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Saturday, February 22, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Spending on transit, bike lanes unlikely to pay any dividends

There’s an “if you build it, they will come” mentality to both transit and so-called active transportation (walking, biking) schemes in Waterloo Region. That’s a whole lot of wishful thinking, something on which bureaucrats and complicit elected officials are prepared to waste hundreds of millions of dollars.

They’re gambling that the statistically irrelevant number of commuters using transit or biking to work will somehow blossom if only they spend more of your money on currently unloved options.

That was the rationale behind light rail transit, though the region eventually had to admit it was lying when it said the train would take people out of their cars. Instead, the system has added a layer of inconvenience on those forced to use transit due to a lack of alternatives. Spending more money on transit will not prompt people to abandon their cars.

Likewise with efforts to encourage cycling and walking instead of driving to work. The current numbers of people doing so are as miniscule as those using transit for that purpose, as the region’s own figures show.

Still, the new transportation master plan calls for $247 million to be spent on transit in the next decade, along with $120 million for active transportation plans. The region is gambling that will encourage people to ditch their vehicles. That the odds are very slim hasn’t put the brakes on the money train.

Transit is already a non-starter, as the region has admitted: the only rationale that remains is intensification along the LRT corridor, though that demands unfettered growth that is in direct opposition to stated goals of protecting the environment and making housing more affordable. Degrowth is the only solution in either case.

As for active transportation, experiments by the region and the cities have proven underwhelming, despite millions in new capital and operating costs for bicycle lanes. They’ve built them, and we did not come. Expecting that to change is folly, at least in any reasonable timeline that involves spending scarce tax dollars today.

Few people use the bike lanes in the region’s cities. Instead of scrapping the idea, the solution is to create more of them, a testament to bureaucracy as a pejorative.

Councils in the townships would be wise to learn from these failures, as bike lanes would serve even less of a purpose where commuting is concerned. 

As with the proliferation of bicycle lanes, planners seem to think that by offering up alternatives, people will get out of their cars. It’s not going to happen. In the rural areas, the scenic roads are the routes of choice for hobbyists. Outside of the Mennonite community, cycling is largely a leisure activity, not a form of transportation despite what regional planners would have us believe.

Sure, there’s little harm in paving out a little more of the shoulder when reconstructing rural roads, where space and budget allow for it. Some people are going to cycle, so making it safer for them and for motorists is a good idea. But just how much money should be spent on what is likely to remain marginally used infrastructure like bicycle lanes. Will people use the bike lanes? No, of course not. Oh, some people will. Enough to justify the expense? Not likely. Certainly not if getting people to use bikes instead of cars is the goal, any more than the region’s much more costly fiasco, light rail transit.

Perhaps separate bike lanes, removed from car traffic, will certainly encourage more people to cycle given the increased safety. Just add in miles and miles of contiguous segregated cycling lanes, and then you’ll have something useful. If planners want relevant numbers of cyclists, however, they’ll have to do something about the unsuitable weather eight months of the year.

There are certainly people who use their bikes to commute and do so all year round, but the numbers are tiny. Even advocacy groups such as the Share the Road Cycling Coalition note that the overwhelming majority – 96 per cent – of those who support more bicycle use would ride more often for recreation, not transportation.

One of the biggest hindrances to larger participation rates, advocates maintain, is safety: people don’t feel comfortable riding on the street. Plenty of us who actually own a bike let it sit unused much of the time. The biggest reason? Fearing for our safety. There’s good reason to be afraid: cars don’t share the road well, and our streets just aren’t made to accommodate cyclists, even on those with what are nominally called bike lanes.

Polls reveal that the majority of Ontarians (more than 60 per cent) say they would like to ride a bike more often, but cite the same safety concerns.

Of course, the real reasons why we don’t cycle more often are similar to why we don’t walk more often, exercise regularly, eat healthier foods and spend less time in front of a video screen of some sort: we don’t want to. But few of us will come out and say that, making endless excuses to ourselves. We’re certainly going to answer questions in a way that puts our sedentary lifestyles in the best light.

So, where cycling is concerned, it’s safety and lack of bike lanes/trails that keep us out of the saddle, rather than copping to things we don’t even want to admit to ourselves.

Arguments about encouraging more people to cycle are moot. In theory, we’d like to see more of that, but all the talk of health benefits and transportation options – the townships hear about how bikes will help prevent sprawl, but just like public transit the reality is much different – can’t trump real concerns for riders and drivers on actual roads.

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