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Weaving in and out of traffic isn't as safe for cyclists as properly designed lanes, University of British Columbia research says. The school studied 690 cases of significant injuries involving cyclists in Vancouver and Toronto and concluded that bike lanes with physical separations (such as a curb) are the safest. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Weaving in and out of traffic isn't as safe for cyclists as properly designed lanes, University of British Columbia research says. The school studied 690 cases of significant injuries involving cyclists in Vancouver and Toronto and concluded that bike lanes with physical separations (such as a curb) are the safest. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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Can motorists tolerate cyclists and share the road? Add to ...

A trip downtown to visit his son feels a bit like a game of Russian roulette for John Hancock. That’s because the parking spaces in front of his son’s apartment are adjacent to one of the Calgary’s contentious 16-month-old bicycle lanes.

“I don’t like them at all,” Hancock says. “They clog things up and every time you go there you nearly get nailed by a bike.”

Bike lanes, in his view, are a “colossal waste of time” and taxpayers’ money and have emboldened cyclists to brazenly ignore driving laws. He says he regularly sees cyclists ignoring dedicated cycle-lane traffic signals.

In addition to safety concerns, businesses complain that badly needed parking spaces are lost to bike lanes, hurting their walk-in sales. Yet, over some business and motorists’ objections, dedicated bicycle lanes are becoming common across the country, with pilot projects and permanent installations spreading from St. John’s to Victoria. Even late adopters, such as Toronto, are jumping into the pro-bike culture with both feet.

“Cycling has exploded in this city downtown,” says Jerod Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto.

A November of 2015 report by the Pembina Institute details the growth of cycling infrastructure in Canada’s five biggest cities. Calgary has 1,032 kilometres in on- and off-street bike paths, Montreal, 648; Toronto, 640; Vancouver, 289; and Ottawa, 221.

That growth has some driving advocates griping that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of cyclists. In Vancouver, for example, the municipal government seems bent on getting rid of vehicles, says Blair Qualey, president of the New Car Dealers Association of BC. “There’s the feeling that the automobile is the pariah,” he says. “It’s almost as if they say, ‘Let’s try to make things as miserable [for motorists] as we can.’”

Even petitions in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary to stop certain bike lanes have failed to sway city hall. It seems, like it or not, four wheels will soon be sharing the roads with two wheels in almost every Canadian city.

But does it really have to be “us” against “them?” Cycling advocates say motorists need to calm down.

“The emotion of the debates seems really extreme,” says Tom Babin, a cycling Calgarian who published a book on the art of riding in winter – called Frostbike. Resistance to cycling is a problem that plays out everywhere – “even Copenhagen” – which is held up as the international model of a harmonious car and cycle culture, he says. (One-third of Copenhagen’s residents commute to work by bicycle on the city’s 350 kilometres of elevated paths.)

Anders Swanson, a board director with Winnipeg-based Canada Bikes, says achieving harmony between cyclists and drivers comes down to two things: providing cyclists with protected lanes and ensuring vehicles drive slower – 30 kilometres an hour. While that speed might seem ridiculously low, he notes that it beats Toronto’s gridlock, where nobody moves.

“I’m calling you from Amsterdam,” he says, during a recent phone interview. “There’s no major street here that’s faster than 30 kilometres per hour. But the cars are all moving.”

Research shows that properly designed bicycle lanes do reduce injuries to cyclists, says Kay Teschke, a professor in exposure assessment at the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health. The school studied 690 cases of significant injuries involving cyclists in Vancouver and Toronto and concluded that bike lanes with physical separations (such as a curb) are the safest.

Compared with major streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure, separated bike lanes had one-ninth the injury risk. Painted bike lanes had either two-thirds the risk (if they were on streets with car parking) or half the risk (on streets without car parking).

And there is an added bonus: The study found that, where cities have bike lanes with physical separations from cars, the number of vehicular collisions were also found to be lower.

Teschke believes that bike lanes with physical separations are not as confusing for drivers. Curbs, for example, reduce the chance of drivers pulling into a cycle lane to stop and drop off a passenger.

A lot of bikes lanes, unfortunately, are not physically separated. Toronto has about 200 kilometres of painted bike lanes and just 20 kilometres with physical separations, Kolb says. Those painted lanes “give the appearance of safety” but functionally don’t physically separate the two tonnes of rolling steel and plastic on four wheels from the seven-kilogram two-wheeler beside it.

Montreal, considered Canada’s best city for cyclists, remains the country’s leader in safe infrastructure. It had 234 kilometres of separated bike lanes in 2015, according to the Pembina study.

Teschke says in time, drivers become accustomed to the lanes and learn to look out for cyclists. That hasn’t happened yet in Ottawa, where in November, three Ottawa cyclists were struck by vehicles within the first two weeks a bike lane operated on O’Connor Street. The lane’s designer later stated that the lane’s bi-directional design was not the safest, but it was chosen to minimize impact on traffic.

Kolb says over time, cities may need to rethink how intersections work for both cars and cyclists. He pointed to the “Idaho stop law” – since 1982, cyclists in that state have been legally allowed to treat a four-way stop as a yield and a red light as stop sign. The change was made because riding is “momentum-based” – it’s harder to get going once you come to a full stop – but it has yet to be widely adopted.

In Canada, blowing through a red light on a bike is still considered “dangerous behaviour,” Kolb says.

While Babin says the burden of responsibility to behave well in traffic falls to cyclists, it’s not always easy to get cyclists to comply with laws. When Babin recently scolded a cyclist he saw blow a light, “He didn’t have very kind words for me.”

But then, Babin “got yelled at a lot” when he started commuting on a bicycle daily about 15 years ago. Now, he rides with greater confidence, better infrastructure is in place and drivers are learning to look out for cyclists.

Teschke echoes that. She believes motorists’ attitudes toward cyclists are evolving and over time. “Everyone is going to realize it’s great to have transportation options.”

There will always be some tension between cyclists and motorists, Babin says. That is one point of agreement for he and Hancock, who worries about not being able to see cyclists as they approach.

“If you open the driver’s door and one’s coming along, you’re liable to knock them over,” he says. “It’s just a pain.”

Motoring advocates such as the Canadian Automobile Association have chosen a co-operative approach to cars and bikes. They are collaborating with health and cycling advocates on a national cycling and walking infrastructure proposal that calls for $2.1-billion in federal money over three years to expand pedestrian and cycling paths.

Kristine D’Arbelles, manager of public affairs for the CAA, says many of the club’s 6.2 million members also ride bicycles and just want safety to be the top priority.

“There is a future where everyone can share the roads.”

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