There are plenty of good reasons why pedal or coaster brakes are pretty rare these days — disc brakes are better in almost every way. But there’s an important reason why I love old-fashioned coaster brakes on my bike.
It’s all about making the bike easy to use for short, urban, practical trips.
Check it out, along with 5 tips for making short trips on your bike as easy and convenient as possible.
Over the past decade, Vancouver has undergone a bike renaissance. Separated bike lanes have been installed, a bike-share program has been implemented, and more and more people are riding bikes for transportation. Even a downtown business group that once fought bike infrastructure has become supportive of cycling.
But these big changes didn’t come from thin air. This kind of bike boom, which is happening in many North American cities, was inspired by the lessons learned in the Netherlands.
Last week, I penned a rant about being accosted by an angry dude in a pickup truck frothing at me for existing on this mortal coil while riding a bike on a rural road. Sure, I was still slightly pissed by the whole experience — being screamed at by a stranger tends to stick in your craw — but I was more baffled. I genuinely wanted to know why there’s such hostility to bikes on rural roads.
The reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. Consider me enlightened.
Rather than the usual chorus of support from fellow cyclists, their reaction was rather muted, many saying they feel safer in rural areas than cities, despite a few bad apples. Even more interesting was the reaction from a few rural folks, who opened my eyes a bit.
Two things came out of those conversations for me. One: There is some truly appalling behaviour by those on both sides of this issue. Tongue-lashing an innocent cyclist for the actions of others is one example. But if you’re the cyclist shitting in the bushes of a rural property owner, you need to stop right now. Seriously, that’s messed up.
But more importantly, it dawned on me that this conflict isn’t some deeply rooted culture war or evidence of some long-held moral differences between urban cyclists and rural property owners, as I originally mused. The conflict is rooted in something much simpler, the same source of motorist-cyclist conflicts in cities: insufficient infrastructure.
What I heard from most rural landowners is that they fear inadvertently striking a cyclist in their car, and on narrow rural road they feel there isn’t enough space for two passing vehicles and a bike. And this happens mostly on roads that lack a shoulder.
That’s it. Some roads are too narrow. Yes, it’s the law to share the highways, and cyclists have every legal right to be on these roads, and cyclists are often stuck in a conundrum because the roads with the least traffic are also those that lack shoulders. But, simply put, rural drivers worry that the presence of cyclists on a narrow road doesn’t leave enough space to pass when the opposite lane is occupied, and it can be difficult to slow sufficiently at highway speeds when approaching cyclists unexpectedly.
So with that in mind, I came up with a few commandments for both motorists and cyclists that may help reduce conflicts on our rural roads.
Thou shalt show respect to all users of the road, and not unfairly malign an entire group of road users based on the actions of a few members of said group.
Thou shalt not bandy about the word “entitled” in conversations about road use, acknowledging that all types users on occasion display an attitude of entitlement over public roads.
Cyclists shall plan routes on rural roads that have wide shoulders wherever possible.
Motorists vow to pass cyclists with sufficient space wherever possible.
All road users agree that insufficient infrastructure and not human behaviour is the root of most conflicts between users, and focus their energies, not on each other, but on the forces that can build sufficient space on rural roads for all users to feel safe.
One last point, that is less a commandment than an observation: Maybe it’s time to recognize that road cycling isn’t going away, and rather than just tolerate it, it should be accommodated. Let’s identify safe routes and encourage cyclists to use them, as has already happened in many jurisdictions. Let’s see road cyclists as an opportunity and cater to them (a weekend food truck on a well-placed route, perhaps?). Look at how bicycle tourism has become a true industry in other jurisdictions. There is opportunity in those hordes of people in Lycra.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to this issue. Let me know what you think about the commandments above.
A friend and I were on our road bikes on a rural Sunday morning ride recently on the outskirts of the city. It was a warm and smoky day, and we had pedalled about 50 kilometres when we turned off onto a secondary road. There was no shoulder on the highway so we were hugging the right side. We weren’t riding two abreast, but we weren’t exactly single-file either — we were chatting, which is one of the joys of riding with friends on a Sunday morning.
