Tag: Infrastructure

This is the one thing you should be frightened of while riding your bike in winter

Riding a bike is only the best thing ever, so of course you want to do it all winter long. But you’re frightened. All that cold, snow and ice is intimidating.

But after more than a decade of riding through northern winters, I’ve learned a secret: Those are not the things you should be afraid of.

Cold, for example, is the easiest problem for a winter cyclist to tackle. Pedalling legs are like bellows of your internal furnace: Once they get moving, your body will warm. In fact, the real risk in winter is dressing too warmly.

Snow? Pshaw. Snow may have been a problem at some point, but there are plenty of ways to deal with snow these days. Fat bikes will get you through pretty much anything shallower than your shin. A taxpayer-funded snow plow clearing a bike lane in a timely way is even better.

And don’t worry about ice. If you live in an ice-prone area, studded tires are like the magical traction fairies of winter. Even putting a single studded tire on the front of wheel of your bike will work wonders. Two studded tires will make you feel like you’re riding a Zamboni.

Nope, those are easy problems to deal with. What you really need to worry about is this:

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

That mashed-potato mixture of snow and dirt is snirt, the most worrying part of a winter bike commute. Photo by Tom Babin.

This is snirt. It’s a deadly mixture of snow and dirt (hence, snirt), mashed together by passing vehicles into a loose, soft concoction that seems sent from a wintry hell to make your blissful winter ride worrisome.

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

Snow and ice is no problem for my winter commute. This stuff, however, is worrying. Photo by Tom Babin.

Snirt is an unfortunate side effect of urban winter, and it’s worrying because it tends to lift up bikes and float them around in unpredictable ways. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with all kinds of snow, ice and cold, but snirt is the one element that still gives me willies in the night.

There are ways to minimize the impact of snirt. I’ve found that two extremes make a difference. A skinny road bike tire can sometimes cut through small batches of snirt to the more stable stuff below, and a fat-bike tire can sometimes power through it (studs in both cases certainly help). But I’ve yet to find a fool-proof tactic for staying stable in all cases.

So here’s my advice: Learn to live with snirt. You can’t beat it, so give it respect. Avoid it wherever you can. That may mean choosing a route that avoids unplowed side streets. It may mean choosing a line of shallow snirt through a deeper pile of snirt. It may mean riding for a short stretch on a section of the road (or, ahem, sidewalk) that is cleared, even if you’d normally avoid doing so. It may mean getting off and walking through certain patches. Or it may mean taking transit for a day or two after a snowfall until the plows have come by.

Once you’ve come to terms with the reality of snirt, you’ve officially vanquished all legitimate fears about riding in winter. Which means you can get back to enjoying the ride. And in winter, few things are as fun and rewarding as a good bike ride.

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

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.

Four ways New York’s bike renaissance can help fix your city

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, the new book by Janette Sadik-Khan, offers insight into how the former traffic commissioner of New York City overcame decades of planning inertia to put the city on a path to a more human-centred transportation network by improving walking, cycling and public transit.

Street Fight details Janette Sadik-Khan’s transformative time as the transportation czar of New York City.

While some of her experiences are of limited relevance in places that lack the density and pedestrian/transit traditions of New York, there is much applicable for other cities. Here are a few lessons for other cities looking to refocus their transportation networks away from cars and onto people — on bikes, transit and their own two feet.

Sell it on safety

The environmental benefits of walking and cycling are real, but can be a tough sell thanks to the annoying intractability of what passes for modern environmental debate. Likewise, selling bike lanes on the idea of improving traffic is often a non-starter, not because they don’t, but because arm-chair planners have developed a skin of skepticism so thick it’s impervious to logic and evidence. Touting the increased health benefits of active transportation may be a little more effective because it’s a no-brainer, but if nagging people into being more active was an effective strategy, we’d all be a nation of health nuts by now.

What seemed to tip the scales in favour of cycling in New York under Sadik-Khan was the realized safety benefits. Traffic violence, as she calls it, is so pervasive in modern cities that we barely notice it, but the improvements that came about because of the changes in the city were eye-opening. From Streetfight:

  • On streets with protected bike paths, injury rates for cyclists, pedestrians and people in cars plunged as much as 43 per cent.
  • On streets with bike lanes, serious crashes were 40 per cent less deadly for pedestrians.
  • The rate of cyclists killed fell by nearly 75 per cent.
  • At locations where major engineering changes were made, fatalities dropped 34 per cent.
  • One small street redesign on Clinton Street lead to a 21 per cent reduction in crashes on the street.
  • Reducing speeds to 30 mph from 40 (from 64 km/h down to 48 km/h) lowered the chance of death for pedestrians by 50 per cent.
  • Improving a pedestrian crossing on one busy Manhattan street decreased injuries by 88 per cent.

