Context is everything
For all but one of my 32 years, I’ve called Thunder Bay home. But within the last decade I’ve spent at least 7 months in various countries that aren’t in North America. Prior to this my sentiments about home were very much fond and affirming but that all changed a few years ago when I picked up a copy of “Lonely Planet Canada” and read the section about Thunder Bay.
First impressions of Thunder Bay can be a little jarring. After hours of driving between an ethereal coastline and majestic forests, the concrete collection of industrial relics feels quite out of place. The two distinct downtown cores act like polar magnets repelling attempts at gentrification. However, below the gritty surface, expansive Thunder Bay has a warm small-town vibe. The city itself doesn’t offer heaps of attractions, but it makes for an excellent base to explore the nearby historical and natural sites.
Basically, a globally recognized travel guide advises its readers to use Thunder Bay only as a base to see what’s around it because the city is otherwise an ugly pile of crap. And in some contexts it’s hard to argue with the assessment they’ve given. I made a joke on twitter a few days ago
We need a “views from Thunder Bay restaurants tumblr w/ pics of aesthetic atrocities caused by lack of regs & car-centric city planning.
— Dean Stamler (@dstamler) December 22, 2013
and I think this plainly makes the case of Thunder Bay being designed for cars.
Now it seems a day doesn’t go by where I recall travel experiences and say “I wish it was like that here.” There is no greater example of this than my visits to Copenhagen, Århus and Amsterdam (in no particular order). These cities are among the most liveable I have ever visited for the simple reason that people get around without cars. Few things are more empowering than being able to enjoy your city without the need for a car, and planners of these cities enable that in the most profound way: by embracing the bicycle.
You see the bicycle, to quote Mr. Money Mustache, is an automatic life-balancing machine. It keeps you healthy and fit, slows you down just enough so you have more fun in the city, costs infinitely less in tax dollars to provide infrastructure for than the car, is free to park pretty much wherever you please. You can carry pretty much anything in one too, contrary to the beliefs of many people.
In urban and regional planning, mode share is the term used to describe the portion of travelers who use a particular type of transportation. Copenhagen, Århus and Amsterdam each have bicycle mode share numbers of well over 25% which means that more than 1 in 4 trips are made by bicycle. Walking mode share is between 4% and 10%.
A rude awakening
Two years ago when I woke up to bike lanes painted on the road in front of my house on North Vickers St, I decided it was time to stop dreaming and attempt to start living a car-lite lifestyle and now I can no longer deny that that the car is simply not the best way to get around cities.
My office was next to the swing bridge on the Kaministiquia river and I quickly discovered the bike ride was approximately 7.5 km which is about 24 minutes at a relaxing and leisurely pace. This compared favourably to my 12-minute car commute, costing me only an additional 24 minutes per day.
The issues came when I started actually riding my bike. Drivers are largely unaware of cyclists and some of them are openly hostile. Then there are the bike lanes. I’m glad they’re there and I’m very thankful to the administration for beginning good work, but do they ever need work. I’m sick and tired of justifying the lanes on Victoria Avenue to pretty much everyone including my peers who I assumed would be in approximately the right age group to be sympathetic. Drivers don’t know how to handle this area even after two seasons, and I can’t blame them. These lanes are terrible. Walsh street only works sometimes because of lower traffic. Cars fly down Vickers, and once you’re south of the fire station things get very tricky. I have to hand it to Ken Shields who successfully lobbied the city to install a culvert to connect Winnipeg Ave to the dog park at the end of Carrick St. He fought long and hard for that, but it’s only a very small part of the infrastructure needed to safely traverse from the North core to the South core by bike.
Then there’s the issue of who’s actually riding a bike. It’s men. If you don’t believe me or want to call me sexist, go and count. I wouldn’t have had the courage necessary to ride on these new lanes if I didn’t have a few year’s experience with a motorcycle license. I understand what a blocking position is and (perhaps foolishly) have the confidence to bike with the cars when the bike lane ends. But women and children apparently don’t and I’m not the only one saying that. Just read The Economist. Apparently this is an issue in most cities with low mode share.
There are other reasons to make Thunder Bay better for bikes, like the fact that a significant portion of the population doesn’t drive. Cities that are good for biking also evolve into cities that are good for walking and good for riding transit. Thunder Bay has a large population of elderly people who don’t drive. Further, young people are delaying or even skipping driving licenses altogether these days.
A new plan
If Thunder Bay wants to reap the benefits that cycling brings to cities then some changes have to happen now. The current infrastructure is not beyond repair, it’s just half-baked. I suspect this is a result of having only a few people actively promoting bicycle infrastructure. In light of this, I’ve hacked together a (very) small group of (somewhat) like minded people and we’re going to lobby the city to make lanes safer, more useful and more abundant. I have dreams about Thunder Bay hitting a mode share of more than 10% for bikes in the summer months, and I’m going to outline exactly what can be done to get Thunder Bay back on the right track with regard to bike lanes. Drivers need clear direction, bike lanes need enough protection that kids can use them, and the infrastructure will actually pay for itself. A slightly related article for good measure.
