Using Strava to Mess With The City (and Myself)

Recently, I discovered that the City of Ottawa uses anonymized, aggregated Strava data as a data source for determining where bicycle infrastructure is needed. Although the National Capital Commission has established a good network of recreational pathways in and around Ottawa, we desperately need more safe streets for people who ride bikes for regular transportation.

Apparently there is some way that adjustments are made to accommodate for the fact that most cyclists don’t use Strava or other tracking apps. I don’t understand all the science behind it, but I know just enough about statistics to know that sample bias is an issue, and I know that most of the people who use Strava are athletic types tracking longer rides. People using their bikes for short trips to do everyday chores may not use Strava at all, or not think to turn it on because it doesn’t “count”.

Since I’m a big advocate of cycling for everyone, I have started tracking every single ride, no matter how short. My aim is to mess with the city by skewing the data as much as possible in favour of shorter utilitarian trips, and show where better infrastructure is needed.

How am I messing with myself? Since I started tracking faithfully on April 17, I have racked up just over 105 km. I have become the local legend on segments leading to my work. My speed is trending downwards and I have set a couple of personal best times.

I have also become more determined than ever to bike everywhere possible, and my definition of what is possible has gotten bigger. Two of those rides were unusually long for me, but turned out to be perfectly manageable: one was a 13 km ride from the blood donor clinic, and the other was 15 km to and from Costco.

The blood donor ride was fun as I got to explore quirky neighbourhoods full of small businesses that I find hard to get to by public transit. I even rode across the bridges to and from Gatineau, the best part of my commute when I worked over there.

The Alexandra Bridge has a lovely wide section for bicycles and pedestrians. Here you can see several walkers and runners on the bridge, with Ottawa in the distance. Photo: Trevor Pritchard, CBC

That Costco ride was an important stepping stone for me. The routes proposed by Google were all along busy roads but I remembered quieter recreational paths that made for a longer but safer ride. However, I did need to navigate one notoriously busy road with unclear painted bike lane markings (and only 1 block of protected lane).

Costco itself had the usual car-filled parking lot and the bike racks were way in the back of the building, so I locked up to a sign near the front. It was easy to pack everything into two panniers, and I didn’t need the bungee cords, extra bags and my knapsack I had brought along just in case I felt the need to train for the #carryshitolympics. Now I know that a mostly-pleasant half hour ride each way is all it takes to get to a store I generally avoid.

My bicycle with loaded blue and black panniers, chained to a sign and red-painted bollard. There is a row of bollards protection the sidewalk from a sea of parked cars, and one illegally parked car right behind my bike.

Nowruz Mubarak

Happy New Year, if you happen to be of Persian, Afghan or (many parts of) central Asian origin. To celebrate, here are some images of women athletes from Afghanistan, who have lost the ability to compete since the return of the Taliban to power, but not their desire. I found the protest photos of them in burqas, with their gear, to be very moving. Some have escaped Afghanistan and are continuing their athletic careers. Nowruz Mubarak to all of them: here’s hoping the next year will be better for all women who are unable to participate in sport.

Kimia Yousofi of Afghanistan is now living in Australia. Yousofi, shown running in a black track suit and hijab, was flag bearer for Afghanistan at the Tokyo Olympics.
Image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images


Fit is a Feminist Issue – and an Infrastructure Issue

I have been involved in a lot of conversations about active transportation in the last few weeks. And about the reasons both kids and seniors may be less active than they would like. And Mount Alison University geograph Professor Leslie Kern talking about her book Feminist City (my copy is on order).

And far too many rants where cyclists were blamed for being struck by cars, articles were written about pedestrians hitting cars (the cars drove away – never the drivers – and the pedestrians were hospitalized). The worst was blaming an older man for daring to go for on walk on a bare sidewalk in regular shoes, after he broke his ankle when trying climb over a windrow left by a snowplow.

What if we designed our living spaces so that more of us that are enticed to walk, bike and take transit, because the more that they do, the better it is for everyone?

