Been meaning for years to bicycle to work, as a way to improve your fitness and save money on gas and parking?
Now is your chance.
Municipal governments across Canada are moving quickly to create clearly marked bicycle lanes in order for people to travel safely through cities. A number of city councils have approved road closures, either partial or complete, as an emergency alternative to public transit.
Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton have all recently extended their cycling networks, according to Velo Canada Bikes, a national advocacy group for cycling.
“We’re doing a lot of work that was meant to be spread out over a few years in a few weeks,” said Toronto mayor John Tory said in an interview. “It’s going to keep people safer, because it’s going to give people an alternative to the transit system, where they’re still a bit anxious.”
The World Health Organization has issued guidelines on how to get around during the COVID outbreak, which include “whenever feasible, consider riding bicycles or walking” to help with physical distancing and physical activity.
Safe transit for essential workers
But many of the bike lane extensions introduced in Canada during the pandemic are are temporary, marked with portable stanchions. Permanent bike lanes typically involve lengthy public consultations with merchants and residents, a process that isn’t feasible given the urgent need for transportation options right now.
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Toronto-based urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat said transportation alternatives are critical as many workplaces begin to reopen. As well, essential service workers need to get to their places of employment.
“In the absence of having a vaccine and being unable to pack everybody on transit the way we have in the past, cycling is a viable option,” said Keesmaat, Toronto’s former city planner.
“It’s simply impossible for everybody who takes transit to get into a car, and secondly, it’s not affordable,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have access to a car or can’t afford one.”
Keesmaat hopes the new bike lanes will become permanent. She is the chief architect of the 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, a statement signed by 100 well-known Canadians calling on political leaders to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to “kickstart” a move toward more accessible, equitable, and sustainable cities. The list of 20 priorities on the declaration includes protected bike lanes.
Cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen have long boasted a cycling culture, with crowds of citizens pedalling along cycling routes around the city. Since the pandemic began, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Milan and Bogota and others have shifted street space away from cars, to add pathways for bikes and pedestrians.
Friction with motorists
The Canadian Automobile Association supports proper cycling infrastructure, according to spokesperson Ian Jack.
“The more people on bikes and on transit, the fewer people there are on the road,” he said. “There will be less congestion.”
But Jack also believes that the cycling lanes work especially well right now, with fewer Canadians driving due to the lockdown.
“These temporary lanes have been fine because there’s been so little vehicular traffic, it hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “It’s going to become one as more and more people start to go back to work.”
Then there’s the issue of insurance.
“If the breadwinner of the family is on their bicycle, they only have their home insurance and that doesn’t cover them fully,” Melissa De Genova, a city councillor in Vancouver. “They wouldn’t be covered the same way as with vehicle insurance if there was an accident.”
How long will the lanes last?
Even so, many proponents of cycling hope that the new extended cycling routes will be made permanent. They point to health benefits, as well as the environmental impact, noting Canada’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
No one can say at this point how long the bike lane extensions will be left in place, due to the unpredictable course of the pandemic. Nor is it clear how many Canadians will be eager to bundle up to ride their bike to work once winter sets in. Montreal typically sees just 20 per cent of its cycling population on its bike network in February.
“You need to get a bit prepared,” Keesmaat said. “But we get prepared to get into our cars too. We buy windshield fluid, we make sure we have a scraper in our car, we change our tires. You can change the tires on your bike as well, and buy proper clothing.”
Kimberley Nelson of Velo Bikes Canada believes cyclists will need to put pressure on political leaders in order for the temporary extension to be made permanent.
“We really need to come together and push those communities that are doing it now as a temporary measure, to say ‘hey, look how much better this street works when everybody is included’,” she said.
A national strategy
Early in March, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna appointed Halifax MP Andy Fillmore to head up a new National Active Transportation Strategy.
He said although many of the strategy’s goals are long term, the government is also looking to amend and update its 12-year, $180-billion Infrastructure Plan to acknowledge “the realities” of COVID-19. That will include a greater focus on cycling.
“We already had money set aside for active transportation,” Fillmore said. “But not by intention, maybe by oversight, you had to squint to see it. There wasn’t a particular line item for it.”
Fillmore, who worked as an urban planner prior to his political career, said the plan will be updated to highlight investments that support communities in their recovery from the pandemic.
He believes COVID-19’s impact on transportation will boost awareness of the need for more safe cycling routes, and accelerate Canadian cities towards more sustainable practices.
“If we’re looking for silver linings, I think we’ve found one,” Fillmore said.