5 September, 2012
“Last Friday I joined a group of 300 or more cyclists who gathered to mourn the death of Isaak Kornelsen, the cyclist who had been killed the previous Monday while cycling on Whyte Avenue. I think there were many of us who did not know Isaak, although there were also many there who did. Nevertheless I think news of the tragedy shocked and upset all of us, because as regular cyclists, we could each imagine and remember being in very similar predicaments. Every one of us understood how easily it could have been us.
I was also aware that barely two weeks earlier I had cheerfully opened the new bike corral pilot project in the Whyte Avenue area, designed to improve the parking situation for the myriad of bikes that use the area. We recognized as we opened the corrals that Whyte Avenue was a particularly appropriate area to try them out because the area was so heavily used by cyclists. So the question is, if we know there are that many cyclists using the area to commute, why is our infrastructure still so poor?
The City has made a commitment in our new transportation master plan to shifting the mode of how people travel. This means we are committed to making it possible for people to move away from the single occupancy vehicle onto public transit, and to active transportation, walking and cycling. We are not alone in having committed to this shift. Most of the major cities in North America are working to the same ends, in large part because we can afford no other solution to our growing transportation demands. Most major European cities have already shifted.
But writing it in our plan is not enough. I believe if we really want to get there we have to significantly up our game in terms of our commitment to convenient and safe infrastructure for walking and cycling.
And I know it is possible. About a month before last week’s tragedy I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Copenhagen. Like most of the people of Copenhagen I did all of my travel in that city either on foot or by bike. Over the last thirty years the bicycle has become the mode of transport chosen by the vast majority of the population. And it spans all demographics. Most of us assume that it has always been like that there; that it is built into the culture. It was a great surprise to find out that thirty years ago, when they started on this project, the city was very much like us, completely car dependent, clogged with traffic, and convinced that there was no way anyone would change.
Their solution was to build a parallel bicycle commuting network that was safe, convenient, and could coexist with both pedestrians and the automobile. This did not mean sending the bicycle round by convoluted side streets. It also did not mean forcing the bikes into the traffic. It meant carving a small piece off every road that was clearly for the bicycle only, separated from both the drive lane and the sidewalk. The thought now of having a main thoroughfare like Whyte Avenue in Copenhagen that did not have separate bike lanes would now be unheard of. The result is that huge portions of the community now bike, not because anyone makes them, but because they choose to. They choose to because it is faster, more convenient, and significantly cheaper than the other options. And for those that cannot make that choice and still need to drive, the roads are that much freer.
It was based on that experience that I called last week for bike lanes on Whyte. I know it is possible, and I know they would be heavily used. Nevertheless I also understand the belief, held by many and embedded in our bike master plan, that it might make more sense to use 83 Ave as the bike corridor. Other cities have made this choice and it too works well. As long as the route actually lets bikes go conveniently where they need to go it will work. I am not sure what the best solution is and I recognize that there is disagreement even amongst the existing bike commuting community which is the better option. Either way I think for all of the cyclists that were there on Friday to memorialize Isaak’s death it is time to do something.
Over the past few years the City has started to retrofit bike lanes into the existing parts of the city. But time and again the true usefulness and design of those lanes is being compromised so as not to impede car traffic and parking. If we are really going to get ourselves to where we say we want to go I think we are going to have to make sure that the facilities truly create a safe space for the users we expect to use them. If we really want to create a system that everyone feels safe and comfortable using then we have to engineer our bicycle facilities with the same attention that we have applied to our car infrastructure. Otherwise instead of achieving of our objective of having more people choose to cycle, we will continue to put the Isaaks of our city at risk and the resulting tragedy will just frighten more of us off the road.” – Ben Henderson