Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Alright, time to get on my soap box:

Herb at IBIKETO posted recently on a change that has been happening in bike planning.

He argues that those with the most influence these days are women, and in some cases neophytes to cycling. They bring concerns about safety (can my kids ride using this infrastructure?) to the table, and have been pushing for more separated infrastructure.

This goes against the grain of the past advocates, who pushed for minimal intervention, and were critical of established infrastructure. These advocates, mostly men, pushed for “vehicular cycling”, learning to drive with the traffic rather than in separated infrastructure.

I think that Herb has presented an interesting issue in an unfortunate way. Old experienced white guys playing fast and loose with your safety versus hip, female neophytes who are safety-conscious may read well, but it is certainly reductive. Pointing to female cycling planners and claiming they have some special insight or “more safe” approach is no more sensible than pointing to all the existing male cycling planners in other parts of the world that are progressive about cycling and saying that it has something to do with the fact they are men. It’s a factor, but the far more relevant one is experience. This may have been Herb’s main point, but it was needlessly obscured by discussion of gender and clothing.

There is a historical dimension to this question. The bike advocates he is challenging are rooted in a tradition that emerged from the cycling environment of the time. Bike infrastructure was non-existent until recently, and a vehicular cycling maximized safety in a car-dominated environment. This is why Herb’s take on this is reductive, vehicular cycling is designed for safety too.

An experienced cyclist can work with less bike infrastructure, and may actually prefer a lack of infrastructure in certain cases. A separated lane constrains you from exiting earlier, and limits your ability to pass in certain situations. Experienced cyclists like the freedom of left turning with traffic, exiting where desired, etc. But this is entirely separate from the question of how to set up bike infrastructure from a planning perspective. The planner has to think through who is going to be using the infrastructure, and how they want to meet the needs of these users.

In the case of new cyclists you have two broad choices, train them to be road safe first and have minimal infrastructure, or build separated infrastructure so they can be safe and learn while they ride.

The problem with Option A is that it forces cycling education on people, it pushes the minimum cycling age up, it restricts its use to those with access to training, etc.  But from the perspective of early, experienced cycling advocates like John Forest (who is conspicuously absent from Herb’s post) everyone should go to cycling clubs and gets good enough to ride on the road with the big dogs.

So what you are really talking about here is not a shift to a focus on safety, as Herb suggests. Rather you are talking about a shift in perspective about what constitutes a safe environment for cyclists, one that emphasizes training and experience with minimal infrastructure, or one that emphasizes separated infrastructure and slow, “on the job” learning (with *access* to training and education).

The problem is that posts like Herb’s just exacerbate the tensions between the groups. I know plenty of experienced cyclists who also like the idea of more separated infrastructure, as they have friends, co-workers and family that would like to ride but don’t due to safety concerns. And the presentation of this dichotomy also sells short the very real political and safety concerns that advocates like Forest made the centerpiece of their work. Pushing for separated bike infrastructure emphasizes the idea that bikes don’t belong on the road: roads are for cars. The presence of more separated infrastructure will no doubt exacerbate this trend.

And it is also worth mentioning that, for better or worse, bike infrastructure will always lag need for that infrastructure, which means that, with very few exceptions, cyclists will ALWAYS have to drive with cars, at least for part of their trip. So the model of trained cyclists and minimal infrastructure may not be as unrealistic as it sounds.

The thing that I think is lacking from Herbs post is some sense of the larger picture. A few thoughts in that direction.

First, I personally know a great deal of people who live in the downtown core and have a very short commute. They could cycle to work. Separated bike infrastructure would work for them as they are in the dense, downtown core. So I’m all for separated infrastructure to encourage the casual rider to ride more often.

I also know a great deal of people who commute “cross town”. I’m one of them. I cross the city N/S from Bloor to Steeles, and EW from Ossington to Jane.  So not completely across the city, but a good chunk. I have an 11 mile commute. It takes me 45 minutes or so to get to work by car in rush hour, or about 75 minutes or so on the TTC and a rock solid reliable 50 minutes on the bike to get to work.

The mid-to-long distance commuter are simply ignored by most cycle advocates, either they are assumed to be experienced and not worth the concern, or they are ignored as they are not part of the untapped masses of neophyte cyclists who don’t want to ride due to safety concerns.

However, they could represent  the largest untapped portion of the potential cycling population. How many people do you know that commute to work cross town and take more than a ½ hour at rush hour to get where they are going? These people are all perfect candidates for cycle commuting.

However, here’s the catch. Once you get beyond short hop trips in the core the demand for separated infrastructure is unrealistic. A densely packed downtown core is an ideal spot for separated cycling infrastructure, but the spread out main arteries and secondary roads outside the core will never support the bike traffic to justify widely distributed separated lanes.

In addition, the city is spread out over a lot of space. Amsterdam, a good comparative case since everyone seems to agree that the Dutch have figured this out, is approximately 230 square KM, Toronto is around 650 square KM in size. Unless you plan to spiderweb the city with separated infrastructure over a 650 square KM area, you will have to rely on multiple cycling infrastructure modes (separated lanes, non-separated lanes, trails, secondary roads and even some main arteries) and then knit them together to form a city wide cycling infrastructure.

In short, presenting this as a neophyte (separated lanes only) versus experienced (little infrastructure needed) fundamentally skews the discussion towards simplistic and non-inclusive options. Considering where we are going with traffic and congestion, if all you are shooting for is the short-hop casual downtown commuter the future of gridlock in Toronto is bleak indeed.

The exclusive focus on any one part of the cycling population is a hindrance to progress. I have discussed long-trip riders as one example, but there are others. Mixed mode riders (take the bike then the bus, take the bike on the bus…), non-peak riders, night riders, all season riders, etc.  All season riders are just as concerned with road clearing on non-infrastructure routes as they are with the installation of more separated infrastructure. In the winter large, higher traffic roads are more likely to be clear and thus more easy to ride for cyclists. Night riders and off-peak riders encounter less traffic so are more willing to use main roads. Long distance commuters need more than just separated infrastructure, etc.

It would make more sense to portray this as a problem of inclusion: how do you maximize the number of cyclists on the road? To my mind this implies looking at all the options and considering them: separated lanes, non-separated lanes, recreational paths marked side roads, traffic re-routing, recommended routes, sharrows, etc. It also suggests not only that both the novice and the expert need to be accommodated, but also that short trip and long trip riders, off peak riders, night riders, multi-seasonal riders, etc. all need to be considered.

This is what is missing from cycle advocacy, an approach that recognizes the inherent multiplicity of users and the wide range of needs within the scope of “safe” riding.



Saturday, 30 November 2013

On Contraflow Lanes and City Cycling Infrastructure

So they have finished the contraflow bike lane on Shaw Street. I have had the opportunity to see the final results, and I’ll admit to being puzzled.

The current set up from Bloor to Dupont has the contraflow lane on the East side of the street beside parked cars, and sharrows on the West side going South. This strikes me as bad placement, for a few reasons:

1. The contraflow lane leaves much less road room for cars and bikes going south, cyclists going South with traffic will have less room, if they ride where the sharrows indicate they will be directly in front of cars that will not be able to easily pass them without going into the contraflow lane.

2. The contraflow lane is beside parked cars. The BICE study ranks the safety of various shared use models on a risk scale. The ratings for areas with parked cars and no bike infrastructure are very similar to those with bike lanes and parked cars. It’s the parked cars that make it dangerous, no matter what bike infrastructure you use. It is always preferable to separate cyclists from parked cars where possible, to eliminate an accident vector.

