06/27/2011 12:14 EDT | Updated 08/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Bikeability Index: UBC Researchers Measure Bike-Friendliness In Vancouver

Flickr: Paul Krueger

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER -- University of British Columbia researchers are pedaling past the old adage "You are what you eat" to propose that bike-friendly city design can have a revolutionary impact on health and fitness.

Arguing the blueprint of a community influences the amount of physical activity its citizens get, they propose the new saying should be "You are — where you live."

The team has created what they've dubbed the "Bikeability Index," a mapping tool that scores neighbourhoods on how accommodating they are to cyclists.

"If it's easy to get from point A to point B, because there's a nice bike route to get there ... that will encourage people to get out there and get fit," said lead researcher Meghan Winters, who has spent five years conducting research with the university's School of Population and Public Health.

"One less car trip, one more bike trip."

The online, colour-coded maps currently correspond to Vancouver — a city that's pushed hard to get people out and about on two-wheels in recent years — and its surrounding municipalities. They chart the availability and quality of bike facilities in individual areas, how connected streets are, topography and land use, and then sum up the results to provide cities with a big-picture rating.

Data was collected from more than 2,100 people and was also compiled using public opinion surveys, studies of travel behaviour and focus groups.

The team's primary goal is to deliver the maps to the hands of urban planners, said Winters, who can use them as visual aides to identify which areas of a city should be improved to promote a cycling breakaway.

"People just talk about the 'walkability 'of their communities and they assume that walkability and bikeability is the same thing," Winters said. "But it's not actually true. People need different things when they're on their bikes."

For example, a smooth ride must factor in how hilly an area is, whereas walkers are more concerned with the buildings around them and road networks. Cyclists are also interested in knowing what designated bike lanes and racks are available, which destinations they can reach and the safest and most comfortable routes, she said.

Funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research will expand the project. By 2012, the team plans to have made maps for Victoria, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Charlottetown, Moncton, and St. John's.

The maps can be viewed at Future renderings will also be more interactive and allow users to click and zoom.

Winters said the maps could also be handy for people deciding where to live, or inspire the public to coast over and explore nearby parts of their city that are shown to be accessible.

She said research will continue at Simon Fraser University, where she will teach as an assistant professor.

According to the city of Vancouver, about 60,000 bike trips are made every day and more than 3,500 cyclists commute to work. The maps show which areas within the city are better than others.

"It's also something people could use to make a case for their city about why they should put (new) facilities somewhere," Winters said. "So the advocates are obviously interested."

June is bike month in Vancouver.

Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press