On Urban Bike Infrastructure, Canada Is Now Leading The Way
(a few cities at least)

Dunsmuir Separated Bike Lanes

Protected / Separated bicycle lane on Dunsmuir Street, downtown Vancouver, Canada (Paul Krueger)
Dunsmuir Separated Bike Lanes Protected / Separated bicycle lane on Dunsmuir Street, downtown Vancouver, Canada (Paul Krueger)
Protected / Separated bicycle lane on Dunsmuir Street, downtown Vancouver, Canada
(Photo Credit: Paul KruegerCC License)

Though this is bittersweet for those of us on the balmy side of the border to admit, the best Canadian urban bike infrastructure is clearly starting to leave most of the United States in the dust.

Powering this change: an idea that sparked in Montreal in the 1980s, flared again there in 2007 and has since spread to Vancouver and now Calgary. And though the same idea has been moving fast across the United States, too, it’s found its most complete expressions to date in Canada’s leading bike cities.

The big idea (which is actually an import from the prosperous, equitable cities of Northern Europe) is the protected bike lane.

Montreal protected bike lanes (Photo Credit: James Schwartz)

Montreal protected bike lanes (Photo credit: James SchwartzCC License)

The concept is simple, really: protected bike lanes are like sidewalks for bikes.

In the same way that sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian signals make it safe and comfortable to walk through a city, protected bike lanes, green intersection markings and bike signals make it safe and comfortable to bike through a city. They separate bike and auto traffic using curbs, planters, parked cars or posts.

At first glance, some people see this better type of bike lane as a way to ladle luxury on the 2 percent of trips in North American cities that currently involve bicycles. But that way of thinking misses the point. What protected bike lanes are proven to do, once they form an interconnected network, is to make biking so safe, efficient and comfortable that more people — families, downtown office commuters, retirees — are comfortable using bikes for many of their regular trips around town.

The result: cities that are healthier, safer, more productive and more attractive to employers and to the talented workers that every urban economy needs. Cities can grow without endlessly asking taxpayers to widen roads and highways. Parking lots can become offices, cafes, parks. Public transit systems get more riders, because people who don’t live close to good bus or rail lines can bike to them instead of walking.

Even when we use cars to get around, city dwellers benefit from protected bike lanes. A study last year asked people who never ride a bicycle whether they’re comfortable driving near bikes on various street types. Their favorite: streets with protected lanes. People who own bikes, but don’t regularly ride, report dramatically more positive feelings when they’re shown images of protected bike lanes. By calming traffic and narrowing crossings, protected lane projects reduce crashes for all road users (including those in cars) by 34 percent or more.

All of this is why my organization, PeopleForBikes, launched the Green Lane Project in 2012. We wanted to help this idea spread more quickly around the United States. And as you can see from the video above, it’s succeeded — from Chicago to Austin and San Francisco to Atlanta, these projects are catching on.

But one thing we didn’t expect was for this idea to catch on in Canada even more quickly. After last week’s nailbiter of a vote in Calgary, I’m more jealous than ever of the progress the country is making, and also hopeful that Canada will keep showing us Yanks how to reintroduce biking to auto-oriented cities. We’re right behind you on this one, so keep pedaling.

Cycle Track, Calgary

7 Street Cycle Track (Photo Credit: Bike CalgaryCC License)

Michael AndersenMichael Andersen is staff writer for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow his coverage of the issue on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for the project’s weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.