Separated Bike Lanes: are they overrated?

Cities in Europe are sometimes cited as examples for Winnipeg to model itself after by those who advocate for better cycling infrastructure. For example:

  • Anders Swanson, the head of Winnipeg Trails, spent a couple of months in The Netherlands and has touted the miles of dedicated bike lanes and grade separated intersections with roads as something that Winnipeg should aspire to.
  • Cinematheque is showing the documentary Bikes vs. Cars, which includes Copenhagen as one of the cities that is doing things so much better than we are.
  • Brent Bellamy, local architect of note and frequent columnist on urban development, tweeted about Oslo Norway’s bold movement to a bike-oriented culture.

Oslo TweetEuropean cities are often seen as more progressive than Canadian cities when it comes to active transportation. The percentage of people who walk or cycle to work is generally much higher, and the infrastructure to support it is often much better.

And then there is Rome…

Let me tell you about Rome. It is a very old city and the streets and infrastructure reflect that. As the population grew over the centuries the streets in downtown Rome often did not grow in turn, so crowds spill off the narrow sidewalks onto the streets, which are filled with more cars and scooters than medieval city planners anticipated. Street lanes are only theoretical, as vehicles jockey for position and squeeze through the jumble of traffic at any opportunity that presents itself. It is amid this chaos that cyclists find themselves in Rome. They have no bike lanes. There are no protocols or etiquette about filtering through traffic or distances between bikes and cars — or at least none that I could decipher.

Yet it seems to work. Despite the unruly nature of the streets, there is just enough respect and consideration among all participants that accidents are avoided and people get to where they’re going with their skulls intact. It all comes together like a chaotic symphony with cars, trucks, scooters, pedestrians and bikes shuffling, dodging, lane-changing and advancing — though not so much a classical music symphony as something more like breakcore.

So one might ask: if one of the world’s oldest and densest cities can get along fine without dedicated bike lanes, why can’t Winnipeg? We have more space on our roads and sidewalks, so in theory biking should be safer. Would we be better off cancelling all our plans for bike lanes and putting the money into transit and road repairs?

Honestly, I’m not sure I would want to bike in Rome, even though they seem to know what they’re doing. Some of the quieter parts of the city sure, but the busier streets probably not. Yet I suppose because they have made do with the same infrastructure and lifestyle for so long, it’s just a part of who they are so they find a way to make it work. It’s built into their culture,

That’s not really the case here in Winnipeg. Here our lifestyle mostly revolves around cars, and maybe cyclists and drivers haven’t yet adjusted to each other. Maybe they never will. Winnipeg is certainly a very different city than Rome.

Even still, cycling in Winnipeg is generally safe, and motorists are mostly respectful of their pedaling counterparts. I think it comes down to perception of safety. Many people, myself included, are not that comfortable biking on many streets in this town, and it doesn’t help that the streets are filled with over-sized pickups trucks instead of tiny little cars.

So maybe in theory we could get by with what we have, but if we want to encourage more cycling, which seems to be the progressive thing to do, then we need to make improvements. We need better infrastructure for bikes.

Hat tip to CycleChick re. the Bikes vs. Cars documentary.
Related (Free Press — paywall may apply): Cycling city? We’re not there yet

7 thoughts on “Separated Bike Lanes: are they overrated?

    • I think what you’ll end up see, Marty, are separated bike lanes on one side of Fort and Garry, and the rest of downtown left pretty much the way it is. *Getting* downtown without riding in traffic is probably the more important issue.

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