A new bikeway for a new bridge

The new Johnson Street Bridge is going to catapult cycling in Greater Victoria from the steampunk ironworks era into the modern age.

The sleek look, swooping approaches and easy options on the new bridge could transform the cycling population almost as much as it does the crossing itself.

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Here’s how it used to work: You’d cycle the trails — Galloping Goose or Lochside — from as far west or north as you chose, enjoying all the improvements made over the years right to the edge of downtown.

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Then, with the harbour in sight, the default option was walk/ride a nasty little path almost on the ties of the rail line. Then you’d be expected to dismount and walk your bike across the decrepit railway bridge beside the rusty Johnson Street Bridge.

It all made for a beautiful bike network with one drawback — you weren’t (technically) allowed to ride your bike on the most crucial part of it.

After the rail bridge was closed and later dismantled, the interim arrangement (which lasted seven years) wasn’t much better. Eastbound cyclists had to take up an entire road lane and westbound riders have to navigate a dodgy merging chicane.

It’s widely held that the old bridge was a psychological block to cycling as much as a physical choke point. It was a barrier — exactly the opposite of what a bridge should be — to one key demographic — those people who are cautiously interested in cycling, but concerned about safety.

Simon Fraser University professor Meghan Winters is leading an ongoing study of the impact of bikeways.

It breaks down the population as follows: About 11 per cent are regular confident riders. The portion that will never ride — “no way, no how” — is 26 per cent. And 63 per cent are considered “interested, but concerned,” mostly about safety.

That’s the target group for the bikeway improvements. They’re for the big populations on either side who don’t ride now, but might. Occasional recreational riders on the east side may be more inclined to use the trails on the west side. And there’s a pool of potential commuters and recreational riders to the west and north who may want to try riding downtown to work, or sightsee on the city’s east coast.

Regular cyclist Cindy Marven said it’s going to be a “fabulous new benefit” for riders.

“It’s such a difficult, stressful crossing now. You feel sensitive to holding up traffic, after taking the [eastbound] lane.”

The cheesegrater iron grid is treacherously slippery when wet and the wind can make it even more dangerous.

Corey Burger, of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, recalls doing traffic counts and seeing the bridge’s drawbacks reflected in people’s faces. “People getting ready to cross the bridge had a grimace and a set look to their faces. On Pandora [in the bike lane] they looked more relaxed. There wasn’t that same universal look of: ‘I just have to survive this next 150 metres.’ ”

Brad Dellebuur, assistant director of the city’s transportation department, said: “It’s hard to wrap your head around what it will be like when the [old] bridge goes, because it’s been such a feature for so long.”

The safer new crossing will also open the route to children. “It’s a real opportunity to increase the number of kids riding bikes.”

The project faced a unique situation — a lifting bridge with bike trails on either side that were barely on the drawing board when the bridge was designed. The converging of two major west-side bike corridors, the Galloping Goose and E&N trails. The need for robust connections on the east side to handle the trail traffic. Plus two one-way streets.

“There’s a lot going on … Fitting a cycling network into that, it’s a little complicated, but the patterns basically sort themselves out.”

Former city councillor John Luton is one of the key drivers of the bike path bridge design. He’s a totally committed daily rider who has clocked about 300,000 kilometres in his life so far.

His term on council (2008 to 2011) coincided with the intense design arguments and he helped keep bike paths at the forefront.

He said the bridge is the most important new bike project yet. The bike highways were formerly “stranded within spitting distance of downtown. Now all the choices for city routes are ripe with opportunity.”

Karen Quine has lived at the Railyards for eight years. She’s in a one-car family with a four-year-old son and is a confident cyclist who rides a cargo bike in traffic daily. She feels fortunate to live much of her daily life on her bike. But crossing the bridge safely with a child was an awkward, time-consuming chore.

With the new bridge, “I’ll feel so much more connected to downtown.”

It will also address an equity issue. Cycling among women drops markedly after age 30, mostly for safety reasons. The new safer connection could bring participation closer to parity.

Kate Berniaz, active transportation planner for the Capital Regional District, said: “The trail system will be so much more seamless. It only takes one [problem] intersection to put people off using a trail. This will be a safe, convenient way for people to access the whole regional trail system.”

During the long argument about the project, an opponent once warned the cycling part was going to be “the most expensive 60 metres of bike path in history.”

There’s no official breakdown of the bike path costs. During the disastrous construction history of the project someone calculated six years ago that if the project were stripped of all the bike amenities it would save about $17 million.

But the cycling components also raised money, as they helped qualify the bridge for federal funding. They also contributed to swinging the referendum solidly in favour of building it.

If it all works as intended, it could easily double daily pedestrian and bike counts, to 8,000 and 6,000. A few years from now the eye-catching new gateway might be subject to arguments about its capacity to keep up with the demand it created.

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