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Tensions between cyclists and drivers in Canada have never been higher, after three cyclists were killed by a pickup truck on a stretch of highway near Montreal and charges against former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant were dropped in the death of Toronto bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard.

This week, The Globe and Mail spoke to Dutch-born Arno Schortinghuis, president of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, one of the cycling community's moderate voices.

Why does there seem to be less tension between drivers and cyclists in Vancouver than in many other cities?

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In Vancouver, 4 per cent of trips are made by bike. In Toronto, it is 1 or 2 per cent, and in Montreal, it's a bit higher than that. The more people there are riding bikes, the safer it is for all cyclists. Motorists expect to see more cyclists on the road, and are more cautious and accommodating.

Isn't it to be expected that motorists would be uncomfortable having to share the road with bikes?

I maintain that it is good for motorists as well, because more people riding bikes means less people driving cars. A bicycle is much smaller than a car so it leaves much more room on the roadway.

Is that the European experience?

That's what they discovered in cities like Copenhagen. About 40 per cent of trips there are already made by bicycle. They are going gangbusters trying to improve it, because they know the least expensive way to move people around is by bicycle. They want to make it 50 per cent as soon as possible.

Could a Canadian city actually reach that level?

I think it is possible, but you also need good [long-term]planning. You want to make communities more compact. You want workplaces that are relatively close to the living spaces, so you don't have to drive as far, take transit as far, or cycle as far.

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A lot of [other]things have to happen. The city of Vancouver wanted to install special cycling phases on their traffic signals, but they can't do that because it has to be passed by the provincial government first. A little thing like that holds back the development of cycling. The province just refused to touch it.

Is separating cars from bike traffic a key factor in getting more people on two wheels?

It is a key component for increasing the number of people who ride bikes. Research at the University of British Columbia [looked into]what kind of facilities would attract more people. The clear answer is separated or off-road cycling paths.

The large percentage of people who refuse to ride on the roads [feel that way]because they think it's unsafe.

What happened when a bike lane was installed on the Burrard Street bridge in Vancouver?

With that one piece of protected infrastructure, the number of cyclists going over the bridge increased by 30 per cent.

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Retailers say bike lanes reduce parking spots and thus cut store traffic. Is that justified?

If you improve the cycling access to the stores, there's going to be more traffic in the stores. In Copenhagen, the capacity of a roadway is three times higher if it's bicycle-oriented than if it is [geared to]cars. So for the same amount of pavement you can get three times as many people on bicycles than on single-occupancy cars.

What about cyclists' bad behaviour?

Everybody is breaking the law and I don't see why cyclists should be singled out. If a car driver does something wrong like blowing through a stop sign, and a cyclist comes along on the other street, guess who is going to lose out on that interaction? If a cyclist blows through a stop sign and hits a car, the cyclist is going to be the worse off.

Is climate an issue in keeping Canadians off bikes?

Copenhagen is a northern city. And check out Denver, Colo. That's a snowy place. They have beautiful off-road cycling paths going into downtown. Their priority, when it snows, is to clean off the bike routes, first thing. You have to treat the bike lane as an important part of your transportation infrastructure.

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What about the argument that North American cities are built around the car?

In Europe, they faced this issue in the 1960s and 1970s. They said, look, you can't keep supporting the car, it's unsustainable. Then they went gangbusters putting in cycling [infrastructure] But it wasn't easy. There was a lot of conflict. That's exactly what is happening here now.

What about bike sharing?

Bike sharing is very important to build up the number of people riding bikes. People are converted, and then buy their own bike. In Paris, hardly anybody road their bikes. They did two things there to turn things around. They built protected bike lanes and they introduced bike sharing. That dramatically increased the number of people riding.

How long have you been biking?

I'm 63 [and]I tell people that I rode on a bike before I was born, because that's all the transportation my parents had in Holland.

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What kind of bike do you ride?

I'm a very thrifty Dutchman, and I ride a 1980 Apollo. I love those 1980s Japanese bikes because they have steel frames and I can fix them.

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