Category: Cities (Page 1 of 3)

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.

‘Uber for bikes’ is here, and traditional bike-sharing companies are feeling the heat

There’s a giant urban bicycle experiment happening right now on the streets of Seattle that may change the way everybody gets around. Or it may lead to an epic flop that burns through venture-capital cash and leaves the streets littered with derelict bikes.

Either way, the last month has ushered in a new wave of bike-sharing that has shaken up the still-young industry and will have profound implications for all cities, particularly the few remaining North America ones that have yet to embrace a bike-sharing program.

This experiment began earlier this summer from the ashes of Seattle’s failed municipal bike-sharing program called Pronto. Pronto was similar to other, traditional bike-shares you see in most cities these days: docks that held bikes were placed on city streets for use by members for short-term rides, similar to Montreal’s pioneering Bixi program and New York’s massive and successful Citibike.

LimeBike has, so far, avoided some of the problems that have plagued dockless bike-share systems in China. Photo by LimeBike.

The problem was, in Seattle, the system never really caught on. The city failed to commit enough docking stations and bikes necessary to make the system convenient and easy to use, and government infighting doomed it.

When the city shuttered the program in March, however, it opened the door to something new. It started issuing permits to a raft of new companies boasting they had a new formula to make bike sharing work where the city had failed.

Within weeks, three companies — called Spin, LimeBike and Chinese company Ofo (each with bikes brightly painted in their own distinctive colours) — had flooded the streets with thousands of bikes using new technology some are calling bike-share 2.0, or more lazily, Uber for bikes. 

There are some key differences to these new programs that those older ones you’ve probably used before. First, they are known as dockless systems, meaning the bikes are equipped with smartphone-enabled locks and GPS, so bikes can be left on the streets and picked up by new riders almost anywhere, without the need to park them in docking stations.

With three competing privately run bike-share systems in Seattle, including Spin, questions about their long-term viability are legit. Photo by Spin.

And perhaps more importantly, they are privately run. With a few notable exceptions, most North-American bike-share programs are operated with at least some government money. In Seattle, however, all three companies, flush with venture-capital money and the tech-industry hubris that comes with it, are using Seattle as a testing ground of new privately-funded systems they hope can challenge the traditional bike-share model elsewhere.

Despite some techie buzz around the dockless system, there are risks. In some Chinese cities, thousands of bikes were poured onto city streets which, without proper management, led to mass vandalism, bikes being parked illegally and some already infamous incidents of hundreds of bikes being dumped. It’s even prompted some soul-searching about the nature of the Chinese character.

So far, Seattle has largely avoided such mass problems, according to Seattle bike blogger Tom Fucoloro. For the most part, users seem to be following the rules about parking the bikes, he told me.

“With any system where you have lots of users, there are going to be some people who don’t follow the rules,” Fucoloro said. “The vast majority of people are parking them really well. It’s just vandals. A couple thrown off of overpasses. For the most part, it’s working really well.”

LimeBike is one of the bike-sharing companies that is now competing in Seattle. Photo by LimeBike.

In fact, far from just avoiding problems, Fucoloro says the new system is thriving. Within only a couple of weeks, data showed that the dockless bikes were being more heavily used than the old Pronto bikes ever were. Fucoloro says that’s because the new bikes are meeting the most basic needs of a successful bike-share system in ways the old system wasn’t: bikes are where you need them, when you need them.

Still, there are skeptics out there. Traditional bike-share companies are warily eyeing the new startups, not only as a source of competition, but to see if these flashy upstarts are committed in the long run. Operating a successful bike-share system requires much more than simply pouring bikes onto streets. There’s a huge amount of management that’s needed: bikes need to be moved around to places of need, broken bikes need to be attended to, technology needs to be maintained.

Madeline Kaye of Motivate, the company that operates several bike-share systems around the world, including North America’s biggest in New York, told me that working closely with city managers is a big part of the company’s success.

“It’s really complex system,” she said. “We have increased ridership in every city we’ve operated in. We’ve increased the size. Part of that is being able to work with cites. Part of that is managing the system and rebalancing the system in an effective way.”

Spin is a dockless bike-sharing system that offers rides for $1 in Seattle. Photo by Spin.

She’s not wrong. There’s a formula to running a bike share properly. In the past several weeks, I’ve used bike-sharing systems in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, and the latter was miles better than the others. The secret to Montreal’s success is simple: The were enough bikes and docking stations at the right place at the right time to make it convenient, the smartphone app was good, and the system was affordable. The other systems failed on one or all counts.

