Angry Robot

The Dutch Town of Houten Is a Case Study in Bike-Friendly Suburban Planning

Bike friendly without being car-unfriendly.

Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety in Toronto (PDF)

Some fascinating data here.

  <ul>        <li>the rates for major and fatal injuries among pedestrians and cyclists are the same (cyclists have more collisions but they are less likely to be serious)</li>      <li>84% and 87% of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities occur on arterial roads</li>      <li>two thirds of collisions occur in intersections</li>        <li>sharrows are useless</li>       <li>in two thirds of collisions with pedestrians, they had the right of way</li>    </ul>

My Bike

This is a post for bike month, continuing from this one. All of these live here, in reverse chronological order.

So yeah, I wound up buying a Simcoe. These are city bikes designed with Toronto in mind. They have all the city bike conveniences, plus some weather resistance, yet don’t feel heavy or slow.

My new ride

The Bad

I bought this bike the first year it came out, which sums up most of my criticisms. A lot of the accessories were not firmly attached – the fenders came loose quickly and made a horrifying rattle; the kickstand came loose and was of debatable quality anyway, so I replaced it.

I was surprised by the weight of the thing. Any of my beater mountain bikes would be lighter. That dismayed me.

I was holding out for the “Signature Edition” 7-speed but it was delayed and I needed a bike, so I got the cheaper 3-speed. I say cheaper, but the bike was still like $900, which is more than all of my previous bike purchases put together.

The Ugly

It was supposed to be blue, but it’s really a blue-green that honestly I’m not that fond of. Ok honestly? There’s no real ugly to be had here. It’s just a riff on a movie title that doesn’t quite match. I mean I would probably choose a modern bike style over the Simcoe’s retro looks, but this bike is, to continue the metaphoric math, better looking than all of my previous bike purchases put together.

The Good

Everything else. Even some of the bads.

Despite the weight, because of the slimmer tires and the quality components, this bike rolls faster than … all of my previous bikes put together. A few pedals and I glide for ages.

I thought three gears would be a problem – my last bike had 21 – but if anything, it’s a blessing. There’s just less fussy stuff to do. Plus internal hub gearing is much smoother than the usual derailleurs, and it allows for a full chain guard, which means I’ve never gotten bike grease on my pants. The fenders are also great (and should be on every bike); I’ve ridden a few times in the rain without incident. Nothing to be afraid of.

I’m no bike expert, and I can’t compare the Simcoe to other bikes in its category. But I love it. It obviously signifies something special to me – a new way of looking at biking. A new chance at mobility.

Car-think, Ford, and Cycle Tracks

Three years ago, I eagerly hopped on my bike for the first ride of the spring and rode up my alley to Dundas East, where I needed to turn left. It was rush hour, so cars were backed up waiting for the light. All I needed to do was make my way through these stationary cars and get to the bike lane just beyond. I saw a gap between a car and a pickup truck, so I went for it. The truck pulled forward and blocked my way.

The driver yelled at me, saying I should walk my bike to the lights at Greenwood and cross there. Said lights were currently changing, so now I was stuck as oncoming traffic headed toward me. The truck pulled away. I yelled “thanks” – I intended it to be dripping with sarcasm but really it was soaked in futility. Someone must have let me in, but the damage was done.

Hopefully I don’t have to point out that the truck driver was wrong about bikes and intersections (bikes are considered legally “road vehicles”, the same as cars, with few exceptions1). Or that he was an asshole. But it goes to show how bad it can be biking in this city, much like in many North American cities, I’d guess. My first ride of the year was not even a minute old before someone was needlessly endangering me. More frequently it’s carelessness rather than spite, but the latter does happen. I could feel things getting worse as Rob Ford’s mayoralty sunk in. He campaigned on ending “the war on the car”, on banning streetcars and condemning bikes to trails. Most drivers are decent people, but Rob Ford’s road rager transportation philosophy made the assholes feel empowered.

