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CanadaChanging: Bike Co-ops, Trails, and Ottawa Cycling

bikes.jpgMark Tovey is completing his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at Carleton University.

  • Average cost of maintaining a bicycle for a year: $50.
  • Average cost of maintaining a car for a year: $5000 to $10 000.

Although you can't do everything with a bike that you can do with a car, there is a good case to be made for using a bicycle for day-to-day use: cost, environment, and exercise, to name a few. But many people are reluctant to start using a bicycle, or give up on using one after a while, because of the problem of maintenance. And that is where the bicycle co-op comes in.

A bicycle co-op is a place where you can learn how to keep your bicycle in good running order yourself, and get access to the tools to do so. Volunteers at a bicycle co-op take old, donated bikes, test them, and repair them - often with used, donated parts. Bicyles which are beyond repair are stripped down for parts. Those parts are then used to repair other bicycles. Anything that is left over is recycled, if feasible. Re-use, then repair, then recycle...a working bike co-op is a model of green ideas brought to action.

The repaired bikes are either sold or used for bike-sharing programs. (For a history, see this paper on public-use bicycles.)

Many bike co-ops give almost anyone access to the tools and knowledge necessary to repair their own bicycle. For example, in the Ottawa bicycle co-op re-Cycles, for $5 an hour you can get a bit of shop space and the use of the co-op's own professional tools to repair your own bike. If there's something you don't know how to do yourself, one of the resident mechanics will instruct you on how to do what you need to do.

And if you don't have a car to give up, but just want a cheap, reliable bike to ride, there's probably a bike co-op near you that will sell you a basic roadworthy cycle, repaired and recycled by trained volunteers, at costs attainable by almost anyone. Some places will sell you a serviceable bike for as little as C$40. This makes access to working, self-powered transportation for the able-bodied nearly universal.

What turns ordinary people into dedicated bicycle commuters? Giving people the ability to repair their own bicycle is crucial. Mark Rehder, director of re-Cycles in Ottawa, says that one of the reasons that many people "give up their bikes is because a lot of people don't learn to fix them properly." He says that one of the things that separates people who ride for recreation from those who use it for commuting is the ability to repair their own bike.

An important part of the job of a bike co-op, for Rehder, is "empowering people to know how their bikes work." People who come into the shop may know very little about repairing bikes, other than that they want to give it a try. "Two hours later they're out of there with a big grin on their face, saying 'Yes! I know how my bike works!'"

There are a range of facilities and programs across the country. Let's take a trip across Canada, from BC to Nova Scotia, and see where some of them are.

Sampling some of the innovative, fascinating programs at various bicycle co-ops across Canada gives a sense of the range of possibilities. Bicycle repair for women only. Bicycle sharing programs where anyone can take a bike, or where they're checked out like a lending library. Encouraging businesses to use cargo delivery by bike.

The examples in the rest of this article will be drawn from Ottawa. Ottawa is not only the political capital of the country, it is also one of the bicycle capitals, having over 170 kilometers of often scenic bike paths within the city. As well, there are bicycle lanes along a number of major arteries, and planning a route is easy with the Ottawa Bike Path Map.

Although not fully connected to the vast inter-city bike transport networks, a quick trip across the bridge to Gatineau, Quebec will get you onto the Route Verte, a 4 350 km network of bicycle paths linking communities across Quebec. The Route Verte has recently been linked to a major Ontario bike trail system, the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail and Greenway: a 740 km stretch running along the shore of Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Quebec Border.

At an even large scale (17 000 km!) Canada is developing an extensive trail system called the Trans-Canada Trail, that will in theory allow you to cycle right across the country. Many inter-city bicycle trails exist already, and more are being linked together.

This is all very well, you say, but what about our Canadian winters? Amazingly, there is active winter cycling even in some of the coldest cities in Canada, including the capital. In Ottawa, the National Capital Commission regularly snowplows the bicycle paths along the Rideau Canal. Rumor has it that they even plow the bike paths before they plow the streets.

Pete Hickey has put up entertaining experiences with winter cycling in Ottawa, complete with tips; he also has some winter cycling pictures.

Graydon Patterson offers a comprehensive guide to winter biking in Ottawa for those interested in taking up the challenge. And even for those who aren't, it's an amazing page to read. It challenges our existing ideas of what is possible to do on a bike, as well as offering an interesting lesson in writing a 'how-to' guide about taking up an environmentally friendly practice.

