Spinning wheels or making progress?

Calgary sets its sights on a lack of cycling infrastructure

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.


Comments: 20

Cawlin wrote:

Great article. I'm happy to see more conversation around biking in Calgary.

Living in the Kensington area I ride on the paths and the road to get to work. The paths are often as scary as the roads with ipod clad pedestrians who walk 4 wide or get angry when you ring your bell (if they can hear you).

I'm also shocked how often the City closes a portion of bike paths without any warning or without offering any real alternative.

on Aug 5th, 2010 at 3:39pm Report Abuse

midtoad wrote:

Lots more discussion about bike infrastructure and the daily experiences of bike commuters at bikecalgary.org.

on Aug 10th, 2010 at 5:10pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Yes, you are just spinning wheels. If the bicycle is to be more than a recreational toy, if it is to be a real commuter vehicle, you are going to have to grow up. Start with a license for the bike. Add a driver's license for the bicyclist. Behave as a vehicle on the road: amongst other things that means no switching back & forth between the road and the sidewalk: it means obeying traffic laws. And it means riding all year because if you are only a fair-weather rider, then you are not decreasing the required roadway capacity for motorized vehicles. So are you a real bicycle commuter, or is the bike just your version of a lice infested hair shirt to show that you are holier than the rest of us?

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 12:06am Report Abuse

mikewarren wrote:

The impression I got from going to open houses about cycling stuff near Brentwood was that the Transportation Department (or at least the lead planner on that project) has little idea what a bicycle looks like nevermind what might be appropriate infrastructure; I find that really hard to square with Pincott's quotes about the department.

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 2:36am Report Abuse

critninja wrote:

@clairvoyant - are your comments meant to be condecending, or merely ignorant? Bike licence schemes have been tried before - and proven to be ineffectual and a money waster time and again. Do you enjoy wasting other peoples money and time? As far as your comments about cyclists not always obeying road laws - I might suggest that you look at other motorists when you are driving your car and watch them - many motorists break road laws every single day - excessive speeding all the time, passing on the right, switching lanes without signaling, running red lights, following too close, cutting off pedestrians and bikes, on and on and on. A cyclist breaking road laws really is only endangering themselves - a motorist breaking road laws endangers everyone! For certain there are bike riders who do not follow the road laws - but its no wonder considering there is no safe place for bikes to be. When riding on the roads (where we are legally allowed to be) we have to deal with aggressive, ignorant motorheads who have no idea how dangerous they are driving around bikes. And we are not allowed on the sidewalks - so what is your suggestion? Levitate? Gimme a break. There are many people who commute by bike all year long - more than you might imagine - why do you think the city plows 150+kms of the bike paths all winter? Might I suggest that you get on your bike and go for a ride, you might relax a little and not be so agitated the next time you get into your car.

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 8:18am Report Abuse

HeavyMetalHeathen wrote:

"passing on the right"

CRITNINJA, that one's new to me. Please reference this "road law."

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 9:55am Report Abuse

J_marshall wrote:

critninja - I'm going to take some points from your post and see what I can learn:

" As far as your comments about cyclists not always obeying road laws - I might suggest that you look at other motorists."

Classic deflection technique - 'Since another group does it too, I can't be held responsible.' My sister did that when she was 8.

"A cyclist breaking road laws really is only endangering themselves "

Wrong - How about when I swerve to avoid a cyclist and hit another vehicle (a motorcycle perhaps)? We are all connected on the road we share, most cyclists are aware of that. Thinking your actions don't affect anyone else is selfish.

"For certain there are bike riders who do not follow the road laws - but its no wonder considering there is no safe place for bikes to be."

More justification - Blaming drivers for the bad actions of cyclists.

But then you contradict yourself with "the city plows 150+kms of the bike paths all winter".

So which is it? No place to bike, or 150Km of paths open year round?

You come across as someone justifying bad cycling habits by blaming motorists. This does nothing for the cause of cycling and only adds to the existing animosity between these two groups. Please make the required changes and re-submit your post.

Your conclusion is fine though.

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 1:19pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Cyclists absolutely have to take responsibility and obey traffic laws if they're even going to be viewed as a legitimate vehicle. Drivers do too.

As far as 150 km of paths, it has to be noted that those are multi-use pathways, not even remotely acceptable as a mean of commuting. They are indirect and they bring cyclists into contact with pedestrians. Speed limits are too low for getting anywhere, but need to be in place to protect other users. What is needed is on-street bike lanes.

