Tag: Cycling (Page 1 of 2)

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). 

 

Increasing number of dead pedestrians are a reminder that bike lanes matter

A reader recently asked a question recently that got me thinking: If conditions are ripe for cycling, why bother adding bike infrastructure?

The question came out of my recent post from Yellowknife in which I mused about the city’s potential as a great bike town thanks to its wide streets, slow traffic and hearty residents. If all those qualities already exist, she asked, why the hell would it need bike lanes?

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I was pondering that question when a few pieces of news dropped recently related to pedestrians.

First was a new report that found the number of pedestrians being killed by cars has grown in recent years. The counter-intuitive nature of this assured it a place in the news: As technology makes motor vehicles safer – especially with the promise of self-driving cars on the horizon – we are somehow managing to kill increasing numbers of people simply walking down the street (and don’t go blaming “distracted pedestrians,” the report made a point of sharing blame with excessive motor vehicle speed and distracted drivers).

I was ready to lump this statistic into my repository of horrific-yet-underappreciated news about car culture when I came across another stat that was new (to me): a report that laid even more bare the shocking nature of those pedestrian-fatality statistics. The number of people who are walking on city streets in North America has been on a 30-year decline (the study found the much heralded 70 per cent decrease in child pedestrian fatalities since 1969 also corresponded with a 67 per cent decrease in the number of kids walking to school). Which means we’re killing pedestrians at increasing rates, even as the number of pedestrians is small and falling.

This is yet another example of the mind-boggling apathy we have toward the carnage of motor vehicles, but what does it have to do with bikes? One word: Perceptions.

Despite the seemingly dire situation we are putting pedestrians in, most people, I’m willing to bet, would classify walking down the street as something safe. Sure, everybody acknowledges that getting hit by a bus can happen at any time (hell, we even have an expression about the rarity of “getting hit by a bus”), but rare is the person who would choose to avoid sidewalks out of fear of their safety.

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Similarly, the risks of driving a car are also accepted as part of life by most urban dwellers, even though driving comes with risk. Rare too are those who refuse to drive because of the danger.

Yet when it comes to cycling, masses of people still refuse to ride in urban settings because they fear for their safety, even though statistics prove that riding a bike is about equal in risk to walking down the street.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to unpack the reasons behind our fear of riding a bike, but this fear helps explain, at least a little bit, both the success, and need, for safe and protected bike infrastructure.

Bike lanes, when well built, usually reduce the number of collisions between bikes and cars (they also, as a side benefit, tend to decrease collisions between drivers and pedestrians, and drivers and other drivers too). But that only goes so far in explaining why they also tend to draw out more people on bikes. The other reason is that protected bike lanes simply feel safer. In this case, the perception of safety may be just as important as safety itself.

So, sure, you could argue there’s little added safety benefit to spending tax dollars on bike infrastructure in a small city like Yellowknife that is already pretty bike friendly. But I’m willing to bet that a minimum grid of well-built bike infrastructure would encourage more tentative cyclists to ride regularly simply because it makes them feel good.

With all the added benefits that come with cycling – healthier people, more efficient transportation system, better street life – that feeling alone may be worth the price of the investment.

 

Do bike lanes marginalize people in the suburbs?

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“Big grocery.”

That is a slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion about how to make cities more bike friendly by Ontarian Lana Stewart, who speaks and writes thoughtfully about the fixation of urban cycling advocates on commuters, despite statistics showing that a huge percentage of car trips are elsewhere, such as running errands, shuffling kids to activities and, yes, getting groceries.

In the shadow of “big commute,” she suggests more attention be given to “big grocery.”

Stewart’s is a rather colourful way of drawing attention to the fact that suburbs often get overlooked in discussions about urban cycling. This has deeper ramifications than just inconvenience. In the changing nature of cities, suburbanites are often home to people who can’t afford inner-city living, which means those who could most benefit from improvements to cycling (one of the more affordable transportation modes available), are often left out of the conversation.

