Want to build better bike infrastructure? Listen to people riding bikes

Let’s play a little bicycle commuter game.

There are two videos below, both of which I shot, very professionally, by holding up my phone while I rode my bicycle to work.

These videos were shot on two roads that run parallel to each other one block apart.

Here’s the challenge: Guess which road contains bike-specific infrastructure.

Video one shows a quiet residential road with slow-moving cars and — and this is the important part — people on bikes.

The second video is a busy road filled with buses and impatient motorists and, importantly, nobody else on a bike, other than your rather shaky cameraman.

Which one features the dedicated bike route?

Wrong. The road with the dedicated bike lane is seen in the second video . The right-hand lane that I’m riding in is a shared bus/bike lane, as indicated by this sign.

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Here’s a closeup of the sign, indicating that, during rush hour, the parking lane turns into a shared lane dedicated to buses and bikes.

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Yet, there are no bikes in this lane. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a bike in this lane, mostly because I avoid the lane myself on most days. It’s busy with cars, shared with buses that cut me off regularly to drop passengers, and often filled with illegally parked cars. It’s a poor bike lane.

The first video shows where I usually ride, on a parallel route one block away that is usually filled with fellow cyclists. Many days, I count more bikes than cars, which is rather novel in my city.

So what gives? There’s much to talk about in this scenario (here, I’ll get you started: Shared bus-bike lanes suck, bike lanes that exist only during rush hour suck, people who illegally park their cars in shared bus-bike lanes suck), but the thing that always jumps into my mind is this: If you want to build well-used bike lanes, listen to cyclists. And listening doesn’t always mean talking — paying attention to the way actual people on bikes behave can go a long way to building well-used bike infrastructure.

The shared bus-bike lane was installed on this stretch of road several years ago, to the consternation of nearly everybody who uses the road. Users worried the parking lanes that transformed into shared bus-bike lanes during rush hour would be dangerous and confusing to bus drivers, motorists and cyclists. Since then, there hasn’t been much to those worries, mostly because so few cyclists use it. Cyclists are voting with their feet (well, their wheels) and choosing the nice quiet residential road one block away.

Urban planners often talk about “desire lines,” which is a fancy way of paying attention to where people want to move, rather than where we expect them to. Rather than build a crosswalk where it’s convenient for car traffic, for example, it’s better to watch where people are jaywalking and build a crosswalk there.

With cycling, it can be tricky to assess desire lines before infrastructure is built because so few will brave sections of a city perceived to be dangerous, but there are situations that it makes more sense to accommodate cyclists where they are, rather than where city planners want them to be.

This can be done is ways simple to complex. Surveys can work. So can watching for the tracks of bike in a fresh snowfall. You can also use technology. In my city, planners look at data from fitness-tracking app Strava to see the routes of users, albeit a limited cross-section of users (despite the above example, Calgary does a decent job watching cyclist behaviour). Some cities have developed tracking apps used to collect data from the travels of volunteer users. All of these methods offer insight into the ways cyclists move through cities in the real world.

This isn’t an argument in favour of moving bike lanes off of busy roads. An important part of the success of that residential road — perhaps the most important part — is that it has top-notch connections to a network of separated bike path that brings commuters right downtown.

Rather, this is an argument in favour of cyclist-centric planning, where bike routes are designed for use in the real world, not in ways we might imagine them being used.

A handy guide for avoiding uninformed anti-bike rants

The rant was so out of touch as to be almost quaint. Earlier this month, Canadian Sen. Nicole Eaton, 71, went on a Twitter campaign  against cycling in Toronto, criticizing the construction of bike lanes using the same old arguments that are often thrown around by uninformed reactionaries: Nobody rides a bike, cyclists don’t obey the laws, and bike lanes begrime cities.

What made Eaton’s rant especially rich was its unique combination of laughable ignorance (she tweeted that wasting money on bike lanes was unbecoming of a global city such as New York, London and Paris, which are all actually chock full of cyclists and bike infrastructure) and it’s low-hanging-fruit hypocrisy (Canadians find it ironic to hear tax-fighting arguments from a senator, when the Senate is a largely symbolic piece of government stuffed with elderly patronage appointments who have a horrible history of wasting taxpayer money on enriching themselves).

