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Bike lanes and urban centers - unpicking a muddy history

There’s a long-standing adage that cyclists don’t like motorists and vice versa. Whether that still rings true is hard to say but what we do know is that there’s unwaveringly great opposition to the bike lanes that are popping up frequently in our city centers and this opposition is not solely coming from car owners.

Bike lanes have been a feature on Toronto’s roads since the first one was implemented on Poplar Plains Road in 1979 and since then, networks have been gradually extended and changed to safely accommodate growing numbers of cyclists. Cycling boomed during the pandemic, many urban streets were quickly transformed into ‘slow streets’, creating pop-up bike lanes and protected areas for pedestrians and cyclists to get around and frequent local businesses and patios. Surprisingly, it’s some of these local businesses that are the most vocal opponents of cycle-only streets.

The most misunderstood feature of urban living

Bike lanes are like song lyrics - frequently misconstrued and often underrated, but why do they get such a bad rap and is it ever warranted? The primary reason cited by business owners in past studies has been that taking away on-street parking and replacing it with cycle-only lanes is ‘bad-for-business’. Herein lies myth number one.

Firstly, we know through surveys such as the one carried out by the Clean Air Partnership in Toronto’s Bloor West Village, that merchants frequently overestimate the percentage of people driving into the village and those people that arrive by bike, public transit or on foot, tend to stay in the area for longer and spend more money in that time than people who drive there.

Secondly, retailers need to consider the impact of COVID-19. The retail landscape has changed irreversibly and high streets now have to compete far differently than they once did; customers are doing more shopping online and although they want to shop and eat local and form meaningful connections in the community, it has to be an experiential activity and not purely practical.

One of the most comprehensive studies into the economic benefits of sustainable streets was undertaken by New York City’s Department of Transportation and documented the impact of changes to street design, including the introduction of cycle safe infrastructure to seven real-life locations. The overarching conclusion was that street design is intrinsically linked to economic vitality in the selected areas.

Case Study 1: Vanderbilt Ave, NYC Economic Benefits of Sustainable Streets

Changes in the way a neighborhood looks, how easy and safe it is to travel to it and how long you can comfortably spend there, can all have a positive economic impact on surrounding businesses and property owners’ profit margins. This may be felt directly through retail sales, increased rents for retail and office real estate and indirectly through elevated commercial property values as more and more residents and businesses are attracted to the area. This multiplication effect is important to note here as the benefits of improved cycle infrastructure are felt by all kinds of neighborhoods whether low-income or already upmarket and desirable areas.

Protected bike lane infrastructure attracts the masses

Another argument used by challengers to new bike lane infrastructure is that they would only be used for the sole purpose of commuting. This may carry some truth where bike lanes are haphazard and cycling is perceived as dangerous, simply because experienced commuters will be more comfortable using a network of stop-start cycle lanes in close proximity to busy traffic. Unfortunately for the cynics, the answer here is to build more safe bike infrastructure, not dismiss it as completely unnecessary.

Recent research by Ryerson University discovered that after bike lane construction on Bloor and Woodbine, 4 in 10 users were new to cycling and would have used an alternate method of transport prior to the protected infrastructure going in. ‘The proof is in the pudding’ as some might say and the impact of recent new bike infrastructure where cyclists are completely separated from cars through bollards, raised curbs, gardens or similar, has been that more people feel safe getting around by bike and that’s exactly what they have done.

Get on board (or back in the saddle)

Bike lanes may never be a welcome site for some, however there’s no denying their impact on the local economy is misunderstood at best. As are most major cities, Toronto is planning to increase protected cycle infrastructure by 2027 in a bid to eliminate road deaths and big projects are already underway to transform over three kilometres of curb lane running north-south on downtown Yonge Street to make it more pedestrian and cycle-friendly, beginning with temporary measures for the summer which will see the street lined with cycle lanes and on-street patios.

Waterloo city, one of the main cities for inter-provincial migration, was the first mid-sized city to achieve gold standard as a Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC), awarded by Share the Road Cycling Coalition in 2018. To put this in context, only three communities hold the gold standard accolade in Ontario, the other two being Ottawa and Toronto which are the province’s biggest cities. To reach the standard required, Waterloo had to be assessed around four main pillars related to cycling in the city - engineering, education, encouragement and evaluation.

Bike lanes are not going away, in actual fact they’re very good for business and it makes sense to reduce volumes on public transit in a new era of social distancing. Maybe now is a good time to re-examine baseless preconceptions and get on board with this permanent feature of sustainable cities.

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