Women in Urbanism Canada points out that women make up more than half of Canada’s aging population, so building age-friendly cities must be gender-inclusive. Women are more likely to outlive their partners, live in poverty, earn less, own less property, and have children and grandchildren to care for. They are more likely to suffer from mobility-related disabilities and physical impairments. They may also outlive their ability to drive. They need affordable and well-connected public transportation, areas to exercise and socialize and homes that allow them to live, independently, and with easy access to services resources and community amenities.

And the city of Ottawa, in a zoning review paper currently under discussion notes that “the impacts of car-dependency are most acutely felt by women, youth, elderly people, low-income people, and people with disabilities, as these are all people who are less likely to have access to or afford personal vehicles. A mobility-rich neighbourhood is a 15-minute neighbourhood where kids can walk to school and recreation, where people have the option to run a quick errand on foot, and people of all incomes can affordably access their needs.”

So what would that activity-friendly neighbourhood look like? It would have public transit, wide sidewalks and bike spaces (maybe even car-free), with benches, bathrooms, trees for shade, meeting places and playgrounds, plus a variety of shops and services close to home.

Click on this link to see a short video of what I think is a practically perfect active living space.

A street with dense housing, trees, playground, bike racks, and people of all ages walking or cycling. The drawing comes from The cover of Curbing Traffic, a book on the human case for fewer cars by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett.

For winter in Canada, I would add ploughed sidewalks and bike lanes. Sweden has already led the way on this. Following a gender analysis of its street clearing practices, Swedish cities began clearing sidewalks first, because they discovered that women were more likely to walk. There were three times as many injuries from falling on slippery streets as there were from driving, and the cost of treating those injuries far outweighed the city of snow clearing.

For millions of short journeys, the right tool for the job ought to be walking or cycling, but the way too many streets are designed makes this a difficult choice. Cars go too fast, there are no safe spaces for bicycles, and sidewalks have obstacles including high curbs, unsafe crosswalks, and buttons to beg for a pedestrian light that my not even be accessible to all users.

That’s a shame, because person on a bicycle can go three to four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. Equipped with this tool, humans outstrip the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well (Ivan Illich, Energy & Equity, 1973).

Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for the city of Vancouver, has written that “the recent Paris transformation of key streets to add bike infrastructure is intensely pragmatic – more mobility choice and more trips using a lot less space, lower public cost, lower emissions, less pollution, better public health, etc.”

The Tyee wrote last year about how various people with disabilities were using bike lanes and how the lanes could be even more accessible. I found it really eye-opening.

All this infrastructure is not just a feminist concern. It can also have a real impact on our health. Recently there was a meta-analysis of the impact of moderate physical activity on health. According to the report I read, about one in ten deaths could have been prevented with a little as eleven minutes of moderate physical activity a day. I’ll leave it to Catherine Womack to assess the claims; why I thought was important for this blog was the final quote:

´Dr Leandro Garcia, of Queen’s University Belfast, emphasised that moderate activity did not have to involve what people normally thought of as exercise, such as sports or running. “For example, try to walk or cycle to your work or study place instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your kids or grandkids,” he said.´

Imagine if we had safe and accessible places to do that…

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has been a commuter cyclist for over 20 years.


Healthy Active Living is Exhausting!

I live in an area where cycling makes a lot of sense for everyday tasks. I can get to work, the grocery store, and most essential shops easily and safely by bicycle or on foot.

As gas prices rose this fall, I started a little personal challenge of not using my car more than once a week. I was already riding my bike to work on my days in the office, so this shouldn’t be a big additional burden, right?

I don’t know. My sample size is very small, and I didn’t set up a good research question in advance. My evidence is purely anecdotal.

I can tell you that I’m tired. Far more tired than I expected. But I’m still doing it, mostly. Even if it meant I needed a long nap after cycling to swim practice and to buy groceries on Saturday. I did get up on Sunday to bike to church.

Me in a green coat and blue bicycle helmet, with my bicycle. There is snow on the ground and a snowy hedge in th background. I appreciate that my church has bike racks. I also appreciate my black pogies, which are just the thing to keep my hands warm in winter.