Also in the "I didn't know it was possible!" department, there is a marvelous example of how one Ottawa couple found an ingenious way to move heavy cargo using human powered vehicles. They used bicycles and a custom built trailer instead of a truck to move all the stuff in their three-bedroom apartment...and they have photographs to prove it. This is one of the many projects that the Human Powered Vehicles group in Ottawa has done to show how versatile human powered transport can be. (See especially the article on how to create a human powered parade float to carry a Hammond organ.)

Since this is CanadaChanging, the focus has been on the happenings and innovative programs of bicycle co-ops hailing from the Great White North, but non-Canadian readers take heart - once you know to look, you may well find a bike co-op near you (via Ibike or Wikipedia, for example). You may even get motivated to start one yourself!

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The assumptions made in the first few lines of this article are a bit shaky.

I bike commute a lot, which means I have a good bike and good gear (road bike which I can sustain 20mph+ on, retail $2500, used price $1200). My expenditures on my biking (not including initial purchase) are more like $300 a year, though $200 should be do-able. $50 is do-able if you want a crap bike (a real pain if your travling more than 5 miles a day)

Meanwhile, my car cost $3,500 initially and takes gas ($30/wk * 50 weeks = $1500), oil changes ($100 a year), and about $500 or less of other maintenance a year. So if you don't count the cost of the car, that's about $2000 or so per year. (Add in the cost of the car over the number of years the car will last and it goes to about $2700 or so)

I realize people spend much more on their cars, but are people who are budget concious enough to switch to biking going to be spending like that, or are they going to be buying a cheap honda civic DX or equivalent?

Posted by: TJ on 21 Jul 06

in addition to the comments made by TJ, you have to consider that if you live anywhere there is snow, you will need a car anyway be it rental or ownership. very few people even diehard cyclists will try to bicycle if there's anything vaguely resembling ice on the road.

one should also consider the health risks to cyclists. low speed collisions with cars, problems with knees, hips, hands, back, and neck. the most significant and under discussed problem is groin nerve and vascular damage. while this damage is most commonly found in men, it is also found in women. In addition to the classic erectile dysfunction problem, it can also cause incontinence in both sexes.

my personal experience was that when I was riding a bicycle, I had a healthy heart but the rest of me was suffering.

The only long-term solution is to move away from the upright bicycle to a recumbent design. It's much more comfortable to ride and is significantly easier to adapt to the needs of people as they age, or handicapped people with upper body physical impairments. fortunately, the cost of recombinant's is not that much more than a regular bike. They range from $500 on the low-end to $2500 or more for high-end custom recumbents.

Posted by: country mouse on 21 Jul 06

I'm a huge fan of bike co-ops.
Though, as you pointed out, the cost of owning & maintaining a bike is so much cheaper than a car, the people who don't enjoy or have time for maintenance (of which there're many) can just take their bike into a shop once or twice a year for a tune-up. That'll keep it running in tip-top shape, still for much less than you'd spend on a car.

Oh, and TJ, I think you're right about the bike costs being higher than quoted, and cheap car costs being lower than quoted. However, you forgot to include insurance in your car costs; even for a cheap car, this is usually US$1200 - $2400 / year, at least in the places I've lived. That would bring your calculation up to $4K - $5K.

Posted by: Jer on 22 Jul 06

I think a large part of getting people to bike is giving them some confidence that people driving understand how to responsibly share the road.

Posted by: Arjun Singh on 22 Jul 06

One idea that works out here in Hamilton, Ont is comparing the cost of a monthly bus pass vs the cost of a bike. At our co-op, a well built used road bike (with flat bars) runs $40, with a $5 membership fee. Bus passes run $65 a month here in the city. Given our climate, the average person can go bus-free for about 6 months of the year, saving around $350 a year in bus fares. In a city where the average bus trip is about 10-15 mins, the comparable bike trip runs about 15-20 mins. Being an urban area where bike theft is an issue, not only are old 10-speeds with flat bars nearly invisible to thieves, they've also much less costly to replace. Having sold over 150 of the bikes, we've found that a fixed up and well-kept $40 flat-bar ten-speed to be a great option for a city such as Hamilton.

Posted by: Matt Thompson on 3 Aug 06



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