Bicycling infrastructure

I’ve been lagging on my series of posts about my observations from my various travels.  It’s not that I haven’t written them – I have a giant Word document full of them, which is still a work in progress.  I just haven’t been posting.  Spending a month in Ontario after having been away for a while was busy and exhausting. I don’t really even have much time right now, in Vancouver, but everyone in Toronto is freaking out over the loss of the Jarvis Street bike lanes, and it reminded me I haven’t posted in a while — and that I had a whole entry drafted about biking infrastructure that I now have to revise as a result.

My post as originally written, updated for changes in facts, follows.  I don’t propose to have any solutions this time, just to share my experiences and observations of cycling infrastructure in the places I’ve visited in the last year.  I’ve been posting photos I’ve taken of bike lanes (yes, I’m that much of a nerd) in their own set on Flickr.

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Toronto

Biking has gotten a disproportionate amount of attention of late, everywhere I seem to go.  In Toronto, I lived right around the corner from the ever-contentious Jarvis Street and its new bike lanes.  It’s been a while since I’ve owned a bike, the last one having been stolen and never replaced, but when I did own one in Toronto the bike lane network was sort of… useless.  By that, I mean much of it didn’t connect to anything else, some of it was labelled on the bike maps but not actually put in place yet, and there were big gaping holes in routes if you were actually trying to get from one place to another.  The bike lanes that have been put in place in the last 5 years or so have been a huge improvement, but let’s face it, sharing the road with Toronto’s drivers is best left to, well, drivers.  Toronto’s lanes are all lines painted on the street which mean relatively little to many drivers.

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I wrote the preceding paragraph before using a bike for commuting in Toronto, and it holds true.  In June I made extensive use of the new BIXI network (trying to get the best use out of my membership while in town!), and while it was a far superior alternative both to walking and to public transit, drivers in Toronto are terrible.  The same applies to cyclists and pedestrians.  Having been all three in the course of a week I saw how poorly we all share the roads and sidewalks.  Cars drive and park in bike lanes, pedestrians walk on the street (and not just across it), and cyclists ride on the sidewalk.  It’s a dangerous world out there and all the bickering isn’t helping anyone bridge these conflicts.

Montreal
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Montreal pioneered the BIXI (bike sharing) system, and it’s widely used and loved by Montrealers.  Combined with a network of bike lanes that is (slowly) expanding, including curb separation through the centre of the city on busier roads, it’s surprisingly feasible to ride a bike in Montreal.  I’m always surprised when I’m there to see just how many people are riding bikes, often as an alternative to cars or transit for commuting – even on cold autumn days!

Vancouver
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Vancouver is catching up in bike infrastructure, despite having a very high adoption rate of cycling.  A large portion of Vancouverites cycle – it’s got good weather for (year-round) cycling, and lots of beautiful routes to do it.  They’re also introducing curb-separated lanes, as a pilot in 2010 but more permanently already in 2011.  Still, they seem committed to it, and the bike network map is extensive and connected – commuting by bike is common and reasonable.  They’ve long had bike-specific traffic lights, and opposite-direction travel for bikes only on one-way side streets (Montreal has this now too) – including buttons (like pedestrian light buttons) for bicyclists to activate the traffic lights.

Sydney

The Devonshire Street Jog

Sydney, too, has made huge strides towards making cycling easier.  My apartment in Woolloomooloo is adjacent to another highly-contentious bike lane on Bourke Street.  Like most of Sydney’s newer bike lanes, it’s curb-segregated, which meant major parking losses – not a huge problem in Woolloomooloo where many people don’t own a car, or own one and park it in a garage, but a big deal to people at the South end of the street in bougie Surry Hills.  The unfortunate part, though, was that shortly before I moved in, not long after opening the Woolloomooloo end of the bike lane, Sydney Buses drivers decided it was “unsafe” to drive on Bourke Street as it’s now too narrow.  The problem, it seemed, was that even though the road was built to regulation width, the parking spots that do remain are often used improperly, so a car parked half a metre too far away from the curb prevented a bus from actually going down the street.  They finally resolved the problem in March 2011 by moving more parking onto side streets (and eliminating some altogether), but for months the buses were diverted away from a neighbourhood that’s already rather underserved by transit.
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Besides that, though, Sydney has come pretty far in its bike network.  It covers big parts of the city, and they’ve also introduced bicycle-only traffic lights.  Of course, they usually operate at the same time as the pedestrian lights, or in addition to the pedestrian lights, which means cyclists wait just as long as, or longer than, pedestrians do at intersections (I have a very long rant prepared in another post to go up later this year about pedestrian crossings in Australia… EDIT: Now posted here).  I also have to admit I rarely ever see anyone using the Woolloomooloo end of the Bourke Street bike lane – I do occasionally see some using it in Darlinghurst or Surry Hills, though, so it must be of some value to them.  It also creates a strange interplay with pedestrians – for example, to cross the street near my place, I have to look right and left twice to get across the street, first to avoid cars, then to avoid bicycles.  There are also places where it’s ambiguous whether cyclists have the right of way, or pedestrians – and lastly, the changes in traffic flow have led in numerous instances to the removal of zebra crossings (or light-controlled crossings), requiring pedestrians to go to the opposite side of Bourke Street to continue North or South – which is not to blame the bike lane, but obviously poor planning in designing it.

