Photo: Cycling is smart but some cyclists need to get smarter

In Vancouver cycling is the fastest-growing transportation mode, jumping by 40 per cent since 2008, from about 47,000 to 67,000 daily trips. (Credit: Paul Krueger via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications Manager

Bicycles are an increasingly popular, affordable and practical transportation option. Many cities are making life easier for cyclists by building separated lanes, implementing bike-share programs and introducing regulations to reduce conflict between bikes and cars. You can now find bicycle sharing in 500 cities in 49 countries, including Beijing, Montreal, Chicago, Paris and Mexico City.

In my home city of Vancouver, we're still waiting for a planned sharing program, but cycling is the fastest-growing transportation mode here, jumping by 40 per cent since 2008, from about 47,000 to 67,000 daily trips. This is mainly thanks to an ever-expanding network of bike lanes and routes.

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The personal and societal benefits of getting out of your car and onto a bike are well-known: better mental and physical fitness and reduced health-care costs, less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, often speedier commutes and significant cost savings, to name a few. Studies also show the exercise benefits of cycling exceed negative health effects from pollution and injury.

Still, despite the many arguments in favour of cycling, increased infrastructure always incites criticism — most of it unwarranted. And the behaviour of some cyclists doesn't help.

Let's consider some claims from opponents. Two main ones are that bicycling initiatives hurt local businesses and impede car traffic. Numerous studies show the opposite is often true: over the long term, business usually improves and car traffic is reduced. When bike lanes do affect car-commuting times, it's often by a small amount.

Research by the New York City Department of Transportation found retail sales increased 49 per cent along Ninth Avenue after a protected bike lane was built, compared to just three per cent for the rest of Manhattan. A Toronto study focused on Bloor West Village found far more customers arrive by foot, bike or transit than by car and "visit more often and report spending more money than those who drive."

As for impacts on car commuting, bike lanes often have a negligible or even positive effect. More people cycling means reduced car traffic — the real cause of gridlock and slowdowns. Not everyone can use a bike and sometimes cycling isn't practical. But as people opt for alternatives to cars, the roads open up for those who must drive. A study by Stantec Consulting Ltd. found Vancouver drivers thought it took them five minutes longer to travel along a street with a new bike lane, but it actually took from five seconds less to just a minute and 37 seconds more.

Studies around the world also show that bike lanes have significantly reduced accidents involving cyclists, as well as the incidence of speeding cars.

But if we really want to increase safety for cyclists — and pedestrians and motorists — we all need to take responsibility for our behaviours. People navigating on foot must be aware of surrounding bikes, buses, cars and other people and not wander with their eyes fixed on electronic devices. Car drivers need to follow road rules and be more aware of cyclists and pedestrians. Some cyclists just need to be smarter.

A lot of criticism of the growing number of cyclists in cities is valid: too many blast through stop signs, don't give pedestrians the right-of-way, refuse to signal turns, ride against traffic, don't make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. Many seem to have a sense of entitlement compelling them to ignore laws. It doesn't take much to learn and follow the rules, and investing in proper gear — including lights and reflectors — is absolutely necessary. You'll not only be safer; you'll also be less likely to anger motorists, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.

Some jurisdictions have resorted to increased regulations and penalties to make cycling safer and to reduce conflicts between cyclists and drivers. In Chicago, bike riders face increased fines for disobeying traffic laws, as do motorists who cause bike accidents. The fine for "dooring" a cyclist (opening a vehicle door without looking and hitting a bike) doubled from $500 to $1,000.

There's really no doubt: anything that increases bicycle use, from separated lanes to bike-sharing programs, makes cities more liveable and citizens healthier. Cyclists must do their part to build support for initiatives that make cycling easier, safer and more popular.

June 27, 2013

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Aug 01, 2014
1:20 AM


There simply is NO law enforcement when it comes to cyclists in this city.