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Still, Eaton’s rant wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. So in the name of public service, we’re here to offer some help. Below are some answers to common misinformed anti-bike criticisms, presented in handy wallet-card format. So if you’re a politician or public figure who has yet to embrace urban cycling, print this card, laminate it, and put it in your wallet or purse. Whenever you are tempted to go on a ridiculous anti-bike rant, pull it out and read the answers before opening your mouth or tweeting. Not only will this save you some embarrassment (and your Twitter account, poor old Sen. Eaton has now deleted hers), it might just elevate the debate over cycling.

Enjoy.

The folly of paint: Is it time to give up on painted bike lanes completely?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio call-in show about urban cycling during which a caller expressed her fear that her adult son was going to be killed on the roads. He is a bicycle commuter who had already been struck by cars twice while riding inside a painted bike lane.

I mumbled a rather lame response about how better infrastructure would help. But the caller’s rather terrifying story stuck in my mind. Especially over the past several weeks, when I’ve been watching this scene come together on two different roads that I ride a bike on regularly.

Look what's forming on 20th Street S.W.: a nicely painted area to be doored. #yycbike

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

When public consultations over the idea of making these rather busy single-lane roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly began more than a year ago, I was heartened. I’ve been riding them for years, and I welcomed anything that might make cyclists safer. I dutifully offered my feedback during the consultation process, emphasizing the need to protect cyclists from cars in order to encourage all people to ride, no matter their ability nor confidence.

Weeks later, the plan emerged. Sigh. Some stripes. Some painted stripes on the asphalt. As a cyclist, I’ve been conditioned to be grateful for any miserable old infrastructure crumb thrown my way, but you’ll please forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a painted line. Is this really going to protect cyclists, or encourage anyone to ride?

On some level, I understand why the decision was made to do nothing more here than lay down some paint. Budgets are tight. Not all residents in the area supported bike infrastructure. Building proper segregated bike lanes can be controversial. Business worried about losing too many parking spaces. The streets can be too narrow for anything else under traffic guidelines. Blah, blah, blah — it’s the same arguments in every city over and over again.

To be fair, these projects did offer some improvements to pedestrians and in slowing traffic (the latter done, mostly, by putting cyclists in the way of cars). But if the fundamental purpose of a bike lane is to make it safe enough for people of all type to ride in, no matter their skill, I thought I’d test the theory in the simplest way I knew how. I’d take my 11-year-old son onto one of the new lanes and see what he thought about it.

Before this project, he refused to ride on one of these roads because he felt unsafe. Now? He excitedly gave the bike lane a try (yes, he’s as nerdy about bike infrastructure as his dad). He cares little for the politics and compromise that goes into bike infrastructure. He just wants to ride without getting pancaked by an SUV. On this lane, it didn’t take long before he said he felt trapped between moving cars and the door zone. The verdict? “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s better about this?”

Good question. Were there other options for these projects? Absolutely. The bike lane could have been segregated by a barrier. The bike lane could have been placed between the curb and parked cars, thereby using parked vehicles as a barrier, which was the winning suggestion last year when I asked readers to choose a better design. The bike lane could have been raised a few inches to create an easy barrier, as we’ve seen in other countries. Or, something wacky could have been done, like these others suggestions from readers.

I know how difficult it can be for city planners to get bike infrastructure of any kind built in our political environment. And I understand the argument of incrementalism — painted lanes are a more palatable baby step toward better infrastructure in the future. But let’s not pretend this is anything more than a compromise that doesn’t even meet the first standard of bike infrastructure: encouraging an enthusiastic kid to ride in them.

I understand why lanes like this are installed, but when my son takes his bike down this road, that’s all just noise. My thoughts will be on that worried mom from the call-in show.

What’s your feeling on painted bike lanes? Do you use them? Do you think more should be built? Or is it time to move past them into better, safer infrastructure? Use the comments below, or let the author know what you think on Twitter or Facebook.

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Bike-lane gaps are holding back urban cycling, and they may be getting worse

Say you’re riding your bike in a nice and safe protected bike lane, and you come across something that looks like this.

