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The Emerging Unforeseen Consequences of Bike Lane Infrastructure

The expansion rate of Canadian cities during the lifetime of Canadian ‘baby-boomers’ has been so rapid that the once ‘brand new’ suburbs of their childhood are already being re-zoned, re-built, and retrofitted.  Secondary roads have become arteries, residential streets have been repurposed, and, necessarily, despite cost concerns and decision-making paralysis, public transit modes have extended to incorporate the suburbs into the ever densifying and yet ever-sprawling web of modern urbanity.

Toronto ranks high on the list of the biggest cities in North America both in terms of area and population.  Vancouver has noteworthy high density even while continuing to expand into its limited surrounds.  In one generation’s lifetime, we have become a nation of urbanites for whom long daily commutes and traffic congestion is simply the baseline experience.

As our cities have changed, so too have attitudes about the automobile.  An invention hailed only a century ago as the salvation of cities from the hygienic horrors and unpredictable risks of ‘real’ horse-powered mobility, once celebrated in popular culture, now generates invective motivated by focus on the exhaust system, —not the ‘fins’ or marvels of the drive train.

The present transportation trend is, we are told, on the cusp of delivering a whole new world of zero polluting engines in zero crash auto-piloted modules.  But, while we wait, already invented eco-friendly modes of transit have resurged. And there’s the bicycle accompanied by the new cycling infrastructure.  A mere decade or so into this costly and upsetting re-design of many downtown urban arteries, hard questions are being asked.

The idea was to dedicate portions of main streets for cyclists, separating them for greater protection, thereby promoting more cycling, less car-based commuting.  More cycling would mean fewer cars using the admittedly reduced road capacity, which would mean less traffic congestion, less combustion engine pollution.

The other significant benefits — less road wear and tear, less need for car parking space and hence more efficient land use, and increased physical fitness were much welcomed.  However, the ‘if you build it he/they will come’ rule for baseball stadiums may not be applicable.  While data recorded by the City of Vancouver showed record use in July 2017 of five of the ten “fully protected” bike lanes in the city, persistent and consistent anecdotal account and experience—especially during non-summer months—relates continuing car traffic congestion alongside empty bikes lanes.  Congested car traffic usually means more cars producing emissions for longer times, hence more environmental pollution, not less.

Alleged under-usage of dedicated cycling infrastructure is not unique to Vancouver.  Writing in the Financial Post (Dec 1, 2017), Lawrence Solomon in “Ban the bike! How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling” describes the current debate in London England on its ‘cycling revolution’ with Lord Nigel Lawson going so far as to say “cycle lanes have done more damage to London than “almost anything since the Blitz.”  This article also details the struggles in Paris, Melbourne, Amsterdam, and the state of Oregon with advancing bike-friendly policies.  Unforeseen consequences for sure.

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