June 27, 2009
Winnipeg Free Press, Editorial
Bus rapid transit was sold to Winnipeggers as a concept with multiple benefits. Among other things, it would reduce traffic congestion, cut greenhouse gas emissions and encourage alternative forms of transportation. The plan included a dedicated route for commuters on foot, inline skates or bicycles to help achieve some of these goals.
Cycling groups now say they feel they were sold a bill of goods because of a flawed feature in the overall plan. A gap in the route at the Osborne Street rail underpass will separate the northern and southern sections of the bicycling path, forcing cyclists from both directions to use the narrow sidewalks or the roadway beneath the CN Rail tracks. Cyclists, of course, already use the underpass, but the bike trail will funnel many more people into a potentially dangerous bottleneck with pedestrians and motorists.
For its part, the city says it will rebuild the entire underpass sometime in the future, but it’s not in the budget now. In the meantime, civic traffic engineers have a variety of ideas for solving the problem on a short-term basis, including dedicating one sidewalk for pedestrians and the other for bikes, and possibly even expanding a sidewalk, but they are unsatisfactory answers to a problem that has been on the table for many years. It is also hard to imagine cyclists sharing a single sidewalk in a safe manner.
The three levels of government are spending $138 million for the first phase of the Southwest Transit Corridor, but they should dig a little deeper to ensure the project is done right now, rather than waiting for the crumbling underpass to die of old age. If not, they may want to consider other options, rather than building a pathway with a giant pothole in the middle. The province has already said it’s prepared to help with extra cash.
It is in the city’s interest to get more motorists out of their cars and onto buses. Another way to get people to leave their cars at home is to develop good infrastructure for cyclists. In fact, there’s no reason why Winnipeg can’t develop a reputation as a cycling city, which would be a significant promotional tool.
Some skeptics say the city’s severe winters are an obstacle to achieving that goal, but the observation is uninformed.
Minneapolis is a winter city, too, yet it has been named the No. 2 cycling city (after Portland) in the United States, boasting 65 kilometres of dedicated bike lanes along city streets, and 130 kilometres of off-street bicycle paths. That’s in addition to other measures to encourage and support cycling. As a result, an estimated 7,200 people regularly commute to work by bicycle, including many in the winter. The city has pledged that by 2020, everyone will have convenient access to a cycling route.
Winnipeg already has many passionate cyclists, but the lack of infrastructure is a deterrent to convincing more people to give it a try. The average person is just too intimidated by the poor roads and close proximity to cars to consider travelling very far by bicycle.
The city has been talking about rapid transit for decades. Now that we are ready to begin a small leg of the project, let’s get started on the right foot. A transportation initiative that discourages cyclists is no way to launch a project that wants to get cars off the road and encourage alternative modes of transportation.