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Greg Neiman - Red Deer Advocate

Greg Neiman is a former Red Deer Advocate editor who now contributes regular columns and blogs which can be found in the Red Deer Advocate and on RedDeerAdvocate.com. Follow his blog at www.readersadvocate.blogspot.ca

On the slow ride to change

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Red Deer Advocate

Why on God’s still-green Earth would anyone give Red Deer an award for its bike lanes pilot project?

Because it’s there, of course.

Last week, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities recognized the city for its work in the transportation category at its 2013 Sustainable Communities Awards in Windsor, Ont.

The award isn’t for imposing bike lanes, but for looking at ways to plan for sustainable growth, in a city that’s becoming more diverse as it grows.

Councillor Dianne Wyntjes was at Windsor with a delegation of councillors when the award was given. She noted the irony that a national body would approve of a pilot project in a town where disapproval of it is so high that it threatens to overwhelm the next municipal election.

But there you are. Perhaps the federation doesn’t understand the situation.

Or perhaps a lot of us don’t.

(Some due disclosure: I’m president of the cyclists’ association working with the city and other groups on the bike lanes pilot. I both drive a car and ride a bike to commute. A lot of the time, I just walk. And I pay my taxes.)

People need to recognize, as Wyntjes has, that what we’re talking about here is a pilot project. It’s a search for solutions. City managers will, in due course, change what needs to be changed, grow what needs to be grown and try new courses — all based on what we learn from this project, which ends this year.

The award, to my way of thinking, is for the search, not the solution. Because, obviously, we haven’t found the solution yet.

But we do need to search, because Red Deer is changing, along with the whole world around us.

People everywhere are feeling a greater imperative to make city living less costly and less harmful to the environment. It’s no longer cheaper to just ignore the natural processes we live under.

For instance, Red Deer has a long future operating our garbage landfill site. But not an infinite one. As our neighbouring towns well know, it’s almost impossible to get a new landfill approved once the old one is filled up. Expensive doesn’t begin to describe the process.

We need to make our current landfill last as long as possible. So council decided to search for solutions, well in advance of need.

The Plasco proposal to turn garbage into fuel for electricity didn’t work so well, did it? But it was worth including in the search.

Next, we’re going to try making every residence buy at least three standardized garbage bins. One for organics that can be composted, one for recyclables and one for unrecyclable garbage that needs to go the landfill.

These bins are pretty large, but every residence will have to dedicate space to store them, and put them out appropriately on collection day.

Whoever has the contract to collect garbage will need to buy new trucks that can automatically pick up and dump the bins, without needing workers to do this by hand.

It’s going to cost a lot of money. There will be problems going in. People will complain. Their complaints will need to be heard and appropriate adaptations made.

But we won’t just scrap the project, because if it works, it will save taxpayers millions in the long run, and make our city more sustainable for generations of healthy growth.

If we can’t make this work, we’ll have to try something else, because the current process simply cannot last.

I see Red Deer’s award-winning bike lane pilot project much in the same light.

The growth experienced by vibrant cities around the world, in cold and warm climates, tells us there will be more diversity in choices made by people in how they move through their daily tasks. Two cars — or in some cases, even just one — for every household cannot last.

This diversity of choices requires planning in city infrastructure, before changes are needed, not after.

In many areas of the city, sharing the street will work fine. In others, sharing recreational trails can work — at least as a stopgap measure. In some places, safety will require that bikes and other traffic be separated, either by lines, by barriers, or by building new dedicated routes.

The city’s transit system will need to integrate all these choices. It will cost a lot of money, not to mention causing distress and complaints.

What’s the best way forward? Doing nothing is not a viable option.

So a lot of people from different walks of life are volunteering a lot of their time to work with the city to find solutions. Doing this seems so obvious a course, you have to wonder why anyone would give Red Deer a national award for it.

That’s ironic, too.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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