Do you ever have those moments on a bike when you feel like the city doesn’t really want you there? I decided to document some of those feelings on a recent ride.
Tag: Urban Cycling
Here’s one thing about riding a bicycle that’s worth being honest about: it takes work.
Yes, riding a bicycle is all those other oft-celebrated things, too. It’s relaxing, fun, healthy, it’s sustainable and eco-friendly, nostalgic, convenient and social. Riding a bicycle is economical and efficient and therapeutic. Pedalling a bicycle makes a connection between city and rider not possible in an automobile. Riding a bicycle is exhilarating. Riding a bicycle is freedom.
It’s also work.
The work of riding a bicycle can be hidden under the poetry of riding a bicycle. I will always remember the day a friend at work texted me, after having renewed a lagged friendship with her bike, a message that was music to my ears:
I knew immediately what Laurie meant. I felt it in my old bones. A green Mustang two-speed was my first declaration of independence growing up on the streets and alleys of northeast Edmonton. That precious bike took me out of the orbit of domestic surveillance, such as it was in the 1970s, the golden age of parental benign neglect. Still, I got to the landmarks of my childhood—Bing’s corner store near Delwood Road, the St. Francis football field, the newspaper shack on Fort Road, the hills on the far side of Yellowhead Trail—by myself, or, what was better, rolling there with a gang of my friends.
These days, my red Rockhopper is my ticket to freedom. I redeem that ticket at the end of every abstract, unsatisfying and stressful work day. By the time I have pedalled my daily commute’s 10 kilometres home, under trees and sky, across real asphalt, I invariably feel better, lighter, happier. Friends who understand neuroscience explain this is because physical activity stimulates the drip-release of brain chemicals that regulate my emotions. I am not aware of these processes as they lift my mood a notch or two, but I trust there is something like this at work.
The work of bicycle riding is easier to see when I contemplate what I can see and feel from the saddle. Feet press, calves fire, quad muscles lift and fall, lungs expand—and all this just to achieve a comfortable cruising clip. Confront a rise in the road or a shard of headwind and there is more work to be done. There is still more work if any level of negotiation with lactic acid is required to keep going. There is also the work of the nerves. Less so, admittedly, now that protected bicycle lanes have materialized in cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, but, still, this work of vigilance is required in what remains an automobile landscape. And, then, the work to ignore the little aches and pains that come from using our own muscles to power the bicycles that makes us feel so…well, so…freakin’ …free.
When you stop to think about it, this feeling of freedom known to bicycle riders is the result of a very curious, very human kind of work: the work with—or in—a machine. Bicycle riders may sing paeans to their automobile-free mode of transport, but they benefit from a technological partnership just the same. It is just as true to say I feel so frickin’ free on this as it is to say I feel so frickin’ free when I apply to myself a prosthetic device of tubes, gears, chain, teeth, cranks, cassette, saddle, stays, cables, rubber, rims and spokes. Granted, not in the iambic pentameter of the text message, but the list of the bicycle’s artifice, all the infrastructure it needs to help produce the freedom, is also the truth.
These thoughts rolled around in my head today as I pedalled my fatbike along the side streets of Edmonton, the host city of a dump of glittering snow a day ago that has now turned to slurry. It is beautiful to move by bicycle in this enchanted setting. It also takes work.
Actually, these thoughts about work and bicycle riding have been rolling around in my head since Russia. Earlier this month, I joined a small band of Canadian bicycling advocates in Moscow for Winter Bike Congress 2018. It was too much fun. The closed-streets ride along the river to Red Square with my wife and thousands of others was revolutionary joy. But all of that is another story.
The last day of the conference featured awards handed out by the Winter Bike To Work Day organizers. Winter Bike To Work Day is an annual event to get people—especially in places where bicycling is still thought to simply be a summer recreational activity—to commit to ride their bicycle to work, in winter, one day a year. There is a friendly competition on the side, as participants register on behalf of their cities and cities go head to head for bragging rights. Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, won the day with 1,393 registered riders. With 1,165 participants, Denver placed second. For the record, Edmonton finished 10th, and, with 218 winter riders who worked their way to work, was the top Canadian city.
Today, as I navigated my way on 20-psi tires back from the grocery store, I lost some of my grip on Winter Bike To Work. I mean: what work was that little word To doing? Was it a preposition indicating location; that is, the workplace? Or was it part of an infinitive verb, to work? Are we celebrating riding a bicycle, instead of an automobile, to one’s place of employment, or is the emphasis on the labour necessary to move a machine in order to be then moved by it?
