With the city’s streets now iced over and commuters left reeling from the first hefty snowfall, it’s surprising to see support for cycling infrastructure and active transportation holding firm as a topic of civic conversation.
It’s a testament to an increasingly visible cycling community whose members challenge the idea that cyclists are merely a niche group undeserving of proper infrastructure. Their commitment to spreading cycling awareness has no doubt had a large influence on city council heading into December’s budget talks. If the past weeks are any indication, building better cycling infrastructure in central Edmonton is no longer a matter of if, but when.
Formed in August out of several cycling and community groups, the Edmonton Bike Coalition is asking the City of Edmonton to take the next big step to make Edmonton bike-friendly. They’ve already taken one step in consulting with the city’s cyclists to create the Bicycle Infrastructure Plan 2014 – 2018, outlining a huge network of bike-lane routes through core neighbourhoods. But while the intent is there, the money may not be. Only two routes are currently funded, but the coalition is pressing the City of Edmonton to commit $28 million over four years to ensure the rest are built.
“We’re all in support of the bike-lane plan that the city has laid out, which includes all of the central neighbourhoods,” says coalition member David Shepherd, noting that even if the funding comes through, the city still has big decisions to make on the scope of the infrastructure.
“The majority of the support from individuals, in terms of people who are biking and people who are interested in biking, they’re looking for separated infrastructure,” he says. “That’s what’s going to make the most people the most comfortable on the road, and probably going to be the most attractive for people who are considering biking, but don’t feel safe doing so yet.”
Painting an accurate picture of the city’s current and future cycling community has been vital to the coalition’s cause. Leading up to budget season, they developed a photomosaic project with a goal of highlighting the community’s diversity. Within a month, they received more than 1100 images of cyclists of all ages and skills, each bearing a sign saying “I Bike” or “I Would Bike,” hitting home the fact that marginal infrastructure is holding many back from saddling up.
“A lot of people tend to think of the cliché—the guy with the tricked out spandex, a helmet and an attitude—but really it’s a wide population and a wide variety of ages, everyone from young children to senior citizens,” Shepherd says. “If we have proper infrastructure, a place where everybody can ride, it’s going to make it easier for everybody.”
Shepherd says most of council is on board with the plan, but the city’s tight financial situation has the final say. While 83 Avenue through Old Strathcona and a short stretch of 96 Street downtown are funded, any remaining routes that slip out of this year’s budget decision aren’t likely to be built until 2019 at the earliest.
One of those yet-to-be-funded routes is 102 Avenue, which cuts right through Councillor Scott McKeen’s downtown ward. McKeen is one of council’s loudest supporters of the current bike-lane push. For him, it’s about more than simply offering safe commutes; it’s also about creating an attractive place to live for the city’s younger populations. The time is now, he says, and there are no better places than Old Strathcona and his downtown ward to show off cycling’s potential.
“It’s time that we started to invest a little more assertively into active transportation,” McKeen argues. “This is the place—83 Ave and 102 Ave—in areas where there’s more density, where the population tends to be younger, where people have moved to the core to have more of a walkable lifestyle. It just adds up to a place where it’s the great proving ground.”
With the most opportune routes identified, the issue remains of which type of infrastructure is best for Edmonton. Cyclists tend to support a separated cycle track with lanes exclusive to bicycles, protected from other transportation modes by curbs or visual buffers, but McKeen isn’t so sure. He’s pushing for shared-use bike boulevards, which would see bicycles and cars share marked roads, made less hostile through traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, signs and roundabouts.
While separated bike lanes are more safe and efficient, McKeen argues they simply fall into the city’s addiction to fast, unimpeded commuting.
“A cyclist told me he wanted segregated bike lanes so that he could whip through. It was almost that same motorist-commuter attitude,” he says. “If we create cold, sterile transportation corridors where everybody’s segregated, it’ll work well, it’ll be efficient. You’ll limit any interaction between those modes, but I worry that this ends up being a place that nobody wants to be around.”
For McKeen, the bike lanes are as much about placemaking as they are about safety and efficiency. The decisions on exactly how these lanes integrate into their surroundings will say a lot about how we choose to share the city’s space.
“I think this decision is really big, in the sense that it’s symbolic about what kind of city we want to build,” McKeen says. “Are we going to start being more progressive in our urban-design and urban-transportation plan? Relative to the budget, the amount isn’t much and the corridor isn’t long, but the message we’ll send out in approving this is huge.”
Shepherd agrees that with all the development filling core areas and the growing optimism attached to active transportation, the bike-lane debate is worth much more than the $28-million ask. Cycling infrastructure is pocket change compared to the billions currently being poured into the core. In 2017, downtown Edmonton is going to be a very different place and bike lanes will factor just as much in the on-the-street vitality as any condo, storefront or entertainment district.
“City council needs to really step up and put their money where their mouth is on this one,” Shepherd says. “If you really want that vibrant downtown, look around: all the cities that have that, they’re investing in people-scale infrastructure.
“It’s not building more roads and parking lots, because people don’t like to go where cars are. People like to go where they can walk and bike, where they can experience and really be in the mix.”