Cycling in Canada

Eleven years ago I was introduced to cycling in Vancouver through a friend of The Man who was an active cyclist throughout the city. Together with his then four(ish) year old son, we biked around Stanley Park. I remember it vividly, because there were so many weird things about getting on a bike that one day, at least from my Dutch perspective. First of all the price for renting a bike was outrageous. For the amount we paid we could buy two second hand bikes back home. Maybe more. Then the mandatory helmets. I’ve never worn a bike helmet, not even when learning to ride one as a kid. And apart from two halves of my front teeth (a helmet wouldn’t have saved my teeth) I survived (and so have all my friends). OK, I admit, the place I grew up in had no hills and all Dutch drivers are cyclists first, drivers second. Once we got on our highly priced crappy bikes, we had to navigate through traffic. Within a hundred meters we got ourselves into trouble and entered a road clearly not meant to host cyclists. Let’s just say our trip could have easily ended that very first day of our stay in Canada. Once in the park, with guidance of our friend, all was lovely and fine. We didn’t accept the invite to rent our bikes for a longer period though, knowing that it would be too much of risk for us foreigners.

Cycling along Stanley Park driveway
Me cycling behind our friend in Stanley Park

Fast forward to last week, when I visited Montreal for a day, I noticed cycling is a ’thing’ in this city. I captured quite a few cyclists on camera during the few hours I walked the streets. Most notable were the two child seats I came across, one even from the Dutch brand Yepp, the same one I have on the back of my bike for my Daughter. While most cyclists looked comfortable enough it doesn’t take a specialist eye to notice the roads weren’t designed for them. I wouldn’t dare get on a bike here.

Biking in Montreal

Only a few days after I left Canada, my friend Peter, who’s unconference was the reason for me being in Canada in the first place, blogged about e-bikes. During the unconference lunch break on Friday, the group I had lunch with passed a bike parked on the side walk. I hadn’t noticed it since the shape of a bike is marked as irrelevant in my brain, but one of the others took a longer look at it. It wasn’t a regular bike, it was an e-bike! Apparently this is a ’thing’ on Prince Edward Island. Of course, in The Netherlands e-bikes have been selling like crazy for a number of years already. In 2016 almost a third of all newly sold bikes where e-bikes. So these days I’m the slow one on bike paths, being surpassed by old people who are not even breaking a sweat.

In the context of PEI I can see the value of cycling, better than in Canadian cities. Considering drivers on the island almost always stop well in advance for pedestrians who MIGHT cross the road, they probably behave careful enough around cyclists as well. So I wasn’t surprised when Peter, the early-adopter of e-things, went shopping for one. What raised my eyebrows was his experience with bike shops and that he was pleasantly surprised finding a shop that let him go for a test ride.

With a request to leave my wallet behind as collateral (a request that gave me no pause given the aforementioned geniality), I was given a helmet, a brief tutorial about how to use the bike, and sent on my way for an open-ended test ride. This is the way that testing should happen; the “no rush” is key, especially when dealing with things that cost multi-thousands of dollars.

(From The Bicycle Shops of Halifax – Peter Rukavina)

I feel sorry for Peter to disclose this is standard service with any bike shop in my country. The last time I bought a new bike and made some test drives, they didn’t even ask for my wallet.

During aforementioned unconference there was some discussion on biking on the island. People think you can’t ride one during their long and harsh winters, therefore it doesn’t make sense in investing in the right infrastructure for cyclists. Ever since I visited Umeå, in the north of Sweden, I know this is not an excuse. Just add spikes to your tires, just as you would with your car, and you’re all set.

Umea winter 2010
Bikes parked during winter in Umeå – Anna Sircova

All in all my conclusion is that riding a bike safely in various parts in Canada is still a dream. From my Dutch perspective I seriously doubt if the places I visited ever will be able to be a dream places for cyclists. Canadian roads were designed for cars. It will take a tremendous effort to ‘un-design’ that. But it’s not just the roads that needs a redesign. It will take a generation to retrain everyone driving the road, both by car and on bike. The key to Dutch traffic is that you learn to ride your bike first, even get an exam the year before you enter secondary education. Going into secondary education usually means kids have to travel a bit further to school. They will do that by bike during rush hour without parents accompanying them. The exam checks if kids can ride safely. Only after ten years of taking part in traffic as a cyclist, you learn how to drive a car. So ten years of your own experience as a cyclist makes you a good predictor of other cyclists’ behaviour. That helps you navigate through traffic with bikes passing you left and right when driving through the city center of Amsterdam, on roads that were designed neither for cars nor bikes. I can’t see how Canadians will ever catch up on this.