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.




  1. agreed, we have to look at the multiplicity of users - and good point about commuter cyclists - while easing back as a "core" cyclist since August- (only 10 km each way) by next Spring I hope to return to my "commuter" cycling (23 km -each way - Soutwest Scarborough to Financial District).

    However, the point I would make is that I would really like to see separated bike lanes downtown! I don't expect them from Scarborough (albeit- Montreal's extensive network allows commuting from the Mountain out to the the Lachine Rapids - the equivalent and more of what I would do on my distance cycling) - because the traffic issues are different - not as different as you might think but where I feel I need the most protection, as it were, IS downtown as there seem to be far more distractions that can make for a potentially more challenging ride.

    So, overall, I would agree - what is needed is a multi-use, varying number of options - not just one.

  2. Yeah, downtown is different. I am happy to encourage separated lane infrastructure downtown, as the cycling density is there. And I have never really understood why vehicular cycling advocates don't like bike infrastructure in the downtown core, as there are always alternatives. If you don't like riding in the separated bike lane you can always hop over to the next street instead.

    Outside the downtown core things spread out, and you are unlikely to get separated infrastructure covering as much ground. Take the example of the busway between Dufferin and Keele. It sees light bike traffic and some joggers, but it is useful and I think worthwhile as the busway was being put in anyway. So I'm for the separated infrastructure there, but I think its unrealistic to expect that sort of thing over all of Toronto's 630 square km.

    You need a full range of options spread out over the city, which makes Herb's focus on vehicular cycling versus protected infrastructure so counterproductive.

    I'm sympathetic to what Herb is up to, he wants to mute criticism to bike infrastructure as it takes so long to build and is so contentious, objecting to any of it seems petty and counterproductive.

    Just substitute "public transit infrastructure" for "bike infrastructure" in the above sentence and you will see why we end up with more subways and fewer LRTs. There has to be some space between "infrastructure no matter what" and "no infrastructure at all", and there has to be a space to discuss appropriate infrastructure, and I suspect that the leaders that Herb is pointing to would agree.

    Take the case of the busway to York, the extension of the bike lanes E/W across the city along the power line right of way. The development of the Don and Humber trail systems, the waterfront, there are a lot of cycling infrastructure success stories in Toronto, but since none of them are downtown, they don't count.

    This is what frustrates me about cycling advocacy in Toronto, it is polarized and narrowly focused.

    Thanks for commenting.



  3. "However, here’s the catch. Once you get beyond short hop trips in the core the demand for separated infrastructure is unrealistic."
    I think that is total nonsense. Why is it unrealistic, because few will cycle long distances irregardless of infrastructure?
    Is there not a demand for short trips in the 'burbs? Maybe the outer 'burb to core commuter is unrealistic but many trips within 'burbs could be taken by bike if infrastructure were provided.

  4. I agree with you (I think), sorry if I wasn't very clear.

    I framed this in terms of short hop core cyclists (as opposed to short hop suburban cyclists) as they have been the most vocal about generating separated infrastructure, but you are correct that more separated infrastructure in the suburbs would be useful and desirable. I have no objection to that.

    The point I was trying to make was that getting separated infrastructure that covers the whole city (burbs to downtown) is unrealistic. Toronto is about 3x the size of Amsterdam, the go-to reference city for many cycling advocates. I think that expecting separated infrastructure over this *entire area* is unrealistic.

    And I do think that there are some relevant differences between cycling in different parts of the city. I do a daily 11 mile commute from Bloor and Dufferin to Jane and Steeles, all year round. In my experience there are tangible differences between cycling in the core (say as far as Eglinton) and further North.

    For my first year of cycling when I was intimidated by the traffic I stayed off the main roads and cycled the secondary roads and residential streets. I found that these streets were much easier to navigate when you got North of Eglinton and even easier North of the 401. The roads had fewer parked cars (parked cars are a huge accident risk), they tended to be wider, and there were fewer one way streets and traffic redirections to manage. Downtown side streets were much busier, had more parked cars, and would often force me off route due to one ways.