3. At intersections, cars traveling West cannot see cyclists approaching from the South due to parked cars on the East side of the street.

From Bloor South to Dundas parking is on the West side of the street with the contraflow lane on the East side, so they avoid these issues.

I’m ignoring the set up South of Dundas and North of Dupont as one has dual lanes on either side and the other has no lanes at all. So my areas of interest are from Dupont to Bloor and from Bloor to Dundas.

I think the set up from Bloor to Dupont is less than optimal, and I wonder if it could have been done differently.

So I posted a question about this arrangement on IBikeTO, and Herb (the site’s main blogger) responded with a link to the proposal for the contraflow lane so I could see their rationale for setting things up this way.

Here’s what I found.  

 “This report recommends a combination of bikeway types (traditional bicycle lanes, contra-flow bicycle lanes and sharrows and signage) to provide a continuous, connected bikeway along the entire length of on Shaw Street.”

That is the target.

The report argues that,

“Between Dundas Street West and Bloor Street West, from May to October parking is located on the west side from the 1st to 15th of each month and switches to the east side from the 16thto the end of the month. From November to April, parking is located on the east side at all times. To accommodate the northbound bicycle lane on the east side staff are recommending that the alternate side parking regulations be rescinded and replaced with parking at all times on the west side of the street. The northbound bicycle lane would be located on the east side adjacent to the curb”

So first things first, before the contraflow lane, cars on Shaw from Dundas to Bloor parked on the east side of the street for half the year, and then for half the month of all remaining months. Thus the majority of the year cars parked on the East side of the street.

Switching the parking permanently to the West side is thus a significant change from the status quo.

Furthermore, the report notes that there is one stretch of the street, along Fred Hamilton Park, where parking is restricted, on the West side of Shaw. Before the installation of the contraflow lane, from the 1st to the 15th of those months you lost parking spots on Shaw in front of the Park on the West side. So the existing parking restrictions resulted in, “…24 fewer parking spots available for residents to park between the 1st and 15th of each month from May to October.”

After the lane installation, where parking is permanently transferred to the West side, there will be 24 fewer parking spaces all year round, rather than just between the 1st and 15th of the month for half the year.

So despite the fact that placement decisions are often made to appease parking, in this case the decision will negatively impact parking to a greater degree South of Bloor. I can’t say this with finality, as I don’t know if all West parking would ultimately deliver more parking than all East, despite the losses in front of Fred Hamilton Park, but what I can say for sure is that switching to all West will increase the impact of the parking loss along the park.

The decision to leave parking on the East side of the street North of Bloor and South of Dupont, despite this leading to a contraflow lane right beside parked cars, is stated in the report:

“Moving parking to the west side would allow the northbound bicycle lane to be located adjacent to the east curb consistent with proposed design south of Bloor Street West. However, there are substantially more driveways on the west side of the street and, as a result, relocating the parking to the west side would eliminate approximately 43 parking spaces. Maintaining the parking on the east side would preserve all of the existing parking supply.”

So here we may have a rationale for the decision, having the lane on the East side both North and South of Bloor means that you only lose 24 parking spaces all year round, rather than 43 parking spaces all year round.

However, this leaves out an obvious possibility: have parking on the East side of Shaw all the way between Dupont and Dundas, and keep the contraflow lane on the West side all the way up.

The parking South of Bloor was on the East for the majority of the year before this lane was added anyway, so this does not represent a major change. As far as I know no one in the neighbourhood was clamoring for the switch before the lane was proposed, so I’m not clear on why it is such a concern to simply assign all parking to the East side of Shaw all the way up.

This would have cyclists away from parked cars for the whole route from Dundas to Bloor, and it would mean that you don’t lose the 24 spaces all year round near Fred Hamilton Park, indeed you would gain back 24 spaces you were losing for half the month six months of the year under the old arrangements, and you would lose nothing North of Bloor as the parking would stay the same.

But the biggest safety bonus would be at corners like Essex and Barton and Yarmouth, where visibility issues will be lessened by the placement of the bike lane on the West side.

This seems good for everyone, you gain back some parking South of Bloor, and you don’t lose any North of Bloor, and cyclists get a separated contraflow lane away from parked cars and with great visibility at intersections.

I guess the real question would be this. I am concerned about parked cars and visibility for cyclist safety. But maybe I’m worrying too much. I cycle by parked cars all the time, it can be done. Are there examples of contraflow lanes beside parked cars in Toronto?

The report provides one, there is a contraflow lane on Strathcona from Pape to Blake street, and that it has been in use without significant incident for 10 years. This suggests that my concerns might be exaggerated.

However, if you look at the Strathcona lane there are some important differences.

First, the Strathcona lane is about 1/5 the length of the Shaw street lane from Dupont to Bloor.

Second, the Strathcona lane has no intersections between Pape and Blake, the strip from Dupont to Bloor has 14 intersections between Dupont and Bloor, and 3 of these (Yarmouth, Essex and Barton) admit Westbound traffic and thus will have visibility issues that the Strathcona strip will not have.

I’m happy to have a contraflow lane on Shaw, many, many cyclists rode contraflow there anyway, and a painted lane makes it “official”. I’m also happy that the city is adding to our cycling infrastructure, that’s always a good thing. I’m just not convinced that this was the best way to do it.



Saturday, 23 November 2013

Road Hazards

I couldn’t make an exhaustive list of road hazards if I tried, there are too many. Not only that, but road hazards vary by geography, weather, road architecture, etc.

Still, I can make a list of the most common problems I have encountered on the road, and I suspect they will resonate with most urban riders. They are in no particular order.

1. Waiting to go straight through an intersection from the bike lane or curbside when there is a right turner beside you.

The primary issue is the driver thinking he or she is fast enough to “jump” you, e.g. turn in front of you in defiance of traffic law. My solution is to communicate my desire to ride straight through to the driver and get his or her assent.

Another common situation is the driver at the intersection in the right turn lane and you are in the straight through lane just to the left of it. On more than one occasion the driver in the right turn lane has made a last minute decision to go straight, and since it is hard to see their right turn signal when you are to the left of them, you may not know they have changed their minds. And anyway, as they are not supposed to go straight from the right lane, and most drivers don’t bother to signal when they are in a right turn lane, why would you even bother to check for a signal? When I have been in this situation and I’m not confident the driver will be making a right turn as they should I wave at the driver, point at them and point to the right, they generally nod to let me know what they are doing, or in certain cases turn on their signals. How do you know if a driver has changed his mind about the turn? You don’t, but I generally check the driver to see where they are looking when they are in the intersection. If they aren’t looking right then there’s a chance they may not be turning.

2. Waiting to make a left turn across traffic at an intersection with lights.

To make a left turn you have to be in the left hand lane, on the right hand side of it. So your first step is to switch lanes from the right lane, this involves shoulder checking before committing to the change and doing so between cars. Riding on the right hand side of the left lane is a position many cyclists find a bit unnerving, as they have fast moving traffic on both sides of them for a change. Nonetheless stay in the left lane and eventually you will come to the intersection. Stay on the right hand side of the left lane and indicate your left turn. If you don’t have an advanced green you move to the middle of the intersection like a car would and wait to make the turn in sequence. If you do have an advanced green then you cycle straight forward. Why not make a left turn right away? Well, there are cars that are going to want to make the tight left turn, so it is safest to cycle straight ahead (motorists will be turning away from you when you do this) then make a turn of 90 degrees further ahead, completing your left turn. I call this a “box corner” turn and it works very well to keep the cars and I separate on turns.

