Beyond Shifting Gears

Article written by Erin Kennedy. Retrieved from Hamilton Spectator in June 2016.

Taking the scenic route is nice, but sometimes I just want the direct route home. Yes, I’m talking about cycling in the City of Hamilton, which has a few bright spots, but generally lacks connectivity and has historically been an afterthought. Many riders like myself who bike to work, to run errands, or to transport their kids, struggle to find routes that are safe, connected, and convenient. The all too common “bike lane ends here” signs are frustrating, and I notice citizens often resorting to my 6-year-old son’s suggested strategy: let’s just ride on the sidewalk, mom! Not the ideal solution, and certainly no way to make friends with pedestrians. Lately I’ve been wondering what is planned for cycling infrastructure in the City of Hamilton, and also curious about what’s going on in other municipalities.

It turns out that the City of Hamilton has its own Cycling Master Plan called Shifting Gears, which was created and approved by City Council in 2009. It calls for a 1,196 kilometre bike network implemented over a 20-year timeline; however as of 2014, only 9% of these facilities had been installed (Hamilton SPRC). While there has been some notable recent progress, such as Cannon Street’s protected cycling lanes, connections are still poor and consequently much of our cycling infrastructure is underutilized. Furthermore, infrastructure best practices and attitudes towards cycling have advanced considerably since Shifting Gears was released in 2009.

If we expand our horizons, we see some exciting plans and projects underway elsewhere in Ontario. In Toronto, the majority of city councillors support a minimum grid network of connected cycling lanes across the entire city. Bloor Street, a major artery, has been approved for a physically separated cycling lanes pilot project. Over the next two years, Guelph has plans to focus on an extensive low-stress cycling network. In Mississauga, the stated goal is to foster a culture where cycling is an everyday activity. Further north, Thunder Bay has recently added new bike lanes, and has a downloadable all-weather cycling guide.

Looking beyond Ontario, the city of Calgary, with city council support, rapidly implemented a fully connected cycling grid pilot project in the summer of 2014, and saw the number of cyclists in Calgary’s downtown more than double in less than one year. Montreal and Vancouver are other Canadian cities which consistently score highly on bicycle-friendliness, with protected cycling lanes and community “greenways” through residential neighborhoods.

Light rail transit (LRT) is an important catalyst for cycling infrastructure. In Toronto, plans for the Eglington Crosstown LRT promise complete streets for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and motorists of all ages and abilities, with fully separated bike lanes. Active transportation infrastructure and LRT are a combined portfolio in Waterloo, and cycling plans in Ottawa point out the synergy between cycling and transit. Back in Hamilton, the planned 11-kilometre LRT line is a great local opportunity for us to maximize the benefits of higher-order public transit by incorporating cycling infrastructure.

Improvements to cycling infrastructure are great news, because as it happens, the majority of Ontarians (54%) report that they would like to cycle more often. The top-rated item that would encourage them to cycle more is “bicycle lanes/trails to where I want to go” (68%), followed by “more or better cycling infrastructure such as protected bicycle lanes” (68%) (Share the Road). Clearly the demand is present right here in Hamilton, as evidenced by the SOBI bike-share system, which has over 7,500 registered users.

Share the Road, a provincial cycling advocacy organization, rates Hamilton’s cycling-friendliness as silver, the second-lowest of five levels ranging from bronze to diamond. Can we strive for gold or higher? I’ve heard some people say that Hamilton has unique challenges, but as we have seen, cities that are much hillier and far chillier than ours are rising to the occasion. Routine accommodation of cycling in road construction projects and traffic calming initiatives would be a great start. A rapidly-implemented minimum grid pilot project would be ideal, and could be made possible with strong citizen advocacy and political will, data collection and analysis, and sharing of information and knowledge of implementation best-practices.

To be sure, improvements will cost money, but increasing the opportunities for active transportation will produce dividends by reducing long-term health care costs, and increasing road safety and the attractiveness of this community for an increasingly mobile millennial workforce. We can let our elected leaders know that active sustainable transportation is important to individuals and families in our community. Think about writing to your councillors in support of a modern Cycling Master Plan and active transportation in the City of Hamilton, and then consider joining Cycle Hamilton, a friendly, member-supported coalition working to promote a healthy, safe and sustainable cycling culture in Hamilton, Ontario.

 Erin Kennedy works, lives, and rides a bike in Hamilton’s Ward 13 with her husband and two young boys. She is a member of Cycle Hamilton’s Advocacy Committee (cyclehamont.ca or the hashtag #CyclistsOfHamOnt).

 

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