Cycling infrastructure: what’s the holdup?

by Raymond Parker on March 12, 2012

in Advocacy, Cycling, Video

Back in the early nineties, I attended the first public meeting of the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition.

The nascent bicycle advocacy group had arranged a conference with the city engineer and invited executives of the well-established Greater Victoria Bicycle Coalition to offer their views on building bicycle-friendly communities.

The GNCC and local cyclists were upbeat. Nanaimo city council had recently hired Vancouver transportation consultants, at a cost of $40,000, to write a “master plan” on cycling options for the city.

Nanaimo’s chief engineer listened to several presentations from local advocates before his turn came at the lectern.

“These ideas are all good,” he agreed, before changing tone to that of a patronizing official.

“But what you people have to understand, is that this city is the transportation hub of Vancouver Island.

All those transport trucks pouring off the ferries, supplying island towns, north and south; that’s important. Sure, it’s nice for people to play with their leisure toys, but he had important responsibilities.

Compared to the adult job of moving freight, accommodating bicycles was a low engineering priority. Times are tough; money’s tight.

Next up was a representative of GVCC.

“Thank you for sharing your outlook with us,” she nodded to the engineer. “I am from Amsterdam, the transportation hub of Europe.”

“In spite of that, my home city takes the needs of cyclists as seriously as it does the demands of motor traffic.”

As the imperious official shrunk visibly in his chair, the GVCC representative went on to detail the way forward-thinking Amsterdam city officials encourage bicycle traffic and human-scale streets, an investment that paid high premiums in citizen health and productivity.

When I created VeloWeb’s Commuting Resources page, in 2005, I celebrated Cycling England, created that year to advance cycling transportation options. I reported hopefully on its 2008 venture “Cycling Development Towns,” which generated impressive increases in cycling use.

The last time I was in the United Kingdom, in 2007, my childhood memories of a cycling Shangri-La were murdered by the reality of runaway carmageddon. My most vivid memory of that trip—just after my Paris-Brest-Paris adventure—was crawling along the M1 motorway for hours, surrounded by giant earth moving machines tearing up “England’s green and pleasant land,” as if there were no end to the dream of motorized comfort, at 95p per litre (now 135p).

“Cycle lanes” were comprised of haphazard pavement (sidewalk) annexations, blocked by lamp posts, bollards and trees.

What had happened to the place where I cycled safely to school in the ‘60s, where my parents’ generation rode to work en masse, or jumped on their tandem to explore the quiet lanes of Wales?

The British magazine Cycling Weekly recently lamented the utter failure of the country to support cycling over the last 40 years.

Cycling England has fallen, like other progressive initiatives, under the axe of the new “coalition” government.

“Lack of political will” is the most often cited reason for the dearth of cycling infrastructure, in England as well as North American cities. Myopic officials chop away at biking budgets, while cycle commuting is booming. As car sales plateau or plummet, highway budgets bloat.

Why aren’t city engineers reacting to the latest trends? Young urbanites are steering away from car ownership. Time for the old farts to catch up.

Worldwatch Institute reports that “bicycle production increased by 3.2 percent in 2007 to 130 million units.” Smart investors will prepare, while cities caught flat-footed will suffer.

How the Dutch got their cycle paths

More than 20 percent of Germany and Denmark commuters travel by bicycle. In comparison, less than 2 percent of trips in North America and the UK are by bicycle.

The cycling (and the provincial) capital of British Columbia, Victoria, boasts 5.6% of commute trips by bike, compared to 1.7 in the much larger mainland city of Vancouver, where bike lane construction has recently boomed.

In Victoria, cyclists look forward to integrated cycling lanes blueprinted for the new Johnson Street Bridge. Yet, as former city councilor and bicycle advocate John Luton admits, bike infrastructure investment is “inconsistent” at best.

As far back as 1938 newspaper articles called the bicycle “the most Dutch of all vehicles.” Today, Amsterdam residents choose their bikes over cars for most trips. A nationwide strategy has resulted in 28 per cent of trips being made by bicycle.

But it wasn’t always that way. It took protests and acknowledgement of the carnage wrought by car culture to bring Amsterdam back from the brink.

Over the next two years, the Dutch will invest €100m in new cycle highways. Maybe they know that cycling and happiness go hand in hand.

Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition |  Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition | Capital Regional District Cycling & Walking Master Plan

{ 9 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Ryan March 15, 2012 at 5:42 pm

When I looked at moving to BC, Nanaimo was one of the top cities I looked at to move to. They have some nice off-road pathways that run parallel to the highways which I thought was nice (though on StreetView, crossings looked dangerous/confusing).

