Can we have a civilized conversation about cycling? Where we don’t demonize our opponents or resort to easy labelling, but instead have a thoughtful dialogue that considers a range of options to support cycling? I’d like to think we can, and no time like the present. We’re about to consider some options for cycling on New Street that are controversial and potentially expensive. I’m a cyclist and support cycling infrastructure, but don’t support all of the options.
Cycling has been controversial ever since it was invented more than 125 years ago. We find a cinematic example in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The film stars Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance), based on real-life outlaws and robbers in the 1890s.
As the local sheriff tries to round up a posse to chase the pair, he discovers most of the locals don’t have horses. Enter the local entrepreneur plugging his hot-off-the-assembly-line bicycle as a practical alternative “of the future!” Horses are so yesterday.
He is booed off the wild-west saloon platform. The posse never materializes. The bike gets stolen.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, cycling was controversial in its early days because it “brought the sexes together in an unchaperoned way.”
“Public cries of alarm at the prospect of moral chaos arose from this, and from the evolution of women’s cycling attire, which grew progressively less enveloping and restrictive.”
In the Butch Cassidy film, Butch appears with the bicycle (stolen) and takes Sundance’s girlfriend for an “unchaperoned” ride through the bucolic countryside, to the musical accompaniment of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” At the end of this glorious bike ride she says to Newman, “Do you ever wonder if we’d be together if I’d met you first?”
Ah, the power of the bicycle. One can appreciate the dilemma of choosing between Newman and Redford.
Today’s cycling controversies are far less romantic. They are mostly about where we should put bike lanes and how much we should pay.
Council passed a motion Feb. 29, on a 4 – 2 vote, asking staff to come back with options and costs for cycling lanes along New Street from Martha Street to Cumberland, as part of scheduled road reconstruction this year. Read more about the road work here: Over 50 residents attend New/Drury road work meeting
The options could include cycle tracks (an asphalt lane beside the road), a multi-use path (a strip of asphalt beside the sidewalk), or on road bike lanes protected with bollards, which would require unplanned road widening.
Staff will report back to committee March 22 for a decision, followed by a final council vote April 11. I don’t support some of these options, so I (along with Counc. Taylor) didn’t support the motion.
You may be feeling a sense of deja-vu. Cycle lanes on New Street were first discussed in 2014 as staff were finalizing the scope of the road work. At that time, staff advised that a road widening would cost $1.2 million just for Guelph Line to Martha Street, and roughly $8 million for all of New Street. Staff recently confirmed those are still the estimated costs for widening. Staff’s previous memo to council outlining costs of cycling along New Street is here: Capital Budget Items – New Street Bike Lanes Feb 2015
The decision about widening for cycling should have been made then.
But this was 2014, months before an election with all councillors running again; cyclists were actively lobbying council for the expenditure. Most taxpayers didn’t support the price tag. So the decision was punted to the post-election 2015 budget deliberations.
Typically, it’s better to discuss large expenditures in the context of the overall priorities of a budget, especially if you don’t know the costs of a project. But in this case we did know the cost. The decision was simply whether to spend the money and put it in the 2015 budget.
The election came and went; the 2015 budget came and went; the 2016 budget came and went, mere weeks ago, without any of the councillors who favoured widening the road for cycling infrastructure bringing a motion to set aside the required money. The tender has been awarded and doesn’t include widening; adding it now will cost us a premium.
Some might argue that a good decision made at the wrong time is still a good decision. I agree with that. However, we get to good decisions by considering competing priorities and public input, both of which are compromised by the way this decision is being made. Thus our ability to make a good decision for the community is compromised.
The folks most engaged and aware of what’s happening right now are the members of the cycling committee. I value their input and research; the committee has done much to advance the conversation around cycling in Burlington.
I also believe it’s important to invite more residents to join the conversation, many of whom are also cyclists (like me). These streets, and the money we’re contemplating spending, belong to all of us. We will have a limited time frame and opportunity to hear from our broader community because this discussion is outside of budget and really came out of nowhere, when there were three earlier and more appropriate opportunities.
That said, there will be a public meeting March 9, 7 pm, Room 247 at City Hall, where staff will release the costs and options to residents for discussion and input. Consider this your notice. (I’ve also put a separate notice on ward2news.ca here: March 9 public meeting on cycling options) The Development & Infrastructure Committee of council will discuss the options at our meeting March 22, and make a recommendation to Council for a final vote April 11. Residents can attend and speak at these meetings also, but need to Register as a Delegation in advance.
The easiest decision here is to say yes, especially to a one-off expenditure when a group of residents is actively lobbying, and the broader community is distracted or unaware. It’s tougher to say no, this isn’t the top priority, we have better alternatives for cycling, and for alternative-to-car transportation as a whole.
My Take: I’m a cyclist, I support cycling infrastructure, but I don’t support widening New Street for cycling. I’m willing to consider an asphalt multi-use path beside the sidewalk, or cycle track, with some conditions, outlined below.
