Tuesday, July 28, 2015

If I could make a request of the universe - just a little one . . .

There are a few little things on my wish list. My personal, if-a-genie-popped-out-of-a-bottle wishes. (That is, if the genie was offering me only urban-design-related wishes, because otherwise, sorry, I would wish for the Nile or my own personal pet unicorn or something: I like nicely built streets and all, but come on.)

Anyway, today I realized that one thing, one tiny little thing, that would make me happier as a cyclist, would be a standardized sign letting me know that an intersection has got one of those magnetic loops controlling the lights.

Some intersections have got the three yellow dots for bikes, yes. But you have to know they're there, and know what to do with them. The new bike intersection at Clegg and Riverside, for example, has a wordy sign explaining how to use the dots.

But there are loop-controlled signals for cars, too - 70% of the city's traffic signals have detector loops - and not only is it hard to position over them, because you usually can't see where they are and bikes are usually over to the right anyway, but I have absolutely no faith that my bicycle, with its paltry metal content, will trigger them.

There has been more than one occasion, biking home late, when I've wound up waiting in the left turn lane from Bank to Heron through multiple cycles, because after a certain time at night the advance green reverts to a loop-triggered signal (or maybe it's triggered by a detector all the time, and it's only in the middle of the night that I notice because there are no other cars to set it off). I could sit there all night: it doesn't think I'm a car, and so I don't get a chance to get out of the intersection unless I duck out - against the light - through a gap in the flow of traffic, or use the pedestrian signal when it comes up.

I'm getting good at inching my bike forward until there's enough space behind me that a car could get up to the stop line. Using the metal content of the car behind me to trigger the loop. If there is a car behind me. On quiet nights, you can wait a long time for a car to come along that triggers the signal in the direction you actually want to go.

I don't necessarily need the detectors to be senstive enough to pick up my bike (though that would be great). All I really need is for the intersections that are controlled by a detector to be indicated, so if it's 12:30 am and there are no other cars in sight, I know not to try and wait, invisibly, in traffic position, for a green light that isn't coming.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Incidental Cyclist abroad!

I just got back, earlier this week, from a trip to Scotland to see my younger sister and her family (and climb a mountain). My older sister and I also stopped off in Iceland on the way because, well, heck, we were going that way anyway.

Naturally, among all my photos of geological wonders, historical places and my family, there are pictures of bike infra in both countries. It's a thing. My big sister kept laughing at me for stopping and taking pictures of bike lanes and woonerfs and traffic barricades.

A moveable traffic barricade in Reykjavik.
But I'm always interested in how other countries are doing things. And to be honest, with all the worshipful eyes turned from Canada toward the Netherlands and Denmark, I think I "look to like" in northern countries like Iceland and Scotland: I hope to see good things happening. Especially since both countries have a sizeable "outdoorsy tourism" industry. People travel to Iceland and Scotland expressly to go out into the wilderness, to hike, walk, climb mountains, camp. They take along mountain bikes and touring bikes, or rent them. So, is that reflected in their infrastructure?

Reykjavik looked pretty good, given the conditions. Reykjavik is not a big city. It's not a particularly populous one, either (pop. 119,000 and change). And the rest of Iceland, well. . . there are only about 320,000 people total. So the volume of cyclists is probably pretty small, really. Add to that, it's very dark and fairly cold - though not as cold as Ottawa - for half the year, which probably discourages cycling. (We were there in early July, and while there wasn't midnight sun, it didn't actually ever get dark: even at 1:30 am it was still twilight, maybe even light enough to read by. So I can imagine that in December it must be light for only a few hours a day.)

But the priorities seemed to be in favour of walking and cycling. The streets downtown (I didn't get into the outer areas of the city) are relatively narrow, and twisty, and not at all on a grid. Many of them are one-way with only room for one car at a time to squeeze past a line of parked cars at the side. This pretty much slows down car traffic by default, and it was quite calm and tame. Added to that, the "high street" areas, a set of about three shopping streets radiating downhill from the central Hallgrimskirkja church (in the background of my picture above) were blocked off, when we were there, with moveable car barriers, turning them into pedestrian and, I presume, cycling zones. The pavement and brickwork on some of those streets were brightly painted as well. 