The chief challenges of this maneuver are getting into the left turn lane in the first place, which involves lane changes in fast traffic, and once you are there tolerating the presence of fast traffic on either side of you for a change. The actual turn itself is comparatively safe as you are never in the path of the left turning cars or the right turning cars.

3. Car approaching from behind with right turn light on.

The main idea here is that right turners want around you but may not want to wait for you to clear their intersection. If so, they may make a last minute decision to pass you and cut you off (bad) or ride your back wheel (bad). In the first case I recommended slowing down a bit when they pass you to ensure proper stopping distance. In the second case I recommended exiting the road if the driver was too aggressive and too close.

4. Traffic Exiting to Highway

If you are on a major artery that crosses a highway there will generally be an exit lane for highway traffic and one or two through lanes. The concern here is that traffic often has to “squeeze” to get into the exit lane (due to congestion) and traffic will often be speeding up to get to traffic speed. This is a bad combination for cyclists. Everyone involved should realize that a bike will not be going on the highway, so motorists should expect you to be in the straight through lane. So you have two choices. Either you ride at the right hand side of the middle or right straight through lane, or you dismount and ride on the sidewalk with pedestrians. The latter option is perfectly safe if you respect the pedestrian traffic.

The former option is also workable, but it is a bit intimidating for new cyclists. When you move forward in this situation you will have two lines of fast moving traffic, one on either side of you. I do this maneuver regularly on my way home down Keele and there are certain days when I decide against it as I’m not in the headspace to be between two lines of fast moving traffic. However, the method works just fine, and once you have lost your highway drivers to the exit things return to normal. There will be motorists who want to switch from the straight through lane to the exit, and they may be conflicted about whether to do it behind you or in front of you. I have been cut off on more than one occasion by someone who wants to switch to the exit lane at the last minute. The key here is to maintain your line and stay where you are supposed to be, the right hand side of the straight through lane, traffic will just go around you.

5. Four Way Stops

The general principle is to slow down, determine if you can see and hear well enough to assess the traffic situation, and move forward when the way is clear. If there is a line of traffic at the sign wait your turn in the traffic sequence and proceed when you have right of way. If you arrive to an intersection at the same time as a car in your lane, and you are both going forward, you can leave when they leave, using the car as “cover” against oncoming traffic.

6. Door Prizes

When you are cycling to the right of the curb and parked cars (whether in a bike lane or not) someone in a parked car can open a door suddenly and you can smash into it, going through or over the window, and potentially breaking your neck. There are a few options to reduce your risk in a situation like this. First, you can look at the driver’s side seat to determine if anyone is in the car. You can have false negatives (someone short was there and you didn’t see them), but you don’t get many false positives. When I see someone in the seat I slow down a bit in case they decide to leave suddenly. More generally I suggest slowing down whenever passing parked cars, and drive out as far from the cars as possible. In a bike lane area ride on the far left of the bike lane to stay as far away from doors as possible. Some cyclists ring their bells when they pass parked cars, this is a good idea but you can’t rely on it, as many drivers don’t hear you until they are already out of the car.

7. Driver in the traffic lane to the left of you slows down in front of you.

If a driver is in the left lane ahead of you (going in your direction) and they slow down while there is steady traffic in the right lane but no obvious left turn, there is a good chance they are planning switching to your lane, whether they signal it or not. Watch this kind of driver, as they will frequently feel they have time to switch to the lane in front of you when they are actually too close. You are safe if you are riding with the traffic, as the driver will not likely switch back into the lane when there is traffic there. For the most part cars underestimate how fast bikes can go.

8. Being last in the line of traffic.

Because bikes are slower than cars they are generally overtaken by them. The pack of cars passes you by, and when the last car passes a gap opens up between you. When you approach an intersection the distance between you and the last car matters a great deal. People waiting at four way stop intersections will often see the last car go through, not see you as you are too far back, check in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic, then go into the intersection without checking for you as they saw the “last” car go by already.
Anyone who has cycled in the city can probably tell of a time when they rode towards an intersection and watched as a car waiting to turn across their path decided to go as there appeared to be a lot of time left, but for longer vehicles (e.g trailer trucks) there can be close calls. When I approach a four way stop like this I slow down, stand up in my saddle to be seen, and if there is a car waiting at the intersection I ensure they have seen me (by making eye contact with the driver) before committing to the intersection. Ultimately, if a car is waiting at an intersection as you approach you can’t know if they are waiting for you or not. In my one and only cycling accident, many years before I regularly commuted, I was hit by a car which had been “waiting” at the intersection for quite some time after the last car went through. I assumed it was waiting for me, and didn’t bother making eye contact with the driver. But in actuality the driver was on the phone and had stopped there to talk. The driver looked at the last car going through, checked in the other direction and rolled out when it was clear. I wasn’t noticed at all.

One of the things I realized after this experience was that speed was a factor, if I had been going more slowly (as I now would in a situation like this) then the car would have had more of a chance to see me. I would also have had more time to make eye contact with the driver.

9. Rejoining the traffic flow.

Getting back into traffic requires extra vigilance. According to Forester, 23% of urban car-bike collisions happen on reentering roadways. The watchword here is to either reenter at an intersection or reenter from the side of the road, but to only do so when there is no traffic in the lane you wish to enter. Riding the sidewalk at full speed then exiting on to the regular road (whether from the side or when crossing an intersection in the pedestrian walkway) is both highly illegal and very risky. I only reenter on to the road when it is empty, that way I can ensure that I do not cause any problems for the existing traffic flow.
On a related note, you are generally expected to dismount your bike and walk it across a pedestrian crosswalk. I have never seen someone ticketed for riding slowly on a mostly deserted sidewalk, I have seen cyclists ticketed for cycling quickly across a pedestrian crosswalk while in use by pedestrians. If I wait with the pedestrians to cross I generally ride just outside of the crosswalk so I can move as fast as I want to.

10.  Risks associated with different varieties of vehicle.

I have no official statistics on this, but many years of riding experience has made me amply aware of which vehicles tend to present me with the greatest threat on the road. In rough order of danger, here is a list of vehicle types I have encountered on the road
1. Large-commercial and non-commercial vehicles without specially trained drivers
2. Transit vehicles (buses)
3. Taxis
4. Small regular cars
5. Large regular cars
6. Large commercial vehicles with specialized drivers
7. High-Performance cars

I have had the most problems with people driving larger sized vehicles, commercial or otherwise (e.g. cube vans) who were not properly trained for those vehicles. For example, people driving moving vans; people who were not formally trained to drive these vehicles and don’t normally drive them. Larger vehicles such as mini-vans have also proven a problem, as many of their drivers are not used to their size either. Transit vehicles are a mixed bag, but for the most part I find that bus drivers are not good to cyclists, they have a tendency to either come up right behind me or to squeeze me out as they close to the curb. Taxis are a mixed bag too, but to be honest I have had more problems than not with taxis. I suspect this is due to the fact that many new taxi drivers take the job out of necessity, and may not have the driving skills.

