Tag: Bikes (Page 1 of 4)

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.


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.

Follow Shifter on YoutubeFacebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on TwitterFacebook or Medium.

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

Cold and car-centric Moscow is starting to open up to bikes


One of the participants of the annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade. Photo by Tom Babin.

It was the Russian dude in full furs riding a replica penny-farthing (kopeck-farthing?) that did it for me. When I saw this guy roll by the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square yelling shout-outs to hundreds of fellow cyclists around him, I knew this wasn’t the city I once thought it was.

That moment came midway through the third annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade, a rolling party through the streets surrounding the Kremlin that attracted more than 4,000 people dressed for the weather and a good time. It was one of the most fun group rides I’ve ever been on – so fun it nearly obliterated my image of the city as a haven for gigantic multi-lane ring roads clogged with endless rows of barely moving automobiles.

I chose the word “nearly” deliberately. For as awesome as the bike parade was, one can’t leave Moscow without aggressively piloted cars as one of the city’s defining images. It’s a megalopolis built on the automobile, and when not part of a group ride, using a bicycle to get around the city feels about as safe as being a Cold War-era spy.


The bike parade rolled right past St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. Photo by Tom Babin.

(I will, however, spare a moment to gush about the city’s metro system: wide, efficient, affordable, well-planned and spotted with beautifully built stations, the system moves up to nine-million people a day. If you can’t get your head around that, just imagine standing at a station as packed 12-car trains empty out every 90 seconds).

But I was in Moscow as an invited speaker at the Winter Cycling Congress, and if any place can highlight the green shoots of a more bikeable city, the conference centre was the place. Guided by the team at Let’s bike it!, aMoscow-based group that advocates for more people-oriented street design, I was given a tour of what could be the start of something big.

In the last couple of years, city officials (with nudges from such groups as Let’s bike it!), have started to look more seriously at improving the plight of pedestrians and cyclists as a way of easing its horrific congestion problems. A handful of separated bike lanes have been built recently. A bike-share system now operates through the summer months. Pedestrian streets have been improved. Even the new national traffic laws have been adjusted to make it easier to build pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, according to Nikolai Asaul, the deputy minister of transport. “(Cycling) is not safe enough, and comfort is not a priority,” he told the Congress. “For us, it’s a revolution in the minds of our urban planners.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a North American national politician supporting cycling so strongly. 

I was also impressed with the winter hardiness of Muscovites (although I felt a little perverse pride in being one of the few people who visits Moscow to warm up). Having a positive relationship with winter is a key part of the best winter-bike cities, and Moscow has this in spades. The city was filled with outdoor winter festivals, light displays, and thousands of people on the streets dressed to enjoy the day, no matter the weather.

In the wake of the winter bike parade, I found it easy to get swept up in the optimism of the moment, but the reality is that Moscow faces some big challenges if it is serious about improving the city’s livability through cycling. And those go beyond the usual urban challenges of space, design and street culture.


Vladimir Kumov, a Moscow bike advocate (centre, blue jacket), is helping the city adopt more bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects. Photo by Tom Babin.

Russia’s political culture has not traditionally been built on grassroots involvement, so those passionate young bike advocates from all over Russia who attended the Winter Cycling Congress face an additional challenge of building a culture of engagement between citizens and municipal officials. While nearly every Russian I spoke with expressed optimism that Russian officials are increasingly open to the idea of active transportation, this kind of political/cultural change is never easy.

I was also heartened by the interest in winter cycling by Muscovites. The conference was crawling with media, and drawing 4,000 people out for a bike ride on a -10 C day in the snow is not easy, even in cities with more of a bike culture. This has not gone unnoticed by Let’s Bike It organizers.

“If you go out in Moscow, you’ll see how many problems we have, and we want to show the government and the people in Russia how we can change it,” I was told by Vladimir Kumov, the founder of Let’s Bike It. “Eight years ago when I started Let’s Bike It, Moscow was a car city. Traffic jams, and no space for pedestrians and cyclists. In the last five or six years, it’s started to change.”

And if you ask the dude in fur on the penny-farthing, he’d probably agree.

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. 

The bicycle commute test: Cruiser, road or mountain bike – which one is best?