There’s no guarantee yet these new companies can keep the system running in the long run, especially at the rock-bottom prices that are currently being offered to entice new users in Seattle ($1 per ride, in some cases).

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Montreal’s Bixi program works, like other successful bike-sharing systems, partly because of the behind-the-scenes work to keep bikes in places where they are needed. Photo by Tom Babin.

 

Fucoloro agrees, and says he’s maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism in the back of his mind. In the front of it, however, he’s revelling in the buzz the new systems have brought to cycling in Seattle.

“As someone who has been active in bicycle activism for a while, often feels that you are the underdog or bikes are an afterthought,” he said. “Here we have some big-money investment betting there are a lot of potential bike rides not being made, and these companies think it’s a matter of convenience. If they can provide bikes that are convenient to use at a price that is extremely competitive … that’s not just good for Seattle, it’s good for the world.”

There’s another matter to consider: I’m writing this from Calgary, which shares the dubious distinction of being one of the few major cities in North America that don’t have a permanent bike-share program of some kind in place. Now, thanks to Seattle, perhaps all those years of foot-dragging may pay off.

Is Vancouver really as bike friendly as it thinks it is?

I’ve always been a bit annoyed with the bike-friendly reputation of Vancouver. Yes, it has always had a lot of people on bikes, but for a long time, that came without the installation of much high-quality bike infrastructure.

All that has changed in recent years, so I took a trip recently to see if it was time to update my impression of the city. Check it out.

Correction: The Burrard Bridge bike lane was originally installed in 1996, not 1995 like the video states.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

People riding bikes near Vancouver’s beautiful waterfront. Photo by Tom Babin.

 

Forget all the other reasons you should be riding a bike. This is the one that matters

A new study offers perhaps the most definitive reason yet why society should be doing more to encourage cycling, and serves as another reminder that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.

This British study took a comprehensive look at the health benefits of bicycle commuting, and the results are staggering. Over the course of the study, the 263,450 subjects who were under review had a 41 per cent lower chance of death than those who didn’t. “Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer at all,” the study’s authors wrote.

Vancouver cycling

Bicycle commuting has major health benefits that far outweigh its risks. Photo: Tom Babin.

Just let those numbers soak in a bit. They truly are significant. If a pharmaceutical company created a pill that could reduce your chance of dying by almost half, with particular success against those stubborn scourges of humanity of cancer and heart disease, it would be heralded as a wonder drug. Luckily, this pill is already hanging from the rafters of your garage.

Two things struck me particularly from the study.

In their analysis, the researchers accounted for the risk associated with road accidents, which offers further evidence that even the supposed risks of riding a bike are vastly outweighed by the benefits of riding. Put another way: Our irrational fear of the relatively small risk of a blow to the head is overriding the guaranteed health benefits of bicycle commuting. Our assessment of risk in this context is, to be blunt, pretty messed up.

This mirrors the message of this new Australian documentary arguing against the country’s mandatory helmet law. In it, public health doctors and advocates express the same message: the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of injury, so we should be doing more to make it easier to ride bikes daily for transportation.

Which leads me to the second aspect of the study that really caught my attention. Of most benefit here wasn’t just riding a bike, but bicycle commuting. This is a pretty significant distinction.

That distinction is the difference between encouraging people to get out and exercise and making it easier for people to simply use a bike in their everyday lives. The medical community has been encouraging us for nearly a century to do the former, and despite the mainstreaming of things like running and going to the gym, we keep getting more sedentary, more obese and more unhealthy. That approach to health isn’t exactly a ringing success.

But this study seems to be mirroring what many cycling advocates have long said, and what bike commuters preach about all the time: Active living works when it’s part of our day, not an add-on.

The study found most of the benefits from cycling come in those situations in which cycling has already been built into the daily lives of people. In the world’s great bike cities, for example, people don’t bike because it’s good for them any more than they bike because it improves the street life of the city or because, God forbid, it reduces their carbon footprint. If you ask them, they will tell you that they ride a bike because it’s quick and easy.

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Bicycle commuting, in particular, was found to have major health benefits far beyond recreational cycling. Photo: Tom Babin.

“Policies designed to affect a population level modal shift to more active modes of commuting, particularly cycle commuting (eg, cycle lanes, city bike hire, subsidised cycle purchase schemes, and increasing provision for cycles on public transport), present major opportunities for the improvement of public health,” according to the study’s conclusion.

