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On Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, crews are at work on the city’s newest bike lanes.

Both of them, on Richards and Smithe streets, will be physically separated from car traffic. Once they’re finished, Vancouver will have an extensive and connected network of protected bike lanes throughout – and in and out of – the city’s core.

What’s more, the latest projects are being built free of the controversies of yesteryear. It is the opposite of the late 2000s, when the city opened its first protected bike lane on the Burrard Bridge into downtown. ‘Chaos’ feared, blared one headline. “Doomed to failure,” opined a columnist. All that proved incorrect: The Burrard Bridge bike lane, billed as the busiest in North America, saw 1.4 million rides in 2020, 40 per cent more than its first full year a decade earlier.

Bike lanes, in Vancouver and across Canada, have grown from political flashpoints – and ideological signifiers – to standard-issue civic infrastructure. They’re being built everywhere.

Penticton, in the British Columbia Interior, this summer opened its Lake-to-Lake bike lane; it plans to invest $15-million over the next five years. Sarnia, Ont., is extending its bicycling network. In Halifax, about a third of a planned 57 kilometres of protected bike lanes is complete. It includes Hollis Street through the heart of the city. Montreal last November opened a long north-south route on Saint Denis Street as part of its Réseau express vélo network.

Toronto, spurred by the pandemic, has installed protected lanes across the city. One new segment on Bloor Street East opened in late September. These lanes are billed as temporary, but it would be a short-sighted mistake to reverse course.

The key element in each is the bike lanes are physically protected from traffic. In years past, cities would take the cheap route and paint some lines on the street. Without real separation from cars, they were underused. Many potential riders did not feel safe in between moving and parked vehicles.

Data have long indicated protected bike lanes are essential to draw riders. A flurry of new research underlines that conclusion. A study from Ryerson University in May, one that looked at the Toronto region, found that protected bike lanes were more than two times as likely to attract riders than unprotected ones. A study in Boston showed that a protected bike lane increased bike-share traffic by 80 per cent. This is a sort of induced demand – build it, and they will ride.

It’s no surprise. A protected bike lane is obviously safer than a faded line painted on the street. What’s fascinating is the findings from research in 2019 that concluded such bike infrastructure can make a city’s streets safer for all users – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

The goal of protected bike lanes isn’t to get every single person on a bike, or for cars to be forever abandoned. Bike lanes are neither a disaster nor a saviour. They’re about options. A well-built network means a family can ride for fun on a weekend, and that workers can commute by bike when able. (The arrival of October is a reminder that weather in Canada will always be a challenge.)

Vancouver recognizes this. The city’s goal is to have 12 per cent of all trips – walking, car and transit included – be made by bike by 2040. The most recent figure was 8 per cent – double the rate in 2013.

A little change can make a big difference. Research suggests that if Canadians drove one day less a week, it could cut almost four megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Ditching the car once in a while isn’t unrealistic. The advocacy group Vélo Canada Bikes points to Statistics Canada data that show almost 40 per cent of commuters in cities live within five kilometres of their workplace.

Canada has made gains but Europe is home to the world’s top bicycling cities – starting with Copenhagen. It is sometimes said, “Well, we’re not Europe.” Forty years ago, European cities such as Amsterdam were clogged with cars. Not any more. Paris of late is going through a total overhaul. The Rue du Rivoli, adjacent to the Louvre in the centre of the city, is now closed to private vehicles. Canadian cities can likewise change.

The shift in direction is decisive. The arguments over bike lanes are settled. They’re becoming what they should have long been: an ordinary way of getting around our cities.

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