Photo: Bicycling infrastructure pays dividends

Human-powered transportation will only get more popular as gas prices rise and as the negative consequences of our car-centric culture increase. (Credit: Paul Krueger via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications and Editorial Specialist

Most arguments against bike lanes are absurd. Consider this: We have wide roads everywhere to accommodate cars, most of which carry only one person. On either side of many of those roads, we have pedestrian sidewalks. In most large urban areas, we also have bus lanes and transit systems such as subways and rapid transit. When cyclists ride on roads, drivers often get annoyed. If they ride on sidewalks, pedestrians rightly get angry.

Human-powered transportation will only get more popular as gas prices rise and as the negative consequences of our car-centric culture increase. We should be doing everything we can to discourage single-occupant automobile use while encouraging public transit and pedestrian and pedal-powered movement.

In many North American cities, including Vancouver, where I live, commuters scream bloody murder if it takes them an extra two minutes to get to their destination by car. The reality is that drivers are slowed more by increases in car traffic than by bike lanes. According to the Globe and Mail, a study by Stantec Consulting Ltd. found that traffic delays because of bike lanes in Vancouver were mostly imagined. Drivers who were surveyed thought it took them five minutes longer to travel along a street with a new bike lane. But the study showed that it actually took from five seconds less to just a minute and 37 seconds more.

There's also the argument that slowing car traffic down is a good thing. In some European cities, planners are finding that making life more difficult for drivers while providing incentives for people to take transit, walk, or cycle creates numerous benefits, from reducing pollution and smog-related health problems to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and making cities safer and friendlier.

In Zurich, Switzerland, planners have added traffic lights, including some that transit operators can change in their favour, increased the time of red lights and decreased the greens, removed pedestrian underpasses, slowed speed limits, reduced parking, and banned cars from many streets. "Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers," chief traffic planner Andy Fellmann told the New York Times. He also noted that a person in a car takes up 115 cubic meters of urban space in Zurich while a pedestrian takes three.

Where streets were closed to cars in Zurich, store owners worried about losing business, but the opposite happened — pedestrian traffic increased 30 to 40 per cent, bringing more people into stores and businesses. In Vancouver, the Stantec study found that businesses along new downtown bike routes initially experienced minor decreases in sales, but that numerous strategies were available to overcome the declines. In the long run, most cities that have improved cycling and pedestrian infrastructure have seen benefits for area businesses.

Building bike lanes also creates jobs and other economic spin-offs, according to a study from the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, titled "Pedestrian and Bicycle Infrastructure: A National Study of Employment Impacts". Researchers found that "bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending." For every $1 million spent, cycling projects created an average of 11.4 jobs in the state where the project was located, pedestrian-only projects created about 10 jobs, and multi-use trails created about 9.6 jobs. Infrastructure combining road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities created slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects created the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million.

One of the main reasons is that more of the money for road-building goes to materials and equipment whereas with bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure more goes to wages and salaries.

It's important to note that European cities have matched disincentives to drive with improved public transit. After all, not everyone can get to their destination by walking or cycling. But with fewer cars and reduced gridlock, those who must use automobiles — including service and emergency-response vehicles and taxis — have an easier time getting around.

Fortunately, the backlash against cycling infrastructure improvements appears to be subsiding. As oil becomes scarce and pollution and climate change increase, people are finally realizing that transporting a 90-kilogram person in two tonnes of metal just isn't sustainable, especially in urban areas.

August 9, 2011

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Sep 10, 2011
8:10 PM

I used to live in Vancouver and I felt like drivers seen to drive as close to the cyclist as possible just because they are to lazy to easy over a little to get passed the bike. I now live in High River, Alberta and I ride all the time even though I have a truck and a motorcycle and I hardly use them The bike is far easier to way to get around here in the summer and the winter (easier to start too). And, the drivers here share the road with the bikes not I need the whole road to Myself so screw you. look at Amsterdam now there's a good example. When I was there I saw more bikes on the road then cars. So, Drivers of Vancouver you should be taking leasons from othe cities, towns and countries share the road. Or better yet get your ass on a bike it better for you,save money, parking is cheaper. And it's better for that environment.

Aug 29, 2011
6:09 AM

It is unfortunate that the car vs bike war is forming into a battle. as an avid cyclist i have made the decision to ride when possible. this is not only to save money and save the environment but also for the sake of my personal health. In most cases the bike ride to work is realaxing and invigorating. The concern I have is this battle with cars. Cars need to respect bikes and bikes need to respect cars. It is not a war we need to co-exist. I clcling fatality occirred a wek and a half ago on the route that i often bike. The cyclist would have been very visible but a vehicle chose not to slow and give space. This type of image puts fear in the mind of even an avid cyclist. Ideally we will some day have separate spacesd to ride. Until that time please share the road with those that have chosen an active lifestyle. Cyclist also please show consideration for cars that give space. a simple thimbs up to those that slow pull out and give space. I would love to see the implementation and enforcement of a three foot rule to give cyclist three feet. Also rather than create lanes lets get about two feet of road shoulders paved for cyclists to give a bit more space on our roadways.

