Research preview: Canadian attitudes on bike lanes

Is there a new bike lane near your home or workplace? If there is – or if there were – do you think it will make your community a better place to live? Your answer probably depends on, at least in part, where you live. Canada contains a diverse and politically fractious mosaic of cycling cultures and infrastructures. According to 2018 data collected by the Angus Reid Institute, for example, how people perceive and value cycling varies substantially across Canada’s cities and regions.

Urban communities across Canada increasingly see the car – or more properly the system of automobility (to borrow John Urry’s phrase) built on cheap fossil fuels, highways, suburban sprawl, big box stores and a 24/7 advertising mantra equating cars with freedom and escape – as an environmental and public health crisis and critical driver of obesity, violent injury, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change. In this context, bike lanes offer an enticing, clean and cost-effective solution. Urban transport planners typically construct bike lanes as a technical, objective problem of rendering cycling more efficient through infrastructural fixes – such as replacing on-street painted lanes and ‘bike lanes to nowhere’ with safer dedicated lanes and continuous, connected bikeways.

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Bike Lane to Nowhere, Halifax

However, just as important as physical infrastructure are the differing political and cultural fabrics into which new bike lanes must be woven. These social urban fabrics include emotionally charged attitudes toward bike lanes shaped by Canada’s regional political cultures, which can make or break a bike lane irrespective of its technical need or efficiency. For example:

Residents of the Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary metro areas are considerably more likely to say there are ‘too many’ separated bike lanes where they live than those who live in other large cities across the country. One of these cities – Vancouver – has regularly been ranked among Canada’s ‘most bikeable,’ while the other two have not. … The belief that separated bike lanes are a good thing is the majority view in every metro area in this survey except those in Alberta, where it is still the most common view, though held by fewer than 50 per cent of respondents.”

(Angus Reid 2018: http://angusreid.org/bike-lanes/)

In a new piece of research, I am exploring divides between Canada’s urban communities and regions within attitudes toward bike lanes and whether bike lanes are perceived as part of ‘the good life’ or ‘the good city.’ The Angus Reid data hints at some sociologically intriguing variation, for instance, between east and west. In addition to seeing ‘too many’ dedicated spaces for cycling (irrespective of whether infrastructure is actually abundant), residents of western cities are more likely than those in eastern cities, where they see conflict between motorists and cyclists on the road, to attribute blame to the cyclists (Montreal is a salient exception to this pattern). Only in Halifax, as it happens, do residents attribute such blame equally. A similar divide runs through whether or not people think bike lanes make a community a better place to live:

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The largest difference emerges between Alberta and Atlantic Canada, where Alberta shows the lowest percentage of people who think bikes lanes make a community better, while Atlantic Canada shows the highest, with a difference of 22 percentage points. This finding shows the need for explanatory models that control and compare the effects of region against other variables such as age, gender and education. It hints at the role of regional political culture as a significant social context for (to paraphrase Jane Jacobs) the death and life of Canada’s new bike lanes.

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Cycling in Calgary: bucking the trend?