Editor’s note: As the video above will show, cycling the winter streets in Ottawa is clearly not for everyone. It helps to be young, male, and a little bit aggressive about claiming your space on the road. In fact, as this article from Scientific American suggests, those descriptors are associated with the majority of urban cyclists across North America, in any season. The article makes the case that if authorities wish to measure the success of safe cycling initiatives, they need only look to see if women make up an equal share of cyclists on the road. Female cyclists are “indicator species”, it is argued, and when we see them represented equally we are looking at streets and pathways that are safer not only for women, but for everyone on two wheels.
With this context in mind, we join Spacing Ottawa contributor Kathyrn Hunt of the Incidental Cyclist blog as she discusses her experience going against the statistical trend to become a four-season “vehicular” cyclist.
A reader commented on a recent post on my blog, saying that danger spots like the Queen Elizabeth/Queen Elizabeth intersection — where the city path and NCC path don’t meet — are what keeps her off her bike.
Awkwardness — that’s what really bothers me about such intersections. There’s a learning/acclimatization curve to urban biking. I grew up in rural New Brunswick. When I moved to Ottawa for college I brought my bike and I used it a lot — but only on the sidewalks. It was way too scary just trying to cross major intersections with the bike, let alone ride in the street. I slowly learned how to use the side streets, but I would do anything not to have to be on Bank Street dodging the #1 bus. And eventually I gave up on riding for the most part. The bike in question was lost in the shuffle when I moved out of the country for a couple of years.
When I got my current bike, Mike, a couple of years ago, I was more accustomed to cities in general, which helped. I was willing to ride in the street (and much more aware of the laws against riding on the sidewalk.) And I understood a little more about vehicular cycling, which helps, at least in knowing your rights and a little bit about what to expect. But I was still jumpy, I’ll admit, that first summer, and I had my share of accidents which were in fact caused by my own skittishness. Once, I tried to hop off a major road because things were getting a bit too scary, missed the angle of my front wheel over the edge of the driveway I was turning onto, and took a spill across the sidewalk, cutting up my hand and shin. Once, I spooked and swerved as a woman opened her car door ahead of me, lost control of the bike, and went over the handlebars in the middle of the Glebe.
But as I got inured to the scare-factor of cars appearing out of my peripheral vision and speeding up as they cleared me, learned to watch parked cars even more carefully than the moving ones, and trained myself to believe that passing vehicles really aren’t as close as they appear, I had fewer of those kinds of spills. I learned to merge into traffic, which took some doing, and I still envy – or fear for – the cyclists that I see cutting fearlessly through multi-lane traffic at, say, the hellish intersection between the War Memorial and the Rideau Centre. But the higher my confidence, the fewer accidents I had. (Insert here my defense of the mp3 player, as well: sometimes I need a right ear full of music to keep me from getting nervous. I keep the left, traffic-side ear clear, but there are times I need to have some music, or CBC, to focus on, instead of the repeating loud roar of oncoming engines from behind me.)
It took a certain pigheadedness, though, to keep me out there. Dare I say it, a certain amount of machismo. An “ain’t-I-tough” kind of mentality. People with a more advanced sense of self-preservation might have been dissuaded in those first few months. I also lucked out, in that the easiest and fastest route to work for me turned out to be along the recreational paths, which are peaceful, pretty, and best of all, much safer. I only spent a mile or so on Bank Street before turning, often with a sigh of relief, onto the path. If that path had not been there, and if it hadn’t proved to actually be much faster to bike than to take transit, maybe I wouldn’t have stuck with it to the point where it became a habit. To the point where I decided to keep it up even through rain, sleet, snow, and deep cold.
I want to tell starting cyclists that it does get easier, and I want to tell them that if one route scares the pants off them, they can always try to find another that isn’t so bad. But I know how daunting it is. And I want to tell the city that every little roadblock caused by giving priority to cars (like trying to get across the roads that run alongside all the waterways, cutting off their safe and convenient and beautiful rec paths) is another discouragement to cyclists. But, to that reader: if you keep it up, I’ve found on the whole you get braver.