NATALIE ST. DENIS

The Two-Wheel Challenge

Cycling to work in Alberta can be daunting. Bike-friendly cities would benefit from cyclists and drivers alike.

By Natalie St. Denis

Ask any cyclist who manoeuvres Calgary’s or Edmonton’s roads during rush hour if they feel comfortable or even respected by drivers. The answer is usually a resounding “no.”

Ask any driver if they like it when cyclists thread through the gaps between cars at traffic lights, or take up an entire lane while riding at well below the posted speed limit. The answer is usually a resounding “no.”

Local cyclists and drivers have an understandably challenging relationship. Today’s roads were designed with cars in mind. And yet cyclists are allowed—even encouraged—to use them. Cyclists and drivers are expected to accommodate each other, and yet both groups can be ignorant of each other’s responsibilities and concerns.

Indeed, cyclists and drivers are entirely different species of commuter. Compared to drivers, cyclists are exposed and vulnerable, their flesh and thin aluminum-alloy frames outweighed by several tons of fast-moving metal. Drivers, on the other hand, are used to the behaviour of other drivers, and cyclists—with their small size, slow speed and nimble movements—present challenges and frustrations.

Given the close proximity, emotions can boil over. “When I see a cyclist, I start to sweat,” says Calgary car commuter Laila McSorley. “I’m afraid that we’re going to collide.” McSorley once had a close encounter with a cyclist who lost control of his bike while riding close to the curb. 

“I think that most drivers, as myself, have no intention of hurting cyclists. But I’m never sure what to expect,” she says. “The majority of cyclists ride respectfully, but there’s always the odd one who jumps off the sidewalk and cuts you off. That makes me nervous.”

Some motorists have a more antagonistic reaction to cyclists. “Some get really frustrated… they honk their horn, rev their engine, roll down their window and yell ‘get off the f***in’ road!’” says Alan Fedoruk, a long-time commuter cyclist and board member of Bike Calgary, an education/advocacy group and social and education network for cyclists and the community at large. “The most outrageous behaviour is when they actually try to drive you off the road with their car. That’s pretty scary.”

A bike parkade in Calgary.

A bike parkade in Calgary. (Natalie St. Denis)

Fedoruk, an assistant professor at Mount Royal University who commutes 24 km per day (round trip), offers a key insight into cyclist behaviour. “The safest way for me to ride to work is to actually take up the whole lane, especially at intersections,” he says. “When riding close to the gutter you’re at greater risk of getting hit. By taking the lane—riding close to the centre of the lane—you’re much more visible and in control of the situation.”

Fedoruk’s and McSorley’s are but two stories that illustrate Alberta’s needless culture clash between car-centrics and the commuter cycling movement. 

Cyclists on the road are considered by law to be a vehicle. When a motorist passes a cyclist, they must go around them like they would any other vehicle; it’s actually illegal for a motorist to pass a cyclist within the same lane. The flipside is that cyclists are expected to ride properly. It’s also illegal, for example, for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk.

Ideally, cyclists and drivers would share the same lane as little as possible, with cyclists using specially designated on-road lanes or off-road paved pathways.

“I agree that cyclists need designated lanes for safety reasons, but I’m not sure that taking a lane away from drivers is the answer,” says McSorley. “Our streets are congested enough as it is. Drivers will just get more frustrated if faced with fewer options, especially if the bike lane sees very little traffic.”

But it wouldn’t take many more people riding to work to reduce traffic congestion in rush hour; turn even a few hundred drivers into cyclists on a busy route, and the effects would be noticeable. The benefits of more commuter cycling would be shared by all Albertans, two-wheeled and four-wheeled alike.

Not everyone will ride to work. But it wouldn’t take many more riders to noticeably reduce congestion.

Understandably, not everyone wants to ride their bike to work in a place like Alberta, given the weather, long commuting distances and other considerations. But a growing number of Albertans do choose to ride—Calgary, for instance, has seen an 11 per cent increase in bike commuting since 2000—and even more people might ride if they felt it was safer. 