IMG_3504Darnel Harris, another Ontario advocate, takes the argument even farther, saying those who live in the suburbs can be marginalized by bike infrastructure in a couple of ways. Conversations about urban cycling often denigrate the ‘burbs, making people feel shame in their communities. And bike lanes often are precursors (or symptoms of) gentrification, which can push low-income residents out of their own neighbourhoods. There have even been protestations against bike lanes in some communities, based not on the usual anti-bike ignorance, but from those afraid that bike lanes will drive out the poor.

This is a horrific situation considering affordability should be one of the key benefits of using a bike. In fact, one of the great success stories of urban cycling is the way bike lanes help better integrate poor residents into cities. Urban cycling hero Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, once said that bike lanes show that “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.”

There’s no easy to solution to all of this. Retrofitting suburbs to be more friendly to active transportation in a way that doesn’t lead to gentrification would be the ultimate answer, but it’s expensive, slow and difficult. But there are some other good ideas circulating. Harris, for one, is pushing a project to bring cargo bikes to the ‘burbs, based on the idea that people will be better able to capitalize on their utilitarian nature without having to wait for expensive infrastructure improvements that could change their neighbourhood. 

It’s an intriguing idea, and at least gets the conversation started on ways of becoming more inclusive while those long-term retrofits finally make their way outside of expensive urban areas. 

My perfect winter bike really exists, and I just bought it

Priority Continuum

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?

For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.

Finally got my new (to me) ride on the road for the season. #yycbike

I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.

While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.

Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.

I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.

But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?

Priority Continuum

My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:

Priority Continuum

Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.

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Decent fenders (to keep my ass dry)? Check.

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Hydraulic disc brakes (for cold-weather stopping power)? Check.

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Twist shifter (for use with warm mittens)? Check.

In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.

“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.

“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures.  We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”

I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.

As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.

So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.

As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.

Priority Continuum

Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.

But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.

Priority Continuum

The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.

Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.

I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.

 

10 new year’s resolutions for your winter-bike commute

You’re fat off shortbread and turkey. The consumer orgy haze of Dec. 25 still lingers. You can remember nothing on New Year’s Eve after Mariah Carey. Sounds like the perfect time to start a new habit!

So here, future winter cyclist, are some suggestions to get you going in 2017.

Resolve to ride more

When you’re staring out your window at blowing snow and icicles, it’s easy to talk yourself out of riding your bike. “It’s too cold,” or “It’s too slippery,” or “The elaborate series of mental defenses that I rely on to convince myself that winter doesn’t exist have temporarily broken down.”

So your first resolution is to push through those nay-saying thoughts. Remember, there are easy ways to deal with the cold, snow and ice (warm clothes, well-chosen routes, and slowing down, respectively), and riding a bike to work in winter feels great, keeps you in shape, and makes the season a little less intimidating. You’ll almost never regret riding, but if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself all day when you avoid riding on a day when you could have.

Resolve to avoid becoming a winter-cycling masochist

Sure, it’s great to commit to riding your bike more in winter, but there’s no reason to be a zealot. If the weather drops below where you feel comfortable riding, if the plows haven’t been to your neighbourhood yet, or if an overnight ice storm freezes your studded tires to your lawn, don’t feel pressured to ride. Take transit, car pool or drive your automobile. There’s nothing to be gained by punishing yourself. Even riding a few times a month during the winter is a win, so don’t feel guilty for taking days off. Keep it fun and realistic.

Resolve to stop bragging

I get it. When you beat the elements on your bike and waltz into work with a steaming head and your feel-good pheromones raging, while everybody else is huddled against the cold and complaining, it’s tempting to brag. Your co-workers will encourage it by expressing disbelief that you’d be crazy-brave enough to ride in this weather. Resist the urge. You are not tough for riding a bike in winter. You are not exceptional. People do it all over the world every day. Bragging about it makes winter cycling seem like something reserved for macho athletes, not right-thinking norms who just want to get to work on time. Winter cycling will never get into the mainstream if everyone who does it brags about it. Stop it.Tom_Babin_IMG_2210

Resolve to try a fat bike

It’s a bike with monster-truck tires. It tears through powder. And it’s a blast.