A little bit of my tiredness is undoubtedly because being nervous about sharing the road with cars is exhausting. Even though I am getting more confident, I miss the separated lanes and bike paths that are available to me in summer. T

And sidewalks often aren’t clear for pedestrians, so walking isn’t fun either. In fact, the closest I have come to an accident was when a pedestrian using the road jumped into my path to avoid being hit by a car.

If we really want people to adopt active living, which has huge benefits for overall health, accessibility and the environment, we need to push our civic leaders to invest in infrastructure that supports people to use non-car transportation year-round. And leaves them less tired and stressed from the effort.

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa, and a recent convert to year-round cycling.


Winter Swimming and Risk in COVID Times

It is winter swimming time again, and I’m thinking about the rules. Sometimes they seem silly and arbitrary.

Sometimes they actually might be wise, depending on distance to populated areas or water conditions.

Back when the pandemic first started, my friends and I did a lot of debating about whether we should continue to swim outdoors. Pools were closed, of course, but it was too early in the season for lifeguarded beaches (not that we swim there anyway).

How far did we need to stand or swim apart to prevent transmission? Would we put an unreasonable burden on the health care system if someone got into trouble? Were we setting a bad example for inexperienced swimmers who might try to copy what we were doing? Most importantly, were we being really honest about our biases, and assessing the risks to ourselves and others accurately?

Eventually, we found solutions we were comfortable with, and continued to swim through 2020 and 2021. Open water swimming and cold water dipping experienced a huge surge in interest during that period.

This surge did push some communities to block off access to local water holes. The fenced-off area above was blocked this week, shortly after we dipped in water that wasn’t even waist deep. The ice was several inches thick and someone had needed considerable force to break it.

Diane wearing a silly hat and bathing suit, with an ice-covered pond in the background.

With the resurgence of COVID, I am once again rethinking whether and how I can swim or dip safely. Although my friends and I model safe behaviour, provide advice and some have even offered video seminars, I keep reading about people wanting to dip or swim by walking over ice to get in the water. This is dangerous.

The ice can cut you and you won’t even feel it; you could fall through a thin spot; you could have difficulties getting back out of the water; you could slip under the ice if the water is deep enough and there is a current.

Breaking holes in the ice can be dangerous for others, too. Dogs, skiers, walkers and snowmobilers also go on the ice. They could easily go through an unmarked, partly frozen swimming hole. If there is no open water you can reach easily and safely, consider joining the folks who enjoy winter sports.

The Memphramagog Winter Swimming Society’s event is still scheduled to go ahead in late February, and several of my friends are planning to attend, if the borders are open. That means they need to practice. So for now, I will keep going into the water, even though if feels really really cold since we can’t go as often as we would like. Last week, it was all we could do to swim ten strokes.

Diane in her silly shark hat and a big smile because she isn’t in the water yet. Aimee, in the background, is standing in the water and is looking very cold.

But maybe not. With COVID numbers rising, I am increasingly uncomfortable sharing a car. We are all vaccinated and boosted and we can wear masks or drive separately, but the open water is an hour’s drive away. That’s a lot for five or ten minutes in the water.

What about you? How are the latest COVID numbers affecting your risk tolerance for fitness activities?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa. She is looking forward to strapping on her skates or skis over the next few weeks.

blog · climbing · equipment · fun · Guest Post · nature

Don’t Fall Out of the Trees (Guest Post)

by Elan Paulson

I have blogged previously about group exercise adventures–winter hikes, fun runs, wall climbs, etc.–so it was only a matter of time until we ended up at an aerial adventure park. Set at a western Ontario ski hill forest, this treetop adventure has courses of increasing height and challenge in which participants climb ladders, cross wood and net bridges, and zip line from tree platform to platform.

Through some Wikipedia surfing I learned that aerial adventure courses were borne from military training-style ropes courses and alternative adventure education. However, most of today’s adventure parks are touristy fun that Wikipedia describes as requiring “neither climbing techniques nor special/specific physical fitness experience.”

Judging by our next-day muscle soreness and little bruises, there is at least some physical fitness required. But more than exercise, it was thrilling to hop across wobbly bridges, and stand high in the trees without falling out of them. The course didn’t require teamwork to complete obstacles, but we encouraged and cheered each other a lot.