As a rootless, tribeless and bike-agnostic cyclist, I ride anything with two wheels. My daily rides can range from fast road bikes when I’m looking for a workout, to a city cruiser when I’m on a slow roll to the pub. But I’ve often wondered which method was best for my commute to work.

So I decided to test three methods to compare:

1. A slow bike, ridden safely on bike lanes and separated bike paths.

2. A fast road bike, ridden as quickly as possible on the most direct route, no matter how much traffic I might confront or how much of a asshole I might be while on the road.

3. A mountain bike, ridden in the most direct route possible, whether a road exists or not.

I tracked each ride on the app Strava, and took note of a few more subjective measurements. Here are the results:

Road Bike

My city bike: comfortable, sure and steady.

The slow ride

Distance: 9.1 kilometres (bike lanes aren’t always the most direct route)

Time: 28:09

Average speed: 19.6 km/h.

Description: It was an easy and relaxing ride that felt safe. I arrived at work feeling energized, but not worn out. And best of all: no shower required once I arrived at the office.

Road bike 2

Technically a cyclocross bike, this ride is light, fast and gets around quickly.

The road bike

Distance: 7.4 kilometres (I took the most direct roads possible, no matter the traffic volume)

Time: 17:23

Average speed: 25.6 km/h

Description: It was a fast, aggressive ride, and it felt that way. Being alongside rows of traffic for most of the ride doesn’t make for the most relaxing experience, especially when you need to cut across those lanes of traffic to make a left turn. And since I was channeling the stereotypical asshole cyclist, I took stop signs more like suggestions, which undoubtedly annoyed others on the street. I arrived sweaty, buzzing and a little harried.

Road bike 3

This hard-tail mountain bike is a dream on single-track.

The mountain bike

Distance: 7.9 kilometres (I thought cutting through green spaces would save distance, but it didn’t really, partly because my navigation was bad. Who knew roads were actually direct and efficient?!)

Time: 23:33

Average speed: 20.3 km/h

Description: While it was fun finding single-track through urban parks, this was by far the most work. I arrived sopping and wheezing. This proved what you probably already knew: Getting around in a city works best on roads that were built for exactly that.

The verdict

Sorry for the disappointment, but this didn’t really clear anything up for me. I still see myself using both the slow city bike and the fast road bike at times (the mountain bike, well, I’ll save that for the mountains). My advice: Choose your favourite style and enjoy every minute of it.

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. 

Winter is coming: Here are 5 things to think about to keep riding through the cold

Damn that Game of Thrones for making the phrase “winter is coming” sound ominous. Winter doesn’t have to be something to dread, particularly if the root of your aversion to winter is the loss of your bicycle.

Frostbike Winter Cycling trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

These bicycles in Yellowknife in northern Canada aren’t just for show. If they can ride, so can you. Photo by Tom Babin.

Yes, more people are riding a bike through winter all the time. For good reason: You get all those benefits of summer riding, plus you might just rediscover the joy of the season that you knew as a kid. Or, at the very least, maybe you’ll hate winter just a tad less.

But riding in winter can be intimidating for noobs who have lived a life in which they use their automobiles as overcoats. So here are some things to think about as winter looms:

Which bike to ride?

If you live in one of those enviable cities with great bike infrastructure that is well maintained in winter, congratulations! The rest of the winter world envy-hates you, but you probably don’t have to do anything to prepare for winter. Just ride, you dirty, rotten spoiled cyclist.

For the rest of us, some adjustments to the machine between your legs may be in order. There are a couple of things to consider for winter.

If you love your summer bike more than, say, a second cousin or a countertop pet, you may want to think hard about riding it through winter. In some cities, the salt used on roads can corrode your components with dismaying speed. If you wash the bike regularly, it may survive. But if you’re a slothy cleaner or your garden hose is frozen up tight, you might want to consider a second bike for winter. You don’t need anything fancy, just something that moves. The type of bike depends on your type of winter, but keep it simple: I happily rode a 25-year-old mountain bike with one gear through more than a decade of winters. Don’t over think it.