Fat-biking has been one of the great bike-industry success stories of the past decade, and with every major bike maker now pushing multiple models, this is the time to try it. Rent a bike, and go find some snow-covered trails or some fresh powder in your ‘hood. Finish at a coffee shop for some apres-bike warmth. Even if you don’t regularly ride a bike for recreation, give one a try. It may change the way you think about your winter commute, and you’ll have fun.

Resolve to stay bright

Unless you are a cat burgler or Batman, the darkness of winter can be a challenge when riding a bike. The good news is that LED technology has made bike lights much more affordable and efficient than they once were. So buy them, share them, charge them, and use them, for your bike, your body and your wheels. The more the merrier. Here are my basic guidelines: Two white ones of the front, two red ones on the back (two lights, according to some studies, make it easier for motorists to judge your distance). Make sure they are pointing to the ground and not into the eyes of passersby. Refrain from blinking lights unless you feel the added visibility is absolutely necessary. Don’t rely on reflectors.

Resolve to use the right stuff

Choosing the right gear can make your winter commuting life easier. Fenders are great. Studded tires work wonders on ice. A good base layer of merino wool will keep you toasty. Decent gloves and footwear are important. Lights are key (see previous resolution). Making good choices in winter will just make your life easier.
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Resolve to never get carried away with the gear

Everything mentioned in resolution No. 7 stands, but let’s not go overboard. As much fun as it is, you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on gear in order to ride a bike in winter. A junker of a bike may work better for you than a shiny new model because snow, salt and slush can quickly rust your components. Cheap old winter boots will keep your feed just as warm as those $600 fat-bike boots. A good pair of ski mittens may work just as well as those expensive pogies. I’ve used the same bargain-basement balaclava beneath my helmet for years. All kinds of great winter-bike gear is now available, thanks to the popularity of fat bikes, and it is certainly nice to have. But very little of it is essential. Just get out there and ride.

Resolve to bring a friend

Somewhere in your office is a summer cyclist who longingly watches with envy as you ride your bike home through the snow. Alas, an irrational fear of winter is clogging the brain of that poor cyclist. Help that person. Offer a nudge. Explain how much you love riding in winter, provide some gentle advice, and deliver support until they feel comfortable. Don’t shame that person if they don’t do it because, well, nobody likes an asshole. But everybody likes that helpful and encouraging friend who inspires them.

Resolve to make your city more winter-bike friendly

Great bike cities all look the same in the summer — well build, safe and connected bike lanes inhabited by smiling, happy people on bikes. Winters, however, are different everywhere, so cities that are serious about becoming bike-friendly must adapt to local conditions. Encourage your city to help make it easier. The first step is to improve overall bike-friendliness. Advocate for improved policies, laws and funding for bike infrastructure. Once a good network of safe bike lanes is built, make sure the city is maintaining that infrastructure in the winter by plowing it efficiently, de-icing it when necessary, and, generally, taking the job seriously. Remember: If you plow it, they will come.

Resolve to enjoy winter

Winter can be dark. It can be cold. It can be harsh. But winter can also be a time of great beauty, pleasure and renewal. If you spend most of the season hiding from winter, you are unlikely to enjoy it, and even more unlikely to try riding a bike through it. So change your attitude. Find something you enjoy in winter — skiing, skating, a winter festival, walks in the snow, licking telephone poles — and commit to doing it. The more positive experiences you have in winter, the less you’ll feel intimidated by it. That is the first step to having a well-adjusted relationship with winter. You may never love it, but if you move beyond hatred and dread, your life will be much better. And someday, you may find yourself riding a bike through it.

 

 

Here’s why all the reasons for licensing bikes fail

It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.

For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.

So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:

Murky motivations

According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?

With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.

If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.

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Registration is unruly

Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.

An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.

In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.

There are better ways to control cyclists

Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.

Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.

But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.

It rarely makes money

The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.

On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.

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It doesn’t prevent theft

In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.

Because it’s stupid

Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.

The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.

Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.

To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.

Update

Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.

