Shifter Urban Cycling

Cycling in cities is getting easier in some places. Photo by Tom Babin.

Call it baby-steps bike infrastructure: the kind of urban design that takes a step toward bike friendliness, but doesn’t quite take the full leap.

Twice in recent months, new infrastructure has been built near me that falls into that incremental category, and it’s something being seen in many North American cities. It’s a mashup of traditional car-oriented thinking and forward-looking active transportation. For someone who has ridden a bike for transportation for a long time without much bike-friendly infrastructure, this kind of incrementalism is difficult to criticize because it offers some accommodation. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly the kind of stuff of bicycle dreams.

The first was a new overpass that opened near me last year to replace an aging and inadequate version that had been in place for decades. Here’s what we got.

The new overpass certainly moves cars efficiently, through a series of roundabouts (something that us North Americans are still getting accustomed to, as evidenced by the hapless driver spotted recently going the wrong way on a street fed by one of these roundabouts). Pedestrians and cyclists are also accommodated, through a series of wide shared pathways alongside the road. As a cyclist who has grown accustomed to having no thought spared toward my plight, these wide pathways are a nice bone to chew on.

But if I hadn’t grown so comfortable with being given nothing, this new overpass might annoy the hell out of me. Sure, those pathways are wide, but they are simply an add-on to what is clearly an auto-centric design. As you can see in the video above, to simply navigate from one side of the overpass to the other, a person on a bike must cross at least three streets through crosswalks (to dismount or not to dismount, that is the question), while navigating around pedestrians the entire time, further confusing the role of a person on a bike as neither a vehicle on the road nor a human on foot, but as some confused state in between.

This, I submit, is baby-steps bike infrastructure. While at least some accommodation has been made for those choosing active transportation, the overpass was built for cars almost exclusively.

The second piece of infrastructure to fall into this category is a new bridge spanning a river, recently opened after replacing a century-old iron bridge that was falling apart.

Here’s how a person on a bike navigated the old bridge (I shot this a few years ago as part of a video explaining why cyclists sometimes choose to ride on a road rather than on terrible bike paths that run adjacent).

Obviously, not a great cycling experience, particularly with that final indignity of being forced to dismount and walk across the bridge. Shudder.

So, after months of construction and millions of dollars and much hope channelled from within me, here’s what the new bridge looks like from the saddle of a bike:

Nice, right? Wide pathways. A clear, separate space for bikes. Even a nice gateway to the connecting streets. It’s still a shared pedestrian-cyclist route, which isn’t ideal, but a vast improvement.

But wait. Look at what happens when I try to cross the bridge from the other direction on a bike.

See that? Because there is only a bike-pedestrian route on one side of the bridge, I must ride around that odd little underpass to cross the bridge to the other side. It’s a small annoyance while on a bike, but a rather larger one when on foot.

I understand why designers made these choices (there are some space restrictions that beget this design), and it’s a vast improvement. But, like the overpass mentioned above, this is automobile infrastructure with some bike-ped add-ons. It’s built with active transportation as a secondary consideration. It’s middle-grade infrastructure. Baby steps.

I’m sure this posts risks coming off as yet another gripe from an impossible-to-satisfy cyclist, and I should probably be delighted that active modes were accommodated at all. But having experienced cities that give priority to cycling and walking, I can’t bring myself to lavish much praise on these examples. Truly bike-friendly design means being give direct, logical routes that connect smoothly without much thought. These are a step in that direction, but not quite there.

That may be fitting, because that phrase may also describe the state of my city as an entirety. We’ve come a long way in accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, for which I’m grateful. But we have a long way to go.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Also published on Medium.