Among my GoPro pictures, I found one of my handheld carabiners that the trainer had described as “our hands” while we were out on the course. This meant that we were to latch one or both carabiners onto within-reach “lifeline” cables throughout the entire course.

Self-belay system with carabiners and zipline attachment
Self-belay system with carabiners and zipline attachment.

Using a self-belay system in a tree top adventure was a little scary because we were responsible for our own safety. We received some initial supervised practice on a training course, but in the park it was up to us to keep ourselves attached to the steel cables.

Looking at the photo afterwards, I realized that being responsible for my own safety had given my mind something to pay attention to in the trees and on the ladders. Each step was a reminder–in order to move forward I literally had to put one latch in front of the other. The carabiners kept my brain focused on a safety system that wouldn’t allow me to fall, and the constant latching also distracted me from thinking too much about falling.

The above photo also made me realize that I have not always put “safety first” and foremost in my brain when I go to exercise. This is especially true with activities that I perceive as less risky, or when I feel I am more familiar with the risks. But, on the treetop adventure, it was precisely because I was forced to put my safety first in a potentially dangerous situation that I confidently enjoyed the activity all the more (or, I suppose, experienced paralyzing fear all the less).

There is always risk in exercise, which is not an inherently bad thing. But, no matter how strange or familiar the activity may be, we are our own self-safety systems. Safety can create fun. In the future, I think that reminding myself of that fact when I go to exercise will be a good thing.

Elan with helmet, harness, and belay
Elan with helmet, harness, belay, and smile.


Helmets, yes, usually. Helmet laws, no.

Here’s me on the left, no helmet! I’m riding a coaster bike. I think it’s likely my top speed was 15 km/hr. it’s a beachside rental on a small island in French Polynesia. It was the kind of cycling environment where a helmet would have seemed out of place. There were parents and kids sharing a single bike. Not a helmet in sight. It was also very hot. Susan and I biked to the beach and I loved it.

I’ve also ridden bikes without helmets in Amersterdam, Bremen, and Montreal. What these cities have in common is well developed cycling infrastructure and lots of everyday people on bikes. Love riding in their protected bike lanes.

In the other photo, there’s helmeted me on bike commute to work through traffic in my usual hometown. Definitely wearing a helmet. I also wear helmets on longer, faster rides through the countryside.

My preference is for no laws requiting helmet use for adults. Why not? Well, helmets make cycling seem special and scary and put people off riding. I am concerned about cycling safety. When it comes to bike safety, numbers matter more than helmets. If fewer people ride if they’re required to ride a helmet, that’s less safe overall.

It’s one of those situations where your goal, increased safety for cyclists, is undermined by the means you choose to achieve it. You aim for all cyclists to wear helmets, increased safety, but the effect is fewer people riding. Numbers of people riding matters more to cycling safety than helmets.

For prudential reasons, I usually wear one. But there’s no need to force me.

Here’s my thoughts:

Here’s the Guardian on why helmet laws don’t save lives.


A new meaning to “suns out, guns out”?

I know it can be tough out on the road for cyclists. I blogged last week about Toronto suburban drivers who pass way too close, too fast, while honking. At times during the ride that prompted that post I was angry. I even swore.  I can do that now. (See Sam starts to swear: “That’s bulls**t” ) But at no time did it occur to me to wish I were armed. You know, like with a gun.

I gather not all cyclists feel the same way.  See Danny Summerhill Charged With Firing Gun on a Ride.

Pro road cyclist Danny Summerhill has left the UnitedHealthcare team after being arraigned on Tuesday for disorderly conduct, discharging a weapon, and reckless endangerment.

Summerhill was riding in a rural area outside Denver, Colorado, in February when he was spotted firing a handgun several times into a hillside by local residents Joe and Shawn Porter, who reportedly confronted the 28-year-old American pro and filed a police report.

I wanted to write about guns and cycling before, when this bike jersey made the news: Concealed Carrie women’s cycling top packs a deadly secret — a handgun pocket.

At first glance this multi-purpose women’s jersey looks ideal for summer cycling with its rear pockets, high collar to keep the sun off and drawstring waist tie to flatter the female figure. But look a bit closer and there’s capacity for an, erm, unusual accessory: a concealed pocket for a handgun.

