Friday, 26 April 2013

Earth Day Celebrations - PAC Style!

What Earth Day would be complete without a
"Douglas Fir" and "Sasquatch" mascot?

If you've been following me for a while, you'll know that I am a very active member of the PAC (Parent Advisory Council) at my daughter's school. Along with planning fundraising events and working with the teachers, we organize some fun events for the kids every year. Earth Day is no exception, with the parents coming together each April to run and entire day of Earth-minded activities for each and every student. This school year our celebration ran on Wednesday, April 24, and we were lucky enough to be doing it under a glorious blue sky and bright sun!

So you have an idea of what we do, starting in late fall, a group of parents come together and start spit-balling ideas of workshops to run throughout the day, the goal being to provide activities for all grade levels that will guide the curriculum for the day. This year's activities included some pretty amazing groups, including the Mobile Dairy Classroom and their Mom and baby cows, Backyard Bounty's chickens, and, I think the highlight of the day, Mike, The Reptile Guy and his band of creeping, crawling and slithering friends! 
Fellow parent volunteers having fun with a new friend!
Along with helping to organize the day, for the second year running, I, with the help of my good friend Brenna (A Girl, A Bike and a Dream...), ran the Bike Buddies workshop. We provided students ages 7-12 with a seminar all about simple bike maintenance, including the anatomy of their drive train, how to keep it running smoothly through cleaning and oiling, and proper tire pressure. The kids had fun getting dirty while they cleaned up their grimy, well used bikes, but I do think the highlight was pumping their tires. Somehow, kids get such delight of using a floor pump, and fought over who's turn it would be next. At least they didn't use it like my kids do to make farting noises on their bellies!
Getting all set up for the day
My daughter helped set up by playing
hop scotch with an inner tube
B.E.S.T. The Bicycle Valet came out for
the day to park over 80 bikes for the kids
who used two-wheeled transit to get to school
 for Earth Day

I feel truly privileged to be involved with such a great group of parents so willing to volunteer time from their already busy schedules to provide these experiences for our kids. It's not every parents that can do what I, and to a greater extent, we can do, and I am grateful every day that I have a work-life balance that affords me the opportunity to do it. Our kids love it, too, which is what makes all our efforts worthwhile. As Earth Week comes to a close, hopefully we have been able to impart some earth-minded knowledge onto the next generation, while having fun along the way. I wish you the happiest of Earth Weeks, and look forward to exciting Earth Day 2014!

At the end of a busy day I left with my trailer
loaded up with plants from our plant sale
fundraiser to help make out deck a little more green!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Stop Yelling at Me - A letter to the "Concerned Citizen"

How can you get mad at a family like that, enjoying
life outside of a car and on bikes together?
It happens all too often. I'm out for a ride, enjoying the sheer joy of being out on my bicycle, taking in the world around me, when out of nowhere, someone yells, "Get a helmet!". Each time this happens I find myself dumbstruck and at a loss for words. Why is this person so angry that they felt the need to yell at me? My actions have not caused them harm or impeded their own travels, nor have we ever met before this moment. What on Earth made them think it was appropriate to yell random advice at me?

I am calling this the plague of the "Concerned Citizen"; the random stranger that feels it is completely acceptable to shout advice or opinions at other stranger minding their own business. They are the people who yell at cyclists for things like not wearing a helmet, drinking a coffee while riding slowly, as has happened to my husband, or for rightly taking the lane when they feel it is necessary, among other things. While I'm sure they think they have the best of intentions, the reality is that what they are doing is distracting, ignorant, and just plain rude. 

When I leave the house, I have never thought, "Gee, I really hope that a total stranger gives me unwarranted advice today by yelling at me while I'm riding." Nor would I even dream of doing that same thing to anyone else, be it the person smoking on the street or the heavy set person about to chow down on a Big Mac. There's a big part of me that would love to yell, "Eat a salad!", but I have the good sense to know that's just wrong.

The fact is, I'm an adult, as are the people yelling at me and those like me. We all make decision based on facts and our beliefs. For me, I've done my research, and have made an educated decision based on what I have found. I know that while a helmet could minimize the damage to my head and the precious brain inside of it should I fall off my bike and hit my head, the likelihood of that actually happening is slim due to the slow pace at which I ride and the calmed streets and separated lanes I use. I am also aware that my head is not made of rubber, as someone yelled at me once while pulling my son in his trailer to preschool one day.

