In recent years, cycling has become an increasingly popular form of active transportation in Vancouver. Arising out of the need for less congested modes of travel amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has supported the construction of over 450 lane-kilometers of bike routes.
This widespread availability of biking infrastructure has not only rendered Vancouver one of Canada’s most bike-friendly cities but has frequently been cited as an important step in meeting Vancouver’s climate goals. Although some of these bike lanes were initially created as part of a temporary pilot program, their routine use by many bikers has prompted discussions on bike lanes as permanent fixtures.
Often missing from these discussions, however, are topics of accessibility and equity. While equitable access to biking infrastructure is occasionally mentioned as a goal within construction planning phases, “it is usually not clear how equity is being defined, measured, or implemented into practice” according to the 2021 journal, “Who were these bike lanes built for? Social-spatial inequities in Vancouver's bikeways, 2001–2016.”
Not everyone benefits from bike lanes in the same way. Many disabled folks have referred to contemporary bike lanes as a barrier to mobility despite the praise these lanes have received from able-bodied cyclists. Such disparities across the ability spectrum raise the question of who these bike lanes are truly designed for.
Key Mobility Barriers
1. Access to Bike Lanes
Many bike lanes lack the infrastructure to accommodate alternative forms of cycling and wheeled transportation outside of a standard two-wheeled bicycle. In their “Guide to Inclusive Cycling”, Wheels for Wellbeing states that these bike lanes are often very narrow, contain various physical obstacles, and lack speed guidelines. This poses serious safety risks for folks travelling on cycles that deviate from the standard bicycle both in terms of speed and width.
The risk of collision or injury is also elevated for cyclists with visual and auditory impairments. Bike lanes often do not contain adequate lighting or auditory signals to notify disabled cyclists of their immediate and future surroundings.
According to the report Guide to Inclusive Cycling, “Such accessibility constraints can dissuade disabled cyclists “from venturing out in the first place, thus limiting their options for active travel”. Similarly, the bike disembarking stations situated along bike routes typically consist of a maze of barricades that are very difficult for many disabled folks to navigate. This issue is worsened when disabled folks have no option but to lift or carry their (typically heavy) mobility aids through these restrictive barricades.
Without “normalizing different types of bikes and cyclists”, biking infrastructure in Vancouver will remain exclusionary, therefore, leading many folks to incorrectly believe “that cycling is not an option for them” (“Guide to Inclusive Cycling” 15).
2. Access to Areas Surrounding Bike Lanes
Obstructed infrastructure around bike lanes also poses risks to non-cycling disabled folks who use the road. According to Surico, sidewalks that temporarily cross through bike lanes do little to assure the safety of folks with visual and auditory impairments, as they often do not provide any cues to indicate approaching cyclists.
Flattened curbs are typically the extent of the accessibility efforts made to address this issue, most of which are not paired with the necessary audible and visual pedestrian signals to indicate that folks are crossing. This is particularly problematic given the large number of “floating bus stops” that can only be reached by crossing a bike lane.
Likewise, many bike lanes greatly restrict surrounding vehicle traffic, which can create issues for folks who rely on cars as mobility aids. This concern is reflected in the ongoing debates over the recent installation of a new bike lane in Stanley Park, with many disability advocates calling for more accessible transportation infrastructure in the park. Despite these calls, little progress has been made when it comes to meeting the needs of disabled road users.
The absence of accessibility-related upgrades to cycling infrastructure can likely be attributed to gaps in policy consultation processes. Based on the structure of existing bike lanes, it is highly unlikely that disabled cyclists and road users were consulted meaningfully prior to and throughout bike lane construction.
The barriers disabled folks face when navigating these bike lanes and their surrounding areas reveal the ways that this lack of representation in policy making leads to inequitable outcomes.
Similarly, municipal policy tends to conceptualize accessibility goals and environmental goals as separate objectives. This distinction is somewhat misguided given the fact that both goals overlap in their desire to make Vancouver a safer and more liveable city for everyone.
Karl Farrell, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK says that “decades worth of [accessibility] work from advocates shouldn’t disappear in the name of sustainability” , especially when the two go hand in hand.
The Future of Disability-Friendly Cycling Lanes
The inaccessibility of contemporary bike lanes indicates the crucial need to design urban spaces with and for folks with disabilities. Whether for exercise, leisure, or simply as a means of getting from point A to point B, cycling lanes should be accessible to all regardless of ability. The following resources may aid in the creation of more disability-friendly cycling lanes:
Natco Urban Bikeway Design Guide (https://nacto.org/publication/urban-bikeway-design-guide/bike-lanes/) This resource provides a blueprint and toolkit for the construction of accessible cycling lanes.
Hub Cycling Inaccessibility Report Guide (https://bikehub.ca/resources/reporting-issues-to-local-governments) This resource provides information on who to contact when reporting accessibility barriers related to cycling.
By advocating for more equitable access to cycling infrastructure, we can work towards creating a city where folks of all abilities can travel safely and comfortably.
This article was written by volunteer, Alexa Traboulay.
“A Guide to Inclusive Cycling (3rd Edition).” Wheels for Wellbeing, 2019, https://wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/FINAL-v3.pdf.
Firth, Caislin L., Kate Hosford, and Meghan Winters. "Who were these bike lanes built for? Social-spatial inequities in Vancouver's bikeways, 2001–2016." Journal of transport geography 94 (2021): 103122.
Leckie, Kristen. “Creating Accessible Protected Bike Lanes.” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, 7 Jan. 2020, https://sfbike.org/news/creating-accessible-protected-bike-lanes/.
“Reporting Issues to Local Governments.” HUB Cycling: Bike Events, Education, Action in Metro Vancouver, 24 Oct. 2018, https://bikehub.ca/resources/reporting-issues-to-local-governments.
Surico, John. “When Street Design Leaves Some People Behind.” Bloomberg, 13 Aug. 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-13/do-bike-lanes-have-an-accessibility-problem.
“Urban Bikeway Design Guide.” National Association of City Transportation Officials, 16 Oct. 2020, https://nacto.org/publication/urban-bikeway-design-guide/bike-lanes/.