Category: Cities Page 1 of 5

Will cyclists ever get the rolling stops they want?

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

It’s the Idaho stop law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey cities, steal this idea: Subsidized winter-bike tires

Ski towns have a secret: They also tend to be fantastic bike towns.

They are usually small, so distances are short. They are populated by outdoor-lovers, fit and keen to enjoy the fresh air, which makes the towns partial to cycling. Come summertime, many convert into havens of mountain biking as ski resorts keep their lifts running under the sunshine.

So with that in mind, ski towns also have the potential to be amazing winter-bike towns, too. I mean, why spend 10 minutes warming up your frozen car at the end of a ski day when you can just hop on your bike while your pheremones are already raging, and be enjoying apres-ski cocktails in 5? Especially if you have one of these things.

Yet many mountain towns have been slow to adopt winter cycling. It’s coming, but maybe not as fast as might be expected — building great bike cities takes time and investment, and making great winter-bike cities takes even more investment.

But Banff, Alberta — Canadian Rockies ski-town extraordinaire, and a short drive from my home city — is trying something that may be seen as a shortcut to winter-cycling greatness. And the beauty of it lies in its simplicity: Subsidized studded bike tires.

Ski towns, like Banff, Alberta, also have the potential to make for great bike towns. Photo by Tom Babin

Here’s how it works: If you buy a studded bike tire for winter and bring your receipt to town hall, the town will cut you a cheque for $50. Studded tires can run close to $100 (and studded fat-bike tires can easily jump past $500) so this is a significant subsidy. A news release from the town says the subsidy is intended to help “normalize” winter cycling.

Fear of falling on icy roads is a major barrier to people riding in winter, and a studded tire can combat this. The subsidy reminds me of the simplicity of a program in the winter-bike utopia of Oulu, in which people who committed to ride in winter were given a bike. That’s it. It’s a no-brainer.

Banff has fewer than 8,000 permanent residents, and the town earmarked $5,000 from its budget for this program. If the money is all spent, that’s a significant proportion of the town equipped to happily ride all year long.

It’s a great idea (initated as part of the upcoming Winter Cycling Congress here in Calgary), simple to understand and get behind, and it addresses one of the key barriers to winter cycling. If you’re reading this from a city that isn’t Banff, it’s also an easy idea to steal.

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

Two things holding back Calgary’s new e-bike-sharing system

My first ride on a Lime e-bike in Calgary. Photo by Tom Babin.

Finally, Calgary finally has a bike-share program. In the video below, I detail my first experience with it. Now, pat us on the back for joining the rest of the world, where such systems have been enjoyed for years.

But I’ve been thinking a bit more since I finished the video, and there are two big problems that face the success of the system in these early days.

Correction to the video above: Cost is $1/unlock + $0.30/min to ride.

E-bikes: I love e-bikes, and at first I was happy that Lime decided to enter the Calgary market with only pedal-assist bikes available. But there’s a shortcoming.

One of the great things about e-bikes is their ability to ease the ascending of big hills. Calgary’s downtown is in the valley of two rivers, meaning big hills surround it. This has long been one of the things discouraging some people from bicycle commuting downtown. However, Lime’s home area – the area where you are permitted to leave the shared e-bikes – excludes many of these hilly areas. That means the places where e-bikes would be of most benefit are excluded from use.

This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s a missed opportunity. Hopefully, Lime will take this into consideration when considering the long-term feasibility of the program.

Obscure e-bike helmet law: I’ve always taken a bit of pride in the fact that Calgary has avoided the folly of our neighbourhing province of B.C. with its misguided bicycle-helmet requirements. But sitting on the books in Alberta all these years, unbeknownst to me, was a law mandating helmet use on motorcycles, mopeds and motor-assisted bicycles.

This means that to legally ride a Lime e-bike in Calgary, you need to wear a helmet. So unless you happen to carry a helmet around with you, just in case, your opportunities to ride will be limited. If you are one of those multi-modal commute planners who uses Lime to complete the last mile of your journey, I can imagine you planning to bring a helmet along. For the rest of us, those opportunistic rides will be mostly off-limits.

This law feels like antiquated, written when motor-assisted bicycles were mopeds and two-stroke gas sippers, not the high-tech pedal-assisted bikes of today. Let’s hope the provincial government brings the law up to date. While they’re at it, maybe they can update all the laws around e-bikes – California’s legislation is a good place to start.

Because of these factors, I can’t see myself using this first wave of Lime e-bikes much in the foreseeable future. I’ll be holding out more for the spring, when the system expands to include old-school pedal bikes and another company enters the fray.

Baby steps, Calgary.

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

How Dutch-inspired urban design inspired Vancouver’s bike boom

Chris Bruntlett in Vancouver. He and his wife Melissa are the authors of the new book Building the Cycling City, which you should read. Photo by Tom Babin.

Over the past decade, Vancouver has undergone a bike renaissance. Separated bike lanes have been installed, a bike-share program has been implemented, and more and more people are riding bikes for transportation. Even a downtown business group that once fought bike infrastructure has become supportive of cycling. 

But these big changes didn’t come from thin air. This kind of bike boom, which is happening in many North American cities, was inspired by the lessons learned in the Netherlands. 

In their new book Building the Cycling City: the Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Vancouver residents Chris and Melissa Bruntlett of Modacity examine how Dutch design has made the country the world’s best for everyday cycling, and how ideas honed there are inspiring cities all over the world. 

In this video, Chris Bruntlett takes me around Vancouver for a look at how those Dutch ideas have been implemented, and how they are turning Vancouver into a bike haven. 

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What’s the motivation for whomever put thumbtacks on the bike path?

My first thought was not that someone had deliberately sown tacks on the bike lane.

It was a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago. The air was pleasant. We were pedalling down 102 Ave to meet friends from Holland for brunch. A metallic sound, a kind of clank, from the back of Shelagh’s bike made her pull over for a quick inspection of her machine.  Not looking for tacks, we didn’t at first find two of them embedded in her back tire. The spokes were good, the chain guard was good, maybe a rock had kicked up into the fender? We rode the last block to Blue Plate, locked up and forgot about the mystery sound.


While we talked and laughed and reminisced across a table inside, the back tire breathed its last on the sidewalk outside.

“Something’s not right,” Shelagh said a block into the ride home.

Flat tire. Or, if optional spelling is allowed, a pfffffflatt tire. The p and the extra f’s somehow do a better job of capturing the sense of immediate exasperation presented by a tube that has lost an encounter with a nail or a shard of glass or any other piece of foreign material.

“There are two tacks in the tire,” I said, not quite believing the words, glimpsing, but not quite facing the implication. Because unlike a nail (escaped from a construction site) or a piece of glass (escaped from windshield or window or beer drinker’s grip), tacks do not just appear in the surf of street life. Tacks don’t blow off bulletin boards. Like a spike belt, tacks, whether medievally, mischievously or maliciously, are deliberately placed.

Exasperation turned to disbelief. And then to anger after changing out the tube and retracing our path up the 102 Ave bike lane and finding another 42 tacks on the patch where two had found their mark a couple of hours earlier. A tack on a bike lane in the sun gleams like a gold tooth in a sinister smile of a villain on Saturday morning cartoons. We waved down and notified other bicycle riders and nodded as their faces registered the transition from curious to astonished to deflated.

One of two tacks in Shelagh’s tire. 

I sent on online complaint to police.  I tweeted a warning.

The responses organized themselves across roughly four categories.

There was wordplay. I appreciate wordplay. No tack attack is made more disturbing by making light of things. Top of class in this category went to Steve from Ohio, who replied: I don’t have a baloney skin in the game, but I’d think you could call that stretch the Flats! Runnerup was Aaron from Calgary for this: Ah, yes, that stretch of 102 Ave is known as the Bulletin Board District.

There was some media analysis. Glen from Seattle noted: We had carpet tacks blowing off carpeting trucks all over Seattle for a while. Funny how that happens. Glen’s theory was that the media environment allows or even encourages shit like tack attacks to occur. Fundamentally, media outlets need eyeballs for advertisers; eyeballs are attracted by tension and drama and opposition and division; emotion is the real target of attention merchants; media outlets new or old devote a disproportionate amount of resources doing stories that mine the emotions that deliver the eyeballs; bike lanes are, and then are made to be, emotional; so, bike lane stories proliferate; but, emotion outs in tacks on the roads, too, and not just in the intended and relatively salutary views, subscriptions, letters to the editors and clicks.

There was public service. Jared from Edmonton reported: At 10am today, a tourist couple and I removed three handfuls from the same spot (102 Ave between 109 St ad 105 St).

