I suspect that it will take a fairly large change in our culture's approach to transport in general to get people out of their cars and using alternate forms of transportation. Really, bikes are just a part of the solution and for many, are impractical during the winter. Winter riding is doable, but is admittedly not for everyone
Currently, in Canada, we have cheap gas. We like to complain about it, but compared to most of the world, we have cheap gas. We also have vast distances to cover for many things - people living in rural communities (and by this I mean really rural - not small towns outside large urban centers) often have to drive vast distances just to get groceries and they have no choice if they are going to live there. One group in our society which is stuck in this regard is our farmers. Our farmers, besides having to often make long runs for basics, don't have much choice about using petroleum powered machines if they are going to run a viable business and as a group produce enough food to feed our cities. People living in semi-rural areas often have the flexibility to move into more densely populated areas should they have a need to (we did, for instance, when we got sick and tired of feeling married to our cars.) The thing is, cheap gas makes it easy to justify daily grinding back and forth between cities and small towns that are often used primarily as bedroom communities or extended suburbs for large cities by people who do not take the time - or even have the time after their commute - to invest themselves in the local community.
Our cities are also a problem. Where I live in Kitchener-Waterloo in Southern Ontario, we are suffering from urban sprawl in a huge way. Waterloo has thankfully run out of space to sprawl and is currently undergoing a bit of an infilling renaissance. The trend to convert old industrial properties into loft apartments is alive and kicking in this city. We have the Seagram lofts (using the old Seagram buildings), the Bauer lofts (using the old Bauer felt factory) and space is either being cleared and projects are starting for at least two more similar projects in the Uptown. This will have the net effect of pulling a lot of people into a tight space and reducing some of the sprawl. One other nice feature that many of these new projects have is mixed use zoning with businesses on the ground level and housing above. Waterloo is also fortunate that its downtown still has a hardware store, grocery store, banks, and a drug store all within easy walking distances of literally hundreds of homes.
This is, I think, key to moving people out of cars - having what people need located near where they live in a set up which does not mandate the use of the automobile.
Visit a big box development and imagine trying to walk around in them from store to store. I have seen some which are so huge that I almost feel compelled to DRIVE across the silly place just to get to another store. It is almost like someone took a standard shopping mall (remember those? a roofed over downtown!) and super sized it and made the means to get from store to store a car and not a pair of feet. The lack of ease for pedestrian traffic makes me seriously wonder if that was the intent. To make my bias clear - I generally avoid these places like the plague.
The City of Kitchener has a problem. It is almost like there are two cities - the older inner part, and the suburbs. Waterloo is like that to some extent too, but the drive to introduce new development in the older parts due to a lack of space at the edges seems to be having a moderating effect on the split between the older and the newer. Kitchener still has a lot of room to expand and is doing so at a terrific rate. Huge islands of suburbia are being built every year which are serviced by large arterial roadways. Shopping is in malls or big box developments scattered evenly throughout. They are designed to be accessed by cars. Some of them have mini bus terminals in them, but they seem to be almost an afterthought since bus service is too inconsistent to replace a car in that part of the city.
Grand River Transit is doing the best it can however with the resources they have. They operate a very effective and flexible Express Bus system which has fewer stops on its routes and connects the cores of Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge together. This is a good thing. The cores of the cities are very well served with regular fast bus service. However, there is no express bus service running down most of the major suburban artery routes. This makes getting around where a large part of our population actually lives and where more are moving in droves using fast effective buses a bit tricky. The buses that are there have to loop around through every little neighbourhood on the way along an arterial road which makes crossing the city by bus from suburb to suburb very slow. Take this silly example for instance. My wife works in a suburb in Kitchener. To get there by bus from our place takes her one hour and forty minutes each way. She can drive it in ten minutes if the lights are favorable. I can bike it in about 20 if I rush a bit. Guess how she gets to work?
Are we serious about getting people out of cars and into alternate transportation? Not when we keep building cities based around sprawl and the automobile. Why is there no express bus running from Wilfrid Laurier University down Hazel - Bearinger - and Fischer Hallman? Or up and down Victoria? Or up and down Westmount? Or Ira Needles Blvd? (For non locals - look on a Google Map of Kitchener-Waterloo and see what I mean...)
So what is the solution to this mess?
Make driving very expensive and inconvenient. After hurricane Katrina, gas prices spiked a bit across North America. We saw prices up at about 1.40 a litre (currently, they are back almost to pre Katrina prices; they are hovering around 1.05-1.10 a litre). When the cost was up, people were thinking twice about driving their cars. I saw neighbours carpooling to shop, and using their bikes more and walking more. Hmmmm I say. I honestly think it will take putting gas prices up at about 2.00 a litre to get people out of their cars and using alternate transport. It is not like running a car is cheap now - I estimate that we spend about $1400 a month on our cars including payments, insurance, fuel, and maintenance - but getting hit every time it gets filled up sends a message.
However, that won't do it on its own. We need effective and fast public transport to be in place before gas gets that expensive (which it will eventually). Things need to be built now, not after it is too late. For our city, that means more express bus routes, and community buses that run more often.
On the bicycle side, if we are going to get people to use bikes more frequently, we are going to have to address people's real and valid concerns about riding in an urban environment.
I can think of several things right off that would really help:
1. Better bike racks. Many bike rack designs simply are inadequate and are very easy to remove a bike from.
2. Having bike racks. Around here, with the exception of the Uptown grocery store, I honestly don't think that there is a single grocery store in Waterloo which even HAS a bike rack. Good going folks... Put some up?!?
3. More MUPS. We have a multi use path made from an old rail bed which serves as a terrific highway for bikes, walkers, and other trail users which cuts right through Waterloo and connects to the far side of Downtown Kitchener. It is wonderful. Waterloo has another trail which runs through its core and connects the high tech park, the Universities, and the Uptown together. We need more of that. I propose one from Stirling to Conestoga College on Homer Watson Blvd on the East side. There is room. I checked. This would connect the college with the downtown and greatly increase safety for bikes on that road.
4. More bike lanes. Thankfully, they seem to be mandated when a road is worked on so they are cropping up all over the place. Now if only they were maintained and if cars would stay the hell out of them we would be set. One person was killed while using a bike lane recently here by a motorist who entered the bike lane. A system of separated bike lanes would be preferred although if more people rode and less drove this would become less of an issue.
5. Workplace facilities for bike commuters. Some businesses have them, some don't. The best place for this I ever worked at had a shower I could use. This was good, as it meant that I could shower after my 30km ride in. Now? No shower, but the 12.5km ride can be done slow enough that I don't over heat and at least I can park my cyclocross bike inside, but not all are that lucky.
6. Plow and deice the MUPS in the winter to make winter cycling more accessible.
It is amazing what crosses one's mind while out on a run...