I usually like to stick to the facts of the argument and not get sidetracked in comment threads, but I can't believe no one has brought up the lice infested hair shirt comment by Clairvoyant. What the hell is that all about?

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 3:01pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Oh, and I think there is way more than 150 km of pathways, but I don't have the exact number at the moment.

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 3:02pm Report Abuse

J_marshall wrote:


I think the 'lice infested hair shirt' is a reference to old school religious prophets. Basically suffering to show piety.

So, using your bike as a hairshirt is meant to be an outward display of 'I suffer, so I'm better'.

on Aug 11th, 2010 at 3:20pm Report Abuse

critninja wrote:

@heavy metal - you might want to get your driver's licence retested, or at a minimum reference your learners manual! It is illegal to pass another vehicle on the right.

@ j marshall - deflection? isn't that exactly what motorists have been doing forever when complaining about the way SOME cyclists act!? Plus, a motorist (5000lbs) who breaks road laws is a much bigger danger than a bike (200lbs). I am tired of the motorist cry - "that biker is breaking the law", especially considering the UofC just released a study showing that less than 20% of Calgary's drivers actually know the rules of the road. Put another way, 8 out of 10 drivers on the road would fail a drivers test if retested today. Scary, right? Especially if you are a pedestrian or a cyclist.

Re: my apparent contradiction - um, I dont think so. As Drew mentioned, the pathways are just that - pathways - full of people, pets, strollers, etc. When I said "no safe place for bikes to be" - perhaps I should have said "no safe place for bikes to be on the roadways". Again, as Drew said the pathways are not an acceptable option for commuting. I commute everyday of the year on a bike and never use the pathways because they don't start near me and don't end near where I work.

There is nor safe place for bikes on the roads in Calgary! That is why we need a proper on-street bike network that is connected to key areas and is safe for all users - fast guys like me but also children and the elderly. I hope education (for cyclists and drivers) is a key component of whatever the city comes up with as its obvious we all need to brush up on the rules of the road.

@drew - i think the total pathway network now stands at 600+/-kms - too bad its not linked to anything - yet.

here is some fun reading on the real dangers out there and which road users need to be tamed - http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/health/risks.htm

on Aug 12th, 2010 at 8:11am Report Abuse

HeavyMetalHeathen wrote:

CRITNINJA, I could not find any mention of a passing on the right "road law" in the reference you cited.


Any other suggestions?

on Aug 12th, 2010 at 9:42am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

@critninja. Too bad indeed. I'm a year-round commuter cyclist as well. I use the pahtways for part of my trip to work as it does provide the quickest, safest route, but that's an exception rather than the norm. And I do have to be careful.

If you'd like to see the city's vision for bike transportation, here's the Calgary Transportation Plan, which provides the foundation for the comprehensive cycling strategy they're working on


If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, and you have a phd in map reading, check out the first map in the appendices, showing corridors, linkages and priority bike routes through the city.

on Aug 12th, 2010 at 9:49am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Great, we have some discussion going.

I agree that there are a lot of drivers of motor vehicles that are bad drivers, and many who break the laws. A refresher test, at least a written one, say every five years (ten? three?)would help. But that does not change the need for bike riders, most specifically commuting adults, to also know the rules of the road, the law. So I hold to the view that bicycle commuters must be licenced: that there are now motorized bicycles that are not motorcycles further drives this need. And it would certainly be beneficial to have a very significant section, much more than the current two pages, in the Alberta Driver's Handbook on bicycles. With regard to licensing the bikes, well that is the only way to identify an errant bike other than pursuit & confrontation.

Surprises can be fun. So surprise me: how many people commute in Calgary by bike, and NEVER revert to a motor vehicle (car, truck, bus, LRT) even in the worst weather conditions, of heavy snow or of very low temperatures?


on Aug 12th, 2010 at 6:59pm Report Abuse

mikewarren wrote:

@clairvoyant What exactly would "licensing" accomplish? That cyclist you see running a red light can (and does) still get a ticket, same as you in your car. I think you're also forgetting that most cyclists are also something else (e.g. parents, drivers, pedestrians) other times and vice versa. There used to be a bicycle license plates law in Calgary, maybe you should look up why it was abandoned (at least if you're not a courier).

...and of course I would also suggest many laws we have are stupid and don't need to be followed all the time. Whether it's jay-walking, rolling that out-of-the-way stop sign when nobody's around, swearing in public or spitting we've all broken laws when it seems reasonable.

