Tamsin Shute began riding her bike to work, at the Stanley Milner Library, from her Westmount home about five years ago. Originally from Vancouver, the children’s librarian and mother of two finds the ride along 102 Ave. relaxing and therapeutic, especially after a long day working with energetic kids. “No matter what’s happened during the day,” says Shute, 35, “just getting on the bike to ride home, I feel so much better.”
On all but a few blocks, where she has to navigate busy downtown traffic, Shute feels comfortable commuting on two wheels. But getting to the point where moderate cyclists like her are comfortable on Edmonton streets hasn’t come easily—and the work is far from done.
Edmonton cyclists have long been an under-serviced minority in a city that loves its trucks. For their part, drivers are often faced with navigating around vulnerable and sometimes unpredictable cyclists. For cyclists, the streets can be hostile with crumbling curb lanes, confusing traffic signage, disconnected networks and, at times, tonnes of speeding metal piloted by drivers who just don’t give a damn. Potholes might be the only thing they can unite on. It’s festered discontent on both sides—discontent that’s not unique to modern Canadian cities trying to promote active transportation. But while Vancouver, Toronto and even downtown Calgary have taken huge steps toward peaceful traffic co-existence, Edmonton has been mired in a slow process of incremental construction, conciliation and occasional back steps.
With the planned redevelopment of 102 Ave. putting new focus on cycling infrastructure in the downtown core, policy makers, municipal planners and cyclists in Edmonton are hoping that will change. At completion, cyclists will be able to pop by the Downtown farmers’ market for some carrots and berries, maybe a latte, visit a boutique or two, check out the action on Churchill Square, attend art galleries, a play, the symphony, and return home—all on one continuous glide from 96th to from there will be a matter of both public and political will.
“That was one of the big losses for Edmonton. These were reasonable ideas that were good for the environment, good for the economy, and they just weren’t embraced.” —Angela Bischoff, activist and partner of late councillor Tooker Gomberg
Biking has become a fashionable expression of environmental, health and urbanist consciousness, especially among under-40s. Inspired by these ideals, and by rising fuel costs, parking rates and commute times, more people are getting back on the saddle for the first time since childhood. But it’s not all Jane Jacobs disciples and downtown hipsters spurring the charge, nor is it a new idea— not even for Edmonton.
Back in the late 1980s, when the late educator, activist and politician Tooker Gomberg arrived on the scene, political support was lean for bicycle and eco-friendly initiatives. Gomberg quickly got involved with the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society, through which he met his life partner Angela Bischoff.
Together they lobbied hard for cycling initiatives. It was an exciting time, Bischoff recalls, but frustrating too. One failed campaign, Rails to Trails, aimed to convert old, downtown railway lines into a network of dedicated bike trails—a completely car-free corridor. “That was one of the big losses for Edmonton,” laments Bischoff. “These were reasonable ideas that were good for the environment, good for the economy, and they just weren’t embraced.”
Tired of battling an entrenched administration, Gomberg ran for city council in 1992 and won. That year, Council approved the city’s first Bicycle Transportation Plan and began expanding and paving multi-use trails in the river valley. Eventually, work began on urban streets, widening curb lanes, adding sharrows (painted markings indicating shared paths for drivers and cyclists) and extending suburban bike lanes. Combined, this system of trails skirted the periphery of downtown occasionally infiltrating the city centre but never quite coalescing into a fully integrated bike network.
Sharrows, introduced in 2010, were especially confusing and frustrating to cyclists and drivers alike. In 2013, then mayor Stephen Mandel lamented that bike infrastructure development was turning into “a nightmare,” after Ritchie residents complained about the prospect of losing parking along neighbourhood streets. It was a major setback for those in government and advocacy who’d dedicated themselves to quelling the growing cultural war.
In October 2014, the bike community learned that funding for cycling infrastructure, including another bike lane north of Whyte Ave., might be axed from the 2015 budget. To rally support, the Edmonton Bike Coalition quickly launched a campaign inviting cyclists to share images of themselves on bikes, holding signs reading “I bike,” “We bike,” and “I would bike.” A video mosaic of over 1,000 of these distinct images played on a loop in city hall. In December, City Council unanimously passed an $8.8 million budget for active transportation in the downtown core, with the 102 Ave corridor as a centrepiece.
The decision to approve the plan, which also calls for a dedicated cycling path along 105 Ave., north of the Edmonton Arena District, was heralded as a sign of renewed support for bicycle transportation in urban Edmonton. Under Don Iveson, Edmonton’s notably pro-cycling mayor, municipal support for bicycle initiatives is at an unprecedented high. But what does the city have to gain from that?
Few riders have logged as many kilometres on Edmonton streets as CJSR bicycle traffic reporter Karly Coleman. Every day, Coleman rides through a cross-section of downtown, across the High Level Bridge and to the University of Alberta, where the human ecology student is also writing her master’s thesis on how cyclists define themselves and construct identity on two wheels. “Riding not only gives you a sense of your immediate physical environment,” says the former MEC sustainability coordinator and Bikeology director, “it gives you a sense of your immediate social environment as well.”
