The Bike Revolution
I’ve discussed this topic before on Sports for Social Impact but thought that it was important to bring back. The last time it was discussed was in February’s article Sport and Urbanization, this now seeming like a long time ago given all that has occurred since then.
I’m dedicating this week’s post to bikes. Since the pandemic has started, we have been seeing more and more cities experiment with closing off roads to car traffic. This has been happening around the world even before COVID-19 hit us. There were many cities already doing this, even before the pandemic: Paris, and Bogota are two. If you want to read more about this, a book I suggest is Happy City, by Charles Montgomery.
Since COVID-19 started, we have seen many major roadways restricted to bike and pedestrian use so that people can get exercise while socially distancing. Some of the closures in Ottawa and Gatineau are now closed until the beginning of September. The city of Vancouver has also closed some roads to car traffic. The roads in Stanley Park have been closed and the success of this project has been outstanding: “about 370,000 people cycled the drive from the time the ban was enacted until early June. In contrast, only 60,000 vehicles had used the road during the same time period the year before”. Even if there were 4 people in each of those 60,000 vehicles (which I very highly doubt) that would only be 240,000 people, still much lower than the 370,000 bikes that passed through this year.
Other places that tried road closures to allow for more physical distancing space:
Starting now, this should be a year-round operation. Many critics have said that it will never work in Canada due to snow and our crazy winters, which we do have very cold and very snowy winters in many places across the country. However, this should not be a reason. Cities can make it a policy that bike lanes are cleared first. To incentivize people to bike, you need to make it the best possible option. You need to make it undesirable to drive as much as possible. (I would also argue that workplaces should, going forward, make it a standard practice to work from home when there is a huge snowfall or it is too cold to bike).
Increasing bike lanes and closing roads to cars will also solve issues like congestion. The mentality over the past century was to keep adding lanes to highways. Adding lanes doesn’t solve the problem, it only makes it worse. If this mentality was correct, there would be no traffic today. Instead, traffic has only gotten worse the more lanes we’ve added. There are challenges that people live in the suburbs or outlying communities and then have to commute to downtown, sometimes their distances are too far to bike, but then the focus should be on better public transit to move those people in and out of cities.
We need more bike lanes that actually go places, not just bike trails along the river. These are nice public spaces and people like walking, running and biking along rivers, canals and through forests, but we need to invest in bike lanes.
Another aspect of this debate on bikes and cars in how to accommodate parking. The city of Montreal has a parking lot tax, in part this is to make it undesirable to have a parking lot downtown. Optimizing space in a city core is important, letting that space be taken up by parking spaces is not a good use. Bike parking spaces are much cheaper to maintain, and take up a lot less space. They are also much less of an eye sore for trying to make cities, and towns, nice. Prioritizing bike parking over car parking is one way to make it easier for people to bike.
Some cases (like in the case of Parks Canada or Gatineau Park) where roads in the park are closed, we of course we need to ensure that we are making hiking trails and parks accessible for people with disabilities and the elderly who may not be able to bike.
In addition to this, there have been some pilot projects that have shut down residential streets for play, notably in Gatineau, Québec Projet pilote Joeur dans ma rue. The goal of this project is to “promote an active lifestyle and allow children and adults with children to discover or rediscover the pleasure of playing on the street, and this, in complete safety.” (Similar projects have been happing in Europe for several years, see Street Play Evaluation from Play England).
Paired with an increase in bikeable paths and roads, we need to densify our cities. Proper urban planning will design cities that are easily walkable and bikeable, and also with lots of accessible green space. Instead of spreading out, we need to spread up. This also helps cities reduce expenditures, there are less roads to maintain, less roads to plow in the winter, they do not need to fund more fire stations in the exteriors of cities and towns. Densification also comes with some down sides that will need to be mitigated, housing prices will go up (even in the suburbs houses are already very high).
Limiting street usage to vehicles and allowing citizens to reclaim this space for physical activity is a great way to help get people active. Increasing bike lanes and limiting cars will solve many problems. There are many other examples that I did not show in this article happening in Canada. The closures are an example of how we can continue doing this in the future.