by Steven Beck
A recent spate of widely publicized cycling injuries and accidents – from six cyclists on a rural highway in Quebec being hit by a pickup truck, leaving three dead, to Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs being hit by a car while riding on a neighbourhood bikeway – makes the safety theme of this year’s Bike Month timely and appropriate. Watch for “June is Bike Month: Look out for Cyclists” ads in transit shelters, on buses and online throughout the month. This part of the campaign is aimed primarily at motorists, but cyclists don’t have to be dependent on motorists for their safety. Primary responsibility rests with us riders and additional safety tips for both cyclists and motorists will be issued daily from the Bike Month website, which also hosts safety information and links to other resources. One of the best ways cyclists can increase their own safety is simply to get out and ride.
Safety in numbers
These days, being in favour of cycling is close to achieving ‘mom and apple pie’ status. People know it’s good for the environment, reduces green house gases, reduces congestion, improves health and fitness and it’s also fun. So why don’t more people do it? According to researchers at UBC (see http://www.cher.ubc.ca/cyclingincities/injury.html), four of the top six reasons have to do with perceived risks to safety: the risk of injury from car-bike collisions; the risk from motorists who don’t know how to drive safely near bicycles; vehicles driving faster than 50 km/hr; and streets with a lot of car, bus and truck traffic. In short, many casual cyclists feel threatened on the roads and therefore cycle less.
The irony of cyclists staying off the roads out of fear is that safety in numbers is a real phenomenon when it comes to safety. The more frequently commuters, shoppers, families and children ride bicycles, the more visible they become. And the more space they claim, the more drivers get used to seeing them. As they start watching for cyclists and accommodating them, the safer it becomes. In addition, the more people choose cycling over driving, the fewer cars there are on the roads, which means less congestion, less road rage and less danger for cyclists.
Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, which have cycling populations five to seven times greater than we have in the Lower Mainland, also have death and injury rates approximately one quarter less than we have. Those countries also invested in the infrastructure to support high levels of cycling. Recognizing the wisdom in that course of action, the City of Vancouver has committed to an ambitious plan to further develop the city’s already extensive network of more than 400 kilometres of bike routes.
Vancouver’s network is primarily a combination of different facilities, including separated lanes on the Burrard and Dunsmuir bridges, marked cycle lanes, dedicated mixed-use, off-road paths and streets designated as neighbourhood bikeways, augmented by traffic calming measures and cyclist controlled lights at some intersections.
It’s an infrastructure that already makes cycling quite safe for the whole family, adults and children alike, whether the children are being towed in a trailer, attached with a tandem or trail-a-bike or riding under supervision. Starting the kids young and teaching them proper cycling skills early on ensures they are confident and safe.
“Critical ooze” – safety through ubiquity
While commuter cyclists seem to get the most attention in public discussion, non-commuting trips account for 60 percent of all household trips made in BC. Many of these are short distance trips of only a kilometre or two and close to half are less than five kilometres. Most of us live within a five-kilometre range of places where we shop, bank, recreate, eat and so on. With a little planning and the right tools, most of those trips could be accomplished by bicycle, as fast or faster than by car.
It takes only three to four minutes to ride one kilometre on a bicycle, even for the most inexperienced cyclists. For trips up to five kilometres, riding can be the fastest way to get there when you factor in finding parking and walking to your destination. Using the network of neighbourhood bikeways and side streets is both safe and pleasant and you get to experience the greenery, flowers and gardens of your neighbourhood.
The more people cycle, the safer it becomes. “Critical ooze.” The same is true for trips to school. Parents often cite danger from too much traffic as the reason they do not walk or cycle to school with their kids. Yet they get in the car and contribute to congestion –and danger – rather than becoming part of the solution. Walking or cycling your children to school is a gift that surpasses any ride in a car. It cultivates the daily routine of active transportation and exercise and it combats car-dependence; as the kids become more independent, they can bike around on their own as they are already familiar with the routes and parents are freed from their role of chauffeur.
There are many resources available to help get out of the drive-your-kids-to-school grind, including Hub for Action on School Transportation Emissions. The organization’s website (hastebc.org/route) provides planners, emission calculators and other tools to help kids make greener transportation choices. Many schools either have maps showing the safest or best routes to school or they are in the process of doing the mapping. At bikemonth.ca, BEST is consolidating the information for schools in Metro Vancouver into one easily clickable map. Some schools also offer “walking/cycling” school bus programs to encourage active transportation. The tools are there. It’s up to us to use them.
The City of Vancouver is committed to do its part in building the infrastructure to support cycling. Our part is to enjoy the ride and show that it’s worth it. Bike Month features celebrations, activities, group rides and festivals. Get out and enjoy.
Steven Beck is the operations manager at Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) in Vancouver. www.best.bc.ca
Get out and ride
Develop the skills: If you feel you lack the skills to be safe in traffic, take a course on how to ride comfortably and safely on the street. The four-hour Streetwise Safety Course, offered by the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, can boost your confidence and get you into regular riding. For more courses available during Bike Month, visit http://vacc.bc.ca/cycling/cycling.php?pageID=41 The coalition also offer courses in elementary and high schools.
Know how to get there: Check out UBC’s cycling route planner at www.cyclevancouver.bc.ca This is a great tool that lets you map out a cycling route based on several criteria from least elevation gain to most foliage cover. As mentioned, www.hastebc.org has helpful tools for planning routes to school, and BEST’s www.bikemonth.ca site offers a repository of existing maps for Metro Vancouver schools.
Choose the right equipment: If you need more than a backpack to carry stuff, your local bike shop can help outfit you with baskets, carriers, panniers and so on – even a trailer for kids or larger items.
Cycling safety: The basics
- Act predictably; obey the rules of the road.
- Use a light (front and back) at night.
- Wear bright or reflective clothing, especially at night.
- Pay close attention to traffic in both directions at intersections. If possible, make eye contact with drivers.
- Never assume that motorists will yield, even if you have the right-of-way.
- Wear a helmet.
June is Bike Month (www.bikemonth.ca) has become a grand tradition in Metro Vancouver. Fifteen years ago, Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) launched it as a week-long cycling promotion. It has since grown into a month-long celebration of cycling, with participation from many organizations and municipalities. This year, the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition is running its Bike to Work and School Week campaign (www.biketoworkmetrovan.ca) during the first week of Bike Month. The City of Vancouver opens a new separated bike lane trial on Dunsmuir Street and a new Velopalooza (www.velopalooza.ca) bike festival launches on June 4 and runs to June 13. It’s an ideal time to get on your bike!