Tag: Cities (Page 1 of 3)

New data shows just how lopsided the ‘war on cars’ really is — and it’s not the bikes that are winning

Remember the war on cars? The hyperbolic and mostly mythical idea that cyclists, a “special interest group,” were successfully ramming such horrors as bike lanes down the throats of unsupportive legions of car drivers? Since the peak “war on cars” battles of four or five years ago, the hot war has cooled a bit because cyclists made a little progress and the sky did not fall as a result. Most cities now have at last some form of bike infrastructure and some have even have what might be described as a (barely) minimum grid of bike lanes.

These days, further demands of cyclists are greeting less with anger, and more with exasperation. “We gave you a bike lane, but you still want more?” That attitude has wrought sentiments like this one, a general sense that since we threw those “cyclists” a bone, they should be satisfied. Much of this attitude comes about because of a sense that the bikes won the war.

Here’s the thing: if the war on cars is over, it didn’t end the way you might think. If you look at it even a little objectively, it’s not the bikes that won. Cars are absolutely dominating the battle. It’s not even close. It’s Norman Schwarzkopf versus Iraq. It’s Germany versus Brazil in the 2014 Word Cup.

Consider these statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 measure of vehicle distance travelled set a record after a slight dip over the last several years. Americans drove automobiles more miles in 2017 than any other time in history. Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, the number of car-free households dropped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade, and there are now more two-car households than any other kind. Here’s how urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson put it: “The United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.”

Urban Cycling Calgary

Despite strides in cycling in many cities, automobiles still dominate in North America. Photo by Tom Babin.

Remember the idea that millennials were shunning cars? Sure, there may be a bit of that happening, but the latest automobile sales statistics in Canada show that, with the economic recovery in full swing, 186,837 automobiles were sold in September, a record increase of 7.7 per cent, and the eighth monthly record this year. “Cumulative sales of 1,591,684 vehicles through the first three quarters are 5.3% ahead of last year’s record pace and solidly on track for a fifth consecutive record sales year.”

Wait, it gets worse: The U.S. Department of Transportation found the fatality rate on American roads actually grew in 2016, despite decades of trend lines pointed downwards. Advances in safety seem to be reserved only for those inside the car. Cyclist deaths in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent and the pedestrian fatality rate grew by a whopping nine per cent, meaning more humans simply walking on the street were killed in 2016 than any time since 1990.

Meanwhile, the bike world inches along at a snail’s pace. Los Angeles is just getting started building bike lanes, New York is inexplicably cracking down on e-bikes, and Toronto continues its tiresome debate about whether successful and safe separated bike lanes ought to stay or go.

The point of this isn’t to depress those of you who see bikes as one way of bringing more balance and sanity to our streets. The point is to highlight the absurdity of the “war on cars” argument. Even if there was a war, it’s ridiculous to think that a few bike lanes scattered through our urban centres has made a dent in the dominance of automobiles in North America. We know the reasons most people make the transportation choices they do: convenience. Outside of a few isolated neighbourhoods in a few isolated cities, we’ve built our communities to ensure that driving a car remains the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Until that changes, vehicles will continue to dominate.

The most we can hope for is that these (barely) minimum grids that have been built in some cities will open the eyes of enough people to see the benefits of active transportation so we can leave behind the stupid war metaphors and start building better cities for everyone together.

These new statistics are a sobering reminder of our auto-centric ways, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Building better cities takes time, and we’ve barely taken the first steps. Get back on that bike.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Winter is coming: Here are 5 things to think about to keep riding through the cold

Damn that Game of Thrones for making the phrase “winter is coming” sound ominous. Winter doesn’t have to be something to dread, particularly if the root of your aversion to winter is the loss of your bicycle.

Frostbike Winter Cycling trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

These bicycles in Yellowknife in northern Canada aren’t just for show. If they can ride, so can you. Photo by Tom Babin.

Yes, more people are riding a bike through winter all the time. For good reason: You get all those benefits of summer riding, plus you might just rediscover the joy of the season that you knew as a kid. Or, at the very least, maybe you’ll hate winter just a tad less.

