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Bike lane decision was wise retreat, not surrender

At the risk of being one too many talking heads in an ongoing narrative that has captured — surprisingly — the attention and voice of this community like no other issue we’ve experienced in the 18 years I’ve resided in this fair city, I throw an offering into the bike lane debate one last time.

I do so cautiously, mindful that we may in fact be reaching saturation point in this polarizing polemic. Nevertheless, we’ve only heard one side of the debate (in this publication’s several editorials at least), and for an issue so passionately contested in the community, that’s never a good thing.

We read last week, for example, in Joe McLaughlin’s Bike-lane traffic threat fizzles about his personal road tests conducted along 55th Street, which revealed “no demonstrable bike-induced delays for cars and trucks” along that stretch of road.

“It was easy sailing, even in the heaviest of peak afternoon traffic … it’s hard to see from my little study that bike lanes on 55th Street have any significant effect slowing traffic along this route in prime time.”

Well, I conducted a little study of my own, speaking to teachers, students, and residents who traverse the hill up and down 40th Avenue and the stretch of road along 55th Street daily to and from the two high schools, and they too have their stories to tell.

First of all, congestion on those streets was never an issue except in two peak periods: immediately before and after school hours. And during those times, particularly in the morning with added commercial commuters, traffic was in fact intolerable the first few days of school:

• Teachers 20 minutes late for work because of backed-up traffic.

• Students idling on the hill in a jam along 40th for 20 minutes, wondering how environmentally-friendly this scenario can be.

• Stand-still traffic backed up the same hill along 40th all the way to Ross Street (a stretch of four blocks once you reach the top of the hill).

Based on this heavy congestion for that time block those first few days, teachers and students were advised by administrators to leave their homes much earlier to stagger the commute, which they began doing.

People also began avoiding 55th altogether, electing instead to drive a swing pattern through the residential roads along 53rd, then onto 42A Avenue to the high schools.

Which is precisely what a few passionate letters-to-the-editor earlier admonished: perhaps if more vehicles would seek alternate routes to their destinations, then bike lanes could readily co-exist on the busy commuter roads stripped down to one lane traffic each way.

Certainly that may be one solution. But it is the right way to approach this issue?

Do we afflict the many for the sake of a few? Or should we rather find some alternate routes for bike lanes that don’t drastically disrupt commuter traffic on those roads where flow is a real issue?

I support the bike lane project, in principle. Many — I dare say most — of the routes the city designated are well-chosen, and fit nicely within existing traffic patterns.

And to be quite frank, after noting that peoples’ staggered commuting times produced relative ease of travel along 55th, I myself was initially prepared to let the experiment run its course, despite the inconvenience to commuters.

Until I repeatedly witnessed one event that convinced me otherwise.

After crossing the bridge on Gaetz southbound then left onto 55th, drivers found themselves on two lanes of traffic for a short stretch. Approaching 47th Avenue, the right lane became right-turn only, needing to turn onto 47th. The adjacent left lane was then required to merge right, immediately past 47th, into the one remaining eastbound lane (where bike lanes began).

The event? Drivers in the right-turn lane advancing straight through and nearly colliding with merging left lane traffic, who legally had the right of way.

I drive 55th nearly every morning to walk McKenzie Trails, and I witnessed this infraction once or twice a day during that short commute alone — on one occasion, a very close call that may not have been averted on icy roads.

McLaughlin wished that “Red Deer city councillors and citizen critics could have shown [more] patience in letting at least part of an ambitious bike-lane project fully run its course unimpeded.”

To be clear, the vast majority of this ambitious project has in fact remained intact to fully run the course of the one-year pilot, but council acted well to remove the hotspots that were simply too disruptive, inequitable, and downright dangerous to experiment with through harsh winter conditions.

We would have adjusted and survived, but at what cost?

Vesna Higham is a local lawyer, former Red Deer city councillor and a freelance columnist.

 
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