Category: Cities (Page 1 of 4)

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. 

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.

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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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Sometimes, the person making your city better needs to be you

Photos by Glenn Kubish.

This afternoon there is again a Yield To Bicycles sign standing in its rightful place on the Oliverbahn, the stretch of mostly protected bicycle lane that runs along 102 Ave in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood. The sign is now dog-eared, as if to mark a page that contains a lesson worth re-reading and thinking about. The sign is again doing what it was designed for, which is to remind motorists not to turn left into the path of bicycle riders like me. This is all very remarkable.

It is remarkable that Edmonton has a mostly protected bicycle path in the neighbourhood. Last year, there was no bike lane here. Riding east on 102 Ave toward downtown was a take-your-chances proposition for bike commuters who became skilled at threading the needle between parked cars on the curb and moving cars in the lane. It’s something, too, that the asphalt is clear in winter. This is because the City sends out pickups with calcium chloride sprayers onto the bike lanes before the morning commute. The brine makes it harder for ice to stick to the road. But what is most remarkable is the very fact of the sign’s re-appearance, and the work required to get it back in place.

The Oliverbahn is my straight shot to work and back. It’s familiar.  I have gotten to know the giant elm trees along the route. I don’t live in the neighbourhood, but I recognize some of the people, the regulars, the dog walkers, especially. I say hello to the crossing guards. I watch the moms linger to watch their children in the school playground after they have said goodbye. I know where the air starts to smell like pot. Not like pot. Of pot. I know the stained glass windows of the United and Anglican churches, and I anticipate the slight rise and fall of the lane, the way it bends around the bus shelter at 122 St, and the bricks at the intersection on 121 St, I know them, too. Bicycle riders will recognize this kind of inventory taking. Riding at slow speeds without a windshield means we are allowed to experience more vividly than automobile drivers the material of the city.

For those two weeks, I didn’t stop, even though I heard a new voice every time I went by. The City should fix this, I said. The people who live here should get it fixed, I said. It should be fixed, I said. It’s a safety issue! Someone should report it to 311. I said to myself indignantly, Now why wouldn’t the automobile driver who clipped it take a minute to call it in? I even swore silently at the unknown offender. It was probably one of those giant garbage trucks, I thought. Yeah, that’s it. Those big trucks that look like armoured triceratopses. That musing triggered the song by Mark Knopfler with the line about the echoes, roars and dinosaurs. And then the sound of saxophone played my inner dialogue off the public stage as I whistled my way back to thoughts of meetings today and the need to try to get to sleep earlier tonight.



Bicycle riders know, too, when stuff is out of place. I first spotted the downed Yield To Bicycles sign two weeks ago as I pedalled by. There it was, lying on its back on the boulevard snow bed, looking a bit tired and beaten, staring straight up. It stayed like that for days. I would glance at it going by in the morning, and then again going by in the evening. Other bicycle riders must have done the same. One morning it lay there under the fresh linen of overnight snow, its frame still recognizable, but barely.

As the days passed and the sign settled in, I even got a bit creative with my rationalizations for not stopping. My selfishness could be recast as a law: A downed sign will stay at rest and a bicycle commuter in motion stays in motion at the same speed and in the same direction, to work in the morning and home in the evening, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Cute.

One snowy, foggy morning, I finally stopped, briefly. The sign was being slowly buried. I leaned over my bike and dug a gloved hand into the snow and found the sign pole. I lifted it up and shook it to get the snow off. I laid it back on top of the snowbank. Someone will see it.

I started pedalling again to work.

A few blocks later, I watched as a bicycle rider ahead on the Oliverbahn approached from the opposite direction. As bike riders do, we waved hello as we passed. It looked like Wendell, I thought. No, maybe not. I looked back, but his bike was already getting smaller in the mist. Wendell was an acquaintance for awhile, maybe, what, 30 years ago? He taught me to stand up for myself. Time flies, I thought. I resolved to Facebook him. I kept riding, but felt different, unsettled.

