Abolish Segregation!

Cyclists riding down an enclosed glass tube.

Pipe dream or nightmare? (Marc Ngui for Spacing Magazine)

In 2011, an Afrocentric curriculum was announced for Oakwood Collegiate.

In 2013, a protected bike lane is being prepared for Harbord Street.

What do these two initiatives have in common? They both support intolerance. Both measures were conceived to mitigate a perceived threat to a vulnerable segment of society; black student dropout rate and urban cyclist injury rate. Both seek a solution by dissociating each affected group from their existing mainstream environment. Both do more harm than good.

The ‘good’ of separated bike lanes is injury prevention, as a UBC study indicates, suggesting that a separate bike lane on Harbord should result in about an 80% reduction in injuries along that section of road.

The harm is less obvious. For one, it locks down our infrastructure. This makes the road less adaptable to traffic around incidents and construction, and it impedes the success of a swath of transportation alternatives as I discussed in an earlier post. It reinforces the much too prevalent misconception that roads are not for sharing, and it sets impossibly high expectations for all future bike lanes. It also sucks up valuable cycling infrastructure construction time and money that could be much better spent elsewhere, while removing nearly half the available parking that small businesses in the area depend on. But the biggest problem is that segregation removes bicycles from traffic, which will have the effect of increasing injury rates across the whole cycling network by reducing the familiarity of bicycles to motorists, according to an analysis by the Injury Prevention journal in 2003.

Note that the painted bike lanes along Harbord are already very successful as they stand. There has been no massive clamouring for separated bike lanes. Those who cry the loudest for them don’t actually stand to benefit from them! A Toronto Star reporter tells of her fall crossing streetcar tracks last year. But that was in an intersection, where protected bike lanes obviously can’t be used. In another article, a city councillor (and head of public works, no less) praises segregated bike lanes even though he admits he only learned to ride two years earlier and never, “ever, ever” cycled downtown before! And our most infamous politician, the raging know-it-all mayor Rob Ford, has passed judgement from the comfy leather perch of his swerving Cadillac Escalade, declaring that he is in favour of separate bike lanes. His conclusion, I can only imagine, is the result of finding he has to lift off the gas pedal for five seconds when his righteous way is impeded by an infuriating cyclist. Poor mayor.

The push for separated bike lanes at city hall resembles their misguided drive for a Scarborough subway at the risk of losing the funded and approved LRT . Both the bike lanes and subway are nice-to-haves, not must-haves for the city (and they are both Rob Ford pet projects-cum-infrastructure disasters). We desperately need as much transit as we can get, rather than bits of so-called “world class” transit (aka stubways). Just as we need a greatly expanded cycling network rather than enhancements to the feeble existing network. Separated lanes should only be required in specific instances like allowing two-way cycling on a one-way street, or supporting cycling along busy, high-speed roads.

By and large, cyclists who support separation (many are against) don’t have the same soapbox that those public figures have. Looking at their arguments, they all seem founded on one common observation; drivers are terrible. Two things need to be pointed out about that. First of all there is a misperception that painted bike lanes are not to be crossed by drivers (the same misperception drivers have about their superior right to their lanes). In reality, drivers loading or unloading by the curb, or turning right or squeezing around stopped traffic on their left should all feel free to use the painted bike lane when safe to do so. Negotiating the road use with other vehicles is in fact one of the advantages of painted bike lanes, as it improves traffic flow and encourages awareness of other road users. Secondly, we don’t have to throw up our hands and accept bad driving habits, forcibly controlling them with the erection of barriers. Their behaviour can be corrected.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that drivers can learn to see the road as a shared space, allowing safe room for cyclists. But all observation and experience support this conclusion.

