Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Alright, time to get on my soap box:

Herb at IBIKETO posted recently on a change that has been happening in bike planning.

He argues that those with the most influence these days are women, and in some cases neophytes to cycling. They bring concerns about safety (can my kids ride using this infrastructure?) to the table, and have been pushing for more separated infrastructure.

This goes against the grain of the past advocates, who pushed for minimal intervention, and were critical of established infrastructure. These advocates, mostly men, pushed for “vehicular cycling”, learning to drive with the traffic rather than in separated infrastructure.

I think that Herb has presented an interesting issue in an unfortunate way. Old experienced white guys playing fast and loose with your safety versus hip, female neophytes who are safety-conscious may read well, but it is certainly reductive. Pointing to female cycling planners and claiming they have some special insight or “more safe” approach is no more sensible than pointing to all the existing male cycling planners in other parts of the world that are progressive about cycling and saying that it has something to do with the fact they are men. It’s a factor, but the far more relevant one is experience. This may have been Herb’s main point, but it was needlessly obscured by discussion of gender and clothing.

There is a historical dimension to this question. The bike advocates he is challenging are rooted in a tradition that emerged from the cycling environment of the time. Bike infrastructure was non-existent until recently, and a vehicular cycling maximized safety in a car-dominated environment. This is why Herb’s take on this is reductive, vehicular cycling is designed for safety too.

An experienced cyclist can work with less bike infrastructure, and may actually prefer a lack of infrastructure in certain cases. A separated lane constrains you from exiting earlier, and limits your ability to pass in certain situations. Experienced cyclists like the freedom of left turning with traffic, exiting where desired, etc. But this is entirely separate from the question of how to set up bike infrastructure from a planning perspective. The planner has to think through who is going to be using the infrastructure, and how they want to meet the needs of these users.

In the case of new cyclists you have two broad choices, train them to be road safe first and have minimal infrastructure, or build separated infrastructure so they can be safe and learn while they ride.

The problem with Option A is that it forces cycling education on people, it pushes the minimum cycling age up, it restricts its use to those with access to training, etc.  But from the perspective of early, experienced cycling advocates like John Forest (who is conspicuously absent from Herb’s post) everyone should go to cycling clubs and gets good enough to ride on the road with the big dogs.

So what you are really talking about here is not a shift to a focus on safety, as Herb suggests. Rather you are talking about a shift in perspective about what constitutes a safe environment for cyclists, one that emphasizes training and experience with minimal infrastructure, or one that emphasizes separated infrastructure and slow, “on the job” learning (with *access* to training and education).

The problem is that posts like Herb’s just exacerbate the tensions between the groups. I know plenty of experienced cyclists who also like the idea of more separated infrastructure, as they have friends, co-workers and family that would like to ride but don’t due to safety concerns. And the presentation of this dichotomy also sells short the very real political and safety concerns that advocates like Forest made the centerpiece of their work. Pushing for separated bike infrastructure emphasizes the idea that bikes don’t belong on the road: roads are for cars. The presence of more separated infrastructure will no doubt exacerbate this trend.

And it is also worth mentioning that, for better or worse, bike infrastructure will always lag need for that infrastructure, which means that, with very few exceptions, cyclists will ALWAYS have to drive with cars, at least for part of their trip. So the model of trained cyclists and minimal infrastructure may not be as unrealistic as it sounds.

The thing that I think is lacking from Herbs post is some sense of the larger picture. A few thoughts in that direction.

First, I personally know a great deal of people who live in the downtown core and have a very short commute. They could cycle to work. Separated bike infrastructure would work for them as they are in the dense, downtown core. So I’m all for separated infrastructure to encourage the casual rider to ride more often.

I also know a great deal of people who commute “cross town”. I’m one of them. I cross the city N/S from Bloor to Steeles, and EW from Ossington to Jane.  So not completely across the city, but a good chunk. I have an 11 mile commute. It takes me 45 minutes or so to get to work by car in rush hour, or about 75 minutes or so on the TTC and a rock solid reliable 50 minutes on the bike to get to work.

The mid-to-long distance commuter are simply ignored by most cycle advocates, either they are assumed to be experienced and not worth the concern, or they are ignored as they are not part of the untapped masses of neophyte cyclists who don’t want to ride due to safety concerns.

However, they could represent  the largest untapped portion of the potential cycling population. How many people do you know that commute to work cross town and take more than a ½ hour at rush hour to get where they are going? These people are all perfect candidates for cycle commuting.

However, here’s the catch. Once you get beyond short hop trips in the core the demand for separated infrastructure is unrealistic. A densely packed downtown core is an ideal spot for separated cycling infrastructure, but the spread out main arteries and secondary roads outside the core will never support the bike traffic to justify widely distributed separated lanes.

In addition, the city is spread out over a lot of space. Amsterdam, a good comparative case since everyone seems to agree that the Dutch have figured this out, is approximately 230 square KM, Toronto is around 650 square KM in size. Unless you plan to spiderweb the city with separated infrastructure over a 650 square KM area, you will have to rely on multiple cycling infrastructure modes (separated lanes, non-separated lanes, trails, secondary roads and even some main arteries) and then knit them together to form a city wide cycling infrastructure.

In short, presenting this as a neophyte (separated lanes only) versus experienced (little infrastructure needed) fundamentally skews the discussion towards simplistic and non-inclusive options. Considering where we are going with traffic and congestion, if all you are shooting for is the short-hop casual downtown commuter the future of gridlock in Toronto is bleak indeed.

The exclusive focus on any one part of the cycling population is a hindrance to progress. I have discussed long-trip riders as one example, but there are others. Mixed mode riders (take the bike then the bus, take the bike on the bus…), non-peak riders, night riders, all season riders, etc.  All season riders are just as concerned with road clearing on non-infrastructure routes as they are with the installation of more separated infrastructure. In the winter large, higher traffic roads are more likely to be clear and thus more easy to ride for cyclists. Night riders and off-peak riders encounter less traffic so are more willing to use main roads. Long distance commuters need more than just separated infrastructure, etc.

It would make more sense to portray this as a problem of inclusion: how do you maximize the number of cyclists on the road? To my mind this implies looking at all the options and considering them: separated lanes, non-separated lanes, recreational paths marked side roads, traffic re-routing, recommended routes, sharrows, etc. It also suggests not only that both the novice and the expert need to be accommodated, but also that short trip and long trip riders, off peak riders, night riders, multi-seasonal riders, etc. all need to be considered.

This is what is missing from cycle advocacy, an approach that recognizes the inherent multiplicity of users and the wide range of needs within the scope of “safe” riding.