Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Moving on Two Wheels

Given a confluence of events in my own life and media it seems appropriate to discussing bicycling this week. For as long as I can recall, as long as I have known how to bike I have been using it as one of my primary forms of transportation. I remember a few instances in middle school where a particularly stubborn friend and I rode our bikes to school with snow on the ground. Frost bike and black ice ultimately put a stop to this practice.

Even today during the warm months my primary form of transportation, whenever possible, is cycling. About three weeks ago my bicycle was stolen from my home. To be fair, I share about half the blame for not properly locking it up. Regardless, the centrality of cycling in my life didn’t really become truly apparent until I was not able to do it anymore.

Cycling culture has grown considerably over the last ten to twenty years. While I was back home in Brampton, and over the last few weeks in St. Catharines I have paid more attention to the people around me using bicycles to get around the city. A great cross section of society employs them for different purposes. Different social classes, age groups, and cultures employ them with no obvious bias, and their use as leisure activity, transportation and exercise makes the bike far more than a narrow activity with limited appeal.

When people talk about bike culture the image of Lance Armstrong-wannabes riding down a suburban side street like the Tour de France comes to mind. One website I’ve come to great appreciate is Cycle Chic. Cycle Chic, originally from Copenhaggen (which has a GIGANTIC cycling population), focuses on photographing everyday people using bicycles and making the bicycle a personal accessory and improving the aesthetic of cities.

My personal favourite contribution of Cycle Chic is their manifesto. Some of my favourite items include “I am aware that my mere prescence in said urban landscape will inspire others without me being labelled as a 'bicycle activist'.”, “I will ride with grace, elegance and dignity.”, “I will choose a bicycle that reflects my personality and style.”. But by far, my favourite is this: “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of 'cycle wear'.

While Cycle Chic is great because it highlights that we can be appealing on the roads and bicycling doesn’t have to be something you’re embarrassed, about it does highlight a bit too much of the fashion aspect for my liking. I greatly appreciate that while on our bicycles we contribute to the vitality of our urban environment. When possible, we should put our best foot (or wheel) forward. The site has enjoyed such popularity it now has chapters for major cities, including Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal (follow links from Cycle Chic website, link above).

Cycling provides a similar level of freedom that car-ownership does. Perhaps the greatest feature of owning a car is the ability to travel whenever you want. Public transportation necessarily forces its users to obey its schedules. This can be particularly frustrating on holidays or Sundays when bus services is normally dramatically curtailed but it is the most convenient day to run errands for people working on the weekdays. A bicycle, like a car, allows the owner to set their own schedule.

I think it is important for cities to facilitate biking in their urban areas and on their trails. Now, I do not believe that every strip of road needs to have a bike lane down it. Bicyclists do need to feel safe or they will not bike. Ideally, most cities should offer bike routes that stitch together their entire urban fabric if they are so large that sharing the road may be dangerous at parts. A threshold of 100,000 people is probably a good benchmark.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Mayor Ford and City Council have voted to destroy bike lanes. Having read the media coverage there is some justification for the destruction of the bike paths in Scarborough. They were rarely used. However, major bike infrastructure was destroyed in the core. Generally, I think this is pretty stupid policy. Once something is built you need a good reason to destroy it. It cost the city of Toronto $80,000 to put in these bike lanes and will cost them an additional $200,000 to take them away. So after $300,000 the city of Toronto will be back at where it started with marginally better traffic movement and worse biking infrastructure.

One thing that I find confounding about bicycling in virtually every city I visit is a lack of bicycle parking. Businesses are required to have a certain amount of parking for cars based on their size, but the same courtesy is not extended to bicycles. I think that is an issue that should be examined in the case of every municipality’s planning code. Cities could even bulk buy a couple hundred bike racks and sell them to businesses cheaply, or give them away.

Before parting I’ll leave you with this article, a Typology of Toronto’s Cyclists, which even as a non-biker might give you a knowing-grin. Happy biking!

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