Tag: Cities (Page 1 of 4)

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. 

Here’s what happens when you ride a bike without worrying about being run over

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.

Families awheel.

Homes for fans of Hobbiton.

Hobbits.

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:

At the end of the story, a wedding:

With a bicycle in the picture 💚
A version of this post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Check it out here.

7 ways to choose the right route for your bike commute

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.

Traffic volume

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.

Road width

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.



Off-road

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.

Bike lanes

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Bike lanes with a buffer of some sort, such as a metre or two of space between the car lane.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Busy roads

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.”

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

If this Russian oil town can become a bike haven, what’s your city’s problem?

Three years ago, you probably had never heard of Almetyevsk, the central Russian city of 150,00 that was founded in 1953 to serve the petroleum industry. I know I hadn’t. But since then, Almetyevsk has become a kind of legend in the bike world by transforming itself into the best bike city in Russia, and one that is probably a hell of a lot more bike-friendly than your city.

Copenhagenize Almetyevsk / Альме́тьевск

Photos by Copenhagenize showing the transformation of Almetyevsk into a bicycle haven.

Two years ago, the city had basically no bike infrastructure. Today, it has a bike network of 83 kilometres long (with plans for more), much of it separated from cars, cleared of snow in winter, and filled with bike-friendly amenities like footrests and angled garbage bins. And much of it was planned and built within a matter of months, and paid for by Tataneft, the oil company that is the driver of the city’s economy.

It’s a remarkable story that has as much to do with the visoinary young mayor who drove the idea as the unique circumstances around it.

That mayor is Ayrat Khayrullin, a charismatic young politician who sold the idea to Tataneft based on the health benefits of cycling, and then harnessed the force of his personality to push the idea through decades of planning inertia.

Almetyevsk Mayor Ayrat Khayrullin, speaking about the transformation of his city. Photo by Andrey Burkov.

“I wouldn’t say we have a lot of traffic congestion in Alymtask, but our goal was not congestion,” Khayrullin said during the Winter Cycling Congress in Moscow earlier this year, through a translator. “Tataneft thought that ‘We want all of our employees to be happy and healthy.’ ”

Khayrullin speaks as if reared in Amsterdam. He rattles off statistics about modal share and lane widths and buffer zones like a lifelong urbanist, some of it no doubt picked up from the mantra of Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who consulted on the project. “We want a five-year-old to be able to ride safely across the city, and their parents to not be afraid,” Khayrullin said.



It’s an inspiring story for those who have lived through the glacial pace of bike-lane development elsewhere, but the conditions in Almetyevsk are unique, to say the least. Not only was funding provided by an oil giant, Russian cities aren’t quite renowned for their consultations with citizens.

Still, the mayor is already touting health benefits, including reductions in asthma, neurological disorders and mortality (although, to be fair, it feels early for such pronouncements, so take them with a grain of salt). He hopes that seven per cent of people will use bikes to get to work by 2020, a massive increase from the start of the project when that number was essentially zero.

It’s easy to think that such a feat can never be duplicated in a western city, and that may be right. But looked at another way, if an industrial Russian oil town sees the benefits in cycling, what are we waiting for?

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

We need to choose what kind of city we want before we let the robots do it for us

Parked bikes in Quebec City

Will bicycles be a part of the future of our cities? Photo by Tom Babin.

There’s a scene in the 1942 Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons that has some eerie parallels to today. The scene, set around the early part of the 20th century, is a confrontation between the maker of new-fangled “horseless carriages” (automobiles) and the old guard.

In the film, the automobile is a metaphor for the conflict between the old and the new, but watch the scene and think about the state of our cities today.

This monologue has particular resonance at this moment, because it feels like we’re in another of those periods of transformational transportation change. This time, it’s not the automobile replacing the horse, but the robots replacing the humans.

Autonomous cars are imminent, which seems to have created two competing visions for the future. The first, which has been gaining steam for the past 20 years, is defined by urbanism. It’s the future that most readers of this blog probably envision: less automobile-dependent streets where we focus on accommodating humans before cars. That means a grand rethinking of our streets and how we get around. More public transit, more cycling, more walking, and fewer cars. This is the vision that is driving change in many cities, from Paris to Copenhagen to Vancouver and Bogota.



