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McGill’s Bicycle Ban & Pedestrian Fear 31

McGill University bicycle ban

Photo “Message to McGill University cyclists” courtesy of Polly Peterson 

Trying to make sense of the phenomenon of pedestrians’ fear of bicycles in North America.

In May 2010, McGill University in downtown Montreal became a car-free pedestrian-only zone. The eradication of automobiles on the school campus was a great step forward, but like most progress in North America it also resulted in a step back, because along with the automobile ban came a campus-wide ban of bicycles.

Shortly after banning automobiles, the University initiated its “walk bike” campaign aimed at students who use bicycles on the campus to force them to dismount and walk their bicycles as soon as they reach the campus entrance.

Perhaps those students at Berkeley who are dinged with $220 fines for not locking their bikes to a bike rack don’t have it so bad after all. I mean, at least they can ride their bicycles on campus.

When McGill first initiated its bicycle ban, security personnel were stationed at each entrance to the campus to ensure bicyclists dismount when entering the campus.

According to its website, the University has since reduced its security personnel to a single guard – but re-assures us that the lack of security doesn’t mean they have abandoned their ban on bicycles.

However, I’m told by one University insider that the bicycle ban hasn’t been very successful, so the University is now looking for ways to use infrastructure to “discourage or slow down” bicyclists on campus.

This is a sign that the university is beginning to acknowledge that a ban on bicycles on a University campus is futile. Like it or not, a bicycle is the more efficient way to get around a university campus, and banning them is like banning beer from being served at the local pub.

The University cites “pedestrian safety” as the reason for banning bicycles from the campus. In its online FAQ, the university concludes that pedestrians and mounted cyclists *can’t* safely co-exist on campus:

Q: Why can’t pedestrians and mounted cyclists safely co-exist on campus?

A: McGill has had a number of pedestrian injuries reported in recent years due to collisions with cyclists. Once pedestrians become accustomed to the reduced amount of vehicular traffic on campus, we believe the risk of such injuries would increase, should cyclists be permitted to circulate as in the past. McGill’s primary concern is safety for all.

Being thoroughly fascinated by this phenomenon that we have in North America whereby pedestrians have an inane fear of bicyclists, I decided to look at another country where bicycles are very popular to see if McGill’s “belief” that the risk of injuries would increase with more bicycles and less cars.

If this were true, then surely the Netherlands must have Emergency Rooms full of severely injured pedestrians due to the amount of bicycle traffic and lack of automobile traffic in downtown zones.

How can you possibly avoid a collision when there are so many bicycles?

So I reached out to David Hembrow from A View From the Cycle Path – a British ex-pat living in Assen, Netherlands to find out how vulnerable pedestrians in the Netherlands are able to survive with so many dangerous 50lb bicycles buzzing around. Here is part of David’s response:

One of the first things I noticed here (in the Netherlands) was that people are not scared of bikes. I don’t know how it is in Canada, but in the UK if you ride a bicycle close to a family with small children, the parents are likely to protectively grab their child while giving you a steely stare for causing such “danger”. It’s quite an odd response, but they do it.

Here it doesn’t happen at all. Everyone is familiar with bikes, there’s nothing odd about them, and no-one gets unduly upset. A cyclist is always expected not to collide with a pedestrian. However, having said that, pedestrians are expected to look before stepping onto a cycle path.

From the sounds of it, Canada is not far off the UK. I actually chuckle a bit when I ride slowly and cautiously past a pedestrian – almost at walking speed – only to receive this death stare that David speaks of.

To this day, I still can’t understand where this fear of bicyclists comes from. There must be a crazy bandit bicyclist terrorizing pedestrians in our city when I’m sleeping, because I have yet to encounter him.

Sure, I see the odd bicyclist on the sidewalk going faster than they should be near pedestrians, but I have never seen anyone get injured by a bicyclist. Pedestrians always have the right-of-way.

On the other hand, I see pedestrians almost hit several times *every single day* by automobiles (usually turning right on a red traffic signal). In fact, close to 200 pedestrians have been killed by motor vehicles in Toronto in the same time frame that a single pedestrian was killed by a bicyclist.

For those who claim that injuries are common from bicycle-on-pedestrian collisions, I’d like to see hospital admittance statistics on this.

I have a hard time believing that this fear for bicyclists is anything but irrational and unsubstantiated.

McGill University bicycle ban

Photo courtesy of Polly Peterson

I reached out to an acquaintance who works as a transportation planner for the City of Montreal to see what his thoughts were on the McGill ban:

“The bike ban on the McGill is a drag but less of a drag than it would have been had a protected bike path not been built – with McGill’s backing on University, which is the eastern border to the campus.”

