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Will this high-tech machine be the e-bike that finally breaks through in North America?

Why are two icons of the Canadian automobile industry pouring resources into the creation of a electric bicycle being sold around the world?

For Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl, two Canadians who powered Magna into one of the world’s strongest auto-parts companies, the answer is simple: The future.

In the late 2000s, the pair, through Magna, purchased BionX and honed the company’s electric-bike-drive system. The system, which is integrated into the bike’s rear wheel and is powered by a battery affixed to the frame, offers an electric assist to the pedaling rider, and can now be found on e-bikes all over the world.

But in late 2016, the pair took the idea further in the form of a complete bike. The Elby is a high-end integrated e-bike that Gingl has high hopes for, not just as a business venture, but in helping push a fundamental change in our transportation system.

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“I’ve always wanted to change how we get around, even from my early days in the automotive industry,” Gingl wrote to me in an email. “The bike is an inherently efficient mobility solution with so many health benefits for the individual, not to mention the way it eases traffic congestion and abates pollution for us all.

“It’s been tried and true for over 100 years, but if we could work to build a bike with an adaptable, regenerative drive system, we could make it a convenient option for everyone, not just an efficient option. And if we can make it convenient, we can really change how we move from point A to point B.”

That ambition is obvious in the Elby. I’ve ridden e-bikes before, but none feel as complete. The machine feels like it was designed from scratch as an electric model, not a traditional bike supplemented with a motor.

Still, the big question remains: Will the Elby be the model that breaks through the North American market? E-bikes are already ubiquitous in China, and they are quickly being adopted in some European markets, after years of skepticism there. But in North America, reaction to the promise of e-bikes has always been an enthusiastic “meh.” Sales are on the rise, but they remain small.

The bike sure nails one of the requirements for North American tastes: Tech. Comparing the Elby to other brands is a bit like comparing an iPhone to an old Blackberry. When the Velofix mechanic who showed me the bike — the mobile bike shop has a deal to deliver and service Elbys — called it the “Tesla of e-bikes,” he wasn’t far off.

Gadgetry flows through nearly every part of the bike. Most importantly is the electric-assist motor. You can set it to four levels, depending on how much help you need. It also includes a throttle for those times when you’re feeling especially lazy. The motor tops out at about 30 km/h, to ensure it remains a bicycle in the eyes of the law in many jurisdictions.

The Elby also has a a mode that regenerates power from the back wheel to charge the battery, not dissimilar to an hybrid car. When descending a hill, tap it into regenerative mode to give the battery a jolt.  

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It’s powered by an on-board computer that can even be swapped out for your smartphone with a Bluetooth app that includes turn-by-turn navigation. That includes a USB port so you can charge your phone while you ride.

All that is pretty cool, but it’s all a bit secondary to the important part of any bike: How it gets you around.

On this, I found the Elby performs very well too. The 500 watt motor and range of 90 miles (144 kilometres) is bigger than most e-bikes, but I find this stat to be a bit of a non-starter. If you’re riding 150 kilometres in one go, kudos to you, but most commuters won’t go a fraction of that distance in a given trip. So in practice, that range means, basically, you need to plug it in for recharging less frequently.

With wide tires and nice stiff aluminum frame, the bike rides well, and it’s certainly an attention grabber. I had a few people cast a sideways glance at the step-through frame, but I like the design. Step-throughs are comfortable, easy to ride and criminally overlooked in North America. By building the hefty lithium-ion battery into the bottom of the frame, the Elby has a low centre of gravity that feels almost supernaturally stable (don’t test that too much, please).

Elby trumpets the toughness of the bikes, saying it was designed for all weather conditions. I certainly tested those claims, having given the bike a test through several weeks of the harshest winter we’ve faced in years. All in all, the bike held up well. The stable design and wide tires did well on ice roads and the snirt (for you sun-belters, that’s a slippery mixture of snow and dirt), and the pedal-assist certainly came in handy when plowing through small drifts of snow.

After years of having smartphones die in my pocket during -20 C commutes, I didn’t hold out much hope that the Elby’s battery would fare well in the cold, but it did surprisingly well. I certainly noticed a decline in longevity of the battery in such cold weather, but it never stranded me to pedal a 55-pound machine uphill all the way home without a little help. In fact, I came to reply on the pedal-assist so much that I had to start dressing warmer for my commutes, because I could no longer rely on my usual pedaling pace to warm my body from the inside.

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Back to that big question: Will the Elby be the model that finally drags e-bikes in the mainstream? Perhaps, but it first needs to overcome a problem of value.

I don’t mean price. In a world of $10,000 carbon-fibre full-suspension mountain bikes, The 9-speed Elby’s $3,700 US price tag isn’t astronomical, especially among e-bikes, but it’s a lot to expect in a culture that doesn’t value utility bikes enough. That’s the cultural problem that needs to be overcome.

Part of that will be identifying those who can benefit most from e-bikes. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say e-bikes are a boon for older riders who have lost a step, but it’s true. It’s also true that e-bikes are ultra-practical, especially for commuters. And trips to the grocery store are a breeze with a good set of panniers.

