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Sustainable Commuting: the Bicycle

Posted by Guest Contributor / May 29, 2009

"The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine." John Howard, US Olympic Cyclist

Last winter I decided to record my commute to work via the most sustainable method of transportation that exists: my own two feet. Now that Bike Month is well under way, I wanted to share my second favourite method of sustainable commuting: the bicycle.

The bicycle is the most efficient means of human-powered transportation, meaning it can travel the most distance with the least amount of energy exerted. Invented in the 19th century, bikes take up very little space, they're quiet, and they don't pollute. In Toronto, there are few faster ways to get around the city. Safety, however, has always been an impediment to potential cyclists with our lack of bike lanes and the "door prizes" that Toronto drivers periodically hand out.

Thankfully, there's some good news in the city this week for cyclists: city council voted in favour of creating two bike lanes on Jarvis street on Monday, a new bicycle parking facility opened at Union Station on Wednesday, and it became known that suspected bicycle thief Igor Kenk will star in a movie about himself. Wait... scratch that last bit - Igor Kenk is old news.

Another important initiative in the city is turning old rail lines into bicycle trails. Rail trails would open a new world of opportunity for those in-the-closet cyclists who would love to commute on their bicycle but choose not to because of the inherent danger in sharing the road with 2,000-pound (and up) automobiles. Rail trails not only provide safe cycling routes, they also tend to cut the angles better than our grid road system. The trail closest to coming to fruition is a 6.5 kilometre stretch along the CN tracks from the Junction (Dupont/Cariboo Ave.) to near Strachan Ave. The "West Toronto RailPath" would provide Junction residents with an unobstructed bicycle artery to the downtown core and to the lakefront. Construction is very slowly underway (it's been 4 years since blogTO first wrote about this trail).

Some people view bicycles as a step backward, but to me bikes are the future. Some of the biggest problems we face today are caused in part by the automobile and bikes are one way we can reduce our reliance on cars. City council has the right idea with their initiatives to expand bike lanes in the city, but there are still people in the city who simply can't be convinced that bikes are good for the city and good for its citizens.

The embedded video features my bicycle commute to my downtown office from my King West residence featuring Canada's own Metric with their acoustic recording of the song "Help I'm Alive", available as a free download from their MySpace page.

If you make it through the entire video you'll get a special treat near the end where I bypass the elevator to make it a truly sustainable experience. See if you can count how many flights of stairs I climb.

Writing and video by James Schwartz.



Ratpick / May 29, 2009 at 10:12 am
"...the inherent danger in sharing the road with 2,000-pound automobiles..."

It wouldn't be so bad if we were sharing the road with 2,000 pound cars! That's less than the original Mazda Miata weighed. Less than an old Civic hatchback.

It's the big, wide, powerful 4,000 - 5,000 pound SUVs with wide mirrors that are tough to share the road with.

Loozrboy / May 29, 2009 at 10:14 am
In other bike-related news: a city crew was busy painting "sharrows" on Wellesley this morning (where the actual bike lane temporarily disappears near the intersection with Yonge).
Cinci Csere / May 29, 2009 at 10:49 am
Great article, love the video. Thanks for inspiring!
James / May 29, 2009 at 10:55 am
Good point Ratpick; 2,000 pounds is a small car (the smart car weighs in around 1600-1800lbs). But I think once you get to a certain point, it hurts no matter what. I don't know if getting hit by a smart car would hurt much less than by an SUV (except you might not feel a thing if you get hit by the SUV hard enough) ;)
Ratpick / May 29, 2009 at 11:20 am
James -- yes. It's bad to get hit by ANY car, big or small. But let me tell you, leaving room for cyclists is a whole lot easier driving a Miata as compared to say, a pickup truck.

Good article, by the way. Am looking forward to the West Toronto Rail Path (and wish it was also going to be home to a light rail route).
Kenny / May 29, 2009 at 11:31 am
Had the music been at 50% volume (or lower) would've added to the atmosphere of the commute, cuz listening in on the city's sounds would've made it a better experience.
jack / May 29, 2009 at 11:58 am
and we are bailing out GM, because?
matts / May 29, 2009 at 12:18 pm
Awesome experience. Which is kinda surprising, becuase it's "just" a bike ride (and a stair climb, of course!). I was glad to see you didn't try to pass cars turning right on their right - a particular pet peeve of mine when I - rarely - drive.
James / May 29, 2009 at 12:39 pm
Agreed Kenny, that would have been nice. I played around with keeping the audio from the video, but the wind sound wasn't very appealing ;)
m / May 29, 2009 at 03:01 pm
Cool video. I also ride King St W as part of my daily <a href="";>commute</a>. Even in the dead of winter I'll see a half dozen cyclists on King St W. And in summer over 30 isn't uncommon.

