On a late Saturday afternoon, Good Life Community Bike Shop is just starting to wind down after another busy day. Tire rims, random parts, bikes in various states of repair and rows of neatly organized drawers line the simple space in Eau Claire Market. Four people remain, tweaking their rides. Membership is rapidly growing, about 50 new people every 10 days are signing up to be a part of the community bike shop. Since opening in 2008, this little cycling hub now counts almost 3,500 members.
With more and more cyclists crowding onto city streets to jostle with cars, trucks and SUVs, and scaring the pants off of pedestrians on sidewalks and pathways, the city is finally starting to take notice. At least on paper. The first flicker of understanding came with the Calgary Cycle Plan in 1996, followed by the Pathway and Bikeway Plan in 2001. Then came the Municipal Development Plan and the Calgary Transportation Plan in 2009, which reflected the city’s new green direction. Now, the city is in the process of crafting a comprehensive cycling strategy to get more Calgarians on bikes and to make it safer for two-wheelers to ride the steets and pathways.
With so many plans — and infrastructure so lacking — it’s difficult not to be cynical.
Ald. Brian Pincott, a commuter cyclist, says the awareness at city hall is changing, thanks in part to the leadership of the planning department. He says investing in cycling infrastructure is a no-brainer, financially and socially. Two years ago, he couldn’t even get city council to look at the possibility of a pilot program for bike sharing. But the mood has since changed.
“Finally we got a motion passed that basically said, ‘OK, let’s actually — rather than picking away at this, and this, and this — let’s actually look at the whole picture,” he says. “What does the whole picture look like?”
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any time riding their bike into downtown Calgary that the whole picture is pretty bleak. It’s a wasteland of faded bike stencils on the too few bike lanes that end abruptly and don’t connect to pathways (the result of picking away at it). Vehicle driver knowledge and willingness to Share the Road (a city program) is almost non-existent, and the knowledge amongst cyclists isn’t any better.
It’s easy to get discouraged, enviously peering over the mountains at what’s happening in Vancouver. That city created a bicycle advisory committee in 1985 and now boasts extensive on-street infrastructure for cyclists. Almost 60,000 daily trips were made on bikes in 2006 and the city just opened a new separated bike lane through a major downtown artery.
So what exactly is the problem and what is the city doing to rectify it?
The Calgary Transportation Plan calls for more on-street bike lanes, connected throughout the city and linking to the massive, but less-than-direct, multi-use pathway system. Maintenance of existing infrastructure will be included in discussions as well as biking facilities for either end of a journey, including showers and bike storage. A pilot program that recently started puts bike racks on every bus running on three main city routes.
Winding through back roads and meandering your way to the pathway system isn’t the quickest way to get to work on a bike, but that’s a daily reality for Curtis Mah. Working downtown as an accountant at an oil company, Mah prefers to avoid major thoroughfares on his commute from Killarney.
“I just don’t think cyclists and motorists will ever truly get along, especially in Calgary,” says Mah. “So if we can separate the two and you can have cars flying by bikes and they both have their own spot, then it will be a lot better for both sides.”
When discussing cycling infrastructure in Calgary, it’s impossible to ignore the extensive and oft-celebrated multi-use pathway system that Mah uses for part of his commute. It’s a vast, winding network of trails accommodating cyclists, pedestrians, rollerbladers and others. One thing it is not designed for, however, is quickly and efficiently moving people.
“I go down to the trails, but they’re recreational trails,” says Mah. “I don’t go super fast, I’m kind of average, but I do get passed and I can see how people that do go down there in the mornings wanting to walk their dog would be getting kind of blasted by my bike.”
When Pincott lived in Midnapore, his ride into downtown along pathways was inefficient to say the least. He would be forced to ride seven kilometres out of his way before actually heading downtown.
Nicole Jensen, a transportation planner with the city, is heavily involved in trying to change Calgary’s car-centric culture. She says the pathway system is a mixed blessing. “Given what we heard from council, we recognize that our multi-use pathway system is really good, it’s almost too successful. And that’s why they also asked for the pathway safety review,” she says.