Aug 18, 2011
2:31 PM

this is the silliest, one sided lobby against reason I think I have ever experienced (and yes, i did witness the congressional vote on the debt ceiling) It comes down to safety all in all. Traffic, and it’s laws and regulations are designed specifically to exist where communication cannot. It’s called ‘Expectation’ We can’t read another’s thoughts or possibly know what they intend to do, so we are given specific lanes, signs, turn signals, brake lights, and many other ‘communication’ guidelines, to prevent accident, injury or, in the worst case, death. You wouldn’t drive on a train track would you? Of course not, for you know that the track is designed for larger, sometimes immovable vehicles, and you risk the danger of disaster. Same thing on the road… like it or not, bikes (c’mon, that’s what they are!) are for the enthusiast, and have no place on the street. This is just another self absorbed, self aggrandizing sign of pure ‘self-indulgence’ that cyclist force onto the rest of us. And not only that, as far as the sidewalk goes, there’s alot less chance that anyone would be killed between a pedestrian and a cyclist, but your ‘superiority complex’ drives you to put the liability on motorists, instead of yourselves. Such hypocsrisy. Why don’t YOU look out for pedestrians instead of US looking out for you? Let me answer that.. FOR THE SAME REASON WE ALL DON”T DRIVE ON THE TRAIN TRACKS!!! It’ is a hobby. You are an entusiast. That’s all. Archers don’t shoot arrows in parking lots, they go to an archery range. Golfers don’t practice their swing on the highway, they go to a golf course or driving range. GO TO A BIKE TRAIL! Just make sure that on the way, in your car, you follow all of the traffic rules and guidelines that are there to preserve the lives of your families and loved ones. Or I’ll run you over with my bike. :/

Aug 17, 2011
9:55 AM

Bike lanes are largely unneeded and irrelevant in urban environments. Bike lanes tend to create problems for cyclists by causing confusion at intersections.

If facilitating bicycle travel is the desired goal then there are at least the following other steps which could be taken without embarking on the massive and dubious task of creating a separate, intertwined bike lane system:

Introduce a presumptive fault legal mechanism, similar to that in Holland, under which motorists involved in collisions with cyclists need to prove their innocence.

Reduce urban maximum speeds to 30Km/h and enforce these limits strictly.

There are plenty of models which suggest that this will increase the flow and carrying capacity of urban roads and dramatically reduce pedestrian, motorist and cyclist injuries.

Aug 10, 2011
12:46 PM

This article about Bicycling Infrastructure may be important to some cities in the world but in most of Canada its a worthless discussion. Why? Because of winter weather. And if I have to explain my point any further then you are not using your brain.

Winter is the same reason electric cars should stop being pushed on Canadians. Again, think about it reader.

Aug 10, 2011
11:55 AM

Ottawa just opened the first segregated bike lane in Ontario on July 10th and it has been a resounding success with up to 2000 trips a day recorded. We are lucky in Ottawa that our mayor, Jim Watson, supports this important cycling infrastructure. Many people, especially women, are now willing to cycle through the city when they were hesitant before because of motor vehicle traffic. We need to make our cities healthier, more sustainable and a pleasure to live in.

Aug 10, 2011
10:58 AM

Great article supporting our cyclists and people who depend on the bike lanes to make a living (bike curriers).

Aug 10, 2011
9:57 AM

First off, I think that most of the specs that you list have been altered to suit your views and really don’ reflect true stats and values. I can assume that you are not one of the shop owners on the bike lane routes downtown who have lost much business due to lost parking and general traffic. You live in Vancouver? I want to see you ride your bike year round, you think you can do that? This is not Spain and the lanes will be deserted for several months starting in November. For the record, I do ride my bike, I love my bike, but honestly, at times it is just not practical for me. Hopefully you don’t have to wear a suit and have a 7am meeting every second day ‘cause I can easily see you falling off the band wagon.

Secondly, your second last paragraph quotes “After all, not everyone can get to their destination by walking or cycling.” incredibly true, thank you!! Portland one of the best cities in N.America encourages electric cars and bikes with charging stations throughout the city and they are looking to expand the program. This gives EVERYONE including those incapable of riding a bike a much more practical option. Even my 76 year old mother could drive an electric car. Lets service the masses, not just the healthy and committed, this is where we will see real difference!

Cheers, happy biking!

Aug 10, 2011
8:54 AM

Precedent goes like this: people….bicycles……autos/buses/trolleys. Personal vehicles only grew in use after the Oil lobby bought the trolleys(in L.A. and other cities) and removed them all from service. Another words, took a clean(electric) transit mode and replaced it with gasoline-dependent , air-polluting IC engine. Let’s get back on track by moving towards cool communities and friendlier cities with mandated green transportation plans. Get me out of my car and on a bike/scooter/walk and I’ll feel much better.

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