It makes me wonder why the <a href="";>planned West end bike paths</a> does not do anything on King W from roughly Dufferin down to the core. The plan is for bikes to go south side of Lamport stadium up to a dead end on Strachan. King St W is a heavily used bike corridor, year round. It should have bike lanes.
Hit By Bikes / May 30, 2009 at 07:05 am
Best part was when the cars and the cyclist ahead of you yielded for the streetcar doors opening at Bathurst but you tried to keep going through. Oh, wait, no, that sucks.
ames / May 30, 2009 at 09:19 am
This is bizarre -- this video is my EXACT commute to work. I start at King & Shaw and end at Adelaide & Peter as well (except I work on the south side of Adelaide). Have you considered going on Adelaide? I find it a bit of a calmer ride.

Lovely video!
James / May 30, 2009 at 09:48 am
Hit By Bikes - Actually if you watch the video more closely you'll see that I waited until the streetcar door was closed before proceeding. Is that you Joe Warmington?

ames: I'm sure we've crossed paths then! I normally take Adelaide when I bike in; it's much safer. But I figured King would be a more interesting video :)
Andrew / May 30, 2009 at 11:08 am
It's the biking circle jerk! You hipsters make me sick.
AlexV / May 30, 2009 at 06:25 pm
I couldn't help but notice the numerous dangerous situations you've created along your commute. Although not technically illegal, edging along side cars, especially at stops and red lights, is exactly the kind of poor road etiquette that gives cyclists a poor image. You're a vehicle. You're more than justified in taking up an entire lane (avoid the gutters, pot holes, tight bridge underpasses, and make your intentions clear to the drivers behind you -- the lane is yours, force them to use another if they want to pass). Please also use proper left turns -- you are not a pedestrian.

My daily commute is roughly two hours by bike, and it pains me to see cyclists constantly riding through stop signs, on sidewalks, and creating dangerous situations like the previously described. Just because motorists don't always follow the law, it doesn't mean that privilege should extend to us on two wheels.

For more tips on sharing the road with cars, please pickup the City of Toronto Cycling 2009 map and brochure (free, available at your local library).
James / May 31, 2009 at 05:35 pm
AlexV - Passing on the right side of cars at a red light is only dangerous for 2 people - the cyclist and jay walkers. Furthermore, it's only dangerous if cars open their passenger door. There was clearly enough space for me to safely pass the cars on the right side. If cyclists don't have the right to pass cars on the right side at a red light, then what's the benefit of riding a bike? King street is sometimes backed up 3 or 4 blocks. Does it seem reasonable for a cyclist to sit and wait in a long line of cars before they can proceed? Would you really wait 15 minutes to go 3 blocks?

To me, as long as there is a sufficient amount of space between the curb and the idling cars, there's nothing wrong with proceeding.

There was one situation as you can see in the video where there wasn't enough room for me to proceed in which I waited for the car to move forward before I passed the van. The cyclist in front of me however proceeded with very little space to pass through and he almost hit the van's mirror. I would consider that dangerous.

Regarding the left turn, it makes no sense to block the entire lane of traffic behind you and risk being hit by oncoming cars to make a "proper left turn". Furthermore, "proper" left turns on King street aren't allowed between 7AM and 9AM anyway. There is nothing wrong, illegal or dangerous to pull to the right and wait for a green light and then proceed straight through the light as I did. This is a common technique. It's safer for the cyclist, causes less disruption to cars, and it makes more sense (in most situations).
AlexV / May 31, 2009 at 06:45 pm
I'm a non-motorized, two-wheel vehicle. Would I really wait 15 minutes to go 3 blocks? Yes, just like every other vehicle.

As I had stated previously, "edging" is not illegal. It does, however, create an unnecessarily dangerous situation, especially when the curb lane is too narrow to comfortably fit a cyclist and a car. Dangerous for everyone involved (even though the driver of a car may not be physically hurt, the collision is still likely to damage their vehicle). Along with door prizes, cyclists risk being hit by drivers with a poor sense of how wide their vehicle is when they try to overtake. This becomes especially dangerous when the road narrows, such as under bridge underpasses (or when the road conditions force an evasive maneuver, such as to avoid a pot hole or gutter). Large vehicles, such as transport trucks, have significant blind spots, and edging would make cyclists essentially invisible to the driver. Also, when accelerating from a stop, a bike's velocity is low, and it is relatively harder to keep balanced on two wheels. To remain upright, bikers often swerve while beginning their acceleration. The irregular trajectory could force them into the path of pedestrians, or worse yet, the path of the vehicle behind them (especially dangerous if the biker had barely squeezed through past the vehicle at a stop, giving the driver the impression that the bike is narrower than they really are). Again, not illegal, but certainly dangerous, and certainly rude and inconsiderate of other vehicles on the road (which you cut in front of).

Your style of turning left is not legal by any interpretation of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. You are stopping mid-intersection (often in a pedestrian path), cutting-off the vehicle behind you. Restricted left-turns, from 7 to 9 a.m., apply to all vehicles. If you want to be subject to pedestrian rules, get off your bike and walk.
James / May 31, 2009 at 06:57 pm
AlexV - First you said "edging along side cars, especially at stops and red lights, is exactly the kind of poor road etiquette that gives cyclists a poor image". I responded that I am comfortable with proceeding beside idling (stopped) cars while approaching a red light as long as there is enough room for me to proceed. Now you're referring to edging between cars while riding in an underpass or a narrow lane. This is two completely different scenarios, each with its own level of danger. A car's blind spot is completely irrelevant when the car isn't moving. I'm proceeding beside a car when it is stopped, so I have complete control over whether I will hit the car or not, and I'd like to think that I am capable of judging whether there is enough room for me to proceed or not. As I previously stated, the only danger in that situation is if the passenger opens his/her door.

Regarding the left turn again, as you can see in the video I'm not cutting off the vehicle behind me because I stopped my bike in the right side of the lane close to the curb. There is plenty of room for pedestrians to proceed behind my bike and I'm not blocking anything.

Bikes will never be cars. As long as the cyclist is obeying the law and also being considerate of the safety of others, then I don't see anything wrong with it.
Heather / June 1, 2009 at 05:24 pm
I miss the days when I didn't hate cyclists.

I've been hit on the side walk, I've been hit crossing intersections on (in accordance with my signal), and I've had a number of close calls with cyclists almost hitting my car because they were passing on the right while I was turning.

The problem with many cyclists is that they don't think laws apply to them, and it makes the unpredictable and dangerous. Or, they're completely ignorant of the laws....

I would love to see some kind of written test before you could get a bike license, even if it is completely inpractical.
Claire / June 3, 2009 at 11:39 am
Neat video.
Heather Craig - you need to check your blind spot on the right before turning right. (the laws apply to you too , right?) Cyclists should not sit in your blind spot, but slightly ahead (or behind)you. Personally, at an intersection, I take the whole lane behind or in front of a car, that way there is no confusion. Then I get the bird from drivers who want to make the right on the red and have to wait for me. Then I'm not a "vehicle" following the HTA, I'm a nuisance in their way!
Alex V. - the intersection cross was perfectly correct, in fact it is the safer, prefered method at busy intersections, especially those with streetcar tracks. Check with Can Bike and others.
Hit By Bikes replying to a comment from James / June 3, 2009 at 10:26 pm
Hey, James,

No, I'm not Joe Warmington (nice slam there, boss), just someone who's been hit from behind by a bike while walking on the Queen St. sidewalk, hit from behind by a bike while walking on the Discovery Path in Trinity-Bellwoods and hit by a bike when exiting a streetcar because they were doing what you were doing here. If the car in front of you crawls forward at a streetcar then suddenly jerks to a stop at the same time as the bike in front of you, maybe you should consider that they know something you don't about the area you can't see because of the car blocking your field of vision, hmm?
James / June 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm
Hit By Bikes - If you watch the video, you'll clearly see that I stopped behind the open streetcar door. Keep in mind that the video camera was at the level of my handlebars. My head was 2-3 feet higher than the camera, so I could clearly see that there was nobody getting on or off the streetcar and that the streetcar's back door was closed while only the front door was open (which explains why I stopped behind the front doors).

Sorry about your luck in getting hit by bikes. I surely wouldn't want to get hit by a bike nor would I want to hit a pedestrian. In my 25+ years of biking, I've never hit a pedestrian, so I don't need to take lectures from someone who had some unfortunate incidents that had nothing to do with me.
Billy Reuben / July 2, 2009 at 01:42 pm
Haha, @"Hit By Bikes". Most people don't get hit by bikes, but there's always that one guy, angry at cyclists, who seems to get hit ALL THE TIME, as if the universe is against him. Better watch out for comets, there, bud.. moving objects that rarely hit people seem to want to get ya.
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