Category: Cities (Page 2 of 3)

Why boring old unsexy plows are the key to urban cycling in winter

Back in 2013, after seeing the Finnish city of Oulu for the first time, I wrote a post called Never Mind the Plows. The idea was to focus on things that can improve winter cycling beyond the basics. Any by basics, I meant plowing.

Well, five years later, as much of the winter world has seen the benefits of encouraging people to ride in winter, like they do in Oulu, it’s even more clear now that perhaps nothing is as important to the adoption of winter cycling than plain, boring, overlooked, unsexy, plows. (Or brushes. Or shovels. Or whatever gets rid of the snow efficiently).

In Calgary, where I live, the snow clearing of downtown bicycle lanes has been (much to the consternation of professional complainers) pretty great over the last few years. With an ever-expanding network of bike paths being cleared, the city’s efforts in winter have resulted in a growth in the number of people riding in winter that has kept pace with the growth of those riding in summer.

At the city’s Peace Bridge, one of the busiest bike spots in the city, for example, the growth in cyclists from 2014 to 2016 in the summer was about 27.2%, according to publicly available bike counts. In winter over the same period, that growth was 25.4%. The number of people riding in winter is obviously smaller (about 35% of summer numbers), but fact that that growth is consistent across seasons is some evidence, I’d argue, that clearing bike lanes works. It means there is growth potential in winter.

Just ask Montreal. This city, the most bike-friendly on the continent, in my humble opinion, has, for years, taken literally that old headline of mine. Rather than bike lanes free of snow, many of those routes were actually closed for winter. The traffic poles that separated bike lanes from car lanes were removed, and the space was given back to cars. For people who rely on bikes for transportation, this was a gigantic, demoralizing sigh, and it was reflected in a smaller proportion of people riding year-round.

But even in Montreal, where snow removal may be an even bigger political headache than it is elsewhere (and, make no mistake, it is everywhere), that idea is finally being rethought. More and more bike routes are being kept opened in winter, and the city has officially committed to making all bike routes accessible in winter eventually. City officials have even agreed to look at ways of keeping a crucial bike route across the St. Lawrence River open year-round, including exploring the possibility of in-ground heating to keep the route ice-free.

Talking about it, however, is the easy part. Doing it is hard. During a recent trip to Montreal, the city was digging out from a series of snowfalls compounded by an ice storm that left many streets and sidewalks slick as a skating pond. As news spread that city officials were vowing to keep more routes open in winter, cyclists took to Twitter to, ahem, politely advise them to figure out how to keep their current commitments before adding new ones. Indeed, news about opening the bridge in winter only came after years of pleas from cyclists and a protest campaign.

Those tweeters aren’t wrong. This city, so lovely to pedal through in summer, has some work ahead of it before it becomes just as good in the winter. It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how this new approach impacts the number of people riding.

But let’s face it: Keeping bike routes free of snow is tough. It takes commitment, ingenuity and, most importantly, money. It will never be easy, and it may always be a political hot button (hell, even after 80 years of plowing roads for cars, it’s still a hot button). But the upside is worth the investment and risk. Just ask the growing number of people who ride year round.

Here’s how North America’s best bike city is finally improving winter cycling

Montreal, perhaps North America’s most bike-friendly big city, is finally looking at ways of making it easier for people to ride a bike through the winter. Here’s what we learned on a recent trip.

The unlikely success of Calgary’s bike-lane network has these lessons for other cities

Monday was a big day for Calgary. After an 18-month pilot project testing out a downtown network of separated bike lanes, city council voted to make the project permanent. It was a squeaker of a majority vote that approved the pilot project in the first place, so its permanence was never assured.

In the end, more city councillors voted in favour of keeping the network than approved the pilot project in the first place, which means several changed their votes in favour after seeing the bike lanes in action. “I was a person that didn’t support this in the beginning. I thought this was madness,” Coun. Diane  Colley-Urquhart told reporters after the vote. “But, to see how it’s evolved, and how it’s working and to see how people are starting to get the fact that this is shared public space.”

I argued in favour cycle tracks in places like this, this and this, so I’m certainly pleased with the result in my home town. The process also taught us much that may be applied to other cities. 

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Boldness paid off

In a city known for suburban sprawl, a love of the automobile, and public works timidity (the city is still debating whether extra money should be spent to bury a commuter train line, even though its at-grade predecessor is regularly plagued by bad weather, tangled traffic, errant motorists who crash into it and, all-too often, pedestrians getting run over) installing an entire network of separated bike lanes all at once was a bold step. It could have easily backfired — opponents cited the costs, the disruption on downtown traffic, and the displacement of parking spaces, among other things, as reasons to hate the idea.