Most truck drivers (e.g. pickup trucks) tend to be fairly competent, and trained and licensed drivers of commercial vehicles like big rigs tend to be the best drivers of all, as they have been trained to drive well and they risk losing their licence and their livelihood if they have a collision. This is one of the reasons why I advocate for using commercial and service roads to ensure safer cycling, they tend to be thinly populated and truck drivers are fairly good to you. High performance car drivers (e.g. sportscar drivers) for the most part are good at controlling their vehicles and desperately concerned not to get them dented or scratched, so they tend to be good to me on the road. I have detected no correlations in terms of driving quality and gender or nationality.

For the most part I tend to pay more attention to vehicles (whether they be behind or in front) when they are one of the first 3 on my list. If they are behind me and I’m not comfortable I may exit the road. If they are in front and concerning me I slow down. There is, of course, no absolute rule here, mini-van drivers can be exemplary and regular car drivers can be atrocious. Still, when I see one of the more egregious offenders I give them a wider berth. Case the n point on my regular commute there is an intersection (at St. Clair and Oakwood) where the section of Oakwood North of St. Clair is “offset” from the section South of St. Clair. The southbound portion of the road is further West, so when I am driving South on Oakwood approaching St. Clair the traffic beside me has to turn a bit to the right (West) to get over to Oakwood South of St. Clair. On a consistent basis vehicles in the first three categories misjudge the distance between the curb and their vehicles when they turn slightly to the right, squeezing me out. Now when I am approaching the intersection I check my mirror and if any of the worst offenders are nearby I slow down a bit so I’m not at the corner when one of those vehicles directly passes.

11. Cyclists disobeying the road rules

I could write a book on this one alone. I’m not talking about the cyclist who forgets to signal, or the one that rides a bit too far out from the curb. These are small sins that are easy to overlook. I’m thinking here of the cyclist who rides the wrong way down a one way street, or the cyclist who weaves in and out of traffic, or the cyclist who crosses an intersection on a red light as they think they can beat the intersecting traffic.

In addition to being at risk for collision with cars rogue cyclists are a risk to all other cyclists on the road. The accident statistics Forester cites bear this observation out, the percentage of collisions between bikes and cars is about the same as that between bikes and bikes. The problem is that it is often easier to determine what cars are doing as they are larger (so there are some places they cannot go, such as the sidewalk) and they have easily activated signals. You can also tell when a car is braking or backing up thanks to automatic lights. Bikes are the worst possible combination of speed, maneuverability, size and opacity of intent (e.g. it is difficult to determine what the cyclist is doing). Cyclists frequently don’t signal, they can go pretty much wherever they want, and they lack automatic lights.

There are basically two situations of interest to you when you are getting close to other cyclists, either you will be passing them or they will be passing you. If you are passing them be sure to remember that you are silent on the road, so unless the cyclists ahead has a mirror and is using it they will likely not know you are coming. Thus if you plan to pass a cyclist up ahead you should ring your bell to let them know. When you start to get closer check your mirror to see if you will be able to pull out to go around them. Some more thoughtful cyclists will pull over to the far right of the road or bike lane to let you by, others will stay in place forcing you to get closer to traffic. In either case, take your time, you can always wait for the traffic to clear to make your pass.

If you are approaching cyclists waiting at an intersection do not attempt to “jump” them or squeeze by to take traffic priority, instead get into the line of bicycles at the end and wait for your turn. On that note I believe it is never a good idea to ride side by side on the roadway, bike lane or not, unless it is utterly devoid of motor-vehicle traffic. There is a temptation to “ride beside” fellow cyclists, but it significantly increases your “traffic footprint”, or conversely it shrinks your effective pocket on the side of the road as you are sharing it with another bike.

If the cyclist is passing you there are a few choices. First off, if you see someone behind you speeding up then you can either put the pedal to the metal and try and stay ahead, or you can let them pass. When I see someone approaching I move slightly to the right (to let them know I have heard their bell or seen them coming) and I slow down a touch, to get them past me faster. If someone is riding fast and then settles in behind me I will generally “wave them” on, letting them know I would prefer if they went ahead.

The watchword here is similar to that on the bike path or trail, when you are passing someone you have to make yourself known as you can’t be sure you have been seen or heard. In addition, if someone wants to pass you, make space as much as possible. In principle a fast moving bike is no different than a fast moving car, make space for it as you would for an automobile, and hopefully they will extend you the same courtesy.

Outside of these specific examples of potentially dangerous situations, I have two other general observations that will help you to drive safer. First drivers frequently misjudge the speed of approaching cyclists, in both directions (e.g. sometimes they think you are faster than you are, sometimes slower). There is of course no systematic way to compensate for this, but t I do have a few observations to make. First, if a motorist thinks you are faster than you actually are, they may change their minds about waiting for you to clear an intersection before making a turn. I have had this happen dozens of times, I approach an intersection without any cars behind me, and there is a vehicle waiting to make a left turn across my lane. They wait as I approach, and then when I am quite close to the intersection they decide to make the turn as they thought I was faster than I actually was. 

The only suggestion I have here is to slow down slightly as you get closer to the intersection so, if need be, you can make a sharp right turn if the vehicle starts up at the last minute. This is not without risk of course, you could go over if you are riding too fast, or you could overshoot the turn and hit a car waiting to make a right at the intersection. Still, anything is preferable to a head on collision with an approaching vehicle.  The other suggestion is to make eye contact with the driver waiting to make the left, when I do this they will frequently wave me through.

The other general point I wanted to reiterate is that, for the most part, drivers do not look at sidewalks as they drive. They rely on their peripheral vision with respect to sidewalks as that is usually sufficient to spot any pedestrians who might want to get on to the road. What this means is that they will not necessarily notice a bike if they make a right turn on to the sidewalk, especially as bikes can come up rather suddenly as the driver slows down before making the turn. And as mentioned before, they will not be expecting you to hop off the sidewalk back into moving traffic. Thus the best thing to do when encountering a right turner or when riding the sidewalk while there is traffic beside you on the road is to moderate your speed and watch approaching traffic in your mirror to spot potential turners.



Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Looks like they will not be installing a contra-flow bike lane on Shaw. I was crossing Shaw this AM and here is what I saw on the pavement:

"Sharrows" indicating where the bikes should be, not a painted lane nor a separated lane. 

 This is Shaw looking South

So as far as I can tell, there is no contra-flow lane planned for Shaw, instead it is sharrows indicating the expected place of cyclists, on the right hand side of the street cycling Southward.

I'm not sure the exact purpose of this. Those who were aware of the traffic rules either cycled there anyway or ignored them, many, many cyclists cycle the wrong way on Shaw. I don't suspect any of them will suddenly realize they should have been going the other way. 

Instead we now have an even more confusing situation for new riders, they have a clearly indicated pavement marking saying that they are to be traveling South. This will be all the more confusing when cyclists pass them going North.

A contra-flow lane would have been FAR safer for cyclists, given the tendency to ride the wrong way on this street.

Oh well...



Thursday, 24 October 2013

Riding in the Cold
For as long as I can remember I would “retire” the bike for the season sometime in mid-November. In my neck of the woods this was the approximate point when the temperature dropped consistently below zero. I didn’t like the idea of riding in the cold, and I figured the road conditions were going to be a challenge (e.g., snow, ice). This was fine for the most part, but I found that the three months or so that I took off from riding would make the spring riding season a challenge. All of the progress I had made from a fitness perspective would drain away over the winter (and as the holiday season occurred in the middle of all of this my eating habits weren’t doing me any favors either). 

