Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hey Look, More Thoughts on Bike Lanes

You'd think by now I'd have hashed this through.

First and foremost I need to issue an apology to the Association for Bicycle Commuting in Red Deer. In my last post I called them myopic. In hindsight, that was an unfair assertion by me because at the end of the day, the Association didn't go out and paint the lanes on the road by themselves. As has been pointed out - and I did know this but my crankiness got in the way - the bike lanes are the work of a huge planning group that the Association is a part of.

So John, Steven, Grant and the rest of the committee, please accept my apologies for throwing you under the metaphorical bus.

There is a bigger issue at stake here, beyond whether or not I like the 40Ave bike lane (my stance on the lane itself hasn't changed). Two days ago in the Red Deer Advocate, former Councillor Vesna Higham  wrote that the bike lanes will be a disaster because parents like her need to drive their kids to school at Lindsay Thurber.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Right now we don't have that much traffic on the roads. The summertime bike commute is comfortable largely because we don't have parents taxiing their kids to and from school.

My question to Vesna Higham and to other parents is this: Why can't your kids walk or ride their bikes to school?

Full disclosure: I have two kids. One is in middle school and one in elementary school. They are daily walkers and bike-riders, year-round. One gets picked up from school on Mondays. The middle schooler takes the bus or rides his bike from our house in Anders to Central. If the temp falls below -20 the youngest one still walks - she just wears a thicker scarf and warmer mitts.

I understand that the first day is different. Kids have a mountain of supplies to bring, there are first-day jitters,  and inquisitive parents want to be on hand to find out who their kids' teachers are going to be. However, by day two of school things are back to normal. Beyond physical disabilities or the fact that some kids live outside of bussing range or outside of their designated school's boundary, there is no good reason that a kid needs a ride to school every day.

I'll address the counter arguments.

1. It's too dangerous for my kid to walk/ride to school.
     Dangerous in what way? If you're talking about traffic safety, that's an issue for you to deal with. Teach your kid to look both ways, to push the button at the crosswalk, to wait for the cars to stop and to use the crosswalk. This is not hard.

     If on the other hand, you think it's too dangerous because the streets and alleys are crawling with weirdos waiting to steal your child, then I suggest you stop watching TV. I won't trivialize the pain that a family goes through when their child is abducted nor will I minimize the trauma to an abducted child. However, every jurisdiction in North America shows a decrease in their statistics of random-stranger child abduction over the last 30 years. Kids are as safer walking to school today than they were when I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s. Kids are assaulted - statistically - by the people they and their parents know and trust. What has increased in the last 30 years, is the amount of coverage that news outlets (mostly TV) give to stories of abducted kids.  Yes, you hear about it more. That's because it's covered more, not because it's happening more often. Fear and sensationalism bring in viewers.

2. We live too far for my child to walk/ride to school.
     How far is too far? 30 years ago kids were walking upwards of a kilometre each way. Today (and this by no means a modern thing) there are bussing options for kids who live beyond a certain distance and Transit bussing options for those going to out-of-boundary schools. And, guess what, the Transit busses even have bike racks on the front of them so your kid has multiple options.

The reality is that exercise won't kill your kid. In fact it'll likely help them.

Getting themselves to school does wonders for a child's sense of place in the world and for their self confidence. They learn navigation skills, they learn familiarity with their neighbourhood, and they gain decision making skills they need in order to thrive as adults. Walking to school makes your kids familiar to the people in the neighbourhood. I've never told my kids "Don't talk to strangers." I have taught them, "Don't go with strangers". This way, they learn through their interactions with people how to judge character and who lives where in the neighbourhood.

So, to Vesna Higham and the other helicopter parents, do your kids a favour and let them get themselves to school. If you're worried about your children's safety, organize a number of kids to walk/ride together, find a stay-at-home-parent in the neighbourhood and see if they'll do a "Walking school bus"; do whatever it takes. But don't just take what you perceive to be the easy way out and drive the kids to school everyday.

3. It's too cold
    I'm sorry but in all honesty - bullshit. Those days where you are driving your kid to school, guess what. they're playing outside at recess and lunch. The school will keep them in if the temp falls below -20 (actual or with windchill). Most days, even through the winter, your kid can walk. Drive 'em on the really cold days if you must (if they're not on a school bus plan).

How does all this relate to bike lanes; that topic that we're all abuzz over here in Red Deer. It's easy. Many of those lanes exist to help kids get to and from school on their bikes and to help encourage commuters like me to get to work alive. Vesna and others, need to look beyond their steering wheels and dashboards and understand that if they didn't drive their kids and if others didn't drive their kids, those cars wouldn't be choking up the intersection of 55th Street and 40 Ave. If our kids rode their bikes, took the Transit busses, took the school busses or God-forbid, walked, then all those parents driving their kids to Thurber (and Camille J LeRouge) wouldn't have to go anywhere near there. Problem solved.