I suggest we accept both readings. The first because it’s obviously true, and the second because it keeps open a path to another reason, whether in summer or winter, to ride a bicycle. We ride to where we are going. And we also ride to how we are going. Riding a bicycle imprints on us from a young age an egalitarian truth. The I doing the work is the I enjoying the freedom. Frick.
This sounds stupid, I know, but one of the keys to happy urban cycling is learning how to slow down. Riding more slowly in a city is safer, calmer, more relaxing and is conducive to being in the moment and enjoying the surroundings.
So why is that hard? Because much of the bicycle industry is working against it.
In North America, the bicycle industry is still dominated by a mentality of athletics. There’s money to be made by selling bikes as a piece of sporting equipment, so that’s what draws the attention of the industry. Road bikes, mountain bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes and even fat bikes are built to go fast. They are built for racing.
That approach has led to some amazing technological breakthroughs that have benefited all cyclists, but you don’t need any of it to ride happily in a city. In fact, much of that tech impairs your ability to ride slowly and comfortably. Those feather-light, high-performance bikes feel like riding a thoroughbred — they hum beneath your fingers, pulling to go fast whether you want them to or not. It can be exhilarating if that’s your goal, but taking them through an urban setting is like using a racehorse for a children’s pony ride — superhuman restraint is required to keep them under control.
Part of the problem is body position. Bicycles with humans aboard don’t exactly create a shape that slips through the air, so much engineering brainpower has gone into designing bicycles that torque the rider’s position into one that’s more streamlined. The result is that many bikes force the rider to into a low, forward-leaning position. This works wonderfully if you are descending Mount Ventoux with 100 other pros chasing, but if all you are doing is heading to the liquor store for a six pack, this position can be uncomfortable, unforgiving and needlessly fast.
I’ve found that these factors influence your mentality on the bike. When you ride a bike built for speed, you naturally want to go fast. The ride becomes a race, against others or yourself. I’ve often caught myself on my commute home in self-congratulatory mode after climbing a hill faster than a fellow bike commuter who had no idea a race was underway.
Being fast isn’t inherently bad, but when the ride is a practical route for transportation the sacrifices for speed can be. The price of speed is collected in things like comfort, safety, robustness, frustration and something that might be described as pleasantness.
Urban rides, with their many stops and proximity to other humans on foot, work better when the speed is reduced. These rides are most enjoyable when you can sit back, watch the surroundings, obey traffic signals and arrive at your destination faster than a car and without smelling like a workout room.
Yes, you can just reduce your pedalling cadence to go slower. But doing so on a fast bike is difficult. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pushing the speedometer up until you catch yourself breaking a sweat and patting yourself on the back for your time.
I’ve found the best way to slow down is to ride a slow bike. The frame of an urban cruiser will put you in a comfortable and slow upright position, and minimal gears will keep your speed below the limit. A basket or carrier will give you plenty of hauling space, with just enough risk of losing your load to keep your ride in check. All of these forces conspire to do one thing: Make your ride pleasant. You’ll notice your surroundings. You might catch sight of an acquaintance and have time to wave or stop for a chat. You’ll see your city in a new way. Yes, it will increase your transportation time, but I’m betting not as much as you think.
It’s a different way of riding a bike, and it has its own unique pleasures. But you might want to keep that racing bike on hand. You never know when a race might break out.
Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.
Readers had some fantastic ideas for slowing down. Here are some of them:
My pregnant belly got too big and I could no longer reach the drops on my commuter, a road bike. I was transformed into a slow rider overnight and I've never looked back (and never ridden the roadie again). https://t.co/PJ8ziaQtFu
— Lindsay (@thismombikes) February 1, 2018
Wear a skirt/dress. ? https://t.co/wef8poy3UK
— I ain't no followback girl (@erinlovesyoga) February 1, 2018
Get old. Worked for me, especially in the snow, I get so nervous I slow right down.
— Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter) February 1, 2018
as to the real intent of the article?
Let some air out of your tires.
I aired mine up again this morning and am fast again.
— Mike Siewert (@MikeCword) February 1, 2018
Solving world problems through conversation always slows down my bike rides. And a bike ride is the best way to have those conversations.
— David White (@davidwhitepeng) February 1, 2018
I eventually just got tired of wearing all the “right” lycra. Change your clothes, change your attitude.
— Cymatic Design (@CymaticYYC) February 1, 2018
Grateful for European parents. Mum always had an upright, told stories of delivering bread as a kid, and I learned to ride on single speeds. It was never a sport in my world. https://t.co/9PBLfPkUlk
— Cee (@bikeasana) February 1, 2018
Great read. I'm a slow rider on a fast bike (80s Bianchi). I slowed down after moving to the Downtown Core, where river paths and cycle tracks demand casual speeds (I love it). I'll be looking for a cheap used city bike this year so I can stop hunching over at every intersection.
