A changed city

Future of bike lanes rests in council’s hands as Calgary struggles with commuter culture

tom-babinA few years ago, I stumbled out of a downtown nightclub during the Sled Island music festival to head home at a time so sensible that my younger self would have been horrified.

With my ears still ringing from the music, I rounded the corner onto Stephen Avenue and the view stopped me in my tracks. There were bikes, hundreds of them, parked in overflowing racks set up by organizers of the festival, spilling across the pedestrian mall wherever I looked.

As a long-time bicycle commuter in Calgary, I had grown accustomed to having my choice of prime bike parking because there were so few cyclists around. This, however, was different. I could barely find my bike amid the multitudes. I had never seen so many cyclists in Calgary at one place. It felt like a different city.

Looking back now, I no longer see that as a different city. Rather, it was a glimpse into the future – a future that is riding on a big choice, as city council in December will make a final decision on the outcome of an 18-month pilot project that installed a network of on-street separated bike lanes downtown.

It has been a contentious project, as bike lanes are in every city, that has taken on new significance because it has drawn such attention from around the world. Calgary’s approach of installing a complete network of bike lanes has been written up by publications from the U.S., U.K. and Europe. It was even mimicked earlier this year by arch-rival Edmonton.

Yet the future of the project remains uncertain. Installing two north-south lanes and two east-west lanes on downtown streets was controversial from the start, and the vote approving it was razor thin. Some motorists worried the project would increase their commute times. Some business owners worried about losing parking spaces. Some politicians seemed ideologically opposed. For a project costing a relatively small amount of taxpayer dollars, it raised a disproportionate amount of attention.

“For those of us who use the bike lanes, the positives are difficult to overstate.”

As the pilot project nears its reckoning day, the questions are about to be settled for good. From the perspective of a cyclist who uses the network regularly, it’s difficult to see how council could vote now to remove the bike lanes. The impact on motorist commute times has been minimal, especially because downtown gridlock has eased because of the economic downturn. There are now more parking spaces downtown than existed before, thanks to some creative thinking at City Hall. Everyone seems to be getting accustomed to the idea that bikes are part of the downtown ecosystem.

For those of us who use the bike lanes, the positives are difficult to overstate. The number of people riding bikes downtown continues to grow. More casual cyclists are taking to two wheels alongside those Lycra-clad road warriors streaming in from the suburbs. I, for one, feel much safer riding downtown than I ever did before the cycle tracks were installed. For council to vote to remove the lanes now would feel like a massive step backward for cyclists.

Yet a vote against the bike lanes at this point would also be a strike against something more than those cyclists. That night during Sled Island, even before the cycle tracks were installed, offered me a glimpse into the type of city Calgary is growing into. Young people – the same ones we keep hearing are looking for a different, more urban lifestyle than their parents – fuelled that surge of bikes downtown, prompted by some encouragement by festival organizers and a welcoming attitude by their peers.

The bikes I saw that night weren’t the outcome of a changed city. Rather, they were a symptom of it. By that measure, council’s upcoming vote isn’t just for or against bike lanes. It’s about the city we’re evolving into and the people we are entrusting it to. Council should vote to accept them.

Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling and writes about bikes at shifter.info.

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One thought on “A changed city

  1. As a long time cyclist I find the bike lanes on 5th street in the core downright scary. I have used it three times and each time I vowed never to use it again. To go home I take the longer river paths.

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