LETTER: We Need to Talk About Bike Lanes

Separated bike lanes are the safest and best way to encourage cycling in a city. We need leadership on this from the new city council.

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The debate about bike lanes rages on in St. John’s. The official Bike Master plan was approved by City Council on June 10, 2019 (https://www.engagestjohns.ca/bike-st-johns-master-plan) and we have still not seen any meaningful work related to the building of the three proposed pilot projects for the plan. This is not a surprise. I was profoundly disappointed in the plan that was put forward by Trace Planning and Design and adopted by the City. I want to share an email I sent to then Councillor Dave Lane, who was in charge of the Bicycle Master Plan at the time. This email (edited), sent on July 2, 2019 outlines why I was disappointed in the plan and why I thought it failed.

Here are my main concerns with the plan.

1. The focus on the trail network is misguided and will not increase cycling. The assumption of trails as being catalysts for cycling is not correct. Trails are hidden and do not visibly show more people on bikes. Remember that the goal is to make bicycle commuting increase. If people don’t see other people that look similar to them commuting, there is no catalyst for bicycle commuting. This may increase recreational cycling (though I doubt it) but once people try and get somewhere on the road network they will stop because of the danger.

2. The focus on the trails creates jurisdictional challenges for the City. First, that the Grand Concourse will make a big fight out of this, which is probable given the public debate. Second, and more concerning to me is the change in city policies around snow clearing and trial maintenance. Changes in these policies are required for the bike network Catalyst projects to have a chance. Changing these policies will be blanket in nature and will come with significant costs not included in the report. I hope they will be implemented but come with challenges above and beyond the cycling plan.

3. Most important, research clearly shows that separated cycling infrastructure (cycle tracks) are the key to increase cycling and creating a safe environment. My opinion is that 2 of the 3 catalyst projects should be separated infrastructure. If a city is going to take cycling seriously that is where it starts. The two key areas to connect in the city are MUN and Downtown. There is no question about that and the report is clear that those are areas where people cycle. The plan needs to focus on cycle tracks in those areas. To focus all of the plan in one area of the city, on trails that have already had lots of debate about sharing between cyclists and pedestrians is naive at best.

4. Personally, I think the consultant had it in their head to go the trails route far too early. I attended 3 different public consultation sessions and had 1 on 1 conversations with the consultant and it was clear to me from nearly day 1 that the plan would involve mostly trails. I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt so I waited until the report was released to voice my concerns. This is not supposed to be a trail redesign plan, it’s supposed to a bicycle master plan, but the catalyst projects do not reflect that.

5. Last, cycling infrastructure is always political and always local (see point 2). For those reasons, I feel that plans should always focus on creating the best possible infrastructure in the location that will serve the most current cyclists. That is, the focus should nearly always be downtown in a city and using separated cycling infrastructure. In the case of St. John’s, MUN is also an important location. There is no reason to modernize a plan that will not do much more than the previous Bike Master Plan. Why waste many years doing something that will not work to achieve any noticeable results in the evaluation.

That is my 5 cents. I encourage you to look at the Bicycle Network Design Jam report that was sent out previously. It outlines 3 priority areas based on citizen input. These 3 might be candidates for catalyst projects in the future. Keeping in mind that suggesting these will also make a big fight and lots of public discussion (http://www.beaplab.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Design-Jam.pdf). The Bike Network Design Jam was held on September 22, 2018 at the Memorial University Signal Hill Campus in conjunction with the Happy City Neighbourhood Summit.”

A new city council was recently elected, and the debate about cycling rages on in St. John’s. A recent article suggests that even painted bike lanes would be better than nothing (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/opinion-st-johns-cycling-plan-needs-to-change-lanes-1.6187067). I strongly disagree, we need to insist that we implement separated bike lanes, what research has consistently shown is the safest and best way to encourage cycling in a city. We know this, St. John’s is not a unique unicorn flower city that is unlike everywhere else. We have traffic, we have hills, we have snow—just like places all over the world. Separated bicycle infrastructure is a way to make moving around a city safer for everyone, even drivers. “The arguments over bike lanes are settled. They’re becoming what they should have long been: an ordinary way of getting around our cities.” (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-is-the-war-against-bike-lanes-finally-over/).

According to the city we are in a climate emergency (http://www.stjohns.ca/media-release/city-takes-action-climate-change). It’s a shame we can’t even develop a plan and build a reasonable network of separated bicycle infrastructure. I guess that’s too much to ask when we can’t even follow our own evidence on safety and keep the roundabout at Rawlins Cross. For me, this a failure of leadership on the part of the mayor and council. I don’t like calling people out, but we have seen time and time again in cities were the mayor takes a strong position and has a vocal role in supporting large scale changes, things get done. This happened in Vancouver with Mayor Robertson with cycling, is happening today in Ottawa with Mayor Watson around public transit, and in Montreal around sustainable mobility with Mayor Plante. Mayor Breen and the new city Council must think boldly and follow the evidence on what works to create a more sustainable and healthier city. Separated cycling infrastructure that connects MUN and downtown is a big part of that plan, but there is still going to be a big fight with lots of public discussion. This is why we need bold leadership from the mayor and council.

Dr. Daniel Fuller is the Canada Research Chair in Population Physical Activity at the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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