Therein lies the solution. If we want society to realize that 41 per cent improvement in our health that comes with bicycle commuting, we need to make it fast and easy to get places on a bike. That means continuing to accommodate bikes on our streets and building cities around the idea of active transportation. We’ve already started in most cities. We just need to hurry up.

Most of the time I ride a bike, I wear a helmet. But not always. Here’s why.

On my most memorable ride this year, a 70 km highway ride up the highest paved mountain pass in Canada, I wore a helmet. On my recent mountain bike trip into the Rockies of southern B.C. , I wore a helmet.  But in my last video, in which I rolled through the streets of Calgary’s new protected bike lanes, I did not.

That raised a few eyebrows, at least in the comments of the video on Facebook and YouTube, some of which you can see below.

There was enough of a conversation about the issue that I feel the need to offer some explanation.  As someone who rides a lot, I’ve put much thought into the helmet question.

I’m not going to rehash the helmet debate. It’s an endless, and at this point rather fruitless, conversation. If you want to understand the reasons against wearing a helmet, I recommend reading this piece by Peter Walker and watching this Ted Talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.

That means if I’m winter commuting on busy thoroughfares, I wear one. If I’m highway riding, or mountain biking, I wear one. Because I live in a city that is just getting started in building safe bike infrastructure, that means I often wear a helmet in the city.

But, most importantly to the video that sparked this post: if I’m riding on safe bike lanes that have a physical barrier between myself and vehicles, I don’t feel the need for a helmet.

This, I understand, can be difficult for people. “But you can fall off your bike anwhere, anytime,” I hear. “You can’t predict when you might crash.” This, to me, speaks to our irrational assessment of risk. There’s good science that says your chances of being killed on the roads are about equal for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists (Clarification: The rates vary depending on how the rates are measured, but in a nutshell, motorists have slightly lower fatality rates, cyclists and pedestrians are about equal, and all of them are far lower than motorcyclists. Check it out). In my city, for example, one pedestrian is struck by a car every day, on average. In the last decade, there were 3,834 pedestrian-involved collisions, resulting in 3,317 injuries and 95 fatalities. For comparison’s sake, between 2004-2008, of the 2,174 people who died in traffic collisions in Calgary: 1.4 per cent were bicyclists, 6.9 per cent were motorcyclists, 10.4 per cent were pedestrians, and 76.2 per cent were drivers or passengers.

In other words, you are hella more likely to be struck by a car by simply walking the streets than riding a bike on them*. Yet only cycling is perceived as dangerous enough to require a helmet. It makes no sense, yet helmet use has gone from the fringes to orthodoxy in a generation. It’s now so ingrained in many people that it’s unfathomable that someone would choose to ride without a helmet. Yet the idea of wearing a helmet as a pedestrian is so absurd as to be laughable. The most dangerous thing you will do in your day, statistically speaking, is drive a car, yet where is the helmet debate there? Such a suggestion would get you laughed out of the room. Yet, if we were to require helmets while driving, we would almost assuredly save more lives than if we require them on bikes.

This illogical helmet fundamentalism creates a false perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which discourages people from riding. That discouragement is harmful. It means my city is not enjoying all of the benefits of a more robust bike culture, including the increased safety and health benefits that come when more people ride. Part of the reason that I chose not to wear a helmet in that video (other than the fact that I felt completely safe while riding the city’s separated bike lanes): I’m trying to combat that unnecessary culture of fear around cycling.

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That’s me on a lazy roll through my city’s bike paths.

 

The other thing that bothers me about this whole debate is the way it distracts from the real issues around bicycle safety. While the data about the macro safety implications of bike helmets remain sketchy (and I’m lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that hasn’t fallen for the false promise of a mandatory helmet law), it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes. If you really care about bike safety, this is where you should focus your efforts.

So if you choose to wear a helmet, I completely understand and support that decision. If it gets you on a bike, it’s a wonderful thing. I will continue to wear one for many of my rides. But if you spot me, or anybody else, riding without one, all I ask is that you stop before trying to shame them and give some thought to the real issues around bike safety that impact all of us.

* I just want to clarify this. The likelihood of death is about the same for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, according to a study by UBC. In my city, more people are struck walking than cycling in raw numbers, but that doesn’t mean the proportional rate of collisions is the same. 


Upate: A nice reaction to this piece came from Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter, including some fascinating information about perceptions that was new to me. It’s worth a look.

How one city’s big idea transformed urban cycling all at once

My home city of Calgary made waves last year by installing an entire downtown network of separated bike lanes, all at once. Here’s a spin through the city a year later, to assess its success.

This British writer just wrote a totally convincing argument in favour of urban cycling

In the past decade, Peter Walker has seen a fundamental change in London, the city in which he lives.

In that time, Walker, a writer for The Guardian who has for years penned the paper’s popular bike blog, says people on bikes have gone from a marginal place on the city’s streets (he says he was once viewed as a “bit of an oddball” for using his bike to get around the city) to one that’s clearly in the mainstream — during peak hours on some London roads, cyclists are now the most common road user.

Despite that, he says cycling has not moved into mainstream consciousness like it has in the world’s great cycling cities, such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam. And now, after a bike-infrastructure building boom under former mayor Boris Johnson, Walker fears the entire movement has stalled.

How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker

Part of that fear is what drove him to write How Cycling Can Save the World, his new title that reads like a book-length argument in favour of two-wheeled urban transportation. Covering aspects as diverse as health and safety to equality, the book lays out, in rational and precise terms, all the benefits that cycling brings to society. And they are myriad. The title of the book is not an exaggeration.

I chatted with Walker from his flat in London. Here are some of the aspects of our conversation that struck me.

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The health benefits of cycling are sometimes overlooked in the battles over road space.

Health

It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but the health benefits of cycling are sometimes forgotten in the battles with motorists over road space. In detailing some of those astonishing benefits, Walker makes a pretty good case that your doctor might be well advised to prescribe a bike commute after your next physical.

A scheme to encourage people to ride in the small Danish city of Odense, Denmark, for example, added five months to the life of the average citizen. Another study of Danes found those who rode a bike to work were 40 per cent less likely to die during the study.  Other studies have found that countries with the highest rates of cycling have the lowest rates of obesity, and even that simply riding a bike leads people to more healthy diets.

“If there’s any one factor that will get cyclists riding more and more . . .  it’s that developed nations are facing this public-health crisis from people living these sedentary lives,” Walker told me. “People in public health service are completely frank: if more is not done to encourage active transportation, the public health system will collapse.” 

Suburban options

Much has been made over the years about the importance of distance in encouraging people to ride bikes. A five-kilometre ride to work or the supermarket is certainly more palatable to many people than what we see in most North American cities, where suburban growth patterns have stretched those distances to sometimes absurd lengths.

Walker, however, sees ways to bridge those distances. The proliferation of e-bikes in Europe and China may be a precursor to their popularization in the U.K. and North America as a way of more easily spanning longer distances. “With the Dutch, it’s something like a third of bikes sold new are e-bikes, it’s something that’s definitely going to come,” he said.

He’s also seen success with cycling “highways,” in which well-built, direct bike routes are extended out to suburbs. Cargo bikes are also making inroads as practical suburban transportation options, particularly for those hauling kids to school every day. There is also much success when transit systems are mixed with bike-sharing programs, the latter relied upon by people to cover the distance to and from the bus or train.

“The really been an explosion of Chinese bike-sharing schemes … and having these bike share systems, such that people can pick up a (bike) to a metro stop and finish their trip, are really working,” he said. “There are all these ways that the bike can work with other forms of transportation.”

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Many studies link overall happiness with an active lifestyle.

Happiness

Bikes make people happier. This isn’t just your annoying bike-riding co-worker crowing about being energized after a morning ride. There’s science behind it.

Walker devotes an entire chapter to the ways in which cycling increases happiness, most of it related to the well-documented mental-health benefits of regular exercise, particularly when that exercise is simply part of getting around every day.

Most inspiringly, Walker dives into an Italian study that examined the lives of people, between the ages of 52 and 84, who rode several times a week. All were in great physical shape, seemingly years younger than their non-bike-riding peers, and seemed giddy about the mental-health benefits of such exercise. “It makes you feel good, both mentally and physically,” reported one 61-year-old in the study. “It is no small thing, to feel well with oneself.”

The stigma

It ain’t all roses. Walker doesn’t shy away from the negative bits associated with cycling, especially around the corrosive political discourse that still pervades the conversation in the U.K. and North America. Walker pushes this argument farther than I’ve seen before, detailing how the stereotyping of cyclists has serious negative consequences. While he stops short of drawing parallels between the insidiousness of racism or sexism and the way cyclists are treated, he’s clear that he thinks it comes from the same space.

“I compare to really old-fashioned things, like making jokes about vegetarians or mothers-in-law,” he says. “It just feels a bit dated.”

What’s worse, Walker quotes studies that draw links between negative portrayals of cyclists in the media and public discourse and increased danger to cyclists on the roads. It’s not a difficult mental leap to make — if drivers are pummelled with negative images of people on bikes, they are less likely to treat them with respect on the road. It’s a serious problem that needs to be overcome if cycling is to become accepted as a rational, everyday form of transportation.

