Sunday, February 7, 2016


One of the advantages of riding a cheap mountain bike is that I feel like I have all kinds of license to add shit to it. Pretty much from the time I put two Beamer headlights from MEC on the handlebars several years back and realized that two headlights are not just brighter than one, they're also cuter (see my profile picture on this blog), I've generally taken up as much space on the handlebars as possible. It doesn't hurt that the cyberpunk fan in me likes the aesthetic of the clobbered-together, wired-up apocalypse-survival vehicle. Some days it helps to feel like you're ready for World War Z.

(On days when I particularly hate every human being behind the wheel of a car, I'm glad you can still access Bob Fishell's Spike Bike stories, which date back to the 80s and which still come flashing into my mind occasionally:

The year is 1998. The Federal Government is the puppet of a consortium of the 20 large corporations which run the country. State and local governments have been completely taken over by real estate developers, whose goal it is to turn America into one giant suburb consisting of subdivisions, apartment complexes, shopping malls, and office parks.Bicycles have been all but outlawed. The Bicycle Act of 1992 made it illegal to appropriate tax dollars for bike lanes, paths, etc., and included a provision that "those persons riding bicycles on public roads do so entirely at their own risk." The law was originally intended to stem the flood of imports of Japanese bikes before foreign trade was cut off entirely in '94.
However, the ramifications of this law were much more serious. If a cyclist were to be injured or killed by a motorist, the motorist could not be prosecuted or even sued. It is open season on cyclists. One man fights back....)

Some of my additions have been more successful: others - like the short-lived half-a-two-litre-Coke-bottle I bolted to the down tube in an attempt at a makeshift front fender - less so.

Right now, I have no room left on my handlebars, what with the gearshifts, two headlights, legally-mandated-but-essentially-useless bell, GoPro camera mount (thinking of moving that, now, because large swathes of the camera's field of vision now have things like headlights in the way), and my latest and proudest addition: a vintage AirZound airhorn.

Gifted to me back in December by a friend who dug it out of her workshop and handed it over in the middle of a solstice party conversation about biking, this little horn is noisy. Really, really noisy. It puts out something like 120 decibels.

Hooked up to what looks like a 500-ml air canister which you can refill with a bike pump and which sits nicely in the bottle holder, it screws on to the handlebars with a quick release clamp. A button on the top of the back end of the horn sets off an ear-piercing blast.

I have to ride with my left hand over the gearshift if I want to keep a thumb on the button through sketchy intersections, but it's worth it. If only because I then go through the intersections almost hoping someone will be a jerk. Because I will blow them off the face of Christmas.

I think I'm even happier that this horn looks pretty vintage compared to the ones on sale out there on the interwebs: adds to the 80's-tribute apocalyptopunk look.

Of course, as soon as you've hooked up an air horn to your bike, you start picturing what else you could put on it if it were legal (and if this really was the Spike Bike dystopia). It didn't take long before friends asked, on my Facebook post about the horn, when I was adding the flamethrower or plasma gun for rush hour. Discussion of the logistics of the flamethrower had another friend suggesting, "Better install it under your seat so it aims backwards and melts bumpers of the tailgaters. Pilot light should be shielded though so it doesn't fry your bottom."

When I told my brother about the horn, he suggested I could hook it up to a generator so it just sounded all the time when I was riding. I could just roll down the street cocooned in a protective cone of deafening noise. Not sure whether that image cracked me up more, or trying to figure out how long it would take before people - Ottawans in particular - complained to someone in authority about the "aggressive, bullying, noisy cyclist."

"Cyclist accused of being ACTUAL menace to the public: news at 11."

The friend who gave me the horn rides motorcycles: her wife suggested a "cow's-tail," which I had never heard of before but which, she explained, is a colourful leather braid, about two or three feet long, that clips to your handlebars with a quick release. If people get too close, you yank the braid free and can whack their windows with it. "Wakes up the texters," she said. "Maaaaaaaaay not be entirely legal though."

