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.
Last week, I penned a rant about being accosted by an angry dude in a pickup truck frothing at me for existing on this mortal coil while riding a bike on a rural road. Sure, I was still slightly pissed by the whole experience — being screamed at by a stranger tends to stick in your craw — but I was more baffled. I genuinely wanted to know why there’s such hostility to bikes on rural roads.
The reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. Consider me enlightened.
Rather than the usual chorus of support from fellow cyclists, their reaction was rather muted, many saying they feel safer in rural areas than cities, despite a few bad apples. Even more interesting was the reaction from a few rural folks, who opened my eyes a bit.
Two things came out of those conversations for me. One: There is some truly appalling behaviour by those on both sides of this issue. Tongue-lashing an innocent cyclist for the actions of others is one example. But if you’re the cyclist shitting in the bushes of a rural property owner, you need to stop right now. Seriously, that’s messed up.
But more importantly, it dawned on me that this conflict isn’t some deeply rooted culture war or evidence of some long-held moral differences between urban cyclists and rural property owners, as I originally mused. The conflict is rooted in something much simpler, the same source of motorist-cyclist conflicts in cities: insufficient infrastructure.
What I heard from most rural landowners is that they fear inadvertently striking a cyclist in their car, and on narrow rural road they feel there isn’t enough space for two passing vehicles and a bike. And this happens mostly on roads that lack a shoulder.
That’s it. Some roads are too narrow. Yes, it’s the law to share the highways, and cyclists have every legal right to be on these roads, and cyclists are often stuck in a conundrum because the roads with the least traffic are also those that lack shoulders. But, simply put, rural drivers worry that the presence of cyclists on a narrow road doesn’t leave enough space to pass when the opposite lane is occupied, and it can be difficult to slow sufficiently at highway speeds when approaching cyclists unexpectedly.
So with that in mind, I came up with a few commandments for both motorists and cyclists that may help reduce conflicts on our rural roads.
Thou shalt show respect to all users of the road, and not unfairly malign an entire group of road users based on the actions of a few members of said group.
Thou shalt not bandy about the word “entitled” in conversations about road use, acknowledging that all types users on occasion display an attitude of entitlement over public roads.
Cyclists shall plan routes on rural roads that have wide shoulders wherever possible.
Motorists vow to pass cyclists with sufficient space wherever possible.
All road users agree that insufficient infrastructure and not human behaviour is the root of most conflicts between users, and focus their energies, not on each other, but on the forces that can build sufficient space on rural roads for all users to feel safe.
One last point, that is less a commandment than an observation: Maybe it’s time to recognize that road cycling isn’t going away, and rather than just tolerate it, it should be accommodated. Let’s identify safe routes and encourage cyclists to use them, as has already happened in many jurisdictions. Let’s see road cyclists as an opportunity and cater to them (a weekend food truck on a well-placed route, perhaps?). Look at how bicycle tourism has become a true industry in other jurisdictions. There is opportunity in those hordes of people in Lycra.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to this issue. Let me know what you think about the commandments above.
A friend and I were on our road bikes on a rural Sunday morning ride recently on the outskirts of the city. It was a warm and smoky day, and we had pedalled about 50 kilometres when we turned off onto a secondary road. There was no shoulder on the highway so we were hugging the right side. We weren’t riding two abreast, but we weren’t exactly single-file either — we were chatting, which is one of the joys of riding with friends on a Sunday morning.
The pickup truck approached from the opposite direction and I knew immediately that something was up because the driver-side window was rolled down and I could see a reddening face. The driver did a U-turn on the highway to confront us, shouting unintelligibles the entire time. I rolled my eyes — every cyclist knows an angry motorist when he sees one — and slowed down, mostly to avoid getting run over. He pulled his truck up beside me.
I told myself to stay calm, and I sat back and waited while he frothed. I let him shout his bit, and he calmed down enough that I stopped fearing for my life. Then, he squealed away.
I’ve encountered angry motorists before, but none as furious as this, and none seemingly set off by my mere presence. It was unnerving. It laid bare my vulnerability in that situation. We got our wits about us and finished our ride, but the joy of the morning had been sucked dry.
I tell you this not as a precursor to a rant about entitled motorists and their irrational anger toward cyclists, but as a plea to help me understand. As I recounted this story over the next few days, nearly every cyclist I spoke to had a similar story. What I’d like to get out of this is reasonable answers to a simple question: Dude, what’s your problem?
I’m being serious here. While Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t in his most articulate state, he did shout a few nuggets that gave me an idea of what his problem was. “You cyclists!” “I have to live out here, this is just a joyride for you!” “Last week, I passed 200 of you guys!” “This is my life!” “Once, some cyclist was mad that I dropped manure on the highway. I mean, who the fuck do you guys think you are?”
Based on that, I’m making a few assumptions. I suspect he feels his homestead is being invaded by outsiders. I suspect he perceives all cyclists as disobeying the rules of the road, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for inadvertently running over a cyclist. I also suspect his anger goes a tad deeper, fuelled by a vein of discontent throughout rural areas because of a perception (rightly or wrongly) that rural life is being disrespected.
So I can empathize, even if this is just my speculation. But still, it’s difficult to square the reaction we received to our behaviour — we were riding a bike on a quiet public road on a Sunday morning when traffic was almost nonexistent. I take some responsibility for the situation. We weren’t, at that moment, following the letter of the law requiring strict single-file riding (although I tend to agree with those advocating for a change to improve visibility,) and I apologized. My sense, however, was that Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t nitpicking the nuances of the traffic act, it was our mere presence that set him off.
