Who owns the roads? Urban cycling advocates raise safety concerns

This Montreal intersection was at the heart of a controversial fine on Wednesday. Martin Hazel/Global News

MONTREAL – A high-profile ticketing blitz, a string of deadly accidents, and a dispute over the rules of the road this summer suggests Montreal cycling is experiencing some growing pains.

Montreal’s 600 kilometres of bike paths and the arrival of the Bixi rent-a-bike system have made the city among the top cycling destinations in North America, according to several rankings.

In recent months, though, biking has been the subject of controversy.

And the issues raised in Montreal are popping up in other in other Canadian cities trying to expand their cycling network.

In June, Montreal police handed out a slew of fines to bikers who blew through red lights and stop signs on downtown streets. The blitz angered cycling advocates.

One cyclist, issued a ticket for running a red light, was slapped with an additional $651 fine for impeding a police operation when he tried to warn other cyclists to stop. He’s planning to appeal the fine.

Story continues below advertisement

A crowd-sourced map was even set up online detailing the intersections cops were targeting.

There were also two cycling deaths recently, including one where a woman died after getting hit by a bus after she had swerved to avoid an opening car door.

The string of incidents has set off a broader discussion among cycling advocates about safety, infrastructure, and whether drivers and cyclists should operate under different sets of rules.

“The argument that always comes up from the drivers’ perspective is that streets were made for cars,” said Cam Novak, an artist and Montreal cycling advocate.

“Well, things are changing. I think it needs to be discussed and looked at seriously.”

Similar debates are unfolding in other cities as the number of bikes on city streets continues to grow.

In Vancouver, advocates continue to push for an improved network of bike paths and safety campaigns for cyclists and drivers.

Cyclists in the B.C. city are required by law to wear a helmet, which has become the subject of debate as Vancouver rolls out its bike-sharing program.

“The question is should the people be spending time enforcing the helmet law where bike sharing has been proven safe in other cities, or should they be spending time enforcing other offences, like speeding and drunk driving?” said Richard Campbell, president of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition.

Story continues below advertisement

A cyclist in Toronto, meanwhile, has built a website to record accidents involving getting “doored” – when an oncoming bike hits an opened car door.

The site is intended to raise awareness about the issue.

At the same, drivers complain that cyclists are unpredictable and don’t respect traffic signs.

The Canadian Automobile Association has laid out guidelines for both drivers and cyclists on their website – and created a quiz for cyclists to test their safety measures.

About 7,500 cyclists are seriously injured every year, most often at an intersection, according to the CAA.

Ahmed El-Geneidy, an urban planning professor at McGill University, said cyclists will likely continue to break the rules until two things happen: cyclists and drivers are better educated to deal with one another, and a more cohesive network of bike paths is in place.

El-Geneidy, who has researched the motives of cyclists, said many prioritize efficiency on their daily rides – even if it means putting themselves on busier streets.

“Many of these cyclists aren’t adhering to the rules because they rules are built for cars,” said El-Geneidy, who suggested introducing measures that put bikes ahead of cyclists, such as introducing a bike-first light at some intersections.

“We are a car dependent society, and we won’t be reaching lower levels of reducing car usage unless we do things that make it harder for the cars.”

Story continues below advertisement

One clear way to increase cycling rates is more bike paths.

A McGill University study published earlier this year found that intersections in Montreal with protected bike lanes see 61 per cent more bike traffic than those without. Meanwhile, intersections with painted bike lanes see 36 per cent more cyclists.

Across the country, though, the number of Canadians who cycle to work appears to have stalled after a period of steady growth.

Data from Statistics Canada shows no difference in the percentage of Canadians who commuted to work by bike in 2011 and 2006.

That number remains unchanged at 1.3 per cent. That works out to 201,785 cyclists out of more than 15 million commuters.

Ralph Buehler, an urban planning professor Virginia Tech University, said there are other ways to ensure cyclists feel safer on the roads.

In Europe, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen time some traffic lights to the speed of bikes, rather than cars, said Buehler, author of City Cycling, which documents the rise of urban biking in North America, Europe and Australia.

Another option is to create “bike boulevards,” allowing bikes to continue along a residential street while forcing cars onto main thoroughfares by alternating the street’s direction.

Story continues below advertisement

For Novak, all options should be on the table as Montreal and other cities weigh how to become a more bike-friendly city.

“It has immense potential,” he said.

Sponsored content