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This is the perfect time for e-bikes, which have been called the most environmentally friendly motorized machines ever devised. There’s a gap in most North American cities right now: As bike infrastructure is slowly built out, there are still long distances that many commuters must overcome to reach those bike lanes. The Elby can fill that gap.

“People have a greater understanding of the role technology can play in improving the quality of their lives, their communities, and the wider world. We’re aware of our impacts and want to be responsible with them, while also enjoying ourselves,” Gingl gold me.

“Elby’s the perfect solution for someone like that. Now all we need is safer commuting infrastructure to keep up with the abundance of electric vehicles that are about to hit the market.”

 

 

Contest: Win two tickets to the world premiere of Bicicles, the winter-cycling documentary

Calling everyone who rides a bike. In winter. And loves it.

We’re giving away two tickets to the world premiere of Bicicles, the Documentary, a look at winter cycling here in Calgary. Created by Calgary filmmaker Kim Kelln, the documentary follows the commutes of a cross-section of people on bikes through the Canadian winter.

If you’d like to win a pair of tickets to the premiere, which takes place Feb. 11 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary, send us a photo of your winter bike commute. We’ll choose a winner from the submissions.

You can tweet the photo to Shifter with the hashtag #frostbike, send it to us on Facebook, or email us here.

Or, you can support the film the old fashioned way, by buying a ticket.

Here’s the trailer, which features snippets of an interview from yours truly.

Bicicles Trailer from Bull and Ship Films on Vimeo.

Here are some of the photo submitted by readers

 

Via Kevin Schindel:

Kevin Schindel’s winter bicycle photo

Chris Eich’s machine for getting through a Toronto winter.

Chris Eich braving the winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sure, I'll play the #frostbike photo contest. @Shifter_site @BiciclesYYC @TomBabin #winterride

A post shared by Darrin (@djsearancke) on

Update

Thanks to everyone who submitted photos. It’s great to see so many people out there enjoying winter on two wheels. A random winner was chosen from the entries. Congrats to Kevin Schindel!

10 new year’s resolutions for your winter-bike commute

You’re fat off shortbread and turkey. The consumer orgy haze of Dec. 25 still lingers. You can remember nothing on New Year’s Eve after Mariah Carey. Sounds like the perfect time to start a new habit!

So here, future winter cyclist, are some suggestions to get you going in 2017.

Resolve to ride more

When you’re staring out your window at blowing snow and icicles, it’s easy to talk yourself out of riding your bike. “It’s too cold,” or “It’s too slippery,” or “The elaborate series of mental defenses that I rely on to convince myself that winter doesn’t exist have temporarily broken down.”

So your first resolution is to push through those nay-saying thoughts. Remember, there are easy ways to deal with the cold, snow and ice (warm clothes, well-chosen routes, and slowing down, respectively), and riding a bike to work in winter feels great, keeps you in shape, and makes the season a little less intimidating. You’ll almost never regret riding, but if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself all day when you avoid riding on a day when you could have.

Resolve to avoid becoming a winter-cycling masochist

Sure, it’s great to commit to riding your bike more in winter, but there’s no reason to be a zealot. If the weather drops below where you feel comfortable riding, if the plows haven’t been to your neighbourhood yet, or if an overnight ice storm freezes your studded tires to your lawn, don’t feel pressured to ride. Take transit, car pool or drive your automobile. There’s nothing to be gained by punishing yourself. Even riding a few times a month during the winter is a win, so don’t feel guilty for taking days off. Keep it fun and realistic.

Resolve to stop bragging

I get it. When you beat the elements on your bike and waltz into work with a steaming head and your feel-good pheromones raging, while everybody else is huddled against the cold and complaining, it’s tempting to brag. Your co-workers will encourage it by expressing disbelief that you’d be crazy-brave enough to ride in this weather. Resist the urge. You are not tough for riding a bike in winter. You are not exceptional. People do it all over the world every day. Bragging about it makes winter cycling seem like something reserved for macho athletes, not right-thinking norms who just want to get to work on time. Winter cycling will never get into the mainstream if everyone who does it brags about it. Stop it.Tom_Babin_IMG_2210

Resolve to try a fat bike

It’s a bike with monster-truck tires. It tears through powder. And it’s a blast.

Fat-biking has been one of the great bike-industry success stories of the past decade, and with every major bike maker now pushing multiple models, this is the time to try it. Rent a bike, and go find some snow-covered trails or some fresh powder in your ‘hood. Finish at a coffee shop for some apres-bike warmth. Even if you don’t regularly ride a bike for recreation, give one a try. It may change the way you think about your winter commute, and you’ll have fun.

Resolve to stay bright

Unless you are a cat burgler or Batman, the darkness of winter can be a challenge when riding a bike. The good news is that LED technology has made bike lights much more affordable and efficient than they once were. So buy them, share them, charge them, and use them, for your bike, your body and your wheels. The more the merrier. Here are my basic guidelines: Two white ones of the front, two red ones on the back (two lights, according to some studies, make it easier for motorists to judge your distance). Make sure they are pointing to the ground and not into the eyes of passersby. Refrain from blinking lights unless you feel the added visibility is absolutely necessary. Don’t rely on reflectors.

Resolve to use the right stuff

Choosing the right gear can make your winter commuting life easier. Fenders are great. Studded tires work wonders on ice. A good base layer of merino wool will keep you toasty. Decent gloves and footwear are important. Lights are key (see previous resolution). Making good choices in winter will just make your life easier.
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Resolve to never get carried away with the gear

Everything mentioned in resolution No. 7 stands, but let’s not go overboard. As much fun as it is, you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on gear in order to ride a bike in winter. A junker of a bike may work better for you than a shiny new model because snow, salt and slush can quickly rust your components. Cheap old winter boots will keep your feed just as warm as those $600 fat-bike boots. A good pair of ski mittens may work just as well as those expensive pogies. I’ve used the same bargain-basement balaclava beneath my helmet for years. All kinds of great winter-bike gear is now available, thanks to the popularity of fat bikes, and it is certainly nice to have. But very little of it is essential. Just get out there and ride.

Resolve to bring a friend

Somewhere in your office is a summer cyclist who longingly watches with envy as you ride your bike home through the snow. Alas, an irrational fear of winter is clogging the brain of that poor cyclist. Help that person. Offer a nudge. Explain how much you love riding in winter, provide some gentle advice, and deliver support until they feel comfortable. Don’t shame that person if they don’t do it because, well, nobody likes an asshole. But everybody likes that helpful and encouraging friend who inspires them.

Resolve to make your city more winter-bike friendly

Great bike cities all look the same in the summer — well build, safe and connected bike lanes inhabited by smiling, happy people on bikes. Winters, however, are different everywhere, so cities that are serious about becoming bike-friendly must adapt to local conditions. Encourage your city to help make it easier. The first step is to improve overall bike-friendliness. Advocate for improved policies, laws and funding for bike infrastructure. Once a good network of safe bike lanes is built, make sure the city is maintaining that infrastructure in the winter by plowing it efficiently, de-icing it when necessary, and, generally, taking the job seriously. Remember: If you plow it, they will come.

Resolve to enjoy winter

Winter can be dark. It can be cold. It can be harsh. But winter can also be a time of great beauty, pleasure and renewal. If you spend most of the season hiding from winter, you are unlikely to enjoy it, and even more unlikely to try riding a bike through it. So change your attitude. Find something you enjoy in winter — skiing, skating, a winter festival, walks in the snow, licking telephone poles — and commit to doing it. The more positive experiences you have in winter, the less you’ll feel intimidated by it. That is the first step to having a well-adjusted relationship with winter. You may never love it, but if you move beyond hatred and dread, your life will be much better. And someday, you may find yourself riding a bike through it.

 

 

The unlikely success of Calgary’s bike-lane network has these lessons for other cities

Monday was a big day for Calgary. After an 18-month pilot project testing out a downtown network of separated bike lanes, city council voted to make the project permanent. It was a squeaker of a majority vote that approved the pilot project in the first place, so its permanence was never assured.

In the end, more city councillors voted in favour of keeping the network than approved the pilot project in the first place, which means several changed their votes in favour after seeing the bike lanes in action. “I was a person that didn’t support this in the beginning. I thought this was madness,” Coun. Diane  Colley-Urquhart told reporters after the vote. “But, to see how it’s evolved, and how it’s working and to see how people are starting to get the fact that this is shared public space.”

I argued in favour cycle tracks in places like this, this and this, so I’m certainly pleased with the result in my home town. The process also taught us much that may be applied to other cities. 

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Boldness paid off

In a city known for suburban sprawl, a love of the automobile, and public works timidity (the city is still debating whether extra money should be spent to bury a commuter train line, even though its at-grade predecessor is regularly plagued by bad weather, tangled traffic, errant motorists who crash into it and, all-too often, pedestrians getting run over) installing an entire network of separated bike lanes all at once was a bold step. It could have easily backfired — opponents cited the costs, the disruption on downtown traffic, and the displacement of parking spaces, among other things, as reasons to hate the idea.

In the end, it seems that installing the entire network all at once worked because it offered up the big picture. It might have been easier politically to build the network one lane at a time, as most cities do, but the uptake on a lane with few connections would have been slow. In this case, dropping down a well-thought out network gave cyclists and would-be cyclists a broader peek at what a cycle-track network can do, and, more importantly, have them somewhere to go.

The network didn’t succeed because of its boldness. It succeeded because it was practical. But in the politically charged climate around cycling, boldness was needed to ensure it was functional.

Tweaking

It wasn’t smooth sailing for the entire network, and perhaps it never will be. One things that seemed to placate opponents on city council was assurances that the network will continue to be tweaked to fix problems that arise.

Such tweaking was one of the city’s best practices since the bike lanes were installed. During the 18 months of the pilot, city planners reconfigured conflict zones, rejigged transition points, and adjusted intersections. This was crucial to the network’s success, and to public support. If people feel that problems will be fixed, it tends to dial down the opposition.

