Michael Scullen and I got together to chat about winter commuting on one of those fine riding days that we had last January, right in the middle of that extended period of above normal temperatures. I don’t even think it went below freezing the night before. I met up with Mike after work at his downtown office in the Burns Building.
Mike says that he fits the stereotype of the “stubborn, middle-aged, male” bicycle commuter. Cycling is his chosen mode of transportation, although he admits to being multi-modal, depending on circumstances. He’s been biking to work for the last decade or so, and, like other people that I’ve talked with, he chose where he lives to accommodate commuting by bicycle.
Mike and his family live in Renfrew which is a just a bit North and East of Bridgeland in the NE. He and his wife share how they get their children to school, so most days involve blended commuting. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Mike drives the kids to King George School, parks the car and rides his bike into work on the 10th Street bike lanes. He’ll then commute straight home via the 5th Avenue flyover and Bridge Crescent. On the other days when his wife takes the kids and drops the car, he’ll ride to King George School and then drive home with his bike stuffed into the back of the car. When winter has passed, they’ll use their cargo bike to take the children to school, and everywhere else for that matter.
They haven’t decided if they’ll have the children bike to school yet. Mike says he’s not comfortable having them ride on the roads in the winter just yet, at least for the route they’re taking. They have been out for winter rides already, but that was along the pathway to the zoo. Mike said that he likes the pathway system and thinks it’s great, but it’s not always the best way to get somewhere.
The family tries to use their bikes as much as possible. The cargo bike has opened up much more usage for them, like getting the groceries and running errands. Mike says that their neighbourhood is not that walkable, so the bike is a good intermediary between walking and taking the car. Riding through the neighbourhood doesn’t present any problems. Winter, of course, means the lanes are a little more congested.
Mike says that the sketchiest part of his commute is the short stretch on Macleod Trail downtown coming into work or going home, or heading over the 5th Ave Flyover on the way out of downtown. He tries to avoid the Langevin Bridge because of the pedestrians – there are usually no walkers on the Flyover. He’s disappointed that the proposed 1st Street cycle track that was dropped because it would have been great for his commute.
The bus-only lane by Memorial is a bit of an issue for Mike because they have the right of way and they get annoyed when you try to take the lane. On the other hand, taxis, buses and trucks can all be a bit of an issue on the roads. Mike admits to also having a bit of personal thing going on with Mini Coopers. He thinks that the best way to negotiate right-of-way is to establish eye contact with the drivers, which isn’t possible all the time. Mikes riding style is to take the lane to make traffic flow around him.
Mike noted that there are lots of interesting psychological things going on out there on the road. There seems to be a distinct us-vs-them mentality, and you see that in a lot of arguments drivers have against cyclists. “Cars come first” is a very common attitude. He wondered why there isn’t a “pedestrians come first” mentality since everyone needs to walk. We talked a bit about public spaces becoming “rivers of evil” as cities started to be designed for cars instead of people.
Mike’s ride of choice in the winter is a direct drive fixie because it’s easy to maintain, and he has better control over his speed. He’s only been on the fixie for three years, having rode a mountain bike before that. This is also the first year that he’s trying studded tires. His other rides are mostly older, classic 10 speeds that he collects, fixes up and rides in the summer. Mike feels that riding the fixie is more natural, but switching back and forth with the 10 speeds can be a bit of a jolt. Riding a fixie is also harder on your knees, apparently, without additional hand braking power.
He has a lot of other bikes, including some project bikes, that he keeps in his utility room in the basement of his house. He doesn’t have a garage so he does all of his “wrenching” there. Mike admits that his bike mechanic skills are maintenance oriented, and he doesn’t build his own wheels or anything like that. His go-to utility bike is a 2008 Kona Ute cargo bike that he’s McGyvered for passengers.
When he gets to work, Mike is able to keep his bike in the basement of the Burns Building. It’s a storage room, not really a bike room, and it’s not really convenient either, but it is inside. Mike wears an external layer over his everyday work clothes so he just shucks off the outer layer where he parks his bike, swaps out his shoes and he’s ready to go to work. For Mike, commuting by bike is just to get to work – it’s not a form of exercise, although he acknowledges that it has its health benefits. He reminded me that his commute is only 15 minutes in the morning and a bit longer in the evening, so how much exercise can you get?
In the winter it’s all about getting to work and going home. In the summer, though, he’ll extend his ride coming in or going home to take in more of the sights and sounds, including riding through Pearce Estate Park. He mused that “there’s a certain amount of joy that you experience when getting from A to B.” It’s not something you can do when you’re commuting by car.
Mike’s favourite thing about riding in the winter is “mornings when there’s frost on the trees or a new snow and it’s just calm.” On the other hand, there’s nothing really to like about the road conditions, but sometimes the challenge can be rewarding. “Shows a firmness of character when you’re committed to something like riding and you’ll do it to overcome conditions.” He doesn’t feel it’s such a big deal in his circumstance because it is such a short commute. “I cycle because that’s how I get to work.” He’s not seeking out that challenge but it’s still feels nice when he goes through it, although he tries not to be smug about it.
“There’s people that are into advocacy and the culture, and then there’s folks that just ride their bike.” Mike follows “bike culture” in Calgary through social media, but he doesn’t really participate. He thought that maybe it does make cycling seem out of the ordinary, or elitist, and he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t getting in the way of mainstream adoption. He thought that the This Hour Has 22 Minutes vignette distilled the stereotype – we’re definitely visible out there and people get a hate on for you. He finds it disturbing that “people shout at me when I’m riding with my children on the streets.”
Like most of us, Mike isn’t sure why the issues become contentious. He says that the arguments aren’t very good, and it’s a waste of time. “It’s positive that there’s at least acknowledgement at the municipal level that cycling is gaining popularity and that there can be some municipal dollars dedicated to that.” “I like any kind of infrastructure dedicated to cycling.”
Mike thinks that the emphasis on helmets is a little misguided. It would be way more effective to educate drivers about safety around cyclists rather than educating cyclists about better safety equipment. He wears a helmet as an example to his children, but he doesn’t think it’s a big deal to ride without one. “Always a dumb idea!” is what he had to say about licensing too. Once you start adding those hurdles, cycling becomes less attractive, putting up barriers to acceptance both from cyclists-to-be and people in cars.
“I don’t think it’s us and them” It’s just us! “What would help is elevating the role of the pedestrian. It starts there – everyone walks – everyone needs safe streets.” The next step is cycling. All of this is “in opposition to the “cars come first” attitude.”