Tag: Bike Infrastructure (Page 1 of 2)

New data shows just how lopsided the ‘war on cars’ really is — and it’s not the bikes that are winning

Remember the war on cars? The hyperbolic and mostly mythical idea that cyclists, a “special interest group,” were successfully ramming such horrors as bike lanes down the throats of unsupportive legions of car drivers? Since the peak “war on cars” battles of four or five years ago, the hot war has cooled a bit because cyclists made a little progress and the sky did not fall as a result. Most cities now have at last some form of bike infrastructure and some have even have what might be described as a (barely) minimum grid of bike lanes.

These days, further demands of cyclists are greeting less with anger, and more with exasperation. “We gave you a bike lane, but you still want more?” That attitude has wrought sentiments like this one, a general sense that since we threw those “cyclists” a bone, they should be satisfied. Much of this attitude comes about because of a sense that the bikes won the war.

Here’s the thing: if the war on cars is over, it didn’t end the way you might think. If you look at it even a little objectively, it’s not the bikes that won. Cars are absolutely dominating the battle. It’s not even close. It’s Norman Schwarzkopf versus Iraq. It’s Germany versus Brazil in the 2014 Word Cup.

Consider these statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 measure of vehicle distance travelled set a record after a slight dip over the last several years. Americans drove automobiles more miles in 2017 than any other time in history. Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, the number of car-free households dropped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade, and there are now more two-car households than any other kind. Here’s how urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson put it: “The United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.”

Urban Cycling Calgary

Despite strides in cycling in many cities, automobiles still dominate in North America. Photo by Tom Babin.

Remember the idea that millennials were shunning cars? Sure, there may be a bit of that happening, but the latest automobile sales statistics in Canada show that, with the economic recovery in full swing, 186,837 automobiles were sold in September, a record increase of 7.7 per cent, and the eighth monthly record this year. “Cumulative sales of 1,591,684 vehicles through the first three quarters are 5.3% ahead of last year’s record pace and solidly on track for a fifth consecutive record sales year.”

Wait, it gets worse: The U.S. Department of Transportation found the fatality rate on American roads actually grew in 2016, despite decades of trend lines pointed downwards. Advances in safety seem to be reserved only for those inside the car. Cyclist deaths in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent and the pedestrian fatality rate grew by a whopping nine per cent, meaning more humans simply walking on the street were killed in 2016 than any time since 1990.

Meanwhile, the bike world inches along at a snail’s pace. Los Angeles is just getting started building bike lanes, New York is inexplicably cracking down on e-bikes, and Toronto continues its tiresome debate about whether successful and safe separated bike lanes ought to stay or go.

The point of this isn’t to depress those of you who see bikes as one way of bringing more balance and sanity to our streets. The point is to highlight the absurdity of the “war on cars” argument. Even if there was a war, it’s ridiculous to think that a few bike lanes scattered through our urban centres has made a dent in the dominance of automobiles in North America. We know the reasons most people make the transportation choices they do: convenience. Outside of a few isolated neighbourhoods in a few isolated cities, we’ve built our communities to ensure that driving a car remains the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Until that changes, vehicles will continue to dominate.

The most we can hope for is that these (barely) minimum grids that have been built in some cities will open the eyes of enough people to see the benefits of active transportation so we can leave behind the stupid war metaphors and start building better cities for everyone together.

These new statistics are a sobering reminder of our auto-centric ways, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Building better cities takes time, and we’ve barely taken the first steps. Get back on that bike.

Follow Shifter on Facebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on TwitterFacebook or Medium.

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

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

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

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

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

Urban cycling in Vancouver

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5262

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker

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

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

Untitled

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

Health

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

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

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

Suburban options

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

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

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

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

Untitled

Many studies link overall happiness with an active lifestyle.

Happiness

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

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

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

The stigma

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

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

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

Untitled

The stigmatization of cycling continues.

The future

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

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

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

The future of transportation is already here, but everybody is missing it

Maybe it was the news that Tesla is now the largest U.S. carmaker by market cap, or maybe it has been the uncertainty around the price of oil, but there has been a flurry of futurism lately centred around looming changes to our transportation systems, specifically around autonomous electric cars.

Autonomous, electric vehicles are about to take over our lives, say prognosticators of the future, a change that has some dragging out Y2K-level hyperbole. Many of these predictions are being built on the idea of cities filled with blissfully shared roving robot-vehicles safely and orderly awaiting our smartphone hails.