I’m hoping we can rise above the way conversations around cycling sometimes go, with pressure to uncritically support anything done in the name of cycling, and label those who suggest cycling alternatives as “anti-cycling”. We can do better than that. We’ve got to exercise judgement and critical thinking in decisions around cycling, same as we do for any other decisions we make in support of our community.
So here are some of the things I look for in terms of cycling infrastructure:
Keep it scenic.
Let’s not sacrifice greenspace for green insfrastructure. The stretch of road between Martha and Guelph Line is narrow and tree lined – just enough for two lanes of traffic, one turning lane, and a painted bike lane on the North Side. Staff studies have shown that the majority of cyclists using this stretch are coming West to the downtown, thus putting the lane on the North side makes sense.
This cycling infrastructure is part of the existing tender for the road work. I support it.
To install cycle lanes on both sides, or a cycle track, or a cycle lane with bollards on one or both sides, the road would have to be widened, requiring tree removal and paving all or part of the green boulevard. I don’t support green transportation at the expense of green space. Plus, the white bollards used to create protected lanes are ugly.
An asphalt path beside the sidewalk on one side, like we have on the south side of Lakeshore Road, would be a better alternative, a compromise I could support, though even it paves some greenspace.
City planner Brent Toderian visited Burlington recently and said cities should be built so walking is “delightful”. I agree, and think that should apply just as much to cycling or driving. Building cycling infrastructure shouldn’t be at the expense of a beautiful urban environment. We could spend a lot of money widening New Street, cutting trees, paving landscape to build bike lanes – all degrading the very environment we want to make more enjoyable for everyone including cyclists. We can and must do better.
Toderian also said we should just get on with it, spend the money, and create bike lanes all at once, like you remove a bandaid quickly – painful, but brief. That I don’t agree with. Just because someone comes to town and says we should do this, even someone as respected as Toderian, doesn’t mean we should. Critical thinking necessary.
Separate cars and bikes.
The Netherlands Cycle Path Society has the right idea. This society, formed 101 years ago and still in existence, advocated separate cycling infrastructure because of safety concerns of mixing bikes with traffic. The cycle routes they proposed were not connected to a route for motor traffic and mainly for recreation. So not the shortest routes, but the nicest routes.
In Burlington, we’ve got some great scenic cycling routes, and the potential for more. One of the nicest cycling routes in our city is the Centennial Bike Path, which runs parallel to New Street to the south. It is not the shortest or the fastest route from east to west – the path angles up to Fairview and there are numerous cross streets to navigate. But the path makes up for that by being the most scenic, safest and separated from traffic.
We have the opportunity to build more of these types of routes along our remaining hydro corridors, like the one from Ontario Street to Graham’s Lane downtown. These would provide beautiful, safe for all ages off-road paths to traverse the city. Let’s invest here – at a fraction of the cost of widening New Street.
Speed isn’t everything.
What about those cyclists – commuters perhaps – who prefer speed over scenery? First, we are talking about a small number. Almost half our residents commute long distances outside Burlington for work. Until we have more jobs for our residents here in Burlington, cycling will not be an option for most, particularly in the winter months.
Second, we should not allow our urban environment to be degraded in the quest for speed – whether it’s widening streets for cars or for cycling. Too much of our environment has been eaten up with asphalt to get from here to there faster.
Build for all ages.
It’s been said Millennials (between 18 and 32) want more cycling infrastructure, and they’ll stay or come to Burlington if we build it. That’s oversimplifying. Millennials go where there are jobs and post-secondary institutions.We need more of both in Burlington if we want to attract and keep Millennials.
They also have curiosity for what is beyond our borders – as we all should. My daughter is a Millennial; she wants to see and experience the world. A bike lane on New Street isn’t going to keep her here, nor should it. Plus, Millennials are as concerned as the rest of us about protecting the environment and greenspace, not paving it for cycling.
I support the 8-80 Cities philosophy, which is about creating cities that work for everyone, from eight years to 80 years – that includes our Millennials. We could invest a lot in cycling on New Street and it still wouldn’t be safe and suitable for families, or a pleasant experience for anyone else.
Invest where there are no cycling alternatives.
There are already cycling options along New Street between Martha & Guelph Line: just to the south is Centennial Bike Path. Running parallel to New is Caroline Street, a designated bike route. Further East is Spruce, another designated bike route. These streets are both safer and more scenic than New Street, and with a few jogs in the road, a way to get east or west.
There’s also the multi-use path on Lakeshore Road, which is above the curb at the sidewalk level, separated from the road in most places by a grass boulevard. I’ve ridden this with my kids to go east from Martha Street; it’s safe, pleasant and direct. Not as fast as being on the road, but certainly safer.
Before investing more money along New Street, where there already exists cycling infrastructure, we should invest where there isn’t cycling infrastructure, and prefer paths that can be used by all our residents.
Add cycling and walking infrastructure during new developments and redevelopments.
Part of our challenge with adding cycling infrastructure is we don’t have a lot of room left, unless we take greenspace in the boulevard or reduce travel lanes for vehicles. That’s because our city has been built with the car in mind. However, we can do more with with new developments, and in fill projects, to create that space for walking and cycling.
