Cycling is smart but some cyclists need to get smarter

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Bicycles are an increasingly popular, affordable and practical transportation option. Many cities are making life easier for cyclists by building separated lanes, implementing bike-share programs and introducing regulations to reduce conflict between bikes and cars. You can now find bicycle sharing in 500 cities in 49 countries, including Beijing, Montreal, Chicago, Paris and Mexico City.

In my home city of Vancouver, we’re still waiting for a planned sharing program, but cycling is the fastest-growing transportation mode here, jumping by 40 per cent since 2008, from about 47,000 to 67,000 daily trips. This is mainly thanks to an ever-expanding network of bike lanes and routes.

The personal and societal benefits of getting out of your car and onto a bike are well-known: better mental and physical fitness and reduced health-care costs, less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, often speedier commutes and significant cost savings, to name a few. Studies also show the exercise benefits of cycling exceed negative health effects from pollution and injury.

Still, despite the many arguments in favour of cycling, increased infrastructure always incites criticism – most of it unwarranted. And the behaviour of some cyclists doesn’t help.

Let’s consider some claims from opponents. Two main ones are that bicycling initiatives hurt local businesses and impede car traffic. Numerous studies show the opposite is often true: over the long term, business usually improves and car traffic is reduced. When bike lanes do affect car-commuting times, it’s often by a small amount.

Research by the New York City Department of Transportation found retail sales increased 49 per cent along Ninth Avenue after a protected bike lane was built, compared to just three per cent for the rest of Manhattan. A Toronto study focused on Bloor West Village found far more customers arrive by foot, bike or transit than by car and “visit more often and report spending more money than those who drive.”

As for impacts on car commuting, bike lanes often have a negligible or even positive effect. More people cycling means reduced car traffic – the real cause of gridlock and slowdowns. Not everyone can use a bike and sometimes cycling isn’t practical. But as people opt for alternatives to cars, the roads open up for those who must drive. A study by Stantec Consulting Ltd. found Vancouver drivers thought it took them five minutes longer to travel along a street with a new bike lane, but it actually took from five seconds less to just a minute and 37 seconds more.

Studies around the world also show that bike lanes have significantly reduced accidents involving cyclists, as well as the incidence of speeding cars.

But if we really want to increase safety for cyclists – and pedestrians and motorists – we all need to take responsibility for our behaviours. People navigating on foot must be aware of surrounding bikes, buses, cars and other people and not wander with their eyes fixed on electronic devices. Car drivers need to follow road rules and be more aware of cyclists and pedestrians. Some cyclists just need to be smarter.

A lot of criticism of the growing number of cyclists in cities is valid: too many blast through stop signs, don’t give pedestrians the right-of-way, refuse to signal turns, ride against traffic, don’t make themselves visible enough and use sidewalks. Many seem to have a sense of entitlement compelling them to ignore laws. It doesn’t take much to learn and follow the rules, and investing in proper gear – including lights and reflectors – is absolutely necessary. You’ll not only be safer; you’ll also be less likely to anger motorists, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.

Some jurisdictions have resorted to increased regulations and penalties to make cycling safer and to reduce conflicts between cyclists and drivers. In Chicago, bike riders face increased fines for disobeying traffic laws, as do motorists who cause bike accidents. The fine for “dooring” a cyclist (opening a vehicle door without looking and hitting a bike) doubled from $500 to $1,000.

There’s really no doubt: anything that increases bicycle use, from separated lanes to bike-sharing programs, makes cities more liveable and citizens healthier. Cyclists must do their part to build support for initiatives that make cycling easier, safer and more popular.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

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About Dr. David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

1 thought on “Cycling is smart but some cyclists need to get smarter

  1. Monday, 01 July 2013 08:03 posted by nonconfidencevote

    I’ve been cycling/commuting into downtown Vancouver for over 20 years. BEFORE most areas had byicycle lanes. To be honest, the “new” separated bicycle lanes have done more harm to the bicycle lobby with the ham fisted way they were installed. A painted line on the road to separate autos from cyclists was just fine thanks.

    On a separate issue.
    WHAT is with the IDIOTS riding motor scooters in the bicycle lanes. Against the flow, no helmets, …… Get them the F out of the bicycle lanes!

    Thursday, 27 June 2013 06:21 posted by Walter Fricke

    I’m from Terrace but in Kelowna for a holiday. I’ve noticed too many cyclists in both communities riding in bike lanes against the flow of traffic. I also see too many riding without a helmet. I also agree that every bike being used in town should have a bell. That would warn pedestrians of a cyclist coming up from behind. They’ve been doing it in Europe for years and it works well. We all have to share the roads and sidewalks so a few rules must be in effect to make life smoother and simpler for everyone. I also agree that bicycle safety should be taught in school so the young ones know the proper procedure.

    Wednesday, 26 June 2013 10:12 posted by greg blanchette

    Seems to me that a little effort within the school system would go a long way here. There’s really not that much to learn to be a competent enough cyclist to share the road safely.
    That whole “bikes stopping at stop signs” thing, by the way, is a red herring. If there are other vehicles involved then yes, it’s common courtesy to stop. But if not, it’s absurd to expect a cyclist to stop. A car driver merely has to flex his foot to get going again; a cyclist takes a good deal of exertion. Many jurisdictions are exploring or enactiong “roll-through” laws that leave it up to the cyclist’s judgement.

    Tuesday, 25 June 2013 21:52 posted by david f boehm

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of obeying road rules and courtesies when cycling. Many cyclists dont have a good bell and simply ringing it makes cycling safer and friendlier. Without a bell, cyclists are seriously at risk, for themselves and others.

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