Other Options? January 24 2015

I am one of two riders I know of who lives in Pictou County that commutes to their daily commitments.  I am sure there is probably one or two more but we haven’t met yet. This is probably consistent with other small towns in Nova Scotia and increasing bicycle ridership is something both individuals and municipalities would benefit from greatly. A search for the “benefits of bicycle riding/commuting” will keep you reading for days!  

Now there are many reasons why someone may choose not to ride their bike to work, but the most common reason I read about and hear is rider safety. Fair enough.  However, most of the studies seem to come from urban centres where traffic congestion, limited routes or the shear pace of life are significant factors in our perception, and the reality, of being safe. 

Safety is always a concern in everything we do but in small town Nova Scotia, the threats to rider safety may be different. I seldom encounter any amount of traffic on my ride into work even at the busiest times and on the busiest streets. My route is divided between residential streets and main avenues (that connect adjacent towns) of which I have several routes to choose from. And in my communities no one seems to be in a rush, likely because they generally do not have far to travel. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that along the route I travel, drivers are very courteous.  So many urban concerns don’t seem as applicable in small town. 

To get more people riding their bicycles, most advocacy groups lobby for the creation of bicycle infrastructure that separates bicycles from car lanes, with European cities being the ones to follow when it comes to designing more safe places and ways for riders to get around. That would be nice but isn’t realistic here for one main reason: cost.  Small towns have little money to redesign or create bicycle transportation routes. 

Even though bicyclesSidewalk along commercial area entering Stellarton from Westville share the same rights and responsibilities as cars, the reality is the bigger vehicle often intimidates the smaller. Regardless of how safe or unsafe riding with traffic is, it is one’s perception of being safe that is the deciding factor as to whether someone rides their bicycle over extended distances for a purpose. Now I may be way off in suggesting this option, but there might be a partial solution in: Sidewalks! We all know that riding your bicycle on the sidewalk is not permitted; that they are designed for pedestrian traffic.  However, the reality is that they are often under-utilized “big-time”.  Most sidewalks (with the exception of “main street” business districts) see very few if any pedestrians throughout the day. It likely differs from town to town, but here in Pictou County it is surely the case. And in Pictou County there are sidewalks that connect the municipalities along many of the main routes through non-residential areas where there is no foot traffic anyway.

The goal is of course, is to get more people riding their bicycles with a purpose, such as commuting to work, running errands, etc., rather than just on occasion for recreation. Having access to the safety of sidewalks, removed from direct contact with traffic, may be an answer to the question “how can we get more people riding their bicycles?”  

So to begin the conversation, here is a few points to consider:

  • Pedestrians would still retain the right of way
  • Bicyclists would be required to use a bell to notify pedestrians when approaching
  • Bylaws may have to be amended
  • Signage and education would be paramount to success
  • Only specific sidewalks may be designated as “shared”.
  • The more a person rides, the more likely they will become comfortable with riding in traffic

The biggest concern I see with using sidewalks, even only if it is along certain corridors, is forfeiting the gains made in being accepted by motorists as riding in our rightful place along side them on roadways.  I am sure however that with the right approach, this too can be avoided.

So what do you think? Could it work?  Would you ride your bike more and further if you could legally use sidewalks for a part of your journey?  Let me know!