Health Benefits of Bicyling Must be Paired with Road Safety

Let's go forward with a more bicycle friendly city - and combine that with an insistence that all who use the roadways understand what the basic rules are and how use them

By Robert Fick
Published May 22, 2012

As an author of published research on health policy, and as an advocate of healthy cities initiatives and the benefits of exercise for both individuals and population health, I have watched the recent discourse on Raise The Hammer regarding the benefits of creating a bicycle friendly (and by extension exercise friendly city) with interest.

I am familiar with most of the points brought forward - as a former student/ health policy researcher at McMaster, and current at-large policy researcher/writer, I am aware of the mountains of published material that supports the arguments in favour of municipal-level policy change in this area.

Exercise benefits almost everyone in society from the young to the old to frail - indeed, seniors experience disproportionately positive benefits from exercise relative to the remainder of the population, and important policy consideration given current North American demographic trends.

Further, all in society can gain benefit from exercise, and this includes secondary benefits such as health care cost savings wherein the health outcomes across a population improves over time.

I am in support of policy that promotes exercise and the experience of expanding one's personal environment beyond the local community into others by and for this means. Bicycle friendly policy should be part and parcel of health promotion efforts within the City of Hamilton, and it is my opinion that our current City Council understands that - the issue being less about the goal than how to get there, and whom proposed policy change would affect, both positively and negatively.

I am not a bicyclist - I walk during winter, and otherwise obtain exercise through participation in team sports, baseball in particular and occasionally playing soccer. I drive my car to my game locations, and I see what I perceive as increasing amounts of bicyclists on our city streets.

Fair enough - and why not, I tell myself, until I see the unwillingness of some of them to obey traffic laws and rules designed to protect everyone, including bicyclists. Too many times (and once is too many times), they do not signal their turns, they do not stop at traffic lights, and go through stop signs as though the intent of promoting traffic safety via their existence just does not apply to them.

For drivers in our city, this is scary stuff - I doubt that there are very many drivers who actually want to hit a bicyclist, in spite of the fact that sometimes drivers don't know what a bicyclist is going to do in the course of trying to accommodate them on our roadways.

I am left wondering when the promotion of a bicycle-friendly city in Hamilton by such interested persons city will include promotion of the rules of the road - I wonder how healthy a city is in which increasing amounts of people on bicycles will be hurt in traffic accidents because they will not internalize, or do not fully understand, the basic set of rules by which our traffic system operates.

Individual responsibility for safety must also apply. We should insist that this occurs, or there may well be a toll paid in injuries, deaths, and resources that could be put to better uses.

Again, I support the notion of a more bicycle friendly (and by extension, a more exercise friendly City of Hamilton), but from what I myself see on the roads out there, I would argue that such policy change must be accompanied by a commitment on the part of bicycling (exercise) advocates, policy writers, and planning operatives to undertake a promotional plan of some kind to insist that all of us who use our roadways understand and respect the rules of the road.

Let's go forward with a more bicycle friendly (and exercise friendly) city - and combine that with an insistence that all who use the roadways understand what the basic rules are and how use them while protecting oneself and others from avoidable accidents that exact costs in pain and suffering, lives, and resources.

Robert Fick is a local health and social economics/policy researcher and author.


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By Kelly (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 14:29:59

I agree that cyclists need to adhere to the rules of the road. However, I have seen plenty of drivers not signal when they make lane changes or turn into the wrong lane when they turn at an intersection. We do not respond to lazy driving by saying - let's not advocate for road infrastructure. I don't feel that those that lobby for cycling infrastructure need to also worry about lazy cyclists. When drivers ask for better maintained roads or new roads, we don't require them to also provide educational services on the rules of the road. There are lots of people that do not adhere to the rules of the road, both drivers and cyclists. We shouldn't use that though to confuse the discussion on Hamilton's lack of cycling infrastructure.

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By Grendel (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 15:00:35 in reply to Comment 77176

Sturgeon's Law, etc.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 14:36:28

I agree with your wish that both cyclists and motorists obey the rules and move about safely.

