As someone with a background in civil engineering and city planning, I can tell you that these professionals do a lot of great work in Winnipeg and Manitoba. But I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to accommodating cyclists, pedestrians, and other active transportation (AT) users. For many decades, our infrastructure was designed almost exclusively for cars. We’ve finally turned a corner where we are talking about redesigning our city for people using multiple modes of transportation. Last summer’s reconstruction of a stretch of Pembina Highway included Winnipeg’s first buffered bike lanes. However, it will take a while to catch up after previous inaction. Here are seven common pitfalls that planners and engineers need to avoid to help make active transportation in the city more enjoyable and safer for everyone:
When an infrastructure deficiency is identified, the quickest and easiest way to “fix” it is by putting up signs that tell people how to get around the problem. Like a sign telling cyclists and motorists to “Share the Road” without providing an actual bike lane. Unfortunately, many temporary “solutions” like this end up being far too permanent and are quickly lost in the clutter of signs along the road.
The issue with relying on a sign is that it doesn’t make the road any physically safer. It also relies on people seeing the sign and reacting to it rather than intuitively knowing what to do from physical clues. Signage is an important component of transportation infrastructure, but it is meant to complement physical infrastructure, not provide a second-rate replacement.
2. Cycling infrastructure that doesn’t connect
When cycling or walking to a destination, it is very frustrating when the path or bike lane you are riding on suddenly stops with no obvious way to continue on your journey other than having to compete with cars on a busy street. A cyclist coming along the new multi-use path along the Transitway through the Fort Rouge Yards faces dangerous choke points navigating the Osborne Underpass or Jubilee Underpass at either end. Good infrastructure is less effective when it’s not part of a wider network.
3. Gaps bridged by desire line tracks
When a pathway or sidewalk ends abruptly as in the previous point, many people just keep going, wearing their own path across the grass. This is known as a “desire line” and should be an indication to planners that infrastructure is needed at that location. Just because people are making do without a path does not mean that the status quo is good enough. People in a wheelchair or with limited mobility can’t safely travel along a bumpy trail. It’s often downright impassable in winter. Desire lines are peoples’ way of telling engineers where to build a path next!
4. Suburban development with access from busy streets
Many suburban developments have only one or two entrances, and these access points are all located along busy arterials. Sometimes this is the case for an entire neighbourhood, such as Harbourview South, Island Lakes, or Whyte Ridge. Without getting into the numerous planning concerns of this style of development, how can cyclists travel to these places safely if they are competing with 80 km/h traffic? Trails like the Bishop Grandin Greenway are a good start to provide active transportation links between previously disconnected areas. However, an even better strategy is to incorporate active transportation infrastructure into a new community from the start and provide safe connections directly to existing routes. Adding paths after the fact can result in numerous and awkwardly designed crossing points, increasing the possibility for conflict with vehicles.
5. AT as an afterthought at major intersections
Locations that prioritize vehicular thru traffic while inconveniencing cyclists speak to which mode of transportation is really given priority in Winnipeg. The Bishop Grandin Greenway mentioned above crosses many major intersections. At these locations, cyclists are supposed to dismount and walk across as pedestrians. Some do, while others ride straight across. These crossings are the narrowest part of the whole trail and there is not much room to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists. Perhaps the worst example of this is the awkward crossing of Pembina Highway and University Crescent where multiple modes and vehicles are all crammed together in a major intersection. Cyclists and pedestrians have the most convoluted route to navigate, and it is neither direct nor intuitive what path they should take. When presented with barriers like these at major intersections, many cyclists choose not to venture outside of their immediate neighbourhood.
6. Failure to accommodate AT during construction
Fixing up buildings, roadways, and other infrastructure is a good thing for Winnipeg. The resulting disruption to our travel patterns during construction is seen as short-term pain for long-term gain. Most projects set up temporary detours or alternate routes for drivers. Unfortunately, cyclists are not always given the same consideration. The construction of a new condo on Assiniboine Avenue will result in the cycle track on that street being closed until 2015! Cyclists have to awkwardly transition into vehicle lanes that are not wide enough to share, resulting in significant potential for conflict with cars. This is arguably the most-travelled bicycle route in the entire city. Imagine the outcry if the vehicle lanes were the ones closed off for two years!
7. Infrastructure that invites speed
As a driver, cyclist, or pedestrian, nothing is worse than being surprised and confused by an unusual situation. One of the cardinal rules of transportation engineering is to build roads where people intuitively know how fast they should travel and are well aware of their surroundings at that speed. Most drivers feel comfortable at 100 km/h on a prairie highway but naturally slow down on a narrow windy road whether or not there is a speed limit sign specifically telling them to do so.
This is why the most effective way of calming vehicle traffic in our neighbourhoods is to design our residential streets for slow traffic. Wide streets invite drivers to travel faster. When properly designed, curb bump-outs, speed humps, and traffic circles can slow cars while allowing bikes to flow. This helps to create an environment where cars naturally travel at a speed that allows them to coexist safely with cyclists, pedestrians, and children playing. These approaches are far more effective than simply putting up another sign!
Read the earlier installments in our “7 mistakes” series here: