The numbers won’t lie

I’m betting there will be quite a few surprised people in Red Deer when the results from this summer’s trails use survey are made public. Considering how little hard information we have on trail usage, I’ll admit that one of the surprised people might be me. But I doubt it.

I’m betting there will be quite a few surprised people in Red Deer when the results from this summer’s trails use survey are made public. Considering how little hard information we have on trail usage, I’ll admit that one of the surprised people might be me.

But I doubt it.

Right up front: In addition to writing a blog and column for our daily newspaper, I’m also president of the Red Deer Association for Bicycle Commuting, and a recently-elected board member of the Central Alberta Regional Trails Society. So my bias should be obvious. I believe the future of city and regional transportation includes a big increase in non-motorized travel.

But how big a change would that be? Nobody knows, and nobody can ever measure it. Red Deer has no historical baseline for the number of Red Deerians who travel by bike, therefore, nobody can give you a percentage increase in numbers that would result from building more (or more useful) community trails, or from building dedicated cycling infrastructure.

All we’ve got is a bunch of people who say they never see a cyclist, another bunch who say they ride almost every day and see plenty of other riders, and another group that says they want to ride more, but their particular commutes are too inefficient on the trails system and too unsafe on the streets.

That’s hardly a foundation on which to build a transportation plan.

So better late than never, the city is measuring trails use. This summer, six small counters will be placed at various locations on the trails to count the people who go by. I’m told there is a way to interpret the numbers to determine how many of the “hits” on the counters are by walkers, joggers or cyclists.

The city hasn’t determined the locations as yet, but the counters are easily moved — and better, they can be used for years to record changes and build a database. Hopefully, also to be useful year-round.

We already know the old train bridge over the river downtown carries the heaviest traffic on our trails system. The closer you get to that bridge, the more people you will see on the trails.

Academically, it might be interesting to track where the flows of people go out from there. Nice to know, but as a planning tool it’s less useful than knowing how many people in our residential neighbourhoods use the trails — perhaps even to get down to the bridge as part of their trip.

Myself, I am more interested the numbers on four sections of our trails network that are designed for actual commuting as well as being regional connectors for recreational use. They are: the sidewalk/trail along 30th Avenue; the asphalt trail along 32nd Street; the trail along the west end of Taylor Drive that goes nowhere; and the trail north from the Dawe Centre all the way to Hwy 11A, which is the link to the TransCanada Trail to Blackfalds and Lacombe.

There are other spots that need a monitor, but these, in my opinion, should be the top priorities.

The multi-purpose routes along 30th Avenue, 32nd Street and Taylor Drive became the “least bad” solution to public opposition to separated bike lanes. They are designed to make lawbreakers of every cyclist who uses them and will likely eventually kill some of them.

Think about the route that includes the sidewalk/trail on 30th Avenue, from the new residential areas along 67th Street, south to the high schools and the Collicutt Centre (a very flat and easy commute, if it could be made safe). Seriously, who would expect a cyclist to dismount and walk across every intersection along that route, as traffic laws require?

I’ve heard it suggested that it’s just as logical, on a safety basis, to require every driver to exit their vehicles and push them through the intersections. Injury collisions would drop to zero — and we’re all about safety, right?

Yet cyclists, with every legal right to the road, must push their bikes through these intersections as if they were pedestrians. Folks, that just isn’t going to happen. Not here, not along 32nd Street, nor any other of the “sidewalk” routes the city has built or planned.

Through this design, cyclists must choose between an absurd legal requirement, or the risk of “right hook” and “left cross” collisions with vehicles. Which, by the way, are the top causes of injury and death to urban cyclists, along with dooring, where bike lanes run too close to parked cars.

Cyclists are faster than pedestrians, and drivers who see no pedestrians often are not looking for cyclists when they turn right or left on a green light. That’s when they sideline the cyclist suddenly crossing on the walk signal.

Red Deer has been fortunate to have avoided a rash of these collisions, and I wonder if it’s because cyclists simply do not like and therefore do not use these routes. If so, they are a waste of tax dollars on non-car infrastructure.

Trevor Poth, Red Deer’s parks superintendent, says trails use has grown more or less evenly with city growth. If he’s right, I say that’s a sign of failure.

I have asserted for years that Red Deer’s cycling community is growing, despite the shortcomings of our infrastructure. We know from the experience of nearly every city in the industrialized world that the proportion of commutes taken by bike is rising.

If the numbers from this Red Deer study do not match that of the whole world, I will be surprised. If they do not show a growth significantly in excess of population growth, that will signal that as popular as they are, our trails are not a useful means for people to travel in the city — and something else needs to be found.

Who would be surprised in that case?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email