This is part of a series of posts featuring parts of my paper, Road Rash.
My Perspective from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
During my time as a cyclist in a northern Canadian city, in the province that has one of the richest oil deposits in the world, I have experienced most of the ups and downs of cycling illuminated in this literature review. When I was a child and teenager, riding my bike was my only option for independent transportation and it never felt dangerous to pedal my way to school, to a friend’s house to play, or the ten to fifteen minutes to the grocery store to pick up odds and ends for my mother. My best friend lived a mere five minute bike ride away and on the days when she was not riding, I would often double her on my rear rack and we would coast downhill from the junior high back to her place. We would then raid the pantry and hang out while I waited for my little sister to finish school, so that I could also ferry her home via bicycle. This was all done without a bicycle helmet.
Years later, long after having received a driver’s license and having travelled quite extensively, the bicycle and I have experienced a rebirth. When navigating some of the world’s greatest cities, like New York, London, Paris, or Hong Kong, I was amazed at how interesting the city was on foot or by public transport. I also observed that by using active transportation, I was able to participate in the urban landscapes around me instead of just driving through it. I decided to begin cycling in Edmonton to see how active transportation complemented every day life in one of the world’s less renowned cities. If anything, it transformed the hometown I knew into a whole new community. In retrospect, it is surprising how much riding a bicycle has subsequently shaped my views on driving versus cycling or public transportation, how I think of the city as an efficient space, and how it has given birth to opinions I now have on urban planning, and even the mobility of women.
Edmonton is a winter city that spends the majority of the year under a blanket of snow and ice. Because of the decisions of the past policy makers (and the citizens that voted them into office), the city’s design and climate both promote travel by car. The general attitude here is that biking is recreational, but not efficient as a viable mode of alternative transportation. Somehow, once we grow up and are able to drive and able to maintain the expense of operating a motor vehicle, we are expected to drive. Even short trips that can be made by foot in twenty minutes or even greater distances that can be covered easily by a half hour bike ride, even in the summer season, are typically turned into trips by car. This reliance on the motor vehicle in Edmonton brings to light many of the North American challenges highlighted in cycling literature. The obstacle of fear is very much alive here, even though the roads are much wider than in many cities. The concept of cars sharing the road is often overlooked. I have had my fair share of drivers emphatically indicating to me that I should “get off the road” but I have also had somebody tell me that I looked very nice while “saving the world on [my] bike!” In Edmonton the law states that bicycles are vehicles and are not permitted on the sidewalks. Cyclists are therefore relegated to the same roads and are expected to obey the same traffic rules as cars.
Some allowances are made to accommodate bicycle commuting, such as the bike racks on buses and the permission of bikes on the LRT (light rapid train) during non-peak hours. This helps increase the radius of travel for a cyclist who may otherwise be going long distances or to a part of the city that is difficult to navigate on bicycle. The location of bike racks is sometimes an issue, though most of the time one can find a street sign, street lamp, or tree to lock a bicycle to. There are dedicated bike lanes through some of the city’s main arteries, though these routes still require revision as there are many broken links which reduce the efficiency of such lanes. Many people remark about the amazing network of river valley trails, though these routes are generally designed for recreational biking and less for bicycle commuting. Those who commute through the river valley are generally outfitted with a performance bicycle and performance wear in order to contend with the hills. In these cases it is helpful if places of employment offered facilities for cyclists to change, store work and bike clothes, and also offer a secure place for bicycle parking.
The most enjoyable biking in Edmonton is akin to being in on a secret. Now that I have gained experience about which residential streets are bike friendly, which bicycle paths are efficient, and have conditioned my body to bike greater distances and operate a variety of bikes, cycling strikes me as very convenient and easy. Personally, the greatest barrier to cycling in Edmonton is the snow, which is rather unpredictable. I am now in possession of a suitable winter bike for my needs, and with the tandem use of a bicycle and transit, conducting every day activities using active transportation is very straightforward. The location of my house and work, proximity to amenities, and the choice of recreational activities for my child also factor heavily into how seamlessly cycling has been integrated into my lifestyle. My observation is that cycling in Edmonton is not that it is inherently dangerous. It is true, however, that motor vehicles are not accustomed to sharing the road with bicycles. The greatest mishaps occur when the cyclist does not obey the traffic rules, which generates much confusion and frustration on the road, and when the drivers do not realize cyclists are present. In the latter case it is prudent as an Edmonton cyclist to endeavour to appear visible amidst traffic, and to ride predictably while following the traffic laws, to compensate for the lack of experience cars have with sharing the road. Perhaps cars that share the road more regularly with responsible bicycle commuters can eventually become more accustomed to traffic that sees bicycles integrated safely with motor vehicles.
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