David Suzuki: Cycling is smart but some cyclists need to get smarter

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 percent 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.

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 percent along Ninth Avenue after a protected bike lane was built, compared to just three percent 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.

Comments (29) Add New Comment
Boiling Point
Why can't bike lanes be built all over downtown with the caveat they're only on smaller side streets and alley ways? There should be no bike lanes on major roads or bridges. Vision Van are idiots! This issue would not be an issue if the lanes were not on major transportation routes like Dunsmuir and the Burrard bridge etc.
Rating: -66
Loving It
Congratulations to the City of Vancouver for providing safe and effective infrastructure for all it's taxpayers, regardless of how they get around.

And a big congrats to City Council for having the guts to follow through on their election promises and actually build real cycling infrastructure.
Rating: +17
Jim Flahrety
Cyclists use sidewalks because of traffic, which can kill them as nothing else can; imagine losing 50 percent of your steering and balance when you as a motorist signal your intentions; imagine having to start your car every time you left a full stop. Understand the nature of cycling before you dismiss all these behaviours as "dumb"--that's not perceptive nor intelligent.
Rating: -69
Save Vancouver
Gee, I'm sure the increasing gentrification of 9th Avenue in NYC had nothing at all to do with the increase in business, it was all due to those saintly bike lanes (which to my firsthand observation appeared even lightlier used than Vancouver's)
Rating: -19
Jim Flahrety: You are right in saying cyclists use sidewalk because of traffic. However, counterintuitively, using a sidewalk can actually be more dangerous than using the road. Why? Because most car-bicycle accidents happen at intersections, and you have to cross streets occasionally. When you're on the road you're more noticeable to drivers than when you're on the sidewalk; drivers who turn at intersections are (hopefully) looking for pedestrians, but are much less likely to notice a fast cyclist several metres back.
Rating: +51
While increased education regarding road safety is important for all users, it's probably not a good idea to combine the concept of 'cyclist behaviour' to the expansion of cycling facilities. Would we condone an article that essentially suggested we shouldn't put guardrails on the highway because some motorists speed?

It's important that we build safer cycling routes. It's important that we make roads safer. But as a percentage of road users, cyclists that behave poorly are a tiny fraction of the overall total, rather than 'many'. Real road safety improvements can only come by targeting the most dangerous users for increased enforcement. That demographic remains motorists. One might ask why this opinion piece doesn't address all road users equally and suggest automobile travel improvements motorist should be viewed through the lens of criticism of motorist behaviour. I have yet to see any public figure face the wrath of motordom by making this association, yet it might actually have an impact (pun intended) on reducing the brutal death and injury rate that accompanies an over-reliance on the use of automobiles by distracted and dangerous drivers. Too bad we (as a society) continue to ignore the sage advice given in Matthew 7:3

New International Version (©2011)
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Rating: -25
When I use sidewalks:

- When the streets are too narrow to accomodate bikes.
- When cars are going 90km/hr on a 50 km/hr street without bike lanes.

Better infrastructure means less sidewalk usage. I'm not risking my life to follow the rules.
Rating: -10
Patrick Smyth
It's no wonder drivers hate us. Everyday I am witness to brethren cyclists who jump the lights, ride the sidewalks and cut off drivers. It would be nice if all cyclists respected the laws and the opportunities afforded us by these bike lanes.
Rating: +47
Jim, the bruise on my leg is still there from the cyclist who hit me while I was walking on the sidewalk on Nelson. His reason for using the sidewalk? Nelson is a one way and he wanted to travel west. You know, instead of using the brand new bike lane on Comox one street over.

Cyclists need to stay off the sidewalk, follow street signs, and maybe plan routes around the bike lanes (I support those lanes btw - I even use them). You'll gain the support of so many more people if you follow the rules.
Rating: +46
the way I see it
Its all about the numbers.

In rural communities with little vehicle traffic, people can make rolling stops, do U-turns, fail to signal, etc. all with limited consequence and impact to safety. However, as the number of vehicles increases, drivers must begin to adhere to driving norms in order to both prevent conflict and allow others to foresee what they are going to do. The situation is the same for cyclists, pedestrians, boats in the harbour, etc. (of course the potential severity of conflict is not the same but we can discuss that later).

Now that Vancouver is reaching a volume of cyclists where the negative consequences of not having standards is causing conflict, we must identify the desired cycling behaviours, educate the public (cyclists, pedestrians and drivers) and consider how best to enforce them. The same as we do for every means of transportation facing similar situations.


I would love to have turn signals for my bicycle. Some kind of lights (front & back) that I could easily operate with a thumb switch. Taking a hand off to signal a turn on bumpy roads, in traffic, at anything but minimal speed is dangerous. Somebody go invent this (price point ~$40).

Does getting doored mean that the cyclist is riding in the parking lane? Who is at fault if a car gets doored? I suppose the bottom line is that you must check your mirror before opening your door regardless (although cyclists can be harder to see).
Rating: +17
You don't get to use sidewalks the same as I can't drive my car down the shoulder if I'm scared of highway traffic. This puts pedestrians in the same position you have just avoided for yourself... danger.
Rating: +43
Alan Layton
Before all of the cyclists get to carried away with their utopian dreams, just take a look at the demographics of riders. How many do you see over 40 years old? There are some, but they are in the minorty - bike riding is a young person's mode of transportation. Eventually the younger people get married, have kids and move out to the suburbs where they can afford a house and then they get a car. By the time they reach their 40's bike riding is just something you do with the family on the weekends.
Rating: -24
Greg Robinson
@ Alan Layton

15-34 year olds accounted for 44% of commuter cyclists in Toronto in 2006, with the other 56% taken up by older cyclists. The increases in recent years however rose by much greater numbers, with a 69% increase among 45-54 year olds, and a whopping 110% among 55-64 year olds. This compared to 19% and 20% increases among the younger sets. Okay, these are Toronto stats, but I can't imagine it's too far different here in Vancouver.