So next time you get upset at someone doing something "illegal" maybe ask yourself if you're not simply jealous that you didn't do it first.

on Aug 12th, 2010 at 9:25pm Report Abuse

happytobe wrote:

It would appear that the combination of average drivers and average pedestrians combined with cyclist makes for a challenging environment in in Calgary streets.
Calgary is the only place I know of where a driver will stop traffic if someone comes close to a corner (the perons may not even be wanting to cross). As well it is the only place I know of where an IPOD charged university student will hit a pedistrian crossing button, not even look to see if there is traffic and walk onto the street before the lights even start. The driver using a cell phone, doing make up and watching out for the pedestrian has no capacity to pay attention to a cyclist. Lets face it, Calgary is a very user unfriendly when it comes to cycling, but to walk you can stop traffic all day long.

on Aug 19th, 2010 at 5:19pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Why licenses:

1. Talk to Aretha ... R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Right now a bicyclist is just an overgrown kid.

2. EQUALITY Cars are licensed: bicycles are not: the vehicles are not "equal". Motor vehicle drivers have to study a course, pass a written (computerized) test, and pass a driving test: bicyclists are not required to study anything, nor to take any kind of test: bicyclists are not "equal" to motor vehicle drivers.

3. The very act of studying for, and getting a license brings home the seriousness of being a commuter on the roadways, and brings forward responsibilities as well as rights.

4. With bicycling as a licensed activity, (we) the government would have to make education of bicyclists and motorists more that a few passing sentences in the drivers' training manual.

5. A license on the bicycle (along with recording of serial numbers) decreases theft & increases recoverability. (Some of bicyclists have paid a lot more for their bikes than I did for my car.)

6. A license on the bicycle allows violations of the law to be reported &/or prosecuted without immediate apprehension of the perpetrator.

7. A license on the bicyclist ensures identification on the bicyclist in the case of injury or death.

on Aug 28th, 2010 at 4:45pm Report Abuse

critninja wrote:

@heavyMetal - I stand corrected! What I could find was that motorists are ENCOURAGED to pass on the left but that passing on the right is fine in certain (actually many) circumstances. My bad.

@clairvoyant - bike licencing doesnt work! It is virtually impossible to enforce, difficult to implement, and creates more problems than it solves. Some fun reading....






In my view, what would really make a difference is education. Education for children in school PE programs, education for drivers that is more than the current simple reference in the driving manual, and education options for bicycle commuters.

Regarding equality of vehicles, the HTA regards all vehicles on the road the same way, under the same laws, so in effect - bicyclists can be charged with the same offences as motorists. My guess is the reason bicyclists are not charged more often is because of "harm": a bicycle running a stop sign is far less harmful than a vehicle running the same stop sign.

I do agree with you on this - bikes and cars are not equal. Cars kill people (#1 killer of children), bikes don't. Cars weigh 5000+lbs, bikes/rider weigh 200+/-lbs. Cars pollute our environment, bikes don't. Cars deteriorate the roads, bikes don't. Cars degrade our communitites, bikes strengthen them. I could go on and on.

It seems pretty obvious to me that more education would be a good thing for everyone and hopefully this new strategy has some sort of educational component.

on Aug 29th, 2010 at 8:47am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Looking up the five sites, the message is not that it is clear that licensing is useless & impossible, but rather that licensing is widely up for debate and there are a lot of people arguing in favour of licensing.
The only reasons for not licensing were:
-1- "The difficulty in keeping a database complete and current." And how is this different than for drivers of motorized drivers? (And some bicycles are now motorized but there is still no licensing requirement!)
-2- "The difficulty in licensing children given that they ride bikes too." And children purchase and learn to ride their bikes without any knowledge by their parents? And the children go out on major high traffic roads with no training and no effort to impress upon them the dangers, benefits, and responsibilities? Legally, a 14 year old is still a child: on the basis that licensing children is difficult, there should be no requirement for them to earn a license before they take a motor vehicle out on the road?
-3- "Licensing in and of itself does not change the behaviour of cyclists who are disobeying traffic laws." How that conclusion is reached is a bit of a mystery: licensing which means learning the rules of the road and passing written and practical tests should have an some impact on at least some of the cyclists. But let's say the conclusion is correct: what's good for the goose is good for the gander, so obviously there is similarly no sense in licensing motorists, ja?

on Aug 30th, 2010 at 3:29pm Report Abuse

mdunphy wrote:

why are you all so intent on proving each other wrong?

on Aug 30th, 2010 at 4:48pm Report Abuse

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