The result is cyclists have an over-inflated sense of self-righteousness. Try telling a cyclist to please walk their bike on the sidewalk or crosswalk and you’ll get an instant F-you or the bird.

The city has created a bike road out of Comox Street in the West End, so now vehicles don’t use the street and cyclists still ride in traffic on all the parallel streets -so why did we create the bike road to begin with?

And who is paying for all the bike paths in Vancouver? Certainly not the cyclists. It’s time cyclists were registered and insured.

As a pedestrian I have been violently knocked to the ground by a cyclist. As a driver, I have been rear-ended sitting at a red traffic light. In both cases the cyclist refused to provide their name or identification when requested. So I am left with regular headaches and a dent in the back of my vehicle with absolutely no repercussions for either cyclists.

If Vancouver is to ever become a bike friendly city, cyclists MUST obey the rules of responsible bike riding regardless if there is law enforcement or not. Without obeying the laws, both pedestrians and drivers will forever hate cyclists and will continue to push the envelope on the roads and in city council chambers.

Feb 16, 2014
4:55 AM

I cycle in the Spring and Summer from where I live to downtown to go to work. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and there are few and far between bike lanes. There are a number of bike lanes with traffic on both sides of it where there should not be. Who’s ever idea this was, does not ride a bike to work, but does drive. I sent a letter to the Mayor of our city about this, and it was passed onto the city planners who created those bike paths in the first place. How dangerous is this to be riding and you have traffic on both sides of you. At least in Vancouver, the bike path is separated from the traffic and parking of the vehicle. Winnipeg is not the friendliest city for riding bikes. I do believe that cyclist should not be riding on sidewalks, going through red lights and cutting people off. You should be treating the bike as if it were a vehicle, which it is! Fines should be given out to people who do not follow the rules of the road. The same as driving in a car!

Aug 10, 2013
1:35 PM

Karen Kitchen, it is absolutely none of your business how cyclists dress. I wouldn’t wear flip-flops on a bicycle but I certainly wear sandals in the summer. I don’t dress as if I’m at the gym when I’m cycling to work or to visit a museum. And helmets are more a sign of unsafe conditions than anything else.

Here is a post from Bicycle Dutch about (inadequate) cycling infrastructure in the US. While this is not the point of the post, the author does show how inadequate, unsafe infrastructure encourages reckless cycling as cyclists are always attempting to race against motor traffic:

I live, and cycle, and certainly don’t drive, in Montréal, which has better infrastructure than Toronto (and doesn’t have a rabid anti-cycling mayor) and no effing helmet law, but we are still far away from the Netherlands or Denmark. There has been an uptake in all-ages cycling, in normal clothing, and it is lovely to see.

Aug 08, 2013
10:42 PM

I love riding my bike in the city its much faster much of the time than driving ! One thing that would be really nice is that Pedestrians STAY OUT OF BIKE LANES ! Would you walk down the middle of a lane of traffic ? Get on the sidewalk ! thats what its for or stay on the walking path, its for YOUR safety as well as mine! If I have to pick between hitting anouther cyclist and someone walking in the bike lane I will choose the Pedestrian who is in the wrong and it would not be an accident but a purpose because your purposely walking where you shouldn’t !

Jul 28, 2013
7:19 AM

I recently moved to an area in Toronto where many people use bicycles. I try to use public transit as much as possible but still use my car(I would be a menace on the roads as a cyclist). I am appalled at the number of people riding in heavy Toronto traffic without helmets, wearing inappropriate footwear and disregarding basic safety rules. The bike lanes in this city are a joke but I am pleased to see more drivers who are aware of cyclists and who have a regard for their right to use the roadways. Unfortunately we are still in the minority. Everyone must do their part by following traffic rules and being aware of others rights to use our streets and roads. Unfortunately that even applies to the morons in this city who drive with one hand on the horn…I will not change my driving habits for you… get over yourselves!!

