Bike Lanes: Déjà-vu all over again

As municipalities across the country try to encourage active transportation, why does it still feel like bicycles are Public Enemy #1 in St. John’s? Robin Whitaker reflects on the latest attempt of some city councillors to weaken our barely-existent bicycle infrastructure.

Here we go again. The Art-and-Bruce show is poking another stick in the spokes of what passes for cycling infrastructure in this city.

I feel like I’m caught in a time warp as Councillors Puddister and Tilley trot out the same tired arguments they made this time last year — their idea of recycling, I suppose — with some added Jurassic-era wisdom.

Have they entered us in some secret competition for Canada’s least progressive city?

Here’s Tilley, for instance, on why bike lanes have failed to proliferate cycling in the city: “We should be doing it, but I think Newfoundlanders, by their very nature, they’re not going to be out on their bikes that much.”

Right. The Newfoundland gene pool again.

What’s Tilley’s alternative? Off-street bicycle trails. No argument from me that this is a nice idea. It might, as Tilley says, help get more kids (and new adult riders too) onto bikes. Ideally, we’d have an integrated system of city trails and bike lanes that also connect to mountain bike trails on the edges of the city.

In contrast, the current set-up amounts to a bunch of orphaned segments. Take the wonderful bike lane running along the Parkway. It ends right before one of the central cycling hubs in St. John’s: Memorial University. If you live in the east end and commute to MUN, it might as well not exist.

There are also risks if separate trails become the only cycling infrastructure on the table — not least in the implication that bikes always belong elsewhere, not here, and in reinforcing the idea that cycling is a dangerous and exceptional activity, not a good way to get from A to B. At worst, it literally marginalizes cycling, validating those who would banish bikes: “You have your trails. What are you doing on my roads?”

For his part, Puddister claims that bike lanes reduce property values. As one CBC commenter suggested, what’s next? Cyclists are to blame for the falling price of oil? Back in your 4x4s everyone. The provincial budget needs you!

The case for bicycle infrastructure

Rather than repeat my reply to last year’s anti-bike offensive let me just offer a few bullet-point-style arguments for why we should intensify rather than dilute our support for cycling in St. John’s.

1. Active transportation is good for us.

Health problems related to physical inactivity cost Canada $7 billion every year. This problem is especially acute in Newfoundland and Labrador, as evidenced by recent stories about the hundreds-long wait list for bariatric surgery.

Active transportation—biking, walking, skateboarding and other forms of human-powered transportation—can be built easily and cheaply into our daily routine, making it a straightforward way to counter this conveyer belt to preventable health problems. As community design and policy have a major role to play in encouraging active options, our city councillors could play a direct positive role in making St. John’s a healthier city.

2. Investment in cycling infrastructure offers enormous value-for-money.

In 2014, Britain’s Department for Transport conducted an analysis of the cost-benefit ratio of public investment in cycling and found an overall return of 5.5 to 1. In some places, the return was 35:1. The department considered any benefit-to-cost above 2 to be “high.” Very clearly, public investment in cycling is massively cost-effective. Aside from the obvious improvements in health indicators and traffic congestion — something Councillor Tilley indicated was a key concern in 2013 — the study showed a significant enhancement of “journey ambience” as well as meaningful reductions in absenteeism and accidents.

2-a. Biking is good for local business.

Research in other areas finds that increased rates of cycling stimulate local economies. People who bike rather than drive spend less on transportation and so have more money for other things — not just visits to their local bike shop (I was in one this week and it was hopping) but also on discretionary items, such as meals out. Tellingly, Portland, one of the greenest and most bike-friendly cities in North America, has more restaurants per capita than almost any other U.S. city. But also, cyclists are more likely to shop at local businesses for the obvious reason that they are close at hand and don’t require a harrowing journey to a box store.

2-b. Parking provision constitutes a massive public subsidy – and a flood risk

Hey all you people complaining about how bike lanes cut into your parking spots: why should cyclists subsidize your private property through our tax dollars and safety? I’m partly joking. But still, if you are going to complain about how bike lanes affect property values, take your analysis to its logical conclusion.

Besides, the pavement required for parking and driving will likely cost us all in both public expenses related to flood control and in increased insurance premiums, as impermeable surfaces significantly raise the risk of flooding — an issue that is only likely to intensify in light of the forecasted effects of climate change specific to Newfoundland.

And so, to the next obvious argument. 

3. Environmental issues.

On a personal level, cycling is an excellent way to reduce our carbon footprint, and is much more easily and cheaply accomplished than many alternatives (electric cars, for example). Enough said.

But cycling can improve our local environment in all kinds of other ways. It’s much quieter and safer than motorized alternatives. It can contribute to a reduced crime-rate by putting more people and eyes on the street and it tends to encourage social interaction rather than isolation. In short, it promotes a much stronger sense of place.

Swedish filmmaker Frederik Gertten puts it this way: “The people who bike their cities, they become city-lovers. When you’re in a car, you don’t see the city, you are only watching the road. On a bike, you can see the sky, you can see the trees. People get to know their countries in a different way.” I would add that you hear your city in a different way too — something I reflected on when I listened to a crow talking as I biked past Government House the other day.

4. Biking is awesome.

Following from the last point, it’s all too easy to focus on the negative aspects of biking in St. John’s: the lack of bike racks or bike lanes, the unfriendly or ignorant drivers, the hills and the wind. But if we want to get more people on their bikes, we also need to talk about the good stuff and not exaggerate the bad.

So here’s a start: most local drivers are fine. I bike a lot and in my experience, the jerks are a small minority.

Also: our roads are not narrow. If you want to see narrow streets, check out Edinburgh or Belfast, both of which have much better cycling provision and higher rates of cycling than St. John’s. The difference is that we are not used to sharing the road.

Yes, we have hills. You can circumvent some of them if you want to. The one you ride up will do wonders for your butt.

Yes, we have wind, snow and rain. If you ride in the worst of our weather, you can take pride in being a badass (it’s rule #9, in case you don’t know). And there’s a whole new universe of “bad” weather riding that suits our local climate rather nicely: fat biking. Maybe our council should consider groomed snow trails through the city for winter commuting. Besides, cycling is not an all-or-nothing choice. Most cyclists also drive cars some of the time.

Most importantly, biking makes you feel great. It can feel like freedom and it can feel like flying — maybe not so much into a headwind, but headwinds can become tailwinds, and our hills go down as well as up.

What next?

Luckily for us, St. John’s cyclists also have some champions on council. Dave Lane, a Councillor At Large, has recently blogged about the revivification of the City’s Cycling Plan, which he fully supports. You can leave a comment on his blog or sign up for updates.

In the meantime, let’s hope that whatever form the next stage of planning takes, it includes a good cadre of people who actually cycle regularly — and more to the point, those who want to, but don’t under current conditions.

Finally, if you are looking for safety in numbers and a sense of esprit de corps, there’s a Critical Mass ride on the last Friday of the month. Meet at Colonial Building at 6 p.m. for a 6:15 start to this “pro-bike celebration.” Councillors Puddister and Tilley, you are welcome to join in.

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