Staples: Is Edmonton ready for an anti-car revolution?

Transportation guru Gil Penalosa has the playbook for transformation

BY DAVID STAPLES, EDMONTON JOURNAL FEBRUARY 5, 2015EDMONTON – Would you like it if the speed limit in every Edmonton neighbourhood was lowered from 50 km/h to 30 km/h?

Would you like it if our most densely populated neighbourhoods had segregated bike lanes?

How about if pedestrians and bikes, as opposed to cars, were kings of our neighbourhood roads?

These are the ideas espoused by city planner and visionary Gil Penalosa.

Penalosa is as influential a thinker on the best practices for building Canadian cities as you’ll find right now.

Many of the ideas put forth by Edmonton city councillors and bureaucrats come from the Penalosa playbook. Penalosa himself spelled out his thinking in a recent public talk in Edmonton, where he made one thing clear, that Albertans are too car-obsessed. “In general in Alberta, clearly there is too much emphasis on the car.

The car culture is absolutely horrible.”

Penalosa, who made his name creating 200 parks in Bogota, Colombia, during his term as a city commissioner, leads the non-profit, Toronto-based 8-80 Cities organization. Its goal is simple, to create and reshape city streets so that they’re welcoming and walkable for everyone.

We need to stop building cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic, Penalosa says, and make sure all transportation corridors are safe. Whenever you’re on a street or at an intersection, Penalosa says you should ask one question: “Would you send a child of eight across that intersection? Would you send them walking to get eggs or milk? If you would, it’s safe enough.”

Edmonton’s population is expected to grow 60 per cent in the next 30 years, which is an unusually high growth rate for a developed city, Penalosa says.

Such growth also brings an opportunity to get things right in new neighbourhoods, with functional mass transit hooked up to roads with segregated bike lanes.

With such design, many Edmontonians could downsize from two cars to one, or one car or no car, saving themselves about $9,000 per year in vehicle-related costs, and taking on a healthier lifestyle.

“All of a sudden it would be as if that family had won the lottery,” Penalosa says.

He’s not fond of the kilometres of shared bike lanes that Edmonton city council approved, calling them a mistake. The worst thing that happens is people paint a line, which is worse than nothing at all, Penalosa says of the sharrow lanes. “People are not going to use them. The same one per cent that is cycling are going to bike with or without those painted lines, but the people who don’t like cycling are going to say, ‘You see, we don’t have a bicycling culture. No one is biking.’ Of course (not), because the cars do not respect the painted line.”

For bike lanes to work, a city also needs a grid of segregated bike lanes, not just one or two isolated ones, so people can make a full trip safely.

Right now, bike trips make up one or two per cent of trips in Edmonton, while in a city like Copenhagen, Denmark, they are more than 40 per cent.

Could Edmonton really approach such bike ridership? Penalosa expects doubters. “You’re going to say, ‘In Edmonton, we are different, we got nothing in common with Copenhagen or Bogota. Here in Edmonton we are unique.’”

Yes, Penalosa says, every city is unique, and no solution to transportation can be cut and paste from one city to another, one street to another. Nonetheless, ideas that worked in Copenhagen, such as segregated bike lanes, can be adapted to work here and maybe even improved.

The most important two things, Penalosa says, is get such lanes and to lower the speed limit in all residential neighbourhoods to 30 km/h.

“If we’re going to improve walkability, there’s nothing as important as lowering the speed.”

Such a reduction will greatly cut down on car-pedestrian related deaths and accidents.

Penalosa has discussed his ideas with Mayor Iveson and Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Calgary. He likes what he hears from them, he says, but adds it’s time for them to act.

Penalosa’s ideas are exciting and progressive, but it’s crucial that any change be carefully implemented. We’ve already had two major foul-ups with our sharrow bike lanes and with our unprecedented ramping up of photo radar fines without major public consultation.

We may well need a transportation revolution, but there won’t be buy in from car-loving Edmontonians without sounder, smarter implementation.

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