The main issue I found with Nanaimo was the same with nearly every city across Canada. In theory investing in cycling was what they wanted, but no one will actually will to do anything.
Courtenay was similar where the idea was there, but no one actually wanted to tackle it head on.

Many in Canada assume what you see in the Netherlands today, was always like that. Yes bicycles have always been quite popular there, but it has been the past 30-40 years of steady investment. It’s without question the easiest and quickest way around their cities.

Likewise with other cities in Europe such as Copenhagen, Bremen, Freiburg, Bordeaux, Barcelona. All have made improvements to cycling fairly recently (within the past few decades).


Raymond Parker March 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm

In reality (and as you could see on Google Streetview) Nanaimo’s so-called cycle paths are badly designed and in part dangerous.

In particular the E&N Trail, with its many unmarked crossings near to the highway have been the scene of many bike/motor vehicle accidents, involving cars turning off the highway and trains. It’s safer to use the highway, which has a wide shoulder. Trouble is, you’re then likely to suffer abuse from local drivers, who will insist you should stay on the trail.

The trail along the Parkway (Hwy. 19) is simply ridiculous, with some extremely steep drops into ravines, etc. It is not a bike path that attracts average bike commuters … a good workout though!

Yes, we have a long way to go and it will take progressive planners and politicians to move us forward in any relevant way. Of course, citizen demand would help, but I’m not seeing here, as in European cities, any mass rallies demanding the restriction of automobile traffic and implementation of alternative transportation infrastructure.


Ryan March 16, 2012 at 4:07 am

I don’t recall which roadway it was (Hwy. 19 or 19A perhaps), I believe bikes are not allowed on the road.
One thing I did find with Naniamo and similar sized cities in BC, is rather then put in actual bike lanes, they just put sharrows and bike route signs up. IMO that’s a cheap way of saying ‘we’re doing something for cyclists’.

Funny how in Amsterdam, mass rallies made people change. It showed just how many people were being killed.
When it happens in Canada (Critical Mass), it’s nothing more then a bothersome event.

Just to paraphrase a Toronto radio host when talking about side guards on trucks: “they are not worth the cost to the trucking industry, as only a few people are killed each year.”


Raymond Parker March 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Unless something has changed in the last year or so, the last time I checked (I’ve run events on both roads) bikes are allowed on both.

19A is the original “Island Highway,” while 19 is the the new (completed 2001) freeway with speeds up to 110 km/h. It does however have a very wide shoulder and some open views of the surrounding countryside.

The new highway unfortunately destroyed some nice little roads (in particular my favourite stretch of Hilliers Road, leading down into Qualicum Beach). The upside is that it takes a great deal of motor traffic off old 19a, which meanders along the beautiful coastline.

Yes, most city engineers, given the meagre budgets allocated to cycling infrastructure and lack of familiarity with what the real thing looks like, pull out a can of white paint and believe they’ve done their job for cyclists.


Ryan March 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm

My mistake.
If I read the website below correctly, Hwy. 19 has restrictions on cycling south and north of Nanaimo.


Raymond Parker March 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm

That is indeed a confusing Web page, first listing restrictions and then the *Exceptions to those same restrictions. Completely baffling.

Anyway, as I said above, I’ve run events over the sections between Campbell River and Parksville. The Parkway, running south of Nanaimo was also open to cycling the last time I rode it … it’s much easier than the bordering cycle path, with the aforementioned unbridged “canyons.”


Conor Ahern March 20, 2012 at 9:26 am

That reminds of the “Going to the Sun Road” in Glacier Park in Montana, bikes were only allowed on the road to Logan Pass at certain times of the day. The reasoning behind this restriction is that bikes will hinder the motor vehicles. However from my own experience I found that the vehicles were hindering me, especially on the downhill run in a racing tuck.


Conor Ahern March 16, 2012 at 3:42 am

I am putting my civil engineering hat on and trying to give a brief explanation as to why they are so bad or non-existent.
1- in 3 years of college bike paths were never mentioned, learnt all about roads though.
2- City planners do not require any experience in engineering or similar fields, to be a planner in Ireland you need a degree in arts or literature.
3- cycle paths are an after thought in the design process.
4- they are not designed with the needs of cyclists in mind

I hope this has been of some help.

Conor Ahern, Nat. Cert. C.Eng; Nat. Dip. CEng; BSc C.Eng. What the hell would know about civil engineering??


Raymond Parker March 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm

You’re hired!


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