City cyclist John Johnston is taking the “nice guy” approach in bringing cycling safety issues into public focus in Red Deer. It’s a good place to start and his timing is right, giving civic leaders just over a year to hear the chatter before the next civic election.
But for public issues to get noticed, they have to pinch a little. So Johnston and his group of cycling commuters — Better Bicycle Commuting — are planning a group ride through the city on Sept. 12.
Count on that to be merely a first effort — in centres around the world, these group rides have become a movement called Critical Mass, where hundreds of cyclists ride together for an hour or so through a congested part of the city, causing gridlock. Not very much moves until the cyclists disperse.
Reactions to Critical Mass tend to reflect the character of the cities themselves. In some places, there are arrests and vandalism. In others, like London, they have become tourist attractions, as cyclists make their tour, stop the traffic — and then head out to spend a few thousand pounds at the local coffee shops and pubs.
It shouldn’t require an event like that for safety to become part of the public discussion. The test for Red Deer is not that Johnston and Better Bicycle Commuting will be able to organize a small, brief group ride. The test will be whether civic leaders will need a larger event for them to notice that our city is not safe to ride in.
That test will include the decision to wait until cycle commuters (or sidewalk pedestrians) start being seriously hurt, or worse, before city council realizes they have a responsibility in this area. That kind of test is precisely what Johnston is trying to avoid.
There are two general myths we often hear whenever cycling enters a discussion.
One is that Red Deer’s network of paths is a jewel of city planning, capable of moving large numbers of people along Red Deer’s most beautiful routes. Well, our parks trail network is indeed a jewel, and a very large portion of what makes Red Deer a great place to live.
But for someone who rides a bike to work, or for errands or to real destinations, it is at best an incomplete link.
Three-quarters of a bridge is not a bridge. There are many places in Red Deer that cannot be safely reached on a bike. Therefore, thousands of potential commuters who work there cannot safely decide to ride.
The second myth is that the city has a master plan to improve access for cyclists and pedestrians. Someday.
You do not need a master plan to build a trail or bike lane on the street all along 19th street, in both directions, to link east and west Red Deer on the south side. Or to extend the same along both sides of Taylor Drive from 19th Street, to Hwy 11A, to link to the coming Trans Canada Trail section going all the way to Ponoka.
How many hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars a year would a link like that be worth? Ask the builders of Route Verte in Quebec or the Kettle Valley Trails in B.C. That the plans for our local trail expansion so far bypass Sylvan Lake (even though an excellent route going there already exists) is a joke.
We do not even need to ask when a safe automobile commute to work is not available for even a few people, if the city would quickly provide one. The roads would simply be built or upgraded for better safety.
Why do we need to ask these questions for thousands of city cyclists to get the same consideration?
If you ride — or want to ride — contact Johnston at email@example.com
There’s still a nice way for Red Deer to grow into a cycle-friendly city.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor and longtime cycle commuter.