Cycle Tracks Revisited: Everyone Benefits?

By Richard White, March 1, 2014

R.W. writes: " have done a great job of opening the debate past the emotional rants of radicals of both side of the argument. First time I have seen a well assembled set of facts and related benefits associated with bikes."

My February 13 and 20th cycling blogs generated interesting comments from both the “bike addicts” and the “bike bashers.” I thought it would be good for me to check in with the City’s key bike people – Tom Thivener, Cycling Coordinator, Katherine Glowacz, Active Transportation Educator and Blanka Bracic, Cycle Track Project Manager to see if I could get a better handle on the issues. They happily took me up on my offer to meet and learn more about the City’s plans to encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike and at the same time better integrate cars, bikes and pedestrians travelling in our city centre.

Everybody Benefits!

One of the key ideas that came out of these meetings is that everyone at the City is confident we can indeed encourage more Calgarians to access downtown by bike. And that if more people choose to cycle downtown to work and play, everyone will benefit - drivers, cyclists and pedestrians!  

There is lots of good research from other cities and Calgary’s new 7th Street cycle track that says if we create a few key separate bike lanes, we should see at least a doubling of cyclists in our downtown.  Currently the number of fair weather downtown cyclists (April to October) is about 6,000 (this number drops by 70% in the winter to about 2,000 cyclist), so a doubling would see about 12,000 Calgarians accessing downtown by bike, rather than car or transit.  

That is not unrealistic given there are over 160,000 downtown workers, plus another 20,000 people per day (just a guess) accessing downtown for various reasons.  So 12,000 cyclists per day out of 180,000 is not unrealistic for the peak cycling month – about 6.6%.

Visually and functionally the 7th Street cycle track creates a much better integration of cars, bikes and pedestrians. 

Eight Avenue Place has 300 secure bike parking stalls and showers, along with a separate bike entrance from the street.  All new downtown office buildings are including bike parking as it gets them one LEED point and additional floor space that they can lease out.  Approximately 1,000 new bike parking stalls have been added to the downtown with the completion of Eight Avenue Place, The Bow and the Centennial Place office towers. 

More cyclists benefits drivers in three ways:

  • less cars on the road
  • better integration of cyclist and cars
  • more parking spots for cars

There is recent evidence from New York City that shows traffic speed for cars actually increased on roads with separate bike lanes, perhaps because there is no more weaving in and out of each other’s way. Did you know the 9.5 km of proposed cycle tracks is only 3% of the 296 km of total traffic lanes in the City Centre? That’s, roughly the same proportion as the 2.5% of Calgarians who choose to access the city centre by bike.

If you assume half the 6,000 new cyclists were driving and half taking transit, that means 3,000 less people looking for parking stalls and 3,000 more seats on buses and trains. Three thousand less people looking for parking doesn’t mean you free up 3,000 stalls, as there is a mix of all day and short stay parkers. 

I won’t bore you with the math but it should equate to about 1,800 stalls being freed up. More parking should make car commuters, retailers and restaurateurs happy. The Parking Authority is currently planning to add a couple of new parkades in the downtown, perhaps they would be better off investing in bike lanes for $25 million vs. $100 million for say two new 1,000 stall parkades.

While Centennial Parkade is perhaps one of the more attractive parkades in North America, it has not been a catalyst for street life despite being designed with sidewalk retail spaces.  The same can be said of most parkade blocks in our Downtown and those in other cities. 

I don’t know the math for the cost of purchasing and operating buses, suffice to say the 3,000 transit seats that would be freed up by more cyclists spread over several routes. While there may not be much saving in purchasing buses or operating costs, it would help ease the chronic overcrowding of buses and trains. Maybe Calgary Transit would like to kick in some funds for bike lanes, rather than buying more buses or streetcars.

From a pedestrian’s perspective, the separate bike lanes would mean less bikes jumping onto sidewalks to bypass cars and other obstacles.  We know that after the completion of the 7th Street cycle track the number of cyclist using the sidewalk dropped from 25% to less than 1%.  The redesigned corners and changes to traffic signals would also mean a more systematic sharing of the road at intersections to allow all three modes of traffic (cars, bikes and shoes) to take their turns crossing the street.

Looks to me like creating more bike lanes could be a win-win-win situation.

Safety in Numbers?