So here’s my plea, to those who live in rural areas and honk or scream at cyclists: What’s up? What’s so bad about our presence? What’s so awful about sharing the highway that it comes down to threats and anger? Is momentarily slowing down and passing bikes really so burdensome? Is this really about cyclists, or are you projecting larger grievances onto unsuspecting passersby? And do you really want to rid the world of people out riding bikes for pleasure and fitness on weekend mornings?
Seriously, help me understand. Leave a comment below, or drop a note on Facebookor Twitter. Let’s see if we can better understand each other.
It’s not a rare occasion to hear me rant about the impracticality of most bikes I see on the streets these days. Loaded with too much tech, too many gears, and too much equipment built for racing, too many people don’t ride bikes fit for an urban lifestyle.
But sometimes, you come across a bike that is unique, beautiful and cool enough to overcome my ranting tendencies. That bike is The Greaser: a beast of an e-bike built in the style of a 1950’s cafe racer motorcycle that makes no sense on a lot of levels. It’s big, heavy, unruly and completely fun to ride.
The bike is built by Michael Blast, and it was loaned to me by a retail shop called Toys for Boys, which also sells truckloads of the bikes online. If nothing else, the bike is a head-turner: everywhere I went, people stopped me to talk about the bike.
If you’re in the market for a day-to-day urban bike, this probably isn’t for you. But if you love the look of this bike, and are in the market for a cruising bike that draws attention, get out that credit card.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turning left on a busy road is the most difficult thing you’ll do on a bike. Photo by Toom Babin.
A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a new idea that delivery company UPS came up with to save time and fuel while delivering cargo in busy cities. It was so simple that it seemed almost too dumb to be true, yet the company insisted that it was already paying dividends: Stop making left turns.
Rather than staying stuck in the middle of an intersection awaiting a gap in traffic in order to turn left, drivers were instructed to instead take right turns only. That would send them around the block in the opposite direction, until they reached the destination. The company found this was faster and more efficient than the more direct route via left-turns.
Considering that making a left turn in busy traffic is one of the most harrowing and difficult things a cyclist can do, that UPS idea isn’t a bad one for cyclists too. It may add to your mileage, but you’ll avoid that terrifying moment when you are straddling your bike in the middle of a busy intersection, with traffic zooming by in two directions, awaiting a gap in traffic while an impatient motorist tailgates you needlessly just to assert their dominance.
You’re not buying it, are you? As logical as that UPS advice sounds, you’re thinking that, eventually, you’re going to have to make a left turn. And you’re probably right. So you best start practicing now.
There are two challenges with making a left turn. First is the lead-up. To properly execute a left turn, you need to get your bike in a position to do so. That means getting into the left lane. On a single lane with light traffic, this isn’t such a problem. Just await a gap, signal your intentions and move into position.
But what if the road has two lanes, and you are currently minding your business over in the far right lane where it’s safe and comfortable? That means you need to cross two lanes to get where you need to be, and that ain’t easy on a busy road. This is where those vehicular cycling lessons come in. Vehicular cycling – the philosophy of riding a bike in the same manner as you’d drive an automobile – has fallen out of favour, for good reason: it didn’t work on a mass scale because it’s terrifying to most people. But in the moment when you need to cross two lanes of busy traffic is the time to invoke its principles. Be bold! Be assertive! Be confident! Hold your left arm out straight to signal your intentions, wait until it’s safe and change lanes. Never mind the screaming of self-preservation going on in your reptilian brain because you’re cutting into a lane of fast-moving traffic – vehicular cycling means claiming your lawful place on the road, and expecting other road users to do the same. There, you did it! But you still have another lane to get to, so do it again. Still alive? Great work!
The second challenge of making a left turn is executing the final turn. Again, this is where you channel your inner John Forester and be bold – roll into the middle of the intersection, just as you would in a car, and pedal swiftly to make your turn when it’s safe. Try to ignore the fact that you are a baby bird in a stream of crocodiles. Uncertainty at this moment is dangerous. Confidence is what you need!
Congratulations. You made your left turn. Now that you have a moment to ponder your mortality, consider the place of effective bike infrastructure in it. Enter: the Copenhagen left. This is a concept from the great bike city that creates a completely different left-turning experience than what you just survived. In a city full of safe, separated bike lanes, a left turn has been developed that is safer and saner. Here’s how it works:
Three ways of executing a left turn. The one labeled in blue is an example of the Copenhagen left. Illustration is from the Cascade Bicycle Club.
You are rolling down a dedicated Copenhagen bike route safely separated from moving automobiles in a stream of fellow cyclists who, like you, look effortlessly chic while pedaling quickly with a coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other and nonchalantly chatting on ear buds. You approach the intersection, you know making a left turn will be difficult because you’d be holding up the stream of bike traffic behind you when encounter a tiny off-ramp to the right that removes you from the flow of traffic, swings you around and stops you at a red light facing the direction you want to turn. The light turns green, and off you go, having successfully made your left turn without taking your life in your hands.
This is the Copenhagen left, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people in the city ride bikes. It’s safe, intuitive and easy. No special skills needed. Maybe it’s time your city started using these.
Can the new SmartHalo replace your smartphone as your bike’s best friend?
In testing out the cool new SmartHalo on my bike, two questions struck me:
1. Is SmartHalo better than your phone?
2. Do you need a smart bike?
So I put the questions to the test, by comparing what you get on your phone to what you get on a SmartHalo synced with a phone.
Thanks to SmartHalo for providing the device to test.
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.
Homes for fans of Hobbiton.
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: