It’s a Monday afternoon and with nowhere else to go, an Edmonton cyclist weaves through throngs of office workers on a downtown street. There are close calls as the man, wearing a dress shirt, slacks and no helmet, inches between pedestrians.
Beside him a six-lane boulevard is busy with pickup trucks and SUVs.
There’s nowhere else for the cyclist to go because Edmonton is the largest Canadian city without a single dedicated bike path downtown.
While Vancouver is rolling out a bike-share program and Calgary finished a downtown network of bike paths last summer, the car is still king in Edmonton. The city’s first downtown bike path will not be finished before 2020, based on current plans.
Frustrated cyclists and local politicians bemoan a city government lacking ambition. They point to the contrast between what Mayor Don Iveson has accomplished and his progressive image. The young mayor championed active transportation three years ago when he ran for office, but now he has overseen the removal of four bike paths.
“By all accounts, Edmonton has fallen behind and we need political will to move forward,” Councillor Scott McKeen said in an interview from his office in City Hall. “We’ve been doing this in a really half-arsed way.”
Catherine Kloczkowski, a spokeswoman for the city, explained via e-mail that Edmonton’s cycling infrastructure is being built in conjunction with efforts to rebuild streets in neighbourhoods. “This is a unique program for Canada in that all the roadway infrastructure is rebuilt along with the installation of cycling infrastructure.”
It’s far too little for Mr. McKeen, who represents much of downtown Edmonton and is in his third year on city council. In early July, he pushed through a motion to shake up how the city builds bike paths. Stantec, the Edmonton-based engineering giant, has offered to pay for half the cost of studying how to build a network of temporary bike paths in the city.
The company, which did not respond to a request for comment, has hundreds of workers in the city’s downtown. Many of them would like a safer way to bike to work, Mr. McKeen said.
The councillor said he is aiming to have kilometres of concrete barriers and plastic bollards thrown down by the fall. It would be a complete about-face from how the city does things now.
Showing clear irritation as he spoke, Mr. McKeen questioned why it takes the city six years to fund and build a single dedicated cycling path, which he mockingly called a “feat of engineering.”
Edmonton residents are spread out over nearly 700 square kilometres and the sprawling capital is knitted together by ample roads. Gasoline is typically the cheapest in the country. Winters are long and cold. And perhaps most important, while downtown has a skyline of tall buildings, most of the city’s jobs are actually spread out in a manufacturing belt and shopping districts that ring the city.
The biking situation has only gotten worse during Mr. Iveson’s time in office, said Chris Chan, the executive director of Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society.
One move he cites is the decision to erase four new bike paths in 2015. Edmonton city councillors argued that the 14 kilometres of painted bike paths were in the wrong place and motorists complained that no one was using them. While Mr. Chan said the paths, which ran through suburban and industrial areas, were not exceptional, the millions of dollars spent removing them sent the wrong message.
In their place, council has approved plans to build two new bike lanes by the end of the decade, totalling nearly eight kilometres.
“There’s a frustration at the pace we’re going. Not only at the removal of bike lanes, but that it’ll take another four or five years for the partial completion of two bike paths. It feels like I’ll be dead before there’s a bike network in Edmonton,” Mr. Chan said.
Beyond the removal of the bike paths, there have been a number of grievances brought up by cyclists under Mr. Iveson’s watch. One of the few footbridges in the city is being torn down to make way for a new light rail line and the installation of suicide barriers on the city’s main bridge has made a shared path dangerously narrow, according to many cyclists. The mayor admitted as much when he suggested last week that cyclists should consider walking their bikes across the one-kilometre span. He soon backtracked after howls of protest.
“There’s a fear of upsetting motorists, that’s what it comes down to. They’re really timid around cycling infrastructure,” Mr. Chan said of the city government.
There’s a disconnect in Edmonton between the city’s plan to build dense, walkable communities and how it actually spends money, said Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner. Mr. Toderian came to Edmonton in February at the city’s invitation to speak about how it’s doing.
“The city has an A grade for vision and a C grade for follow-through. There’s a wavering when it comes to the tough choices,” Mr. Toderian said in an interview.
The city’s budget for walking and cycling is a rounding error in the road budget, he said, a problem compounded by a city that lacks urgency. “They’re taking one step forward and two steps back,” he said. “Other cities are doing more, smarter, faster.”
That the city tore out bike lanes without replacing them “speaks volumes,” Mr. Toderian said.
“In the context of a global revolution in urban biking, they’re making small steps slowly,” he added. “Edmonton could change its sign from City of Champions to City of Roads.”
There isn’t a plan in Edmonton calling for a citywide system of bike paths. A 1992 plan called for a 500-km grid of painted paths across the city, but it never received enough funding and many of the paths that were built do not connect to each other. A rethink in the mid-2010s to shift away from painted bike lanes led to the current plan for two real paths, near the city’s two main thoroughfares, Jasper Avenue and Whyte Avenue.
David Shepherd is the New Democrat MLA for downtown Edmonton. A cycling advocate, he often bikes to the provincial legislature in his suit – he says it’s the fastest way to get to his seat. He admits that it can be harrowing and says that a rear-view mirror is indispensable on his bike to feel safe in traffic.
“I’ve been cycling back and forth to work year-round for about five years. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable with most of what’s there, but I’ve certainly had the occasional close call with drivers. I’d love to see decent cycling infrastructure downtown sooner rather than later,” he said.
Over the past decade, 14 cyclists and 78 pedestrians have been killed on the city’s roads, and nearly 5,500 have been injured.
With much of the staff at his constituency office now biking as well, Mr. Shepherd said many of the city’s downtown bike racks are busier than ever. But he admitted that the city has to overcome resistance from some drivers.
“Not seeing a lane completed until 2020 is frustrating to riders.”