Sunday, January 25, 2015

The winter people

I am pretty glad I got my butt out of the house Sunday morning for the 4th Annual Winter Bike Parade. On Saturday it was hovering a little below freezing and, frankly, it was gross. Sloppy, gritty, scary, generally unpleasant. Today, when I suited up to get to City Hall, the radio was telling me it was -17C, with a windchill taking it to about -24.

Bring it. The ride downtown was far better than anything I did yesterday. And I made it *just* in time to fall in with the line of about 50 (?) bikes heading out for a low-speed, low-stress, fun cruise around the streets of downtown Ottawa.

My iPhone cacked out on me on the ride there: too cold. Its little electronic brain couldn't hack it and it shut off. From talking to a few other people, I guess that was happening all over. Some people were tucking their phones into inside pockets or stashing them in armpits to keep them from caving to the cold. A few others were running hardy GoPros (mine had no battery power, alas). So, I don't have any photos of the ride, but it was fun.

And of course, other folks had cameras.

We pedaled along through the chilly streets. I found myself riding near a couple of people I knew from Twitter, though I didn't know it at the time: @MrOneWheelDrive was chauffeuring @solemom in a great homemade trailer, and we chatted as we rode along. And I got into a couple of Sarah's pictures, along the way:

And then we were back at City Hall to lock up our bikes to every available post and rack, and head up to the Councillors' Lounge for coffee and sandwiches and cookies and a panel with urban city councillors Jeff Leiper, Mathieu Fleury, Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum. Those four are about the furthest thing from hostile elements at City Hall, and they all had really good, concrete information about what projects are in the pipe, realistic timeframes for certain types of change, examples of solid work they're getting done, and, probably most importantly, advice on how best to get the bike voice heard. Right down to the nitty gritty of "make noise on Twitter, by all means, but email is how you contact your councillor."

(The Twitter community for cycling is great in Ottawa, and I think in part a lot of people make noise about frustrations on Twitter because they'll also get a couple of supportive comments from other cyclists. When I have a scary encounter with a bus or a terrible bit of infrastructure, and I tweet about it, chances are good I'll get reassurance from someone out there in the #ottbike cloud - just a basic "glad you're okay, that sucks, hang in there, we all know what it's like." And sometimes that "you are not alone" feeling is more important, in the moment, than letting anyone in authority know what just happened. But Jeff Leiper did make the point that he doesn't get around to Twitter as fast as he does his email, and if we really want a concern to get his attention, that's the route to take.)

For added entertainment, later that afternoon there was the chance to watch Kevin O'Donnell and "Ottawa_Driver" trolling the comments section on the Ottawa Sun's article on the event. Break out the bike comments bingo cards, folks!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Viking Biking and the front page

So. . . I'm writing a freelance column on transportation now, for Metro OttawaHere's the first one: complete with a snowy picture of me and Mike on Laurier Avenue. (Sans hat, gloves, or helmet: verisimilitude fail. I admit to leaving my hat, helmet, gloves and backpack back at the Metro office when we ducked out for the photo op.)

In other winter riding news: Citizens for Safe Cycling's Winter Parade is coming up on the 25th! Bog willing, I'll be there... maybe even getting some photos and sound bites for the February BUZZ. And hopefully not getting the prize for "the bike in the worst state of repair (but still safe and rideable)." (Poor long-suffering Mike.)

And having spent the last couple of days complaining about the ice at the edge of the roads, I have to share this link: a description of one Dutch city's bike- and pedestrian-centric snow clearing model. What they do, how they do it, what equipment gets mobilized, what their time frame is. Got to say, it made me jealous. 

Many things about this were Not Good.
Especially reading it yesterday, after sliding around (on foot) on the sidewalks in front of my office and hitting a horrific, lane-wide stretch of snow and ice (on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South near the big antique store: beware) which caused rather a lot of comedy as I backed up traffic in my lane, inadvertently, because I had to slam on the brakes, then couldn't figure out how to get off the ice island safely with traffic still flowing in the inside lane. People kindly stopped behind me and flicked their headlights to say "go ahead" but I couldn't because to go ahead I'd have to cross all the lumpy snow and ice and get into a lane that hadn't stopped moving .... The whole thing was a little slapstick and a little embarrassing.

Anyway, this town in the Netherlands seems to have it down. I know Ottawa has more snow, but still, a girl can dream. . .

Monday, January 12, 2015

My kingdom for clean pavement

I was a bit of a mess when I made it to my friend's house on Saturday night.

