The ability to provide evidence, or proof, is one of the surest ways to build a healthy, functioning society.
It's because we can generate and understand evidence that we can ultimately grow food, develop vaccines, and build bridges.
Evidence-based research drives decisions in so many public realms, and yet somehow, for many decades, it didn't seem to be part of cycling policies.
At least, this is what Kay Teschke, soon-to-be-retired professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health, wondered about after she joined the City of Vancouver's Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) in the early 2000s.
Now one of Canada's leading transportation cycling academics, and lead investigator of the university's Cycling in Cities research program, but then an occupational health researcher, Kay found the municipal approach to bike route design to be a bit thin on the research side, as well as in one other important way.
The city planners and engineers that would present to council, they were all male.
In committee meetings, they told me things that I had never heard before — that people who knew how to cycle would rather ride on a busy road. It was safer to ride on the road with traffic, and behave like an automobile.
And I thought 'oh my god this is so different than my gut feeling.' I know in science that things that you may think are better turn out not to be the case. So I wondered, 'okay they've been around this forever, maybe they're right'.
As Kay tells the story of her two terms on the BAC, it becomes clear that letting her emotions guide her work would not be a common occurrence. She's a researcher — so she studied it.
Well, the results didn't show that at all. They showed that everyone, men and women, regular riders and rare riders, all preferred separated infrastructure.
She also took time to dig deeper into the data and methods used by North American engineers to inform decisions on transportation infrastructure.
We found out that most of the literature about what motivated and didn't motivate people to cycle distinguished just three route types.
The research on cycling safety and injury had methods that were not the public health style, which is epidemiologic where you look at big samples and you look across populations.
The common engineering style looks at one location intensely for short periods of time. So you might go to an intersection and do counts of vehicles, and then counts of times you saw people maneuver in funny ways.
But you won't see a crash, or at least rarely see a crash, because in any period of time it's unlikely you'll see it at a single location. So the research on cycling safety and injury also tended to compare very few route types.
Throughout the early 2000s, Kay, her team of investigators, and sponsors such as Transport Canada and TransLink, generated the type of research that cycling cities depend on. It's research that facilitates discussions and decisions about risk, priorities, urban design and healthy communities based on facts, as opposed to conjecture and emotion.
Kay's work has influenced the planning and engineering processes of cities not just in BC, but across Canada, with masses of data to support some very simple, but controversial, ideas.
Our research clearly showed that if you build for reluctant riders and women, you're building for everyone.
You don't need special infrastructure for regular cyclists. You don't need special infrastructure for men. If you build for the people who are currently under-represented, you will be building for everyone.
In addition, people's gut feelings about where they'd like to ride roughly followed the order of safety.
For me, that's a huge good news story.
After many years at UBC, having achieved recognition and reward for her work, one could forgive Kay for stepping back. She's not, by her own admission, a typical advocate ("I'm terrible at meetings.")
But her expertise has attracted the attention of cycling groups approaching the Ministry of Justice to reform the Motor Vehicle Act, to better account for cycling rights and safety. That's another good news story — that decisions regarding the changes to the act proposed by the groups will be made from an evidence basis.
The last major revision to the Motor Vehicle Act was made 60 years ago; the last update of any kind was in 1996. Significant changes have occurred in our major road network, neighbourhood streets, and bikeways over the past two decades.
I searched the literature, and in the end, of all the proposals, almost none had been studied.
The one which there's absolutely rock solid evidence for is reducing city speed limits. And the wonderful thing about that is that it's not just good for bicycling, it's good for walking, it's good for driving.
All this focus on data and evidence is not to say Kay doesn't still, at times, listen to her gut. And that balance — between the hard truth of evidence from painstaking research, and the emotional centre that we all know is wrong to completely ignore — is what makes her an ardent advocate for cycling, no matter how easy it may be to retreat to her academic background.
To me, every provincial road project should have appropriate cycling infrastructure for that road. At the moment, on 80 km/h rural roads, that means a wide shoulder. That's totally inappropriate.
No one's going to take their child to cycle there, and why shouldn't a child be able to cycle between Osoyoos and Oliver, or Oliver and Penticton.
I mean, these are not okay decisions that are being made by our Ministry of Transportation. It's not meant to be a ministry of car movement, it's a Ministry of Transportation.
They should be leading with guidelines about how to do things right.