Cycling for Everyone: Infrastructure, Policies and Programmes to Support Cycling
Our transportation behaviour comes to affect our individual and population health in a number of ways. The primary effect is through physical activity. The largest public health burdens in Western society are from chronic disease, with most conditions having physical inactivity as an antecedent risk factor (i.e. obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, hypercholesterolaemia, and hyperglycaemia). A shift away from motorised modes to active modes like cycling can do much to reduce these risk factors and the subsequent development of chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Exposure to environmental harms including air and noise pollution are affected in large part by the level of automobile use and proximity of exposure. The impact of noise and air pollution is greatest in urban centres because of the high concentration of automobiles, but this is also the location with the greastest potential for a modal shift to cycling and reduction in pollution related mortality.
Psychosocial (Mental) Health
Through physical activity, cycling also has the capacity to reduce anxiety and depression while improving cognitive functioning (like memory), reducing the incidence of degenerative neurological disorders, and improve overall well-being. In addition to these direct benefits, additional social benefits can be realised through changes in community design and development that result from higher cycling levels, and include: greater social interaction and community conviviality, and a more socially inclusive society with fewer instances of anti-social behaviour and crime. This improvement to social support networks facilitated through cycling’s ability to improve mobility and change urban form are especially important for older adults who may otherwise be physically and socially isolated and at greater risk of depression, suicide, and cardiovascular disease. Psychosocial and mental health affect physical health, and taken together, these improvements to an individual’s health are the reason regular cycling is so health protective.
Representing about 18-20% of the average household’s income, transportation is the second largest household expenditure, second only to shelter. Over 98% of this expense is for the ownership and use of automobiles. The figure is even larger for households on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. A transport systems that includes cycling as a viable transport option gives people the freedom to choose to own and use fewer cars, with the potential to re-purpose transport funds toward other social and physical determinants.
Population and Public Health
Cycling has enormous potential to improve public health, and as such, public health professionals must be the force behind improvements to cycling networks and other cycling supportive measures. Cycling is an excellent preventative strategy for the primary killers in Western society and all cause mortality, but it is also key to ensuring the sustainability of our health care services system (medicare). Cycling’s health benefits far outweigh traffic dangers and air pollution risk, with a benefit to risk ratio of 9:1 in the Netherlands, and 7:1 in the UK which has 2.5x the traffic risk (traffic risk figures are more similar to our own). In short, the health benefits to cyclists consistently and greatly exceed the risks of being killed in a traffic crash. The economic benefits to costs are estimated to be at least 5:1, with over 50-67% of this benefit coming in the form of reduced health care services costs. It is less expensive to spend on cycling infrastructure than to not do so, and because of cycling’s potential to improve public health through physical activity, reductions in exposure to environmental harms, more robust social support networks and social inclusiveness, and through greater economic equality and material abundance, we would be remiss to ignore this method to make substantial improvements to population health outcomes.
WHY WE NEED CYCLING (Can’t we all just drive a Prius?)
The rollout of more fuel efficient hybrid vehicles is often presented as the solution to environmental problems associated with automobile use. While these technological innovations are appealing because they obviate the need for structural change in our society, their role in reducing GHG emissions or any of the other negative externalities of automobile use remain limited. As such, a change of vehicle technologies should be considered as only a part of a comprehensive transportation strategy to reduce emission and realise other health, environmental and social benefits. After all, an electric vehicle still requires the same road, highways, and car parks, poses the same risk of injury and death to other road users, will emit similar levels of air pollutants and GHG emission if grid energy is generated from fossil fuels, makes similar levels of noise, result in the same physical inactivity in its occupants, and reduce social interaction from traffic and insurmountable freeways as would occur for any other internal combustion engine vehicle that exists today. It is only through a modal-shift to the sustainable modes, including cycling, that we will realise the broad range of benefits to our health and the sustainability of human society.
VISION, GOALS, AND THE STATE OF CYCLING IN METRO VANCOUVER
Translink’s long-range transportation vision for the region, “Transport 2040,” and the recently published regional cycling strategy “Cycling for Everyone” outlines a vision and goals for cycling in the region:
1) An increase in cycling volumes (more cycling)
2) A reduction in injuries and fatalities amongst cyclists (safer cycling)
3) More children, older adults, and women on bicycles (socially inclusive cycling)
While cycling has shown impressive growth over the last three years, we are moving at only 1/3 the rate we need to achieve the 2040 mode share goal of 10% of all trips made by bicycle (15% of trips under 8 km). There is much that has gone undone to improve cycling, which means there is much we can still do to achieve our transport goal.
The share of cycle trips completed by women in the City of Vancouver is 38%. This is the highest female share of cyclists in North America, sandwiched between the cities of Montreal and Toronto at 35% and Berlin at 41%. Women are an ‘indicator species’ for cycling, a proxy for the perceived comfort, safety, and legitimacy (viable alternative mode) of the cycle network. A mature and healthy cycle culture will have over 50% of cycle trips by women.
We will turn now to what we can do to increase cycling volume, improve safety, and make cycling more social inclusive in Metro Vancouver. A word of caution before we being: there is no silver bullet, simple strategy, or one time effort. Improvements to these cycling metrics will take a co-ordinate suite of infrastructure, policies and programmes sustained over decades, before substantial change will be realised.
STRATEGIES TO SUPPORT CYCLING
The largest impediment to increasing cycling volumes is high traffic stress. Think for a moment how you would feel as a pedestrian walking in a motor vehicle lane. Do you think you would like the experience? Probably not. A car lane is not a particularly comfortable, safe, or attractive place to walk. You would likely prefer to be amongst your own kind, away from motorised traffic on that specialised separated infrastructure for pedestrians we call sidewalks. Think of people on bicycles as closer to pedestrians than to motor vehicles. It is just as inappropriate to expect cycling to happen in a motor vehicle lane as you would expect walking to happen there. Luckily, separated safe cycling infrastructure exists in the form of cycle tracks (right photo), and it is key to attract people to cycling. Traffic stress, the main impediment to increased cycling because of a lack of perceived safety and comfort, is minimised through the separation of motorised and cycle traffic. Unseparated traffic conditions as is commonly found on most major streets, appeals to a minority of ‘traffic-tolerant’ people (street worriers). We can only achieve our public health, environmental, energy, and sustainability goals with mass cycling, which can only happen when street infrastructure provides sufficient separation to reduce the dangers created by motorised traffic and effectively eliminate traffic stress.
On low-stress residential streets, mixed-traffic conditions are an acceptable compromise.
Watch this video on dutch cycling to get a glimpse of a world that can be possible if we support high quality cycle infrastructure and the right set of supportive policies and programmes in Metro Vancouver :
As with driving, cycling involves the use of a vehicle which means a parking space will be needed upon arrival at one’s destination. Inadequate or unsecured parking is a severe impediment to cycling comparable to a lack of safe routes. While the technical details of cycle parking provision can be omitted in this discussion (cycle parking is classified using a two-tier system, with specific requirements for each class), what is key is that sufficient cycle parking is available at all destinations, and provided at the appropriate security level based on duration of stay and threat of crime in the surrounding environment. This photo shows a temporary secure cycle parking service offered at many large festivals in Vancouver. The permanent parking provisions would have been quickly overwhelmed without these added spaces.
Bicycles and transit form a synergistic and symbiotic relationship, leading to more cycling and more transit use then either system would have engendered alone. Bicycles increase the catchment area of transit stations, negating the need for expensive (and often slow) feeder bus services and park-and-ride facilities. Transit extends the range of the bicycle, and can be strategically used to overcome topographic barriers and inclement weather (did you ever wonder why the buses seem so full on rainy days?). The integration of bicycles and transit is facilitated by on-vehilcle cycle carrying capacity, and an ample supply of secure cycle parking at transit stations.
Public Bike Share Systems
The number of Public bicycle share (PBS) systems globally has exploded in recent years, with over 300 system operating in Cities around the world. PBS systems lead to more cycling, and introduce an entire segment of the population to cycling that did not otherwise cycle for transportation (about 96% of PBS users are new to cycling). Compared to personal bicycle use, public bicycles are used almost equally between men and women. Despite these benefits, most estimates for reduction in car use and GHG emissions appear to be overstated, as only 5-7% of trips performed on public bicycle replace a car trip (over 80% replace walking and transit trips).
Cycle policies exist within overall traffic policy. The approach in North American cities that have been successful in raising cycling volumes have been primarily through bicycle supportive policies that improve the status of the bicycle in the overall traffic system. The approach in Northern European countries, however, has been two-fold, with prioritisation of the bicycle in overall traffic policy, and complementary policies that restrict car-use and make car-ownership and use more expensive (car-restrictive policies).
The bicycle is primarily suited to trips below 8 km. Efforts to increase cycling are moot in the context of more sprawling development which force destinations farther apart. A key strategy to higher cycling volumes is to shorten trip distances. The development of compact and complete communities using a mixed-use development style is essential to this end. This image is of the future Cambie corridor in Vancouver. It features a transit-oriented, mixed-use development: a place where people can live, work, and play.
Drivers’ Training and Licencing
Drivers’ training programmes in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands emphasise the importance of protecting cyclists and pedestrians, with extra protections in place for collisions with children or the elderly. Drivers are taught that it is their legal obligation to avoid endangerment of pedestrians and cyclists, and are automatically liable for collisions with children and elderly cyclists and pedestrians. Drivers’ Licencing is also more difficult and expensive. Over half of questions on the licencing exam (similar to our “L” road test) are focused on the interaction between cars and vulnerable road users, compared to less than 2% of questions on licencing exams in North America and Australia. Overall, education and training in the EU is more through, extensive, and expensive than Canada, America, or Australia. Such measures encourage a culture of care and safety, especially by those with the greatest capacity to cause injury and death.
In the cycling countries of Northern Europe, cycling education is not a voluntary programme for adults. All primary school students receive cycle skills training in a closed-course environment, learn traffic theory, and test their knowledge and skills with a police administered road-ride. In Utrecht, NL, children practise their traffic skills as pedestrians, motorists, and cyclist in this miniature version of a street and roundabout called a traffic garden (see photo).
Social Marketing and Promotion
Cycling in North America has an image problem. Social marketing and the positive promotion of cycling will have a pivotal role to play in the fundamental shifting of our imagined construction of what cycling, and by extension, what cyclists look like. We need to shift from an image of “cyclists”, as a special group of people unlike ourselves and who wear funny clothes, to an image of “people on bicycles;” people just like ourselves.
The automobile industry has done wonders marketing the car positively–and disparaging its competition. While the bicycle was once marketed effectively, much like the car is now, most current images of cycling focus on ‘safety’ and safety gear. Making cycling synonymous with a skull and crossbones does not make people feel like getting on a bicycle. Reframing cycling as a safe, healthy, and mainstream form of everyday transport will be the challenge and opportunity of the next decade.
To learn more about cycling, visit the websites and check-out the resources below:
CCC is great to see more photos of everyday people on bicycles. This is the site that started me on bicycles! Copenhagenize is more policy and advocacy oriented, if you’re interested in that end of things. Both sites are based in Copenhagen, DK.
A view from the cycle path and bicycle dutch switch from Denmark to the Netherlands. The sites are infrastructure and policy oriented. Many great videos to watch about cycling conditions (like the one you watched earlier). If you want to see more awesome dutch cycle infrastructure, watch some more videos!
If you are interested in learning about local advocacy, I would recommend perusing the Hub website. Formally the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC), Hub is our local cycling advocacy organisation. If you’re wondering how to improve cycling in Metro Vancouver, the next best thing after getting on a bicycle and actually riding is becoming a member of HUB! Discounted student memberships are available, and they come with great business offers which actually save you money (you can’t afford not to be a member;)
There is a book I would like to introduce you to:
City Cycling, by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler
A newly published text on all things cycling. You have already been exposed to some of its content, as I consulted the text in the development of this presentation and post. I highly recommend reading it to get a well researched and thorough account of cycling throughout North America, Europe and Australia, and across various socio-demographic groups (including women, children, and the elderly).
I hope you have enjoyed reading this post and learning about cycling. Hopefully I have persuaded you as to the necessity of improving the state of cycling for the sake of our individual and societal well-being. Separated facilities are crucial to getting the mainstream population to cycle, but they must also be supported with a comprehensive set of policies and programmes.
Even if you will never get on a bicycle, you can still support cycling by becoming a member of HUB, support proposed infrastructure improvements by talking to others positively about the benefits (now that you know what they are), or sending a brief letter to City Council or to the editor of the local newspaper, which will go a long way to give our elected officials the will to make the improvements necessary to make cycling a viable transport option for everyone.
To health, happiness, and cycling for everyone,