So I mentioned my occasional fantasy, of a three-foot-long horizontal stick attached to my back rack, with a spike in the end of it, so people passing too close would key themselves in the process. (Think about it: I'd have damaged their cars, yes: but only because they had, demonstrably, been breaking the law. Yeah, I bet I'd still get sued. Interesting legal conundrum though.) 

Naturally, #ottbike rose to the occasion:
Sure, a flag might be less aggressive, but we're in Spike Bike mode here. (I have also considered the much less confrontational route of marking where a metre from my bike is, on my GoPro, then filming a commute and counting how many people pass inside that distance. Not that I expect any major action from it - like tickets or anything..)

To be a bit more serious, I've found it kind of amazing how many questions I've seen online about whether or not it's legal to put an air horn on a bike. (Hint: if you can buy one at MEC, they're not illegal.) Really, in the Ontario HTA, there aren't many restrictions on what you can attach to a bike: there are more rules about what you must attach: a silly bell, front and rear lights, those "strips of reflective material" that no one but no one actually has on their front and back forks. But the idea that an air horn - essentially, just a noise maker like a bell, but at a volume that will penetrate to the interior of a car and be salient to a driver in the way that a bell, or your shouts, won't be - would be illegal for some reason just speaks to how submissive people think cyclists should be. Don't take up space, don't block traffic, don't make anyone slow down. . . and for heaven's sake don't be as loud as a car.

Tough. Got an air horn: not afraid to use it. Just be glad it's not a flamethrower.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It's good to be back

When I went home for Christmas, it was pretty balmy around here: no snow down, and some nights I didn't even need gloves - in December! But I came back to proper winter conditions. I was all keen to get the bike out for the first snowy rides of the season, but discovered the first day I wheeled it out into the hallway that the brakes were bottoming out on the handlebars, and if I pulled them all the way and pushed the bike, the wheels would still turn. Not so safe.

Being on a clock that day, I sighed, put the bike back into my apartment, and took the damn car. 

And then I had an extremely busy week, with no time to fix the brakes, and I didn't have fenders on the Nakamura anyway, or a rack. . . 

So, what with one thing and another, I didn't get back on the bike until yesterday, when I finally had the time to haul the bike out and make sure it was safe to ride. And then I rode to a meeting that night, and to the rock gym tonight. And it was absolutely great to be back.

Here are the options: I could take the car. Sit in there, stuck in traffic, fighting condensation on the inside and ice on the outside, not clearly able to see around me. Scrape ice and snow off it. Shuffle parking at work, trying to fit three or four cars into one driveway, having to back them in and out. Negotiate snowbanks and slippery, narrow, steep streets where I work. Deal with skids and sketchy instersections, and other drivers. Deal with a freezing steering wheel. Wait for ten minutes in a parking lot with the engine and fan running so the windshield can defrost enough that I can see where I'm going.

Or, I could have 360-degree visibility and the option of getting the hell out of traffic if it starts getting sketchy, never have to scrape ice or brush snow, warm up within minutes of leaving home, park anywhere I damn well please, and get to watch my breath steam in the beam from my headlamp. I can have my heart rate up and lungs taking in cold air. I can have quiet, dark streets at night with that hissing noise under my tires where they're cutting through a thin layer of slush, and the moon overhead.

I'll take option two, thanks.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A conversation on the new Belfast bike path

I imagine it might have gone something like this. . .

"The plans say there should be a bike path along this new road."

"Okay, bike lanes are easy, just pave it up to the raised curb and paint a centre line, eh?"

"Shit, guys, there's a manhole right where the curb's supposed to go!"

"Dangit . . ."

"Right. nice work dealing with that manhole cover problem, guys. The rest of this path should be fine, right?"



"This stabilizing wire thing. . . "

"Just run it into the asphalt, Jim! What's so hard about that? Jeez." 

"Kay. But we should probably make sure we paint the yellow line first, 'cause we won't be able to get the machine through after the wire goes in."