The Red Deer bike lanes are an amazing addition to the City. They demonstrate a real commitment on the part of Council and the involved departments to give us sustainable commuting choices. Are the lanes for everyone? No, of course not. But they can be for more of us.

The arguments being presented against project are mostly along the lines of "I'm not a cyclist, why am I paying for this waste of time?" can be applied to almost every infrastructure project in any community. I could well ask "I'm not a soccer or lacrosse player, why did we need to build a field house in the Collicut Centre?" The answer is that the City needs to cater to its entire base. They need to not only run the City day-to-day but they need to have a vision for the future. Part of that vision right now, is a more sustainable, lighter impact way of getting about town.

That vision, requires bike lanes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

More Bike Lane Angst

Again with the disclaimer:  I am a daily, year-round bike commuter who strongly believes that bikes belong on the road and that there is an incredible lack of understanding and empathy on both the part of drivers and cyclists. These views are my own.

So, I've now ridden the 40th Ave bike lane - northbound and the 55 Street bike lane, westbound. My conclusion is that the Association for Bicycle Commuting in Red Deer is a myopic, single-minded group that doesn't care that their agenda is actively interfering with the majority of Red Deer commuters and that The City of Red Deer consulted only with the commuting association and not with any other cyclists - particularly those who don't support the views of the association. I'm not complaining that I personally wasn't asked, but I am pointing out that there are many bike commuters who don't support or don't belong to the Association for Bicycle Commuting in Red Deer. Our voices are clearly not represented in this project.

Hey if I'm going to offer a critique, might as well come out with a bang, right?

Its not all bad. There are some great additions for cycle commuters.The 39 Street lane seems great. There's lots of room, the road bed is smooth and let's face it, it's not a hugely  busy road, even during the commute.

The Spruce Drive lanes, likewise are great. They appear to be well-designed and again, the road bed is great.

However, I had expressed my doubts about 40th Ave a while ago (you can read those concerns here: ). I take no pleasure in the feeling that I was correct with those concerns.

Now, I have no love for traffic and for maintaining/increasing the number of cars on the road. It's a given that one of the things we need to do to reduce our carbon footprint and to bring about a more sustainable future is to reduce the number of cars on the road. However, in order to put in the 40th Ave and 55 Street bike lanes, The City has removed the entire curb lane and turned it into bike lane and buffer. These are two incredibly congested streets during the school year. Plus, the lanes were painted on, without any improvements to the road surface. Riding these two roads in the curb lane is a daily grind through an obstacle course of holes, cracks, and sand/mud.

Drivers are going to be livid when they discover that they have to squeeze into one lane so that the minority (us cyclists) can have the entire curb lane. Further, the 40th Ave bike lane starts at Eastview school. I have to wonder if anybody on the Association for Bicycle Commuting in Red Deer or in City Engineering has ever stood on that corner during school drop-off time. Cars are entering the front lane of Eastview from the South and exiting it from the North. Busses are lined up at the curb dropping kids off. The bike lanes will be inaccessible during the key commuting period of the morning.

Here's a screen cap from the video of my ride to work, this morning:

Click on the image and then understand that in two weeks, this will be full of cars. Where will the bikes go?

I assume - and I could be wrong -that the northbound Michener Hill lane will be going in soon. I beg cyclists, please do not use that one if it shows up. It's going to be downhill, on the outside of a corner, next to an Armco barrier. On a rainy, slick day with the tendency for cars to be pushed to the outside of the corner...

I just don't understand this 40th Ave route. 43rd Ave would have offered a quieter, safer ride and, with the safe left turn onto Ross, it would have given a direct route into downtown. The impact on car traffic would have been minimal, thereby reducing the frustration of drivers. My explanation is in the link that I gave earlier.

Anyway this whole thing has put me in a supremely bad mood today and I really don't feel like beating a dead horse.  The lanes are what they are, and their success or failure will be determined by their use, their impact on society as a whole, and by the feedback that people give The City; which you can do here:

The City has excellent information about the lanes and about sharing space and respecting each other here:

That's it. I'm spent. I've exhausted my ability to rant and apparently, to affect change. You can surf back through my blog and read all the other things I've had to say about biking, winter commuting, bike lanes and the rest of it.

I encourage everybody to choose their bikes over their cars. It's great exercise, it takes almost no extra time to commute to work on a bike and you'll be doing the planet a favour. Pick your routes carefully and "keep your head on a swivel."

See you on the road.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bike Lanes, Traffic and Where We Belong

I'm writing this post in response to a discussion happening on Twitter regarding bike lanes in The City of Red Deer and where bikes belong.