But a competing vision has emerged in more recent years. This is a future that is built on technology, and its seductiveness is undeniable. Self-driving cars that arrive at your door to transport you to your smartphone-chosen destination. The end of car ownership in favour of transportation service. Fleets of robot cars roaming the streets to pick up and deliver people and packages.

These two visions don’t have to be at odds, but the closer we get to the realization of these visions, the more it seems they are. The promise of the first vision is a realignment of the transportation priorities of our cities, away from automobiles in favour of a more equitable balance between other modes.

The other, however, despite its promise, risks simply being a replacement of the status quo: swapping human-piloted vehicles for those driven by computers. Even the debate around this month’s tragic killing of a pedestrian by a self-driving Uber car comes down, fundamentally, to a debate over this vision. I’m in the camp that sees potential benefits to the technology, particularly the reduction of automobile collisions, but this isn’t a question of whether we use the technology or not. It’s about the fundamental problems of living in a society too reliant on automobiles—congestion, collisions, hostile streets and, despite our best intentions, deaths—may actually be exacerbated by this vision.

IMG_9812

Bicycles are a big part of one vision of the future of our cities. Photo by Tom Babin.

Think about congestion. In New York, for example, it has gotten worse in the last decade, not better, attributable mostly to the proliferation of ride-sharing services like Uber, which will no doubt grow as autonomous vehicles emerge. Filling the streets with empty vehicles on their way to pick up a fare is unlikely to reduce those fundamental problems. In London, the story is the same, as seen in this tweet:

Both visions seem to have momentum these days, but even as the benefits of urbanism are increasingly accepted by the broader public, its a vision that’s expensive, sometimes contentious, inherently political and requires long-term thinking heavy on public input and taxpayer investment. It’s not easy.

The robot future, by contrast, seems to be arriving almost by the force of its own will. Enthusiasm for the technology has brought it to our doorstep with a sense of inevitability. In the same way we dove headlong into a world defined by Facebook before we started thinking about its impacts on our lives, our brains, our politics, our news and our children, our zeal for technology has brought robot cars to our door before we’ve really considered the implications of opening it.

The good news is that these visions needn’t be at odds. A better balance between automobiles and humans in our urban settings can no doubt be improved by driverless technology. In fact, the most prominent proponent of this driverless future, Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has seemed dismissive of transit and active transportation in the past, may be coming around. There is much skepticism around his vision for the future, but optimists may see this recent tweet as a sign that he is starting to see these two visions coming together.

But this coming together can only happen if we recognize that the future isn’t driven by inevitabilities and momentum. It’s created by the decisions we make. And now is the time to make those decisions for the future.

Thanks to Dave Cohen of VBike for opening my eyes to The Magnificent Ambersons.

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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

IMG_1453

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.

IMG_1448

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.

IMG_1497

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.

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

How to ride a bike slowly (and why you would want to)

This sounds stupid, I know, but one of the keys to happy urban cycling is learning how to slow down. Riding more slowly in a city is safer, calmer, more relaxing and is conducive to being in the moment and enjoying the surroundings.

So why is that hard? Because much of the bicycle industry is working against it.

In North America, the bicycle industry is still dominated by a mentality of athletics. There’s money to be made by selling bikes as a piece of sporting equipment, so that’s what draws the attention of the industry. Road bikes, mountain bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes and even fat bikes are built to go fast. They are built for racing.

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The bikes of these professional racers are built for speed. Photo by Tom Babin.

That approach has led to some amazing technological breakthroughs that have benefited all cyclists, but you don’t need any of it to ride happily in a city. In fact, much of that tech impairs your ability to ride slowly and comfortably. Those feather-light, high-performance bikes feel like riding a thoroughbred — they hum beneath your fingers, pulling to go fast whether you want them to or not. It can be exhilarating if that’s your goal, but taking them through an urban setting is like using a racehorse for a children’s pony ride — superhuman restraint is required to keep them under control.



Part of the problem is body position. Bicycles with humans aboard don’t exactly create a shape that slips through the air, so much engineering brainpower has gone into designing bicycles that torque the rider’s position into one that’s more streamlined. The result is that many bikes force the rider to into a low, forward-leaning position. This works wonderfully if you are descending Mount Ventoux with 100 other pros chasing, but if all you are doing is heading to the liquor store for a six pack, this position can be uncomfortable, unforgiving and needlessly fast.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

Slow bikes position your body in a way that changes the riding experience. Photo by Tom Babin.