The next morning I did stop. Why did it feel like work to stop? I took a picture of the downed sign uploaded it to the City’s 311 app.

The next day, a traffic pylon appeared where the base of the sign had been sheared off.

The following day, the sign was back in place, newly secured in the concrete median with fresh bolts and plate.

I had been introduced to Wendell in university. We seemed to be attracted to the same small protests. The power of multinational corporations, the security of food supply, those kinds of issues. He would say intriguing things like you don’t always protest because you expect to win the day. Sometimes you put a sign in the air when you realize you would be damaged by the act of waiting for others to do so first.

This piece originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Follow him on Twitter

Cold and car-centric Moscow is starting to open up to bikes

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One of the participants of the annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade. Photo by Tom Babin.

It was the Russian dude in full furs riding a replica penny-farthing (kopeck-farthing?) that did it for me. When I saw this guy roll by the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square yelling shout-outs to hundreds of fellow cyclists around him, I knew this wasn’t the city I once thought it was.

That moment came midway through the third annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade, a rolling party through the streets surrounding the Kremlin that attracted more than 4,000 people dressed for the weather and a good time. It was one of the most fun group rides I’ve ever been on – so fun it nearly obliterated my image of the city as a haven for gigantic multi-lane ring roads clogged with endless rows of barely moving automobiles.

I chose the word “nearly” deliberately. For as awesome as the bike parade was, one can’t leave Moscow without aggressively piloted cars as one of the city’s defining images. It’s a megalopolis built on the automobile, and when not part of a group ride, using a bicycle to get around the city feels about as safe as being a Cold War-era spy.

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The bike parade rolled right past St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. Photo by Tom Babin.

(I will, however, spare a moment to gush about the city’s metro system: wide, efficient, affordable, well-planned and spotted with beautifully built stations, the system moves up to nine-million people a day. If you can’t get your head around that, just imagine standing at a station as packed 12-car trains empty out every 90 seconds).

But I was in Moscow as an invited speaker at the Winter Cycling Congress, and if any place can highlight the green shoots of a more bikeable city, the conference centre was the place. Guided by the team at Let’s bike it!, aMoscow-based group that advocates for more people-oriented street design, I was given a tour of what could be the start of something big.

In the last couple of years, city officials (with nudges from such groups as Let’s bike it!), have started to look more seriously at improving the plight of pedestrians and cyclists as a way of easing its horrific congestion problems. A handful of separated bike lanes have been built recently. A bike-share system now operates through the summer months. Pedestrian streets have been improved. Even the new national traffic laws have been adjusted to make it easier to build pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, according to Nikolai Asaul, the deputy minister of transport. “(Cycling) is not safe enough, and comfort is not a priority,” he told the Congress. “For us, it’s a revolution in the minds of our urban planners.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a North American national politician supporting cycling so strongly. 



I was also impressed with the winter hardiness of Muscovites (although I felt a little perverse pride in being one of the few people who visits Moscow to warm up). Having a positive relationship with winter is a key part of the best winter-bike cities, and Moscow has this in spades. The city was filled with outdoor winter festivals, light displays, and thousands of people on the streets dressed to enjoy the day, no matter the weather.

In the wake of the winter bike parade, I found it easy to get swept up in the optimism of the moment, but the reality is that Moscow faces some big challenges if it is serious about improving the city’s livability through cycling. And those go beyond the usual urban challenges of space, design and street culture.

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Vladimir Kumov, a Moscow bike advocate (centre, blue jacket), is helping the city adopt more bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects. Photo by Tom Babin.

Russia’s political culture has not traditionally been built on grassroots involvement, so those passionate young bike advocates from all over Russia who attended the Winter Cycling Congress face an additional challenge of building a culture of engagement between citizens and municipal officials. While nearly every Russian I spoke with expressed optimism that Russian officials are increasingly open to the idea of active transportation, this kind of political/cultural change is never easy.

I was also heartened by the interest in winter cycling by Muscovites. The conference was crawling with media, and drawing 4,000 people out for a bike ride on a -10 C day in the snow is not easy, even in cities with more of a bike culture. This has not gone unnoticed by Let’s Bike It organizers.