"Good thinking, Jim. It's problem solving skills like that we need in this town."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Strava or not to Strava?

The City of Ottawa just announced that it's partnering with to collect cycling data over the next two years. (In case you're one of the non-cyclists reading this, Strava is a training app for cyclists and runners that tracks your activity using a GPS device or the GPS on your smartphone and posts it to an online community.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a "cycling gold medal" city in pursuit of better cycling infrastructure must be in want of data. You need to know where people are riding, what routes are heavily used, where people have to take awkward or roundabout paths to avoid hazards, what their destinations are. You need to know what people are actually doing on their bikes if you're going to find ways to make it easier for them to do it.

There are a bunch of ways you can try to collect this data. They used to put students on street corners to count traffic. Now there are the ride counters that have been popping up all over town since the first ones went up in 2009. The City had a goal of 30 counters on major routes by the end of this year: not sure how close they are to that goal. There are also occasional bike audits being done, like the Cycle In project I was involved in this fall, in which people ride their usual commute and note where problems are. 

But all of these are complicated or expensive or otherwise a hassle, compared to having Strava do it for you. This information will just be generated by local cyclists as a matter of their daily lives, harnessing the power of every GPS device that's hooked up to it. It will be uploaded and aggregated and anonymized, and it's automatically free to use by the terms of the end user licensing agreement no one reads. 

Sounds great, right? Yeah, it kind of is. It's going to give the City much better data than they had, just based on the fact that bike counters only track people passing a particular point, and this tracks larger behaviour and patterns. But there are a couple of things that bug me.

One: Strava's whole culture is athletic. It's a training app for people who (primarily) cycle as a sport. Go to the splash page: you're invited to "join a worldwide community of athletes and train like never before." Leaderboards and challenges encourage you to set goals and to go further and faster and train harder. Members' profiles are "athlete profiles." You can get a "vanity URL" with the path:[yournamehere], as though you were part of some stable sponsored by Strava. Rides are tracked on distance, speed, and climb. Automated emails from Strava are ego-patting, motivational silliness.

"Whoa, you're kind of a big deal! X is now following you on Strava. Click to follow X back. Let's show him/her what you can do."

Generally, then, its target demographic is a specific subset of cyclist: those who go fast and far, who are generally confident, fit, and very accustomed to riding. They won't be avoiding main drags by ducking along winding side streets. They probably also don't haul trailers, or have shopping panniers on back racks. They're probably not riding cargo bikes to the corner store through downtown streets, they're not Strava-ing their trip to pick the kids up from school, and their activity feeds aren't crammed with 15 km/h rides to the library, with frequent stops for intersections. 

This skewed representation isn't lost on Ottawa bike folks (well, the ones I keep in touch with, who are quite the most entertaining), and they are, perhaps predictably, queering the whole process. Soon after the City's announcement, quite a few cyclists (yes, including me) signed up, specifically in order to track the kind of riding we do and make sure it shows up against the sea of Spandex. And we started encouraging others to do the same, shouting "We are here! We are here!" like the Whos in Whoville. There's an #ottbike Strava club now (yes, I joined) to remind people to log their short, slow, urban trips, to generate the kind of data we want generated. But that takes me to the second thing that bugs me.

Two: Strava's making money off this, and off us. They're not just sharing this data out of the goodness of their bikey hearts. I don't know how much Ottawa's paying them, but in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation paid them $20,000 for a year's worth of Portland's cycling data (the first agreement of this kind between Strava and a state transportation agency). In fact, Strava wins two ways here: they get money from the City, and they get a whole bunch of new people signing on to the service (yes, including me) and using it actively because they want their data to be counted. This boosts their numbers and activity, which in turn encourages advertisers, which is their main source of revenue.

But then, the amounts we're talking about aren't really massive amounts of money for a city or for an internet data corporation. And users don't pay for the app, so it's no shock at all that big data companies are making money off the information we give up to them. That's their business model, after all. That's how it works, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest to Strava. Welcome to the cyberpunk age: information actually is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit.

