3 lessons from Edmonton: What Winnipeg has to learn from another Prairie city on cycling

This year, Winnipeg will spend some $4.7 million — and then some — on active transportation projects across the city.

Edmonton set to introduce $7.5-million, 7.8-kilometre downtown cycling network in July

Winnipeg has a lot to learn about cycling infrastructure. (CBC)

This year, Winnipeg will spend $4.7 million — and then some — on active transportation projects across the city.

That's a 57 per cent increase over 2016's budget, allocated to eight bike corridor projects, as part of a 20-year plan to improve Winnipeg's bikeability implemented by Mayor Brian Bowman shortly after being elected in 2014.

But critics say the process is taking too long, and starting in the wrong areas.

Last week, Mayor Brian Bowman told CBC News Winnipeg is playing "catch up," citing a heavy financial burden on city council and poor planning and road maintenance by previous administrations. 

Bowman said Tuesday the "big picture plan" is crucial to doing the job right, even if it takes longer.

"We've got that plan. Now we're implementing it," Bowman said. "There is a process and it is important that we follow that process."

Two provinces over, Edmonton is doing what Winnipeg hasn't. Less than a year after it received council approval, the city is about to unveil a $7.5-million, 7.8-kilometre network of protected bike lanes in its downtown. The pathways are adjustable, using moveable markers like painted lines, planters and concrete barricades so they can change if they need to.

It's an idea that's already being considered in Winnipeg. Former public works chair Coun. Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) asked the city to study the concept, and Bike Winnipeg executive director Mark Cohoe wants to see it implemented in some areas by 2018.

Experts from both cities weighed in with lessons Winnipeg can take from Edmonton to make it happen.

1. The plan doesn't have to be perfect

Over the past decade, as cycling numbers increased, Chan said Edmonton made slow, incremental improvements, preceded by years of engagement. A single bike lane could take years.

Chris Chan is the executive director of the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)
"We were doing kind of like two streets a year for a little while there, and that's really slow," he said.

"This project, that just, you know, in a matter of months comes together and it builds a whole network out — really looking forward to it especially because it's not meant to be the perfect solution right from the opening day. It's meant to get feedback from business owners, cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, all interacting in these lanes and be really flexible and responsive to feedback."

"I think that's a much better model in a lot of ways than be four years of engagement way because you can do all that engagement with people who have really not a very clear idea of what is actually going to get built. And then you build it and we're still going to find problems anyway that you have to deal with."

But Mark Cohoe, executive director of Bike Winnipeg, a cycling lobby group, said the proposed second phase of bus rapid transit connects the city's neighbourhoods. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)
Mark Cohoe of Bike Winnipeg said he still wants to see permanent lanes in place, but the adjustable pathways are a way to test out configurations beforehand. He wants to see them brought in around existing bike lanes on Bannatyne and McDermot Avenues in 2018.

"Eventually we do want to see that permanent facility put in place," he said.

"But if we've got a couple of years sort of data and information and experience to work with before we go and we rebuild the street when we have that opportunity to really go sort of curb-to-curb or property-line to property-line on the plan, I think having that temporary lane in place, it gets us moving forward in terms of getting people biking a lot quicker but it also gives us that experience so that when we put in that permanent facility, we're a lot more assured of getting what we want."

2. Focus on the downtown core

This year in Winnipeg, city council voted to develop an extension of buffered bike lanes along Pembina Highway, this time between DeVos Road and Killarney Avenue, as well as protected bike lanes on Empress Street between Portage Avenue and St. Matthews Avenue.

Coun. Janice Lukes criticized the city's plan for not serving downtown cyclists.

"Out in St. Norbert, where I live, they're putting in protected bike lanes but really, in the big picture, those protected bike lanes would serve thousands more downtown," she told CBC News last week.

Cohoe said he's hearing from cyclists in Winnipeg that that's where they want their pathways, too.

"The things like what they see on Sherbrook are what they want to see throughout the downtown and throughout the little more built-up areas of the city as well, and that there is a demand to get it moving forward," he said. He's excited about Winnipeg's West Alexander to East Exchange corridor project, which is working on improving existing lanes on McDermot and Bannatyne Avenues.

Olga Messinis, the project manager for Edmonton's downtown bike network, said prior to the project the city had virtually zero cycling infrastructure in its downtown, but that's where ridership was highest.
Project Manager for the bike network Olga Messinis said the city is aiming for the grid to open by July. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"Everything in these central areas is actually just shared roads. That said, we're also seeing a high incidence of major injury and fatality collisions with people that are choosing to use active modes of transportation to get around these areas," she said. "So we're seeing that there definitely is a need to provide a safe alternative to travel, outside of the personal motor vehicle."

In Edmonton, Messinis said engineering firm Stantec was a major driver of development for the downtown. The company is set to move to the core area in 2018 and wanted assurances its employees could continue to bike to work. Cohoe said employers in Winnipeg are telling him the same thing.

Chan added the addition of active transportation routes brings vibrancy and foot traffic to downtown areas. Calgary, which already has a cycling network downtown, is the proof, he said. When he was there a decade ago, the downtown was dead: "Even the Starbucks was closed I tried to go to." But that's not true anymore, he said.

"When we advocate for good bike infrastructure and good pedestrian infrastructure what we're really advocating for is a vibrant healthy city. It's not like, self-serving, to have a better place to bike necessarily. It's really about just having a better place to live," he said.

"Looking at what the grid has done to Calgary and looking at Edmonton's past of what hasn't worked in Edmonton, I think Winnipeg should look at that and take some lessons from that."

3. Connection, not isolation

Cohoe praised City of Winnipeg efforts on cycling, but he said bike lanes are better built in networks to encourage use.

"It's a 20-year plan to build us to, I think, a level that a lot of cities have already. It certainly can be advanced quicker. It can be moved forward a lot faster," he said.

"I think one of the things with the Edmonton model, where you're kind of putting in that network as a whole rather than sort of piece-by-piece is you get the benefit of having a lot of different connections, you're connecting a lot more destinations in, you're connecting a lot more people into that network right away, and it just creates that boost where you see the reward from it and I think it motivates you to keep moving on in a lot of other parts of that network other than the downtown."

Edmonton's downtown bike network looks ready to go, but construction barriers cover the lanes while the city works on traffic signalling. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Before Edmonton started focusing on its downtown, Messinis said the city looked for opportunities to put lanes in where roadwork was already being done, hoping to make the most of construction that was already happening.

"Our initial approach with bike lanes and active transportation in that regard was initially to leverage existing transportation-related projects and begin implementing bike lane infrastructure through those investments," she said.

"Unfortunately, that approach required a lot of the workaround bike lanes to be a little bit isolated and not necessarily addressing areas where we would typically see larger cycling numbers, like the core, for example."

The community was so disappointed with that effort the council voted to remove almost 15 kilometres of bike lanes, she said.

Chan said that's a mistake Winnipeg should learn from.

"When I saw that Winnipeg was having this discussion about, you know, should we stick to the bicycle transportation plan and the cheap stuff in the suburbs and do things kind of piecemeal and not refocus on the downtown core — it really, really recalled a lot of Edmonton's mistakes and our experiences," he said.

"And what we've learned from and what's starting to actually work well for us, is to spend that extra focus and energy on the downtown."

You can hear Olga Messinis on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio on Monday, June 12 at 7:50 a.m. If you want to listen live online, you can do so here.