However, I cannot agree with your implication that cyclists are somehow less law abiding or, more importantly, more dangerous to themselves and others than motorists.

Every time the subject of improved conditions for cycling comes up, some motorists come back with this argument: cyclists don't 'deserve' safe and convenient facilities because they don't obey the rules.

As I and others have pointed out repeatedly, motorists frequently flout the laws, often with deadly effect (2000 dead and 200 000 injured in Canada each year), and yet no one suggests we close the roads to motorists until they learn to drive safely and obey the highway traffic act!

To take one obvious example, how many motorists obey the 100km/h speed limit on the 400 series freeways? Almost none, when traffic conditions permit. As far as behaving responsibly, a cursory internet search comes up with hundreds of sites offering tips for motorists on how to avoid "speed traps", red light cameras and fight speeding tickets...motorists even flash their lights to warn others about radar!

Countries with high rates of cycling such as Denmark and the Netherlands do not target cyclists for enforcement, they target the road users that pose the greatest risk: motorists. It is also important to note that increasing rates of cycling lead to decreases in accident rates for both cyclists and motorists.

It is time for motorists to stop using their annoyance with cyclists as an argument against the sorts of road improvements that would help everyone!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-05-22 14:38:06

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By Robert (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 14:44:13

I do not recall arguing against improving Hamilton's transportation infrastructure, nor against improving the behaviour of drivers, but I might argue against knee-jerk reactionism.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 15:18:51 in reply to Comment 77178

Although well-intentioned, your article is very close in content and intent to the sort of anti-cycling columns that have filled the Toronto columnist pages in the last few years ...


and many others!

It gets tiring to see the same one-sided stereotypes trotted out over and over.

Cyclists rolling through stop signs or traffic lights are annoying, but they are not killing thousands and injuring hundreds of thousands each year. It is important to keep the annoyance in perspective (and remember the rules were not designed with cyclists safety and convenience in mind)!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-05-22 15:19:49

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 16:51:59 in reply to Comment 77183

comment from banned user deleted

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By Hi Turbo (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 18:13:56 in reply to Comment 77186

Nice try, Allan. Somehow I really doubt you're a cyclist. In any case, you might want to go and look up the definition of petulance, you're not using it correctly.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 17:07:36 in reply to Comment 77186

The only person to blame for road rage is the person who is unable to control their road rage.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 17:15:49 in reply to Comment 77189

comment from banned user deleted

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 15:01:34

The "until" in this phrase made me think (perhaps mistakenly) that your acceptance of cyclists on the roads is contingent on how well they obey certain traffic rules:

"Fair enough - and why not, I tell myself, until I see the unwillingness of some of them to obey traffic laws and rules designed to protect everyone, including bicyclists."

I assume by "knee-jerk reactionism" you mean the reactionism of motorists against giving up road space to cyclists or pedestrians (since a reaction is against a change), but correct me if I'm mis-reading.

I should also add that I'm doubtful about the benefits of public education campaigns to change behaviour: all motorists and the vast majority of adult cyclists have drivers licences and even child cyclists know that you should stop at stop signs and traffic lights. Everyone knows the speed limit is 100km/h on the QEW, but even the police drive at 120km/h!

Speed kills and the only thing that will really make our urban roads safer is to slow the speed of everyone down to below 30km/h. This can best be done by engineering changes (narrower lanes, chicanes, or in some cases woonerf streets that force pedestrians and cyclists to mix).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-05-22 15:05:59

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted May 24, 2012 at 14:07:12 in reply to Comment 77180

@evlahan I totaly agree with you slow it down to 30km/h change the one way to tow ways that whould do it :)

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 23, 2012 at 08:18:31 in reply to Comment 77180

"I should also add that I'm doubtful about the benefits of public education campaigns to change behaviour: all motorists and the vast majority of adult cyclists have drivers licences and even child cyclists know that you should stop at stop signs and traffic lights. Everyone knows the speed limit is 100km/h on the QEW, but even the police drive at 120km/h!"