That safety review involves looking at incidences of confrontation on trails, specifically people trying to get somewhere quickly on those recreational pathways. The slow, 20-km/h speed on the pathways is a problem for commuters. Recently, an elderly woman was knocked over by a rollerblader on a city pathway and died from her injuries, further highlighting the dangers of mingling speed and recreation.
But the thrust of the city initiative is looking at on-street bike lanes and how they might connect with the pathway system.
“Council made a motion to say ‘Let’s explore to create this comprehensive cycling strategy,’ so what would that look like?” says Jensen. “We came back and said ‘This is what it could look like,’ and that’s what got approved. So, really, we’re at the beginning stages.”
Those beginning stages include a new stakeholder committee composed of cycling organizations and unaffiliated cyclist citizens. Fifteen committee members will gather regularly over the next year to discuss future cycling infrastructure and what would make them feel more comfortable on city streets. Last month, the first meeting dealt solely with the reasons people are not cycling and what the barriers are to getting more people on bikes.
Seth Petrie, the active and sustainable transportation co-ordinator for the Calgary tour de nuit Society, one of the organizations represented on the committee, is cautiously optimistic about the city’s new focus.
“The city’s direction is not perfectly in line with what we’d like to see happening to make cycling safer and more accessible to everyone,” he says. “The committee itself is great, knowing that something’s being done. It seems to be a little less bureaucratic and more of a focus group.”
“It’s great to get people focused on cycling specifically,” he continues. “In a lot of these other places, cycling has come up but it’s never been a focus of any of these other meetings.”
For now, the city has a hodgepodge of unconnected bike lanes, most of which are wide curb lanes — essentially a stencil on the pavement next to parked cars on wider roadways. The main route running the length of the Beltline is on 10th Avenue S.W. It’s perhaps one of the better examples in the city, but the route suffers from worn out signage and a lack of understanding on the part of cyclists and motorists. Even Pincott agrees it’s hard to identify as a bike lane anymore because the painted stencils have virtually faded into non-existence
The city is faced with a lot of options going forward with planning. Separated bike lanes with a physical barrier, bike lanes on sidewalks, mixes of pathways and bike lanes, storage at LRT stations and increased bike parking downtown are all on the radar.
So what should the city be doing? The majority of respondents to the 2006 Calgary Commuter Cyclist Survey identified on-street bike lanes as a priority. The tour de nuit society would like to see more research into what works here, rather than copying other cities, something Petrie admits will require infrastructure put in place. The society would like to see dedicated bike lanes established on Fifth and Sixth Avenues downtown by shaving a bit of room off of vehicle lanes without entirely removing them.
Jensen, however, is mum on what’s going through her mind.
“I honestly couldn’t say until we go through everything and I wouldn’t want to, only because that would jump ahead of the process and I don’t think that that’s fair,” she says. “I think we really want to make sure that the process leads the issue identification, the barrier identification and then into the actions.”
“I wouldn’t want to assume anything.”
The real question for cyclists will be whether or not this process will lead to anything substantial, or just represent yet another pile of paper and a whole lot of expended breath. Jensen says her department must present the report to council by May next year and it will include measurable accountability targets for implementing the suggestions.
But ultimately they are just suggestions and depend on the political will of a city council that may look very different after the October 18 municipal elections.
“It will depend on council and the teeth that council gives it at the end of the day when we do get the report, and what we do with it,” says Pincott. “But I think that there’s, certainly within the transportation department here, there’s a pretty strong willingness and understanding that this is an important piece of our transportation picture that we have not given justice to.”
Mah, who makes a point of saying that he and the other cyclists he works with aren’t “hippies,” will be scouring the platforms of mayoral and aldermanic candidates to see just how important they think that piece of the transportation picture is, in the hopes that his ride to work will be a little bit safer and quicker.