First off, I’m not a cyclist. Not that I wouldn’t want to ride a bike from time to time, but living in Rossdale there is really no way for me to get anywhere without biking up a rather large hill, and that’s not something that appeals to me. But there are a lot of Edmontonians who do bike, and based on what I’ve been seeing around downtown, I think the number of cyclists on our streets is growing.
Over the last few weeks I attended both Interstellar Rodeo and the Folk Music Festival, and I’ll admit, I was a little shocked at the number of people who chose to ride their bikes to get to there. As an aside, these festivals are two places I actually could ride a bike to without embarrassing myself by trying to bike up a hill. Of course there is very limited parking at/around both festival sites – Hawrelak and Gallagher Parks – so attendees are somewhat forced to look at alternate modes of transportation, but I expected that to result in more use of transit than cycling; especially at Interstellar Rodeo which was running a free shuttle from the University of Alberta.
Since I’ve never been to either festival before (I don’t know how I’ve never been to Folk Fest so don’t ask) it’s possible that the number of people choosing to use a bike to get there wasn’t out of the ordinary, but, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve also noticed in my travels a lot more bikes around downtown. An interesting side effect of this is that at the same time bike thefts have shot up. But it’s not just my observations that make me think bike use has increased. The City has constructed a number on new bike routes, and improved routes were identified as the factor which would most encourage more people to cycle in the 2005/06 Bike User Survey Report. Taken together I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that more people than ever are riding bikes in Edmonton. And despite what some might think, this is a good thing.
A quick Google search will give you plenty of reasons why cycling is a good thing. Most of the benefits are health related, as you probably would have expected. Choosing an active mode of transportation will improve your physical health, and can improve your mental health as well. Nobody likes to commute, but those who choose to commute by bike are the happiest commuters, slightly ahead of those like me who walk. Cyclists are healthier and happier, there’s not much to dislike about that.
But there are people who don’t want to see bicycles on our streets, and feel that the money being spent on the creation of Edmonton’s bike network could be much better spent elsewhere (even though the budget is a minuscule $1.5M, or 0.2% of the City’s total roadway budget). The anit-bike advocate will almost always tell you that bikes, because they move at a slower speed, actually create more congestion not less, and that it’s a hardship on the neighbourhood to have parking removed, or lanes narrowed, in order to accommodate cyclists.
The congestion argument is understandable. As I said before, nobody likes their commute and if they perceive bikes as adding time to that commute they’re not going to object. But as Gordon Price explained in the Globe & Mail last month this is not what actually happens.
But here’s the irony: Bike lanes and pedestrian priorities don’t create congestion no matter how often it’s predicted (and it’s been happening since the 1970s in Vancouver). We’ve been reallocating road space, introducing traffic calming, closing off blocks, reducing parking, and yes, adding more bike lanes – and what happens? Traffic quickly adjusts, and over time driving diminishes, even as the number of trips grows.
Traffic volumes into downtown Vancouver, for instance, are now down to 1965 levels, even though population, jobs and tourism have roughly doubled – the result of better transit, changing work and residential patterns and, yes, more walking and cycling. In the case of the Point Grey corridor, the shift of vehicles to other arterials will only return them to levels previously experienced, and will likely drop from there if recent trends continue.
And the same came be said about the impact to neighbourhoods: the reality doesn’t match with the fears. Studies have shown that a bike lane can actually increase property values, but still, a large number of people oppose the development of bike lanes for no other reason than the fact that it comes at the cost of the on-street parking in front of their house. Again I can appreciate that position, but that piece of the street isn’t owned by the local resident, it’s city property, and if it’s what’s best for Edmonton then it needs to happen. If that same parking needed to be removed for another driving lane I’m sure that residents would still complain, but at a political level I think the conversation would be much different.
Edmonton wasn’t built with bikes in mind, but that doesn’t mean we can’t correct that. All Edmontonians will benefit from a well thought out and extensive bike network. I don’t know that we’ve reached critical mass on this issue quite yet, but we’re close, and I think that’s a great thing.