For cyclists, permanent protection preferred route

A recent City of Winnipeg report shows that when it comes to safe cycling infrastructure, half-measures don’t cut it.

The report, which was sent to the city’s public works committee this week, says temporary plastic pylons separating the cycling lane along Pembina Highway from the other lanes of traffic were both expensive (part of a $21-million cycling-path initiative) and largely ineffective (they were flimsy and often driven over by motorists).

Cycling lanes in other parts of the city employ similar pylons; the one on Sherbrook Street has a variety of rider-safety mechanisms, depending what block you’re cycling along. They include concrete curb-height barriers between the bike lane and motorist, the aforementioned pylons and nothing more than a line of paint.

Trails Winnipeg executive director Anders Swanson and Bike Winnipeg executive director Mark Cohoe agree that the inconsistent nature of cycling lane infrastructure along Pembina Highway has been a disincentive to cyclists using it.

This is a bit like being at a pedestrian crossing that sometimes lets you cross a busy thoroughfare but most of the time doesn’t let you cross at all. You’d quickly find another place to cross the street.

So it is with safe, permanent bike lanes. The pylons have typically been removed in the winter, which meant the bike lane effectively became invisible. Non-cyclists may argue that nobody rides their bike in the winter (demonstrably not true, even in Winnipeg), but it becomes something of a chicken-or-egg question: if the lane intended to allow cyclists to ride safely isn’t reasonably clear of snow and visible to motorists, why would anyone on a bicycle risk using it in the winter?

The simple reality that it’s easier to effectively clear snow from permanently protected bike lanes makes the argument for them stronger.

Yes, a permanent cycling-lane barrier, even one not as wide as a sidewalk, takes up room on the road. However, the reason it’s there is safety. And although an adequate bike lane and a corresponding permanent barrier could remove an entire lane of vehicular traffic, the safety that is gained actually means less traffic headaches for motorists.

First, it prevents motor-vehicle drivers from plowing over flimsy plastic barriers and risking a collision with a cyclist, while at the same time preventing cyclists from weaving out of their lane to avoid a puddle or a pothole.

Second, on any Winnipeg street, consider how many cars passing by have more than one occupant. Given this city’s car-focused infrastructure and Winnipeggers’ seemingly unshakable attachment to their automobiles, the ratio is often one human to one vehicle. If a safe-cycling option convinced even a fraction of those motorists to trade four wheels and internal combustion for two wheels and pedal power, it would remove a lot of vehicles from rush hour.

That would also hold true for increasing the number of year-round cyclists.

The pesky Pembina pylons were installed before the city’s active transportation plan was introduced in 2014, so they were a stopgap measure at best. As the city moves forward with making its infrastructure work for everyone, permanent barriers that allow motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to navigate our streets safely is an option that should be built in.