But riding in winter can be intimidating for noobs who have lived a life in which they use their automobiles as overcoats. So here are some things to think about as winter looms:

Which bike to ride?

If you live in one of those enviable cities with great bike infrastructure that is well maintained in winter, congratulations! The rest of the winter world envy-hates you, but you probably don’t have to do anything to prepare for winter. Just ride, you dirty, rotten spoiled cyclist.

For the rest of us, some adjustments to the machine between your legs may be in order. There are a couple of things to consider for winter.

If you love your summer bike more than, say, a second cousin or a countertop pet, you may want to think hard about riding it through winter. In some cities, the salt used on roads can corrode your components with dismaying speed. If you wash the bike regularly, it may survive. But if you’re a slothy cleaner or your garden hose is frozen up tight, you might want to consider a second bike for winter. You don’t need anything fancy, just something that moves. The type of bike depends on your type of winter, but keep it simple: I happily rode a 25-year-old mountain bike with one gear through more than a decade of winters. Don’t over think it.

Another option is to winterize your summer bike, if you are OK dealing with a little rust and winter grit. Get a pair of fenders, some decent lights (winter days are short!) and, if you’re nervous about falling, studded tires. And be prepared to clean it regularly

What should I wear?

If you’re reading this, you probably live in a winter city. So you should already own everything you need to ride a bike in winter (unless you are one of those people who sport ankle socks and T-shirts in February and then complains about the cold): thermal underwear, mittens, a warm hat and boots. If your snowfall gets particularly sloppy, a pair of waterproof pants is a good idea too. But don’t go crazy. Keeping warm on a bike is easy once your body starts moving. Think of it like this: dress as you would for a winter walk, and then remove one underlayer so you don’t overheat. A fat-biker once put it to me this way: “Be bold: start off cold.”

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Well-maintained winter bike routes will make your life much easier when the temperature drops. Photo by Tom Babin.

Unless, of course, you like spending money on all kinds of specialized gear. Then head to the fat-bike section of your local bike shop, and bring your wallet. There are plenty of fun options to keep you warm.

Where do I ride?

By now, your city should be providing cyclists with safe, efficient routes in winter. But since most aren’t, you may want to choose a different route in winter. Look for roads that are plowed early, aren’t too busy with cars, and have slow vehicle speeds. And prepare for the fact that your ride will be slower in winter. That’s just life.

One tip I’ve picked up over the years: Depending on your city’s plowing philosophy (or lack thereof) choosing the right route in winter may be a little counter-intuitive. You may be tempted to take side and back roads in winter to avoid the cars. But those roads also tend to the last ones plowed, so it can be difficult to get through on a bike. Conversely, you don’t want roads that are too busy or too fast because riding close to moving vehicles is even less fun in winter. Look for those Goldilocks roads: plowed rather early and regularly, but not too busy. And if you find such a road, don’t keep it a secret. The more bikes on a route, the safer it is for everybody.

I’m frightened. What should I do?

Winter cycling can be intimidating, but what’s really holding you back is probably your own fear more than anything else. It’s an attitude. The first few rides will be tough. You need to find the right route, dress for the right temperature and find your balance in slippery conditions. But once you get the logistics down, you’ll love it. So adopt an attitude of experimentation: try a few things to see what works, and don’t give up too easily. And don’t think you’re a failure if you don’t ride every day. Even a few days a week or a month is better than nothing, and you’ll be a happier, healthier person for it.

I can’t wait to brag to my co-workers. 

Stop right there. The first rule of winter cycling: no bragging. I know it’s tempting, but bragging about riding through a snowstorm just perpetuates the notion that winter cycling is something difficult. And really, it’s not. Ask the thousands of kids and grandparents who ride through the world’s great winter cycling cities. You’re not special for riding a bike in winter, you’re just smart. So rather than brag about your ride, encourage others to try it too. The more of us who ride in winter, the more it will be normalized. That’s good for everyone.

