Winter Cyclists Need Separated Bike Lanes

Note: A condensed version of the blog below appeared as a letter to the editor in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on January 15, 2022. You can read the letter as it was published here.

Written by Mary Jane Patterson, Executive Director

Twenty-two years ago, winter cycling was something I did regularly. I got out of the habit when I moved to Kitchener, where there was more snow and less bicycle infrastructure than in Toronto, where I lived before. Walking just seemed safer.

But I’ve seen so many improvements in bicycle planning and infrastructure in the interim that it’s got me thinking about it again. Recently I learned about the Community Winter Bike Ride, a monthly event run by GroundUpWR to welcome people to winter cycling. What a neat invitation to try something we might be a little afraid of doing, with the support of others.

What would help me take the plunge back into winter cycling? The most important factor is safety, especially when I’m so bundled up, and feeling less able to react quickly. The thing that makes me feel safest is being separated from the cars, and therefore less likely to be hit.

I’m not alone in this – the City of Kitchener’s Cycling and Trails Master Plan public consultation found that 61% of respondents chose “separated bike lanes” as the top factor that would encourage more on-road biking.

Well, you might say, that’s just the cyclists talking, who are already committed to cycling. It’s not going to help anyone new get into biking on our streets. Is it true that protected lanes “are not incentive enough to encourage new riders,” as Mike Farwell said in his column about bike lanes a couple of months ago?

My observation is: the safer we make it, the more cyclists we’ll see. I look to the Iron Horse Trail as an example of a dramatic increase in cycling/walking/rolling over the last two decades, as improvements made it more accessible to people.

When I first moved to Kitchener, it was a dirt/gravel trail mostly for walking and intrepid biking. I remember the hot summer day I cycled home from the University of Waterloo on the freshly asphalted trail and lamented the loss of the cool dirt track. But what a difference it made in usership. Over the years as the maintenance of the trail has increased, with widening and surfacing, winter snow clearance and now lighting at night, I have seen many more people using the trail.

Are they new users, or existing users choosing it more often? Probably both, and both are important.

We want to not only encourage new riders, but also encourage existing riders to choose more trips by bike rather than car.

I can say personally that the maintained trail has helped me choose it more often, even at night.

One of the biggest things that trails like the Iron Horse and the wonderful Spur Line have going for them is continuity — they provide an artery, unbroken except by intersections, of safe cycling. But as soon as you get on to a road, it’s a tossup between painted bike lanes, sharrows, no lanes at all, or the rare separated bike lane.

We need unbroken safety on the whole network, not just on those trails, but in all directions. It’s necessary in order for people to choose active transportation over cars for work, school, shopping and so on, as our Region’s climate action plan TransformWR calls for.

Safety is what a connected network of separated bike lanes will provide. And that will mean clearing the snow off of those separated lanes, if we want to get people like me out there in the winter.

I’ve got the first Sunday of the month marked off in my calendar now, and plan to join in one of these Community Winter Bike Rides to check it out. Maybe there are more separated bike lanes than I realize in our downtown now. I’m looking forward to finding out. Want to come with me, Mike Farwell?

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