For the concerned citizen, the helmet advice generally comes from an emotional place. I don't blame them for being concerned, but yelling at me, "Someone loves you! For their sake, wear a helmet", is not going to make me rethink my decision and wear one, and in fact could have a more serious effect. I could get tired of being yelled at and just put my bike away...permanently. A friend of mine from Sit Up Vancouver summed it up nicely:

[Cyclists] know full well that behavior is what counts, that riding a big slow comfortable bixi-style sit-up bicycle, slowing when they’re unsure, avoiding car-full streets, stopping at stop signs and all that good stuff will put them in no more danger than a pedestrian. And so, just as a pedestrian would, they feel ridiculous in a helmet. Calling them names, telling them “you never know!”, isn’t going to get them cycling with helmets. It’s going to get them not cycling.

I often wonder if those yelling at me are aware that statistically, we can expect a severe head injury once every 8,000 years of cycling (Source). Whereas other research has shown that for people that are involved in crashes in a car, whether drivers or passengers, they experience serious head injuries in 25-30% of the cases. When I looked up the statistics of the number of car crashes in the British Columbia, an ICBC report found that in 2011, there were 260,000 reported crashes. Of those, 52,000 resulted in casualty, 263 of which were fatal. When broken down further, in the incidents of fatal crashes, there were 291 victims, 225 (77%) of which were inside the car, be it driver or passenger, and 57 (20%) who were pedestrians. Only 7 (2%) of those victims were on bikes, which is pretty astounding, considering how unsafe riding a bike is portrayed.

I'm not advocating that there should be a ban on helmets. If it is important to you, then it is your choice and who am I to tell you differently. I am simply asking that instead of getting so enraged that it seems necessary to yell at me and my counterparts, stop and take a breathe. Consider the facts, and then make an informed decision, all the while respecting my decision as an adult and as a human being. All I really want is to be able to enjoy my two-wheeled travels throughout the beautiful city I am lucky enough to live in, an act that should be openly encouraged, and not condemned. So please, have a little respect, and stop yelling at me.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Take a walk in my shoes

Today the kids and I took our kitty to the vet for a check up after having some health troubles. Due to some double booking and my husband needing our trailer, the trip to the vet meant booking a Zipcar and taking a bit of a car ride. So with the kids and kitty stowed safely in the back seat, I headed West from East Vancouver to the area near Granville Island. Today was also the Sun Run in Vancouver, which meant traffic and having to park a few blocks away from the vet, and hurriedly run through the path of hundreds of dedicated racers. The traffic on the trip home was pretty slow, with the runners heading home, but it was an uneventful drive all the same.

I don't drive very often anymore, but on the rare occasions I do, I have come to realize that after spending the last three years depending mainly on my bike and my own two feet, I have become a better driver than I ever was in my fourteen years of being car dependent. I am so aware of everything around me, whether it's the person riding next to me on the bike, or the pedestrian nearing the crosswalk while I wait for traffic to clear for me to turn, or even the other cars on the road around me.

As a mainly non-motorist, I feel very strongly that motorists really do need to try walking a mile in my shoes. Experiencing the world outside of a car is the only way to truly appreciate how their actions when in a car can be terrifying to pedestrians and cyclists. It is what has made me a better driver. Cars are very large metal boxes, built to protect the people inside them, but can do very serious damage to those outside them. Sadly, though, each and every day I experience a motorist more focused on getting to their destination a few minutes faster than on the road they're using. This has meant motorists cutting me off while I'm riding, driving way too close to my children riding their bikes on the bikeways at speeds that are just too fast, or the main offender, not stopping at the crosswalk for my children and I on our way too and from school.

The other day, I watched a comedy special from Louis CK that pretty much summed up the experience of driving. He said:

"When I'm in my car, I have a different set of values. I am the worst person I can be when I'm behind the wheel, which is when I'm at my most dangerous. When you're driving, that's when you need to be the most compassionate and responsible of any other time in your life, cause you are driving a weapon amongst weapons."

He then goes on to talk about some of the horrible things he's said to people because, as he put it, they made him test his reflexes and it worked out fine. That is really what it comes down to sometimes. The simple act of a cyclist or pedestrian causing a driver to stop and wait for a few seconds, or move their steering wheel slightly left or right can send drivers into a rage, forgetting the damage they are capable of behind that wheel.