So, am I just being an old man yelling at a cloud when I'm a little uncomfortable that we're being forced, if we want our cycling patterns to count, to sign on to a specific data collection site and hand our data over to them? That you have to change your habits and patterns to fit Big Data? That this data won't include people who don't have smartphones or Garmins, who can't afford the data plans to upload this stuff, who aren't online and connected to the cycling community and won't have gotten the memo? 

Yeah, maybe. I'm already on Facebook; I can't really complain about the Big Data end of it. And at least, in Portland, they submitted the data with the caveat that Strava users were not representative of cyclists at large, and I can hope they take those factors into account here too. And, it's a way to provide the City with information it does need to make changes to infrastructure. So here I am, on Strava, logging my ride to the gym, or to my office, or to my evening meeting.

I can hope that if information actually is power and currency, I'll get some of my investment back in infrastructure improvements and benefits to me as a cyclist: and that's the best way one of these data-mining relationships can work out. 

Besides, the cyclists who've signed on for Strava in spite of its sportsiness, and because they want people to know that not everyone on a bike is training for a century, are having some fun with it. They're giving the rides they log sarcastic names. They're making a point of the ordinariness of their ride to get cat food or toilet paper or bagels. They're speculating on whether, at some point, an engineer at Strava will stop and wonder why there's suddenly been this spike in slow, short, meandering, un-athletic trips in the Ottawa area.

It's the curse of the Web 2.0 cohort that we're constantly using applications that weren't exactly designed for what we want to do with them. We make DropBox work as a wiki; we sneak private conversations onto Google Calendar Invites to circumvent office blockouts on email; we make WordPress try to be a website when it was (really, let's face it) meant to be a blogging platform. And we just might turn Strava into a tracker for workaday commuting, quaxing, going to shows, and meeting friends for coffee. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP!!!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Safer (paradoxically)

People I'm connected with on social media and the like probably know by now that I was in a fairly spectacular car accident this week. It was pretty dramatic, and both vehicles were absolutely totaled, although, amazingly, everyone involved walked away (gratitude is due to crash test engineers). 

So, that happened. I was fine: no real injuries, no whiplash even. But I didn't get on my bike for a couple of days because I was being careful in case my stiff neck was something worse, and because I hurt my left hand enough that I didn't think I wanted to squeeze brake levers with it for a bit. I did drive (my car wasn't the one that was wrecked) and observed that although I didn't consciously have a problem with it, I did have some slight physical symptoms of anxiety walking to the car with the keys in my hand. 

But I rode my bike downtown for a meeting yesterday. I was kind of interested to see how I'd react. Riding a bike, especially near my apartment where the roads are big, wide and fast, usually feels vulnerable. I'm usually on alert, and on a bad, jumpy day my trip can be hellish in spots. I wondered if, having just been through a car crash, I would have any problems. 

Short answer - no. I felt relaxed, almost relieved. In part, I think, because I was only going about 10 miles an hour. That feeling of being less trapped on a bike? Yeah, there was that, too. I was far less tense than I'd been driving the day before.

It wasn't like it was a breeze, but it was all the normal stuff. A guy decided to squeeze past me two abreast with another vehicle, without slowing down, on Heron, and made me shout. A woman merging onto Bank rolled slowly forward, not looking at me, as I zipped by in front of her with my hand up in a "stop" gesture, calling out "whoa, whoa, whoa." On my way home, some idiot crossing Bank from a side street in a sedan exhibited all the signs of "bike blindness" as he started to cross the street just as I passed in front of him. A police car (sigh) ignored my signal that I was moving left to avoid parked cars, and just cruised on past me, cutting me off between the parked cars and his lane. 

All normal. I yelled when I had to, to get the dude in the sedan's attention (he stopped). I shouted "asshole!" when I was startled by the old guy in the station wagon who buzzed right past me as I was nearly on the Billings Bridge (I also rolled up beside him as he was stopped in traffic at the bridge, glared in the side window at him, and caught his eye - but stopped short of tapping on the window and starting a conversation.) All normal: the everyday startles and shouts of my regular commute.