Here’s how little connections can make big improvements to bike friendliness

A few weeks ago, I criticized cities for failing to build sensible connections between existing bike lanes.

Then I rolled over a relatively new piece of bike infrastructure in my city, and had a bit of a moment. “There,” I thought. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Here’s that new piece of infrastructure.

What do you think of this new link on 5th Avenue N.W.?

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

(Just a little shout out to the dude in the video driving that black pickup truck who hogs the intersection and then accelerates needlessly fast — thanks for re-asserting your dominance of the roads in such a subtle way).

This may not look like much, but this intersection has some history. Back in 2011, the addition of a painted bike lane on one of the streets of this intersection prompted one of the city’s first bike boxes.

The problem was, it was a weird-ass bike box. It was oddly placed, few people understood how to use it, and fewer still actually used it. For several years, city workers gamely tried to “educate” people on proper use of the bike box, but even after watching the video and practicing, I was still a little baffled.

Eventually, the city threw in the towel, and sent some poor road worker to scrape the green paint off the road.

Now, a few years later, a new bike lane on the intersecting road prompted another attempt. This time, a new tactic has been tried, whereby cyclists are directed from the street onto a short shared pathway before being returned to the road.

This thing isn’t perfect. It’s still a little odd, and putting cyclists onto what is basically the sidewalk is a little counter-intuitive, especially when there are a lot of pedestrians.


But if you take a broader look at this, there’s a lot to like. A few weeks ago, this was exactly the kind of missing connection I was ranting about. Now, it’s been fixed — a little creativity and a small amount of asphalt has filled this missing link.

That’s not the only one that has come together in recent weeks. Here’s another connection that has been a problem for years.

Another new #yycbike connection, this one across 17th Avenue SW.

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

These are the kinds of small investments that can make a huge difference in the daily transportation needs of cyclists. They are cheap fixes, done quickly, but these connections do much for improving the reliability of the bike network. This is the kind of thing that improves overall bike friendliness in a city. This is the kind of thing all cities should be doing more of.

Even more fundamentally, these are examples of a city giving things a shot. The first idea didn’t work, so something new is being tried. Even if this one flops like the last one, this is the kind of experimentation that leads to a better city.

Want to build better bike infrastructure? Listen to people riding bikes

Let’s play a little bicycle commuter game.

There are two videos below, both of which I shot, very professionally, by holding up my phone while I rode my bicycle to work.

These videos were shot on two roads that run parallel to each other one block apart.

Here’s the challenge: Guess which road contains bike-specific infrastructure.

Video one shows a quiet residential road with slow-moving cars and — and this is the important part — people on bikes.

The second video is a busy road filled with buses and impatient motorists and, importantly, nobody else on a bike, other than your rather shaky cameraman.

Which one features the dedicated bike route?

Wrong. The road with the dedicated bike lane is seen in the second video . The right-hand lane that I’m riding in is a shared bus/bike lane, as indicated by this sign.

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Here’s a closeup of the sign, indicating that, during rush hour, the parking lane turns into a shared lane dedicated to buses and bikes.

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Yet, there are no bikes in this lane. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a bike in this lane, mostly because I avoid the lane myself on most days. It’s busy with cars, shared with buses that cut me off regularly to drop passengers, and often filled with illegally parked cars. It’s a poor bike lane.

The first video shows where I usually ride, on a parallel route one block away that is usually filled with fellow cyclists. Many days, I count more bikes than cars, which is rather novel in my city.

So what gives? There’s much to talk about in this scenario (here, I’ll get you started: Shared bus-bike lanes suck, bike lanes that exist only during rush hour suck, people who illegally park their cars in shared bus-bike lanes suck), but the thing that always jumps into my mind is this: If you want to build well-used bike lanes, listen to cyclists. And listening doesn’t always mean talking — paying attention to the way actual people on bikes behave can go a long way to building well-used bike infrastructure.

The shared bus-bike lane was installed on this stretch of road several years ago, to the consternation of nearly everybody who uses the road. Users worried the parking lanes that transformed into shared bus-bike lanes during rush hour would be dangerous and confusing to bus drivers, motorists and cyclists. Since then, there hasn’t been much to those worries, mostly because so few cyclists use it. Cyclists are voting with their feet (well, their wheels) and choosing the nice quiet residential road one block away.

Urban planners often talk about “desire lines,” which is a fancy way of paying attention to where people want to move, rather than where we expect them to. Rather than build a crosswalk where it’s convenient for car traffic, for example, it’s better to watch where people are jaywalking and build a crosswalk there.

With cycling, it can be tricky to assess desire lines before infrastructure is built because so few will brave sections of a city perceived to be dangerous, but there are situations that it makes more sense to accommodate cyclists where they are, rather than where city planners want them to be.

This can be done is ways simple to complex. Surveys can work. So can watching for the tracks of bike in a fresh snowfall. You can also use technology. In my city, planners look at data from fitness-tracking app Strava to see the routes of users, albeit a limited cross-section of users (despite the above example, Calgary does a decent job watching cyclist behaviour). Some cities have developed tracking apps used to collect data from the travels of volunteer users. All of these methods offer insight into the ways cyclists move through cities in the real world.

This isn’t an argument in favour of moving bike lanes off of busy roads. An important part of the success of that residential road — perhaps the most important part — is that it has top-notch connections to a network of separated bike path that brings commuters right downtown.

Rather, this is an argument in favour of cyclist-centric planning, where bike routes are designed for use in the real world, not in ways we might imagine them being used.

The folly of paint: Is it time to give up on painted bike lanes completely?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio call-in show about urban cycling during which a caller expressed her fear that her adult son was going to be killed on the roads. He is a bicycle commuter who had already been struck by cars twice while riding inside a painted bike lane.

I mumbled a rather lame response about how better infrastructure would help. But the caller’s rather terrifying story stuck in my mind. Especially over the past several weeks, when I’ve been watching this scene come together on two different roads that I ride a bike on regularly.

Look what's forming on 20th Street S.W.: a nicely painted area to be doored. #yycbike

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

When public consultations over the idea of making these rather busy single-lane roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly began more than a year ago, I was heartened. I’ve been riding them for years, and I welcomed anything that might make cyclists safer. I dutifully offered my feedback during the consultation process, emphasizing the need to protect cyclists from cars in order to encourage all people to ride, no matter their ability nor confidence.

Weeks later, the plan emerged. Sigh. Some stripes. Some painted stripes on the asphalt. As a cyclist, I’ve been conditioned to be grateful for any miserable old infrastructure crumb thrown my way, but you’ll please forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a painted line. Is this really going to protect cyclists, or encourage anyone to ride?

On some level, I understand why the decision was made to do nothing more here than lay down some paint. Budgets are tight. Not all residents in the area supported bike infrastructure. Building proper segregated bike lanes can be controversial. Business worried about losing too many parking spaces. The streets can be too narrow for anything else under traffic guidelines. Blah, blah, blah — it’s the same arguments in every city over and over again.

To be fair, these projects did offer some improvements to pedestrians and in slowing traffic (the latter done, mostly, by putting cyclists in the way of cars). But if the fundamental purpose of a bike lane is to make it safe enough for people of all type to ride in, no matter their skill, I thought I’d test the theory in the simplest way I knew how. I’d take my 11-year-old son onto one of the new lanes and see what he thought about it.

Before this project, he refused to ride on one of these roads because he felt unsafe. Now? He excitedly gave the bike lane a try (yes, he’s as nerdy about bike infrastructure as his dad). He cares little for the politics and compromise that goes into bike infrastructure. He just wants to ride without getting pancaked by an SUV. On this lane, it didn’t take long before he said he felt trapped between moving cars and the door zone. The verdict? “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s better about this?”

Good question. Were there other options for these projects? Absolutely. The bike lane could have been segregated by a barrier. The bike lane could have been placed between the curb and parked cars, thereby using parked vehicles as a barrier, which was the winning suggestion last year when I asked readers to choose a better design. The bike lane could have been raised a few inches to create an easy barrier, as we’ve seen in other countries. Or, something wacky could have been done, like these others suggestions from readers.