So without further ado, here are the top issues that need to change to improve bike infrastructure and increase active-transportation mode-share in Thunder Bay. Get these nailed and we’ll all be happier, healthier, safer, and richer.
1. On lanes with on-street car parking, bike lanes currently have cars on both sides.
This is the single biggest flaw in our current bike lane implementation because cars must drive in the bike lane to park, bikes are susceptible to the “door prize” where car doors open into the lane, AND bikes cannot easily access the shops and businesses where they want to go. Further, bikes cannot control intersections when they’re stopped at red smart lights since they are not large enough to set off the sensors.
Solution: Paint the bike lanes immediately next to the curb and cover them with green paint, then paint a no-car buffer zone, then allow car parking. This is what happens in most of Europe and is considered best practices. Most cities around the world with high bicycle mode share use this method.
Benefits: This change will make bike travel significantly faster than cars for short runs because it facilitates door-to-door movement and no stopping is required for right hand turns because bicycles have protected right-hand turns regardless of streetlight state. It also allows cyclists easy access to intersection controls (which should face the bike lanes). Travel by bike will also become significantly safer since parked cars act as a buffer between high-speed car traffic and the buffer-zone prevents doors from opening into the bike lane. Cars would also be unable to cut the corner into bike lanes on turns since bike lanes can be painted around the corner. Finally, this is very cheap to implement only requiring more paint than existing lanes.
2. On lanes without on-street car parking, bike lanes are currently not protected
Streets without on-street parking tend to have fast-moving car traffic. Simply painting white lines on the street does not inspire confidence for citizen cyclists on these routes and will do little if anything to increase bicycle mode share.
Solution: Paint the entire bike lane green, and use inexpensive physical dividers on the edges between traffic. Concrete parking curbs are small, modular and cheap and can be placed every 10 to 20 metres along the line between car traffic and bicycle traffic. A several kilometre street can be installed in a couple of days by a simple crew as well. Ottawa’s Laurier bike lane uses this.
Benefits: The incentive for cars to stay out of bike lanes is great when there is a curb: they will become severely damaged if they drive over the curb. There is a very clearly delineated area for bikes and cars and confusion will be significantly reduced. Safety confidence is highly increased for citizen cyclists, increasing bicycle mode share.
3. Sharrows / Shared-lane markings are a bad idea
Once they actually think about it, nobody likes shared-lane markings, or sharrows, except possibly veteran cyclists who don’t actually like them but perceive them as being good because it strokes their ego. Sharrows frustrate drivers because they slow the speed of car traffic, they frustrate cyclists because they are forced to ride among cars with a wide speed difference, and they do little if anything to increase bicycle mode share. They are cheap and give the impression of caring about cyclists, but that’s it. The only reasonable use of sharrows is on quiet side streets (certainly NOT Oliver Road!), and for this reason there is a better solution. Sharrows have another serious problem: they imply to motorists that streets without sharrows are only for cars, which is not true. In this way they mislead drivers.
Solution: Reduce speed limits. The only places that can reasonably use sharrows are quiet side streets so a much more elegant solution that keeps motorists and cyclists in harmony is to simply reduce the speed limit to around 30 km/h. This can be done explicitly with speed-limit signs or implicitly through traffic-calming techniques such as reducing visibility for cars, speed bumps (only for cars), diagonal diverters for car traffic which allow bicycle transit in any direction, etc. Another even better solution for ultimate liveability is the woonerf.
Benefits: Cars and bicycles end up traveling at similar speeds, and the implementation of lower speed limits is very cheap. Further, quite neighbourhoods are often full of children and reducing speed limits reduces pedestrian fatalities by allowing cars to stop within shorter distances. Car traffic also becomes more quiet.
4. The missing link
It is currently impossible to get from the North to the South of the city without driving in heavy car traffic unless you travel far away from the lake and through the college and university campuses. The issue with this is that it’s not where people want to go.
Solution: We need a safe, protected north-south bicycle corridor along both Memorial Avenue and Water/Fort William Road/Simpson/Arthur St.
We should absolutely prioritize plowing bike lanes and sidewalks OVER roads in the winter. This may come as a surprise to many of us who are fair-weather cyclists, but for a significant cohort of people in Thunder Bay driving a car isn’t an option. I see cyclists up and down Vickers St where I live year round, and I would definitely consider riding in the winter if I knew I had a safe option. It’s cheaper to own a winter-beater bike than a set of snow tires by a long shot.
I still drive my car on a regular basis. It’s the middle of winter and I’m not doing winter biking yet even though I know that many many Canadians are. Cyclists have passed my house on Vickers street every day this month too. I don’t hate drivers or cars, I am a driver. But I am also a citizen cyclist, enlightened enough to have listened to the facts and realized that there is another, better way to get around a city most of the time.
Let’s all work together to make Thunder Bay beautiful by making it easy to bike around.