For more advice, read my book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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Five questions to help determine if your city council candidate will improve cycling

During municipal election season, you may find yourself opening your door to a candidate who wants your vote. Sadly, not all would-be politicians will share your enlightened view on the benefits of a bike-friendly city. So how are you to know if this is a candidate who deserves your vote?

We are here to help! Here are some suggested questions to gauge the support your city council candidate may offer to active transportation in general and cycling in particular. Remember to work fast: door-to-door campaigning is all about efficiency for a candidate, so they can’t afford to get involved in a serious policy discussion at each door, despite the illusion. So get your questions in quickly.

Parked bikes in Quebec City

1. What’s your stance on transportation policy?

The answer to this question won’t actually give you any useful information about your candidate. It’s just a warm up. Unless your candidate is deranged or a complete ideologue, they will tend to answer with some version of: “We need to balance the needs of all users by building within our means.” Blah, blah, blah. They will probably also choose one particular transportation project that has been long delayed and promise to get it done. If you’re in the suburbs, that will be a road project. If you’re more inner-city, it will be a transit project. None of this matters. It’s just a set-up.

2. How will you improve my daily commute?

Now we’re getting into it. This is a more difficult question to answer. You still haven’t revealed yourself as a driver, transit user, cyclist or pedestrian (you can’t exist as more than one of those in the minds of a politician, even though most of us are), which means the candidate can not yet enter pandering mode.

Milquetoast candidates will again use this opportunity for platitudes about smart investments and fiscal responsibility, but those who have a bug in their craw about a particular transportation issue will be unable to resist jumping at this one. Here is where you can tell if the candidate is, generally, interested in all the benefits that come with active transportation and intelligent urban planning, or just cares about moving cars from place to place.

3. How do you get to work? or What do you think of residential speed limits?

See what you did there? Most North Americans will never pose these questions because they’ve never fathomed the possibility that transportation is possible through anything but a car. So by asking this to your candidate, the ruse is up. You’ve just outed yourself: you are revealed as someone woke to the ways of life beyond the single-passenger automobile. Or you are an Uber driver.

Anyway, the way these questions are answered will give you information about the candidate’s perspective. Riding a bike and/or walking through city doesn’t just make you sympathetic to the plight of humans in a car-centric world, it gives you a new perspective on how streets work, and how they can be improved. A bike-riding or walking commuter will have a better, more accurate outlook on their city. You’ll also know the improtance of limiting residential speed limits. 

If the candidate is a full-time automobile commuter, but is supportive of active transportation, be cautious, but not dismissive.

4. What do you think of bike lanes?

You don’t need to hear the entire answer to this question to determine if this candidate deserves your vote; you only need the first four words. You are listening for the fabled intro to every irrational anti-bike diatribe: “I like cyclists, but…”

If the sentence begins with those four words, you can disengage your brain, wait for the candidate to finish talking, thank them for their time, and then gently close the door knowing you have crossed a candidate off your list. If the answer begins with anything else, feel free to engage them in a more serious conversation about how to make your city more bike-friendly and, thereby, more healthy, more interesting, safer, quieter, less polluting and better for kids and seniors.

5. Want to go for a ride sometime?

By now, you should have all the information you need to determine if your candidate understands the benefits of bikes and will help further the cause. So this is more like a personality test. If they say no, don’t take it personally. They are probably busy campaigning. If they get a nervous look on their face and offer up a non-committal answer, it’s probably because they think it’s weird that you asked a complete stranger for a bike ride but don’t want to be rude, which is a completely rational response to this question. If they say yes and pull out their calendar, congratulations! You have a new riding buddy, who will have plenty of time to ride with you because a political candidate who agrees to go for bike rides with random constituents during a campaign is probably going to lose the election.

UPDATE: 6. Optional question — The Amazon factor

Now that every city in North America is tripping over itself to woo Amazon and its massive new headquarters, there’s something worth noting in the online retailer’s request for proposals, as pointed out by People for Bikes: “Include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”

So it’s worth posing this to your candidate too: If your candidate hates bike lanes, but still think its possible to entice Amazon, your candidate might be in need of a lesson in cognitive dissonance.

