Cycling zealots are once again calling for an upheaval of the streets — or, at least that’s what anti-bike lane proponents say. McMaster cycling advocates and experts tell a different story.

Despite claims of a “war on cars” and swarms of cyclists taking over the street, cities across Ontario largely rely on road sharing instead of developing robust cycling infrastructure. Yet Kate Whalen, senior manager of McMaster’s academic sustainability programs, says that cycling is sustainable and promotes individual and community health. Unless the city prioritizes the development of cycling infrastructure, potential cyclists will continue to be deterred by dangerous roads that aren’t built with alternative modes of transport in mind. 

Cycling in Hamilton is growing fast but the city isn’t keeping up. The Cannon Street bike lanes are the city’s largest endeavor into creating infrastructure for cyclists. According to a 2018 CBC news article, the bike lanes attracted significant ridership. In 2015, the Cannon lanes had 75 daily trips, which grew to 396 in 2017. 

While ridership is up, the Cannon lanes have some glaring faults. What is perhaps the most advanced network of bike lanes in the city, outside of multi-use trails, has lanes that are still not up to par. Cannon is a highly used road for cars, especially during rush hour. Cyclists have reported obstructed cycling lanes, pointing out an infamous corner often blocked by transport trucks. Construction projects often close the bike lanes, meaning that frequent road repair interferes with the free flow of bike traffic.

Fundamentally, the Cannon lanes are built around a road made for cars. The lanes were placed on the street as a quick solution for a mutli-faceted problem. 

David Zaslavsky, director of MSU Macycle said, “I think that I’m not alone in saying that most infrastructure is built without cyclists in mind, it’s kind of an afterthought. There’s no real actually effective bike protection and bike lanes short of completely separated paths like the rail trail.”

“I think that I’m not alone in saying that most infrastructure is built without cyclists in mind, it’s kind of an afterthought."

The Locke Street bike lanes are a mixed bag. Some sections provide a space buffer from parked cars while others run directly through the Door Zone. We need a higher, more consistent design standard if we want to make cycling a serious transportation option! #HamOnt #VisionZero

— Ryan McGreal (@RyanMcGreal) September 24, 2019

The lack of consistency in bike lanes is also a problem. While the Cannon lanes offer a direct route from East to West, other routes are lacking. Islands of bike networks are created within the city without much interconnection. For example, while the Cootes bike path is likely the best in the city, it connects to Main Street — every cyclists nightmare. 

Main Street is the most direct link between the East and West quarters of the city. But only cars can feel confident on the Main street highway. This street is just another example of the difficulties that bike commuters face in the city. There are bike lanes in some areas but not others, poorly integrated lanes that make turns difficult and, not to mention, high speed traffic which poses a real threat to cyclists without a protective lane barrier. 

Still, infrastructure is only one part of the problem. Sharing the road can only go so far in a culture built around cars. Robust infrastructure changes need to come with a culture shift that encourages alternative transportation, especially active transportation like biking and walking. 

As advocates encourage the city to improve conditions for cyclists, some have seen changes, especially for students. Ward 1, the ward in which McMaster university is located, has the potential to lead the city towards multi-modal and active transport. Maureen Wilson, the ward 1 city councillor, met with bike advocates in September 2019 to discuss York Boulevard and Queen Street. The latter street has had multiple accidents, prompting city officials to convert the popular street from a one-way street to a two-way street. This change will make room for improvements for pedestrians and cyclists as the city builds new infrastructure. 

Cycle Hamilton & Ward 1 meeting to discuss: a) Queen Street conversion & cycle crossings. b) York Blvd

— Maureen Wilson (She / Her) (@ward1wilson) September 30, 2019

Elise Desjardins, a McMaster graduate student and cycling advocate, said, “The city has been very engaged with the community around cycling infrastructure by providing opportunities for people to weigh in.”

Even with the city’s proposed improvements, Desjardins and Zaslavsky agree: Hamilton needs to look Eastward. European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen offer a guide for what bike infrastructure could be. Desjardins wants to see the city work towards bike lanes that are fully separated and that leave room for cyclists to engage with their community and feel safe. 

“I always like when bike lanes have a lot of trees beside them. I think that extra buffer — that general sense of friendliness on a street — is always really wonderful,” said Desjardins. 

Zaslavsky agrees that fully separated lanes can make new and experienced cyclists alike feel more safe commuting. 

“A lot of research has shown that the main reason people don’t bike is that, aside from accessibility to a bike — which is a lot better in Hamilton than other places — is that they don’t feel safe.” 

Hamilton, a mild-winter city with the same metro-area population as Winnipeg, currently has zero (0) physically protected bike lanes.

— McMaster Librarians (@MUALA_CA) September 19, 2019

Whalen describes the difference between real and perceived safety and why they both matter. Feelings of safety and actual risk management measures both impact cyclists’ experience. A painted line on the road doesn’t do much to make cyclists feel safe. 

As Whalen said, “When you put a concrete barrier with a little patch of grass between the 1000 pound fast moving vehicles and the vulnerable user of transportation, that changes the game.”

“When you put a concrete barrier with a little patch of grass between the 1000 pound fast moving vehicles and the vulnerable user of transportation, that changes the game.”

It changes the game for specific groups of people too. Women, elderly and low-income community members rely on alternative modes of transportation. Transit, especially active transit, has real implications for these groups. It may not seem like it, but a concrete barrier is about equity. 

“We can’t be building transportation systems that prioritize the ability for one type of person to get around more than others,” said Whalen.

“We can’t be building transportation systems that prioritize the ability for one type of person to get around more than others,”

Transportation justice is often left out of the discussion. Transportation justice highlights that we don’t just use transportation to get around. We also use it as a way to access resources. Transportation is necessary for community members to access basic needs, social interaction, health care and more. 

“We have demographics that are to a certain extent socially isolated because there are certain seasons where they just cannot get around. We know that about 30% of any one community doesn’t drive due to age, financial ability, or physical ability. How are they getting around if they can’t drive? And sometimes as bus isn’t an option either,” Whalen said.

Beyond safety and equity, Whalen also wants people to enjoy how they get around. When infrastructure supports it, walking and cycling can bring a sense of community, safety and joy. While cars do have a certain amount of joy for commuters, public transit doesn’t keep up. When Whalen switched from a car to a bike, she realized that she was able to be a more engaged member of her community. Biking increased her social interaction which led her to research the topic. And the numbers back it up: cycling can be an enjoyable experience with opportunities for community engagement. 

Desjardins agrees, noting that there isn’t actually much of a negative impact of bike lanes. Arguments against additional infrastructure often cite road congestion or a lack of rule enforcement for cyclists. These concerns don’t quite check out, though. While protected lanes might impact how quickly cars can get through an intersection, roads only show a limited picture. Road safety and cars’ impact on the environment also needs to be taken into consideration, not to mention the traffic that cyclists bring to local businesses.

“People care about the environmental impact of traffic and single-occupancy vehicles,” says Desjardins. “They care about their health, their care about their kids getting out to their neighbourhood and not being confined to a car. Cyclists care a lot about their community. And they show up to things where they have an opportunity to weigh in and make it better.”

With rising cycling numbers the city needs to do better to make room for bikes on the road. Car-focused streets negatively impact the Hamilton community, while bikes open up possibilities for community members to connect with the people and businesses around them. Looking forward, advocates agree: move over cars, pedal powered transportation is taking the lane.

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