 So you dutifully follow the instructions on the asphalt, even if it requires you to do something weird and counter-intuitive like roll onto the sidewalk, cross the road, dismount your bike and re-position it to carry on riding on the same road that, suddenly, has no more bike lane, leaving you to inexplicably wrestle with car traffic for dear life.

It gets worse. Now say you encounter, a few blocks later, another perfectly nice bike route, which makes you wonder why you couldn’t just roll from one nice bike route to the next without the stretch of abandonment in between, where you were left to fend for yourself against car traffic.

You’ve just survived the dreaded bike-infrastructure gap.

Your gap may not look exactly like this gap, but you have them in your city. The gaps are the forgotten zones between pieces of bike infrastructure that stand in the way of complete, connected bike routes, and discourage people from riding as surely as a urine collector on a Tour de France bus.

Here’s the bad news: If your city is one of those that has finally come around to building bike lanes, expect your gaps to get worse.

Here’s why: Once cities start laying down bike infrastructure, they tend to measure success based on the number of lanes they build. So the lanes that get built are the easiest and quickest. That can lead to cities full of perfectly fine, but horrifyingly disconnected, bike infrastructure.

In my city of Calgary, city planners and bike advocates are busy patting themselves on the back in celebration of what they expect will be the one-millionth trip on a newly built downtown bike network pilot project. I’m not here to ruin their party, it’s certainly an accomplishment worth celebrating. But this same bike network has some serious connection problems, one of which is detailed above.

The eight-block gap in the above example may be nothing for a confident, experienced cyclist. But if you are a tentative rider who doesn’t feel safe riding with traffic, that gap is an insurmountable chasm. In fact, there’s a not-so-curious connection between the “underperforming” areas of Calgary downtown bike network and a lack of connections in those areas.

Even in cities with more robust cycling cultures, this can be a problem — in fact, it may be even worse in cities where politicians can score political points by crowing about how many bike lanes have been built. In Montreal, one of the few North American cities where politicians can win votes by building bike lanes, I’ve heard several bike advocates complain the city ought to move beyond bragging about how many new kilometres of bike lanes are installed each year, and instead focus on getting more and more people riding.

How does that happen? By thoughtfully and carefully making connections between pieces of infrastructure to ensure there are high quality, safe routes that get people where they need to go.

This may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit. If you are Los Angeles or Edmonton (sorry) or any of the other deadbeat cities that are only now coming around to the realization that bike lanes are good, you’ve got a lot of work to do before this becomes a problem. But for all those cities that are in the midst of building out bike lanes wherever they can, it’s never too early to start thinking about connections.

 

Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver flourishes as a bike city, while Toronto is mired in yesterday’s battles

A decade ago, riding a bicycle in Toronto and Vancouver was, in some ways, a similar experience.

Two of Canada’s biggest cities, both had dense and walkable urban cores, but little in the way of bike-specific infrastructure, so riding through the city could be a harrowing experience. Both cities had thousands of cyclists who were keen on getting around safely, but there were also those who hated the idea of carving out space for cyclists, so fierce debates played out in the media and the local pubs over the idea of bike lanes.

Since then, the two cities went in different directions, and the results are palpable. At least, they are palpable if you were reading the local papers this weekend.

In Toronto’s Globe and Mail came yet another column lamenting the “Mad Max” scenarios between cars and drivers. After witnessing a frightening confrontation between a motorist and a cyclist, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti said summer in her city feels like “Death Race 2016.”

Over on the west coast, in contrast, the Vancouver Sun ran a long piece about the blossoming of businesses located along new(ish) separated bike lanes. The feature even quoted the leader of a downtown business group that was once hostile to bike lanes, who said there has been a “sea change” in attitudes toward cycling, as many business groups embrace the burgeoning scene and the spendy nature of those cyclists.

Neither piece is, of course, completely representative of their respective cities (Renzetti’s column is a tad dramatic, and the Sun’s piece is a tad optimistic), but they both are further signs of how much their respective cities have changed (or stagnated) for cyclists in the past decade.

First, Toronto: After an ambitious plan from city hall in the 1990s, Toronto went through a bikelash the likes of which few cities have experienced. After making some headway on the plan, late crack-smoking suburban populist Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010, and he promptly went about dismantling what little progress the city had made for cyclists. With typically wrong-headed rhetoric, one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to remove a recently installed bike lane. “The war on cars is over,” he famously said.

