It’s that time of year again in Winnipeg when the snow begins to melt and to the chagrin of many drivers, those cyclists who don’t brave the cold and snow emerge from their garages to claim their piece of road.
These cyclists ride onto an infrastructure system that is not designed for them and is riddled with problems; there are no major connecting routes, lanes are usually not wide enough or separated from traffic, and the pavement in curb lanes is frequently in need of repair.
We’re used to hearing about the all-important relationship between cyclists and motorists, often described as dismal. Yet, this is not the real problem. The real problem is the inadequate infrastructure that is available to cyclists in Winnipeg. This is despite the fact that nearly 20.5 million has been spent on cycling infrastructure since 2010, according to the city.
The stimulus boost has raised the number of people commuting in and out of downtown every day to almost 13,000, according to the organization Bike to the Future, and helped to ensure that Winnipeg is ahead of cities such as Regina and Halifax in the number of kilometers of bike paths it has. But Winnipeg still lags far behind cities like Vancouver.
According to Joseph Stothers, a university student from Vancouver, when comparing it to his hometown, cycling in Winnipeg is downright lousy. Cycling is obviously important to Stothers; there are bike helmets sitting on his hall shelf and there is a bright yellow cycling sign on display in his living room. A bike leans against the wall with mud and snow dripping to the floor. This bike doesn’t belong to Stothers though, it belongs to his roommate who is also a cyclist.
Stothers believes that the problem lies in the fact that Winnipeg’s bike path system is designed more for leisure riders. “The bike paths here in Winnipeg are great, but they don’t really go anywhere practical,” he said. Access for what he calls hardcore cyclists is far more limited in Winnipeg.
Vancouver is viewed as a city that is friendlier to cyclists because its infrastructure has been built to make commuting by bicycle safe and easy. Many bicycle lanes and paths in Vancouver form a grid that connects all major parts of the city. “Most of the time they are along residential streets” says Stothers. This is something that is lacking in Winnipeg.
Bike boulevards, which is the term for residential streets that are shared between cyclists and drivers, like Wellington Crescent, make up only 16 kilometres of Winnipeg’s cycling infrastructure, according to the City of Winnipeg website. In Vancouver, bike boulevards form the backbone of bicycle transportation, helping create a city where 12 percent of all trips are made by bike.
Another way Vancouver has made commuting a friendlier option to its citizens is by installing a network of bicycle tracks in which cyclists ride on the road but are separated from traffic by barriers, such as on Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Avenue.
“They installed a lot of these downtown because downtown is crazy,” said Stothers.
But these bike tracks also have drawbacks, even though they drastically increase the safety of cyclists who use them. Often the people who use them ride side-by-side and go too slow. “Bike messengers and those sorts of people don’t like them because they can’t go fast,” says Stothers. As a result, bike messengers and many commuters ride with regular traffic even though a safer option exists.
Another crucial factor for the safety of cyclists is the width of the road. In Vancouver, many main roads such as Kingsway, have a wider curb lane to accommodate parked cars. This benefits cyclists because it gives them a wider lane to ride in, with more room for vehicles to safely pass them.
When asked what it was like riding down major routes in Winnipeg such as Portage Avenue, Stothers said, “It’s pretty hair raising, more so than it ever was in Vancouver.”
He feels quite safe on main routes in Vancouver, but in Winnipeg main routes have a “regular sized curb lane and there are giant trucks going past you at 60 and 70 kilometres an hour.”
In 2013, the City of Winnipeg plans to take a step back and work on an active transportation plan that will set out what needs to be done to make cycling safer and more appealing in Winnipeg.
For now, Stothers feels that cycling is far safer in Vancouver, and the infrastructure is far better designed. He concedes that Vancouver has milder weather than Winnipeg, which makes it easier and much cheaper to maintain roads and cycling infrastructure.
With all the differences between the two cities, one wonders if drivers would dislike cyclists more in Winnipeg or in Vancouver. “If anything I think they are more vocal about it here in Winnipeg,” said Stothers. But he figures that Vancouver drivers hate cyclists just as much because “there are stupid cyclists doing stupid things there too.”