Tag: Commuting

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. 

A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

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

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

Bike pics from Montréal

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

In the ’hood

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

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



Commuting

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

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

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

Urban cycling in Vancouver

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

Non-traditional places

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

Cargo Bike

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

Longer rides

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

Just do it

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

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

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.

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

Forget all the other reasons you should be riding a bike. This is the one that matters

A new study offers perhaps the most definitive reason yet why society should be doing more to encourage cycling, and serves as another reminder that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.

This British study took a comprehensive look at the health benefits of bicycle commuting, and the results are staggering. Over the course of the study, the 263,450 subjects who were under review had a 41 per cent lower chance of death than those who didn’t. “Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer at all,” the study’s authors wrote.

Vancouver cycling

Bicycle commuting has major health benefits that far outweigh its risks. Photo: Tom Babin.

Just let those numbers soak in a bit. They truly are significant. If a pharmaceutical company created a pill that could reduce your chance of dying by almost half, with particular success against those stubborn scourges of humanity of cancer and heart disease, it would be heralded as a wonder drug. Luckily, this pill is already hanging from the rafters of your garage.



Two things struck me particularly from the study.

In their analysis, the researchers accounted for the risk associated with road accidents, which offers further evidence that even the supposed risks of riding a bike are vastly outweighed by the benefits of riding. Put another way: Our irrational fear of the relatively small risk of a blow to the head is overriding the guaranteed health benefits of bicycle commuting. Our assessment of risk in this context is, to be blunt, pretty messed up.

This mirrors the message of this new Australian documentary arguing against the country’s mandatory helmet law. In it, public health doctors and advocates express the same message: the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of injury, so we should be doing more to make it easier to ride bikes daily for transportation.

Which leads me to the second aspect of the study that really caught my attention. Of most benefit here wasn’t just riding a bike, but bicycle commuting. This is a pretty significant distinction.

That distinction is the difference between encouraging people to get out and exercise and making it easier for people to simply use a bike in their everyday lives. The medical community has been encouraging us for nearly a century to do the former, and despite the mainstreaming of things like running and going to the gym, we keep getting more sedentary, more obese and more unhealthy. That approach to health isn’t exactly a ringing success.

But this study seems to be mirroring what many cycling advocates have long said, and what bike commuters preach about all the time: Active living works when it’s part of our day, not an add-on.

The study found most of the benefits from cycling come in those situations in which cycling has already been built into the daily lives of people. In the world’s great bike cities, for example, people don’t bike because it’s good for them any more than they bike because it improves the street life of the city or because, God forbid, it reduces their carbon footprint. If you ask them, they will tell you that they ride a bike because it’s quick and easy.

Untitled

Bicycle commuting, in particular, was found to have major health benefits far beyond recreational cycling. Photo: Tom Babin.

“Policies designed to affect a population level modal shift to more active modes of commuting, particularly cycle commuting (eg, cycle lanes, city bike hire, subsidised cycle purchase schemes, and increasing provision for cycles on public transport), present major opportunities for the improvement of public health,” according to the study’s conclusion.

Therein lies the solution. If we want society to realize that 41 per cent improvement in our health that comes with bicycle commuting, we need to make it fast and easy to get places on a bike. That means continuing to accommodate bikes on our streets and building cities around the idea of active transportation. We’ve already started in most cities. We just need to hurry up.

Here’s why people ride their bike to work

On Bike to Work Day, I asked people a couple of straightforward questions about their chosen commuting mode. Here’s what they said. Take note of how many who said they ride for environmental reasons, for ideology, or because they hate cars (hint: none). 

 

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