City’s new bike plan stirs questions, cautious optimism

Justin Brake
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Cyclist and graduate student of anthropology Alanna Felt is studying the new St. John’s bike plan and the St. John’s cycling community. — Photo by Justin brake/Special to The Telegram

It’s been four years since the prospect of turning St. John’s into a more transport-egalitarian city became a good possibility. Now, after more than a year-long delay involving conflicting opinions of what a local bike plan would look like, the City of St. John’s is preparing to introduce Phase 1 of its Cycling Master Plan later this month.

The first part of the 20-year master plan’s three-phase implementation strategy features a 41-kilometre network of bike lanes, sharrows, off-road trails and signage, each designed with the goal of making transportation safer, more efficient and beneficial for road users.

City council adopted the plan in 2009 and aimed to implement Phase 1 last summer but faced a dilemma when the two consulting firms it hired — one to design the plan and one to implement it — disagreed on the plan’s routing.

The ensuing modifications resulted in a significant downsizing of the original proposal, especially in the downtown area, and now include smaller, isolated networks of lanes, sharrows, trails or signage.

“The bike route’s (purpose) is to try and create a citywide network which will take people from major residential areas to places like the downtown, the major malls, Stavanger Dr., and Prince Philip Dr., particularly because there are huge education and employment facilities there,” St. John’s deputy mayor and cycling plan proponent Shannie Duff said

“One of the first things was to look at our city from a geographical perspective and say ‘What are the best routes? Where do people work or go to educational or recreational facilities, and what are the best ways to get them there safely?’”

While upgrades to the city’s busiest downtown network of cycling routes is minimal, bike lanes have been added to select roads in Airport Heights and the city’s west end and extensive work has been done to routes along Columbus Drive and the Virginia River Trail.

Phase 1 of the plan cost the city, province and federal government $257,000, Duff said, with Phase 2 expected weigh in at $728,000. Pending future financial support from the federal and provincial governments through the Green Fund, the entire 20-year plan will cost upward of $7 Million, a price tag that includes the fine-tuning of cycling routes during the regular maintenance — widening lanes during re-paving, for instance — of implicated roads.

Early response to Phase 1, which the city will officially launch later this month with a public relations and education campaign, is generally positive, although many urban cyclists are cautiously optimistic about grand or immediate changes in road sharing.

“Most drivers aren’t completely comfortable with bikes on the road and a lot of them don’t know what to do or aren’t quite sure how to handle them,” says Adrian House, a member of community bicycle collective Ordinary Spokes and an organizer of the local Critical Mass bike ride, a monthly community action held in 300 cities worldwide.

“You still get beeped at fairly regularly, so I think there’s some kind of disconnect between the presence of cyclists and the behaviour of a lot of drivers.”

House said he has been biking around the city for about 15 years and, even though he obeys the rules of the road, he has experienced several close calls with motor vehicles.

“Several times I’ve been dangerously cut off by cars,” he said. “What drivers need to realize is that, for example, if a lane’s narrow and (there’s) a cyclist in the right lane next to you, don’t squeeze by the cyclist. You’ll almost hit them and possibly make them lose control. Instead, just slow down and wait for there to be a gap in the left-hand lane, then you can pull over more to give the cyclist space.”

The way to safer road use, House said, is through education and advocacy.

“Bicycles have a legal right to share the road with cars and I don’t think the majority of drivers know that.”

On the education front Duff said the city’s department of recreation has, for the first time and in conjunction with Bicycle Newfoundland and Labrador (BNL), been offering the Canadian Cycling Association-developed CAN-BIKE program at the H.G.R. Mews Community Centre.

“We will now have (the course) as a regular part of our recreation department. We’ve been running them all summer,” Duff explained. “Right now they’re targeted at young and new cyclists, people that have never cycled, or older people perhaps who would be scared.

“There’s two sides to training,” she said. “One is the cyclists, who have to know what signals to give and what the protocols are, and then the drivers, to make them more conscious of the fact that there will be more cyclists.”

Duff says the bike plan launch will feature television and radio ads dealing with cycling protocol and safety matters, and a new website that will go live the day of the launch.

“Most drivers aren’t completely comfortable with bikes on the road and a lot of them don’t know what to do or aren’t quite sure how to handle them.” Adrian House

“You can only make information accessible, you can’t impose it,” she says. “But the two things we will do is try to educate and make the rules and the instructions available.”

Const. Kevin Foley, an RNC community services officer and member of the city’s Cycling Master Plan Committee, said the RNC has no plans to change its approach in enforcing the rules of the road.

“When we see an infraction that’s enforceable we’ll certainly take action as required.

“Generally, I think education is the key. We’ve trained two of our officers to be CAN-BIKE instructors and we’re assisting them with their education program.”

The bike lanes and sharrows are sure to become variables in shifting perceptions of road usage.

