Two years ago, from February to June 2012, I had the tremendous fortune to live in Utrecht, The Netherlands for five months for a study-abroad term. It was only five months, but it influenced me greatly and I miss it deeply. I miss the beauty of old churches and canal houses. I miss the general hilarity of international student life. I miss Blue.
Blue was my bike, purchased for 70 euros at a second-hand bike shop on one of my first days in my new city. She was my all-purpose vehicle—I rode her to class, to the supermarket, to the bar on Friday nights and to the countryside on Saturday mornings.
It wasn’t just me. Everyone in the Netherlands rides their bikes everywhere (or that’s what it feels like, at least). Parents will drop off two kids at school on a bike with a passenger box. Businessmen in suits bike to their jobs in office buildings. The Dutch royal family bikes to show they are regular people, too.
And then I came back to Canada, and I was shocked by how extraordinary biking seemed to be. “Wow—you biked here!?” people say to me from time to time, in awe. It’s good for my ego (“Why, yes I did,” I reply, feeling like a super-fit environmental hero), but it shouldn’t be so out of the norm. It’s indicative of how car-centric our culture in Canada is.
Tonight, I attended an event hosted by the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition and the Capital Regional District called “Creating a City for Everyone.” It’s the third event in their Transform Speakers’ Series, in which they bring in interesting people to talk about how to get more people cycling in Greater Victoria. The speakers’ series is part of the CRD’s Pedestrian and Cycling Master Plan that plans to make Victoria a more walkable, bikeable city.
In virtually all Canadian cities, the total amount of trips taken by bike is less than 4%. In the Netherlands, this number is more like 30%. No wonder the number is so low here in Canada—as one speaker tonight put it, we live in a pretty “hostile environment” for cyclists. Have you ever tried to ride your bike on Shelbourne Street? (It sucks. Don’t.) Sometimes I feel like I’m braving a great and arduous journey when I get on my bike.
While both speakers of the evening had different things to say about what’s important to improving the amount of cycling that happens in the CRD, the message of both was the same: there needs to be commitment to big change, not just “tweaks” and “improvements.” Dr. Kay Teschke, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, talked about secondary prevention versus primary prevention. Wearing bike helmets, she told us, is a form of secondary prevention. It maybe prevents you from serious injury or death when you crash. But it doesn’t prevent crashes, it doesn’t make people feel safe cycling, and it doesn’t encourage more people to bike.
What does? Primary prevention—that is, measures that prevent crashes in the first place. THAT IS, paths for bikes that are separated from main roads. They do prevent crashes and injuries of all types. They do make people feel safe and comfortable on their bikes – and that does motivate more people to travel by bike.
Funny story: in the Netherlands, I had a sweet bike, but I didn’t have a bicycle helmet. Hardly anybody wears a bicycle helmet there. Why? Because it’s safe! Cyclists have designated two-way cycle tracks (bike paths that are fully set apart from roads) nearly everywhere, with their own special traffic lights for bicycles. Cyclists have the right of way over cars and pedestrians. And there are a number of streets for cyclists and pedestrians only where cars are not allowed to go. Because it’s safe, more people bike. Because more people bike, it’s safe. It’s a virtuous cycle. Pun intended.
To get more people to cycle in Victoria—or anywhere!—it’s not minor changes like making helmets mandatory that are needed. It’s actual cycling infrastructure. These are the kinds of things that reach the “latent” cyclists, the people who would bike if it were safe and comfortable.
Gil Penalosa, the event’s second speaker, echoed Dr. Teschke’s point. When devising strategies to get more people to bike, there are “nice to have” things like better signage, cycling maps, or bike racks. But these are also not the things that will make potential cyclists feel safe on roads or get people out of their cars. The “need to have” things, he said, are separated cycle tracks and lower speeds on roads. The cycle tracks also need to be implemented as a network—a “minimum grid”—for it to have real impact, instead of a hodgepodge of unconnected bike lanes that stop and start throughout the city. Believe it or not, Calgary’s got Victoria beat in that respect—in the spring, their city council approved a downtown cycle track network in the heart of the city.
Penalosa, a former minister of parks, sport, and recreation for the city of Bogota, Columbia, has a lot of energy. And he used it to encourage us in Victoria to think big. “Be ambitious!” he said. “Cities talk about cycling and then they paint a line on the road. ‘Oh my god, I am so grateful.’ No.”
He works now as the executive director for an organization called 8-80 Cities, which advocates for the idea that cities should be built to be safe and accessible for everyone, from 8 to 80 years old. “We need to stop building cities like everyone is 30 and athletic!” he said. For his organization, cycling is more a means to an end–that end being a vibrant, healthy community that serves the needs of everyone who lives there.
Throughout his presentation, Penalosa made one point clear: “It’s not a technical issue. It’s not a financial issue. It’s a political issue, and everyone needs to be involved.” People need to speak up to their councilors and mayors for the kind of transportation infrastructure they want to see, he said. It’s a prescient comment given upcoming municipal elections this November.
Baby boomers, according to Penalosa, will be key recruits in the advocacy necessary to make these things happen. Younger people, not so much. “Sorry, Millennials. You gotta learn how to vote.” I laughed out loud. And I think he’s right.
Some may say that Victoria, for its flaws, is actually one of the best cities in Canada for cycling. “Well, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king,” said Penalosa. If we compare ourselves to the cities that are less bikeable that Victoria, then we’ll end up looking like them; if we compare ourselves instead to those that are the best in the world, cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden, then maybe that’s what we’ll start to resemble. We need to set the bar high, he argued. I definitely agree.
If there’s any place in Canada where cycling can truly be a viable way to travel, it’s Victoria, Penalosa reminded us, with its relatively flat topography and year-round biking weather. “God already did 90% of the work,” he said. “It’s up to you to do the rest.”
The next Transform Speakers’ Series event is on Thursday, October 16, at 7:00 pm at Alix Goolden Hall. Speakers from Vancouver and Calgary will be sharing lessons from their cities about cycling infrastructure.