban commuters blowing through red lights (or sometimes both).

“I really want to get down to people on the street, and show the diversity of people who ride bikes,” Oliver told me over a beer recently. “I want to break down the stereotypes about who cyclists are, and show that’s it’s just ordinary people doing what they do. It’s just part of their life.”

Bryce Meyer, a top editorial photographer, jumped at the chance to be the first contributor to People On Bikes YYC. Meyer, a former competitive road cyclist who ended his itinerant career in his early 20s after being robbed at gunpoint while training in Arizona, says the project is less about the politics or fashion for him, and more of a passion project. He loves everything to do with cycling, and he thought this was a way to give back to a cause he cares about while indulging himself (the fact that he’s managed to learn how to shoot photos while riding his own bike certainly helps — “Forget the viewfinder,” he advises. “Trust the shutter.”)

“It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing cutoffs with socks up to your knees or whatever,” he says. “It’s all about the riding.” 

It’s a simple concept that has proven political punch. Think about the defining images of Amsterdam, and you’ll probably think about a bike. In Paris, those cafes will elegant French women fingering cigarettes often have bicycles as a backdrop. Even in Montreal, photographs of hirsute young artists riding a Bixi bikes are becoming a de facto brand.

All of which shows that bikes can be a seamless part of any city.

 

If it ain’t broke: Why is everyone trying to fix cycling with gimmicks?

There’s something about the simplicity of the bicycle that seems to make everybody want to improve it.

Kickstarter is filled with bike ideas, from bizarre bike lights to bizarre bike carriers to bizarre bike blankets (yes, that’s a thing). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — most industries would kill for this spirit of innovation. But something about bikes also seems to breed ideas that contravene the old adage of innovation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Case in point: This so-cute-that-it-crosses-over-into-ridiculous bike that looks like a car. Called the PodRide by its inventor, a Swedish dude named Mikael Kjellman who has already raised tens of thousands of dollars on Indiegogo, this contraption is basically a recumbent bicycle covered with fabric.

 

Mikael Kjellman and his PodCar.

Kjellman, by all accounts a clever and well-meaning guy, says he invented the PodRide to help beat the Swedish winters (there’s a heater inside) and to take advantage of “the environmental benefits these vehicles could have if they were made more popular.” The invention has been making the Facebook rounds these days, mostly, I would argue, because the thing is so damn adorable.

But as a practical idea? The world has already figured out how to keep riding year round: By building safe bike infrastructure, maintaining it for the winter, and dressing for the weather (in fact, somebody, ahem, wrote a book about winter cycling). It’s not rocket science

In fact, I’d argue the PodCar may actually set back the cause Kjellman is purporting to further. Not only does this thing perpetuate the notion that riding in winter is something abnormal that requires special gear, it also creates the impression that bicycles would be a more practical transportation option if they were just a little bit more like cars.

In the big scheme of things, I hardly think the PodCar is a major threat. But there are other ideas out there that perpetuate the idea that cycling is in need of some kind of tech or design fix that really could set  back the cause of urban cycling around the world.

Cycling seems to lend itself to giant hare-brained architectural ideas (particularly in London), like the SkyCycle, the floating bike lane dubbed the Thames Deckway, and the bike routes running through abandoned subway tunnels. All of which sure look futuristic in the renderings, but seem to sidestep the reality that cycling isn’t just about transportation —  putting bikes on a street makes cities better for everybody because it brings a more human scale to the streets.

Even smaller projects, like this lusted-over airbag helmet or these concept bicycle designs that seem to draw eyeballs at all the bike bike-industry trade shows may seem well and good, but they aren’t exactly furthering the cause of getting more people in cities on bikes.

And despite my soft spot for Elon Musk, and his heartening talk about the urban transportation problem, his recent hint that he’s working on some kind of autonomous bus seems to be a solution for a problem that has already been fixed. If it is, as the speculation goes, some of kind of vehicle to transport people to and from transit stops, also known as the first mile/last mile problem, well, such a vehicle has already been invented. It’s called a bicycle.

Here’s the thing: We already know what works. Bikes haven’t changed much in 100 years because they work. Separated and safe bike lanes work. Want an innovation that will really disrupt the bicycle industry? Invent something to break through civic politics and bureaucracy preventing more bike lanes from being built.