Jul 08, 2013
12:47 AM

Cyclists have to start being better stewards and..oh yeah maybe car drivers might think about maybe…pretty up thier act. COME ON! I am so tired of this beat to death attitude. Modern road regulations very often have never taken peds and cyclists in consideration. Just take the ill conceived right turn on red that is good for nothing other then creating buisiness for trauma centers. At times crossing a busy street after coming to a complete stop puts me in greater danger by taking longer to cross after losing all momentum.

It about time we start fresh. We all belong. No one needs to earn a place on our roadways. Regulations and design have to take all users in consideration. All users need to act responsibly

Jul 06, 2013
8:20 AM

Unfortunately David, I’m having a difficult time following the thread of focus in this article.

Are you commenting on increased ridership and cycling infrastructure in Vancouver? The oblivious-to-their-surroundings walking habits of many pedestrians? How a bike share in Vancouver would be a great idea except for the province-wide mandatory helmet law which will completely kill the idea before it even leaves the rack? Bad road design? Poor automobile driving skills, coupled with driver inattentiveness?

If it was all of these things, and a couple others I left out, then oh… otherwise, the title of the article doesn’t much set up the reader for the barrage of points. Cyclists aren’t “in” traffic, we “are” traffic. We were here before the automobile, and we’ll be here long after it.

Jul 05, 2013
9:48 AM

we need to amend the vehicle code to make some new rules that pertain only to bicycle transport. in some cases it makes sense for all the cyclists to proceed where cars cannot. approximately six cyclists fit into the space of one car. if all six are permitted to cross a red light when safe to do so, then the road is left clear for the six cars behind them, and it is much safer for the cyclists to be long gone. another instance of a special rule required: bicycle parking is on the access or leave the parking on the sidewalk, cyclists need to cross the street in a place where a car cannot. such crosses should be made legal. I am sure there are a hundred other rule changes that would make roads safer for cars, pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Jul 03, 2013
11:23 AM

“There’s really no doubt: anything that increases bicycle use, from separated lanes to bike-sharing programs, makes cities more liveable and citizens healthier.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to echo the feelings of a couple other readers. The single, simplest, most effective thing BC could do to encourage cycling and make cyclists safer is to repeal the mandatory helmet law. What makes cyclists safer is more cyclists.

Analysis of real-world data (outside the laboratory) on the effectiveness of helmet laws to increase cycling safety is inconclusive at best. In cities where helmet laws have been introduced, we have not seen fewer injuries/deaths per km cycled . We have only seen fewer cyclists.

Jul 03, 2013
10:47 AM

Writing from the safe-zone that is The Netherlands, I think we all have to be smart when being part of traffic. Those cyclists taking all kinds of risks don’t have anything to do with those who don’t. Over here, when someone causes an accident, we blame the individual, not the group he may belong to

Jul 02, 2013
8:51 AM

David, for sure there are a number of cyclists and pedestrians out there whom have a terrible attitude towards vehicles, other road users and their own personal safety. I honestly believe (coming from England 9 years ago) that Canadians believe that “all traffic must give way to pedestrians” is the cause of some of the problem. Many cyclists do not know how to correctly (legally) using a crossing. Again in the UK many children have to attend Green Cross Code classes and Bicycle Safety classes. I always stop at the curb and make eye contact before stepping out onto the road! I don’t blinly amble across chatting on my phone with my hoody up! Also when I ride my bicycle I treat the road like I am a car. I do not take short cuts across intersections and pretend I am a pedestrian when it suits me, without dismounting!!! This culture of Canadian Pedestrian arrogance has to change before cyclists behaviour (and driver behaviour towards cyclists) changes.

Jul 01, 2013
2:55 PM

“…too many blast through stop signs, don’t give pedestrians the right-of-way, refuse to signal turns, ride against traffic, don’t make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. “

Replace the word “cyclist” with the word “driver” and the statement would stand.

Even if all cyclists followed the letter of the law at all times, there would still be plenty of resistance to increasing the ease of cycling in cities.