“If you go out in Moscow, you’ll see how many problems we have, and we want to show the government and the people in Russia how we can change it,” I was told by Vladimir Kumov, the founder of Let’s Bike It. “Eight years ago when I started Let’s Bike It, Moscow was a car city. Traffic jams, and no space for pedestrians and cyclists. In the last five or six years, it’s started to change.”

And if you ask the dude in fur on the penny-farthing, he’d probably agree.

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These civic improvements are taking only baby-steps toward bike friendliness

Shifter Urban Cycling

Cycling in cities is getting easier in some places. Photo by Tom Babin.

Call it baby-steps bike infrastructure: the kind of urban design that takes a step toward bike friendliness, but doesn’t quite take the full leap.

Twice in recent months, new infrastructure has been built near me that falls into that incremental category, and it’s something being seen in many North American cities. It’s a mashup of traditional car-oriented thinking and forward-looking active transportation. For someone who has ridden a bike for transportation for a long time without much bike-friendly infrastructure, this kind of incrementalism is difficult to criticize because it offers some accommodation. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly the kind of stuff of bicycle dreams.

The first was a new overpass that opened near me last year to replace an aging and inadequate version that had been in place for decades. Here’s what we got.

The new overpass certainly moves cars efficiently, through a series of roundabouts (something that us North Americans are still getting accustomed to, as evidenced by the hapless driver spotted recently going the wrong way on a street fed by one of these roundabouts). Pedestrians and cyclists are also accommodated, through a series of wide shared pathways alongside the road. As a cyclist who has grown accustomed to having no thought spared toward my plight, these wide pathways are a nice bone to chew on.

But if I hadn’t grown so comfortable with being given nothing, this new overpass might annoy the hell out of me. Sure, those pathways are wide, but they are simply an add-on to what is clearly an auto-centric design. As you can see in the video above, to simply navigate from one side of the overpass to the other, a person on a bike must cross at least three streets through crosswalks (to dismount or not to dismount, that is the question), while navigating around pedestrians the entire time, further confusing the role of a person on a bike as neither a vehicle on the road nor a human on foot, but as some confused state in between.

This, I submit, is baby-steps bike infrastructure. While at least some accommodation has been made for those choosing active transportation, the overpass was built for cars almost exclusively.

The second piece of infrastructure to fall into this category is a new bridge spanning a river, recently opened after replacing a century-old iron bridge that was falling apart.

Here’s how a person on a bike navigated the old bridge (I shot this a few years ago as part of a video explaining why cyclists sometimes choose to ride on a road rather than on terrible bike paths that run adjacent).

Obviously, not a great cycling experience, particularly with that final indignity of being forced to dismount and walk across the bridge. Shudder.

So, after months of construction and millions of dollars and much hope channelled from within me, here’s what the new bridge looks like from the saddle of a bike:

Nice, right? Wide pathways. A clear, separate space for bikes. Even a nice gateway to the connecting streets. It’s still a shared pedestrian-cyclist route, which isn’t ideal, but a vast improvement.

But wait. Look at what happens when I try to cross the bridge from the other direction on a bike.

See that? Because there is only a bike-pedestrian route on one side of the bridge, I must ride around that odd little underpass to cross the bridge to the other side. It’s a small annoyance while on a bike, but a rather larger one when on foot.

I understand why designers made these choices (there are some space restrictions that beget this design), and it’s a vast improvement. But, like the overpass mentioned above, this is automobile infrastructure with some bike-ped add-ons. It’s built with active transportation as a secondary consideration. It’s middle-grade infrastructure. Baby steps.

I’m sure this posts risks coming off as yet another gripe from an impossible-to-satisfy cyclist, and I should probably be delighted that active modes were accommodated at all. But having experienced cities that give priority to cycling and walking, I can’t bring myself to lavish much praise on these examples. Truly bike-friendly design means being give direct, logical routes that connect smoothly without much thought. These are a step in that direction, but not quite there.

