What Makes a Bike-Friendly Town?

©. K Martinko – Me and my friends on our annual Bike Around The World / 'take back the streets' tour of town

In which I argue that bike-friendliness should be measured by how well a town caters to its most practical, regular, and vulnerable of users, not tourists.

My small rural town recently received a bronze award at the Ontario Bike Summit and is now officially designated a "bike-friendly community." Upon seeing this news on Twitter, I choked on my coffee. I love this town and have lived here for nearly a decade since moving from Toronto, but it is not what I'd call bike-friendly.

So I called out the mayor on Twitter and promised to write up my own list of suggestions for how the community could actually be made bike-friendly. He explained that the award

"is not intended to indicate that our work is finished, [but] intended to recognize that [the town] has made a special priority of becoming bike friendly – and that is definitely the case."

Great, but it sounds to me like the award was issued prematurely; shouldn't the end result be rewarded, rather than the intention? Nevertheless, I'm still going ahead with my thoughts on what needs to change.

First off, I should explain that the community in which I live is a beautiful lakeside tourist destination. Bordering Lake Huron with sandy beaches and famous sunsets, people flock here in droves to rent cottages during the summer. A lovely network of bike trails has developed over the past 10-15 years, linking my town to the next, roughly 4mi/6km away. You can travel between the two towns on a paved waterfront trail, a packed gravel rail trail, or a winding, hilly forest path.

Despite their scenic value, these trails are not geared toward practical use. They were built for tourists, for Sunday cyclists, for people wanting to get a workout. They were not built for busy parents like myself who need to get multiple children delivered to multiple locations early on a weekday morning by bicycle. They're all out of the way and require in-town cycling in order to access.

beach view of Lake Huron

© K Martinko – Stunning, yes, but not where I can go every weekday morning.

So let's talk about that in-town cycling. Aside from some new bike 'racks' (if they can be called that, as they're just blue metal circles that only fit two bikes each and are often full, especially in front of restaurants and bars), there has been zero infrastructure to show that this town is prioritizing cycling. At shopping plazas and supermarkets, the bike racks are far from the main entrances and often packed full to the point of not being able to squeeze my bike in, so I end up having to look for a lamppost or something else.

New stop lights installed at a main intersection fail to recognize the presence of a bike. This means that, if there are no other cars at the intersection (yes, this frequently happens in a small town), I have to pull my bike up on the sidewalk to hit the pedestrian button. This is impossible to do while hauling a child in a chariot and requires either turning around and going back to find an entry point along the curb or leaving my child and bike in the road to hit the crosswalk signal.

Nor are there any bike lanes, paint markings, or even extra space allowance given to bicycles on the roads or at stoplights. The pavement along the main street has major potholes along the edge that require me to ride in the middle of the road to avoid a wipeout and this makes drivers angry.

No route across town has consistent stop signs, stop lights, or crosswalks to make it safer. For example, if I send my kids to the crosswalk to get across the main road, they have to cross a secondary street before it that has no stop sign and where people drive very fast. It makes no sense.

CSA pickup on bicycle

© K Martinko – I like to pick up my weekly CSA share of vegetables by bike, with kids in tow

A bike-friendly town should be measured by how well it caters to the most practical and regular of users – the daily commuters, the people hauling stuff to and from stores, the children trying to get to school and extracurricular activities, the folks meeting friends for patio drinks in the evenings. This is the demographic that requires investment, not the well-heeled weekend tourists who show up in their swanky cars, go for a single Saturday-morning ride along the water, and never have to navigate downtown cars and lack of racks for locking up.

What I want most of all is a town where my kids can get themselves around town on their bikes, without me fearing for their lives. I want to be able to map out a safe route for them to get their various destinations and know I can trust the infrastructure (more or less, mixed with a decent amount of common sense and training) to get them there safely. Nor do I want to be made to feel like my chariot and my train of small children on bicycles is an inconvenience to everyone – something that happens every time I go out.

Driver education has to improve significantly – and this will have to be a major priority for the town – as people here are far less aware (and oddly resentful) of cyclists than anyone I encountered while riding my 24-km/15-mi roundtrip commute in Toronto. In fact, cycling in Toronto felt safer because I could at least find bike routes on some streets, vehicles moved more slowly due to congestion, and drivers seemed more aware of other beings on the road, simply because they had to be.

So, forgive my lack of enthusiasm, but could we actually get serious about what makes a community bike-friendly? It all starts with defining who the target demographic is, because if we're catering to temporary visitors, it does little for the residents whose daily quality of life should matter far more than the fleeting weekend pleasures of a tourist.