I’ve found that these factors influence your mentality on the bike. When you ride a bike built for speed, you naturally want to go fast. The ride becomes a race, against others or yourself. I’ve often caught myself on my commute home in self-congratulatory mode after climbing a hill faster than a fellow bike commuter who had no idea a race was underway.

Being fast isn’t inherently bad, but when the ride is a practical route for transportation the sacrifices for speed can be. The price of speed is collected in things like comfort, safety, robustness, frustration and something that might be described as pleasantness. 

Urban rides, with their many stops and proximity to other humans on foot, work better when the speed is reduced. These rides are most enjoyable when you can sit back, watch the surroundings, obey traffic signals and arrive at your destination faster than a car and without smelling like a workout room.

Yes, you can just reduce your pedalling cadence to go slower. But doing so on a fast bike is difficult. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pushing the speedometer up until you catch yourself breaking a sweat and patting yourself on the back for your time.

I’ve found the best way to slow down is to ride a slow bike. The frame of an urban cruiser will put you in a comfortable and slow upright position, and minimal gears will keep your speed below the limit. A basket or carrier will give you plenty of hauling space, with just enough risk of losing your load to keep your ride in check. All of these forces conspire to do one thing: Make your ride pleasant. You’ll notice your surroundings. You might catch sight of an acquaintance and have time to wave or stop for a chat. You’ll see your city in a new way. Yes, it will increase your transportation time, but I’m betting not as much as you think.

It’s a different way of riding a bike, and it has its own unique pleasures. But you might want to keep that racing bike on hand. You never know when a race might break out.

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


Readers had some fantastic ideas for slowing down. Here are some of them:

 

These civic improvements are taking only baby-steps toward bike friendliness

Shifter Urban Cycling

Cycling in cities is getting easier in some places. Photo by Tom Babin.

Call it baby-steps bike infrastructure: the kind of urban design that takes a step toward bike friendliness, but doesn’t quite take the full leap.

Twice in recent months, new infrastructure has been built near me that falls into that incremental category, and it’s something being seen in many North American cities. It’s a mashup of traditional car-oriented thinking and forward-looking active transportation. For someone who has ridden a bike for transportation for a long time without much bike-friendly infrastructure, this kind of incrementalism is difficult to criticize because it offers some accommodation. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly the kind of stuff of bicycle dreams.

The first was a new overpass that opened near me last year to replace an aging and inadequate version that had been in place for decades. Here’s what we got.

The new overpass certainly moves cars efficiently, through a series of roundabouts (something that us North Americans are still getting accustomed to, as evidenced by the hapless driver spotted recently going the wrong way on a street fed by one of these roundabouts). Pedestrians and cyclists are also accommodated, through a series of wide shared pathways alongside the road. As a cyclist who has grown accustomed to having no thought spared toward my plight, these wide pathways are a nice bone to chew on.

But if I hadn’t grown so comfortable with being given nothing, this new overpass might annoy the hell out of me. Sure, those pathways are wide, but they are simply an add-on to what is clearly an auto-centric design. As you can see in the video above, to simply navigate from one side of the overpass to the other, a person on a bike must cross at least three streets through crosswalks (to dismount or not to dismount, that is the question), while navigating around pedestrians the entire time, further confusing the role of a person on a bike as neither a vehicle on the road nor a human on foot, but as some confused state in between.

This, I submit, is baby-steps bike infrastructure. While at least some accommodation has been made for those choosing active transportation, the overpass was built for cars almost exclusively.

The second piece of infrastructure to fall into this category is a new bridge spanning a river, recently opened after replacing a century-old iron bridge that was falling apart.

Here’s how a person on a bike navigated the old bridge (I shot this a few years ago as part of a video explaining why cyclists sometimes choose to ride on a road rather than on terrible bike paths that run adjacent).

Obviously, not a great cycling experience, particularly with that final indignity of being forced to dismount and walk across the bridge. Shudder.

So, after months of construction and millions of dollars and much hope channelled from within me, here’s what the new bridge looks like from the saddle of a bike:

Nice, right? Wide pathways. A clear, separate space for bikes. Even a nice gateway to the connecting streets. It’s still a shared pedestrian-cyclist route, which isn’t ideal, but a vast improvement.

