Are Ot­tawa’s bike lanes reach­ing the peo­ple who need them?

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS - BY ISAAC WüRMANN

The city is spend­ing mil­lions on cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture. But are those bike lanes reach­ing the peo­ple who re­ally need them?

Grip­ping her han­dle­bars as she swerves around pot­holes that rid­dle the road, forc­ing her to ride far­ther out into the street than she’s com­fort­able with, bike com­muter Kathryn Hunt grits her teeth and steels her­self for what lies ahead. With no bike lanes in sight, she counts the blocks un­til the Rideau Canal path­way.

“I was nearly creamed by a bus this morn­ing,” she says. Ev­ery day, Hunt bikes along Heron Road and over Billings Bridge to get to her job down­town.

Hunt lives in Heron Gate, which is con­sid­ered a low-in­come neigh­bour­hood be­cause the ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents earn less than $20,000. She says she didn’t choose to be­come a cy­clist. “I got hold of a bike and started rid­ing to work, and it just sort of hap­pened,” she says. “At the time, I was re­ally broke and it was way cheaper than a bus pass.”

Cy­cling has his­tor­i­cally been an in­ex­pen­sive mode of trans­porta­tion for peo­ple, and it re­mains an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive for those who can­not af­ford a car or a bus pass.

In Heron Gate, res­i­dents face a chal­lenge that is com­mon in such neigh­bour­hoods: there are no bike lanes that con­nect it with the rest of the city. From Vanier to Bayshore, cy­clists in the city’s low-in­come ar­eas are forced to brave busy streets. Mean­while, ded­i­cated bike paths have been paved and painted to pro­tect bike com­muters in more af­flu­ent ar­eas such as the Glebe and West­boro.

It’s a pat­tern re­searchers have un­cov­ered in other cities as well: peo­ple in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties are more likely to use bikes as part of their daily rou­tine, but wealth­ier com­mu­ni­ties re­ceive the lion’s share of fund­ing. As the phe­nom­e­non be­comes clear, a new term is be­ing coined: cy­cling eq­uity. While tough to de­fine, it can be seen as fair dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources, tak­ing into ac­count cur­rent sit­u­a­tions and fu­ture needs. But those at the fore­front of the push for cy­cling eq­uity are say­ing that what’s re­ally needed are voices from marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties, who know best how to con­nect their neigh­bour­hoods with the rest of the city.

Here in Ot­tawa, the 2017 bud­get in­cludes more than $8 mil­lion for cy­cling spend­ing, adding 38 kilo­me­tres of bike lanes through­out the city. But as coun­cil­lors and ad­vo­cacy groups vie for fund­ing, cy­clists like Hunt are won­der­ing whether or not the in­fra­struc­ture will reach the com­mu­ni­ties that need it most.

While re­search on cy­cling eq­uity in Canada is lim­ited, the U.S.-based Al­liance for Bik­ing and Walk­ing re­ported in 2015 that lower-in­come Amer­i­cans are about twice as likely as their wealth­ier coun­ter­parts to bike for trans­porta­tion (rather than leisure). “Bi­cy­cling can be a great trans­porta­tion so­lu­tion for peo­ple,” says Ado­nia Lugo, an ur­ban an­thro­pol­o­gist in Los Angeles who has spent much of her ca­reer study­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cy­cling and other de­mo­graph­ics, such as race and in­come. “If they don’t have enough money to be rid­ing the bus ev­ery day, that’s where the bi­cy­cle comes in in some peo­ple’s lives — as this ab­so­lute last re­sort.” Lugo says cities are not built for peo­ple who bike out of ne­ces­sity, but rather for peo­ple who choose to bike for leisure.

That seems to be the case in Ot­tawa, where the city — up un­til re­cently — has been largely re­ly­ing on the NCC’s net­work of multi-use paths, de­signed to en­joy views of the city’s water­ways, to pro­vide safe cy­cling cor­ri­dors for bike com­muters.

Trevor Haché of Ot­tawa’s Healthy Trans­porta­tion Coali­tion thinks the city needs to work at con­nect­ing its low-in­come neigh­bour­hoods to the rest of the city. He points to one of the city’s lat­est ma­jor cy­cling projects, the O’Con­nor Street bike lane that runs from the Glebe to Par­lia­ment Hill. “The Glebe, of course, is one of Ot­tawa’s wealth­i­est neigh­bour­hoods,” Haché says. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant that the city work to spread those [bike lanes] out.”

Look­ing to the west end, Haché points to neigh­bour­hoods such as Bayshore and Bells Cor­ners as ar­eas with sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of low-in­come earn­ers and poor walk­a­bil­ity and there­fore in ur­gent need of cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture. But where bike lanes are be­ing planned — such as along Rich­mond Road, con­nect­ing Bayshore and Bells Cor­ners to the ex­ist­ing net­work — con­struc­tion will not be­gin un­til at least 2020.

Things are look­ing bet­ter in Vanier. In March, the city an­nounced that McArthur Av­enue, a ma­jor east-west cor­ri­dor for Vanier res­i­dents, will be get­ting a bike lane in 2017.

Rideau-Vanier coun­cil­lor Mathieu Fleury, who is a mem­ber of the city’s trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee, says Mon­treal Road will re­ceive “full re­vi­tal­iza­tion” in 2018, sug­gest­ing bike lanes are part of the plan for the busy ar­te­rial road.

It’s a good start. Poor road con­di­tions in Vanier and hav­ing to share thor­ough­fares with busy traf­fic make it a dan­ger­ous area for cy­clists. Still, more than twice as many peo­ple in Vanier bike to work than the city av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the 2014 Ot­tawa Neigh­bour­hood Study. The same study also found that about twice as many peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hood, com­pared with the city-wide av­er­age, are low-in­come.

