Richard Z's picture

Byron Miller on Cycling Strategy

(Posted with permission.)

                                       July 3, 2011

Dear Mayor Nenshi and members of City Council:

I am writing, as a concerned citizen, in strong support of fully funding the City’s proposed Comprehensive Cycling Strategy.  I am among the majority of Calgarians who would like to cycle more, but do not due concerns over the safety of cycling in Calgary.  The City’s proposed Comprehensive Cycling Strategy represents an important step toward making Calgary a safer city for cycling, in turn making cycling a more attractive transportation option for many more Calgarians.

Beyond my personal concern for safe cycling in Calgary, my academic research into urban sustainability issues has familiarized me with the broad scholarly and planning literature on cycling.  And perhaps more importantly, having lived four years of my life in two of the best cycling cities in the world—Groningen, the Netherlands and Freiburg, Germany—has given me a strong understanding of and appreciation for the dramatic impacts outstanding cycling infrastructure can have.  Groningen and Freiburg, as well as other cycling-friendly cities like Copenhagen, Denmark; Malmo, Sweden; Berlin, Germany; Munich, Germany; and Paris, France share a common emphasis on comprehensive, continuous, and integrated cycling systems.   In all of these cities cycling has grown to a substantial share of all trips—in many cases over 30% and, in the case of Groningen, 57%.

Contrary to popular perception and contrary to one error-laden article that appeared in the Calgary Herald a couple months ago, these cities have not always been cycling-friendly.  Indeed, all of them had become automobile-oriented cities in the post-WWII era, with cycling’s modal share typically dropping into the low single digits.  It was only after cycling-supportive policies were adopted and major cycling infrastructure investments were made in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that cycling frequency rose to the levels these cities are renowned for today.  Their experience proves that mobility behaviour can and does change when safe and convenient commuter cycling options are provided, even in very cold winter cities.   

I would like to share with you a few photographs I’ve taken in recent years that illustrate some of the important principles, and effects, of well-designed, continuous and integrated cycling systems:

Children cycling to school in Groningen, the Netherlands.  Children benefit immensely from investment in cycling infrastructure.  Note the physical barrier between cyclists and vehicular traffic, ensuring safety.

Groningen, the Netherlands.  The elderly are also much more likely to cycle when safety is assured.

Copenhagen, Denmark.  Grade-separated cycling paths encourage cycling in a big city.

Groningen, the Netherlands.  Cycling in the cold and snow is commonplace.

Malmo, Sweden.  Bicycle parking at the Malmo train station.

Freiburg, Germany.  Freiburg’s solar-powered bicycle parking building, located adjacent to the train station and a major LRT line.  It even includes a bicycle shop and “Velo Cafe.”   Cycling helps to activate the public realm.

Many of the practices and lessons of successful European cycling cities are transferable to Calgary.  However, there are some important differences that must also be kept in mind.  First and foremost, Calgary covers a huge territory.  While continuous cycling routes to major employment centres need to be provided city-wide, it is equally important to develop a system of neighbourhood-centre-focused cycling routes, with particular emphasis on providing fast, safe and convenient connections to Calgary’s LRT and BRT system.  With a well-designed cycling-feeder system, primary public transit lines will be accessible to virtually all Calgarians.  

This brings me to my final thought.  When Calgary City Council unanimously adopted Plan-It, it made a clear commitment to making Calgary a more sustainable and livable city for all Calgarians.  Underlying Plan-It is the principle that cities must be understood as integrated systems, not as stand-alone bits and pieces cobbled together.  It is my hope that Calgary’s Comprehensive Cycling Strategy will be viewed as an important part of a systemic approach to creating a more sustainable and livable Calgary.  

The direct benefits of cycling are well-known—active transportation provides for greater physical fitness, a more convivial city, and reduced carbon emissions.  But the systemic impacts of promoting cycling through a safe, integrated, and continuous cycling system go much further.  To the extent that the modal share of cycling climbs, vehicles are removed from the streets, reducing traffic congestion and the need for (and cost of) road construction and maintenance.  To the extent that cycling can serve as a feeder system for public transit, the burden on the road system is reduced and Calgary Transit’s farebox revenue is increased.  And to the extent that a modal shift toward cycling occurs, the City advances its goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  GHG reductions are valuable in more ways than one; the City could sell carbon offsets to fund the further expansion of a world class commuter cycling system.

When considering the comprehensive cycling strategy from a systems perspective, the question shifts from “can we afford to do this?” to “how could we not afford to do this?”

The benefits—social, environmental, and economic—of building a high quality commuter cycling system are clear.  Given Calgary’s already-strong cycling community, the fact that a majority of Calgarians want to cycle more, a comparatively young and outdoors-oriented population, and strong support for building a sustainable and livable city, I believe Calgary could eventually become the leading cycling city in North America.

As a concerned citizen I strongly support full funding of Calgary’s proposed Comprehensive Cycling Strategy.

Dr Byron Miller
Associate Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies Program
University of Calgary  


Richard Z's picture

Dutch cities not always cycling-friendly

To support Byron's point regarding the myth that Dutch cities were always cycling-friendly, here's two pictures of the Zuiderdiep, a major thoroughfare in Groningen, first in 1972 and then today (pics courtesy of Byron).

ride's picture


Excellent letter, Byron. It does need to be pointed out, as many times as necessary, that the Dutch do not somehow have different DNA from we car-loving North Americans. They too are car-loving if allowed free reign. It's only because their government decided to engage in "social engineering" that cycling has become popular. So, yes, the same thing can happen here, and is already in places like Portland, Minneapolis (another cold, snowy city like ours) and San Francisco: the top three cycling cities in the US by bike mode share.