Monthly Archives: November 2011

Rainy day

When I peered out over my cup of coffee this morning I saw the weather report was right. Rainy day. OK, a choice, do I take the TTC? Dufferin Bus to Bloor, subway to Bay.

The thought of another crowded ride on Toronto’s hopelessly underfunded, aging transit system is too bleak, bleaker even than this grey day.

So, onto my bike.

Harbord Street rain

I arrive damp and invigorated, mulling over yesterday’s budget announcement. Rob Ford inherited what the Toronto Star calls a “$139 million windfall from this year’s unexpectedly high revenues” but he’s decided to cook the books so it looks like his imaginary crisis is still threatening our well-being. His proposal includes

  • reduction of hours at some libraries
  • cutting funding to some 14,000 children and youth who take part in 58 student nutrition programs
  • hiring freeze for Toronto Police, Fire and EMS
  • closing 5 of the city’s 105 wading pools and two of the Toronto’s 59 outdoor pools

Oh, and I almost forgot, reduced service on buses and streetcars. Those who have no other options but the TTC will have to get used to waiting longer for more crowded rides on increasingly aging vehicles.

As Adam Vaughan said (quoted in the Star): “We have the mayor running around saying the sky is falling, and the money is there not only to provide the services Torontonians love — everything from sidewalk clearance to libraries to suburban bus routes — the budget shows there’s actually the resources available to build a better city.”




A few more thoughts on transporting toddlers

Among the toddler-toting parents I know, I’m one of the only ones who opted for a trailer. Which kind of surprises me, since I was always one of those people who, driving along in my car would look at the rosy little face staring with trusting eyes into the spinning hubcaps just a few feet away, and ask myself how a parent could possibly place their child in such a vulnerable position. Well, it depends on a lot of things, including your cycling style, the city you ride in, and your comfort level with the volume and type of traffic on your streets.

The German national automobile club did a comparative safety test with the child on the bike and in a trailer. (Wow, you’re thinking, their automobile club does bike safety tests?) Here’s what they found.

There is no clear winner in the contest. When it comes to safety, all else considered, the trailer is marginally safer.  This is mainly because of its stability. You can fall on your bike, and the trailer will still stay upright, whereas if you fall with the child on a bike seat, the child falls with you. This also means that if you hit an unexpected obstacle, your child will be safer in the trailer. And changing lanes is safer with a trailer, particularly where there are streetcar tracks. Also, your ability to swerve out of danger is slightly worse with the bike seat.

And don’t forget the lighting. If I have to be out after dusk or in the rain, my trailer is lit up like a Xmas tree. Also, I cycle all year, so S. stays dry in the rain (I get wet) and warm in the snow (I get cold).  And she can sleep underway. Like she did today on her way back from Trinity Bellwoods Park. The other thing that speaks for the trailer is, paradoxically, the very reaction I described at the beginning. Drivers see much more clearly that there is a child in transit, and most of them react accordingly.

That said, the child on the bike seat is less likely to be injured if a car hits you from behind, and braking handling is generally better with the child on the bike. Also, a lot of parents like the fact that their child is sitting on the bar in front of them, where they have the sense that their arms are enfolding them. is more unequivocal in favour of the trailer. They state three main reasons: 1) it’s lower to the ground, more stable, less risk in case of a fall; 2) it’s easier to maneuver; and 3) the child is surrounded by framing & better protected.

But the main message coming from and the German Automobile Association tests is that your child’s safety depends mainly on your cycling skills, on being correctly secured, and wearing a helmet.  Remember you’ll need longer to brake, and stability will possibly be an issue.

My first decision was to rule out the on-bike option. For me it was purely practical. I wanted to use the trailer all year, and I wasn’t happy about the stability issues. My main route was going to be home to day-care and the park, and I was confident of my ability to keep S. out of traffic while using the trailer. But I did like the idea of having her in front of me, rather than behind where I couldn’t see her.

This got me really excited about the Zigo Leader X2, a trike with two wheels in the front, holding a child carrier.

The Zigo Leader X2

It converts through an ingenious method to a two-wheeler. I thought this would be ideal for me, so I went down to Urbane Cyclist to try it. The result was more than disappointing. The turning circle was terrible, you can’t even turn right on the street without stopping and lifting the rear wheel. Then you should have seen the guys at Urbane trying patiently to do the conversion. It took literally 15 minutes. And all this for between $1,300 and $1,500.

There is a huge choice when it comes to trailers. Here is an excellent article on trailer buying, written it seems, by a professor of Astrophysics at Harvard. Hmmm, that says something about the kind of people who take their kids in bike trailers.

I finally opted for a Chariot CX.

It’s easy to hitch and unhitch, can be moved from bike to bike.

It’s extremely stable and easy to handle, and it keeps S. warm and dry through rain and snow. I’m the one getting cold and wet.

I only have two complaints – it’s very hard to fold, and impossible to get the covering off to give it a good clean.

If you want to be more adventurous, and if you have the luxury of more parking space than I do, you can look at the really exotic (and expensive!) territory: the Long-Johns,

Long John

Jakob Nordin's conversion from

the Christiania bikes,

Photo from

I get really excited when I see these on Toronto’s streets. It makes me hope that by the sheer pressure of public usage, biking will become increasingly viable here.

Changing the World one Kid-Trailer at a Time

Abigail Pugh wrote this great article a few years ago.

In a perfect world, we’d never look up at the lighted windows of a downtown gym and see rows of sweaty people pedaling off their Timbits to an iPod beat.

Instead, they’d be speeding homeward along heated, lighted car-free roadways. Only an eccentric few urbanites would bother getting their driver’s licence. Converted garages would replace basements as the new affordable rental housing. “Obesity” and “type 2 diabetes” would sound quaint, like suffering from rickets or scurvy. Bike sales would outstrip car sales a hundredfold. All so far fetched, so speculative, it might as well be sci-fi.

Clive Power on Wikimedia Commons

A more mundane prediction? In a perfect world, people hauling everything from kids to aging relatives to dogs to Ikea purchases, by bike, would be common. Like, seen-several-times-a-day or part-of-the-landscape common. Kids in trailers wouldn’t be the eccentrics of our urban traffic, as they are today.

Right now, those two-wheeled canvas and aluminum bike trailers for kids elicit raised eyebrows…even from other cyclists. The received wisdom seems to be “rather your kids than mine”, or “cool gesture – but what about safety?”.

Derek Baker is a sales guy at Dukes at Queen and Bathurst, so he can be expected to walk the walk. He hauled his son by bike, rain or shine, for five years: “My son rode in ours from when he was 3 years old to when he was 7. Then I gave it to my sister. We’re at the decade mark with it now.” What’s it like sitting in one? “My son loved it: with its padding and its metal structure, it’s like sitting in a rocket ship.”

Is Derek worried about safety? “There’s a big flag on the back, and these companies don’t chintz out: there’s an aluminum frame, and there’s a ball joint so the trailer can rotate 360 degrees and isn’t likely to tip if the bike does.” Derek says that in his experience drivers are more respectful and give proper distance when they see a child in a trailer. Nancy Kendrew of Urbane Cyclist agrees, remarking ironically that “it’s a psychological thing with traffic. A driver’s willing to risk running down a man on a bike who might be a breadwinner to a family – but if he sees a kid in a trailer he’ll give lots of room and be very courteous”.

There’s a sidecar kid carrier on the market now. Most stores haven’t started carrying it – but Derek enthuses: ”when I found out about it, it almost made me want to have another kid.” One believes him. Mark Newman, who has worked at Duke’s for 15 years and sold countless trailers, says he generally advises customers to stick to parks or dedicated bike lanes with sidecars, simply because otherwise the bike is taking up an entire lane which, in present-day (non sci-fi) Toronto might cause problems like road rage and traffic jams. He also notes, however: “In the 15 years I’ve been selling bike trailers, I’ve never had a single parent come to me and say they’ve had a tricky or a dangerous situation with one.”

Bike Trailer Safety Tips

  •  Plan ahead; don’t necessarily use the same route you’d use when traveling alone: smog and traffic are even bigger considerations when hauling kids.
  •  Make sure the child stays hydrated; don’t forget sunscreen, even in winter.
  •  Don’t tuck the child in with loose blankets, scarves or anything else that could come loose and drag.
  •  Kids in trailers need bike helmets, just like the rest of us do when we’re biking.
  •  Watch for the curb: the trailer makes your vehicle wider, and the few tipping accidents that do happen, are often from inexperienced users clipping the curb.

The Experts on Hauling Kids by Bike

Barb Wentworth, head of bike safety for the Can Bike program:

 “Trailers are a great boon because they actively engage kids in bikes as transportation or recreation. Parents can drop kids off and then commute. In my personal experience with a trailer, car drivers are more cognizant of the need to keep a safe space from the bike.”

A.A Heaps, Chair of the Toronto Cycling Committee (disbanded by Rob Ford in April this year together with 20 other citizens’ committees):

“In principle (bike trailers are) a great idea. They’re encouraging a future audience (for the pro-bike message) which is very positive. Personally I’d be concerned because they add 2-3 metres to the length of the bicycle and someone in an SUV can’t see over the hood. Also, trailers are at tailpipe level, which is a health and safety issue. The safest application is on dedicated bike trails.”

Urbane Cyclist - alastairwallace - Panoramio

Nancy Kendrew, Owner, Urbane Cyclist Cooperative

“I’ve had customers who buy a single trailer, then a double one. Then when the kids are old enough to bike by themselves so the parents start hauling groceries or going to Ikea with them. Then they say to themselves: ‘I don’t even need a car’; they’ve proven to themselves they can easily be car-free.”

Side guards and paint

Edward Keenan’s article in the Grid this week highlights the money side of the absurdities involved in our city’s refusal to protect citizens on bikes. Read it here.

Even if our City Council doesn’t care about people’s lives, they should look at his simple comments about the cost of safety. Keenan wrote:

“My family car contains close to $1,000 in child safety seats, which are required by law, in addition to about $1,000 worth of mandatory front-seat airbags and a couple of hundred dollars worth of seat-belt equipment. Just over a decade ago, all playground equipment in half of Toronto’s schools was torn out and replaced at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per school because of safety concerns, even though there had never been a reported death or serious injury in a Toronto playground.”

Side guards cost about $600 per truck, which is, as he notes, less than the cost of the fuel it carries in its tank.

And bike lanes don’t cost much more than paint.

Let’s do all we can to support Peggy Nash in her advocacy for cyclist safety.

A tragic death

It’s been ten days now since the tragic death of Jenna Morrison and her unborn baby. We in Toronto who care about our city and our fellow citizens (not just those of us who are cyclists) are asking what her death means for us. There are many ways to mourn and memorialize a death, but the greatest challenge is to try to give an unnecessary death meaning.

What does it mean to say that Jenna’s death was tragic? Allow me a short meditation on tragedy. Aristotle explains in his poetics that the purpose of tragedy is to show an individual’s stubborn attempts to push their own will and their own wishes, even where these conflict with the norms of society. In the process, they discover what it is about society that can be changed, and what cannot. The unchangeable presents itself as fate, decided upon by the gods; the changeable is shown to be made by humans. The tragic figure tests the boundary between unchangeable fate and the changeable world. He or she always goes one step too far down this path, until they reach the point where they finally recognize that they have challenged fate, and cannot win. The audience watches as this drama plays out, feels the anguish of the person who knows they cannot achieve all they wanted to achieve, and sees them suffer and die. Then they go home knowing that their world is secure and safe, that it cannot be shaken by the willful fancies of a single person.

Marble bust of Aristotle. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus c. 330 BC. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jenna Morrison was not challenging fate, but she died challenging the norms of our society. These norms require the lives of citizens to be constructed around the domination of the internal combustion engine. But this is not something that was decreed by the gods, something that must remain unchallenged. It is not our fate to live in a world dominated by automobiles and the oil industry, it is our collective choice. It is something that can be changed. Jenna was trying to live her life in a hostile environment made by humans. If we are to draw the full consequences of what happened, we need to understand just how hostile this environment is to a full and meaningful life. We need to understand too that this environment is not made by fate, but by us, and that it is changeable.

