Using Cycling to Build a More Social City

By Darren Proulx

The difficulty of meeting friendly people in a city is a subject that often surfaces in news headlines. Why is this such an important topic? Depression and loneliness are becoming more prevalent issues each year. What can be done to counteract this? One of the key factors attributed to your happiness is the quantity and quality of social interactions you experience. So we know one of the ways to improve your happiness is to have more social connections. What, then is preventing us from forming more social connections, especially in cities with higher rates of loneliness and depression?

livable_streets donald appleyard
Donald Appleyard’s Livable Streets Social Connections with Neighbours with Varying Vehicle Volumes. People interact with fewer of their neighbours on streets with higher vehicle volumes.

While there are numerous factors, car oriented developments are certainly one factor. One study by Donald Appleyard evaluating different streets in San Francisco with varying levels of vehicle volumes found that people were more connected with their neighbours when the vehicle volumes were lower. Why would this be? Vehicles generally bring with them noise and pollution, which makes it uninviting to be outside. In these sort of environments you simply want to travel along the sidewalk and get into your home as quickly as possible. Furthermore when the only the affordable housing option being built are houses where it is easy to drive into your garage without ever needing to interact with your neighbours, it is easy to see why it is hard to make social connections in these cities. On the other hand inner city neighbourhoods that offer the most potential for meeting more people are more expensive and overrun with cars due to wayward transportation engineering since the 1950’s. Bringing down the cost of housing requires building more housing supply and policy changes, both of which are crucial but longer term courses of action.

Montreal protected cycling lane
People cycling on a protected cycling lane in Montreal.

Is there a way to balance out the higher cost of inner city living while increasing the opportunities of social interactions quicker? Cycling should be part of the answer. Cycling is an efficient and quick way for travelling around the city when it is convenient, safe and comfortable. Most trips are under 5 kilometers, which is at most 20 minutes by bicycle. Bicycles emit no noise and no toxic fumes. With cycling cities can be built at a human speed and scale. With a city built around cycling people are offered a chance to mingle with their neighbours again since their street is comfortable enough to let them.

Amsterdam and Utrecht have a 60% cycling trip mode share in the city centre

What exactly do social interactions look like in a city that is built around cycling and not the car? Places like Amsterdam and Utrecht paint a pretty good picture with 60% of trips in the city centre by bicycle.

mother and father cycling with baby Amsterdam vondel park edited
A family and their child cycling together in Amsterdam.

Imagine the intimate moments you could have with your child with them sitting right in front you. Your child has a front seat to life instead of the back seat of a car. Imagine not having to buy a car seat and worry about your child’s safety. Imagine the excitement and giggles as your child gets to experience the wind, the smells, colours and people. You get to be right there for all of that.

Man’s best friend going for a ride.

Building a city at the human speed makes it easier to take your best friend for a ride.

utretch main retail street cycling edited
A main retail street in Utrecht. Prioritizing cycling provides an opportunity for people to socialize while cycling but also allows those sitting at patios to hear each others and socialize.

Can you remember the last time you sat on a patio on a main street in your city. Do you remember how loud it was? Could you have a conversation with the person you were with? Without yelling? A city built around cycling can also help build a social city by reducing the noise levels produced by cars and letting you have a conversation with your friends on a patio without shouting. 

Cycling also builds a more social city because it is easier to view, watch and interact with other people because you can actually see them. A city built around cycling means that people are not encased in a metal box. It is also easier to stop for spontaneous chats or shopping since you do not have to find parking for your car.

Utrecht street soccer
In a city that prioritizes cycling, extra road space becomes a children’s playground.

Creating a city prioritizing cycling, walking and transit allows our children to reclaim our city streets for play. This makes it easier for parents as they don’t have to drive them to the nearby park. Rather in a city that prioritizes cycling often a child’s imagination and their local street is enough to keep them entertained. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for cars but rather that you lower the speed and volume of cars to a humane experience.

Montreal lane replaced with public seating
In Montreal (a city with higher than average cycling mode share) a travel lane was replaced by a parklet with public seating.

Cars are also space hogs, it takes up alot of space to move and store them. In a city prioritizing cycling, the extra space freed up can be transformed into public spaces or patios which can provide more free opportunities to gather and meet your friends.

Utrecht kid cycling alone to sports practice
A city built around cycling means autonomy for children. Autonomy to navigate the city safely on their own to their sports practices. When time is our most valuable resource, parents are relieved of their second job as a chauffeur.

Imagine a city so safe for cycling that your child can get to their sports practice on their own steam. Imagine the time you would save not chauffeuring your children around everywhere. A city built around cycling makes it easier for children to see their friends without needing to wait for a ride from mom or dad. For parents, a cycling city means more free time for to relax or spend quality time with friends and family.

Child waiting to cross the street vancouver

You shouldn’t have to put your life in danger the moment you take a foot off the sidewalk. Slowing a city down to a human cycling or walking speed allows us to bring out our sociability and happiness and create a more equitable and dignified city for everyone regardless of how they get around.

Cycling doubled in Edmonton immediately following the opening of the downtown bike lane grid.

Now the big question, does it take much to reorient and rebuild your city around cycling? While cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Utrecht have high rates of cycling, it also took them 40 years to make the transformation. However, cities like Calgary and Edmonton have shown that entire networks of protected cycling lanes can be implemented relatively inexpensively and extremely quickly. The turn around for Edmonton’s 6 km downtown bike lane grid (which I was involved with) took less than a year from September 2016 to July 2017. The return on investment is almost immediate. Cycling in Edmonton nearly doubled after the first month after the bike lane network was opened, meanwhile cycling grew by 39% in Calgary.

Downtown Bicycle Trips Chart 2017
The number of cycling trips in Calgary grew 39% immediately after opening the grid of bike lanes in downtown Calgary in 2015.


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