The pickup truck approached from the opposite direction and I knew immediately that something was up because the driver-side window was rolled down and I could see a reddening face. The driver did a U-turn on the highway to confront us, shouting unintelligibles the entire time. I rolled my eyes — every cyclist knows an angry motorist when he sees one — and slowed down, mostly to avoid getting run over. He pulled his truck up beside me.
I told myself to stay calm, and I sat back and waited while he frothed. I let him shout his bit, and he calmed down enough that I stopped fearing for my life. Then, he squealed away.
I’ve encountered angry motorists before, but none as furious as this, and none seemingly set off by my mere presence. It was unnerving. It laid bare my vulnerability in that situation. We got our wits about us and finished our ride, but the joy of the morning had been sucked dry.
I tell you this not as a precursor to a rant about entitled motorists and their irrational anger toward cyclists, but as a plea to help me understand. As I recounted this story over the next few days, nearly every cyclist I spoke to had a similar story. What I’d like to get out of this is reasonable answers to a simple question: Dude, what’s your problem?
I’m being serious here. While Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t in his most articulate state, he did shout a few nuggets that gave me an idea of what his problem was. “You cyclists!” “I have to live out here, this is just a joyride for you!” “Last week, I passed 200 of you guys!” “This is my life!” “Once, some cyclist was mad that I dropped manure on the highway. I mean, who the fuck do you guys think you are?”
Based on that, I’m making a few assumptions. I suspect he feels his homestead is being invaded by outsiders. I suspect he perceives all cyclists as disobeying the rules of the road, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for inadvertently running over a cyclist. I also suspect his anger goes a tad deeper, fuelled by a vein of discontent throughout rural areas because of a perception (rightly or wrongly) that rural life is being disrespected.
So I can empathize, even if this is just my speculation. But still, it’s difficult to square the reaction we received to our behaviour — we were riding a bike on a quiet public road on a Sunday morning when traffic was almost nonexistent. I take some responsibility for the situation. We weren’t, at that moment, following the letter of the law requiring strict single-file riding (although I tend to agree with those advocating for a change to improve visibility,) and I apologized. My sense, however, was that Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t nitpicking the nuances of the traffic act, it was our mere presence that set him off.
So here’s my plea, to those who live in rural areas and honk or scream at cyclists: What’s up? What’s so bad about our presence? What’s so awful about sharing the highway that it comes down to threats and anger? Is momentarily slowing down and passing bikes really so burdensome? Is this really about cyclists, or are you projecting larger grievances onto unsuspecting passersby? And do you really want to rid the world of people out riding bikes for pleasure and fitness on weekend mornings?
Seriously, help me understand. Leave a comment below, or drop a note on Facebookor Twitter. Let’s see if we can better understand each other.
My first thought was not that someone had deliberately sown tacks on the bike lane.
It was a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago. The air was pleasant. We were pedalling down 102 Ave to meet friends from Holland for brunch. A metallic sound, a kind of clank, from the back of Shelagh’s bike made her pull over for a quick inspection of her machine. Not looking for tacks, we didn’t at first find two of them embedded in her back tire. The spokes were good, the chain guard was good, maybe a rock had kicked up into the fender? We rode the last block to Blue Plate, locked up and forgot about the mystery sound.
While we talked and laughed and reminisced across a table inside, the back tire breathed its last on the sidewalk outside.
“Something’s not right,” Shelagh said a block into the ride home.
Flat tire. Or, if optional spelling is allowed, a pfffffflatt tire. The p and the extra f’s somehow do a better job of capturing the sense of immediate exasperation presented by a tube that has lost an encounter with a nail or a shard of glass or any other piece of foreign material.
“There are two tacks in the tire,” I said, not quite believing the words, glimpsing, but not quite facing the implication. Because unlike a nail (escaped from a construction site) or a piece of glass (escaped from windshield or window or beer drinker’s grip), tacks do not just appear in the surf of street life. Tacks don’t blow off bulletin boards. Like a spike belt, tacks, whether medievally, mischievously or maliciously, are deliberately placed.