Full disclosure: I am a daily, year-round bike commuter who strongly believes that bikes belong on the road and that there is an incredible lack of understanding and empathy on both the part of drivers and cyclists. These views are my own.

It has been argued by many drivers that bikes belong on sidewalks and trails; that having bikes on the road is  unfairly impeding traffic. Let me break this down and address the issues separately and completely.

"Bikes belong on sidewalks" - This one is a yes and no.

Yes: Little kids riding, or people meandering to the corner store, a friend's house or the park, or some similar activity are all biking trips that can happen on a sidewalk. They are generally slow, recreational-style rides. People have time to react to pedestrians and pedestrians won't be surprised by a fast moving bike.

No: Commuting is not recreational riding. Commuting on a bike fulfils the same functions as commuting in a car; get to work in the shortest amount of time possible. When a cyclist is commuting to work, they are generally travelling upwards of 25-30 km/h. At those speeds the sidewalk is the last place a bike should be. The chance for a pedestrian to get injured or for a cyclist to be hit by a car coming out of a driveway is greatly increased. Cycle commuters are focussed on getting to work and school. They are not stopping for ice cream, or lolly-gagging along attempting to waste drivers' time. For everyone concerned, given the speed of the cyclist and the relatively short times to react to challenges on the sidewalk, the road is the best place for cycle commuters.

"We have a trail system for bikes" - Again, this is a yes and no.

Yes: Red Deer has an amazing trail system. You can ride, walk, ski, rollerblade and skateboard from one end of the park system to the other, without having to cross a major road. You get to travel in the shade of Spruce, poplar and Elm trees and experience all that urban nature has to offer. The trail is a great recreational asset and a good commuting option - for some.

No: Most of the people in Red Deer do not live along the trail system. My commute to work for example, takes 13 minutes (17 in the winter) via surface streets. If I detour over to the trail system my commute becomes a 25 - 30 ride (40 in the winter). It's just not feasible to ask a cyclist to spend the extra time in a busy day, to detour through the park - and I work on the park system as the trail leads right up to the Nature Centre. Asking someone who lives on the East hill and works downtown to find their way over to the trail in order to get to work, is patently ridiculous.

There is a misconception that cycle commuters are eco-guerilla, anti-car, anti-social freaks; and maybe some of them are. However, most of us are simply trying to get to and from work and school in as economical, low-impact, and healthy manner as possible. In my case, we are a one-car family. The economics of owning, insuring and driving two cars every day didn't make sense to us. Neither did the tonnes of greenhouse gas that we'd be responsible for by having a second car. While I like riding to work everyday, take my word for it, there is sacrifice involved.

Last winter I wrote and filmed a series about winter cycle commuting - you can see it further down the blogroll. Here is an excerpt about what it's like to ride on Red Deer's roads, and what I feel are the best strategies for staying alive while bike commuting. Also, keep in mind this is written from a winter-centric and bike-centric point of view:

" my careful, scientific estimation there are like a zillion more cars on the road in the winter, effectively creating one long line of moving iron. There are no spaces to dodge into, to get around the hole. To make matters worse, this snake-like iron and plastic leviathan is controlled by humans who - let me be delicate here - turn into cold-lulled, meat sacks unable to see anything beyond the dvd infotainment system in the dash, once the temperature dips down below "chilly".

This brings us nicely to "Strategies and tactics to make sure you don't die".

First, base all your decisions on the following assumptions:

  • Nobody can see you. It doesn't matter how bright the jacket, how loud the bell, how good the lights; in winter you are beyond invisible. note - this applies year-round
  • Nobody is stopping for you. They're cold, the light is yellow, they're going through. Likely, this is because it's probably safer for them, than stopping would be. Do not be tempted to jump the light or snake a lane in the winter. Nobody is going to hit the brakes in the middle of an intersection and risk sliding into the guy in front of them.  note - this applies year-round
  • All cars are broken-down, barely maintained heaps of junk. It's patently not true. But if you assume that the cars around you have no brakes, bad tires and poorly maintained steering systems, then you'll be mentally ready for things to head south.  note - this applies year-round
  • The winter road will never be as good as you imagine/hope. You will always find glare ice, drifted snow, new potholes, broken car parts, dead kitties, sand piles etc... littering the curb lane and the intersections. Be ready for these obstacles.
  • Eventually, somewhere, somehow you will get hit by a car. It probably won't be serious. But it will happen. More on this, below.  note - this applies year-round

Given these assumptions here then, is how you survive as a winter cyclist.

Plan your route. Red Deer is an easy city to ride in, largely because you can route-plan on the fly. Lots of side streets will take you to the places you want to go, almost as fast as the main arterials. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you have a couple of optional routes in your mental map so that you can bail out of your main route, if things are getting dicey.

