Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

St. John's doesn't like bikes. Here's why its cycling plan needs to change lanes

In this column for CBC Opinion, Adrian House describes the dangers cyclists face on the road in St. John's, and calls on the city to revamp its biking plan.

Adrian House says cycling is booming in popularity, but St. John's still lacks much-needed infrastructure

Opinion columnist Adrian House says cyclists feel unwelcome on the roads in St. John's. (Coline Tisserand/Submitted by Adrian House)

This column is an opinion by Adrian House, a cyclist living in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

St. John's is the worst cycling city in Canada.

This is not (just) my opinion, but the conclusion of a 2012 study by the University of British Columbia. Nine years later, we're the only major city in Canada that still has no bike lanes on our roads.

But the pedestrian mall, a car-free area of downtown implemented last summer, proves that we can do radical, progressive things when it's needed.

And it's needed.

The pandemic has seen an explosion of cycling worldwide, and St. John's is no exception: Canary Cycles has had its busiest two years ever, for example, and often struggled to keep bikes and parts in stock.

More people than ever are biking on our streets, and with no infrastructure, more people are getting hit and getting hurt. We need bike lanes to prevent this, and we need them now. 

I've been cycling in town for 30 years, including in the winter. And I love it. But after biking in places like Montreal and even Halifax, it's always a shock to come home and have to be a part of traffic. Here you feel unwelcome on a bike; you have to be tough and assertive, as it's a world of close calls, getting yelled at by motorists, and sometimes worse.

A few months ago I had to screech to a halt in Rawlins Cross as a driver going the other way barrelled through their yield sign. I'm a cautious rider, but sometimes you can't protect yourself, like when the person turned left in their large truck in front of me on Duckworth Street and hit my front wheel. Luckily I was fine, but the following people weren't — and these are just from the past two months:

  • A man hit by a pickup and seriously injured on Adams Avenue on Aug. 31.
  • A teen hit by an SUV and taken to hospital on July 24.
  • A man and his toddler hit by a Metrobus on Military Road on July 15 (the man was injured, toddler thankfully OK).

These incidents are unacceptable. Do we want to wait for a really horrible accident to get our act together and make our roads safer for bikes? Or do we want to do something right now, before that happens? 

Some people might say, "Well, if it's so dangerous, why don't you stop?" Well, the short answer is because we like it.

The last Friday of every month, cyclists worldwide take over the road in an event called Critical Mass. Here’s the St. John’s version last Halloween. (Loujein Mouammer/Submitted by Adrian House)

Cycling is great exercise, cheap, fun, quiet, clean, social, and produces no CO2. Can any of that be said about driving a car? And as N.L. is now committed to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent below its 2005 GHG emissions level, according to the provincial government's climate change plan, we need to take action, and a real investment in cycling is an essential part of that. So stopping is not a solution, nor an option.

Cycling just makes sense. Plus, there are too many of us on the streets now, and once you experience the joys of riding a bike you never want to stop. 

A better biking plan

And so what do we need? Protected bike lanes, physically separated from cars. But even painted lines would be a start, and one we could make right now. Having bike lanes is also more comfortable and safer for drivers, and pedestrians too. So it's win-win all around. 

But what about the Bike St. John's master cycling plan, you may ask? Ah yes, that.

Right now we're starting the "catalyst project" of Kelly's Brook, which is a shared trail through a park. That's all that's happening until the next "catalyst project" of the Rennie's River Trail. This is not nearly enough, and focuses on cycling as a leisure activity, while more and more of us are cycling as a way to get around.

I and many others don't own a car. Other places, for example Montreal, encourage this with huge, citywide networks of protected bike lanes. But in our plan, putting lanes of any kind on our roads is at the bottom of the priority list. The cycling network we have planned is mapped on page 79, and skips out huge areas of the city — including centre city, most of the west end, and all of downtown!

Our plan is a start but needs to be seriously revamped. St. John's has lagged behind for ages on this, but there's no reason why we can't catch up with other Canadian cities if we put our minds to it. And with some cycling-positive candidates in the upcoming election, we have a better chance to do so. 

Time for a 'yes'

"But it's too hilly here for cycling," I've often heard. Well, good thing no one told that to San Franciscans; their town is just as hilly as ours, but has an amazing cycling culture and cycling network. So we can do it here too, hills and all (and get great legs in the process!).

Another argument we hear against bike lanes is economic — we don't have the money in our strapped circumstances. Isn't it funny that you never hear this when essential road repairs are needed, or when emergency money is needed in a pandemic? Cycling route construction is just as essential and urgent. People's lives are at stake, and we need this to stay safe and alive on the roads.

Cycling in a town with no bike lanes is an adventure. (Submitted by Adrian House)

Finally, did I mention that we need to invest in cycling to reach our climate goals?

It's always "no, no, no" that we hear on this issue. Well, it's time for a "yes." Cyclists have had enough: we want and need bike lanes now.

More and more accidents happening like the ones above is not acceptable. The pedestrian mall shows how quickly radical, positive changes can happen in this city if the will is there. Painting some lines on the road would be a start, a bare minimum to start to bring us in line with other Canadian cities.

Let's get going with it and get excited about turning St. John's from the worst cycling city in the country to one of the best. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adrian House


Adrian House is a singer-songwriter, cycling/hiking guide, writer and volunteer with Ordinary Spokes. In 2020 he toured the Maritimes on his bike with his guitar. He lives and bikes in St. John’s.


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