I was in Ottawa recently as a representative of the South Island Prosperity Partnership which had been shortlisted for an Infrastructure Canada Smart Cities Challenge prize. Coincidentally, and luckily, one day earlier, also in Ottawa, was the third annual National Bike Summit. I’m so glad I was able to attend. Even as an already strong proponent of cycling there’s always more to learn.
Every year in Ottawa, Vélo Canada Bikes convenes municipal leaders, cycling advocates, policy makers, academics and industry. The purpose is to keep cycling on the national agenda and to keep the pressure on the federal government (and all federal parties in an election year) to develop a National Cycling Strategy.
Vélo Canada Bikes is asking the federal government to work with provincial and territorial governments, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Assembly of First Nations and additional stakeholders to develop a coordinated, evidence-based action plan tailored to maximizing current and future investments in cycling by all levels of government.
Elements of a National Cycling Strategy would include a national level forum to consult, share and develop best practices, a dedicated federal infrastructure fund, setting evidence-based and achievable five- and 10-year transportation mode share targets, and having Statistics Canada collect data on cycling prevalence and cycling safety.
Why is cycling capturing national attention and why now?
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, provided the opening address and made strong connections between walking and cycling and positive health outcomes. She noted that only 3% of children who live within five minutes of school cycle to school. She talked about the importance of starting with kids and education in schools to create positive health outcomes and life-long bike riders.
From Health Canada to the Canadian Institute for Health Research, to health researchers interested in implementation science, to doctors themselves, Tam noted that the health benefits of active transportation are becoming more widely recognized, especially in light of the rise of anxiety, depression and screen-addiction in young people and social isolation for seniors.
Another reason to push for a National Cycling Strategy is because there are more people biking in Canada now than there were two decades ago. Yvonne Vanderlin from the Centre for Active Transportation in Toronto presented data from the 1996 through to the 2016 census. She showed that in some places across the country, even in places with tough winters like Montréal, cycling had almost doubled in that period. In Victoria, our increase has been 34%. (The neighbourhood of Fairfield in Victoria is Canada’s second highest “cycling neighbourhood” in Canada with just over 18% of people cycling to work.) With more people riding bikes across the country there’s a need for more education, more dedicated cycling infrastructure and a national strategy to guide this.
There’s also a strong climate argument for a National Cycling Strategy. While riding a bike is an obvious way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bikes aren’t getting as much attention as electric cars when it comes to transportation emissions reductions. Anders Swanson the Chair of Vélo Canada Bikes made the poignant point that Zero Emissions Vehicle strategies are entirely focused on cars. He pointed out the obvious – that bikes are also zero emissions vehicles. The federal government (and the BC government too) are offering $6000 incentives to people trading in their gas-powered cars for electric cars but there is no financial incentive for those who might be ready to ditch a car altogether if they could switch to an electric bike.
Finally, as Victoria’s own Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute told the national crowd, there are the economic benefits benefits of cycling, and these are often overlooked. He began with a Victoria example where we’ve spent approximately $6 million to build two kilometres of bike lanes (and to improve conditions for pedestrians). He noted all the criticism we’ve received for spending this money for such a short distance. But then look how many people that money is moving! He noted that for $6 million we move an average of 2000 commuters on a daily basis (combined daily average of Fort and Pandora lanes). He contrasted this with the Province’s recent announcement of a highway to Sooke, population 13,000. He pointed out that the Province is spending $85 million to move 13,000 people. If you look at dollars spent per commuter moved, dedicated cycling infrastructure makes strong fiscal sense.
Litman also pointed out the benefits to a family’s bottom line of moving to a car-free life. This doesn’t mean not driving a car (car shares like B.C.’s Modo are available when you need a car, or truck, or van) it just means not owning one. Since giving up their car years ago his family has saved approximately $5000 per year. They are paying for their children’s university education with the savings.
He also noted that cycling is good for local business. When you fill up a car, the profits from the gas purchase go elsewhere. With the money saved by not filling up a tank with gas, this is money in people’s pockets that will more likely be spent at local businesses where the money stays in the community. His overall point was that you don’t need to be an environmentalist or a cycling advocate to see the merits of his argument – cycling has a solid economic bottom line.
In just a short morning at the conference I was convinced once again that we need a National Cycling Strategy. With a federal election coming up, I will be advocating to ensure that this makes its way into the platforms of all federal parties.
P.S. I was honoured at an evening reception with a national award for Canadian Cycling Advocate of the Year, 2019.
Photo credit: Yvonne Bambrick/Vélo Canada Bikes