I had left the Centretown BUZZ office as soon as humanly possible (about an hour later than I'd intended to). Several deadlines breathing down my neck, and I guess I wasn't in a great mood when I left, because I knew I was running later than I'd planned.

This was my verdict on the ride home.

Aside from the cold wind in my face, and the usual distrust of people coming in through intersections, and the disturbingly large number of people who made high-speed, stupid maneuvers past me on the south end of Bank, it was the ice.

It had snowed, then rained ice, then frozen hard, then snowed again. This isn't all that unusual in Ottawa. In fact, I saw someone recently propose "freezing drizzle" as the official precipitation of Ottawa, and I was in full agreement (although I might also argue that the official precipitation should be "snow, followed by rain, followed by more snow, then two days of freezing rain, causing an unbreakable layer of rock-hard ice on anything solid").

What this meant was that the snow, cleared away from the cars' tracks by traffic, then scraped down to a centimetre-thick layer by the snowplows, had then been rained on and hardened into a solid layer of ice, about a centimetre thick, extending across the outer foot to foot-and-a-half of the street. Where bikes travel. 

The ice layer comes and goes, of course, depending on traffic. But for some reason, it also seems to melt and dissolve away right next to the curb (sun warming the concrete maybe?), leaving bare pavement right next to the curb, then a strip of bumpy ice, then bare pavement right out in the lane. 

And I know: I know I should take the lane anyway. But though the spirit is willing . . . sometimes the flesh is scared of riding as far out as I should. Because cars are still trying, at the Lansdowne Bridge, to pass you two abreast. So I would find myself with my tires on the outer side of that strip of ice, really close to the curb, and then the bare pavement would run out and I'd have to try to cross the ice - remember, it's a good half inch thick at least - back to the clear pavement. And out into the lane.

In Old Ottawa South, the ice layer actually claims one whole lane out of two for about a block, going by Trinity Church, because that lane is parked up during the day and so ice builds up. (So, if you're driving down Bank Street wondering why that cyclist is in the middle of the inside lane, that's why.)

Gah. Between that, and drivers not compensating for the crap road quality by giving me enough clearance, and a cold wind making visibility just a little worse, what with the blinking and the tearing up, it was a rough ride. (I don't suppose I can blame the drivers: they probably don't know about and haven't noticed the ice and sludge at the side of the road.)

But it was better the next day, when it was a little warmer and the traffic was a little less heavy and I was under less pressure, and I really enjoyed my ride home that night, and now it's -2 and I know that the ice is melting, slowly, and I'll probably enjoy the ride to the office this afternoon. 

Mostly, I like riding in the winter. But that confluence of conditions, making the edge of the road so terrible, is pretty common in this town. I don't know how it could be helped: ensuring the plows go right to the curb instead of leaving a foot and a half of snow? Salting the edges of the road? On official bike routes (South Bank Street was one, last time I checked, and it does have sharrows and actual bike lanes in spots), running one of those little sidewalk plows along the bike space, late at night when it's safer to do that? There are probably things that could be done to clear a little more space for us bikes. Question is, how much would that cost and would the City think it's worth it?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

I could not ride. . . naaaaaahh.

I just got back in from the first bike ride of the new year, to CKCU and back. It was -5 or so, with a heck of a headwind heading out, and it was a bit of a slog because the air pressure in my back tire is really low (oops: been out of town for a week and a half or so, bike maintenance has slipped). But I got back home and I was all hyper, bouncing around my apartment, with my cheeks still feeling tingly and my lungs still feeling a little burny. I may also have been singing to myself. A bit.

Cold wind, draggy back tire, potholes and all, the ride made me sing out loud. And I remember thinking, about three minutes out from home this afternoon, how much more fun it is to ride than any other mode of transportation I could pick.

Back when I started riding, I didn't have a car. So I didn't really have a choice. It was bike or bus - and then there was the notorious midwinter bus strike that taught me I could ride in the winter (and made me angry enough with the transit company that I swore never again to give them money for a pass). So I rode everywhere: miles and miles per day. When I got a car, I admit I worried a bit that I might get lazy. Opt for the car more and more, until my bike was growing rust in the hallway.

I guess I didn't need to worry. Sure, one of my current gigs takes me 40 km out of town and I have to drive to it, about three days a week. That cuts into my commuting time. And sure, sometimes I take the car so I can fit a lot of tight scheduling together (like on the nights when my radio show ends at 7:00 and I have to be at a meeting downtown for 7:15). But if I can, I still choose to take the bike most times.

