Last Monday, a report was tabled at our regular St. John’s City Council meeting. The Police and Traffic committee had discussed bike lanes and was recommending a "revitalization" of the City’s cycling plan committee.
This is great news, but it was difficult for most in the public to ignore the statements of councillors who were calling for the committee. "Two people! Two people riding their bikes up there," exclaimed one, describing the lanes' uselessness in a certain part of town.
Enthusiasts of cycling are understandably concerned upon hearing statements such as these coming from decision makers. So I would like to take a moment to explain the current issue, reaffirm the reasons we have a bike lane system (and should continue to expand it), and then promise to champion this issue in Council.
Why are we talking about bike lanes?
First, and simply, the reason the discussion about bike lanes arose in Council on Monday is because there are a few folks in St. John's who are frustrated with how the lanes are designed on their street.
The lanes in question required removal of long-standing parking spaces; the lanes seemingly begin and end randomly and sometimes meander into the middle of the road; and, to add insult to injury, "hardly anyone" uses them.
Now, I’d like to quickly and strongly state that "no one uses them" is not a good reason to cancel our cycling plan. First off, that's most likely not true, and in any case we should not base decisions on such claims unless they are true, scientific measurements.
But that point aside, it's important to hear what the residents are saying in this case: the change in our neighbourhood affected us in a couple of ways and we're not convinced it was for a good reason.
Why should we have bike lanes?
"From my point of view, improving our cycling infrastructure is actually an economic imperative."
Which leads to the bigger picture discussion: why even have bike lanes in the first place?
Well, there are lots of reasons for the City to endorse cycling: it's fun; it promotes health and fitness; it can be a great social activity; it reduces greenhouse gas emissions; it can reduce traffic congestion; it provides a non-car transportation option; and more.
But from my point of view, improving our cycling infrastructure is actually an economic imperative. Let me pull a quote of Jeff Speck from an article on walkable cities:
“The conventional wisdom used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and a higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely: creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs.”
This is not only true thanks to our more globalized, knowledge-based economy where people can work from or travel to anywhere. It is simply a reality in Newfoundland and Labrador and St. John’s in particular: we have labour shortage.
My point is that we need to focus on making sure our city is an appealing place to live and settle, and excellent public infrastructure is a huge component of livability. It is becoming increasingly clear that creating a people-focussed city is the way to promote economic growth.
How can we make our cycling plan a success?
Now that we’ve decided to take another look at our stalled cycling plan, there are a few things I think should guide our review.
1) We cannot abandon our cycling plan ambitions. There may be segments that aren’t designed well, but they're not worth scrapping the plan over.
2) We need a complete cycling network. It’s possible the "broken" segments of the network aren’t working precisely for that reason: they’re broken segments. Take a look at our cycling network map and notice the huge gaps and disconnects. It's not a network yet!
3) We have to educate the public on how a cycling network works. Just putting up signs and putting down lines is not enough. Cyclists have to know the rules of the road and motorists have to accept that cyclists are traffic, too.
4) Our objective must be to enable safe cycling. Lots of people have contacted me saying they’d like to ride but don’t feel safe. In other words, just because you don’t see lots of cyclists doesn’t mean we don’t need cycling lanes. The opposite it probably true: better bike lanes would encourage cyclists to emerge and use them.
I am a strong believer that a city that is committed to cycling is a happy, prosperous one. If you'd like to join me in my efforts, please get in touch and / or join my mailing list.
What are your thoughts for our plan? What should be our focus and how should we move forward?