“Only in America” you’re probably thinking, and you’re right. Manufacturer Concealed Carrie specialises in fashionable handbags designed to make it easy to tote a handgun. This is their answer to the problem of packing heat while cycling, walking or running.

See also This Jersey Is Made for Your Gun.

I don’t want to get into a big argument about guns and gun control laws. This isn’t a subject I’m interested in talking about as part of this blog. Personally, even if it were allowed where I live I wouldn’t think of it as a good answer to my cycling safety issues. There’s a reddit thread about the wisdom of riding with a gun for reasons of safety even if it’s legally okay to do so where you live. For the case in favour, read Why I Carry a Loaded Gun on My Bike Commute. 

One danger is the gun going off while riding. See Florida Cyclist.

However, what intrigued me as I looked around is that the connection between cycling, safety, and guns isn’t new. There were guns designed especially for cyclists from the early days of bike riding.

Check out these ads!


The ads are from Guns & Bicycles by Kurt Bauer. [CW: Random racism ahead.] Bauer writes: “These weapons were recommended for the cycling enthusiast’s protection against dogs, the homeless, gypsies – really, any undesirable situation in which a loaded firearm represented an expeditious solution.”


Weekends with Womack

First thoughts on cycling down under, over there on the left side of the road

Some of you blog readers may know that I’m spending a few months in Australia while on sabbatical from my academic job in the Boston area. And of course I brought my road bike with me. But I just started riding this weekend, about 2 weeks after I arrived. Part of the delay was that I was recovering from jet lag and then getting oriented at work (I’m visiting at the University of Sydney, and gave a talk on Thursday).

But really, the reason why I hadn’t started cycling was fear. I was terrified at switching to riding on the left side of the road. Okay, I feel a little better now that’s out there.

In my partial defense, just about everyone I talked to in Sydney thought that cycling in the city was dangerous. Of course people in Boston think the same thing, and they’re not completely wrong. And I don’t let that stop me from riding all over the place at home.

More defense claims: I haven’t seen many bike commuters around in my part of Sydney (inner west for you Aussies). Nor have I seen many in the downtown area, either—not on the main roads anyhow. So I was thinking, hmmm— maybe they know something I don’t.

But then there was my bike, sitting in my landlord’s garage, all alone in a new country, not getting any attention from me. That’s just wrong. I owe it to myself and the bike to get out there and develop some new skills and have some new adventures. Right? Uh, ok.

So I did just that this weekend.

Part of my motivation was a combination of necessity and laziness. I had brought a hand pump with me (a floor pump was too heavy to transport), but forgot the connector hose (oops). So I needed to get a new pump and some CO2 for keeping my tires in shape. The nearest bike shop was only a 12-minute ride (according to google), but a 40-minute bus trip. Clearly I’m getting on the bike.

So I made my way to the shop, going up and down (Sydney is hillier than I had expected), making right and left turns, which are reversed in order of difficulty. And I didn’t even end up on the wrong side of the road while turning. Yay! Whew…

Having obtained my new pump and some cartridges for my inflator (and basking in the glow of praise for my bike from the shop guys—love when that happens!), I headed back out there to explore a little. I found some lovely mixed-use paths by the water and rode around. There were a bunch of cyclists, including road cyclists—finally I found some of my people! Sydney is so beautiful, with water everywhere you look, and I enjoying winding my way around, taking some quiet side streets and paths.  Here’s a shot from near the water. IMG_5322

Here’s another one.

IMG_5318Who wouldn’t want to see that all the time?

My next step is to do some proper road rides. Samantha has been very nice and given me some contacts, and I’ll be talking with them and others about getting out on the road at speed. But one revolution at a time….

In the meantime, here are a few parting observations I made based on this weekend’s experience:

  1. Traffic is traffic, and many commuter cycling traffic skills translate nicely.

Riding on a busy city street, I encountered buses, cars passing me (on the right), pedestrians popping out everywhere—business as usual on a bike. I found that paying attention worked the same way. Of course this is unsurprising, but I was really gratified, and it helped build confidence.