In fact, being on my bike was comforting. I was going at a reasonable, human speed. I felt less trapped - by the road, by the vehicles around me, by my momentum and vector. If I needed to stop, I could: right at the side of the road if I had to. I don't think I've ever before really appreciated the way bikes can just cruise along at the edges of that stream of cars, without having to be caught up in it. I felt totally in control. I felt safe. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lights on Bikes - 2015 edition

Got this photo from the @BikeOttawa Twitter feed.
In only two hours this afternoon, the City of Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling and Safer Roads Ottawa set up on the Somerset side of the Corktown Footbridge and handed out something like 450 sets of bike lights - 900 or so lights in all, and that's not counting the taillights donated by one of CfSC's members, and the pedestrian and dog lights that were also given out.

I was there as a volunteer with CfSC, and I might have been the first person to get bike lights, in fact, because I was there on my spare bike, one I'd spent a couple of hours getting roadworthy the night before, and it didn't have any lights yet.

(Mike, you see, is getting to be downright unsafe. I discovered recently that his brake cables were distressingly frayed, his back brakes are seized up, his handlebars appear to be corroded . . . anyway, I wasn't really willing to ride him very far in his current condition, and there was no way I was driving a car downtown to volunteer for Lights on Bikes. That would just be tacky. So, I had done a quick tuneup on my spare bike, an unnamed Nakamura Profile (who I think, now, will henceforth be known as Akito), but didn't have any working lights. So, Akito may have been the first bike to get little blinky red and white lights strapped on to his frame.)

Felicity, from CfSC, at right, talking with a passing cyclist.
It actually amazes me how many people are riding around with no lights. Even leaving aside that it's illegal not to have lights, it just freaks me out to go anywhere without lights after dark. I guess when I first started riding, I thought having lights blinking away on my bike was kind of dorky. But a few years on the road has driven that right out of my head. Now, I can't face the idea of riding home along South Bank Street if I know my taillight is out. I will get on the sidewalk.

In part, it's because I've been riding a while, and I have a much better idea of what is involved in riding in traffic. I have also been driving more since getting my first car a couple of years ago, and I have seen first hand how invisible a cyclist is if they don't have any lights. It's frightening to be driving along (especially if, like me, you're also a cyclist) and have someone in a black hoodie on a bike with no lights, and maybe a couple of half-assed, dirt-encrusted, dim reflectors, suddenly emerge from the dark at the side of the road. Or, worse, cross the road in front of you, or pop out from the sidewalk at an intersection.

Seriously, how do people ignore how invisible they are?

So I was happy to flag people down - lots and lots of people - and ask them if they wanted some free lights. A couple of people just said "nothanksIdon'twantany," the way you do when you think accepting the free gift will then end up with you signing up for some mailing list or getting roped into something else you don't really want. Most people, though, stopped, and said, "What? Free lights? Yes, please! Mine just broke down," or, "Someone stole my lights yesterday, I'd love some!" or "Absolutely, thank you, this is amazing!"

I was particularly happy when the people I was handing lights to seemed like folks who might not otherwise have spent the $5 or so that these lights cost. People who would have had to think, "yeah, so. . . bike lights? Or an extra meal today?"

It's something to seriously think about, actually. A bike is just about the cheapest mode of transport you can have, other than your feet, and once you have one you can ride it for years without having to put much money into it. If $5 is going to make or break your daily, or weekly, budget, you're not going to buy lights for your bike - and what exactly will you do when you get a $100 ticket for not having lights? We're giving people free safety. I kind of wish we could do another blitz to give out bike lights in specifically targeted, low-income areas. Somehow find the people who wouldn't buy bike lights because they have to pay rent and buy food instead, and give them lights. There's got to be a way to do that.

