Bike Lanes Are Not the Solution for Positive Bike Culture
Cycling as a transportation method is growing in popularity in cities across Canada. There has been plenty of controversy across the country about the establishment of bike lanes, with arguments against them ranging from “there are not enough cyclists to justify it,” and “it’ll make congestion worse,” to “they’re bad for business and dangerous for pedestrians.” But these claims are all myths. Cycling has many positive impacts on communities - including economic ones - like better traffic flow and improved public health.
The challenge with encouraging cycling in your community is that it's a chicken-and-egg type of situation. If your infrastructure makes it unsafe to ride a bike, people won’t do it. But it's hard to justify improving infrastructure when there don’t appear to be any cyclists using your existing infrastructure.
Often the default idea to make biking more appealing to a community is to add bike lanes. But skipping right to bike lanes is like showing a child a piano for the first time ever and expecting them to play Beethoven. If you don’t take the steps in between to measure public opinion and build a supportive bike culture, you’re going to end up with bike lanes that go unused, and citizens angry about losing road real estate.
Transportation infrastructure is one of the top considerations to tackle when you’re looking for ways to green up your town’s operations and environmental impact. Transportation is the second highest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If a community were to switch most of their short commutes to bike trips (anything under 5 km can be covered in as little as 20 minutes by bike), they would drastically lower their carbon emissions. Sometimes riding a bike is even faster than driving a car because riders can take shortcuts on multi-use paths, and generally don’t have to hunt for parking for very long.
What Does Positive Bike Culture Look Like?
In 2015, a group of Toronto community organizations raised the question: how could they improve bike culture in other parts of the city besides downtown. They wanted to encourage positive cycling culture outside of Toronto’s core. They started with two neighbourhoods in Scarborough.
In their efforts to figure out how to encourage more cycling, they identified the most common barriers that keep people from cycling (hint: it doesn’t start with bike lanes; not even close). Bike-positive culture starts with shifting social norms in a community to make cycling more accepted and more enticing for people to try.
Shifting Social Perception of Bikes
The Centre for Active Transportation’s strategy started with developing bike hubs in target communities. First they mapped out factors that, combined, were conducive to a shift in social perceptions of bicycles. Then they followed a 4-step process to establish bike hubs; here are the steps you can follow too, to make your community more bike positive.
1. Identify a Suitable Neighbourhood
The best plan is to target areas where people are most likely to shift their behaviour. This would include neighbourhoods that have a higher population density or where people make lots of short trips, or neighbourhoods where a portion of the population doesn’t own vehicles. After that you need to provide resources and outreach, and connect interested community members with supportive organizations.
2. Identify Local Barriers to Cycling
Besides a lack of infrastructure like bike lanes, there are many things that could be barriers to cycling. Access to bicycles and bicycle accessories, repair services, or learning opportunities may be limited or completely unavailable. Barriers can include things like fear of getting hurt, fear of riding in traffic, and a perception that biking is only for children or that you need to be fit to do it.
3. Remove Barriers & Get People to Start Cycling
Bike-related programming can really help to make cycling more appealing to your community. Get people involved with repair cafes, learn-to-ride or skills-development workshops, or group rides targeted at certain segments of the population.
4. Keep People Cycling
Keep your community riding. Monitor public opinion and support changes that make cycling more accessible. Maybe more bike shops are needed or maybe it’s time to start thinking about bigger infrastructure improvements, like bike lanes.
Creating the kind of social change within your community that promotes positive bike culture and greener methods of transportation is not as difficult as it might seem. You can start with small changes, and watch as the ripple effect of a well-supported program makes your citizens healthier, connects community members with each other, brings business to your community, and improves the flow of traffic in your town.