Jul 01, 2013
10:26 AM

Yes, cycling is smart. But is it the Suzuki Foundation’s mandate to lecture cyclists on good road manners?

Additionally, I would like to loudly echo Perry Bulwer’s comments and add that where I bike, in Vancouver, motor vehicles running red lights is absolutely the most common driving infraction — I would call it an epidemic!

Sure, we should ALL mind our manners wherever we are — and especially on the road where safety is at stake. But let’s not forget that safety is jeopardized far more seriously by careless/aggressive car drivers than by careless/aggressive cyclists!

Plus, it can’t go without saying, if the Suzuki Foundation believes (correctly, in my opinion) that an increase in cycling is better for our communities and environment, then why is there no mention of the single, largest obstacle (in Vancouver and B.C.)? The stupid bike helmet law!

We could learn so much by examining the bike-friendly cities of Europe…

Jul 01, 2013
7:49 AM

I was pleased to see your article supporting bike infrastructure until I got to the section of your article criticizing what some cyclists do. Not at all helpful. While I agree that some cyclists use their bikes in ways that are not safe, that does not negate the benefit of getting more people on their bikes and out of much more dangerous cars.

Clearly, some car drivers disobey traffic laws and drive hazardously just as some cyclists do.

I wish you’d redo your article speaking about the benefits of cycling infrastructure. If you must lecture cyclists on safe driving habits do it in a separate article.

Jun 28, 2013
4:17 PM

I’ve been nearly killed by careless, scofflaw drivers many many times riding my bike, both in Vancouver and now in the small town where I live. I have never nearly killed a driver or pedestrian.

I was on a bus on W.Hastings one day when the bus driver nearly killed a biker who was obeying all the rules, helmeted, riding on the road not sidewalk, etc. The bus driver was driving so recklessly that I filed a complaint against him with BC Transit. There were times on certain streets on my way to the seawall that I rode on the sidewalk in order to protect myself since there was no room on the street.

Here in my small town, car drivers have horrendous habits. I also drive about once a week and see driver’s breaking basic rules of the road every time I drive. The main road here that connects both parts of town has four lanes and not an inch of room for bikes. When people do ride on that road, drivers have to change lanes in order to avoid them. So when I take that route I always ride on the sparsely used sidewalk, even though it is illegal. I will definitely fight any ticket I get.

Neither the laws nor the infrastructure in most towns and cities are considerate of bikers. I’m pretty disappointed to see Suzuki and most of the commenters here focus on bikers as the problem. It seems to me that it is car drivers who are the main entitled scofflaws.

Jun 28, 2013
12:23 PM

I would look to Denmark for advice on how to make bicycles and cars compatible on city streets. They are way ahead of us in this regard, with solid blue colored bike lanes at intersections etc, so there is no doubt on anyones part about safe paths to travel.

The Danes seem to have a social contract were all agree to follow the rules all the time. When you are driving your car through an intersection on a green light, you really don’t concern yourself too much about the possibility of a pedestrian, bike or another car trying to occupy the same space at the same time because you can trust that everyone is operating logically and by the rules.

In the big cities like Copenhagen the bike is becoming the dominant mode of transportation for a lot of people.

Jun 28, 2013
12:14 PM

Since there are no licenses or real rules for cyclists it’s “anything goes” out there. I’ve seen cyclists run red lights into oncoming traffic (and get hit). I’ve seen cyclists run over pedestrians. I’ve seen cyclists cause car collisions by veering through an intersection. I’ve seen them cut off cars and pedestrians, I’ve seen them come within inches of hitting baby strollers. If you do that with a car you get tickets and in some cases jail time. You lose the privilege to operate a motor vehicle.

I love cycling, I think we need way more cycling infrastructure. But honestly, a lot of these hot-shots need a serious reality check. It gets extra ugly when cities throw in lane sharing, because the rules for everyone on the road are not clear — nor are they followed equally by all.

