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At least you won't get hit by a bus ...


By Kelly Egan,

The Ottawa Citizen, December 12, 2008

Residents are encouraged to travel outside rush hours or find alternate means of travelling, such as carpooling, cycling or telecommuting.

Cycling to work in December. Is this really wise advice as an alternative to public transit?

Your municipal government thinks so. Found a couple of gems while noodling around on ottawa.ca yesterday. The city thinks winter cycling is a wonderful idea. It lists several advantages. Among them:

- Increased time spent outdoors means more fresh air and sunlight.

- Increased opportunity for exercise, especially necessary after the holidays.

Under Driving Techniques, there were these lu-lus:

1. In the winter, roads tend to be a bit narrower due to snow banks, so 'take the lane' if necessary, by riding in the middle. This will prevent any motorists from passing you too closely.

2. Avoid patches of ice and snowdrifts at all times.

To which one of the office geezers had a good response. At least you won't get run over by a bus this week.

Fine, then. So there I was downtown yesterday, trying to interview the hordes of new commuting cyclists on Day 2 of the transit strike. There weren't many, actually.

Have you ever tried to interview a moving object? The things I do for you people. Mid-morning, near-frozen, I was running down Bank Street just behind a multi-coloured cyclist. "Heh, bud! Heh, bicycle guy! C'mon skipper, over here, can you stop for a sec?"

At the corner of Albert and O'Connor streets, I finally intercepted one coming out of a drugstore.

It was Henry Summerfield, 45, a bicycle courier for the last eight years. His assessment of the climate for winter cycling downtown?

"It's a war zone out there."

At the best of times, motorists are often antagonistic toward cyclists. Snow and cold just make everything worse.

Mr. Summerfield says he's been honked at, sworn at, screamed at. People have thrown garbage at him. He was once struck in the back of the head by a snowball, apparently chucked from a moving car.

Think of it, he said. Cyclists are confined to the most dangerous portion of the road -- that ribbon near the curb that is full of snow or slush, pockmarked with sewer grates, strewn with trash.

Winter's lane shrinkage just puts metal and limb that much closer together. Cars can barely inch by each other. Imagine how welcome is the cyclist.

Intersections, he said, can be highly dangerous. Cars making right turns can be killers. Vehicle doors on parked cars can suddenly fly open. And cyclists, invariably, will take the odd wipeout.

Mr. Summerfield is nothing if not committed. He commutes every day from the Montreal-Ogilvie roads area, a trip that takes about 40 minutes.

He drives a one-gear bike, like many couriers, because multi-gear derailers and fancy brake systems will only get gummed up or ruined by the salt and slush. Counter to intuition, he prefers thin tires to the fat, mountain-bike variety, because they cut through the snow.

He dresses in layers -- four on top, three on the bottom. He wears a face mask, with a little custom cut-out around his mouth.

On his hands, he wears a pair of dollar-store gloves under those flip-up mitt-gloves. He also pulls a trailer, a MacGyvered-looking thing composed of a large plastic container with the lid bungeed on.

Among the things he carries in it are tools. Makes perfect sense. If you are commuting several kilometres daily and the bicycle breaks down -- and there is no transit -- this is, at the minimum, inconvenient, at the maximum, outright dangerous.

"A flat tire in the winter is a nightmare."

As for tips, he urges the new cyclist to "drive to conditions," meaning slow down when the road is slippery and wear proper clothing.

Further along, and it took two tries to chase him down, was Chris Taylor, 46, near the corner of Bank and Queen.

He has been a bicycle courier for 22 years. Flat out, he would not encourage the occasional summer cyclist to suddenly become a winter warrior because of the transit strike.

"It's very hazardous."

This may come as news to the City of Ottawa. Winter cycling can be, and is, a very safe activity, says its electronic crier.

Funny, that word "safe." Skydiving is safe until your parachute doesn't open.

Getting around downtown this week is actually pretty nerve-racking. Traffic is clogged, patience is strained, some spots are greasy, many lanes reduced.

It is not, frankly, a good time to throw hundreds, if not thousands, of more cyclists on the road. This you decide on your own, anyway; a municipal website will not shoulder any risk.

And we hardly need the city to put the pedal to our mettle.