“Do you remember when your central purpose was to explore this world with your body? The sun and the wind, your legs, your breath, the water and dirt? This is how we understood the environment, and our place in it, and what it meant to be alive.”
Liz Canning remembers that everyday thrill of childhood. She remembers when that thrill disappeared under the obligations of adulthood and motherhood, when the sun and wind receded behind the sealed windows of a car, when exploring the world meant negotiating traffic jams in frustration. And she remembers rediscovering routine, daily joy with her children when she learned about cargo bikes and she escaped the cage of her car.
That’s the backstory of the deeply inspiring film Motherload. The feature-length documentary hit the festival circuit in 2019, and in 2020 it was released for on-demand rentals and purchase on Vimeo. (Education and library licensing available here and a DVD edition is here.)
Revolutions Per Minute
Motherload features Canning’s own story and the story of many other families, but the focus and the movie’s name developed several years into the project. The movie was produced through a crowd-sourcing model, with people around the world contributing stories, pictures, video clips and funds.
When I first became aware of the project in 2011 the working title was “Revolutions Per Minute: Cargo Bikes in the U.S.” A few years later the title had morphed to “Less Car More Go.” All along Canning was learning about the many types of cargo bikes, the people around the world who were building them and using them, and the first individuals and companies in the U.S. who were designing or importing cargo bikes.
This early research pays great dividends in the movie. Canning speaks with mountain bike design legend and historian Joe Breeze, and Xtracycle founder Ross Evans. She shows us how cargo bikes developed in Central America, West Africa, Australia and the Netherlands.
In the last 10 years the cargo bike movement has grown exponentially in North America. Cargo bikes, and cargo trailers pulled by bikes, became popular with tradespeople, mobile catering services, and courier services.
“It’s the moms”
But one type of cargo bike user became an increasingly important demographic: mothers with young families. Kaytea Petro of Yuba Bicycles – by then the largest seller of cargo bikes in the US – told Canning that “Seventy-five percent of our market are women.”
Thus it made perfect sense to name the movie Motherload, and to frame the issue through a series of personal stories – Canning’s own story, and the story of many other mothers who celebrate their new-found freedom to feel wind, sun and rain along with their children.
More than a hundred years ago the bicycle played a prominent role in women’s liberation. Today, Canning says, “We are still challenging notions of gender status, physical power, safety, even our definition of high quality of life.”
Unfortunately just as the suffragettes faced a lot of abuse from men, Motherload tells us about the “mom-shaming” and the vicious misogyny that women on cargo bikes often get from male drivers. Other hurdles include a lack of safe places to ride in many neighborhoods, and the high cost of still-rare cargo bikes (though the purchase price and especially the operating costs of cargo bikes are low compared to the cost of cars). Motherload packs in many stories and a lot of information, but there is still plenty of ground in this revolution for Canning or other documentarians to cover in future films.
Director Liz Canning and her twins
“We are teaching our children to become citizens of the earth,” Canning tells us. And she quotes Rebecca Solnit: “You do what you can. What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine, for generations to come.” The film closes with an image that will tug at the heart-strings of all parents, but particularly those in bicycling families: her twins, who first explored their world from the open-air box of a cargo bike, now pedal away on their own bikes, under their own power, down their own road.
picture at top of page: Emily Finch and her six children on their dual engine mini-bus
Thirty years ago this week, near the end of my first winter in the Northwest Territories, I completed a bike ride I’d been planning for months: north along the Mackenzie River ice highway from Inuvik to the coast, and then across the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk.
The journey seemed like the sort of thing one might want to blog about – except that “blog” wasn’t yet a word and the World Wide Web had not been invented.
In the hope that 30 years late is better than never, here’s that blog post now.
(Note: this ice highway closed for the season for the last time in April, 2017, and has since been replaced by the four-season, gravel surface Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.)
Wednesday April 5, 1989 – near Reindeer Station
How do you bicycle from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk? You ride north down the Mackenzie River, about 160 kilometers. At the mouth of the river you hang a right onto the Beaufort Sea, and after about 30 more kilometers, just past the pingos, you roll ashore into downtown Tuktoyaktuk.
Obviously you don’t want to try that in the summer, because the carefully maintained ice highways of Canada’s western arctic region wash out to sea by the end of May. And it’s tough to do in winter – the sun shines not at all or only a few hours, and the temperature stays at –40° for days on end.
I had slept outside in temperatures of –40, but only when I was a short walk away from Inuvik where I could go inside and warm up for the day. And I wasn’t particularly keen to be out in the mid-winter deep freeze for days on end.
So I planned my ice-road excursion for the Arctic spring, when the sun shines past 10 at night, the mercury might rise to above zero during the day, and a cyclist can get a deep northern suntan all the way from chin to forehead.
Being a cautious sort, I still wanted to be prepared in case a spring blizzard blew in, dropping temperatures to the –30°C range. This meant I needed big boots, down pants, down parka, sheepskin face mask, and my biggest mittens – all articles of clothing I couldn’t wear while riding because they were too warm, but things I would need if I had to sit out a storm. Adding all that to two down sleeping bags and a ThermaRest mattress made for a big load, and I spent many hours figuring out how to pack it all so that everything was convenient to get at but still balanced on the bike.
And then there was the question of food. Even on a two- or three-day ride to Tuktoyaktuk I would burn a lot of energy, but what if I were stranded by a blizzard? I decided to take enough food for a week. A big bag of caribou meat, which I had sliced thin and dried earlier in the winter, would be my main protein source. Since the meat was lean and wouldn’t provide nearly enough calories, I also carried a bag of rolled oats, another of toasted buckwheat, and several sticks of butter. (Winter camping is so convenient! You don’t have to worry about your butter getting soft and messing up your bags.) With clean snow to melt I didn’t need to carry water, but the gear and food still added up to an extra 50 kilos on my bike.
The weather was warm as I left Inuvik – about –10°C – but snow soon started to fall and a north wind blew it into my face. I settled into a comfortable pace, at which I would produce just enough body heat to keep myself warm but not so much that I would work up a sweat. The road was generally smooth with a thin layer of hard-packed snow along the edges to give me traction. Here and there I would encounter 50 meters or so of glare ice, and on one such patch I took a tumble. I was unable to get enough footing to lift my loaded bicycle upright, and I had to drag it back to road’s edge before I could stand it up. Thereafter I got off and shuffled across any unavoidable patches of glare ice.
I was told I could see Reindeer Station – for several decades headquarters of the Canadian government’s experiment in arctic ranching – from the river bank at km 55. I found cabins, locked, and dog teams, barking, but no humans to inquire of. I walked my bike up a snowmobile trail into the woods and made my camp about 6 pm. By then the sun had emerged and in the shelter it was cozy. The forest provided escape from the wind, and black spruce branches and dry willow twigs made for a roaring campfire – a luxury I didn’t count on finding after another day’s ride north.
When I put on my sheepskin face mask that night to settle into sleep, I was surprised to find my cheeks and nose uncomfortably hot. In spite of the cloudy sky, and in spite of the fact that I had faced north almost all day, enough sunlight had reflected off the snow to give me a sunburn, which I hadn’t noticed as long as cool air acted as a local anæsthetic.
Thursday April 6, 1989
Where am I tonight? Something like 75 km north of Reindeer Station, overlooking a wide channel of the Mackenzie River, relaxing in my sleeping bag in a trench in a snow bank.
I had intended to spend this morning hiking to the abandoned buildings of Reindeer Station. But by the time I’d eaten my porridge there was a strong south wind and I decided to take advantage of it right away. I pedaled north and watched the trees flanking the Caribou Hills to the east dwindle and then disappear. Every half-hour or so a pick-up truck or semi-trailer passed me, usually bringing curious stares, friendly honks of the horn, and occasionally an offer of hot tea from a thermos. At midday I saw a curious apparition slowly approaching on the northern horizon. A massive tractor was creeping down the road toward me, pulling twenty trailers on skis. The oil companies were concluding their winter drilling activities, pulling equipment away from drilling platforms out on the sea ice.
By late afternoon I was beyond the tree line. The scenery was big, hills rolling away gently forever; the scenery was small, ripples in the snow, little wind sculptures mirroring the topography of the hills themselves, and when I looked down while walking I felt like a ten-thousand-meter giant gazing at distant mountains from on high. At the top of the world I had found heaven, and I wanted to bask in the sunshine savoring this season of light.
I knew the Beaufort coast was only a few hours ahead, and then another hour or two would bring the end of a trip I’d anticipated all winter. I didn’t want the journey to finish for another day so I stopped riding at five p.m. From the snow-plowed road along the ice I searched the landscape for shelter. At a curve in the river, it appeared, the wind would blow directly over the five-meter bank, leaving in its lee a calm space in which I could make my bed. I hoisted the loaded bike over the windrows that marked the highway and set off for my place in the sun. The wind-blown snow was not quite hard enough to pedal across but firm enough that if I got off and walked, the bike rolled along smoothly beside me. After ten minutes I was home for the night.