“You do see a lot of cy­clists in the neigh­bour­hood,” says Sarah Partridge, a cy­cling ad­vo­cate who lives in Vanier. “Cy­cling is cheap, and you can gen­er­ally do ev­ery­thing you need to do nearby on a bike.” She says that the high cost of bus fare and the lack of Tran­sit­way stops in Vanier means bik­ing is one of the few ways to get around the neigh­bour­hood.

De­spite what statis­tics and anec­dotes sug­gest, fac­tors such as in­come are not taken into ac­count when de­vel­op­ing new cy­cling projects in Ot­tawa, says Zlatko Krstulic, a City of Ot­tawa trans­porta­tion plan­ner. Although he ac­knowl­edges that im­prov­ing cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture will make life eas­ier for res­i­dents who can­not af­ford to own a car, Ot­tawa’s fo­cus is on con­nect­ing the city’s neigh­bour­hoods by ex­pand­ing its crosstown bike­ways. “When we put these routes to­gether, we’re look­ing at the whole city. We’re not bend­ing it one way or the other for any other rea­son than con­nec­tiv­ity,” Krstulic says.

Fleury, who has been in­volved in cy­cling projects on Beech­wood and Deschamps av­enues as well the Adàwe Cross­ing over the Rideau River, con­firms that in­come is not taken into ac­count when in­fra­struc­ture in his com­mu­nity is planned. Rather, his pri­or­ity is mak­ing the road net­works safe.

While no one is ar­gu­ing against safety, it is dif­fi­cult to pri­or­i­tize neigh­hour­hoods when plan­ners aren’t hear­ing from res­i­dents. Lugo’s work in ur­ban stud­ies shows that ad­vo­cacy groups such as the Al­liance for Bik­ing and Walk­ing need more peo­ple of di­verse back­grounds. “We don’t have as much di­ver­sity in the bike move­ment as there is di­ver­sity in who’s rid­ing bi­cy­cles,” she ex­plains, adding that this ho­mo­gene­ity con­trib­utes to im­prove­ments that re­flect one group’s needs over another’s.

The in­equitable dis­tri­bu­tion of cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties is an is­sue in cities across North Amer­ica. In 2016, McGill Univer­sity re­searcher El­iz­a­beth Flanagan con­ducted a study of cy­cling eq­uity in Chicago, where she found that bike lanes were less likely to be found in low-in­come ar­eas. “Most of the fa­cil­i­ties were in the north end of Chicago, where it’s a pre­dom­i­nantly white pop­u­la­tion and more wealthy,” she says.

Hunt says she sees the same is­sue in Ot­tawa’s cy­cling com­mu­nity. “It’s a par­tic­u­lar de­mo­graphic that has the time to be fight­ing for bike lanes — the time, the leisure, the po­lit­i­cal clout, the po­lit­i­cal lit­er­acy,” she says. “If you go to a meet­ing of Cit­i­zens for Safe Cy­cling and you look around, it’s an ex­tremely white au­di­ence.”

While the group does not ad­dress eq­uity in its work, Cit­i­zens for Safe Cy­cling vi­cepres­i­dent Heather Shearer says that it has a low-in­come mem­ber­ship rate and their meet­ings are open to ev­ery­one.

But not ev­ery­one is able to get to those meet­ings. As Haché points, out, if bus fare — or a babysit­ter — is not in the bud­get, par­tic­i­pa­tion in a city-led con­sul­ta­tion or an open house about a new road im­prove­ment project might not be an op­tion, and your voice is un­likely to be heard.

He adds that this lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion can have an im­pact on the kinds of projects that get built. “In the case of Heron Gate,” he says, “res­i­dents there have iden­ti­fied the need for bike lanes on Heron Road and Bank Street.”

In fact, this work has be­gun to pay off. In April, the city reached out to Heron Gate res­i­dents con­cern­ing plans to cre­ate a bike lane along a short strip — less than one kilo­me­tre — of Heron Road.

This will cer­tainly make the trip along Heron Road bet­ter, says Haché. But he adds that be­cause the lane will cover only a small por­tion of the strip, it doesn’t make longer com­mutes much safer, and more­over, it cre­ates yet another bike lane that isn’t di­rectly con­nected to other bike lanes or bike paths. In ef­fect, it cre­ates a miss­ing link — just one of many, Haché points out, that plague Ot­tawa’s cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture.

In spite of what looks like a half mea­sure on Heron Road, Haché re­mains pos­i­tive, see­ing this as an ex­am­ple of the city mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion with re­gard to the build­ing of cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture in low­in­come neigh­bour­hoods. “There seems to be an open­ness at the city to hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion and learn­ing more about how that could be done.”

In the mean­time, Hunt isn’t tak­ing her feet off the ped­als. She’s con­tin­u­ing her work with Haché at the Healthy Trans­porta­tion Coali­tion for cy­cling im­prove­ments to the neigh­bour­hood.

“You’re au­to­mat­i­cally go­ing to fight for in­fra­struc­ture where you live,” she says. “I live in Heron Gate, so I’m fight­ing for this scrappy lit­tle neigh­bour­hood.”

PEDAL POWER Kathryn Hunt com­mutes by bike from her home in Heron Gate to her job down­town, a trip that means bat­tling cars for room on the road

Cy­cle logic The above map il­lus­trates the dis­jointed na­ture of the city’s bike lanes. Ot­tawa’s Healthy Trans­porta­tion Coali­tion is ad­vo­cat­ing for bike lanes that con­nect low-in­come neigh­bour­hoods to down­town

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