It’s certainly true that the protected bike path on Rue University helps to discourage bicyclists from using McGill University as a thoroughfare to downtown, but still doesn’t solve the issue of students transporting themselves around the campus.

When asked how the Netherlands discourages bicyclists from riding in pedestrian zones, David Hembrow points out that bicyclists are given proper cycle paths to reach their destination efficiently. Pedestrian zones are more of a destination for bicyclists than a thoroughfare.

And I think that’s where we have it wrong in North America. Instead of building a thoroughfare for bicyclists to keep bicycles separated from pedestrians, we instead take the “easy path” and ban bicycles completely.

Give bicyclists a proper place to ride, and they will use it.

Making bicycling illegal is not the solution, and it’s quite sad that we are discouraging students from using bicycle. This is our future generation and we are telling them riding a bicycle is bad.

This can only result in an increase in these “bandit” bicyclists that are apparently terrorizing pedestrians.

These bandit terrorists are probably riding as fast as they can to get away from the security guards who are chasing them off the school campus.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543024940730663645 David Hembrow

    A nice summary. Having discussed this with you by email, I’m even more amazed when I see the photos. What exactly is the problem with someone cycling along that thoroughfare ? It’s not narrow, it’s not got blind corners, and by the look of it it was actually designed to drive motor vehicles along, which presumably still happens when more works need to be done on that building…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14822407495120319380 DaveW

    I wonder if bikes are more feared by pedestrians as it seems more personal. Or is it the silence?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12289745556219478251 Adam

    In support of your theory I recently read an article about anti-cycling blowback in New York over the danger cyclists pose to pedestrians. The article pointed out that last year in the state of New York 81 pedestrians were admitted to hospitals due to collisions with cyclists; but that over 3,400 pedestrians had been admitted to hospitals due to collisions with motor vehicles.

  • Anonymous

    “McGill has had a number of pedestrian injuries reported in recent years due to collisions with cyclists.”

    The above statement is worded such that it implies the cyclist was to blame for each collision, and it also implies the cyclist was not injured in the collision, which is unlikely.

    McGill should focus on awareness between the two groups existing harmoniously, much like the ‘share the road’ campaigns.

  • Anonymous

    One key difference between cyclists in Europe vs. North America is the type of bicycle used. Racing bikes of the kind seen commonly at McGill are made for speed and are used accordingly. The design of bikes more commonly used in Europe encourages a more upright position and a more sedate speed.

    DavidW has a point. The silence of bikes is part of the danger.

  • Micheal Blue

    And the same people that come up with such a nonsense bylaw educate our young people…God help us. There are better ways of dealing with the issue of pedestrians and cyclists sharing the same space…when they have to share the same space, starting with education.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543024940730663645 David Hembrow

    Anonymous: Most people over here use sensible bikes for shopping. However, it’s rather a silly stereotype to assume that everyone rides such a bike all the time.

    Sport cycling is incredibly popular in the Netherlands. It’s rather more popular than in any English speaking country, and this goes a long way to explain Dutch racing results vs. those of the USA or Canada).

    Pedestrians here are quite familiar with all types of bikes, and don’t flinch at any of them, not even if you ride something even more dramatic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15589492356827998591 Ryan

    The type of bike has little to do with the issue.

    I see plenty of people on fast roads bikes or 21-speed mountain bikes who ride at a very casual pace.
    I have an 18-speed mountain bike and hardly ever travel any greater then 20km/h, which as far as I know is the average speed of a Dutch and Danish cyclist.

    And the silence of bikes has little to do with this as well. While using multi-use pathways I ding when approaching pedestrians, however most don’t hear when they are listening to music or talking on the phone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04689567532579290010 Naho

    I think the disconnect is that the N.American pedestrian mind sees all vehicles as lethal, because the vast majority are motorized and too many piloted by inattentive drivers. That a cyclist is more attentive (or he’d shortly be in hospital) and his conveyance has far less kinetic energy behind it is not something the ‘fight or flight response’ registers. Sadly, neither do many N.Americans register the difference in calm debate.

  • Anonymous

    Hey there, I’m a McGill student, who regularly bicycles to school. I actually agree with the university on this one, because of a couple reasons.

    1) The campus is really small. It takes 5 minutes or so to walk across. Plus, it’s annoying to bike around because it’s a crowded campus. (Those pics are not very accurate of when school is in session).

    2) As previously mentioned, there are bike paths around the outside of it, which are more pleasant to bike on. Mainly because you’re less likely to have to dodge pedestrians.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    Can a baby crawl freely in the space between buildings? Is there really a problem with walking a little, folks? Does anyone value the feeling of nothing going faster around them? How about training wheels for bikes in stores using an RFID tag system on all products/automated checkout so you can wheel your bike inside?