Six years later, a more forward thinking and reasonable regime is leading city hall, and the plans for making the city better for cycling are slowly being dusted off. In a city that is filled with so many bicycles only the willfully ignorant could deny their place with a straight face, those lost years are taking their toll. Progress is finally being made, which means the growing pains of its transportation infrastructure are being acutely felt, and the result is those portrayals of a bottled-up sense of hostility on city streets, confrontations, raging debates in the press, and those “Mad Max” analogies.

That scenario might sound familiar to Vancouverites. The city was within the throes of its own George Milleresque dustup over bikes just a couple of years ago, when plans to add a bike route sparked street protests, allegations of class warfare and general unpleasantness directed toward those on two wheels. The turnaround has been swift, with formerly hostile business owners making a complete turnaround, cyclists flocking to the new routes, and city planners trying to keep their I-told-you-so smirks in check.

That may seen a dramatic flip, but it’s not atypical. The controversies that dog bike-lane proposals seldom last long, often because well-planned and well-executed projects quickly prove their worth and then fall from the minds of reasonable people who were once opposed. That tends to leave those dug-in opponents looking like lonely cranks, like this guy.

What worked in Vancouver, and in so many other cities, was the political courage to back a project that was well-conceived but contentious. Not every project will work, but sometimes giving them a try is worth the pain.

Toronto is a different city than Vancouver, with its own unique transportation and political problems, but you can’t help but wonder if those bike plans had been implemented all those years ago, Mad Max would exist only on Netflix.

Here’s what happens to your bike ride when thousands of more cars are added to roads

You’ve been there, even if you haven’t consciously been there: Riding your bike down a typical city street feeling squeezed from all sides, unable to see past the next intersection, worried about being doored and generally unwelcome on what should be public space.

Why do you feel that way? Because the street looks like this:

UntitledThere’s nothing wrong, technically, with this street. These scenes are everywhere. But the reason you feel all those things is so obvious it’s almost invisible. There are cars everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Crammed along the curbs, congested on the street, taking up space everywhere.

I know you know this. Like me, you’ve read all the statistics about the increasing number of cars on our streets. But maybe you were like me and didn’t really stop to think about what that means to your everyday bicycle commute.

What opened my eyes was a comment from a reader named Stu on my piece a couple of weeks ago about vehicular cycling. Here is part of Stu’s comment.

I can barely remember 1976, but what I do remember is that I could bike down most streets and not encounter a motor vehicle. Today it is the (opposite), no matter how ‘residential’ the street, the chance of not meeting up with a MV is slim. Times have changed, everyone seems to own a car or two and they use them for even the shortest of trips.

Something about Stu’s comment stuck in my head. I started imagining my bicycle commute in 1976. I’d be riding a steel-framed 10-speed in tiny shorts and knee socks, my feathered hair unencumbered by a helmet, and I would pass down a residential street with no cars. It’s almost unimaginable (not the hair, the image of a street with no cars).

So I did some digging into the impacts of increasing car ownership rates on the physical space in a city. Beware incoming numbers:

I live in Calgary, Canada. Back in 2008, the number of registered motor vehicles in the city was 829,030, according to this. By 2015, that number had grown to 1,005,109, according to this. That’s an increase of 176,079 vehicles in about seven years.

Think about how much space that takes up in a city. If each vehicle is, say, five metres by two metres (that’s an estimate, mostly to make the math easier, but it’s in the ballpark), that’s 10 square metres we’ve lost for each of those vehicles. I know they aren’t all on the road at the same time, but no matter how you slice it, occupying 10 square metres more than 175,000 times is a lot of space — 1.76 square kilometres, to be exact.

There’s more. According to the 2011 census, the size of Calgary is 704.51 square kilometres. For the sake of argument, let’s say that number didn’t change much between 2008 and 2015 (the city has grown, but not by much: Calgary’s wise but belated push to reduce sprawl, like basically every other city in North America, means there hasn’t been a big annexation since 2011, and the last major one was in the early 2000s).

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years,.

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years.

That means the number of cars per square kilometre had grown to 1,426 in 2015, from 1,176 in 2008.