One way is through increased setbacks of buildings from the sidewalk or street. If the buildings are further away, we can create space for separated, safe and attractive cycling and walking paths, and include a greenspace buffer for beauty and safety. But in the downtown, for example, there are no required setbacks of buildings from the sidewalk, and sidewalks are narrow and close to the treet. A new development at Elgin and Ontario wants to seek a variance to increase the setback of their building so they can add greenspace. We should simply build that into our zoning. Wider setbacks also encourage public activity on the sidewalks – patios, streetfests, for example.
Another option is through parkland dedication fees. Whenever someone increases the density of units during a redevelopment – for example, turning single family homes into a low-rise apartment – the city can collect parkland dedication, either in fees or land. The city currently collects the fees, not land. The fees go into a reserve fund for upkeep or enhancement of existing public parks. Instead of taking the fees, the city could take the land – put it beside the sidewalk for a bike path, for example.
Oakville built much of its waterfront walkway by taking parkland, instead of fees, and taking that land along the shoreline. We can build more walking/cycling infrastructure using the same tool.
Regarding new development, the final phase of the Alton subdivision, on the NorthWest side of Dundas and Walkers has yet to be built. It’s a perfect opportunity to build and showcase the best of cycling and walking infrastructure.
We also have a large parcel at Tremaine and Dundas. In time, our aging plazas – Lakeside, possibly even Burlington mall, may be redeveloped into mixed use. These also present an opportunity for including cycling and walking trails as part of these projects.
If we miss these opportunities, we’ll spend a lot of money taking half steps to get to the same end, and even these will be inferior because they will limit us to on-road options which aren’t suitable for people of all ages.
Consider cycling alongside investments in transit.
We should invest where it does the most good; if there are safe, scenic ways to cycle East to West in Burlington without widening New Street – and there are – a major investment in more cycling infrastructure in this area to benefit the 100 or so who would use it doesn’t make good public policy sense. Enhanced cycling infrastructure may well increase the number of cyclists, but even a 10-fold, even a 100-fold increase, wouldn’t approach our transit numbers. Good decision making is about setting priorities and directing investment where it helps the most people.
Instead of spending $1.2 million to widen New Street, let’s invest that in public transit, more buses, more often. That would do more to get people out of their cars, year round, whereas cycling is seasonal for most people. Thousands of our residents use transit.
Let’s invest, say, in a pilot project for free transit for seniors on Mondays, a motion I brought to council members during the 2016 budget. It lost (for now) on a 4-3 vote at committee.
Let’s compare the discussion points for that decision versus the conversation about cycling infrastructure:
- with cycling, it’s taken on faith that “build it they will come”; for free transit for seniors there was a lack of faith that free transit means more people on the bus (it does), despite being presented with data from Oakville that showed just that: increased ridership among seniors on Mondays when transit is free.
- Seniors presented a petition signed by hundreds of residents in support of the free transit pilot; the seniors’ centre board and the city’s seniors advisory committee both supported the pilot project; four residents delegated in support of the pilot, yet all that public input wasn’t enough to get a majority vote; on cycling, one delegate from the cycling committee was enough.
- Free seniors transit was seen as a subsidy requiring an income means test to qualify, along with some return on investment from a user-pay system; with cycling, there is no discussion about income tests or users paying for cycling infrastructure – nor should there be, but why the double standard for seniors?
- Finally, there is the potential for spending over $1 million in unbudgetted expenditures for cycling, but on free transit for seniors, the majority couldn’t support a $16,000 to $30,000 one-time expenditure for a pilot project.
Why the different criteria when considering cycling compared to transit?
This is an important question even apart from the discussion of the pilot project for free transit for seniors on Mondays. We cannot continue to have double standards and siloed conversations when we are making decisions about what we are going to invest in various forms of alternative-to-the-car transportation.
We must consider cycling investments together with investments in transit, together with investments that make travel better for pedestrians. We must bring these conversations together.
Council took a half step in this direction by dissolving the transit advisory committee and folding it into a new integrated transportation committee. I call it a half step because the cycling committee should have been folded in here too, but due to resistance was not. So, for the foreseeable future, even public input from our advisory committees will be siloed between transit and cycling.
The decision we are about to make in March about cycling infrastructure on New Street couldn’t be more siloed, because of how we are going about it, and that doesn’t lend itself to good decision-making and outcomes for the public.
Let’s end where we began with Paul Newman and a lady friend on a bicycle. The bike ride was enjoyable partly because it was in the country, surrounded by trees and fields of green. It may have had a much less intoxicating effect on our conflicted heroine had it been a speedy ride down an asphalt corridor.
The journey is as important as the destination. We so often forget that, in our rush to get from here to there and back again. Getting there should be half the fun, and it should be safe for people of all ages to use the same paths. Let’s keep that in mind when we plan our cycling infrastructure.
What’s your view of cycling infrastructure? What should it look like? Where should it go?