15 May 2014

The Bicycle Roads to Nowhere #nlpoli

Frecker Drive is a well-designed residential street in the west end of St. John’s.  The street is wide:  you can park cars on either side and still have space left for two cars to pass abreast easily along its entire length.

This is a residential street.  As you might imagine, it has its fair share of cars and trucks as well as the odd bicycle.  They’ve been able to live together safely on the street because it is wide and the traffic flow is relatively light.

When the city planners decided to bring bicycle lanes to the City of St. John’s a couple of years ago, they settled on Frecker Drive.  They banned parking from one side of the street.  And on both sides of the street they marked out two bi-directional bicycle lanes for the full length of the avenue.

For those who may not understand what that means, here’s a simple explanation.  The city traffic managers did not merely say that bicycles could travel with the flow of motorised traffic on either side of Frecker Drive.  After all, that is exactly what they had done for years under the Highway Traffic Act

Bi-directional lanes means that bicycle riders can go in either direction in either one of the two lanes.  Frecker Drive now has, for want of a better description, the equivalent of the Gardiner Expressway  for bicycles.  And that volume of traffic space isn’t supported by the past, current, or any future forecast that shows that Cowan Heights is likely to become the local equivalent of say Shanghai or Beijing with their legions of bicycles carrying people to and from work or shopping and the like.

In a couple of spots,  Frecker ties into more heavily travelled routes.  Only one – Cowan Avenue – has bicycle lanes marked out on it or even adjacent to it.  One of the major arteries  it joins at one end – Blackmarsh Road – doesn’t have any marked bicycle lanes at all.  Despite its heavy traffic flow, and despite 30-odd years of residential growth around it,  Blackmarsh Road remains as it was decades ago:  a strip of black top marked out in two lanes with gravel shoulders and big ditches on either side.

The same is true of another major artery, Brookfield Road and Waterford Bridge Road, that connects the western-most reaches of St. John’s with the downtown core.  Neither of those road ways has bicycle lanes marked at all, let alone adjacent pathways off the main road.

If you fiddle around a bit you can get from the bicycle haven on Frecker Drive to the major crosstown arterial road.  The city of St. John’s built a bicycle path adjacent to that road.  It runs from Captain Whalen Drive along to University Avenue by the CBC Building.

It’s a perfectly good way for bicyclists to travel alongside the main route safely.  There are just a few problems.  It doesn’t go the whole length of the arterial ,for one thing.  For another, you really can’t join easily from the adjacent path onto any of the laneways, like the ones on Frecker for example. 

And at about the halfway point of its length,  the earnest cyclist on the bicycle pathway will encounter a much more serious problem.  Travelling east, the bicyclist will have to dismount, cross the arterial at a light, cross the intersecting road, and then remount on the laneway … on the opposite side of the arterial.  There’s no reason for it:  this is just the way the planners decided to go.

Travel along a bit farther, eastward, and the bicyclist hits another snag.  The wide, concrete path suddenly reverts back to a sidewalk.   Legally, the rider has to dismount,  walk alongside the bicycle down the sidewalk, and cross another intersection, before he or she could remount for the last bit of the journey that ends by the CBC. 

Your journey will end there, if you work at the Mother Corp.  But if you work at the university,  the main hospital, or the main provincial government building complex, you can only reach your destination by getting onto the arterial road itself at that point or picking your way along busy streets without bicycle lanes at all.

Go back to Brookfield and Waterford Bridge Road.  If you are headed downtown, you’ve got much the same problem.  There’s lots of traffic, for sure.  The streets are narrow,  descended as they are from the walking paths and horse lanes of the old town.  The city didn’t even try to mark bicycle lanes there, let alone try to wipe out a bit of on-street parking here and there.  The outcry from business owners, workers and shoppers would have been too great in a part of the city where parking is already in ridiculously short supply.

Bicycle lanes are a wonderful solution in places that have the traffic and the traffic problems to justify them.  Marking out the street into some sort of artificial “bicycles only” space is a fiction, anyway, but it is one that people might live with, if the city had enough people on two wheels to make it safer for everyone to honour the lanes.

The ideal solution is the separate pathway.  St. John’s only has a tiny fraction of that sort of bicycle laning, though, and even the bit we do have is marred by all sorts of design shag-ups, as described already.

People are talking about this, again, since a couple of councillors raised the issue at the council’s weekly meeting last Monday.  A few supporters of lanes came forward to defend the lanes but frankly, their arguments are weak, if not completely absent. 

Lanes are wonderful in theory but the theory alone doesn’t justify the rest.  What you have in St. John’s is a solution that came with matching federal and provincial money in search of a problem.  The politicians and bureaucrats at city hall made a problem, in effect, and then solved it in spades. 

The ridiculous situation on Frecker Drive is clear evidence of that:  whether it is to meet funding criteria or just for bragging rights,  city officials can report that the city has a certain number of kilometres of bicycle lanes.  On Frecker, they doubled the amount of marked laneway on the street without actually doing anything to improve safety or access.  Frecker is marked as it is entirely for bureaucratic reasons.

The only cost was a few pissed-off suburbanites.  Had the city installed proper laneways on the length of the crosstown and downtown arterials, they’d have done more for public safety but that would have also meant spending real money.  And if they’d taken away parking downtown to improve public safety there, well, there’d be hell to pay from business owners for one and from the city itself, what with its financial interest in the stadium and convention centre.

Bicycle lanes is St. John’s is an excellent example of a wonderful idea implemented despite the absence of any evidence that anyone needed them or that they would do any good.  They are an example of government action that has nothing to do with evidence, logic, or rational planning.

In that sense, the lanes policy is like the youth representatives changes to towns and cities currently in front of the House of Assembly as Bill 6.  After the changes, towns and cities will have exactly the same powers as they currently have to appoint people under the age of 18 years to occupy powerless positions with grandiose titles.

Supporters of the Bill 6 scheme claim that the changes will do all sorts of amazing things to encourage young people to get involved in politics. The Bill 6 changes won’t do anything of the sort, any more than turning Frecker Drive into the TCH for bikes has improved bicycle safety in St. John’s,  increased bicycle ridership, or cured cancer.