Think about the square kilometre around your house, and then imagine cramming in an average of 250 more cars in that space. Guess what? That happened over the last seven years, and you probably didn’t realize it.

Here’s one more thing to think about. I couldn’t find car ownership rates going back to 1976 to test Stu’s memory. But I did find this fascinating study from NYU, which compared vehicle ownership rates around the world between 1960 and 2002. In Canada in 1960, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people was 292. By 2002, that had climbed to 581. Based on a 2015 population of 1,230,915, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people in Calgary in 2015 was a whopping 816.

That isn’t an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, so I wouldn’t base your Ph.D thesis on it, but it does give you an idea of how many more motor vehicles are on the roads these days, and it’s a safe bet a similar story is playing out in other North American cities.

It also helps explain why you sometimes feel like an alien, unwelcome and pushed around, on your own street, when you ride a bicycle.

A well-functioning society of course needs motor vehicles, but Stu, it seems was right — our streets are much different now than they were just a few years ago, never mind back in 1976.

Much of this has happened unconsciously, so maybe a first step in making our cities more friendly is to start thinking about what enabled all those cars, and to take the steps necessary to curb the growth of car-ownership. We all, after all, have to share that space.

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Are our irrational consumer tastes holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, Zak Pashak was in the market for a new bike. Not an expensive carbon-fibre race machine, or a $10,000 status symbol. He just wanted a simple, practical bike that wouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, time or money.

But he was quickly turned off by the athletic focus of the bike shops he visited, where salespeople pushed him toward tricked-out bikes well beyond his needs. Eventually, he found a bike that worked, but the experience planted a seed in his brain.

Today, Pashak is a bit of a folk hero of the American bike scene thanks to his company Detroit Bikes, which uses Motor City mechanical know-how to churn out American-made versions of that bike he had such trouble finding all those years ago: Simple, reliable, sturdy, well-made city bikes without needless bells and whistles.

“I just thought there’s people like me who want to buy a bike, and they can’t,” Pashak told me recently.

DetroitBikesManufacturing from Detroit Bikes on Vimeo.

 

But the market for such bikes in North American remains small, which leads to a bigger question: Why are so many North Americans reluctant to embrace the kind of bikes Pashak is building? And is that reluctance holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, I had an almost identical experience as Pashak. After a tough winter of bike commuting, the constant need to fine-tune my slush-saddled commuter bike had sapped my already limited gearhead tendencies. At that point, I was in desperate need of a bike that wasn’t so damn needy.

Yet, I struggled to find one. After months of searching, I finally came across a bike so nondescript I might have missed it had my state of mind been different: Comfortable steel frame, three-speed internal hub, no-fuss matte black finish. It even had coaster brakes — I didn’t even know foot brakes were even a thing anymore.

Years later, I still ride this bike nearly every day, and I love it. It’s the easiest, most practical and efficient ride I own. Best of all, it demands almost nothing from me. 

The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.

Such city bikes are much easier to come by these days than even five years ago. But when shopping for a new ride, many consumers, especially those not already immersed in the bike world, tend to default to the standard machines we’ve been sold for several generations now: mountain-bike style frames brimming with gears, often upsold to include suspension systems and carbon parts.

These can be great bikes in the right situations (like, say, scaling a mountain), but for some casual city cyclists, they can be expensive, impractical and sensitive. The risk is bigger than just a consumer choice. If you’re trying to use your bike for more than recreation, it can be completely discouraging if that bike doesn’t support that kind of lifestyle. If you’re bike is uncomfortable, you’re less likely to ride on a sore ass. If it can’t carry stuff, you’re less likely to use it for errands and shopping trips. If it’s loaded with needless gears that are in constant need of adjustments to prevent them from annoying rattling and rough shifting, you’re less likely to choose the bike.

So why do so many of us buy them?

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Pashak likens it to the consumer demand for impractical SUVs. Most consumers have no need for off-roading gas-guzzling 4x4s, but they still sell by the bucketload. We tend to have a weakness for aspirational consumer goods, and we conflate stuff with lifestyle.