Believe it, because in cities with higher cycling densities like Amsterdam or Portland, and even Montreal, drivers are more aware and considerate towards cyclists because they all have to deal with each other frequently. Contrast this with my experience cycling in the suburbs of Thornhill, where drivers have either come to a screeching stop behind me, or needlessly swerved around me into oncoming traffic, and in one case a driver passed me cleanly only to drive straight into a four foot snow bank! All because they had no idea how to deal with me being on the same road as them. The behaviour of drivers in the ‘burbs is no different than I would expect if I were a pink elephant stomping down the side of the road. Clearly, this is not the same behaviour as drivers in the downtown area because they are more accustomed to negotiating the use of the road with cyclists.

Believe it, because even the world’s model for cycling infrastructure, Amsterdam, allows bike lanes to be shared by e-bikes, gas bikes, and even tiny electric cars. It works. Of course in Toronto we did the opposite and banned e-bikes from bike paths!

Believe it, because the ‘shared space’ concept works. Shared Space is an even more extreme scheme for eliminating barriers between road users compared to merely desegregating bike lanes, but even then drivers have been shown to adapt, making it a success wherever it has been introduced.

Believe it, because the Injury Prevention journal concluded as much from its study. “Where, or when, more people walk or bicycle, the less likely any of them are to be injured by motorists. There is safety in numbers.” It’s the same reason that drivers who are more often exposed to snowy roads are better drivers in those conditions. Increased exposure breeds increased awareness.

Drivers can indeed improve. The money spent on separating existing bike lanes could be better spent multiplying the number of cyclists by creating desperately needed new bike lanes within our pitiful cycling network. An expanded bike network would draw more cyclists onto the roads throughout the city, making us a more permanent fixture in the eyes of drivers and forcing them to recognise that the road is to be shared, not owned.

All of this demonstrates that we need to correct the bad driving behaviour observed around cyclists by exposing drivers to cyclists more frequently, not less. Up with integration, down with segregation!

Cycling Cities – A Google Maps Showdown

I was curious to find out what made Ottawa such a great cycling city, after it earned a gold award this week as a Bicycle Friendly Community from the Share the Road Cycling Coalition.

The award rates cities based on their achievements in support of cycling planning, infrastructure, education, culture and enforcement following a methodology developed by America’s largest cycling advocacy group, the League of American Bicyclists. Ottawa is the first Canadian city to reach the gold standard, however I could find no specific explanations of what it did to achieve that success.

So I did what any self-appointed internet authority would do; I checked out Google.

Google Maps provides a moderately useful network of bike routes that can be used to derive directions for cyclists. Obviously, Ottawa must have a massive lattice of bikeways criss-crossing the city, right? Well, it kinda does actually! At a glance, one can detect a strong pattern of continuous bike lanes that reach each corner of the city, all surrounded by a slew of shorter little connector paths.
Map of Ottawa's cycling routes

Compare this to Rob Ford Land, which is a mish-mash of disjointed routes sparsely sprinkled with tiny routes representing parkettes or subdivision shortcuts. Not even close (all maps in this post were screen-captured to the same scale).

And how do these two compare to other Canadian cities? Actually there are some surprising contenders in this competition for green lines in Google Maps. Surrey, Kitchener-Waterloo and Fredericton all look like nicely bikeable cities, judging them as I am from the comfort of my office chair.
Map of Surrey, Kitchener and Fredericton bike routes

In the eyes of Share the Road (an Ontario organization), Kitchener ranks no better than Toronto, each winning a silver award. So obviously there must be more substance behind the judging than just a glance at internet maps.

Other cities like Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal seem to have pockets of strong cycling infrastructure, but with enough neglected areas that I would have to rate them as second-class networks.
Map of Edmonton bike routesMap of Calgary bike routesMap of Winnipeg bike routesMap of Montreal bike routes

Like Toronto’s, Vancouver’s bike network is just sad.
Map of Vancouver's bike routes

It will be interesting to revisit these maps on Google in a few years to get an indication of the progress each municipality is making. Or in the case of Toronto, how much further we’re falling behind.

The Whee! List – Bullet Bike

Velomobile cockpit cam 02Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard the term ‘bullet bike’ before, I just made it up. They’re properly known as velomobiles, but that just sounds too… French. Too wussy. It conjures up images of a fragile instrument that needs to be serviced by a mime with a big curly moustache. A bullet bike however, now that’s a man’s bike! Something any red blooded Canuck would be proud to talk about over a lager. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that velomobiles are far more common on the other side of the Atlantic than here, though they remain quite rare even there.

Fortunately for this blog, I happen to live only a short drive from North America’s one and only distributor; Bluevelo in Collingwood, Ontario. I was able to schedule a test ride on a beautiful Sunday morning with one of the incredibly helpful owners, Randy Mickevicious. He operates Bluevelo with his brother Ray, who recognized the appeal of velomobiles many years ago and decided that we needed to have them here too. There was hardly a wealth of pent-up demand for the product at the time, but their enthusiasm for the bikes lead them to open up shop here anyways, market sustainability be damned! The bikes’ popularity has been slowly growing ever since as more and more people discover them.

But wait, what the heck is a velomobile? …errrrr I mean bullet bike.

Simply put, it is a recumbent tricycle with full fairings. They kinda look like a bobsleigh with wheels. Like a bike, but shaped like a bullet. Get it? This form factor allows for superior aerodynamics, comfort, and versatility, making them ideal for long distance touring and commuting. But I prefer to think of them as what bikes would have evolved into if the Union Cycliste Internationale hadn’t ruled in 1934 that bicycles must have a certain ‘look’ that made them inefficient and uncomfortable. Those darned fanciful Frenchmen again.

One downside of bullet bikes is their cost, which start at around $8000 given the small volumes in which they’re produced. For those contemplating the purchase of a bike, one of the things Randy pointed out that’s worth keeping in mind is that they make unbeatable rolling billboards. Was he ever right! Even in the area immediately surrounding the Bluevelo workshop, people were slowing down, craning their necks, and chasing me down to chat about the bike.

In terms of performance, their big disadvantage is their bulk and weight. Maneuvering them in tight spaces can be challenging, but at speed this isn’t an issue as they are no wider than a typical wheelchair or even a bicycle with wide handlebars. However, there’s no way a rider could carry one up or down a few steps or ride it over a standard curb.

Randy provided me with a Quest model for my test ride. It was a genuine pleasure, and surprisingly so. I knew that bullet bikes feature full suspension since riders sit in a reclined position, meaning we can’t use our legs to absorb shocks over rough surfaces. Even so, I didn’t expect the comfort to be so remarkable. I couldn’t tell if the patches on the road were as rough as they looked because they felt so smooth. Even railroad tracks were a smooth crossing.

Another aspect that contributed to the comfort was the steady flow of air through the bike from the openings under my feet. Not only did it help to keep me cool but it also seemed to have the effect of blocking the wind in my face as the air rose up out of the cockpit opening. Despite the high speeds, up to 55 km/h, I never noticed any of the drumming wind noise that usually annoys me on an upright bicycle.

Unfortunately I had to abandon my plan to attempt a top speed run as it became evident that the terrain had an almost imperceptible slope. I only noticed it when I gained 15km/h without any extra effort on my part after I turned around to go back! This sensitivity to inclines is the real disadvantage of the bike’s weight, though the weight can also be beneficial as it helps to maintain speed over undulating terrain. Note also that I was still going faster in either direction than I would have gone on an upright bike.

The sensation of speed was exhilarating, and quite rewarding given the low effort it took to achieve. The very sharp steering response also contributed to the sporty feel. I had to learn how to ride while avoiding unnecessary steering inputs, which took some effort due to the rocking motion from my pedaling as well as the side-to-side bounce of the bike on it’s suspension.

When it came time to shed speed, braking was on par with an upright bike. The Quest only has brakes on the two front wheels as the rear tire would contribute almost nothing to slow the bike down. Here again the weight works against the bike, but that’s offset by the very low center of gravity that allowed me to really hammer the brakes without having to worry about going end over end.