    As a novice cyclist I felt far safer on suburb side streets than I did on comparable streets downtown.

    And this applies to some extent to main roads as well. For example, I ride the length of Keele street from Lawrence to Steeles. For large stretches of this route there are no parked cars at all. Studies like the BICE study Herb mentions have shown fairly conclusively that in the absence of parked cars cycling infrastructure makes no significant difference to safety outcomes. This reduces the need for bike infrastructure, or at least prioritizes it differently.

    I think separated infrastructure is great for novice cyclists, and it is definitely safer than an open road, but this doesn't mean that it should be universally applied in all parts of the city, or that cyclists should expect to see the entire city covered with separated lanes.

    Thanks for the comment.



    1. I don't think we agree at all. Separated infrastructure is not about "novice" cyclists. Really, constantly referring to "novice cyclists", beyond being a false dichotomy, it makes you seem patronizing. In all honesty I don't know what your point is. Are for infrastructure? "[T]hat more separated infrastructure in the suburbs would be useful and desirable. I have no objection to that". Just not in the core? Where the cyclists are most organized and capable of requesting said infrastructure?
      "[G]etting separated infrastructure that covers the whole city (burbs to downtown) is unrealistic." Again, I've got to ask, why? Why is it even an issue? Sure even a dedicated effort would take time to build. It is certainly an ambitious request, that I don't hear anyone making. Even if whole city infrastructure is unrealistic, what does that matter to modest, realistic requests. You are not connecting the dots.

    2. "Studies like the BICE study Herb mentions have shown fairly conclusively that in the absence of parked cars cycling infrastructure makes no significant difference to safety outcomes."
      I don't think the study says what you think it says. Look again, Infrastructure, in absence of parked cars is safer then no infrastructure no parked cars. Cycle Tracks trump all, and offer significent safety improvements.

  5. Thanks for the response.

    I’ll try to address your concerns individually.

    "I don't think we agree at all. Separated infrastructure is not about "novice" cyclists. Really, constantly referring to "novice cyclists", beyond being a false dichotomy, it makes you seem patronizing."

    You might want to read the original post by Herb to see the context for what I am saying. Herb set up a contrast between experienced cyclists who advocate for vehicular cycling and less experienced cyclists who advocate for separated infrastructure (he also raised some gender issues as well). If you find that to be a false dichotomy then take it up with him, I'm responding to what I read. Several people posted on the site immediately after Herb posted with similar objections to yours about the distinctions he was making.

    I don’t believe there is anything patronizing about advocating for separated infrastructure for newer riders however, if that is what you mean.

    "I don't know what your point is. Are for infrastructure? "[T]hat more separated infrastructure in the suburbs would be useful and desirable. I have no objection to that". Just not in the core?"

    I made no objection to separated infrastructure in the core. As a matter of fact I wrote,

    "A densely packed downtown core is an ideal spot for separated cycling infrastructure"

    I have publically supported separated infrastructure on Harbord on Herb’s site, so I have no objection to it downtown at all. I even agreed with Selkie’s comment above that the core has a need for separated lanes.

    So I’m not sure what you are objecting to there.

    Maybe I need to restate this to be clearer.

    I believe that no one kind of infrastructure is going to work everywhere. You mentioned that no one is advocating for that, and I agree, no one has put forth a plan for a comprehensive city wide separated bike lane system.

    But there is a tendency to advocate for one type of infrastructure (separated lanes) and to focus on this rather to the exclusion of other initiatives that would also help cyclists, and some help them sooner. There are also other initiatives that would help other riders, for example those who long distance commute (thus the discussion of long distance cycling). Since a comprehensive separated infrastructure for the whole city is off the table, long distance commuters by definition need for other initiatives to be pushed too.

    I believe that a comprehensive bike plan for the city will require everything we’ve got, separated infrastructure, bike lanes, posted routes, traffic redirection, contraflow lanes, sharrows, trails, etc.

    I also think that separated infrastructure (“bike tracks”) are the safest of all the options, bar none.

    I don’t see anything contradictory in this position, but if you do c’est la vie.

    As for the BICE study, I will post on that separately and post some of the relevant tables and data as it is worth a closer look.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  6. "I don’t see anything contradictory in this position, but if you do c’est la vie". I guess my confusion is I still don't know what your position is. I don't understand what drove you up on the "Soap Box", in the first place.
    If your position is that you want a comprehensive bike plan. Then logically you'd be supportive of those who advocate such policies. The people Herb profiled, and Herb himself are such advocates. Instead you've mounted your "Soap Box" and I don't know why.
    Herb never once uses the word "Novice", that is all you. I think I've stepped into some sort of "personal" conflict here and I really don't want to journey further down the rabbit hole. I am happy the old guard of cycling advocacy is being replaced. I see this as a benefit for all cyclists. Further these advocates are offering benefit to non-cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.


  7. I disagree with Herb, I don't have a personal grudge against him.

    I took the time to post arguments and respond to Herb's comments and counterarguments on his site, and I addressed his posts without insults or denigrating his character. Others responded to his posts with similar objections that he was unfairly characterizing cyclists and the people involved in cycle planning and advocacy. So I don't see this as personal.

    As for my characterization of Herb's argument, yes, Herb did not use the word "novice".

    But you don't have to use a word to imply the concept. If I say that the boss promoted employee X when he was not the best candidate do I have to use the word "favoritism" to make the point?

    Here is the response I wrote to Herb when he questioned my argument that he was pitting "old and experienced" versus "young and inexperienced" in his post:

    "Putting words in your mouth implies that I’m doing violence to your intended meaning, but you made this about “hip” and “young” when you said things like:

    “Some surviving avid cyclists” and “the survivors when everyone else stopped cycling”, repeatedly in the post.

    There is a picture of three cycling advocates with grey beards for heaven’s sake. You could easily have found a photo of a younger vehicular cycling advocate for example, you chose this. And you chose two of what appear to be promotional photos for the women mentioned in the post.

    Context means a lot.

    I have also suggested that you are portraying this as a neophytes versus experienced cyclists issue.

    Since you don’t want to admit this, here are your words:

    “She only started cycling after BIXI Toronto launched.”

    “In Dr. Campbell's case, she had only taken up cycling when BIXI Toronto was launched”

    This point, repeated twice in the post, and a lack of any sort of discussion about the backgrounds of the other advocates mentioned in the post would suggest that you are framing this issue in precisely the way I claimed.

    In your response post you also said this,

    “The new leaders are smart, educated and good with their research and planning. It's no longer about being skilled cyclists”

    So I maintain you are presenting this as an issue of neophytes versus experienced cyclists, as I said above, unless you have some convoluted argument as to why "skilled" in this context is somehow unrelated to experience."

    Herb is contrasting "vehicular" cyclist advocates, who are generally experienced riders (if they weren't then they would hardly be cycling with the cars) with the new policy advocates who, as he points out in the *only* case where he discusses their cycling experience, are NOT experienced at cycling at all. He also fails to mention that Mia Birk, one of the "new breed" that are not "avid cyclists" is actually an experienced rider (I checked out her website).

    What you don't say matters too.

    This all suggests to me that Herb is contrasting experienced vehicular cyclists with newer, less skilled cyclists that do not have the road experience. In a later response he even says this,

    "When we hire people to be good planners of cycling infrastructure, we should not look at their skillfulness using a bike."

    I get his point, cycling experience can't be the main or sole criteria. Instead he suggests that it shouldn't even be considered. That strikes me as too strong.

    I used "novice" as a term for what Herb described as cycle planners who who had not cycled before. There is no denying he said these things, they are a matter of public record on his blog. If the term strikes you as offensive (or "patronizing") I could refer to these riders as "new", which only implies they just started riding (again) recently, that doesn't mean they haven't ridden before.

    Thanks for the post.



