Category: Cities Page 1 of 5

Bike racer or city cruiser: Who has the best bike commute?

Is going as fast as possible the best way to commute to work on a bike? That’s the question we’re testing in this video, thanks to a guest appearance by former pro cyclocross racer, current coach and all-around amazing guy Mark McConnell, aka Hot Sauce (go check out his website here.)

Here’s how we tested the question. Mark, in athletic clothing and riding a fast bike, agreed to commute as fast as possible. Following the same route, I commute in my work clothes on my comfortable three-speed city bike. Who will have the better commute? Watch to find out.

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

My summer mission: Photographing utility-box art in my city

More than a decade ago, the City of Calgary commissioned artists to paint utility boxes. You’ve seen these nondescript grey things that electricity runs through, even if you’ve never consciously noticed them before. I hadn’t. They are part of the overlooked underpinnings of city infrastructure, like telephone poles or storm drains.

But dozens of artists have painted them in Calgary as part of this project, and, one day, while perusing the city’s open data site (I don’t have a lot of hobbies), I came across a list of the commissioned painted boxes and their locations. After a little spreadsheet work and some Google magic, voila, I had a map of every one of those 68 boxes.

This isn’t all of the painted boxes in the city. Apparently, the map hasn’t been updated in some time. But still, I kind of like these utility boxes. And I like maps. So I decided that I would make it my summer project to visit each of the points on this map on my bicycle and take a look at the art. And since I’m there, I’ll snap a photo and post it to Instagram, in a style inspired by Behind Handlebars. By the end of summer, hopefully, I’ll have a gallery of 68 artfully painted utility boxes.

Even as I type this I’m struggling to come up with an answer for the inevitable question that will follow: Why? Beats me. Ask me when I’m finished.

If you lead an empty life and want to follow along, Instagram is your best bet. And I’m taking a bit of time away from my usual blogging and vlogging this summer as a creative recharge, so this may be all you’ll get from me for a while. Enjoy your summer.

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

Why multiuse pathways sometimes suck for cyclists

Why would a person on a bike choose a road over a pathway designed specifically for cycling? After being yelled at by a motorist for riding my bike on a road adjacent to a shared multiuse pathway, I decided to bicycle commute home using only pathways to show the good, the bad and the ugly about multiuse pathways.

The results show that the good and the bad about pathways. The good? For recreation, they can be fantastic: usually placed in beautiful places and rolling through parks, they are looping routes that allow for connections to nature and slow, easy rides perfect for hauling a picnic or visiting relatives.

For transportation? Not so much. They tend to be indirect, full of gaps, and rarely get you directly where you need to go. And as some followers have also pointed out, they tend to have slow speed limits and be full of pedestrians, both of which slow a commute.


Check out the video below for more.

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

Why it’s time to stop building painted bike lanes

Two thing caught my eye recently and led to the question: do painted bike lanes suck? In fact, the question might go even farther: is a painted bike lane more dangerous than nothing at all?

You know what I’m talking about. It’s those bike lanes that are created just with a strip of paint and nothing else. No protection or separation from passing motors vehicles as all. Just a strip of paint.

The first came when I saw a talk recently by Dr. Jennifer Dill from Portland State University, who has done a ton of research into urban cycling. And one of the things she did recently was to survey people’s impressions of different types of bike infrastructure.

One of those question was to ask people if the presence of a different types of bike infrastructure made them more likely to ride a bike in a city. She asked about things like painted bike lanes, bike paths or protected bike lanes. And among the lowest results was painted hike lanes. People didn’t like them. They just don’t feel safe in them.

One of the vehicles that passed my while riding in this painted bike lane. Photo by Tom Babin.

Which is interesting. Bike lanes are explicitly designed to accommodate cyclists, but most people perceive them as unsafe.

But maybe that’s just perception. Are they actually unsafe?

A different new study looked at this question. It looked at passing distance. Basically, the researchers hooked up a device to cyclists that measures the distance of passing vehicles. They sent those cyclists riding on different types of roads to see if drivers gave the cyclist more space when there was a bike lane.