On a larger scale, that question of identity can also be extended to cities. What happens when a city defines itself by its transportation mode?
For far too long, downtown Edmonton was defined by the car, says Tyler Golly, general supervisor of the City’s Sustainable Transportation department. “The design philosophy was to move as many cars and to get them in and out of downtown as fast as possible,” he explains. “We were trying to achieve extremely high levels of service for the automobile, which deprived the environment for people living or working here.”
Cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been redefined by cycling and active transportation, and how it gives life to public space, reduces vehicle congestion and pollution, and, generally speaking, contributes to better quality of life. Places like Portland, Melbourne and, notably, Minneapolis—which has a climate akin to ours—are successfully following suit. These cities are reshaping their urban infrastructure towards bicycles and pedestrians not because it’s easy, but because it makes sense. But does it make sense for Edmonton?
The number one thing you need to make it work isn’t infrastructure, but bikes. And there are many of them in the core. According to the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, 80 per cent of Oliver households have at least one. How many of them get used is another matter. Three per cent of Edmontonians ride their bikes daily, according to a 2013 Bannister poll, while 35 per cent ride every week. Those numbers suggest that the potential is there, but what will it take to convert more of them into regular or even occasional cyclists?
“The design philosophy was to move as many cars and to get them in and out of downtown as fast as possible. We were trying to achieve extremely high levels of service for the automobile, which deprived the environment for people living or working here.” —Tyler Golly, City of Edmonton’s Sustainable Transportation
Generally, cyclists fall into one of four categories, as identified by Portland transportation engineer Roger Geller. “Strong and fearless” riders, like Coleman, are undeterred by traffic or weather conditions. You might find them charging through stale yellow lights or merging across lanes at the speed of traffic. “Enthused and confident” riders are a little more conservative, keeping to the curb and waiting until all is clear to switch lanes. Combined, these groups account for less than 10 per cent of cyclists.
But then there’s “interested but concerned” riders, which comprise the largest population segment, 54 per cent according to a 2013 City survey. These Edmontonians ride a bike now and then, though not on a regular basis nor solely for commuting. They may get out on the occasional leisurely ride on river valley trails but they’re hesitant to engage with traffic. (The remaining 30 per cent is the “no way no how” group for whom riding is out of the question.) Tamsin Shute is somewhere in the middle.
“I’m definitely a fairweather biker,” says Shute, who commutes by bike half the year from April through September. “When I first started riding downtown I was really scared. Just the way the roads work, I have to go into the middle lane and there’s a lot of buses and taxis weaving in and out. So that’s where I have to keep my eyes open and be really cautious.”
Since the fearless and the confident will ride anyway, the City is focused on creating infrastructure for the middle categories, to put them at ease and build their confidence in hopes that they will take up cycling in greater numbers and frequency. According to an independent review by engineering consultant Urban Systems, one of the key things that would make more Edmonton cyclists feel safe is proper, dedicated infrastructure.
That’s where the 102 Ave. bike corridor comes in. The current design concept prioritizes active travel over vehicular traffic, with bike lanes physically separated from the street by a curb or structural divider. “Cars will still be able to use it as an access road, but it’s going to completely change,” explains Golly. “The priority users are going to be bicycles and pedestrians.”
Although Golly’s been working with a renewed and robust guiding document for bike infrastructure development since 2009, the last six years were marred by false starts. On top of the culture war, public resistance and limited funding has prevented planners from realizing the full potential. “It was like you’re a student backpacking through Europe on a shoestring budget,” Golly analogizes. “That’s what we did—we tried to provide as much bicycle infrastructure as we could with the limited funds we had.”
“The result of that was some people not being happy,” he says. “Change is never easy for a city.” Big change is certainly ahead, but there’s no guarantee on what the end result will look like, yet. The 102nd and 83rd avenue designs are still in consultation, and public input could sway the designs before shovels hit the ground next year. “You can have policies galore,” says Natalie Lazurko, Golly’s colleague in the financial and capital planning department, “but unless you have people advocating for this and willing to put their neck on the line to support it…politically, you don’t have a hope of actually getting there.”
That support wasn’t always there when it was needed in past, from council or administration, she says. “It’s a large corporation with many different years of experience. Some have been working under the old approach for years and years, and so just like we have to change people’s minds in public, it’s the same internally.”
But what if that political will shifts again? Frustrated, vehicle-bound ratepayers could still pressure the City into cutting funding and scaling back plans. It’s happened before. With so many other major capital projects, as well as growing infrastructure maintenance costs, budget priorities can change dramatically year over year, resulting in watered-down versions of grander plans.
As the population swells over the next few years, a legacy of auto-centric urban design will continue to accentuate downtown congestion problems. It will take a consistent, concerted effort by drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, planners and politicians— but the bicycle could be a part of the solution.
“Whatever the result, it will be better than it is now,” says Shute. “If it were a bit more safe, I would definitely opt to take the bike more often when we go out [as a family]. I want my kids to feel comfortable on bikes.”