What My Bicycle Taught Me

I recently acquired a bicycle for use as my primary means of getting around. Ottawa, where I reside, is neither a public transit utopia nor a city known for bicycle-friendliness, so this decision and my broader commitment to never driving a car might puzzle some of my readers. What did I hope to gain by adding a bicycle to my life, and how did I hope to make it work in this often infuriatingly car-centric city?

Navigating this city by bicycle for the past two months has imposed quite a few lessons upon me, some more surprising than others. Let’s begin.

It Can Be Faster Than Busing

The problem I got this bicycle to solve, more than anything else, is that I have a recurring pet-sitting client that takes two buses to reach. The transfer between those buses adds substantially to the overall time required to visit this client and return home, especially on weekends. With Ottawa public transit’s time-based transfer system and the need to visit this client twice a day for most gigs, I frequently ended up having to pay the transit fare three or even four times in a single day and spending upwards of five cumulative hours in transit. The accumulated bus fare often took a sizable portion of my overall fee. Remaining in the client’s home between care appointments was a nonstarter due to my limited work-from-away devices and the need to care for my own pets on an incompatible schedule. But I knew, from occasions when things with the bus system got so bad that I walked part or most of the way home, that it would be doable by bicycle. One of the first things I did with my bicycle was prove to myself that I could get to and from this client in an acceptable time frame, and I could.

I’ve since had one of these week-long twice-daily pet-sitting gigs, and my initial assessment was, if anything, too pessimistic. Cycling routinely gets me to and from my client in an amount of time that competes with the best times OCTranspo offered me. A revised route with friendlier river crossings made the path even more comfortable. Not having to wait for a bus transfer, and instead having to wait only for a handful of signalized intersections and other obstacles to clear, made all the difference. Within the surprisingly large radius I can reasonably travel by bicycle, public transit outright loses to the bicycle a shocking fraction of the time. It is mostly when the fast, frequent O-Train is involved, or during peak commuting hours when transfer times are shortest, that OCTranspo can get me places faster than the humble bicycle.

Sidewalks Are Very Handy

I am not a “vehicular cyclist.” I do not share major roads with cars. Ideologues with a deeply confusing axe to grind insist this is both a reasonable thing for people on bicycles to do and the way cities should conceptualize cyclists, and it’s neither. Automobiles have very different movement characteristics from all other road users and the difference is most pronounced with bicycles, which cannot accelerate as quickly, don’t have as easy a time signaling turns, often cannot see around increasingly large automobiles, and don’t represent nearly the potential harm to automobiles that automobiles present to them in the event of a collision. When I am crossing a street or otherwise directly sharing space with motorists, they rarely conceal their hostility, often approaching needlessly close or glaring at me for being “in their way” even when the signal lights are in my favor. I can imagine how they’d feel about me if I were actually taking up space they consider theirs, and cyclists have abundant documentation of how violent motorists can get toward us. Being a vehicular cyclist takes extraordinary confidence verging on a death wish, and I have neither.

In a city where relatively few streets have any separate space at all for bicycles and where that space is, often, one or more painted lines that motorists routinely cross to access turning lanes, that’s not a great combination. Fortunately, most streets between me and my destinations either are low-traffic residential streets that are bicycle-friendly by default or have an alternative path available: the sidewalk.

Operating a bicycle on sidewalks in Ottawa is not technically legal. Cyclists are, legally, expected to ride in the street with cars, with the sidewalk reserved for pedestrians and scooters. However, Ottawa’s ongoing failure to provide safe, separated, contiguous bicycle paths or limit speeds on most of its streets to bicycle-safe levels means that the majority of cyclists I encounter on short cycling trips are on the sidewalk, and I am no exception. Pedestrians don’t like it and I don’t blame them, but the alternative is to take my life into my own hands. Fortunately, in the neighborhoods I frequent, sidewalks tend not to be especially crowded and it is easy to either go around pedestrians or walk my bike near them instead of trying to get past them at speed.

Bicycles Are an Unexpected Urban Patch

One of the things that surprised me most about cycling in Ottawa was just how effective it is at turning car-oriented blocks into pleasant places to exist. The commercial establishments in my neighborhood are on huge blocks with little shade and large parking lots between the sidewalk and the storefronts, and the parking lots and big-box stores magnify the distance between everything and everything else. I used to walk those blocks regularly for groceries, post office visits, and other errands and it was rarely an enjoyable experience. Walks through places like this are loud, tedious, unpleasant in virtually any weather condition, and exceedingly slow, and it is little wonder that few people walk here. This is what it means to put a stroad instead of a street at the center of a commercial area, and it’s a poor experience for everyone, including motorists.

But a bicycle makes that tedium go by so much faster. Stroads tend to be choked with car traffic because their design encourages large numbers of motorists to visit them and then creates numerous conflict points via the multiplicity of driveways for each commercial block. In places without priority lanes for buses, public transit gets stuck in that same traffic. A bicycle, by contrast, can zoom down sidewalks made empty by all that car noise and discomfort, and the relative dearth of points of interest in these asphalt deserts turns into reduced mental overhead and increased navigational clarity. The ramps leading up to parking-lot grade are just as useful to cyclists as they are to motorists, as well, and while a cyclist in a parking lot is not exactly an expected sight, motorists are at least watching for potential non-car collisions and not driving fast in parking lots, so the possibility of being struck by a car is relatively low. It is shocking just how well suited to these awful car-centric environments a bicycle can be when it isn’t trying to pretend to be a car and directly mingle with them at speed.

