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Culture Design

What I Learned About Cycling Infrastructure in Finland

I sometime describe myself as “an aspiring cyclist.” I enjoy cycling a lot and recognize all its environmental and health benefits, but unfortunately like most Canadian parents my day-to-day is not very conducive to a cycling-based lifestyle. In Winnipeg, as is the case in most North American cities, the built environment abandoned the bicycle sometime in around the 1950s when we started to replace electric trams with diesel buses. So at best, I can only aspire to be a cyclist.

Earlier this February, I had the pleasure of joining the Counterpoint team in Oulu, Finland for a winter cycling retreat of sorts. Oulu is a city barely south of the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland. It has a population and land area of roughly half that of Winnipeg, yet it boasts and incredible 600km of cycle/pedestrian pathways, including over 100 underpasses. I spent 6 days (logged 100km) exploring the city by bicycle.

In addition the the many underpasses, in the few places where cyclists are required to intersect with a car crossing Oulu’s streetlights are designed to sense cycle traffic and prioritize it by switching the car traffic lights to red. With this system we were able to cycle the 10km from our suburban airbnb to the downtown core without stopping. The cycle path system also includes comprehensive way finding and a west-to-east numbering system making navigation easy, even without Google maps.

Overall it’s an incredibly well designed system, built from the ground up with cycling as a priority. Unlike our systems here where we are largely trying to wedge a cycling network into an environment built for cars.

But unpinning Oulu’s cycling network is something that Winnipeg already has. Something we could adopt in many places around the city without spending massive amounts of money building new infrastructure… two meter wide “sidewalks.”

Examples

The quiet suburb of Pateniemi in Oulu
A random industrial area near the Helsinki Airport in Vantaa

Every single roadway in Oulu (and I can only assume much of Finland) includes a roughly 2 meter wide light traffic right of way along side at least one side of the car/truck right of way.

Have We Been Overthinking Cycling Infrastructure?

Dedicated protected bike lanes are great and super important for much of the existing road network that we have in cities like Winnipeg. But they’re also very expensive to build and they’re hard to approve since they often involve disrupting the ever-important car. Thing is, in my entire time in Finland I didn’t encounter a single “bike lane.” I’m not sure they actually have any.

And when I got in to my car for the first time after getting back and drove down Ness avenue, it immediately hit me! We already have wide sidewalks all over the city! We are just using them poorly.

Cycling On The Sidewalk

Under current city bylaws it is technically illegal for adults to cycle on the sidewalk. Many parts of the city have <1m wide sidewalks and on those narrow sidewalks it’s understandable, they’re not really wide enough for a cyclist to share with a pedestrian.

Unfortunately, this regulation sends a strange message that bikes are dangerous and completely sidesteps the real problem of sidewalks that are much too narrow.

I’d propose changing this legislation to allow for wider sidewalks to be designated shared pedestrian and cycling pathways. Explicitly, with well placed signage and a proper public awareness campaign. (Oh and while we’re at it get rid of those lame no skateboarding laws too!)

Examples of Poor Use of Space

Ness Avenue

Much of Ness Avenue has wider than average sidewalks. For some reason the utility poles and signage is in the middle of the sidewalk! Move that junk to the outside edge and suddenly you have cycling infrastructure on Ness! For much lower cost than ripping up the street and building some bike lanes.

Portage Avenue

Portage Avenue has sidewalks that would be plenty wide for cyclists to share with pedestrians, if it wasn’t for all the random garbage cans, no parking signs and other junk. Moving those out of the way would cost nothing at all. Perhaps we’d need some new regulation to explicitly describe how we are allowed this space. But do that and suddenly we have cycling infrastructure down portage!

Henderson Highway

Similar story on Southbound Henderson Highway. The sidewalk is plenty wide, but it has all kinds of random, no-sidewalk junk all over the place. Get rid of that junk and SUDDENLY WE HAVE FREE CYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE!

Conclusion: Just Do It

I’m sure I could find many many more examples like these around the city. I seem to recall the city “upgrading” these sidewalks a couple of decades ago so that they could stop replacing grass that was destroyed by the road salt every winter.

A couple of simple bylaw changes and relatively small scale projects to move a couple of light posts and garbage cans and suddenly we’ve unlocked kilometers of cycle paths.

I’m not saying we don’t need dedicated bike lanes and active transportation paths through our beautiful forest. I am just saying that if we see those as the only solutions, we are making the problem more difficult and costly than it needs to be.

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Random

Brass & Bass, Strava, FFVPN – The greatest things of all time… This Week…

B-Complex – Beautiful Lies (Riot Jazz Brass Band Cover)

Yeah, yeah, I know jazz band covers are one of those things that high school band nerds get all obsessed with, but whatever! Riot Jazz Brass Band’s cover of this Drum & Bass track is a real earworm (I’m calling this Brass & Bass).

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I’ve also become a little obsessed with Brass Bands in general. Honourable mention to Too Many Zooz for starting me down this path.

Strava!

Two cycling related posts in a row? You bet!
I started using Strava when I bought a decent bike in August, I’ve always liked the idea of tracking my day-to-day. I hope that one day this data could be used in the same way that handwritten diaries of the past were used.

The way that Strava adds a gamification level on top of fitness tracking is really working well for me. For example, I signed up for “The Escape Plan” challenge, which gives you a little digital badge for exercising at least 5 times every week for the Month of September. It’s essentially a video game achievement system IRL. I’ve been able to keep it up for 2 week and all the extra exercise is actually having a positive effect on my mental health. It’s incredible.

Strava also tracks your personal best times, broken up by segments. I know that I’m never going to be as fast as some guy who bikes 100km per day on his $5000 bike. But I can always improve my time. So today on my way home from work I tried hard to beat my own records and wouldn’t you know it, I gained 7 achievements! Feels good.

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One other kinda “web 2.0” feature worth mentioning is “flybys.” Strava will show you other Strava users you’ve passed on your ride (or run). Kinda neat. Kinda creepy. It’s opt-out.

FireFox VPN

FireFox release their “VPN” (it’s actually a proxy, I don’t fully understand the difference) this week on testpilot.firefox.com. Ironically, it’s only downloable from the US, so I used a free tunnelbear account to download it.

Speed test looks good, this is slightly lower than my ISP’s max but totally acceptable for web browsing.

Also, it looks FireFox is just cobranding Cloudflare Warp, which hopefully means the Warp VPN is launching soon.

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Culture Websites

Cycling, Javascript and Saving the Planet

A few weeks ago I bought a basic road bike with the intention of cycling to work. And I’m totally hooked! Addicted maybe? I think I finally get it.

My primary reason for biking to work is to level up the amount of exercise I get in every week, but I’m aware that leaving the car at home has some obvious side effects. By burning less gasoline I’m obviously saving some money and I’m keeping some amount of carbon out of the air.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking for a good practical way to level up my vue.js skills. So I challenged myself to build a simple tool in vue.js to help me quantify just how much CO2 I’m leaving in the tank and how much money I’m leaving in my wallet.

The result biketoworkcalculator.com

It’s a dead simple tool that allows you to roughly calculate CO2 and dollars you save by riding a bike. Check it out for yourself.

I was actually quite surprised that biking only one day per week would save me around $10 in gasoline over the course of a month.


If you’d like to look at the code or correct my math or whatever, it’s up on github: https://github.com/ohryan/biketoworkcalculator

Oh and if you’re in to cycling, follow me on Strava.