The road to Bike-Town

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Elling Lien: interviews. Jacob Rolfe: illustration.

Biking is so great.

On a bike you go fast enough to cover a large area in a short amount of time, but slow enough so you don’t speed past the interesting stuff. You’re not spending a dime—or twelve—on gasoline, you’re getting exercise, and you’re out soaking up the great outdoors.

I don’t have to tell you that our city streets are are becoming more and more congested with traffic, or that the planet’s climate is changing because we drive too much, or that Newfoundland has the highest rates of obesity in the country.

People in St. John’s are slowly starting to think about bikes as a healthy, practical, enjoyable mode of transportation.

I can already hear your doubt! I can hear it from here!

“What about our bad weather?”

“What about our traffic and the narrow roads?”

“What about our crazy hills of death?”

We got in touch with a few St. John’s cycling commuters and bike keeners to ask how tough biking in town really is, some ways the city can improve it, and why cyclists love being cyclists.

Elizabeth-Ann Malischewsky

University employee, member of the Georgestown Neighbourhood Association, and “utilitarian cyclist.” 49 years old and does not own a car. To her, her husband, and their 15 year-old daughter, cycling is an essential means of transportation.

So you commute by bike…

Yeah, not very far. I live in Georgestown and work at the university. But yes, we bike everywhere. We don’t own a car, and I don’t have a driver’s license.

Why no car?

Well, because I don’t want a car, and you can walk… Walking’s good, but biking is faster! [laugh]

I like biking. I like the feeling of biking, but I also like the freedom it gives me. In the sense that I don’t have to own a car.

I mean, I do use taxis! Let’s be honest, we do live in St. John’s and there are terrible days!
…But then I rode until the beginning of February this year. When there’s too much snow, I don’t ride, just because there’s no room on the side. …But as soon as there are edges, I start riding again.

What is it like to ride in the city?

I’m a cautious person, so I really, really follow the rules. I don’t weave through traffic and that. But what I find here is that drivers don’t expect you to follow the rules. …
I’m really a “utilitarian cyclist.” Someone who uses their bike for everything…

Non-recreational biking?

Yeah. …I don’t ride a really, really fancy bike and I ride to work wearing whatever I wear to work…

But [my husband and I] travel hundreds and hundreds of kilometers on our bikes here every year.

So what should the City be doing to become a more bike-friendly place?

Well, first of all, there should absolutely be some kind of campaign explaining that bicycles are traffic too; that bikes are a means of transportation, and people on bikes are not necessarily out there for fun. And they’re allowed to be there.

There should be some kind of public awareness campaign like that. I really believe that.

The other thing is …it would be really great to have safe bike stands.

…In the best of all possible worlds you’re going to have bike-paths along the main arteries. The problem is, this is a very old city, so it’s not going to happen downtown. That’s why we have all the one-way streets.

Even a street like LeMarchant isn’t really very wide, so I’m not sure how bike paths would work in this city. But it’s definitely something they should think about with the creation of all of the new development areas—when they’re making new roads they could add cycling paths to those main roads.

Are you scared of riding in the city?

I really think that cyclists are seen by others as a little kooky. People often say to me, “now you be careful on that bike!”

But I’m not actually that scared, to be honest. Compared to Montreal, the traffic here is really not bad at all. Of course, you have to always be thinking and watching, because you never know when someone’s going to do something unexpected.

What does it feel like to ride a bike?

Oh, I love the feeling. It’s the air all around you and, even if you’re not going very fast it still feels quite fast compared to walking.

I think it’s exhilarating.

You know, sometimes you get up in the morning and you’re feeling kind of headachy or groggy, but once you get outside and you’re moving, you start to feel better.

I like the feeling of moving my body! [laugh]

So putting the movement factor with the being outside factor with the exhilaration of moving through the air—those are the three things that make it feel so good to me.

Sarah Smellie

Student and bike enthusiast. After a cross-Atlantic Canada bike tour, she landed here in St. John’s and liked it so much she moved here.

Why did you stay?

Well, because it’s beautiful here and life is good here, and you can pretty much do whatever you want here.

There’s a lot of stuff going on, there are a lot of things that could go on, and there are a lot of people who want to make those things go on.

And there’s excellent biking here. [see the bike route she did for us]

How does St. John’s fare in terms of cycling?

Well, the roads are narrow, and a lot of them are in bad condition. Elizabeth Avenue is horrible to bike on. And then to go to downtown and to come back from downtown, it’s a fairly steep go.

But other than that the city’s all right.

Yes, it would be nice if there were bike paths, it would be nice if they would fix the giant potholes in the road, and it would be nice if more people were biking so that cars would be used to seeing them. That way cars would know that cyclists have no other options, that we can’t ride on the sidewalk, that there’s no bike path, and that it’s usually a really narrow road.

We’re just doing our thing and we need to co-exist.

…But, truly, the biggest drawback to biking in St. John’s in the summertime is getting a face full of spanworms. It’s unavoidable, and it’s going to happen pretty much every time. [laugh]

Rob Sexton

Local cycling enthusiast. Occasional participant in local Critical Mass events, where cyclists ride together to celebrate self-propelled transportation.

Why do you bike?

Because I love it. It’s a pretty efficient way to get around. I commute to work and back and it takes about a third of the time it does to take the bus.

How is biking in St. John’s?

The basic geography alone makes it challenging.

Honestly, I felt safer riding in Montreal when I lived there. Cars here don’t expect you in the street, and many get mad at you and honk at you. I’ve even been run off the road—I’m pretty sure it was intentionally.

So you think driver attitudes are making it difficult?

I’d hate to not blame cyclists as well, because there are a lot of really bad cyclists out there. Really, people should be following the traffic rules. They shouldn’t be riding on the other side of the street into traffic, and unless—maybe—you’re less than 16 you shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk.

But then again, some people just don’t feel safe riding in the street, and that’s why they ride on the sidewalk. So I understand completely.

Really I think it boils down to a courtesy thing—I think that both cyclists and drivers should be courteous to the other.

But how do you make both parties courteous?

It would have to be education, wouldn’t it? Driver education and cyclist education.
I guess if you tried to make the city a more bike-friendly city, that would go a long way. More people would cycle, drivers would expect to see people cycling and things would be a bit safer.

How would you go about making St. John’s a bike-friendly city?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure.

It’s an old city, so there’s not a lot of room on the side of the road for bicycle paths.
But in St. John’s, for instance, on Water Street, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to get rid of a whole row of parking spots on one side of the street to make room for a bicycle path. That’s just not going to happen.

But even a couple of public bike racks installed around town would be awesome. Really.

Or—[laugh]—if they instructed the city maintenance crews to align the gratings on manholes so they aren’t in line with where your bike tire goes! That would be an awesome initiative right there. Systematically, as you need to work in a manhole, rotate them so they don’t swallow bike tires.

If the city is not going to make changes then what can everyday people do?

Obey the laws. Part of what the law does is it clearly defines how motorists and cyclists should behave, and therefore you can anticipate how they will behave. It makes it safer for everybody.

If cars expect you to be on the side of the road going with traffic and everybody does that, and cyclists signal when they’re going to turn, and cars give cyclists the right of way when they’re supposed to, that would solve all of our problems.

The rules are clear, it’s just that many people choose to ignore them, or don’t know about them.

What does it feel like for you when you ride a bike?

It’s freedom. It really is. I get up in the morning and jump on my bike and go to work and I’m wide awake when I get there. It’s great.

Katie Temple

Environmental activist, key organizer with environmental awareness and action group Project Green. Spearheading a program called Bikeshare, a soon-to-be-launched bike rental/sharing system at MUN.

What is Bikeshare?

Right now we’re waiting to get space at the university—we need a place to keep everything first— but once we have that, we can start bringing in the bikes from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

They’re donating 20 bikes to start and have said we can really have as many as we want for the program, depending on the popularity of the service.

We also want to include an awareness component, to make sure that we use the helmets and the lights and that stuff. So we are figuring out the details for how we’ll be doing it, but basically, we’re going to rent out the bikes.

We met with the RNC a few times and they’re going to help us do safety workshops and things like that as well.

Why is Bikeshare important?

…Starting off with twenty bicycles we’re not going to be cutting down on a whole lot of emissions, but it’s the whole culture of biking that we want to help bring to St. John’s. To get a lot more people on bikes, doing things on their bikes. Getting around the city. And the more people you see biking, the more you realize that it’s actually easier to bike around St. John’s than people say.

Even myself! A few years ago, I was like, “There’s no way I can bike in St. John’s! The weather’s bad and there are too many hills!” And then I started and I was like, “wow, it’s easy and it’s really healthy because there are hills. And the hills aren’t impossible.”

What’s so good about bikes?

I love bikes! They’re awesome. It’s easy to get around, there’s no smelly exhaust, you can carry your groceries in your basket, it’s very community-friendly, going fast down hills is really exhilarating …All that good stuff.

When did you start thinking that the city needed a program like Bikeshare?

Well, I lived in Germany for a year, and I biked every single day, all the time. When I came back I said, “I can do that here too, there’s no reason why I can’t.” I said to myself that I might as well try it, and try the hills…

I don’t have a car, and I don’t really want to have a car for a long time, if ever. So I started commuting on my bike to see how that would work. And it worked really well.

Now I bike all through up to the month of December, no problem. It’s really only when you get ice or snow on the road that you can’t bike.

Really, it doesn’t even really get too cold to bike until late December or January.

So yeah, I think the more we can get people out on bikes, and the more people who see people on bikes the better.

And I think MUN is a good place to start, because it’s a smaller community, and there are a lot of students—younger people who might be already kind of interested in biking.

When will Bikeshare be starting up?

We’re going to do a pilot project in July…

We’re starting small, and we’re going to be working out the details. …We gotta start somewhere!

MORE INFO
The City of St. John’s is set to choose, out of the applications it has received, which organization will design a long term strategy for bicycle transportation in the city. According to the March 7 Terms of Reference, “the plan will propose policies, engineering standards, and the facilities necessary to support and encourage both utility and recreational cycling within a safe environment.”

Critical Mass St. John’s meets on the last Friday of every month (May 25) at the Colonial Building, Bannerman Park. 6pm.

Bikeshare: If you’re interested and want to get involved, email enviro@mun.ca

Avoiding hills in the city: Ryan Davis gives some tips

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