The first item to come out of my packs was a snow knife. The winter’s winds had piled more than three meters of snow here, packed in a 45° slope. After a half-hour’s work I had cut out enough blocks of snow to make a nice flat trench to sleep in, with the bigger blocks stacked around the head end to further shelter me from eddies in the breeze and to reflect the sun shining directly at me from the far side of the river. Out from the packs came the mattress and sleeping bags, the down parka and down pants, the heavy mitts and felt-lined boots – no sense catching a chill while basking in the sun.
After a short rest I took a half-hour hike up over the river bank and into the brisk breeze on the hills. There I was able to gather a big armload of branches from willow shrubs. Back at my sheltered camp, the twigs burned as fast as I could throw them onto the fire, but with constant tending of the blaze I managed to create hot water from heaps of snow.
Supper’s opening course was hot tea and cold kwok – thin slices of raw frozen caribou meat. Then came the house special – boiled caribou and buckwheat stew. Around 10:30, as the sun-dogs were slipping below the horizon, I pulled off boots, heavy socks, down pants and wool tights, sweaters and mittens, pulled on a sheepskin face mask and down hood, and crawled into bed. Some hours later when I got up and took a short walk to cool off, I was surprised to see light not only in the sky but also on the surface of the river a few hundred yards out. The illusion of light shimmering on flowing water was a shock – until I realized I was seeing the aurora borealis reflected off smooth ice in the middle of the highway.
Friday April 7, 1989 – Tuktoyaktuk
When I got up this morning to celebrate the last day of the journey I thought I might have some tough going. At this latitude the Mackenzie River had widened considerably, and the closer I got to the coast the rougher the road became. On the wide expanse of ice there were pressure cracks big enough to swallow my front wheel and pitch me overboard. I had to watch the road carefully, swerving back and forth to cross the cracks at a sharp angle. But the wind had picked up in my favour as I passed Whitefish Station, a fishing camp which in winter consisted only of a collection of tent frames.
At midday I met the arctic coast and turned east to ride along the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk. Soon two pingos appeared on the coast – volcano-shaped formations formed in very wet soil as a core of ice gradually rises up out of the permafrost over thousands of years. A little later I could make out the golf-ball dome and screens of the DEW line* radar station, and then the smaller houses came into view.
Fifty-five klicks today, and I was surprised to see Tuk on the horizon so soon. I’m hungry and wind-burnt and tired, but this ride was almost too easy and, after months of anticipation, the end of the ride came far too soon.
Colour photos were taken with a Minox 35, and black-and-white photos were taken with a Minox C, April 1989.
*The Distant Early Warning Line was a string of radar stations built across the Canadian arctic in the late 1950s to give advance warning of a possible Soviet nuclear attack launched from across the Arctic Ocean. Most of the stations were deactivated in 1988.
Efforts to promote cycling are gathering steam in many cities for a wide variety of reasons. Campaigns may fly the banners of carbon emissions reductions, reducing air pollution for immediate health reasons, promotion of active lifestyles to combat obesity, creation of safer streets for non-auto-driving residents as a social justice issue, reduction of inefficient private-car usage as a way to fight gridlock – or all of the above.
On a recent trip to western Europe I had the chance to compare results of these campaigns so far.
The gold standard on a nationwide level, of course, is set by the Netherlands, the subject of the first two installments in this series (here and here). The Dutch have been working on this in a concerted way for forty years, and they are far ahead of the other countries I visited. Though I haven’t been to Denmark, my observations here are also shaped by the excellent book Copenhagenize, and addresses by that book’s author, Mikael Colville-Andersen, at two conferences I’ve had the good fortune to attend.
I was able to cycle about 100 kilometers each in Valencia and Paris, and 150 kilometers in London. But these are big cities and my rides weren’t nearly enough to cover all areas. My observations are also based on a single visit, so I’m not trying to write any sort of “report card” on how successful these cities’ recent programs have been.
Yet in observing which efforts are working well so far, which are showing promise, and which ones seem seriously flawed, I hope these reflections are of use to people in many other cities. Although our geographic and political situations vary a great deal, nearly all cities in industrial civilization have been dominated by car culture for a few generations, and we face many common challenges as we work back towards cities that are safe for everyone who could and should be moving about our streets.
Stealing bike lane space from pedestrian sidewalks
In both Valencia and Paris, I was immediately struck by the extensive use of paint-on-pavement to signal that “bikes belong here”. Any recognition of the rights of cyclists is a welcome first step. But in both cities, there were prominent examples of “cycle lanes” that did little or nothing to make streets either safe or convenient for cyclists, and instead were setting up more conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.
The core of Valencia has many wide arteries with relatively wide sidewalks as well as multiple lanes given to cars. Rather than carve some space out of the street for a protected bike lane (e.g., by eliminating a car lane, narrowing all car lanes slightly, or taking away some car parking space), planners have instead painted a bike lane on the already well-used pedestrian sidewalk.
This is quick and cheap and risks less pushback from the motorists’ lobby. But it results in terrible bike lanes, which wind and curve around light poles and bus shelters, and force cyclists to merge with pedestrians as they cross intersections and then sort themselves into separate areas on the sidewalk when they get to the other side. The pedestrians, quite naturally, amble into the painted bike lane frequently; many of them no doubt have strolled the same sidewalks for decades, and find it difficult and more than a little annoying to now keep in mind that cyclists might be whizzing by in what used to be a safe space for distracted walking.
Cycling these areas, then, is only slightly faster than walking – and cycling to work would not be an attractive option for most people with a commute of more than a kilometer or two.
Outside of the oldest central core of Valencia (where streets are very narrow and quiet) many side streets are just big enough for three car lanes plus narrow pedestrian sidewalks. Planners have so far chosen to make many of these streets one-way, with car parking on both sides. This leaves no room for a bike lane and guarantees slow movement for everybody, whether in car or on bike or on foot.
The obviously necessary – but obviously politically challenging – course would be to take some street space back from cars and allocate it to cyclists, while preserving sidewalk space for pedestrians. This would make both walking and biking more pleasant and safe, and would promote a gradual shift to active transportation rather than reinforcing car culture.
In Paris I saw the same timid steps to create bike lanes on busy arteries without taking away any space from cars, with similar results. The wide Boulevard de Rochechouart and Boulevard de Clichy, near the train station Gare du Nord, both feature six or more lanes devoted to cars, plus a wide park-like median for pedestrians.
With such an expansive street allowance bequeathed to them by citizens from previous centuries, could planners find a sensible way to allocate a few meters for a protected bike lane? Alas, the car space has apparently been deemed sacrosanct, and bike lanes have been painted through the formerly pedestrian-only medians. Because of many obstructions in these medians, the bike lanes shift positions frequently – on one block there may be two uni-directional lanes at the outside edges of the median, while on the next there is a bi-directional bike lane in the center of the median.
Not surprisingly pedestrians wander across the bike lanes or stand there chatting or checking their phones, and the angry ringing of bike bells and the squeak of bike brakes adds new notes to the chorus of car horns. Cyclists unfamiliar with the routing must also find the shifting cycle lane after crossing each intersection, and that can be difficult to do while also dodging cars, taxis and delivery trucks. For a bicycling tourist the whole scene may be quaintly amusing, but it would not make for a pleasant or convenient ride on any regular basis.
Routes through recreational areas
Both Valencia and Paris do have new features that make cycling a very enjoyable, calm and safe activity in particular recreational or scenic areas. This doesn’t do a lot to encourage residents to take up biking for daily commutes, but it does help make the city a more attractive place in leisure hours.
A striking feature in Valencia is the major linear park through the heart of the city, occupying the shallow valley of the Turia River which was diverted in 1969. This park is now widely used by cyclists of all ages, who travel through the park to the spectacular Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències and other attractions.
Spacious paths for cycling and walking wind through the Turia River valley (above and below). Largely free from motor traffic, these areas offer safe recreational cycling for people of all ages, within a few blocks of dense urban districts.
On the sparsely populated south-east flank of the city, there are also some excellent cycle routes connecting the core city with the port district.
Bike route near the Valencian suburb Natzaret, with Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in the distance at upper left.
In Paris a new initiative has been both warmly welcomed and hotly contested. In 2016, city council approved the banning of motor vehicle traffic on a formerly busy, 3.3 kilometer roadway on the “right bank” of the River Seine. (A similar roadway was closed to motor traffic along the left bank of the Seine in 2013.)
This roadway (shown in the photo at the top of this article) provides great views of and access to many of the city’s most famous sights. Popular with walkers, runners and cyclists, the spacious route has also proven an immediate hit for people taking advantage of the new dockless scooters.
High-profile initiatives like the Seine roadway transformation will have little direct impact on daily transportation of most Parisians, beyond those who live or work very close to these routes. To be truly effective, a good bike route network needs to connect most residents safely to most of the destinations they normally access. Yet as first steps toward that network are concerned, it would be hard to find better places for Paris to begin than on the right bank and left bank of the Seine.
