Monthly Archives: November 2011

Climate Change and the Birth of the Bike

In April 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history took place when Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa east of Bali poured something like 160 billion cubic meters of ash and debris into the atmosphere. The following year, on the other side of the world, the huge amounts of sulpher in the stratosphere led to the so-called “year without summer”, with temperatures so low that throughout large parts of central Europe the crops failed, and hunger was rampant. The cost of oats rose to the point where many people could no longer afford to keep their horses working their fields.

The German forester and inventor, Karl Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn began experimenting with ways to get around his fields. The result was the so-called Draisine or Velocipede, an all-wood, two wheeled proto-bicycle, that was straddled and propelled by foot, resulting in a long, gliding stride… provided the path was relatively smooth.

Those parents among you will recognize the principle as the German invention for toddlers, the present-day LikeABike.

Back then, Drais von Sauerbronn was responding to a natural disaster causing widespread climate change. Today, as we all know, the climate change is man-made. It’s driven by the oil industry, by unchecked capitalism’s preference for profit over quality of life. And just as in its moment of birth, the bicycle is a good response to the effects of climate change.

By the way, if you Like the LikeABike, MEC sells a similar model.

Jenna Morrison dies on Dundas West

Last week I rather glibly described falling off my bike on Dundas Street West, where the bridge spans the train tracks. Little did I suspect that there would be another tragic death of a cyclist on Toronto’s roads, just steps away from where I fell.

Yesterday, Jenna Morrison was run over by a truck turning West onto Dundas off Sterling. She sustained severe head injuries and died on the spot.

Jenna was an instructor at Spiritwind Internal Arts, which she co-founded ten years ago in Kensington Market. She was the mother of a young boy who, thank god, was not on the hitch-on bike she was towing behind her when she was killed. In fact, she was on her way to fetch him from kindergarten. It is not yet entirely clear how exactly this tragic accident happened. But what is certain is that deaths such as Jenna’s are preventable, if only our city would recognize cyclists not just as annoying intrusions on roads that belong to cars, but as co-owners of Toronto’s traffic system: highly vulnerable co-owners who need to be protected from drivers of motor vehicles. Drivers who are often tired, angry, distracted, talking on the phone or texting, or who simply don’t understand the rules of the road.

Dave Meslin of the Toronto Cyclists Union is right when he says that Jenna’s death is “not about drivers versus cyclists, it’s about the lack of proper infrastructure on the streets.”

But we will not be able to develop proper infrastructure until we overcome the views expressed by Constable Hugh Smith of Toronto police’s traffic services division, commenting on Jenna’s death. According to the CBC, Constable Smith said the bicycle was towing a trailer, which may have also contributed to the accident. “Anything you attach to a bicycle is going to hinder your movement as far as the length of the turn, the amount of work it takes — the gear that you’re in — for you to get through the turn,” Smith said. “Most times we say a bike is designed for one person, unless it’s a tandem.” And Sergeant John Winter, with traffic services, is quoted by the National Post as asking: “How many times have you seen cyclists going outside the bike lanes to pass other cyclists at a high rate of speed, and cutting others off and disobeying the traffic lights and stop signs, so it works both ways?”

This is not the point. City infrastructure needs to be improved so I don’t have to ride on the sidewalk when I take my daughter to daycare in her trailer in the mornings. And bike lanes need to be improved so bikes can pass each other safely, without having to veer out into traffic. Not to mention all the cars that park in bike lanes, so strangely invisible to police. And as for stop signs and red lights, well, we’ve had that discussion haven’t we?

In our current climate of auto-eroticism in Toronto, cyclist will have to fight every inch of the way to get our safe spaces on the city roads we pay for.

You can begin by sending a short note to your city councilor, saying something like “Following the tragic death of Jenna Morrison, I demand that my representative in city hall do everything possible to ensure that this will not happen again.” … and making whatever suggestion you feel may be appropriate for cycle-safe streets in your ward.

Find your councilor

Please come to the vigil for Jenna next Monday, 14 November. Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists is organizing a memorial ride and a moment of silence. Meet at Bloor and Spadina at 7:30am, or at Dundas and Sterling at 8:00am to take part in the ride. It’s a chance to support her family and community and raise awareness about the need for safer streets.

Falling off my bike

When I first started cycling in Toronto, people always asked me if I’d fallen off yet, if I’d encountered the street car tracks. There was always a glint of adventure in their eyes, which gradually gave me to understand that falling off your bike was like an intiation into downtown cycling. The first time I fell off, I was jumping the tracks on Queen Street on my Cannondale M-700 mountain bike, mountain-bike style. I turned the front wheel the wrong way when I came down, it crumpled under me, and I went over the handlebars. People stepped out into the street, helped my get my bike to the curb, dusted me off, asked if I was OK. I wasn’t hurt at all, just a little shaken, and I thought, this is remarkable, people actually care. Next time I was coming down Dundas in the rain, had the green light in front of me, saw a car signalling a turn and made a big deal of waving my arms to signal I was coming. He turned anyway, I tried to dodge him, slipped on the tracks and went down, hitting my knee on the steel. But it wasn’t bad enough to keep me off my bike. The driver stopped, looked back sheepishly while I shook my fist at him, and he drove off again. Then I fell, again on Dundas West where the bridge crosses the train lines. This was my finest fall and I wish the cameras had been rolling. My bike somersaulted, me too, I rolled onto my feet, grabbed my bike and rode on. Then, against the judicious admonitions of A, I rode out in January on a new snowfall, slipped taking a left on Queen, and went straight down onto my shoulder. I couldn’t lift my left arm, was sure I’d dislocated the shoulder. It wasn’t, but it took about a year to recover fully. Now, I’m intiated, and I do my best not to fall at all, not in any circumstances, not at all.

Driving to work

This blog is going to issue mainly from my bike, but it begins in a car. I’m driving a rented car to my office, down the route I usually ride every day, once in the morning, once in the evening. Half an hour each way, 25 minutes if I’m in a hurry. I never cease to be amazed at how different this route seems in a car. The invisible shell I always feel surrounding me when I’m on my bike is no longer invisible, it’s real, made of metal. The bikes whizz past me, or I past them, but the rhythm they move to is so different to mine, it’s like we live on different worlds, or at least according to different laws of physics. I’m burning all that fossil fuel, and they still get off at the lights faster than I do, and (it’s 9 in the morning) they are going to get to wherever they are going a lot faster than I am. But I hardly have to do anything to make this thing go. I just lean back, listen to the radio, and I’m on my way. And staying pretty warm.
Sometimes when I’m cycling I try to remember this other parallel world, where if you’re following the speed limit on Harbord Street, the time it would take you to push the rear end of a bike flat with the front tire into a brick wall is only about 1/6 second.