Part of Monday’s decision was a re-investment in the network to focus on areas that still aren’t perfect. And, let’s face it, there are many of them. In fact, one of the more troubling aspects of the pilot project was the fact that the number of bike collisions on these routes actually increased, which was contrary to the experience of separated bike lanes pretty much everywhere else. It turns out that most of those collisions were minor, occurred early in the pilot project, and were mitigated (mostly) with some design tweaks.

That’s why tweaking is important. Let’s hope that attitude of constant improvement carries into the future.  

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Data

The debate, both before and after the pilot project was installed, focused largely on numbers. Were there enough cyclists in the city to justify the expenditure? It’s a fair question, but before the installation, it was a chicken-and-egg scenario: how were we to know how many people would ride a bike before they were given a chance to ride?

As a result of that debate, the network became almost certainly the most scrutinized 6.5 km stretch of asphalt in the city’s history. There were more than 80 measures that were taken to judge the pilot project’s success, part of which was the installation of an array of automatic counters that post daily results to a public website.

This data was key to the debate throughout the project, probably because there was such uncertainty about it to begin with. Having solid, reliable data is key when such uncertainty exists.  

Beware the data

Data is great, sure, but if the debate around Calgary’s bike-lane network proved anything, it’s that even data can be politicized.

Despite the 82 measures that were taken to gauge the success of the project, critics still found ways to poke holes in it. They said the wrong measures were taken, the data was manipulated, and the numbers were unreliable. For as much as good data is key, there’s also a risk of being over-reliant on numbers.

Safe cycling, or at least the perception of safe cycling, isn’t a completely data-driven exercise. Example: Cycling is, according to some studies, just as safe as walking or driving a car, but the perception among many would-be cyclists is that it’s dangerous. Part of what makes separated bike lanes work is that they are safe, sure, but also that they build the perception of safety. I’ve often said that riding in a safe bike lane is something you feel in your gut more than your head. They just feel better to ride on.

It’s difficult to quantify these social or psychological aspects in numbers, and they risk being lost if the emphasis is too much on cold, hard data.

We ain’t done

Calgary’s cycling community spent much of the evening after the city council decision backslapping, and there is nothing wrong with celebrating. But let’s also avoid getting smug about this political victory. This is the first step in making Calgary a truly bike-friendly city, and much work remains. Despite the success of the pilot project, and the increases in the number of people riding, those numbers remain small. If this pilot project proved anything, it’s that there’s only slightly more than potential in Calgary right now. To turn that potential into people on bikes will take work:  improving connections, solidifying the network, educating everyone in the city and improving safety. Let’s get on with it.

The epic winter bike rides of this musician make your commute look paltry

It’s not easy being an independent musician in Canada. The pay is low. Tours are difficult because of the long distances. The wolves sometimes stalk you.

OK, that last one may only apply to one musician in Canada: Felipe Gomez, a Chilean-born bass player living in Saskatchewan who has, for the past several years, been riding a bicycle to gigs all across Canada. I mean that literally: He has crossed Canada with his instrument on his back, across tens of thousands of kilometres, stopping for tiny gigs all along the way, once even being paced by wolves.

Filipe Gomez riding his bike through the Richardson Mountains in Canada's far north.

Felipe Gomez riding his bike through the Richardson Mountains in Canada’s far north.

I met Gomez last year while participating in a snowy group winter ride on a cold Saskatoon afternoon. I wasn’t sure what to make of him when he first pulled up beside me and started chatting, recounting some unbelievable road stories behind a big smile in his accented English. When he told me he had recently returned from a bike-and-bass tour, as he calls them, of the far north, I was skeptical. When he said that included riding his bike up the Dempster highway, and the associated ice bridges, to the Arctic coast in the middle of winter, I was tempted to just pull away from this deranged liar.

But his stories kept coming, and he won me over with his infectious positivity and photographic evidence.

Now, at a time when most Canadian musicians are parking the touring van for the winter, Gomez is finishing up a snowy 4,000 kilometre journey through northern Saskatchewan, where he performed gigs and spoke at high schools that rarely see travelling musicians, and never on bicycles. It’s safe to say that Gomez may be the world’s most accomplished winter-bicycle travelling bass player.

Gomez on the ice road toward tuktoyaktuk, on Canada's Arctic coast, in 2015.

Gomez on the ice road toward tuktoyaktuk, on Canada’s Arctic coast, in 2015.

“I have done about 14,000 kilometres in Canada so far. Nunavut is the only place I haven’t cycled yet,” Gomez recently wrote to me in a Facebook message from who-knows-where in northern Saskatchewan. “I’ve learned that, in geography, Canadians all live in really different terrains, but at heart they are quite similar: They are all proud of their land, and often really generous with food and offers of places where I can stay.”

Epic bike rides in Canada are hardly rare, but Gomez seems to approach the entire experience differently. He’s not out to prove anything. Rather, he strikes me as a true explorer, with a desire to see as much of his adopted country as he can, and meet people along the way through his music.

Throughout his journeys, he’s adopted an inspiring mantra, which he recounts in speeches in school auditoriums between music gigs. He encourages kids to be unafraid of failure as a way of taking the kinds of risks that make life richer.

“I’ve learned that it is OK to fail at something, but fear can’t be the one thing that makes decisions for me,” he says.

He’s also become an advocate for winter cycling, in a different way than the extreme athletes who tend to undertake such epic trips.

He says his long, cold journeys started innocently, when he asked a friend in the bike industry if it was possible to travel on a northern ice road by bicycle. “I guess I was hoping for him to tell me that I was crazy and don’t do it,” he said. Instead, the friend gifted him with a bike and said he should try it. “Next thing I know, I am cycling the Dempster highway in -20 C with my bass.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to complain about a cold weekday commute when Gomez posts a smiling photo of himself in a stark winter landscape that is 200 cold kilometres from the nearest town, followed by smiling photos from such isolated places as Stoney Rapids and Uranium City, Sask. In the hands of someone else, such posts might come off as humblebrags. From Gomez, it feels like he’s actually reveling in the experience.

“I’ve learned that you don’t have to be ‘hardcore’ or ‘extreme’ to do this. All you need if you are on the city is to jump on the bike,” he says. “I’ve been in communities in northern parts of Canada where people bicycle ice roads to go to work, with no special gear or even fat-tire bikes, just normal bikes.

“After a 10 minutes ride to work in a cold refreshing day, I promise you that you will have a way better day.”

Gomez says the more he rides, and the more he sees of Canada, the more he wants to share his story. He has an event planned in his adopted home town of Saskatoon on Dec. 14, and more journeys lie ahead of him.

“I want to share the beauty of this country, and invite kids and youth to explore the outdoors and live and active life,” he says.

Here’s why all the reasons for licensing bikes fail

It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.

For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.

So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:

Murky motivations

According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?

With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.

If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.

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Registration is unruly

Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.

An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.

In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.

There are better ways to control cyclists

Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.

Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.

But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.

It rarely makes money

The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.

On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.

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It doesn’t prevent theft

In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.

Because it’s stupid

Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.

The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.

Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.

To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.

Update

Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.

A Gen Xer’s guide to riding a fixed-gear bicycle

By pounding over the hills of San Francisco in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a scowling Steve McQueen, in the unfortunately spelled action movie Bullitt, managed to define coolness for a generation of baby boomers, in spite of the corduroy blazer.

But those days are long gone. These days, driving a muscle car in that manner is more likely to get you shunned by hordes of millennials waiting in line for the Google bus. For them, what’s more likely to impress, if a vehicle chase scene in a movie are what defines the outlook of a generation, is this one.

That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, a chase scene masquerading as a B-list action movie that attempts to cash in on the generation-defining outsider esthetic of the bike messenger, and, more specifically, the bike: The fixie. Or, as the movie rather clumsily puts it: “Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”

You see fixies everywhere you see millennials these days, and not just the organic kale kombucha market: They are all over cities, typically with ostentatiously coloured rims and narrow handlebars, delivering their bare-headed passengers to their destinations via spanking new bike lanes.

For those of a more, well, experienced generation, however, the appeal of the fixie can be a little elusive. One gear that you can never stop pedalling? No brakes? Kids these days, sigh.

As somebody claiming a place, in outlook if not chronology, as a bridge between those generations, I decided to do my part to close that generation gap with my latest Shifter challenge. The ultimate millennial bicycle chore, albeit a simple one: Riding a fixie to the local craft brewery to pick up a six pack.

I’ve only dabbled with fixies in the past, so I’m not exaggerating the role of a fixie n00b. I convinced my cousin to lend my his well-trod machine, resplendent with bright orange rims, bullish pursuit handlebars and, thankfully, two sets of rim brakes (yeah, yeah: true authenticity would call for no brakes at all, but the learning curve of using pedals to stop is steeper than my tolerance for the risk of dropping a six pack).

The absence of sagging cables and dangling derailleurs gave the fixie some handsome and clean lines, so I knew had to match. I pulled on my skinniest jeans, wrapped a messenger bag around my shoulders, installed Snapchat on my phone, and I was off.

Hearing JGL say “the pedals never stop turning” is one thing. Actually pushing off on a bike when the wheels never stop turning is another. Your intellect may be ready for it, but your feet are not. The pedals of the fixie felt like a sentient being. They revolved independent of me, as I if they were driving and I was just a passenger. They felt like Google Car, for bikes, especially as I fumbled to get my Blundstone into the toe clips. (A side note: Pedal clips? Really? Sure, they worked for Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France, but really?).

Still, once I got a rhythm down, I rode with few problems. For a while. It’s funny how a fixie makes you realize how often you coast on a bike. Like when you approach a curb and attempt to pull your front wheel over it. Try that sometime without stopping your spinning. It’s hard. And weird. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but wasn’t not dangerous.

