This past January, I finished my first year on the City of Kitchener’s Cycling and Trails Advisory Committee.
And I was considering quitting.
Like many volunteers on city committees everywhere, I had a full plate of other responsibilities and commitments. Time was a precious commodity, and I was unsure as to whether my presence on the committee was amounting to anything. From where I sat, I didn’t see much progress.
When I originally applied to sit on the committee, I was excited by the prospects. I had been living in Kitchener for less than a year and already had my fair share of negative experiences as a cyclist. The committee would be the perfect opportunity to positively channel my frustrations as a cyclist in a city without adequate cycling infrastructure. I also felt that it would be a way to give back to a city full of wonderful people who had openly welcomed me into their communities. The life of a doctoral student can be transient, given that we’ve got one foot out the door at all times. But, numerous Kitchenerites had opened their hearts and their homes to me. I felt that they deserved better. Like many places, Kitchener is a good city that could be exponentially greater if it was safer to navigate as a non-driver. Suffice to say, I was keen to join the committee and explore ways that good urban design could be used to unlock that potential. This isn’t to say that there weren’t locals who had been fighting tooth and nail for progress far before I arrived. I just wanted to do my part to help.
In considering to quit the committee, I realized that I’d not only be letting down whoever decided to appoint me to it. I’d also be letting down my friends and neighbours. So, at the committee meeting in February I decided to give it one more shot, and added an agenda item on the need for a minimum bikelane network. I felt that Kitchener’s piecemeal method, putting painted bikelanes here and there, wasn’t working. I shared some examples of best practices and provided my rationale for why I felt we needed a cycletrack network. I did my best to make an official request, and now it’s up to the City of Kitchener to do something with that.
If cities want to see a transformation in the way residents move…well…they need a transformational approach. As the saying goes, with great risk comes great reward. And, by all accounts, my city is awfully risk averse when it comes to building bikelanes.
When cities are risk averse in building good quality cycling infrastructure, what they’re really doing is offloading the risk onto their residents. Cyclists literally absorb the impact of that risk when they are hit by drivers. It’s an unfortunate truth.
Cycletrack networks not only increase safety, they also increase comfort with cycling. As a pretty confident cyclist, I’m still often uncomfortable cycling in my city. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who is just starting out. Giving a cyclist a few hundred meters of a painted bikelane and then forcing them back onto the road to contend with speeding drivers isn’t any way to encourage new people to try cycling. No wonder mode share is so low! We need to give people a safe, protected and connected route through the city if we want to see any meaningful change.
Kitchener, like many other cities, needs to listen to its residents and invest in good quality infrastructure. There’s only so many ways we can ask for change. Cities that encourage civic engagement but do nothing to engage the ideas and suggestions citizens make are missing the mark, and are doing residents a disservice. It sets us up for burnout. I can attest to that. I’m in London (UK) for the summer and I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to be living in a city that, for the most part, seems to get the importance of good cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. London isn’t perfect, but it’s trying. It’s nice not being frustrated by my daily walking or cycling commute. It’s also pretty wonderful to feel regarded by the city I live in.
Cities that don’t have cycletrack networks have the gift of learning from those that do. There are countless examples of success stories. At this point, the issue isn’t a lack of evidence. It’s a matter of willingness to try something new (and, perhaps temporarily, upsetting drivers). Ultimately, when it comes to urban progress, where there’s (political) will, there’s a way.
I’m excited to see what happens in Kitchener. As it stands, the ball is in the City’s court and its their turn to take a shot.
(if you’re interested in helping advocate for better cycling infrastructure in the Waterloo Region, get in touch with the great folks at Cycle WR)