You really see a contrast when visiting the great bike cities of Europe, which are overflowing with practical, unsexy, well-used bikes in all manner of black. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize says Danes see bikes, not as status symbols, but as household appliances (he likens them to vacuum cleaners, which was an apt analogy, until we also managed to turn vacuum cleaners into fetishized status items. Thanks, Dyson).

I’m not saying everybody needs the kind of bike that Pashak is building — hell, I’ve never even tried a Detroit Bikes model — I’ve just seen how my own practical ride has made it easier to choose a bike as my transportation choice more often. I still love my road bike and my mountain bike, but they stay in the garage when I’m headed to the pub or grocery store.

Where I see hope in this scenario is the always reliable North American quality of laziness. Perhaps the only thing we value more than consumer status symbols is convenience. And if you’re looking for convenience, not much beats a reliable, time-tested, ultra-practical, universally unsexy, plain old bicycle.

 

How to pass a bike in a car without killing anyone (or being a dick)

Some things about driving a car are difficult. Doing a 180-degree e-brake slide into a parking space, for example. Or that famous kickflip in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, which was so difficult nobody even attempted to replicate it for 40 years.

Another thing that’s difficult, apparently, is passing a person on a bike. A newish one-metre passing rule that has been adopted in Ontario, but is not yet being enforced, seems so difficult that drivers are outraged. It’s madness, it seems, to think that a grown adult with government-approved driving skills could possibly overtake a cyclist safely. The only options, if you believe the angry reaction, are maiming the cyclist or plunging headlong into oncoming traffic. The law, according to the reasoned comments in this CBC story, is “idiocy,” “sick,” and a “raging double standard.”

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We can empathize with the concern. After dominating the roads for the last 60 years with bully tactics and consequence-free killings, learning to share can be a challenge for some drivers.

But we’re here to help. Here are 10 tips for drivers trying to safely pass a cyclist on a road.

  1. Don’t kill anybody.
  2. If you approach a cyclist from behind, wait until it’s safe and then pass on the left, then give the person on the bike a wide berth, at least a metre (that’s about three feet). It’s OK to venture into the oncoming lane when doing so. Crossing that yellow line in this case is legal, and is preferable to killing that cyclist.
  3. If there are cars in the oncoming lane and you can’t get around that cyclist, just wait. There’s a pedal in your car next to the accelerator. If you press it, your car will slow down. Use it to reduce your speed and wait behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass.
  4. But what if there is a lot of traffic in the oncoming lane, and you can’t safely pass the cyclist? Good question. There are a few options here.
    1. You could lean on the horn to frighten the cyclist out of the way. Poor option: Dick move, and possibly illegal.
    2. You could rev your engine, preferably the six-cylinder type found in a half-ton pickup, and lurch toward the person on the bike to express your displeasure with having to wait. Poor option: Dick move, and possible illegal.
    3. You could accelerate and narrowly pass the cyclist, based on the theory that if you are going to endanger a person on the road, you might as well get it over with quickly. Poor option. Now illegal in Ontario, and many other places. Also a dick move.
    4. You could just wait until it is safe to pass. Good option. Legal, courteous and compliant with tip No. 1.
  5. But what if you want to obey tip 4d, but you have to wait behind that cyclist for a long time, like for 30 seconds, or even — gasp — a minute? That cyclist is slowing you, and all the people behind you, down too. Must you just sit there and wait until it’s safe? Even if you are in a hurry? The answer: Yep. Remember tip No. 1.
  6. But what if you’re really in a hurry? Like, say, you’re driving your daughter to soccer practice and you’re running a little behind, which means she’ll be punished with a set of pushups? Or you’re returning from an evening out and you want to get home in time for the season finale of the Bachelor, which promises the most dramatic rose ceremony ever, and that cyclist is just riding in that lane like she owns it, without even caring that she’s holding up the people behind her? Must you just sit there and wait, even if it annoys you? Yep. See tip No. 1.
  7. Imagine, for a moment, that person on a bike is driving a different vehicle, like a car. Perhaps a little Honda Civic, or, say, a Lada Riva. And she’s driving that Lada a little below the speed limit, and it’s holding you up. What would you do? You might get annoyed. You might vent a little frustration into your dashboard. But you probably wouldn’t try to roar past that Lada in the little space between the car and the traffic in the oncoming lane. You would probably recognize that person in a Lada has a right to the road that trumps your right to drive the maximum posted speed, even if it’s annoying. Got it? The same applies to a person on a bike.
  8. But driving too slow is against the law, you say. You can’t impede traffic. This is true. Kind of. Most jurisdictions have a law that requires road users to travel at a “normal and reasonable” rate to maintain the flow of traffic. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to drive slowly. The posted speed limit is a maximum, not a minimum. And if you are driving slower than that posted speed, you are often required to drive as close to the right of the lane as is practical. If you are on a bike, does “practical” mean that riding unsafely in the door zone, or in a gutter lane filled with dangerous debris and obstacles, just to appease the inpatient drivers behind you? I’m willing to bet most police officers and judges would err on the side of safety, rather than road efficiency or speed (because they see the consequences of reckless driving on the roads). So if you plan on arguing that you absolutely had to squeeze past a cyclist illegally because that cyclist was impeding the normal flow of traffic, good luck. Sure, you might win that argument, but it may be simpler to just wait until it’s safe to pass courteously. See tip No. 1.
  9. If you are a cyclist caught in this situation where you need to ride in such a way that traffic is building up behind you, my sympathies. This situation sucks. It’s stressful and unsafe. Yes, you have a right to do it, but consider those people behind you, and choose to pull out of the way occasionally to let those impatient drivers pass. Or better yet, find another way. Or even better, get your city council to build some separated infrastructure to eliminate such situations.
  10. See tip No. 1. Be safe.