And I never regret choosing the bike (and I do regret choosing the car sometimes. Frequently). Even in the winter. Even if it's windy. Even if it's dark. Even if there's a howling snowstorm that blew up while I was out and now I'm going to have to bike home along the rut on unplowed streets into the teeth of the gale.

I have the option of not riding my bike now, and I choose not to use it. Which is how I know I love riding my bike.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Deconstructing Heron and Bank

Easily, my least favorite intersection in all of Ottawa. Probably because, on the way home, I frequently have to go through it.

Coming home, I'm traveling on Bank, southbound. Traffic averages around 75 kph here, I'd say: faster at night, slower at rush hour with the high volume. To get onto Heron, I need to either a) merge across two lanes into the left turn lane and wait at the light (feasible at night or off peak) or b) cross to the southwest pedestrian island, then turn, join the traffic when the light turns green and head uphill eastward on Heron.

Check out the lines on that second option. Check out the way the road narrows, so that the southeast pedestrian island is further in than the one I just left. That pinch point is nasty. And if you don't bike with guts and fortitude, you get two pinch points: one at the pedestrian island, and another further up when the merge lane runs out. And by then traffic's gotten up a head of steam. And if you're really lucky, there's a bus at the bus stop that shares the merge lane. Or someone trying to turn out of the Tim Hortons parking lot.

The pinch point is made especially sketchy if you moved right to put a foot on the curb to wait for the light at the southwest corner, and if the vehicles behind you are accelerating away from their stop (and coming from a stretch of Heron that moves even faster, on average, than Bank does). There is also a lot of heavy commercial traffic on Heron.

So if I can, I like to merge over and use the left turn lane. It keeps me further right at that initial base of the small hill heading west on Heron, so I don't get crushed over into the pedestrian island, and it positions me so I'm already taking up space, and visible, without having to swerve further left (which is unnerving, against faster traffic).

However, the merge just isn't possible in rush hour traffic. Okay, maybe it's possible. I'm not going to do it. To signal, move over one lane, check again with traffic on both sides of me, and move over again, then check (again with traffic on both sides of me), and finally edge into a left turn lane? In bumper to bumper? Nope.

When the merge is possible - at 11:00 pm when the road is blissfully empty and I can just swing across - it's great. Except for the amount of time I spend waiting at the light and nervously looking behind me in case the person coming up through the long turn lane didn't notice the blinking taillights and reflective patches. Then I get the advance green and go. Right?

Unless it's the middle of the night and there are no other cars in the lane. In which case my bike doesn't trigger the sensor, and I sit through two or three light changes without getting an advance green, and have to figure out a way out of the intersection.

So many things about this intersection are Not Good.

I started thinking this afternoon about what would make this intersection less terrible. Obviously, bike lanes would be a start, but the streets are pretty narrow already and would need to be widened (involving rather a lot of dirtmoving) to get lanes in. Further east on Heron, any widening would really cut into the tiny patches of green space that make up most people's front lawns. And the last thing this part of town needs is another bike lane that only lasts for an intersection.

Moving that southeast pedestrian island - even only a couple of feet further south - would be amazing, removing the most hair-raising pinch point in my day.

Failing that, speed limits further west on Heron, slowing traffic before it hits the narrow, more residential areas west of Bank, might help.

Admittedly, I also thought about the fact that when you get out where I am, the volume of cyclists isn't that high, and so maybe cycling infrastructure isn't a huge priority. I mean, I've been riding in this neighbourhood for years, and aside from an early, nerves-induced spill, I haven't had any accidents. (Some scares, but no accidents.)

But there are, what, five schools in the immediate area? Could those kids be riding to school if the road design wasn't so deadly? Maybe. Take a look at the masterful way that suburb design in the area has caused the main roads - Heron, Walkely, Bank, Conroy - to slice between classic little self-contained street pods, all full of crescents and loops that only have one way out, onto the Regional Roads.

If you want to get from one of those little street pods to, say, your high school, you're taking one of the four-lane, commercial-traffic-laden deathtraps to get there. Or riding on the sidewalk. No wonder I see choking herds of cars around those schools at bell time in the afternoon. Or buses crammed with St. Pat's uniforms in the morning.

You can't change where those residential streets are: there are houses on them. But you could try to make Heron, Walkley, Conroy, and Bank less miserable. A start might be checking out where they intersect and noting little, teeny-tiny problems, like that pedestrian island that, if it was only two feet further south, would be so much less terrifying to a cyclist heading west on Heron.