But wait. Look at what happens when I try to cross the bridge from the other direction on a bike.

See that? Because there is only a bike-pedestrian route on one side of the bridge, I must ride around that odd little underpass to cross the bridge to the other side. It’s a small annoyance while on a bike, but a rather larger one when on foot.

I understand why designers made these choices (there are some space restrictions that beget this design), and it’s a vast improvement. But, like the overpass mentioned above, this is automobile infrastructure with some bike-ped add-ons. It’s built with active transportation as a secondary consideration. It’s middle-grade infrastructure. Baby steps.

I’m sure this posts risks coming off as yet another gripe from an impossible-to-satisfy cyclist, and I should probably be delighted that active modes were accommodated at all. But having experienced cities that give priority to cycling and walking, I can’t bring myself to lavish much praise on these examples. Truly bike-friendly design means being give direct, logical routes that connect smoothly without much thought. These are a step in that direction, but not quite there.

That may be fitting, because that phrase may also describe the state of my city as an entirety. We’ve come a long way in accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, for which I’m grateful. But we have a long way to go.

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

Do automakers really want to help save our cities from the car?

The recent dust-up between Tesla founder Elon Musk and humans who believe that urban transit isn’t a dystopian nightmare highlighted a broader question: Do automakers really care about our cities?

It’s not just Musk’s comments that have sparked this conversation. In recent years, leaders of the American automobile industry giants have been musing about how to better integrate their products into our cities. Check out Ford’s latest public statements and marketing efforts, such as this video:

See that? Yes, a bicycle. A real human-powered machine portrayed as a viable transportation option. It wasn’t long ago that automakers were actively mocking those who rode bikes with ads like this:

Things go even deeper than a couple of ads. Ford now operates a bike-sharing program in San Francisco. GM is pouring billions into the car-sharing program company Maven.

Driving this change is the new automobile futurism. Young urbanites are buying fewer automobiles and tech-driven companies such as Uber and Car2go are pushing a future in which driverless short-term rental cars get us around cities.

This is, of course, a danger to companies that have generated billions selling automobiles. So rather than pull a Blockbuster Video, they are talking about new ideas.

Which all begs the question: Do you believe them? Do you believe that an automobile company really wants to help build a future in which cycling, walking and transit are viable transportation options?

There are reasons to be skeptical. GM hasn’t been shy about revealing the reason it has been getting into the car-sharing game, and it’s not to improve our cities. “This is a business opportunity for us,” Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven, told NPR. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.” 

And some of the ideas coming from them are, plainly, bizarre.

Add to this Musk’s recent disparaging comments about transit and his latest idea of unlocking gridlock through a series of tunnels for single passenger vehicles, without any mention of how the vehicles will get to the tunnels, or what happens when they inevitable fill up.

Some automakers like Audi are even trying out things like loading an electric scooter into the trunk of their cars.

What’s bizarre, and what that video only touches on at the end, is that all of these automaker solutions are still being motivated by the thing that caused the problem in the first place: Selling more cars into cities that are already choking on an oversupply of them. Simply put: There are too many cars on our roads.

It’s a concept a toddler can understand — when roads are full, stop adding vehicles — yet automakers are twisting themselves into knots finding solutions to a problem they continue to perpetuate. The number of cars on the road is what’s made our transportation inefficient, expensive and slow. There’s only one way to fix it. Car reduction comes from enabling fast, affordable and efficient transit, cycling and walking, not changing the type of single-passenger vehicle we use, or building tunnels to accommodate more cars or selling more cars with build-in skateboards.

Perhaps what struck me most about that Ford ad above was the use of Nina Simone’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The original coup of automakers was successfully selling the idea that owning a car was a type of freedom. Seeing such an achingly beautiful song about personal freedom used in an ad like this was an attempt to flip the script — somehow, this new system being peddled is true freedom: freedom from the burden of car ownership, freedom of choice, freedom of movement. But the reality is our current transportation system lacks all three, and it’s largely because we’ve built it almost exclusively around the single-passenger automobile. For our cities, true freedom includes other aspect: Freedom from the car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Cycling Calgary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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