I know how difficult it can be for city planners to get bike infrastructure of any kind built in our political environment. And I understand the argument of incrementalism — painted lanes are a more palatable baby step toward better infrastructure in the future. But let’s not pretend this is anything more than a compromise that doesn’t even meet the first standard of bike infrastructure: encouraging an enthusiastic kid to ride in them.

I understand why lanes like this are installed, but when my son takes his bike down this road, that’s all just noise. My thoughts will be on that worried mom from the call-in show.

What’s your feeling on painted bike lanes? Do you use them? Do you think more should be built? Or is it time to move past them into better, safer infrastructure? Use the comments below, or let the author know what you think on Twitter or Facebook.

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Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver flourishes as a bike city, while Toronto is mired in yesterday’s battles

A decade ago, riding a bicycle in Toronto and Vancouver was, in some ways, a similar experience.

Two of Canada’s biggest cities, both had dense and walkable urban cores, but little in the way of bike-specific infrastructure, so riding through the city could be a harrowing experience. Both cities had thousands of cyclists who were keen on getting around safely, but there were also those who hated the idea of carving out space for cyclists, so fierce debates played out in the media and the local pubs over the idea of bike lanes.

Since then, the two cities went in different directions, and the results are palpable. At least, they are palpable if you were reading the local papers this weekend.

In Toronto’s Globe and Mail came yet another column lamenting the “Mad Max” scenarios between cars and drivers. After witnessing a frightening confrontation between a motorist and a cyclist, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti said summer in her city feels like “Death Race 2016.”

Over on the west coast, in contrast, the Vancouver Sun ran a long piece about the blossoming of businesses located along new(ish) separated bike lanes. The feature even quoted the leader of a downtown business group that was once hostile to bike lanes, who said there has been a “sea change” in attitudes toward cycling, as many business groups embrace the burgeoning scene and the spendy nature of those cyclists.

Neither piece is, of course, completely representative of their respective cities (Renzetti’s column is a tad dramatic, and the Sun’s piece is a tad optimistic), but they both are further signs of how much their respective cities have changed (or stagnated) for cyclists in the past decade.

First, Toronto: After an ambitious plan from city hall in the 1990s, Toronto went through a bikelash the likes of which few cities have experienced. After making some headway on the plan, late crack-smoking suburban populist Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010, and he promptly went about dismantling what little progress the city had made for cyclists. With typically wrong-headed rhetoric, one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to remove a recently installed bike lane. “The war on cars is over,” he famously said.

Six years later, a more forward thinking and reasonable regime is leading city hall, and the plans for making the city better for cycling are slowly being dusted off. In a city that is filled with so many bicycles only the willfully ignorant could deny their place with a straight face, those lost years are taking their toll. Progress is finally being made, which means the growing pains of its transportation infrastructure are being acutely felt, and the result is those portrayals of a bottled-up sense of hostility on city streets, confrontations, raging debates in the press, and those “Mad Max” analogies.

That scenario might sound familiar to Vancouverites. The city was within the throes of its own George Milleresque dustup over bikes just a couple of years ago, when plans to add a bike route sparked street protests, allegations of class warfare and general unpleasantness directed toward those on two wheels. The turnaround has been swift, with formerly hostile business owners making a complete turnaround, cyclists flocking to the new routes, and city planners trying to keep their I-told-you-so smirks in check.

That may seen a dramatic flip, but it’s not atypical. The controversies that dog bike-lane proposals seldom last long, often because well-planned and well-executed projects quickly prove their worth and then fall from the minds of reasonable people who were once opposed. That tends to leave those dug-in opponents looking like lonely cranks, like this guy.

What worked in Vancouver, and in so many other cities, was the political courage to back a project that was well-conceived but contentious. Not every project will work, but sometimes giving them a try is worth the pain.

Toronto is a different city than Vancouver, with its own unique transportation and political problems, but you can’t help but wonder if those bike plans had been implemented all those years ago, Mad Max would exist only on Netflix.

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