Truly, the best way to understand the effects of our actions on another person or group is to experience a day in their life. Having spent so many years behind the wheel of a car, I understanding that running in front of a car in order to jaywalk is infuriating to a motorist and dangerous for me, so I do it as little as possible. I also know that assuming a motorist can see me while on my bike and will respect my space on the road is not realistic, so I am sure to ride in a way that I am almost always visible to fellow road users. So it seems only fair that if motorists are going to get up in arms and drive dangerously around me, that they should get out of that vehicle for more than five minutes and truly experience what it's like for those of us non-motorists. Maybe if that happened more often, the roads would be just a little safer and people would be a lot more relaxed while travelling from point A to point B.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Have Skirt, Will Ride!

For as long as I have been interested in bikes, or have read about them on various blogs, there is one topic that keeps popping up, and a question that I now get asked time and time again. "How on earth do you ride in a skirt?" When I first starting riding for commuting purposes, I was a bit curious how others did it, too. Nowadays, though, it just seems like such a silly question to me. I almost want to ask the men who question my skirted riding how they ride in pants? Because really, it's the same thing. I ride in what I'm comfortable in, and sometimes that's a skirt. From long, flowing skirts to knee length pencil skirts I will pretty much ride in them all. 

But back to the question, how do I do it? While the simple answer is that I just do, there are some helpful tools or tips I have come across. The most handy accessory I have on my bike to make riding in a skirt easy-peasy is my trusted skirt guard. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a skirt guard is a simple cover, sometimes made of metal, plastic or fabric, that wraps over the the top of your back wheel situated just below your seat. This handy contraption keeps my longer skirts from getting caught up in my spokes and getting dirty, tearing, or worse, landing my ass off my bike and onto the ground. They're pretty affordable, and even quite easy to make is your so inclined. Here's just a couple links I found on a quick search:

How To Make Your Own Skirt Guard:

Aside from accessories like a skirt guard, or fenders and a chain guard, I have personally found that riding an upright bike has solved many of my skirted riding woes. The upright position means that my skirts don't ride up as much, meaning less pulling and tugging as I'm riding. The slower speed has also made it easier to ride with one hand holding down my hem in gusty winds. And of course, the handy sloped bar means that I no longer have that awkward moment when I have to fling my leg over the centre bar to mount my bike. I simply step through the frame, sit back and ride!

Wearing a skirt never stopped this
little girl from riding her bike

The main point really is that I will ride in almost anything. Riding a bike doesn't require special clothing, and I refuse to remove skirts and dresses from my wardrobe simply because I commute by bike. Nor will I pack clothes to change into. I just don't have time for that, and quite frankly, it's unnecessary if you choose to ride at a slower pace. So if you're hesitant about donning a skirt while on two wheels, look at the options, either in accessories or bikes styles, but don't let it hold you back. Clothing choices should never be a reason not to ride, and riding a bike should never mean you can't wear that dress or skirt you've been dying to wear.

"I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood." - Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Reality of a Car Free Existence Continued: The Unexpected Joys of Living Car Free

A photo from our car-free adventure in Portland, OR
On Wednesday I posted about the challenges we have faced as a family by no longer owning a car. My intention was to be as honest as possible about how our car free life has been difficult at times. Part of any decision making is to accept that you will face challenges along the way, but to also welcome the good surprises as well. Such has been our experience over the last four years. Even through all the stumbling blocks and changes to our lifestyle, there have been many unexpected benefits we could have never foreseen, and are grateful now to have been able to grow and learn so much.

We always knew that we would be saving money by selling our car. even though the car was fully paid for, and our gas usage was at a minimum, the insurance costs alone were quite staggering. At the time, we were paying about $200 a month in insurance fees, which works out to $2400 a year, which is nothing to sneeze at. As a young family, we've been able to put that money towards things like day camps and extra curricular activities for our kids, an expense most families struggle with. So I'm pretty grateful that we are able to keep that money in our pockets and use it for things that are much more rewarding than easier access to a car.

Physically speaking, my husband and I are probably the healthiest we've ever been. We haven't tracked our weight loss or physical agility over the course of the last few year, but I can say that I can easily ride 30 kms in a day, up and down hills that used to trouble me greatly, and the sorest part of my body is my bum from sitting on a bike seat for too long. As for our kids, we actually take for granted sometimes how active they are. But I can see the benefits. Just last fall, my daughter decided to join the Cross Country team at her school. I've never been a runner, nor my husband, and so I wasn't sure how our daughter would do. Turns out all the stamina she had built up riding her bike helped her to be one of the fastest in her grade level! 

