Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Of McGill-only interest: Bicycles

Over the summer, bicycling was forbidden on McGill's central campus. I wrote a letter of objection, mainly reproduced below, and was assured that ongoing discussions about possible revisions were possible in the fall.

The decision to begin the school year with a lengthy article in the official McGill Reporter quoting at length from an administration official dismissing all objections annoys me and seems not to signal an interest in ongoing conversation. Significantly, there's no mention of the fact that McGill is built on the southern face of a mountain which has a real effect on how useful it is to tell people to bike around campus in an east-west direction rather than through it. So I hereby make my letter an open one.


I am writing to urge that bicycle-riding be allowed on parts of the lower downtown campus. I recommend that one bicycle lane be opened between the University Ave. gate and tghe bicycle racks at Leacock; one between the University Ave. gate and the McTavish gate; and one up McTavish Ave.

The shift to a bike-free lower campus on May 28th unnecessarily discourages bicycling, and so is in direct tension with the aims of the Greening project. The east-west distance across campus (say, University to Peel) is considerably longer than the usual distance between bike parking and destination, and long enough to provide a real deterrent to biking to and from campus. Sherbrooke is an unsafe alternative for the east-west route; Dr. Penfield is one-way; and Dr. Penfield and Pine both involve such steep ascents at least one direction to also discourage biking.

There's an aesthetic problem that's already becoming apparent, too. Just as McGill has finished the renovations beautifying the University Ave. entrance to campus, it's become a bicycle parking lot. It's overcrowded even now, outside the school year. I understand that there are plans in the works for double-stacking racks that might alleviate the overcrowding (though probably not enough to solve the problem once the school year begins). But that will only make the aesthetic problem worse. What should be a signature view of campus is going to be significantly diminished, because the vast majority of bicycle parking for campus is being concentrated unnecessarily in that one spot.

The stated objective of the policy is pedestrian safety. I don't know how many bicyclist-pedestrian collisions there have been on lower campus in past years. But in past years, lower campus was also crowded with cars. Roads that are wide enough for a lane of traffic and two lanes of parking, with sidewalks alongside them, are now mainly empty of cars. It seems, at the very least, premature to assume that with all that space freed up, pedestrians and cyclists could not coexist-- at any time of day, at any time of year. I suspect that one bicycle lane could always be open, safely, on those roads. A bicycle lane could obviously be open, safely, during non-peak times: outside the academic year; weekends; outside business and class hours on weekdays.

There is a lingering worry about biking on lower campus that dates from non-McGill people using campus to fill in a gap on the city bike paths, as a shortcut between University Ave. and downtown. That worry might be now out-of-date, since the University Ave. bike path has been extended south. But in case not, I think it would be reasonable to require dismounting at the Sherbrooke entrance, and not allow biking on the road that extends McGill College Ave. into campus (the trunk of the Y, as it were).

There are many possible permutations of where and when. But that is part of my point; we proceeded immediately to the most draconian possibility at the same time that auto traffic was removed from lower campus and McTavish. It seems to me absurd not to at least experiment with safe coexistence on all this newly-auto-free real estate.


One final update comment: there is an inconsistent account being given about changes to pedestrian behavior. "As the campus becomes more pedestrian friendly, incluyding the conversion of most of McTavish Street to a pedestrian zone, more and more people will feel increasingly free to walk all over the roadways, [Associate Vice-Principal Jim Nicell] said." So pedestrians are assumed to be highly responsive to one change: no cars. But it's assumed that their walking all over the roadways would be completely unresponsive to the existence of bicycles or a painted bicycle lane on those roadways-- and, of course, that bicyclists would also be unresponsive to lanes and rules less draconian than a ban. The following:

"Perhaps once people are accustomed to the new situation, it may be possible to explore some flexibility with specific hours when people might be permitted to cycle through the campus. It's too early to say when or even if that could happen."

is especially bizarre. To the degree that people get accustomed to the new situation, it will become harder to reintroduce bicycles, because new habits and norms will have developed around the status quo. The way that you let habits and norms of coexistence develop is by allowing coexistince, at least sometimes.

The official FAQ says:
McGill has had a number of pedestrian injuries reported in recent years due to collisions with cyclists. Once pedestrians become accustomed to the reduced amount of vehicular traffic on campus, we believe the risk of such injuries would increase, should cyclists be permitted to circulate as in the past.

This suggests a) that the "ongoing discussion" claim is a stall, and that in a matter of weeks or months we'll hear that the new status quo is irreversible because pedestrian behavior has changed so much, but b) that pedestrian behavior can change only once.

Oh, and one final annoyance: "the fairly minor inconvenience to cyclists of having to walk a few metres." The distance from, say, the Milton gates to Bronfman or the various centres on Peel is more than half a kilometer. That's not an epic forced march or anything. But the rhetorical dismissal of bikers' concerns with "a few metres" is false and rude.

Update: Open forum this Thursday, Shatner building, 3:30-5.


Anonymous said...

thank you !

Will Roberts said...

The point you make in your update is especially important, Jacob. It seems clear, from their contradictory statements, that they are flat out lying to the McGill community when they say "well, we can revisit this in the future." Pretty galling.

Anonymous said...

All part of the administration's "don't listen to a damn thing anyone says" policy.

tintamar said...

Well said. The hypocrisy you underline is bad, really bad, but I'm not surprised. There is way too much scorn and hatred towards cyclists in this city. I guess that one step towards change is to argue the matter as thoroughly as you do.

Anonymous said...

Think what you will of the Administration's current policies, but cyclists can be rather ruthless (even now, under the current ban). If all cyclists conformed to your utopian standard, we wouldn't have any problems. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

Hasana said...

I wish I could go to thr forum, but I can't. Someone should mention that it is a serious problem for the parents of children in the day care centres on McTavish and Peel. There are more than 200 kids at the two day cares and biking is BY FAR the easiest way to transport a toddler. Parents coming from the east are being forced to take their children on Sherbrooke during prime commuting hours, a far more dangerous route than through campus. It is ridiculous and dangerous. There is no reason they can't paint bike lanes and expect us to be able to navigate around one another.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking out on behalf of the McGill cyclists. It is time that McGill explains their reasoning behind the ban in more details: how many accidents were reported, what experts were consulted, what were their recommendations?? It is appalling that the student organizations were not consultedwhen these changes were being prepared.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! I wholeheartedly agree with every word.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I wonder why students (I'm assuming) are all commenting anonymously...?

Victor said...

Add to the environmental and childcare the fact that the University just moved to centralized room bookings for classes. Whereas before a professor had a reasonable expectation of teaching in a classroom close to his or her office, it is now increasingly probable to have teaching commitments spread far and wide across the campus (I've had courses scheduled ten minutes apart on opposite sides of the Reservoir).

On occasion I used BIXI to get from one part of campus to another; there's no point to this now. The new scheduling system should work with the city's public bike system, not against it (especially since it was the city, at McGill's behest, that ordered the road closure).

SMD said...

The CKUT show Health on Earth took on this topic last night. You can hear the audio at http://www.healthonearth.net/2010/09/urban-cycling-and-health-in-montreal.html.