Special Report: Cycling

Cyclists Do Not Get a Free Ride

It's wrong-headed to claim that investing in high quality cycling infrastructure is some nice-to-have luxury that we can't afford.

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 03, 2014

The 'cyclists get a free ride' meme is alive and well in today's story by Spectator columnist Joan Little, in which she laments all the money Burlington council is considering spending to provide physically separated bike lanes on New Street between Martha and Guelph Line, with a possible future extension all the way to Burloak.

View Burlington New Street Bike Lanes in a larger map

Little starts by referring to Burlington's 2009 Cycling Master Plan, which calls for on-street painted bike lanes to be added where possible when a street is resurfaced. (That already makes it better than Hamilton's Cycling Master Plan, which is limited to a specific subset of streets, any of which can be overruled by the ward councillor's veto.)

The preferred staff option for the Martha to Guelph Line stretch is to narrow the two current driving lanes from 3.8 m to 3.1 m (the centre turn lane would be reduced from 3.2 m) and use the space to add a 1.5 m westbound cycling lane with bike sharrows (shared lane markings) on the eastbound lane.

There is a large body of evidence that cycling infrastructure is most successful at attracting new users and reducing injury when it is continuous and physically separated from automobiles. Painted lanes are better than nothing, but not much better.

This is a case in which a transformative change in people's travel choices requires a transformative change in infrastructure design. The Burlington cycling committee asked the City to consider physically separated bike lanes, even though they would cost more to implement.

Joey Coleman, who was at yesterday's meeting, reports that Burlington Council supports the enhanced bike lanes with physical separation, noting the proven economic development benefits.

Little protests the added cost, but it seems clear that what she really doesn't like is spending money on cyclists. Early in her piece, she notes, "On average 58 to 128 cyclists ride that stretch daily, though cyclists say those numbers would increase substantially with proper bike lanes. But how many cycle in winter?"

Cycling in Winter

The answer to that question depends in large part on the availability of safe, protected cycling routes. Cold, wintery cities like Denver, Minneapolis and Montreal have some of the highest cycling modal shares in North America.

Denver doubled its bicycle commute modal share from 1.6% to 2.9% between 2007 and 2012. That increase exactly matches the increase in cycling infrastructure over the same period:

Denver Cycling to Work and Bicycle Lane Miles 2007-2012 (Image Credit: Denver Urbanism)
Denver Cycling to Work and Bicycle Lane Miles 2007-2012 (Image Credit: Denver Urbanism)

In Minneapolis, cycling accountd for 4.5 percent of commutes in 2012, representing a steady increase since 2005.

Again, the reason for a healthy level of cycling - even during winter - is the presence of a connected network of high-quality cycle tracks that link people with meaningful destinations.

Cycle track in Minneapolis (Image Credit: Bicycle Times)
Cycle track in Minneapolis (Image Credit: Bicycle Times)

Some 'Free Ride'

But getting back to today's column, Little doesn't just stop with the dodge that we shouldn't invest too much in bike lanes because winter. She goes on to suggest that we shouldn't invest too much in bike lanes because "cyclists get a free ride".

A driver's licence costs $80, and a licence plate $90. Drivers pay tax on gas, and provincial gas tax rebates to municipalities are intended for transit and roads. Bikes don't need licences today, but legislation allowing licensing could be explored. This would help cash-strapped municipalities to provide bike lanes faster.

Bikes are better environmentally, but cyclists get a free ride. If there was a way they could contribute, that would ease the tax burden. Public transit and recreation have user-pay components. Why not cycling? Staff support bike lanes, just not Cadillac ones.

There is so much wrong with these two paragraphs that I almost don't know where to start.

It's wrong-headed to claim that drivers pay for roads. It's wrong-headed to claim that cyclists get a free ride. It's wrong-headed to claim that investing in high quality cycling infrastructure is some nice-to-have luxury that we can't afford.

There is no excuse, in this age of widely-available information, for the same discredited arguments and bogus claims to keep turning up again and again in our public discourse. What we can't afford is to keep making decisions based on untested assumptions and knee-jerk reactions.


Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By JustinJones (registered) - website | Posted July 03, 2014 at 10:13:35

I love the argument that "Only 58 - 128 cyclists a day use this, so we can't justify that kind of expense for that few people". It's akin to saying that barely anyone is swimming across that fast-flowing river, so we don't need to build a bridge across it. Low cycling #s on a linear corridor directly into the CBD of a city like New Street is a perfect justification to install cycling infrastructure that more closely reflects the reality of modern design and transportation options.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 03, 2014 at 13:43:06 in reply to Comment 102968

How many people drove through the Red Hill Valley before they built the RHVP?

