Seriously Cycling: Bikes Are Getting More Attention All Across Canada

[Here's my latest post over at @SustainableCitiesCanada ]

Anyone who has been cycling in Canadian cities over the past fifteen years knows that things are changing.

When I left Montreal for Vancouver in 2002 the city's streets were still an aggressive dance between bike couriers, cars, and cyclists who wanted to ride like couriers (I'll sheepishly admit to being one of them). Downtown cycling was only for the brave.

But by the time I returned in 2010 a sea change had occurred: in less than a decade the city had added over 600 kms of bike paths, many covering crucial commuter corridors that connect the length and breadth of the island.

It was like being in another world. Instead of weaving through traffic, I found myself in a curb separated lane with my own set of traffic signals. Cycling – in other words – had become an integral part of the city's transportation strategy.


Unlikely Leaders

During that time a similar shift began in municipalities all across the country, and it continues to develop as I write. This week Toronto unveiled its first curb separated bike lane, with more to come (although simultaneous plans to remouve other routes have caused controversy). Last year Ottawa became the first city in Ontario to put in similar infrastructure, and has nearly doubled its cycling network since 2000.

Winnipeg has quintupled the amount of money it spends on active-transportation corridors and it will start work on an active-transportation master plan next year. Quebec city is about to adopt a cycling master plan. And this weekend Halifax will conclude public consultations on plans to create its first crosstown cycling corridor. All of these projects are the result of dedicated local activism combined with new interest among local officials.

Recognition that cycling is a real transit solution has spread well beyond traditional leaders. You'd expect Vancouver to be at the front of the pack, but Calgary?

This summer the municipality hired Tom Thivener as its first full-time cycling coordinator. Thivener hails from Tucson (Arizona) where he helped increase bike ridership by 58% between 2009 and 2010. Under his guidance, Calgary is poised to spend $20 million over the next three years to improve commuter cycling infrastructure.

New York city is probably the best example of this trend of unlikely leaders. Would you bike through Manhattan? Following a campaign to introduce cycling infrastructure and reduce conflicts between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians, cycling increased 26% between 2008 and 2009. Every day more than 200,000 people now bike to work in the Big Apple.

If You Build It (right), They Will Come.

Investments in cycling infrastructure is clearly linked to overall ridership. But there is still a long way to go. Only a small percentage of people in Canadian cities bike to work. The average for most mid-sized and large cities is close to 2%.

There are many reasons to do better. For starters a large portion of urban greenhouse gas emissions are transportation related. But – picking up a thread Sarah posted on earlier this week – bikes are also a great example of the type of holistic solutions that will help us build deeply sustainable cities. Increased cycling, supported by proper cycling infrastructure, has positive impacts on health, air quality, street safety, and overall liveability.

Cycling is a transit option that is accessible regardless of income level. Studies have also shown that building cycling infrastructure creates more local jobs than a comparable amount spent on traditional auto-centric roadways.

Future Cyclists: Women

So what should our objectives be?

Specific targets will vary from city to city. But understanding who cycles now is one powerful way to try to increase future ridership. Currently young men represent the dominant group of cyclists in most cities. A better metric for success is women.

Cycling researchers have highlighted female cyclists in particular as an “indicator species” for the bike-friendliness of a given area. This may have some direct impacts on how we design the next generation of cycling infrastructure. In Tucson, for example, Thivener significantly increased female ridership by focusing on the type of facilities they preferred and putting in place “bike boulevards” rather than on-street bike lanes.

One way or another, creating infrastructure that is safe and appealing to a broader demographic is our next challenge.

image: BikeCalgary

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.