'If you build it, they will come': study says new bike lane doubles chances people will cycle

Building a new protected bike lane makes people nearby more than twice as likely to cycle more, according to a new study out of Ryerson University that looked at bike lanes in and around Toronto.

And the reason for that pattern is very likely because cyclists simply feel safer when they’re not risking a serious and possibly deadly collision with a vehicle just to get around, advocates say.

“It confirms what people have suspected for a long time: if you build it, they will come,” said Kevin Rupasinghe of CycleTO. “You build high-quality infrastructure, something that people feel safe on, they’ll come out and ride.”

A team led by Dr. Raktim Mitra surveyed people around newly constructed bike lanes in and around Toronto. For example, he noted cycling rose 4.9 per cent in the area around the Woodbine lane, and around the Bloor lane, it rose 7.42 per cent.

The results were even true in many suburbs — around a new lane in Markham, cycling rose 6.45 per cent.

“Cycling is becoming more popular, but in neighbourhoods with newer bike lanes, the growth in cycling has happened at a much higher pace,” Mitra told CTV News.

In all, he found people are 2.26 times more likely to cycle with a new on-street protected lane. An interactive website allows people to explore the data themselves.

It should be obvious to policymakers how much safety will impact whether people choose to cycle, said Jess Spieker of Friends and Families for Safe Streets.

“If you build it, people will come, you save lives,” she said.

Spieker said she has no doubt that a separated bike lane would have prevented a crash that nearly killed her when she was hit by an SUV on Bathurst Street in 2015.

“She broke my spine, inflicted a traumatic brain injury, and such extensive soft tissue damage I nearly died a second time because of a complication related to blood clots,” Spieker said.

“A bike lane would have saved me. I wouldn’t have had to go through that,” she said. “It was the worst day of my life. It was six years ago, it’s affected me every day. Every day I look at a streetscape and wonder why we can’t do better. We know how to fix this. We just don’t.”

The pandemic has changed the calculus at Toronto City Hall and allowed a larger network to be built that proved it won’t cripple the city’s transportation network, said Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks.

“All those theories, chaos, caused on our streets, it’s not real,” he said. “I hope the moment means a much faster buildout of a really first-rate cycling infrastructure.”

Places where there is a network of bike lanes grew ridership even faster than a single lane, said Mitra.

“It’s important that when we are planning cycling it must contribute to a continuous network, rather than building in a fragmented way,” Mitra said.

Stopped on the Danforth bike lane, Gayle McEurnie said she would not be riding there if there was no bike lane.

"I used to drive it all the time," she said. "I knew how dangerous it was."