Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cycling on the sidewalk once again hot topic in Maple Ridge

I appreciate being being given the opportunity to write columns about cycling for the Maple Ridge News, but I wish my columns didn't have to be edited. I usually prefer my original version. Problem is, they're usually too long.

Below is the original version of my latest column in The News "Make sidewalks, streets safe":

Maple Ridge's new Active Transportation Advisory Committee is looking for a solution to the cycling-on-the-sidewalk problem in our downtown, a frequently recurring topic of discussion among council members for years already. At its March meeting, Ineke Boekhorst of the BIA, Don Mitchell of the Seniors Society, as well as a a lady who owns a business on 224th Street, all told the committee that elderly people are often afraid to walk on the sidewalks, as inconsiderate and rude people on bikes could easily knock them off their feet, with serious consequences.

Evidence is anecdotal in nature as there has been an absence of hard data, but nevertheless I agree it's a problem that needs to be addressed. 
The fear alone of being hit by a person on a bike will keep seniors from going out for a walk to exercise or do some errands. They should feel safe to do so.

The problem is by no means unique to Maple Ridge, even though our city distinguishes itself from everywhere else in B.C. by having a by-law that allows cycling on sidewalks anywhere in town. New Westminster allows cycling on certain sidewalks only. 

Our by-law dates from 2009. When an open house was held at the time to gather input from residents about the proposed new by-law, Brock MacDonald, the then Director of By-laws, told me that the reason for the change to allow cycling on the sidewalk was that the By-laws department was getting too many complaints from people in residential neighbourhoods who wanted them to issue fines to their neighbours for allowing their kids to ride their bikes on the sidewalks. They were tired of having to deal with these complaints. I agree. Kids should be able to ride their bikes on the sidewalks if the roads are too dangerous due to speeding cars. 

In the downtown, it's rarely kids biking on the sidewalk. You'll see basically two different varieties of adults on bikes. The "bike bandit" types mostly wear hoodies or baseball caps, and they're commonly suspected of riding stolen bicycles. Again, anecdotally, anyone who crosses their path when they're zigzagging at high speeds around obstacles on our sidewalks, risks losing life and limbs. They don't give a hoot about by-laws.

And then we have the so-called "legitimate" people on bikes, of which I consider myself one.  As far as I've seen they're mostly very considerate. They slow down for pedestrians and politely use their bells, which people walking would be able to hear if only they didn't plug their ears with headsets to listen to loud music. These "legitimates" mostly wear helmets too. Somehow some people feel that if a person on a bike does not wear a helmet, he or she is automatically considered guilty as charged, whatever the charge. 

So why are people on bikes on the sidewalk in the first place?
The answer is plain and simple: they fear for their lives, having to share the road with speeding cars and inconsiderate and rude drivers! 

If people can't safely ride on the road, either they'll ride on the sidewalk - by-law or no by-law - or they won't ride at all. You can't argue with fear. I'd personally rather get a fine than be killed.

Bicycles are obviously not welcome on Lougheed and Dewdney. 
There are some designated east-west bike routes. All have been designed to accommodate car traffic, but discourage through traffic, with stop signs at every intersection. Perhaps not surprisingly, stop signs discourage cycle traffic even more, as frequent stop-and-go's waste a lot of precious energy and are time consuming. Helpful drivers who stop and wave people on bikes through actually unintentionally make crossing intersections more hazardous for cyclists as driver behaviour becomes less predictable.

The purpose of these designated bike routes is mostly to keep cyclists out of the way of cars on the arterials so they don't have to slow down. 

But wait, we want them to slow down!

That's the other problem that the Active Transportation Committee wants to find a solution to: speeding throughout the town core. It's one that's not easily solved. 30 km/h signs are not going to do it, as drivers will continue to drive at the speed that feels safe to them, even if it doesn't feel safe to others.

Maple Ridge Director of Engineering David Pollock says "road design is key". But the 'improved' design hasn't worked so well on Lougheed so far. Speed is pretty hard to control on an arterial if you have two lanes in each direction.  

The question that needs to be answered is: what do we want our downtown to be: a people-place - with streets that are inviting to young and old, with outdoor terraces, where people like to hang out - or a traffic sewer system? Right now, Dewdney and Lougheed are traffic sewers, the purpose of which is to accommodate the fast and efficient movement of cars on our streets.  

Fact is, people on bikes don't feel safe on some of our roadways and pedestrians don't feel safe on our sidewalks. You wouldn't want to sit down on a sidewalk bench along Lougheed Highway unless you need to. You can barely have a conversation walking along Dewdney or Lougheed without yelling at the other person. 

The ATAC committee first wants to focus on 224th Street, where speeds are already lower than most. It'll be a good start. Hopefully before long other roads will follow and we'll slowly but surely see our downtown transformed into a more people-friendly place.  Eventually, as the town core further densifies, all streets should be designed to accommodate all road users and make everyone, including people on bikes, feel welcome and safe. 

The cycling-on-the-sidewalk problem cannot be solved without solving the issues of speeding and cyclist safety. After all, you really can't argue with fear.