Keith Gerein: Why do bike lanes engender such outrage in Edmonton?

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Around my place, the Victoria Day weekend is best spent outside, visiting garden centres and markets, joining friends for fires and barbecues, and trying to avoid the embarrassment of being the last person on my block, again, to rake their yard.

This May long will be different, and not just because the Oilers are still relevant. Even though the weather forecast looks promising, COVID-19 precautions mean I won’t be doing much of the social or physical activity that normally takes place.

The one major exception is that I can still get out my bicycle, and I know I won’t be alone. Undoubtedly, thousands of other Edmontonians will also be pedaling on the trails and streets, which, regrettably, means a high potential for conflict as different users come into competition for the same spaces.

Acrimony around bikes, and more specifically, bike lanes, is something I have started to notice more and more since I rejoined the ranks of cyclists last spring after many years without two-wheeled transportation.

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I saw it during the last eight months in Toronto, where I witnessed a number of confrontations between motorists and cyclists.

And I certainly heard it in response to a column I wrote a week ago asking for readers’ views on major issues facing Edmonton’s city government.

For a number of you, it seems, bike lanes are a real sore point.

This is backed up in a 2018 Angus Reid Institute survey, in which Edmonton was one of only two Canadian cities where respondents who felt their community had too many bike lanes outnumbered those who felt there were too few — 36 per cent to 28 per cent.

It appears those who love bike lanes really love them, while those who hate them do so with equal intensity. In some cases, research suggests those on differing sides may actually dehumanize each other.

Unfortunately, what enmity exists is likely to escalate this year as civic election rhetoric ramps up, and as the city renews its “shared streets” program by putting down at least 10 kilometres of pylons for cyclists, rollers and walkers to safely move around in the pandemic.

In assessing opponents’ arguments, I confess if find it difficult to differentiate the legitimate gripes from the trivial or imagined.

Those opponents include businesses owners who believe the lanes have reduced customer traffic to their establishments (a recent University of Toronto study found access actually increased in that city).

Some drivers perceive a significant jump in their travel times. Others have said it’s unfair certain bike lanes and paths get priority for snow clearing.

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Then there are those incensed by the process, though the arguments can be contradictory. Some charge that the city has not consulted enough before installing bike lanes, while other opponents, including mayoral contender Mike Nickel, suggest the city has spent too much time on bike lanes at the expense of bigger priorities.

The real struggle for me is that regardless of which complaints are valid, the level of outrage expressed often seems incommensurate with the level of effect on people’s lives.

Which leads me to wonder if bike lanes have become a proxy fight in the much larger culture war over social justice. While not exclusively a partisan issue, there does seem to be something of a divide between conservatives and progressives.

(Or perhaps between inner-city dwellers without backyards, and suburban residents who feel shamed by urban elites for driving everywhere.)

After all, what we’re talking about here is a form of public wealth redistribution, or at least a more egalitarian use of infrastructure that has traditionally been the near-exclusive domain of vehicle owners.

“For some people in political positions, this can be a tool to divide the population and create a bit of a ruckus,” said neuroscientist Robin Mazumder, noting an infamous 2010 speech by Don Cherry that referred to bike-riding “pinkos.”

Mazumder, who studies how urban design affects mental health, said such an approach plays on people’s anxieties around change to traditional patterns of life — anxieties that are on overdrive right now due to the pandemic.

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My inclination to get past the culture war would be to inundate the debate with all the benefits bike lanes can offer, from fewer emissions to healthier populations to overall reduced car traffic.

But Stephen Raitz, chair of active transportation group Paths for People, said his organization has had better results talking about transportation options and safety.

“We tell people we’re not reducing your choice — we’re modifying it a touch — but we are increasing choice for other people,” he said. “And (bike lanes) give cyclists a safe place to be out of your way.

“Over time, people will realize that it isn’t the biggest deal to have these on local roads or collector roads.”

Raitz and Mazumder suggested comparisons between the cost of bike lanes and the cost of new overpasses and freeways can also be effective.

And the best tool to persuade someone, they said, is to actually get them using a bike lane, after which they tend to be hooked. (Or at least better informed).

In that vein, a silver lining to the past 14 months is that the pandemic has prompted the city to offer additional bike infrastructure, and additional Edmontonians have had the opportunity to use it.

Perhaps this Victoria Day weekend will see even more bells being rung, both on the streets and in the minds of those resistant to necessary and inevitable change.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein


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