Bikes and buses: a natural fit?
In several cities on my European tour I found myself riding in “bikes and buses” lanes. On one level, this makes sense: cities wanting to smooth the passage of both public transit and active transportation might do so by setting aside a lane on a main artery for the shared use of bikes and buses. With relatively little traffic in that lane the buses can move more rapidly and thus attract more users, while also giving some official encouragement to cycling.
But is a bike-and-bus lane likely to attract new cyclists, beyond those who are already willing to brave city traffic? I don’t have the numbers, but I certainly have my doubts that people who are today unwilling to ride in car traffic will feel comfortable tomorrow in sharing a lane with even bigger buses.
In my head, I can rationalize that bus drivers are trained professionals and are much less likely to be careless, drunk, or driving while texting than the average car driver. Yet after nearly 40 years of frequent biking in busy cities, I still find it a scary adrenalin rush when a full-size city bus thunders by with inches to spare and then pulls over right to the curb in front of me.
Nowhere did the “bike and bus lane” paradigm seem more obviously flawed than in central London, where buses are nearly as numerous as taxis.
As luck would have it, my route each morning and evening in London neatly coincided with one of the much ballyhooed new “cycle superhighways”. These are painted a distinctive blue, protected for significant stretches by curbs between cyclists and cars, and they extend radially out from central London.
These routes are no doubt a significant improvement for city cyclists, and I was glad to be able to ride one into the central city each day. Yet the first time I started to relax and enjoy the ride, I was shocked to suddenly find myself turfed out into a bus-and-taxi lane.
An example of the “Cycle Superhighway” suddenly merging into a lane for buses and taxis (during rush hour) and for all motor traffic (during all other hours).
For the benefit of riders who have never seen a city bus before, a yellow sign proclaims that “This bus pulls in frequently”. If you can focus on this little yellow sign while you are being abruptly cut off by a vehicle 1000 times your weight and size, you can understand perfectly what is happening.
Though these interruptions to the bike lane were only a block or two in length, they also happened several times along the five kilometers I rode the CS2 (Cycle Superhighway) each morning and evening.
I can only imagine how frightening it would be to a first-time city cyclist who might venture out on this “protected cycle lane”, perhaps with a young child following, only to find themselves suddenly dodging buses.
In this respect the Cycle Superhighways fall short of basic standards that would be followed for any cycle route along any arterial road in any Dutch city.
This is likely one reason the Cycle Superhighways have failed, so far, to attract many riders beyond the young, fit and brave cyclists who would be riding anyway, regardless of specific bike infrastructure. On the stretch of “Superhighway” I rode frequently, weaving around buses and into the general traffic lanes is a necessary skill, unless you are content to make frequent stops and then wait patiently while many passengers embark and disembark from the bus ahead of you.
On two mornings I kept a mental count of how many cyclists passed me compared to the number of cyclists I overtook. When I maintained a pace of about 20 km/h, 8 or 10 cyclists overtook me for every one that I overtook. Nearly all of them appeared to be about half my age, though there were no children riding their own bikes, and I recall seeing only one young child being carried on a parent’s bike. This, of course, was an entirely different demographic than I had become used to while riding in Dutch cities.
The cycle riding population became more varied in the central core, with many people riding the reliable and widely available, but relatively heavy and slow, bike-share bikes. These trips tend to be short, and on many core city streets traffic is moving very slowly anyway, so biking probably feels safe enough to a much wider group of people. (Not safe in every way, mind you – there were a surprising number of cyclists wearing face masks as a defense against the polluted air.)
While the most congested streets in central London see significant use by cyclists of varying age on sturdy bike-share bikes (above), bike lanes on busier arterial roads into the core are still predominantly used by young, athletic cyclists on fast bikes (below).
The limited success so far of the Cycle Superhighways brings to mind an important principle for urban programs aiming to increase the number of cyclists:
Don’t build bike lanes for those who are cycling now. Build them for people who aren’t cycling now.
Changing a car-dominated city to a place where people of all ages feel secure in routinely biking to work, school or shopping is a difficult chicken-and-egg problem. You don’t get most urban dwellers to start riding bikes until there is wide network of safe biking spaces, connecting most people to most of their common destinations. But it’s hard to get politicians to spend political capital championing the transition to safe and clean transportation, when there are so few people biking.
It’s encouraging, then, that London’s cycling-promotion efforts go far beyond the high-profile but sparse network of cycle superhighways. As discussed in the excellent short film Cycling London’s Bicycle Super Highways, there is an accompanying push to create “Quietways” throughout London’s residential areas. This program, which simultaneously calms motor traffic while creating hassle-free routes for cyclists through residential areas, has the potential to connect many residents’ homes with major arteries. And it is only when people can safely get through and out of their own neighbourhoods on bike, that significant numbers of new riders will join those already using the protected lanes along major arteries.
As Chris Kenyon of employer association CyclingWorks says in the video,
Our road system actively excludes certain groups from taking part in active transport. … we see fewer women, fewer older residents, and almost no children whatsoever, able to cycle in our streets. We think this is an issue of social justice. … Councils need to say, if active travel is important as a health strategy for the capital, then how do we make sure it’s available to everybody?”
Iain Simmons, Assistant Director of City Transportation, is also clear that the current preponderance of fast athletic riders is not the desired long-term goal:
Ultimately, here in the city, we’re looking for something where actually everybody slows down. A good speed for vehicles and cyclists to go is about 10 miles an hour, because the differential between them, and someone who is walking along at 3 miles an hour in the pedestrian lane, is actually more easy to understand and deal with. Try and bring that civility, and that calmness, into people’s journeys.”
Traffic calming, then, is paramount. It is worthwhile recalling that even in The Netherlands, with their vast network of protected bike lanes, most urban streets neither have nor need specific cycling infrastructure; planners just need to ensure that car traffic on side streets is low speed and low volume, and then biking can become a safe and convenient option for people ages 8 to 80.
Just do it
Finally, it is important to remember that not all of the transition to safe active transportation is led by municipal officials. Much of the leadership comes from ordinary citizens, who conclude that cycling is a sensible option in spite of an almost complete lack of dedicated cycle infrastructure. This is especially true where previous reliance on private cars has resulted in daily patterns of gridlock, and bikes are just as fast or faster than cars whether bikes are promoted or not.
On my first morning in Paris I was cheered to see a great variety of cyclists out on the streets creating unsanctioned patterns of mobility: turning traffic-snarled one-way streets into contra-flow cycling lanes, for example, or detouring around stalled traffic by taking whichever lane had some free space at the moment.
The next morning I came across several signs warning that due to construction, circulation through the Bastille area was “difficult”. When I approached the massive, multi-spoked traffic circle in front of the Bastille opera house, I was startled to see cyclists weaving through the creeping chaos of tourist buses, cars, delivery trucks and motorcycles. After watching this pageant for 15 minutes or so I realized it wasn’t so difficult after all, and I got back on my bike to join the parade for a few laps. In closing, then, here is my brief tribute to the Parisian avant-garde.
The Netherlands has a worldwide reputation as a bicycle-loving country – but bikes account for only a small proportion of kilometers travelled.
While the Dutch have given far greater official support to bicycling than other industrialized countries have, the dominance of car culture is still a fact of life in The Netherlands.
The government publication Transport and Mobility 2016 includes the section heading “The Dutch and their sacred cow” – and the authors aren’t referring to the bicycle. Rather, they note that over half of the adult population, and 71% of households, owns a car. This proportion rises to 84% of rural households, and 90% of high-income households.
Using figures from 2014, the publication states that 28% of trips made are by bicycle and 18% are by foot – but these trips tend to be short. Overall, 73% of kilometers traveled within the country are by car, with 9% by bike, 9% by train, 3% by other land-based public transport, and 3% on foot.
What are the most promising ways to shift a significant portion of this travel to carbon-emissions-free or low-carbon modes? Trips for education only account for 7% of kilometers traveled, and 80% of Dutch students under 15 already bike to school, so additional improvement in that category will be hard to achieve.
Commuting is the biggest single category of kilometers traveled. In common with other countries, the Dutch spend a disproportionate amount on roadways to accommodate more cars. But unlike most other countries, the Dutch are also investing substantially in infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to get to work without getting into a car.
Steel wheels and rubber tires
Building the Cycling City, published by Island Press, August 2018
Cycling is the most common form of transportation in the country for short trips – 3 to 5 km – but most commutes are significantly longer than that. Fortunately, the country has also maintained a highly effective train network, and trains and bikes are now working symbiotically.
The Bruntletts note that “the nationwide [rail] system serves over 1.2 million passengers each and every day, half of whom bookend their train travel with bicycle rides.” (Building the Cycling City, page 140)
A small infrastructure program has been essential in promoting bike-train trips. Because the train system is already well used, there is no room on trains for bikes at rush hour. Therefore people are encouraged to keep one bike at home to ride to the local train station, and another one on the other end to pedal from the train station to the workplace. (That’s one reason the country now counts more bicycles than people.)