That may be fitting, because that phrase may also describe the state of my city as an entirety. We’ve come a long way in accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, for which I’m grateful. But we have a long way to go.

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

Do automakers really want to help save our cities from the car?

The recent dust-up between Tesla founder Elon Musk and humans who believe that urban transit isn’t a dystopian nightmare highlighted a broader question: Do automakers really care about our cities?

It’s not just Musk’s comments that have sparked this conversation. In recent years, leaders of the American automobile industry giants have been musing about how to better integrate their products into our cities. Check out Ford’s latest public statements and marketing efforts, such as this video:

See that? Yes, a bicycle. A real human-powered machine portrayed as a viable transportation option. It wasn’t long ago that automakers were actively mocking those who rode bikes with ads like this:

Things go even deeper than a couple of ads. Ford now operates a bike-sharing program in San Francisco. GM is pouring billions into the car-sharing program company Maven.

Driving this change is the new automobile futurism. Young urbanites are buying fewer automobiles and tech-driven companies such as Uber and Car2go are pushing a future in which driverless short-term rental cars get us around cities.

This is, of course, a danger to companies that have generated billions selling automobiles. So rather than pull a Blockbuster Video, they are talking about new ideas.

Which all begs the question: Do you believe them? Do you believe that an automobile company really wants to help build a future in which cycling, walking and transit are viable transportation options?

There are reasons to be skeptical. GM hasn’t been shy about revealing the reason it has been getting into the car-sharing game, and it’s not to improve our cities. “This is a business opportunity for us,” Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven, told NPR. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.” 

And some of the ideas coming from them are, plainly, bizarre.

Add to this Musk’s recent disparaging comments about transit and his latest idea of unlocking gridlock through a series of tunnels for single passenger vehicles, without any mention of how the vehicles will get to the tunnels, or what happens when they inevitable fill up.

Some automakers like Audi are even trying out things like loading an electric scooter into the trunk of their cars.

What’s bizarre, and what that video only touches on at the end, is that all of these automaker solutions are still being motivated by the thing that caused the problem in the first place: Selling more cars into cities that are already choking on an oversupply of them. Simply put: There are too many cars on our roads.

It’s a concept a toddler can understand — when roads are full, stop adding vehicles — yet automakers are twisting themselves into knots finding solutions to a problem they continue to perpetuate. The number of cars on the road is what’s made our transportation inefficient, expensive and slow. There’s only one way to fix it. Car reduction comes from enabling fast, affordable and efficient transit, cycling and walking, not changing the type of single-passenger vehicle we use, or building tunnels to accommodate more cars or selling more cars with build-in skateboards.

Perhaps what struck me most about that Ford ad above was the use of Nina Simone’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The original coup of automakers was successfully selling the idea that owning a car was a type of freedom. Seeing such an achingly beautiful song about personal freedom used in an ad like this was an attempt to flip the script — somehow, this new system being peddled is true freedom: freedom from the burden of car ownership, freedom of choice, freedom of movement. But the reality is our current transportation system lacks all three, and it’s largely because we’ve built it almost exclusively around the single-passenger automobile. For our cities, true freedom includes other aspect: Freedom from the car.

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

What’s all the fuss? In the right city, dockless bike sharing is a simple, genteel experience

In Seattle, it was heralded as an urban paradigm shift. In China, it was cited as evidence of a declining national character. In Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, it felt positively genteel.

Victoria dockless bike share

My Ubicycle in front of the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin

I’m speaking of dockless bike-share systems, and after reading about them being implemented in cities all over the world, I finally got a chance to try one during a recent trip to Victoria.

Dockless bike-share systems are heralded as the next generation of bike sharing. Rather than being built around a network of docking stations, each bike is equipped with a smartphone-enabled lock and GPS device. The systems are as easy to use as car-sharing systems such as Car2go: Use the app to locate a bike, scan the bike’s QR code and it will unlock. Ride it to your heart’s content. When you’re done, lock it up and be on your merry way. The app charges you for the time you rode.