Another option is to winterize your summer bike, if you are OK dealing with a little rust and winter grit. Get a pair of fenders, some decent lights (winter days are short!) and, if you’re nervous about falling, studded tires. And be prepared to clean it regularly

What should I wear?

If you’re reading this, you probably live in a winter city. So you should already own everything you need to ride a bike in winter (unless you are one of those people who sport ankle socks and T-shirts in February and then complains about the cold): thermal underwear, mittens, a warm hat and boots. If your snowfall gets particularly sloppy, a pair of waterproof pants is a good idea too. But don’t go crazy. Keeping warm on a bike is easy once your body starts moving. Think of it like this: dress as you would for a winter walk, and then remove one underlayer so you don’t overheat. A fat-biker once put it to me this way: “Be bold: start off cold.”


Well-maintained winter bike routes will make your life much easier when the temperature drops. Photo by Tom Babin.

Unless, of course, you like spending money on all kinds of specialized gear. Then head to the fat-bike section of your local bike shop, and bring your wallet. There are plenty of fun options to keep you warm.

Where do I ride?

By now, your city should be providing cyclists with safe, efficient routes in winter. But since most aren’t, you may want to choose a different route in winter. Look for roads that are plowed early, aren’t too busy with cars, and have slow vehicle speeds. And prepare for the fact that your ride will be slower in winter. That’s just life.

One tip I’ve picked up over the years: Depending on your city’s plowing philosophy (or lack thereof) choosing the right route in winter may be a little counter-intuitive. You may be tempted to take side and back roads in winter to avoid the cars. But those roads also tend to the last ones plowed, so it can be difficult to get through on a bike. Conversely, you don’t want roads that are too busy or too fast because riding close to moving vehicles is even less fun in winter. Look for those Goldilocks roads: plowed rather early and regularly, but not too busy. And if you find such a road, don’t keep it a secret. The more bikes on a route, the safer it is for everybody.

I’m frightened. What should I do?

Winter cycling can be intimidating, but what’s really holding you back is probably your own fear more than anything else. It’s an attitude. The first few rides will be tough. You need to find the right route, dress for the right temperature and find your balance in slippery conditions. But once you get the logistics down, you’ll love it. So adopt an attitude of experimentation: try a few things to see what works, and don’t give up too easily. And don’t think you’re a failure if you don’t ride every day. Even a few days a week or a month is better than nothing, and you’ll be a happier, healthier person for it.

I can’t wait to brag to my co-workers. 

Stop right there. The first rule of winter cycling: no bragging. I know it’s tempting, but bragging about riding through a snowstorm just perpetuates the notion that winter cycling is something difficult. And really, it’s not. Ask the thousands of kids and grandparents who ride through the world’s great winter cycling cities. You’re not special for riding a bike in winter, you’re just smart. So rather than brag about your ride, encourage others to try it too. The more of us who ride in winter, the more it will be normalized. That’s good for everyone.

For more advice, read my book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Follow Shifter on Facebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on TwitterFacebook or Medium.

Here’s an idea to make cycling seem safer: Ban the crossbar

Here’s a novel new idea for making cycling safer: Ban men’s bikes.

Seriously, this is a real idea, but don’t stop reading yet. Since the recommendation came out of the Netherlands, where they know a thing or two about biking, it’s worth a closer look.

It wasn’t exactly “men’s” bikes that were targetted, rather bikes with a crossbar — that horizontal rod that joins the seatpost to the headtube on a traditional double-triangle bike frame. Classic Dutch bikes ridden by many men feature have a crossbar, like this.

Montreal Biking in summer

Bikes built in the Dutch style often include a crossbar or top tube, like on this bike.

While traditional Dutch-style women’s bikes don’t, like this.

Urban Cycling Calgary

These comfort bikes built lacking at crossbar are sometimes marketed to women.

Us North Americans who are older than six tend to call such bikes “step-throughs” because you don’t have to stretch your leg over that bar. And there is still be some lingering gender baggage around bike frame shape. Step-throughs were once seen as a “women’s” style, while crossbars were found on “men’s” bikes.