Randy standing in front of a Yellow velomobile

Randy from Bluevelo

I must give a word of credit to Bluevelo for their amazing courtesy and level of organization in setting up this test ride for me. The bike was sized for me in advance, with some quick tweaks upon my arrival. They thoughtfully had a bike computer, GoPro mount and water bottle all ready to go, and Randy made sure to cover all the essential info that would help see me through the ride without problem. Experiencing his enthusiasm firsthand, I couldn’t help but reflect on all those stories one hears about pioneering artists, industrialists, or activists who jump into a field for the sheer passion of it. While the general public starts off unaware of their work, they eventually catch on and the pioneers become revered leaders of their field.

My wish is for that day to come quickly for the Mickevicious brothers and these awesome bullet bikes.

Why the Hyperloop Will Never Happen

Bullet flying into barrel

What a ride on the Hyperloop might look like.

I presume you have all heard of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept by now. Well you can forget it. Ain’t gonna happen.

(I love making this kind of crystal-ball-gazing declaration because for me it’s a win-win outcome. Either I win because I predicted the future, or I win because I get to see this crazy contraption actually get built! This is in contrast, by the way, to people who predict the end of times on a particular date. Those can only be lose-lose propositions, which just goes to show that all doomsdayers are nuts, whether they’re right or wrong.)

I truly believe the Hyperloop will never come to be, probably ever. Having read the publicly available PDF document explaining it, it’s quite clear that there’s a gaping chasm between the theory of this suction-tube type of transportation, and the real-world implementation. There are too many unknowns that need to be discovered gradually and at great expense before the technology can ever be applied to the design of a reliable transportation mode.

Supporters draw a comparison to the adventuresome days of the dawn of flight, or the excitement of space exploration, to decry our present complacency and fear when it comes to adopting new technologies. While this observation about human nature is generally true, the comment fails to acknowledge that the aeronautic and astronautic ages matured over decades through the contributions of thousands of small developments and lessons learned by experience. They did not snap into place at the whim of a lone wealthy eccentric futurist.

By all accounts, the science behind Hyperloop appears to be sound. But Murphy’s Law trumps all those puny laws of science, to wit: “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. In the case of the Hyperloop, there are a handful of things that can go wrong at a glance.

The biggest question is perhaps the air cushion, whose flow could be choked with a sudden bump, or perhaps a sympathetic vibration in harmony with the resonance of the suspended capsule. Or there could be a disturbance external to the tube. For example oil pipelines have been known to fail, and it sure isn’t the oil that’s breaking them. The Hyperloop is nothing more than a human pipeline, ready to convert its 760mph cargo into an instant goopy sludge puddle upon the failure of any of its components.

Man prepares to commute to work out of a cannon.

(Elmer Parolini, Jantoo.com)

Another ginormous fault with the concept is that nobody really needs to save one hour to get to San Francisco as much as they used to. With mobile electronics being what they are, there really isn’t any such thing as unproductive time anymore. This notion has clearly escaped Mr. Musk, dazzled by the elegance of the science as he is. For example, he seems not to have noticed that supersonic air travel was a failure and is now defunct. He waxes poetic about it in his PDF alongside the Hyperloop concept as if they were both viable travel options.

This isn’t to say that suction-tube transport can’t work. The concern is rather to point out that we don’t know enough to say if it will work reliably, efficiently, and with reasonable safety.

A more sensible project of this type to start off with would be a cargo transportation system. Perhaps something over water (or slightly beneath it), to avoid turns and land rights issues. Perhaps something to feed the US with all the cheap knickknacks coming from China, returning back to PRC with capsules chock full of US bonds?

According to the great Great Circle Mapper site, the straightest line between Harbin city in Northern China to Seattle Washington would cover 7700 km, most of which is over water near the coastline, crossing the Pacific gap up through the Bering Strait. Think about it, if a capsule full of plastic trinkets ever exploded in the middle of the Arctic, would it even make the news?