After two seasons of spring/summer/fall commuting I decided I wanted to try to ride in the winter. I have a whole host of suggestions as to how to go about doing so safely, but the first observation worth making here is that I discovered that the cold wasn’t really the problem; instead it was whether or not it was wet. Wet conditions in the cold can lead to ice and snow, and snow can also “hide” ice underneath. Ice is obviously a concern as it is slippery, snow can be slippery as well, particularly if it is loose. When snow is soft and thick it can be a problem as your tires “sink” into the snow and this can slow you to the point where it is not worth riding at all. Additionally, falling snow can impact visibility for you and other drivers, another safety concern. About the only snow I like for riding is hard packed “dry” snow, and even this can be slippery.

Knowing all of this it would seem that cold weather riding is not a good idea, particularly if you live in a part of the world where it snows a lot during the winter. However, what I discovered was that the colder seasons, just like the warmer ones, have wet and dry “stretches”. And when the road was dry (no snow, no ice), cold weather riding was just as safe as warm weather riding. Yes, you have to bundle up for the cold, and I will discuss that in more detail, but by riding on dry days (or more specifically on days when the roads were dry) I was able to ride 3-4 days a week all through the cold days of late fall, winter and early spring. This was only slightly less often than I rode in late spring, summer and early fall, and I must admit I was a bit surprised. 

My “rule” for riding in cold weather was fairly simple; if the roads were dry I took the bike. If the roads were snow or ice covered, I did not. This did the trick; dry roads in cold weather are more or less identical to dry roads in warm weather from a safety perspective. There are only two significant differences that I am aware of between hot and cold riding on this point. First, really hot roads can have “gummy” portions of newer asphalt that stick to your tires, not so much a safety concern but it can be an annoyance. Second, really cold weather makes the rubber tires on your bike extremely stiff. I’m not sure if this makes flats more or less likely, but it definitely makes changing a tire almost impossible. I changed a tire once in -12 degree Celsius weather and it was extremely difficult. The tire did not want to come off of the rim, and my poor, freezing hands almost gave up.
There are two key priorities when you ride in the cold, retaining your heat and blocking the wind chill. Both of these are manageable, but you do need to spend some time putting together a winter clothing “kit” and learning how to dress for the colder weather. Essentially you want to “layer and block”, layering allows you to trap air both in the clothing and between the layers. Trapped air is warmed by your body heat (you generate excess heat while you ride) and keeps you warm in return. Blocking the wind keeps the cold air from cooling off the trapped air in your clothing, and from cooling your body directly. The key here is to ensure that you don’t lose heat at the periphery (e.g. in the space between your gloves and your sleeves) by overlapping layers of clothing. 

When done properly, cold weather riding can be done in complete comfort, I have cycled in weather as cold as – 25 degrees Celsius and been perfectly warm. Ironically, the real issue becomes overheating while riding in the cold. If you layer up properly you will find that in short order you start sweating under your clothing, and then when you stop moving for an extended period of time (e.g. at a long intersection light) you will find yourself getting very cold very fast. Thus there is a third key priority when riding in the cold, removing excess heat. That is why layering is so important, peeling off layers allows you to cool off and maintain a reasonable body temperature, something I do regularly while riding in the cold. 

The best way to explain this is to outline my full cold weather kit and then show how I use it during the coldest weather. First things first, as most of us know your extremities get cold first. Distance from the heart (the source of circulation of the blood) is the key factor. What that means is that by lower body tends to get colder than my upper body, and I tend to wear more layers on my lower body than my upper body as a result. This also explains why it is so important to wear a hat, a hat traps the heat as it is radiating from your body. I find that removing my hat in the cold can make a significant difference to my body heat.

I’ll start from the top and work to the bottom. Any hat you wear must be somewhat thin, as you need to put a helmet on top. What you want is a “skullcap” toque that fits tight to your head. If you have difficulty locating a hat that meets your needs, or if you can only find expensive specialty caps for winter use I suggest looking a children’s winter toques, they are smaller but designed to be just as warm, and aren’t as expensive. In particularly cold weather you can supplement this headgear with a headband. The headband will keep your ears completely covered as toques can “ride up” while you are on the bike leaving your ears and forehead exposed. Protecting your ears is important as cold air blowing in your ears can cause painful earaches. An exposed forehead encountering cold wind can lead to powerful headaches. I had both of these experiences before I figured out my kit.

The next issue is your neck. A scarf is handy as it is long and can be pulled up over the face easily if the wind gets too strong. I have also used a “neck tube”, essentially a thermal sleeve that fits around your neck. I roll it down for the regular ride, and then when I feel the need to cover my face it can be rolled up to cover up to just under my nose. In extremely cold weather you have the option of wearing a balaclava, a full face mask with only eye, nose and mouth openings. I wear prescription eye glasses so I always have something in front of my eyes, for those who do not a pair of sunglasses is a good idea, as a strong wind on a cold day can make your eyes water extensively. In extremes of cold ski goggles are an option as well.

For my trunk (my upper torso) I start with a regular cycling shirt, something short sleeve and breathable. You want breathable fabric for your undershirt as you want your perspiration to migrate away from your body. On top of that I wear a thin pullover, one I picked up at Mountain Equipment Co-op (an outdoors equipment store) about 15 years ago. Lighter than a sweater and featuring a zipper in the front, this layer helps to trap heat. My final layer on top is a “shell”, a standard issue cycling jacket with a long back end, zippers underneath the arms and down the sides of the jacket, and a zipper in the front. These jackets also feature Velcro at the cuffs so you can “seal” the heat in, and straps at the cuffs to keep the sleeves from creeping back. This combination, a breathable inner layer, a thermal layer to trap heat, and an outside layer to keep the wind from cooling you off, works remarkably well.

For my legs my heaviest “kit” consists of a regular pair of underwear, then two pairs of long underwear, one extra thin and another regular thickness. Then I add a third layer of regular lycra cycling “pants” (essentially just like cycling shorts but with full length legs). Finally I put a pair of cotton sweatpants over the whole collection. The point of course is to layer to retain heat but ensure breathability to allow moisture out. Multiple layers mean more sites for heat to be trapped, and more opportunity for your body to keep you warm. Just like the upper body clothing, the outer layers are a wind break, the inner layers trap heat.
Protection for your hands and feet are the last item on the agenda, and bear special consideration. As I mentioned above, your extremities are the areas of greatest risk when you ride in the cold, with your toes being at the greatest risk and your fingers a close second. If you experience any discomfort when riding in the cold it will be most likely be due to exposed skin on your face or finger and toe coldness.

For my hands I wear a pair of thin leather gloves that are lightly insulated, over top of these I place a pair of special mitts. These mitts have individual finger coverings in them with the top of these coverings cut off so you can use your bare fingers if needed. They also have a mitten top that can be folded over and then they function as a regular mitt. When it is coldest I put the mitten top in place and I am then wearing gloves inside mittens, which keeps my fingers very warm.

It is possible to purchase special footwear for cold weather riding, for my part I have a pair of insulated work boots that do the job. I combine them with layered socks. I have a thick pair of outer socks and a thinner pair of inner socks. So far I have found the combination of two layers of socks and an insulated workboot to be sufficient to keep my toes warm. Still, there were a few extremely cold days (below -25) when I opted for special “heat packs” that you could place in your shoe or glove. These packs work almost too well, but they will keep you warm on the extreme cold days. 

So there you have it, a complete cold weather cycling kit for the whole body. Using this kit I have been able to ride in cold dry weather very successfully. To see how this works take the full kit, assume I am wearing my entire arsenal (except perhaps for the balaclava) and it is very cold. The first point to make is that when you set out you will be cold, as you ride you will generate body heat and if you have layered correctly you will start to warm up. One important skill is to overlap at the edges to make sure heat doesn’t escape and cold doesn’t get in. So you should either tuck your shirt into your gloves or tuck your gloves into your sleeves, tuck your shirt into your pants as well. My inner sock is generally underneath my long underwear but my outer sock goes outside my pants (on that note I don’t generally put an elastic around loose pants that might get caught in my bike chain, I run the sock up out of my boots and tuck the pants into it). By overlapping layers you keep the heat in. Even the smallest sliver of exposed skin can get uncomfortably cold, so you need to be careful about overlapping layers. 

The next important thing to realize is that you can easily overheat during winter riding.  The same clothing that keeps the heat in will quickly lead to you being too hot and sweating while you ride. In this respect hot weather and cold weather riding can be very similar, you can arrive at work soaking wet. The difference is that being wet in the cold weather can be very dangerous. However, winter riding also provides you with the opportunity to cool off while you ride. There are two easy ways to do this, one is to vent and the other is to remove layers.

One of the reasons I recommend clothing that has zippers is that this allows venting of heat while you ride without removing the layer entirely. So assuming I am out with my full kit on a cold day my first step if I’m heating up too much is to undo the zippers on my outer shell. My riding shell has zippers under the arms that go down the side of the shell. When I undo these it allows cold air to rush in and cool off my trunk and my arms. The next step if this doesn’t work is to unzip the main zipper on the front. After this I remove the shell entirely. Each of these steps can cool you off considerably, as the shell is your windbreaker, if you remove that layer the wind will quickly cool you off. 

Most days when I ride in the cold I start venting and shedding layers within the first 15 minutes. After the shell comes off I zip down my thermal pullover, I find that venting on the top layer works best as my upper body is warmer. I rarely remove lower layers as I find my lower extremities to be the coldest. The goal is to ensure that your body is cool and comfortable while riding and you arrive dry at work. For the most part I tend to overdress for the weather, knowing I can vent and remove layers. Finally, it is also worth noting that the wind chill in the cold weather is, for the most part, more important than the actual temperature. I can ride at much lower temperatures when there is no wind chill. Put in a slightly different way, wind on a warm day is pleasant, wind on a cold day can literally be painful, so I make my riding decisions appropriately.

Two other issues make cold weather riding different. The first is that wet and cold conditions lead to a sort of sludge of ice, dirt and snow that comes to populate the “gutter” right beside the curb, sometimes it can also pool in the road. Depending on how much of it is there, you will end up riding further left of the curb than you would in dry conditions, riding through is both dangerous and slow. This makes some drivers nervous, and some cyclists too, but it can’t be avoided riding on certain winter roads. Also, bike trails in parks and along waterfronts can be closed in winter months. In addition, you may be constrained to main arteries in the winter, as secondary roads with less traffic tend to stay wet and covered with snow and ice longer. For the regular winter commuter main arteries, particularly wider ones will be your best bet. So winter riding is for those more tolerant of regular road traffic. 

The second issue is damage to the bike itself. The noxious mix of dirt, road salt, snow, water etc. that coats your wheels and eventually your chain in the winter can quickly lead to breakdown of your components. The first winter season I rode through my rear derailleur froze up completely. That was my own fault as I hadn’t been cleaning it regularly. Even two or three rides into wet winter weather you start noticing the signs of trouble, for example, this season my chain started “catching” as I pedaled backwards after my first two rides in mildly wet winter weather. It only gets worse after that. The only real solution is to purchase a bike with an enclosed gear and chain system or to clean the bike regularly. The problem is cleaning frequency, a quick wipe of the chain won’t do the job in the long run as the salt and dirt gets into all of your gear mechanisms. So you should really be disassembling your rear derailleur and cleaning all of the components. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to do if you are systematic about it, but you would have to do it so often during the regular season that it is almost prohibitive. My personal solution is to only ride on dry days. You will still pick up more dirt than in the summer, but it is much less significant than what you pick up when the roads are wet.

When the seasons start to change I will go from lighter clothing to heavier clothing, adding layers as I go. My footwear changes over the seasons, I cycle in the summer with bare feet in sandals or vented cycling shoes. As the fall starts I add socks to the sandals and shoes, as it gets colder I wear socks and a leather shoe without ventilation. Then I move to double socks, then to workboots, then layered socks in the workboots. There is a similar progression for leggings, starting with shorts, then full length lycra cycling pants, then cotton pants on top, then the long underwear layers. For the hands it is cycling gloves, leather gloves, cycling mitts then leather gloves plus cycling mitts. For the head I start with no covering, then headband, then winter cap, etc.

By combining these elements you can be comfortable in all varieties of weather. Keep in mind that wind matters most in the colder weather, and I should also note here that it is possible to buy specialty cold riding clothing (for example thermal pants or shoes). For the most part I have never tried this sort of gear, I’m sure it works well enough. However, I tend to try to use cheaper substitutes where possible, as a matter of fact most of the clothing I use for cold weather riding was cobbled together out of things I already had for other reasons (e.g. winter camping). The only specialty winter gear I have purchased for cycling is my dual function mitts. For the most part though, cheaper alternatives are always available. A light cotton shirt is fairly breathable, and can substitute for a cycling shirt. What is less substitutable is design options like zippers. A standard cotton t-shirt would not have a zipper. Still, you can always improvise, as I pointed out a children’s winter cap can work well but not be unduly expensive.

Just for the record, the only cycling clothing I have purchased over the years has been a few cycling shirts (with pouches on the back and a zipper in the front), cycling shoes, gloves, a thermal pullover (with zipper) and an outer “shell” (with side zippers, a front zipper, sleeve loops and Velcro “seals” at the cuff). All of these items were purchased about 15 years ago and I’m still using them today (with the exception of the gloves, a pair normally lasts me about two seasons). In each case the item functions particularly well for its purpose, and since it has lasted me a long time it was definitely worth the cost.



Tuesday, 15 October 2013

No big theme today, just some miscellaneous observations from the last few months on the road. I thought I would do a cheers and jeers, just for fun.


1. To the City of Toronto road works guys and gals for being diligent about what they do. First off, they are plugging holes in the road that make my life difficult. A particularly deep hole around a sewer grate just North of Wilson on Keele (my regular commute route) was filled in recently, and has made my ride significantly safer. Many cyclists trumpet new cycling infrastructure, but I’m just as happy when a regular route is paved and holes are fixed. Bumpy roads with holes force me out into traffic, always a bad thing (you should control when you enter traffic, not the road), so maintenance and repair are key.

2. And again to the City of Toronto road works guys and gals for being decent about what they do. Here I have in mind things like where you put your traffic cones around road work. If you locate them past the lane boundary line and into the next lane over this squeezes the cars and forces me to have my ass hanging out into traffic. If they place the cones just outside of the dividing line (inside the lane where construction is done) that gives me a de-facto bike lane, and makes things considerably safer. The crew working the road improvements from Lawrence and Keelt to the South side of the 401 did a great job, leaving me enough room. In addition, they created a space between the lanes going straight North and branching off to enter the 401 that I can use to negotiate the transition as cars pull off to the on ramp.

3. Several weeks ago going North on Keele I had a truck come up beside me that had a rake sticking out of the back and coming dangerously close to my head as the truck went by. It ends up it was a City of Toronto Parks vehicle, and it had various pieces of gardening equipment in the back. Things had pretty clearly shifted while they drove. I caught up to the truck at a light further up and I cycled up to the passenger side window, got the attention of one of the two men inside, and mentioned the rake to them. One of them saw it, jumped out and fixed the problem, and apologized to me. I cycled up ahead and as it happens found myself at an intersection further up when the truck pulled up again beside me. This time the passenger spoke up and thanked me for waiting for the red light, as he had seen so many cyclists blow through them. The longer I ride the more I come to value interactions like this. Not angry confrontations or challenges, but respectful exchanges between road users that improve safety and accentuate the positive.

4. They are installing a contra-flow bike lane on Shaw. Finally. For years Toronto cyclists have been cycling the wrong way on Shaw, and thanks to parking rules (cars are parked on the East side of the street) when you come to Shaw from a side street going West you cannot see the bikes coming from the South. They are practically invisible. Combined with the sheer volume of cycle traffic going the wrong way this made Shaw a dangerous road for motorists and cyclists. I am firmly against cycling the wrong way on a one way street. But adding a contra-flow bike lane will legitimate what is being done, and highlight where cyclists are supposed to be, which is good for cyclists and good for motorists. Good job!

1. I am often asked for soundbite advice I could give to drivers to improve the safety of cyclists. My #1 piece of advice is this: signal! For the most part my goal on the road is to get out of the way of the motorists to let them pass me. I don’t want to have someone stuck behind my slow moving vehicle and “riding” my back wheel. There is nothing more disconcerting than a car driving very close to your rear wheel. So I really like it when cars signal in advance so I can see what they are doing and react appropriately. What I find particularly irritating is cars that pull up to a red light and wait there with no signal on. Then when the light changes to green they put on their right hand turn signal and make a turn. It’s so frustrating, they save the turn indication to the last possible second, even though they have been “parked” at the red light for a good amount of time. If you signal when you are behind me I can switch lanes to let you by. If you want to make a right turn up ahead of me and you put on your signal I will generally switch to the left lane and wave you through. If you have your signal on at an intersection I will go around you to the left and let you make the right turn without complications.

Signal, it’s the law, and it helps me immensely.

2. Don’t wait for me. I can’t tell you the number of times I have approached an intersection, arrived well after someone coming in the opposite direction, so they very clearly have the right of way. They often have their left turn signal on so they will be crossing my path. However, as soon as they see me coming they stop and won’t do anything until I go forward, even though they have right of way. I think many drivers have been burned so many times by cyclists blowing red lights that they just want to let them through before going further. However, when they do this, I never know what to do, as sometimes they will change their minds and decide to go ahead with the turn anyway. Once they deviate from traffic rules everything is tossed up in the air.

Obey the law, drive when and where you are supposed to, don’t prejudge my actions as a cyclist based on what others have done.

3. Don’t honk unless you are about to hit me. Motorists love to honk at cyclists, to “let us know” they are there. That’s a decent sentiment, but motorists don’t “hear” car horns the same way cyclists do. When I hear a car horn when I’m on a bike I don’t hear, “Hey, I’m coming, stay where you are”, I hear “YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE! MOVE!”.  A car horn at close proximity doesn’t produce as much of a reaction as it used to, but it still makes me jump in the saddle and immediately look around to see if I’m about to be run over. If you are insistent on honking to let me know you are around please do so when you are NOT close to me. A distant honk will make me check my mirrors or shoulder check to get a bead on where you are, without making me jump out of my saddle.

4. Observe basic cycling etiquette, and wait for room to pass on bike paths. When I’m riding downtown (say on the Harbord bike lane, or on College), faster moving bikes constantly pass me. I have no problem with that, and I ride to the right of the path to ensure that there is as much room to pass me as possible. However, parked cars also  push me out to the far side of the path sometimes, as I want to avoid the possibility of a door prize. But even when I’m to the far right of the path, I have been crowded out and forced even further aside by faster cyclists hogging the path. Use some common sense, if you are blowing up the bike path super fast and see riders ahead of you, ring your bell so they know you are coming up. As soon as I hear a bell I will check my mirror and my position. Also consider riding in traffic if you want to go that fast. It may not be possible in all cases, but if you want to travel that close to traffic speed (and downtown this is possible) then by all means join the cars. The flip side of this is that tandem riding in busy bike lanes is inconsiderate. If there is heavy bike traffic there will always be those who want to go faster, so tandem riding is just inviting crazy maneuvers like whipping in between two riders on the path rather than going around them.

That’s it for today.



Monday, 7 October 2013

For me, night riding was an area where my expectations kept me from trying something new for many years. My main concerns with night riding were the obvious ones: reduced visibility and the greater potential for impaired drivers on the road. Both were, and are, legitimate concerns, there is more light in the daytime, and as a result you are more visible, and for the most part there are more impaired drivers on the road at night. I wasn’t just concerned that drivers would not see me; I was also concerned that I would not see obstructions in the road (e.g. potholes). I realize that many commuters don’t have a night riding option (they work during the day), but there are some commuters that start so early that they leave in the dark, during the winter sundown can happen before you leave work, and people who work the night shift will likely commute in the dark. Thus night commuters are a non-trivial component of the overall commuting population, in part depending on where you live.

I might never have tried riding at night except for the fact that I was assigned an evening course the second year I was commuting to work. The class was from 7pm to 10pm, so when it let out it was dark. I didn’t mind the late teaching so much, but the 1hr – 1hr 30min commute home at the end of a very long day (I started in the morning at my day job and left for home around 10:15-10:30 pm depending on student questions after class) was extremely unpleasant. For a while I would cycle to work in the morning and leave the bike overnight in my office rather than drive it home at night.

Then, as these things often happen, I just decided one day that I should try a run home at night. I already had the night riding gear, rear red lights for the bike and for me, a front light, reflectors all over the bike, and a riding jacket with reflective stripes. Much to my surprise, since that original trip I now look for any excuse I can find to ride at night, I not only enjoy it, in many cases I prefer it to riding during the day, for a host of reasons. Still, riding at night it not without its limitations, and if you are to add night riding to your regular commuting ride (or just for recreation) then there are some points worth remembering.

Riding at Night: The Risks
First and foremost, you need to be visible on the road. The basic equipment mentioned beforehand, reflectors on the bike, red rear lights, a regular white forward light and reflector stripes on clothing are sufficient to make you visible to cars approaching from both directions. It is important to have a combination of lights and reflectors, as lights can run out of power at the most inconvenient time, they can also become dislodged from you or the bike (rear red lights can clip on to your jacket and later fall off, I have had this happen to me). There’s no need to light yourself up like a Christmas tree, but erring on the side of excess is probably not a bad idea. I generally use two of each of my front and back lights, one mounted on the bike and one on me. The odds of both front or both rear lights failing are fairly slim. For a while I considered carrying a spare set of AA batteries as a precaution, but I eventually decided that doubling up lights was better, as the cause of failure might not be the batteries themselves. 
This is particularly important if you are concerned with ground conditions and visibility. When I’m worried about obstructions on particularly uneven or poor surfaces, I will point one light forward for cars to see and another light slightly downwards to illuminate the ground in front of me. In principle a bright front light will illuminate the ground, but I prefer a dedicated light as it lights up more and the direct light is stronger than the general illumination of a front facing light. A forward light is one of those items I’m willing to splurge on, mainly due to the fact that if I need it and doesn’t work well driving can be hazardous. Not so much on regular roads, where the general illumination is fairly good, but riding on trails or uneven surfaces requires a strong light. I have the most powerful light I could find as my “illuminate the ground” forward light, there’s no point getting something weak. I have used it in a variety of conditions and find it works exceptionally well.

