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The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking in the City

Published on May 9, 2017 by   ·   74 Comments Pin It
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Why Ride?

Bikes. Are. Everywhere. It doesn’t take a study or statistic to prove that bicycle ridership is way up across North America — the sheer number of bicycles on the streets of your city, and even in upscale clothing store windows, is proof enough that the bike boom is upon us. Not since the 1890s have bikes been this cool. The timeless bicycle, once known as the mechanical or iron horse, is one of humanity’s oldest manufactured self-propelled personal transportation vehicles, and one that’s had a profound impact on our history. From its vital role in the emancipation of women and dramatic changes to their acceptable everyday clothing (hello, bloomers!) to the paving of our city streets, the first flight, and the widely accessible transportation of people and goods over ever-greater distances, the bicycle is nothing short of a two-wheeled wonder. Its classic design hasn’t even changed much since 1885, when the safety bicycle, with two same-sized wheels, a drive chain, and inflated tires, was invented.

While most of our North American cities are in varying stages of adaptation to the bicycle (and yes, we’re far from the bicycle nirvana of many European cities), millions of North Americans are choosing a bicycle for daily transportation. Gone are the days when bikes were seen as the last-resort transport of the poor or the domain of men in tight shorts and brightly colored jerseys, a.k.a. MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra). Far more women and men of all ages, backgrounds, and occupations are now riding — and they’re wearing whatever they like to do so. Bicycles are increasingly being seen, understood, and praised as the gloriously efficient, fun, fast, elegant, and accessible vehicles that they are — a classic solution to so many of the issues that seem to plague our cities.

“When you ride your bike, it isn’t just transportation, it is the key to designing the sustainable cities of the future,” says Lloyd Alter, managing editor of TreeHugger.com.

The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking in the City

The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking in the City

With this growth in ridership, city governments across North America are also increasingly investing in expanded and updated bike infrastructure and programs, and they are recognizing bicycles as an important form of sustainable urban transportation that can help ease the burden of traffic congestion. While we might be on our way, we’re not there yet: Interestingly, the most bike-friendly large city in North America, Portland, has the same bicycle ridership (6 per cent), as the least bike-friendly city in Germany, Stuttgart. But as John Pucher and Ralph Buehler point out in their book City Cycling, with the right policies in place, levels of cycling can be dramatically increased: “Cities of all sizes with very different land use patterns, histories, and cultures have succeeded in increasing cycling and making it safer.” Unlike that found in the more-established cycling cities, North American transportation cycling culture is still growing and maturing; every year we have more riders with varying levels of skill. With a relatively young bike culture, limited bike-specific infrastructure (bike lanes, etc.), a gap in bike education, and a wider variety of riding conditions to adapt to, some cycling norms are still in development. New riders pick up cycling habits from watching others and through their own experiences. Although honing skills through observation and experience is important, it’s crucial to start from a solid foundation of knowledge.
And that’s where this book comes in. As a full-time cycling advocate, I noticed adults getting back on their bikes with only a partial understanding of how to be part of traffic on two wheels instead of four, or no understanding at all if they’d never gotten a driver’s licence. The physical act of riding a bicycle — the balance and muscle movements needed to propel the vehicle forward — do come back quite easily. The part where you ride that bike out into the often fast-paced and shared vehicular roadways of your city is not quite so simple.

Although my first taste of independence was on my bicycle, like many, I felt the next level of freedom behind the wheel of the family car. I’ve been a licenced driver for over 20 years, and I actually quite like driving and can appreciate motor vehicles as the tools they are. I’m certain that being a cyclist first made me a better driver, and that being an occasional driver makes me a better cyclist, because it allows me to understand the roadway from both perspectives. I sold my Toyota Corolla in 2000 and used the money to pay for part of my post-graduate studies. Though I hadn’t ridden much since my commute to and from high school, it didn’t take me long to get back into the rhythm of the ride and realize what I’d been missing. The idea of buying a car hasn’t crossed my mind since, and I’ve built my life in such a way that it shouldn’t ever have to.