The recommendation came out of traffic safety organizations Veilig Verkeer Nederland (VVN) and TeamAlert. When you read the fine print (or, if you are sadly unilingual like me, infer from the fine print from a Google-translated report, after Lloyd Alter of Treehugger spotted the report), the recommendation is logical. Bikes with crossbars tend to force riders to lean forward to reach the handlebars, which means they are more prone to head blows in collisions.

Here in North America, this proposal is a non-starter. We’re just starting to get people on bikes, so I can’t imagine a serious movement to start banning certain styles.

But the dangers of crossbars are worth thinking about for another, more fundamental reason. The North American bike of choice for several generations for both genders have not just been those with crossbars, but those that are explicitly designed for speed and control. Both mountain bikes and road bikes force riders into low aggressive positions because that makes them go faster.

Such bikes have proven so popular that even those people who aren’t looking to ride for speed have defaulted to similar styles. Even bikes that aren’t targetted directly to the athletic crowd, such as “hybrid” bikes and “commuter” bikes, and even fixies, share the same geometry: rider leaning forward, off-kilter centre of balance.


Bikes like this, sometimes called commuter bikes or hybrid, because they blend elements of road and mountain bikes, often force riders into a more aggressive, athletic body position. That can be good in some cases, but not all.

Compare that to the traditional “womens” Dutch bike (if you’ve ever used a bike share, you’ve probably ridden a step-through frame of this style). Body position on this type bike is completely different. This is what that Dutch study was referring to. It’s easy to see how a collision while sitting upright in this position would be less dangerous to the noggin than one in which your centre of gravity is precariously hovering over the frame, rather than your feet.

Bike pics from Montréal

You can see a difference in body position between the woman on the step-through frame at the left and those riding behind, who are leaning more forward.

Could this have something to do with the perception of cycling as a dangerous activity in North America? That may be a bit of a stretch (forcing people to ride bikes beside legions of car drivers who hate them is probably a tad more relevant), but if you are a casual, sporadic cyclist lacking confidence and all of your experience is on a frame built for athletics, I’m willing to be you’d be less willing to get back on a bike, especially if you were ever involved in a crash.

It’s subtle, but these experiences on a bike do colour our perceptions of cycling. If you’ve never ridden a step-through frame before, you probably have no idea how safe, slow and comfortable riding a bike can be.

The authors of the recommendation were wise enough to point to other studies have shown that one of the most injurious parts of riding a bike as people age is simply mounting and dismounting, a problem the step-though frame goes a long way to solving.

This isn’t a plea to ban crossbars or athletic bikes or anything like that. It’s simply a reminder that there are other ways to ride than how most North Americans do it, and it can be a completely different experience. So maybe swe don’t need to ban the crossbar, but it’s time to start thinking beyond it.

Follow Shifter on Facebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on Twitter, Facebook or Medium.

Yes, this is how weird (and how elegant) e-bikes are getting

Few things in the bike world are as hot right now as e-bikes. Every manufacturer seems to be sensing that now is the time for electric bikes to finally catch hold in North America.

Here’s the latest evidence: Two approaches to ebikes, from both an industry leader and an upstart, that are almost complete opposites.

Here’s the first one: Bosch, the German company that has led the way toward pedal-assist ebikes in the past decade, has a new version out that seems built to address the problem of consumers worried that e-bikes just look weird.

Bosch has a new line of electric drives that seem to be based on the need to make e-bikes look as much like a bike as possible. Photo by Bosch.

The company’s new drive unit is 20 per cent smaller, 19 per cent lighter, and features “a cleaner, (more)  integrated look, to more closely resemble traditional bikes,” according to a media release from the company.

It comes with other improvements, such as an improved range and, perhaps most significantly, no longer has resistance on the pedals when the motor is turned off.

But still, the headline here seems to be that Bosch is betting that consumers will be more willing to buy an e-bike if nobody can’t tell it’s an e-bike.

Bosch’s new electric drive offers more improvements, including a wider range. Photo by Bosch.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ukrainian company DelFast, known for making courier vehicles. It just launched a new fundraising campaign on Kickstarter for a bike designed to address what it sees as a problem with distance, damn the appearance.

It’s launching an e-bike with a claimed range of 380 kms per charge, using a massive battery pack that can push the bike to 55 km/hr (which, it should be added, is more that twice the bike-lane speed-limit in many cities). While this thing does have a brute eastern-European charm, it’s a monster, accurately described in the press release as “a hybrid between a cross-country motorcycle and a mountain bike.”