What do you think happened? Yep, researchers found that motorists passed cyclists closest in two situations: Around parked cars, and in painted bike lanes.

I found this bizarre. Not only did people perceive painted bike lanes as among the most unsafe types of bike infrastructure, they are probably right.

So I did a little experiment and recorded one day of my bike commute. I then examined the video to see if this research bears out. Guess what? On just one day of commuting, I found that research is probably correct. The closest calls with cars came around parked cars and in painted bike lanes.

Which leads to a natural question: If painted bike lanes suck so bad, why do we build them? My theory? Because they are easy. Even though they do nothing to help cyclists, they are cheap, easy to implement and make cities feel like they are helping.

But it’s time to move on. Let’s drop the painted bike lanes in favour of infrastructure that actually works. Separate bikes from cars and people will ride bikes. It’s simple. Now, we just have to do it.

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


This lawyer has detailed all the ways the law subsidizes car drivers, and it’s staggering

When changes to traffic laws were approved in my city recently
— little things like requiring drivers to give more space to cyclists when passing — it was heralded as a step forward for bike friendliness.

But after reading a fascinating new paper, my enthusiasm for these new laws feels dwarfed by a realization that these are but tiny changes in a massive system that has rigged society toward automobile supremacy.

That may sound like hyperbole, but only if you haven’t read the paper. It was written by Gregory Shill, a law professor at the University of Iowa, titled Should Law Subsidize Driving? Basically, it’s an examination of the myriad ways that our laws favour automobiles. Not just traffic rules, but everything from liability to law enforcement to zoning regulations.

Photo by Tom Babin.

There has long been discussion about the things that encourage automobile use, from the ways we’ve build our suburban cities to the design of our houses. But I’ve rarely seen an argument this comprehensive detailing how our legal system subsidises driving as well.

“These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively re-assigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large,” Shill writes in the paper. “They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law.”

By “subsidizing” driving, Shill is looking at the myriad ways our legal system favours cars. For example, he examines the history of speed limits and argues they are set with the goal of keeping automobiles moving despite clear evidence they often worsen road safety when set arbitrarily high. In that case, the law favours fast-moving automobiles over the safety of other road users.

He examines the ways we have spread the costs of driving, such as road construction, across all of society, making driving seem free while, at the same time, governments starve public transit and treat it as a “welfare” system. “On 99.7% of lane miles in America,” he writes, “the cost to the driver is zero and the marginal cost is zero, because policymakers socialized the costs across the entire population.” But driving is not free. He puts the costs of subsidising driving at “$100 billion, or between $1,012 and $1,488 per household per year (in the U.S.).”

Our laws also favour motor vehicles in the way we zone and use land. Zoning rules encourage low-density housing that favours autocentric lifestyles. Parking requirements assign public space to car storage. “A thousand local-level choices … took billions of acres of public space along streets—especially scarce, tree-lined, urban spaces where children played in safety—and redefined them as places to used exclusively for the passive storage of motor vehicles.”

Even the legal language we use in our transportation system favours automobiles, from calling collisions “accidents” to describing a person crossing a public road as a “jaywalker.”



Lax enforcement of traffic rules, environmental laws that absurdly encourage motor vehicle use, pollution restrictions that externalize hidden costs onto all of society, tepid prosecution of motor-vehicle crimes contrary to written statutes — when compiled, the myriad ways the legal system encourages automobile use is staggering.

None of that would be a problem if motor-vehicle use was benign. And perhaps it once was. But this system has, not surprisingly, evolved alongside the legal system that supports it to a point where the balance is off. And it’s destructive.

I don’t take this as a war-against-cars legal rant. There’s a place for automobiles in modern life, obviously. But we often fail to see, not only the destructive properties of the transportation system we’ve created, but its supportive regime. The goal of this paper is to at least open our eyes to that regime.

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


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

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

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