Trip west convinces councillor protected bike lanes in downtown should be fast-tracked

A recent West Coast trip to an urban cycling and pedestrian conference has re-ignited a suburban city councillor’s enthusiasm to spur Winnipeg’s own protected downtown bike lane network.

Janice Lukes, chairwoman of the city council’s public works committee, wants city hall to fast-track the establishment of a downtown network of protected bike lanes using temporary structures like concrete Jersey highway barriers and concrete curbs and plastic bollards.

"Why not investigate to see if we can do it?" Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) said. "There seems to be broad public interest in it. We want people living in our downtown and we want the downtown to be vibrant and exciting and more cycling and pedestrian does that."

Lukes held a public forum earlier this week, bringing with her the team of engineers responsible for designing and implementing the temporary downtown networks in Calgary and Edmonton. The event drew about 130 people, she said, and it stoked everyone’s interest that the model could be duplicated in Winnipeg.

"Winnipeg needs something like this," said Mark Cohoe, executive director of Bike Winnipeg. Cohoe attended Luke’s forum and said the team of engineers generated local excitement at what could be accomplished here.

Council approved a cycling and pedestrian strategy last year that outlines proposed bike and pedestrian paths across the city but it’s a 30-year plan and Lukes said she thinks the timeline can be speeded up considerably.

The city has a protected bike route along a stretch of Sherbrook Street and is constructing routes along Assiniboine Avenue and Pembina Highway.

The most ambitious plan appears to be the make-over of Garry Street, with a 1.5-long-kilometre protected bike route that runs from Assiniboine Avenue into the Exchange District. But it won’t be completed until the end of 2018.

Winnipeg’s current policy is to construct protected bike lanes as part of a co-ordinated effort involving street and underground infrastructure street renewals. Lukes said the conference showed her there’s another approach — Calgary was able to quickly set up a protected bike network using temporary structures, which can be moved if the routes need to be adjusted.

Lukes said building protected bike routes encourages ridership and rider safety; using temporary structures generates cycling interest quickly and helps civic officials determine which routes should become permanent.

"Because you’re using temporary structures, it doesn’t take years to build it," Lukes said. "They created this temporary network in downtown Calgary and, the design resulted in an increase in the number of on-street parking spaces and led to a significant increase in the number of downtown cyclists."

Lukes said she’ll ask city staff at the Nov. 1 meeting of the public works committee to see what would have to happen to enable a fast-track a downtown cycling network, which will likely involve more study and a plan with a budget to be brought to council.

"We have the (proposed) routes already. Now, we need to look at our budget and decide what can we put on hold and how we can get it done." She said it’s possible the federal Liberal government will provide funding.

Lukes said that while in Vancouver she explored that city’s network of protected bike routes. "There were hundreds and thousands of people riding their bikes everywhere.

"I biked around downtown Vancouver all over. I felt safe. It was amazing, it was like, oh my gosh, it was fantastic. Again, it was protected cycling – I felt safe. It was great. It’s a cycling network that eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds can go on it — It’s not made just for guys in spandex. People feel safer so people use it."

So, why is a suburban councillor promoting a proposal to fast-track a downtown cycling network? Lukes said before winning election to council, she spent 15 years as an advocate for increased pedestrian and cycling activities.

"If we can get more people on bikes, we reduce traffic congestion — take that car lovers — and it’s a proven boost to businesses along the street. It creates vitality, vibrancy and gets more people healthy. It’s a win-win. It’s the right thing to do."

Lukes points to the popularity of the Northeast Pioneers’ Greenway — a long strip of pavement that runs between two streets from North Kildonan to East Kildonan.

"It doesn’t even go anywhere or connect to any other bike routes and it’s become the most heavily used piece of active transportation we have in Manitoba. Never in my life would I have dreamed the impact that walking and cycling does for people. I see how it transforms communities, neighbourhoods and lifestyles."

Cohoe said the city’s proposed downtown network lacks connectivity with other neighbourhoods and needs to be revised but Lukes said city hall has to start somewhere and creating a downtown network is probably the best option.

Creating a safe, protected downtown network will generate interest, she said, and will lead to the establishment of cycling networks in other neighbourhoods and routes that link the various networks.

"Really, it’s the chicken-or-egg dilemma," Lukes said. "We have a huge density of people downtown, we want more people living downtown. We have a lot we can build on from our own experience and there’s lots to build on from other cities. We’ve got actual pieces of infrastructure, like on Sherbrook, which other businesses can see."