Share the Road

New Cycling Infrastructure Creates New Construction Opportunities

COVID-19 has created new concerns and complications for mass transit. Physical distancing is challenging – if not impossible – on subways, buses, and trains. For instance, when encountering just 30 percent capacity – an estimated total of 510,000 riders each day – passengers on Toronto’s public transit would be unable to maintain a safe distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the Toronto Transit Commission. This challenge has been seen throughout countless cities over the past year.

When public transit cannot keep riders safe, what mode of transportation can support a sudden influx of commuters looking for an alternative? Cities that rely on public transport cannot simply shift commuters onto existing road systems – the capacity for a major uptick in automobile traffic simply would not be there. And, of course, not everyone owns a car. The high costs, from the vehicle itself to parking fees, insurance, and gas, mean that driving is not a solution for everyone. There is also the environmental impact. More cars on the road would mean more pollution and carbon emissions.

So what have municipalities done to provide safe transportation infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic? One solution has been to provide safer opportunities for cycling. Not only is cycling a mode of transport that allows physical distancing, it is also environmentally friendly and provides exercise, boosting both physical and mental health.

Construction workers throughout Canada and the U.S. have been at the forefront of efforts to provide better cycling opportunities during the pandemic by building bike lanes and expanding greenways. And these construction professionals have plenty of work to do. North American cities lag far behind our European counterparts when it comes to cycling infrastructure.

People regularly take advantage of this strong cycling infrastructure.For example, 43 percent of people in the Netherlands cycle every day, according to cyclinguk.org, and a whopping 62 percent of commuters in Copenhagen, Denmark get to work via bicycle, usa.streetsblog.org reports. Compare these numbers to Canada’s, where, before COVID-19 hit, only 9.1 percent of people in Vancouver biked or walked to work, 7.2 percent of Montreal’s commuters did so, and just 6.7 percent of Toronto’s commuters traveled to work via bike or on foot. In Portland, Oregon, one of the United States’ most bike-friendly cities, between five and ten percent of residents bike to work, according to usa.streetsblog.org.

A multi-city study found that cities with protected and separated bike lanes have 44 percent fewer deaths than an average city, usa.streetsblog.org reports. This means that bike lanes need more separation than just a painted line for optimal safety. Ideally, they should be segmented from the main road via a physical barrier to keep automobile and bike traffic apart. This is where the construction industry comes in. There is an astounding amount of potential work when it comes to creating a safe cycling environment in North American cities. Add to this the need to connect existing bike paths and the work increases even more. Because, in order to make cycling a viable solution, separated bike paths must take cyclists to their destination – not just dump them into a network of busy roads with no way to continue safely.

Cities have already responded to the pandemic by creating new bike lanes – and new work for the construction industry. Paris, Milan, and Bogotá led the charge in laying down hundreds of kilometers of new bike paths, theconversation.com reports. Canada quickly followed suit. Toronto approved 40 kilometers of new cycling infrastructure in 2020 to lure riders from public transportation to a socially distanced mode of transport. Citizens backed the project: in a recent survey, 84 percent of respondents supported the construction of protected bike lanes in Toronto, cbc.ca reports. Montreal, Vancouver, and many other Canadian cities have been busy putting in new bike lanes as well.

Municipalities throughout North America have also turned their attention to expanding cycling infrastructure over the past year. Major cities including New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago all announced plans to construct new bike lanes throughout their municipalities in 2020. Washington, DC alone is planning to build 20 miles of new protected bike lanes over the next three years, the District Department of Transportation reports.

And there is great potential for more, post-pandemic construction work in the future when it comes to cycling infrastructure. In North America, bike lanes are typically nothing more than a narrow lane, separated from traffic by a mere line of paint, that funnels cyclists through dangerous intersections alongside automobiles. The possibilities for improving this infrastructure over the next decade are huge.

Nowhere is this potential demonstrated more than the Netherlands, a nation brimming with cycling enthusiasts, where bicycles outnumber residents by 6 million and more than one-quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, The Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis reports. The Dutch have made cycling infrastructure a priority, with creative solutions such as roundabouts that prioritize bikes over automobiles.

Canada is already taking notice. The city of Kitchener, Ontario is planning to move forward on $6 million worth of cycling infrastructure that includes a bicycle-friendly Dutch roundabout and 10 kilometers of new bike lanes in the downtown core, kitchener.ctvnews.ca reports. The project will require raised concrete barriers and major infrastructure changes.

Of course, not all bike-related construction has been or will be road-based. Cities and towns are also recognizing the importance of bike and walking trails. During the pandemic the use of trails exploded as people looked for ways to get out of the house while socially distancing. According to the Rails to Trails Conservatory (RTC), trail use initially spiked 200 percent throughout the United States during the shutdown. Throughout the pandemic, trail use has remained 50 percent higher than in previous years. These figures demonstrate the need for better trail infrastructure. The related construction projects would focus more on improving quality of life than reducing traffic or providing alternatives to public transport.

New York State recognized this need and allowed construction to continue on the Empire State Trail during the shutdown, when nonessential work halted. The ambitious, $200 million project saw the construction of 350 miles of new paths and linked existing ones to create a continuous trail stretching from New York City to Canada and from Albany to Buffalo, timesunion.com reports. Now completed, the project has given bikers and hikers unprecedented access to 750 miles of interconnected trails crisscrossing New York State. The state estimates 8.6 million people will use the trail every year, the Democrat & Chronicle reports, and that figure could be even higher while social distancing remains in effect.

The Empire State Trail could be a sign of what is to come. With one major project successfully giving cyclists and pedestrians better access to nature, others may follow suit. After a year of frustration, loss, anxiety, and unprecedented challenges, better access to nature – and the social distancing it allows – makes good sense. And, of course, the health-boosting benefits of time spent outdoors will continue long after the pandemic abates.

The same goes for safer cycling infrastructure. With priorities and expectations still shifting from an unprecedented 2020, the coming year will be one to watch when it comes to new construction projects that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over motorists.

More Than Just a Trend

The construction industry is typically slow to evolve. Despite the existence of countless new innovations and technologies, and safer, better ways to do things, it is an industry where tried and true construction methods and long-accepted materials are seldom replaced by a new product or approach.

April 17, 2021, 6:37 PM EDT