Is my bike faster than your four-wheel drive crew cab?

100 km jam.jpg
A 100 km long traffic jam in China that’s lasted nine days so far.

About a year ago, the City of Red Deer created a few bike lanes in a pilot project to encourage citizens to cycle more, and to be able to do so a bit more safely. It was a modest project, which created relatively narrow bike lanes on only 20 km of road. Motorists who were repulsed by the bike lanes could simply drive on the hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of non-bike-laned roads in the city.

And its cost, at $800, 000 was modest too, amounting to less than 1% of the projected budget for the North Highway Connector, which would overwhelmingly benefit motorized traffic and which hasn’t attracted any firestorm of opposition.

But the bike lanes were too much for enraged motorists who pressured City Council to destroy about half of the bike lanes. We are left now with a fragmented and discontinuous set of bike lanes.

But that’s not enough for motorists like Al Coker (“Bike lanes disrupt Red Deer traffic but are rarely used by bicyclists”, Letters, August 30). And some local politicians seem to agree with him, arguing that motorists’ space should never be invaded by bike lanes.

Mr. Coker seems to think city residents will never convert to cycling. But he ignores our collective about-face on issues such as seatbelt laws, smoking bans in the workplace, gay marriage, equal pay for women, and so on. On all these issues, public opinion has swung from “Over my dead body!” to”What’s the problem?”. And often quite rapidly. And there’s already evidence that an increasing number of Canadians support bike lanes. And lots of other cities are building bike lanes. So our City Council wasn’t alone.

Here’s an example. Like Canada, Sweden is a modern, northern, industrialised nation with an educated and relatively affluent population – but with a very different attitude towards cycling. Last month, I spent some time in Lund, in southern Sweden. Lund is about the same size as Red Deer, but bikes seem to outnumber cars. The streets are filled with cyclists and pedestrians (an obvious boon for businesses and the dozens of sidewalk restaurants) but there’s little or no traffic noise. People just treat bikes as a normal way to get to work, social events or the supermarket. So a bike-centred transportation system in a city very much like ours is possible.

Now experts argue that bikes create less noise pollution, less air pollution, miniscule (or zero) greenhouse gas emissions, take up less space on roads, have better health benefits, and cost less to provide infrastructure for than motor vehicles. But Mr. Coker thinks none of this matters to Red Deerians who only care about speed. It’s in our DNA or something. And maybe he’s right. But are cars really that much faster than bikes?

Like many city residents, I make a single-person five kilometre commute to work and back. My average speed, winter and summer, is about 20 km/hr.

But that’s only my trip time – the time I’m actually on the pedals. It doesn’t count the time I spend fixing flats, changing tires, and doing routine maintenance. And if I pay someone to fix my bike or if I buy accessories for cycling, it will take time for me to earn the money to pay for those items. So, all in, a rough calculation of my “effective speed”, counting all the time it takes me to pay for a cycling trip, comes out to 17 km/hr. Slow, perhaps, but effective speed is a more accurate indicator than my trip speed.

It’s a little easier to calculate effective speed for motorists. CAA calculates the cost of owning and driving a car 18,000 km a year at between about $8762 and $11, 751 per year, depending on car model. And Statscan says the median Alberta household earns about $85, 000 per year.

So if this median household contains two car-driving adults earning the same amount of money, they would both have to work between 390 and 520 hours a year just to pay for their cars.

Google Maps seems to assume an average of 32 km/hr for car trips within Red Deer (Check for yourself). So, at that speed, it will take about 560 hours to drive an annual 18,000 km. Add to that the time it takes the couple to earn the money to run the car and you get estimates of between 950 and 1080 hours just to drive 18, 000 kilometres – yielding an effective speed of just 17 and 19 kilometres. This compares favorably with estimates of 1600 hours annually devoted to a car in the US.

Of course, these are rough averages and, as they say, your mileage may vary. But the message is clear: the more you spend on a vehicle, the more your effective speed drops.

And it gets worse!

The CAA estimates of running a vehicle don’t include the social costs of motoring: noise and air pollution, congestion, costs of providing car infrastructure, the non-insured costs of collisions, etc. Add those in and motor vehicle effective speed drops even lower.

Probably, most people overestimate their trip speed and research shows they massively underestimate annual motor vehicle costs. But I think City councilors should be looking at the big picture and try to maximise our effective commuting speed in a sustainable way, rather than merely stoking fear of bike lanes.

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