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Five things North American cities can learn about cycling from Manila

While cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have adopted the bicycle as the future of transportation, it’s simply not the case for other places in the world. But there’s just as much to learn from those who lack as there is with those who prosper. So today, let’s take a look at the Philippine capital city of Manila.

As someone who bikes to work and has had to ride through EDSA (the capital’s busiest and most infamous highway) on a daily basis, believe me when I say that it wasn’t the leisurely ride that one would expect from the more developed areas of the world. Here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a portion of the metropolis that isn’t overcrowded. You’d think a city this congested would automatically resort to alternative means of transportation, and while Daydreaming in Paradise details that car sales have dropped for the first time in 7 years, Manila still has a long way to go. To its credit, the Philippines has taken a step in the right direction when it comes to making its cities more bike-friendly, so let’s see what lessons we can learn from Manila about cycling.

Manila isn’t not one of the world’s bike havens, but it has things to teach other cities. Photo by Christian Paul Del Rosario from Pexels.

Safety

Rappler reports that 1,127 people on bicycles died in crashes from 2005 to 2013, averaging to about 125 fatalities per year. As a response to this, the Philippines passed House Bill 8911, which mandates a 1.5-meter minimum overtaking distance from cyclists by motor vehicles in 2019.

Now consider how you may have taken safety for granted. Collisions happen all the time all over the world, and it can happen to you even in an environment that does its best to protect you. While you can’t control everything on the road, there are some things you can: Check your breaks, check on your tires, and most of all, remain alert at all times.

Bask in Nature

Because of the sub-optimal conditions afforded to cyclists in Manila, they’ve been forced to look for alternative spaces to scratch their cycling itch. For instance, the holiday town of Tagaytay is a two-hour car ride from Manila, and in it is one of the most breathtaking cycling trails in the world. The Twin Lakes Mountain Bike Trail is a 2.5 km that goes deep into a lush forest, all while giving you one of the best views of Taal Lake that you would have missed had you not gone on this trail.

Why not take your cycling away from the city once in a while? Go on a hike or a camping trip and bring your bike with you. While some cities are great for cycling, there’s just something about the great outdoors that cities will never be able to replicate.

Photo by Marfil Graganza Aquino from Pexels.

Ride on Sundays

In Manila, cycling is tantamount to a luxury. Some people set aside one day and head out to a trail or a park, and just take cycling as an opportunity to relax and unwind. Could you say that you’ve treated cycling the same way?

If you find yourself getting a little tired of cycling, why not try and view it as a treat? Use Sunday cycling as an opportunity to have fun instead of the usual slog that it may have turned into in your daily life.

Community Building

When things go awry and no one does anything about it, communities must rise to the occasion. This is what the National Bicycle Organization (NBO) is all about. The NBO organizes events and bicycle lessons in the Philippines in hopes of fostering a more bicycle-friendly city.

Remember that cycling doesn’t always have to be a solitary experience. Gather up some friends and take a ride together. What better way is there to build a community than a shared passion for cycling?

Remember why you do it

Considering how hard it is for cyclists in Manila, you’d have to wonder why anyone would still do it. Well, the short answer is: They like it. Despite all the hardships that cyclists go through, enthusiasts keep on and do it for the love of it.

You may have taken advantage of the experience of cycling, reducing it to nothing but a means to get from Point A to Point B. Think back to the times when you enjoyed doing it — this way, you may end up enjoying your daily rides more than usual.

Mandy Johnson has been a digital nomad long before the term became a buzzword for aspiring remote workers around the world. She spent four years living and working in the gridlocked traffic of beautiful Metro Manila, a daily puzzle that she sometimes solved with pedal power. When she’s not chasing after deadlines, she’s scouring the edges of the metro for new places to explore with her trusty mountain bike.

Urban transportation is being disrupted, but it isn’t big tech that’s doing it

The idea that big-tech will revolutionize urban transportation is fading more every day. Photo by Tom Babin.

The cry went out as soon as the news hit Twitter: “No! Now I’m going to have to buy a second car!”

That was the response from a co-worker when the news broke recently that Calgary, where I live, was among the handful of North American cities being abandoned by car-sharing company Car2go. When the company launched in Calgary in 2012, it was an unexpected hit. A car-centric oil town with middling transit, the fact car-sharing was an immediate success here (it was reported that Calgary had the second-highest number of Car2go members in North America) had people re-assessing the city’s culture of obligatory car ownership. 

Yet it was short-lived. The announcement of the company’s withdrawal from Calgary hit many people hard, particularly those living close to downtown who had come to rely on it as a second (or even first) vehicle. I felt that pain. Although my family has yet to cast off the yoke of the second family vehicle, I was a regular Car2go user and its convenience had always been a source of inspiration for that day when my family too could own one less car.

But the timing of Car2go’s change came at an interesting time, and it’s easy to see the withdrawal as a harbinger of a bigger change. Or if not a harbinger, at least a symbol of an imagined future that is getting more and more unlikely. 

