Veterans Way in Okotoks. Courtesy of the Town of Okotoks

Enthusiastic conversations around potential cycling pathways connecting Okotoks and Airdrie to Calgary could open up a whole new way to explore the region. As e-bike access and popularity grows, commuting between the municipalities on two wheels is becoming a practical option for many cyclists.

“We’ve made great progress,” said Okotoks deputy mayor Matt Rockley. “We’ve got regional transit and local on-demand transit. The emergence of e-bikes is just the beginning.”

Thanks to these developments, Rockley sold his truck. “You can go from Okotoks to Silverado in south Calgary in 35 minutes on an e-bike,” he said, adding the experience is more enjoyable than fighting traffic in a vehicle.

The lack of safety measures for cyclists sharing space with vehicles on the congested QE2 was a major factor in the push for new options. In Airdrie, a cyclist who regularly risks the ride sparked the recent pathway discussions.

“(Airdrie) Council received correspondence from a Calgary resident who often commuted to Airdrie by bicycle,” said Airdrie parks development co-ordinator, Jessica Sleeman. “He was requesting support through Airdrie for the development of a pathway from north Calgary, through Rocky View County, to south Airdrie.”

The conversation is currently at concept level. “Airdrie is attempting to see if other municipalities would be interested in participating in something like this,” said Sleeman.

For Rockley, the conversation started with his election to Okotoks Town Council in 2010. “There’s always been a good focus on pathways extending from the river valley through other parts of town,” he said. “As time went on, active transportation topics grew.”

“Once we have this path built from Calgary to Okotoks, it’s easy to continue on to Black Diamond and Turner Valley with a loop through the towns and Calgary. Imagine day trips, local travel, exploring your neighbourhood.” – Matt Rockley, Okotoks Deputy Mayor

A taskforce was created and given a three-year mandate to work to understand pathway use and potential, creating the Active Transportation Strategy.

“We were shocked by the amount of pathway use here in Okotoks,” said Rockley. “Paths perceived as barely in use were seeing hundreds of trips per day with popular routes used by hundreds and hundreds of people every day.”

The first improvement under the new strategy was the conversion of Centre Street into Veteran’s Way. Rockley described the original path as “a tiny little three-feet-wide sidewalk down a huge hill with a (guard-railed) retaining wall dropping down one side and a guardrail between traffic on the other side – a terrible experience.”

The new pathway, which commemorates local veterans, has widened sidewalks on both roadsides and wider, accessible pedestrian bridges.

The need for intermunicipal pathways to connect towns, cities, and regional facilities was also identified and that policy direction was added to Okotoks’ Municipal Development Plan this year.

Barriers to the pathway extension could include distance and cost, including how many users will need to benefit to justify that cost, says Rockley.

Sleeman adds land, routing, underground utilities, future construction plans and land ownership to the list of considerations. Still, she sees potential connection to the Trans-Canada Trail system with economic and tourism benefits for Airdrie.

Rockley agrees. “Once we have this path built from Calgary to Okotoks, it’s easy to continue on to Black Diamond and Turner Valley with a loop through the towns and Calgary,” he said. “Imagine day trips, local travel, exploring your neighbourhood.”

The potential for intermunicipal pathways is scheduled for discussion at the next Calgary Metropolitan Region Board meeting in June. In the meantime, support is encouraged.

“Write a letter of support,” said Rockley. “Let your positive opinion and support be known to all the local town and city councils involved in these decisions.”

The project could also be a boon for real estate developers, which often fund these types of accessibility projects, and Rockley says he sees potential in corporate-sponsored adoption of pathway segments.