what real roads look like

The Netherlands is famous for how much people use bikes, but what's missing from that reputation (at least as people seem to understand it in Toronto) is why so many people bicycle. This is what I've learned from just watching people and talking to my cousins who live over there:
  • Bikes are much less of a pain to navigate and park than cars. 
  • You can park dozens of bikes in the amount of space that it takes to park two or three cars. 
  • The acquisition and maintenance costs on a bike are much less than on a car — an especial concern in these days of wildly fluctuating gas prices.
Notice that "exercise" is not explicitly on the list. Neither is "the environment." More about that in a moment.

Given the above, there is an infrastructure in place in the Netherlands to make cycling a good option. Bicycles have dedicated lanes on the vast majority of streets, which car drivers respect (see photo above). Parallel parking a car in a bike lane carries the same penalties it would for parking in a driving lane, ie: you don't do it. Notice that in that photo at the top, parallel parking in the bike lane would actually mean you were double parking. That's something even most Torontonian car drivers understand is a no-no.

While I'm going on about that shot from my Amsterdam hotel window, notice that the car lanes are only as wide as is required for a typical car. That means the lanes overlap a bit. That means drivers and cyclists have to pay attention to each other and create "safety cushions" around them. And that means no weaving through traffic just because a car-size (or bike-size) gap appears. Life is not a game of Pole Position.

The bike lanes ensure that bicycles are considered part of the overall traffic. Compare that to the Greater Toronto Area, where things are so car-centric some drivers don't even give respect to pedestrians.

Back to Amsterdam: A lot of people switch between driving their car and riding their bike depending on what they need to do and how far they have to go.

Cycling on roadways that encourage it for basic transportation means that everyone who uses a bicycle regularly gets some "free" exercise that they don't have to think about too much. In other words, it's a setting that encourages people to move around instead of just sit around. It also means that most days, in most weathers, there is less incentive to use a polluting vehicle than a non-polluting one. To any climate change deniers out there: cars were established as sources of pollution long before "global warming" became a catchphrase. Even if you are right about global warming, cars will still be polluting, and oil will still be a finite resource. Cycling helps manage resources and clears the air. Period.

For all that, when you mention cycling in Toronto, you get pigeon-holed as someone who is dreaming in technicolour and obviously doesn't have "real" transportation needs. It really is an amazing backlash mentality — this idea that doing something that happens to be environmentally friendly must needs have major drawbacks otherwise.

A lot of people cite the winter snow and cold in Toronto as being reasons why cycling will never catch on the way it has in the Netherlands. I don't buy it. Okay, sometimes it does get too cold or snowy, but that's only a tiny portion of the overall winter season most years, never mind the entire year. Most of the time the weather is nothing a good pair of cycling gloves and a windbreaker won't mitigate. The last day I was in Amsterdam, it was very windy, with bursts of rain that turned to hail a few times, but the cyclists were still out. Of course, braving the weather is something you get better at the more you do it.

From what I've experienced as a Toronto cyclist and driver (and pedestrian, and public transit-taker), true acceptance of bicycles as transportation has two things going against it: drivers and cyclists. Drivers, because too many of them treat cyclists either as invisible or as targets, and nearly all of them seem to have forgotten the rules of the road. I've had a lot of drivers tell me point-blank that roads are only for motorised vehicles, and I've had to remind them that according to our road laws that's actually not true.

Cyclists seem to agree with the drivers' assessment that they aren't covered by the road laws (even though they are), because most of them don't follow the rules of the road at all. Drivers both good and bad can't deal well with unpredictable moves that break the geometry of lane use. As a cyclist, I have actually had drivers roll down their windows and thank me because I was doing things like signalling, sharing the lane correctly, and stopping at intersections. I've also noticed a lot of cyclists riding at night with no reflective strips or lighting on their bikes or themselves. They have no right to complain if people don't see them, and they're breaking the law.

I think part of it just might be critical mass: once enough cyclists get on the road in Toronto, they will have to be paid attention to by the drivers, and the cyclists will have to start behaving. But the critical mass will have to be helped by the environment, and by attitudes. Drivers need to stop endangering cyclists. Cyclists need to stop pissing on everyone who is a non-cyclist (including a friend of mine who claimed that those who took public transportation weren't really helping the environment because they weren't taking any exercise while riding streetcars and subway trains).

Here's Amsterdam's take on that. See the buses using the dedicated bus/tram lanes? Cars use them for passing, but not a lot because they are not supposed to block the way of the public transit. Certainly the buses and trams don't get stuck during rush hour the way they do here.

It's a fucking bike. It is not a moral indictment of everyone around you who is not riding a bike at the time

One last photo above. This is a smaller side street. The bike lanes disappear because the street is too narrow for them (the dashed lines mark where one can parallel park). So the cars and bikes must share the road. And they do.

Seriously now: why can't we?