The benefits of bicycling as an alternative form of transportation are well known: almost no carbon emissions or pollutants; better cardiovascular health; less traffic congestion. Where cyclists and motorists are respectful of each other, cycling is a public good.
Why don’t more Canadian city-dwellers cycle? Safety and distance are the key impediments, while some of the likely deterrents hardly register – even in Montreal, weather is fourth on the list. In Toronto, only one-third of cyclists say they are comfortable driving on major roads without bike lanes.
Women, in particular, give up the idea of cycling when they perceive urban streets as unsafe, but in Germany, 49 per cent of cyclists are women, in the Netherlands, 55 per cent; the Canadian numbers are hard to come by, but only one cyclist in three is a woman in the United States.
Cities in Canada have been built around the automobile. That cannot be altered, and distance keeps many commuters in their cars or, when it’s convenient, on public transit. Researchers estimate that the number of practical (as opposed to recreational) bicycle trips falls steeply beyond a 5-kilometre range.
Much can be done to address safety and distance concerns. Jennifer Dill, an urban planning professor at Portland State University, says that a set of practices, rather than specific policies, can encourage cycling without putting undue burdens on motorists or pedestrians.
There should be “something that tells the cyclist, this is the space for you,” she says. Bikes are supposed to be road vehicles, but some cyclists claim all spaces, including sidewalks, as theirs, while some motorists don’t recognize the need to share the roads.
Studies have shown that dedicated spaces – off-road bike paths, bike lanes on streets or bikeways separated by barriers from the rest of the road – increase bicycle use.
But such spaces can be ill-conceived. Several projects in downtown Toronto have succeeded in reducing automobile capacity on major thoroughfares. Another similar plan was defeated by a single vote at Toronto City Council.
Such proposals make no sense. The goal should not be to frustrate drivers. Dedicated bike lanes are best on roads that do not see major automobile traffic.
Furthermore, a network of lanes and paths is more important than their precise positioning. Distance is less of a disincentive when cyclists can use dedicated lanes to get almost all the way to their destinations.
Not much public spending is needed – in six figures, rather than tens of millions of dollars. Sometimes, only a little paint suffices to make a bike lane.
Some unlikely partnerships are emerging. Canadian Automobile Association chapters in B.C. and south central Ontario, for instance, now offer roadside assistance for members with bike problems; they recognize that many people use, over a day or a year, multiple modes of transit.
Cyclist lobby groups can help establish norms for good behaviour. Cyclists need to respect the rules of the road, and know that they will be respected. There is evidence there is “safety in masses”: As more people cycle, the accident rate per cyclist actually declines.
Canadian cities will never be like European cycling havens. But a culture of mutual respect, with continuing, modest public and private investment, can make cycling safer. That will make everyone – cyclists, pedestrians and motorists – better off.