‘Uber for bikes’ is here, and traditional bike-sharing companies are feeling the heat

There’s a giant urban bicycle experiment happening right now on the streets of Seattle that may change the way everybody gets around. Or it may lead to an epic flop that burns through venture-capital cash and leaves the streets littered with derelict bikes.

Either way, the last month has ushered in a new wave of bike-sharing that has shaken up the still-young industry and will have profound implications for all cities, particularly the few remaining North America ones that have yet to embrace a bike-sharing program.

This experiment began earlier this summer from the ashes of Seattle’s failed municipal bike-sharing program called Pronto. Pronto was similar to other, traditional bike-shares you see in most cities these days: docks that held bikes were placed on city streets for use by members for short-term rides, similar to Montreal’s pioneering Bixi program and New York’s massive and successful Citibike.

LimeBike has, so far, avoided some of the problems that have plagued dockless bike-share systems in China. Photo by LimeBike.

The problem was, in Seattle, the system never really caught on. The city failed to commit enough docking stations and bikes necessary to make the system convenient and easy to use, and government infighting doomed it.

When the city shuttered the program in March, however, it opened the door to something new. It started issuing permits to a raft of new companies boasting they had a new formula to make bike sharing work where the city had failed.

Within weeks, three companies — called Spin, LimeBike and Chinese company Ofo (each with bikes brightly painted in their own distinctive colours) — had flooded the streets with thousands of bikes using new technology some are calling bike-share 2.0, or more lazily, Uber for bikes. 

There are some key differences to these new programs that those older ones you’ve probably used before. First, they are known as dockless systems, meaning the bikes are equipped with smartphone-enabled locks and GPS, so bikes can be left on the streets and picked up by new riders almost anywhere, without the need to park them in docking stations.

With three competing privately run bike-share systems in Seattle, including Spin, questions about their long-term viability are legit. Photo by Spin.

And perhaps more importantly, they are privately run. With a few notable exceptions, most North-American bike-share programs are operated with at least some government money. In Seattle, however, all three companies, flush with venture-capital money and the tech-industry hubris that comes with it, are using Seattle as a testing ground of new privately-funded systems they hope can challenge the traditional bike-share model elsewhere.

Despite some techie buzz around the dockless system, there are risks. In some Chinese cities, thousands of bikes were poured onto city streets which, without proper management, led to mass vandalism, bikes being parked illegally and some already infamous incidents of hundreds of bikes being dumped. It’s even prompted some soul-searching about the nature of the Chinese character.

So far, Seattle has largely avoided such mass problems, according to Seattle bike blogger Tom Fucoloro. For the most part, users seem to be following the rules about parking the bikes, he told me.

“With any system where you have lots of users, there are going to be some people who don’t follow the rules,” Fucoloro said. “The vast majority of people are parking them really well. It’s just vandals. A couple thrown off of overpasses. For the most part, it’s working really well.”

LimeBike is one of the bike-sharing companies that is now competing in Seattle. Photo by LimeBike.

In fact, far from just avoiding problems, Fucoloro says the new system is thriving. Within only a couple of weeks, data showed that the dockless bikes were being more heavily used than the old Pronto bikes ever were. Fucoloro says that’s because the new bikes are meeting the most basic needs of a successful bike-share system in ways the old system wasn’t: bikes are where you need them, when you need them.

Still, there are skeptics out there. Traditional bike-share companies are warily eyeing the new startups, not only as a source of competition, but to see if these flashy upstarts are committed in the long run. Operating a successful bike-share system requires much more than simply pouring bikes onto streets. There’s a huge amount of management that’s needed: bikes need to be moved around to places of need, broken bikes need to be attended to, technology needs to be maintained.

Madeline Kaye of Motivate, the company that operates several bike-share systems around the world, including North America’s biggest in New York, told me that working closely with city managers is a big part of the company’s success.

“It’s really complex system,” she said. “We have increased ridership in every city we’ve operated in. We’ve increased the size. Part of that is being able to work with cites. Part of that is managing the system and rebalancing the system in an effective way.”

