When cars were introduced at the end of the 19th century, they were often dismissed as unreliable, expensive, and sometimes dangerous novelties.
Cars couldn’t handle the mud and the snow and the other delights of Canada’s four seasons the way horses could. They were way less versatile than a horse and buggy, not to mention that motorized vehicles were noisy, and their drivers looked ridiculous.
Those arguments may sound awfully familiar to e-bike riders and other users of micro-mobility devices. We don’t always embrace sea change.
But despite its early growing pains, the automobile became the dominant form of transport because we built infrastructure to accommodate it, which, in turn, spurred innovation and regulation.
Unfortunately, we also allowed industry to run roughshod over public health and policy-makers, resulting in the marginalization of other modes of transport, from tramways to bicycles.
Now, just over a century after mass production of cars began, Canada is one of the most auto-dependent countries on Earth. We have almost as many motor vehicles as people, and we have given over an inordinate amount of public space to accommodate them, leaving mere scraps to everyone else.
It’s time for a shift – one as revolutionary as the transition from horses to cars, but done smarter.
This time around, change should be driven not only by shifting public tastes, but by public-health concerns, from tackling climate change through to promoting individual health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered how people work, move and interact with each other. Patterns of employment, shopping, food consumption and leisure have shifted markedly.
One of the most visible changes, particularly in big cities, is the embrace of e-bikes and other micro-mobility devices (scooters, hoverboards, e-skateboards, e-trikes, Segways and more).
In this transition phase, we are struggling to create a culture of safety. That will come if we formulate thoughtful regulations, and invest in a mix of public education and enforcement. Some big debates lie ahead, including over licensing, insurance and speed limits.
But first, we have to create the infrastructure so the converts can come.
Bike lanes have become mobility lanes, and they are overrun and crowded. There is spillover onto sidewalks, making life more perilous for always-forgotten pedestrians.
Meanwhile, public transit is struggling with falling ridership, while roads remain as clogged as ever with cars and ever-larger trucks. Something has to give.
The answer is to make more space for alternative forms of transport like e-bikes. We need to encourage, not stifle, behaviours that reduce our overreliance on fossil fuels and the spewing of pollutants that create the greenhouse gases fuelling climate change.
The principal way of doing so is by creating better infrastructure. Potemkin bike lanes painted grudgingly in the gutter don’t cut it.
Separate and separated mobility lanes that are well-maintained will accelerate the shift to more eco-friendly transport. But you need the supportive infrastructure too, including e-bike parking, charging stations, proper lighting, and accommodations for riders with varied skill levels.
Done right, it would bolster public transit, too. The single biggest barrier to bus and subway usage is the “first mile” and “last mile” problem: the distance commuters have to travel from a transit stop to their final destination, and vice versa.
Micro-mobility devices can fill that gap – if we make it easy. And if we can provide free parking for cars at commuter train stations, then we can certainly do it for bikes, e-bikes and scooters.
Consumers are driving this change in how we move about cities, but they need support from politicians and policymakers. Unfortunately, they are too often doubling down on their addiction to the motor vehicle.
Vancouver is a striking example. With temperate weather, and a prominent, healthy West Coast lifestyle, it’s an ideal place for micro-mobility to flourish. (The “our weather makes cars essential” argument is largely a red herring. You can bike/e-bike in most Canadian cities year-round with proper clothing, if the infrastructure is there.)
Yet continuous mobility lanes are sorely lacking in Vancouver. Worse, the parks board symbolically removed most of a temporary bike lane from Stanley Park, the city’s crown jewel. While claiming it would create “more access to more users,” the result has been more traffic jams.
That’s the thing about cars and trucks: They will fill all the space we give them, and then some.
The answer is to actually give them less space. Forcing drivers out of massive, polluting vehicles, particular in city cores, is sound policy. And providing them with alternatives is even better policy.
A fundamental shift in the way we think about transportation needs to start now.