City will need to pedal harder – August 5

August 5, 2009
By Dan Lett
Winnipeg Free Press
Bike-path upgrade worthwhile; bike-sharing program necessary

Once again Winnipeg is at a crossroads, only this time it’s mounted on a bicycle as it stares down its destiny.

At first blush, bike lanes may not seem like a make-it-or-break-it issue of urban planning. To be sure, increased use of bicycles is important for the environment and making cities work better. But in this town, the issue is typically portrayed as gravy — not the meat and potatoes.

However, this conventional wisdom wilts after visiting a city that embraces the bike, rather than just tolerates it. A city such as Montreal.  It had been some years since I had spent quality time in Quebec’s largest city, and while I always remember Montreal as a city that featured more than its fair share of bike commuters, the city has gone above and beyond in making itself bike-friendly.

The first major development that I spotted were the buffered bike lanes. Not just white lines on the side of major routes downtown, but distinct two-way thoroughfares separated from vehicular traffic by a concrete median. Although it presents a challenge for pedestrians — you have to look both ways, twice — it is clearly safer and more efficient for cyclists.

But Montreal also features a Bixi bike-sharing system that allows Montrealers to pick up bicycles in one location downtown and drop them off in another. The stations are located no more than 200 metres apart from each other.

Racks of Bixi bikes can be found with alarming regularity; there are more than 3,000 bikes at 300 individual stations. One year of Bixi access is just $78, taxes included. In total, Bixi has 8,000 members. It registered about 250,000 individual rides last year. The system was named one of Time magazine’s Top 50 inventions of 2008 and is being replicated in Toronto and Ottawa.

It’s not an entirely new idea, of course. Paris boasts a similar program, Velib, which supplies more than 20,000 bicycles throughout the core of the city. And each and every year, more and more cities are taking steps to promote bikes and public transit, especially in city cores that simply cannot absorb an endless supply of vehicular traffic.
Which brings us back to Winnipeg. Congratulations must go out to the city and province for extending Winnipeg’s dedicated bike-lane system and for including bike lanes alongside the new rapid-transit bus corridor. Unfortunately, there was a hitch.

City traffic engineers could not find a cost-effective way of negotiating the Osborne Street underpass, which essentially cuts the downtown-bound bike lane in half. The underpass cannot be expanded to include a bike path, so cyclists would be forced to share the underpass with buses and other vehicular traffic at some risk.
Cycling advocates cried foul, claiming that they weren’t getting a safe, uninterrupted route from southern neighbourhoods into the downtown. The city has responded with a promise to rebuild the underpass some time in the future, but not in the near future.

The absence of a solution for the Osborne underpass dilemma does not undo the good done by the city and province on this issue. It does, however, demonstrate Winnipeg’s capacity for falling short on good ideas.

It also suggests that civic officials are stuck in that mindset that says bike lanes are gravy, not meat and potatoes when it comes to urban planning.
They would be wrong, of course.

Bigger cities with greater population density have little choice but to consider radical approaches to moving people in and out of core areas. Winnipeg is not under that kind of pressure, but that does not mean we can take a leisurely approach.

There is a downtown renaissance going on in this city, even if it is moving at a glacial pace, and one of the new trends is the growing number of people travelling downtown for work.

The new Manitoba Hydro headquarters will be full by this fall. Red River College is expanding in the Exchange District and the University of Winnipeg is doing likewise. There are continuing rumours that another government entity (Manitoba Lotteries?) could occupy the top floors of the Hudson’s Bay store at Memorial Boulevard and Portage Avenue.

The time is right for the city to move aggressively on bike lanes, bike-sharing programs, and improvements to mass transit in and out of downtown. The rapid-transit program is a move in the right direction, but it should be coupled with efforts to make parking more expensive and rapid transit more affordable and convenient.
And let’s not forget safety. On Tuesday, two cyclists were struck by cars. Carnage like that is reason enough to look at alternatives.

Modern, progressive cities move more people on bikes and rapid transit than in minivans and sedans. They do that because they have to.
Winnipeg may not need the same kind of amenities for cyclists now. But we’re going to need them soon and there’s no good reason to put off the inevitable.

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