Spin is a dockless bike-sharing system that offers rides for $1 in Seattle. Photo by Spin.

She’s not wrong. There’s a formula to running a bike share properly. In the past several weeks, I’ve used bike-sharing systems in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, and the latter was miles better than the others. The secret to Montreal’s success is simple: The were enough bikes and docking stations at the right place at the right time to make it convenient, the smartphone app was good, and the system was affordable. The other systems failed on one or all counts.

There’s no guarantee yet these new companies can keep the system running in the long run, especially at the rock-bottom prices that are currently being offered to entice new users in Seattle ($1 per ride, in some cases).

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Montreal’s Bixi program works, like other successful bike-sharing systems, partly because of the behind-the-scenes work to keep bikes in places where they are needed. Photo by Tom Babin.

 

Fucoloro agrees, and says he’s maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism in the back of his mind. In the front of it, however, he’s revelling in the buzz the new systems have brought to cycling in Seattle.

“As someone who has been active in bicycle activism for a while, often feels that you are the underdog or bikes are an afterthought,” he said. “Here we have some big-money investment betting there are a lot of potential bike rides not being made, and these companies think it’s a matter of convenience. If they can provide bikes that are convenient to use at a price that is extremely competitive … that’s not just good for Seattle, it’s good for the world.”

There’s another matter to consider: I’m writing this from Calgary, which shares the dubious distinction of being one of the few major cities in North America that don’t have a permanent bike-share program of some kind in place. Now, thanks to Seattle, perhaps all those years of foot-dragging may pay off.

Is Vancouver really as bike friendly as it thinks it is?

I’ve always been a bit annoyed with the bike-friendly reputation of Vancouver. Yes, it has always had a lot of people on bikes, but for a long time, that came without the installation of much high-quality bike infrastructure.

All that has changed in recent years, so I took a trip recently to see if it was time to update my impression of the city. Check it out.

Correction: The Burrard Bridge bike lane was originally installed in 1996, not 1995 like the video states.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

People riding bikes near Vancouver’s beautiful waterfront. Photo by Tom Babin.

 

How one city’s big idea transformed urban cycling all at once

My home city of Calgary made waves last year by installing an entire downtown network of separated bike lanes, all at once. Here’s a spin through the city a year later, to assess its success.

This British writer just wrote a totally convincing argument in favour of urban cycling

In the past decade, Peter Walker has seen a fundamental change in London, the city in which he lives.

In that time, Walker, a writer for The Guardian who has for years penned the paper’s popular bike blog, says people on bikes have gone from a marginal place on the city’s streets (he says he was once viewed as a “bit of an oddball” for using his bike to get around the city) to one that’s clearly in the mainstream — during peak hours on some London roads, cyclists are now the most common road user.

Despite that, he says cycling has not moved into mainstream consciousness like it has in the world’s great cycling cities, such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam. And now, after a bike-infrastructure building boom under former mayor Boris Johnson, Walker fears the entire movement has stalled.

How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker

Part of that fear is what drove him to write How Cycling Can Save the World, his new title that reads like a book-length argument in favour of two-wheeled urban transportation. Covering aspects as diverse as health and safety to equality, the book lays out, in rational and precise terms, all the benefits that cycling brings to society. And they are myriad. The title of the book is not an exaggeration.

I chatted with Walker from his flat in London. Here are some of the aspects of our conversation that struck me.

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The health benefits of cycling are sometimes overlooked in the battles over road space.

Health

It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but the health benefits of cycling are sometimes forgotten in the battles with motorists over road space. In detailing some of those astonishing benefits, Walker makes a pretty good case that your doctor might be well advised to prescribe a bike commute after your next physical.

A scheme to encourage people to ride in the small Danish city of Odense, Denmark, for example, added five months to the life of the average citizen. Another study of Danes found those who rode a bike to work were 40 per cent less likely to die during the study.  Other studies have found that countries with the highest rates of cycling have the lowest rates of obesity, and even that simply riding a bike leads people to more healthy diets.