Melbourne

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Melbourne is the other place I can actually claim to have ridden a bike recently.  When I arrived I was thrilled to stumble across a bike sharing rack (a docking station).  After some investigation and eventual use of the system, I learned that it’s also based on the Montreal BIXI network, using the same bikes and locking technology.  Even more exciting, while trying to get info on it, I learned it had an iPhone app (called SpotCycle – free in the iTunes store), which includes all the BIXI-based bike share networks around the world (currently only 7 of them – Montreal, London (UK), Melbourne, Minneapolis, Washington DC – Arlington, and most recently Toronto and Ottawa).  You can use it to find the nearest location, the number of bikes there, and the number of empty racks.  The system works incredibly easily: if you’re not a member, you insert your credit card at a machine near the docking station, choose your time period (I went with a one-day subscription, $2.50 for a day which for some reason lasted me almost two), and it prints out (or displays) a 5-digit unlock code.  You walk over to any bike in the rack, enter the code, and the bike is unlocked – and you go!  You can then return it to any other docking station in the city – since the racks are self-locking it makes getting off your bike and on to your destination very easy as you just have to get off the bike, stick it in the rack, and just leave – no messing around with locks.  The first half hour of each ride is included in your subscription, the next half hour $2, but after that it becomes quite costly, at about $5 per half hour.  I’m not really clear on why they charge such a high rate after the first hour, other than perhaps to discourage people from going on a long ride with the bike.  One final interesting note is that they actually had a bike helmet system in place too (partly to relieve the problem of mandatory helmet laws).  A few locations had vending machines that sold helmets for $5 – but more pervasively, all 7-Eleven stores in the city sold both adult and children’s bicycle helmets for $5, and would accept a return of undamaged helmets and give a $3 refund.
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Riding in the city, while enjoyable, was at times frustrating. I’m not sure if I just noticed it more because I was actually on a bike, but there were a lot of areas where bikes were prohibited – including most major parks.  This made a planned visit to Government House in the botanic gardens impossible (downside of not having a lock – the inability to lock the bike anywhere other than the docking stations).  I appreciated the local cycling community’s vigilante responses to this.  Bike routes and lanes were sometimes very clearly marked and encouraging, but often ended with no warning, or in one case actually led me on to a highway (thankfully I was able to hop off onto the grass and out of the way).  Turning right in Melbourne is already a bit of a disaster with its hook turns (more about this in my transit post); doing so on a bike even more difficult.  There were a number of ambiguous street markings and signs that were generally unclear as to where it was safe to bike, where it was unsafe to bike, where it was encouraged to bike, and where it was illegal.  I often found myself happily cycling along a clearly marked bike lane one moment and then at an intersection with no clear signs, markings, or lights suggesting the way.  Frustrating – I now understand more of the stress my regular-cyclist friends go through.  All this said – having a bike share was still a great experience, and it often shaved a lot of time off of my travels, which was good given how much I wanted to get done in the time I had!

Brisbane

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Finally, I’ll briefly mention Brisbane.  They also had bike-sharing (CityCycle), though I saw very few cycleways to support the network.  Of greater hindrance to actually using it, though, was that even casual riders had to register online (similar to those who wanted to use their transit GO card system).  So hopping on a bike was actually impossible.  In addition, a daily subscription starts at $11!! Granted, their public transit fares are so expensive this is the cost of only 3 trips on the train or bus, but it’s still expensive enough to discourage people from using it (not to mention the mandatory helmet laws – just like Victoria (Melbourne)).  Bike sharing does work – but not when it’s expensive and has countless administrative barriers to use.

Helmets available here / Helmet laws hurt cycling

Re-reading this I realise what a random collection of thoughts it is, but that’s likely how a bunch of these posts will end up. If anyone’s had different / better / worse experiences in these cities (or elsewhere), please contribute in the comments!

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I want to say that helmet laws do not hurt cyclists, its when you use your head to come to a complete stop on the pavement that hurts cyclists. I’ve ridden for many years and wouldn’t dream of cycling without a helmet on.

    Reply

  2. […] Road tour I signed up for a day pass.  I’ve blogged more about the Bike Share experience here so I won’t go on too long.  I’ll just add that one of the coolest souvenirs I’ve […]

    Reply

  3. […] involved removing parking spaces on some roads and narrowing the road space for cars. This local Sydney blogger, described how it led to a temporary ending of bus services because the road was too narrow. […]

    Reply

  4. […] couple years ago, in a series of entries I wrote about my time in Australia, I wrote an entry about cycling infrastructure in Australia and Canada.  At the time, it had been ages since […]

    Reply

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