Getting back in the saddle allowed me to step back and see driving and car ownership from a whole new perspective. I realized that owning and habitually overusing a car for short trips actually made me and billions of others far more dependent on all the systems required to make, buy, park, insure, repair, and fuel a car, rather than providing the independence I’d originally connected to car ownership. Cars, while useful and essential to some, are also a factor in so many of our societal ills — obesity, stress, diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle, worsening air quality, urban sprawl, and divided communities to name but a few. Cars might be symbols of independence and freedom in advertising and rock anthems, but I’ve come to fully appreciate that bicycles actually provide it, and so much more.
I haven’t written this book to convince you to become a full-time cyclist or give up driving. You are the only person who can make decisions about your daily transportation choices. My goal is to give you the information you need to be a confident rider whenever you choose: on weekends, once or twice a week, rain or shine — totally up to you.

The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking in the City by Yvonne Bambrick

The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking in the City by Yvonne Bambrick (click image above to purchase)

But in case your conviction is wobbling like your bike on the first ride back, here are a few reminders of why it’s worth braving those often daunting city streets on two wheels.

Convenience

If you’re used to a car, that might feel like the most convenient way to get around — you get in, turn on some tunes, and off you go. But how ­convenient is it to waste time in traffic or looking for parking? A short trip by bike is almost always faster than one by car in an urban context, especially during rush hour. When you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, there’s nothing quite as satisfying, or motivating frankly, than effortlessly whipping past a long line of cars stuck in traffic. By the time they get through that last light, you’ve made it three blocks closer to your destination. Any busy person who is pressed for time can immediately see and feel the benefits of using a bicycle for getting around the city. Reduced and predictable travel time alone makes the bicycle a worthwhile, and minimal, investment. And if you can fit in a bit of easy cardio on your way to and from work, school, or errands, you’ve basically bought yourself more time for something else.

Autonomy

Bikes are empowering, allowing you to get where you want to go on your own terms. You set your own pace and schedule, choose the door-to-door route you prefer, and kiss the malicious whims of transit delays and traffic jams goodbye. Also, don’t underestimate the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting places on your own. Theatre-maker and songwriter Evalyn Parry says, “One of my cycling heroines is Frances Willard, the late 19th century women’s suffrage leader of Evanston, Illinois, who put it so well in her 1895 book about cycling: ‘She who succeeds in gaining mastery of the bicycle gains mastery of life.’ Riding is so much about the pleasure of powering my own journey, moving at my own pace under my own steam.”

A Healthier Body and Mind

Cycling is a low-impact activity and is thus accessible to many people. Sure, you can put on sports clothes and go for a hard, fast ride to really get your heart pumping, but more often than not, riding a bike is a pretty easy form of exercise that you don’t really notice you’re doing — until you get to a hill, of course. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study on cycling health and safety, “Cycling significantly improves health and, as a form of moderate exercise, can greatly reduce clinical health risks linked to cardiovascular disease, Type-2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, osteoporosis, and depression. . . . Not only does cycling reduce disease-­related deaths, but it also contributes to substantially better health.” And if you’re afraid the risks of urban cycling overshadow the benefits, the same study can help you rest easy: “On balance, the positive health impacts of cycling far outweigh the negative health impacts . . . ­including crash-related injuries and air pollution.” But it’s not just about a healthy heart or legs of steel, says the OECD: “As well as improving physical health, cycling has a positive effect on emotional health — improving levels of well-being, self-confidence, and tolerance to stress while reducing tiredness, difficulties with sleep, and a range of medical symptoms.” Or take it from Momentum Mag’s CEO and ­editor-in-chief, Mia Kohout: “Riding a bike is my time of greatest reflection, creativity, and revelation. It is also a time when I get to slow down, breathe fresh air, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of my city. Sometimes I don’t feel like riding, so I don’t, but I have never regretted it when I do.” We spend so much of our busy day sitting idly that it makes sense to mix exercise with something practical rather than trying to find time to get to the gym. As my good friend, local restaurant owner, and long-time cycling advocate Shamez Amlani is fond of saying, “Why drive to the gym, when you can ride to the restaurant?”

Money in Your Pocket

Other than the initial investment in a bicycle and necessary accessories, usually somewhere between $200 and $2,500 depending on your means and needs, riding a bike for transportation is the cheapest way to go besides walking. A bike costs nearly nothing to ride, park, or fuel. You can do most basic maintenance yourself, and parts and repairs are quite inexpensive. Say goodbye to your gym membership and slash your spending on public transit and taxis or gas, parking, and car repairs. If you go completely car free, an increasingly popular choice in dense urban centers, you’re also off the hook for monthly car payments, maintenance, and insurance. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the annual operating cost of a bike is from $308 to $821 (if you include added food [i.e., fuel] costs due to increased exercise) compared to the $8,220 to $11,000 it takes to run a car.

Practical, Efficient Mobility

The majority of trips we take and errands we run in a day are under 5 kilometers (3 miles) from our home and perfectly suited to travel by bike. In addition to its hyper-efficiency at converting human energy into mobility, one of the greatest efficiencies of the bicycle is that it manages to fit into and make use of tight spaces. Bikes can go places cars can’t — they are nimble, versatile, fast, slow, sturdy, and light. They’re also just plain practical and can allow you to experience your urban environment in a whole new way.

(Re)Discovering Your City

Whether you’re new to your city or have lived there your whole life, it can surprise you when you see and feel it from two wheels. ­Consultant Ken Greenberg writes, “For me, especially from the raised vantage point of a bicycle seat, the feeling is reminiscent of snorkeling. Like an exotic seascape seen from a fresh perspective, the city reveals itself in new ways. Self-propelled motion at relatively low speeds offers us more than exercise and a chance to commune with our neighbors. It restores a geographic intuition that was weakened by the car — a feel for the real distances between things, a sense of the connections between the parts of the city. It gives us back the ability to move through barriers between neighborhoods and city districts, heedless of traffic volume or the many limits restricting where a car can go and when it can go there.” You also might end up spending more time in local businesses. Money spent on cars and fuel is mostly leaving your community, whereas cyclists and pedestrians put more money into local businesses. According to two studies done in Toronto (2009) and Portland (2012), customers arriving on bike or foot visit more often and spend more money cumulatively than car drivers.

Eco Warrior Cred

We all know that bicycles have way less of an impact on our environment than cars — they cause no noise or air pollution, need no toxic batteries, and require fewer non-renewables to build, run, and maintain. Bicycles are far less implicated in the global oil industry and cause fewer resource extraction and waste concerns. This certainly makes me feel better as I make my way around my city, and never more so than on smog days when I know I’m not to blame for the bad air quality. In short, bicycles are the ultimate sustainable transportation vehicles.

Fun

And if you weren’t already convinced, let me just add that riding a bicycle is exhilarating. Who doesn’t want to have fun on the way to work? Many people call their ride to and from work the best part of their day. Rather than adding to end-of-day fatigue, riding provides an energy boost after a long day.

So using a bike for transportation is cheap, efficient, practical, fun, convenient, and even healthy. Despite all those positives, riding in a fast-paced urban environment can still be intimidating. But remember, you don’t need to jump in at full speed. Start on quiet side streets or on bike-specific paths, then work up to bike lanes and faster moving city roadways as your confidence grows. All city streets can become accessible to you by bike once you understand how to safely navigate them.

Each chapter addresses various aspects of urban cycling, from picking the right bike for your needs and learning the rules of the road to how to read other road users and navigate common obstacles. This is need-to-know stuff that might otherwise take you a long time to learn, often the hard way, through on-street practice and observation. While some of these details may already seem like common knowledge to you, they may be news to others. My goals are to give you a head start, or in some cases a reboot, in what will remain a daily learning experience and help you to better anticipate and appreciate the ups and downs of life on two wheels.

Yvonne Bambrick is the author of The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, an easy-to-understand pocket resource, sure to empower readers to become savvy city cyclists or confident commuters.

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