— Nicholas Dykstra (@NicholasDykstra) February 1, 2018
I know exactly what you mean. Started off commuting on road bike. Then got a single speed. That broke, and I ended up on an imported used Dutch bike. It’s slow and easily the best comuter I’ve had. I can even carry stuff now! Love going slow along the river. Low maintenance too!
— Rick Enns (@thericter) February 1, 2018
Upright bike for sure. Changed my whole perspective and I didn't noticeably lose too much in travel time, just enjoyed the ride more. It's also easier on the back and arms, so win all around.
— Felicity (@FBorgal) February 1, 2018
Gear down and pedal faster is a beneficial aerobic workout at slower speeds. Aim for a steady 85-95 cadence. Higher if you can.
— BicycleSnowPlow (@yycfoldingcycle) February 1, 2018
Call it baby-steps bike infrastructure: the kind of urban design that takes a step toward bike friendliness, but doesn’t quite take the full leap.
Twice in recent months, new infrastructure has been built near me that falls into that incremental category, and it’s something being seen in many North American cities. It’s a mashup of traditional car-oriented thinking and forward-looking active transportation. For someone who has ridden a bike for transportation for a long time without much bike-friendly infrastructure, this kind of incrementalism is difficult to criticize because it offers some accommodation. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly the kind of stuff of bicycle dreams.
The first was a new overpass that opened near me last year to replace an aging and inadequate version that had been in place for decades. Here’s what we got.
— Tom Babin (@TomBabin) November 2, 2016
The new overpass certainly moves cars efficiently, through a series of roundabouts (something that us North Americans are still getting accustomed to, as evidenced by the hapless driver spotted recently going the wrong way on a street fed by one of these roundabouts). Pedestrians and cyclists are also accommodated, through a series of wide shared pathways alongside the road. As a cyclist who has grown accustomed to having no thought spared toward my plight, these wide pathways are a nice bone to chew on.
But if I hadn’t grown so comfortable with being given nothing, this new overpass might annoy the hell out of me. Sure, those pathways are wide, but they are simply an add-on to what is clearly an auto-centric design. As you can see in the video above, to simply navigate from one side of the overpass to the other, a person on a bike must cross at least three streets through crosswalks (to dismount or not to dismount, that is the question), while navigating around pedestrians the entire time, further confusing the role of a person on a bike as neither a vehicle on the road nor a human on foot, but as some confused state in between.
This, I submit, is baby-steps bike infrastructure. While at least some accommodation has been made for those choosing active transportation, the overpass was built for cars almost exclusively.
The second piece of infrastructure to fall into this category is a new bridge spanning a river, recently opened after replacing a century-old iron bridge that was falling apart.
Here’s how a person on a bike navigated the old bridge (I shot this a few years ago as part of a video explaining why cyclists sometimes choose to ride on a road rather than on terrible bike paths that run adjacent).
Obviously, not a great cycling experience, particularly with that final indignity of being forced to dismount and walk across the bridge. Shudder.
So, after months of construction and millions of dollars and much hope channelled from within me, here’s what the new bridge looks like from the saddle of a bike:
Nice, right? Wide pathways. A clear, separate space for bikes. Even a nice gateway to the connecting streets. It’s still a shared pedestrian-cyclist route, which isn’t ideal, but a vast improvement.
But wait. Look at what happens when I try to cross the bridge from the other direction on a bike.
See that? Because there is only a bike-pedestrian route on one side of the bridge, I must ride around that odd little underpass to cross the bridge to the other side. It’s a small annoyance while on a bike, but a rather larger one when on foot.
I understand why designers made these choices (there are some space restrictions that beget this design), and it’s a vast improvement. But, like the overpass mentioned above, this is automobile infrastructure with some bike-ped add-ons. It’s built with active transportation as a secondary consideration. It’s middle-grade infrastructure. Baby steps.
I’m sure this posts risks coming off as yet another gripe from an impossible-to-satisfy cyclist, and I should probably be delighted that active modes were accommodated at all. But having experienced cities that give priority to cycling and walking, I can’t bring myself to lavish much praise on these examples. Truly bike-friendly design means being give direct, logical routes that connect smoothly without much thought. These are a step in that direction, but not quite there.
That may be fitting, because that phrase may also describe the state of my city as an entirety. We’ve come a long way in accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, for which I’m grateful. But we have a long way to go.
Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.
