Bike lane use simply can’t be forced

Now that the decision has been made to remove two major sections of Red Deer’s pilot project into bike lanes a full year early, people have asked: “What happens next?"


Now that the decision has been made to remove two major sections of Red Deer’s pilot project into bike lanes a full year early, people have asked: “What happens next?”

The short answer: What will happen, will happen; the best you can do is adapt.

The long answer is more complicated. It involves the way people decide to live their lives, and the futility of thinking anyone can engineer the behaviour of large groups.

The current conclusion is that changing large group behaviour simply can’t be done. So building bike lanes to encourage more cycling — purely as a social experiment — is irrelevant. On the flip side, seeking to marginalize alternative means of moving through the city — as a cost-saving or even a safety measure — won’t work, either.

Check the opening essay in this week’s Maclean’s. It’s about how Walmart changed the retail industry in Canada, and how it might save the economy of India. There are interesting thoughts there, but the conclusion is backwards.

Municipal councils and advocacy groups all over Canada tried to ban Walmart from their regions. They failed. Maclean’s calls that a triumph of Walmart’s business strategy.

I say that’s wrong thinking. Walmart succeeds because it gives customers what they want. They recognized what the large group was going to do anyway and made their decisions easier.

That’s the big-picture premise of a 2009 book by Jeff Jarvis titled: What Would Google Do? You can look up Jarvis’s considerable credentials yourself; that’s what Google is for.

His idea is that companies like Google, Facebook and Ebay didn’t create the revolution into online billion-dollar profits, they simply made it easier for people to do something they would have done anyway.

You can’t stop that sort of change. The mighty government of China can’t even do that. But you can make huge profits by joining in.

Here’s how that relates to urban cycling. The change in group behaviour here is small, but irrevocable. People ride bikes because they decide to ride bikes; because it makes sense to them.

Ninety per cent of Red Deer car trips are one person per car. The vast majority of those trips are five km or less.

For a growing portion of Red Deer, it makes more sense to walk or to ride a bike — economic, environmental and health-wise. There’s profit to be made (and tax money to be saved) assisting the inevitable change in that 90 per cent figure — which you can’t avoid, no matter how loudly you yell at city council.

Red Deer is growing by 10 per cent every five years. That’s logarithmic growth, which only accelerates, and is already faster than the city can build new streets, especially in the city centre.

City planners know Red Deer will soon be unable to carry its traffic if we continue our current behaviour. It will be gridlock. So they (being engineers) are trying to encourage alternatives.

Good luck. Changing behaviour can’t be done. You can only profit from assisting the choices that people have already made and will make as time goes by.

We will have gridlock. Or not. Would it help if we made it easier to walk, or cycle through Red Deer instead?

Greg Neiman is a former Advocate editor. Follow his blog at

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