There is definitely a correlation between geography and belief. The relative car-dependence of downtown Toronto vs. its suburbs goes a long way toward explaining the political divide between the regions. As density increases, the traffic gets worse, and the only way to alleviate it is to encourage walking, bikes and transit, which often takes road space away from the operators of private motor vehicles, which makes them feel beset upon, despite their continued position of privilege in perhaps every regard of urban transportation other than cost. Even that is debatable.

It doesn’t have to be this bad, and hopefully now that Ford is just a councillor again it can start to get better. The results of the Richmond/Adelaide Cycle Track pilot project are in. These physically separated bike lanes took away a car lane but tripled the number of cyclists using the route, despite their stumpy length. Perhaps more interesting is the survey feedback. Of the 1424 survey respondents who self-identified as non-bikers, 54% strongly agreed the lanes should be made permanent. Only 25% strongly disagreed. Even more interesting, data indicates that car travel time has actually improved since the lanes went in. One more bike is one less car, quite often, and that should encourage both cyclists and drivers.

1 Bikes are not allowed on highways, and are expected to keep to the side of the road where safety permits.

Slow Motion

Or, third post for bike month, continuing from this one. All of these live here, in reverse chronological order.

As I learned more about city bikes, the thing that really amazed me was how I had bought into this weird suburban attitude towards bikes without realizing it. I always bought beater mountain bikes, and I was always proud of how cheap they were. Yet they were always falling apart, sometimes dangerously so, and with the slightest hint of rain they would spray water everywhere. Even stranger, I was always obsessing about speed when biking. I’d get pissed if someone passed me, I’d be proud of quick times, and generally enjoyed biking as hard and as fast as possible – even though I am not hard, fast, adrenaline-soaked, or performance-oriented in basically any other sphere of my life.

Let’s go back to the back for a second. As I mentioned in the previous post, a couple years ago, I started getting these shooting pains in my back and down one of my legs. It started getting worse. I was diagnosed with sciatica, a classic old man disease I was somewhat disappointed to be getting a sneak preview of in my 30s.

Sciatica is a mysterious illness. I was told it was probably caused by a herniated disc, but no imaging was done so it was never clear what caused it. Apparently since the treatment is the same (physio) in almost all cases no matter what caused it, they don’t spend the money to find out. Could have been spine gremlins!

They told me that 90% of cases are fully recovered within 9 months. They said it didn’t necessarily take that long, but that was how the study was done. I was also told that I would probably feel it on and off for the rest of my life.

It got worse over a couple weeks until I couldn’t walk or stand for more than 5 minutes at a time. Then I slipped and fell and made it worse. I missed work for 2 weeks and spent them lying down – I couldn’t even sit.

I kept going to physio, and got gradually better over a few months. But I had to evolve a bunch of new habits when walking around the city. Every step was painful, so I was moving with the speed of an 80-year-old. No jaywalking, no rushing to make lights. No rushing at all. Over the next months, as my back slowly healed, the walking got easier – but I kept the slow motion habits. I had come to like them. What was the rush? It would take me a bit longer to get places but I would enjoy the trip more. Toronto is a lively city, and walking around it, when you take the time and let your senses roam a bit, feels like a privilege. When you’re rushing you’re fixated on one thing – the menacing abstraction of a clock counting down. When you slow down you can absorb everything.

Thinking about getting back on a bike, I realized that not only would the bike have to be upright, but my attitude would have to be a whole lot… slower.

It’s now about a year into my personal slow-food biking renaissance, and I can report in a bit. A key part is obviously biking slower, but that’s not all of it. In fact, that’s the easy part. I also have been trying to cut out a bunch of behavioural shortcuts that one tends to do when rushing. With walking it’s basically jaywalking, but with biking this can be: not stopping at stop signs or lights, going the wrong way down one way streets, passing stopped cyclists at intersections, riding through crosswalks, etc. etc. You do them when you’re in a rush or just impatient, but almost all of them compromise your safety. Or make you less predictable to your fellow road-users and/or make you an asshole. And if you’re not actually in a rush – or even if you are – is it worth it? Leave earlier and just relax.

This slow-bike attitude isn’t always easy to pull off, though. In my experience, the more separated the bike route, the easier it is to maintain. If you’re in mixed traffic with cars, you wind up absorbing their pace and stress. 

