Conversations about bike commuting focus mainly on the traditional territories of city downtowns and the urban core. But North American metropolises, like Ottawa, usually consist of many far-flung, suburban subdivisions. Leaving suburbs out of the biking conversation risks turning biking into a privilege of the few who can afford to live in dense, downtown neighbourhoods. Millions would lose out on the health benefits of biking, and we would all be worse off environmentally.

Ottawa, Canada, Bike lane on a suburban road in Sittsville, Ontario, just outside Ottawa

Luckily, I need look no further than the official Ottawa Cycling Plan to demonstrate, that with the right infrastructure and programming, biking can become a viable transportation option for those in the suburbs too. The most obvious target for planners is the short local trip to school, the recreational centre, public library, or grocery store. The city has done a great job of including bike lanes and pathways in newly planned subdivisions, allowing suburban communities to reap the health, economic, social, and environmental benefits of cycling.

In fact, the Plan dispels a common myth about the suburbs: that they are too vast for biking. Contrary to this view, only 20% of people surveyed in Ottawa answered that more compact neighbourhoods would encourage them to cycle more, putting this at the very bottom of the options provided. By contrast, building facilities like bike lanes and parking (40%), providing better pathway connections (36%), and improving traffic safety (33%) were more popular choices among respondents.

The elephant in the room, however, remains the long journey between the outer suburbs and downtown. For those who live in Ottawa’s suburbs but work downtown, is biking out of the question? Not entirely. Ottawa’s planners have risen to this challenge by recognizing the key role that multimodal tranport plays in keeping biking alive in the suburbs. Instead of choosing between the car, bus, and bike, commuters can use them in different combinations.

Ottawa, Canada, Cyclists leave their bikes at a Park and Ride before getting on the bus

Biking to the nearest transit stop, for instance, addresses the last mile problem for many suburban residents, while allowing them to sneak in some physical activity before their bus ride. Sometimes, biking to a farther bus stop means catching a more direct bus, reducing your overall journey time. Suburban Park and Ride lots, where drivers can park their car and continue their journey downtown on rapid transit buses, also feature bike racks for bikers to do the same.

OC Transpo buses along key suburban routes are fitted with bike racks, allowing some cyclists to bring their bikes downtown. In addition to providing increased mobility downtown, where biking often makes the most sense, this also allows suburbanites to partake of the urban cycling experience. Suburban drivers can park their car at one of the city’s thirteen Park and Cycle locations and continue their journey downtown on bike, providing some physical activity and helping reduce road congestion.

Ottawa, Canada, Suburban cyclist brings his bike downtown by fixing it to a rack on the bus

The most striking feature of multimodal transport is that it makes sense financially, environmentally, and time-wise. Cars, bikes, and buses are created for different built environments. In an either/or paradigm, it is easy to see why the personal automobile, with its flexibility, becomes the dominant mode of transport. If people are able to use different modes of transport in combinations that make sense, then this may begin to chip away at the car’s supremacy on the roads. This, for me, is the true promise of biking in the suburbs.

Do you think that normalizing multimodal transport is realistic? What examples of multimodal mobility can you think of in your city?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. All data linked to sources.