Across cities worldwide, we can discern a spectrum of comprehension and support for cycling infrastructure.
At one end is the city with no dedicated cycling infrastructure and a small, hard core of 'road warrior' cyclists who say people should just learn to ride in mixed traffic. At the other end is the city with a dense, comprehensive and richly connected network of dedicated bike lanes that are physically separated from automobile lanes.
In between the two is the city in which bike lanes consist of painted lines next to automobile lanes and off-road trails. Those bike lanes may be more or less extensive, continuous and connected, and they may be more or less adjacent to functional destinations (as opposed to purely recreational trails).
From comparing the various approaches that different cities take to bike infrastructure, a few things are clear, aside from the fact that the rate of cycling is very strongly correlated with the quality of the cycling infrastructure:
The vast majority of people simply will not ride a bike in mixed traffic. ('Road warrior' cyclists need to recognize that they are outliers in terms of their tolerance for perceived risk.)
The presence of a bike lane network encourages people to try riding bikes, and more continuous bike lane networks attract more cyclists.
The presence of people riding bikes encourages more people to try riding bikes in a positive feedback loop.
As rates of cycling go up, rates of injury go down. The more people there are riding bikes, the lower the risk is for a given cyclist. In New York City, for example, cycling has quadrupled over the past decade while cycling injury rates have fallen by three quarters.
Painted bike lanes are better than nothing at encouraging people to ride a bike, but they're not as good as separated bike lanes.
Separated bike lanes are safer for cyclists than painted bike lanes, not only because they are better than painted lanes at encouraging more cyclists to ride, but also because they physically separate cyclists from automobiles, the most dangerous objects on the roads.
Finally, it's always important to remember that bicycle infrastructure does not simply reduce the risk of injury for cyclists, but also reduces the risk of injury for all modes of transport, motorists and pedestrians included.
Maybe it's a bit naive to posit this in Hamilton, where the modest idea of a painted bike lane is met with jeers, squelching and ward councillor vetoes, but the evidence from cities around the world clearly demonstrates that if we're serious about getting people to ride bikes, we should skip the painted lines and jump straight to separated bike lanes.
In the Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear makes a case for physically separated bike lanes that is well worth reading.
I also have come to believe that the more physical separation that can be achieved between bikes and cars, the better. I've seen all too often how little protection a stripe of paint offers. And I am struck by how quickly support for separated bike facilities, such as you might see in Holland or Denmark, is gaining traction.
She cites the feedback from a recent city planning conference in Vancouver:
A main theme that emerged was the need for cities to create a network of separated bicycle lanes, said Jamie Stuckless, an active transportation planner who works with Green Communities Canada in Ottawa.
"The first one that I heard repeated over and over again was the need to create a network of segregated bike lanes that actually get people where they want to go," Stuckless said.
Stuckless said she was surprised by the number of city officials from around the world who spoke to say that painted bike lanes are a thing of the past and they are no longer investing money in that type of infrastructure.
Once again, Hamilton is behind the curve in progressive city planning. While other cities are committing to building high-quality separated bike lane networks, we remain stuck with a fragmentary hodge-podge of short painted bike lanes that don't connect to each other and frequently don't lead to prominent destinations.
We need to do better. The case has already been made over and over again that widespread cycling is better for public health, better for air quality, better for road maintenance (a 100 kg cyclist imposes an order of magnitude less wear and tear than a 1500 kg driver), better for neighbourhood economic development (bikes need a lot less room to park than automobiles), and better for safety for all road users, motorists included.