Vehicular cycling is dead, just don’t bury the body yet

The biggest argument in urban cycling of the last 20 years is pretty much settled. So why are we still arguing about it?

After last week’s post about the ways Montreal managed to become one of the continent’s most bike-friendly cities, that old saw fired up again. Much of the commentary focused on the perceived shortfalls and benefits of vehicular cycling, which is a a philosophical and practical guide to getting around a city on a bike, described by its chief proponent John Forester like this: “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

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For a long time, this was a dominant idea among North American bike advocates, but over the last 20 years, a counter theory grew that was, in some ways, the polar opposite. Rather than accepting bicycles as vehicles on a road, the new idea has cyclists being accommodated with dedicated infrastructure that keeps them segregated from cars.

Cue the bicycle culture wars, with factions on each side battling it out like Buckley versus Vidal (or, perhaps more accurately, Hitchens versus Hitchens) to the bafflement of outsiders who could never seem to understand why people who all loved bikes hated each other so much.

Today, the debate is pretty much over. There’s a winner, which means there’s also a loser. Vehicular cycling is dead. As an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops, vehicular cycling is a mastodon. Bike lanes are being built everywhere in North America, and civic politicians are tripping over themselves to be seen as bike builders. 

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So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.

There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.

What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.

And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in bike infrastructure, and I think it needs to be built faster and more extensively in every North American city. I think vehicular cycling has failed, and it failed because it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people interested in cycling. I was almost giddy when I realized that, during a recent trip to Montreal, decent bike infrastructure meant I almost never had to make one of those hair-raising left-hand turns across rows of cars.

Yet, my city remains far from that state. So while I look forward to the day when I no longer have to rely on the tenets of vehicular cycling I have picked up over the years, I know that, from time to time, I’ll still be taking the lane.

Here’s what happened when one city rejected vehicular cycling

In the 1970s, an American named John Forester came up with an idea for keeping cyclists safe while riding on busy roads. The idea was that bicycles should be piloted, and be treated, like motor vehicles  — riding alongside moving cars, using hand signals and crossing traffic for left-hand turns. The idea, which he called vehicular cycling, caught on, and it soon became the dominant theory of bicycle transportation in North America.

Today, that idea has been almost universally rejected. Cities everywhere are scrambling to do something Forester argued against for generations: building bike lanes separated from cars.

But here’s a thought experiment: What if Forester’s ideas had never caught on? What if, 40 years ago, the idea that all people on bikes should be strong and confident enough to mingle with cars was rejected, and today’s ideas of building safe, bike-specific infrastructure had been embraced back then? What would North American cities look like?

Here’s one idea: They’d look like Montreal.