Exasperation turned to disbelief. And then to anger after changing out the tube and retracing our path up the 102 Ave bike lane and finding another 42 tacks on the patch where two had found their mark a couple of hours earlier. A tack on a bike lane in the sun gleams like a gold tooth in a sinister smile of a villain on Saturday morning cartoons. We waved down and notified other bicycle riders and nodded as their faces registered the transition from curious to astonished to deflated.
I sent on online complaint to police. I tweeted a warning.
The responses organized themselves across roughly four categories.
There was wordplay. I appreciate wordplay. No tack attack is made more disturbing by making light of things. Top of class in this category went to Steve from Ohio, who replied: I don’t have a baloney skin in the game, but I’d think you could call that stretch the Flats! Runnerup was Aaron from Calgary for this: Ah, yes, that stretch of 102 Ave is known as the Bulletin Board District.
There was some media analysis. Glen from Seattle noted: We had carpet tacks blowing off carpeting trucks all over Seattle for a while. Funny how that happens. Glen’s theory was that the media environment allows or even encourages shit like tack attacks to occur. Fundamentally, media outlets need eyeballs for advertisers; eyeballs are attracted by tension and drama and opposition and division; emotion is the real target of attention merchants; media outlets new or old devote a disproportionate amount of resources doing stories that mine the emotions that deliver the eyeballs; bike lanes are, and then are made to be, emotional; so, bike lane stories proliferate; but, emotion outs in tacks on the roads, too, and not just in the intended and relatively salutary views, subscriptions, letters to the editors and clicks.
There was public service. Jared from Edmonton reported: At 10am today, a tourist couple and I removed three handfuls from the same spot (102 Ave between 109 St ad 105 St).
And there were the reactions that mixed anger and regret. Alexandra from Edmonton said:
I believe that whoever broadcast the tacks on the 102 Ave bike lanes in Edmonton did not intend to puncture the tire of Alexandra’s six-year-old son. A boy out for a ride downtown on Saturday with his family was not, I still believe, the pictured target. It’s probably closer to the truth to say that the tack attacker had no pictured target at all. As a puny part of the great tradition of broadcasters stretching back to Jesus and Plato, he or she or they simply put their points out there and were content to see where and in whom and how deeply they landed.
I don’t know how deeply my tweet landed, either, even though I have access to impressive analytics about impressions and engagements and likes and replies.
We’re all in the broadcast business, I guess. Granted, we’re not all tack sowers. Thankfully, maybe just one of us is. Whoever that one person is needs to spend as much time making room for difference than attacking the bicycles of six-year-old kids. But, with the tackhead, we do share a method of putting stuff out there without quite knowing where it goes and what it does. That’s what’s tricky about wanting to get attention, or getting paid to get attention. That’s what I tried to tell the StarMetro Edmonton reporter who asked for a comment after my tweet had started doing its rounds.
Sometimes it can be difficult for us North Americans to truly envision a bike-friendly city. What with our car dominance and the pittances we throw at cycling, breaking the development mould that has dominated for the past half century can be a difficult mental leap.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about little spots in every city that embody bike-friendliness, even in a small day. You may have to squint to see them, but these places can, hopefully, help you envision what a more balanced transportation environment might look like.
Looking for scenes of bike-friendliness. Photo by Tom Babin.
You can turn your commute into a force for good in your life. Photo by Tom Babin.
You could drive a car to work every day. But then you’d be missing out on an opportunity to make your life both safer and healthier.
So says research from the team of Dr. Kay Teschke from the University of British Columbia, who looked at the relative safety of different modes of transportation. When it comes to fatality rates, which mode is safest? Here’s a hint: It’s not motorcycling. Check out the video for more.
And check out the research that inspired this video here and here. It’s fascinating stuff.
My blog earlier this winter offering tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike prompted some questions, so I thought I would expand a bit in video format. So here it is: Five tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike: the expanded edition.
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.
Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.
In the ’hood
Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.
So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.
Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.
It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.
Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.
What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.
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?
If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.
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.