To be secure in this practice, people need safe bike parking adjacent to all train stations. Thus you can now find bike parking facilities at every train station – for hundreds of bikes in smaller towns, thousands of bikes in small cities, or tens of thousands of bikes in bigger cities.
This covered bike-parking facility is in the northern city of Groningen, adjacent to the train station.
The most impressive of these efforts is in the southern city of Utrecht. A large university town just a short train ride away from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden and Den Haag, Utrecht boasts the country’s busiest train station. To ensure that many of the rail passengers don’t need to rely on motorized transportation to get to or from the station, the station is now the site of the world’s largest bike garage, in a complex which holds 22,000 bikes and will hold 32,000 when completed.1
A state-of-the-art bike parking garage in downtown Utrecht. Gently sloping ramps wind from the street up through the three levels of parking, and electronic signs at the ends of aisles tell cyclists where free spaces are located.
The largest of the facilities holds 12,500 bikes of standard or close-to-standard sizes, while a separate facility can accommodate delivery bikes and bakfiets – long bikes with a large box that can hold up to three children. The garages are fully sheltered from weather, are constantly monitored, and most are open 24 hours a day while some sections are open “only” from 6 am to midnight. With so many cyclists using the facilities, it also makes sense to have a service and repair shop on site.
This attention to the needs of people with bikes may sound expensive. But clearly a 12,000-bike parking facility is far less expensive in both Euros and land area than a comparable-capacity car parking garage, or the kind of bus terminal that would be required to get all those people in and out of the train station by bus. And making the bike-train combo safe and convenient pays big dividends: Transport and Mobility 2016 notes that “An inhabitant of Utrecht differs from the inhabitants of the other provinces in making the most trips as well as the most kilometres by bicycle and train.”2 (Emphasis mine.)
During my first week in The Netherlands, I was bent over the handlebars fighting a fierce wind when an elderly woman, sitting bolt-upright in the breeze, passed me with little apparent effort. I thought, “Wow, these Dutch people are really fit!” After the same thing had happened several more times, I caught on and learned to recognize electric-assist bikes3 by their characteristic battery location.
The Bruntletts note that
“Despite its mostly flat terrain, the Netherlands has emerged as the world’s largest pedelec market per capita, with electric bikes making up almost a third of new bicycle sales in 2016. Denmark is a close second ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 50)
There is a very good reason that The Netherlands and Denmark are such good markets for electric-assist bikes: they have the infrastructure that allows safe riding on an extensive network of protected bike lanes. Citing European Cyclists Federation development director Kevin Mayne, the Bruntletts say “the places with the best bike infrastructure are the ones that sell the most pedelecs, and the global e-bike market won’t fulfill its potential without great places to ride.” (Building the Cycling City, page 87)
But with safe infrastructure and traffic conditions in place, pedelecs have the potential to get people out of cars for longer commutes, not just short rides.
Within the city of Groningen where distances are small, cycling already has a 61 percent modal share, which the city hopes to increase to 67 percent. The Bruntletts write
“What would be more impressive would be to increase the current 12 percent of people arriving by bike from outside the city …. E-bikes will play a crucial role in any such increase by lengthening the average commute distance from eight kilometres to twenty kilometres with very little additional effort from riders.” (Building the Cycling City, page 64)
Elsewhere in the country, a small network of snelfietsroutes (“fast cycling routes”) are being built between major residential and commercial centers. Designed not for scenic appeal but with the straight-forward goal of promoting efficient bike commuting from city to city, these routes also appeal to cyclists who may not be up to an athletic workout five days a week, but would still like to bike their long-ish commutes. Electric-assist bikes have already proven very popular on these inter-city routes.
In general there is no need for specific public infrastructure to support pedelecs, if there is already a comprehensive network of safe lanes for ordinary bikes. Yet the presence of charging stations could make even longer rides practical – for example, the kind of rides that would use most of the battery power on a one-way trip, requiring a re-charge before the return trip. Some employers are now providing charging stations in bike garages at work, and I spotted this station outside a popular restaurant along a well-used cycling route.4
Public bike-charging station in Stellendam, South Holland
As with parking garages, charging stations for bikes take up much less space than charging stations for an equivalent number of cars. And since e-bikes consume far less energy than e-cars, charging infrastructure is far less technically demanding and far less expensive. (Pedelec batteries are rated in Watt Hours while electric car batteries are rated in KiloWatt Hours.)
Post-script: follow the red-brick road?
As Melissa and Chris Bruntlett so engagingly document, The Netherlands has done far more than other industrialized countries to safely integrate bicycles into their overall transportation system, with great results for public health and for the vitality of their cities. One result of the national habit of cycling is that the transportation sector in The Netherlands is accountable for just one-fifth of the country’s carbon emissions, compared to one-third in the US.
While the Dutch have a commanding lead when it comes to effective promotion of everyday cycling, they have achieved this in the context of a transport system where cars remain dominant. Most households own cars, most kilometers are traveled by car, and many features of daily life and of the national landscape will be entirely familiar to people living in other car cultures.
Outside the core urban areas, a hierarchy of speed rules just as it does in many other countries – the spacing is just tighter. The US Library of Congress report “National Funding of Road Infrastructure: Netherlands” states
“According to European statistical sources, the highest motorway density in Europe is found in the Netherlands (78 km per 1000 km² on average in 2009), Luxembourg (59), and Belgium (58).”5
Motorway interchange near Schiphol airport
As noted earlier, more affluent citizens are more likely to own and use cars for their commutes, and they also tend to commute longer distances. For a small, densely populated country which clearly values its farmland, the motorways take up a surprising amount of space in rural areas. Furthermore, dedicated high-speed car-and-truck lanes also impose their geometry on slower-speed travellers. While cycling through the countryside, for example, you need to find the infrequent roads that cross the motorways, where you may bike up and over the dedicated high-speed transport lanes. Likewise if you’re pedaling a bikeway alongside an expressway, you need to take a detour each time you come to an interchange, with a wide curve around the sprawling clover-leaf interchanges. These impositions on cyclists and other low-speed travellers are deemed necessary to allow uninterrupted high-speed travel on the expressways.
But what if, as a world community, we finally embark on the serious kind of energy and lifestyle revolution that is needed to adequately reduce carbon emissions? Or – a more likely scenario in our current political scene – what if we run short of cheap fossil fuels without finding a technological miracle to allow our high-energy lifestyles to continue with low-intensity fuels such as solar and wind-power? What sort of challenges will we face in transforming our transportation infrastructures?
The Netherlands will clearly have a head start in such a transition. Yet as I cycled through the countryside, it often struck me that there too, the road system is astonishingly overbuilt. Frequently I found myself biking on a dedicated bike path, beside a two-lane service road, beside a multi-lane expressway, with another service road and bike path on the other side.
A generation or a few from now, when our descendants have through choice or necessity transitioned to a low-energy, and therefore low speed, transportation system, will they still need or want to devote such wide swaths of countryside to transportation? And if not, how will they repurpose some of those thousands of hectares of heavy-duty pavement?
In my first few days biking through The Netherlands I wasn’t always happy that many bike lanes are routed along old, somewhat rough brick roads – the surface just wasn’t as smooth, fast or comfortable to bike on as a well-maintained asphalt surface.
But then I reflected on the almost endless repairability and reusability of those brick roads. From my own work experience I know that “recycling” asphalt and concrete pavements demands large amounts of high-intensity energy resources. But in The Netherlands I saw workers with simple hand tools re-laying old bricks and re-creating good-as-new roads.
I won’t be around to see it, but in the long term my guess would be that the centuries-old red brick roads of The Netherlands will be the ones that are renewed for centuries to come.
3 While the “electric bikes” now seen in North America most often don’t require the rider to pedal at all, the variety common in The Netherlands has a motor which only kicks in while the rider is pedaling. These electric-assist or pedelec bikes thus amplify a rider’s strength, but don’t allow completely effort-free riding.
4 On the downside, ubiquitous availability of charging stations could lead more people to rely on the battery-assist mode almost exclusively, resulting in a steep drop-off in the exercise levels and health benefits of e-bike converts. See discussion of a recent European study at “Riding e-bikes does not lead to health benefits”, on A view from the cycling path, September 12, 2018
How would you describe the process in which a small country builds a 35,000 kilometer network of fully separated bike infrastructure – and traffic-calms 75 per cent of their urban streets to a speeds of 30 km/h (19 mph) or less?
One apt analogy is “picking the low-hanging fruit”. While Dutch cycling policy has required only modest annual investment, it has resulted in cities where bikes are used for most short trips – five kilometers or less – which can be pedaled by ordinary citizens from age 8 to 80 with no great effort. Furthermore this policy has helped preserve historic urban centers by removing the need for intra-city expressways or vast parking lots, while also promoting a fit and healthy population.