    It does not matter if cars are 1000 times more dangerous, it does not matter if in the Netherlands they don’t apparently mind too much. Death is genocide, injury is massacre, fear is death and annoyance is injury.

    If cyclists want “fast-n-free” spaces then they should demand them outside campus and take space away from the motorized vehicles out there.

    Still, riding fast and efficiently is annoying when eaten up by mandatory slower walking time, so perhaps a compromise is to allow enough permability of bikes so that their users have no more than a 5min. round trip from their parked bike at the edge of the area permitted for cycling :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    @Anonymous (9:58PM), @GreenIdeaFactory, I don’t mind walking and pushing my bike if I reach a crowded pedestrian area, but the campus wouldn’t always be crowded, so I think it’s a bit extreme to ban bikes completely.

    Also, if it was so crowded on the campus that a bike can’t casually roll through, then how on earth did cars fit on campus prior to May 2010??

    It’s too bad the speed demons ruin it for the rest of us who just want to casually reach our destination without pushing our bike for 10 minutes round trip.

    I’ll be visiting Montreal in April, so I’m planning to check out the campus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12427083977923133797 nathan_h

    The North American solution is to ban something entirely if you can concoct one scenario that sounds dangerous. If anyone disagrees and requests that risks be quantified before legislating (or rule-making), that person is dismissed as a crybaby, someone who doesn’t want to grow up and just “follow the rules”.

    With a campus we can always say that it’s small enough to walk across and there are situations where riding doesn’t make sense. So what? There are situations where it does make sense, times like the ones pictured where reasonable people riding a bicycles should be able to continue riding. Instead they must decide between breaking the rules or walking their bicycles, exclusively to satisfy the wishes of obtuse bureaucrats.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    Walking bikes is delicious! And people it is easiest (if you have an unloaded front basket or no basket) one-handed, with as light as touch as possible on the rear seat (this keeps more weight on the front wheel, which makes it easier to go straight). It might seem strange to give a lesson about this but you would be amazed how many people walk hunched over with both hands on the grips!!

    A total ban is wrong, but even optimized bike walking gets old so I think the 150 second rule is still good.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543024940730663645 David Hembrow

    GIF: You ask “is there really a problem with walking a little ?”

    Actually, yes there is. If bicycles are to be treated as a means of transport instead of as a toy then you really need to be able to ride them.

    This doesn’t mean you need to be able to ride them absolutely everywhere, but that won’t happen anyway. What cyclists need is to be able to take the most sensible direct (or very nearly direct) routes.

    The same argument as you put was also used in Cambridge when bikes were banned from the centre of that city. After nearly 20 years of campaigning, they still are banned from one area.

    The problems caused were numerous.

    First, cyclists banned from riding through the centre had their journey times increased by several minutes. This took away one of the advantages of bikes vs. other means of transport.

    Second, anyone who wanted to make progress was encouraged to use the busy ring-road, which was much less pleasant and more dangerous.

    Third, in any case, the ban did not stop the scoff-laws. It only affected the people who didn’t cause a problem in the first place. In fact, the scoff-laws got worse. They would ride even more frantically if they should see a police officer, and of course they would no longer see the more sensible face of cycling to act as a role model.

    Fourth: Such bans are even more inconvenient for parents. When the ban in Cambridge came in, we had an adult tricycle with two seats on the back for our two children. You can ride a trike at any speed right down to 0 km/h, so actually they are very compatible with pedestrians. However, they are a pain to push because the double rear wheels run over your feet, so you have to stand a long distance to the side to push it, which really doesn’t work in crowds. A similar thing is true if you pull a child trailer.

    This, BTW, is a far more real example of something parents might want to be able to do, than your made up reason of wanting babies to be able to crawl between buildings.

    Of course, parents with children are even less likely to want to use the ring-road, so more likely to stop cycling.

    Now, I don’t know how much my experience of Cambridge translates to McGill as I’ve never been there. However, in my experience such bans never actually make any sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    David: I am happy to detour around large pedestrian areas. Before drastic changes are made – like at McGill – this issue needs to be asked. Only Nixon could go to China. If the detour is not so bike-friendly then I will fight to make it that way or not accept it until it is that way.

    I will admit that the bike vs. pedestrian problem is quite pronounced in Berlin and probably worse than other places, and that since I have two old delicate dogs I am more sensitive to it then many.

    Just because cars were allowed before and now they are not does not mean that allowing bikes everywhere is great.

