There has been talk recently from Edmonton’s city council to review its cycling strategy. I agree with this. The cycling infrastructure Edmonton so far has been implementing has fallen well short of effective. Edmonton has focused its meager active transportation investments on installing painted lanes. On-the-road painted cycling lanes next to high speed and high volume traffic will not encourage anyone to cycle, except for the strong and fearless. Painted lines do little to prevent drivers from entering a person’s space, when most people cycle they want to ensure that they can do so safely with minimal interaction with a vehicle. Painted lines also do not prevent people from parking cars in the bike lanes which can create an even more dangerous situation for people cycling.
So now what? Let’s learn from our mistakes and build a proper cycling network, one that will actually encourage people to cycle. Edmonton with good intentions, previously tried an approach to stretch a small amount of funding. The result was ineffective and unsafe cycling infrastructure; it did not create a safe experience that invited new people to cycle, and angered local residents that did not see the benefit of the infrastructure, because again it was built incorrectly.
What is the best approach for this? Look for the desire lines…look for signs that indicate routes where people already cycle and enhance those with high quality infrastructure and traffic separation. The map shows the most recent 2014 municipal census results. While Edmonton’s city wide cycling rate is 0.7% (2013), the inner neighbourhoods show significantly higher cycling to work rates. The highest cycling rates occur in the a few pockets north of the river andimmediately south of the river surrounding the University and the Whyte Ave. area. The good news is that the city of Edmonton is already considering two cycling lanes on 102 Ave and 83 Ave to run East-West through both of these areas. The bad news is that city still seems to be treating this as an adhoc piece-meal approach. To truly entice new people to cycle, the city should install a complete and connected grid of bike lanes.
With Edmonton’s minimal annual construction and maintenance budget for cycling infrastructure, it is important to make sure that we maximize its return on investment. There has been great discussion from the city of Edmonton regarding a frequent transit network. People are finally starting to realize (I wrote a blog article about this here back in 2013) that we can squeeze ten times more out of transit system and maximize the return on investment if we treat it like a network rather than individual routes that go from door to door. If you rearrange transit routes and treat them as part of a larger system so that they compliment rather than duplicate each other, you can get people where they want to go quicker, more often and more reliably.
You can and should also treat cycling infrastructure in the same way. A cycling lane is only as good as its ability to connect to a larger network of cycling lanes that reliably provide a safe way to get around the city on a bicycle. Once you have a complete network established where people are already cycling, the cycling numbers will only grow as people realize there is a safe and effective route to cycle. In the future new cycling routes can be added incrementally, however you need to start with a bare bones but complete network.
Edmonton should copy, adapt and improve Toronto or Calgary’s approach with the minimum grid. Build a minimum grid of high quality, safe and direct separated cycling lanes that connect a high number of destinations in areas with a high number of existing cycling trips.
As I previously showed in this article, Edmonton has good bones for supporting high cycling numbers, it is flat and has an extensive grid structure. Let’s overlay the street grid over the census data, this finds that the areas with a good street grid also have higher cycling rates.
The map below also shows that Edmonton is missing some real high quality cycling connections downtown and south of the river. Therefore Edmonton should focus on filling in the gaps to provide a network of separated bike lanes that ensures people can cycle from the Strathcona neighbourhood, through downtown without ever having to interact with a vehicle.
The following map shows a potential concept for a minimum grid. The grid would align the routes on low traffic volume streets to provide a pleasant cycling experience away from the speed, noise and pollution from vehicles. As the cycling demand grows and vehicular traffic drops, routes can be added onto the main commercial streets, for now it is best to focus on the low hanging fruit and best bang for the buck. This network will provide safe cycling access to:
- 3 Universities/Colleges
- hundreds Downtown Edmonton’s jobs, retail businesses and offices
- hundreds of jobs and businesses on Whyte Ave
- Bonnie Doon and Edmonton City Center Mall
- 2 existing and 1 future LRT line, 8 existing LRT stations
- 4 north-south inner suburb and suburban multi-use trails
This plan isn’t proposing a separated cycling lane on all of these roads. For the quieter residential streets with traffic volumes less than 2,000 passenger car units per day (PCU’s are a measure of both the size and volume of vehicles, more information can be found here), such as 117 St., 121 St., 108 St., 98 St., 83 Ave. significant traffic calming similar to that used on Vancouver’s neighbourhood cycling boulevards would be sufficient. These boulevards use concrete barriers to prevent through traffic but still allow pedestrians and cycling to pass through. This has two benefits: it preserves the integrity of local neighbourhoods by promoting only local traffic, and otherwise it slows down traffic and reduces the traffic volumes creating a safe cycling environment. It is really the speed of the vehicles that matters for people’s perception of safety. There are many tools at our disposal to calm traffic, including bulb-outs/curb extensions that pinch the roadway at intersections, chicanes, narrow lane widths, trees, and neighbourhood wide 30 km/hr speed limits, but the main thing is to design the street physically for the speed that you need and don’t rely on the soft suggestions as they don’t work (people will drive as fast as they feel they can).
Other streets with high volume traffic above 2,000 passenger car units per day should be separated from traffic, such as 105 Ave., 102 Ave., 99 Ave., 96 St., and the Mill Creek Ravine bridge. Of course Edmonton is a winter city, so snow removal needs should be considered to minimize maintenance costs to keep the cycling routes clean and safe in the winter. The city should not however rely on the excuse that the existing machinery is not adapted for the smaller size of separated cycling lanes. We have to start making calls for the equipment to suit required outcomes for an interesting and inviting city, not the other way around.
Building separated bike lanes does not have to be expensive, smart designs used in Vancouver on Union Street or in New York City demonstrate this. A lane of parking is used to protect people cycling instead of the typical setup, where people cycling are used to protected the parked cars. You simply have to ensure that the critical areas at interserctions and mid-block have physical barriers to provide protections and ensure drivers cannot travel through the parking lane.
A city transportation system cannot consider modes in isolation. Failing to provide safe and attractive alternatives to the automobile is destructive to the cities bottom line. To retain our youth and locally growth talent it needs to create a network of transportation modes that compliment each other. The Strong Town group has put together a great and inexpensive resource on how cities are stuck supporting a Ponzi-scheme of approving endless suburban developments that will never recover the full value from property taxes to pay for itself (you can also find this information free on their website).
Therefore the first question that those that run our cities should ask themselves is if prioritizing auto-oriented investments will be able to recapture the public investment in infrastructure through property taxes. Even the most stringent of municipal fiscal hawks will agree the only way to ensure that our cities are financially viable, and that the infrastructure we build will see a return on its investment, is to start investing in our dense, walkable and human-scaled traditional inner neighbourhoods and create environments where there are true alternatives to the automobile and the majority of people choose to walk, cycle and take transit. No amount of investment will convince people to stay next to high volumes of fast moving vehicles. Continuing to create new suburbs and supporting the idea of moving cars quickly through our inner neighbourhoods diminishes our ability to maintain what we have while also simultaneously destroying our ability to recover the value out of our existing places (since they are places where people no longer want to stay). To create an enticing environment for cycling in Edmonton it is necessary to create a connected minimum grid of high quality, safe and separated cycling infrastructure.