Victoria city council will soon be meeting to approve the implementation of an all-ages and all-abilities cycling network, dubbed “Biketoria,” that could be completed by 2018.
If the plan is approved, Victoria will join countless other cities around the world that have given design priority to multiple modes of travel including cycling. Ultimately, the city’s decision on this matter will be important for many reasons.
One of those reasons is safety. A Victoria woman was killed on March 29 while riding her bicycle to a volunteer meeting. The incident involved a right-turning truck at Fisgard and Government streets, just one of the many locations where the city is hoping to build separated bicycle lanes.
That tragic crash was not an anomaly. Like much of North America, Canada has made no progress in the past 15 years in reducing trauma numbers for cyclists. A cyclist dies every six days in this country, and the No. 1 reason people cite for not riding a bike is a concern over safety.
But we know what causes more safety. Based on more than 100 years of evidence in the transport field, we can predict that drivers will make mistakes for countless reasons. Largely because of this, safe infrastructure is a key component to safety. Once installed, infrastructure does its job automatically, by design and consistently over time. Drivers can’t be counted on in the same way.
We should not wait for deaths to happen before we act, because at that point, it will be too late. There is much evidence to show that good bike infrastructure is essential. A study led by Prof. Kay Teschke at the University of British Columbia found that separated bike lines have just one-ninth the risk of injury compared with major streets with parked cars and no bicycle infrastructure.
If we decide to make safety a priority, we will be in good company. The World Health Organization added its voice to the issue in 2004 when, for the first time, it focused World Health Day on the theme of road safety. In 2010, the United Nations proclaimed the period 2011-2020 as the “Decade of Action for Road Safety.”
Here at home, the provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, released just last month the report, Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Reducing the Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes on Health and Well-being in B.C. The report has two recommendations that urge local governments to develop networks of protected bicycle lanes.
But it doesn’t end with safety alone. If we make our city safer, more livable and more attractive for cycling, there will be myriad benefits. Transitioning more people away from cars and toward bicycles has untold benefits for the environment and for human health.
This plays out in the form of reduced carbon emissions which, in turn, helps combat climate change, produces fewer toxic pollutants and encourages more people to get physical exercise through biking. That, in turn, lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease and a host of other health problems.
On top of that, building bicycle infrastructure creates better equity and social justice. This is because safe bicycle networks give people across all socio-economic levels a genuine alternative to the costly private automobile. Today, record low numbers of young people own a car and more are increasingly putting off getting a driver’s licence until they are older. Many things appear to be lining up.
However, one thing not lining up is the unfounded worry that bike lanes will hurt small business. There isn’t any evidence of this happening from the many cities that have implemented cycling infrastructure.
A study done in New York, where street improvements included new bicycle lanes, found no negative effects on economic growth. A 2012 report by Travel Oregon found that cycling trips resulted in $400 million in cycling-related spending. Cyclists spend money and much of it is spent locally.
Making improvements to safety, the environment and human health are reason enough to make this change. Add the benefits for equity, social justice and the local economy and a lot is on the table. The city’s upcoming decision on bike infrastructure is more than just about bike lanes: It’s about whether or not our city moves into the 21st century.
Neil Arason of Victoria is the author of No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads.