In Finland, 12 per cent of cyclists ride all winter. In bike-friendly Ottawa, two per cent brave the icy streets. In Halifax?
Well, let’s just say cycling instructor Scott MacPhee’s got a challenge on his hands.
“I always tell people it’s relatively safe to ride in the wintertime,” says MacPhee, the sustainable transportation coordinator for Clean Nova Scotia.
“By 8 o’clock the roads are usually salted,” MacPhee says, building his case. “Sidewalks usually aren’t.”
So what do Halifax cyclists need to mount up on slushy streets, besides raingear and titanium nuts? (On their bikes, that is.)
Working brakes and gears. As it happens, MacPhee can help with that anytime. He runs the Dalhousie University Campus Bike Centre, a 20-hour-a-week drop-in workshop in Dal’s Studley Gym where members (for $20 a year) can use tools, or get repair help from student staffers. He’ll run a winter riding seminar there Dec. 1.
A winter-only beater bike won’t hurt, either, since salt eats up steel and aluminum frames; front and rear lights are necessary year-round for riding after dark, and heaven knows there’s still more dark to come.
As far as bike-handling goes, MacPhee says winter riders should apply the same cautions as car drivers.
“Slow down; be more prepared. Maybe don’t go as sharp going around a turn. On bikes, it’s all about your centre of gravity.”
Now here’s what I like about MacPhee: he’s honest. “If you hit black ice, you hit black ice. Cars will slip; if you’re a cyclist, you’re going down. Unless you have studs on your tires.”
Really, MacPhee says, being safe in the winter starts with being safe year-round. And to do that, cyclists need to take up more of the roads.
MacPhee, who’s a certified instructor with CAN-BIKE, says cyclists need to place themselves a metre from curbs and parked cars (and in winter, snowbanks). In other words, on narrow streets with parking – the kind that litter the Halifax landscape – bike riders should take the whole lane. And according to the Motor Vehicle Act, MacPhee says, “cars need to slow down and wait until there’s enough space to pass.”
I can hear the teeth-gnashing and honking already.
“The more people do it,” says MacPhee, holding his ground, “the more car-users will get used to it. A metre from the curb. A metre from any parked cars.”
That metre gap also helps cyclists avoid what MacPhee calls “the door prize” (getting smacked by an opening car door), and it keeps riders out of those nasty old-school tire-swallowing storm drains.
In an ideal cyclist’s Halifax, MacPhee wants painted boxes at intersections where cyclists can get to the front of the queue and claim their space, and cyclist-only advance greens.
All this “take the lane” business will make bike-riders safer, MacPhee says, but it will also diffuse what he calls the biggest complaint from car-users in the urban war of wheels: bikes are dangerous because they are unpredictable.
Ok. They are. Some cyclists, myself included, bend the rules. We justify it because it makes the ride easier, because we feel morally superior for our carbon-free commuting, and because, well, we can.
But we shouldn’t.
“Under the Motor Vehicle Act,” says MacPhee, “you are considered a vehicle. So, you have all the rights of a car driver. But you also have all the responsibilities, too.” That means no sidewalk riding, no going the wrong way on a one-way street, no failing to signal, no gliding through stop signs.
In winter that’s even more important. At least until Halifax gets segregated bike lanes like the 30-year-old country-wide network Finland has, and that Ottawa City Council is mulling over for parts of its downtown.
“We need them too,” says MacPhee.
“The argument is that there isn’t enough room on the roads. There is,” he says, smiling. “You just have to remove the traffic.” ~~
(Chronicle Herald, November 27, 2010.)