My kingdom for a bicycle

July 24, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

It was late afternoon in early May when I walked by the Cycling Elements store in Orangeville. The owner, Jeff Lemon, and one of his staff stood in their forecourt. I waved from the sidewalk and called, “Hi Jeff, how are you?” at which he threw up both arms and exclaimed with vigour, “I’m done!!”. I didn’t know what he meant; done for the day? Or done as in closing his business because of the COVID business lockdown? No, it wasn’t that. “I’m completely sold out of bikes!” 

Following several weeks in lockdown and city streets emptied of car traffic, cycling became the new go-to outdoor activity everywhere. As a result, Jeff’s bicycle store and others across the Greater Toronto Area sold out of their entire stocks. Jeff had even been getting inquiries from Toronto to get bikes repaired or tuned up, because city stores were so booked up with service requests as well. I felt grateful for and immediately more protective of my two bicycles (and no, they’re not for sale!).

Since that meeting with Jeff, many businesses have reopened under new safety regulations and parks and trails are open and busy. I was ecstatic to be able to ride around Island Lake again and it has greatly contributed to my state of sanity. 

News from many cities in Canada and elsewhere in the world show a huge increase in the number of cyclists, bicycle sales and new bike lanes. To enable more and safer cycling during pandemic restrictions, many municipalities quickly approved road closures and created either partial or separate bike lanes as a safe form of exercise and an alternative to public transit, which still seems a greater risk amidst physical distancing fears. 

National advocacy group, Vélo Canada Bikes, noted that Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton have extended their cycling networks. Toronto City council approved 25 km of temporary bike lanes, enabling a total 40km of new lanes to be built in 2020. International cities like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Milan and Bogota and others have also diverted street space for cars to bikes and pedestrians. France is even providing funding of €50 (approx. $76) per person to repair their bikes to promote cycling over public transportation. Paris is adding 50 km of bike lanes to its enviable network of 1,000 km and London, UK, will add 30 km of permanent lanes to its 160km. 

As a long-time cyclist, cycling and public transit advocate, I am of course pleased about these increases. But will this public interest in cycling last beyond the pandemic? And will it result in a permanent uptick in urban planning support for it? Some city planners hope it could lead to long-term change in public attitudes towards cycling. Of course, there also need to be a change in the philosophy around how streets are designed, experts say, requiring added emphasis on active and safe transportation as integral part of the design. Separated bike lanes are safer and more inviting than just painting lanes on the sides of existing roads, especially for new and still insecure riders and younger cyclists. It is also important to link new bike lanes to create a safe network of routes. To increase cycling safety temporarily, Toronto implemented weekend road closures throughout June at three major arteries near some of the busiest trails as part of their ActiveTO Program. It was aimed at safe cycling while preventing crowding and allow for physical distancing. It totals around 10km of road that is currently closed to vehicle traffic (it is unclear if these weekly closures are continuing in July). 

In Orangeville, the initially absent traffic in the first two months of lockdown has increased again since many businesses reopened, although as cycling in traffic goes, I find our roads safe enough to navigate, especially along our designated cycling routes (most or all of them marked with green & white ‘sharrows’ painted on the road). You can pick up a free bicycle route map from a cycling store or print from the Town of Orangeville website. We have three routes totalling around 11.6km along quieter streets, plus numerous off-road trails within the municipal boundary. 

Another big question is, what happens once winter weather rolls in and we are not yet out of this pandemic to make public transit safe and appealing again? Only very few cyclists are hardcore enough to cycle in frigid temperatures and enough of a risk-taker to tackle slippery streets on two skinny wheels, amid slip-sliding car traffic (even I don’t cycle in snow and slush).

In Montreal, for example, just 20 per cent of its cycling population still cycles in February. That means the wonderfully expanded number of cyclists will dip in tandem with a dip in temperatures, and we can only hope that all of this year’s newbie riders will dust off their bikes again next spring. 

So, for now, enjoy safe and responsible cycling as long as possible! I hope you have a bicycle already, as Jeff’s store now has new bikes and many spare parts on back-order until September or later. For added safety and a more enjoyable experience on two wheels, find one of the light gravel trails in some parks or converted railway lines. As Jeff says, “the rail trails are alive”! 

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