Over the summer, the City of Red Deer added a modest 20 km of bike lanes to our streets. And it’s just a pilot project. Still, citizen reaction was voluminously negative, demanding that the bike lanes be removed and some even demanded that cyclists be restricted to sidewalks. One of my neighbours has penned several nonsensical tirades to our community association arguing that the bike lanes will “trap” residents in our neighbourhood and block emergency vehicles, thereby harming both his quality and quantity of life. This is one of those issues so divisive I’m reluctant to raise it in mixed company (i.e., where motorists might be present).
I’m one of the few who actually rides the lanes and while I prefer a more direct route along the riverside trails, I feel obliged to cycle the trails to demonstrate their usefulness and to encourage potential users.
Anyway, I wrote a letter to the local paper (now published, but behind a paywall) which is appended here.
I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary on the City’s new bike lanes; almost all of it highly critical. But I’ve yet to see a letter from a bike lane critic who has looked at data on cycling safety, the benefits of supporting cycling, or the experience with bike lanes in northern European cities with climates similar to Red Deer.
In fact, I’ve yet to hear from a critic who has actually, you know, ridden on the new bike lanes.
Some critics (including one of the Advocate’s crack columnists) find the diamond and bicycle logos baffling and confusing. Apparently, they’ve never visited the City’s bike lane pages which clearly explain the program. Nor have they visited other cities where these signs are commonplace.
Some critics complain about the cost. But the entire bike lane project is puny compared to many other capital projects, and much less than one per cent of the City’s new north highway connector.
Nor do these critics consider that motor vehicles, no matter how useful and necessary they are, also impose a cost on all of us. They demand huge outlays in infrastructure. No matter how well we design roadways or police careless drivers, motor vehicle accidents will inevitably contribute to our health costs. And, as Canadians become increasingly dependent on motor vehicles, we’re also becoming increasingly obese, with further implications for our health. Motor vehicles contribute to CO2 emissions and urban noise pollution. Communities designed around automobiles frequently leave little room for non-motorized humans. Streetscapes are imperilled as the front yards in many of our new communities are consumed by oversized driveways and garages – and precious little green space.
None of this is any slur against motorists (I’m an occasional driver too), but we should recognize the full costs of a car-only transportation system before we complain about the supposedly high costs of cycling.
Some object (without any supporting data) that the bike lanes are unsafe, as if cyclists would be safer without bike lanes.
But here’s another view. I’ve cycle commuted, winter and summer, night and day, for a quarter century, without an injury accident, in Red Deer, Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria. Currently I average over 250 days per year on my bike. So, yes, I’m one of the 1%.
I think I’ve cycled all the bike lanes in Red Deer and, all in all, I think they’re a boon to cyclists. I only encountered a few pick-up trucks parked on bike lanes, but that’s to be expected as people come to accept the new alignment. And since 55th Street is on one of my frequent commutes, I paid especial attention to this artery.
While most Red Deer drivers are respectful, there are a very few motorists in this city who will act aggressively and abusively towards on-road cyclists, even trying to force them into the curb. While it’s early days yet, I haven’t encountered this hostility while on the bike lanes and this is a big and welcome change. Even though motorists may not agree with the bike lanes, they do respect my right to use them, and they seem to find it easier to understand where I’m going. My next objective is to help them understand that I need to enter the left hand lane to make a left hand turn!
Another reason to segregate cycle traffic somewhat from motor traffic is the changing nature of motor vehicles. Since 1987, North American vehicles have increased their weight by an average 350 kg. And one study shows that a 400 kg weight increase can drive up fatalities by 47%. In addition, we’ve all noticed that an increasing numbers of vehicles have higher bumpers. Whether this additional height is necessary or not, it’s obvious that the higher strike zone will hit pedestrians and cyclists higher and drive them under the vehicle rather than over the hood. Another reason to offer cyclists some protection from oversized vehicles. And maybe this protection will attract more people to cycling.
So what’s a concerned motorist to do? First, remind yourself that cyclists don’t hold up traffic – they’re traffic too! And take a look at all the single occupant motor vehicles around you. They’re the real cause of traffic congestion.
If you really feel that bike lanes are too much of an inconvenience to motorists (and this “inconvenience” is, I think, at the heart of all the opposition), simply adjust your behaviour. Drive a non-bike lane road. After all, bike lanes only account for an insignificant percentage of Red Deer’s total roadways. Try walking. Or cycling. Maybe even suggest your kids walk or ride.
Voice your opposition. But offer an alternative that meets the needs of both motorists and cyclists. I doubt angry demands to “ban bike lanes!” or “ban bikes!” will get much of a hearing from city hall. And do your research.
Finally, be patient. This is, after all, a pilot project subject to revision and tweaking. So keep your hysteria in check.
As Albertans, we’ve seen change before. The metric system, seatbelt laws, workplace smoking bans, same-sex marriage. And we know how we invariable react. Panic, anger, fears that civilization as we know it is about to end. Then resignation and grudging acceptance as we realize the sky isn’t about to fall after all. Later, some of us privately admit that the changes actually were for the good. And finally we’ll convince ourselves that we were in fact always on the side of progress.
And you know what? The bike lanes issue might just wind up like that.
One world, one people, two wheels. See you at the next traffic lights!