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One of Montreal’s many segregated bicycle paths. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal is a fascinating bike city. For much of the past 30 years, the city was nearly alone in North America in building segregated bicycle infrastructure. Today it has grown into a bicycle haven in a continent of car-centricity, perhaps the most bike-friendly city on the continent (sorry, Minneapolis).

So what was different in Montreal that gave it a 30-year-head start? I recently put the question to Jean-François Pronovost, the VP of Public Affairs of Velo Quebec, a cycling advocacy organization that, next year, celebrates its 50th (!) anniversary. He has an interesting theory.

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Montreal pioneered the use of bike-sharing systems in North America. Photo: Tom Babin.

First, some background. Around the time Forester was developing his ideas for vehicular cycling, a different approach was developing in Europe. Fuelled by the oil crisis and grassroots protests from citizens horrified by the post-war takeover of their cities by cars and the carnage they had wrought, a few cities started building safe spaces for bikes on city streets. Amsterdam (and much of the Netherlands), and Copenhagen were chief among these cities.

The positives of cycling were also dawning on North American cities at the time (albeit on a vastly smaller scale), but the ideas being embraced were Forester’s. Blind to what was happening and Europe, North American cycling advocates rallied behind the idea of vehicular cycling, and its promise that education and training would be enough to fill the roads with cyclists.

In Montreal, however, things were a little different. A much more robust citizen movement in support of bikes was taking place, driven by several groups, including Velo Quebec, but also by an organization called La Monde a Bicyclette. This group quickly drew attention thanks to the advocacy of Claire Morissette, and the theatrical leanings of Robert (Bicycle Bob) Silverman, who had a knack for making it into the newspapers by doing things such as dressing as Moses while attempting to part the waters of the St. Lawrence River for cyclists because the bridges were too dangerous.

Pronovost was getting started in his bicycle advocacy at the tail end of this era, and he remembers the unique mood in Montreal at the time.

“There was more of a connection to Europe here (in Montreal),” Pronovost says. “The model was the Netherlands. The model was Denmark. We saw that it was a way to bring more people on bikes.”

To outsiders, Pronovost says this approach seemed bizarre. He remembers meeting with bicycle advocates in Vancouver in the early 1990s, who were openly hostile to the idea of infrastructure built specifically for bikes.

“They were very against bike paths,” he says. “We even invited John Forester here for a public debate in 1992. It was like a boxing match,” he says with a laugh.

Undaunted, the Montreal groups continued lobbying and eventually got their wish. The first segregated bicycle path was build on Montreal’s Berri Street in the 1980s, while the idea was being mocked by vehicular cyclists elsewhere.

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The first on-street separated bike lane in Montreal was built here, on Berri Street. This is what it looks like today. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal, and Quebec, has often embraced its independent status, and that proved true with cycling as well. For the next 40 years, the city quietly grew more bike friendly while the number of bicycle commuters in nearly every other city stayed stagnant, and minuscule.

Today, we know things are changing. Those European ideas of encouraging people to ride bikes by ensuring their safety with segregated infrastructure are being implemented everywhere. In Montreal, the idea is still growing. The difference is a 40-year head start.

This plays itself out in many ways. The province is adopting new laws to protect cyclists, and continues to build for cycling. On a recent visit to the city, I found myself among hundreds of commuters, including Pronovost heading home at rush hour along Laurier Street, where a bustling bike lane was recently installed, dappled with wide pedestrian plazas. While Pronovost  stopped at a bakery on the way home for dinner, I marveled at the volume and diversity of cyclists streaming past.

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The bike- and pedestrian-friendly spaces around Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

The result, according to a recent Velo Quebec study, is that, over the past 20 years, 600,000 people have started riding bikes in the province, and 2.7 million people now ride a bike weekly. The network of bikeways in Quebec has grown by 30 per cent since 2010 to reach 12,000 kilometres, while the number of serious injuries continues to drop.

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A new bike counter on Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

Much work remains to make Montreal more bike-friendly — Pronovost thinks more of a focus on completing small connections between existing bike routes would make a huge difference, and my ass can attest to the terrible state of the city’s pavement — but the work in Montreal shows what a difference a long-term commitment to cycling can make.

And as far as thought experiments go, with cities all over the continent just beginning to embark on bike-friendly building binges, just imagine what they will be like in 30 years.

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