Comment: Proceed with caution on Cook St. bike lanes

Victoria city council plans to move ahead this year with the most disruptive part of its downtown bicycle network — turning both curb lanes of Cook Street into protected bicycle paths.

In doing so, councillors are ignoring the concerns of neighbourhood associations, merchants’ groups and many cyclists who prefer Vancouver Street as their route.

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I’m one of a group of residents who have come together to mobilize opposition to this plan. About half of us are cyclists, ranging from occasional to daily. We see issues of public convenience, but also, and more importantly, of public safety. Our focus is on lower Cook, from Pandora Avenue to Southgate Street — a key part of Victoria’s transportation network. We’re on Facebook: Save Cook Street Coalition.

Cook is Victoria’s only north-south arterial street east of the downtown core. It provides the only direct access from Greater Victoria to the Dallas Road waterfront and Beacon Hill Park without going through downtown. It’s the only truck route east of Blanshard Street and south of Johnson Street, bringing food, merchandise, construction equipment and materials, moving vans and other heavy transport to Fairfield, Gonzales and south Oak Bay. It’s a bus route, and the emergency access route to Fairfield, Gonzales and James Bay.

Cook carries nearly 18,000 vehicle trips a day. That’s as much as Fort Street and Yates Street combined. It’s just 10 per cent less than Douglas Street. How can that many vehicles be squeezed into only two traffic lanes? No two-lane street in Victoria carries anything remotely like that much traffic.

City staff predict congestion only in the northbound afternoon rush hour. A reasonable person would add to that prediction: Most sunny weekends, any day there is an event that draws people to the waterfront, and any time there is road, water main or sewer work, construction, electrical or telephone-line work, tree trimming, an accident or a vehicle breakdown.

To try to keep congested Cook Street traffic from bleeding off onto neighbouring residential streets, including the Vancouver Street bicycle route, the city will install traffic slowing on those streets, thereby inconveniencing residents in order to save them from another inconvenience that the city is creating.

For Fairfield residents who want to travel west or north of the city, a congested Cook Street offers only two options — also-congested downtown streets or a long detour through residential streets to Fernwood or Shelbourne Street.

Any vehicle trying to cross Cook will face two pedestrian crosswalks, two bicycle lanes, two lanes of heavy traffic and a left-turn lane, all of which have priority. The challenges for a left turn onto Cook are almost as great. The alternative is to navigate the newly traffic-slowed residential side streets to get to Pandora or Fairfield Road and try to cross or turn at the stoplights.

The added costs and inconvenience will affect tens of thousands of people. Ultimately, that’s a political issue.

More important is public safety. Imagine an ambulance or fire truck turning onto a busy two-lane Cook Street. Where does the traffic go to clear the roadway? What is the potential for accidents as drivers try to make room? What are the potential delays? I’ve read every relevant report and listened to every relevant council debate for the past four years. I found none of those questions asked or answered.

I’m well into my 70s, like many in our part of town, and some day that ambulance siren in the distance could be coming for me. If so, it will probably be a situation in which effective recovery depends on speedy medical treatment — for a heart attack or stroke, for example.

I don’t want that ambulance, or any of the others we hear every day, stuck in a daily traffic jam on Cook Street. The same holds true, obviously, for fire trucks serving an area with many old, highly flammable, wood-frame houses.

This is the most consequential decision in the entire Victoria bicycle plan. We want council to have a detailed public session with city staff on the transportation, access and public-safety issues raised by a two-lane Cook Street, looked at from the broadest public perspective.

And if council still wants to go ahead, we have one more suggestion: Run a test. Lay down a temporary closure of the curb lanes on Cook. Watch carefully and compare. Bikes can use the curb lanes during the test. Emergency vehicles can, too, so there’s no public-safety threat and no city liability risk.

It’s a cheap and easy way to find out what really could happen.

Robert McConnell lives near Cook Street.

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