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

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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.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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Boiling Point

Jun 25, 2013 at 5:44pm

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.

Loving It

Jun 25, 2013 at 7:06pm

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.

Jim Flahrety

Jun 25, 2013 at 8:54pm

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.

Save Vancouver

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:57pm

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)

nitroglycol

Jun 26, 2013 at 5:38am

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.

BikerCK

Jun 26, 2013 at 5:57am

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?

bdill101

Jun 26, 2013 at 6:56am

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.

Patrick Smyth

Jun 26, 2013 at 9:29am

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.

ger

Jun 26, 2013 at 9:41am

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.

the way I see it

Jun 26, 2013 at 9:47am

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.

P.S.

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).

P.S.S.
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).

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