    A total ban is wrong, and people should be able to walk bikes everywhere or – as you suggest – travel just above 0 km/h. In fact I think speed compatibility needs to take more weight in relation to size.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08823356747586145225 centrallyisolated

    I just started a position at McGill, and while I’m not necessarily in favor of a bike ban the situation doesn’t seem to be quite as dramatic as I thought at first. It’s a small urban campus, and so far as I can tell the space where the ban is effective amounts to the quad and one city block of formerly driveable street. I personally think it would be better to let people exercise good judgment (ride at a reasonable speed when campus is empty, walk when it’s busy between classes), but I’m not totally opposed to the idea of having a relatively small pedestrian zone in the core of campus. Pedestrian only zones do serve different purposes and have a different feeling to them than multi-use zones — for me it comes down to whether you think of the few blocks in question as primarily for transportation, or primarily for milling about absentmindedly with your coffee :)

  • http://psmithsf.weebly.com/ Peter Smith

    how about schluffing? (this video is a bit complicated, with the gentleman doing a reverse/complex schluff, but that’s personal preference and whether you plan on riding too, instead of just schluffing):

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2009/03/13/do-you-schluff-enough/

    i’m willing to believe that riding around a super-crowded campus is a bad idea, but would want to see some pics. and how about a main cycletrack or two thru the entire campus. the campus is certainly big enough that being able to use bikes would make getting around much more convenient. just institute some basic rules and norms — yields to and don’t scare pedestrians, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12056080802746709323 Green Idea Factory

    Okay, okay, okay… how about this rule “Non-motorized vehicles allowed at walking speed”? And no pro-active enforcement at less crowded hours but also “absolute liability” for cyclists. Rules suck but getting scared by cyclists does too: Deaths are extremely rare and injuries rare, so the whole scale has to be changed as I mentioned earlier, from fear to annoyance. Annoyance is not cool. “Don’t annoy people with your bikes”? The pedestrian mode share in the Netherlands – I love it there – is quite low.

    Anyway I say try some different rules or a few months each and see what people are happy with.

    I have already thought of two technical solutions.

    Mikael from Copenhagenize is making ridiculous comparisons between McGill and the University of Mexico in Mexico City.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543024940730663645 David Hembrow

    FYI, this week I posted a story about pedestrianization in the Netherlands including a video which I sent to James when he was writing this piece.

  • Severin

    Students at Berkeley are also getting tickets for riding through areas during ‘banned hours’ 8:00am to 6:00pm. This zone constitutes some key areas to get anywhere. I know personally, for part of my commute on certain days it is very convenient to ride through campus though I have to go through the banned zone for about 3 seconds. What’s worse is that members from the bicycle co-op support expanding the bicycle ban so not to lose the space the school provided the club to do free bike repairs on weekdays.

  • Anonymous

    This is such a typical “mountain out of a molehill” McGill student fuss. You’re talking about a block east-to-west that the university is asking people to walk across. It’s not a straight run across either – lots of blind spots and corners. Really, considering everything else going on, people need to get a life and focus on the real issues.

  • Sinclair

    Don’t fool yourself over the car ban on campus. Trucks and cars are present throughout the day and night. As long as roads exist on campus so will wheeled vehicles. Bicycle paths with proper signage and speed deterrents are the solution. Paths around campus are noisy, inconvenient and less safe than cycling through this (relative) green space. Cyclist respect for the right-of-way of pedestrian traffic will help alleviate any perceived fear factor.

  • Sinclair

    Don’t fool yourself over the car ban on campus. Trucks and cars are present throughout the day and night. As long as roads exist on campus so will wheeled vehicles. Bicycle paths with proper signage and speed deterrents are the solution. Paths around campus are noisy, inconvenient and less safe than cycling through this (relative) green space. Cyclist respect for the right-of-way of pedestrian traffic will help alleviate any perceived fear factor.

  • Allan_james_bowen

    I do think it that most politicians have not got the back bone to inforce a bike lane plane.Whats more expensive new transit lines or better smarter bike paths

  • Allan_james_bowen

    I do think it that most politicians have not got the back bone to inforce a bike lane plane.Whats more expensive new transit lines or better smarter bike paths

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  • BrettBuen

    America should follow the leads of Singapore and Germany in terms of diversifying roads for pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, and big-wheeled vehicles to blend in perfect harmony. Banning it completely is so childish and downright immature for a country proclaiming itself to the world as a superpower. That way, we can probably be looking at lessening cases being brought to motorcycle accident lawyer los angeles for instance.

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    America should follow the leads of Singapore and Germany in terms of diversifying roads for pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, and big-wheeled vehicles to blend in perfect harmony. Banning it completely is so childish and downright immature for a country proclaiming itself to the world as a superpower. That way, we can probably be looking at lessening cases being brought to motorcycle accident lawyer los angeles for instance.