So if you’ve been contemplating an e-bike, but have been holding off because they look too much like a, er, bike, and you feel the need to travel 400 kilometres on one charge at motorcycle speeds, this may be the bike for you.

There you go: two bikes at opposite ends of the conspicuous spectrum. Maybe e-bikes have truly arrived after all.


Five questions to help determine if your city council candidate will improve cycling

During municipal election season, you may find yourself opening your door to a candidate who wants your vote. Sadly, not all would-be politicians will share your enlightened view on the benefits of a bike-friendly city. So how are you to know if this is a candidate who deserves your vote?

We are here to help! Here are some suggested questions to gauge the support your city council candidate may offer to active transportation in general and cycling in particular. Remember to work fast: door-to-door campaigning is all about efficiency for a candidate, so they can’t afford to get involved in a serious policy discussion at each door, despite the illusion. So get your questions in quickly.

Parked bikes in Quebec City

1. What’s your stance on transportation policy?

The answer to this question won’t actually give you any useful information about your candidate. It’s just a warm up. Unless your candidate is deranged or a complete ideologue, they will tend to answer with some version of: “We need to balance the needs of all users by building within our means.” Blah, blah, blah. They will probably also choose one particular transportation project that has been long delayed and promise to get it done. If you’re in the suburbs, that will be a road project. If you’re more inner-city, it will be a transit project. None of this matters. It’s just a set-up.

2. How will you improve my daily commute?

Now we’re getting into it. This is a more difficult question to answer. You still haven’t revealed yourself as a driver, transit user, cyclist or pedestrian (you can’t exist as more than one of those in the minds of a politician, even though most of us are), which means the candidate can not yet enter pandering mode.

Milquetoast candidates will again use this opportunity for platitudes about smart investments and fiscal responsibility, but those who have a bug in their craw about a particular transportation issue will be unable to resist jumping at this one. Here is where you can tell if the candidate is, generally, interested in all the benefits that come with active transportation and intelligent urban planning, or just cares about moving cars from place to place.

3. How do you get to work? or What do you think of residential speed limits?

See what you did there? Most North Americans will never pose these questions because they’ve never fathomed the possibility that transportation is possible through anything but a car. So by asking this to your candidate, the ruse is up. You’ve just outed yourself: you are revealed as someone woke to the ways of life beyond the single-passenger automobile. Or you are an Uber driver.

Anyway, the way these questions are answered will give you information about the candidate’s perspective. Riding a bike and/or walking through city doesn’t just make you sympathetic to the plight of humans in a car-centric world, it gives you a new perspective on how streets work, and how they can be improved. A bike-riding or walking commuter will have a better, more accurate outlook on their city. You’ll also know the improtance of limiting residential speed limits. 

If the candidate is a full-time automobile commuter, but is supportive of active transportation, be cautious, but not dismissive.

4. What do you think of bike lanes?

You don’t need to hear the entire answer to this question to determine if this candidate deserves your vote; you only need the first four words. You are listening for the fabled intro to every irrational anti-bike diatribe: “I like cyclists, but…”

If the sentence begins with those four words, you can disengage your brain, wait for the candidate to finish talking, thank them for their time, and then gently close the door knowing you have crossed a candidate off your list. If the answer begins with anything else, feel free to engage them in a more serious conversation about how to make your city more bike-friendly and, thereby, more healthy, more interesting, safer, quieter, less polluting and better for kids and seniors.

5. Want to go for a ride sometime?

By now, you should have all the information you need to determine if your candidate understands the benefits of bikes and will help further the cause. So this is more like a personality test. If they say no, don’t take it personally. They are probably busy campaigning. If they get a nervous look on their face and offer up a non-committal answer, it’s probably because they think it’s weird that you asked a complete stranger for a bike ride but don’t want to be rude, which is a completely rational response to this question. If they say yes and pull out their calendar, congratulations! You have a new riding buddy, who will have plenty of time to ride with you because a political candidate who agrees to go for bike rides with random constituents during a campaign is probably going to lose the election.

UPDATE: 6. Optional question — The Amazon factor

Now that every city in North America is tripping over itself to woo Amazon and its massive new headquarters, there’s something worth noting in the online retailer’s request for proposals, as pointed out by People for Bikes: “Include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”

So it’s worth posing this to your candidate too: If your candidate hates bike lanes, but still think its possible to entice Amazon, your candidate might be in need of a lesson in cognitive dissonance.

‘Uber for bikes’ is here, and traditional bike-sharing companies are feeling the heat

There’s a giant urban bicycle experiment happening right now on the streets of Seattle that may change the way everybody gets around. Or it may lead to an epic flop that burns through venture-capital cash and leaves the streets littered with derelict bikes.

Either way, the last month has ushered in a new wave of bike-sharing that has shaken up the still-young industry and will have profound implications for all cities, particularly the few remaining North America ones that have yet to embrace a bike-sharing program.

This experiment began earlier this summer from the ashes of Seattle’s failed municipal bike-sharing program called Pronto. Pronto was similar to other, traditional bike-shares you see in most cities these days: docks that held bikes were placed on city streets for use by members for short-term rides, similar to Montreal’s pioneering Bixi program and New York’s massive and successful Citibike.

LimeBike has, so far, avoided some of the problems that have plagued dockless bike-share systems in China. Photo by LimeBike.

The problem was, in Seattle, the system never really caught on. The city failed to commit enough docking stations and bikes necessary to make the system convenient and easy to use, and government infighting doomed it.

When the city shuttered the program in March, however, it opened the door to something new. It started issuing permits to a raft of new companies boasting they had a new formula to make bike sharing work where the city had failed.

Within weeks, three companies — called Spin, LimeBike and Chinese company Ofo (each with bikes brightly painted in their own distinctive colours) — had flooded the streets with thousands of bikes using new technology some are calling bike-share 2.0, or more lazily, Uber for bikes. 

There are some key differences to these new programs that those older ones you’ve probably used before. First, they are known as dockless systems, meaning the bikes are equipped with smartphone-enabled locks and GPS, so bikes can be left on the streets and picked up by new riders almost anywhere, without the need to park them in docking stations.

With three competing privately run bike-share systems in Seattle, including Spin, questions about their long-term viability are legit. Photo by Spin.

And perhaps more importantly, they are privately run. With a few notable exceptions, most North-American bike-share programs are operated with at least some government money. In Seattle, however, all three companies, flush with venture-capital money and the tech-industry hubris that comes with it, are using Seattle as a testing ground of new privately-funded systems they hope can challenge the traditional bike-share model elsewhere.

Despite some techie buzz around the dockless system, there are risks. In some Chinese cities, thousands of bikes were poured onto city streets which, without proper management, led to mass vandalism, bikes being parked illegally and some already infamous incidents of hundreds of bikes being dumped. It’s even prompted some soul-searching about the nature of the Chinese character.

So far, Seattle has largely avoided such mass problems, according to Seattle bike blogger Tom Fucoloro. For the most part, users seem to be following the rules about parking the bikes, he told me.

“With any system where you have lots of users, there are going to be some people who don’t follow the rules,” Fucoloro said. “The vast majority of people are parking them really well. It’s just vandals. A couple thrown off of overpasses. For the most part, it’s working really well.”

LimeBike is one of the bike-sharing companies that is now competing in Seattle. Photo by LimeBike.

In fact, far from just avoiding problems, Fucoloro says the new system is thriving. Within only a couple of weeks, data showed that the dockless bikes were being more heavily used than the old Pronto bikes ever were. Fucoloro says that’s because the new bikes are meeting the most basic needs of a successful bike-share system in ways the old system wasn’t: bikes are where you need them, when you need them.

Still, there are skeptics out there. Traditional bike-share companies are warily eyeing the new startups, not only as a source of competition, but to see if these flashy upstarts are committed in the long run. Operating a successful bike-share system requires much more than simply pouring bikes onto streets. There’s a huge amount of management that’s needed: bikes need to be moved around to places of need, broken bikes need to be attended to, technology needs to be maintained.