I have always prided myself on being good at navigating, being the one who always read the map when we went on a road trip. When we moved to Vancouver, although I was in a larger city, I began living in a bubble, only knowing the areas I needed to go to, whether childcare, work or school. Riding my bike has broadened my horizons so much. I know the best bike routes to take to get to most points in the city, and the city now seems so much smaller and accessible. Then there's the fact that our kids have developed a good sense of direction, knowing where they are most of the time. My husband and I are so confident that when they are old enough to head off on their own, they'll have the confidence to know where they're going and how to stay safe.

Our bikes at our favourite place for a bike date

One of the biggest surprises I have found is that riding our bikes around town has become one of my favourite things to do. Not for exercise, but just as a way to connect with my family. I love hearing  my son squeal with excited when we travel downhill, and talking to my daughter about the things going on in her life. And I especially love the bike/beach dates my husband and I share in the summer. They're not extravagant, but I couldn't think of a better way to spend time together, riding along the water with the wind in our hair.

Living without owning a car may have it's own set of complications, but the rewards we have found during our car-free journey far outweigh any difficulty. I know we are doing the best that we can for ourselves and our children, as well as living more sustainably. Sure, there will always be times when we will think it would have been easier to drive, but if I did everything the easy way, I would not be the person I am today. So for now, I will continue to pedal on, enjoying every new challenge or success that comes our way!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Reality of a Car Free Existence: The Challenges We Face

This June, Father's Day weekend to be exact, my family and I will have been living a car free existence for four years. With the realization that our car was spending more and more time parked in our parking stall, my husband and I opted to save the money we were spending monthly on insurance and sell the car we had purchased together fresh out of university. It was definitely an emotional decision along with a practical one. That car had taken us on many road trips, including the big one that brought us to Vancouver from Ontario, and was the car we brought our children home from the hospital in when we began the adventure that is parenting. While we haven't ever looked back with regret, I have to be honest that there have been some challenges along the way.

Our first and only car covered in bugs
after driving across the country when
we moved to Vancouver
We don't ever think of ourselves as being stuck in one place because we don't own a car. However, we don't have the same freedom to just up and take a road trip that we did before. Things like trips to Vancouver Island or down the coast in the US become a lot less spontaneous, especially when we have to think about whether to use our car share or a rental car, where we pick it up, car seats, etc. Something I miss a lot is camping. I spent every summer of my childhood riding in a car with my parents and siblings to our favourite campground, and many of my fondest memories as a child stem from those trips. Sadly, because we don't have easy access to a car, the last camping trip we took as a family was in 2009, when my son was just five months old. Nowadays, any trip takes a lot more planning, especially if taking a train is not an option, as well as justifying the expense of renting a car that may only be used to get us there and back, and sit unused for the remainder of the time.

We also find ourselves very much at the mercy of the weather when planning our transportation options without owning a car. If it's sunny and gorgeous outside, of course our first choice is always our bikes, which we have found to be the easiest way to get around Vancouver. But on days when the rain seems endless, or the rare days when the city is blanketed with snow, we have to opt to walk if we're going somewhere nearby, like school, or transit, in the case of my husband and his commute to work. Neither are unreasonable options, and we choose both quite readily, but on those particularly wet days, when no matter what footwear I choose my feet still get soaked, or my husband is stuck like a sardine on the hot bus to work, owning a car would sure make things a bit easier.

An unexpected challenge we face from time to time is coordinating with my daughter's friends for play dates. Luckily, most of her school friends live nearby, or at least on the route home for my husband, making it easy for a pick up on his way home. However, there have been times when we have had to rely on the kindness of other parents to get our children to birthday parties, preschool or home for a play date. Each time, those helping us have appeared gracious to lend a hand, and a carseat, understanding our choice and our situation, but there are times when I can't help but feel a bit guilty needing to ask for the help in the first place.