As recently as a year ago, it was easy to envision a future in which technology truly changed the way we get around our cities. We seemed to be on the cusp of changing that old 1970s image of car-clogged freeways spewing carbon and chasing pedestrians away with a new future of transportation in which self-driving electric robot cars whisk us down safe, clean free-flowing streets. 

Uber was winning its fights against the taxi establishment. Tesla was rolling out cars with auto-pilot. Ford was investing in car-sharing and putting out ads like the one above. Silicon Valley companies were dropping off cheap and clean scooters all over our cities.  

Those days seem like a mirage now; an embarrassingly naive vision of an impossible future. Let’s count the ways in which this futurism bubble has been burst recently: 

You might be forgiven for cynically thinking that we just spend a decade and billions of investor dollars to figure out what society learned 80 years ago: Urban transportation is really hard, and perhaps impossible to make profitable. So far, we’ve yet to find a system of mass transportation that can survive without public subsidies (yes, that includes the private automobile and its subsidies in the form of the billions we spend to build a road network almost exclusively for them.)

Yet something else has been happening at the same time. Despite all of these problems, our cities are changing. But it has nothing to do with technology. 

Increasingly, cities are finally realizing that cars are ruining their downtowns and are doing something about it. After a cycling renaissance under its last civic administration, New York is turning some streets over to transit-only, and announced plans for congestion pricing, whereby all vehicles entering downtown would pay a fee, similar to other programs that have been in place for years in cities such as London. Madrid has banned many types of vehicles from its downtown in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. Paris is heading down the same path. Other cities, such as Stockholm, have already banned cars

Bike-share programs like Montreal’s Bixi are different than dockless programs in many ways, including the support and subsidization of the municipal government. Photo by Tom Babin

And although it’s still unfathomable to see Calgary take such measures in the short-term, my old-fashioned bicycle commute has slowly but surely gotten better in recent years. After the much-ballyhooed construction of a cycle-track network a half-decade ago, and a subsequent stalling of new infrastructure, tiny investments in improving bike infrastructure are finally paying off and making my commute safer and easier. By next year, it will be possible my ride to work will be nearly 100 per cent on bike paths and separated bike lanes.

So while it’s painful for many people to see that techo-upotian transportation future fade from vision, perhaps there’s a future vision that had always been there but had been nearly forgotten beneath the hype of transportation tech. This new/old vision is built on the idea that people, not cars, need to get around a city and that public investments are perhaps best made on the public. 

We’re a long way from achieving that vision — most of our cities still treat transit like welfare, investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are still bedevilled with petty arguments, and it’s still nearly impossible to live in many parts of the continent without a car. As future visions, it’s not as sexy as the one Silicon Valley trumpeted. But this is the only one proven to work. 

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

A single-speed bike may be the key to your ultimate bike commute

It’s the forgotten step-child of the bike-commuting world, overlooked in favour of flashier models loaded with extras, like, you know, gears and shifters.

But there’s something magical about the simplicity of a single-speed bike. Lacking derailleurs and all the associated mechanics that come with them, single-speeds are the kind of bike you never have to think about. They rarely need maintenance. Your gears never go out of tune. Your derailleur never clicks in maladjustment. Your cassette never gets clogged with mud or ice. It just works.

But is all that worth the trade-off of never having a second gear? That was the question that drove the latest video in my commuter-challenge series. The goal of this series is to give you information about different kinds of bikes so you can make better decisions about your bike life. So far, I’ve tested the speed, effort and overall ride of a number of bikes: Road bikes, city bikes, electric bikes, mountain bikes. This time, the wild card was the single-speed.

Check it out below. You can see the other videos in my series here.

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

Ways of making short bike trips as easy as possible

There are plenty of good reasons why pedal or coaster brakes are pretty rare these days — disc brakes are better in almost every way. But there’s an important reason why I love old-fashioned coaster brakes on my bike.

It’s all about making the bike easy to use for short, urban, practical trips. 

Check it out, along with 5 tips for making short trips on your bike as easy and convenient as possible.

Here’s the piece about SmartHalo mentioned in the video.

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

This gorgeous e-bike is impractical, unruly, illogical and totally loveable

The Greaser e-bike. Photo by Tom Babin.

It’s not a rare occasion to hear me rant about the impracticality of most bikes I see on the streets these days. Loaded with too much tech, too many gears, and too much equipment built for racing, too many people don’t ride bikes fit for an urban lifestyle.

But sometimes, you come across a bike that is unique, beautiful and cool enough to overcome my ranting tendencies. That bike is The Greaser: a beast of an e-bike built in the style of a 1950’s cafe racer motorcycle that makes no sense on a lot of levels. It’s big, heavy, unruly and completely fun to ride. 

The bike is built by Michael Blast, and it was loaned to me by a retail shop called Toys for Boys, which also sells truckloads of the bikes online. If nothing else, the bike is a head-turner: everywhere I went, people stopped me to talk about the bike.

If you’re in the market for a day-to-day urban bike, this probably isn’t for you. But if you love the look of this bike, and are in the market for a cruising bike that draws attention, get out that credit card. 