The first five minutes

Whether my ride to work (or wherever) is good or bad often hangs on the first five minutes. I get my bike on the road, I swing out onto the main street by my place, and the enjoyment level of my ride gets determined within a few blocks. If I get rattled, I might not get my good mood back. If I have a smooth first few blocks, I'm zooming along humming "The Bike Song."

Unfortunately, the main street by my place is Heron Road, which looks kind of like this: 

Four lanes, bus bays, and oh, right, one end of this road takes you right to the highway exit, so some of these drivers are fresh off a 120-kph drive from Montreal (and also there are transport trucks). There aren't any bike lanes or even sharrows. And the pavement's not great. 

But that's not always a problem. Sometimes, Heron Road is just fine, and in fact, the "zoom" factor of being on a big road can sometimes start my ride off right, when I'm feeling bold and taking up my space.

And there can also be that one encounter that sets the course of your ride. Take this morning. I worked at home a bit, so as to let rush hour clear, then got on the bike to head to my office downtown. It was down below -10, with a windchill bringing it to -22, sunny, dry, clear. I was actually really looking forward to the ride.

But I was also having a strangely anxious morning, so I didn't know: would the ride help to relax me, or would a couple of close passes or a car rolling through a stop toward me reduce me to a ball of jangling nerves? 

About a block in, I was feeling okay. But I heard the unmistakeable roar of a big truck behind me. Maybe a dump truck, maybe a transport. I was at a stoplight, so I twisted right around to look (and to show the driver my face). 

Transport. And in the outside lane - my lane. I tried to give it the old "I am here" eyebeams, then turned and started pedaling when the light turned green. The sound of a truck working its way up through the lower gears behind you is really unnerving, but I try to remind myself they're not doing it to be aggressive, they're not revving, they're just gearing up freaking enormous diesel engines.

And then I looked back and saw that the truck was hanging back - way back - and waiting for a line of cars to pass on the inside lane before changing lanes entirely to pass me. I grinned and waved as it went by, hoping the driver saw me. I thought I heard a little "toot" in answer, but then again, I don't think truck horns do "little," so it might have been something else. Whatever: at any rate, I felt a moment of friendly connection with that driver, whoever he or she was, just because they'd pulled over and given me a ton of space.

One courteous transport truck driver, and the rest of my ride was fun, confident. The cold air was invigorating, merging through traffic was easy, and I got to the office in a much better mood than the one I left the house with. Even with the taxi who crowded me for space on Bank and the pickup that crowded me at a red light by the highway underpass. None of that fazed me much, because of one friendly transport truck driver in the first five minutes. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Honk if you - wait, no, don't.

Saw this on Twitter just now and chuckled, and retweeted:
Although, to be fair, I don't think I run into many drivers who do. I haven't even heard the vague and faint "friendly tap on the horn to alert them to your presence" argument in years. Maybe that's just Canada, or Ontario, or Ottawa.  I don't remember it being mentioned in my drivers ed class way back when (though, really, I don't remember any advice at all regarding cyclists in my drivers ed class). But someone in the responses to this tweet did:
So apparently the misconception is still out there. I think I was honked at the other day for being in the left turn lane, but it was a quiet honk. Maybe that was a driver "letting me know" they were there. Though I'd already turned around on the saddle, while waiting for the advance green, to look back, so they should have known I knew they were there. (I'm a big believer that eye contact and seeing a cyclist's face goes a long way toward humanizing us in the eyes of drivers, so I do it when I can.)

Drivers, I gotta tell you: if you think that you're drifting up quietly behind us, more lightly than the zephyrs of spring, and we have no idea you're there. . . you're wrong. We know you're there. Most of us - with the exception of the hearing impaired, I guess - have been listening to you with half our concentration for the last couple hundred metres, and we're trying to calculate based on the sound of your engine how big your vehicle is, how fast you're going, and how much of an asshole you're likely to be. (We can also hear - and hate it - when there are two of you rolling up behind us side by side, incidentally.) So yes, the horn is pointless. And honking will almost always be read as aggressive by cyclists. It will also startle them, which is hazardous. So don't.

The best things you can do?

Give us lots of space. If you have a free lane on your left, what is keeping you from moving into it for a few seconds as you go by me? What magic forces you to keep your tire on the right side of the painted line?

Be patient if you have to slow down for a bit to wait for the right moment to pass. I promise you, you won't lose more than a few seconds. Stop and enjoy your surroundings for a moment. It'll all be over soon.

And for the love of Pete, wait until you've completely passed us before you hit the accelerator. I jump so often when a driver hits the gas right beside me, assuming they've "cleared" me and can now race on ahead.

Don't worry about letting us know you're there. Believe me. We know.