It was a warm, sunny day with a soft breeze. I left Toronto with high hopes of a pleasant ride to Oakville on my sturdy, comfortable commuter bike. My Oakville journey had an interesting pretext: I had made a pledge to the highest bidder – in a charity auction at my work – to deliver a dinner for two, by bike.
I understood the implications of making such an audacious offer in that the highest bidder would inevitably be a GO Train commuter far from downtown Toronto where I reside. But I was up for it, and I figured it would make for an interesting afternoon.
First there was Etobicoke. Riding along Lakeshore blvd through Etobicoke wasn’t so bad – they had recently painted some bike lanes in to give a bit more space for those on two wheels. But as soon as I hit the Mississauga border, I knew I was in car country.
Cars were easily traveling 80-90KM/h past me, and there was little space left for bicyclists. It got so terrible that I opted to take Mississauga’s “waterfront” bike route which saw me zigzagging through a maze of McMansions before I finally emerged in Oakville.
I must have had higher hopes for Oakville – because upon arriving I was considerably disappointed.
I understand Oakville has some nice recreational trails, but it isn’t more recreational trails that we need. A recreational trail isn’t going to help an Oakville resident take her bike to the store to get some milk. It won’t help a 12-year-old boy ride his bike safely to school, or a family ride together to the movies.
I know what you’re thinking. All of this sounds ridiculous. “Why on earth would a child ride their bike to school when we have a perfectly good SUV sitting in our driveway?” “Ride a bike to the movies? Do you think we’re poor?”
Poor, Rich, Middle Class, Martians, Earthlings – it doesn’t matter – using a bike as transportation can be done by almost anyone from any walk of life. With a growing population, high levels of obesity, dirty oil spills and bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion, the bicycle is a pragmatic solution that can liberate your soul.
While politicians bicker over who will build the biggest highway, or the highest bridge, or the deepest tunnel, the bicycle just sits there as an afterthought. Most think of the bicycle as a recreational sport, or something used only by children. Few think of it as a mode of transportation – and transportation is what bicycles do best – even in your regular clothes.
Oakville has a grand opportunity to lead other smaller Ontario cities and towns – to set an example and showcase how progressive and pragmatic it can be at the same time. Imagine having the option to comfortably ride your bike to a bar or a restaurant in downtown Oakville and have a few drinks without having to worry? Imagine you could feel safe riding to the GO station to catch your morning train? Imagine you could have peace of mind while your 12-year-old daughter rode her bike to school?
A report by Dr. John Putcher found that 49% of all trips in the United States are shorter than 5km, 40% shorter than 3km, and 28% are shorter than 1.6km – trips that could easily be done by bicycle. Even in Canada, the median commute distance is 7.6km – less than 30 minutes by bike.
Moderate cycling helps reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes – two of the top three leading causes of death in Canada. It also helps to reduce depression, stress, colon cancer and obesity (among others). Combining moderate exercise with errands or commuting makes it easy to get your daily exercise without even thinking twice or paying for a gym membership that you rarely use.
What can be done
So how exactly can Oakville improve its current state? The first thing Oakville needs is a master cycling plan. It needs a vision that encompasses active transportation – a vision that doesn’t just improve the downtown, but it improves the routes in which bicyclists can get to the downtown, to school, to work, to the train station, or to the mall.
Then it needs to spend a little bit of money to build out its master plan in segments. It’s not much different than building a highway, or a bridge – it just costs a lot less.
The plan will have two very important primary objectives: 1) to create a connected bicycle grid network and 2) provide safety and comfort to its users.
Simply slapping down some paint on a road where cars are traveling 80km/h or more isn’t going to afford citizens the comfort and safety that they deserve, and the plan will fail miserably. The naysayers will say they knew all along that nobody would use the bike lanes – this isn’t how successful bike infrastructure is built.
Oakville needs to get its ideas not from big Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto, but from smaller cities of similar size in the Netherlands. Groningen is a model city with a population of about 190,000 people and a city where 60% of all trips are made by bicycle – the highest in the world (aside from a couple cities in China – but that is changing with auto ownership on the rise).
Oakville needs infrastructure that is safe enough to be used by both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old*- infrastructure that can transport thousands of children to their schools, and traffic signals that can be triggered by cyclists.
Bicycle boulevards can be built through residential streets and subdivisions, providing cyclists with direct routes to town. Segregated cycle tracks on busy arterial roads can help riders get to their destination without the anxiety of fast moving automobiles traveling beside them. Painted “sharrows” can be added to bicycle routes helps to remind drivers to share the road with bicyclists – and designated recreational trails can help connect the grid and sometimes provide shortcuts to key destinations.
This is the vision that can set Oakville apart from other Ontario cities and towns – a vision that can foster a healthy, vibrant community – not just foster more highways and more automobiles.
I hope next time I visit Oakville, I won’t have to struggle to trigger a traffic signal, or be squeezed by traffic on Trafalgar road, or be relegated to a worn down grass patch along Lakeshore Ave.
This is Oakville’s chance to be a leader.
James is the Founder and Editor of The Urban Country – a blog that encourages active transportation and vibrant communities. He is a Writer, Technology Consultant, bike commuter and kayaker living in downtown Toronto. James grew up in the Niagara region and began using a bicycle for transportation at a very young age. He loves traveling, exploring, being outdoors and he rarely leaves home without his camera. James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The 8/80 indicator comes from Gil Penelosa’s organization 8-80cities.org