I steered toward one of those steep and narrow foot bridges over a busy thoroughfare that Europeans point to as proof of our hatred of pedestrians, wishing only occasionally that I could shift gears on the way up. I rolled down the other side with my feet held wide and the pedals spinning furiously and independently. I was getting into a groove now.

Until I reached the brewery and encountered my next problem: for all its clean lines, there was nowhere on the bike to pack my beer. No rack. No basket. Not even one of those hipster leather beer carriers that I usually mock. I guess millennials are more practical than they are given credit for.

I emptied my six pack into my messenger bag and gingerly pedalled for home, hoping that my lurching cadence wouldn’t result in broken bottles. The rest of the way home was uneventful, but left me wondering why or if I would ever choose to ride a bike like this.

To recap: Compared to a plain old freewheel bike that you might see a Gen Xer ride (if most Gen Xers weren’t always driving expensive crossover SUVs two blocks to their kids’ school drop off because they are afraid little Johnny might get hit by someone else’s expensive crossover SUV who is also driving because of fear of other vehicles), the fixie has a few challenges: As a newbie, it was tough to get started. Difficult to stop. Challenging while climbing hills. Frightening to descend hills. Awkward to mount small curbs. And this model was definitely lacking in cargo space.

On the positive side: Well, the bike looks good. Fixie adherents often tout the control the fixed-gear provides, but lacking experience meant I felt the opposite. I did enjoy the responsiveness of the bike while rolling at speed, and with with time I may end up being able to do those rather awesome slide/stop things you see in alley cat videos, but until then, sorry millennials, but I’ll be hauling my beer in the ugly rack on the back of my plain old three-speed.

Update

Some riders of fixies came to their defence. Here’s a few of their thoughts:

 

How one city went from scrubbing bike lanes to building an entire network in weeks

Less than three months ago, everyone sounded ready to give up on making the Canadian city of Edmonton more friendly to cyclists. Even the city’s bike loving mayor.

In July, Don Iveson, who was elected in 2013 as a young, forward-thinking, bike-riding urbanite, gave an interview to the Globe and Mail in which he basically joined the chorus of frustrated cyclists lamenting the sorry state of cycling in the capital city of Alberta. “Of all the things we’re doing, this is the one where I have the most disappointment,” Iveson told the Globe. “I agree with the folks who say that the city is way behind.”

That’s an understatement. Not only had Edmonton sat idly by while cities all over the continent built accommodations for bikes, it was getting worse. Painted lanes were being scrubbed, and the best bike route across the river was worsened by bridge modifications. If the mayor sounded like he was throwing up his hands, what hope did anybody else have?

So how it is that, just a few weeks later, this sprawling northern city, famous for long winters and hockey, is on pace to build a forward-thinking and ambitious network of separated downtown bike lanes? Credit the power of frustration, and some creative thinking.

UntitledCyclists in Edmonton have had little to celebrate in recent years. Photo by Tom Babin.

Iveson wasn’t the only one grinding his teeth over the city’s backsliding during the summer. The city’s bike advocates were seething. Among those was the group Paths for People, and its chairperson, Conrad Nobert.

After much discussion about how to remedy the situation, Nobert’s group and its allies came up with an idea to start planning for a downtown bike network themselves. They convinced engineering firm Stantec to donate planning time, and, satisfied with the results, they arranged a meeting with some top civic bureaucrats. They went into the meeting confidently, thinking they had completed all the hard work so it would be difficult to turn down the idea.

They turned down the idea. Instead, those city managers said they were going ahead with their own plan to consult the public about their appetite for bike lanes that would take at least two years.

“I was fuming,” Nobert told me. But they had one last idea. The group took the report to some bike-friendly city councillors, who came up with a creative idea: they would simply raise a motion to have the city pay for part of the Stantec report. That got the ball rolling and, within a matter of weeks, city council had approved, not just payment of the report, but implementation of the report’s plans itself — a $7.5-million grid of 7.1 kilometres of downtown separated bike lanes.

An entire network of separated downtown lanes, built all at once: It was a stunning reversal for a city that was becoming famous for bungling the simplest of bike lanes.

Graphic by Edmonton Journal.

It also has lessons for other cities struggling to get the bike-lane ball rolling. Nobert credits the idea to creative thinking outside of the usual confines of city hall. “We created a situation that seemed impossible or difficult to say no to,” he said. “I credit (a group of city councillors) with showing the leadership and take the political risk, but I believe that the creativity came from without.”

There’s something else unique about the project. Rather than a long public consultation process, in which a litany of public meetings allow people to air their theoretical grievances ahead of time, this project is being built as a pilot project that will be tweaked once in place. The idea is to get the lanes installed in the real world, and then adjust them based on public feedback, rather than the other way around.

It’s an interesting approach that comes with some risk — especially considering the bike lanes are going in all at once, rather than one at a time as in most cities — but it also has benefits, not least of which is that it will get people riding more quickly. In the end, the way city planners react to feedback may be as important as the feedback itself.

For Nobert, however, perhaps the most important thing that he learned from the experience is the power of people.

