If done right, biking is good for the downtown and the business community

The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ supports the city’s active transportation blueprint. Now it’s time to proceed to the next step: consulting with the downtown community.

Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

Many of us have travelled to other cities to see firsthand how downtowns are benefiting from increased bike lanes, which encourage cyclists to visit their downtowns and to frequent businesses. An increase in cycling is a trend that is taking over North America and the marketplace. We’re seeing more residents discovering their neighbourhoods by bicycle and hanging out at their local pubs and cafes, and office workers commuting downtown from the inner city or even as far away as the suburbs; even tourists are renting bicycles, to explore unique destinations. The need for more cycling amenities and infrastructure is being driven by the public and emerging trends.

Many cities have done it wrong and have made every imaginable mistake. Inadequate education for the public and stakeholders, or a rush to roll out cycling infrastructure without paying attention to the details and the needs of property and business owners – these foreseeable challenges can be mitigated if we put community first.

Some downtowns have eliminated on-street parking hastily to facilitate the creation of bike lanes, little understanding that on-street parking is the lifeblood of our storefront retailers, restaurants and shop owners. Realities like the need for loading zones, deliveries, accessibility for people in wheelchairs and with other mobility challenges – and a dozen more issues – are often not properly taken into consideration. In these cities, you will find staunch opposition to any expansion of cycling facilities, and rightfully so. The rush to roll out cycling lanes without proper process, thought, foresight and consultation, can lead to tensions in the community, extra costs to address the issues after the fact and, in some cases, negative economic impact.

But some cities are doing it right.

A city we can all relate to is Minneapolis. Its residents have a love for cycling and biking lanes. One evening when I was there I saw thousands of cyclists strolling downtown, milling about and gobbling up every inch of space on the hundreds of bike racks installed by the city and businesses. The residents were there for restaurants, cafés, live art and theatre performances, and to just hang out.

I have no doubt that the city of Minneapolis has foresight. As the downtown has developed and evolved, they have wanted to accommodate the cycling community, and by doing the job hand-in-hand with their stakeholders they’re developing a travel system that meets their needs.

Through proper planning, education, listening to the needs and concerns of the community, Minneapolis is seen as the world’s best approach when adopting more cycling amenities and infrastructure. Winnipeg is perhaps where Minneapolis was 10 years ago – with increased development activity, from more classrooms, to more condos and apartments, a growing population of office workers and more visitors coming to the MTS Centre and the sports, hospitality and entertainment district (SHED) downtown. Do we want to have safer bike lanes, developed in a balanced and well-thought-out manner, for those working and living in, and also visiting, the downtown? The Downtown BIZ believes so.

It’s imperative that the cycling strategy be rolled out in an incremental, engaging, and planned process with the downtown community. Businesses can create reasons for people to jump on their bikes to hang out downtown, so it’s not just about adding bike lanes. It’s about taking into consideration how bike parking is going to be accommodated at key locations. It’s about allowing advertising signage and banners, more outdoor seating, or reduced on-site parking requirements on bike-lane streets to help businesses attract more customers.

Some downtowns have integrated the roll-out of cycling lanes with marketing and branding efforts so different streets become well-recognized destination corridors. In some cities, traffic flows are changed to better accommodate the new mix of vehicles. Other cities have found limiting availability of cycling lanes to busy periods also works well.

Our city has now presented its vision and recommendations for developing its pedestrian and cycling strategies. The next step will further involve the community and drill down on feasibility and designs of proposed approaches. We need to get this right. The public must trust the city to do so, even if the process takes longer than anticipated.

It’s easy as a city to focus on the failures of other cities, and hold them up as excuses for not doing anything. It’s much harder to move forward collectively with the community, as our city is now doing, learning from best practices in other places, learning by listening to each other, minimizing the issues and maximizing the opportunities and creating a city for everyone.

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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