Alanna Felt, a graduate student of anthropology at Memorial University who is undertaking a study of the bike plan and the St. John’s cycling community, believes misconceptions are at the heart of recent debates surrounding the bike plan which have exacerbated an apparent motorist-cyclist divide.

Last summer a resident of Frecker Drive initiated a petition to oppose the city’s plans to install bike lanes on his street. The lanes, he and others feared, would impede on-street parking for residents and visitors.

“The media really hopped on this ... when people on Frecker Drive were really upset about having a third parking space taken away on one side of the road there,” Felt said.

“It was framed by the media (in a way) that these people who were opposed to the cycling lanes were opposed to cyclists ... or the cycling plan altogether. If you were to ask them individually they probably wouldn’t say that. It’s hard for somebody to come out and say, ‘I hate the idea of cyclists being on the road’ or ‘I hate the idea of a cycling plan.’

“They were opposed to aspects of the cycling plan ... and they were OK with the cycling plan — this is my impression of it anyway — insofar as it didn’t affect their personal lives,” she continues. “So it was a little bit of a not-in-my-own-backyard kind of thing.”

Felt advocates for a more comprehensive understanding of issues around road use and the transition to a more bike-friendly city to ease the perceived divide between motorists and cyclists.

She points out, however, regardless of who is at fault in any given accident situation, cyclists are inherently more at risk.

“There are motorists sympathetic to cyclists, certainly, and to the cycling plan as well, even though it’s probably riddled with inconveniences and and all that,” Felt said.

“Just as there are motorists who do stupid things on the road, there are cyclists who do stupid things on the road, too, and ... no matter who’s doing the stupid thing, the cyclist is always going to lose, just about, in terms of safety.”

Glen Smith, acting executive director for BNL, said he has been commuting to work on a bike for four years and recently tested the new bike lane on Prince Philip Drive.

“That’s probably one of the most dangerous roads to ride on, before that lane was put in,” he says.

“You could go in on the sidewalk, which a lot of bikers did, but you’re not supposed to. But I’m guilty of doing it because you just can’t get out in four lanes of traffic when the cars are basically inches from the curb. There’s no shoulder at all on that road.”

Smith says the sharrows, which amount to painted shared-lane markings along the sides of many St. John’s roads, are likely to confuse some cyclists and many motorists at first, but says a comprehensive education strategy should clear up any uncertainties.

“It might be a little confusing there now, but I’d rather the confusion and have people wondering what it is, and at least drawing their attention to it, than disregarding it entirely,” he says.

“Bikers can’t become complacent and think just because they’re in a lane that’s got a marking on the road that they’re going to be safe. There’s always going to be cars that don’t know what the markings are for or don’t see them for whatever reason, or worse again, know what they’re for but disregard them. You still have to let common sense prevail and don’t take for granted that our roads are going to be safe, but it certainly helps the cause.”

A meeting at city hall is scheduled today to determine the specifics of the bike plan’s official launch, but city spokeswoman Jennifer Mills says it’s “99 per cent” likely it will go ahead Sept. 20 at a local school.

For more information on the City of St. John’s Cycling Master Plan visit www.stjohns.ca/cityservices/traffic/cyclingplan.jsp.

Organizations: Cycling Master Plan Committee, Airport Heights, Green Fund Adrian House Canadian Cycling Association H.G.R. Mews Community Centre

Geographic location: Stavanger, Virginia River

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Recent comments

  • Bill
    September 20, 2011 - 12:39

    The number of bicyclists in St. John's does not warrant the mess City Hall has made of our streets. I purchased a home on Frecker Drive some years ago but now feel that I am living on the 401. There are six lines running up and down our residential street. And I cannot say I have seen two bicyclists all summer. City Hall has duplicated what is happening in other cities whose landscapes and climates are quite different than ours. And there are just not enough bicyclists to warrant this type of endeavor. A waste of time and money, with the end result being a ludicrous, circus-styled run of city streets.

  • Hoping we can get connected
    September 16, 2011 - 15:40

    I can say I have ridden the entire network.  I use the work network loosely, that because at this point it a series of  small routes, loops or trails.  Nothing is connected. Case in point the two major construction (Columbus Drive and the Virginia River Trail).   Columbus drive /Prince Philip ends at  MUN , east end user get nothing. Why didn't they contiune it, this would have connected it with the confideration building and Cona. Virginia River Trail is a great trail and I hope they place more of these type of trail within our city but it ends at torbay road.  I believe they going to continue it down to quidi vidi but I also think they don't know what to do with connecting it to wedgewood park. If they do i believe it going to be half ass     Just like the rest of the network.  Bits and pieces, here and there.  As for airport height bike lanes. The only problem I see with them are the 5 or 6 vehicle that park in them all the time.  When will the city ticket or better still tow them away. We all be better off. 