These are some of the themes that come through in a recent book by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett. Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality provides an excellent overview of the different ways that transportation policy has developed in five Dutch cities. The book also shows how lessons learned there are now benefitting other cities including New York, Calgary, Vancouver, and San Antonio.
This article is based on the Bruntletts’ excellent work, as well as on my own four-week bike tour of the Netherlands in September and October.
Giving priority to the most vulnerable road users, not the least vulnerable
In cities throughout the industrial world in the 20th century, the lion’s share of public space became the domain of people engaged in a dangerous and polluting activity – driving cars. The Netherlands was no exception to this trend.
But by the mid-1970s, spurred in part by a growing number of traffic fatalities and in part by the OPEC oil embargo, a strong reaction to auto-dominance took hold in several Dutch cities.
In the northern city of Groningen, a plan to build big new roads through historic neighbourhoods prompted 24-year-old Max Van den Berg to get into municipal politics. Just seven years later, the city implemented a transportation policy promoted by Van den Berg and allied councillors. Their Traffic Circulation Plan
“proposed dividing the city center to four parts and forbidding cars to cross between those quarters. This made the inner city practically impenetrable with a car, leaving cycling and walking the best ways to get around. The plan didn’t completely remove motor vehicles from the equation – as public buses and delivery vans would retain limited access to parts of the core – but it came remarkably close.” (Building the Cycling City, page 53-54)
One result 40 years later is that distracted walking or cycling is not a capital crime in Dutch cities. Even at rush hour in Groningen, one can walk or pedal through the central city while engrossed in conversation, while focusing on a smart phone, or while writing the next great novel in your head – without fear of being squashed by a car.
The same pattern holds true in many other small- and mid-sized Dutch cities where the urban core is mostly free of the noise, pollution and danger posed by cars. While some cars and delivery vehicles creep through these districts, the drivers know that foot-powered residents have the right of way – not just at crosswalks or traffic lights but all along the length of narrow historic streets.
Above, a “scramble” in Groningen at rush hour, where cyclists going every direction smoothly negotiate their way through the intersection. Below, an intersection in the core of Leeuwarden, the capital city of the province of Friesland.
Today, Groningen’s traffic planning embodies a very basic principle: “pedestrians over cyclists, cyclists over public transportation, and public transportation over cars. Essentially, the most vulnerable users of the city have priority over the least ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 61)
The important but limited role of separated bike lanes
The Netherlands is justly famous for its vast network of protected bike lanes, not only along arterial roads within cities, but also throughout the countryside connecting every village, town and city.
The rules for when, where and how cycle lanes are built are now well defined. Basically, in areas where it is not practical to slow cars so that they travel at close to the speeds of bicycles, separated paths must be installed. In cities, this often means a street-side lane with a curb separating the bike traffic from car traffic. In most cases these cycle lanes run on both sides of the streets. Critically, the urban bike lanes are not carved out of the sidewalks – the realm of pedestrians, who are also to be protected and encouraged – but are achieved by narrowing or removing car lanes.
“Bicycle street. Autos are guests.”
On rural roads with moderately fast cars but low traffic volumes, separate bike lanes are not always installed but cars are expected to – and do, in my experience – pass bikes carefully and courteously, yielding to bikes whenever oncoming traffic makes it impossible to pass safely.
Alongside busier roads with traffic of 50–60 km/hr or faster, there are fully separated bike lanes. Often these run right beside the roads, but there are also many cases where the bike paths diverge from the roads significantly, providing a quieter ride and cleaner air for people on bikes.
A significant component of the system is the system of signage. Bicycle routes are marked by signs at nearly every intersection, with signs that are visually distinct from the directional signs for motorists. This makes it easy for a bike rider to navigate through new areas, without pulling out either a smart phone or a paper map. There are also hundreds of maps on metal signposts showing local cycling routes, with each province maintaining its own set of local route maps.
Above, a roadside sign showing local cycling routes in the northern province of Friesland. Below, a popular cycling route on the coast in the southern province of Zeeland.
All this infrastructure, of course, costs money – but is it expensive? That’s a matter of perspective, and the Dutch do spend more money on cycling infrastructure than other nations. Melissa and Chris Bruntlett write,
“The Dutch cycle because their government spends an astonishing €30 ($35 US) per person per year on bike infrastructure – fifteen times the amount invested in nearby England.” (Building The Cycling City, page 15)
Yet this €30 per person is a very small fraction of what the Dutch – and other nations – spend on auto infrastructure. According to official figures from 2015, “The Dutch government spends a total of 15 billion euros on traffic and transport” each year – meaning the cycling infrastructure expense is a bit more than 3% of the government transport and traffic budget.
For this €30 per capita, the Dutch have been able to preserve the character of their central cities, keep carbon emissions lower than in neighboring countries, and enjoy some of the best health in the world due to an active population and cleaner air. Given the cost of health care alone, the €30 per capita spent by the Dutch government to promote cycling is an astonishing bargain.
While infrastructure such as separated cycle paths is an important component of the cycle strategy, it is important to keep in mind that the Dutch did not immediately launch a major building program when they began to focus on cycling in the 1970s. Furthermore, even today about 75 percent of their roads do not have separate cycle lanes.
In their chapter on Amsterdam, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett explain,
“This cycling utopia was built on traffic-calming rather than bike lanes. Instead of constructing separated cycle tracks on every street, officials started with speed-limit reductions, parking restrictions, through-traffic limitations, and lane narrowing and removals.” (Building the Cycling City, page 93)
Cycle lanes are great, but you’ve got to get from home or office or school to the cycle lane, and that route must be safe before most urban residents will want to bike on a regular basis. If the route to and from a dedicated cycle path remains dangerous and nerve-wracking, only the daring folks who are already cycling are likely to get onto the cycle path.
Traffic-calming on most or all non-arterial roads, therefore, plays a crucial role in laying the groundwork for widespread use of separated bike lanes along major routes. Fortuitously, the cost of traffic-calming methods is generally very low, meaning that is an obvious place to start in a long-term strategy to boost active transportation.
In the next installment, I will look at ways the Dutch are extending the humble bicycle’s reach through an intentional symbiosis with their train network, and through the rapid uptake of electric-assist bikes. A third installment in this series will look at cycling promotion efforts in Valencia, Paris and London, in light of the Dutch example.
In the historic centre of Middelburg, province of Zeeland.
Top photo: mural and bikes in downtown Leeuwarden, Friesland
How do we get beyond the dependency-inducing trap of car culture? After 100 years in which auto-oriented infrastructure has dominated public works spending and reshaped civic life, how can we make our streets safe and healthy spaces?
Colville-Andersen is a Canadian-Danish designer who started photographing people on bicycles in Copenhagen in 2006. This pastime quickly became the popular Cycle Chic blog, and then grew into Copenhagenize Design Co., which has now helped scores of cities improve their urban transportation mix. Copenhagenize, the book, is a great summary not only of the lessons learned by Copenhagen over the past forty years, but also the lessons learned by Colville-Andersen and his associates in many cities over the past 10 years.
First a brief word about what is both the book’s major limitation and its great strength: this is a guide to “bicycle urbanism” – it doesn’t pretend to cover cycling in rural or small-town areas.
In a move away from car culture, urban cycling is definitely the low-hanging fruit. Short trips under about 7 km make up a large proportion of trips within cities. Furthermore, the many costs of car culture – especially air pollution, and crashes that kill and maim – are readily evident in cities, while much-touted benefits such as speed and convenience are typically negated by gridlock. So it should be easy to persuade many average citizens to get out of cars and take to the streets on bicycle – if those streets can be made convenient and safe for human-powered transportation.
Let’s start with “convenient”.
A simple motivation
Extensive surveys have found that most Copenhagen cyclists are not motivated primarily by health concerns, or a concern for the environment, or a desire to save money – they ride bike because it’s the most convenient way to get around their city. This leads Colville-Andersen to stress a basic principle:
“I know exactly what you want. It’s the same thing that I want. Indeed, it’s what every homo sapien who has ever lived wants: a direct line from A to B when we’re transporting ourselves. … This is the most basic principle in transport planning. I call it A2Bism.” (Copenhagenize, pg 146)
Taking the most direct line is especially important when we’re getting around under our own steam. Yet for seventy-five years traffic planners concentrated on giving the best routes to cars, while introducing detours for foot-powered residents. Colville-Andersen sums up both this history of mistakes, and the simple solution, in these simple “traffic planning guide” graphics.
The two graphics on the left summarize the rupture of an ancient pattern of city life by car culture – including, he emphasizes, in cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
On the right is the guide used by bicycle-friendly cities in recent decades. While cities in Denmark and the Netherlands have seen tremendous growth in cycling since they adopted this approach in the 1970s, a significant uptick in active transportation has also begun in many other cities, including a few in North America.