Keep your head on a swivel. More than anything else, you have to be hyper-aware of what's happening around you. You should know roughly how many cars in the in lane behind you (I count them at stop lights), if anybody behind you is planning a right turn at the upcoming intersection - this is a great place and situation in which you can get hit by a car, and what the traffic lights are about to do. You should be aware of the roads and traffic up to a block ahead of you, and you should be scanning the sidewalks for pedestrians who may be feeling adventurous. Are there yards with potentially open gates on your route? Dogs and cats aren't afraid of you and will run out into traffic. Cats will do it just to try and make you swerve into a bus - sadistic little bastards. The more information you can track in your surroundings, the better you can avoid protential problems and the more options you can find for escaping trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable reality I mentioned at the top of this article: Some day, you will eventually have a negative interaction with a car. It doesn't matter how much you've perfected your situational-awareness, how great your studded tires are, how well you've planned... eventually things are going to go bad and you will either hit or get hit by something outweighs you by 2800 lbs or more. It will hurt.

Practice falling off your bike. Go to a frozen school-yard and fall down. Do it at fast speeds and slow speeds. Get someone to push you over as you ride by or simply throw yourself off the bike. You need to know how to hit the ground effectively. Hit with the biggest amount of  body real-estate. It's instinctual to put your hands out to try and catch yourself. This is a great way to break your wrists. Try to land on your shoulders, side, or hips. Let the force of the landing get dispersed across as much of your body as possible.

Once you're on the ground. Roll. If you've broken something (on you, not your bike) your body will instinctively try to protect that part. Rolling does two things. One, it helps to protect the injured part by moving it out of harms way and two, it further dissipates energy. It redirects the energy of the impact over space and distance.

By practicing falling, you're developing muscle memory. If you get hit, your body will just "know" what do. This is important because when bad things happen, they happen with little warning and you simply can't remember fast enough, what you should do to protect yourself in a fall.

In the event that you do have to fall:

  • Once you're down, stay down. Do a self-systems test. Does your neck hurt? Does your back or head hurt? Did you black out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Once you've established that you've not compromised anything critical - and if nobody has stopped to help - you can try to move. Be slow, be deliberate and double check those fingers, toes and neck for sensation, mobility and pain. If there's a negative change, stop what you're doing and wait for help.
  • Do. Not. Let. Anybody. Help. You. Up. If you've hit hard enough that you require assistance, just ask someone to call an ambulance and let the EMTs take care of how and when you move. Don't let passersby remove your backpack or helmet. At this point, those things are stabilizing any injuries and removing them could cause more harm than good.
  • Don't get up fighting. Remain calm, ask for the driver's insurance and registration and leave the scene as calmly as possible. The police and insurance companies will figure out who was wrong and who pays what. Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame. 

Drivers and cyclists, re-read those last two sentences carefully. Here, I'll re-paste them: Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame.

Cyclists are not infallible. Most of us ride by the rules of the road, wear bright clothing and do our damndest to stay out of the way. However, there are some realities that drivers are going to have to accept.

1. We are forced to ride on the worst part of the road. The edges of any road bed are the first to degrade. This is the place where the potholes show up, where the road heaves and dips around man-holes and where debris collects. We have to either risk damaging our bikes or move over a little to avoid these obstacles. This isn't being done to piss off drivers, it's self-preservation

2. We might move up to the front of the line of traffic. This is the safest place for us at a stop light. By being at the front of the line we reduce the risk of being run over by someone turning right at the intersection. By the same token, moving to the front of the left turn lane lets us get out in front of traffic and out of the way so we don't get killed. This is especially true in the winter. The last place a cyclist should be is at the end of the line of traffic. One rear-end collision would result in a cyclist sandwich. There is some data to suggest that cyclists have fewer negative interactions with cars in jurisdictions that allow lane-splitting.

Will Red Deer be safer with bike lanes? I certainly hope so. There are none along my commute right now (and honestly I don't want one on 40th Avenue - see my previous post). What well-designed bike lanes do is  blend bike traffic with car traffic, while keeping the cyclists separate enough to be safe.

Drivers need to remember that they are piloting a vehicle that has a mass several hundred times that of a bike and rider. If a car hits a bike, it's never good for the cyclist. Drivers.are going to have to learn how to deal with an increased number of bikes on the road. Cyclists likewise, are going to have to learn to ride by the rules of the road and to ride predictably. If bike lanes facilitate a new understanding between drivers and cyclists I'm all for them. However, if drivers see the lanes as "taking away" from their right to own the road, then it's the cyclists who will pay for that resentment. We'll pay through damage to our bikes and through hospital stays - or worse.