    • Nick
      September 20, 2011 - 10:06

      Just an FYI!!!! Viscount St. in Airport Heights was not even part of the St. John's Cycling Plan Implementation: Risk Assessment!!! I guess one of our wonderful City officials threw it in as an after thought. Why should I have to park down the road on the other side of the street because a bike might go by? I built my house with an apartmetn because we were able to park on the street! Now if I come home in a snow storm with my children I will have to park down the road when the plow has my driveway filled at the end because a "bike may go by"!!! OUR STREET WAS NOT IN THE PLAN!

  • Worried APH resident
    September 08, 2011 - 06:21

    I agree, the bike lanes in APH (airport hgts) are unreal - I applaud cyclists and the new lanes but c'mon - the cyclists have more room than the vehicles and yes someone will end up paying the price for poor planning!

  • BR
    September 08, 2011 - 06:13

    The bike lane on Frecker makes the car lane too narrow. I rode a bike for years but not to work. Bikers are riding in heavy traffic at rush hour and slowing traffic. Somebody will be hurt. If I was riding to work, I would adjust my hours.

  • Peter
    September 07, 2011 - 20:18

    So with all the great weather in St. Johns, I guess these bikes lanes will be safely usable what about ~50 days out of year. Not to mention struggle the average rider has with hills like Barter's Hill, White Hills, Signal, Hill, Southside Road, KingsBridge/Trobay Rd, Allandale Rd. Kenmount Rd, Carson Ave, etc.... What a waste of money driven by a very minority special interest group!

    • gervase
      September 08, 2011 - 22:21

      This seems to be the attitude of many motorists. The streets are solely for the use of cars and everything else -- bikes, pedestrians, children -- belong elsewhere. As for what the average cyclist is capable of... I'd suggest you do more research on the topic.

    • Rick
      September 09, 2011 - 17:46

      Peter, I cycle to work safely about 10 to 11 months of the year in St. John's, depending on the weather. I also go up some pretty steep hills :) Riding in rain and moderate wind is quite easy when you're wearing the right gear. Cycling through the winter is only an issue on the days when there is snow on the road (just after a storm, for example), and even then the type of bike you ride is really important. Mountain bikes wouldn't have a problem with light snow.

    • Nic
      September 20, 2011 - 10:08

      Agreed!!!!

  • howabout
    September 07, 2011 - 15:29

    how about bike racks on buses. Helps people get to and from bus stops not located near their initial and final destinations. And offers a much appreciated alternative to biking home on a rainy afternoon that followed a sunny morning.

    • Rick
      September 09, 2011 - 17:49

      Bike racks on buses were planned for the initial implementation, right up until they measured the length of the current depot on Freshwater Rd. With the bike racks attached the busses wouldn't have fit in the depot any more. They are supposed to build a new depot... next year I think, at which time they say they will install the bike racks.

  • mb
    September 07, 2011 - 13:36

    I have always been worried about the vulnerability of bikers on the road, I'll stray over the yellow lines to avoid hitting them. But these bikers lanes will kill people! Road rage will increase.

  • Keith
    September 07, 2011 - 11:51

    I don't ride to work like I used to, mostly due to a back issue, but I'd be very hesitant to use the sharrows. Previous to those painted lanes being there, I kept close to the right and rode in as predictable pattern as possible. I found that to be reasonably safe. I was claiming my portion of the road and being vigilant about approaching traffic. I find the sharrow lanes to be pretty wide - maybe a bit too wide for my comfort, and I wonder if cars will respect losing that much space. For instance, yesterday, while driving across Canada drive, I was behind a Wheelways bus and the driver reqularly cut into that bike lane. I suspect others will do the same. Also, at many intersections, the marked bike lane becomes a broken passing-type lane. I have no idea what the rules are there, but I suspect it indicates for everyone to merge as possible - and that makes me nervous. I'm anticipating a return to cycling this fall and I find myself scratching my head. I honestly don't know how comfortable I'll be in those marked lanes. On the other hand - the city has done a stellar job with paving those wider sidewalk lanes across Prince Philip Parkway. People still have to deal with many intersections, but that is what it is. I'm hoping they'll be cleared level to make them safer for winter walking as well. Again, the city tried their best to keep the previous sidewalks clear of snow and ice, but it resulted in an icy sloping sidewalk that tended to slip you towards the road. Where the new paved portion is set in from the road a considerable distance, I'm hoping that situation will improve so we can walk safely there. I haven't yet seen any education around the practicalities of how the sharrows are to be used, and I'm guessing I'm not alone in that. If I haven't seen it, I'm guessing most motorists have yet to be informed either. My concerns aside, cudos to all those involved. Lord knows St. John's isn't the easiest city to accomodate alternate transportation and I applaud their efforts.

  • aph resident
    September 07, 2011 - 09:19

    The bike lines they have made in air port heights , are ridiculous, someone is going to get hurt.