All too often in North America, however, new bike routes are added in out-of-the-way locations where they, predictably, serve few riders going about daily tasks like getting to and from work.1 If we were serious about encouraging rather than discouraging cyclists, we would allocate safe space for them on the most direct routes.
The Copenhagenize approach is illustrated at the right side of the graphic above: safe and healthy modes of active transportation are given direct routing, while polluting and dangerous cars and trucks get the frequent jogs and detours.
Cycle-friendly planning isn’t quite as simple as drawing lines on a map or on the streets. While Colville-Andersen emphasizes that good urban cycling infrastructure is far cheaper than what we routinely spend on car infrastructure, we do need to budget for something besides a little paint:
“Hastily painted pictograms in the middle of car lanes are not infrastructure. They are the awkward watermark of lazy politicians and lazier transport professionals.” (Copenhagenize, pg 77)
Where streets must be shared by pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, trucks and buses, and motorized traffic will move more than 40 km/h, mere painted bike lanes will not provide an adequate measure of safety – some sort of physical separation is required. Having a row of parked cars between the cycle lane and the moving traffic is one good strategy. (In North America, however, the order is often reversed, with cycle lanes between the parked cars and moving traffic, precisely in the “door zone” where a driver opening the door of a parked car might knock a cyclist directly into the passing traffic.)
If Copenhagen now illustrates everything in Colville-Andersen’s chapter “Best Practice Design and Infrastructure”, it’s not because the Danes have always got it right. In fact, he says, all the cycle-planning mistakes frequently being made in other jurisdictions have also been made in Copenhagen. Other cities can save a lot of time and money if they don’t try to “reinvent the wheel”.
Waiting at a signalized intersection on a bike lane in Almetyevsk, Republic of Tatarstan
Colville-Andersen gives advice on many specifics: what is the minimum width for separated bike lanes, and when is it time to widen them further; what kind of intersection spacing works to keep cyclists safe from right-turning cars; under what circumstances is a bi-directional cycle lane a good option; how can cycle lanes be safely routed past bus stops. Yet the basic typology for bike lanes is based on just two data points: how many cars does a road carry, and what is the speed. Based on these two issues, he says, there are a grand total of four basic designs:
“Four. There are only four basic designs in Danish bicycle planning. One of these four fits every street in the Danish Kingdom and, indeed, every street in every city in the world.” (Copenhagenize, page 176)
In North America, in spite of a resurgence in urban cycling over the past ten years, no major city yet enjoys a bicycle “mode-share” of 10%. In Copenhagen and in Dutch cities such as Groningen, meanwhile that mode-share is now more than 40% – with the remainder split between buses, trains, cars, and walking.
Colville-Andersen emphasises, however, that “Copenhagen wasn’t always Copenhagen …. This city was as car-clogged as anywhere else on the planet through the 1950s and 1960s.” (Copenhagenize, page 64)
The growth of cycling culture there required massive public demonstrations in the 1970s, decades of work, and leadership by municipal officials with real vision. A key barrier is to get beyond the idea that we shouldn’t invest in cycling, because only a few people are willing to ride bike in our current urban environments:
“That misconception that a city has to build infrastructure for the people cycling now, as opposed to the 20-25 percent of the population that could be cycling, still reigns supreme.” (Copenhagenize, page 199)
Copenhagenize is a superb manual on all the important details of bike infrastructure design and operation. It’s a great ‘how-to’ guide for making cities safe and convenient for active transportation. Indeed, it’s a great book on the factors that, in the millennia before the destructive onset of car culture, made cities very attractive places to live:
“We have been living together in cities for more than 7,000 years. By and large, we used those seven millennia to hammer out some serious best-practices about cohabitation in the urban theater and the importance of social fabric. We threw most of that knowledge under the wheels of the automobile shortly after we invented it ….” (Copenhagenize, page 13)
In the struggle to redemocratize our streets, he says, the bicycle will play a key role: “This most human form of transport represents the perfect synergy between technology and the human desire to move. It is the most perfect vehicle for urban living ever invented.”
photos and illustrations by Mikael Colville-Andersen courtesy of Island Press
Let’s face it, most of us don’t love the environment most of the time. More often than not, the environment is too cold, too hot, too buggy, too dry or too wet, and we try to keep it safely on the far side of a window or a TV screen.
Bicycle travel has a way of breaking us out of that narrow band of comfort. When we ride for more than a few days in one direction, it’s almost certain to rain or to snow, the wind will blow in the wrong direction, or perhaps it will get still and sultry and we’ll complain that there’s no wind at all. We either give up cycle touring, or we expand our appreciation beyond “nice” weather.
Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by Kate Harris, 2018, Knopf Canada, 300 pages
Yet few travelling cyclists will embrace the environment, in all its moods, with the eagerness shown by Kate Harris. That enthusiasm is just one of the qualities that makes Lands of Lost Borders so inspirational. Her book is one of the finest bike-trip travelogues ever written – but the wide-ranging reflections spurred by long hours on the road make her memoir a great read even for people with no interest in cycling.
Ironically, Harris’ deep dive in this earthly environment – via a months-long ride on the Silk Road and through Tibet – resulted from her growing disenchantment with an extra-terrestrial itinerary. A childhood dream of becoming a Mars-bound astronaut led to a stellar academic career, with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and admission to a PhD program at MIT.
It wasn’t the difficulty or the danger of a Mars mission that put her off. Rather, a summer-long Mars simulation exercise in the Utah desert brought an unbearable sense of separation:
As four crewmates and I trundled around Utah in canvas spacesuits, I found myself disconcerted by the fact that when I gazed at a mountain, I saw a veneer of Plexiglas. When I reached out to touch canyon walls the colour of embers, I felt the synthetic fabric of my glove instead of the smooth, sun-warmed sandstone. As all kinds of weather howled outside my spacesuit, I heard either radio static or my percussive panting amplified in the plastic helmet, like I was breathing down my own neck.”
Giving up the dream of going to Mars wasn’t easy. “The first sign of doubt is a renewed fanaticism,” she observes, and she threw herself into preparatory work doing a master’s degree at Oxford followed by graduate work in windowless labs at MIT. Eventually, though, she could not resist the urge to clear her head by going for a bike ride with her long-time friend Melissa – a 10,000 km ride, from Turkey to Tibet, through snowstorms, days of winter rains, against fierce winds on plateaus higher than any mountain peak in North America, across baking deserts and into teeming cities.
Her book would be superb if it merely catalogued the adventures of the road, or if it merely described her gradual coming to terms with the flaws and limitations of childhood heroes such as Marco Polo and Charles Darwin. But she also allows readers to share her sense of wonder at the lands she is visiting:
Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation, as though the clean-bitten clarity of so much space heightens receptivity to frequencies otherwise missed in the white noise of normal life. This was especially true just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau, when the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage. Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light – where opposites meet is magic.”
Blizzards, sandstorms, endless mud, these are challenges to be relished – but borders are insufferable. In spite of her success in sneaking across border checkpoints for unauthorized rides across Tibet – not once but twice – some of the borders are non-negotiable, causing long delays and major changes in route. With enough time for reflection, however, even these borders help her to deeper understandings:
Whether buttressed with dirt roads or red tape, barbed wire or bribes, the various walls of the world have one aspect in common: they all posture as righteous and necessary parts of the landscape. That we live on a planet drawn and quartered is a fact most Canadians have the luxury of ignoring, for our passports open doors everywhere – with the notable exception of Central Asia, where North Americans face the kind of suspicion and resistance would-be tourists from Uzbekistan get from Canada ….”
Is there a recipe for a successful bike trip across a remote continent? Kate Harris would likely say that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t matter how far away, how exotic, how difficult or how long your journey is, it only matters that you throw yourself into the experience:
Departure is simple: you step out the door, onto your bike, into the wind of your life. What’s hard is not looking back, not measuring gain or loss by lapsed time, or aching legs, or the leering kilometre markers of ambition. You are on your way when you decipher the pounding of rain as Morse code for making progress. You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do. You have finally arrived when you realize that persistent creak you’ve been hearing all this time is not your wheels, not your mind, but the sound of the planet turning.”
Illustration at top adapted from “Lands of Lost Borders Highlights Reel” video, viewed via kateharris.ca.
The “vehicular cycling” approach promoted by John Forester can be a great help to all of us who have to ride on busy streets dominated by cars. Yet I think there are good reasons why this approach has always had limited appeal.
In this second installment of a two-part essay I compare the vehicular cycling approach to what is arguably a much stronger social force – the Slow Bicycling movement.1 (Part one of the essay is here.)
When I took up urban cycling in Toronto at the beginning of the 1980s, Forester’s insights were just what I needed to hear. I had quickly come to the conclusion that a bicycle was a beautifully appropriate technology for getting around in cities, and I’d be damned if I would accept that most streets should be ceded to cars and trucks.
In his book Effective Cycling2 Forester called his approach “vehicular cycling”, and he helped me to understand that a cyclist in motor traffic is generally safest when behaving like a driver and asserting the rights of a driver.