One unfortunate challenge that comes with being seen as an interloper in motorist territory is that stroad-heavy commercial spaces rarely have much, if any, bicycle parking. Bicycle theft is a real threat in most urban areas and an unsecured, unattended bicycle is an expensive loss waiting to happen, so I’ve had to get comfortable securing my bicycle to stop signs and other anchor points while running errands. (Even actual bicycle racks often aren’t much help, since designs popular in Ottawa are difficult to use with a front basket and rear panniers.)

Ottawa Actually Has Lovely Bike Paths

Ottawa is, for the most part, following the model of most cities that grudgingly accept bicycles as a mode of transportation, in which actual, curb-separated bicycle infrastructure is built almost exclusively in the densest parts of the city and around schools, with other paths getting either absolutely nothing or a dangerous painted line. Ottawa has something else going for it, though, which is a sizable network of “multi-use paths” and dedicated two-way bicycle paths running through parks, along rivers and canals, and along its major east-west rail line. Lined with trees and waterfront views and completely separated from automobile traffic, these paths are the preeminent cycling experience in the entire city, and they connect its various sections thoroughly enough to function as a de facto highway system for cyclists. My longer-distance trips make extensive use of these paths to reach downtown Ottawa neighborhoods safely and swiftly, and their pre-eminence among the bike lanes of Ottawa has forced me to develop a fourth mental map of how this city connects to itself, alongside my pedestrian, public transit, and automobile (for guiding friends) maps.

Unfortunately, these paths often don’t connect especially well to each other, because they aren’t meant to be the cycling thoroughfares they nevertheless are. Switching from one to another usually involves a stretch of painted bicycle gutter or sidewalk cycling and well-memorized navigation cues. They also take winding, scenic alignments instead of straight lines, which makes the experience of using them absolutely wonderful compared to driving or busing but limits how fast they can actually be. Perhaps most tragically, most or all of these paths also cease to exist in winter, as they are remanded for use as recreational skiing paths once snow sets in, which is only the most glaring of Ottawa’s many refusals to treat cycling as a serious mode of winter transportation. I hope the skiers enjoy it.

Friends Come Through

Bicycle people are the same breed of enthusiastic as other hobbyists, excited to share their experiences and pass on well-loved gear they’ve outgrown. When I joined their ranks, friends came out of the woodwork to offer tips, assistance with bicycle repair, and leftover addons such as reflective stickers, mounts for lights, a lock, a rear rack for panniers, and so on, which have greatly defrayed the potential cost of this transportation switch. Switching to a single-person mode of transit could have been an alienating, individualized experience, but instead, it’s brought me closer to some folks I hadn’t seen or spoken to in a while who think highly of me and vice versa, and I find that fact beautiful. I’m excited to see how these rekindled friendships continue to develop.

Exercise Feels Good

I figured I’d enjoy the outdoors and getting places faster, but I wasn’t sure what to expect about the exertion of cycling. Cardio and I haven’t been on great terms since I was an asthmatic child and it’s still a kind of exercise I usually avoid in favor of strength training, but cycling is changing that. Whether it’s the scenic vistas, the direct relationship between effort and results, or the fact that my bicycle is a bright lavender step-through dream out of Europe, it turns out that improving my strength and endurance alike via long bicycle rides feels amazing. I look forward to rides, whether they’re long sojourns to downtown Ottawa for a night out or short errands in my neighborhood, and I especially look forward to what the exercise is doing for my legs. Carrying loads, including groceries, seems to be limited more by what I can secure to my rack than by anything else, which is gratifying and makes this bicycle something I now rarely leave home without. Uphill cycling is still awful, though, even with the promise of downhill in the other direction.

A bright lavender bicycle with a step-through frame, swept-back handlebars, metal front basket, and Dutch-style bell.
The beauty herself the day I bought her, before my various add-ons for safety and cargo.

This month of a new mode of travel has amply proven that I like being a cyclist, even in a city that often feels like it rather wishes I wasn’t. It’s bringing me closer to my friends, it is saving me money long-term, it is making my neighborhood and town feel more accessible, it’s giving me more time outdoors surrounded by natural beauty, it’s a wonderful addendum to my home exercise routine, and it is an all-around pleasure even when I am facing down hostile motorists. It will be sad going back to being primarily a public transit user in winter when the cycle paths become impassable, but I’ll at least have one more thing to look forward to about spring.

Anyway, I use the Bike Ottawa Route Planner to figure out how I’m getting to new places and how to make sure I do river and canal crossings only at the bridges I actually like. Other cyclists in Ottawa will appreciate it, especially if they, too, are terrified of vehicular cycling. You’re welcome.

What My Bicycle Taught Me