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By Matt (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 10:15:12

This couldn't be any more than true. I'm not an active bicycler any more however I fully support complete streets.

Everyone should have a right to get around the city the way they want in a safe manner. This should include fully protected bike lanes. If I had a safe way to travel around the city, I would absolutely use these bikes lines with my kids.

When I was younger I had no fear, and therefore rode my bike all year round on any street, including some of Hamilton's busiest. I've had a LOT of close calls but fortunately haven't been hit.

Now with kids I won't even let them off my street with a bike, even though as a youngster I rode all over Hamilton, up and down accesses, stairs and even at one point made my way to Toronto and back with a friend during a warm summers day.

My best adventures were on a bike but I can't even imagine any of my 3 kids (Even with the proper training) to ride around the city in any manner. Growing you you never realize the dangers that are out there unless you were in an accident. Now as an adult you have a different perspective and attitude, when it comes to responsibilities and providing for your family. Bike riding is a risk that I can't do on our streets safely.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 10:36:10

An additional point: Many (probably most) cyclists also have drivers licenses, and many of them own cars as well. This means that the majority of cyclists who 'get a free ride' also pay drivers license fees and may also pay vehicle registration fees and gas taxes - in addition to their property and income taxes.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 12:53:10 in reply to Comment 102970

We also pay to insure those cars. Which means that when we choose not to drive them for certain trips, we are subsidizing the cost of insurance for other drivers.

It's amazing the number of hidden subsidies to mass motoring that many people fail to acknowledge. Like for example, the $12 million a year that Burlington residents pay to clear snow from the roadways. You think without that, there would be as many people driving automobiles in the winter?

Somehow we found the will to pay for that.

We also found the will to pay for $300 million in road reconstruction and widenings over the next 10 years. It is the property taxpayer footing the bill for that - not just "motorists". Cycling has been shortchanged in terms of infrastructure spending for the past 50 years - even with the low current modal share. When you add up the economic benefits to investing in cycle infrastructure, investing in safe, comfortable, efficient cycling networks is a no-brainer.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 11:09:35

Our neighbours could use enlightened cycling infrastructure. Burlington is quartered by the Freeman Interchange, and the city’s bike network is broken in two at best. There are few routes across the highways and they appear to run exclusively east-west (Plains/QEW; N Service/407; Upper Middle/407).


Halton Region has ostensibly been promoting cycling since 2002, when it first installed its Share the Road signage to raise motorist awareness, but a decade later, 55% of Burlington's cycling infrastructure was off-road.


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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 13:40:20

After an injury required me to relocate closer to work, I chose Burlington because of the cycling infrastructure.

The choice was between this and this.

Burlington south of the QEW has good bike lane coverage, and I see out my balcony the result; many people of all ages on their bikes, and many kids bike/skateboard/rollerblade to school. The result is a lower stress, better health situation. I don't recall every being this relaxed going to work and amenities that are this nearby.

Now, when I have to cross north of the QEW, or visit a business on New Street or Harvester, things get more dangerous. Drivers in Burlington can be just as uncourteous; those who perceive a cyclist riding in mixed traffic an outrage. Since moving here on May 1, only two cars have road raged on me. A BMW on Harvester; a BMW on New Street, both without bike lanes. Otherwise, my commute looks like this.

The fact that I clearly understood that higher property taxes were to be paid, and in return for those costs I'm getting a safer and more pleasant city to move around in, I'll thank such commentators to shut their ignorant mouths. Show a little humanity and perspective. I take offense to being falsely accused of being a freeloader, and challenge such folks to think outside their own selfishness and stereotyping for just a second to see that they are flat out wrong in their worldview about transportation in a city. This new resident of Burlington was drawn here because of the cycling infrastructure, and I whole heartedly support the separated bike lane, and other urban-friendly initiatives that Burlington is taking in its downtown.

(I'm still in Hamilton often and lived there for 20 years, so still very much rooting for the Hammer to be awesome!!)

And what a crass title. "Time to end freewheeling ways". Goodness, what shallowness.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-07-03 13:55:15

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 15:16:18

As of May 2013, the City of Burlington had 36.9 km of roads with sharrows.


