Everything you need to know before Monday's decision on downtown bike lanes
City councillors being asked to approve expansion of lanes to three downtown streets
After years of research and debate, Saskatoon city councillors are poised to decide on Monday whether to create an expanded downtown bike lane network.
Provided councillors pull the trigger — which is not a given, considering recent protracted debates on other hot potatoes such as fire pits and composting — Monday's council meeting will settle the issue.
The city has set active transportation as one of its main goals and wants the number of people in the greater Saskatoon metropolitan area who cycle to work to be more than just two per cent (as reported in the 2016 census).
But skeptics, including downtown Saskatoon businesspeople, have questioned the financial and practical costs of investing more in cycling infrastructure.
A small selection of city councillors sitting on the city's transportation committee has already backed the expanded network plan. That plan would see interconnected, on-street bike lanes installed on downtown portions of 19th Street, 23rd Street, and either Third or Fourth Avenue.
Committee member Randy Donauer was the lone opponent to that plan. But it's not the first time bike lanes have divided city council.
In November 2017, Donauer, along with councillors Troy Davies, Bev Dubois and Darren Hill, voted against keeping try-out bike lanes on 4th Avenue. They were outvoted by six others, including Mayor Charlie Clark.
CBC Saskatoon has reached out to all councillors and the mayor this week to see where their thoughts currently lie on the expanded network.
Councillors have three options to choose from:
- The city's recommendation: approving the expanded network with Third Avenue as the north-south prong. Construction cost, including other improvements to pedestrian spaces: $3.7 million.
- Approving that same network, but with the current Fourth Avenue bike lanes approved as the north-south prong. Construction cost, including other improvements to pedestrian spaces: $3.7 million.
- Not moving ahead with the expanded bike lane network and removing the Fourth Avenue bike lanes. Cost: $35,000.
The city hopes to get federal funding, meaning Saskatoon taxpayers would only have to cover 27 per cent of the cost.
Councillor Ann Iwanchuk said she's going into Monday's meeting with an open mind and will make her final decision then, but that she is currently leaning toward no bike network, "based on the feedback I have received so far."
"As is with polarizing issues in the community, I am confident we will have a significant number of individuals and stakeholders communicating to council on the matter," fellow councillor Darren Hill said.
"I believe I owe it to the citizens of Saskatoon to enter council chambers with an open mind so that I can consider all the information provided."
Donauer said he would, "be waiting until I hear all the presentations," while councillor Sarina Gersher said she expected to dive into the city's reports on the matter this weekend.
Third Avenue would encourage more biking: group
At recent public consultation sessions, only a small pool of people cited their preference. Out of 100 people, 78 said they preferred Third Avenue. The rest said Fourth Avenue.
Cathy Watts with Saskatoon Cycles says the biking advocacy group prefers Third Avenue because it would connect directly to the new Traffic Bridge (which has multi-use pedestrian pathways on both sides) and Victoria Avenue (which has newly-installed, off-street raised cycle tracks).
"One of the big problems that we have with [the current] downtown cycling network is it's not connected to anything," Watts said. "It's probably no wonder that people say nobody's using the bike lanes. It's four blocks and then where do you go?"
Hard to please everyone
Connie McConnell, the president of the Saskatoon Cycling Club, says the club prefers neither Third or Fourth Avenue; it just wants a cycling network, period.
"We're just happy that accommodations are being looked at to make cycling more of an everyday thing for more people in a safe manner," McConnell said.
No option will please everyone, McConnell added.
Businesses on Third Avenue initially bristled at the prospect of losing parking spots to the planned bus-rapid-transit (BRT) system. The city then switched its recommendation for a downtown BRT line to 1st Avenue, opening the door to bike lanes on Third Avenue.
But that option would eliminate about 54 parking spots on the street, according to the city. (Even more spots — approximately 58 — would be lost if Fourth Avenue is chosen.)
"We're going to be losing a lot," said Elsie Richardson, co-owner of Creative Compliments on Third Avenue. "We wouldn't mind having [the bike lanes] on Third Avenue if they just extended the sidewalks a bit just like they did on Victoria Avenue at the top of the Victoria Bridge."
That's not what the city is planning, however.
All the proposed bike lanes would be on-street lanes, unlike the Victoria Avenue raised cycle track, which runs parallel to and on the same level as the sidewalk. (This does not include planned cycle tracks on Idylwyld Drive, which is a separate project that's already been approved in concept by city council.)
Regular-width bike lanes would run on both sides of 23rd Street and Third Avenue.
Nineteenth Street would get bidirectional lanes on only one side of the street.
Monday's meeting is only about approving the location of the bike lanes. But recent reports from city hall show what the city potentially has in mind for the design of the network. Here are some highlights.
Avoiding driver-cyclist conflicts
Safety is top of mind for Saskatoon Cycles, the Saskatoon Cycling Club and the city. To that end, the city will install sturdy planters (see above photo) between the bike lanes and traffic.
Watts isn't a fan of the current bike lanes on Fourth Avenue because of what she describes as right-turning car drivers who do not yield to pedestrians and cyclists crossing an intersection, despite signs telling drivers to do so.
She wants actual signal lights to better clarify cyclists' priority crossing.
But the city is only planning such signals for 19th Street since that street's bidirectional bike lane will have cyclists travelling in the opposite direction of traffic. Right-turn-yield-to-cyclists signs, like the ones currently on Fourth Avenue, are planned for the other streets in the approved network.
"Until [we get signals], I will continue to feel very unsafe in the intersection," said Watts. "You don't even have to go very far to see how this can be done in some other community in Canada. It's everywhere."
"I would support that idea for sure," echoed McConnell. "As it sits right now, to rely on all drivers to check as really they should be, it's not working well."
To make cyclists and drivers more visible to each other at intersections, the city will create "bend-in" shifts along Third Avenue and 23rd Street.
The city is also recommending a protected intersection at the corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street, which could include corner islands to slow drivers as they round a corner where a cyclist is crossing.
What about the bus mall?
One thing seems to stand in the way of a continuous bike lane along Third Avenue: the Saskatoon Transit bus mall stretching over one block.
Fear not, the city says: the launch of the BRT system means the closing of the bus mall and "opening 23rd Street to bicycle and motor vehicle traffic."
Assuming councillors approve either the Third Avenue or Fourth Avenue option, here's how the city says the project could roll out:
- 2020: completion of detailed design for all lanes
- 2021: construction of north-south route lanes.
- 2022: construction of 19th Street lanes.
- 2023: construction of 23rd Street lanes.
Construction is not slated to begin until 2022 because, "in reality, nothing is implementable tomorrow," said Jay Magus, the city's manager of transportation. "Nineteenth Street is blocked by [ongoing River Landing] construction, 23rd Street has the existing bus mall and significant work is required on how potential active transportation infrastructure intersects with BRT corridors."
Monday's city council meeting begins at 1 p.m. You can follow the meeting here.