A long way from Copenhagen

Feb 26 2016

Edmonton is well on its way to offering more diverse commuting routes for its citizens, but cyclists and motorists continue struggling to share the roads. Heather Magusin is researching why.


Heather was coming up to the intersection where the light was red. As she pulled up to the stop line, she was “owning” her lane—cyclist-speak for being in the middle of the lane. The light had been red for some time, but it didn’t stop the car behind her from nosing past, forcing Heather off the road, to take her place at the front of the lane.

Heart pounding from the close call, Heather knocked on the motorist’s window. A confrontation was about to go down. It was one of several experiences that has shaped Heather’s attitude toward motorists, but not in the way you might think.

Commuting in a winter city

Like any commuting cyclist in a winter city ruled largely by motorists, Heather Magusin (in the photo above) has good and bad days on the road.

“I don’t have too many horror stories,” she admits, “which I’m really grateful for.”

Her most harrowing cycling encounters have involved hostility from motorists who rolled down their windows to yell or throw things at her. But in all fairness, she has only been “dedicated” to commuting by bike for just over a year-and-a-half. “It all started when I moved to a central location downtown and realized that bike commuting was viable,” says the Bachelor of Communication Studies student. While working at Mountain Equipment Co-op, she was fostered by the community of outdoor enthusiasts. “Once you start cycling, that’s all it takes. The only hurdle you have to get over is to get on your bike.”

And off she went—but Heather’s story is not unique or new. Since the first bicycles hit the streets over 150 years ago, people have been shaking their fists at each other’s transportation choices.

Over a century of controversy

Dave Buchanan has a unique niche in studying literature. For five years, the English assistant professor has been doing research on bicycle travel literature, which goes back as far as the 19th century.

“Bicycles were invented in the 1860s,” he says. “By the 1880s, technology had advanced to the point where bicycles were being used as a means of travel, and in some cases, to go on quite extensive journeys.”

Those journeys made for exciting reading material, and people couldn’t get enough stories about bicycle travel. Thomas Stevens made the first round-the-world cycling trip in the mid-1880s, and his book about the three-year journey, Around the World on a Bicycle, became a bestseller.

“People just couldn't get enough stories about bicycle travel—whether it was around the world, across the country, or in parts of England, the rest of Europe or North America. So that's my area of research these days—reading these cycling travel narratives.”

But that enthusiasm was tempered by cyclists’ relationships with others sharing the roads and sidewalks. In his research, Dave found that there has always been controversy and conflict surrounding cyclists.

“You also see conflicts between people in the early years of vehicles but also with horse-drawn carriages in terms of who gets the right of way in the roadways,” says Dave. There were even conflicts between cyclists themselves—serious racing cyclists versus the leisurely lot. “We see those same kinds of conflicts playing out today in similar ways”—sans horses and buggies of course.

A "multimodal" system

The battle over who rules the road continues, and is a challenging issue for the City of Edmonton.

Over the years, the city has made forays into making Edmonton more cycle-friendly—some more successful than others. But there is hope on the horizon. In the 2014 report, Shifting Edmonton’s Transportation Mode, the city acknowledged that a “multimodal system” that incorporates walking, cycling and using transit is an important component of its strategy to check urban sprawl and develop a more compact city. The report also touts other benefits of moving away from car culture—including a healthier population and reduced impact on the environment to name two.

There has to be a critical mass ... where there's more respect for bikes having a place. But it doesn't quite feel like we're there yet.” Dave Buchanan

Building a city that encourages sharing the roads is one thing. Getting buy-in from cycling-averse commuters is another.

Showdown at the stop line

“I knocked on her window and she rolled it down, and my anger instantly evaporated.”

The woman behind the wheel was not much older than Heather, but it was the tiniest detail that caught Heather’s attention—that made the operator of the steel behemoth human: the woman wore sparkly, purple eye shadow. The detail humanized the motorist, and Heather felt she could relate to her.

“This clearly wasn’t someone who cut me off maliciously—she just didn’t know any better,” Heather recalls.

Having calmed down, Heather explained to the motorist that cyclists get scared when vehicles cut close, and she advised that in the future, to give more room and recognize that cyclists need space on the road too.

The motorist apologized. “I’m sorry! I was just trying to get into the lane.” She zipped away as soon as the light turned green.

“She had no clue,” says Heather, who has had similar encounters since then. “What appears to be aggressive to a cyclist, because the driver is in a big, metal machine, is usually born out of ignorance and not understanding how to treat cyclists.”

