The bicycle cultural movement has arrived in Canada. Cities are clamouring for bike lanes and streets that welcome cyclists. Bike advocates in Toronto and Vancouver have made the case that bike riding should be encouraged for many reasons. Bikes are seen as environmentally preferable to cars, healthier, safer, and as encouraging a friendlier, genteel environment. In other words, why can’t we be more like cities in Europe like Amsterdam, Oxford and Copenhagen?
Halifax is seriously debating bike lanes for its main streets, linking the north and south parts of the city. The movement to accommodate cyclists won’t go away. It’s inevitable that bike lanes of one sort or another (painted lanes or separated traffic barriers) will be approved. After all, Halifax doesn’t want to miss out on the “coolness factor” that bike lanes bring to a city.
Are bike lanes always a good idea and will they deliver what they promise? My observations come from my perch living and working in Toronto, and as a cyclist for the past 30 years watching the cycling lobby — sorry, “community” — advance its cause.
The perception persists that if we redesigned our cities, we could have the bike culture of European cities. Even most European cities have little in common with the Scandinavian and northern European cities where cycling is ubiquitous. European cities are designed completely different than North American cities. What works there won’t work here. Not to say that we can’t adapt our cities to be bike friendly, but we’ll never have the cycling culture of cities like Ferrara, Italy, where cars are banned in the old city centres. Better rail links in European cities also make cycling easier and more convenient.
Let’s not forget that in large European cities, such as Paris, Rome, Naples and London, cars, truck, buses and motorcycles are the main users of the roads. In Naples, where the traffic flow is a mystery to any outside observer, there are, from my observations, a few kilometres of separated bike lanes. The problem is that there were practically no cyclists using them. Throwing in some bike paths may look good, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be used as intended. Traffic in these cities is organic, where too many rules clog the natural flow of transportation.
North American cities are laid out principally in a grid fashion. They would have to be reconfigured to accommodate a higher volume of bicycle usage. Side streets in most Canadian cities are safe, but once more bicycles are forced onto major arteries, problems pile up. Winter compounds the problem as snow and ice make bicycle lanes useless for cycling, while taking valuable space away from cars and trucks.
Toronto ran into this problem when city hall reversed its decision to put bike lanes on Jarvis Street, a busy north-south corridor in the heart of the city. It inevitably slowed traffic for commuters coming and leaving the city at peak travel times. Cyclists and advocates were angry about the decision, but it was a battle they couldn’t win. The lesson here is that Halifax should choose its bike lanes carefully if it doesn’t want commuters to revolt.
There exists the notion that encouraging more bike riders means fewer cars. My observations of Toronto’s main roads, such as Bloor and College, tell me that we now have more of both. We are talking about painted dividers here, not separated barriers between cars and bikes. When the weather is accommodating, the number of cyclists swells to the point that during rush hours, cyclists get in each other’s way trying to manoeuvre or stay within the painted lines. Cyclists are constantly overtaking each other and drifting into traffic. To the casual observer, bikes have hardly diminished the level of vehicular traffic. As the city has grown over the years, we have more cyclists and cars and trucks fighting for space on the road. Throw in the lumbering streetcars and buses, to say nothing of the dangers of street-car rail tracks, and you end up with an increase in danger to cyclists. Unless real barriers separate cycling traffic, you can expect to have more accidents, not fewer.
Having more bike lanes leads to someone paying more. Taking limited space away from cars and trucks on commercial streets leads to less parking and fewer customers, hurting local businesses. Cyclists may be customers as well, but they can’t replace the business lost to car traffic. If a city collects money from parking, the city loses out as well. Cyclists will resist any fee for using the roads, but I do advocate that users of roads should pay for them. If cyclists are accommodated, there is a price that can’t be ignored, whether in direct costs such as customizing and rerouting traffic, or indirect cost through lost revenues to businesses on heavily travelled streets.
Patrick Luciani is the AIMS fellow in Urban Policy (www.aims.ca).