Why aren't more people using bike lanes?
“I’ve noticed there aren’t a lot of people using the downtown bike routes. I worry that they just weren’t a very good idea.”
A well-meaning friend said this to me yesterday. A day later, I have figured out what I should have replied. Better late than never, I guess.
In a nutshell, people are slow to embrace change. In fact, it’s quite fascinating to look back to the advent of motors cars, and see how people resisted cars as fiercely as some people now resist bicycle lanes. Cars were first invented in 1885, but it would be decades before they posed any threat to horses and bicycles. As late as 1907 they were seen as little more than annoying, noisy, smelly nuisances. The editor of the New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle commented:
“The automobile fever is catching. [Soon] ... the chug-chug noise will be quite common. ... The horsemen need not get alarmed that the motor car will injure their business in our country. “
[New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle, 19 April 1907]
Good thing this fellow was in newspapers, not in the investment advice business.
Christchurch New Zealand in the early 20th century:
This photo shows the ongoing struggle for road space, as motorists attempted to wrest control of the roads from people on bikes
As cars slowly became more common, antipathy against them increased – and fear grew. A newspaper correspondent referred to them as the “running stinkers,” saying he was “one who doesn't own an auto – but one who is likely to get run over.” As cars continued to encroach on the roads and fear escalated, moralists came out in force. In just the same way as motorists are now preaching to cyclists, the Chronicle editor cautioned:
“The auto people have the right to use the public roads, but they must do so in a reasonable manner. If they go rushing about the country regardless of whom they may annoy or injure they can be hauled up with a round turn, but as long as they are careful and regulate to statutory speed their right is undeniable.”
A correspondent chimed in, declaring passionately:
“There surely should be some legislation for the people who maintain the roads and who in their daily avocation are constantly called on to use these roads. Their rights should be protected against these life endangering pleasure jaunters.”
Unlike today’s unreasonable fear of cyclists, the fear of cars a century ago was very sensible. Their noisy engines and horns on formerly peaceful country roads terrified both horses and humans. One correspondent admitted that he was:
... “(in) mortal terror of one of these devil wagons meeting us when we are driving along the road, our horse taking the nearest fence and leaving us stranded on the roadside, possibly maimed for life, and our good looks considerably out of joint.”
Legislation was bought in to defend the fearful horse-riding majority against the motorized encroachers:
“The speed of the stink wagons [motor cars] is limited to a mile in 8 minutes [12 kph]. On passing a team [of horses] if the driver of the team holds up his hands, the Chauffeur of the stink wagon must bring it to a standstill and remain in that condition until the driver of the horse gives permission to start.”
500 Block of Carrall Street, Vancouver, in 1906:
The streets still belonged to cyclists, horses and pedestrians –
but cars were lurking on the horizon, poised to take over
(Vancouver Public Library: Special Collections Historical Photographs)
Exactly as today, business owners were terrified of losing trade because of the newfangled “stink wagons” – also referred to as “gasoline devils” and “devil wagons.” The editor of the New Glasgow wrote:
“... we feel fairly certain that besides the danger and injury inflicted, these `devil wagons’ will lose the merchants of the town thousands of dollars worth of trade, because the country people will not, and justly so, risk their lives, coming or going from town, by meeting one of these machines.”
The notion of people being afraid to go downtown for fear of meeting a car seems ludicrous today – but perhaps our ancestors were more sensible than we, given that nine pedestrians have already been killed by cars in Vancouver this year? Today pedestrians have entirely gotten over their fear of cars – instead, business owners fear that their customers will be afraid of walking a couple of blocks after parking their cars, due to the removal of a few dozen parking spaces to accommodate the new bike lane on Hornby Street!
Henry Ford, first man to mass-produce cars, sits in the first car he made, in 1896. It would be many years before the majority of people would accept his mass produced “stink wagons.”
Opponents of the “stink wagons” used an argument similar to that used today against cyclists, equating horse riders with sensible business people and car drivers with frivolous layabouts:
“If we have to put up with them [motor cars], drivers of horses will be driven off the roads. Drivers of horses are mostly on business, but the `devil wagons’ are used for fun. Has the whole county, whose people built the roads for their own use in order to do their work, to put up with these pleasure jaunters?”
Interesting that the horse-riding majority was claiming to have built the roads by and for themselves, and resented the new car drivers (falsely claiming motorists had not contributed to the building of the roads). This is exactly like many cyclophobes today, who allege that roads are paid for solely by people who happen to drive cars (falsely claiming that frivolous cyclists do not own property or pay taxes, and therefore have no right to use the roads!).
Cars have changed dramatically since 1896 –
but they’re still “stink wagons”!
As we know, people did eventually accept motor cars. However, it did not happen overnight – in fact, it would take DECADES before cars were accepted and adopted in large numbers. I am very confident that people will be a little quicker to accept the positive change embodied in increased cycling, especially given that the current turmoil in the Middle East suggests we may be on the brink of massive oil price hikes.
In Montréal, thousands of cyclists use the well-established, mainly separated bike lanes at rush hour - freeing up the roads for cars.
In the meantime, let’s just remember that change takes time. Expecting the brand new separated bike lanes of Vancouver to immediately resemble the crowded bike lanes of Montréal or Copenhagen does not take into account that humans take time to embrace change.
It all seems to come down to Gandhi’s wise adage:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Cyclists are now at the stage of being fought with, but inevitably, we will win. Our city planners are well aware that Vancouver cannot be sustainable in the future unless viable alternatives to cars are embraced. Be it ever so glacial, change is nonetheless inevitable.
Already, despite the newness of the lanes and unusual coldness of this winter, Hornby Bike Lane is beginning to look pretty busy (photo by Alex-boy)