  1. Old instincts die hard when encountering other cyclists.

Riding on a mixed-use path around Sydney, I saw a guy on a lovely vintage Bianchi coming toward me around a narrow corner. I immediately swerved a bit to right. Of course, so did he. Oops! Actually, this was what I said out loud, followed by “sorry about that”.   We were going slowly, so all was well, but it reminded me to be more aware, as my instincts were not always going to lead me in the correct direction (quite literally).

  1. Cycling totally rocks, no matter where you are.

Getting back on the bike really made Sydney feel more like home. I’ve got my mode of transportation, I’ve got another way to meet people and make new friends, and I’ve got a passport to new adventures. Yes, that’s a little cheesy, but when it comes to me and my bike, I’m a sentimental soul. And I’m really glad it’s here with me.



My week of walking on the wild side

For the past two weeks I’ve been home from work recovering from surgery (everything is fine and I’m now back on my bike) and for exercise that means I’ve been walking, a lot.

One of the cool things about recovering from surgery as an active person is that you can scale back considerably and still have lots that you can do. No biking or running, fine, but I walked lots. Some of it was with the new puppy so it wasn’t all speedy. To the surprise of the staff at the clinic I attended one week out I walked there and back, about 8 km. But parking would have cost $10, I’m frugal, and it’s not like I was getting any other exercise.

But all that walking made me think about pedestrian safety and risk. When Tracy blogged about giving up road cycling and her fear of being hit by a car one of my first thoughts was about walking and cars. Why? Because I’ve had two people in my life in the past few years killed by cars while out walking. One was a friend from church out walking her dog at night and the other was an older woman I knew from the velodrome. She was out walking in the evening. I kept imagining how many people would judge that activity safe and her velodrome riding risky. I blogged about cycling and risk here.

During my week of walking lots I heard of more pedestrian deaths in the news. Another pedestrian was killed in our city this week. A 70 year old, crossing the road, at an intersection. We don’t yet whether charges will be laid but I couldn’t help but note that there’s been no outcry about pedestrian safety.

Should he have been wearing reflective clothing, flashing lights? A helmet? Maybe it’s not safe to walk and we should all just stop. Maybe we should drive everywhere and then walk in our houses on treadmills.


See also Toronto driver crashed into four pedestrians leaving one dead.

Pedestrian deaths are common. They don’t make news except on slow days. In big cities hundreds of people are killed each year while out walking from place A to place B.

Freakonomics even speculates that running someone over is the best way to get away with murder.

From Mike’s traffic blog, talking about New York, “There were 1,300 fatal pedestrian crashes there from 2008 to 2013 and only 66 drivers were arrested. That’s the entry point for Freakonomics to analyze pedestrian crashes. In New York City, 52% of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians. That percent drops to 14% for the rest of the United States. Obviously there’s an exposure risk in New York. There are more people walking around there than anywhere else.”

You don’t hear much of that and as a cyclist I find the comparison with cycling deaths a bit hard to understand. There are ghost bikes but no ghost sneakers. That’s part of why I worry about ghost bikes. They single out cycling as particularly dangerous rather than cars as our shared enemy.

Cycling advocacy groups do occasionally promote helmets for pedestrians, on the grounds that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. See here
and here.

I don’t think of myself as much of a walker. I say it’s too slow. I say that I’m saving walking as a fitness activity for my old age, along with cruises for vacations, long driving trips, and television for entertainment.

Now the not walking thing isn’t quite true. For years, I pushed strollers. I will always walk dogs. I love hiking. But I tend not to walk as transportation. I usually drive the car or ride my bike for distances over 2 km.

Maybe it’s an identity thing. I am a cyclist, but I’d never describe myself as an avid walker.

And in terms of safety, I’m not suggesting we stop walking. But we should think differently about risk, maybe that means worrying a bit more about walking and a bit less about cycling. Certainly we should pay lots attention when walking (stop looking at our phones! ) and maybe even wear reflective clothing and lights when walking at night. I’m also looking forward to the era of driverless cars. I think smart cars are likely to be much safer for their passengers and for cyclists and pedestrians alike.