Abolish Segregation!

Cyclists riding down an enclosed glass tube.

Pipe dream or nightmare? (Marc Ngui for Spacing Magazine)

In 2011, an Afrocentric curriculum was announced for Oakwood Collegiate.

In 2013, a protected bike lane is being prepared for Harbord Street.

What do these two initiatives have in common? They both support intolerance. Both measures were conceived to mitigate a perceived threat to a vulnerable segment of society; black student dropout rate and urban cyclist injury rate. Both seek a solution by dissociating each affected group from their existing mainstream environment. Both do more harm than good.

The ‘good’ of separated bike lanes is injury prevention, as a UBC study indicates, suggesting that a separate bike lane on Harbord should result in about an 80% reduction in injuries along that section of road.

The harm is less obvious. For one, it locks down our infrastructure. This makes the road less adaptable to traffic around incidents and construction, and it impedes the success of a swath of transportation alternatives as I discussed in an earlier post. It reinforces the much too prevalent misconception that roads are not for sharing, and it sets impossibly high expectations for all future bike lanes. It also sucks up valuable cycling infrastructure construction time and money that could be much better spent elsewhere, while removing nearly half the available parking that small businesses in the area depend on. But the biggest problem is that segregation removes bicycles from traffic, which will have the effect of increasing injury rates across the whole cycling network by reducing the familiarity of bicycles to motorists, according to an analysis by the Injury Prevention journal in 2003.

Note that the painted bike lanes along Harbord are already very successful as they stand. There has been no massive clamouring for separated bike lanes. Those who cry the loudest for them don’t actually stand to benefit from them! A Toronto Star reporter tells of her fall crossing streetcar tracks last year. But that was in an intersection, where protected bike lanes obviously can’t be used. In another article, a city councillor (and head of public works, no less) praises segregated bike lanes even though he admits he only learned to ride two years earlier and never, “ever, ever” cycled downtown before! And our most infamous politician, the raging know-it-all mayor Rob Ford, has passed judgement from the comfy leather perch of his swerving Cadillac Escalade, declaring that he is in favour of separate bike lanes. His conclusion, I can only imagine, is the result of finding he has to lift off the gas pedal for five seconds when his righteous way is impeded by an infuriating cyclist. Poor mayor.

The push for separated bike lanes at city hall resembles their misguided drive for a Scarborough subway at the risk of losing the funded and approved LRT . Both the bike lanes and subway are nice-to-haves, not must-haves for the city (and they are both Rob Ford pet projects-cum-infrastructure disasters). We desperately need as much transit as we can get, rather than bits of so-called “world class” transit (aka stubways). Just as we need a greatly expanded cycling network rather than enhancements to the feeble existing network. Separated lanes should only be required in specific instances like allowing two-way cycling on a one-way street, or supporting cycling along busy, high-speed roads.

By and large, cyclists who support separation (many are against) don’t have the same soapbox that those public figures have. Looking at their arguments, they all seem founded on one common observation; drivers are terrible. Two things need to be pointed out about that. First of all there is a misperception that painted bike lanes are not to be crossed by drivers (the same misperception drivers have about their superior right to their lanes). In reality, drivers loading or unloading by the curb, or turning right or squeezing around stopped traffic on their left should all feel free to use the painted bike lane when safe to do so. Negotiating the road use with other vehicles is in fact one of the advantages of painted bike lanes, as it improves traffic flow and encourages awareness of other road users. Secondly, we don’t have to throw up our hands and accept bad driving habits, forcibly controlling them with the erection of barriers. Their behaviour can be corrected.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that drivers can learn to see the road as a shared space, allowing safe room for cyclists. But all observation and experience support this conclusion.

Believe it, because in cities with higher cycling densities like Amsterdam or Portland, and even Montreal, drivers are more aware and considerate towards cyclists because they all have to deal with each other frequently. Contrast this with my experience cycling in the suburbs of Thornhill, where drivers have either come to a screeching stop behind me, or needlessly swerved around me into oncoming traffic, and in one case a driver passed me cleanly only to drive straight into a four foot snow bank! All because they had no idea how to deal with me being on the same road as them. The behaviour of drivers in the ‘burbs is no different than I would expect if I were a pink elephant stomping down the side of the road. Clearly, this is not the same behaviour as drivers in the downtown area because they are more accustomed to negotiating the use of the road with cyclists.

Believe it, because even the world’s model for cycling infrastructure, Amsterdam, allows bike lanes to be shared by e-bikes, gas bikes, and even tiny electric cars. It works. Of course in Toronto we did the opposite and banned e-bikes from bike paths!

Believe it, because the ‘shared space’ concept works. Shared Space is an even more extreme scheme for eliminating barriers between road users compared to merely desegregating bike lanes, but even then drivers have been shown to adapt, making it a success wherever it has been introduced.

Believe it, because the Injury Prevention journal concluded as much from its study. “Where, or when, more people walk or bicycle, the less likely any of them are to be injured by motorists. There is safety in numbers.” It’s the same reason that drivers who are more often exposed to snowy roads are better drivers in those conditions. Increased exposure breeds increased awareness.

Drivers can indeed improve. The money spent on separating existing bike lanes could be better spent multiplying the number of cyclists by creating desperately needed new bike lanes within our pitiful cycling network. An expanded bike network would draw more cyclists onto the roads throughout the city, making us a more permanent fixture in the eyes of drivers and forcing them to recognise that the road is to be shared, not owned.

All of this demonstrates that we need to correct the bad driving behaviour observed around cyclists by exposing drivers to cyclists more frequently, not less. Up with integration, down with segregation!

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