Unhappy trails: Why the St. John's bike plan is all downhill

The pedestrian trails in St. John's are the envy of the world, writes columnist Edward Riche. While dedicated bike trails are a good idea, he says, paving over river trails is not.

Dedicated bike trails are a good thing, but paving over existing river trails is not

The proposed bike plan would affect trails that closely follow the course of rivers, like this section of the Rennie's River trail. (John Gushue/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Edward Riche, a St. John's writer and a frequent contributor. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

An Oct. 17 letter to the editor in the Telegram from Robert Bishop raised an alarm about the City of St. John's bike plan.

"At a suspiciously low-key function on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 2nd, the City of St. John's took a giant step towards the destruction of the cherished walking trails that daily, year-round, see thousands of residents and visitors enjoying healthy exercise in beautiful and safe surroundings. The occasion was to announce a funding agreement between the three levels of government to 'upgrade' the Kelly's Brook Trail, one of the main trails in the Grand Concourse system, in order to make it a 'shared-use path' to encourage bicycling," Bishop wrote.

Mr. Bishop was correct. The report states plainly that a significant portion of the shining path for bicycles in St. John's is to be paved over the pedestrian trails tracing the rivers that run through the city: "This plan proposes three catalyst projects: 1. Kelly's Brook Trail from Columbus Drive to Kings Bridge Road; 2. Rennie's River Trail from Portugal Cove Road to Prince Philip Drive; 3. Virginia River Trail from Quidi Vidi Lake to Penny Crescent."

I'll cop to having been an inattentive ratepayer regarding the bike plan. The degree to which the river trails were in play came as a complete surprise to me. I was hardly alone.

I joined a chorus of people objecting to the fundamental premise of the bike plan and urging the city to abandon it immediately, to implement no part of it, to waste no further time or money investigating the proposition, to return to the drawing board and come back with a plan that explicitly excluded intrusion on the walking trails, particularly those closely tracing the Rennie's and Virginia rivers.

Why fix what's not broken?

People's reasons for opposing the superimposition of a two-lane, three-metre-wide paved bike path over the trails vary.

The Salmonid Council worries that it first requires an environmental assessment as the paved trails construction and continued existence threaten the rivers' ecology. It is accepted that hardscaping their banks is unhealthy for rivers.

Lengthy sections of St. John's trails are fairly narrow, bordered by trees on one side and homeowners' fences on the other. (John Gushue/CBC)

Pedestrians, particularly seniors, and joggers have safety concerns, fearing collisions between speeding bikes and other trail users.

Before the Quidi Vidi Rennie's River Development Foundation and the Johnson Family Foundation remediated the rivers and established the walking trails they had become drainage ditches filled with garbage. Bringing them back to life was a remarkable, citizen-led achievement.

My objection to the bike plan's commandeering of the river trails is, why fix what is not broken? More than a "leave well enough alone" sentiment, it's "please do not mess with an internationally recognized success."

My wild speculation is that the impulse behind the plan was a sort of displacement activity. Understandably struggling with concerns like sidewalk snow cleaning, unloading Mile One, changing the statutory relationship with the province, budget crunches, halting the steady depletion of our tiny heritage inventory, or rats, all tough problems, folks at city hall took time to focus on some abstract future good. We all do this. It cannot have been about creating a functioning bike network, as trails shared with bicycles are disliked by all users, none more so than bicyclists.

Amsterdam is famous for its cycling treasure. Edward Riche says we can learn to adapt our roadways to allow cyclists to safely use them. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Nine months ago I was in the Netherlands. The Dutch are famously decades ahead of us on bike trails, with much less space, and they have dedicated bike lanes. If it were not for kind souls pulling me gently out of the designated bikeways I would have been hammered by hurtling Amsterdammers on several occasions. In Ottawa, where they have shared paths, the National Capital Commission is now trying to find ways to separate the bicyclists.

It's not so much that the pedestrian and wheelchair users want the bicyclists off their trails as bicyclists demanding purpose built lanes where they can travel at speed instead of having to continually slow down, weave and stop to avoid collisions with other users.

Accusations started flying

There was a flurry of bizarre objection to those taking a position against the bike plan. Opponents were accused of "NIMBYism", which made little sense as the planned network was, by design, in nearly everyone's backyard. Opponents were said to be protecting their "privilege" (the re-educators of our local Red Guard will have to explain how a fixed-income senior out for a stroll is more privileged than the dude blowing past them on $5,000 worth of Trek Bike), walking was described as a "hobby." Several middle-aged women claimed opposition was overwhelmingly from "older men."

The Virginia River trail runs through several east end neighbourhoods, coursing its way to Pleasantville and Quidi Vidi Lake. (Submitted by Mike Hennessey)

This will come as news to Kate Bazeley, Holly Foley, Barb Doran, Melanie Benson and many, many other women who have voiced concerns about the plan.

The most prolix pushback I received was from a fellow geezer up to Memorial University who said that coming late to the process, judging it flawed and asking that it be arrested was "ridiculous." The Feedback piece of Engagement, goes the argument, is best kept to a prescribed time and place for the process to work. The process is the optimal flowchart arrow to decision.

Much of that noise is now regular background on social media. If you can't handle being mobbed and facing ad hominem attacks you are better off quitting Twitter.

Perhaps the most unfounded characterization of the opponents of the bike plan is that they are "ableist," discriminating against or "invalidating" persons with mobility issues. Some wheelchair users desiring access to trailways in St. John's were thus misled into believing that widening and paving some of the routes proposed would accommodate their reasonable demands for greater accessibility everywhere in St. John's.

That is not the case.

What the plan is really about

The bike plan is about bikes. I spoke with Nancy Reid of the Coalition for Persons with Disabilities. Two of the three prioritized routes, the Rennie's River and Virginia River trails, run from high elevations (55.5 and 155 (!) metres, respectively) to near sea level. This means many parts of those routes are of a grade unsuitable to wheelchair users.

"If a trail is identified as being accessible," said Reid, "we would expect it to meet a gradient that does not exceed one in 20." 

Coun. Dave Lane has been working on St. John's bike plan. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Many sections with an acceptable grade are made inaccessible as they are framed by steep stretches. Where wheelchairs could access the trails, where and how necessary ramps could be installed and so on has not been seriously considered.

"I would consider bike trails to be for bikes and walking trails to be for pedestrians," Reid said. "Wheelchair users are pedestrians while using a wheelchair with the same purpose as a person who is walking."

Given Newfoundland and Labrador's recent unhappy history with lead project engineers, I tried getting interviews with those of the City of St. John's. My request was denied. City communications said if I was going to speak to anyone it had to be Coun. Dave Lane, a genuinely well-meaning fellow I hope doesn't come out playing the part of Kathy Dunderdale in this sorry saga.

In Lane's view, the best way to explore the possibilities of a bike network is the process being employed. He told me there are not a lot of obvious alternatives to trails running alongside the rivers so he believes they have to be considered. He doesn't want to see trees sacrificed but feels at some points on the routes it will be unavoidable.

He doesn't want to see private property expropriated but cannot rule out doing so. He admits there were communications problems with the way the plan was presented.

As well, he regrets that the authors of the plan did not consult the Coalition for Persons with Disabilities earlier.

The process will progress and I wager it will discover what is already known. One: cyclists, wheelchair users and pedestrians would all benefit from dedicated bike trails. Two: bikes are not welcome on the shared pathways.

For the overwhelming majority of the citizens of St. John's the walking trails tracing the city's rivers should be inviolable.

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