Prescription: Bike Lanes

Some context: I am writing this blog post after spending three weeks travelling around Europe visiting numerous cities, including the urbanist mecca of Copenhagen. I had the privilege of experiencing the delight of biking the complete streets of that glorious city. So, I’ve returned to Canada feeling both inspired by what I saw there AND irritated by what I don’t see here. The reverse culture shock I am currently experiencing mostly involves getting acclimatized to the brutal (and brutish) car culture that is pervasive here.

My Eurotrip kicked off in Moscow. I was invited to speak at their International Cycling Congress where I joined city builders from around the world to discuss cycling infrastructure and culture. There is a rapidly growing cycling culture in Russia and this conference was a way to bring changemakers from across the country together to equip them with ideas they could bring back to their cities. I’ll save my observations on my time in Russia for another blog post, but for now I’ll say it was a really positive and eye-opening experience.

In addition to giving a talk on how to promote cycling in winter cities, I also moderated a panel discussion on Vision Zero. For those who don’t know, Vision Zero is an international initiative aimed at reducing traffic related injuries and fatalities. In my opening remarks for the panel discussion, I made what, at the time, I thought was a bold statement: that Vision Zero is truly an issue of public health and that urban planners and policy makers should see themselves as part of the urban health care team. I made this same claim at talks I gave this past winter at the Winter Cities Shakeup and the Winter Cycling Congress. As someone who was formally a healthcare professional, I feel it is imperative that I take every opportunity to communicate to the people who build our cities that they play a vital role in the health of the general public. When working as a community based occupational therapist, I saw firsthand how urban design impacted both the physical and mental health of the people I supported. This realization of the health impacts of urban design is what drove me to quit my job to start my PhD where I am currently examining these issues in more depth.

In retrospect, I recognize my claims weren’t bold at all. They were just common sense. We know that cycling infrastructure reduces injuries and fatalities caused by drivers. Furthermore, active transportation has recently been shown to reduce illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

So, what’s the hold up? Why are we stalling on getting quality cycling infrastructure in cities across Canada? The evidence can’t be any clearer, yet cities are dragging their heels on moving forward with these live saving decisions. Could you imagine our state of affairs if the same thinking was applied to adopting medical interventions that were proven to save lives? If we ignored expert opinion and engaged in long and drawn out consultations on decisions that affected the health of the public? As it stands, cities are disregarding the evidence, pandering to the car-driving majority and listening intently to people who vehemently oppose bike lanes. It’s maddening.

I thought about this a lot during my trip and I came to the following conclusion: There is little difference between the anti-bikelane faction and the anti-vaxxers out there.

Ok. THAT might be a bold statement, But, think about it. Both vaccines and bike lanes save lives: vaccines protecting us from viruses, bike lanes protecting us from drivers. Obviously the mechanisms are different, but I hope you can see the parallels I’m trying to draw here. We see anti-vaxxers and their opinions as absurd – there’s no reason we shouldn’t see anti-bikelaners and their rhetoric as equally ludicrous.

Given the research that exists on how cycling infrastructure reduces injuries and fatalities AND promotes health, it’s just stupid that we are so far behind. The science behind cycling infrastructure isn’t nearly as complicated as the science behind vaccines, but it would seem so given how slow we are to move on building out our bike lane networks.

Thinking of cycling infrastructure as a medical intervention may be helpful to planners and policy makers in making the decisions that often get derailed by the anti-bikelaner complainers out there. I believe in consultation, but I also believe that sometimes the experts know best – and we’ve heard loud and clear from the experts that bike lanes save lives and promote health. In accordance with this, perhaps it’s time that our cities consider a prescription for bike lanes to inoculate us from the perils of car culture.

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