Saturday, October 12, 2013

If You Build It, They Will Come - Really!

Photo Cred: Harrogate Cycling Group
In today's Record, Jeff Outhit comes very close to suggesting that if we bike in K-W, we should expect to get hit by a car.  It's not safe out there:  "...riding a bicycle to work is dangerous and counter to common sense."

Counter to common sense.  Later on he uses the term, "unwise."

I'm with him sort of... K-W feels like it's not a cycling-friendly city.  But to suggest that people who cycle in the city lack common sense is to shame the cyclists and add to the prevailing sentiment that cyclists shouldn't be on the road where weary drivers are likely to smash into them and crush them all to bits.

But if we look at it another way - by the number of collisions involving cyclists and those just involving cars - cyclists in Waterloo Region make up only 1% of total collisions, and, in Canada, less than 1% of fatalities.  That number is on par with the number of cyclists commuting to work compared to vehicles, so really, statistically, it's no more dangerous to bike than to get behind the wheel.  It's actually most dangerous to be a passenger in a car (especially on Fridays between 4 and 5 pm).

Outhit goes on to use stats to insist that the number of cyclists here is "insignificant as a transportation share."  We make up only about 1% compared to the 78% of people who drive their cars to work.  (I can only find a link to stats for 2006.)   We have no common sense, are unwise, and now we're insignificant!  He concludes, "To make people feel safe bicycles must be separated from traffic." I like that one sentence a lot.  Unfortunately, he keeps going, "Even then, odds are long that commuter cycling will ever take hold."

I'll take those odds.

In 1977, in the town of Groningen, a town with a similar population to K-W, but with less sprawl and a slightly more moderate climate (on average, 10 degrees warmer in the winter than we are, but that could change as our climate warms in the coming years!), a few simple policies turned it all upside-down, and all it took was,
A small group of young, enthusiastic, left-wing ideological people said, "Right!  We're going to change everything radically!" 
What they did was to create and enforce a traffic circulation plan that made it very difficult for cars to get from one part of the city to another, but allowed all other modes of transportation to make straight lines through the middle of town.  Jane Jacobs harped on this for decades!!  Make pedestrians the focus, and everything else falls into place.  They also offer free, guarded bike parking areas for 10,000 bikes which completely fills up on weekends.  And they have 340 bike share stations.  Their population is a bit smaller than K-W.  Can you imagine??

Many important people actively protested this move.  Business owners feared that their shops would close, and they threatened to leave town.  But the ballsy politicians did it anyway, by hell or high water!  And IT WORKED!!  Businesses boomed as the city centre became friendlier and quieter.  It was a difficult change, but people adapted as we are programmed to do.

Here's the video that explains it all:

Groningen: The World's Cycling City from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Now about that snow.  I don't bike in winter because the snowbanks take up the bike lanes and make sharing the road even more crowded.  If we had a wider space to bike on, then I'd bike all year.  But many won't.  BUT, if the streets are significantly easier to get across by bike than car, most people will likely extend their bike season to a solid nine months a year, and, I believe, and I'm in good company with Jane Jacobs to back me on this, if we make the streets awesome for cyclists, the cyclists will come out in droves.

If we want to conserve energy and pollute less and make the streets safer, we can do it with just a little political willpower.  Remember all those Australian politicians committing political suicide by having the guts to ban guns?  Homicides decreased dramatically and everyone's happier and safer and even the nay-sayers are fine with the law now.  It was a tough few years making it happen, but the politicians took the responsibility for making the decision that's right for a population that just didn't understand the big picture.

And here we are in Waterloo Region complaining about cyclists being in the way of all the cars that have places to go while the climate is falling to the dogs.  We are being outrageously short-sighted on this one!  We can make our city a haven for cyclists and pedestrians, a world-class city that others will scramble to emulate, or we can maintain the status quo and let vehicles drive policy until the GHGs they produce cause fatal problems for our species. Write to Halloran and/or Zehr right now to tell them which path you support.  


MrBallantyne said...

Great post Marie!

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks Dan!

Owen Gray said...

Despite the risks, it's undeniable that cyclists do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Marie Snyder said...

...and it's a great workout, and it's healthy for us, and it saves a ton of money, and it means we can plant a garden on the driveway, and it helps develop family bonds when we bike as a group....

CGHill said...

I am now ready to believe that it's inevitable: the city in which I live, claimed by some to be the poster child for urban sprawl (600k people in 600 square miles), set up a bike-share system downtown, and already they've had to expand it.

Marie Snyder said...

That's awesome! I'm hoping something shifts soon here. I know too many people who say, I've live in x number places, and I've never seen so many people have issues with cyclists! It's a little discouraging.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think snow in the winter is the main barrier to cycling infrastructure. Here’s a list of the most bike friendly countries in the European Union (Norway is not in the EU, otherwise they would probably be on the list). Notice that the top countries all get snow. The need for air conditioning during hot humid Ontario summers is probably more of a problem.

1=. Denmark
1=. Netherlands
3. Sweden
4. Finland
5. Germany
6. Belgium
7. Austria
8. Hungary
9. Slovakia
10. UK

Source: European Cyclists’ Federation Cycling Barometer. Based on daily cycling levels, bike sales, safety, cycle tourism and advocacy activity.

I’m from the north of Sweden, where winters are harsher than here. A lot of the cycling is done on multi-use paths, used in the winter for walking and kicksleds (would not work here, as they only work on snow and ice).

One thing that would make it hard to import Groninger infrastructure is the fact that the Netherlands has a much higher population density than Ontario. At 397 persons per km², it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Ontario has 14 persons per km². However, a low population density doesn’t mean you can’t have cycling infrastructure, as Sweden also has a low population density, at about 21. In northern Sweden it is even lower.

The argumentation for cycling infrastructure is somewhat different in Sweden, where it has tended to be more about creating a more equal society, where everybody can afford transport - in particular as regards children, so that not just the child whose parents can drive them to places can take that summer job at the other end of town – while here it seems to be more about getting people to shop more downtown. Outhit forgets that Waterloo has two universities and a college - a huge student population, many of whom cannot afford a car and public transport leaves a lot to be desired. There’s not even a bus or train station in Waterloo.

Marie Snyder said...

Ontario has a low density in general because the northern part is so sparse, but K-W has a density of about 580 persons per square km. I think winter cycling is great, but it will take a cultural shift to get others to go there. I hope we can do it. You're right that Outhit doesn't consider students in his comments. He fails to consider a lot of things.