It’s Not About The Bike Or Car — It’s About Better Cities

Brent ToderianCity Planner + Urbanist, TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Former Vancouver Chief Planner
Posted: 10/05/2012 10:34 am

Source: HuffingtonPost

© Huffington Post

This week, I watched with concern Canada’s largest city have a rhetoric-heavy debate about removing the relatively new separated bike lane on Jarvis Street. They even originally had the intention of using bike-lane funds to remove it!

Bike-lane debates have been going on for some time in Toronto, as they have in many cities like Vancouver. In recent years, exaggerated and polarizing phrases like “anti-car” and “the war on the car” have been thrown around irresponsibly by media and politicians alike, making me wonder more than a few times if Fox News had moved to the place once called “The City That Works.”

I suppose it illustrates part of the problem, that I feel the urge to point out I don’t consider myself a “cyclist.” Calling myself that would seem as odd as calling myself a walker, a transit-rider, or a driver. I’m an urbanite, someone who loves living in cities, and an urbanist who has studied how cities work all of my adult life. Really, I’m a citizen.

© Huffington Post

I point that out because there is too much pitting of self-described “drivers” and “cyclists” against each other. Most North American families are actually multi-modal – they drive, walk, and probably take transit and bike in at least certain circumstances, if not routinely. Certainly many who cycle, also drive, and visa versa.

We need a more sophisticated discussion about how we get around in cities, and it starts with this — it’s not about loving your bike. It’s about loving what biking does for cities. If more cars make cities worse, the opposite is true for bikes. Expanding urban biking is about making better, fiscally smarter, healthier, more flexible and resilient cities. Bikes are hardly a silver bullet, but they can be a big part of better city-making.

© Huffington Post

Canadian cities aren’t alone in recognizing the opportunities urban biking provide. In fact, we’re behind. Inspired by successful cycling mecca’s like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Bogota, cities like New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Portland in the U.S., Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, Paris in Europe, and Montreal here in Canada are transforming themselves around urban cycling. They aren’t doing half-measures. They’re making big moves.

City-builders across the globe understand the relative cheapness of the bike mobility option, in both cost and space. Dollar for dollar, bike lanes move people more cost effectively from a return-on-investment perspective than any other way of getting around, especially once a tipping point of cyclists is reached — and that doesn’t even factor in the well-documented public health cost savings that come from widespread biking. Global studies have shown investing in cycling infrastructure actually saves society public money per kilometer cycled! The math is enough to make any real fiscal conservative hop on a two-wheeler.

Photo courtesy Paul Krueger

Most pragmatically, city-builders understand that bikes make cities work better because they take a lot less space. Even if cars were clean in emissions, the biggest challenge with car-dependency is a space problem. There isn’t enough room on the roads and parking lots of cities, to have everyone drive. They just don’t fit, and our failed efforts to make them fit, cost a staggering amount. This striking picture illustrates the point. If all the people we anticipate coming to our cities try to drive, cities fail, our public life fails, and our economies fail.

Even if they prioritize driving, global city-builders recognize the best thing those who feel they need to drive could hope for, is for OTHER people to be able to walk, bike and ride transit. Multi-modal cities make it easier for EVERYONE to get around – including, counter-intuitively, drivers.

© Huffington Post

For us in Vancouver it’s been about becoming more multi-modal for decades, a city of choices and options, and a city where the local economy and quality of life is impervious to the growing car congestion paralysis seen in too many world cities. It hasn’t been about being anti-anything. It’s been about being pro-mobility freedom. Pro-city.

We’ve understood in Vancouver for years that mobility flows from smart land use choices, and the best transportation plan is a great land-use plan. Mixing uses, in complete communities. We know that trying to address congestion through more roads always fails, because of the “law of congestion.” As the saying goes, trying to address congestion by adding more roads is like trying to solve obesity by loosening your belt.

Watching Toronto’s debate, we in Vancouver might feel a big smug. Then we might remember the steady level of controversy that bike-lane construction has generated even here. I would remember that in past weeks of media interviews, they’ve tended to start with questions like “When will we have too many bike lanes?” or “Don’t we have enough already?”

Like walking, transit and car-driving, a few separated routes through a large, still car-dominated city and region, don’t create a viable choice in how to get around for people aged 8-80. For people of both genders and all ages to choose a mode of movement, a system or network is needed – complete, connected, efficient, predictable, and safe in both perception and reality. We have a long way to go in Vancouver.

The pragmatic, cost-effective power of urban biking could go a long way in getting Toronto that old nick-name back – “The City That Works.” Keeping the Jarvis bike infrastructure, and using that $300,000 to build more, would have shown they’re serious about that. Instead, the wrong discussion led to the wrong decisions.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, I called for an end to the oversimplified, polarized debate on bike-lanes, and a start to a more sophisticated discussion on how cities work. The article ended with my statement, “Bike lanes are not a fad. They are part of a multi-modal city, a critical part of the city working well in the future.”

Let’s have that more sophisticated discussion start now, in Toronto, in Vancouver, and every city struggling to make their city work better.

TakeAways From A ChainLink Discussion Of This Article

Amber Charles decided to ask for feedback from the ChainLink crowd on comments made by readers of the original article:

Posted by Amber Charles on October 9, 2012 at 8:56pm


Ok, so recently I read a comment on this article:…. Ok, so this guy comments that cyclist should have a license to ride and take a required class in order to receive the license. What do you think? Here is his comment:

HUFFPOST SUPER USER – MrBIgp – 05:00 PM on 10/08/2012

A license should be required to operate a bicycle in Cities. This license should require a written test (too many bicyclists don’t know the laws). Also, license plates should be required for bicycles.

The responses to this comment began with this one:

Reply by Daniel G yesterday

When Melbourne, Aus implemented a mandatory helmet law, cycling in the metro fell off by 50% according to some estimates. And it never recovered. Licensing is an attempt to kill cycling, nothing else, no other way to see it. No one who wants to see more bike riders would support such a ridiculous scheme.

This is a standard reply given by the “trained seals”. It seems to make sense until you think about the kinds of solutions to problems proposed by ChainLinkers get voiced. If someone dies while riding a bicycle and there is any chance that a motor vehicle was involved they always cite the need for more education. Not for themselves, mind you, for the other guy.

But more education means that they during the licensing process the motorist must learn all about dealing with bicycles and then pass a test to prove that they understand these things. Why is that not also needed for cyclists? What would be the harm in having cyclists learn the Rules of the Road and display their own proficiencies? That really cannot be too much to ask, can it? And judging by the number of drivers on our highways, the licensing thing does not seem to be a deterrent to their increasing numbers. I doubt seriously whether anyone who wants to ride a motorcycle feels especially “put upon” to have to know and demonstrate proficiencies with that mode of transportation. Why is it that cyclists seem to view themselves as being “above everyone else” when it comes to regulation?

My firm hope is that we do eventually have a licensing process established across the nation. I hope that students as young as 3rd grade get licensed and that such training as is required becomes part of the curriculum in schools in much the same way that driver education has in high schools. It would be wonderful if everyone in the next generation was aware of what was expected of them regarding the “driving” of the bicycles. And into the bargain it would be great if some sort of identifier were affixed to the bike (in plain sight) so that everyone could judge whether the user of the road had demonstrated the necessary proficiencies.

In the case of adults it would be helpful to be able to report scofflaws and to identify stolen bikes more easily. It seems to me a win-win situation for the cycling community as they become an established part of the training everyone receives.

What I found more troubling was the following set of responses:

Reply by Daniel G 13 hours ago

Are you new to the internet? What are you reading news-site comments for, exactly.

Reply by Amber 12 hours ago

Ha! No! I was reading the article but really wanted to see some of the views from other readings and thought that commenter’s view was interested because quite a few agreed with him.

Reply by h’ 10 hours ago

What Daniel is trying to say is that many of us have learned to shield ourselves from news site comments sections because they’re typically so horrible… it’s a tough call because ignoring them and not participating means the balance of opinion will be tipped against you by that much more, and by participating you usually reward a news entity with additional traffic for posting an ill-intended sensationalistic piece.

We cyclists have “learn to shield ourselves”, really? This is tantamount to saying that we are attempting to avoid any ideas that are not on our set of “talking points”. Religious and political groups use this sort of approach to re-educating their followers in the “Truth Religion” by having them “shield themselves” from ideas that contradict those of their leaders. It really creeps me out when I hear ChainLinkers talk this way. I always get the image of a herd of Zombie Urban Cyclists moving slowing in “lock step” towards their Utopian notion of buffered bicycle infrastructure.

But that same nightmare is accompanied by folks on bikes who despite all the infrastructure they could ever want are still blowing through stop signs, running red lights, complaining about getting doored while riding past cars on brakeless bikes and in general handing out all sorts of pamphlets like soon many Moonies to bewildered motorists as part of a re-education campaign.

I howl when I read the request of a local bicycle leader to remember this:

If you ride your bike after dark, please make sure you have a working headlight and a rear taillight or reflector. They can help keep you visible to avoid accidents. It’s also Chicago law. Let’s all ride safe.

Do we really think that this sort of thing is taken seriously by the ChainLink Community? Most of the “True Believers” are either riding or wishing they were riding brakeless bikes. Why on earth would anyone consent to tricking out these minimalist steeds with front lights and rear taillights and reflectors? You might as well suggest that they get kickstands as well.

There is a very serious disconnect between the admonitions of the leadership when trying to sound thoughtful and a noticeable difference when they get into verbal activity in threads on the ChainLink. There it would seem that everyone is just certain that the latest tragedy to strike a fellow cyclist is all due to the “nasty malevolent selfish motorists who willfully leave their doors open while searching their backseats”. Meanwhile it seems to be a non-starter to talk about cyclists who knowingly use handrails meant for pedestrians on CTA platforms as locking places for their bikes. The Double Standard inherent of all this is simply mind boggling.

If there was a magic wand available it would serve us well if it could help us remove our collective head from our collective ass. When we stop mouthing the “Share The Road” mantra and actually agree to do that in its totality I will probably faint away in disbelief. What we generally seem to mean by “Share The Road” is pay more attention to my safety so that I do not have to accept any responsibility for injuries I might sustain or cause others to. We want to be able to ride fixed gear bikes down steep hills in San Francisco and hit pedestrians who later die from their injuries or ourselves when participating in a Critical Mass Ride and bemoan any of the news outlets that mention the fact that our bikes have no brakes. To do that sort of thing we consider “wildy irresponsible”. That of course is pure poppycock.