We all know the old saying that you never forget how to ride a bicycle—and there’s even science to prove that it’s true. That doesn’t mean, however, that we're all going to feel comfortable riding a bike in traffic in any given urban setting.
“I think getting started on the bike in an urban environment is very daunting,” says Yvonne Bambrick, author of the new book The Urban Cycling Survival Guide: Need-to-Know Skills and Strategies for Biking the City, out March 1 from ECW Press, and available for pre-order now.
Bambrick’s book is a compact, comprehensive, generously illustrated volume that covers every aspect of biking in North American cities. She writes about how to choose a bike that suits you and your budget; how to safely navigate different types of roadways and bike lanes; “cyclist-on-cyclist etiquette”; what to wear; what to do if you are pulled over by police; and much more.
A photographer and urban cycling consultant who was the founding executive director of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union (now Cycle Toronto), Bambrick has written a practical, readable, and thoughtful guide that demystifies urban biking and covers pretty much every question someone wanting to get started might have—as well as some tips that veteran bike riders might find handy. She talked with us by phone from her home in Toronto. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you come to write the book?
I worked in bike advocacy for years in Toronto, and I was sort of a go-to person for friends and colleagues. How are you supposed to do this? What are the rules around that? I answered a lot of those questions all the time.
But the catalyst for me was reading one more predictable annual article about whether cyclists should be licensed. My habitual response to that has been, it’s really not about licensing, it’s about education. We’ve got all these people that are getting back on their bikes, but they’re not sure where to start and there’s this gap in bike education. I thought, I’m kind of tired of saying there’s a gap in bike education. I might try to help fill it.
When you talk to people who want to start riding, what are the things they’re most concerned about?
Most people are afraid of the roadway itself. It doesn’t feel safe to be unprotected on a bicycle, right? Cars feel safer, you’re inside this nice metal box. Whereas on a bike, you’re very much more exposed and somewhat more vulnerable. It’s actually a lot safer than it appears to be.
But it’s also about, what kind of bike do I get? Do I need a lock? What kind of lock do I need? Do I need fancy panniers on the back? Should I get a basket? There are all these little things. And there could be any number of things that are more important for one person than another. I guess it’s just this general unknown if you haven’t done it before. I wanted to give people a starting place.
The question of how strictly cyclists should adhere to the rules of the road is one of the most contentious, among people who ride bikes and people who don’t. How did you decide to handle the debate there, specifically the possibility of riding the wrong way on certain less-trafficked street?
I’ve been pretty clear, about the wrong-way riding, never to ride the wrong way on major thoroughfares or in bike facilities, like bike lanes and whatnot. But, I know full well that people will do the wrong-way riding on side streets—often because it’s the only other option to a really busy thoroughfare that’s not really accessible by bike, for newer riders especially. So I tried to address the rules as they exist, and also take into account that people will break the rules, and if and when they decide they absolutely must break the rules, how to break them in a way that reduces risk for themselves and all the other road users.
I’ve also said, get off your bike and walk on the sidewalk if such-and-such scenario presents itself.
As a person riding a bicycle at a time when bicycles are really gaining in popularity, there’s sometimes the sense that you are a representative of that mode of transportation—whether or not you want to be.
Yes, I suppose so. I try to model best practices. In my role as executive director of the then Toronto Cyclists’ Union, I was sort of the spokesperson for bicycling in Toronto for a couple of years, and I was highly visible. I got really good at following all the rules. And I realized what a difference, when you do model best practices, it’s amazing how much respect you can get from those around you.
As a bike rider, you’re still somewhat of a minority. And the dominant form of transportation is still personal motor vehicles, and we’re still sort of the outsider, as it were, although that’s changing. It might not be fair, necessarily, but we often do all get painted with the same brush.
As for the fact that maybe you’re a quote unquote “representative,” that’s irrelevant compared to the notion of just doing your job as a citizen in a shared roadway, and trying to be predictable and reducing risk overall for everybody around you.
Until fairly recently, riding a bicycle for transportation in North America has meant you’re an outlier, you’re a little strange, you’re a rebel, etc. What struck me about your book is that it’s incredibly reasonable and matter-of-fact. It doesn’t come with a lot of attitude.
That’s what I was going for.
I’m trying to help set the tone for our cultural norms around cycling as part of traffic. It’s in development. We’ve got this resurgence in the last five to ten years, but it’s not part of our culture, necessarily. We’ve been very much a driving culture in North America.
But I think we have an opportunity now to get that gap in information filled. I see a little bit of everyone on their bikes here in Toronto. There’s a number of people riding their bikes in the winter, that is a huge shift. And it’s all kinds of different people. There’s men, there’s women, there’s older folks, there’s younger folks. It isn’t what it used to be, and it’s great.
The more the merrier. As long as we have a sense of what our rights are, what our responsibilities are, and what the expectations of a shared roadway are, and how to share that space together. And I think drivers should be reading this book, too, because it’s a great opportunity to gain insight into what bike riders are actually dealing with.