Only recently, however, have those futurists started to put some thought into the impact of autonomous vehicles on our streets. A few consensuses have emerged – that driverless cars will reduce collisions, for example – but there is surprising diversity in opinion on the long-term impact on our cities.

There are plenty of Pollyanna predictions that streets will become safer, less congested places because of autonomous vehicles. But there are just as many hypothesizing that our streets are about to become a whole lot worse, particularly considering the recent troubles of the company that was once seen as the future of the city: Uber (if you missed the big New York magazine story, here’s the short version: Beyond the company being allegedly riddled with assholes, Uber has made congestion worse, not better, is still heavily subsidizing nearly every ride by as much as 60 per cent, making it barely profitable in big cities and horrifically unprofitable in small ones, thereby bringing into question the very idea that ride-sharing is the future).

No matter which side you come down on, however, one obvious thing seems to have escaped the notice of most of these predictions, even though it should be clear to anybody with a working set of eyes.

If you were to teleport to today a citizen of a decade ago into a city of today, and asked them to identify the differences in transportation, I’m willing to bet they would not mention technology, or autonomous vehicles, or smartphone apps, or even car sharing. It would be bikes.

IMG_7866

This New Yorker said as much. The most profound change to the streets of many cities over the past decade is the prevalence of people on bikes as a practical form of transportation.

So why is this so rarely mentioned in discussions about the future of transportation? Of all the nascent transportation disruptions we’re in the midst of, question marks still litter many of them. But use of the bicycle is a proven improvement, and seems destined to keep up its breakneck growth, especially as a generation grows up with new appreciation for its practicality. Urban cycling is the most profound change to city transportation in generations, yet the allure of technology is overshadowing it.

It’s a strange omission. Yes, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change in the way we think about transportation, but swapping one type of vehicle for another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of congestion. Nor is there any track record behind many new vanity ideas (sorry, Mr. Musk) such as boring tunnels beneath cities to facilitate even more cars. Progress is moving more people more efficiently, and there are precious few ways to do so. None of them involve adding more cars.

Bike paths fall

This isn’t a zero-sum game. There are certainly ways that autonomous vehicles can help improve the efficiency of our transportation system, but not if such thinking is done is isolation.

If you want a look at how an efficient city of the future moves people around, forget robot cars, or tunnels, or 1950’s-style car-centric road systems simply updated with new vehicles. Instead, look at Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Seville or New York or Montreal or Vancouver and the masses of people riding bikes because it’s faster, easier, healthier, more effecient, and more enjoyable than being trapped in a box, no matter how high-tech that box might be.

Increasing number of dead pedestrians are a reminder that bike lanes matter

A reader recently asked a question recently that got me thinking: If conditions are ripe for cycling, why bother adding bike infrastructure?

The question came out of my recent post from Yellowknife in which I mused about the city’s potential as a great bike town thanks to its wide streets, slow traffic and hearty residents. If all those qualities already exist, she asked, why the hell would it need bike lanes?

IMG_7871

I was pondering that question when a few pieces of news dropped recently related to pedestrians.

First was a new report that found the number of pedestrians being killed by cars has grown in recent years. The counter-intuitive nature of this assured it a place in the news: As technology makes motor vehicles safer – especially with the promise of self-driving cars on the horizon – we are somehow managing to kill increasing numbers of people simply walking down the street (and don’t go blaming “distracted pedestrians,” the report made a point of sharing blame with excessive motor vehicle speed and distracted drivers).

I was ready to lump this statistic into my repository of horrific-yet-underappreciated news about car culture when I came across another stat that was new (to me): a report that laid even more bare the shocking nature of those pedestrian-fatality statistics. The number of people who are walking on city streets in North America has been on a 30-year decline (the study found the much heralded 70 per cent decrease in child pedestrian fatalities since 1969 also corresponded with a 67 per cent decrease in the number of kids walking to school). Which means we’re killing pedestrians at increasing rates, even as the number of pedestrians is small and falling.

This is yet another example of the mind-boggling apathy we have toward the carnage of motor vehicles, but what does it have to do with bikes? One word: Perceptions.

Despite the seemingly dire situation we are putting pedestrians in, most people, I’m willing to bet, would classify walking down the street as something safe. Sure, everybody acknowledges that getting hit by a bus can happen at any time (hell, we even have an expression about the rarity of “getting hit by a bus”), but rare is the person who would choose to avoid sidewalks out of fear of their safety.

IMG_3538

Similarly, the risks of driving a car are also accepted as part of life by most urban dwellers, even though driving comes with risk. Rare too are those who refuse to drive because of the danger.

Yet when it comes to cycling, masses of people still refuse to ride in urban settings because they fear for their safety, even though statistics prove that riding a bike is about equal in risk to walking down the street.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to unpack the reasons behind our fear of riding a bike, but this fear helps explain, at least a little bit, both the success, and need, for safe and protected bike infrastructure.

Bike lanes, when well built, usually reduce the number of collisions between bikes and cars (they also, as a side benefit, tend to decrease collisions between drivers and pedestrians, and drivers and other drivers too). But that only goes so far in explaining why they also tend to draw out more people on bikes. The other reason is that protected bike lanes simply feel safer. In this case, the perception of safety may be just as important as safety itself.

So, sure, you could argue there’s little added safety benefit to spending tax dollars on bike infrastructure in a small city like Yellowknife that is already pretty bike friendly. But I’m willing to bet that a minimum grid of well-built bike infrastructure would encourage more tentative cyclists to ride regularly simply because it makes them feel good.

With all the added benefits that come with cycling – healthier people, more efficient transportation system, better street life – that feeling alone may be worth the price of the investment.

 

My perfect winter bike really exists, and I just bought it

Priority Continuum

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?

For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.

Finally got my new (to me) ride on the road for the season. #yycbike

I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.

While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.

Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.

I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.

But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?

Priority Continuum

My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:

Priority Continuum

Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Decent fenders (to keep my ass dry)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Hydraulic disc brakes (for cold-weather stopping power)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Twist shifter (for use with warm mittens)? Check.

In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.

“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.

“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures.  We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”

I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.

As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.

So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.

As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.

Priority Continuum

Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.

But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.

Priority Continuum

The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.

Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.

I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.

 

Here’s why people are riding bikes in one of the world’s coldest cities

“Postholing” is a new cycling verb I learned this week, defined to me as I lay prone in three feet of light powder at -26 C in the sub-Arctic taiga of northern Canada.

For the record, the word describes what happens when your foot sinks deep into snow, as any showshoer (sans snowshoe) knows. When it comes to fatbiking, however, it tends to occur along a packed trail when you slow to a stop and place a foot down into the adjacent powder that looks only a few centimeters deep, but is, in actuality, up to your crotch. Your foot sinks deep into what now looks like a hole dug for a fence post, and the rest of your body follows, sprawling into the powder. Laughter, usually, ensues.

That was only one of the things I learned on a recent trip to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, a city of 20,000 that hugs the shores of the massive, frozen (at least it was when I was there) Great Slave Lake. I was invited by David Stephens or Boralis Bike Tours Unlimited (go book a guided fat-bike trip with him right now, especially if you want to take the last-ever trip down the ice road to Arctic coast) to speak about winter cycling, but it’s entirely possible I learned more from Yellowknifers than I could ever hope to teach them.

Yellowknife is an idiosyncratic, oft-overlooked, and completely charming, aberration. Outsiders may think this place shouldn’t exist, with its harsh weather, unforgiving environment, and isolation, but that shows what outsiders know. Yellowknife is a vibrant, diverse, endlessly surprising place. Lured by the promise of adventure, people from all over the world make their homes here, giving life to heritage shacks built into ancient bedrock and houseboats socked in by ice for half the year.

IMG_7891

And even in mid-March, when a temperature of -15 C was greeted as a heat wave, there are people everywhere outdoors enjoying the season, even on bicycles.

Yes, even here, perhaps the least likely place in the world to think about riding a bike, people have found that two wheels can be a key to a better life. In fact, Yellowknife has some qualities that make it a great place for bikes. Here’s a list I’ve been keeping:

  • The city is small, meaning distances are short and easy to ride. As Stephens told me before I arrived: It’s possible to ride your bike to your destination in the same time it takes to simply warm up your car. Speed limits are slow, and car traffic is light.
  • The snow is uniquely favourable to bikes. With the cold temperatures, there’s little of the freeze-melt ice cycle that bedevils other cities. The snow that gets packed offers good traction in most places.
  • It’s too cold here for salt to be effective as an ice-melter, so it’s rarely used. That means you’re not risking rust every time you take your bike into the streets. It also helps keep the city nice and white for most of the winter, rather than the snirty brown of other places.
  • This place is awesome for fatbiking. Stephens guided me through some glorious trails that spread in and around the city. Ample snowfall in evergreen forests is quickly packed down by snowmobiles, which creates ideal tracks for fatbikes that are ringed with delightful powder (as evidenced by the aforementioned post-holing).
  • Once the lake freezes, roads are plowed on the ice, which create nice shortcuts for bikes, especially after a stabilizing layer of packed snow lays down (and imagine riding a fat bike beneath the northern lights on an ice highway. Go ahead, imagine it.)

But what I found most inspiring here was the way Yellowknifers deal with winter. Unlike farther south, I rarely heard people complain about the winter. Some have simply accepted it as a reality of life in the north, but most people I encountered told me they actually enjoy it. They were quick to offer tips about staying warm, they showed off clothing and tricks that I had never encountered before, and the city is full of fun events to get people enjoying winter. 

Stephens even organized my speaking engagement in the great hall of the Snowking’s snow castle, an amazing structure built of packed snow (don’t you dare call it an “ice” castle) that is the locus of a month-long winter festival. So, in other words, I delivered my speech in a snow castle on a frozen lake, which I feel confident saying would not happen anywhere else.

IMG_7901

This is the kind of attitude that primes a community to year-round cycling. There’s a core group of people in town who have already seen the benefits, but I’m willing to bet a little nudge would encourage a whole raft of other people to give it a try. Some safe bike infrastructure, a commitment to maintaining bike routes all year, some reliable bike parking locations and even some support of the local fatbiking community would go a long way.

After all, people who have verb to describe a specific way of falling into the snow are probably well on their way to a more bike-friendly life already.

Why boring old unsexy plows are the key to urban cycling in winter

Back in 2013, after seeing the Finnish city of Oulu for the first time, I wrote a post called Never Mind the Plows. The idea was to focus on things that can improve winter cycling beyond the basics. Any by basics, I meant plowing.

Well, five years later, as much of the winter world has seen the benefits of encouraging people to ride in winter, like they do in Oulu, it’s even more clear now that perhaps nothing is as important to the adoption of winter cycling than plain, boring, overlooked, unsexy, plows. (Or brushes. Or shovels. Or whatever gets rid of the snow efficiently).

In Calgary, where I live, the snow clearing of downtown bicycle lanes has been (much to the consternation of professional complainers) pretty great over the last few years. With an ever-expanding network of bike paths being cleared, the city’s efforts in winter have resulted in a growth in the number of people riding in winter that has kept pace with the growth of those riding in summer.

At the city’s Peace Bridge, one of the busiest bike spots in the city, for example, the growth in cyclists from 2014 to 2016 in the summer was about 27.2%, according to publicly available bike counts. In winter over the same period, that growth was 25.4%. The number of people riding in winter is obviously smaller (about 35% of summer numbers), but fact that that growth is consistent across seasons is some evidence, I’d argue, that clearing bike lanes works. It means there is growth potential in winter.

Just ask Montreal. This city, the most bike-friendly on the continent, in my humble opinion, has, for years, taken literally that old headline of mine. Rather than bike lanes free of snow, many of those routes were actually closed for winter. The traffic poles that separated bike lanes from car lanes were removed, and the space was given back to cars. For people who rely on bikes for transportation, this was a gigantic, demoralizing sigh, and it was reflected in a smaller proportion of people riding year-round.

But even in Montreal, where snow removal may be an even bigger political headache than it is elsewhere (and, make no mistake, it is everywhere), that idea is finally being rethought. More and more bike routes are being kept opened in winter, and the city has officially committed to making all bike routes accessible in winter eventually. City officials have even agreed to look at ways of keeping a crucial bike route across the St. Lawrence River open year-round, including exploring the possibility of in-ground heating to keep the route ice-free.

Talking about it, however, is the easy part. Doing it is hard. During a recent trip to Montreal, the city was digging out from a series of snowfalls compounded by an ice storm that left many streets and sidewalks slick as a skating pond. As news spread that city officials were vowing to keep more routes open in winter, cyclists took to Twitter to, ahem, politely advise them to figure out how to keep their current commitments before adding new ones. Indeed, news about opening the bridge in winter only came after years of pleas from cyclists and a protest campaign.

Those tweeters aren’t wrong. This city, so lovely to pedal through in summer, has some work ahead of it before it becomes just as good in the winter. It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how this new approach impacts the number of people riding.

But let’s face it: Keeping bike routes free of snow is tough. It takes commitment, ingenuity and, most importantly, money. It will never be easy, and it may always be a political hot button (hell, even after 80 years of plowing roads for cars, it’s still a hot button). But the upside is worth the investment and risk. Just ask the growing number of people who ride year round.

Here’s how North America’s best bike city is finally improving winter cycling

Montreal, perhaps North America’s most bike-friendly big city, is finally looking at ways of making it easier for people to ride a bike through the winter. Here’s what we learned on a recent trip.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén