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A cyclist yells at the driver of an illegally parked car during rush hour in Toronto that the bike lane "isn't a parking spot.” Separated bike lanes can prevent this kind of incident and make cyclists feel safer.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

On a recent weekday morning, a line of about two dozen bicycles was stopped along a side street in the Plateau district of Montreal, waiting for a red light to change so they could continue their commute along a bike path into downtown. The crowd is a daily event along this route, one of the main arteries for bicycles to make their way into the centre of the city from the east end. The reason for this is clear: Montreal has created an efficient network of separated bike lanes, which make residents feel safe enough to use bicycles as their primary means of transportation to work or school.

Designing bike lanes physically separated from other traffic – like those now popping up in Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada – is the key to shifting commuters out of cars or buses and on to bicycles. Studies suggest that worries about safety are the main factors keeping people off bikes, and being protected from traffic is the top priority for cyclists. Montreal is proof that providing linked bike routes with separated lanes will get more people in the saddle.

In Montreal, many of the bike lanes are on secondary streets, which decreases the impact on car capacity. That has been a problem of bike lane designations in Toronto, where major arteries already congested with traffic have been made worse by the removal of car lanes, including turning lanes, in a clumsy imposition of bike corridors. But Montreal, even though the city is old and many streets are narrow, has cleverly managed to make room for both cars and bikes. Promotion of bike use does not have to mean a war on cars.

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And Toronto has plans to install some separated lanes – a move that will be welcomed by both cyclists and drivers, who now are forced to uncomfortably share space on busy roads.

It is clear that more people will choose to bike to their destinations provided they feel safe. It is unclear, given our severe winters, that Canada could rival European countries for bike commuting, but the potential for improvement is there if cities install more separated lanes.

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