Considering the blase attitude we continue to display about the inevitability of vehicle violence, these numbers can be sobering.

Jeanette Sadik-Khan

The backlash is inevitable

Not every bike lane project is a good one. Not every street needs a bike lane. But the opposition to even well-planned, well-designed bike routes is eerily similar in every city. New York is no exception, except that everything was magnified.

Sadik-Khan won many of the battles over the streets, but what struck me about her recollections of the debates was their familiarity of the arguments against the lanes, even when such arguments have been disproven in other cities time and again. Opponents said bike lanes would create traffic chaos (they didn’t), they would make the streets more dangerous (they didn’t), they wouldn’t be used (they are), they weren’t justified because the number of cyclists was too low (the number of cyclists grew after lanes were installed), the community wasn’t consulted (one project included 151 public meetings), the city is not Amsterdam and never will be (well, it was once called New Amsterdam, but duh), the city faked the data to justify the project (Sadik-Khan denies this), the bike lane would increase pollution from the exhausts of cars stuck in traffic (data showed traffic actually flowed better on some roads after bike lanes were installed), the bike lane location was arbitrary and wrong (cyclists might disagree), and, not incidentally, bike lanes are ugly (compared to what)?

I’m not saying there is never a good arguments against a bike lane. Bike advocates have a tendency to over promise in their zeal to make their point. The point is that common arguments against bike lanes tend to be ill-informed, wrong and nearly universal. Prepare for them.

Beware of the top-down nature of planning

Like every other book about city building written in the past 50 years, Sadik-Khan evokes the epic battles between grassroots activist (and now urban icon) Jane Jacobs and her nemesis, New York city builder Robert Moses in the 1950s. The lesson most people take from these battles in the importance of giving the community a voice in the way a city evolves. That’s what led to the extensive public consultations whenever city planners do anything except tie their own shoes.

One of the troubling, and ironic, aspects of the modern renewal of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is how opponents often accuse planners of bullying through projects onto unwelcome citizens. It’s almost a reversal of what Jacobs advocated: high-minded bureaucrats foisting projects onto communities for their own good, all in the name of making the city better for them.

Sadik-Khan makes an interesting counter-argument. She says, in essence, that 60 years of automobile-centric planning has skewed the way planners, politicians and even citizens view their own cities, so it’s difficult for most people to even fathom how to design a street differently than the multi-lane highways that have proliferated since the 1950s. Even if communities aren’t storming city hall demanding a better pedestrian realm, she argues that people are doing just that in their actions, if not always in words.

She recounts dispatching legions of planners to watch the behaviour of people moving through the city. If dozens of people are jaywalking across a specific street, they are, in essence, asking for a better way to cross the road. If cyclists are taking to the sidewalks, it’s because they don’t feel safe riding on the roads and they are, in essence, asking for a bike lane.

She says it’s important to watch for the “desire lines” that people exhibit in their behaviour, and respond to them. That, she argues, is responsive planning, not simply listening to those arguing against every project.

Move quickly

One of the more astonishing aspects of Sadik-Khan’s reign is how quickly she managed to move on projects in a city that seemed intransigent because of the decisions of the past. In only a few years, she managed to build hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, build new plazas all over the city and pull off projects that once seemed unimaginable, like shutting down parts of Times Square to cars.

Throughout the book, she repeats the mantra that moving quickly and inexpensively to make changes, then assessing them afterward, worked better than the traditional process involving long public consultations and a slow-moving bureaucracy.

I’m not sure this approach is replicable, nor advisable, everywhere. New York’s governance model gave her more power as a commissioner than most city bureaucrats tend to wield. And the risk of moving quickly is alienating neighbours who feel left out of the process.

What might be taken from this experience, however, is the power of bold experimentation. Trying new things as pilot projects, or urban experiments, can loosen opposition and give citizens a more open mind. It can also get projects seen as innovative, or even a little wacky, installed quickly as a trial run, which can lead to more permanent changes later. They key, she says, is to be nimble, keep the costs down and use ingenuity to get the ideas implemented.

 

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