Remember the war on cars? The hyperbolic and mostly mythical idea that cyclists, a “special interest group,” were successfully ramming such horrors as bike lanes down the throats of unsupportive legions of car drivers? Since the peak “war on cars” battles of four or five years ago, the hot war has cooled a bit because cyclists made a little progress and the sky did not fall as a result. Most cities now have at last some form of bike infrastructure and some have even have what might be described as a (barely) minimum grid of bike lanes.
These days, further demands of cyclists are greeting less with anger, and more with exasperation. “We gave you a bike lane, but you still want more?” That attitude has wrought sentiments like this one, a general sense that since we threw those “cyclists” a bone, they should be satisfied. Much of this attitude comes about because of a sense that the bikes won the war.
Here’s the thing: if the war on cars is over, it didn’t end the way you might think. If you look at it even a little objectively, it’s not the bikes that won. Cars are absolutely dominating the battle. It’s not even close. It’s Norman Schwarzkopf versus Iraq. It’s Germany versus Brazil in the 2014 Word Cup.
Consider these statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 measure of vehicle distance travelled set a record after a slight dip over the last several years. Americans drove automobiles more miles in 2017 than any other time in history. Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, the number of car-free households dropped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade, and there are now more two-car households than any other kind. Here’s how urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson put it: “The United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.”
Remember the idea that millennials were shunning cars? Sure, there may be a bit of that happening, but the latest automobile sales statistics in Canada show that, with the economic recovery in full swing, 186,837 automobiles were sold in September, a record increase of 7.7 per cent, and the eighth monthly record this year. “Cumulative sales of 1,591,684 vehicles through the first three quarters are 5.3% ahead of last year’s record pace and solidly on track for a fifth consecutive record sales year.”
Wait, it gets worse: The U.S. Department of Transportation found the fatality rate on American roads actually grew in 2016, despite decades of trend lines pointed downwards. Advances in safety seem to be reserved only for those inside the car. Cyclist deaths in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent and the pedestrian fatality rate grew by a whopping nine per cent, meaning more humans simply walking on the street were killed in 2016 than any time since 1990.
Meanwhile, the bike world inches along at a snail’s pace. Los Angeles is just getting started building bike lanes, New York is inexplicably cracking down on e-bikes, and Toronto continues its tiresome debate about whether successful and safe separated bike lanes ought to stay or go.
The point of this isn’t to depress those of you who see bikes as one way of bringing more balance and sanity to our streets. The point is to highlight the absurdity of the “war on cars” argument. Even if there was a war, it’s ridiculous to think that a few bike lanes scattered through our urban centres has made a dent in the dominance of automobiles in North America. We know the reasons most people make the transportation choices they do: convenience. Outside of a few isolated neighbourhoods in a few isolated cities, we’ve built our communities to ensure that driving a car remains the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Until that changes, vehicles will continue to dominate.
The most we can hope for is that these (barely) minimum grids that have been built in some cities will open the eyes of enough people to see the benefits of active transportation so we can leave behind the stupid war metaphors and start building better cities for everyone together.
These new statistics are a sobering reminder of our auto-centric ways, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Building better cities takes time, and we’ve barely taken the first steps. Get back on that bike.
Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.
My home city of Calgary made waves last year by installing an entire downtown network of separated bike lanes, all at once. Here’s a spin through the city a year later, to assess its success.
The rant was so out of touch as to be almost quaint. Earlier this month, Canadian Sen. Nicole Eaton, 71, went on a Twitter campaign against cycling in Toronto, criticizing the construction of bike lanes using the same old arguments that are often thrown around by uninformed reactionaries: Nobody rides a bike, cyclists don’t obey the laws, and bike lanes begrime cities.
What made Eaton’s rant especially rich was its unique combination of laughable ignorance (she tweeted that wasting money on bike lanes was unbecoming of a global city such as New York, London and Paris, which are all actually chock full of cyclists and bike infrastructure) and it’s low-hanging-fruit hypocrisy (Canadians find it ironic to hear tax-fighting arguments from a senator, when the Senate is a largely symbolic piece of government stuffed with elderly patronage appointments who have a horrible history of wasting taxpayer money on enriching themselves).
Still, Eaton’s rant wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. So in the name of public service, we’re here to offer some help. Below are some answers to common misinformed anti-bike criticisms, presented in handy wallet-card format. So if you’re a politician or public figure who has yet to embrace urban cycling, print this card, laminate it, and put it in your wallet or purse. Whenever you are tempted to go on a ridiculous anti-bike rant, pull it out and read the answers before opening your mouth or tweeting. Not only will this save you some embarrassment (and your Twitter account, poor old Sen. Eaton has now deleted hers), it might just elevate the debate over cycling.