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The stigmatization of cycling continues.

The future

With so much talk about the future of urban transportation, particularly around the looming disruption of autonomous vehicles, Walker also has a rather optimistic view of the future. While’s he’s as skeptical as the next bike blogger (ahem) about the ways self-driving cars will impact the bike environment in cities, he’s looking at the bigger picture.

“Anyone who tries to predict what cities will look like in 50 years is wrong,” he said. “People are very keen to live in a place that’s seen as liveable. Even if they are electric cars, and they’re autonomous, they’ll still have an impact on the livability of cities.”

As far as the future goes, I’m keen to align with Walker’s vision of a future in which scores of people assess their lives and make a decision to ride a bike for the same reasons he does: “I live in this very congested city where getting around is quite tricky,” he said. “When I get on a bike I know I will arrive within a few minutes of when I expected, with a smile on my face.”

This temporary car-free haven shows how people on bikes flock to safe routes

It was while screaming downhill, past hundreds of other cyclists who were slowly climbing in the opposite direction, that the thought crossed my mind. “Huh,” I thought. “This is a thing.”

That was on the weekend as I happily rode the Highwood Pass for the first time, a local highway that, for a few weekends a year, becomes a haven for, as I discovered, scores of fellow cyclists. But seeing so many people on this route made me realize something else: It’s rather amazing what people will do to find a good car-free route to ride their bikes.

This gives you an idea how many people rode the Highwood Pass last weekend.

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First, some background. The Highwood Pass is just another highway, but it has some special qualities. It’s called the highest paved route in Canada, and it cuts through some achingly beautiful alpine scenery in the eastern slopes of southern Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. It happens to be near where I live.

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The Highwood Pass in Alberta offers some stunning alpine views.

For years, I’ve heard about a special moment on the pass. The road is closed to motor-vehicle traffic during winter to offer a respite to wildlife during times of year when food is more scarce (the route passes through a provincial park). It also receives a shit-ton (for you Canadians, the metric version of that would be “shit-tonne”) of snow, so I’m sure there’s a snow-clearing budget officer somewhere who breathes a sigh of relief every autumn when the gate is lowered to close the road.

That makes for a unique situation. For a short time each spring, usually just a weekend or two, there’s a window of opportunity for cyclists between the time the gates remain closed to cars and enough snow has melted to make the road passable on a bike.

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The gates to the highway are closed every winter to offer some respite to wildlife.

The result: Hundreds of people on bikes flock to the area for a chance to ride the pass without any cars.

It’s a wonderful experience for cyclists. Arriving early gives a rare chance to enjoy a quiet highway, with stunning mountain vistas and wildlife sightings. Arriving a little later gives an opportunity to take part in a communal bike-friendly atmosphere as all kinds of people unload their bikes at the gate and start climbing.

While the early riders tend towards the MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lyrcra, God bless them), by midday, while descending the pass, there were innumerable women, families and kids heading upwards, including at least one hearty grandmother pedalling her way up the mountain on a shiny new e-bike.

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For a few weekends each spring, before the highway opens for the season, the snow melts enough to create a car-free route for cyclists.

What made it all possible was one thing: A lack of cars. If the road was open to vehicle traffic, the number of people enjoying the ride that day would dwindle to a handful of those brave and hearty souls who feel confident in their ability to stick to the shoulder of the highway while innumerable vehicles blow by at freeway speeds. 

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Snow on the highway still lingered near the summit of the Highwood Pass during this year’s ride.

While I was delighted with the opportunity to undertake this ride, it also struck me as a little sad that such opportunities weren’t more common. I’m not naive enough to think that a highway, built with millions of taxpayer dollars, would ever be turned over exclusively to cyclists, but the fact that so many took advantage of a tiny window of opportunity to enjoy a safe ride free of cars is telling.

Many jurisdictions enable road closures for specific bike events, for everything from ciclovias to gran fondos, that draw innumerable people on bikes. It’s proof there’s a hunger out there for safe bike routes, whether they are recreational of functional. This little highway during this one weekend was just another manifestation of that desire. 

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The summit, where hundreds of cyclists stop to take in the view each spring.

For me, on a more visceral level, it took me about half the ride before I realized I could stop my subconscious habit of glancing over my shoulder to see if a car was coming up from behind, which prompted a simple thought that, I’m willing to bet, was shared with many others that day. “This,” I thought, “is pretty nice.”

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