Ottawa Magazine


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


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.”

 ??  ?? 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
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
 ??  ?? 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
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

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