I’ve been buzzed while cycling more times than I can count. Spend enough time on a bicycle in Waterloo Region and you’re likely to have experienced it, too: the near-misses between passing cars, the drivers who hang onto every inch of pavement on the road. For a community that prides itself on forward-thinking and innovation, the truth of the matter is this: when it comes to getting around, people on bicycles are often treated as second-class citizens—never mind what Kitchener’s, Waterloo’s, and Cambridge’s Bicycle Friendly Community designations would like you to believe.
To ride a bicycle in Waterloo Region is to be at times encouraged and other times exasperated by the pace of change in our cities, where oversights and missed opportunities pop up on our roads as frequently as the potholes that follow a February thaw. For every two steps forward, we can’t seem to help but move one step backward—a chain that keeps falling off with each pedal stroke.
Anyone looking for Waterloo’s newly-introduced protected bike lanes on King Street—one of the biggest selling points of a redesigned uptown streetscape after months of road construction—will find a row of parked cars instead. Two of Kitchener-Waterloo’s most vital arteries for pedestrian and bicycle traffic—the Iron Horse Trail and Spur Line Trail—lack virtually any signed or protected street crossings, with cyclists and pedestrians forced to wait at busy four-lane roads for a chance to play George Costanza in Seinfeld‘s ‘Frogger’ episode. We’ve seen dozens of shared-lane markings (or ‘sharrows’) painted on city streets, only to realize that nobody really likes them—not even the cyclists they supposedly protect.
“Right now, we’re still hodgepodge—a bike lane here, a bike lane there. And it’s great when you’re on those bike lanes, but then those bike lanes end after 200 metres or a couple kilometres,” says Graham Roe, co-owner of Berlin Bicycle Cafe and one of the cycling advocates who lobbied for the protected lanes uptown. “As cyclists, we’re still in the gutters.”
It’s enough to make you ask: how did we get here?
It’s not as though our city councils are blind to the issue. The City of Waterloo’s plan for a high priority network is a direct acknowledgement of what so many riders have been asking for: a minimum active grid focused on improving the uptown core. In Kitchener, city council is nearly halfway through a 20-year cycling master plan aimed at expanding its on-road cycling and trail network. Just this past year, Cambridge introduced a two-kilometre multi-use trail along Conestoga Blvd.
These are promising signs of councils that want to do the right thing, but it’s not enough: Kitchener’s spending on bicycle-friendly infrastructure last year was barely 1 per cent of what it spent on road reconstruction and resurfacing in 2015 alone. A 20-year plan is a nice sentiment to share, but what about right now?
“People prioritize the motor vehicle. That’s the design of the fifties—we’re still stuck in that mode of designing our cities around the automobile,” says Roe. “I could blame the motorists, but I don’t. I blame the system.”
The end result is a series of improvements that our cities seem to view more as gifts to be given praise for than investments in a safer, healthier community. After all, cycling may be an annoyance to some drivers, but to those who get around on two wheels, the difference between good and bad infrastructure can be one of life and death.
“Bike lanes save lives, because they create separation between drivers and cyclists. But other studies are showing that cycling has effects on cancer, and mental health, and chronic health issues,” says Robin Mazumder, a University of Waterloo PhD candidate researching the psychological effects of urban environments. “I see politicians talking about how they want healthy cities, and I’m like, give me a break. Build some bike lanes. What more do you need?”
If we truly want to prioritize active transportation, then let’s do it right. Let’s give our cyclists and drivers alike what they both want and build our streets for both of them, keeping them separate whenever possible. The research bears this out: the City of Portland did a study into cycling habits in 2016 and found that of all potential riders, nearly two-thirds are interested in getting around by bicycle but have concerns about their safety. A University of Waterloo report in 2015 found that the two greatest barriers to cycling uptown were a lack of bike lanes and traffic worries.
The interest is there, but the infrastructure is failing us.
“In Netherlands, Denmark, even in Montreal… they’ve all figured this out. It’s not rocket science,” says Roe. “As long as vehicles can go 50 to 70 kilometres an hour, you can’t share that with a bicycle.”
It’s not as if we’re without precedent in Canada: Calgary—yes, sprawling, car-friendly Calgary—went down this road in 2015 by introducing a downtown grid of protected bike lanes and has seen a 40 per cent uptick in bicycle trips in and out of the downtown core since the lanes have gone in. Sidewalk cycling—one of the biggest indicators of poor cycling infrastructure and a leading cause in bicycle-involved collisions—dropped from 16 per cent to just two per cent. In Ottawa and Gatineau, over 50 kilometres of parkway roads are closed to vehicles on summer Sunday mornings for bicycle, rollerblade, and pedestrian traffic—a tradition that has lasted since 1970. Change is possible.
Mazumder knows this firsthand. While living in Edmonton—another Alberta city better known for car culture than bicycle commuting—he joined a group of cycling advocates in successfully introducing a pop-up bike lane in the city’s downtown.
“My first year in Edmonton, I didn’t ride my bike, because I was terrified. I didn’t think it was possible,” he says.
Taking a page from a similar project in Minneapolis, the group worked with the city to install a series of pylons and flowerpots spanning ten city blocks, creating a makeshift bike lane for a span of two hours.
“It [was] a way for residents to experience something tangible. For the people that might have had an issue with a bike lane in their community, they can see what it would actually be like,” says Mazumder. “When you’re opposed to it, all you see is something that’s going to create traffic problems. And it also gave the cyclists something to see: this is what it could be like biking on a street with a bike lane.”
Today, that bike lane has become permanent. Since then, the city has launched an entire downtown grid.
“In less than two hours, we were able to communicate something [and] show people what it could be like. Politicians came out to it, and they ended up re-prioritizing their budget,” says Mazumder. “I never would have thought that was possible.”
Better bike infrastructure isn’t just about safety—although safety should be reason enough. It isn’t just about creating healthier communities or lessening the burden on our environment—although it does that, too. Better bike infrastructure is good for business. One of the biggest “what ifs” bike lane opponents hold onto is the potential loss of business from less parking in our downtown cores, but the numbers suggest the opposite is true. The same University of Waterloo report surveyed shoppers in Uptown Waterloo and found that those who travel by active and public transit make more trips and spend over twice as much as those who drive there.
The arguments against spending on cycling are wearing thin. It’s been done elsewhere and has been proven to work. It promotes a healthy, active community while minimizing pollution. It’s good for business, and it puts the focus on keeping all of us safe—not on finger-pointing between drivers and cyclists over who’s at fault and whose behaviour needs improving.
“I think there’s a lot of hope here,” says Roe. “We have a small city; we can make changes much quicker than a larger city like Toronto can. If we can put protected bike lanes on King Street, there’s no excuse that we can’t put them on every single road that we need them on.”
We’ve been innovators before, ready to champion new ideas. Let’s embrace an idea that makes sense for all of us—not just in the short-term, but in the long-term, too.
This is an extended version of an op-ed from the Waterloo Region Record on Saturday, March 24th, 2018.