Maple Ridge advertises itself as being "one of the best places for cycling in the Lower Mainland". However, when I talk to cyclists in our town, I often hear that people feel they're safer on the sidewalk than on certain busy and high speed roads.
In the Netherlands, which is arguably the best place for cycling in the world, the percentage of trips made by bicycle in the top municipalities is on average between 35% and 40%. In Amsterdam over 50% of trips are now made by bicycle. Probably the top municipality in the Netherlands is Houten, with 60% of trips made by bicycle. Cities with the lowest bicycle use rate score between 15% and 20%. Compare this to Maple Ridge or comparable suburban municipalities, where bicycle usage is around 1% or less of all trips. It hasn't always been like that in the Netherlands. For decades after WW-II, until the early seventies, transportation investments heavily favoured car infrastructure. During the oil crisis in the seventies, the government realised that to continue on this path would have serious consequences farther down the road. Not only because of increasing oil-dependency, but also because of ever increasing congestion on roads. That's when wonderful things started happening for cycling in the Netherlands. Now, with the low hanging fruit having long been picked, Dutch planners and politicians are still trying to think of ways to get even more people out of their cars and on their bikes, seeing all the additional advantages cycling brings: improved livability of towns and cities, improved health, less noise pollution, less money spent on transportation (i.e. more money available to spend on other things), etc.
Maple Ridge, of course, has the disadvantage that it's stretched out from east to west, and there are only 2 major direct arteries that absorb much of the east-west traffic: Lougheed Highway and Dewdney Trunk Road. Over the last several decades, when most of the rapid growth in Maple Ridge took place, the infrastructure was built for cars only. Like in many other north american municipalities, many dead-ends and cul-de-sacs - without even pathways for pedestrians and cyclists to provide shortcuts to other neighbourhoods - were favoured over the "grid-system", like the one that was used in Vancouver. It was felt that this ensured privacy and peace and quiet for local residents. The result was though that it became virtually impossible to get around by any other means than a car. Only in more recent years is North America becoming more aware of the problems caused by all the urban sprawl and the kind of infrastructure that has been built over the years to accommodate the movement of cars. Part of the problem has been also that we've often been separating all the different land uses: shopping, residential, commercial. Many of us do not even have a neighbourhood grocery store at walking (or even biking) distance to quickly go get a jug of milk.
I feel that municipalities like Maple Ridge should set their standards considerably higher than they have done so far. Let's truly become the best place for cycling in the Lower Mainland before we start beating ourselves on the chest!
Many people seem to think that now that we have been building our suburbs around cars, it's impossible to change. The fact is though, we have no choice but to change. Even if you don't worry about peak oil, or climate change, just look at the congestion on our roads. There is no plan, other than extention of the Abernathy connector - which is only going to bring marginal, temporary relief to ever increasing congestion. The population in our town core is supposed to more than double in less than a decade. Where are all the extra cars going to park in our downtown? What about all the new development that's happening in the east end of Maple Ridge, as well as Silver Valley? The existing and new residents there have no shopping in their own neighbourhoods, and no jobs. Are they going to have to drive to downtown Maple Ridge and find a parking spot as well to do their shopping, or they just use the roads going through our downtown to reach shopping destinations elsewhere, and just add to the congestion?
The recent beautification of 224th Street and Lougheed Highway in the town core has given us wider sidewalks, which is wonderful. The fact is though that people don't have an awful lot of time or patience these days, and will only walk relatively short distances. If it takes too long or they find it too far, they'll drive. And how enjoyable are these beautiful sidewalks going to be with all the congestion that we're already seeing now, and that's just going to get worse?
In a suburban municipality like Maple Ridge, where distances are longer than in more dense cities, cycling can offer a good alternative to driving or walking. Most people can easily swap their car for a bike for a trip of less than about 7 km. But we have a problem if the roads are not safe enough.
There are certain requirements for a good bicycle network to get people to use it.
The basic requirement to make it work: on higher speed and higher volume roads (arterials and collector roads) separation is required to improve subjective safety. Subjective safety, which means whether or not people FEEL safe, is possibly more important than actual safety. If people don't feel safe, they're much less likely to bike. In the case of lower volume and lower speed roads (e.g. residential roads), we need "complete streets". They need to be safe for ALL users, including cyclists - of all ages and abilities - and pedestrians. Possibly reduced max. speeds or traffic calming can be used, improved crossings for pedestrians, bike lanes, etc., all depending on the specific situation.
There are other requirements. For example, it's important to provide direct routes for cyclists. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the Dutch bicycle network is so successful. Often the routes for cyclists are shorter than those for cars, which is a great incentive for drivers to leave their cars at home and hop onto their bikes.
A bike route needs to be convenient as well. A route with many stop signs of course doesn't cut it. Or having to hop onto the curb to press the pedestrian traffic light button to make the light turn green when there are no cyclist buttons along the curb, or bicycle loop detectors or other sensors to make this happen automatically.
A big thing is safe bicycle parking, which is often sparse or unavailable, so that you may end up using a tree to lock your bike.
As you can see, there is much to do for our advocacy group to help make things better for cyclists. We can't do it alone. We need your help.
One thing you can do, is to use your eyes and ears in your own neighbourhood. We need your local expertise! You know your neighbourhood best, and you may have ideas on how to improve things. You may want to discuss certain options with your neighbours. Maybe we need to lobby for a pathway to cut through to another neighbourhood. Maybe your street would benefit from some traffic calming measures. Maybe you have a school in your neighbourhood with traffic problems that need to be solved. Please send your ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another thing you can do, is become a member of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition. The more members we have, the stronger our voice will be. Our goal this year is to hit the magic number of 2010 members, and we're at approx. 1200 right now. To visit the VACC website to become a member click here.