Special Report: Cycling

The Bike-Car Non-Conundrum

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.

Agonizing Over a Solved Problem

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.

Thoroughfares and Transformation

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.

How to Build Respect

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:

  1. Motorists become more aware of cyclists and more likely to expect them;
  2. Increasing numbers of cyclists establishes norms of behaviour; and
  3. As cycling become more normalized, still more people become willing to start cycling.

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.

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 jason (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 10:56:52

Quote: "Transforming these roads to ones suited to heavy bicycle commuting requires extensive calming measures, and probably reconstruction to an unrealistic degree."

yea, if we ever figure out how to slap a stripe of yellow paint down the middle of a road with one less car lane that can become 2 bike lanes on either shoulder, we might be one step closer to landing a man on Mars.

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By frank (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 11:58:59

Jay the only problem with that is you'll still have the traffic on the road screaming past you going 70. I just finished watching a documentary on the Big Dig (incidentally our company supplied a lot of the material and labour for that job) and I can quote several policians and city managers stating that livability and the joining of neighbourhoods by removing the 1960s highway down the centre of the city was the main motivation for such an expenditure (we're talking 1 billion 500 thousand US dollars).

The Spec has bought into the drive thru mentality - you order, drive to the window and pay, get your food and you're done in a few minutes. Many people (including our city planners) apply that to daily living even though it's completely unrealistic. City engineers don't design roadways with the thought that down the road the infrastructure will have to support various modes of transport and the reason they don't is simply because in the short term they MIGHT not see the fruit of their labours. What bothers me is that even though we as designers and engineers are supposed to design for the future needs of the users, I have yet to see a revamped cross section for Hamilton's arterial roads that adequately addresses the issues of mixed transportation using the same corridor, whether it's LRT or bike networks.

Amidst all that they continue to allow sprawl, stupid ("Smart" my rear!) centres, and turn their backs on research and demonstrable success in other communities that could be used to turn Hamilton into a place other cities can look to for experience on how to design a 21st century transportation network rather than a place to reference when discussing what not to do...

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By rideyerbike (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 14:48:34

A strategic move might be to add bike lanes to the King and Main corridors at the same time as their 2-way reconstruction and LRT construction so as not to focus attention on this singular change which would no doubt cause much uproar by the car-focused majority.

I would take the construction of bike lanes on these arterials a step further then simply painting lines on the pavement as Jason suggests. Physically separated bike lanes such as you see in places like Copenhagen, Montreal, Bogota, London (to name a few) are far safer and more effective at encouraging cycling ridership than our typical method of a painted line. see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONS2ptAR4... These separated bike lanes can be separated from traffic by a curb, cones, a concrete island, stantions, etc.. Doing this contruction at the same time as the LRT related road re-construction would be both cost-effective and strategic. The rhetoric used to labeling such challenges "unrealistic" is completely counter-productive to producing positive change or any type of solution to this real problem.

Regarding animosity between cyclist and motorists, having lived in both Vancouver and Hamilton as a cyclist, I've noted that drivers tend to be less accommodating/respectful to cyclists on the road in Hamilton in comparison to Van. I think that this is mostly a factor of a more car dominated city and the fact that there is generally poorer cycling infrastructure in Hamilton in comparison to Vancouver. Improving infrastructure will in turn improve cycling ridership, which will in turn help to normalize cycling as a valid mode of transportation and improve drivers response toward them in sharing the road.


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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 15:17:47

I listen to Talk820 on the way home sometimes and Dave Shuttleworth was talking about this the other day. His comment was along the lines that - Hamilton isn't a city for bicyclists and never will be.

I can understand that argument, but there was a time when cars were enjoyed only among the rich. So we paved roads and centred our lifestyles around the automobile not by force, but by promoting it as a luxury of the rich (ie: credit cards, cell phones, organic foods, etc. - That's another topic altogether).

So what gives? We can develop multi-million roadways - no problem? We can turn what appears to be an impossible feat: converting small 2 lane roads into a 4 lane roads, but not a mere 1 metre lane for bicycles?

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By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 17:58:00

"Dave Shuttleworth was talking about this the other day. His comment was along the lines that - Hamilton isn't a city for bicyclists and never will be."

Mr. Shuttleworth is wrong. This coming from a guy who ran and lost in the last election. Hamilton can be whatever it wants to be. The change is coming and our "talking heads" will just have to learn to ride on two wheels or get out of the way!