This is why we need better enforcement and ways to complain about the 'do as I say, not as I do' mentality our police officers have nowadays. How many times have you seen one blow through a red light or stop sign for no apparent reason? Or where they put their lights on or a quick toot on the horn to go through? I see it almost daily.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted May 22, 2012 at 15:07:41

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 22, 2012 at 19:35:52

I have yet to see a fellow cyclist obey the rules of the road (the law) in my travels on my bike. Its maddening to me that I have to be so careful

That's an broad overstatement, of course.

But similarly it flies in the face of experience to claim that cyclists and drivers are more-or-less equally likely to flout the traffic laws. Even if the percentage of highway motorists who speed were the same as the percentage of cyclists who blow through stop signs, the two violations feel rather different to the observer. And can have very different consequences.

I don't claim to be the only cyclist in West Hamilton who signals turns and stops for stop signs, but I'm quite clearly part of a minority - to say 25% would be generous. Twice, I have had drivers roll down their windows to thank me for signalling. Far more often, I have watched driver just sit at their stop sign and stare at me with my arm stuck out, since they quite clearly don't expect me to signal my intention and wait my turn. And last week, a cyclist on Sterling called me a faggot the third time I braked in front of him for a stop sign.

Highway drivers do not appear lawless for speeding. Cyclists do appear pretty lawless as a group.

I am not suggesting that everyone has to bike the way I do before we "deserve" proper infrastructure. But I do believe that it hurts our credibility when cycling advocates claim that cyclists are no more lawless than drivers.

More of us need to ride a little more seriously - which is only marginally less fun - if we are to be accepted as part of the trafficscape. But I'll not argue with anyone who suggests that improved infrastructure is even more important.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-05-22 19:42:59

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 23, 2012 at 03:53:34 in reply to Comment 77197

I agree that cyclists appear lawless to motorists because there are certain rules they break consistently (i.e. not stopping at stop signs). I myself am very careful to obey the rules when I ride, and have also been shouted at by cyclists following behind when I stop completely at a stop sign.

So I agree that it is bad for the image of cyclists that they flout certain rules more often than motorists.

I have also tried driving at 95km/h in the slow lane of the QEW, and it is just not possible. So I end up just following the traffic flow. I suppose, as when I cycle, I could strictly obey the law by driving 100km/h in the middle lane and object when anyone honks that they should not be breaking the law!

As with cyclists rolling through stops, social convention has dictated the true speed limit is about 120km/h (or more). The conflict comes because the social conventions are different for bicycles and motorists at stop signs.

The point is that going 20% over the speed limit doesn't seem lawless because everyone does it. But it doesn't actually make it any safer or law abiding!

If we were actually concerned about safety and obeying the law, we would focus our disapproval and enforcement on speeding, which is dangerous.

If we want to improve the image of cyclists in the eyes of motorists we would make sure that we are completely law abiding, but also would make sure not to get in the way of cars (which also annoys motorists, even though it is legal).

There is a difference between concerns over safety and concerns over annoying drivers and the public image of cyclists.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-05-23 04:00:28

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 23, 2012 at 08:17:05 in reply to Comment 77200

I've noticed that with the warm weather has come a big spike of cyclists travelling on the sidewalk.

Case in point: Every day I walk with my girlfriend to the bus stop on the east side of John just south of Charlton. We walk to the bus stop, dog in tow, and wait for the bus. Once she's on board, I take the dog on a walk, then get ready for work. On Tuesday and again this morning, I have had near-misses with cyclists riding down the sidewalk. One almost hit me and ended up colliding with a trash can, another brushed my shoulder, and yet another mumbled something when going by. It drives the dog crazy, since she is surprised by the bike where there shouldn't be one, then sometimes tries to chase after it. It's dangerous. And this is on a 2-way street. I don't get it.

