Although cycling has long been hailed as a formidable mode of transportation for city-dwellers, most Hamiltonians can be reluctant to hop on a bicycle for fear of their safety. But the threat of grievous injury does not seem to be deterring McMaster students from gravitating towards such an affordable means of transportation, as a 2010 poll of faculty, staff, and students conducted by University Sustainability discovered. Results showed that 34% of respondents biked to campus everyday.
Maclean’s recently recognized this cycling quassi-renaissance and dubbed McMaster one of Canada’s top-five cycling schools in its annual university rankings issue. In its summation of why the school deserved the recognition, the national weekly news magazine rather vaguely said, “The school’s Sustainability Office monitors and improves biking infrastructure, bolstered by Hamilton’s increasing municipal efforts on alternative transportation.”
Seeking to understand just how McMaster has garnered such acclaim, I spoke to Kate Whalen, senior manager of University Sustainability. The Strathacona resident undertook the role in 2009 and practices what she preaches; she does not own a car and cycling is her main mode of transportation.
Whalen praised the work that the city has done saying, “McMaster is surrounded by incredible cycling infrastructure; [Hamilton was] one of, if not the very first city to have our buses outfitted with bike racks.”
She also acknowledged that certain areas of the city aren’t incredibly bike-friendly: “There are many areas of the lower city that have substantial opportunity for improvement in both road infrastructure and bicycle parking space. With its high population density and variety of land uses, the downtown area also presents some of the biggest opportunity within the city to increase walking and cycling through these improvements.”
But it remains to be said that some improvements could also be made within McMaster itself, where the bike parking options fail to meet increasing student demand. One only has to take a stroll by Gilmour Hall at noon to notice how many students have been forced to lock their bikes to the steel banisters on the stairs for lack of a free spot on a nearby rack.
Whalen maintained that University Sustainability is aware of and working to rectify the problem, indicating that the 2009 installation of a secure bike storage facility opposite Chester New Hall with the financial assistance of Metrolinx Bikelinx program as well as Cyclesafe lockers display McMaster’s “committment to providing many and various types of bicycle parking and storage.”
She highlighted the fact that University Sustainability runs an annual poll of students, faculty, and staff to determine which areas need bike racks and then pass along the information to Security and Parking Services who invest into expanding bike infrastructure.
“Through the feedback obtained through community consultation, we have been able to place new racks in all requested locations each year since 2009.”
Whalen has high hopes for the future and pointed to exciting developments for cyclists, “Most recently, investment into campus bike racks was also included in the McMaster Climate Action Plan including the addition of 600 new bike parking spaces over the next three years.”
The document indicates that 20 bike racks will be added across campus this year, with a special focus on the intramural sports facilities by the David Braley Athletic Centre.
Even with the addition of more racks, one issue that Macleans skated around is theft. 84 bikes were stolen from McMaster in the last calendar year, and 36 have already been pilfered this school year.
Ian Holley says Security Services is working on cutting down that number. The special constable investigator is a staunch promoter of cycling culture, having served as the auctioneer for MACycle’s annual bike auction. If Security Services can pinpoint a pattern occurring at a location — or better yet — a specific culprit, Holley says they’ll set up one of their own bikes to be stolen and monitor the area.
Holley asserted that the thieves might not always be students, noting that many would-be perpetrators can be drawn to the campus because, “McMaster has the biggest collection of bikes in Hamilton, and they’re generally nice ones.”
What irks Holley is that many owners of these high-end bikes are using shoddy cable-locks that are all too easy to cut.
“We see almost no theft involving good U-locks, even at our regular racks. We’ve made a big push towards educating people and saying, ‘Please use U-locks or make use of our secure storage facility.’”
The secure storage facility Holley is referring to is situated beside Chester New Hall, which he admits is not the best location for everyone. But $5 per term to lock your bike within a fenced-off structure that’s monitored by camera doesn’t seem like a hefty price to pay. When asked why there aren’t more of these facilities around campus, Holley said it’s hard to justify building more in better locations when they’re not seeing use in the one they do have.
While the cycling infrastructure at McMaster and in its immediate area seems to be on the right track, things don’t happen to be as rosy in the city’s core where cyclists aren’t afforded the same privileges.
The new bus-only lane on King Street that stretches from Mary to Dundurn Street may ensure a speedy commute for the approximately 1,500 HSR riders who traverse the corridor each hour, but the poorly planned initiative has thrown bike safety under the rug. The lane poses a problem to cyclists who risk a $65 fine for entering it, which leaves them with the choice of taking an inconvenient route, or facing the danger of becoming a part of a car-bus sandwich.
Christine Lee-Morrison, media contact for the pilot project, said, “Certainly a reserved vehicle lane is typically a safer place for a bicycle to operate; however, bicycles typically travel slower than a bus. A mixed usage situation would not allow the City fully test the acceptance and impacts of a future rapid transit scenario.”
Rather than encouraging bike riders to take parallel routes, Hamilton City Council could take a cue from London, England where the bus lanes are made available for use by both cyclists and motorcycle riders. The decision was brought about by a 2008 study conducted by Transport for London which segregated powered two-wheelers and bikes from the main traffic flow and found that bike usage actually increased.
The further trouble with the parallel bike routes is that many of them end abruptly. Although the city has spent approximately $1 million a year since 2010 on adding 35 km of bike routes as part of their master cycling plan — Shifting Gears —building a safe continuous route across the top of the North end has been neglected.
Some web-savvy Hamiltonians recognized this error and organized an online petition called Yes We Cannon whose aim it was to establish a bidirectional bike lane on Cannon Street in time for the impending 2015 Pan Am games when many would be commuting from the James North Go Station to Tim Hortons Field. The petition has amassed 2172 online signatures and was a determining factor in city councillors dedicating $600,000 in September to the instalment of a two-way bike lane between Sherman Avenue and Bay Street.
Cannon Street was the best setting for the venture since it doesn’t experience high traffic volumes, moving only 2300-2600 vehicles per lane, per day as opposed to Mohawk and Garth Streets carrying 6600-9850 vehicles per lane, per day.
Daryl Bender, project manager of Alternative Transportation for the City of Hamilton, is optimistic about the city’s efforts to revitalize the bike scene. Citing a Portland, Oregon study that suggested that better cycling infrastructure and an increase in cyclists reduces the collision rate rather than collisions themselves, Bender said,“We are not certain if the same will be the experience here in Hamilton as our cycling infrastructure increases, but it would be ideal to see the number of collisions also be reduced.”
Despite poor downtown framework and a campus plagued by bike theft, cycling culture in Hamilton and at McMaster seems to be surging forward with the persistence of a Tour
de France peloton.