The Editorial: Is there hope for a car-bike détente?

As the number of cyclists grows, so do the fatalities. Forget about talk of ‘war on the car’–let’s make roads work for all

Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

After a forgettable 2013, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were hoping for a better start to their upcoming Canadian Football League season. Unfortunately, last week, their first pre-season game (another loss) was marred by the death of a 69-year-old season-ticket holder who was hit while bicycling to the stadium. Afterward, Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller called on the city to improve bike routes to football games. “Ensuring fan safety is paramount, especially for fans who are walking or cycling,” he said. One obvious solution would be protected bike lanes along major roads to Investors Group Stadium.

Like the rest of urban Canada, Winnipeg has suddenly found itself in the midst of a heated debate over the shape, purpose and safety of its city streets. Few issues excite civic passions as much as bike lanes. Should bicycles be given their own bit of road separate from cars and pedestrians? And at what cost to everyone else?

Encouraging more cycling, particularly among commuters, hits many public policy objectives, from reducing pollution and road repairs to improving overall health—and there’s certainly lots of room to grow. Across Canada, the percentage of two-wheeled urban commuting ranges from 0.2 per cent in Saint John, N.B., to 5.9 per cent in Victoria. While climate likely has a lot to do with the eagerness of bikers, available space to pedal is also a major determinant. In Amsterdam, well-known for its bike-friendly infrastructure, nearly 40 per cent of all trips are by bike.

Plenty of evidence suggests more people would bike if they felt safer doing it. In this regard, bike lanes, where cyclists are physically separated from motor traffic by barriers or painted zones, are a substantial improvement over shared roads. Academic research from Montreal, which boasts a well-developed 600-km system of bike paths, reveals separate cycle routes have a 28 per cent lower injury rate than comparable roads where bikes and cars are forced to compete for the same road space. Elsewhere in North America, the experience is similarly noteworthy. Between 1996 and 2005, 225 bicyclists died on New York roads in collisions with vehicles, but just one fatality occurred when the cyclist was in a marked bike lane.

Yet, creating dedicated cycle lanes is neither cheap nor simple. Beyond the obvious capital expenses, adding bike lanes to existing street infrastructure generally requires removing lanes from car use, and/or eliminating parking. This often leads to an increase in congestion for drivers, not to mention their blood pressure. In cities with substantial animosity between cars and bikes—Toronto and Vancouver come to mind—bike lanes are perennially controversial. Any advantage for bikers is seen as an insult to drivers, and vice versa. This is unfortunate, as both drivers and cyclists have a stake in making roads safer for all.

In the U.S., the controversy has been ratcheted higher by proposals to make cyclists pay for any new lanes. Last year, for example, a Chicago councilwoman proposed a $25 annual biking tax. It was defeated. While similar proposals for taxes or registration fees were also turned down in Georgia, Oregon, Washington and Vermont, the notion that cyclists should pay for their gains has growing appeal among aggrieved drivers.

There may still be hope, however, for the car-bike détente. Like many other big cities, Calgary is planning a major bike lane development in its downtown core, set to open next summer. And yet, this plan is not being presented as a fait accompli in favour of cyclists. Rather, it’s a one-year pilot program, after which the city will judge its success or failure against numerous performance indicators that take into account the interests of all parties. Among the proposed primary indicators are a minimum doubling of cyclists on designated routes, reductions in collisions and illegal biking, and no more than a 20 per cent increase in congestion time for cars using the downtown corridor. Secondary targets cover downtown real estate indicators and biking by women, children and seniors. (Commuter biking is still a predominantly male endeavour.)

Of course, any increase in car congestion has economic consequences, but, if the bike lanes prove sufficiently popular, there may be fewer cars on the road and less congestion. More important, if Calgary’s dedicated bike routes fail to make things better for cyclists, or if they substantially worsen the situation for cars, the roads will be returned to their original form. The temporary nature of the pilot project also leaves plenty of room to revise the scheme based on feedback and experience. In this way, the final decision rests not with politicians and vocal lobbyists, but with commuters and the pedals they choose. It seems a refreshingly practical approach to making Canadian roads work for everyone.

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The Editorial: Is there hope for a car-bike détente?

  1. Part of the concern we drivers have is that we’re the ones who pay for the bike lanes via our road-use taxes (built in to fuel costs), and are then compelled to endure the increased congestion that comes from accommodating tiny numbers of cyclists who pay no road-use taxes or vehicle registration fees. If we are involved in a collision with an at fault cyclist, it’s our insurance that has to pay for the damage to our vehicles because the cyclists have no insurance.
    Like many cities, we have a beautiful network of bike paths, but we spent a million tax dollars on bike lanes that are simply unused. Part of the reason they’re unused is that the cyclists successfully sold a bold-faced lie to our civic government about the scope of bicycle commuting. Meanwhile, potholes go infilled and cracks go unrepaired due to budget restraint. No, the money got spent on bike lanes for imaginary cyclists.
    Proponents of increased cycling infrastructure like to point to Europe’s cycling culture, apparently woefully ignorant of the reason for it in the first place as well as one of the powerful consequences of it.
    People ride bikes in Europe, and have done so for decades, because their post-war governments imposed massive taxation on gasoline sales in order to pay for rebuilding infrastructure. Then the taxes were maintained in order to fund their massive social-welfare states. The result has been an entire continent that has stagnated under a lack of income mobility, due to huge numbers of the populace being held captive by the very real constraints of having to rely by necessity on public transit.
    A guy stuck riding a bus to work and home for two hours a day can increase his income substantially by getting off the bus, working an extra 90 minutes, and driving for 30. He’s still “at work” the same amount of time, but if he’s paying $2 and $3 per liter in taxes on his fuel, then the government is actively stunting his ability to grow economically. It’s social engineering at the gas pump.
    We do enough of it here when we use gasoline tax revenue to fund LRT and buses instead of expecting that the users of these public infrastructures bear more of the cost of building and operating them. I pay roughly $350/mo in road use taxes. Some of those taxes are diverted from road building, repair and maintenance and into public transit and social welfare uses. That would indicate that road use by automobiles is fully self-funding and then some. Why can’t we either spend more of that money on roads, or reduce our fuel taxes and have transit users bear more of their own costs. I fail to see why I should subsidize the cost of transit for someone who makes a decent income, as many LRT users do. I don’t see them tossing me a five or a twenty at the gas pump, but I’m always dropping cash at the bus stop and the LRT station, via the gas pump.

    • Oh fer….buy a bike.

    • Bill, I completely agree with you! It is great to encourage healthy lifestyles and by all means, either jog/walk/bike to work… but it is often not possible. I am originally from Scandinavia, and used public transit or biked 99% of the time while living there. Did I love it? Not really. Yes, the transit there was more frequent than transit here – but as you so aptly put it, that was often the only choice.

      And I chuckle when pro-bike-to-work crowd starts going on about the benefits of biking. Sorry, but I don`t want to bike 30 km on Highway 1 in Lower Mainland in between trucks to my office while wearing a suit …plus, where would I put my two toddlers who need to be dropped off at the daycare? In my backpack? We have no proper transit near where we live (in Langley) and biking (other than going for a leisurely bike ride during a sunny weekend) is not an option. The distances here are much bigger than average biking distances in Europe. I still have a lot of family who lives in Scandinavia and not even one of them bikes to work (not so fun to do that during the cold months of the year when it starts snowing in October and the thaw arrives in April).

      Last but not least, I am tired of having to feel (as the car driver) that we need to pay more and more taxes to encourage people to bike more. Cause no matter how much more money is poured into that system, I still won`t go one a bike to commute to work. It simply is not realistic.

    • So, so much misinformation.
      * Study after study confirms that gas taxes do *not* cover the cost of road infrastructure. For example, the pro-road CAA did a study in Ontario and the best they could come up with was that only Toronto drivers pay more than the costs, although it was unclear what roads they were discussing. Meanwhile, even they couldn’t torque the results to claim that the rest of Ontario drivers actually pay enough to cover the costs of the roads they use – the rest comes out of general revenue, paid by all.
      * The vast majority of your car insurance costs are unrelated to cyclists. One low-speed fender bender will do much more damage to your car than a cyclist.
      * Your complaint of money spent on bike infrastructure sounds like a someone yelling at their spouse for buying a latte at Starbucks when they came home one day towing a brand new boat behind the truck. Maybe 1% of transportation infrastructure costs go toward bikes. Meanwhile, billions go toward roads. But $10 million on widening a road is a “public investment” while $500,000 on a bike lane or path is a “wasteful subsidy,” right?
      * Your comments on Europe are baffling. Essentially, you’re calling bikes the side effect (or cause of?) some massive commie plot? Lots of Europeans drive. But for short distances, they also use a lot of transit and bikes. Because it makes sense. Because there isn’t as much space for roads or parking and congestion is a bigger issue.
      * Your comments on transit are equally baffling. See my comment on the costs of roads above. And not everyone can drive. Nor do you want everyone driving – clogs up *your* roads.
      * If you pay $350/month on “road use taxes,” you buy a lot of gas. Part of that is by choice based on the type of vehicle you choose to drive and where you choose to live. And that is exactly that – choice. If it costs too much, make adjustments. If not, keep paying. But don’t expect me to feel sorry for you. And don’t expect me to demand lower gas taxes when they don’t cover the costs as it is.

  2. Your sub-heading is false. When the number of cyclists increases, the number of cycling related injuries goes down. There is quite literally safety in numbers. Cities that have introduced bike lanes and bike sharing programs have seen drops in the number of cycling injuries.

    There continues to be a mistaken belief that local streets (not highways) are paid for by drivers through fuel taxes. City streets are paid for by property taxes. So everyone who lives in the city (owner or renter) is paying for the streets. Cyclists and pedestrians subsidize drivers.

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