I met up with Scott Walton a couple of times for his story about winter commuting. The first time, in mid-December last year, we talked about cycling and commuting. He wasn’t riding then because he’d come down with some kind of nasty bug, so I came back in early February to take some pictures of him riding into work.
Like a lot of people, Scott was an avid cyclist when he was younger. Challenges set by his Junior High phys-ed teacher put him into a cycling mindset. Unfortunately, adulthood came along and cycling took a backseat for a while. He started riding bikes again about four years ago, and has been cycling diligently, as in almost every day, since spring of last year.
What got him going again was a desire to spend more time with his family and less time driving too and from work. His commute from just north of downtown to his home in Cougar Ridge was taking way to much time out of his day with no apparent benefit. “If I’m spending an hour and half commuting, and an hour and a half going to the gym … why not combine the two?” At least in the summertime Scott’s commute by bicycle is faster coming to work and about the same time going home, compared to travelling by car, so he’s getting his exercise and saving an hour and a half out of every day.
Scott says that he feels much happier and healthier now that he’s riding to and from work. He rides as much as he can so he can be a “better member of the family and a better parent, and be around them more.” For Scott, his children are a big motivation to continue cycling through the winter.
As summer turned into fall in his inaugural year of commuting by bicycle, Scott couldn’t think of any reason to stop. “I hate commuting in a car so much; it’s just so miserable.” So, “why not?” He also wanted to prove something to himself – “Can I do this?” He saw so many other people doing it that he wondered why couldn’t he do it?
Also factoring into his decision to commute by bicycle is the dearth of transportation options to get from Cougar Ridge to Centre Street North. He can catch a bus to the 69th Street LRT station, but he’s got to transfer to a Northbound bus once he gets downtown. He’s already tired of driving, so cycling is the fastest, most realistic option.
Scott has a number of routes that he can take to and from work. He rides on residential streets through Cougar Ridge, along the Old Banff Coach Road, and then downhill to the intersection at Sarcee and Bow Trail. There are no dedicated bike lanes and no real bike route until he gets to that intersection. Not only is this a busy intersection for cars, but for bikes as well, in both summer and winter.
Once he passes the intersection he can get onto bike lanes in Wildwood. He has three choices once he gets to that point – he can go down the Edworthy Park hill – “it can get pretty sketchy in the winter” – and then link up with the Bow River Pathway. He can also go through Wildwood to the Quarry Road Trail, or he can take the bike lanes all the way to Bow Trail and over the new overpass at the golf course, then downhill to the Pathway again. Once he’s on the pathway he’ll follow the river to the Curling Club hill and then up Centre Street to his work.
Scott says that, in general, he likes the multi-use pathways like Bow River, unless there are a lot of people out and about. It’s especially difficult in the springtime when people are still oblivious to sharing the Pathway with cyclists. He says that, for the most part, people are courteous when sharing the Pathway. On the other hand, he doesn’t “feel unsafe on the road”, if it’s the fastest way to get to work, although it’s a little more challenging in the winter.
He’s only using his bike for commuting and recreation for the time being, but he’s keen on using it for more. Living in the suburbs does make it a bit more of a challenge to do your everyday living on a bike. Scott’s children are still too young to ride, but he does have a “project” bike that he uses to take them riding with him. He says that his partner isn’t all that comfortable on a bike yet so it’s mostly pathways when they go riding together.
The only thing that will keep Scott from riding his bike is “Sickness, like I’ve encountered this week.” He says that when it’s really cold and it really does snow, those are the days that “I really want to ride more!” “This rebellious nature that I was born with … I’m not giving up because there’s snow.” “No matter what happens, somebody is coming down that pathway behind me. There’s always one other guy that’s as crazy as I am.”
Scott can change and shower at work now. A year earlier they had no facilities in their office so that might have kept him from cycling more. Not many other people in his company cycle, but the building keeps two bike racks full in their secure parking garage, at least in the summer.
Scott keeps his bike next to him in his office, so there’s a lot of a conversation about his winter cycling commute as he makes his way through the foyer, up the elevator and down the corridor to his office. His employer is, at least passively, supportive of what’s Scott doing. His company has a general purpose wellness fund that can be put towards gym memberships and the like, including buying and maintaining a bike, so that’s how he bought his wife’s cruiser last summer.
He says that his biggest hassle is getting dressed – putting on all the layers to hit the road in the morning and after work. Another hassle that we have in common was finding cycling clothes that will fit bigger people.
As far as Scott is concerned, the challenge of winter cycling all comes before he gets on the bike. Once he’s on, the challenge ends. When he’s on two wheels there are things to overcome, but nothing seems that difficult.
When he thinks of “cyclist” he thinks of someone that rides the Tour de France – an elite athlete. He’s only getting used to the term but he’s always thought of himself as just a biker. Unfortunately, that term is easily confused with the bikers on the motorized variety, so he’s starting to use the new terminology. He doesn’t mind the term “cyclist” because it seems to be more precise.
Scott doesn’t advocate for cycling, yet. However, now that its becoming something more than an intense hobby for him, he’s starting to feel an obligation to advocate for cycling in all seasons because of what it’s given him. He feels that his kind of winter riding is pretty much what Tom Babin was describing in FrostBike.
Scott said that the snow clearing this year has been pretty good, for the most part, but the delays in clearing the Edworthy Park hill are a bit of a bother. He says that it would also be nice if the City got to the Pathways quickly after it snowed to keep it from getting packed down by feet and tires. He also echoed my concern that some of the on-street bike lanes haven’t been adequately cleared either, so you wind up riding with the traffic anyways and the bike lanes are useless.
One of the possible improvements that Scott mentioned that I haven’t heard about much are more lights illuminating the pathways and bike routes, especially through Edworthy Park. It is one of the City’s designated bike routes, but it’s virtually black in the mornings and evenings. He’d also like to see better signage on the pathways where they split pedestrian and cycling traffic. The cyclists seem to stick to their side, but the pedestrians are sometimes all over the place.
Echoing many others, Scott says that if they make the infrastructure easy to use, then cyclists will use it. It’s not a case of build it when it’s needed. Generally, it’s better to build the infrastructure so it will be used. Although it’s not strictly “infrastructure”, Scott would like to see the window for loading your bike on the C-Trains expanded to encourage more people to cycle. “How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t put your bike on the train during rush hour?”
We mused about “bike culture” in Calgary, at least certain aspects of it, and whether it was standing in the way of getting more people out cycling? Scott said that there are some people out there on their $10,000 road bikes and this is their Tour de France every morning. Really, it’s just their commute. To some extent, they’re not any different than the guy behind you in the pickup truck trying to swerve and jump around you to gain a few seconds before the next red light. “Same guy, just a different mode of transportation.” Thankfully, he says, most people are very courteous. People like Scott, for example.