  8. I've read including the comments you just quoted.
    I was engaging you, not Herb. It was a mistake on my part to point out that Herb never called anyone a novice or neophyte because, frankly, that's irrelevant. I never said the term was offensive, clearly it is not. I also did not say "novice" was "patronizing". I said your repeated use of the phrase made you seem patronizing. Re-read what you wrote, if it seems reasonable and not at all patronizing to you. Then, fine.
    I still don't know what drove you on your soap-box. I don't think I am leaping to conclusions thinking you identify with the "Avid Cyclists" and feel Herb offered you personally disrespect.
    The old train them (cyclists) to survive the environment is a failure. Tackling the problem from non-cycling specific mindset is a good thing. More livable cities, better pedestrian and cycling environments, what's not to like. New York's success with bike lanes is undeniable and seemingly irreversible. Importantly New York's transformation was not led by "Avid Cyclists".
    Any way I hope Toronto gets more people like Dr. Campbell advocating for active transport, including cycling, even if they themselves are not cyclists. I also hope you embrace this trend in the future, rather than mount your soap-box.

    1. I will try to respond to your concerns if I can.

      "I still don't know what drove you on your soap-box."

      I've explained my position in my responses to you, in the original post here and in my responses to Herb. If that doesn't do it I have nothing else to offer.

      "I don't think I am leaping to conclusions thinking you identify with the "Avid Cyclists" and feel Herb offered you personally disrespect."

      You are leaping to conclusions, I am not personally offended by Herb's position, I just disagree with aspects of it. He seems willing to discuss the issues and has responded to my posts on his site. So I really don't see any offense here on either part.

      However, this comment explains where the disconnect is.

      When you claim that I feel personally disrespected by Herb's argument against "avid" cyclists you are doing the same thing as Herb, splitting the cycling community into categories that don't apply then expressing incredulity when someone puts forth an opinion that doesn't fit. This came out pretty clearly in the responses to Herb's initial post on his blog, many of the respondents pointed out that they don't fit into the categories Herb is using.

      Just because I question certain kinds of cycling infrastructure doesn't mean I'm an "avid" or "vehicular" cyclist. I'm *sometimes* a vehicular cyclist, specifically I *sometimes* ride in the middle of the lane and make cars go around me when I'm on the road with cars on main arteries and the traffic is not too crazy. At all other times (on trails, bike paths, cycle tracks, secondary roads and main roads when the traffic is too heavy) I ride like a regular or 'novice' cyclist, off to the right of the road, in the bike lane, on the cycle track, etc.

      I see vehicular cycling as an end point, not because it is "better", but because it takes time to get to the point you can do it, and it gives you the greatest flexibility. A "vehicular" cyclist can use a bike lane or cycle track, a less experienced cyclist, or one that is not willing to ride with traffic, is restricted. But I don't believe that everyone needs to become a vehicular cyclist, I think that it is a personal choice. I'm a long distance commuter, so being *able* to ride without any cycling infrastructure is useful, that doesn't mean I don't want more infrastructure, that I think it isn't safe or desireable, or that I don't want it for others. I've even publicly supported cycle tracks on Herbs blog.

      I question cycling infrastructure in *some* cases as I believe it to be either impractical to focus on one form of infrastructure (as we need safety *now* and it takes time to get certain kinds of infrastructure built) and in some cases I believe it can actually be dangerous (for example bike lanes on narrow roads).

      "Any way I hope Toronto gets more people like Dr. Campbell advocating for active transport, including cycling, even if they themselves are not cyclists. I also hope you embrace this trend in the future, rather than mount your soap-box."

      At no time have I suggested or even intimated that I have any sort of problem with Dr Campbell, any of her initiatives, active transport, or the involvement of non-cyclists in the planning process. It is really unhelpful to suggest this as I now have to spend time arguing against a position I never actually held in the first place. I have suggested that various forms of cycling infrastructure should be pursued, that includes cycle tracks, and I agree that cycle tracks are the safest option available, so there is no need to suggest that I embrace something I already accept.

      I did object to Herb's claim that it is *preferable* to have planners with *no* cycling experience, but that's a separate issue.

      In the end I think we won't agree on this as you are arguing against a position I don't even hold.