Madeline Kaye of Motivate, the company that operates several bike-share systems around the world, including North America’s biggest in New York, told me that working closely with city managers is a big part of the company’s success.

“It’s really complex system,” she said. “We have increased ridership in every city we’ve operated in. We’ve increased the size. Part of that is being able to work with cites. Part of that is managing the system and rebalancing the system in an effective way.”

Spin is a dockless bike-sharing system that offers rides for $1 in Seattle. Photo by Spin.

She’s not wrong. There’s a formula to running a bike share properly. In the past several weeks, I’ve used bike-sharing systems in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, and the latter was miles better than the others. The secret to Montreal’s success is simple: The were enough bikes and docking stations at the right place at the right time to make it convenient, the smartphone app was good, and the system was affordable. The other systems failed on one or all counts.

There’s no guarantee yet these new companies can keep the system running in the long run, especially at the rock-bottom prices that are currently being offered to entice new users in Seattle ($1 per ride, in some cases).


Montreal’s Bixi program works, like other successful bike-sharing systems, partly because of the behind-the-scenes work to keep bikes in places where they are needed. Photo by Tom Babin.


Fucoloro agrees, and says he’s maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism in the back of his mind. In the front of it, however, he’s revelling in the buzz the new systems have brought to cycling in Seattle.

“As someone who has been active in bicycle activism for a while, often feels that you are the underdog or bikes are an afterthought,” he said. “Here we have some big-money investment betting there are a lot of potential bike rides not being made, and these companies think it’s a matter of convenience. If they can provide bikes that are convenient to use at a price that is extremely competitive … that’s not just good for Seattle, it’s good for the world.”

There’s another matter to consider: I’m writing this from Calgary, which shares the dubious distinction of being one of the few major cities in North America that don’t have a permanent bike-share program of some kind in place. Now, thanks to Seattle, perhaps all those years of foot-dragging may pay off.

Bombing down a mountain on a totally inappropriate bike taught me this

It was a long and uninteresting series of events that led me to ride my daughter’s Breezer Downtown EX down the side of a mountain, but here’s the important part: It was fun.

An outing during a family camping trip that went a little bit differently than expected found us at the head of a fantastically fun single-track through the Selkirks of southeastern British Columbia, me on a beautiful full-suspension mountain bike, she on her beloved yellow urban ride, complete with basket and blinking lights.

Don’t try this at home. Maybe. Photo by Nadia Honnet.

I convinced her to trade bikes with me, partly because I thought putting her on a proper mountain bike would be the safe thing to do on a mountain-bike trail (I didn’t neglect my fatherly responsibilities completely). But partly because I relished the thought of crushing a mountain bike trail on a teenager’s city bike.

Hence, I found myself cresting tabletops and rounding berms at full-speed, fenders bumping along and V-brakes squealing under the strain. I feel like I should tell you that this is unadvisable, and you should not do it.

But in the midst of this ride (which, not coincidentally, was a heap of fun, especially seeing the looks on the faces of other trail riders on $6,000 carbon-framed full-suspension downhill rigs who did double-takes on my basket), one thought kept popping into my head: Do you really need a mountain bike for this?

Of course, a proper mountain bike is the right thing to use, for safety and enjoyment. But the experience got me thinking that perhaps we North Americans have let our gearhead tendencies get the best of us. Cyclists, in particular, seem to obsess over having the “proper” bike for whatever kind of ride they are doing: A road bike for a country road, a mountain bike for a trail, a city bike for a city ride. It’s getting to rather absurd lengths when it’s now possible to buy a bike specially built for gravel rides.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker to the n+1 philosophy of bike ownership as much as the next bike nerd (a formula stipulating the ideal number of bikes you should own, in which n is the number you currently own).  But riding a totally inappropriate machine down a trail and having a blast doing it reminded me that maybe we don’t need a different bike for every ride. Maybe sometimes having a bike that’s good enough is, well, good enough. Maybe we should stop subtly shaming people who show up for a group road ride without a proper road bike, or who ride a hard-tail on a rocky trail. Maybe, ultimately, the ride is more important than the machine we ride on.

But then again, maybe I’m not thinking clearly because my brain got rattled on that mountain bike trail. Man, front suspension would have been nice.

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.


Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén