No bikes

CC photo by Fernando de Sousa

The city’s Cycling Plan—over a year in the making—is entering its final stages of development. The preliminary concept design for the first bike path is in the works, and public consultation has been roughly scheduled for January. The proposal means an overhaul of the Grand Concourse Walkway’s Virginia River Walk into a mulit-use pathway.

But it’s not all bike helmets and picnic baskets just yet. Recent opposition from Paul Johnson, of the Grand Concourse Authority, could have the Plan derailed.

Sarah Smellie picks up their trail.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to stop them from doing what they proposed in the original [Cycling] Plan, but whatever it is,” says Paul Johnson, “we’re going to do it.”

This is, of course, the Paul Johnson of the Johnson Family Foundation, of the Johnson Geo Centre and the Railway Coastal Museum. He’s also the founder of the Grand Concourse Authority (GCA), the board which established and now maintains the Grand Concourse Walkway system, the 120 kilometer network of trails spanning St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Paradise. Some of those trails play an integral role in the city’s Cycling Plan, a proposal for 226 kilometers of bike paths throughout the city.

Certain sections of these would-be bike paths would run parallel to existing Grand Concourse trails. Others would consist of a demarcated bike lane on a Concourse trail that had been widened: a so-called multi-use trail. Mr. Johnson fiercely, and publicly, disagrees with both of these ideas. In a late September letter to the city, he wrote that “having bicycles weaving and whizzing by our Walks and Walkers would quickly and permanently destroy our ‘Walker’s Paradise.'”

“The majority, if not all of our sixteen multi-interest Grand Concourse partners, and thousands of present Walkers,” he wrote, “would strongly protest any move by the city to build biking trails even next to, let alone on, Grand Concourse Walks.”

Given his considerable clout, the cycling community is bracing for a battle. If Johnson wins, the Plan would have to be scrapped.

Robin King, Transportation Engineer and Project Manager for the Cycling Plan, is not all that surprised. “We’re hoping for a public meeting in January and I expect there will be some opposition,” he tells me, “I incorporated Mr. Johnson’s letter into the last agenda of the cycling committee as an example of what kind of opposition there is.” He hopes that there will be enough public support to carry the Plan through. “A lot of people think that upgrading these trails is a good idea,” he says.

King believes that some of the contention arises from a misunderstanding of what these paths would actually be like.”I envision this to be something like the T-Rail, around that width with a gravel top. That supports both bikers and walkers with no trouble.” He also emphasizes that the cyclists who would use these paths would likely be of the less threatening recreational variety, like kids or families. “It wouldn’t make sense for commuter bikers to be on these paths,” he tells me. “They’d continue to use the roads.”
One fine Thursday on the Virginia River walkway, which would be the first bit of the Concourse revamped into a multi-purpose trail, there did appear to be far more people in favor than not. The common consensus seemed to be that bikes were on the paths regardless of who approved and giving them some extra room makes plenty of sense. “I think it’s a great idea,” enthused one woman. “I walk my dog here all the time and if the bikes had a place to go, I wouldn’t be scared of him being run over!”
Regardless, Johnson maintains his position. While he does admit that he hasn’t put the question to the GCA board and that there have been no formal surveys asking Concourse users specifically about the bike paths, his own conversations with walkers have shown little or no support for the refurbishing of the trails. “They feel that the serenity of the trails, as well as their safety, would be impeded,” he tells me. “The ideal solution is for the city to decide what is best for walkers and bikers and approach the GCA and see if we can all work together.” In fact, he thinks it’s silly that the GCA wasn’t approached to oversee the project in the first place.

Leon Organ, president of Bicycle Newfoundland and member of the Cycling committee, explains that the city put out a public request for proposals and the one submitted by Hatch Mott McDonald, the firm who drew up the Cycling Plan, was determined to be the best. “That’s the way city business like this is conducted. They did everything right.” Like Robin King, he thinks public support will be the ultimate decider.

“It’s up to us as a cycling community to come backed up with information and try and ensure that everyone understands what’s going on. Ultimately, these trails belong to the citizens.”


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