Multi-Use Trails Are Not AAA (All Ages and Abilities) Infrastructure

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A multi-use trail beside a very busy arterial road in central Edmonton
The way it typically goes is this: there is some new park or river valley facility being discussed in Edmonton, and the plans are revealed to display a shiny new multi-use trail as the way in which people will get around as they enjoy nature and the outdoors. The multi-use trail is taken for granted as a gift to walkers and wheelers alike, the ultimate response by the city to further its active transportation goals.

But as the new suicide barriers on the High Level Bridge highlighted last year, the lived experience is significantly different.  A multi-use trail (MUT) does exactly what its name implies: it squeezes people getting around in different ways and at different speeds onto a single facility. In remote locations, where usage is low, that may work just fine. But increasingly, as bike ridership skyrockets (with 30% growth in the last two years alone) and Edmonton’s population increases, the conflicts that are baked into the entire concept of a multi-use trail are becoming obvious.

As the city begins to awaken from its multi-decade car-first-and-only slumber, it needs to acknowledge and respond to the fact that MUTs put people into conflict with one another and create dangerous situations. The way we casually put them beside extremely busy roads with very fast-moving vehicles on them needs to be examined as well. Only a few days ago in Toronto, a 5-year old was killed when he fell off his bike on a MUT that looks scarily like the heavily-used one on Saskatchewan Drive in Old Strathcona (pictured above).

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The MUT in Toronto where a 5-year old died on May 28, 2017 (source)

The city of Edmonton needs to make changes in how it designs and builds multi-use trails, and it needs to start retrofitting the busier ones to make them safer and more comfortable for Edmontonians who are increasingly choosing to get around in active ways.

The Edmonton Downtown Bike Grid Will Save Us Millions More Than It Costs – In Health Care Costs

author’s note: I am grateful to Darren Markland and Isabell Hubert for their help in researching this piece

There has been some discussion (not much really) about the cost of Edmonton’s magnificent new downtown grid of protected bike lanes. So let’s talk about it.

The TL;DR version of this post is that, once the downtown bike network is installed, a group of people will choose to start cycling regularly because they are no longer afraid of riding downtown. Those people will be significantly healthier, getting less sick and saving the health care system $13,360,000 every single year after it is built.

Note: Obviously this is a thought exercise.  I am extrapolating the results of studies and making educated guesses. Nonetheless, I think there is merit in exploring the potential ballpark in health care savings about something that is intuitively obvious: bike lanes = healthier people = health care savings.

Shall we dive in?

The Magic of Induced Demand

When high-quality bike infrastructure is built, it causes people to ride their bikes.

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The thing is, scenes like the above are scary to most people. When you replace them with routes like the picture below, the obvious happens: people get out and ride!

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Calgary’s downtown bike grid “created” 2000 new bike riders in less than a year (source).

However, fewer people work downtown in Edmonton than in Calgary (I’ve heard the numbers 200,000 vs 80,000) so fewer new riders should be created by our bike grid. So let’s say that only 500 people start to ride to work in Edmonton due to the new downtown bike grid.

People Biking = Health Care Savings

What are the health care savings of 500 people suddenly deciding to regularly ride their bikes to work or school?

We all know that our sedentary life styles are causing us massive, expensive problems. Unfortunately, few things have worked so far to get people moving more. We’re about to create 500 new bike riders though right?

Diabetes

According to this study, for every 7 people who start exercising 150 minutes/week, 1 incident of diabetes will be prevented.  Our 500 new bike riders could therefore prevent 71 cases of diabetes). Every case of diabetes in Alberta costs about $5,070/year (from here). So the 71 cases less of diabetes that can theoretically be attributed to the bike grid will save $360,000 per year.

Heart Disease and Cancer

A new study came out recently that examined 250,000+ people in the U.K. The conclusion was that cycling to work/school is associated with 46% less heart disease and 45% less cancer  vs. their sedentary peers.

The reduced cases of cancer of 500 new people riding their bikes daily could save the health care system $12.7 million per year. The reduced cases heart disease could save us another $300,000! (calculations/logic are below)

Conclusion

The downtown grid of protected bike lanes  is going to cost about $7.5 million dollars to build. That’s a lot of money. However, they could save our health care system $13,360,000 each and every year after they are installed, for a payback rate of 178%.

You could argue with my numbers.  In fact, I will. I’ll happily lop 44% off of my estimate. That would leave us with an annual savings of $7.5 million dollars. The bike grid will pay itself back in health care savings every year, in perpetuity.

There are so many reasons why the bike grid will be a wonderful addition to our city. The increased safety, the new choice that it gives people who want to save money getting around, and most of all the sheer fun of it. But we can also feel confident that this is the best financial investment in transportation infrastructure that we could make. In fact, nothing else can touch it.

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Are Car Drivers In Alberta Subsidizing Bike Riders? No.

With the roll out this summer of Edmonton’s dreamy new downtown bike grid, some old chestnuts of the bike lane debate having been appearing. One is the assertion that car and truck drivers are subsidizing bike riders if cities use tax dollars to install dedicated bike infrastructure.

I’ve seen a couple of analyses that emphatically reject the notion (here and here for example), but do they apply to Edmonton, Alberta? Let’s find out. *

*caveat: It would take days to write a scientifically-valid argument either way on this. How our three orders of government collect and spend taxes is very complex, and divided into many documents. I have done an overview, and I have explained my generalizations and rationalizations along the way.

How much money per year is collected in Alberta via fuel and carbon taxes, plus vehicle registration?

Short answer: $3.5 billion. (long answer here)

How much money do our governments spend per year in Alberta on vehicles?

Short answer: $4.2 billion. (long answer here)

Conclusion:

I’m not saying that cars are evil or that we shouldn’t have any or anything like that. However, we need to be honest if a mode of transportation is getting subsidized. Even though the gas tax is substantial, Albertans are heavily subsidizing vehicle driving. Never mind the fact that most of the federal gas tax is whisked away and spent on federal priorities in Ottawa.

Although these calculations are back-of-the-napkin at best, especially the municipal spending side, I wouldn’t doubt if they significantly underestimate how much we subsidize car driving. I left out massive costs, like the societal costs of sedentarism, days of productivity lost from collision injuries, pollution, and significant vehicle-oriented policing costs.

All this to say that, people who ride bikes in Edmonton are not being subsidized by drivers. In fact, the subsidy is going the other way.

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Downtown Bike Grid Coming To Edmonton Summer 2017

This post is a bit late in coming, but it seems that we didn’t update our website with the news: a grid of protected bike lanes is coming to downtown Edmonton!

Paths for People conceptualized and initiated this project, based on Calgary’s downtown pilot project, during the summer of 2016 (details here), and city council voted to fund and install the bike grid on October 11, 2016! A few thoughts:

We are now working on a campaign to get people riding the grid and engage with affected downtown stakeholders (businesses, etc., who are situated on the grid) to increase acceptance and ridership. We are optimistic that a more vibrant, livable downtown is just around the corner!

Our Campaign Begins – A Bike Grid For Downtown Edmonton

The Route – A Message from Paths for People

We have begun our campaign to help convince city council to vote for Stantec’s proposed 7-km bike grid in Edmonton’s downtown core. We unveiled yegbikegrid.ca – the campaign website presents the facts and helps people contact their councillors and released the videos The Magic Trick and The RouteOur social media campaign is going strong too. Write your councillor today!

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