One barometer I have is whether there are stylish cyclists: people just looking classy as hell while riding along. There were classy cyclists in downtown Reykjavik: not a scrap of Spandex to be seen, and plenty of immaculate pea coats and accent scarves. No helmets that I recall.

Down by the harbour I noticed this: separate bike and pedestrian paths. This is something I wrote about in Ottawa Metro a little while back as a spitballing excercise in what-if. Here, they did it. Bikes on the right: walkers on the left. There was also a separate bike traffic signal.  

There were also segregated lanes on a few of the streets, with sizeable medians (and lines of parked cars) separating them from the cars. 

With all that, the city wasn't exactly jam packed with bikes (note: no actual bikes in any of the above pictures). I see far more bikes in use on any given day in Ottawa. But then, Ottawa's population is roughly seven times that of Reykjavik, and I only really had an afternoon to look around and get an impression. The thing was that it certainly did not feel like a city that prioritized cars in any way. (This didn't make it particularly bad to drive there, either, I noticed: we had a car and it was actually pretty easy to navigate.)

Outside of the city, the Spandex did return, but not aggressively. Lots of people bike tour along the "Golden Circle", and my sister and I drove past a lot of them, loaded down with backpacks and panniers. I caught this family out for a loop around one of the fells just outside of the city: 

And this was clearly another family, at Thingvellir National Park, 46 km or so from the city: 

Though this person seemed to be on their own (also at Thingvellir - and note that apparently you need to pack a lot of camping gear if you plan to camp somewhere as chilly as Iceland):

This guy was getting a snack in by his bike near the parking area, as well. 

Despite all the bike touring, the highway was generally narrow: there wasn't much shoulder to work with and no bike lane. Certainly there weren't the separate bike paths alongside the road that I saw later in Scotland. But, given how empty the highways generally were, even on the biggest tourist route in the country, I suppose bike lanes might not be a big priority. The highways also generally twisted and turned too much to allow drivers to get up to any major speeds. Speed limits seemed posted, generally, at around 80 or 90 kmh.

From Iceland we headed on to Scotland, via Glasgow, where I spotted the bright pink nextbike racks just outside Queen Street rail station: 

nextbike is like any other bikeshare system, really: you sign up online or by phone, pay by credit card, and return the bikes to any of 20 stations in Glasgow. It's also available in multiple countries, and once you're registered you can use a nextbike in any of them (they have locations in Europe, the Middle East, and the USA), which is cool. 

We were supposed to take the Harry Potter train (which really does run from Glasgow up to Fort William in the Highlands, and over that pretty viaduct at Glenfinnan) but unbeknownst to us there was a work stoppage among the drivers. So we had to take the bus instead. We wound up in the very front seat, with a view out the huge windshield, so I had a chance to watch Scottish bike infrastructure in action. Mostly, it seemed a little . . . nonsensical. There were bike lanes, some even with paint on the intersections to announce danger zones, but were they ever narrow:  

There just really is no way that bus could possibly get three feet over. At times, the bike lanes would just sort of end, too: I saw at least one "cyclists dismount" sign where the sidewalk/bikelane appeared to just terminate in a grassy verge. Just a "cyclists dismount" sign standing alone at the side of a road next to the hedges. 

You can't quite read it, but that's what it says. Just get off here, cyclists. Pthththtbth. 
Not that surprising, really, since I already follow the account @bollocksinfra on Twitter. 

And yet they ride in Scotland. They ride here: 

But they also ride here: 

And they ride on those single track roads that are pretty much all there is in the Highlands, and up some crazy steep hills. I didn't get pictures of the bike tourists and rec riders, but they were there. But having seen how narrow the roads are, and how aggressive and fast some of the drivers can be, I'm not surprised so many online UK cyclists seem a bit . . . militant. A little vigilantist. 

There was, to be fair, a decent network of these paths running along beside the roads, nicely separated. I think they were for bikes: I did see people riding on them. My older sister remembered using a network of these in Europe, back in the 80s. . . 

