A Tale of Three Cities – Comparing Cycling in Canadian Cities

This article originally appeared in PEDAL magazine:

A Tale of Three Cities
Comparing Cycling
in Canadian Cities

Cycling is shining in a global media spotlight. Canada is no different. Of course we put our own spin on it, debating the merits of plowing bike paths, but even the fact we are having the discussion shows Canadians have an appetite for urban cycling. With this trend having such a big impact on our urban land use discussions, it’s useful to gain some context, by reviewing cycling infrastructure in three major cities across the country. Here’s how Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg compare:

VANCOUVER (POP. 603,000)

Pedestrians and Cyclists on Burrard Bridge
Vancouver’s cycling statistics have plateaued for the time being. Image Source: Velo-city Global 2012 Vancouver
  • Separated bike lanes – 6km
  • Mixed-use cycling paths – 46km
  • km of physically marked bike lanes – 39km
  • Shared bike routes (indicated by sharrows or other markers) – 159km
  • Total Vancouver cycling network – 250km
  • Bus bike racks/Bikes on transit – Yes/Yes

Vision Vancouver – the eco-identified party that controls City Hall, has been criticized for long range planning; its ‘Long Now’-style semi-millenial projections roundly ridiculed by their fiercest critics. Call them shortsighted then for the city’s Transportation 2040 strategy. It is only meant to guide transportation land use decisions for the next 30 years.

In a nutshell, a big goal is make cycling an everyday activity, for all kinds of people. The stated goal is for two-thirds of trips to be made by foot, cycling or transit by 2040, an increase of just over 20% on the 2008 average (40%). Otherwise, the draft directions for the plan, released in June 2012, are long on positive values and sweeping ambitions, but at this admittedly early stage, they remain short on concrete goals and hard numbers.

One approach that appears to be working, is the creation of safe spaces for timid and beginning cyclists. Vancouver’s separated bike lanes created controversy when they were installed. They also delivered immediate increases in ridership. But that rise has plateaued, at least for the present.

Vancouver media relations coordinator Viviana Zanocco responds to the flat-lining stats by highlighting the positive, “Rather than view this as a setback, we believe it points to an opportunity to renew an increase in demand, by expanding the network of protected AAA (‘all ages and abilities’) routes within and outside our downtown core – to serve a wider range of origins and destinations.”

Erin O’Mellinn, executive director of HUB, Metro Vancouver’s largest cycling advocacy organization, sees big dollars being spent on highways. She suggests the price tag to create more cycling infrastructure is a bargain by comparison.

“The announcement of yet another billion dollar highway expansion scheme (the George Massey Tunnel replacement project) while there is not yet a safe and convenient cycling network in Metro Vancouver is another low point for cycling in the city. Governments of all levels should support cycling at a level of about $40 per person per year in order to get a cycling network of such quality that attract cyclists of all ages and abilities.”

Calgary (pop. 1.097 million)

  • Separated bike lanes – 1km
  • Mixed-use cycling paths – 800km
  • Kilometers of physically marked bike lanes – 23km
  • Shared bike routes (indicated by signage or other markers) – 35 km
  • On-street bikeways – 328km
  • Total size of Calgary cycling network – 1187km
  • Bus Bike Racks/Bikes on Transit – Route 20 only/Yes

Calgary City Council approved the creation of a comprehensive Cycling Strategy in June 2010. A year later, the document, containing 50 actions for The City to undertake in the 2012-2014 business plan and budget cycle was released. Overall, the strategy is an ambitious document, but over $14 million in funding must still be found for all the projects to happen. If the cycling strategy can puzzle together money, land, and political will, one project filling in the edges will be the Calgary Greenway.

This 138km mixed-use trail will encircle the city and connect 40 communities with a vehicle-free path. Phase 1 is complete, with two more phases planned but unfunded. Private donations have to be found to kick in at least another $10 million for Phase 2. Also notable in the strategy are the cycling network improvements proposed around the city’s West LRT transit project.

Calgary cyclist Nicole Carberry is looking forward to the 7th Street SW cycle track currently under construction. “When I bring friends downtown with me by bicycle in the summer, they are usually not comfortable leaving the River Walk – Bow River pathway, to travel further into downtown in just the painted bicycle lanes. As lovely as Eau Claire (the downtown market area) is, it means the same destination every time. This will open access to wider variety of restaurants and shopping.”

She is less enthused with Calgary’s extensive mixed-use paths however. “The shared multi-use pathways have no lighting and can be fairly deserted areas, so they are not safe to travel after dark even with good bicycle lights, particularly if you are female.  They seem to be only for daytime recreational use. The pathway speed limit also makes it impractical for longer distance commuting.”

According to statistics published on the City of Calgary’s website, “up to 5,000 bicycles enter the downtown area per day. The number one entrance for bicycles into the downtown area is the pathway on the south bank of the Bow River, where 1,300 are counted approaching 11th Street S.W. per day.”

What that really means is only about 1% of Calgarians use a bike for their daily transportation. The city’s 60-year goal is ambitious: 20% – 25% of all trips made by walking or cycling. With so many kilometers of path already available, and big plans to add capacity, the city may have what it takes to become a Canadian leader in cycling, if they can get more residents buying into the benefits.

Winnipeg (pop. 663,600)

  • Separated bike lanes – 2km
  • Mixed-use cycling path – 149km
  • Bike boulevards (traffic calmed streets) – 16km
  • Neighbourhood pathways – 61km
  • Kilometers of physically marked bike lanes – 13km
  • Shared bike routes (indicated by sharrows) – 35 km
  • Total size of Winnipeg cycling network – 276km
  • Bus bike racks/Bikes on Transit – Routes 160, 162, 170 only

Winnipeg has an annual average of nearly 13,000 people riding to work or school. As far back as 2006, the City of Winnipeg’s Active Transportation Study found 2.3% of all Winnipeg workers and university students rode their bikes to their jobs or classes on a regular basis – a respectable figure even by a global comparison, and an adoption rate most North American cities can only envy.

In December 2009, Winnipeg City Council approved $20.4 million in capital funding to support an extensive active transportation network throughout the City. Thirty-five projects were planned for 2010 and beyond. The complete program is forecast to deliver 375km of active transportation routes to Winnipeggers. The latest project is a buffered bike lane on the busy Pembina Highway (Route 42) for a 1km stretch between University Crescent and Plaza Drive. The city has also constructed a cycle track on the 1km long Assiniboine Avenue, as part of a ‘complete streets’ project.

A forward thinking multi-modal amenity are the Winnipeg Transit bike lockers at rapid transit stations (Ft. Rouge, Osborne, Harkness, Osborne Junction, and the Taylor Park and Ride). The lockers allow you to cycle from Fort Garry, Fort Rouge, River Heights, and Tuxedo to one of the locations with a locker – where you can then take Transit to your final destination.

Patrick Krawec, Executive Director of WRENCH, a non-profit organization operating 6 community bike shops in the city, says more and more people are realizing the many benefits of experiencing their communities by bicycle, but it’s not without growing pains.

“There is friction generated by a cultural shift in transportation,” notes Krawec. “I suspect that this will ease over time. I would like to see community-wide discussion about people taking responsibility for their own safety on the road.”

He’s quick to cite WRENCH’s own success story, which is empowering a new breed of cyclist by offering training, access to used parts, and shop space for do-it-yourselfers.

“Folks all over the city have really embraced the model and we now boast 7 community shops in a city of only 600,000 people. Overall, I would say that Winnipeggers love their bicycles.”