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I’m not saying we shouldn’t innovate. E-bikes, cargo bikes and carbon builds have all shown massive improvements in recent years. But let’s not get distracted on frivolities.

Or at least put your innovative brain power into stuff like this or this. At least the ride will be enjoyable.

The great hope of bike-friendly cities: Ikea

If you haven’t yet seen a photograph of the new bicycle that Ikea plans to sell — hell yes, we’re calling it the Bikea — close your eyes and imagine what a bike made by Ikea would look like. Yep, you got it.

The official photo of the Ikea bike, which will be sold in Europe later this year.

The news was greeted in the bike world by a weird mix of surprise and derision. Does it come with an allen wrench? Do you have to put it together yourself? How will they get it into a flat box? It’s easy to write off the idea as a dabbler’s attempt at entering the bike market. The company isn’t exactly known for producing high quality goods, as that sagging bookshelf in your home office can attest. And there’s little doubt the bike snobs among us will be quick to ostracize Ikea bike riders as triflers who wouldn’t know a real bike if it rolled over their toes.

But I won’t be among them. I think it’s fantastic that Ikea is producing a bike. Mostly.

Here’s why: For one thing, the bike looks pretty good. I’ve long been lamenting the lack of affordable, practical bikes in North America. Such machines are still (relatively) rarely spotted on the streets of many cities, and it drives me batty to see casual cyclists still buying what seems to be the default for North Americans: mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are great for, well, mountains, but too many people buy them thinking they’ll use them off-road, but then never take them beyond the paved paths of their city, leaving them saddled with what can be uncomfortable rides loaded with too many gears, useless suspension systems and finicky parts that require too much maintenance. In a word, they aren’t very practical, and in a world where we put convenience above pretty much everything, impracticality can be a killer to people adopting a more bike-friendly life.

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I haven’t tried a Bikea yet, but it appears to be nothing if not practical. It looks well designed in that default Dutch mode, built for comfort and stability, with a unisex aluminum step-through frame and adjustable handlebars. It has an internal hub for gearing (although I’d prefer three or six speeds, rather than the two that are on offer) and a belt-drive, both of which should reduce maintenance requirements and improve reliability. It is built to accommodate easy add-ons, including a cargo trailer and, presumably, some kind of minimalist glassware or vase.

At $800, it’s not exactly cheap, but I think that’s a good thing. The risk is producing a poor-quality bike that won’t last. This seems like a reasonable price, as long as it’s a decent quality ride.

I know what you are saying: There’s nothing new here. Such bikes are available now, being produced by smart, quality bike makers all over the world. Your local bike shop has them for sale right at this moment. I agree, and you should go buy one. Like right now. As an added bonus, you’ll be supporting your local bike shop, not some Euro-giant furniture retailer, and you’ll get quality service from someone who actually lives in your community.

All of that is true, and that’s why I buy my bikes at such places. If you’re reading this, you’re probably doing the same. But therein lies the problem that the Bikea can address.

Unlike your local bike shop, Ikea has reach and scale, and the ability to reach those kinds of people who don’t read long shoegazers on the Internet about Ikea bikes, and have thought so little about what kind of bike they should ride they’d just go for that impractical mountain-bike-that-never-sees-a-mountain from their local Wal-Mart. If the Bikea is successful, it holds the potential to change the way average consumers think about everyday bikes, in the same way Ikea changed the way North American consumers think about home design. Like it or not, Ikea is a consumer influencer, and if the company can shift the way North Americans perceive everyday bikes, that can’t be a bad thing.

Once that idea moves, perhaps it will be the gateway bike, leading people to a Linus, or a Detroit Bike, or a Surly or Devinci,, purchased from their local bike shop, or any of the other great brands currently making our cities better. Bring it on, Ikea.

Hmm, does that Ikea bike look familiar? Something like this model from Detroit Bikes?

Now, if only the company can make a kids’ model, so we can forever destroy the department store, faux full-suspension, unserviceable pieces of shit that litter our landfills. C’mon Ikea.

Edmontonbikes.ca

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