The other lesson I learned is that while many argue we need separate bike lanes so cyclists will feel safer; this may be a bit of a red herring.  Current information for Calgary shows that car/cyclist collisions have in fact decreased over the past 10 years, while the number of cyclists has increased.

One of the benefits of more cyclists on downtown streets is that drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists and learning to share the road with them. While cycling advocates point to better infrastructure as the key to safety, the best way to increase safety might simply be to have more cyclists on the road which makes them more visible and top of mind for drivers.

This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

This graph indicates that collisions involving cyclist on Calgary's roadways is decreasing as cycling increases in Calgary. 

Cycle tracks budget not out of line 

At the meeting, I was reminded the total budget for the cycling improvements city-wide is about 1.1% of the City’s transportation budget, which is less than the 1.3% of Calgarians city-wide who cycle to work. It then seem fair to me that we should invest at least 1.3% or our transportation budget in cycling improvements (city wide) and maybe more if there is some low hanging fruit.

There is strong information that investing in bike infrastructure and programs in the city centre will have the biggest immediate impact. Not only is this area where we see the most cyclists, but also the most pedestrians.

As mentioned before, the bike infrastructure that is being proposed benefits pedestrians and cars by creating a more orderly and predictable integration of all three modes of traffic.

One reader this week also reminded me that significant investments have been made in cycling infrastructure in recent years by the City and private sector in communities like Brentwood, Sundance, Strathcona, along the West LRT and near the University. 

And then there is the mega 138 Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will circle the city, headed up by the Parks Foundation Calgary, but with significant City assistance that will benefit many of the suburban communities.   

Last Word 

In the early ‘90s when Calgary’s politicians and planners envisioned a change from a 60/40 car vs. transit split between cars and transit for downtown commuters, to a 50/50 split there were a lot of naysayers. Yet that vision has not only been met but transit now exceeds the car as the primary mode of commuting into the downtown.

Downtown Cordon count changes: 1996 / 2013

Occupants/day           1996          2013              % Change  

  • Vehicles*        418,551      385,245                  -8%
  • Transit**          117,987      248,390                  111%
  • Pedestrian      30,963          61,610                  99%
  • Bikes                5,254            11,441                 122%
  • Total             572,655     706,686                  23%

*cars and trucks / **buses and trains (16 hour day total, inbound and outbound)


Focus on Pedestrians & Cyclists?

Cycling and walking to work is also on the rise, both increasing by over 100% since 1996.  Did you know, Calgary is already one of the leading downtown bike commuter cities in North America? Our 6,000-commuter cyclist for 160,000 downtown workers is on par with Minneapolis (considered one of North America’s leading cycling cities) 6,670 commuters for its citywide 197,791 workers (Minneapolis Bicycle and Walking Commute Date, 2011 Update).

However, I think we can do better because Calgary boasts one of the most active inner-city infilling housing markets on the continent.  We have a young and highly educated workforce and a dense downtown that is still growing; these conditions are ideal for creating a strong year-round cycling and walking commuter population.  For the past 25 years, we have been focusing on improving transit I would suggest for the next 25 years we should be looking at how, we can increase walking and cycling to work and play in our inner city communities. 

I am thinking the new vision for Downtown should be a 35% car, 35% transit, 20% walking and 10% cycling modal split. If I was on Council I would vote for a phased-in implementation of the City Centre Cycle Track plan over the next five or six years; this would allow time to learn from each track what works and what doesn’t. However, we must stop this paralysis by analysis; this issue has been studied and discussed to death.

The investment of $20 million to improve cycling (with spin off benefits for pedestrians, drivers and transit users) in our increasingly congested city center is worth the experiment.  

After all, city building is just one big ongoing experiment!

The blue line is the new 7th Ave cycle track.

The green lines are the proposed new cycle tracks which have been chosen based on their direct connectivity to key places people want to go. It is also more effective to create cycle tracks on one way streets than two way streets.  It is interesting to note that just a few years ago planners were advocating for changing one-way street back to two-way streets, now it looks like we want to keep the one way streets and add bike lanes.  Urban planning is not an exact science.

The yellow line is the 8th Street Public Realm Plan which is separate project from the cycle tracks. 

The orange line is Stephen Avenue Walk which will require further study to determine if some cycling could be allowed.