monday, july 25, 2011
Alternative Transportation words and photos by Dan McKechnie
dmonton has always been known as a driving city. The roads are wide and the sidewalks sometimes non-existent. When a politician wants to score some quick points, they talk about paving potholes and extending roads into the suburbs. But slowly, attitudes in the capital city are changing. While transit has made the bigger splash when it comes to city dollars and big projects, bicycle commuting is increasingly gaining in popularity. Jayson Smith agrees, pointing to the advantages of taking a bike over driving. Smith works at Redbike, one of the city’s bike shops. “Think of the cost of insurance, cost of gasoline, lack of parking, cost of parking,” says Smith. “All those things that go along with operating [a vehicle]. We have definitely seen an increase of people riding their bicycles, especially to and from work.” Despite being a city designed around cars, bike commuting is slowly inching into the mainstrem. The city’s Bicycle Transportation Plan, drafted in 2009, acknowledges that much of Edmonton was planned in “an era heavily influenced by the automobile”, but also that the demands of a modern city include adequate bike access. The Bicycle Transportation Plan states that there are currently more than 200 kilometres of bike routes in the city. These are divided between marked on-street lanes such as the 109th Street transit corridor, contra-flow lanes (bike lanes that run parallel to but against car traffic), and shared-use paths and sidewalks. The city’s transportation plan lays out designs to expand that amount significantly. “As part of the transportation master plan, we’re planning to install almost 500 kilometres of on-street cycling facilities,” explains Matt Tokarik, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, adding the planned routes should be in place by 2018. Tokarik notes that the new routes often try “to piggyback onto the neighbourhood renewal projects,” allowing them to be rolled out at the same time that neighbourhood projects are completed. He notes that the city is “constantly installing more
shared-use paths” for less-experienced riders. Bike commuting in Edmonton can be challenging: the Bicycle Transportation Plan acknowledges that existing routes are of benefit primarily to “confident, experienced riders.” Anna Vesala, executive director of Edmonton Bike Commuters (EBC), also believes there are challenges for cyclists on the road. “Neither cyclists nor motorists are familiar with how to act on the road, and motorists aren’t sure how to safely interact with cyclists,” she says. According to Vesala, this discourages less-confident riders from making use of the existing on-street routes. The city does maintain that riding on the sidewalk is illegal, but many people choose to risk it in the face of Edmonton motorists. Vesala feels that this is due to a lack of education of both riders and motorists.
“Think of the cost of insurance, cost of gasoline, lack of parking, cost of parking ... we have definitely seen an increase of people riding their bicycles, especially to and from work.” Jayson Smith Redbike
“Oftentimes motorists will just clip by me because they don’t understand that I am actually taking a bit of the lane, so they should do a full pass into the lane around,” she explains. Vesala feels that the city’s cycling development plan is a good one, but adds that cyclists need to be involved in every stage of the process. Although there was extensive public consultation, including discussions with EBC when the Bicycle Transportation Plan was drafted, Vesala feels that the city has gone off track. “The city has lost a lot of the information that they’ve received from the public so now we’re seeing the implementation of those plans and they’re broken a little bit. They’re not
cohesive; they’re not made by cyclists.” EBC would like to see this addressed as development continues, with the end goal of making Edmonton as accessible by bike to the largest possible number of people. The group is a key element in Edmonton’s bike scene. Non-profit and volunteer-run, EBC provides services and education to the cycling community. The commuter group offers tools and training for cyclists so they can keep their bikes on the street. “In terms of education courses for riding, we offer introductory courses so people that have never ridden a bike before can learn their balancing skills, turning, using one hand — really simple things. And we offer more advanced commuter cycling: how to be in traffic, negotiate various traffic situations, and learn the rules of the road as a cyclist,” Vesala says. Bike repair and maintenance is another core element of EBC’s program. Volunteers are on hand to help cyclists with repairs ranging from new tires to complete rebuilds. The Edmonton Bicycle Commuters are at the centre of Edmonton’s bike commuting scene mostly by default; as the only large-scale, public bike shop in town, they fill a role not met by anyone else. Although there are other bike groups in Edmonton — the Alberta Bicycle Association and Bikeology being two — only EBC offers a centralized, year-round hub for cyclists. Given the central role EBC plays in the city’s bike scene, accessibility is key. In addition to their scheduled days for only women and transgendered people to use the space, EBC is working to cater to non-English-speaking cyclists. “We have a few volunteers who are from the University of Alberta International Centre and they have said that there are lot of people in residence there who don’t speak English. They’ve offered to do some of the basic bike maintenance courses we offer in different languages. So we have German, Korean, [and] Mandarin,” Vesala explains. By offering their services to the widest possible range of people, Vesala says, EBC hopes to get more people out and riding.
Rules of the Road Here’s what the City of Edmonton recommends in order to enjoy Edmonton’s bike facilities safely: (taken from the City of Edmonton’s website)
One person per bike, unless it’s designed for more than one. Obey traffic signs and signals: if you’re riding on the road, you follow the same rules as the cars. Yield to pedestrians: if you hit a pedestrian, it’s on you. Wear a helmet. Use your bell to pass: the city legally requires cyclists to audibly alert pedestrians when they wish to pass. And here’s what the Edmonton Police Service has to say:
Avoid distractions such as headphones. Dress visibly, with bright colours and reflective elements. Dismount at intersections: cyclists are pedestrians at crosswalks. Do not assume that vehicles will give you right-of-way, even if you should have it. Carry ID in case of an accident, and carry basic tools and supplies in case there is a problem with your bike.
Gateway Photo Editor Dan McKechnie takes a look at the current state of bicycle commuting in Edmonton, Alberta.