Most lights (front and rear) now have a number of different settings, continuous light, flashing, rolling, etc. I’m not convinced that it matters that much which you use. If you are illuminating the riding surface you want a continuous light, some people prefer the flashing light to get the attention of motorists, but I have seen no evidence that flashing lights are more effective. My intuition is that flashing lights are better as they create a contrast with the dark background. If you are riding in a straight line for a long period of time a continuous light can “blend” into the background to a degree, a flashing light always stands out. Still, this is only an intuition, and I am sure that a regular continuous light would be fine.

One new concern that I have noted lately is motion sensitive lighting. I have been cycling before at night and found that lights would spontaneously switch off. At first I assumed that it was an accident, or that they were on a timed cycle, but as I watched the pattern it appears that they are shutting off in certain places when there is no car traffic. As they don't all shut off at once it isn't that big a concern, but it is worth noting as it can be disconcerting.

Another concern associated with night riding is that it limits your ability to use bike trails. Bike trails through public parks are frequently poorly lit, making night riding a bit more of a challenge. Bike trails also wind back and forth a bit more, which is an issue if you are relying on your light to illuminate them, as your light points in a fixed direction (usually straight forward). Thus when you turn it takes a moment for the light to “catch up” to the path surface ahead of you. On a straight main road this is not an issue. In addition to this, as public parks are one of the few areas today you can move around without direct public surveillance (e.g cameras, police) and they tend to be sparsely populated at night, there are safety issues to be considered. Getting a flat in the middle of a deserted, dark public park might not be pleasant. For the most part I avoid bike trails at night as a result. 

Impaired drivers are another increased risk at night. Of course people can be impaired while driving during the day as well, so the risk is not exclusively a night issue; still it is likely you will encounter more impaired driving at night. On the one hand there is little you can do about impaired drivers; if someone swerves into you chances are there will be little warning. However, I have two recommendations on this subject that can add to your safety. First, check your mirrors regularly while you ride at night. This increases the odds you will spot an erratic driver. It is of course no guarantee; drunk drivers don’t always announce their impending traffic failure with extensive weaving around the road beforehand. Still, if you spot a car behaving strangely in the rear view then you can always pull off the road until they are past you. Forester, who recommends cycling without a mirror and only shoulder checking before lane changes would rob himself of an opportunity to increase the safety of his ride as a result. My second suggestion is to keep an eye on the time. For example, in my neck of the woods bars close around 1 am, being on the road around that time thus carries greater risks. This rule applies to the space you ride through as well, a bit of extra caution when you pass the pub is probably a good idea.

The only other significant safety issue that I have experienced on the road at night is based on a speculation on my part (e.g. I’m not sure if it is the case, but it appears to be). Specifically, motorists are less likely to expect cyclists on the road at night. During regular commuting hours motorists in major urban centres have come to expect a number of bicycles on the road. They may not like it much, but the expectation of bikes is good for cyclists as motorists are more likely to accommodate you. At night motorists are not looking for cyclists (at least those who would be likely to do so during the day) and this makes it all the more imperative that you follow the traffic rules, cycle where you are supposed to on the road and make sure you are well illuminated.

Riding at Night: The Rewards
In my experience night riding has a number of surprising advantages. Indeed, I would go almost as far as to argue that night riding can actually be safer than much daytime riding, for a few reasons. First, visibility is nowhere near as much of an issue as it might seem at first. Yes, it is dark at night, but on main roads and even on most secondary roads there is ample lighting. For example, I have never had to use my front light to illuminate the road when riding at night. Take a look at one of those shots of the Earth from space at night, we tend to over-illuminate our cities, indeed, light pollution has become a public health concern for some. As a result I find that on most of the roads I ride on visibility is not an issue for motorists or for myself. 

In addition, as it is fairly easy for motorists to see me given the standard amount of ambient light on most streets, I view my lights as necessary mainly as motorists aren’t expecting me to be cycling on the road at night (just like they don’t expect me on the road in the dead of winter), not as they can’t see me. Lights and reflectors on your bike thus highlight your presence by creating a bright, moving object in the field of vision of the drivers on the road. Visibility at night is generally more than sufficient if you are in an urban centre. If you don’t believe me just try cycling on an unlit bike path through a park, you’ll notice the difference immediately. The flip side of the coin here is that extremely bright conditions can be bad for you as a cyclist as motorists can become unexpectedly blinded when changing directions into, for example, the setting sun low in the sky. Visibility is the issue, too much light is bad, too little is bad. For those considering night riding, the lack of natural light is a very minor safety issue.

The other interesting advantage to night riding is the comparative lack of traffic. Of course roads can be busy at night, and certain routes (e.g. roads around major night venues like bars) might even be more busy at night, but for the most part night time roads tend to be much less traffic intensive. I have used my regular commuting route during the day and at night and the difference is palpable. Secondary roads (as opposed to main arteries) can be completely free of traffic at night, significantly improving your riding safety. After my first few outings on the bike at night I came to long for the empty roads that night riding provides. It is a fairly surreal experience to ride on a route that is teeming with traffic during the day and all but empty at night.
For me the lower traffic volume more than compensates for any perceived safety concern associated with lack of ambient light. Indeed, since I feel that the ambient illumination provided by standard street lights in most urban centres is more than sufficient, the combination of acceptable visibility and lower traffic volume makes night riding a particularly safe and pleasant experience.

There are some other small subsidiary benefits to night riding that are worth mentioning. In the summer when the heat is particularly oppressive night riding is far more cool and comfortable. As you are moving and creating your own breeze as you ride, there is very little that is more refreshing than a night time bike ride during a particularly hot summer. I have also found that “short cuts” are more viable in the evening, as parking lots, sidewalks, etc.are much more likely to be empty. Finally, for what it is worth, there tends to be a greater number of police on the road at nights (due in part to concerns about impaired drivers), which makes the non-impaired portion of the car driving public more likely to behave. 

In summary, the most common concern about night riding, that it is more dangerous as it is dark, is for the most part unfounded as most urban spaces are extremely well lit at night. This means that it is easy to see the road conditions and easy for motorists to see you. Your lights, while useful for visibility in areas that are unlit, are thus primarily useful as they highlight your presence on the road as motorists are not expecting cyclists on the road at night. In addition, the lower traffic volume on roads at night makes them much safer to ride than they would be during regular daytime riding (with the appropriate caveats about those roads that happen to be just as busy or busier at night). For those who commute to work very early or very late night time riding is a comparatively safe and rarely considered option. For my part, when I’m not teaching a night course I tend to sneak in “recreational” rides in the evening as I like night riding so much. Once you try it you won’t want to give it up!

I have grabbed some photos of my night commute, forgive the shaky cam but night pics are tough for the camera phone.



Sentinel Road - Note the visibility of the road, and the surrounding areas. Sentinel is not a particularly well lit road, you can see the lights spaced out ahead of me. 

The corner of Sentinel and Sheppard, note the brightness of the lights at the intersection, and the emptiness of the road.

Looking down on the 401 from above, in this case looking East. 

401 looking East again.

Duval and Lawrence, again, very bright, though Lawrence is a main artery.