Jun 28, 2013
11:37 AM

How about retitling this “Some PEOPLE Need to Get Smarter”?

It’s always great to see another thought leader round up the many great facts in favor of bicycling. While I don’t disagree with the points you made, I’m hoping we can move past the distinctions being made between groups of people as if they can all be described with one term.

Most of the criticisms of people who ride bikes are equally true of people who drive cars or people who walk. The bottom line is people—some of whom follow laws and collaborate with others in arriving safely, some of whom do not.

The same guy who doesn’t stop on his bike probably rolls the stop in his car when he uses that instead, and he jaywalks when he thinks he can get away with it. You started out with “people navigating on foot” but shifted to “cyclists” and “drivers”.

Every time we apply labels we perpetuate the fiction that these are separate and distinct tribes, when in fact the vast majority of people who ride bikes also own and use cars, and every last one of them also walks (or uses the wheelchair/assisted device equivalent). This “othering” creates distance and friction.

Take away terms describing transportation choice and replace them with any other labels we have decided shouldn’t be generalized, such as race/ethnicity or gender. You would never say “Some XYZ-Americans need to be smarter”—especially when you’re talking about encounters in which they may die.

If we focus on people, not labels, in our descriptions of behaviors and interactions we’ll see more clearly what we have in common rather than what is different. We can then focus on the kinds of programs that will be effective in educating people about safe interactions on the street.

I’d also note that an “accident” is something completely unavoidable. You are describing “collisions” that might have been avoided if someone in the mix had made a different choice or decision. The term “accident” leaves everyone devoid of responsibility.

Similarly, street changes that benefit the movement of motorized vehicles will get described as “improvements” when in fact they sometimes make conditions worse for people who bike or walk. The language really matters.

Jun 28, 2013
9:38 AM

Easier said than done. Our transportation systems are very autocentric. They are design to facilitate the unfettered flow of vehicle traffic and don’t always work so well for cyclists. People make individual choices, often mistakenly (it is safer to ride on the road than the sidewalk, for example), because of perceptions of risk. The legal framework also favours cars and again, individual behaviours will respond to perceptions over realities. Enforcement and education will be useful, but are incomplete without the harder work of reshaping our systems to better accommodate cycling.

As a bike advocate, my work is frustrated by the scofflaws, and I work to press for more responsible behaviours, but we need also to remind ourselves that the balance of enforcement initiatives, where we are limited by available resources, needs still to focus on those who have the capacity to do the most harm. In that respect, police need still to focus first on drivers, who kill several thousand a year in Canada and maim many thousands more. We do what we can to encourage better cycling habits, but change will be a process, not an event.

Jun 28, 2013
9:32 AM

You could change the wording of this paragraph to make it more accurate:

A lot of criticism of the growing number of DRIVERS AND CYCLISTS in cities is valid: too many blast through stop signs, don’t give pedestrians the right-of-way AND refuse to signal turns. SOME CYCLISTS ride against traffic, don’t make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. Many DRIVERS AND CYCLISTS seem to have a sense of entitlement compelling them to ignore laws. It doesn’t take much to learn and follow the rules, and investing in proper gear — including lights and reflectors — is absolutely necessary. You’ll not only be safer

Jun 28, 2013
9:09 AM

I conciously elected to go carless about 7 years ago and became a year-round bike commuter in Saskatchewan. I thought when moving to Victoria the whole thing was going to be more pleasant and in so very many ways it is. However, in the last week alone I’ve barely avoided crashing into 3 car doors that were opened right in front of me and I’ve been cut off by 2 taxis pulling out from the curb without looking. I avoid accidents because I’m always alert to the vehicle traffic around me. Would that more motorists would do the same for us.

Jun 28, 2013
8:08 AM

Both of the previous commenters are unfortunately attempting to rationalize their flagrant breaking of basic traffic laws, with absurd reasons ranging from “it wastes time” to “self preservation”. In reality the reasons are laziness, self-absorption and paranoia. Sorry, but you’re both wrong. Traffic laws are there for a reason: to make your behaviour more predictable to other road users. Stop acting like you’re in a bubble by yourself and that everyone on the road is an obstacle to avoid or move around. You’re sharing a resource with thousands of others. If there’s one thing that infuriates me as a cyclist it’s other cyclists riding with their obnoxious sense of entitlement, riding the wrong way down one way streets and ringing their bell at me because they don’t want to stop at an intersection which I’ve already stopped at and am then proceeding through. If you can’t handle basic road laws, stay off the road and stick to walking.

Jun 28, 2013
7:48 AM

Most of all, the laws should be written by people who have studied the road from all angles: foot, bicycle and car. And I insist, bicycle traffic should be facing car traffic. There is no way to feel safe when you cannot see what’s coming behind you at greater speed.

Jun 27, 2013
7:01 PM

Why do you single out cyclists as the law breakers? Why don’t you show the same attitude towards motorists who kill more people, who break more laws and for example are the very reason why we have red light cameras. I guess you blame cyclists for all this to?

Sick of the blame the cyclist rubbish as some justification for the attitude towards them … It is a load of rubbish and for a post about being “smart” shows a serious lack of smart. Here is a thought … be honest, forthright and up front about the “excuses.” Motorist kill, they kill and injury cyclists.

Australia data suggest that in incidents involving cyclists ~ 80% are the fault of motorists. South Australia injury data (presenting to hospitals) shows similar results including a very interesting founding that 1% yes 1% of the incidents came about because a cyclist run a red light. What was the most significant cause? Motorists traveling the same direction (14%), motorists turning right across cyclists, motorists failing to give way.

Who needs an attitude change? Motorists or cyclists?

Very disappointing article showing a lack of rigor :(.

Jun 27, 2013
6:35 PM

In San Francisco, law enforcement does little to cite cyclists who disobey traffic laws, despite a rapidly growing poputlation of bike commuters and despite increasing conflicts between bikes/cars and bikes/pedestrians.

I just moved to Vancouver and was surprised to see so many new bike lanes. I’ve not noticed too many cyclists here, at least compared to SF, but glad to see the separated bike lanes nonetheless.

And if bikes can yield at stop signs as another poster suggested, they should be required to do so without impact to cars or pedestrians. I can’t imagine the number of times I’ve had the right of way, yet had to yield to a cyclist who didn’t want to make a complete stop (or who wanted to piggy back another car crossing the intersection). Having to slow down a car (and speeding up again) takes a lot more energy than having to stop a bike, thus resulting in more CO2 emissions. But the entitled bike group doesn’t get this.

Jun 27, 2013
2:19 PM

As a cyclists, it would be great to be practically able to follow traffic laws as they are written- but many aren’t structured appropriately for bicyclists. For example, coming to a complete stop at each and every stop sign wastes a lot of time and energy for little to no improvement in the safety of other road users or the cyclist. Better would be to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. It’s been done elsewhere.

We also need to put a fork in BC’s mandatory helmet law if we expect the bikeshare program to succeed. Places where bikeshare programs have succeeded lack such a law. To succeed, there needs to be as little friction in the system as possible, and the cost in time and money of renting a helmet- even if the machines, which haven’t been tried elsewhere, work- is going to render a lot of the trips too much trouble.

Jun 27, 2013
2:18 PM

Good article but I do feel the need to point out that it is not entitlement that compels me to break laws occasionally but rather self-preservation. Here in Ottawa some roads are just not safe to drive on. I was clipped on Wellington and often feel nervous there and in other places as well so choose to ride on the sidewalk not because I am a dick but because I feel an urge to live. Our city-planners have also implemented a charming little thing called a “bus-bike” lane on Sussex and a few other places. Whomever came up with that should be fired as it is dangerous and has already caused accidents if not death. Unfortunately some people will choose to obey the law at the risk of their own life. Not me.

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