commute · cycling · fitness

Big hills as barriers to bike commuting: Creative solutions

Many years ago I was chatting with an Old South neighbour who also worked at Western University in London, Ontario and who aspired to commute by bike. We agreed that the bike path to campus along the river was was beautiful and safe and that many factors (no stressful traffic, no expensive parking, time in nature before and after work, environmental reasons, and daily exercise) made biking the obviously best choice.

But, she said, what about the big hill out of the park up to the bridge?

What about it?

I confess though it’s short I was annoyed by the hill out of the park because at the time I was riding a fixed gear bike. I had to take a run at it and sometimes there were people walking on the path and slowing down on the fixie was problematic. But even on the fixie it wouldn’t stop me commuting by bike.

The neighbour was worried she’d need to walk the bike up the hill. I don’t think it would be necessary given that her bike had gears but even so, it’s a pretty short hill to walk up if you have to. But the thing is she was embarrassed by the idea of walking her bike up the hill and that alone was possibly enough to keep her from riding. She felt she wasn’t in good enough shape to ride to work if she couldn’t make it up the hill.

Me, I think it’s okay to walk your bike up the occasional hill. See Sam changes her thinking on walking her bike up hills.

I also think most casual cyclists don’t learn to use their gears. I see people struggling and have to resist yelling, “Shift!” at them.

The biggest factor though isn’t either of these things. It’s that hills intimidate us. I loved Julia’s recent post about hills.

The same is true for commuting to the University of Guelph from the Northside of the city. People comment all the time that they’re impressed I ride up the Gordon Street hill. I don’t quite say “what hill?” but it’s true it’s not much of a hill. I slow down for it but even my Brompton easily makes it up Gordon. It’s annoying but as hills go, it’s not much of a hill.

Here’s the Gordon Street hill:

So my standard view on hills and bike commuting is a)use your gears, and b)if you run out of gears, it’s ok to walk your bike.

I guess my view about hills and urban commuting changed a bit when I lived in Dunedin, NZ for a term while on sabbatical visiting The University of Otago. There the hills were steep enough that some routes just didn’t make sense by bike. I lived in an area that people referred to as the city rise. That meant I had a long set of steps up to my house from the street below and my bike commute would have been a very fast downhill to work and likely walking the bike uphill for at least part of the way home. Needless to say, I walked.

Steps to our house, groceries down below
— in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Getting around town in Dunedin it was never enough to know how far away anything was. Distance wasn’t the most important measurement. I once set out on my road bike to get to the velodrome in Mosgiel–just 20 km away. I gave myself an hour (normally fine on the road bike) neglecting to see that something aptly called Three Mile Hill was between me and there. I was late, obviously, and too tired to do much riding when I got there. And after that I drove like others riding at the velodrome, which felt all wrong to me.

Other than gearing, or e-assist, what would help make cycling more accessible in really hilly cities?

Cork is considering a lift like the one in Trondheim

See here, ‘Bicycle lift’ proposed to help cyclists climb steep 14% street.

Here is the story of the lift named Trampe,

What’s your opinion about hills and bike commuting?

2 thoughts on “Big hills as barriers to bike commuting: Creative solutions

  1. When I first moved to San Francisco I lived at the top of a hill that was steep enough that, on three sides, the streets ended in stairways. There was only one road that made it up and you had to go the same way down. My bike stayed inside for a while. I finally took it out and rode down to work. Riding up at the end of the day was much less daunting than anticipated. I was soon riding all over San Francisco. The reality of the hills was much less scary than the idea of them.

  2. I am experienced cyclist (used to road race, have done long tris, rode from Vancouver to Mexico), and the first thing I always tell people is that there is no shame in walking your bike up a hill! I don’t care whether you’ve run out of gears or not, if you’re trying to keep from getting sweaty, if you’re embarassed about being out of shape, or if you’re just feeling too damn tired these days (aren’t we all). There’s never any shame in being outside with your bike no matter how you’re actually moving.

    (I just gave this advice to a new cyclist yesterday! I’m so excited she’s getting out on two wheels)

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