Curbside, City Bikes, North America

This sort of meanders naturally from the previous post.

So yeah, I was making some discoveries about bike types, including the surprisingly practical Dutch bikes, which no one seems to use here.

Except, they do. Sort of.

Dutch bikes are a type of city bike, which is sometimes also called a utility bike, a cruiser or a roadster.

Doing my research for possible bike purchases, I stumbled upon Simcoe, a new Canadian bike company. As it turns out, it was run by the people who do Curbside Cycle, an Annex bike store I had visited many times. Their specialty? City bikes.

Also, talking. Listening to the mighty Eric get rhapsodical about Simcoe, I learned a lot about these city bikes. Here’s an interview with him that will provide a reasonable facsimile of the experience:

You can create a direct link between the decline of the bicycle and mid-20th century suburban expansion. At the turn of 20th century, North American cities supported a dense urban culture where 90% of activities took place within 10km of your home. In that situation, the bicycle was an ideal mode of transportation and upright bikes, or “city-bikes,” were everywhere. But as suburbs evolved and people began to live further from their daily destinations, the bicycle fell into relative disuse. Cycling also didn’t really work in suburbs because cul-de-sacs don’t encourage terribly serious biking. Your main supplier in that situation is a store like Canadian Tire where you could buy relatively inexpensive, lesser quality bikes. Out in the countryside, cycling evolved into an adrenaline sport, i.e. performance road racing, mountain biking and BMX and whole new bicycle varieties were invented while cycling’s urban antecedents was slowly stripped away.

More thrilling heroics on this topic in the next post.

Get an Upright Bike

About two years ago I started having back problems that turned out to be a dreaded old man disease: sciatica. At one point I couldn’t sit or stand without great pain – I spent a week lying on the floor. Fun!

It gradually got better, and once recovered, I was never happier to just walk around. But chronic aftereffects remain, and I have had to adjust a lot of things in my life, from work to posture to one of the best things in life: cycling.

My physiotherapist simply said, get an upright bike. I had never thought about relative uprightness of different bike frames before. There was a lot going on there.

Here are four different bike types:

Mountain bike

This is what I always used to buy. I would spend very little money on them and I would brag about it. My logic was that with Toronto streets not being shy with the potholes, having some tread on your tires is probably a good thing. But really it’s designed for offroading. It’s missing a lot of things that might be handy for what I do 99% of the time, which is ride around the city. I used to just not ride if it was raining, for example, as the lack of fenders meant I’d get extra soaked by water flying off the tires. It’s also not great for troubled backs.

Road bike

I never rode these, as I once saw someone riding one hit a pebble and wipe out. Now I know that many other factors may have been at play, including tire thickness. And when I look up bike taxonomy things get confusing: what is the exact definition of a road bike? I most associate road bikes with the drop handlebars, I suppose. And I think of these models as the fastest. They are also the bikes that require the most hunched-over riding position, which makes them a no-go for Old Man Back.


OK, no one rides this anymore, but isn’t it awesome?

Dutch Bike

When I was looking at possible new back-friendly bikes, I talked to my sister, who had just spent a year with her family in the Netherlands. She told me all about Dutch bike infrastructure, culture, and the actual bikes themselves. They are very different from mountain and road bikes. They ride upright, and the emphasis is on utility, durability and style over speed or sportiness. You can make out in this pic a few features lacking in the other bikes:

Clearly, the Dutch had spent a lot more time thinking about biking than I had. More in the next post.

Bike Month

It’s bike month! It starts on May 25th… Or maybe it starts June 1? So maybe it’s not bike month? Whatever. Any month you can bike is bike month.

In honour of this sacred time, I’m going to publish a series of posts about my experience with bikes. Okay, most of it is really from one super long draft that got completely out of hand and makes more sense as a series of posts.

If you hate bikes, or are simply indifferent, I would understand if you looked away, but I’ll try to keep things accessible. Part of the point I’m going to make is that bikes shouldn’t be some niche thing, it should be an option for everyone, and if the infrastructure in your area precludes this (I’m looking at you, most of North America), it is something we should be working on.

Anyway. You have been warned.