Up until then, she had been researching the oftentimes hostile relationship between motorists and cyclists. During her visit to Montreal, she found that it wasn’t only the infrastructure that made cycling in the city enjoyable but the treatment by motorists.

“I didn’t anticipate the fact that it was culture, it was the perception of cyclists by motorists that really made me feel safe and welcome on the streets there.”

She returned home to start the “subversive cyclist” project with a few cyclist friends, and that’s when she started to attract attention.

A little research project

Heather began her research in summer 2015; she was entering her fourth year of the Bachelor of Communication Studies program when she decided to embark on this “personal little research project.”

Just five months in, she had a new view of the city’s motorists. “I came into the research thinking that Edmonton motorists were just hostile, aggressive and proprietary of their space on the road,” she says. “But it turns out that most of them don’t know how to treat cyclists, and that was incredibly surprising to me. I sort of revealed my own biases through this project.”

“ We're all just people trying to get around the city. That is the essence of it.” Heather Magusin

In addition to interviewing other cyclists and motorists, Heather experiments with different cycling strategies to see what changes to behaviour she can instigate. Consider it a guess-and-test approach. Not all of her strategies are for the faint of heart, including taking up an entire lane, avoiding sidewalks at all costs, and cycling without a helmet.

“It was an interesting little experiment grounded in a bit of research,” she explains. “It’s hard to get conclusive evidence about whether or not helmets actually do prevent cyclist death in motor accidents. It’s actually quite impossible to study because of all the confounding variables that happen. Some studies have shown that motorist behaviour will change toward cyclists based on what they’re wearing. One of those variables is whether or not they’re wearing a helmet.”

Another variable is the “Mary Poppins effect,” in which a cyclist receives a wider berth because they’re wearing a dress. One cyclist reported to Heather that while hauling a baby trailer on their bike, they experienced a vehicle following slowly behind, courteously waiting until it was safe to pass.

“As a symbol of vulnerability and innocence, that baby trailer made people behave differently.”

While she gathers data to support her findings, Heather intends to publish her work in a manner that will reach as many Edmonton residents as possible, and the knowledge she has gained so far would be valuable to everyone: don’t generalize an individual by their mode of transportation.

“We’re all just people trying to get around the city. That is the essence of it.”

Not a bad way to get around

An avid winter cyclist, Dave is invigorated when he talks about his commute. “I get to work faster than cars do from my house leaving at rush hour because the busy thoroughfares are all backed up. And I roll past the cars and just sort of grin at them as they're sitting there,” he says.

He says more people are starting to realize cycling is not a bad way to get around. “It's a bit of an adventure—in the winter especially, it's never the same. I do the same ride every day. But the conditions change. Sometimes they change from hour to hour. Because of the type of snow, the type of ice. Who shovelled, who hasn't. And so it's never the same. It's never boring. It's always a mini-adventure riding your bike.”


What is cycling in a winter city like? The English department’s assistant professor and avid cyclist Dave Buchanan enlightens us in the latest episode of Clock Radio.


“As a culture, in this city, you see more and more bikes all the time, year-round,” says Dave. “But, I find, people driving are less patient. At some point there has to be a critical mass where there's enough bikes on the road and where there's more respect for bikes having a place. But it doesn't quite feel like we're there yet.”

There are countless opportunities to enforce road-sharing—separate lanes for cyclists, lowered speed limits in residential neighbourhoods, increased access to downtown, improved road-use education for motorists and cyclists—but it may just come down to cultivating and nurturing mutual respect between two factions that are not so different after all.

We’re all people trying to get from one place to another without fear, injury, or fatality.

Is there a perfect biking city?

Heather doesn’t need to imagine the perfect biking city. It exists all over the world. “Copenhagen is most cyclists’ nirvana,” she says. “There isn’t a cyclist culture. Why? Because everybody bikes. It’s just taken for granted.” The reasons behind that are mainly cultural, but it also has much to do with the infrastructure in place—turn signals for cyclists, visible and separate bike lanes and even shower stations for active commuters.

But what is Heather’s vision for the perfect biking city?

“A place where motorists and cyclists co-exist because they understand each other’s experiences because all motorists have cycled and most cyclists have driven. Just some sort of co-existence with safe infrastructure built in.”

Learning to ride a bike, she says, is one of the milestones of growing up, and it’s an activity that has carried over in her life. “I love the exercise, I love the freedom, I love the wind in my hair,” she says. “I love where it can take me because there are so many things you see commuting on your bike than you could ever see in a vehicle. It’s incredibly experiential. You smell things, feel things in a tactile way when you bike. It’s just really beautiful.”

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