In the end, it seems that installing the entire network all at once worked because it offered up the big picture. It might have been easier politically to build the network one lane at a time, as most cities do, but the uptake on a lane with few connections would have been slow. In this case, dropping down a well-thought out network gave cyclists and would-be cyclists a broader peek at what a cycle-track network can do, and, more importantly, have them somewhere to go.

The network didn’t succeed because of its boldness. It succeeded because it was practical. But in the politically charged climate around cycling, boldness was needed to ensure it was functional.

Tweaking

It wasn’t smooth sailing for the entire network, and perhaps it never will be. One things that seemed to placate opponents on city council was assurances that the network will continue to be tweaked to fix problems that arise.

Such tweaking was one of the city’s best practices since the bike lanes were installed. During the 18 months of the pilot, city planners reconfigured conflict zones, rejigged transition points, and adjusted intersections. This was crucial to the network’s success, and to public support. If people feel that problems will be fixed, it tends to dial down the opposition.

Part of Monday’s decision was a re-investment in the network to focus on areas that still aren’t perfect. And, let’s face it, there are many of them. In fact, one of the more troubling aspects of the pilot project was the fact that the number of bike collisions on these routes actually increased, which was contrary to the experience of separated bike lanes pretty much everywhere else. It turns out that most of those collisions were minor, occurred early in the pilot project, and were mitigated (mostly) with some design tweaks.

That’s why tweaking is important. Let’s hope that attitude of constant improvement carries into the future.  

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Data

The debate, both before and after the pilot project was installed, focused largely on numbers. Were there enough cyclists in the city to justify the expenditure? It’s a fair question, but before the installation, it was a chicken-and-egg scenario: how were we to know how many people would ride a bike before they were given a chance to ride?

As a result of that debate, the network became almost certainly the most scrutinized 6.5 km stretch of asphalt in the city’s history. There were more than 80 measures that were taken to judge the pilot project’s success, part of which was the installation of an array of automatic counters that post daily results to a public website.

This data was key to the debate throughout the project, probably because there was such uncertainty about it to begin with. Having solid, reliable data is key when such uncertainty exists.  

Beware the data

Data is great, sure, but if the debate around Calgary’s bike-lane network proved anything, it’s that even data can be politicized.

Despite the 82 measures that were taken to gauge the success of the project, critics still found ways to poke holes in it. They said the wrong measures were taken, the data was manipulated, and the numbers were unreliable. For as much as good data is key, there’s also a risk of being over-reliant on numbers.

Safe cycling, or at least the perception of safe cycling, isn’t a completely data-driven exercise. Example: Cycling is, according to some studies, just as safe as walking or driving a car, but the perception among many would-be cyclists is that it’s dangerous. Part of what makes separated bike lanes work is that they are safe, sure, but also that they build the perception of safety. I’ve often said that riding in a safe bike lane is something you feel in your gut more than your head. They just feel better to ride on.

It’s difficult to quantify these social or psychological aspects in numbers, and they risk being lost if the emphasis is too much on cold, hard data.

We ain’t done

Calgary’s cycling community spent much of the evening after the city council decision backslapping, and there is nothing wrong with celebrating. But let’s also avoid getting smug about this political victory. This is the first step in making Calgary a truly bike-friendly city, and much work remains. Despite the success of the pilot project, and the increases in the number of people riding, those numbers remain small. If this pilot project proved anything, it’s that there’s only slightly more than potential in Calgary right now. To turn that potential into people on bikes will take work:  improving connections, solidifying the network, educating everyone in the city and improving safety. Let’s get on with it.

How one city went from scrubbing bike lanes to building an entire network in weeks

Less than three months ago, everyone sounded ready to give up on making the Canadian city of Edmonton more friendly to cyclists. Even the city’s bike loving mayor.

In July, Don Iveson, who was elected in 2013 as a young, forward-thinking, bike-riding urbanite, gave an interview to the Globe and Mail in which he basically joined the chorus of frustrated cyclists lamenting the sorry state of cycling in the capital city of Alberta. “Of all the things we’re doing, this is the one where I have the most disappointment,” Iveson told the Globe. “I agree with the folks who say that the city is way behind.”

That’s an understatement. Not only had Edmonton sat idly by while cities all over the continent built accommodations for bikes, it was getting worse. Painted lanes were being scrubbed, and the best bike route across the river was worsened by bridge modifications. If the mayor sounded like he was throwing up his hands, what hope did anybody else have?

So how it is that, just a few weeks later, this sprawling northern city, famous for long winters and hockey, is on pace to build a forward-thinking and ambitious network of separated downtown bike lanes? Credit the power of frustration, and some creative thinking.

UntitledCyclists in Edmonton have had little to celebrate in recent years. Photo by Tom Babin.

Iveson wasn’t the only one grinding his teeth over the city’s backsliding during the summer. The city’s bike advocates were seething. Among those was the group Paths for People, and its chairperson, Conrad Nobert.

After much discussion about how to remedy the situation, Nobert’s group and its allies came up with an idea to start planning for a downtown bike network themselves. They convinced engineering firm Stantec to donate planning time, and, satisfied with the results, they arranged a meeting with some top civic bureaucrats. They went into the meeting confidently, thinking they had completed all the hard work so it would be difficult to turn down the idea.

They turned down the idea. Instead, those city managers said they were going ahead with their own plan to consult the public about their appetite for bike lanes that would take at least two years.

“I was fuming,” Nobert told me. But they had one last idea. The group took the report to some bike-friendly city councillors, who came up with a creative idea: they would simply raise a motion to have the city pay for part of the Stantec report. That got the ball rolling and, within a matter of weeks, city council had approved, not just payment of the report, but implementation of the report’s plans itself — a $7.5-million grid of 7.1 kilometres of downtown separated bike lanes.

An entire network of separated downtown lanes, built all at once: It was a stunning reversal for a city that was becoming famous for bungling the simplest of bike lanes.

Graphic by Edmonton Journal.

It also has lessons for other cities struggling to get the bike-lane ball rolling. Nobert credits the idea to creative thinking outside of the usual confines of city hall. “We created a situation that seemed impossible or difficult to say no to,” he said. “I credit (a group of city councillors) with showing the leadership and take the political risk, but I believe that the creativity came from without.”

There’s something else unique about the project. Rather than a long public consultation process, in which a litany of public meetings allow people to air their theoretical grievances ahead of time, this project is being built as a pilot project that will be tweaked once in place. The idea is to get the lanes installed in the real world, and then adjust them based on public feedback, rather than the other way around.

It’s an interesting approach that comes with some risk — especially considering the bike lanes are going in all at once, rather than one at a time as in most cities — but it also has benefits, not least of which is that it will get people riding more quickly. In the end, the way city planners react to feedback may be as important as the feedback itself.

For Nobert, however, perhaps the most important thing that he learned from the experience is the power of people.

“Citizens need to get engaged,” he said. “Trust that centrally-located residents want to bike and walk places (they do), and use that fact to your advantage. Guerilla is great. Use injury collision data as leverage. Build social media networks, build real relationships. Meet with everyone.

“Citizen groups can make change.”

Here’s how little connections can make big improvements to bike friendliness

A few weeks ago, I criticized cities for failing to build sensible connections between existing bike lanes.

Then I rolled over a relatively new piece of bike infrastructure in my city, and had a bit of a moment. “There,” I thought. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Here’s that new piece of infrastructure.

What do you think of this new link on 5th Avenue N.W.?

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(Just a little shout out to the dude in the video driving that black pickup truck who hogs the intersection and then accelerates needlessly fast — thanks for re-asserting your dominance of the roads in such a subtle way).

This may not look like much, but this intersection has some history. Back in 2011, the addition of a painted bike lane on one of the streets of this intersection prompted one of the city’s first bike boxes.

The problem was, it was a weird-ass bike box. It was oddly placed, few people understood how to use it, and fewer still actually used it. For several years, city workers gamely tried to “educate” people on proper use of the bike box, but even after watching the video and practicing, I was still a little baffled.

Eventually, the city threw in the towel, and sent some poor road worker to scrape the green paint off the road.

Now, a few years later, a new bike lane on the intersecting road prompted another attempt. This time, a new tactic has been tried, whereby cyclists are directed from the street onto a short shared pathway before being returned to the road.

This thing isn’t perfect. It’s still a little odd, and putting cyclists onto what is basically the sidewalk is a little counter-intuitive, especially when there are a lot of pedestrians.


But if you take a broader look at this, there’s a lot to like. A few weeks ago, this was exactly the kind of missing connection I was ranting about. Now, it’s been fixed — a little creativity and a small amount of asphalt has filled this missing link.

That’s not the only one that has come together in recent weeks. Here’s another connection that has been a problem for years.

Another new #yycbike connection, this one across 17th Avenue SW.

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These are the kinds of small investments that can make a huge difference in the daily transportation needs of cyclists. They are cheap fixes, done quickly, but these connections do much for improving the reliability of the bike network. This is the kind of thing that improves overall bike friendliness in a city. This is the kind of thing all cities should be doing more of.

Even more fundamentally, these are examples of a city giving things a shot. The first idea didn’t work, so something new is being tried. Even if this one flops like the last one, this is the kind of experimentation that leads to a better city.

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.

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

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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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