“If there’s any one factor that will get cyclists riding more and more . . .  it’s that developed nations are facing this public-health crisis from people living these sedentary lives,” Walker told me. “People in public health service are completely frank: if more is not done to encourage active transportation, the public health system will collapse.” 

Suburban options

Much has been made over the years about the importance of distance in encouraging people to ride bikes. A five-kilometre ride to work or the supermarket is certainly more palatable to many people than what we see in most North American cities, where suburban growth patterns have stretched those distances to sometimes absurd lengths.

Walker, however, sees ways to bridge those distances. The proliferation of e-bikes in Europe and China may be a precursor to their popularization in the U.K. and North America as a way of more easily spanning longer distances. “With the Dutch, it’s something like a third of bikes sold new are e-bikes, it’s something that’s definitely going to come,” he said.

He’s also seen success with cycling “highways,” in which well-built, direct bike routes are extended out to suburbs. Cargo bikes are also making inroads as practical suburban transportation options, particularly for those hauling kids to school every day. There is also much success when transit systems are mixed with bike-sharing programs, the latter relied upon by people to cover the distance to and from the bus or train.

“The really been an explosion of Chinese bike-sharing schemes … and having these bike share systems, such that people can pick up a (bike) to a metro stop and finish their trip, are really working,” he said. “There are all these ways that the bike can work with other forms of transportation.”

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Many studies link overall happiness with an active lifestyle.

Happiness

Bikes make people happier. This isn’t just your annoying bike-riding co-worker crowing about being energized after a morning ride. There’s science behind it.

Walker devotes an entire chapter to the ways in which cycling increases happiness, most of it related to the well-documented mental-health benefits of regular exercise, particularly when that exercise is simply part of getting around every day.

Most inspiringly, Walker dives into an Italian study that examined the lives of people, between the ages of 52 and 84, who rode several times a week. All were in great physical shape, seemingly years younger than their non-bike-riding peers, and seemed giddy about the mental-health benefits of such exercise. “It makes you feel good, both mentally and physically,” reported one 61-year-old in the study. “It is no small thing, to feel well with oneself.”

The stigma

It ain’t all roses. Walker doesn’t shy away from the negative bits associated with cycling, especially around the corrosive political discourse that still pervades the conversation in the U.K. and North America. Walker pushes this argument farther than I’ve seen before, detailing how the stereotyping of cyclists has serious negative consequences. While he stops short of drawing parallels between the insidiousness of racism or sexism and the way cyclists are treated, he’s clear that he thinks it comes from the same space.

“I compare to really old-fashioned things, like making jokes about vegetarians or mothers-in-law,” he says. “It just feels a bit dated.”

What’s worse, Walker quotes studies that draw links between negative portrayals of cyclists in the media and public discourse and increased danger to cyclists on the roads. It’s not a difficult mental leap to make — if drivers are pummelled with negative images of people on bikes, they are less likely to treat them with respect on the road. It’s a serious problem that needs to be overcome if cycling is to become accepted as a rational, everyday form of transportation.

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The stigmatization of cycling continues.

The future

With so much talk about the future of urban transportation, particularly around the looming disruption of autonomous vehicles, Walker also has a rather optimistic view of the future. While’s he’s as skeptical as the next bike blogger (ahem) about the ways self-driving cars will impact the bike environment in cities, he’s looking at the bigger picture.

“Anyone who tries to predict what cities will look like in 50 years is wrong,” he said. “People are very keen to live in a place that’s seen as liveable. Even if they are electric cars, and they’re autonomous, they’ll still have an impact on the livability of cities.”

As far as the future goes, I’m keen to align with Walker’s vision of a future in which scores of people assess their lives and make a decision to ride a bike for the same reasons he does: “I live in this very congested city where getting around is quite tricky,” he said. “When I get on a bike I know I will arrive within a few minutes of when I expected, with a smile on my face.”

The future of transportation is already here, but everybody is missing it

Maybe it was the news that Tesla is now the largest U.S. carmaker by market cap, or maybe it has been the uncertainty around the price of oil, but there has been a flurry of futurism lately centred around looming changes to our transportation systems, specifically around autonomous electric cars.

Autonomous, electric vehicles are about to take over our lives, say prognosticators of the future, a change that has some dragging out Y2K-level hyperbole. Many of these predictions are being built on the idea of cities filled with blissfully shared roving robot-vehicles safely and orderly awaiting our smartphone hails.

Only recently, however, have those futurists started to put some thought into the impact of autonomous vehicles on our streets. A few consensuses have emerged – that driverless cars will reduce collisions, for example – but there is surprising diversity in opinion on the long-term impact on our cities.

There are plenty of Pollyanna predictions that streets will become safer, less congested places because of autonomous vehicles. But there are just as many hypothesizing that our streets are about to become a whole lot worse, particularly considering the recent troubles of the company that was once seen as the future of the city: Uber (if you missed the big New York magazine story, here’s the short version: Beyond the company being allegedly riddled with assholes, Uber has made congestion worse, not better, is still heavily subsidizing nearly every ride by as much as 60 per cent, making it barely profitable in big cities and horrifically unprofitable in small ones, thereby bringing into question the very idea that ride-sharing is the future).

No matter which side you come down on, however, one obvious thing seems to have escaped the notice of most of these predictions, even though it should be clear to anybody with a working set of eyes.

If you were to teleport to today a citizen of a decade ago into a city of today, and asked them to identify the differences in transportation, I’m willing to bet they would not mention technology, or autonomous vehicles, or smartphone apps, or even car sharing. It would be bikes.

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This New Yorker said as much. The most profound change to the streets of many cities over the past decade is the prevalence of people on bikes as a practical form of transportation.

So why is this so rarely mentioned in discussions about the future of transportation? Of all the nascent transportation disruptions we’re in the midst of, question marks still litter many of them. But use of the bicycle is a proven improvement, and seems destined to keep up its breakneck growth, especially as a generation grows up with new appreciation for its practicality. Urban cycling is the most profound change to city transportation in generations, yet the allure of technology is overshadowing it.

It’s a strange omission. Yes, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change in the way we think about transportation, but swapping one type of vehicle for another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of congestion. Nor is there any track record behind many new vanity ideas (sorry, Mr. Musk) such as boring tunnels beneath cities to facilitate even more cars. Progress is moving more people more efficiently, and there are precious few ways to do so. None of them involve adding more cars.

Bike paths fall

This isn’t a zero-sum game. There are certainly ways that autonomous vehicles can help improve the efficiency of our transportation system, but not if such thinking is done is isolation.

If you want a look at how an efficient city of the future moves people around, forget robot cars, or tunnels, or 1950’s-style car-centric road systems simply updated with new vehicles. Instead, look at Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Seville or New York or Montreal or Vancouver and the masses of people riding bikes because it’s faster, easier, healthier, more effecient, and more enjoyable than being trapped in a box, no matter how high-tech that box might be.

Increasing number of dead pedestrians are a reminder that bike lanes matter

A reader recently asked a question recently that got me thinking: If conditions are ripe for cycling, why bother adding bike infrastructure?

The question came out of my recent post from Yellowknife in which I mused about the city’s potential as a great bike town thanks to its wide streets, slow traffic and hearty residents. If all those qualities already exist, she asked, why the hell would it need bike lanes?

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I was pondering that question when a few pieces of news dropped recently related to pedestrians.

First was a new report that found the number of pedestrians being killed by cars has grown in recent years. The counter-intuitive nature of this assured it a place in the news: As technology makes motor vehicles safer – especially with the promise of self-driving cars on the horizon – we are somehow managing to kill increasing numbers of people simply walking down the street (and don’t go blaming “distracted pedestrians,” the report made a point of sharing blame with excessive motor vehicle speed and distracted drivers).

I was ready to lump this statistic into my repository of horrific-yet-underappreciated news about car culture when I came across another stat that was new (to me): a report that laid even more bare the shocking nature of those pedestrian-fatality statistics. The number of people who are walking on city streets in North America has been on a 30-year decline (the study found the much heralded 70 per cent decrease in child pedestrian fatalities since 1969 also corresponded with a 67 per cent decrease in the number of kids walking to school). Which means we’re killing pedestrians at increasing rates, even as the number of pedestrians is small and falling.

