Lawrence Solomon: Cyclists are just bloody collateral damage in the climate change wars

(January 26, 2018) The more cities succeed in their quest to save the planet, the more they will fail to protect their own people.

Cycling is now modestly on the rise throughout the West, along with immodest increases in fatalities and accidents. Postmedia News files.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post.

Believing that climate change looms large as a threat to the planet, many politicians and planners are determined to do whatever it takes to abate carbon dioxide. To combat the automobile, one of the greatest emitters of CO2, many are aggressively promoting the bicycle as an alternative, despite the immense costs — some well-known, some not — involved.

The well-known costs in this war on CO2 can be measured by the billions spent by city governments around the world on bicycle infrastructure and bicycle promotion. The less-known costs — hushed when they’re discussed at all — come in the form of carnage on the road, as cyclists become collateral damage in the climate-change wars.

The European Union’s independent authority on vehicular safety — the European Transport Safety Council — admitted as much when, in aid of developing a cycling strategy for the EU, it conceded that “an increase in cycling might, at least at first, lead to an increase in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured.” Among the many citations in its 2016 report, “The European Union’s Role In Promoting The Safety Of Cycling,” is a study by the Netherlands’ Institute for Road Safety Research, which assessed what would happen if just 10 per cent of car trips shorter than 7.5 kilometres were replaced by bike trips. It found that cyclists in the Netherlands would suffer some 500 serious road injuries requiring hospitalization, untold numbers of lesser injuries and four to eight deaths.

The less-known costs come in the form of carnage on the road, as cyclists become collateral damage.

These sobering results come from a geographically small country with a relatively small population that has the world’s strongest cycling culture and its most advanced bicycle infrastructure. The accident toll could only rise in countries that attempt to pump up the number of cyclists on roads ill-suited to be retrofitted for cycling infrastructure and whose citizens lack training in bicycle safety.

The West’s aging populations add another serious safety risk. As the Dutch study found, the only demographic group that stood to be safer by switching from the auto to the bike was 18- and 19-year-old males, who tend to be reckless behind the wheel of a car. With all other demographics, and especially with those older than 35, a shift from the car to the bike elevates risk. Not that the road-safety status quo justifies complacency — the European Transport Safety Council reported 25,000 bicycle fatalities in the EU in the previous decade. In recent years, as inexperienced cyclists have been persuaded to take up cycling, the number of fatalities has been increasing.

The immediate risk to human safety, some planners doubtless believe, must be weighed against the potentially catastrophic risk to all humanity from climate change. This, they say, cannot be reversed without ending the car culture. Yet even assuming, as the Dutch study did, that 10 per cent of short auto trips were converted to bike trips, vanishingly little would be accomplished on climate change. Auto trips of under 7.5 kilometres represent just 10 to 20 per cent of auto travel, the Dutch group estimates, meaning a 10-per-cent shift to the bike would reduce auto use by just one to two per cent, leaving CO2 emissions little changed and the car culture intact.

Cycling is now modestly on the rise throughout the West, along with immodest increases in fatalities and accidents. But this suddenly increased demand for bicycles hasn’t come from the grassroots, with citizens marching in the streets demanding the right to trade in their cars for bicycles. The sudden demand for cycling has mostly been top-down, ginned up at high-flying Velo-City Global Conferences that annually give “delegates from around the world a chance to share best practices for creating and sustaining cycling-friendly cities.” One was put on by Vancouver in 2012 when it hosted 1,000 “politicians, engineers, planners, architects, social marketers, academics, researchers, environmentalists, advocates, educators and industry representatives” giving utopian presentations promoting sustainable cycling cities.

Public polling shows that most people are reluctant to cycle much, if at all, but that they could be coaxed onto the road if cycling seemed safe, particularly through the use of bicycle paths. Through planning and advocacy forums such as Velo-City, bicycle paths have become the avenue through which the cycling-friendly city is hyped, ignoring evidence that shows bike lanes create only the illusion of safety: While they tend to lower accidents along the path, they increase accidents at intersections, where most collisions with motor vehicles occur. In their haste to promote cycling and save the planet, the politicians and planners didn’t even try to mitigate the damage by combining bicycle promotion with regulations requiring cyclists to be well trained and their bicycles to be roadworthy.

In the war against climate change, cyclists are becoming cannon fodder. The more cities succeed in their quest to save the planet, the more they will fail to protect their own people.

Lawrence Solomon, executive director ofUrban Renaissance Institute, will debate the safety of bike paths at Grounds for Thought in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

Fifth in a series. For part one, see here. For part two, see here. For part three, see here. For part four, see here.

Further Reading

Cycling good and bad
The Antiplanner, December 14, 2017

Bike lanes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be
Lorne Gunter, Edmonton Sun, December 11, 2017

Here comes ‘bike-lash’
Roy Exum, December 6, 2017, Chattanoogan.com

Interview with Lawrence Solomon on cycling
Mark Towhey, Newstalk 1010, December 3, 2017

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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4 Responses to Lawrence Solomon: Cyclists are just bloody collateral damage in the climate change wars

  1. Pingback: Lawrence Solomon: How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling | Urban Renaissance Institute

  2. Pingback: Lawrence Solomon: Bicycles kill. How urban cycling policies made city streets more lethal | Urban Renaissance Institute

  3. Pingback: Lawrence Solomon: How ‘road diets’ are making our car commutes even more painful | Urban Renaissance Institute

  4. Pingback: Lawrence Solomon: Rip out the bike lanes — before more innocent people get hurt | Urban Renaissance Institute

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