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By JonC (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 19:31:41

Hamilton has so many advantages to become a city for cyclists that most other cities could only dream of. The harbour front is nice, but the continuous trails along the escarpment are a thing of beauty, including the lower incline trails suitable for every day biking. I believe what Dave Shuttleworth meant to say was, David Shuttleworth isn't a bicyclist and never will be.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 23:05:57

he probably could have won in the last election with a platform like that. Usually that stuff is gold in the Hammer.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2009 at 20:00:37

Ryan: I too ride assertively, plugging a lane when I have to, directing traffic behind me with hand signals, generally following the traffic act, etc. But you really follow the road rules to a tee? That's quite different from 99% of drivers. Think of the "rolling stops" and "acceptible speeding" that is the norm.

In current conditions, following the rules to a tee makes riding infeasible. If I'm approaching a four-way stop, I slow down. If nobody is around, or if I'm arriving at it just before someone and I make eye contact, I flow through. If I'm at the Farmer's market and I have to head west, I go slow on the sidewalk until I get to the sidestreets past Bay, rather than detour right around the core on the one-way streets.

This is North America. Most people understand that rules are made to be bent. In my experience, those same vast majority of motorists who accept cyclists don't mind us rule-bending - as long as we're cautious and don't take anyone's right-of-way without a wave. It's the Dave Shittleworths of the world who insist we follow the rules to a tee, while they don't. I don't see any point in taking the moral high road for them.

By the way, Hamilton is already a cycling city - way more than any of the GTA suburbs. Huge proportions of people in Central, Downtown, and West Hamilton already use bikes to get around. Suburban politicians need to stop sniffing the new car smell.

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By rideyerbike (registered) | Posted August 10, 2009 at 19:05:15

Just think: when the oil runs out, we're gonna have some pretty sweet bike lanes! But in the meantime, lets not ignore or avoid the work to be done to make the Hammer a more bike-friendly city.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 11, 2009 at 11:36:15

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 11, 2009 at 13:24:38

"Because of the weather"

That does raise a good question (sorry for my ignorance on this sub-matter). If a Canadian city were to become a bicycle powerhouse, what measures would be in effect to make it viable all year long?

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By JonC (registered) | Posted August 11, 2009 at 15:35:39

People already bike all year round. It's not a ton of fun in February, but it still happens. As long as the road is cleared, you can generate a pretty substantial amount of body heat by biking but the extremities get a little chilly. For longer trips, the combination of biking and the HSR is also a possibility.

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By Round Guy (anonymous) | Posted August 11, 2009 at 16:41:37

A few random comments:

I took up cycling to drop some weight. Actually, a lot of weight. Wanted something to do that provided exercise, but wasn't as routine as exercise. Age and bad ankles conspired against walking. Biking has worked, though I've mostly stuck to pleasure trips through side streets, parks and trails.

I don't find drivers discourteous. I make sure to wave thanks when folks accommodate me, even when it would have been easier and quicker if they'd just taken their turn following the rules. I'm surprised at the number of other cyclists I see even on my own street. Maybe I'm more aware, or maybe the numbers are increasing. I think it's the latter. Many are ageing boomers like me. Rather than editorials about why infrastructure is unrealistic, I think the Spec would find a constituency for a weekly column about urban biking: rules, courtesies, enjoyable trips, equipment recommendations, common issues, events etc. We get just a hint of that through Paul Wilson's columns now.

I've discovered some beautiful trails. A one-hour trip is sometimes like a brief vacation in the city, expecially the ride down the east-end rail trail from Mohawk Sports Park to Ferguson Ave. S. Gorgeous. Even better than the ride from Olympic Park down to the HAAA Grounds. I then take the bus up the escarpment. Not quite as much exercise as I'd like (going downhill) but both real treats and I'm surprised at the number of peole of all ages I pass biking uphill. And smiling.

Seems to me that some folks cannot get past the idea of a monoculture. It is not enough that there be cars, or even that cars dominate the roads; cars must have exclusive use of the roads. We see this same attitude among some when it comes to rapid transit or even pedestrian walkways. We still have many places in the city without the infrastructure of sidewalks. Crosswalks are always at intersections, though in many cases mid-block crossings would be more convenient for foot soldiers. Right turns on red are driver conveniences too, at the expense of safety for bike riders and pedestrians. How much would it cost to drop that rule?

Biking infrastructure might fit comfortably on a combination of road allowances and walkways but the very idea of designing infrastructure to accommodate other transportation cultures is simply viewed as inefficient by some, rather than in terms of adding to the quality of urban life through diversity. It's a sort of "moral" statement: happiness through saving. Do not spend even if it means a more enjoyable lifestyle, especially when it is others who might enjoy it. This while infrastructure spending is deemed essential to re-start a mature economy. Oh well.