I didn't spend a lot of time in any major cities this time around. I remember Aberdeen, on my last visit a couple of years ago, having a few strips of painted lane and a couple of bike boxes, but not much for bikes and narrow streets. I saw nothing but the bike share in Glasgow (and space for bikes made on the trains). Fort William, Ballachulish, and the other smallish towns we visited in the Highlands didn't have anything that I saw (and in fact there were times we thought Fort William could have had a couple more intelligent pedestrian crosswalks, too).

So, Scotland's bike systems are fairly scanty and strange, but Iceland seems to be doing well. And that in a country that measures daylight in hours you can count on one hand in the winter, and where the average July temperature is somewhere around 11 degrees Celsius. (Take that, all you "cycling is impossible in Ottawa for eight months of the year anyway, so why build lanes" people!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A poem repost

I get a regular email from The Writer's Almanac, and it has a poem of the day at the start. This was July 5th's poem. I liked it. I love night biking. I love night biking in the cold even more. And I just spent a while in the mountains. All that sort of works into this poem.

Maybe Alone On My Bike 
by William Stafford

I listen, and the mountain lakes
hear snowflakes come on those winter wings
only the owls are awake to see,
their radar gaze and furred ears
alert. In that stillness a meaning shakes;
And I have thought (maybe alone
on my bike, quaintly on a cold
evening pedaling home), Think!-
the splendor of our life, its current unknown
as those mountains, the scene no one sees.
O citizens of our great amnesty:
we might have died. We live. Marvels
coast by, great veers and swoops of air
so bright the lamps waver in tears,
and I hear in the chain a chuckle I like to hear.

"Maybe Alone On My Bike" by William Stafford from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1999. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The grass ain't always greener on the other side. Exhibit A: Kitchener.

A friend of mine, Shantell Powell, was just interviewed about cycling for CTV in Kitchener.

Now, I've heard her talk about what riding is like in Kitchener. I've heard stories about terrible infrastructure, hostile streets, threatening and abusive drivers. Once, she was followed - tailgated, really - by a woman who screamed at her, attempted to force her off the road, passed her, then came back to start all over again. Shan reported it to the police. The police did nothing.

Having watched the CTV spot, sadly, I know why the police might have done nothing. So this is what it looks like to live in a place that's truly hostile to bikes. Ottawa is starting to look like the freaking Netherlands.

Even the copy for the story is slanted against bikes. "In the battle of bikes against cars, it's pretty simple to guess who wins," is literally the first thing the anchor says. Break out the bike comment bingo cards, people. (And remember: physics will win every time.)

"Tonight, a more difficult question: who is causing the crashes?" Oh, no. No, no. I can see where this is going like oncoming headlights.

Yeah. Because although they're talking about car/bike road sharing, "...one of the worst incidents Powell can recall didn’t occur on a road at all, but on the Iron Horse Trail. While biking the trail one day, she suddenly found herself on a collision course with a cyclist who came 'out of the bushes' at an unmarked crossing."

Those reckless cyclists, endangering even each other on their headlong, heedless way! 

"In the bulk of these collisions the cyclist is at fault. Usually for failing to yield or just disobeying some sort of traffic control," says the policeman they interviewed.

That doesn't match with, you know, actual studies of actual accident statistics

Let's quote from the Ontario Coroner's Report on cycling deaths, shall we?: 

  • In 44 cases, contributing factors on the part of the cyclist alone were identified. In 33 cases, contributing factors on the part of the driver of a vehicle alone were identified. In 48 cases, contributing factors were identified on the part of both the cyclist and the driver. In three cases, the circumstances of the collision were unclear.
But hey. They're interviewing a committed cyclist (she must be, she rides in Kitchener), so what does she have to say? Well, aside from the fact that they edited the interview so that the first thing she says is "you have terrible cyclists just like you have terrible drivers. . . " they then undercut anything she might later have to say by having the voiceover inform you that "she says she obeys the traffic signs . . . mostly. . . " and then make a point about how rolling through stop signs isn't legal in Ontario. And punctuate it with footage of her rolling through a right turn past a stop sign.

(I stood outside on my balcony this morning and watched five out of six cars roll right on through the three-way stop below my building in less than a minute. Those scofflaw drivers. They think they own the road!)

"Don't forget the right of way, and the right of weight!" says the narrator. Remember: cars outweigh bicycles, ergo, if you are hit by a car, it was your fault. Obvs. The cop even backs that up. "They're gonna win in any collision," he says. 

