Fitness

Bike lanes, accessibility and health

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The mayoral elections in Ottawa this week were largely defined by transit issues, and nearby Montreal Road, in the community of Vanier, was recently reopened as a complete after three years of construction. As a result, bike lanes and accessibility have been very much on my mind.

I stopped in for the grand reopening of the street; there was a large crowd of people who had come on foot, by bicycles of all kinds, in strollers, or on scooters. The new street features wider sidewalks and separated bike paths for most of its 2 km length, along with improved infrastructure for the bus service.

That’s me! I’m the cyclist in a beige coat and blue knapsack riding away on a separated bicycle path adjacent to an urban street with many small shops and low-rise buildings. Photo by Sarah Kester/CBC

Why does this matter to a fitness blog? Because that street is in a relatively poor part of town, where many people don’t own cars. There are lots of immigrants, kids, many people with disabilities, and the local bus is among the busiest in the city. A complete street like this one means that people can get around more safely.

Surveys have shown that cycling numbers increase significantly when there is safe infrastructure. People will cycle year-round if the paths are cleared. In Ottawa, the number doubled between 2015 and 2020, even though the winter cycling network has only about 50 km of maintained routes. Even if you are a fair-weather cyclist, it is easy to manage at least some trips for 7-8 months of the year if the roads are safe, since the average trip in the downtown area is less than 4 km according to Ottawa’s 2013 Official Cycling Plan.

Other people using wheels also benefit from those separated bike lanes – whether it is little people in strollers or those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. In fact, I shared a good chunk of my last ride to Canadian Tire with a guy on a mobility scooter.

Transit has been strongly linked to higher rates of active travel and physical activity. However, as Journal of Transport & Health notes, the associated physical health benefits must be weighed against potential health threats. “For instance, in terms of safety from vehicle traffic or emissions, walking and bicycling to transit can be riskier travel options than other modes due to their higher levels of physical and environmental exposure. For this reason, by travel distance, active travelers suffer from injuries and fatalities at a higher rate than drivers. Additionally, walkers and bicyclists may suffer disproportionately from vehicle emissions compared to other modes, particularly during higher-exertion events during which oxygen uptake will be elevated.” But if we had fewer vehicles on the road because there was a viable, low-cost alternative? Game changer!

Commuter cycling and accessibility also has race and gentrification issues. A quick Google search will bring up all kinds of articles, though most focus on the experience of Black cyclists in the USA. I don’t know how much race plays into cycling in my neighbourhood, but there are definitely concerns about this historically working-class Francophone community being gentrified.

One local group is addressing cycling inequities. Vélo Vanier is not-for-profit that loans bikes to residents and recently started lessons for moms after discovering that many women who brought their kids for bikes had never learned to ride themselves. Two recent students were featured in a CBC article; both are recent immigrants from Africa.

Claire Kiruhira from Uganda, left, and Christine Uwamwezi from Rwanda, far right, pose with their Vanier Vélo instructor Denise Inglis. Claire is wearing a white helmet, white sleeveless top and black leggings and seated on her blue bicycle. Christine is wearing a black helmet with bright purple and pink leggings and shirt, standing beside her white bike. Between them stands Denise Inglis, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a pale blue shirt and brown shorts. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has become a dedicated commuter cyclist.

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