I, like most of you, have been stuck at home for weeks now because of the COVID-19 lockdown, and I’m glad to be doing my part to help stop this virus.
But it hasn’t been easy. Being stuck home for weeks, frankly, sucks. But thankfully, I’ve still got my bike, and I still live in a jurisdiction where health officials are encouraging its use, as long as it’s being done while keeping appropriate distance from others to prevent the spread of the virus.
But riding a bike through a city these days is completely different than in the past. Here are the ways in which I’m trying to find my way through this crazy situation.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Electric car sales are finally climbing, mostly thanks to Tesla, but people are starting to realize that the automobile-clogged hellscape that is morning drop-off at the school is only a slightly less choking hellscape when those cars are powered by electricity.
Despite the idea that millennials are shunning cars in favour of alternatives, car sales are still rising, even among millennials who are realizing it’s still near-impossible to live in most North American cities without one.
Despite dumping hundreds of thousands of electric bikes and scooters into cities around the world, it’s looking like most bike- and scooter-sharing companies are still struggling to reach profitability.
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.
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.
For 30 years it’s been whispered about, a bicycle urban legend passed among envious cyclists throughout North America, every few years rearing its head with a little piece of news that brings hope, then despair. And now, it’s come up again here, in my city of Calgary.
It’s the Idaho stop law.
In reality, it’s hardly dramatic: a traffic statute that allows cyclists to yield at stop signs rather than coming to a full stop. But because it’s been talked about, teased and killed so many times, it’s become legendary in status.
I first wrote about this idea back in 2015, and I’ll paste that piece of writing below. But because the idea has been greeted here in Calgary with the same old reactions and arguments against it everywhere, I thought I’d spend a little time explaining it a in the video below. Enjoy.
Idaho, famous for potatoes and summering beach-deprived Calgarians, is in the news for something different: a 30-year-old traffic statute that is suddenly most-talked about new idea in urban transportation.
In the early 1980s, concerned that trivial traffic matters were cluttering the courts, a magistrate judge in Idaho changed the rules to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields. Rather than forcing people on bikes to come to a full stop at each red octagon, cyclists were allowed to slow and roll through them when safe.
For the next 30 years, Idahoans went yielding on their own merry way without drawing much attention, other than from cycling advocates elsewhere who looked on with envy. In the last few months, however, the “Idaho stop law” has suddenly become a talking point. Both Montreal and San Francisco are considering adopting similar rules, and a subsequent debate has ensued.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of this law to cyclists. Stop signs, to be frank, suck. They are hard work. Coming to a full stop and then pedalling back up to full acceleration is a huge expenditure of energy (this study, pointed out to me by Kay Teschke, found that regular stop signs require so much energy they can drop a cyclist’s speed by 40 per cent). This is especially galling on a bike when there’s good visibility and the stop sign is in an inconvenient location, such as the bottom of a hill, there’s no risk to rolling through, and the sign was clearly intended for motor vehicles. And, let’s face it, the risk posed by a bike in such a situation is much less than a car.
Yet adoption of the law has been pretty much non-existent outside of Idaho. As more cities look to make life easier for cyclists, however, the law is getting a second look. There is, however, some opposition, mostly from car drivers resentful of some perceived advantage being given to people on bikes. Everybody, they say, should obey the same rules.
With that in mind, I called Kurt Holzer to see how the law works in the real world of Idaho. Holzer lives in Boise, is a personal injury attorney who often represents cyclists, and he rides his bike a lot, so he knows of which he speaks. His assessment of the law was simple.
“In my 20 years, I’ve never see a case where the stop-as-yield law has caused a problem,” he told me. As a lawyer, he likes that it “eliminated a bunch of tickets and unnecessary confrontations with police.” As a cyclist, he loves the little boost that comes with rolling through stop signs when safe to do so.
He’s not the only one. For most Idahoans, the law has become a non-issue. In fact, Holzer says it works so well, he’s surprised it hasn’t been more widely adopted.
A study was done on the law in 2010. Researcher Jason Meggs at UC Berkeley found that bicycle injuries declined 14.5 per cent the year after the law was adopted. He also found Idaho cities fared 30.4 per cent better in bicycle safety than similar cities that lacked the law. “The law has been beneficial or had no negative effect,” he wrote. Another sign of the law’s efficacy is its rather low-key success in Idaho over 30 years.
Still, those arguments against the law persist. Holzer dismisses the standard oppositions to the law as “weak arguments.” As for the idea that cyclists would be given preferential treatment, Holzer points out that some road users already have different laws. Some jurisdictions, for example, require school buses to stop at railway crossings, or require big trucks to obey different speed limits than other vehicles. The same approach can apply to cyclists.
Others have argued against the law on the basis of protecting pedestrian rights, but Holzer also likes the law because it better reflects reality. Yes, that means the law acknowledges that some cyclists already roll through stop signs.
The key point in this debate is probably this: The law works in Idaho when people obey it. There are still altercations at intersections, and sometimes cyclists blow through stop signs without yielding, but they are breaking the law. Every problem situation Holzer has seen is because somebody disobeyed the statute. People on bikes are still required to stop for safety. The law is not an excuse to ride like a jerk.
“It’s a rational statute that acknowledges vehicle and human behaviour, and enhances, rather than dismisses, safety on the road,” he said. “And for (vehicle drivers), I can get out of your dang way faster and not pose an obstacle to you because it allows me to . . . clear the intersection more quickly.”
In the long run, however, the law remains appealing because it makes life just a little bit easier for law-abiding cyclists. With so many cities striving to do just that, it may be an Idahoan idea whose time has come.
Over the past decade, Vancouver has undergone a bike renaissance. Separated bike lanes have been installed, a bike-share program has been implemented, and more and more people are riding bikes for transportation. Even a downtown business group that once fought bike infrastructure has become supportive of cycling.
But these big changes didn’t come from thin air. This kind of bike boom, which is happening in many North American cities, was inspired by the lessons learned in the Netherlands.
Sometimes it can be difficult for us North Americans to truly envision a bike-friendly city. What with our car dominance and the pittances we throw at cycling, breaking the development mould that has dominated for the past half century can be a difficult mental leap.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about little spots in every city that embody bike-friendliness, even in a small day. You may have to squint to see them, but these places can, hopefully, help you envision what a more balanced transportation environment might look like.
Looking for scenes of bike-friendliness. Photo by Tom Babin.
Gaps in bike infrastructure can add up to big problems for cyclists. Photo by Tom Babin.
If you commute by bike, you’ve come across the little compromises. These are the little bits of missing bike infrastructure – a lane that ends prematurely, a painted lane instead of a separated lane, a gap between two bike paths. In many North American cities, these little compromises are everywhere.
On their own, they are no big deal. But when you’re trying to get around a city on a bike, these little one-offs add up to a system that, frankly, sucks. On a practical level, they can be dangerous. On a philosophical level, each one is like a little poke reminding you that, as a cyclist, you aren’t as important as other road users.
Here are two little compromises on my regular commute that illustrate just how irksome they can be. On their own, they are nothing big. But taken together, they are part of a pattern that makes riding a bike unnecessarily difficult.
What I’ve noticed about bicycle riding in the city is the city. This is especially true and vivid in parts of the city that have protected cycle tracks. I notice more of my city on my bike. The open architecture of the bicycle makes this possible. The safe infrastructure of a bike lane can make it quite real.
My friend Chris has an engineering mind. He says it’s an equation: Fewer perceived vehicle threats from fewer directions equals more time to feel happy and have the city strike you. In a good way. This formula is why I love pedalling my bike on the Oliverbahn in Edmonton. The Oliverbahn is a stretch of protected, treed, life-lined bicycle lane that runs along the north side of 102 Ave in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood. There’s a lot of city to notice and consider on the way to and from Edmonton’s downtown core.
Here’s what I noticed today.
A neighbourhood that provides space for pedestrians, bicycle riders, bus passengers, motorists, and, with all the stately elm trees, birds.
Homes for fans of Hobbiton.
Two built for a bicycle built for two.
The cool Lord Simcoe apartment font on brick.
Trees with bark and bite.
Walkers who wave hello.
Automobile drivers who wave hello.
A boy who says “cool bike” to his mom about me and hears me say “cool bike” right back to him.
People on bikes.
The 1913 telephone exchange building by Alan Jeffers.
Signed but self-regulated intersections that reveal where we’re at with each other:
People on bikes:
A tipi above the hedgeline in the Christ Church yard:
Sometimes, getting around on a bike requires some advance planning. Photos by Tom Babin.
Veteran hard-core commuter cyclists are good at many things. Telling you exactly how much mileage they’ve logged far this year, for example. Clip-clopping in their stiff-soled cycling shoes in places where that is totally inappropriate. And offering the simplest advice to anyone who has ever expressed interest in riding their bike more: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”
This is, actually, pretty great advice. Cycling needn’t be complicated, especially if you’re style of cycling tends toward the utility side, rather than the athletic side. You don’t really need any special gear or advice. Just give it a try.
OK, got it? Great. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll offer you some hard-won advice that took me years to figure out. Choosing the right route for that urban bike ride can be uber-important, especially if you live in a city with minimal safe routes for bikes.
Most of us have built up a mental map of our cities. Unfortunately, most of us have built that map while driving a car, which means our mental map doesn’t always include the things we need to know for a bike ride. Does your mental map include information about the width of the shoulder on a busy route? Does your mental map include a tally of left-turns across multiple lanes of traffic? Then it might be time to adjust that mental map in a bikeward direction.
Before you get riding, stop and think about the route, especially if you’re still coming to grips with the fact that much of your ride will be beside fast-moving boxes of steel that can kill you. Here are a few things to ponder in that moment before you kick off:
There’s a hierarchy of bike infrastructure to take into account.
In general, choose the roads that have the fewest number of moving vehicles. If you must venture on to a busy road, at least bookend that time with some quiet routes that offer some decompression time.
This may be counter-intuitive, but the narrow streets are often preferable. While a wide street feels like it should give you more room to avoid being flattened by a car, wide roads also encourage drivers to go fast. Narrow streets, particularly those full of parked cars in residential areas, are a car driver’s worst nightmare – conjuring those old driving-school images of children darting into the street after a ball. As a cyclist, this is a good thing. It means drivers may actually slow down. They may even pay you respect on the road. Maybe.
Your car-driver mental map probably has blank areas for things like parks, schoolyards and wooded areas. Your bike map, however, needn’t be so. A shortcut through a park on a bike isn’t just efficient, it’s safe and fun.
Roads with sharrows
Sharrows are those roads that have designated to be shared by automobile drivers and cyclists (the word is an amalgam of “shared right-of-way), often marked with road paint or signage of a bike with a couple of arrows coming out of the sky. Lazy city planners love sharrows because it makes them feel like they are accommodating bikes without actually doing anything to accommodate bikes. Don’t be fooled: sharrows suck. Don’t think of a sharrow route as a safe route. It’s the same as any other road and, in fact, may be more dangerous.
Yes, of course you’ll choose routes that have been designated for bikes, right? These are the safe and direct routes, right? Aw, you’re so cute when you live in a fantasy world. Down here the real world, cities are full of badly planned, badly marked bike lanes that do little to improve safety. So get your city’s map of bike lanes, but use it to plan your route with a grain of salt. Create a hierarchy of bike lanes in your planning with the safest routes at the top of the priority list, like this:
Bike lanes separated from traffic with a physical barrier, such as concrete or bollards. Parked cars also work as a good physical barrier, if cities are smart enough to build this way.
Bike lanes with a buffer of some sort, such as a metre or two of space between the car lane.
Painted bike lanes. Having a designated route is nice, but without a barrier between the lane and moving vehicles, painted lanes are bit like watching the latter Police Academy movies – better than nothing, but they just don’t measure up to the ones with Steve Guttenberg.
Community bike routes: These residential roads that have been designated as bike routes go by many names, but they are all versions of the idea that calling a quiet road a bike route will somehow make it safer. This can be true. If the road is embraced by cyclists and becomes busy with bikes, car drivers tend to slow and the road will be safer. Sometimes cities even install traffic calming devices such as speed bumps or roundabouts. Great! But if this is just a regular road that’s been decorated with signs featuring bikes, don’t forget: this is just a regular road.
OK, you’ve exhausted all of your bike lanes, quiet roads and safe choices, but you are still forced to venture on to a road with all kinds of fast-moving cars. This is the sad reality for many of us. But there are a few things you can do to ease this pain. Minimize the number of left turns you must make. Keep your time short. And finally, as a last resort, do something I never thought I’d advise: Pick up the skills of a vehicular cyclist. This idea, that cyclists should ride in the same manner as automobiles, was the dominant idea in cycling in North America for much of the 20th century, but has now been thoroughly debunked. Why? Because it didn’t work. After 40 years of trying, we’ve realized that riding a bike like a car is really hard, and most of us are too scared to do it. Yet, vehicular cycling still has skills to teach us: Be visible, keep up your speed, ride with confidence, signal your intentions, be predictable. These skills take time to develop, but if you find yourself on busy roads, you will thank those grumpy old vehicular cyclists for showing us how it can work.
Just do it
If all of this seems like too much thinking for a simple bike ride, then take the advice of those wily veteran cyclists: “Just get out there and do it, man. You’ll figure it out.”