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Cambridge aims to become a more bike friendly city

A recent survey by CycleWR identified concerns about safety and lack of connectivity as the main reasons Cambridge residents don't choose to get around on two wheels. It's something active transportation advocates, the city and the region hope to change over the next decade

An organization committed to seeing better cycling infrastructure built across Waterloo region says the only way the municipality is going to meet its ten-year target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to encourage more residents to consider two wheels over four.

To get there, the group is urging the city and region to make safe cycling routes in Cambridge a higher priority.

Tom Strickland is a board member with the Waterloo region cycling advocacy group CycleWR where he highlights the need for better cycling facilities as the organization's Cambridge representative.

The group says building up the city’s and region’s cycling network is an essential component of achieving a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target outlined by TransformWR, the region’s response to the global climate crisis.

It has developed a long-term strategy to reduce local GHG emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and identifies actions needed to reduce our emissions by 30 per cent by the year 2030.

One of the key actions is increasing our reliance on modes of active transportation, with a goal to make active transportation the majority choice for short trips by 2050.

It's one of the reasons why new residential developments along the city's planned public transportation corridor come with far less room for parking and greater accommodation for bike storage and electric vehicle charging facilities.

But getting people to use bikes instead of cars for short trips will require some serious investment.

A cycling risk survey completed by CycleWR last spring concluded conventional painted bike lanes don't serve the majority of cyclists and multi-use paths are strongly preferred.

"Standards of 'good cycling facility design' have evolved rapidly in the last 5-10 years," Strickland says. "We now know clearly that most cyclists are not comfortable cycling on a busy street unless they are protected from cars."

Cambridge may have some "pretty decent infrastructure" when it comes to conventional painted bike lanes, he says, but that means little when people are afraid to use them.

There are also some "serious gaps" in the network, including Hespeler Road, Water Street and Coronation Boulevard.

Those roads are considered to be part of the "city spine" identified in the Cambridge Cycling Master Plan. 

Strickland says none of what the region is trying to achieve in terms of its emissions targets is possible until those routes are built to AAA standard, something CycleWR wants to see happen as quickly as possible.

AAA, by the way, is the acronym for "All Ages and Abilities," a  gold standard that recognizes how safe, separated cycling paths make it an attractive option for everyone.

A network built to AAA standards is one of the key goals of the TransformWR plan.

Unfortunately, there is no timeline to build a AAA route in downtown Galt and most of the ring roads around the core have no budget for new cycling facilities in current region or city 10-year-capital plans.

Other suggested routes that should get AAA facilities according to CycleWR include Elgin Street, Concession Street and Cedar Street.

Among recent major enhancements to the city's network is the McQueen Shaver Boulevard, Franklin Boulevard and Dunbar Road multi-use trails.

The region also began public engagement last month on changes that will likely be coming to Coronation Boulevard, including the addition of a multi-use trail between Water Street and Concession Road.

The trail will eventually connect to a planned trail the city wants to build parallel to the active train tracks through Preston, linking to the Mill Run Trail in Riverside Park, the Bob McMullen Linear Trail and the Grand Trunk Trail through Blair, all of which are part of the 30 km Cambridge "loop," 92 per cent of which has cycling infrastructure.

Enhancing that loop will involve building a trail and bridge over the Speed River and connecting the Fountain Street multi-use path to the Linear Trail through rare Charitable Research Reserve lands.

Those plans will be presented to city council this fall, after three years of public consultation and design work.

Construction could begin as early as next year.

All of those efforts helped the city earn a bronze designation last fall from the Share The Road Coalition for its progress toward being a more “bike friendly community.”

Kitchener earned silver for its application and the gold award went to Waterloo, putting it in league with Ottawa and Toronto as three of the most bike-friendly cities in the province.

“Bronze isn’t bad. It means you’re doing a lot of good things, but obviously there’s more that can be done,” Strickland says, adding that in his opinion, Cambridge has far better cycling facilities than the west end of Toronto. 

That’s where the longtime Cambridge resident moved to a year ago while remaining on the board at CycleWR.

The 66-year-old cycling advocate remains eager to see more people on two wheels in Cambridge and knows once people feel safe on their bikes, they’ll hit the roads and trails in greater numbers.

"If you build it, they will come"

The line from Field of Dreams applies in many ways to the often contentious and misunderstood efforts to build more bike facilities in Cambridge, a city where the mere mention of cycling infrastructure is often met with comments calling the move a waste of money and a hazard in the making.  

Strickland has heard from all the critics, particularly as the lead proponent for summer 2020 pilot project that added temporary bike lanes to Coronation Boulevard.

Blowback from residents said the pylon-divided bike lane clogged the busy commuter route through the delta intersection and hindered access to Cambridge Memorial Hospital.

Strickland admits the test didn't go as planned even though it was able to demonstrate how lanes won't work, but a separated, multi-use trail will.

He and other cycling advocates are eager to see what the region comes up with in its latest effort to add a multi-purpose trail to the four-lane thoroughfare. That project is in the public consultation stage.

"Instead of having a great big, huge green space in the middle of the road, they're going to have usable second facilities away from the cars," Strickland says, calling it and plans to pave and winterize the Dan Springs Trail along the river parallel to Water Street, two of the most exciting additions he's seen to the region's master plan.

But critics have already chimed in saying it's not worth it when hardly anyone uses what's there now.

"That's kind of like don't decide whether to build a bridge by counting how many people were swimming in the river," Strickland says, using one of his favourite analogies.

Most of those critics have little regard for what the region is trying to achieve in terms of emissions targets, he says. They also don't understand that the cost of building a multi-use trail is no more expensive than installing sidewalks during road reconstruction.

It's also far more environmentally friendly and the smooth surface is preferred by most users, including people on skateboards, scooters, and in wheelchairs, Strickland adds.

Until the city and region work to address the lack of a network in the cores and along the "spine of the city," Cambridge will remain in the back of the pack in terms of being bike friendly, Strickland says.

Reasons are varied why Cambridge lags behind Kitchener, Waterloo and other nearby cities like Guelph in terms of providing connective commuter routes.

For one, Strickland says, those other cities are university towns, attracting tens of thousands of people who are of prime cycling age and demand facilities like the Laurel, Iron Horse and Spur Line trails.

But the main reasons Strickland and others believe Cambridge struggles with encouraging cycling has to do with the city's unique geography; the three core areas separated by distance, rivers and Highway 401. 

In terms of recreational trails, however, Cambridge is arguably in the lead for providing attractive leisure routes for cyclists.

The Cambridge-to-Paris Rail Trail, Grand Trunk Trail through Blair, the Moffat Creek Trail and the Mill Run Trail from Preston to Hespeler are some of the most well-travelled routes in the region.

In an emailed statement to CambridgeToday, the city's sustainable transportation coordinator Lisa Chominiec acknowledges the unique challenges Cambridge faces in trying to follow through on its master plan, which includes better connectivity with all of the three core areas.

"Cambridge is unique in that we have three core areas and some major barriers to crossings, like rivers and the 401," Chominiec says. "Our close proximity to the 401 also makes it easy for people to commute to the GTA," which adds to the car culture.

"In recognizing that people want more AAA facilities, the City, Region and the Province have done a lot of work to help address the barriers," she adds. 

Those measures include reconstructing arterial roads with multi-use trails and separated barrier crossings of the 401.

It's part of a "well-developed cycling network" with more than 150 km of on-street bicycle facilities and 110 km of off-street trails that form the backbone of the cycling network, she says.

Chominiec adds the city has made "significant progress over the last decade" to implement the projects identified within the 2008 Bikeways Network Master Plan and 2010 Trails Master Plan to raise the City’s status as a Bicycle Friendly Community.

She says residents should expect to see consideration to add some type of cycling facility along any route where reconstruction is planned. 

That could include everything from AAA mutli-use paths, bike lanes separated by flexible bollards and concrete curbs like what was added to Erb Street in Waterloo, conventional painted bike lanes, or nothing, adds Strickland.

Mayor Kathryn McGarry acknowledges the gaps in the city's active transportation network, particularly along Water Street through Galt's core, and along Hespeler Road.

Both roads are the responsibility of the region, which plans to construct a separated "bike track" along Hespeler Road in conjunction with LRT construction. Nothing is planned yet for Water Street south of the delta intersection. 

While Cambridge's cycling master plan is committed to bridging the gaps on city streets, McGarry says she believes Hespeler Road will become a greater priority as more mixed-use housing projects get approved and demand for cycling infrastructure increases.

Those developments are also helping the region create the business case to bring the ION light rail transit to Cambridge by securing provincial and federal funding.

And while, typically, the addition of cycling lanes or separated paths happens in conjunction with scheduled road reconstruction, it doesn't always have to.

One example of a busy regional road that got the AAA treatment as a project on its own is Victoria Road in Kitchener.

McGarry thinks the same could happen in Cambridge along Hespeler Road and says the region doesn't necessarily need to wait for ION construction, and probably shouldn't now that a separated cycling lane has been added to the east side of the Hespeler Road bridge over Highway 401. 

More Cambridge residents will be encouraged to make short trips by bike once they recognize they have a safe route to get to the places they need to go, the mayor adds. 

That outcome not only aligns with the city's goal of reducing carbon emissions, but also to improve the health and well-being of its citizens.