Fa-Linn Woollings’ tells me that she barely has a “real” commute anymore since it’s only seven blocks and a 10 minutes ride from home to work. She isn’t the only cyclist that’s expressed some concern that their commute doesn’t live up to Calgary standards, but I think that’s just a bit of “bike culture” fallout. You’re on your bike and you’re going to work – you’re a bike commuter!
Besides, Fa-Linn wasn’t always in close proximity to her workplace. When she started riding to work about six years ago her commute took her from Bridgeland to an office in the NE. After her employer changed offices, she was riding from Bridgeland to Victoria Park, and, after a change in jobs, and a move to live downtown, she wound up riding from the Beltline into the NE again. That’s about when she started riding through the winter. She liked riding her bike but she started to resent starting over again in the springtime. As she puts it, “you lose your seat.” So, as winter started setting in, she just kept on riding. She felt ready and was getting really comfortable being on the roads.
Her ride to the NE took her through downtown to the Bow River pathway, then North on the Nose Creek pathway to 24th Avenue, which she road East to work. Even though it was a recommended route, she says it was still a bit on the scary side because of the high volume of large tractor-trailer units on the two lane road. Still, the Nose Creek pathway was great – even better than the Bow River pathway system. It was maintained as well as the Elbow River pathways but only had a quarter of the traffic. The part of the system that she hated the most was the Bow River pathway by the zoo. It’s not lit, it’s bendy and has a number of blind corners. Plus, “you can ride it and hear cougars scream. Nobody likes that!”
Her current commute, after another job change, takes her down 14th Avenue, riding East from 5th Street to Macleod Trail. She could walk to work in about 20 minutes, but having the bike gives her more options. Like running errands after work, or riding home for lunch (Home for lunch! How many of us get to do that anymore?). In the morning she’ll check on the roads, then hop on her bike in her regular work clothes. Because the ride’s so short, she doesn’t have to think too hard about clothes, the roads or the weather. If the going gets tough, she can always walk her bike part of the way.
When she was riding into the NE, when her commutes were running to 45 minutes, she layered up, put on biking tights, a windbreaker, toque, lobster mitts, and winterized hiking boots. Now that she just has to pedal down the street, she’ll wear something that’s more appropriate for a walk to work because there isn’t enough time to warm up. Riding, or walking when conditions deteriorate, is something that Fa-Linn prefers over public transit – there’s too much standing around and getting cold while waiting for the bus to show up.
I met up with Fa-Linn on a pleasant Monday afternoon in early November to talk with her about biking and her commute. She’d taken a vacation day so we chatted in the rec room in her apartment building, and then went outside to take a few pictures. The roads were clear and dry, there wasn’t a lot of snow in sight, and it wasn’t too chilly. Fa-Linn has a fairly large and secure bike lockup in the parking garage in her building where she keeps her two bikes – one for winter and the other for times that aren’t as hard on bike hardware. We started there, of course.
She started biking on an old, used bike that had a previous life as a rental, and used that until after her first winter commute. To “reward herself with a new bike” for completing that journey, Fa-Linn started looking for a vintage bike. She discovered that some of the truly vintage bikes didn’t really suit her so she picked up a PUBLIC C7 step-through which has “vintage” styling with modern features. She says it’s great for the city and can get her up the river valley just fine. She’s kept her original bike as her winter “beater” with studded tires and crappy fenders. It’s starting to fall apart, but it is just a “beater”. Like a lot of us, Fa-Linn takes her bikes into the shop for servicing instead of doing repairs herself.
When we talked about what annoys her the most about riding to work in the winter, it was the usual about the dark and the snow, but mostly it was the “…drivers – people who drive cars and trucks… perhaps they’re irritated with the driving conditions and take it out on me!” She says that “whenever I look out and see the snow, I think ‘Oh! They’ll have forgotten how to drive today!'”
Although Fa-Linn commutes on her bike “just to get to work”, she recognizes that there are many types of riders. She feels offended when people say that only “hard core” people can do it. Although she hasn’t convinced other people in her office to start riding in the winter, there are fewer people that are calling her crazy (to her face, at least :-). Although “bike culture” can be a little clique at times, it’s really the “car culture” that gets in the way of more people taking up cycling. She’s definitely not a “winter warrior.” Fa-Linn grew up in Canmore and she says that “there are a lot of ‘winter warriors’ out there.” Skiing across glaciers, ice climbing – that’s “winter warrior” stuff, “… not doing your groceries (on your bike) in the winter.
We talked some more about advocacy, infrastructure, and the politics around cycling in general, and winter commuting in particular. Fa-Linn advocates by example. You show up at your office with your helmet and people are going to comment, so you say “Yeah! It was awesome!” Cyclists are really good self promoters and they’re always trying to tell their stories, like Commit2Commute for example. She’s a big fan of the city workers, especially the people that are taking care of the pathways. The workers are amazing, she says, “… and then there’s the politicians!” She’s less enamoured with “anyone who tries to secure political points by making fun of us,” or of people who “take pictures from the front seat of their SUV of an empty bike lane.”
Fa-Linn is getting excited, as we all are, about the new cycle tracks planned for downtown, especially, she says, the new turning treatments. She says that turning left is the most dangerous move she can make downtown – people just aren’t expecting you to behave like a car. Even though it’s a wee bit out of her way, she’ll likely be taking the 12th Avenue cycle track on her way into work. She already goes that way after it snows because it’s a Priority 1 route and 14th Avenue is Priority 2. She’s hopeful that they’ll become a permanent feature, but she doesn’t want to get her hopes up since there are people who want to jump all over it before the trial period even gets underway.
We chatted some more about safety issues, like helmets, licensing and training. She wears a helmet but recognizes that they don’t protect you from the most common head injuries – they’ll lessen the impact but they won’t prevent the injury. She’s a bells and lights woman and eschews high visibility clothing. Licensing, as far as Fa-Linn is concerned is a “waste of money!” It’s not going to do anything for safety. Licensing will only throw up barriers to getting more people out on their bikes, and it’s going to do nothing for compliance. “Groups of cyclists who annoy drivers the most are couriers, and couriers are already licensed!”
Fa-Linn would like to see more women cycling, especially in the winter. She thinks the mindset has to change from cycling being a sport to being recognized as just another transportation choice, albeit one that’s cheaper, usually faster, and way more fun. Fa-Linn is a “real” bike commuter.