Memorial Ride for Jenna Morrison

When I arrived at Dundas and Sterling at 8 this morning, with S. behind me in the bike trailer, the crowd was already gathering to pay respect to Jenna. We were waiting for the cyclists to arrive from Bloor and Spadina, bringing with them the ghost bike for Jenna.

Watching eagerly for her mom to appear, S. was visibly impressed by the hundreds of cyclist who, slowly, solemnly made their way across the Dundas Street bridge. They carried the white bike to the little shrine that’s been there for a week now, and the cyclists just kept coming.

This is what A. wrote about the ride:

Impressions swirled over me as I rode with the mass. The peaceful intersections: how possible it is, when the tide is strong, to flow towards a destination without mental calculation  – make eye contact, even, with halted drivers (their faces blank, or visibly weighing the beauty of the scene against the inconvenience of waiting). The quiet: how children and parents could maintain easy dialogue while gently rolling along. The interest and respect in the bearing of pedestrians and shopkeepers, standing to attention as the hundreds of us smoothed by.

For just half an hour, Jenna’s fellow cyclists between us created the kind of streets she would have loved. We yanked the noisy, gaseous, violent reality back like a curtain and behind it there was a surprisingly efficient, communal calm. One noticed the yellow leaves – smelled their tea-like aroma. Felt the cosy buildup of warmth from the steady pedaling. Noticed lovely posture here, a cool tattoo there, the shining eyes of a kid who at last can just be a kid. Yes, on the road.

I fought a growing sensation of physical pleasure: it felt out of place. Disrespectful. This was a memorial; a disconsolate time of loss so terribly recent. I knew there was no possibility for even a moment’s consolation, here or anywhere, for Jenna’s poor husband and the people who actually knew her – as I did not. There was time to think, so I wrested that for a few minutes and then realized that the contradiction was probably OK. I was simply reminded of the powerful group experience – also an act of eulogy – of singing a hymn. I felt our wheels, voices and intent thoughts made an aching harmony; sent tribute. That the hundreds of us on our humdrum vehicles – many commuters, taking a respectful detour – acknowledged bitter distress, but in that moment also created sweetness.

I felt very lucky that the sadness and anger could be, for a short while, transmogrified into this hymn; this rolling meditation on death, vulnerability, cities, motherhood, bikerhood, daughterhood, family, citizenship.  As my town rolled by me like those repeated reels of stock cities in the old fashioned cartoons, I had many thoughts about the future.

During the ride my thoughts were sweetened with hope that our tide might bring a better city into being. But during the ride home – alone again, with my family, suddenly not rolling but quavering and bumping along, John and Sheba on the sidewalk (will they be screamed at? will I scream back, hurt sending obscenity into the air as my child listens?) – the hope got pushed roughly back to the kerb.

Biking behind Byrne in Berlin

David Byrne wrote in his Bicycle Diaries:

“I ride my bike along the bike lanes here in Berlin and it all seems very civilized, pleasant, and enlightened. No cars park or drive in the bike lanes, and the cyclists don’t ride on the streets or on the sidewalks either. There are little stoplights just for the bikers, even turn signals! (Cyclists often get to turn a few seconds before the rest of the traffic, to allow them to get out of the way.) Needless to say, most cyclists here do stop for these lights. Pedestrians don’t wander into the bike lanes either! I’m kind of in shock – it all works so well. Why can’t it be like this where I live?”

The last few summers I’ve had the privilege of spending several weeks in Berlin, where I ride a Dahon 6-speed folding bike.

There are a lot of bikes in Berlin.

Normal bikes, modified bikes, home-made bikes…

… and people have creative uses for their bikes, carrying children, cargo, even books.

Kids learn at an early age that the roads are for bikes.

Whenever I cycle in Berlin, I’m struck by some of the simple infrastructure changes we could make here in Toronto to ensure safer cycling. The simplest, cheapest, the very minimum would be off street bike lanes, for example. David Byrne took this photo: