Hate cyclists?

It was a new dawn and I was off to the pet store, walking and smiling, a hop in my step and a bunny under my arm. Butterflies bobbed about merrily as a piccolo busker warbled on the stoop yonder. My bunny smiled up at me and I down at him. “This could be a perfect day,” I thought to myself.

A brief skidding sound from behind gave us a start, bunny and I, so I turned quickly round halfway to see what was coming. Just as bunny peeked from behind my arm, the culprit, a sidewalk cyclist, zipped by sending bunny flying. With a great noiseless shadow, an owl glided by, plucking poor bunny from the sky. The biker from a hundred metres up the sidewalk called back “Sorry.”

Flash forward 10 days.

I was on my bicycle happily humming as my baby bunny and I creaked and clattered along the pavement. We were riding on the street of course; that’s where bikes belong. Bunny was enjoying the breeze from his basket when we were both startled by the honking of a truck fast approaching from the rear. As I struggled to stay on two wheels the truck zipped by in front, its mirror clanging against baby bunny’s basket. Baby bunny went flying. You know the rest.

The moral of this fairy tale is that cycling in Winnipeg is not what it could be. After recently returning from other more bike-friendly cities, the problem seems ever more visible. We just don’t include biking in our general transportation mentality.

Our city has an awkward population; we’re a little too small for a subway network, but too large for just buses. This problem is exacerbated by large geographical spread. Students living way out in St. James can look forward to daily bus trips to the university that take upwards of two hours each way. All of this makes driving the choice mode of transportation — if you can afford it.

Compounding this conspicuous lack of useful public transportation is the curiously poor level of bike access around the city. I’ve borrowed a car this past week and have kept my eyes peeled for any indication that cyclists are included in our traffic system. There was one moment when, like a mirage, a bike lane appeared before me. It was on Garry Street, just north of Broadway. For the entire stretch of that bike lane I was elated. “We’re finally getting it!” I said to myself. It was definitely the most satisfying six seconds of my ride home.

That’s right, just six seconds. Upon reaching Broadway, the bike lane had stopped and it was business as usual. Oh well. I’ve noticed a similarly stunted bike lane on Princess. These rogue bike lanes serve no purpose to cyclists who often need to ride their bike further than a single block.

The result of our city’s lackadaisical attitude toward giving cyclists their place on the roads is twofold. When a Winnipeg driver is trying to push through the gridlock, they see no mention of bikes, so, as far as they are concerned, bikes are not a part of the traffic system at all. What reason would a driver have to yield for a cyclist? From drivers’ perspectives, if it’s not a car it shouldn’t be on the road. On the other side, cyclists are made to feel like they are sneaking into the traffic system, like they just shouldn’t be there at all. They need to sneak around, snake in and out of sidewalks, dart into back lanes, basically break all the rules in the book just to get where they’re going without being run over. Why should they need to stop at a stop sign; those are for cars.

I recently spent a few days in Montreal. While there, my friend and I made use of Bixi, a Quebec-based public bike system that currently has service in Montreal and Ottawa. Bixi has planned or installed over 300 bike depots concentrated around Montreal’s highly populated areas. Riders can pay $78 and get full access to bikes from May to November, but my friend and I opted for the 24-hour rental fee of $5. The system proved extremely useful for riding around the city and we saw countless others riding the recognizable Bixi bikes. The system is so successful that Bixi is soon to expand to Boston and London. See? Some cities like bikes!

In Montreal, it is not only relatively easy for anybody to gain access to a bike. It feels safe — comfortable even — once you get on those busy downtown streets. But the most notable and instantly recognizable difference from our road system is that cycling is alluded to on nearly every road, with full bike lanes or, more commonly, with “sharrows,” essentially bike lanes added to a road using paint — no construction required. Many cities already use these sharrows: Montreal, Saskatoon, even Winnipeg — the bike lanes on Garry and Princess that I described earlier.

Montreal is a good example of sharrows working very well. I felt as much a part of the flow of traffic as cars on even the busiest streets we rode down. As soon as a driver sees a sign that they are meant to share their lane with bikers, they accept it. When drivers are exposed to sharrows on nearly every street, it gets hammered into their understanding of how traffic works. Cyclists no longer seem irritating or “in the way,” they just seem like other vehicles. After all, that’s exactly what they are.

Winnipeg could easily accomplish this kind of system. We don’t need to construct specialized bike paths along the sides of busy streets. Obviously to do so would be nice, but it’s expensive and difficult. The sharrow that I saw on Garry Street did not require any construction at all, just a little extra paint. If the same were done when all streets are painted, cyclists would be all the more inclined to bike and, more importantly, they would all be safer.

– Kevin Doole is the Editor-in-Chief of the Manitoban.