And it's all about who walks away not crippled, amirite? Like those old trials by combat, where the winner was determined to be morally right because clearly the gods were with him.

Really, what bothers me the most about this story is that it starts from a lazy-ass premise - people on bikes are at fault when they're hit by drivers in cars - and edits to suit. While Shan tries to make a point about why taking the lane in a construction area would make sense and be a reasonable decision on the part of the person riding the bike, the editing makes nonsense of what she's trying to say, then cuts straight to the policeman saying that you should always ride as far to the right as "possible" (and that's another twitch, another point scored on the bike article bingo card, because there is a world of difference between "as far right as possible" and "as far right as is safe.")

"Follow those [the laws], be a little bit courteous, be aware of your surroundings, and you'll have no problems," says Sgt. Whatsisname.

There you go: the attitude of a whole city toward cycling. Summed up as the ghost of Rob Ford saying, "my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ride of Silence

Tonight was the annual Ride of Silence to commemorate cyclists killed or injured in collisions with cars. I've never been before (which is probably why I forgot you're supposed to have a helmet, and showed up without mine, because I came in from the drive-to job and had chucked the bike in the back of the car. Oops). They let me, and a couple of other helmetless folks, ride anyway, of course.

Photo by Jeff Morrison
After a quick reminder of the reason for the ride and the rules, we left City Hall and did two circuits of the Laurier bike lane, all the way to Bronson and back, stopping at stop lights, merging into traffic at the spot where the bike lane's closed by construction, and at one point avoiding a delivery truck which was (of course) parked in the lane. No one spoke, and everyone had a black or red ribbon on their right arm: black in solidarity, red if they'd been injured in a collision. 

Once we all got back to City Hall, people basically went their own ways - turned in their ribbons to use next year; a few stopped to talk; one person, I thought, cried; the group just sort of broke up. I hopped back on the bike and rode back over to my office to get the bike back into my car and home. No fanfare, no speeches, just a quiet dispersal. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

HULK SMASH (or, using your words. Loudly.)

I was just on my way home, going through Old Ottawa South, and signaled and tried to take the lane because it's too narrow through there, and this dude in a red two-seater crowded me. This was just in front of the Mayfair, where everyone tries to squeeze over into the right-hand lane to avoid getting caught behind left-turning cars. (Only to then pinch bikes between them and the parked cars on the other side of the Sunnyside intersection, but that's a whole other complaint I have, and in fact at rush hour the parked cars aren't there, which is a blessing and made the rest of this encounter much better.)

I waved him back and made a big show of shoulder checking, giving all the body language I could that I was moving over. But he still kept trying to squeeze by, while I was, increasingly loudly, shouting, "There isn't room, there isn't room to pass me!" Then this huge, righteously pissed-off voice came out of me, and I bellowed, "THERE IS NOT ROOM TO PASS ME!" I didn't even recognize my own voice, I was just all HULK SMASH.

That voice made me feel pretty powerful, actually. Ironically enough given the massive power difference between my vehicle and his. There was something about knowing I was right. And, also, too often when I find myself shouting at drivers I'm just swearing sharply or reacting with a wordless shout, in fear. This was reacting with Teachable Moment. (Albeit a hulk-smashy teachable moment.) I had words - straight-up, clear, definite, very loud words.

And just after I bellowed, I saw that his windows were down, because, of course, it was a beautiful summer day. So I damn well knew he'd heard me. And he backed off, and I got my ass into the dead centre of that lane, and through the intersection o' doom.

I am bike-woman. Hear me roar.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Why do people feel like they need to improve bikes?

So, way back in the 1800s, something totally revolutionary happened. Bikes got invented. The more I learn about bicycles in the 1800s, the more I'm convinced they really did change the world. A means of transportation, other than your feet, for people who weren't wealthy, a source of independence for women, a step in the massive technology revolution we're still in. . .

And they haven't changed all that much, really. Sure, very, very early on, they didn't have any pedals. The first "Laufmaschine" was pushed along with your feet, a little like kids' balance bikes now.