Victoria is the first city in Canada to catch this latest wave. Ubicycle is behind the city’s scheme, one of a handful of Chinese companies that have dropped tens of thousands of bikes into Chinese cities, and spent millions of dollars bringing such systems to North America, in ways that have not always been smooth (and sometimes disastrous).

Victoria dockless bike share

Spinning around lovely Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin.

The first thing you have to know is a bit about Victoria. The capital of B.C. isn’t exactly Hangzhou. A government town of 85,000, the city is known for its British character, temperate climate and status in the retirement dreams of every snow-weary Canadian east of the Rockies. After a few days in the city, I’ll add a few modifiers: The city is as clean as a NASA lab, its rush hour is adorable, and it’s filled with cyclists taking advantage of a bunch of painted lanes, some beautiful pathways and two kilometres of buffered bike lane. With up to 25 per cent of commuters choosing bikes, the city is doing something right for cyclists. As far as cities go, it’s positively genteel.

The lime green Ubicicyle bikes are scattered throughout the downtown, parked on sidewalks and streets, secured by wheel locks. Victoria is filled with bike racks, but Ubicycles don’t need to be secured to a rack, which led me to observe perhaps the most Canadian thing ever: While those in other cities complain about dockless bikes being strewn about the streets in inconvenient locations, most of the Ubicycles I saw were parked beside existing bike racks. Not locked to the rack, mind you, just parked beside it, as if the previous rider didn’t want to offend any passersby by parking the bike in their path. Did I say the city feels genteel?

After exploring the city for a few days from the saddle of a Ubicycle (need I mention that a bike is the best way to explore a city?), I have a few observations to share:

Victoria dockless bike share

Although it is perfectly legal to leave the bike in all kinds of places in downtown Victoria, I felt like a vandal for this waterfront sidewalk drop because most of the bikes I encountered had been neatly placed near bike racks by other, apparently more conscientious, users. Photo by Tom Babin.

Convenience

One of the great advantages of dockless bike-share systems is their convenience. No more hunting for a docking station. You just park where you stop. Yes, this is an improvement. However, in cities with great bike-share systems, this isn’t really a problem. Montreal, for example, is so strewn with docking stations that finding one nearby is rarely a problem. The key for all systems is to ensure there enough bikes distributed through the city to meet demand at the right times. This often comes down to an old-fashioned idea: trucking bikes around and dropping them in the right spots. From my limited time in Victoria, distribution seemed just fine, but with some caveats. Read on.

The clutter factor

In other cities that have failed to fully commit to a bike-share system, a lack of docking stations can be a death knell for the system. So too can a lack of bikes. So too can a lack of riders. Victoria’s system has only been in operation for a few weeks, so it’s probably too early to judge its success in this area. But I’d hardly say the streets are littered with bikes. In fact, I’d say, based on having to hoof it a few blocks to find a bike more than once, there’s a chance there are not enough bikes, albeit after the problems of too many bikes in other cities, perhaps this is a good starting point. Also, if ridership is a sign of a thriving system, I’d be worried about the health of the system. I have no data to back this up, but I used the same bike multiple times over two days and nobody else picked it up in the meantime.

Cost

There’s a big variance in cost across bike-sharing systems around the continent. One thing this new wave of dockless systems has going for it is affordability. The same holds true in Victoria. The price for a ride is absurdly low: $1 per half-hour. I ran an errand over lunch hour and the ride cost me less than 60 cents. I thought it was an error it was so low. Whether this low cost is sustainable over the long run will be interesting to see. But until then, just get out there and enjoy it.

The mood

One thing that can’t be ignored, considering the problems dockless systems have run into in China, is the way the bikes are being used. Bikes can be vandalized, strewn about haphazardly, parked in illegal locations and tossed into waterways. So far, this doesn’t seem to be a major problem in Victoria. There will always be such problems, but perhaps a small city known for its (sorry) genteel character in a country known for its politeness, a dockless system seems to be doing OK.

