on bicycle commuting in calgary

I've been an on-again, off-again bicycle commuter for almost 2 decades. For the last couple of years, I've been riding my bike almost exclusively (as long as weather allows) from my house to work at the University. It's not a long ride - between 12-14 km, depending on my route - and much of it can be done off of streets, or on quiet residential streets. At the beginning of the riding season, I estimated that i might ride 2000km, or if I got lucky, maybe 2500km, before the end of the season. I'm about to cross the 2900km mark, and might be able to hit 3000km if the weather holds out. The bike ride is probably the calmest, most meditative time I get in a day. On days when I can't ride, I miss it, both physically and mentally.

There are a few sections of my ride that have to cross or follow relatively major streets, and that's where things get a bit interesting. The worst street I ride on is 32 Ave, between the fire hall and the University. It's only about 4 blocks, but it's by FAR the scariest part of my ride. I've lost track of the number of times I've been almost run off the road by aggressive and dangerous drivers - occasionally with undergrads gleefully shouting "get a car!" (btw, I have a car. a pretty nice one. I leave it at home so my family is mobile - I choose not to drive to work). On this stretch of road, I've been nearly run over by Hummers, Escalades, giant monster pickup trucks, city buses, and puny foul-belching shitboxes driven by students.

After 32 Ave, the rest of the ride is pretty tame. Even crossing Nose Hill Drive is pretty simple, given enough patience (I did something REALLY stupid at that crossing early in the year, and almost got creamed as a result. now I'm perfectly happy to wait patiently for a break in traffic before crossing, rather than trying to aggressively steamroll through).

One thing I've come to realize is that there are 3 basic types of drivers in Calgary.

  1. safe, friendly, and courteous
  2. mildly dangerous, oblivious morons
  3. completely dangerous, aggressive assholes

Unfortunately, the ratio seems to be roughly 1:100:10, with morons outnumbering assholes, who in turn greatly outnumber the safe drivers. There are some really great people out there, who are aware that there are people outside the boundaries of their SUVs or minivans, and work with the bike riders to make things go smoothly. Then, there are the complete assholes, who blow aneurysms if they have to let off the gas pedal for more than 1 second, and drop the hammer to accelerate as fast as they can as they pass a bike. They have no problem with cutting off a bike, or crossing traffic to get in front of them. I had one Hummer H2 accelerate around a corner, passing me on the right, then gunning it to turn left directly in front of me (without signaling or braking around the corner). I almost caught up to that one, but he got away. Probably for the best, since I'm not sure what I would have said to Asshole Hummer Driver if I managed to catch up to him on my bike.

I'm not sure most drivers are aware of what to do when they encounter a bicycle on the street. Some just choose to ignore it, resulting in close calls and dangerous situations for the bike. Some want to give as much room as possible - even if it means crossing the solid line into oncoming traffic to avoid getting close to the bike. It seems like many drivers don't have an awareness of the size of their vehicle - they aren't sure how much room they need to give to avoid hitting a bike, so they just give as much as possible. That is almost as scary as a close call, because the bike rider isn't sure what the driver is going to do (are they going to pop back over quickly? are they going to see that car coming toward them and then freak out?) It's best to just give a bit of room without going overboard. On most streets, there is ample room for parked cars, bikes, and a car, as long as everyone is aware of their surroundings.

And cell phones. Jebus. Can we PLEASE pass some legislation to ban their use while driving? Again, I've lost track of the number of times I've been nearly killed by drivers who have a phone wedged against their head, driving with one hand (or less, sometimes! I've actually seen a driver with cell phone in one hand and a Starbuck's coffee in the other, trying to work the steering wheel with a free finger!) and not paying attention to the world outside their monster trucks (or SUVs, or minivans). I think I need a Make: project to build a cell phone jammer to stick on my bike...

2000km In September, I picked up a new bike - a 2008 Kona Dew FS hybrid commuter - and that completely changed how I thought about the ride. I'll write up a post reviewing that bike when I get a chance. In short: I LOVE IT. Before, on my heavy decade-old Sport Check special Scott Head mountain bike, I'd have to be careful because I couldn't trust the bike (would the gears shift when I needed them, or wait a minute to pop in after I was up/down the hill? would the chain throw as it shifted? I actually threw a chain going up a hill once, and it got pulled through the spokes yanking a couple out). Now, I trust my bike, and it's so much easier to ride with the giant 700c wheels and 27 speeds. Over the last couple of months, I've chosen to ride a longer route because it's so much more fun to ride. It takes me a little longer than the short route, but I get to ride along the river valley instead of through suburbia. Calgary's got a really nice bike path system, along a gorgeous river valley. It's great to be able to take advantage of that. The quiet streets in Scenic Acres and Varsity are a pleasure to ride, and there are always people out walking along the pathway making it feel like a nice and welcoming community.

The city is in a constant state of construction. The northwest has been under continual road construction for the last few years. It's for the best, in the long term, as eventually the LRT will come to within a few blocks of my house. In the meantime, crews are working on major intersections, including the main entrance to my community. When they're working on the street, they're careful to reserve open lanes so traffic can get through. But, when working on the pedestrian bike path, they just blockade it. Find another way. No entrance. Of course, none of the bike commuters pay attention to the signs - we all just continue through the construction zone, going slowly and carefully to watch out for open pits and moving equipment (I was chased up the hill by a dump truck one morning - fun way to start the ride). Hopefully the construction gets completed over the winter, or they recognize that this is the only way for bike commuters to get into the community, unless they want to ride on the major ring road that Stoney Trail has become. I sure don't want to ride on Stoney. I'd rather risk a showdown with a bulldozer than try to ride with the convoys of speeding dump trucks and monster SUVs racing up and down Stoney...

bike unpath - 2bike unpath - 1

Another thing I've noticed, and I'm not sure if it's a valid observation or something clouded by my zero-carbon-emissions smugness. The likelihood of a vehicle displaying a yellow "support our troops" sticker/ribbon seems to be directly proportional to the size of the vehicle. I haven't seen one on a Prius. Only a handful on small cars. And on a sizable proportion of giant pickup trucks, SUVs, and larger vehicles. I'm wondering if it's tied more to political leanings (are individuals in the right wing more likely to a) drive larger vehicles and b) want to show support for the troops) or to the price of gas (are individuals who drive gas guzzlers more likely to support the troops that are fighting for cheaper oil?)

The bicycle commuting community, for whatever reason, has a bit of a "small town" feel to it. If I stop on the path to take a photograph or stow a jacket, I'll almost certainly be asked by a passing bike rider if everything's OK, and can they help. If I was driving a car, and pulled over to the side (say, to talk on a cell phone) I'd likely risk some road rage. Completely different feel. Is it something about removing the protective shell of a vehicle and placing a person back into their environment? Is it the slower pace of a bike, as compared with a car on a freeway? is it something about the type of person that is inclined to ride a bike? Regardless, it gives me hope that people in this city are still good, and that it's possible to recapture some civility. Maybe if everyone rode their bikes...

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Last updated: March 01, 2024