Check out the video for more. 

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

The little compromises that can ruin your bike commute

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

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

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

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

Check out more in the video below:



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

Proof you can haul pretty much anything on a bike

It started as a well-meaning attempt to offer some alternatives to backpacks. Backpacks are great, obviously, but sometimes when using a bicycle for getting around a city, a backpack can be a burden. A sweaty, heavy, burden.

With a front basket and a back rack, your bike is primed for hauling stuff. Photo by Tom Babin.

Things went a little awry, however, when Doug got involved. Doug is a guy in my neighbourhood who has seen the cargo-bike light. When he got wind of my attempts at offering advice on hauling stuff on a bike, he rolled in. A few days later, I was recording him helping his friend move a couch on that bike, thereby offering further evidence that there is very little that can’t be hauled on a bicycle in your day-to-day life.

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

Maybe children ride bikes less often today because their bikes make it hard

Sure those clouds look ominous on Stranger Things, but look at those dope bikes!

One of the things I love about watching Stranger things on Netflix is the scenes of the preteen heroes riding their bikes around their messed-up town. Yes, I’m a bike nerd.

The kids’ bikes are more than just props. The bikes separate the kids from the adult world and give them the freedom to explore. It’s an old Spielbergian trope—think of the scenes in E.T. and The Goonies in which bikes are the vehicle to escape the destructiveness of the adult world. It wasn’t a coincidence that E.T.’s defining scene is a bike rising off the ground to escape the adults.

That ain’t no carbon-fiber full-suspension downhill bike Elliot rode in E.T.

These days, there’s a kind of sad nostalgia to these scenes in Stranger Things because they seem so far off the lives of kids today. It’s easy to glorify the past, but the decline in bicycle use among kids, especially riding to school, is well documented and severe: Our irrational fear of abduction, our (slightly more) rational fear of cars, the proliferation of automobiles, the abandonment of local schools (both by choice and by poor city planning), our automobile-centric lives.

But a more practical thought dawned on me while watching Stranger Things. Maybe the bikes we give kids to ride these days are part of the problem.

Look back at those bikes being used by those on-screen kids: Single-speed steel-frames. Banana-seats. Chopper handlebars. First-gen BMX.



Compare that to the kids bikes you see at bike shops today. Full-suspension mountain bikes. Carbon parts. Front and back derailleurs overloaded with gears. Specialty frames. It’s even worse at the local Wal-Mart: Horribly built mountain bikes with faux suspension systems and never-in-tune gears.

While the technology on these bikes has no doubt improved, something feels like it’s been lost in this transition. These are purpose-built machines, and as such, they aren’t always practical. They can’t take a beating like those old bikes. Sensitive derailleurs are constantly getting knocked out of whack. There’s no place to double a friend. They can’t carry stuff. The chainrings eat jean cuffs. They need regular tune-ups. Scratches ruin their resale value and infuriate parents hoping to recoup their costs.

Perhaps even worse is that bikes have changed from an implement of childhood to an implement of sports. Bikes can expand the limits of a kids’ world. They can offer freedom, self-reliance, exploration and risk, all things that kids are starved for these days. But when bikes are only used for sports or when it’s time to “go for a bike ride,” those other elements are lost.

Bicycle culture among kids has changed, so most pre-teens would probably rather be caught dead than ride one of those Stranger Things bikes. But if there’s a kid in your life, give some thought to a sturdy single speed with a chain guard and a rack for carrying stuff. It may not impress much alongside those expensive carbon-framed full-suspension mountain bikes at the school bike rack. But it will stand up to the weather, it won’t stop working if it gets dropped in the wrong spot, and parents won’t freak out if it gets a scratch. It may just become what it once was: the vehicle of childhood.

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

Here’s how my ‘perfect’ winter bike held up through its first (brutal) winter

At the tail end of last season, I did what I once thought I would never do: I bought a winter bike.

For nearly a decade, I rode a crappy, 20-year-old single-speed mountain bike because, mostly, I feared riding a good bike. Winter in my city rust: salt, slush, muck and grime that eat components unimaginably fast. I learned my lesson the hard way, and after I buried that old beloved bike, I vowed never to destroy a good machine again.

IMG_1894

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Still. In the back of my mind, I always thought that some day, I would find a bike that had what I considered the perfect specs for a rust-repellent winter machine: Aluminum frame, belt drive, internal gears, disc brakes and an overall winter hardiness. Then, unimaginably, I came across a bike with all those components in the Priority Continuum. I snapped the bike up at the tail end of last season, but didn’t really get a chance to test it through a real winter.



That wasn’t a problem this year. Though one of the coldest and snowiest winters I can remember, I rode the Continuum through it all. With the season coming to an end, a few people have asked me about it. So I made the video above to give an update on how the bike has held up.

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A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.

But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.

Bike pics from Montréal

Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.

In the ’hood

Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.

So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.



Commuting

Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.

It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.

Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Non-traditional places

Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?

Cargo Bike

If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.

Longer rides

The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.

Just do it

You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.

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

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