For many city dwellers, choosing cycling rather than other mobility methods in North America has taken on a more poignant aspect during the Covid pandemic. Cyclists feel safer to not be in the close confines of buses, trams, trains and other forms of public transit, despite transit operators doing their best to enforce a form of social distancing.
But the groundwork for safer cycling had already been laid by many North American cities before the pandemic. Until the early 2000s, bicycle lanes in North America had been designed under the philosophy of vehicular cycling – where a cyclist uses a traffic lane as if the bicycle were a vehicle.
This was fine for those cyclists whom engineering literature calls the “strong and fearless” – often a racer or former racer - who is comfortable mixing it with tonnes of metal rushing by.
But since the early 2010s, vehicular cycling in North America has been replaced by a sustainable cycling philosophy. This thinking was pioneered by the Dutch back in the 1970s, but also by Montreal in Canada as an early adopter in the 1990s.
The vast majority of cyclists are not happy mixing it with metal. The not-so-fearless want a higher level of personal security which means separated cycle lanes designed with safety in mind from the start – for motorists as well as cyclists, says Tyler Golly. The self-confessed ‘cycling nerd’ is a transportation engineer and director of the Canadian division of US-based Toole Design, an engineering consultancy heavily involved in cycle lane and road design.
It is helping the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) update its Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, and has worked preparing various editions of the guide since the 1990s.
With Covid lockdowns easing and more businesses and offices opening up, will more people get on their bicycles and use cycle lanes?
“Who has the answer? What we know is that it takes 30 to 60 days of regular action to form new habits, be they exercise, diets or other things,” says Golly, who is based in the western Canadian city of Edmonton. “The lockdowns have gone on for this length, allowing people to test out different mobility. Bicycle shops here [in Edmonton] will tell you they have recently been swamped with questions about bicycles. A lot of people appear to be getting their old bikes tuned up and back on the road.”
The question is, he says, will government look at cycle lane infrastructure work as part of the stimulus to get economies rolling after Covid? “Will they also see this as part of the climate change agenda and greener infrastructure that helps with cleaner urban air?”
The issue for most people during Covid has been social distancing. This can be hard on public transport although many transit operators have set up social distancing in buses, subways and trains. However, he asks, if these systems are taken away after the Covid pandemic, will people return to transit riding or continue to walk and cycle?
Consider how cities have closed off some little-used vehicle lanes - thanks to fewer cars on the road - and dedicated them for walking and cycling. People may now be used to the idea of more space to walk and cycle. “It all has made me, my family and some of my friends question assumptions about people and mobility choices,” he says.
For example, Covid has highlighted the need to have more amenities such as retail shops, grocery stores and drug stores closer to home, within walkable or cycling distance: “This could change urban land-use zones and alter travel patterns and infrastructure.”
Safer North America
Sustainable cycling means designing a lane based on two givens, explains Golly. “One, humans make mistakes. Two, a human body is vulnerable in any collision with a vehicle. So you design a cycle lane and road system that accommodates mistakes by drivers and cyclists to avoid serious injury or death.”
The Dutch approach had two aspects, he said. Where vehicle speeds are higher than what a human body would tolerate if he or she were in a collision, they separated cyclists from vehicles by creating a cycle track. They started to put them into cities and created longer ones to connect various towns and cities.
The other aspect was to create bicycle-friendly streets where cycling and walking had priority over vehicle users who were obliged to drive slow enough to not injure anyone if there was a collision. “Essentially, you mix people and vehicles only at low speeds. In North America, under the old vehicular cycling philosophy, you mixed both user - regardless of vehicular speed - and they shared the road.”
That “strong and fearless” group of cyclists doesn’t mind. “They likely don’t realise, though, that they have an elevated stress level in their brains and bodies but they can manage that,” Golly explains. “Most people can’t. Getting the not-so-strong-and-fearless to feel safe is what I have been doing here in Edmonton, in Calgary, Victoria, Auckland, Houston, Boston and Winnipeg.”
Vehicular cycling also meant that a cyclist behaved as if the bicycle were a vehicle and shared the road. It is incumbent upon a cyclist to behave in a responsible vehicular fashion. “I don’t think that shared responsibility for safety under vehicular cycling is degraded or not needed any more under sustainable cycling,” Golly points out.
By the early 2000s, North American cities started to introduce painted cycle lanes that were not physically separate from vehicular lanes. The idea was to make people feel safer - and actually be safer.
“This did make at least some people feel safer but this was a small sliver of the potential cycling population. The painted lanes were quite narrow and often were on roads that had high vehicular speeds and traffic volumes,” he said.
“Most of the population is still not willing to cycle in that environment. It is unsafe and uncomfortable to them. People are also not going to let their kids ride in that environment.”
As an example, he said, research in Edmonton around 2013 showed that car drivers, many of whom themselves were recreational cyclists, saw the new painted lanes not being used very much. They also noticed that their vehicular lanes were made narrower to accommodate a little-used slice of the road. Vehicle drivers were “frustrated” that they were giving up space, he said.
