I just came across a blog post by David Reevely at the Citizen, responding to Randall Denley's piece on the perennial conversation about making Ottawa a cycling city, and arguing that decent street design, making cycling safer, is more important than teaching people to cycle properly.
The two pieces are interesting: they illustrate how complicated the question is. If a city wants to get more people cycling, there will probably be a dozen different takes on how to do it. Do you want people who are unused to cycling to feel safer? Do you want to keep bikes off the roads and provide dedicated cycling facilities? Do you want the cyclists to learn and obey the rules of the road? Just how steep should the learning curve be for newbies? Are bike lanes going to cut into the profits of the businesses along the road, or improve them? Who rides anyway? Who will ride once you change things? Can you even predict that?
But what really got my attention was his claim that "conditions for commuter biking in Ottawa are poor, such that most people consider it the province of elite and experienced cyclists who have specialized skills and a lot of courage."
I commute. Not only do I commute about seven and a half miles to work, I do it year round. But none of those adjectives sit right with me. 'Elite?' Hell no. 'Experienced'? Other than the fact that I get on a bike most days of the week and get my ass to work, and have for the last three years or so, I don't think I'd consider myself an 'experienced' cyclist. I certainly don't know how to do anything on a bike that anyone else I know can't, so along with 'experienced' I think I'd rule out 'specialized skills.' And 'courage'? Is this where I admit to the scared yelps that are a routine part of my day?
Basically, I really don't think that conditions, as they stand, are all that poor in Ottawa. I mean, in comparison to what? When I first moved to Ottawa when I was eighteen, I made the jump from recreational cycling on rural roads to making my way around a fairly good-sized city. I managed it. The city's fairly flat, so there isn't that initial barrier of hills to tire a novice out. There are beautiful rec paths. The downtown streets aren't that bad (so there's some nasty pavement, but the side streets are quiet, aesthetically pleasing, and tree-shaded.) Sure, I notice the spots where things are awkward - nothing's perfect, and you might as well fix the stuff that you know needs fixing. But I'm not elite, experienced, particularly skilled or courageous, in my humble opinion, and yet I took to cycling. In fact, I discovered I love it.
Now, about whether you're better off creating safer facilities or teaching cyclists to ride properly: my take on it is that a city can't teach cyclists. How would you do that? Offer lessons - that only some people would take you up on? I certainly wouldn't take time out of my life to take cycling safety lessons. Would you license cyclists? I can only imagine the organizational and bureaucratic nightmare that would be. What a city can do - actually do - is build facilities. So that's what they should spend their time and effort on. Educating people is a lot harder for a municipal government to do. Bike advocacy groups can do that. Bloggers can do it. Journalists can. Bike shops can. The city can create segregated lanes, put up signage, provide information, mark bike routes, make it clear where bike paths will take you, and clear bike lanes and paths of snow. But it can't teach a new cyclist not to be nervous. And that's not its job. It's ours.