Map showing shortest route between Harbing and Seattle

Proposed Uberstrait route

Extrapolating from Elon’s guesstimapproximation of costs for the 350 mile Hyperloop, my Uberstrait™ proposal would only cost 82 billion dollars. But discounting for the cost of cheap Chinese labour, and the elimination of reclining leather seats, I think we can ballpark this thing at a mere 8.2 billion.

Wow, I’m actually loving this idea. Quick, to the PDF machine Batman, let’s make this Uberstrait™ thing happen!

The Faltering Introduction of E-bikes Part 2 – A Solution

In my last post, I discussed Toronto e-bike users riding helmet-first into a wall of opposition from city officials who are empowered by the complaints of other road users. E-bikes aren’t fitting seamlessly into the existing infrastructure of road design, nor can that infrastructure be adapted to accommodate this radically distinct vehicle type – “OMG a bike with batteries!?!”

Animation of a spinning bicycle pedal

Animation of a spinning bicycle pedal (Wikipedia)

As a result, laws have been piled high to put the squeeze on e-bikes in an attempt to resolve this disharmony. No riding in bike lanes… pedals must not be removed… electric assist cannot exceed 32 km/h… blah blah blah. These may help, but I have a much neater solution; make e-bikers pedal. They’re supposed to be bikes for crying out loud! Do this by taking away hand-operated throttles and making their speed dependant on pedal movement. Full speed could be obtained at a very race-like cadence of 120 pedals per minute. Halving the cadence to a sedate 60 would halve the speed to a nice relaxing 16 km/h. Note that the pedals wouldn’t have to actually drive the wheels, they’d only need to trigger the electric motor.

Yes, this would be a restriction on e-bikes but guess what; all those other restrictions could be thrown out the window. Like sharing bike lanes. Since a pedaling requirement would clearly bring their behaviour closer in line to that of bicycles, they would be less confusing for motorists and no more dangerous to cyclists than… cyclists. No need to worry if they remove their pedals or upgrade their motors either; they would have nothing to gain as long as the level of electric assist is fixed to pedal cadence. Yet, all the existing benefits would remain, with the added benefit of forcing the user to move! Those who don’t want to pedal can go and earn their license and insurance and get the lazymobile of their choice, just like the rest of us.

The elegance of the solution is that it requires no changes to infrastructure, nor does it impose any new driving rules. It only marginally limits the technology of e-bikes but does so in a cohesive manner with respect to other transportation modes.

Two ebikers contrasted side-by-side

Which rider is more likely to have a suspended driver’s license?

As things stand right now e-bikers are getting the best of both worlds; cheap speed for no effort at all. In fact, e-bikes in their current form have gained a reputation for giving an easy transportation solution to both alcoholics and road warriors who had previously lost their licenses. Now I hasten to point out that those types aren’t representative of the majority of e-bikers, who are undoubtedly as civil and considerate as, well, drivers (wait, did I just say that?), but it only takes a few bad apples to ruin an image for everybody.

Yes, e-bikes are the fresh-faced new kid on the block and they already need some image rehabilitation. So consider this post my pro bono image consultancy to you, e-bike world. Get your act together because I would like to see you flourish on our streets.

The Faltering Introduction of E-bikes Part 1 – The Problem

English: An electric bicycle chained on West 3...

An electric bicycle chained on West 34th St. Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

Have you noticed them? They can be easy to miss since they look like your average bicycle or motor scooter, but they’re neither. They’re e-bikes; low-powered electrically driven bicycles, whose popularity is soaring all around the world and is only expected to accelerate.

In concept, e-bikes should be nothing more than bicycles with a limited amount of electrical drive to expand their appeal to a broader segment of the public. In principle this would provide most of the benefits of cycling over driving – reduced fuel dependency, congestion, pollution and costs – without forcing people to work up a sweat on the way to work. This seems like a laudable goal but in Toronto, and presumably in other similar markets, this surge in popularity is beginning to cause friction between e-bikers and other road users, who were beginning to give e-bikers the stink-eye for their speed and/or recklessness. This left officials with no choice but to intervene before things started to seriously degrade into outright stare downs! This article in the Toronto Sun illustrates quite nicely the frustrations from different perspectives.

