Is Canada Buying into Biking?

This article was originally published in PEDAL magazine

Is Canada Buying into Biking?

What’s the state of cycling in urban Canada? It is building credibility as a sensible all-ages way to get around town. The bicycle’s biggest boosters are heralding a Renaissance in two-wheeled travel. Many cities across the country are installing more bike lanes. The biggest urban areas are adopting public bike share programs as part of their transportation network. More women, seniors, and children can be seen riding their bikes, as separate lanes and bike paths connect homes, business, and schools. However, it’s too soon to guarantee cycling will have a lasting impact on Canada’s urban landscape. Advocates for cycling want to see major changes to the layout, economics, and culture of Canadian cities. But, there’s no guarantee Canadians will buy into bicycling en masse, especially without compelling reasons. Unless the industry, government, and cycling advocates make biking for transportation a no-brainer decision, Canadian cities could fall behind in the urban cycling race.

Globally, Canada is squarely mid-pack when it comes to encouraging cycling for transportation. European countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark are miles ahead of most countries, with their cycling infrastructure, bicycle training, and overall public acceptance of bikes on the road having started a couple of generations ago. This has resulted in comprehensive urban cycling networks, rural and suburban facilities, and a population that views cycling as a transportation decision rather than a political or environmental statement. Of course, developing nations in Asia continue to rely on the bicycle as a workhorse vehicle for moving people and goods, even though powered (gas and electric) scooters and small cars are catching the attention of a newly created middle class.

Some countries, such as South Korea, are spending billions to upgrade and add cycling facilities to their transportation network, fearful of the environmental impacts and economic danger of relying on increasingly scarce fossil fuels for their transportation needs. Other nations in Europe are following suit at varying rates, with cycling growing rapidly in Spain, France, and Germany, where significant investments in cycling infrastructure are delivering corresponding increases in bicycle use. Like Canada, the United States has its cycling cities and much not else in between, with Portland widely considered the US leader in creating a bike-friendly city on the West Coast and New York City and Washington, D.C. front-runners on the Atlantic side of the country.

One factor that appears to have the biggest impact on cycling in cities is the attitude of municipal governments towards self-propelled transportation. Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams is a perfect example. His spearheading of bike-friendly initiatives put the Oregon city on the cycling map. Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City gave his department of transportation full rein to start expanding cycling facilities, so they did. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has become the poster boy for cycling mayors in Canada, while a decidedly less bike-friendly mayor in Rob Ford has Toronto’s cycling community facing what appears to be an uphill battle for road rights. London’s Boris Johnson made cycling a top priority in that city, and the Colombian brothers of Enrique and Gil Penalosa are credited with making Bogota the most bike-friendly city in South America, a continent seeing growth in cycling overall, especially in fast-growing economies such as Brazil. It seems as if every city from Hobart, Tasmania to Cape Town, South Africa has a municipal council contemplating cycling infrastructure and the impact it will have on their city. With this shift however, comes a need to accommodate a new kind of cyclist. For an industry long focused on meeting the needs of enthusiasts with encyclopedic knowledge of their sport, selling bikes to novice commuter cyclists means new approaches.

“It’s not about fitting the person to the bike that we have, it’s about fitting the bike to the person,” says Hannah Parish, Manager – Marketing Services for Specialized Bicycles Canada, referring to the wide range of bike options Specialized provides, through its signature brand and also its Globe spin-off, which focuses strictly on urban bikes. “Providing the tools for people to do what’s right for them is the right place for the industry to be right now.”

Gordon Morehouse of Dizzy Cycles in Vancouver is seeing these new cyclists starting to show up his store. “We’re really strong in road, so we do cater to the Gran Fondo rider and the entry level enthusiasts who wants to participate in a fundraising ride or other group events, but we’re also really close to a couple of very high-traffic cycle commuter routes, and we do a pretty broad range of commuter offerings as well. So, we’re seeing more and more entry-level commuters coming into the store.”

Morehouse notes that many of these new commuters have little or no knowledge of the latest cycling gear and educating their customers about advances such as clipless pedals has become part of the work they do to ensure their customers understand their options. Notably, women constitute a big portion of this new customer base, with some estimates suggesting as many as half of all new bikes are sold to women.

“We’ve known for three for four years now that that’s a huge growth market,” says Morehouse. “We have a full wall in the store that’s dedicated just to the women’s market.

Educating the prospective urban biker about advances in cycling technology is clearly a task for the industry. Teaching politicians and planners how to build bike-friendly cities however, is a job that is falling in the laps of academics and advocates. This summer about a thousand of them will converge on Vancouver for the 2012 Velo-city Global conference. The conference, an annual event created by the European Cyclists’ Federation, concentrates almost exclusively on discussing the role of bicycles in providing urban transportation and will see the new industry surrounding cycling for transportation gather and

Promoting bike lanes is bringing more people to two wheels. Social marketing efforts positioning it as a good choice are helping too. But there’s another factor, already having an impact in other countries, which will soon play a role in Canada’s cycling scene. As electric bicycle technology advances and folding bikes gain fans, the bicycle itself is sowing the seeds for a new crop of riders.

Electric bikes are having an impact for a good reason. They make cycling accessible to a vastly wider range of potential cyclists. Not only does the electric assist make cycling a viable option for those who have fitness issues, heavy loads, or an office where showing up sweaty isn’t an option, they are being bought by many people who would never self-identify as ‘cyclists’. These new riders, who don’t see themselves as part of the cycling fraternity, are in some ways even more effective advocates than hardened bikers. As more and more ‘regular’ people start asking for safer streets and improved cycling infrastructure, the less politicians are able to dismiss these requests as those of a vocal minority.

Folding bikes are following a similar pattern. Their portability and small storage footprint means they can be part of a multi-modal commute for urban residents living in today’s micro-sized spaces and wishing to combine a bike commute with the subway or other transit options. Now some folding bike companies such as Dahon are combining the folder’s size advantages with the convenience of electric assist. While e-bikes and folders will likely never capture the imagination of the dedicated roadie or mountain biker, their utility is gaining converts among urban cyclists who need efficient transportation rather than sporty performance.

New bike routes, new customers, and new bikes built specifically for urban riders are good signs for cycling in Canadian cities. But as every cyclist knows, momentum is the key to pedal-powered happiness. Advocates need to keep sustained pressure on governments to provide funding for bike lanes, paths, parking, and the awareness campaigns which get people using them. Regular Canadians who want these better bike facilities have to make their preference obvious at the ballot box. Bike companies have to build bikes that non-cyclists want to ride. Importantly, the industry has to review its marketing efforts, which often portray cycling as an ‘extreme’ undertaking, against the desires of the urban cyclist, who usually wants their ride to be an uneventful as possible. Success in all these areas will mean Canada’s bike lanes don’t end up unused strips of asphalt, bearing witness to what might have been.

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