Then, around the 1860s, some genius in France added pedals to the front wheel, and voila, the first pedal-driven bike. (Although it might have been some genius in Scotland in the 1830s: apparently a rod-driven bike is on display in Glasgow dating to then.)

Anyway, once they'd gotten through the fad for the high wheel (sure, it would go faster, but at the expense of broken bones; besides, pedaling while steering on the same wheel? no thanks) things settled down, and someone came up with the rear-wheel-drive, chain-powered "safety" bike in the 1880s. And if you look at one of those, it's utterly familiar. 

"Whippet Safety Bicycle" by Science museum. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I would be able to ride one of those, no problem. Aside from the odd frame with all its superfluous-looking tubes, it looks a lot like any modern fixie. 

So, that's . . . let's see. . . 1885 to 2015. That's 130 years of basically the same design (even a bakfiets is basically the same thing). It's one of the things I love about the bicycle. It's a simple, elegant machine. It's kind of reached its evolutionary apex, like a shark, and is now just swimming about, unconcerned with having to adapt further.

Until people start thinking they need to improve on the idea. To make the bicycle (already a highly adapted urban vehicle) into, well, a highly adapted urban vehicle.

I mean, there was the ElliptiGO: not an attempt to make bikes better so much as an attempt to make elliptical machines less boring.

And the H-Zontal, which apparently is designed to make you go faster. I can't argue with recumbent bikes, since they seem to have developed and survived and are actually used by people - but this thing looks ridiculous. And uncomfortable (sure, you just lay down along the frame - unless you're a woman with bigger-than-small breasts. Not to mention unexpected bumps look like they would be painful no matter what kind of body you've got). Piloting via mirrors while going really fast doesn't seem like a great idea either.

Also in the go-faster department is the Varibike, which is kind of cool, if you don't mind looking a little silly, though not as silly as on the H-zontal, and at least the engineering doesn't totally overshadow the main point or require you to learn a bunch of new skills.

All of those, though, are about the bike as a means of getting a workout and going long distances, not about the bike as a way of getting around town. And I won't get into things like the YikeBike (the Segway's inline cousin) because that's getting past bikes and into electric vehicles.

Or this, from a patent issued in 2004, which I'm just going to leave here:

And then there are actual urban-life-focused designs like this, which is pretty cool if I want to be totally honest about it, although it doesn't mess with how the bike works, just how you lock it up (I worry, though, about the cable that tightens it up so you can ride it: if it loosens mid-ride you could be in trouble). 

But then someone I know posts a link to something like this - the "Fliz" - and I have to scratch my head. This, apparently, will "encourage more cycling within an urban environment." Look, it's the original "Laufmaschine," only complicated! 

I don't know why people think that the best way to encourage cycling is to get rid of the chain and pedals. The pedals being the thing that originally propelled bikes (see what I did there?) into the world-changing prominence they got in the late 1800s. But people keep thinking that the problem is the chain.

Somehow, I feel like if you're not ready to get on a standard bicycle, this thing won't be much more encouraging or appealing. Strap yourself into a harness hanging from the frame. A frame which severely limits your ability to turn and check behind you. Run, with your upper body at an unnatural angle for running (at least the old 1820s Laufmaschine had you upright) and then try to get your feet onto the rests on the back wheel without catching the wheel with your toes. Coast along. 

In traffic? 

Besides, it doesn't look like going up any major hills would be particularly easy; as a rock climber I can tell you I wouldn't want to be hanging in that harness for very long; you can't carry much in the way of cargo (a dealbreaker for any proposed "improved urban experience"); you couldn't ride this in a dress, or even in a suit - not without creasing anyway; and if you want to stop, you have to get out of the harness in order to walk away. Or hang there, bent over, chatting with people, like the guy in the video. Not to mention the lack of fenders. Just imagine riding this thing in the rain, with a fountain of dirty water splashing up across, oh, your entire body.

And then there's the fact that in an accident, you're literally tied to the machine. Good luck bailing or jumping free. 

It might be fun to play on for a bit, I suppose, and I imagine the sense of flying, hanging from the harness, might be pretty cool. But this thing is a toy. As a practical urban vehicle, I'll take my "safety" any day. We've had 130 years to find something better and so far, we haven't.

And also what the hell?