Keep Calm and Cycle On: the case for cycling infrastructure

Emily Wong

In early August, Bike Share Toronto announced the addition of 70 new bike stations to its network. This expansion, supported by funding from the City of Toronto as well as from the provincial and federal governments, is a commendable move towards the effective implementation of cycling policies.

Encouraging more active transportation is good public policy. Toronto, Vancouver, Ontario, and the federal government through Transport Canada are a few examples of the many Canadian jurisdictions that recognize the benefits of active transportation and are trying to promote more cycling. According to Metrolinx, 56% of all trips in the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area) are short enough for cycling (22% are short enough for walking),  yet only 6% of these trips are walked or cycled. (The cycling threshold is defined as trips under 6.1 kilometres.)

Photo: Emily Wong

Active transportation— any form of human-powered way of getting around, including walking and cycling— provides many social, economic, and environmental benefits. These benefits include improving human health through increased exercise, reducing emissions from other modes of transportation, and reducing automobile road congestion. Investing in cycling infrastructure helps achieve all of these policy goals. However, getting people out of cars and onto bicycles is easier said than done.

Not Wheelie Straightforward: barriers to uptake

Appropriate infrastructure is a significant barrier preventing many people from cycling. Most people are potential cyclists— meaning they will only actually get on a bike if they feel safe, but don’t currently cycle. Infrastructure such as separated bike lanes, signage, and secure parking facilitates greater uptake of cycling.

A barrier to creating more cycling infrastructure is the belief that it will slow down drivers and worsen congestion. For example, critics of the Bloor Street Bike Lanes pilot project argue that the addition of bike lanes have reduced the amount of street parking spaces and increased driving times. And if the goal is to get people out of cars, the argument goes, why wouldn’t governments simply invest more in public transit?

But investing in cycling infrastructure could actually reduce vehicle traffic. The safer people feel getting onto bikes, the less cars there will be to compete for road and parking space. In the GTHA, 78% of all trips are made by car, even though over half are short enough for cycling. Cycling infrastructure is also significantly cheaper compared to car infrastructure: savings from the health benefits alone outweigh the costs.

And though investing in public transit is necessary, transit doesn’t provide the same health effects and has higher financial costs from construction, maintenance, and operation. Land-use planning over the past several decades has resulted in sprawling urban forms where there is high dependence on car usage. The low density of suburbs means that it’s more difficult to deliver transit in a cost-effective way to these areas.

Photo: Emily Wong

Down the Road: implications

An increase in cycling will contribute to environmental and health benefits, but it will also require careful implementation planning to ensure safety for road users and efficient investments in infrastructure.

Safety concerns include cyclists rolling through red lights (sometimes into the path of oncoming traffic), improper turning by both drivers and cyclists, or “dooring” incidents. This points to the need for greater awareness and education around road protocols: drivers must understand how to safely share space with cyclists, and cyclists must respect the rules of the road.

Providing another transportation option can be especially critical for marginalized and/or lower-income groups, who are more likely to rely on transit and non-car modes of transportation.

Policies to promote cycling also have an equity dimension. Providing another transportation option can be especially critical for marginalized and/or lower-income groups, who are more likely to rely on transit and non-car modes of transportation. Although there are still barriers involved with the upfront cost of purchasing a bike or bike-sharing membership, making it safer and easier to cycle improves overall mobility and helps people make better connections to transit. In the absence of car access, a long walk to a train station could be made more quickly on a bicycle, resulting in time savings for the user.

Cycling-friendly policies also need to be coordinated across multiple sectors; infrastructure planning is not the only policy area implicated. Road pricing, snow clearance for bike lanes, and community programs (e.g. Active and Sustainable School Travel) are a few examples of different policy prescriptions which can work together to manage road traffic and improve the uptake and safety of cycling.

Rolling Ahead

The link between active transportation and better health and environmental outcomes is clear. Promoting cycling is critical to create healthy, connected, and liveable cities and regions. A commitment to implementing existing active transportation policies and further investing in cycling infrastructure — such as connecting and improving existing lanes— will keep everyone moving forward.  

Photo: Emily Wong