Councillor Meed Ward is a fan, though her constituents are a mixed bag:

"My Take: I support painting sharrows on both sides or adding a bike lane on one side and sharrows on the other, as per the staff recommendation. This option doesn’t require a road widening or adding significant unbudgetted costs to this project. The additional cost to add these lanes now is not supportable given the low volume of cyclists and the nearby Centennial Bikeway, for off-street cycling. Further, staff have said that since enhanced sharrows were added on Lakeshore they have observed that the sharrows are working to increase cycling safety for those cyclists who prefer to ride on-road, so we would expect that to occur on New Street as well. Longer term, when the road is due for reconstruction (in roughly 10-15 years), I’m open to considering road widening and separated, elevated bike lanes, as that won’t add significantly to the cost if the road is already being reconstructed; by then, we may also have more cyclists.

Your Take: Generally, the majority of feedback I’ve gotten from residents via phone, email, or social media, is residents have mixed support for sharrows and bike lanes (some question whether they work at all). Most residents do not support removing the centre turn lane (not recommended by staff) or a road widening (not recommended by staff) to accommodate bike lanes, because of the impact on vehicular traffic and the added cost of widening outside of a road reconstruction."


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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 15:21:12

Certain cochroach ideas will never go away no matter how often fact and evidence are thrown up against them. Regarding the Minneapolis example, their winter cycling numbers skyrocketed when, shock of shocks, winter maintenance on major cycling arteries was prioritized. But it couldn't work here could it.

As an aside, I find the former politician turned current affairs commentator crowd really tiresome. Joan Little and Larry Di Ianni are perhaps the worst local offenders. I have great admiration for former public servants who leave office and then stay out of the spotlight. Suggests that they were in it to be public servants rather than celebrities.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 15:56:18 in reply to Comment 102985

"I find the former politician turned current affairs commentator crowd really tiresome"

I do as well, but not half as tiresome as "local media personality turns politician". People in this area love voting for That Nice Feller (or Gal) From The Teevee.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 20:13:22 in reply to Comment 102985

"As an aside, I find the former politician turned current affairs commentator crowd really tiresome."

Absolutely. Under no circumstances can anyone who has served in public office ever have anything worthwhile to say about just about anything. Which by extension means, of course, that they probably didn't have anything worthwhile to say while in office. Which means that the people who voted them in (sometimes serially) are the real culprits. Aren't they the ones who should be labelled 'tiresome'?

'Can open, worms all over.'

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By z jones (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 17:50:27 in reply to Comment 102989

Jeez, strawman much?

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By Needless (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2014 at 18:49:48

Its a no brainer. Physically separated bike lanes are safer then paint markings. Don't need studies to tell us that! The fact that studies need to be cited at all speaks to the insanity of it all.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 09:37:23

Just got back from Vancouver > You'd be a fool not to ride your bike, like, everywhere in that city! Betcha they don't get many op-eds whinging about bike lanes, innit!

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 10:04:56 in reply to Comment 102993

Unfortunately Vancouver isn't untouched by this cultural sickness either. Here's a fight over limited space, here's a guy who sees no point in Vancouver's bike lanes because he personally doesn't use them and as always exaggerates that therefore nobody else does either. Here is the right wing toilet rags doing their usual job of trying to assimilate every corner of earth with this oppressive vehicle over dependance to the exclusion of all else, where every bike lane is a waste but bikes riding in traffic are douchebags also, which is stressful and lethal like living on the death star and I do not want this kind of society.

Fortunately Vancouver does have leadership to build this out anyway, and it shows up in the results of the quality of people's lives, and in the numbers

Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation in Vancouver. From 2008 to 2011 alone, trips by bike increased by a full 40%

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-07-04 10:10:20

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 15, 2014 at 14:36:49 in reply to Comment 102994

"Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation in Vancouver. From 2008 to 2011 alone, trips by bike increased by a full 40%"

So what does that mean? There are now seven bike trips in 2011 as opposed to five in 2008?

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By RobF (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 21:46:15 in reply to Comment 102994

I think Brent Butt's rant was mostly tongue-in-cheek. David Pratt of Team 1040 sports is a better example. He used to rant about how the Hornby Street bike lane was messing up his commute to work in one of the towers around Pacific Centre. He lived in Yaletown ... a 15 minute walk away.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-07-04 21:46:26

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 15, 2014 at 14:42:59

Bicycles are for poor people.

In China they used to ride bikes everywhere because they could not afford cars. Now they ride cars.

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By Corporatist (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2014 at 23:11:40

Cars are for the so called middle class.

I used to ride cars to Toronto from Hamilton. Now that I am wealthy, I ride planes, even if it is more cumbersome, costly, and environmentally damaging. I win.

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