A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and green pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

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Pretend that Bike is a Backhoe, Edmonton!

Recently the Alberta Motor Association put out a handsome little video about how to drive in traffic circles.  This video explains in detail three fundamental principles and some bonus advice:

Don’t Change Lanes
Yield to the Vehicle on your Left
Yield to Pedestrians
and, the bonus:
Ideally, Don’t Go More than One Exit in the Right Lane

I’m not going to make a snappy video but I’d like to make another simple suggestion of how we all can work together to make Edmonton’s roads safer.

Have you ever noticed that if you find yourself behind a slow moving vehicle like a backhoe while driving along Edmonton’s streets, you do something funny?  You slow down, too.  You may curse a little, but you slow down.  You don’t try to squeeze by the slow moving vehicle in the same lane, even if that vehicle is doing its best to hug the curb.  What you actually do, not matter how much you curse, is you wait until it is safe to signal, pull out into the left lane, and pass the slow moving vehicle, secure in the knowledge that the slow moving vehicle will be right behind you at the next red light. In short, you give the slow moving vehicle the lane.

This all seems like common sense, right?

Wrong.

It all breaks down (except for the cursing) if that slow moving vehicle is a bicycle.  Most automobile drivers simply zip past cyclists, apparently assuming that it is the cyclists’ responsibility to ride in the gutter and keep their elbows in.  A rare few drivers will make a token effort to move to the left a foot or two, sometimes even letting their left wheels slip over the centre line.  The rarest of the rare behave as though the bicycle is a backhoe, an actual vehicle on the road with an operator trying to get to a destination in a safe and timely manner given the physical limitations of that vehicle.  Those rarest of the rare drivers slow down and wait to pass the bicycle when it is safe to do so properly, as though they were passing a backhoe.

Now I can hear a bunch of you grumpily yelling “Yeah, but, bike riders [insert favourite complaint about feral cyclists].”  Didn’t your mother ever teach you that Two Wrongs don’t Make a Right? Just because a year and a half ago some yahoo zipped past you between lanes of traffic stopped at the light at the bottom of Scona Road and then ran the red light doesn’t mean the guy in front of you today doesn’t have a right to be on the road.  If a BMW cut you off on the Yellowhead three years ago are you going to cut off every BMW you see on the road for the rest of your life?  Of course not.  I don’t want to hear any of your “Yeah, but, bike riders” cop outs.  We all encounter bad driving and we all sometimes have driven badly.  Bad drivers we’ve encountered are never excuses to drive badly ourselves.  Be quiet.

Most cyclist, of course, habitually ride in the gutter with their elbows in, bracing for impact because the vast majority of automobile drivers behave in an intimidating manner, shouting “Get Outta Da Way!” with their actions when not doing so with their voices.  Some few cyclists hold their lane.  Kudos to them.  A few others seem to want it both ways, holding their lanes somewhat while traffic is moving, but zipping past stopped traffic, sometimes weaving through it, to get to the front of the line at traffic lights.  To those cyclists who weave through traffic, consider: it is an exceptionally rare motorcyclist who even imagines doing the same thing, despite the vehicles’ similar size and manoeuvrability.

And, drivers, if the bike you passed properly and safely a block or two ago zips past you on the right at the next traffic light, don’t give up on doing the right thing. When the light turns green and you catch up to the cyclist again, as you will: yield the lane until it is safe to pass properly and safely.  Remember again your mother’s words about Wrongs and Rights.

As an automobile driver who is on the streets of Edmonton every day, I call on other drivers to simply give all vehicles including bicycles their lane, even when a cyclist is hugging the curb.

Take a breath, pretend the bicycle is a backhoe and it’ll be easy.

Give them the lane, for Safety’s sake.

Always.