Thankfully, not owning a car means it may be a bit
longer before we have to deal with this challenge...
teaching our kids to drive!
With all these challenges, we have taken steps to overcome them as best we can, the main one being membership with a car share program. It has been very handy for those instances when only a car will do. We have come to be quite reliant on public transit, and have managed to start learning the least troublesome routes to get to where we're going. Sometimes that may mean going the long way around, but in doing so, we've gotten to know how to get around our city better than we ever could have in a car. And for our longer trips, we are always quite excited by the prospect of hopping on a train and watching the world go by from the comfort of our chair, not having to worry about the stress of traffic. We will certainly still have many challenges to face along the way, but after four years, we're getting pretty good at figuring out how to get past them and onto our next adventure!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Learning How To Share

One of many near empty racks of the popular Montreal Bixi public-bike share
With Spring returning slowly but surely to much of Canada, I have been hearing a lot of talk about cities like Montreal and Toronto preparing their bike share systems for another successful biking season. Montreal's Bixi bike share, which launched in May of 2009, boasts over 5000 bikes and over 400 stations throughout the city and surrounding areas. It is incredibly popular, so much so that I have read frequently on Twitter of how many of the stations are empty before the end of the morning rush hour. In Toronto, a city currently infamous for its anti-bike mayor, Rob Ford, the Bixi bike share has been running successfully since May 2011, and has over 1000 bikes available for short trips throughout the city.

Bike sharing services have become a fantastic way to promote riding a bike as a means of transportation instead of just recreation. Four summers ago, I visited Paris, France with my family and witnessed a city alive with everyday riders, otherwise known as "citizen cyclists". The Velib bike share, which started in July 2007, has exploded with popularity, and during our visit, everywhere we went in the city we found bike stations with people coming and going with the share bikes for quick trips in their city. It was so exciting to see, even as someone still discovering my passion for two-wheeled travel. I then heard shortly after my trip that there were plans in the works to bring the Bixi bike share to Vancouver and I was ecstatic! A city like Vancouver, that boasts being bike friendly, would truly benefit from this system, and would surely encourage citizens to get out of their cars and onto a bike.

The announcement of the bike share feasibility study in Vancouver was about five years ago, and here we stand, waiting for confirmation of when it's coming. Last summer, the reports were that we would see the Bixi system start in Spring 2013, but due to contract delays, that date seems to be getting further and further into the future. With no ground breaking happening to date, the soonest we would likely se anything resembling a bike share in the city would be Fall 2013 (related link). Anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest knows that starting anything resembling outdoor activity in the Fall is a bad idea. With most everyday bike riders putting their bikes away as they prepare for the wet winter ahead, it almost goes without saying that the best timing for a bike share launch would be the Spring, when everyone comes out of hibernation ready to ride in the sun.  

One of the biggest hurdles to launching the system is how to overcome BC's mandatory helmet law for all ages. Current legislation makes it so that riding a bicycle without a helmet could earn you the embarrassment of being pulled over by the police and issued a ticket between $37-150. With the whole purpose of a bike share being short, spontaneous trips, it is extremely unlikely that the average person will just happen to be carrying a helmet around "just in case" they want to use the bike share.

The City plans to combat this issue by installing helmet dispensing machines at each station, and is actually one of the main components holding up the launch. While the machines have the best of intentions, there are clearly some concerns with this plan. First, the average person is unlikely to want to use a helmet that has been worn by some random stranger because it's just plain unsanitary. The dispensing machines are supposed to have a sanitization process, but there are questions of the reliability of that process. The second issue is the integrity of the helmets. You may not be away, but essentially once a helmet is so much as dropped on the ground, the integrity of the helmet is compromised. There is no way of guaranteeing that a previous wearer took care of that helmet, and so the efficacy of the helmet will be a constant concern for users.

Two other cities have launched bike shares while maintaining their mandatory helmet laws; Brisbane and Melbourne in Australia. Based on last year's statistics, the Montreal Bixi system saw approximate 18,333 trips per day (Source). Meanwhile, in Melbourne, last year they averaged about 240 trips per day, and the research suggests this is primarily due to the mandatory helmet law (Source). With no politician budging on the helmet issue here in BC, is Vancouver bound to suffer the same fate as Melbourne and see our bike share fail before it even hits the ground?

This summer I am travelling to Montreal and Toronto, two places where the mandatory helmet law does not apply to adults. During my visits, I have every intention of testing out the bike share, and am excited to experience two cities I used to spend so much time in during my younger years on two wheels. The bike share is the perfect way to do this. It is a fantastic program that is accessible to anyone, regardless of income or status, and so is a great way to promote citizen cycling to the masses. I just hope I get to have the same experiences in my own city one day!