BTW, I don't think oil prices and carbon pollution are THE compelling arguments for more biking. The auto industry will, reluctantly, convert to other energy sources if its life depends upon it and, indeed, may already be doing so. The real argument is urban congestion. Even solar cars will plug city streets and back up on the QEW during rush hours. Suburbanites look at the space around them and see no concerns, but two-hour commutes, each way, are family-life killers, but don't consider the speed of riding a bike to a nearby rapid-transit or GO station. Don't you just laugh when they get somewhere and complain about a lack of affordable parking? I don't think, being car-bound, that they get out much.

Just got back from Montreal where, since my last trip about a year ago, bike rental stations have sprung up everywhere and seem to be getting fair use despite some operational issues. They consist of rows of about 10 bike-racks that lock in the front wheels and are released with, I think, a credit card, through which, obviously, the rental is paid. The electronic systems are powered by small solar arrays. Rental is reasonable, but renters are encouraged to return the bikes when not in actual use through a penalty charge if they do not check in at one of the stations every 30 minutes. This is not onerous as the stations were ubiquitous throughout the downtown, at Metro stations, public squares, commercial centres, parks and swinging hot spots etc. Of course, Montreal has far more such places than does Hamilton, where cars have killed downtown neighbourhoods.

As for winter biking, I don't know. Seems to me that our winters have been shorter lately, though more intense. I suspect an 8 or 9 month biking season might get to be the norm. Public transit the rest of the year. Much cheaper (as in economically more efficient) than the auto. I've been wondering about bike commuter-fashions, as opposed to sport styles. A fabric that breaths but is impervious to rain, as outerwear over office attire or long johns, and might on its own look stylish on casual Fridays. Might be a business opportunity there for someone no longer rushing to a government-subsidized auto industry job.

Yep, I'm dreaming in technicolour. I tend to do more of that, I find, now that I'm in a bit better shape than before I took up bike riding.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:21:37

@JonC - Cool. The temperature wouldn't be a deterrent for me. It would be the slush flying up behind me and having a unflattering streak up your ____. I used to ride my bike everyday to work in the good weather months. I would occasionally get hit with the rainy days. :( I even bought a fender for the back tire but still no good.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:39:22

yea, it's too bad we don't have a more tropical climate like Montreal. THEN we could becoming a cycling powerhouse.

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By Round Guy (anonymous) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 11:17:58

To get back to The Spec editorial, doesn't it sound a lot like the old joke city slickers tell about the bumpkin they ask for directions while touring the countryside? The bumpkin rubs his chin whiskers, looks skyward and finally says "Nope, you can't get there from here."

What happened to the editorials of a year or two ago when The Spec decried "squelchers" who blocked the city's progress to becoming a creative community? Must have gone down the drains with the recession of recent floodwaters. Bet the paper still supports massive spending on the Pan Am games though.

Circuses are the tried and true method of quieting the masses while enriching a few, but when it comes to improving the quality of community life even with small and relatively inexpensive steps, you can't get there from here.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 13:19:28

@jason - I was being inquisitive, not negative. Your "auto-defend-topic" setting should be set to "moderate".

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 13:58:10

Sorry, I was responding to RoundGuy's comment about his recent trip to Montreal. That and the subsequent chat about weather. I wasn't meaning to come across rude. was just stating the fact that Montreal already is a cycling powerhouse we can learn from. And their weather is WAY worse than ours....and they have huge hills (Mt. Royal anyone?).

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted August 13, 2009 at 07:30:32

Yeah, but it's not comparable because they're french.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 13, 2009 at 09:14:27

@jason - Agreed. If Montreal can do it there isn't much reason why we can't do it eventually.

We even had the World Cycling Championships in 2003! I know, I know -- not the same thing. :)

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:04:55

^^ I believe the City thought that if they brought a World Cycling Championship to the city, it would open Hamiltonians' eyes to the wonders of cycling as a sport and for leisure.

Surprise -IT WORKED!

However, now the City is turning their backs on those who they managed to convert by saying, "Sorry you got you all excited for street-cycling, butttt, well, Cars are just TOO important! So go out and buy a car already, you bum!"

Hamilton: The City of Good Intentions Gone OH SO WRONG!

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:07:53


Sarcasm Does Not Work On The Net (SDNWOTN)

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By ackra (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2009 at 09:30:47

I recently purchased directional turn signals for my bike and the 1st day I used them they saved my life at an intersection where a truck was making a right turn.
It's a no brainer. I purchased mine at www.safetybikesignals.com

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 28, 2009 at 09:29:07

Dave Shuttleworth mentioned Raise The Hammer on the air around 5:30 yesterday after mentioning that he did a search for himself on Google, also talking about Facebook's recent change to their privacy statement.

He said something to the effect, "And Raise the Hammer, I know you're listening."

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