The verdict

Ubicycle in Victoria seems to be working. As a tourist, it’s a fantastic way of getting around. The locals I spoke with saw it as a convenient and easy option, and wondered what all the fuss was about. It seemed to be working so well that the drama-loving side of me was a bit disappointed—where’s all the hand-wringing and endless debates about cycling? Yawn.

Because of its small size, Victoria may never have the thriving bike-share systems of New York, for example, but perhaps this will be the opportunity to test whether mid-sized cities can successfully operate a system. I, for one, can’t wait to get back and try it again.

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

New data shows just how lopsided the ‘war on cars’ really is — and it’s not the bikes that are winning

Remember the war on cars? The hyperbolic and mostly mythical idea that cyclists, a “special interest group,” were successfully ramming such horrors as bike lanes down the throats of unsupportive legions of car drivers? Since the peak “war on cars” battles of four or five years ago, the hot war has cooled a bit because cyclists made a little progress and the sky did not fall as a result. Most cities now have at last some form of bike infrastructure and some have even have what might be described as a (barely) minimum grid of bike lanes.

These days, further demands of cyclists are greeting less with anger, and more with exasperation. “We gave you a bike lane, but you still want more?” That attitude has wrought sentiments like this one, a general sense that since we threw those “cyclists” a bone, they should be satisfied. Much of this attitude comes about because of a sense that the bikes won the war.

Here’s the thing: if the war on cars is over, it didn’t end the way you might think. If you look at it even a little objectively, it’s not the bikes that won. Cars are absolutely dominating the battle. It’s not even close. It’s Norman Schwarzkopf versus Iraq. It’s Germany versus Brazil in the 2014 Word Cup.

Consider these statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 measure of vehicle distance travelled set a record after a slight dip over the last several years. Americans drove automobiles more miles in 2017 than any other time in history. Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, the number of car-free households dropped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade, and there are now more two-car households than any other kind. Here’s how urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson put it: “The United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.”

Urban Cycling Calgary

Despite strides in cycling in many cities, automobiles still dominate in North America. Photo by Tom Babin.

Remember the idea that millennials were shunning cars? Sure, there may be a bit of that happening, but the latest automobile sales statistics in Canada show that, with the economic recovery in full swing, 186,837 automobiles were sold in September, a record increase of 7.7 per cent, and the eighth monthly record this year. “Cumulative sales of 1,591,684 vehicles through the first three quarters are 5.3% ahead of last year’s record pace and solidly on track for a fifth consecutive record sales year.”

Wait, it gets worse: The U.S. Department of Transportation found the fatality rate on American roads actually grew in 2016, despite decades of trend lines pointed downwards. Advances in safety seem to be reserved only for those inside the car. Cyclist deaths in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent and the pedestrian fatality rate grew by a whopping nine per cent, meaning more humans simply walking on the street were killed in 2016 than any time since 1990.

Meanwhile, the bike world inches along at a snail’s pace. Los Angeles is just getting started building bike lanes, New York is inexplicably cracking down on e-bikes, and Toronto continues its tiresome debate about whether successful and safe separated bike lanes ought to stay or go.

The point of this isn’t to depress those of you who see bikes as one way of bringing more balance and sanity to our streets. The point is to highlight the absurdity of the “war on cars” argument. Even if there was a war, it’s ridiculous to think that a few bike lanes scattered through our urban centres has made a dent in the dominance of automobiles in North America. We know the reasons most people make the transportation choices they do: convenience. Outside of a few isolated neighbourhoods in a few isolated cities, we’ve built our communities to ensure that driving a car remains the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Until that changes, vehicles will continue to dominate.

The most we can hope for is that these (barely) minimum grids that have been built in some cities will open the eyes of enough people to see the benefits of active transportation so we can leave behind the stupid war metaphors and start building better cities for everyone together.

These new statistics are a sobering reminder of our auto-centric ways, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Building better cities takes time, and we’ve barely taken the first steps. Get back on that bike.

