March 24, 2017

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Analysis

Bike lanes, not helmets, make cycling safer

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Cyclists use the divided bike lane on Sherbrook Street. </p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Cyclists use the divided bike lane on Sherbrook Street.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/6/2016 (287 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One morning last spring I walked down Sherbrook Street with my young children when they noticed the new protected bike lane that lines four blocks of the street. Lifelong Winnipeggers, my children saw cycling as something they did up and down a leafy sidewalk of a residential block, and maybe on riverbank trails to The Forks. On Sherbrook that morning, they realized that even a busy street in the middle of the city can rightfully be a place where they are able to ride their bikes in safety and enjoyment.

Not everyone shares this perceptiveness. Earlier this week, city hall’s protection, community services and parks committee passed a motion raised by Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt to have city staff study mandatory helmet use for all adult cyclists. Mandatory bike lights and a sound device such as a bell or horn will also be looked at. The motion passed unanimously.

At its heart, the motion was not a nanny-state attempt at protecting cyclists, but spiteful retaliation by council’s frustrated anti-cycling minority. Last summer, Wyatt, as well as his colleague on the protection committee, Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, voted against the city’s long-term pedestrian and cycling strategy, which calls for more than $300 million worth of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure to be built in the coming years.

Research shows that any one of the strategy’s protected bike lanes will do more for cyclists' safety than making it illegal to ride without a helmet and assorted other bells and whistles. The Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians recently took the position that while helmets should be mandatory, designing streets so that they are safe for cyclists is the best way to reduce head injuries.

Real safety is determined by environmental conditions. While clearly useful, mandatory seatbelts do not reassure me that driving on highways during a blizzard is a smart idea. In the same way, mandatory helmets would not reassure me that navigating Regent Avenue on a bike ever is.

Other research suggests that helmets are not effective enough to be required. One study undertaken at the University of British Columbia found that helmet legislation is a waste of time. Cities should instead build protected routes for cyclists, which reduce risks and create "numbers in safety": the more dedicated infrastructure for cyclists, the more cyclists there will be. To borrow from French economist J. B. Say’s law of economics, new supply will create new demand.

Bigger and more diverse numbers of cyclists would deflate local cycling opponents’ worn-out narrative that only a handful of recklessly impetuous weirdos are crazy enough to cycle in Winnipeg. Protected bike lanes would mean more people — especially women, seniors and children — would take to the road.

A supposed love of driving and Winnipeg’s long winters are two common arguments advanced to explain why making streets less hostile for cyclists is just not worth it here. But these are becoming conspicuously outmoded and flimsy excuses; most car-dominated and winter cities in North America are getting serious about cycling.

Last week, the sprawling city of Atlanta dedicated $1 billion to build a cycling and pedestrian network over the next 20 years. Los Angeles, a city that embodied American car culture in the 20th century, passed a similar long-term plan to slow car traffic on a number of its fabled boulevards by making room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Calgary recently opened a 6.5-kilometre network of protected bike lanes in its predominantly car-oriented downtown. Last month, Minneapolis adopted a complete streets policy that will give pedestrians, cyclists and transit just as much priority as cars in new street designs. Fargo, a city of 113,000, implemented a bike-share program last year that has, so far, seen higher per-capita usage than bike shares in New York and Paris.

Change is often slow in Winnipeg, but it is occurring. Wholesale opposition to making Winnipeg streets safer for all users will sound more shrill and intellectually hollow over time, and will soon be clung to by a small number of citizens who are staunchly anti-cycling as a matter of quixotic principle.

Certainly, not every Winnipegger will give up commuting by car, but making some room on city streets for those who do will become an accepted fact of life here.

A protected bike lane on a busy street in Winnipeg may have been a new discovery for my young children, but it won’t be for theirs.

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