I think maybe you are confused by the fact that us cyclists look much younger than we are - imagine that!
Rating: +13
Bus rider
I used to think cycling was cool. And then I moved to Vancouver. My perception is that the majority of cyclists I see are not respecting any rules. I don't pay attention to only the bad one, but to cyclists I see (i don't use side streets, so i guess i miss on the really well behaved ones.

I can not stand cyclist on side walks. They do to pedestrians what they don't like about car drivers on the roads. Bunch of bullies i you adk me. And now Yiu suggest i should stop lookink at my awesome hand held device because of some lunatic on the side walk. How about girls stop wearing dresses so they don't get assaulted? Non sense!

Also the feeling i get from cyclist is the same i get from christians. All virtuous and all knowin they got it right. I will not join the mouvement. The same that brings you critical mass but refuses to say which roads they'll be using, just to make sure you harras as much people as possible.
Rating: +7
Vancouver vehicle drivers respect pedestrians and elitist cyclists do not. They swoop behind people on the sidewalk or crosswalks and ring their fricking bells when they are right behind, expecting you to divine what they want you to do: walk straight ahead, move right, move left or just stop till their arrogant ass passes. You startle people when you ring you bell behind us, but I guess you get smug satisfaction from crapping on lowly walkers. Moonbeam just spent tons of money making Comox a one way and cycle lane - that street hardly had any traffic on it. Why does it need a separate bike lane?? Meanwhile thousands of pedestrians on Denman street navigate a bumpy, uneven, narrow goat trail - lots of them seniors with canes, walkers and wheelchairs. But no, Mayor Righteous will not spend a penny for the uncool masses who use sidewalks.
Rating: -4
Alan Layton
Greg Robinson - I do cycle to work part of the time and cycle for pleasure as well. My information comes from what I see on the bike paths in Vancouver and definitely the majority of the riders are younger. Could the increases in older riders in TO just reflect the fact that they were very small populations to begin with? Regardless. you're not going to see a switch from cars to bikes in a big way, probably ever.
Rating: -17

What you say about the demographics of bike riders makes sense, but it isn't what I know. I'm uh over 40 and so are at least three friends who are all daily bike commuters. The common nexus is that we live close enough to town to make this a practical matter.

It's easier to bike in Vancouver - not only is the city giving us lanes and such, but the town is not overly spread out and there are few killer hills.

Now, I am in relatively in shape and therefore can ride. Or is it because I ride that I am relatively in shape?

If only those people who were worrying about their weight knew that, for the price of let's say 10 dinners out with their spouse, they can own a brand-new totally awesome commute machine that costs nothing to park, and gives them a free workout as a bonus!
Rating: +1

Yes many cyclists have poor road manners. I think that many car drivers have poor car manners, and many pedestrians randomly walk wherever (e.g. Commercial Drive) but it's not an excuse. I believe that we cyclists have an obligation TO EACH OTHER as well as to non cyclists to ride with care and courtesy -- how else are we to be accepted? As for Critical Mass, that's why God invented steamrollers.


I do ring my bell when approaching pedestrians on a shared path. I try to do it a good distance away but I am afraid that you have your earbuds in. The reason I do it is hardly to crow about my elitism but to give you some warning that I am coming up, so that you don't suddenly step to the side and crash into me.

As for the condition of the sidewalk, certainly I agree that the city should have nice places to walk and particularly to use electric scooters -- few things more wince-inducing than seeing an already infirm person forced onto the roadway, putting them in harm's way because it's better than a sidewalk.

The last category is for people who ride their skateboards down Main street. I say we just let gravity and plain old Darwin take care of that.

Rating: -2
Jim Flahrety
@BP: Cyclists will ride down main streets whether there are bike lanes or not. Cyclists should not be forced off streets.

@nitroglycol: I'm not saying riding sidewalks is good or safe for anyone, but come on: there is a reason some cyclists will do that in some situations.

@Alan Layton: Note how many young people in town are not getting licenses to drive. Like gay marriage, the resistance is from older people.

@Bus rider: too many sweeping generalizations to count.

@westender: Lots of sidewalks and roads in the city already. Not nearly so many bike lanes.

@ger: A crappy mishap due to someone understandably wanting to take a shorter route. You don't take short cuts?

@bdill101: Your analogy does not work: cyclists are avoiding 2000 pound pieces of metal with potentially distracted drivers, not others their own size.

It is too easy to complain about cycling behaviour but the reality is that people who do it, love it, and that means it will only increase. Thank you to the City for trying to catch up to other progressive cities. The naysayers have had their say.

Rating: -20
Thomas Folkestone
Yes, some cyclists ride like jerks (I call them a**hole cyclists, especially when they are my friends, to curb their behaviour). They give us all a bad name.

But as for rolling through stop signs, cars are equally if not more guilty of this. Friend got run right over ON A BIKE ROUTE, after advancing through a four-way stop while an SUV decided to ignore it totally. 3 months in bed, lucky to be alive. Cars weigh thousands of pounds, and can kill. A bike going through a stop sign at 5km/hr is mathematically thousands of times less dangerous.

So yes, let's have a more enlightened cyclist population. But let's not forget that the percentage of bad car drivers is equal if not greater, and there are hundreds of times more cars.

So I'd say a**hole drivers are far more of a danger, it's just cyclist-bashing is the Rob Ford Belle du Jour!!
Rating: +6


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