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

Five questions to help determine if your city council candidate will improve cycling

During municipal election season, you may find yourself opening your door to a candidate who wants your vote. Sadly, not all would-be politicians will share your enlightened view on the benefits of a bike-friendly city. So how are you to know if this is a candidate who deserves your vote?

We are here to help! Here are some suggested questions to gauge the support your city council candidate may offer to active transportation in general and cycling in particular. Remember to work fast: door-to-door campaigning is all about efficiency for a candidate, so they can’t afford to get involved in a serious policy discussion at each door, despite the illusion. So get your questions in quickly.

Parked bikes in Quebec City

1. What’s your stance on transportation policy?

The answer to this question won’t actually give you any useful information about your candidate. It’s just a warm up. Unless your candidate is deranged or a complete ideologue, they will tend to answer with some version of: “We need to balance the needs of all users by building within our means.” Blah, blah, blah. They will probably also choose one particular transportation project that has been long delayed and promise to get it done. If you’re in the suburbs, that will be a road project. If you’re more inner-city, it will be a transit project. None of this matters. It’s just a set-up.

2. How will you improve my daily commute?

Now we’re getting into it. This is a more difficult question to answer. You still haven’t revealed yourself as a driver, transit user, cyclist or pedestrian (you can’t exist as more than one of those in the minds of a politician, even though most of us are), which means the candidate can not yet enter pandering mode.

Milquetoast candidates will again use this opportunity for platitudes about smart investments and fiscal responsibility, but those who have a bug in their craw about a particular transportation issue will be unable to resist jumping at this one. Here is where you can tell if the candidate is, generally, interested in all the benefits that come with active transportation and intelligent urban planning, or just cares about moving cars from place to place.

3. How do you get to work? or What do you think of residential speed limits?

See what you did there? Most North Americans will never pose these questions because they’ve never fathomed the possibility that transportation is possible through anything but a car. So by asking this to your candidate, the ruse is up. You’ve just outed yourself: you are revealed as someone woke to the ways of life beyond the single-passenger automobile. Or you are an Uber driver.

Anyway, the way these questions are answered will give you information about the candidate’s perspective. Riding a bike and/or walking through city doesn’t just make you sympathetic to the plight of humans in a car-centric world, it gives you a new perspective on how streets work, and how they can be improved. A bike-riding or walking commuter will have a better, more accurate outlook on their city. You’ll also know the improtance of limiting residential speed limits. 

If the candidate is a full-time automobile commuter, but is supportive of active transportation, be cautious, but not dismissive.

4. What do you think of bike lanes?

You don’t need to hear the entire answer to this question to determine if this candidate deserves your vote; you only need the first four words. You are listening for the fabled intro to every irrational anti-bike diatribe: “I like cyclists, but…”

If the sentence begins with those four words, you can disengage your brain, wait for the candidate to finish talking, thank them for their time, and then gently close the door knowing you have crossed a candidate off your list. If the answer begins with anything else, feel free to engage them in a more serious conversation about how to make your city more bike-friendly and, thereby, more healthy, more interesting, safer, quieter, less polluting and better for kids and seniors.

5. Want to go for a ride sometime?

By now, you should have all the information you need to determine if your candidate understands the benefits of bikes and will help further the cause. So this is more like a personality test. If they say no, don’t take it personally. They are probably busy campaigning. If they get a nervous look on their face and offer up a non-committal answer, it’s probably because they think it’s weird that you asked a complete stranger for a bike ride but don’t want to be rude, which is a completely rational response to this question. If they say yes and pull out their calendar, congratulations! You have a new riding buddy, who will have plenty of time to ride with you because a political candidate who agrees to go for bike rides with random constituents during a campaign is probably going to lose the election.

UPDATE: 6. Optional question — The Amazon factor

Now that every city in North America is tripping over itself to woo Amazon and its massive new headquarters, there’s something worth noting in the online retailer’s request for proposals, as pointed out by People for Bikes: “Include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”

So it’s worth posing this to your candidate too: If your candidate hates bike lanes, but still think its possible to entice Amazon, your candidate might be in need of a lesson in cognitive dissonance.

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