We don't need to guess about a cycling policy. We need only decide what our goals should be, study the available evidence and implement the policy that achieves our goals.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 07, 2009
Some policy issues - particularly the really innovative ones - are difficult to resolve because they hang on unproven hypotheses: about how effectively a given policy change will achieve its stated goal, whether it will produce unforeseen side effects, whether it can be achieved through a different, less disruptive, less costly method, and so on.
In such cases, it takes real courage and political will to step off the ledge and hope you don't plummet into disaster. When such ideas work, we laud their architects as visionaries. When they don't work, out come the knives.
It is through such leaps of faith that the more prudent among us can build up a catalogue of best practices to emulate and negative object lessons to avoid.
However, there's a third category of policy issues after unproven hypotheses and proven best practices: issues which are are already proven, but which we persist, either through simple ignorance or deliberate FUD, on treating as if they were still unproven and dangerous.
Today's Spectator editorial on what the editors call "The bike-car conundrum", falls neatly into this trap. I'm willing to give the editors the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are simply ignorant of the proven best practices in cycling infrastructure, but there's really no excuse for the editors of a major daily newspaper to pronounce on an issue about which they clearly haven't done their homework.
The editor asks (rhetorically, it turns out):
But what will it really take to make Hamilton a bike-friendly city? Is it even possible?
These questions are simple to answer from the clear evidence of cities that have successfully made themselves bike-friendly. It will take nothing more than a continuous network of cycling infrastructure, and it has already been done in cities of a wide variety of sizes and climates, including cities a lot more space-constricted than Hamilton.
In short, every city - no matter its climate - that invests in a coherent, continuous cycling network sees dramatic increases in cycling as a direct result. Here are a few examples:
We don't need to guess about this policy. We need only decide what our goals should be, study the evidence and implement the policy that achieves our goals.
After suggesting that a 20-year time frame to build such a network is "appropriately conservative about implementation", the editors go on:
The biggest stumbling blocks to true bicycle integration are the location of bike lanes on main arteries and, perhaps more significantly, the lack of mutual respect between too many cyclists and drivers.
I'll deal with each point in turn.
First, it is axiomatic that people traveling from one place to another in the city will want to take direct thoroughfares wherever possible. This is as true of cyclists as of drivers, particularly given that the purpose of a cycling network is to get people to replace automobile trips with bicycle trips.
As for whether Hamilton's one-way urban expressways are a good fit for cyclists - the editors ask (again, rhetorically), "Can anyone seriously and honestly recommend that a ride down a main Hamilton artery at either rush hour is a good idea?" - of course they're not. They're not fit for anything other than high speed automobiles.
That's precisely the problem with these streets: their design is a major deterrent to people not in cars, to the detriment of their surroundings and the city's livability as a whole. Yet the Spectator laments, "Transforming these roads to ones suited to heavy bicycle commuting requires extensive calming measures, and probably reconstruction to an unrealistic degree."
It's just incomprehensible to me that the Spectator regards the extreme unbalance of Hamilton's thoroughfares not as a red flag that these streets desperately need transformation but as a deterrent to making the kinds of changes the streets need.
That's like saying a patient with serious heart disease doesn't need emergency surgery because his condition is so severe that the surgery would have to be long and invasive. "Appropriately conservative", indeed.
Now on to the second point, about whether motorists can be made to respect cyclists.
Now, I realize that personal experience is merely anecdotal, but I have been both a regular cyclist and an amateur urbanist for several years, and I have tried to observe my experiences riding a bike downtown with as much objective detachment as circumstances allow.
In my experience, the overwhelming majority of motorists are civil and respectful toward me (more on this below).
A small percentage of motorists inadvertently introduce danger in a misguided effort to be extra-careful - for example, by unexpectedly yielding the right of way instead of just following the rules of traffic flow.
Finally, an almost vanishingly small percentage are openly hostile and aggressive, passing too closely or yelling insults. Because they intrude so forcefully into my consciousness, I have a tendency to dwell disproportionately on these outliers, but every empirical observation I have conducted into how drivers behave around me has confirmed that they are truly the exception.
One anecdotal observation I have made over years of riding is that the civility and respect of motorists seems to be directly proportional to the lawfulness and assurance with with I ride my bike.
That is, when I follow the rules of the road consistently and stake my claim to the asphalt confidently rather than meekly and hesitantly, I have much fewer problems with motorists.
This may mean lane-blocking on a high-speed, multilane road, which forces motorists to change lanes to pass rather than squeezing past too closely in the same lane when I hug the curb. (Incidentally, this is entirely consistent with the Highway Traffic Act, which instructs cyclists to ride as far to the right as safety allows and for vehicles to pass as far to the left as safety requires.)
This observation is also consistent with the strong inverse correlation between the cycling rate and the cycling casualty rate: that is, as the number of cyclists on the road goes up, the number of cycling casualties goes down.
This isn't really surprising. More cyclists on the road means:
This virtuous cycle (no pun intended) of increasing ridership is a positive network efficiency, in that each additional cyclist makes the cycling network safer and more effective for everyone.
Again, we don't need to guess at this. All we need to do is study cities that have succeeded at becoming bike-friendly and emulate their successes.