That's part of what pissed me off about the one and only belligerent person I encountered: a guy on rollerblades who completely lost it when I hesitated after he asked if he could have a set of lights for his wife, who, he said, rode her bike every day. (See, we'd been told that we could only give out lights to people with bikes - no extra lights for a person's whole family, no lights for someone with a bike somewhere else.) He got angry right off the jump, and before I even knew what was going on, he was shouting. "My wife is an executive," he said, "she rides her bike every day, and she doesn't get off work at 4:00 like these people," and he indicated everyone else on the path, "she's very busy. Are you working with the City? Do you work for the City? Do they subsidize this? We pay taxes! Do you have a manager, someone with some sense I can talk to? I go just as fast on these rollerblades as any cyclist, and my wife's life and my life are just as important as these people's . . ." Honestly, I'd tuned him out at that point - in fact, well before that point, as soon as I realized he was actually going into a full-blown entitlement temper tantrum over a $2 set of blinky lights. I mean, seriously: if his wife is some hotshot executive, surely, surely she can actually buy her own bike lights. Nicer ones. Bigger ones. And probably already has.

Yup, that's Somerset Ward Councillor McKenney
in the blue jacket. She's cool. 
Aside from Ranty Rollerblade Man, who I suppose must just have been having a really bad day or something, pretty much everyone else responded to, "Hey, would you like some lights for your bike?" with a hearty, "Absolutely, hell yeah!" It was amazing how much happier people were after you'd flagged them down, stuck a couple of lights on their bike that they didn't have before, and waved them off on their way.

And after a while, we actually started to run out of lights. By 5:30, when we were due to stop anyway, there were only a handful of lights left. Since we had 1,000 lights to start with, and some of them turned out to be duds, we figured that was about 900 lights, or 450 sets, we'd handed out over a couple of hours. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The police officer who was on site for the event, putting a collar light on a Yorkie who happened by. We also put a lot of lights on dog collars, joggers, and pedestrians this evening. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bring on the winter biking comments.... sigh

So, Councillor Tobi Nussbaum wants to have more bike paths cleared in the winter. That's awesome! But the minute I saw the article, I knew what I'd find in the comments. Wincing, I scrolled down to have a look because I'm mean to myself like that.

And I find:

"You have to be really brain dead to ride a bike in the Winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow bikers loosing control. Clear the streets and that's it. That`s where you can cycle if you want to risk it."

Okay. Point one: when you start out like that, what it says to me is that you don't ride a bike, therefore by definition you know nothing about it. You're just blowing hot air about something you think you have an Opinion about. But that's okay. That's what the comments section is for. That's why I braced myself before scrolling. That's why we cyclists play "Bike Comment Bingo."

Point two: if your problem is with people riding bikes in the winter in the streets, because of "accidents," then you should be all for clearing the bike paths. Keeps us out of the street. Where we can probably agree we would all rather have bikes be, especially in the winter. Unless you're just bitter towards people who ride their bikes in the winter because, for whatever reason, you think they mock you with their very existence and should stop.

Point three: how many accidents last winter were caused by a cyclist losing control? Hm. Well, it's hard to find those statistics, but so far I can only find a case from this spring when a cyclist went off the bike path and into the Rideau Canal, and people speculated there might have been a patch of ice involved. However, I'm also looking at a report from last February in which there were 140 automobile collisions in a matter of hours and oddly enough no one mentioned any bicycles. The footage accompanying the article is of the Queensway. On which, if I'm not mistaken, bikes aren't allowed. 

And looking at that number of accidents - wow. You have to be really brain dead to drive a car in the winter. Ice, snow, slush, etc. No wonder there are so many accidents. Snow drivers losing control.

I mean, why would we clear the streets if you're just going to drive too fast for the conditions anyway? Seriously, if you want to risk it, just get a four wheel drive vehicle and chains on your tires and you can drive through the snow if you're so all-fired determined to keep using your car in the winter. We'd save literally millions on road maintenance.

(Or you could just get one of these maybe.)