Some city councillors are better at engaging the community than others, and St.Norbert’s Janice Lukes is near the top of the pile in that regard. Most recently, Lukes, a long time cycling advocate, held a forum on fast-tracking a downtown cycling grid which I attended and will tell you a little bit about in this here blog post.
Winnipeg does in fact have a plan for something resembling a downtown cycling grid. The first phase, Fort and Garry Streets, is already in the works, but the long term plan would see bike lanes on Hargrave and Carlton Streets as well, connecting to protected bike lanes on Bannatyne and McDermot Avenues, and another east-west linkage along St Mary Ave.
With a small budget of about $5 million per year (if my memory is correct, which it very well may not be), city-wide development of our active transportation network is spotty, often coinciding with scheduled street renewals to save money (although, as I wrote elsewhere, even that doesn’t always happen.) At this current leisurely pace, the full downtown plan will take years to come together. However, recent stories about fast-tracked and low budget cycling grids in Calgary and Edmonton inspired Lukes to get a conversation started about how that could be accomplished here in Winnipeg too.
At the forum:
Tyler Golly (Stantec) – worked on Edmonton’s network
Ryan Martinson (Stantec) – worked on Calgary’s network
Stephanie Whitehouse (City of Winnipeg) – Winnipeg’s one and only full time AT planner
Luis Escobar (CoW) – Manager of Transportation
Scott Suderman (CoW) – Transportation Facilities Planning Engineer
Cindy Gilroy (CoW) – Councillor
Ross Eadie (CoW) – Councillor
Tyler and Ross were the stars of the show. Ross went first, with an excellent presentation about how Calgary’s network came together. To get things started, they took an inventory of downtown streets, and using traffic data and the help of a smart man with a mustache, narrowed those down to a functional network of separated bike lanes.
Some compromises were made to get the votes needed for council to pass the plan, and with the backing of a mayor who was very much in favour of the project, they set to work on making it happen.
The project cost $5.75 million, including consultation and construction. The idea was to put it in place rapidly, and then monitor for 1 1/2 years, looking at a variety of metrics including traffic counts before and after, 311 calls, accidents, etc. Counters were even installed along the grid to measure numbers of cyclists using the new lanes.
Edmonton, being very much inspired by Calgary and jealous of their new cycling infrastructure, set out to build their own. Unanimously passed by council, the Edmonton project is expected to take less than 12 months to complete, from conception to opening.
It was constructed on a similar budget as Calgary’s, using low cost materials in a way that is adaptable should changes be required. However, Tyler was careful to point out that the network is NOT a pilot project. It is permanent, but could be tweaked if need be.
The big question is: can we do this in Winnipeg?
Money is always an issue, but the cost of the Calgary and Edmonton projects are not out of line with Winnipeg’s annual AT spend, and Winnipeg’s plans are more modest than those other two. If we wanted to focus on our downtown network for one year, it could be done without breaking the bank.
More at issue is political will and public resentment. There is often fierce opposition to any changes that could in any way impact the velocity of an automobile, and there has been criticism (perhaps justified) of rushed projects and inadequate consultation in the past.
For this reason, I piped up at the forum and, overcoming my paralyzing fear of speaking in public, asked the Stantec consultants about how they approached consultation in their cities. In Calgary, it worked this way:
- A committee was formed with various stakeholders in the design phase of the project to get ideas and feedback.
- Businesses along the affected routes were directly approached, not to ask if they agreed with the project, but to ask if they had concerns in order to mitigate any negative impacts (parking, loading zones, etc).
- As the bike lanes opened up, Bicycle Ambassadors were dispatched to talk to people on the streets, increase awareness, and give guidance on using the new bike lanes.
Snow clearing was brought up as well. In Calgary, the snow generally just melts and drains away like nothing ever happened, but Edmonton is not unlike Winnipeg. What they do is plow snow to the middle of the road, and then load it in trucks and clear it away. Likewise, they plow the bike lanes and clear that away too. The additional work could add cost to our snow clearing, which already seems to go over budget every year, but it is feasible.
Maybe the question we need to ask is: SHOULD we do this in Winnipeg?
After all, for the cost of 1 km of bike lanes we can fill 143.6 pot holes. I just made that up, but there is some financial cost to it, and in a city struggling to make ends meet it would be silly to ignore that. It is also likely that some people will be mildly inconvenienced via reduced on-street parking or a lost lane for cars.
One might also ask if we should focus on downtown or on other corridors. Councillor Ross Eadie, who spoke up several times about poor access TO downtown from surrounding areas, is one of those people.
Experience in other cities has shown that more people bike when proper infrastructure is in place, and importantly, those cyclists are safer. As cities get more congested, encouraging alternate forms of transportation becomes more important, and the downtown area is the hub of all of that traffic. I was in a taxi cab that almost ran over a cyclist downtown. It is in definite need of better bike infrastructure. Should it be fast-tracked? Maybe.
There are certainly some passionate and vocal advocates in the Winnipeg cycling and active transportation community who would love to see it happen, but that may not be enough. A lot depends on the leadership at City Hall. Calgary had a strong mayor who was a big believer a downtown cycling grid. Does Winnipeg?
** 10/25/2016 updated to clarify that Edmonton’s project is in progress. It was recently passed by council and anticipated to open summer 2017 **