Take The Lane
Several basic ideas are key. First, an urban cyclist is safer riding on the road than on the sidewalk. That is because at the many intersections – both driveways and cross streets – drivers are not habituated to looking at sidewalks for anything faster than a pedestrian, and they may well turn right into a fast-moving cyclist. When the cyclist stays out in the road, right in the normal line of vision of motorists, the cyclist is seen early enough for the driver to slow down.
Second, a cyclist should not hug the curb, but should take and hold a place well out into the lane. Again, the cyclist should be in the normal line of vision of drivers, and in addition should avoid near-curb hazards such as sewer grates, road-edge potholes, and debris in gutters. It’s particularly important not to weave in and out between parked cars.
When a lane is too narrow to allow a car to safely pass a cyclist within that lane, the cyclist should move right into the middle of the lane, so that a driver will slow down until it is safe to pull around in the next lane.
An extension of the “take the lane” idea is that cyclists should take the appropriate lane. For example, when coming to an intersection with a right-hand turn lane, a cyclist going straight through should move out of that lane into the through lane. When approaching an intersection with a left turn lane, urban cyclists can often safely move right across the roadway into the left turn lane. (These examples assume North American driving conventions; cyclists in Britain would follow the same principles adjusted for left-side driving.)
These lane changes depend on a procedure Forester terms “negotiation”. He urged cyclists to practice turning their heads to make eye contact with overtaking drivers, and in so doing, signaling intent while also verifying that the driver had seen the cyclist. I quickly adopted this practice and found it very helpful, which is partly why to this day I have never got used to using a rear-view mirror on a bike.
There’s a problem with this “vehicular cycling”, however, that goes to the heart of this essay. A successful “negotiation” for a lane depends on the cyclist maintaining a speed fairly close to the speed of the cars and trucks. If you’re riding at 15 kph, you can’t make meaningful eye contact with a driver coming up behind you at 60 kph. Forester recognized this:
“When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you, negotiation is impossible ….”3
To Forester this wasn’t a big problem – he pitched his ideas to fit and active cyclists – and it wasn’t a big problem for me, 40 years ago, either. Although I have never been athletic, I was in the prime of life, very enthused about cycling, and I could generally keep close to or surpass the speed of city traffic. I didn’t stop to worry about letting motorcars basically set the pace for almost all of the cycling I did.
What’s the risk?
Humans don’t generally like the feeling that they could be crushed at any moment; we’re funny that way. So even though the risk of riding in traffic in most cities is much less than the health risk of being sedentary4, vehicular cycling didn’t catch on all that well, and cyclists’ ranks in North America grew slowly.
As for me, I quickly concluded that the risk of cycling in traffic was relatively low compared to many other common activities.
But I always knew that one careless move – either by a driver or by me – could result in my instant demise. I knew, too, that most of the time when we make the kind of mistakes all humans make on the roads, there are no consequences; just once in a while, there is a confluence of circumstances that gives a particular mistake a deadly outcome.
We can take reasonable precautions to reduce our risks, and then get on with life without worrying a lot about the risks that always, inevitably, remain. For me those reasonable precautions included riding by the principles of “effective cycling”.
When I first heard discussion of having separated bike lanes alongside city streets, I didn’t like the idea. It struck me as a declaration of surrender, a formal ceding of streets to motor traffic. Besides, I thought, a separated bike lane will soon get crowded if indeed it attracts many more people to cycling – and then we’ll all have to ride at the speed of the slowest cyclists. (Much later, I learned that Forester was also a determined opponent of separate cycling infrastructure, for similar reasons.)
For three reasons, my thinking on this took a 180 degree turn – but the turn took years.
First, over the past twenty years it became apparent that separated bike lanes were very popular among cyclists, especially new cyclists. As cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Minneapolis started their modest developments of cycling lanes, the ranks of cyclists, and their effective influence in urban planning, started to grow at a rate that gave real hope for sane transportation systems. In this respect we remain several decades behind cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but we are finally moving in the same direction.
Second, as luck would have it, I got old. (Or at least, much older than I ever intended to get, back when I was a callow youth of 30.) And as I got old I got slower, especially once I’d passed the half-century mark.
My personal experience, I now realize, was opening me to the views of the “8-80” movement. Popularized by Guillermo Penalosa, 8 80 Cities advocates for urban environments that are safe and pleasant for 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds, and everyone in between.
The vehicular cycling approach, by contrast, is clearly targeted to fit adults in the prime of life. In a recent online discussion with a determined opponent of dedicated cycling infrastructure, for example, I was told that real cyclists “inevitably get in good enough shape to cruise (maybe not average) in the 15-20 mph range.” I had to respond that the days when I cruise at 20 mph are already in life’s rear-view mirror – but I hope to be a “real cyclist” for a good many years, during which I will happily roll ever more slowly.
The final factor in my conversion came while cycle touring, when I took my first long ride on a rail-to-trail route. Though I had never worried much about traffic while biking, after a few days away from all motor traffic I realized how blissfully quiet, peaceful and stress-free the ride had been.
A healthy compromise
For all the above reasons, I am now happy to consider myself part of the Slow Bicycling movement. Does that mean I no longer appreciate the ideas of vehicular cycling? Not at all.
Most of the places I want to go on bike still don’t have dedicated cycling facilities, so I still need to ride in traffic much of the time. When and where I am able to ride at an adequate pace, following “effective cycling” principles makes my rides reasonably pleasant and safe.
Furthermore, I don’t think either the “Vehicular Cycling” or the “Slow Bicycling” approaches are fully adequate to our present predicament.
There is a widespread attitude in North America, energetically promoted by the motor industry generations ago, that cars belong on streets, and bikes don’t. Effective Cycling says that both cars and bikes belong on those streets. I believe that bikes and pedestrians belong on streets, and inherently dangerous cars do not. But I know that I’m unlikely to live to see the day when streets are returned to bikes and pedestrians, when streets are no longer the site of mortal vehicular peril.
In the meantime I think the Slow Bicycling movement, with its push for widespread, convenient and safe cycling lanes for people of all ages, is going to help us grow toward sustainable urban lifestyles, as tens of millions of North American city dwellers feel comfortable in getting out of cars, getting on bikes, and enjoying the outdoors as they move about their cities under their own power and at their own pace.
Photo at top: Toronto cyclists gather at Bloor & Spadina in May, 2009 for a Critical Mass ride. The ride celebrated the approval of bike lanes on a busy downtown route, Jarvis Street. These lanes proved short-lived, as the administration of the next mayor, the late Rob Ford, returned that precious pavement to motorists.
1Though there is no official definition of the Slow Bicycling movement, the Slow Bicycle Movement group on Facebook is a good introduction. Founded by Copenhagen-based urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, this group includes in its statement of purpose, “This group/movement is a celebration of cycling, formed as an alternative to the perception of cycling as a hardcore endurance sport/recreational activity. … The bicycle takes us places. It’s those places and getting to them that sums up this group’s spirit.
3Forester, John, (1994). Bicycle transportation: A Handbook for cycling transportation engineers (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Quoted in Listening to Bike Lanes, by Jeffrey A. Hiles.
4For example, see the article “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?”, Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2010, which concludes “On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.”
The fifth annual Winter Cycling Congress, held February 8–10 in Montréal, brought together 375 participants from nine countries and included dozens of presentations and workshops.
It would be impossible to cover the whole Congress in one blog post, but one way to summarize the progress of winter biking would be with this, only partly tongue-in-cheek, exhortation:
“Take heart, stalwart cyclists – The Suits have arrived!”
While the momentum of all-season cycling has been building slowly for decades, progress has accelerated greatly in the past ten years. One result is that city governments across the northern hemisphere are working not only to add new cycling infrastructure, but to keep the bike lanes cleared and safe through the winter.
The Winter Cycling Congress included presentations by several professional consulting firms who design cycling infrastructure in northern cities, villages and rural areas, addresses by big city mayors and members of Parliament, plus input from maintenance experts with experience in widely varying climates.
Can you ride through the winter? Yes, you can.
While bikes have obvious appeal as healthy, low-energy, sustainable transportation tools, in many countries the bicycle’s positive impact will remain limited if people feel they can’t ride in the winter months. If city planners try to build adequate infrastructure for large numbers of cyclists in summer, but still need to accommodate all residents via alternate transport methods in winter, then our overall transport systems will remain costly and inefficient.
What are the main barriers to wider adoption of winter cycling? First, let’s deal with a common, silly objection: people can’t ride when it’s cold. This is absurd because people happily do many other activities outside in winter: ice skating, hockey, snowboarding and skiing, for example. Furthermore, all preceding generations up until about 100 years ago managed to get around in winter without being chauffeured in heated canisters. Dressing for the weather is not rocket science – our Neanderthal forebears were able to figure it out.
So when the cheap gas and diesel run out and there is no choice but to adapt to a low-energy transport system, humans will once again rise to the challenge of putting on long underwear and warm hats, without considering themselves heroes for doing so.
Today there are planning consultants gathering data in many cities, asking what are the major factors that keep people biking in the winter, and what factors make them stop.
Tony Desnick of Alta Planning discussed the results of an international survey. When respondents were asked why they decided to ride in the winter, the most common response was “I started biking and I didn’t want to stop.” (That certainly rang true with me. When I started riding a bike in Toronto in the summer of 1979, I had no expectation of riding all year. But as the months rolled by I liked biking more and more. Soon a whole winter had gone by – and now it’s 38 winters.)
When summer-only cyclists were asked “What will take you off your bike?” sixty per cent cited poorly maintained infrastructure, said Desnick.
While cities around the world are learning that provision of protected bike lanes results in immediate boosts in cycling, winter cities are also learning that a substantial share of cyclists will happily ride through the winter, as long as bike lanes are maintained.
Thus cities such as Minneapolis and Montréal now regularly clear at least some bike lanes promptly after snowfalls, with bike-lane plows going out even before most streets are cleared.
The downtown Montréal neighbourhood of Villeray is home to many cyclists, and now has a protected, well maintained bikeway on Rue Boyer, shown at right. (Click image for larger view)
The leader in taking care of winter cycling facilities is the small city of Oulu, Finland, which hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in 2013. Though the city is just 150 km south of the Arctic Circle, about 42% of its 200,000 residents keep cycling through the winter, said Winter Cycling Federation vice-president Pekka Tahkola.
The steadily cold winter actually makes cycling and path-maintenance easy, said Tahkola. Maintenance crews leave a thin layer of snow on the paths, this quickly becomes well packed, and cyclists have good traction even without using studded tires. With few thaw-freeze episodes, there is no reason to use road salt so paths and bikes stay clean.
Most temperate-zone cities face tougher challenges, exemplified by the freezing rain which turned to slush and then bumpy ice throughout Montréal during the conference – conditions that are increasingly common due to global warming.
Yet federal politicians, municipal staff, and planning firms from cities such as Calgary, Winnipeg and Copenhagen are helping to ensure that bike infrastructure is not forgotten when winter maintenance programs are designed – and winter ridership is increasing as a result.
Though city governments and planners play a crucial role in these efforts, often it is the activism of determined cyclists which prompts action. Becca Wolfson of the Boston Cyclists Union told the story of the city staffer who wrote that cyclists who want to bike in winter “are living in the wrong city”, and they only represent “.05% of the people” anyway. The response was a well organized campaign on Twitter, with pictures of the winter bike commuters holding signs saying “I am the .05%” or simply “#WinterBiker”. This year Boston is making it a high priority to clear major bikeways of snow.
Nadezda Zherebina discusses the growth of cycling in Russia which has resulted in regular bicycle parades in Moscow, including one in January 2017 when the temperature was –28°C. At the conclusion of the conference, it was announced that Moscow will host the 2018 Winter Cycling Congress. (Photo by Anne Williams, courtesy of Winter Cycling Congress Facebook page).
From downtown cores to the suburbs and beyond
Nor have winter bike activities been confined to major cities. Darnel Harris discussed a program to boost cycling in Toronto’s far-flung suburbs. These areas now tend to have lower housing costs than downtown, and are home to many people who can’t afford either condos or cars. Yet these areas also present major barriers to mobility and accessibility, with high-speed arterial roads, infrequent buses, and schools and stores that are too far from homes for walking to be a practical mode of transport. Among these communities, Harris said, cargo bikes have a particular appeal.
Other presentations dealt with a state-funded program to design biking infrastructure in rural Montana, and a project to connect two small villages in Finland with a safe and attractive bikeway.
Thank God It’s Friday!
But enough of traffic statistics and commuting modal share trends. Some of us also bike in the winter for pure fun, and the week ended with a special treat.
Though the conference officially closed at noon on Friday, about 25 lucky souls from at least five countries took a bus out of town to the great cycling facilities in Bromont. Here we were fitted with fat bikes before heading out on the snow-covered trails. Though we bundled up to stay warm in the –15°C temperature and stiff breeze, most of us soon started shedding layers as we pedaled up hills, slid around hairpin curves and dodged trees. As a conference finale, this was hard to beat.
Top photo: Although Montréal’s bike-share system, Bixi, does not operate in winter, conference organizers from Vélo Quebec made arrangements for participants to use Bixis in a variety of outdoor workshops. Here a group leaves the conference venue for a tour of Montréal’s maintained winter bikeways. (Photo by Anne Williams, courtesy of Winter Cycling Congress Facebook page).
Can the current Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange handle a doubling of truck traffic to and from the St Marys Cement quarry?
Given that the Waterfront Trail shares the road in this section with the St Marys traffic plus the Highway 401 on/off traffic, can the Waterfront Trail be promoted as a safe and healthy recreational feature?
What mitigation measures will St Marys Cement propose to compensate for a large increase in heavy truck traffic which will affect commuters as well as recreational cyclists?
These are key questions raised by the Project Description for the Bowmanville Expansion Project.
The Project Description says that the aggregate will be moved “using existing road, rail and/or dock infrastructure”. But at the project’s Public Information Centre in Bowmanville on December 5, St Marys representative David Hanratty made clear that for the foreseeable future, the aggregate would go out by truck, not by ship or rail, primarily to customers on the east side of the Greater Toronto Area.
It is simply not cost-effective to load the aggregate onto ship, then load it again onto trucks enroute to construction projects, Hanratty said. Rail freight is now too expensive for a low-cost product like limestone aggregate, he added, in addition to the problem of needing to reload the material onto trucks for the “last mile” in any case.
So the 4,000,000 tonnes of limestone will all go out by truck. At 20 tonnes per truck, that would mean 200,000 truckloads per year, or 770 truckloads per day if the aggregate is hauled five days/week.
(Put another way, truck traffic in and out of St Marys is likely to more than double. While the current quarry extracts a similar amount of limestone as the underground expansion is projected to add, much of the current output is in the form of cement clinkers shipped out on the Capt. Henry Jackman. With a capacity of 30,000 tonnes, this ship can carry the equivalent of 1500 20-tonne truckloads each time it leaves port. But the aggregate shipments from the new underground mine will all go by truck.)
The timing of shipments to market will also affect traffic volume. If buyers are not prepared to stockpile aggregate through the winter, the hauling might be concentrated in the summer construction season – meaning the impact on the Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange, and on the Waterfront Trail, could be especially heavy during summer.
The current Highway 401 on- and off-ramps in this location are far from ideal. On the south side, traffic coming off the eastbound 401 has to get past two stop signs before making it onto Waverly Road. The left turn onto Waverly Road will be more difficult when several hundred more trucks per day are heading north on Waverly.
Traffic getting off the eastbound 401 faces two stop signs before turning onto Waverly Road (red Xs), causing frequent back-ups along the off-ramp. Assuming most of the loads of aggregate from St Marys will go to the eastern GTA, the loaded trucks will travel north along Waverly Road (red arrow) to the 401 westbound ramp, making it more difficult for Bowmanville-bound traffic to turn onto Waverly Road from Energy Drive. The volume of traffic on the eastbound off-ramp will also be increased, due to empty aggregate trucks returning from GTA markets via the eastbound 401. (Image from Google Maps, December 13, 2016)
Perhaps this interchange can be re-engineered to handle the new traffic load. Is St Marys prepared to fund this reconstruction as part of its impact mitigation efforts?
As for the Waterfront Trail, the addition of several hundred more trucks per day to the section of shared Trail/roadway will make the Trail less attractive and less safe. Two changes might be made to mitigate this impact.
First, perhaps the Trail could be rerouted here to eliminate the sharing of congested roadway on Waverly Road and Energy Drive. Ironically, Google Maps currently shows an incorrect routing for the Waterfront Trail as shown below; could this route become reality in the future?
Although the Waterfront Trail is currently routed on Waverly Road and then along Energy Drive (as shown by the red arrows), Google Maps incorrectly shows a routing along the north edge of the St Marys property (the solid blue line). Could this route become reality in the future? (Image from maps.google.ca, December 13, 2016) click for larger view
Second, there is no safe and attractive route between the Waterfront Trail and most of the populated areas of Bowmanville. Cyclists from the north side of the 401 have two choices, both poor, for routes across the 401 to the Waterfront Trail (see Getting across the 401). One of these routes is Waverly Road, which will be more dangerous for cyclists if there is a major increase in truck traffic without an appropriate “complete streets” redesign.
Perhaps St Marys can mitigate the expansion project’s negative impact on the Waterfront Trail by funding a separate walking/cycling overpass or underpass at the 401. Such a routing would be a significant improvement to Bowmanville’s recreational trails, which currently offer no safe connection to the Waterfront Trail.
Top photo: Bumper-to-bumper traffic on off-ramp to Waverly Road from eastbound 401, December 13, 2016