Last week, as I was scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a sponsored post from the “City of Calgary – Your Local Government” Facebook page. In the post, the city was asking Calgarians for their “help in identifying challenges and opportunities related to mobility along 14th and 15th Avenue South from 1st Street SE to 12th Street SW”. This topic of mobility or the idea of having more choice in how we move around our city is very important to me. In fact, both as a candidate and as a resident of the city, I’ve tried my best to advocate for greater choice, not only in how we get around our city’s core but also in our suburbs. I was equally curious to find out what kind of response would arise as a result of the city’s proposals on this particular topic. Interestingly enough, the detail that sparked the strongest reaction was that of the placement of bike lanes in the overall design of the streets. For those who are not aware, the topic of whether or not to build more bike lanes on Calgary’s streets is very contentious.
Location, Location, Location
Now, why is this the case? Well consider this: those who do not cycle regularly might not be aware that Calgary is a world-class city when it comes to RECREATIONAL cycling. Over the past 40 years our city has been building hundreds of kilometres of pathways that have been used by many Calgarians with leisure in mind. However, when we look at bike infrastructure that prioritizes COMMUTING, the city has attempted to improve its current network, but still lags far behind countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland. When people mention COMMUTER bike lanes, they usually refer to infrastructure that is meant to get you from “A” to “B” in the shortest time possible. As well, such networks have the secondary purpose of providing a feasible alternative to walking, public transit and even to using a vehicle while completing regular day to day tasks.
Whereas pedestrians have their sidewalks, public transit users have their LRT/BRT and cars have their roads, commuter cyclists are for the most part, in no-man’s land; improvising between using the sidewalks and the road, slaloming through pedestrians and cars, while creating imaginary lanes simply because they choose a different approach to how they move around. Thankfully, the city has attempted to address this infrastructure deficit but in doing so, it has chosen solutions that have come at the expense of motorists.
Now, don’t get me wrong, our city has focused way too much on car-centric urban development and it has done so for over 60 years. This approach has led to unsustainable urban sprawl and sub-par community development, which has led to an overall decrease in the quality of life of individual Calgarians and their families. As a result, there is no doubt that any policy that offers more choice on how we get around our city is more than welcome but most importantly, it must be done right and fortunately (or unfortunately) our city has room to do much better.
So, what does the city get wrong when it comes to its approach to “commuter bike lanes” and especially as it aims to improve mobility along 14th and 15th Avenue? A lot in fact, but the biggest flaw by far is that it takes away road space in situations where it simply doesn’t have to. Due to its location, Calgary has been blessed with more than enough room to accommodate everyone , however, the city in an attempt to look for the cheapest options possible has applied solutions that are both outdated and that offer the smallest return on investment in the long run. To better reflect what I mean, I will share a side by side comparison of what the city (YYC) has proposed and what I would recommend instead.
As it can be seen in the pictures above, the City’s proposals for 14th Avenue SW pose a number of problems. The main issue that jumped at me is that the bike lanes are on the road and to the left of parked vehicles. If, hypothetically, a driver were to open his/her door without shoulder checking for anyone passing by, it could potentially lead to a cyclist avoiding the driver’s door but in doing so he/she would swerve into traffic. It is clear from looking at the design proposed by the city that such a layout would lead to a higher degree of risk for all those involved and at the very least, could result in antagonistic interactions between drivers and cyclists.
So how can we address these issues? How can we improve the design? If we look at my suggestions, we can clearly see that our city can do better. First, city administration should take advantage of the green space that is available between the parked cars and the sidewalk. This area has very little utility and would be better put to use if it was a bike lane. In doing so, the city would take the bike lane off the road, while also not taking away any parking space and/or driving space. As well, even with these modifications, there would be more than enough room for pedestrians on the sidewalk, the cyclists would be offered way more protection than before but more importantly, it would result in a street that respects all of its users’ space. These details are even more important as we look below at the city’s proposals for 15th Avenue SW.
The last element that I want to touch on are the intersections. Even if the city were to apply this much better street design, there is no getting around the fact that at some point, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians will come together at crossings. In order to continue the best practices that I’ve laid out above, I will once again refer to the Dutch intersection model. This approach ensures that driving lanes, bike paths and pedestrian crosswalks are kept separate even at crossings and offer more protection for all as compared to a traditional junction. Below, you will find one last comparison , where the city’s original “Top-Down view” of 15th Avenue SW presents the same issues I had pointed out earlier, while in contrast you can see my proposal and how it would improve upon City Hall’s original design.
Before I conclude, I would like to mention that I am fully aware that that these types of solutions would not work on every street in Calgary. Some areas of our city simply don’t have the space for such adjustments while others might have the room but the topography of the region (see the NW) is better suited for recreational bike paths. However, in the flat regions of our city, like the SE and especially the NE (Ward 5), we have a real opportunity to develop and renew our streets and public spaces so that they might respond to the needs of all commuters be they move by foot , by transit , by car and yes even by bike. But in order to do so, we must push our city administration to apply models of urban design that respect and offer more choice, not less. As a result, I would encourage you to take the time to provide your feedback to the City of Calgary on this project, here and here. Together, we can improve how we move around our city.
Lastly, feel free to leave me a comment below, I want to hear your thoughts on this post, what you think I did right and what you think I could do better. Thank you in advance for your time.