biking canada

Here's how the pandemic is leading to more bikeable and liveable cities in Canada

The pandemic has been changing the way we move around in Canada now that maintaining a safe physical distance from others is imperative in avoiding any further spread of the virus. 

“We’re seeing a huge surge in cycling during the pandemic and bike shops are busier than they’ve ever been,” said Brian Pincott, executive director of Vélo Canada Bikes, a group that advocates for safer cycling and infrastructure.

“People are out biking as a way to get exercise. But also, for those on the lower socioeconomic scale, transit is no longer an option because of social distancing and reduced service. They don’t own a car so they’re left with cycling and walking.”

Among the growing number of cities in Canada that have been reducing traffic lanes and closing off portions of roadways for biking and walking, are Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Ottawa, which closed part of the Queen Elizabeth Driveway and the Bank Street Bridge over the Rideau Canal.

Montreal has banned cars from Charlevoix Bridge and reserved long stretches of Mont-Royal and other streets for cyclists and pedestrians. 

Winnipeg has closed off nine of its streets to vehicle traffic during designated hours, with several advocates and residents calling on the city for this to continue past the summer.

Other cities like Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto are embracing slow-traffic zones. Besides closing part of Argyle Street until the end of September, Halifax has implemented slow streets with traffic calming measures in place.

Vancouver and Toronto have also designated over 50 kilometres of roadways as slow streets as part of greater cycling network expansion plans in both cities. 

Director of The Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) in Canada, Nancy Smith Lea, says the pandemic may just be the push cities need when it comes to active transportation.

“The pandemic has heightened our awareness of the urgent need to reclaim some of the public space we’ve handed over to private vehicles to ensure people are safe.”

Smith Lea says these changes – which have been lacking in automobile dominated cities for the past several decades – could be a meaningful move toward reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s easy to underestimate the power of the bicycle, it's such a simple form of transportation yet so powerful," she said. 

"Getting around the city by bike is often the fastest, cheapest, most enjoyable transportation option for many trips. Walking and cycling are also the best zero-emission options for short trips." 

And the positive effect on the climate is not the only advantage of bicycling, Smith Lea says switching to a two-wheeler also has its health benefits and considers it a response to the chronic health crisis. 

Canada isn't the only one making changes, expansive bicycle networks have sprung up in cities like Paris, Milan, Bogotá and Brussels amid the global pandemic and some of these efforts have even been extended post-lockdown

Other cities within Europe and Latin America have been leading the way when it comes to active transportation, long before the pandemic.

Ahmed El-Geneidy, professor of urban planning at McGill University in Montreal, says Canada needs to approach bicycle paths as networks – much like Santiago, Amsterdam and Copenhagen – if temporary measures are to make a difference once restrictions are lifted. 

“It’s not just about a kilometre number. It has to do with the design of the bicycle [network] itself, the design of the bicycle racks and the availability,” he said. 

“When the commuting distances are big, you need to start thinking: Are we doing them in the right places? Are we making changes in zoning so that we can allow businesses to open near them? Will they reduce our dependence on the car?”

Pincott says some cities in Canada are starting to do this successfully. 

"Most cities have responded by opening up streets to cyclists and pedestrians for recreational purposes. They're making room for people to go for a bike ride and remain socially distanced, but that isn’t a transportation response," he said.

"Some cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton are opening streets thinking about how people can get around on a bike, making sure that destinations, shopping and employment are connected." 

With 1.35 million people killed in traffic collisions each year, according to the World Health Organization, building safe infrastructure is also key.

“People are seeing that they don’t feel comfortable on the roads with cars. They want to bike, some need to, but the infrastructure to get people from point A to point B doesn’t exist, or it is haphazard and not connected," said Pincott. 

The Government of Canada has already announced a National Active Transportation Strategy, which will help build on current cycling infrastructure. 

El-Geneidy says we should use this time to continue to push toward more bikeable communities going forward. 

"You see them in the Netherlands, we're so far behind," he said. "Use this opportunity to try to get as many people on board as possible, so that after the pandemic they'll stick and stay – that's the goal that cities should be targeting." 

Lead photo by

Cycle Toronto


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