This is yet another example of the mind-boggling apathy we have toward the carnage of motor vehicles, but what does it have to do with bikes? One word: Perceptions.

Despite the seemingly dire situation we are putting pedestrians in, most people, I’m willing to bet, would classify walking down the street as something safe. Sure, everybody acknowledges that getting hit by a bus can happen at any time (hell, we even have an expression about the rarity of “getting hit by a bus”), but rare is the person who would choose to avoid sidewalks out of fear of their safety.

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Similarly, the risks of driving a car are also accepted as part of life by most urban dwellers, even though driving comes with risk. Rare too are those who refuse to drive because of the danger.

Yet when it comes to cycling, masses of people still refuse to ride in urban settings because they fear for their safety, even though statistics prove that riding a bike is about equal in risk to walking down the street.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to unpack the reasons behind our fear of riding a bike, but this fear helps explain, at least a little bit, both the success, and need, for safe and protected bike infrastructure.

Bike lanes, when well built, usually reduce the number of collisions between bikes and cars (they also, as a side benefit, tend to decrease collisions between drivers and pedestrians, and drivers and other drivers too). But that only goes so far in explaining why they also tend to draw out more people on bikes. The other reason is that protected bike lanes simply feel safer. In this case, the perception of safety may be just as important as safety itself.

So, sure, you could argue there’s little added safety benefit to spending tax dollars on bike infrastructure in a small city like Yellowknife that is already pretty bike friendly. But I’m willing to bet that a minimum grid of well-built bike infrastructure would encourage more tentative cyclists to ride regularly simply because it makes them feel good.

With all the added benefits that come with cycling – healthier people, more efficient transportation system, better street life – that feeling alone may be worth the price of the investment.

 

Do bike lanes marginalize people in the suburbs?

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“Big grocery.”

That is a slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion about how to make cities more bike friendly by Ontarian Lana Stewart, who speaks and writes thoughtfully about the fixation of urban cycling advocates on commuters, despite statistics showing that a huge percentage of car trips are elsewhere, such as running errands, shuffling kids to activities and, yes, getting groceries.

In the shadow of “big commute,” she suggests more attention be given to “big grocery.”

Stewart’s is a rather colourful way of drawing attention to the fact that suburbs often get overlooked in discussions about urban cycling. This has deeper ramifications than just inconvenience. In the changing nature of cities, suburbanites are often home to people who can’t afford inner-city living, which means those who could most benefit from improvements to cycling (one of the more affordable transportation modes available), are often left out of the conversation.

IMG_3504Darnel Harris, another Ontario advocate, takes the argument even farther, saying those who live in the suburbs can be marginalized by bike infrastructure in a couple of ways. Conversations about urban cycling often denigrate the ‘burbs, making people feel shame in their communities. And bike lanes often are precursors (or symptoms of) gentrification, which can push low-income residents out of their own neighbourhoods. There have even been protestations against bike lanes in some communities, based not on the usual anti-bike ignorance, but from those afraid that bike lanes will drive out the poor.

This is a horrific situation considering affordability should be one of the key benefits of using a bike. In fact, one of the great success stories of urban cycling is the way bike lanes help better integrate poor residents into cities. Urban cycling hero Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, once said that bike lanes show that “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.”

There’s no easy to solution to all of this. Retrofitting suburbs to be more friendly to active transportation in a way that doesn’t lead to gentrification would be the ultimate answer, but it’s expensive, slow and difficult. But there are some other good ideas circulating. Harris, for one, is pushing a project to bring cargo bikes to the ‘burbs, based on the idea that people will be better able to capitalize on their utilitarian nature without having to wait for expensive infrastructure improvements that could change their neighbourhood. 

It’s an intriguing idea, and at least gets the conversation started on ways of becoming more inclusive while those long-term retrofits finally make their way outside of expensive urban areas. 

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