And there were the reactions that mixed anger and regret. Alexandra from Edmonton said:

I  believe that whoever broadcast the tacks on the 102 Ave bike lanes in Edmonton did not intend to puncture the tire of Alexandra’s six-year-old son. A boy out for a ride downtown on Saturday with his family was not, I still believe, the pictured target. It’s probably closer to the truth to say that the tack attacker had no pictured target at all. As a puny part of the great tradition of broadcasters stretching back to Jesus and Plato, he or she or they simply put their points out there and were content to see where and in whom and how deeply they landed.

I don’t know how deeply my tweet landed, either, even though I have access to impressive analytics about impressions and engagements and likes and replies.

We’re all in the broadcast business, I guess. Granted, we’re not all tack sowers. Thankfully, maybe just one of us is. Whoever that one person is needs to spend as much time making room for difference than attacking the bicycles of six-year-old kids. But, with the tackhead, we do share a method of putting stuff out there without quite knowing where it goes and what it does. That’s what’s tricky about wanting to get attention, or getting paid to get attention. That’s what I tried to tell the StarMetro Edmonton reporter who asked for a comment after my tweet had started doing its rounds.

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

Finding glimpses of bike-friendliness in your everyday life

Sometimes it can be difficult for us North Americans to truly envision a bike-friendly city. What with our car dominance and the pittances we throw at cycling, breaking the development mould that has dominated for the past half century can be a difficult mental leap.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about little spots in every city that embody bike-friendliness, even in a small day. You may have to squint to see them, but these places can, hopefully, help you envision what a more balanced transportation environment might look like.

Looking for scenes of bike-friendliness. Photo by Tom Babin.

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

The little compromises that can ruin your bike commute

Gaps in bike infrastructure can add up to big problems for cyclists. Photo by Tom Babin.

If you commute by bike, you’ve come across the little compromises. These are the little bits of missing bike infrastructure – a lane that ends prematurely, a painted lane instead of a separated lane, a gap between two bike paths. In many North American cities, these little compromises are everywhere.

On their own, they are no big deal. But when you’re trying to get around a city on a bike, these little one-offs add up to a system that, frankly, sucks. On a practical level, they can be dangerous. On a philosophical level, each one is like a little poke reminding you that, as a cyclist, you aren’t as important as other road users.

Here are two little compromises on my regular commute that illustrate just how irksome they can be. On their own, they are nothing big. But taken together, they are part of a pattern that makes riding a bike unnecessarily difficult.

Check out more in the video below:



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Here’s what happens when you ride a bike without worrying about being run over

What I’ve noticed about bicycle riding in the city is the city. This is especially true and vivid in parts of the city that have protected cycle tracks. I notice more of my city on my bike. The open architecture of the bicycle makes this possible. The safe infrastructure of a bike lane can make it quite real.

My friend Chris has an engineering mind. He says it’s an equation: Fewer perceived vehicle threats from fewer directions equals more time to feel happy and have the city strike you. In a good way. This formula is why I love pedalling my bike on the Oliverbahn in Edmonton. The Oliverbahn is a stretch of protected, treed, life-lined bicycle lane that runs along the north side of 102 Ave in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood. There’s a lot of city to notice and consider on the way to and from Edmonton’s downtown core.

Here’s what I noticed today.

A neighbourhood that provides space for pedestrians, bicycle riders, bus passengers, motorists, and, with all the stately elm trees, birds.

Families awheel.

Homes for fans of Hobbiton.

Hobbits.

Two built for a bicycle built for two.

The cool Lord Simcoe apartment font on brick.

Trees with bark and bite.

Walkers who wave hello.

Automobile drivers who wave hello.

A boy who says “cool bike” to his mom about me and hears me say “cool bike” right back to him.

People on bikes.

The 1913 telephone exchange building by Alan Jeffers.

Signed but self-regulated intersections that reveal where we’re at with each other:

People on bikes:

A tipi above the hedgeline in the Christ Church yard:

At the end of the story, a wedding:

With a bicycle in the picture ?
A version of this post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Check it out here.

7 ways to choose the right route for your bike commute

Sometimes, getting around on a bike requires some advance planning. Photos by Tom Babin.

Veteran hard-core commuter cyclists are good at many things. Telling you exactly how much mileage they’ve logged far this year, for example. Clip-clopping in their stiff-soled cycling shoes in places where that is totally inappropriate. And offering the simplest advice to anyone who has ever expressed interest in riding their bike more: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”

This is, actually, pretty great advice. Cycling needn’t be complicated, especially if you’re style of cycling tends toward the utility side, rather than the athletic side. You don’t really need any special gear or advice. Just give it a try.