When we go biking, we always follow the rules of the road. We usually tend to take the scenic route (we normally avoid busy streets because we don't have enough experience riding with multiple lanes of traffic or on major thoroughfares). So far we've seen people riding the wrong way on 1-way streets (on both the road and sidewalk), make parents pushing strollers detour onto the street so they can continue biking on the sidewalk, blowing through stop signs and red lights, and nearly cause a collision (going through an advance green, causing a car legally turning have to slam on the brakes and causing the cars behind to do the same).

Further to that, on my daily commute from here to Mississauga, I do 90-100km/h on the 403/QEW, depending on the speed limits. It's easy. The odd time you'll get some ignorant driver who tries to egg you on by flashing high beams or honking, but I don't mind. They are free to pass me or do the limit.

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By cyclist (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2012 at 20:47:07

Seems the compliance rate is higher in West Hamilton than other parts of the city. I'm actually quite serious about not having seen a cyclist yet this spring that is obeying the law. The vast majority are on the sidewalks. Next biggest no no is passing on the right and blowing through red lights. I agree that drivers are confused when they see me riding 3 feet from the curb, stopping in line with traffic at lights and actually signalling turns. I also agree drivers have no idea what to expect from cyclists because of the widespread issue of several glaring law and safety infractions. It is true as well that drivers expect me to pass them at every light because thats what the majority of cyclists do and that as a result drivers do stupid dangerous things out of extreme frustration with the lot of us. That does not excuse the stupid dangerous drivers but neither does it absolve the majority of cyclists from making my life more dangerous while I try to share the road with cars

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted May 23, 2012 at 00:42:37

Shared space as a concept seems unattainable in cities where ideology drives urban discourse.

So, while the City of Hamilton catches up with dedicated & continuous bike lane infrastructure, there is bound to be on-going friction between automobile drivers and bike riders.

I had earlier mentioned:

"what if we were to look at our roads and streets as an User Interface issue...With this approach, we may end opening ourselves to collaborative innovations in city planning - while having some serious fun creating entirely new solutions to problems we may never have anticipated by otherwise narrow-casting issues."

Now, what if someone in Hamilton were to invent a "Mobile Bike Lane"?

What if this little add-on widget had the Made-in-Hamilton stamp on it - much like our 'little local whistle'. And what if this new Hamilton invention went on to revolutionize the urban bike riding experience across the world?

So what is a Mobile Bike Lane?

It is a simple solar powered clip on LED light (with battery backup), which is affixed to the handle bar and rear of the seat, which (like the auto headlamps) comes on with the first turn of the wheel. What it does, is casts a 'green band of light' on the road, on both sides of the bike, to create an instant -safe zone- an instant bike lane; with an additional feature which turns on the front and rear green band of light to form a safe box. This light would be designed for daylight use.

With this little widget, even if cities are unable to create bike lanes on account of budget or ideology, the bike riders are always safe with their instant mobile bike lane. And automobile drivers are given the visible cue to not violate this safe bike-zone.

This would protect bike riders in all sorts of conditions on side roads, parking lots, driveways, country roads etc.

And with a little bit of sensor engineering, when two or more bikes are in an overlapping zone, the green band of light could be made to synchronize into forming a contiguous green-line and so on... with even an optional audible-alarm alert, if there is a breach of this zone by a passing automobile.

Well, if Hamilton is to become an Ambitious city once again, let us take a leap of faith with such thinking, and attempt to solve our shared public space problems in more unique ways. Something like this would not only bring huge revenues to the city by virtue of manufacturing this here for local & export markets, but it would create local jobs in the process of solving a local problem that appears unsolvable.

Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2012-05-23 01:42:45

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 23, 2012 at 08:21:10 in reply to Comment 77199

An interesting idea, but isn't that more or less the same as just having LED front and rear lights on bikes - which can be done now?

Why don't we get modern with some bike requirements and make front and rear LEDs manditory, rather than just reflectors? Why not get LEDs mounted in the pedals too? Something that is eye-catching and is a visual cue to other bikes/pedestrians/drivers?

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