Beyond the Automobile

Bike Lanes are Not for Cyclists

I am a cyclist. Cycling is a central part of my core identity. To my friends and family, I’m the “bike guy”. I love riding for work, fun, sport, and I’ll do it just about anywhere, regardless of the conditions. I even advocate for cycling improvements in my community, volunteering at events and even knocking on doors of residents. In other words, my interest in cycling goes a tad beyond what might be considered “normal”.

Despite countless research that cycling is good for health, business, and cities in general, bike lanes consistently lead to polarized debates of “drivers versus cyclists”. Impatient and rude cyclists! Traffic headaches for drivers! These two timeless characters are pitted against each other time and time again, each of them unyielding and equally loathing of the other.

But I’m sorry to say that while these characters make for great storytelling and news-grabbing headlines, they simply don’t represent the general population.

Every day, people make decisions on how they will travel. Some choose to drive, while others take transit. For short trips, many people choose to walk. Increasingly in many cities, people are now choosing to travel by bike. What’s been learned from countless recent cycling projects is that when you make improvements that make travelling by bicycle safer, more people choose to ride bikes.

Which brings me to my point: bike lanes are not for cyclists – they’re for people who ride bikes. Ordinary people, wearing ordinary clothes, who have chosen to travel by bike. Most don’t identify as “cyclists”, they won’t yell at you for cutting them off, they don’t blatantly run red lights, and you definitely won’t catch them sporting Lycra. Every morning, they simply get dressed for work, hop on their bikes, and enjoy the convenience of cycling.

A person riding a bike in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood

Take Toronto, for example. As of August, the Toronto Bike Share had already surpassed last year’s ridership, a protected bike lane pilot on Bloor Street led to a 49% increase in cycling volumes in less than a year, and the city’s bikeway on Richmond was carrying up to 674 bikes in a single hour. Even local conservative reporter Sue-Ann Levy has taken an interest in cycling, admitting to being a “born-again cyclist”. In vast stretches of the city, more and more people are riding bikes. Where is this growth coming from? More annoying “cyclists”? Nope – Toronto’s cycling growth is coming from more normal people choosing to ride bikes.

An endless line of people riding bikes on Toronto’s Richmond cycle track during rush hour

Every time cities add new bike lanes, their cycling networks grow, and travelling by bicycle becomes a safe, convenient option for more people.

But these new bike riders are timid, and just as quickly as they appeared, a reversal of safe infrastructure almost surely guarantees their disappearance. Unlike stereotypical “cyclists”, these people aren’t comfortable cycling in any condition. If you’ve ever biked with someone who’s new to cycling (or tried it for the first time yourself), you know this. Things that an experienced cyclist knows to look out for, like a right-turning car or an opening door, can be downright terrifying for someone new to cycling. A single bad experience can shatter someone’s confidence and they may never ride again out of fear for their safety.

“Bike lanes are not for cyclists – they’re for people who ride bikes.”

This is why we desperately need more protected cycling infrastructure that makes cycling comfortable and safe for all people who choose to ride bikes.

As a cyclist, I don’t advocate for cycling because I want more bike lanes for myself. I advocate for cycling because I see it as part of the solution to the transportation, health, and environmental problems facing cities today. I’ve found inspiration from places like Amsterdam, which was clogged with cars just like North American cities not too long ago. Mostly, I find inspiration every day on my ride to work as I experience the growing number of ordinary people in Toronto who choose to ride bikes.

A person riding a bike in Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhood

This post is an adaptation of an article I wrote for the Toronto Star.