“Citizens need to get engaged,” he said. “Trust that centrally-located residents want to bike and walk places (they do), and use that fact to your advantage. Guerilla is great. Use injury collision data as leverage. Build social media networks, build real relationships. Meet with everyone.

“Citizen groups can make change.”

Why it hurts so deeply when our bikes are stolen or vandalized

On my bicycle commute to work, I cross the river on an old iron bridge. During certain times of the year, after the ice has melted but before the spring runoff has muddied the water with sediment, when the light enters the water just right, I can see the floor of the river. There, resting forlornly at the bottom, is a bicycle. I can’t make out much detail beneath the water like that, but it looks like an old mountain bike. Nothing fancy, probably a 12-speed, or maybe 15, one of those default models that North Americans buy because they imagine themselves riding off-road like in the magazines but rarely do. This one, I imagine, spent most of its life being pedaled down pathways on Sundays before it ended up being indignantly tossed in the river. There it lies now, an alien in an underwater world.

Seeing a bike like this always makes me feel a little melancholic. Bicycles are nothing but tools for us, mass-produced items we use for a specific function. But somehow, they become more than that. Unlike, say, a hammer or a microwave oven, bicycles work themselves into our consciousness more than most of our tools. Perhaps it’s our reliance on them that builds that connection. They get us to our destinations. They keep us fit. They provide joy and recreation. They become companions and trusted friends. That’s why, I think, we react so strongly to images and stories of bicycle theft and vandalism, like that bike resting at the bottom of the river.

Des Velos Dans La Ville

Stories like this: In 2008, Toronto police tracked a bicycle thief to a cluttered local repair shop, where the store’s owner purchased the stolen item. They arrested the owner for dealing in stolen goods and unwittingly uncovered a massive and long-running bike theft ring spearheaded by a charismatic conspiracy theorist named Igor Kent. Police eventually recovered more than 3,000 stolen bikes stashed in all manner of repair around the city. What so outraged the city about the crime was its brazenness and the indifference of the police to it. Torontonians seethed over the incident, as if Kenk had come to embody the frustration of every bike theft, every bit of bike vandalism and all those years of police inertia. And yet, Kenk emerged as a somewhat sympathetic character. He even tried to reclaim the stolen goods from police upon his release from incarceration, saying he cared about the bikes more than anyone.

Both sides of this bizarre tale illustrate the special relationship we have with bicycles. For victims, such thefts feel intensely personal, like being robbed of a reliable friend. For the perpetrator, it’s difficult to imagine another device driving such emotional delusions and feelings of misplaced attachment and responsibility.  Driving both emotions, I think, beyond the simple economics of bike theft, is the communal nature of cycling. In most cities these days, to ride a bike makes you part of a club. Riding in a city breeds a kind of fellowship with others on bikes, a feeling that is both welcoming and exclusive. So when that fraternity is broken by theft or vandalism, the sense of betrayal can cut deeply. That’s why seeing those fragments of bikes scattered throughout the city instills such emotions: So many of us have felt the sting of bewilderment and betrayal that comes with bike theft and vandalism.

Yet, as much as our emotions fight the notion, bikes remain commodities. They are products that break and are discarded. They are stolen and stripped and resold. They are vandalized and tossed into rivers. No matter how much we love them, bikes can disappear at any time, so they are never really ours. We are only their stewards. They truly belong to the city. Bikes are part of a city as much as sidewalks and lampposts. Walk the streets and you’ll see the remnants of this relationship. Wheel-less frames still locked to racks. Old wheels rusting away in back alleys. Forgotten machines, stripped of saddles, shivering under blankets of snow. We may buy bikes, and act like we own them, but eventually they’ll be absorbed by the city.

Untitled

But this isn’t something to lament. This is what makes bicycles such a perfect part of life in the city. There’s an ecosystem at play, and bicycles are part it. The machines may break down, or be picked apart or abandoned, but they can always be reclaimed. Unlike most of the tools in our life these days, from mobile phones to electric cars, bikes remain the beautifully simple mechanical devices they’ve been for 100 years, which means we can understand them. We can tinker. With a few simple tools, they can be taken apart, adjusted, and put back into action by just about anyone. That old frame may look like it’s rusting away, but all it needs is a wrench to bring it back to life.

So that feeling that wells inside of me when I see that bike at the bottom of the river isn’t only loneliness. More importantly, it’s a reaction to the wasted potential of that machine, its removal from the patterns of life of the city. But that’s easy to fix. Someone just has to pull it from the river, fix it up, and take it for one more ride.

This is a translated excerpt from Des Velos Dans La Ville, a French-language photo book featuring the work of Laurent Chambaud and several writers, including the author of this post, Tom Babin. This except is copyrighted by Presses de l’EHESP, and reprinted with permission. You should buy the book! It’s available here.

Why are we so afraid of letting kids ride bikes when statistics prove their safety?

Is riding a bike too risky for kids?

The question nags many parents beyond the typical helicopter-parent anxiety that permeates modern childhood. Cycling has gone from a bedrock part of childhood a few generations ago to something akin to BASE jumping in the eyes of some grownups.

