Fun Stuff

Are Bike Lanes Good for Traffic?

Garfield, North America’s favourite comic-strip cat, will tell you: diet is a four-letter word. Our beloved tabby can eat his heart out these days, as foodies have taken over the show, the diet movement now shoved aside and nearly forgotten. Bacon in desserts? Bring it on!

In the transportation world, though, “diet” is all the rage – road diet, that is. The post-war boom was the genesis of much of today’s road infrastructure, with grids expanded to catch up with urban sprawl. Collector streets, arterials and quasi-highways began sprouting from city cores, reaching out to suburban enclaves further and further out, yet always magically “15 Minutes from Downtown!” according to the developers. As the commuting masses leave their abode in the metropolitan fringe, traffic density increases; and after years of unregulated sprawl, that traffic starts to clog municipal arteries like bad bacon fat.

The road diet movement has its seeds in the '80s, its roots in the '90s and has bloomed in the new millennium. What a road diet does is “thin” the pavement width dedicated to private vehicles, and reallocates it to other modes of transportation. Public transit is one, of course, and has been a part of our streets for decades. However, we now see more dedicated bus lanes than ever, new queue jumps and even contraflow lanes designed to speed up transit service. By making transit more attractive, transportation planners shift commuters from cars to transit vehicles, thus increasing the passenger per vehicle ratio. In theory, at least, this reduces the traffic “bad fat” despite the road diet.

Road diets: the rise of active transportation

The other travel mode that benefits from road diets is “active transportation” or human-powered travel, if you prefer. And by the way, you’re standing on the world’s oldest transportation device: your feet.

Road diets provide more space for sidewalks, and if you have ever walked up Toronto's Yonge Street during rush hour, you can only envy the six-metre-wide sidewalks found in some rebuilt areas! Walking is an efficient way to travel for urban dwellers, but is not practical if you live at any significant distance from your place of work.

Enter then the other active transportation mode: cycling. Bikes have been around for centuries, but up to the '70s most of the infrastructure dedicated to cycling in North America was aimed at recreational use, not active transportation. In the cycling world, Montreal is often credited as the birthplace of the cycle track, thanks to the creation of the Rachel Street bike facility.

A roadway within a roadway, the Rachel Street design replaced parking space with a 3-metre-wide bi-directional bike path, separated from vehicle traffic by a 1.8 to 2.3 m divider planted with trees and shrubs. Katie Tremblay, section chief for Active Transportation with the city of Montreal, tells us that the Rachel Street Cycle Track was designed in-house by city engineers back in the early ‘90s. The design has proven very popular with cyclists and is considered a model to be followed by scholars and practitioners. Cycle tracks have now been adopted by cities like Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto, and the design is proving popular in the US. Tremblay tells us that newer cycle tracks located in the urban canyons of Maisonneuve and University Streets have only a thin 0.9 m concrete median. Why 0.9? Montreal streets are narrow, and 0.9 is the narrowest width that allows for installation of traffic signal and light poles.

Safety first

The Harvard School of Public Health published a study in 2011 on the safety advantages of the cycle track design, based both on Montreal’s and the Netherland’s experience with this type of facility. When moving at speed, a cyclist is even more open to risks than motorcyclists, their steed being much narrower and, of course, silent.

So safety is always first when designing urban cycling lanes, as explained by Michael Skene, founder of Boulevard Transportation Group in Victoria, BC: “We know that there is a scientific correlation between the number of cyclists and level of safety on a facility, as when the cycling volume increases, the safer the facility becomes (partly due to vehicle drivers recognizing and respecting bike facilities with higher volumes of cyclists).

“We also know that a cyclist’s choice to travel somewhere is based partly based on his perception of safety on the facility. So... We have an obligation to provide safe bike facilities in all communities and urban centres.”

In other words, if you build it, they will come, but do build it to appropriate standards, with a touch of good engineering judgement. It used to be that a bike lane was just that, a painted stripe on the side of the road, but today most provinces publish bikeway guidelines or design handbooks that local jurisdictions may use to properly engineer their facilities. Furthermore, non-profit technical societies like TAC (Transportation Association of Canada), ITE Canada (Institute of Transportation Engineers) and AQTr (Association Quebecoise du Transport) publish, on a regular basis, white papers, guidelines, studies and design handbooks that legislators and planners may refer to when aiming to build or improve their cycling facilities.

Tremblay mentions that Montreal favours using a 0.5 m concrete curb instead of paint on narrow local streets when no light poles are needed; it’s enough to separate bikes from cars, allow car doors to safely open and procure that additional attractiveness for riders. When the city wishes to increase the cycling modal split in certain areas, like around school campuses, quality facilities help reach that goal.

While hardcore cyclists like the bike couriers you see in the downtown jungle are happy with whatever they find under their wheels, most commuters need a degree of reassurance from their environment when exchanging car for bike. Getting a cycling facility up to the best standards will improve ridership, according to Stephen Chapman, Traffic Management Engineer with the City of Winnipeg: “In Winnipeg the focus has been on upgrading painted bike lanes to physically separated facilities that provide more protection and buffering. I would say that we need more bike facilities and those facilities need to be geared towards people who need more than a bike lane to be comfortable cycling.”

Upgrading facilities, expanding them and building new ones are all popular with governments these days. Just last month, Ontario introduced a $10M program called “Ontario Municipal Cycling Infrastructure” to be used by municipalities to improve their active transportation network. Just have a look at headlines – a lot of public funding is being directed at cycling facilities, a sign of public recognition.

Is the traffic flow improved by urban cycling facilities?

Montreal was an early adopter of the urban cycling movement, and the ridership numbers provided by Katie Tremblay are staggering. The Brebeuf Street bike facility is known to Montrealers as the “bike freeway” due to its intense pedal-powered traffic. The city has installed permanent cyclist counting stations at key points along its active transportation network, and on Brebeuf Street ridership is reaching levels of 10,000 bikes per day in peak summer season.

Looking at these numbers, one could think cycling has a huge benefit on Montreal rush hour traffic, but not so fast: “This facility links our most dense residential neighbourhoods (where we see some of the lowest vehicle ownership rates in the entire country) to the downtown core,” says Tremblay. In other words, just a fraction of these 10,000 cyclists have a car parked at home.

Chapman also expects the effect of bike facilities on traffic congestion to be marginal – “It is more about giving people mode choices for how they get from A to B.” Skene agrees there are only minute gains to be made on traffic, but sees other benefits: “Health benefits [and] active lifestyles […] are way more beneficial than comparing cycle facilities to congestion values. Our professional transportation community needs to do much more in measuring health benefits.”

Indeed, as we strive towards making transportation more sustainable by reducing emission levels of vehicles and introducing more drivers to electric cars, cycling requires no energy other than human power and offers a convenient alternative to after-work gym sessions when trying to mix in physical activity in one’s daily grind. Rachel Jamieson, Senior Transportation Engineer with TransLink, South Coast BC’s transportation authority, also sees bike transit as an “environmentally friendly alternative to driving”, but adds that it is also fast and convenient when properly integrated into the regional transportation equation.

Given their mind frame, “active transportation cyclists” are not converted car commuters, but more likely transit riders. For relatively short commutes, one could deduct that fifty cyclist eliminate one bus from the road, thus having a direct effect on traffic conditions. But for longer journeys, it’s more likely that cyclists employ a multi-modal strategy which includes transit, especially with rail-based travel: “TransLink accommodates bikes on all parts of our transit system. TransLink also has indoor bike parkades at two SkyTrain stations and individual access bike lockers at most of our SkyTrain stations,” says Jamieson.

Integrating cycling with transit is a collective win-win for major urban centers, but some cities like Montreal have some catching-up to do. Even though Montreal has some of the oldest active cycling facilities in the country and one of the highest transit ridership rates, bike racks were only recently added to city buses and the underground metro with its numerous escalators is not well adapted to bikes. With bike ridership levels breaking records, Montreal’s transit authority just registered a downturn in its own numbers. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Skene believes young urban families with short commutes are easy cycling “converts” once they perceive that a cycling facility is safe for them and their young ones. Kids look up to their parents, and with more and more adults adopting cycling as a way to move about, new living habits are created and urban cycling will see its popularity increase. Indeed, our American neighbours are seeing a very sharp drop in the number of driving licences issued as young adults don’t see driving as a necessity; less than half of potential drivers aged 19 and younger have a driver’s licence, down from two-thirds in the '90s.

Winnipeg’s Pedestrian and Cycling Strategies Final Report states that “the younger generation of 'millennials' prefer walkable and bikeable communities.” So even though today’s bike lanes have only a marginal effect on traffic, they are an investment in future traffic relief, with the infrastructure providing an incentive to the trending shift to active transportation.

If that shift comes at the expense of public transit, then there are both monetary and health gains to be made for a community. At the very least, by building more bike lanes, jurisdictions stay ahead of the curve as younger generations embrace different life habits than their forebears.

Winter cycling and operational logistics

It used to be that bikes got stored in winter just like skis are in summer. But as cycling went from recreational to active commuting, demand for winter facilities has risen considerably in urban centres. Still, many Canadian bike facilities aren’t maintained for winter use, which is one of Skeene’s pet peeves: “Bike facilities are not areas to convert to snow storage. [...] My biggest issue is why a community would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create bike facilities and not maintain them in the winter or use them for snow storage. Cyclist are becoming year-round [users].”