So what’s going wrong?

Consider that our transportation infrastructure has been designed for generations mainly around just two modes of transportation; driving and walking. So we have streets, and sometimes we have sidewalks. The way we’ve always thought about mobility makes it very difficult for new transportation modes to be easily added to existing traffic. Road users in many developing countries have grown accustomed to sharing the road with a broad variety of vehicles, whether they be horse carts, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, bicycles, or farm vehicles. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the conflict with e-bikes doesn’t seem to exist there.

In recent decades, there has been a trend to attempt just that (more options to get around is a very good thing) by adding finer and finer levels of segregation to our roadways for each vehicle type. These are seen in the form of dedicated streetcar lanes, exclusive bus ways, HOV lanes and bike lanes, all of which carve up the landscape alongside regular roadways and sidewalks.

This variety can be liberating in that it offers choice, but the approach has limiting side effects as it can lead to confusion about the rules, and it forces us to choose only amongst options that have been anticipated and accommodated for by urban planners. With their highly structured approach, they have the impossible task of trying to provide just the right type of road that suits each neighbourhood’s preferred travel modes, looking ahead several decades as best they can.

In effect, the transportation network is locked down, unsuited to anything new like the e-bike. City councillors have been trying to accommodate them with, of course, nothing other than their own specifically disjointed set of rules and limitations. For example, e-bikes present similar risks to road users as scooters due to their speed and weight, but they aren’t required to have licenses or insurance. Similarly, riders are supposed to follow the same rules as cyclists, but they are banned from cycling lanes. Where’s the rationale?

In a nutshell, there are three components to this transportation problem. We have first of all a fixed infrastructure, which is at odds with the second; ever changing technology, both of which are mediated by the third; the rules of the road.

What matters though, is a solution. What might it be? This question will be the subject of our next post, so stay tuned!

The Whee! List – Solowheel

Welcome to the first edition of the Whee! List, a compilation of all the weird and wonderful transportation devices being devised by clever people around the world. There seems to be an endless variety of amazing, innovative devices to get us around these days, and I think everyone needs to know about them!

Motorized self balancing unicycle

Motorized self balancing unicycle (Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)

The vehicle that’s blowing my mind right now is the Solowheel, an electric unicycle you stand on that can fit in a handbag (a heavy-duty handbag, given its 24 lb. weight).

This would have to be the simplest form of powered transportation in existence; one person, one wheel, one motor. The rider stands a few inches taller than normal but takes up no more floor space as the device fits between his legs. According to the manufacturer, it can run on slopes and uneven surfaces, up to 16km/h, and has a range of 16 km. Recharging takes two hours from a regular wall outlet, and it will also recharge itself when braking or descending a slope.

It sure looks like a blast, but a more interesting topic is its potential practical applications. When and where would it be likely to be useful, or not? The most obvious answer is that it fills the role of a so-called “last mile” solution quite nicely. This is the name given to a device that helps people bridge the distance between a transportation hub and their final destination. For example, taking them from a subway station to the office, or zipping around a shopping mall. As such, the handle on top of the Solowheel may be its most significant design element!

As a powered vehicle, the Solowheel may be the premier device for its purpose, given that it can carry you anywhere that you can walk, except for stairs, where it can easily be carried. However, if you line it up against some unpowered options like rollerblades or skateboards, it gets a good run for its money. Reason being, the Solowheel is listed for a healthy $1800 despite being such a minimalist concept. Of course that price will buy you exclusivity, attention, effortless mobility, and probably a ton of fun once you get past the learning curve.

Inventor Thor from the comic strip B.C. performs stunts on his stone wheel

Solowheel: Life imitating art? (JohnHartStudios.com)

As I haven’t been able to try one, some questions remain unanswered such as whether it could handle riding on an escalator, or the eternal question for all vehicles; where can I race it! I also question its battery management and behaviour during extreme manoeuvers. Is there a reader out there who has one who can comment on these issues, or better yet – lend it to me!