OK, got it? Great. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll offer you some hard-won advice that took me years to figure out. Choosing the right route for that urban bike ride can be uber-important, especially if you live in a city with minimal safe routes for bikes.

Most of us have built up a mental map of our cities. Unfortunately, most of us have built that map while driving a car, which means our mental map doesn’t always include the things we need to know for a  bike ride. Does your mental map include information about the width of the shoulder on a busy route? Does your mental map include a tally of left-turns across multiple lanes of traffic? Then it might be time to adjust that mental map in a bikeward direction.

Before you get riding, stop and think about the route, especially if you’re still coming to grips with the fact that much of your ride will be beside fast-moving boxes of steel that can kill you. Here are a few things to ponder in that moment before you kick off:

There’s a hierarchy of bike infrastructure to take into account.

Traffic volume

In general, choose the roads that have the fewest number of moving vehicles. If you must venture on to a busy road, at least bookend that time with some quiet routes that offer some decompression time.

Road width

This may be counter-intuitive, but the narrow streets are often preferable. While a wide street feels like it should give you more room to avoid being flattened by a car, wide roads also encourage drivers to go fast. Narrow streets, particularly those full of parked cars in residential areas, are a car driver’s worst nightmare – conjuring those old driving-school images of children darting into the street after a ball. As a cyclist, this is a good thing. It means drivers may actually slow down. They may even pay you respect on the road. Maybe.



Off-road

Your car-driver mental map probably has blank areas for things like parks, schoolyards and wooded areas. Your bike map, however, needn’t be so. A shortcut through a park on a bike isn’t just efficient, it’s safe and fun.

Roads with sharrows

Sharrows are those roads that have designated to be shared by automobile drivers and cyclists (the word is an amalgam of “shared right-of-way), often marked with road paint or signage of a bike with a couple of arrows coming out of the sky. Lazy city planners love sharrows because it makes them feel like they are accommodating bikes without actually doing anything to accommodate bikes. Don’t be fooled: sharrows suck. Don’t think of a sharrow route as a safe route. It’s the same as any other road and, in fact, may be more dangerous.

Bike lanes

Yes, of course you’ll choose routes that have been designated for bikes, right? These are the safe and direct routes, right? Aw, you’re so cute when you live in a fantasy world. Down here the real world, cities are full of badly planned, badly marked bike lanes that do little to improve safety. So get your city’s map of bike lanes, but use it to plan your route with a grain of salt. Create a hierarchy of bike lanes in your planning with the safest routes at the top of the priority list, like this:

  1. Bike lanes separated from traffic with a physical barrier, such as concrete or bollards. Parked cars also work as a good physical barrier, if cities are smart enough to build this way.
  2. Bike lanes with a buffer of some sort, such as a metre or two of space between the car lane.
  3. Painted bike lanes. Having a designated route is nice, but without a barrier between the lane and moving vehicles, painted lanes are bit like watching the latter Police Academy movies – better than nothing, but they just don’t measure up to the ones with Steve Guttenberg.
  4. Community bike routes: These residential roads that have been designated as bike routes go by many names, but they are all versions of the idea that calling a quiet road a bike route will somehow make it safer. This can be true. If the road is embraced by cyclists and becomes busy with bikes, car drivers tend to slow and the road will be safer. Sometimes cities even install traffic calming devices such as speed bumps or roundabouts. Great! But if this is just a regular road that’s been decorated with signs featuring bikes, don’t forget: this is just a regular road.

Busy roads

OK, you’ve exhausted all of your bike lanes, quiet roads and safe choices, but you are still forced to venture on to a road with all kinds of fast-moving cars. This is the sad reality for many of us. But there are a few things you can do to ease this pain. Minimize the number of left turns you must make. Keep your time short. And finally, as a last resort, do something I never thought I’d advise: Pick up the skills of a vehicular cyclist. This idea, that cyclists should ride in the same manner as automobiles, was the dominant idea in cycling in North America for much of the 20th century, but has now been thoroughly debunked. Why? Because it didn’t work. After 40 years of trying, we’ve realized that riding a bike like a car is really hard, and most of us are too scared to do it. Yet, vehicular cycling still has skills to teach us: Be visible, keep up your speed, ride with confidence, signal your intentions, be predictable. These skills take time to develop, but if you find yourself on busy roads, you will thank those grumpy old vehicular cyclists for showing us how it can work.

Just do it

If all of this seems like too much thinking for a simple bike ride, then take the advice of those wily veteran cyclists: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”

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

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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