Clearing cycle tracks or dedicated facilities from snow does require additional funding and resources for day-to-day operations, and as Chapman mentions, appropriately sized snow-clearing equipment must be procured by municipalities. In Montreal, part of the cycling facility network is called the “white” network, as it is plowed all winter long, often before the streets themselves are cleared! According to Katie Tremblay, about 50 percent of Montreal’s bike paths are accessible 12 months a year, if you include sections across public parks, where road salt can’t be used. However, a solid 96 percent of on-pavement bike lanes are cleared and salted during winter months. Velo Quebec, an independent, non-profit cycling expertise centre in Quebec reports that winter traffic on Montreal’s plowed facilities reaches 20 percent of summer volumes, a significant number that is rising exponentially from one winter to the next, according to Tremblay.

There are more logistical concerns than “simple” snow removal when dealing with urban cycling infrastructure, of course. The sustainable competition for pavement space mean that moving cars, transit vehicles, bikes, parked cars, loading zones and pedestrians all vie for overlapping pieces of the roadway. Parking and pedestrians are most often at odds with cyclists when bike lanes are put in place. When street parking is juxtaposed to a bike lane, the design must take into account the serious risks posed to cyclists by opening car doors. At the same time, designers have to put serious consideration on how conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists are managed where their paths cross, such as at bus stops or near crosswalks.

To that effect, Winnipeg’s Stephen Chapman is really proud of the buffered bike lane with bus stop bypasses the city built on Pembina Highway. Montrealers have learned the hard way how delicate conflict management with active transportation facilities can be: last year, a cyclist was killed in a head-on collision with another cyclist on the narrow bike path on the Jacques-Cartier federal bridge. In past years, two pedestrians were killed by cyclists at points were walking paths crossed a bike lane. Skene is always adamant that, even though expanding our bike network is a popular measure, “it’s not a question of whether we need more, but more of a question of 'Do we provide enough safe biking facilities?'” While political winds may favour adding more and more bike lanes, just for the sake of claiming them, ensuring funding for maintenance and proper, quality design remains of utmost importance.

Social acceptance

Sometimes, a jurisdiction’s small step into bike lane implementation may be perceived as a too-huge step by constituents. Every community is at a different stage on its road to sustainable mobility. In Montreal, bike facilities are so integrated in the collective culture that a roadway project will be ill perceived if it offers too much vehicular space as opposed to room for active transportation. For towns with less cycling history, officials must bring the citizens on board for a cycling project to be successful. Some lessons learned by the City of Winnipeg as its bike network grew: “Ensure that the public is adequately informed. Most successful projects have political, neighbourhood and technical support.”

On that same topic, words of wisdom from Skene: “Don’t implement cycle lanes just to be able to say that your community has cycle lanes... implement them where there is a need, not where it’s easy to implement. On residential roads, don’t remove parking in lieu of cycle lanes. This often alienates the neighbours and cyclists. As with all transportation projects, integrate land use with the cycling facilities; use urban design and public art to create 'place making'. Integrate cycle parking into the public realm.”

Skene speaks from experience, as he started working with City of Calgary staff ten years ago, a time when the city had no cycling facility at all. Fast forward today, and Calgary cyclists now enjoy high-calibre facilities, with definite ridership growth, making Canada’s “Big Oil” capital one of the premier cycling locations in the country.

Bike lanes can’t stop at city limits, though. Regional integration is a must. Even within a single jurisdiction, connectivity – how bike lanes interconnect – is always an issue, frustrating more than one cyclist when reaching a dead end in the network. Nobody wants to be on a road to nowhere! For bike facilities to carry a significant volume of traffic, they must lead users from here to there.

Regional coordination is helped when a regional transit authority oversees a bike lane network beyond city limits. As Jamieson puts it: “TransLink also plays a coordinating role in the Metro Vancouver by working with our 23 municipal partners on producing a regional cycling map, a Regional Cycling Strategy, Bicycle Wayfinding Guidelines and regional cycling routes such as the BC Parkway and Central Valley Greenway that provide pedestrian and bike access to our Expo and Millennium SkyTrain Stations. Finally, TransLink shares costs with our municipal partners on Major Road Network and Bike projects.” The BC South Coast is indeed a model to follow thanks to the excellent work performed by its transit authority; with roadways, bridges, active transportation and public transit all under the same umbrella, TransLink provides a neutral and integrated management platform that treats all modes on equal footing, and the surrounding communities benefit from that planned integration.

Even though bike lanes may appear at first to remove vehicular capacity from our roadways, the rapid ridership growth and active transportation culture of younger generations has sown the seeds of change. Gradually, we will reap the collective traffic and health benefits from increased use of our urban bike lanes, provided they are properly designed, efficient and safe, and built with urban integration and connectivity in mind. Using all the knowledge and tools at our disposal, bike lanes will indeed improve urban traffic in time, provided we put in the required effort and thought into the process. To quote famous cartoonist Charles Schulz: “Life is like a ten-speed bicycle; most of us have gears we never use.” Using these gears will only improve our collective mobility.