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Bike lanes could ease gridlock – so why do drivers hate them so much?

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A man rides his bike past Olympic Stadium in Montreal on May 29, 2018.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Cars are marvellous machines which, for the better part of the past 100 years, have been the fastest, most convenient form of transportation. However, if you commute by car around any big Canadian city, you can already sense that paradise has been lost.

More than 10.5 million people in Canada – nearly a third of the population – commute to work, alone, by car. The number of people whose drive to work takes an hour or more is rising, too. Worse, Statistics Canada found that long commutes by car can have a negative impact on commuters’ health, safety and personal finances, and may also put a strain on family relationships. Every year, the number of vehicles on the roads increases.

We are going to need to find alternatives – not necessarily to replace the commuter car, but at least to augment it. What exactly those alternatives could be is the trillion-dollar question. Uber and Lyft are vying for a piece of that market; so are Segways, hoverboards, e-scooters and all manner of strange e-devices. Public transit is overdue for massive upgrades and expansions. Car-sharing services want in on the action, too. Automakers are not going quietly into the night, partnering with high-tech mobility startups while investing in self-driving and electric technologies.

Predating the car by 80-odd years, the bicycle might be the simplest, cheapest alternatives of all. As the automobile’s future seems less certain, the bicycle’s future looks brighter. From 1996 to 2016, cycling was the fastest-growing mode of transportation among commuters in metropolitan areas, according to Statscan.

Despite that growth, drivers remain the vast majority of road users. As drivers spend more time stuck in traffic, new bike lanes are easy targets for their anger and frustration. The roads belonged to drivers; now they’re being told to share.

Across the country, there is a loud backlash against new cycling infrastructure projects – a “bikelash,” if you will – despite widespread support for safer cycling infrastructure. Among non-cyclists in Toronto, 81 per cent are in favour of a safer cycling network, according to a 2016 poll commissioned by Evergreen, a Toronto-based non-profit that encourages urban sustainability. It’s easy to agree that safer streets are a worthy goal in the abstract, but when it comes to laying down new bike lanes on a busy roads near you, the bikelash gets real, fast. Here is what that looks like in the country’s three largest metropolitan areas.


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A cyclist crosses the Burrard Bridge in a protected bike lane in Vancouver on Jan. 29, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

Last year, Vancouver mayoral candidate Wai Young vowed that, if elected, she would tear up bike lanes. The former Conservative MP promised in a tweet that, “As mayor i will free the roads.” On Twitter, she went on to list a number of existing bike lanes she would rip out if elected. Separated bike lanes are, “a luxurious road system built for a select few, and I donʼt think itʼs necessary,” she said in a CBC interview.

Youngʼs campaign is one example of the city’s “loud public bikelash,” noted in the 2019 Copenhagenize Index, an exhaustive ranking of the world’s top 20 bicycle-friendly cities. Vancouver tied with Montreal for the 18th spot.

Vancouverites have been burned by bike lanes before. In 1996, when a poorly planned bike lane was suddenly installed on the busy Burrard Bridge, angry drivers used their new cellphones to complain. “This is about a nine on the Richter scale of disaster,” one passing driver told a CBC TV crew. “The morons who run this city never cease to amaze me,” another driver said. Within hours, the bike lane project was cancelled. A 2005 pilot project failed, too. Finally, in 2009, the city installed permanent, separated bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge.

“On the first day at the south intersection, there were TV trucks and helicopters and media expecting it to be a big story and for it to fail again,” said Richard Campbell, executive director of the B.C. Cycling Coalition. But nothing happened. Traffic moved normally. This time around, the city had given commuters ample notice of the changes, refined the street layout and ensured the bike lanes were part of a city-wide network. Today, the Burrard Bridge bike lanes are the busiest in North America.

The bikelash isn’t as bad in Vancouver as it used to be, Campbell said. Bike lanes have not, in fact, ground car traffic to a halt. “I think people cried wolf one too many times, both politicians and the media don’t take them so seriously any more.”

In the 2018 mayoral race, Young placed a distant fourth.


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A cyclist rides past an art installation on King Street in Toronto.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

In Canada’s largest city, the bikelash is alive and well. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his late brother Rob made their careers railing against the “war on cars.” Stuck in downtown Toronto traffic, Doug posted a Twitter video calling the King Street pilot project – which prioritized streetcars over cars and bikes – a disaster. “This is a war on the car. Folks, this has to come to an end.”

City data showed that, one year into the pilot, car traffic had shifted to alternate parallel routes on which average travel times varied by only a minute during rush hour. Streetcars, meanwhile, were running five minutes faster and bicycle volume rose 380 per cent.

Opposition to separated bike lanes on Bloor Street, another major project, came mainly from some local businesses as well as city politicians representing wards away from the lanes in question. One such politician was Etobicoke councillor and deputy mayor Stephen Holyday.

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Cyclists riding in a dedicated bike lane on Bloor Street West in Toronto.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

“I think people would feel more comfortable if they see those [Bloor Street] lanes packed with cyclists. But they don’t. I’m saying this empirically, through observation. … Go stand on Bloor Street during rush hour. Yeah, you’ll see some bikes, but you’ll see a whole lot more cars stacked and racked trying to get through there,” Holyday said in an interview.

Drivers spent between two and four minutes longer crossing the stretch of Bloor between Shaw Street and Avenue Road during rush hour owing to the new bike lanes, according to city data. Nearby streets saw slightly increased car traffic. City data also showed a 56-per-cent increase in the number of cyclists on Bloor, a reduction in the rate of car/bike collisions, fewer near-misses, and an increase in total customer spending at local businesses.

Criticism of cycling infrastructure is often intertwined with complaints about their sometimes bad behaviour, such as rolling through stop signs or weaving around cars and pedestrians.

As chief executive officer of Copenhagenize and a former member of Copenhagen city council, where he was responsible for technical and environmental issues, Morten Kabell is an expert in cycling infrastructure. “Those things happen,” he said of the rule breakers. “There are idiots anywhere. The only difference is that they’re way more dangerous in a car than on a bicycle.” He also noted that it’s easier to spot cyclists who break the rules than it is drivers. You can’t easily tell if a car is doing six or seven kilometres an hour over the speed limit.

“There’s no question separated bike lanes are safer, but when you have the vast, vast, vast majority of road users in vehicles, I don’t see the logic in that,” Holyday said. “We’re doing some social engineering, besides physical engineering here, to change the way people get around, and it’s done through pressure.”

Toronto City Council recently voted 23 to 3 in favour of extending the Bloor bike lanes west closer to Holyday’s ward. He voted against it. The King Street pilot has also been made permanent.


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In some parts of central Montreal, 15 per cent of trips are by bicycle.The Globe and Mail

Marianne Giguère uses a bicycle to get around Montreal, where she is a city councillor for the De Lorimier district. She’s a member of Projet Montréal, the municipal party that swept to power in 2017 on a promise to “get Montreal moving” through, in part, an ambitious plan that included a network of 184 kilometres of bicycle express lanes called the Réseau Express Vélo, or REV.

“People always react strongly when you come and change their habits; that’s normal. We manage it by being very well prepared,” Giguère said. To counteract any bikelash, she explained, the city worked hard to get the support of different groups, including taxi drivers, the truckers’ association and the CAA. In some cases, building support among local businesses and residents meant going door-to-door.

“It takes time, but it works,” she said. “The people who are very mad at it, who are really not willing to see it happen, they get marginalized. They speak very loud and of course they get a lot of media attention.”

Over all, she finds there’s less resistance now than there used to be. “People have seen good examples working. They realize that, in some way, bikes are cool.” The Bixi bike share program let more people try cycling, too. “When they do, they realize it’s not just for young white men in good shape; they realize everybody can ride. It’s become less marginalized than it was 10 years ago.” You see less spandex, and more regular clothes.

In some parts of central Montreal, 15 per cent of trips are by bicycle, “which is nearly unheard of in most North American cities,” the 2019 Copenhagenize study found. And this in a city that gets serious snowfall.

“In Montreal, the conditions are harder than Toronto, more like Moscow,” Giguère said. “It’s kind of: build it and they will come; plow it and they will ride.” Some days, it’s impossible to bike, she acknowledged, but said there aren’t many days like that. “You need to have the infrastructure plowed and salted. You’re not telling people it’s a religion; that you must go on any day with your bike. But it’s hard for cars, too, and when I go to work, I’m so much faster with my bike. … I am a 43-year-old normal mother. I’m not any superhero. I don’t do bungee jumping.”

Still, there are significantly fewer cyclists in winter. The share of bikes on the road declined from 3.1 per cent in summer to 0.7 per cent in winter, according to 2014 data – collected before widespread efforts to plow bikes lanes began – by the Canadian Institute of Planners.

It has been two years since Projet Montréal won the municipal election. The party has come under fire recently for taking too long to get the REV built and from residents who are unhappy about the removal of parking spaces.

Getting there

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Cyclists ride through Midtown Manhattan on July 30, 2019.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Trying to cram more cars down the same streets is not working, and hasn’t been for some time now. It’s like a hot-dog eating competition that just won’t end. It’s getting gross.

The knee-jerk reaction among drivers who feel that they’re losing out by having to share the road is entirely understandable. Bike lanes are not always a win for drivers. However, drivers also stand to benefit from cycling infrastructure if it’s done right. More bikes means fewer cars, less congestion and more available parking spots. In some North American cities, adding protected bike lanes has sped up overall commute times for everyone.

A 2014 analysis by the New York City Department of Transportation found that, after installing 48 kilometres of protected bike lanes, travel times on several major avenues were reduced while vehicle traffic volume remained steady and moved just as quickly as before.

After installing protected bike lanes on Kinzie Street in downtown Chicago, the city saw little to no impact on car travel, plus a big increase in the number of cyclists.

Bicycles won’t work for all commuters all the time, but to speed up daily commutes, it’s going to take a little bit of everything: bicycles, buses, trains, e-scooters, ride-sharing, walking and public transit. When used to their full potential, these alternatives will allow everyone (including people who really need to drive) to get where they’re going more safely and in less traffic.

Changing century-old habits, however, won’t be easy.

Holyday said because of projects such as the Bloor Street bike lanes, he and his constituents in Etobicoke don’t feel as much a part of the city as they once did. “I live in the 416. They live in the 416. And they don’t feel as connected to the centre part of the 416 as they used to. That, to me, is the core piece that drives a lot of my approach on this.”

For Giguère, change is necessary. “What drives me crazy is how cities are loaded with cars and space that is used by cars; it’s just not livable. … People spend so much time in their cars and they feel it’s just the way it has to be. I know that individuals don’t feel they have a choice, but you need to plant that seed. [Cars] are useful for so many things but in a dense city, it’s not their place.”

This is personal. It’s not simply a matter of finding the perfect planning solution or technical fix. People identify with their chosen mode of transportation. Cyclists, drivers, urban, suburban: We are attached to these identities, and, too often, divided by them. Add to this the widening of political, social and economic divisions and you can see why it’s hard to agree on something as seemingly mundane as bike lanes, let alone, say, climate change. Building cycling infrastructure is no panacea, but breaking down physical divisions by finding ways for everyone to move around more freely might help us all to get where we want to go.

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