Sometimes, even those trying to promote public health push the sentiment that cycling is inherently dangerous. Alberta Health Service recently removed information from its website after a mini furor over its anti-bike leanings. It warned parents about the potential dangers of cycling with kids, advised parents against using bike trailers or child seats until kids are four years old and to never take kids on streets, even if there is a bike lane. All of this struck some parents as overly cautious for something as simple as going for a bike ride.

Untitled

I don’t blame a health agency specifically for such advice. Rather it’s part of the bizarrely myopic lens in which we view kids’ cycling in North America, not as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but as a risky adventure sport.

So in wondering about the real risks of riding a bike, I put the question to Dr. Kay Teschke. She’s a prominent researcher at the University of British Columbia, and one of the most prominent researchers of bike safety on the continent. She had some illuminating insight.

First of all, she provided some statistics for context. Teschke recently served on a coroner’s panel that reviewed non-motorized road-related child deaths in British Columbia between 2005 to 2014. Over those 10 years, in the province of 4.5 million people, there were precisely zero toddlers killed while riding with their parents in a bike seat or a trailer.

Looking more broadly, during those 10 years, the review found that 17 children in B.C. were killed while riding a bike. Of those, four were under 10 years old. These are awful stories, but the details are important:

  • A two year old riding a tricycle in a back lane was killed by a speeding driver.
  • A three year old riding a ride-on toy on the sidewalk was killed by an errant driver.
  • An eight-year old at a blind T-junction was hit while riding on a rural road with no shoulders.
  • A 9-year old on a rural road with no shoulders was hit by a speeding driver with a suspended licence in a stolen car.

These are horrific stories, but compare the those numbers to those killed while riding in cars. In that same 10-year period, 280 children were killed in motor vehicles

Even walking was more dangerous: 55 kids were killed by drivers while they were on foot.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking statistic of them all: There were nine toddlers killed in a driveway when a driver backed over them. That’s more than twice as many as were killed while cycling.

Put in another way, here’s the average number of children under 19 killed every year in B.C.:

  • While riding a bike: 1.7.
  • While walking: 5.5.
  • While riding in cars: 28.

Despite those numbers, how often do do we hear warnings about children travelling in cars? It does happen, but rarely is the simple act of being in a car cited as something inherently dangerous (if statistics drove such warnings, we’d be smart to advise kids to never play in a driveway). In fact, when parents are worried about the dangers of children riding a bike or walking to school, they often choose to drive them, as if it is the safer option.

Teschke also mentioned a Quebec study that compared the risks of cycling to other activities, including sports. Only swimming had a lower injury rate than cycling. It sounds silly, but cycling even compares favourably to something as simple as walking down the street. Teschke’s B.C. study found that cycling and walking had similar fatality rates per trip, and bicycling had a lower fatality rate per distance travelled (the pattern was reversed for injury rates).

Yet cycling seems to be singled out as the risky activity. We don’t legislate drivers into wearing helmets, or shame them into wearing high-visibility clothing when walking down the street.

So what gives? Why is our perception of cycling so different than reality? Teschke thinks part of it is because most of us are smart enough to realize we don’t want to end up on the losing end of a collision with a car.

“We do see riding on city streets as risky, because we know that we are vulnerable if we are hit by a motor vehicle,” Teschke told me. “Why we see cycling as so much more dangerous than walking is interesting. Part of it is likely that walking is provided with sidewalk infrastructure along most urban streets. Some research shows that the emphasis on safety clothing, including high visibility gear and helmets, makes us perceive cycling as unsafe.”

I also think that human’s innate inability to properly assess risk plays into this problem. We tend to overestimate the risks of short-term dangers, while remaining indifferent to long-term ones. That’s why so many of us think it’s insane to undertake “risky” activities such as rock climbing or BASE jumping, yet we rarely think twice about more distant risks, even if they are much more likely to harm us, such as the dangers of poor diet or inactive lifestyles.

The latter is why it’s such a shame that cycling is seens as a dangerous activity for kids to participate in. As Teschke, herself a mother, points out, there are many studies that weigh the benefits and risks of cycling, and they “almost universally” find a net benefit from the physical activity of riding a bike, not only physically, but also mentally.

“(Riding a bike) helps children develop decision-making skills, executive function, co-ordination, and social relationships,” she said, citing the work of a colleague, Mariana Brussoni.  “Independent mobility helps children understand the world and their place in it.”

Given the risk-averse nature of our society, perhaps the only way to get over our fear of children riding a bike may be to do something radical: Build safe, separated bike lanes. Yes, they have been shown to reduce injuries, but perhaps just as important is that such bike routes make us feel safe.

“Being a parent does make people (including me) think differently about our roads and their safety,” Teschke said. “Parents worried about their children were the catalyst for building safer routes in Holland starting in the 1970s. Parents seem to be strong advocates of safer conditions for cycling in Canada too.”

Update: Some clarifications were made to ensure accuracy on Oct. 13, 2016.


Get some bike safety tips over at Folding Bike Zone. 

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