“Friends and colleagues sometimes think I’m extreme, especially cycling in the winter,” says Fedoruk. “But it’s a lot safer than people think.” In fact, despite an increasing number of commuter cyclists on the road year-round, cycling fatalities in Canada fell by 50 per cent from 1984 to 2002 and cycling injuries decreased by 33 per cent.

Retired airport planner John Alliston, committed to changing the cycling experience in Calgary, founded Bike Calgary in 2003 “to inform, educate and inspire cyclists.” Bike Calgary is “interested in obtaining improved infrastructure and public acceptance for the use of the bicycle for transportation.” 

Citizens in Edmonton established their own commuter cycling advocacy group in 1980 for much the same reasons. Today, the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society (EBC) advocates on behalf of cyclists and operates a community-based bike shop, BikeWorks, complete with tools and spare parts for cyclists keen on repairing and tuning their bikes year-round. Calgary has a similar bike shop, The Good Life, located at Eau Claire. 

Cycling to work, EBC members say, should be an appealing choice for Albertans. “Our goal is to make cycling accessible to everyone,” says 25-year-old Christopher Chan, director of EBC and owner of seven bicycles, one for every possible weather and occasion. Through education and awareness campaigns, as well as better road and path options, “safety for everyone—cyclists and motorists—will increase,” he says.

The perceived dangers of riding may explain why the typical commuter cyclist in Edmonton or Calgary is a middle-aged male with an annual income above $90,000. His usual reasons for cycling: to keep active and healthy, to give the environment a boost and to avoid exorbitant downtown parking fees. 

Calgary has seen an 11 per cent increase in bike commuting since 2000.

Indeed, Alberta’s commuter cyclist profile is quite different from those in the mega-cycling scenes of countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. In Copenhagen, for instance, as many women as men ride bicycles, often with children in bike seats or “cargo” baskets. Two-wheeled trips in the Netherlands account for 30 per cent of all travel modes (45 per cent are done by car); in Denmark, 20 per cent of trips are done by bicycle and 42 per cent by car. In Alberta, about 1 per cent of commuter trips are done by bike, 82 per cent by car.

Obviously, the higher population density of European cities reduces commuting distances, and the weather is more friendly to year-round cycling. Still, local cycling advocates believe that more Albertans than a mere 1.3 per cent of commuters in Calgary and the 1.1 per cent in Edmonton would ride if the experience were more positive.

Despite its harsh winters, the City of Montreal has improved its cycling infrastructure since 1995. As a result, Montreal has experienced an increase in the percentage of total trips by bike—from 1 per cent in 1996 to 1.6 per cent in 2006. Inspired by Paris’s Vélib automated bike-rental system (available throughout the city 24/7, year-round), Montreal launched its BIXI bike-rental program in 2009, available 24/7 from May to the end of November. The city offers more than 3,000 bicycles at 400 stations across the city. 

Montreal has 560 km of dedicated cycling paths and on-road lanes and now ranks among the world’s most bike-friendly cities. One ranking places Montreal in fourth place, with Copenhagen first, Portland, Oregon, second, and Munich third. “I was in Montreal last summer and was really impressed by the separated lanes that shuttle cyclists right through downtown,” says EBC’s Chan. 

Edmonton and Calgary have been home to commuter cyclists for decades, long enough for some concrete ideas to emerge about how to entice more Albertans to exchange car for bicycle, if even part-time. Both cities continue to develop and implement sustainable transportation plans which should, over time, improve conditions for all commuters.

“If cities in Holland and Germany were able to retrofit their transportation systems, which weren’t originally designed to accommodate bicycles, there’s no reason why we can’t overcome these challenges here,” says Audra Jones, director of sustainable transportation for the City of Edmonton. 

Challenges consist not only of painting bike lanes and adding pathways and signage, but confronting assumptions about cycling and securing more funding for alternative methods of commuting. “We’re at least 20 years away from where European cities are at,” says Jones. “It’s going to take time to change people’s behaviours and to create a transportation culture that more fully embraces cycling.” 

A philosophical shift is underway in both city councils, however. Both have approved the idea of giving priority to “active transportation”—i.e., pedestrians and cyclists—as the cities continue to develop and expand. 

“Active transportation [in Edmonton] only gets 1 per cent of the overall transportation budget: about $5.7-million annually over the 2009–2011 period. But Council recognizes that this is not enough,” says Jones. “That’s why the next capital budget [2012–2014] is expected to invest 5 per cent of that budget into active transportation, which will equate to approximately $19-million annually.” 

Bike Calgary’s Alliston believes his city likewise needs to invest more in cycling infrastructure. “There aren’t enough City employees focused on cycling, and the few that are have a lot of passion for their projects but little money to work with and little power.” The City of Calgary’s budget for pedestrian/cyclist projects represents 4 per cent of the overall transportation budget, which will be about $12.6-million annually for the next 10 years.  

Both Bike Calgary and EBC are concerned about merging pedestrian and cycling projects. “The needs of pedestrians and cyclists are significantly different when it comes to infrastructure, and we don’t know how much of the budget will actually target commuter cycling,” says EBC’s Chan. 

Currently, the cities of Edmonton and Calgary have multi-use pathways along main roads, rivers and through parks, as well as on-street signed bike routes. Edmonton has 270 km of multi-use pathways, 460 km of single-track/unimproved trails and 117 km of signed, on-street bike routes. Calgary has
700 km of multi-use pathways (130 km of which are cleared of snow during winter, twice more than in Montreal) and 290 km of signed on-street bike routes.

But many bike routes and multi-use paths—designed originally for recreational users—don’t lead to where commuters need to go. 

“On my way to work, I use a combination of roads, bike lanes and pathways, but when I get close to MRU, the bike route disappears,” explains Fedoruk. The University of Calgary and the Foothills Medical Centre face the same problem, despite being two of Calgary’s largest employers. 

“The City has just completed its study of pedestrian and bicycle routes to the U of C, as well as connecting the university to the Foothills Medical Centre,” says Nicole Jensen, a transportation planner with the City of Calgary. Developments are slated to start in 2010. “We’re also committed to improving 20 km of on-street bike routes every year throughout the city.” 

A designated bike lane—no cars allowed—was added to 5th Ave NW in the fall of 2009; the lane didn’t come at the expense of a car lane. “I’ve used 5th Ave and it’s a great addition to our cycling infrastructure,” says Fedoruk. “But there’s a need for more education on how to use these lanes. It’s not clear to motorists turning right at the intersections that they’re crossing a bike lane. I’ve had a few close calls.” 

Cyclists living in Edmonton also face numerous challenges when it comes to getting around on two wheels. Several paved trails approach the downtown core, but end short of any specific destination or become confusing due to a lack of proper signage. “And once you’re downtown, there’s no designated space for cyclists,” EBC’s Chan says. 

Several Edmonton communities are also isolated when it comes to bike routes, mostly due to the river valley. “There are no bicycle river crossings to the west, and the north crossing has been closed for almost two years,” says Chan. “The ravine crossing to the east is probably one of the hardest hills in the city.”

City planners such as Jones are aware that many gaps exist for cyclists in Edmonton. “Whenever possible, our plan is to insert new bike routes when existing roads are being renewed or new roads are being constructed,” she says. “It will take a few years before people realize how all of the pieces fit together.”

Most commuter cyclists in Calgary and Edmonton live, on average, 10 km from their workplace. But for those who live farther away, or in a community surrounded by freeways, a more realistic option is to use the bus or LRT partway and to cycle the rest of the way.

Both cities have added bike racks to buses, but not many and not on all routes. Both allow bikes on the LRT, but again, access is limited. In Calgary, cyclists aren’t allowed to board the LRT between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.; in Edmonton, between 4:00 and 5:30 p.m. Although it takes some serious planning before heading out the door with a transit pass and a bike, cyclists believe that the cities are at least moving in the right direction.

Another option is for commuters to drive their car to a park with ample free parking, and then ride their bicycle the rest of the way. However, if you work downtown, cycling through the core of Edmonton or Calgary during rush hour isn’t the nicest experience.

Weather-proof, well-lit and secure parking sites are as necessary to cyclists as they are to drivers. “Converting two car-parking stalls into a bike-parking site will comfortably provide space for 20 bicycles,” says Bike Calgary’s Alliston.

Other key ingredients to making commuter cycling viable are end-of-trip facilities such as showers, storage space (lockers) for gear and stinky clothes and—ideally—space for office outfits and personal toiletries, so that cyclists don’t have to haul everything back and forth every day.

The City of Edmonton has already designed and built a model end-of-trip facility. “Our facility is located indoors and is accessible all year,” says Jones. “There’s a secure bike room as well as showers and lockers for gear. We also have a bike-share program for employees; they can sign out one of the 25 bikes as a way to get to and from meetings.”

The morning bike commute, Calgary.

The morning bike commute, Calgary. (Natalie St. Denis)

A growing number of companies, including Stantec in Edmonton, TransCanada Pipelines in Calgary and Mountain Equipment Co-op in both cities, are accommodating and supporting their employees and clients who chose to commute on two wheels.

“We’re definitely seeing all kinds of people cycling these days,” says Chan, including people interested in improving their health, people with a vision of sustainable cities and people who occasionally want a different kind of commute. “Cycling isn’t just about wearing spandex and racing. Cycling is something that can be done by anyone.”

To encourage major employers to adopt a greener philosophy, the departments of transportation in both Calgary and Edmonton offer educational workshops focused on Transportation Demand Management (TDM). “We talk about how to create incentives for employees to carpool, use transit, walk or cycle as ways to avoid single-occupancy vehicle use, especially during peak hours,” explains Jones.

 In the TDM workshops, representatives from the city and seasoned “green” companies illustrate the benefits of biking to employers, such as healthier employees and the need for fewer parking stalls, and encourage discussion of the benefits to society at large: a cleaner environment, less wear and tear on roads, less congestion, happier workers.

“But a lot of what we’re talking about requires behaviour change,” says Jones. “That takes time.” 

Indeed, it will take SOME time before our car-centric cities offer a better balance of commuting options. But there are signs that the cycling movement has moved into a higher gear in Alberta—from the grassroots in our communities to the chambers of city halls. 

In the spirit of creating greater awareness, the citizens of both Calgary and Edmonton now celebrate biking through a variety of activities and events, such as the month-long Bikeology Festival in Edmonton and the Bike Shorts Film Festival in Calgary. Both EBC and Bike Calgary also teach important cycling skills to the community, offering professional CAN-BIKE courses designed by the Canadian Cycling Association. 

Bike Calgary’s latest effort to improve safety awareness is the Lights for Bikes program. “Many of the homeless have bikes, but they don’t usually have lights—and that’s dangerous when you’re riding in the dark,” says Alliston. Bike Calgary is giving over 150 sets of headlights, backlights and reflective tape to the homeless.

The cities of Calgary and Edmonton are developing campaigns to educate motorists and cyclists on how to better share the road. “Cycling gets a lot of promotion during Bike Month [June],” says Jones. “But you’re going to see a lot more awareness-based communications around active transportation year-round.” With more cyclists on Alberta’s roads in all seasons, education will become increasingly important. Fedoruk, who is winter cycling for the first time, acknowledges that the conditions require more care and cooperation from drivers and cyclists alike.

The conditions also necessitate a different bicycle. Fedoruk retired his beloved road bike and got a 20-year-old second-hand mountain bike. “I replaced the chain and installed knobbly studded tires, which have surprisingly good traction,” says Fedoruk. What about the cold? “It’s not usually a problem,” he says. “With enough layers, I’m cold-proof, waterproof and windproof.” He does admit to occasional cold feet and hands, especially thumbs and toes, when it’s below –20°C. 

Fedoruk says he likes the unique challenges of winter cycling. “I can taste the salt and the grit from the road when they splash on my face,” he laughs. Motorists, of course, also encounter tricky conditions during the winter months, often seeing their commuting time double or even triple. This is where cyclists may have an advantage, says Fedoruk, particularly if they use cleared pathways—often in better shape than the roads themselves.

“Although my winter commute takes an extra 10 minutes compared to summer, it’s amazingly consistent,” he says. “No matter the weather or road conditions, my trip takes the same amount of time. No one can say that about a car commute.” 

Natalie St. Denis is an award winning journalist, Calgary-based freelance writer and photojournalist.

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