Have you ever witnessed a first-rate idea gone just a little sideways?
I saw one last week as I drove my daughter to her volleyball camp at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School — and it was a bit of a stunner, I must say.
The first-rate idea? Dedicated bike lanes in the city.
The sideways part? Installing them along 55th Street in the downtown.
I begin with commending the city for its proactive efforts to encourage healthier and greener transportation choices throughout our community, by creating, and retrofitting where necessary, dedicated bike lanes as a high priority.
Kudos to city council for this vision, and to the biking steering committee for its hard work in mapping out streets and trails facilitating safer, more direct means for bikers to traverse the town.
Most people in this city are quite willing to concede some degree of driving convenience to make room for, where practical, these two-wheeled commuters, knowing that we must strike a healthy balance between moving traffic and accommodating biker access and safety.
Retrofitting 55th Street with bike lanes is an example where that balance is altogether lost.
The cost of reducing two lanes of traffic in each direction down to one each is simply too high in terms of the volume of traffic that will and must move down that street during the upcoming school year — particularly at peak commuter hours.
I realize this is a pilot project, returning to council at regular intervals for update and review. None of the lanes throughout the city are permanent, yet.
And generally speaking, the nature of a pilot is to test the waters: to experiment, observe and record resultant outcomes.
In the case of 55th — a street that I and many parents like myself drive virtually everyday during the school year — I can tell you in a word the outcome of this experiment.
The students and staff alone of Lindsay Thurber and Central Middle School represent a community of some 2,800 people accessing those facilities daily throughout the work week of any given school year.
Fifty-fifth is the only direct route to Lindsay Thurber coming from the north across the river, as I do, and is a very busy commuter carrier, with hundreds of business vehicles, city and school buses, and personal vehicles vying for access along that stretch every day.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in near stand-still traffic backed up behind 20 or more vehicles along 55th last year, waiting to get through the three traffic lights that guard access to the bridge on Gaetz north.
And that was in two lanes of traffic each way.
I finally “wised-up” after a time, and began winding my way through the Waskasoo and Woodlea communities that surround Thurber and Central to avoid as much of 55th as I could — and many like myself also sought these back-road solutions to their traffic woes.
The result, unfortunately, becomes increasing traffic in these residential streets not designed for commuter traffic, creating another issue altogether.
I don’t want to think about how much worse the scenario will be this school year, now that we’re down to one lane each way.
First-rate intentions gone a little sideways.
It’s imperative that the city return to the drawing board to figure out a way around this most pressing concern.
I’ve not even mentioned the safety hazards to bikers inherent in the current plan, as buses and commuters attempt to turn right onto 48th Avenue, directly into the new bike lane.
I shudder to think that some careless driver (many of whom are teenagers coming in and out of Lindsay Thurber) — frustrated by the gridlocked traffic he’s trying to escape — may inadvertently wipe out a biker on the path who thinks she’s “safe” in the designated lane.
To the powers that be: please don’t wait until this time next year to effect the necessary changes along 55th that will restore two lanes of traffic each way.
This is not a street that can accommodate an otherwise first-rate idea.
Vesna Higham is a local lawyer, former Red Deer city councillor and a freelance columnist.