Montreal is first
Montreal was the first North American city to take up the challenge of creating a more European-style cycle lane network. Velo Quebec, based in Montreal, was in the vanguard of cycling promotion organisations that got involved in cycle lane design, says Golly. Its design guide is used as a reference by many North American cities as an example of what can be done to encourage cycling on the continent, especially in more northerly urban areas.
One aspect that has set Montreal apart is that the city’s cycle lanes have been designed to be easily cleared of winter snow and ice. Despite many northern US and most Canadian cities having as severe winters as Montreal, this was not much considered back in the 1990s, nor even today at times, says Golly. But the popularity of cycling means there are cyclists in most cities who will venture out into sub-zero weather on bicycles that now are equipped for winter riding. This is especially true of the so-called ‘fat’ bikes that have balloon-like and grippy tyres. There are also available studded tyres for bicycles.
“Calgary [south of Edmonton] reports that about 30% of summer riders continue riding in winter and here in Edmonton its about one in six people [17%]. This is pretty remarkable given that some of each city’s cycling network is not as connected up as it will be and that snow- and ice-clearing practices are still evolving.” It is even more remarkable that winter temperatures can hover around -20° C for days on end and then plummet to -35°C for several days.
Thankfully, more and more cities are sharing information about cycle lane design and data with each other. Some things are not that obvious, such as changing traffic light sequences to accommodate cyclists. “There is more of a network of information sharing which helps peer-to-peer exchange of ideas. We, as a consultant, have a role to play by showing our client the complexities of cycle lane planning and point out things that they may not have thought about before going out to tender.”
When you are designing a street, you have design vehicles that help you select lane width and identify corner radii so vehicles can clear the turn. Similarly for cycle lanes, explains Golly. The bicycle itself is a design vehicle and they come in various shapes and sizes now, from standard bicycles to recumbent, cargo bikes, even tricycles. In more advanced designing, summer and winter maintenance vehicles must be taken into account.
“In colder cities, one of the design vehicles might have a small snow plough on it and lane width must accommodate the available technology,” he says. “Also, a design must include an area where removed snow can be stored until taken away.” Lane design may vary, depending on how much snow you get, or how long the snow season is, and what the winter temperatures can be.
“For example, will the snow melt soon after falling? Is the snow thick and heavy to push around or is it more fluffy and easily removed in large amounts? In Edmonton they use for snow removal some of the small sweepers that they use during other seasons on pedestrian pathways in parklands,” he says. “A city might have to budget for separate cycle lane snow-clearing equipment.”
If you compare designs from even 10 years ago, the number of types of cycle lanes is getting smaller thanks to better designs on more data. The idea is to make their use intuitive. But even with the best design, education in how to use and adapt to them is needed - for motorists and cyclists. Drivers will want to know what to look out for. Even pedestrians might ask how to navigate a bike lane if they want to get to the bus stop.
Golly points to the implementation of new lanes in Edmonton and Calgary in Canada and Houston in the US state of Texas. Advice is given to both drivers and cyclists at traffic lights or where cyclists might stop, at intersections, or for drivers parking their vehicles.
“Typically these cities have a street team or street ambassadors,” he says. “These people, often students on their summer break, hand out information pamphlets, answer questions, help cyclists navigate a new intersection or take down road users’ comments for city planners.”
Road and cycle lane markings must be legible to all users, whether walking, cycling or driving. You need to know what you are supposed to do - but also what other people are supposed to do. So marking needs to be intuitive.
“Where to place sharrows depends on road width,” Golly says. “On a narrow road, it likely will be in the centre of the road. In wider lanes, it could go towards one side of the road.”
If you go back to the early 2000s, sharrows indicated where to cycle on the road, so you would have been riding exactly over the sharrow. They helped you identify where to locate yourself. But sharrows were often on high-speed, high-volume roads where most cyclists were not comfortable riding.
“Most of the time now, sharrows are found on low-traffic volume, low-speed roads and are more a form of wayfinding as opposed to where exactly you should ride on the road.”
Cycling technologies are giving riders more choice of bicycle styles, such as electric bikes, which must be accommodated into lane design. “Auckland in New Zealand has seen a boom in e-bikes because the city is extremely hilly. An e-bike makes a lot of sense to many cyclists. Older recreational cyclists might buy them because they want to go on longer rides.”
Rules over e-bikes using cycle lanes are still evolving. Speeds of e-bikes are an issue for some municipalities. However, as Golly points out, most of the time the assistance kicks in after a certain speed, typically 32kph, and top speeds are governed. Many cyclists can bike that speed without an e-assist anyway so e-bikers are just keeping up with other cyclists. He believes each city or municipality will have their own regulations regarding e-bike use.
“I hope that the pandemic has at least created the environment where we have discussions about what our future communities need to look like and forced us to question things we had taken for granted,” concludes Golly. “Something of a wake-up call.”