Time to connect the dots to improve safe cycling on campus

Susan downshifts her bike to a lower gear with a soft ‘click click.’ Gliding into the safe haven of Western’s protected bike lane on Middlesex Drive, she begins the slow ascent. Halfway up the hill, a jaywalker scampers across the bike lane. “We get no respect,” she mutters as she is forced to slow, dismount and then walk her bike the rest of the way. Finally, she chains her bike to a rack that, because it isn’t bolted to the ground, is only slightly less portable than the bike itself.

Biking is the ‘hipster way’ to commute – but being cool comes with costs that include near-collisions, unprotected bike lanes and bike thefts, to name a few. Come the first month of fall, bike thieves blaze through campus, noticeably at the Western Student Recreation Centre. On University Bridge, despite signs saying vehicles must not pass bikes, cyclists have to contend for lane space against minivans along a harrowing stretch.

This past fall, a professor on his bike collided with a car that turned left  at the intersection of Perth and University Drives. With warmer months arriving soon, these incidents are expected to rise.

Western’s campus isn’t well connected to the city by bike infrastructure, noted Daniel Hall, director of London Cycle Link, a volunteer organization aiming to make London a safe, bicycle-friendly place.

“With the exception of the Thames Valley Parkway, the major roads connecting to the university, such as Western, Sarnia and Windermere, lack bike infrastructure. The campus can be served better if the university works with the city to improve bike infrastructure along these roads,” said Hall, who is also an urban planning consultant for the city.

Promoting bicycle culture can be a significant step towards campus pedestrianization and connectivity. Campus pedestrianization has been a global movement spurred by worrisome vehicular emissions and air quality, but also the desire to create better learning environments for students. University of British Columbia stripped asphalt from its campus core, replacing roads with broad sidewalks. That was a decade ago. Since then, many universities across Canada have embraced pedestrianization. In 2010, McGill University said no to cars on its main campus. Six years ago, Ryerson University had enough of commuters using its campus roads as a shortcut – a relevant plague at Western, as well.

At such universities, the creation of pedestrian-friendly zones has led to the development of creative spaces, blurring the line between the outdoor and the indoor. Art installations and lawn furniture adorn the sidewalks, inspiring students and faculty to move their classes outdoors. They discuss research, toss a Frisbee and work on group projects. It provides a space for students to organize a weekly farmers’ markets or play a game of ball hockey.

It’s a space where students are given priority over cars. For prospective students choosing between two universities, a car-free campus can be a deal changer because it shows the university will go that extra mile for its students. McGill demanded the City of Montreal reroute bike lanes closer to campus. The University of Windsor removed an entire parking lot, which received push-back from car drivers. Such a bold move would be unimaginable at Western – with most of its parking lots operating at capacity. Today, Ryerson is still lobbying for the pedestrianization of downtown Yonge Street, the busiest thoroughfare of Canada.

Is Western following suit and gearing up for similar big changes? Among the long-term goals expressed in the 2015 Campus Master Plan was a commitment to improve open spaces on campus.  The new Open Space Strategy aims to make Western a pedestrian-focused place and limit cut-through car traffic. The implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will see the widening of Western Road to incorporate bike lanes. Bus terminals will have sheltered bike lockers, so users can cycle to the rapid transit line and lock their bikes at the station, or bring it on board. BRT will also decrease reliance on cars. However, the timeline for these long-term projects is nearly a decade.

Certainly, big changes take big time, but it begs the question – Why are the city and university so late to this party?

“North America lacks a biking culture,” said Ben Cowie, a Geology post-doctorate from Harvard, who now operates the London Bicycle Café, “But Western can change that, at least within the extent of the campus. The campus has the infrastructure to create protected bike lanes like Montreal and Calgary. Even a bike share would be feasible for a campus of such size.”

Cowie’s note about the North American biking culture is disappointingly true. Many students are even unaware the university has an on-campus bicycle rental store, Purple Bikes.

With big changes slated to happen in the next decade, the current student body won’t witness implementation of these strategies. However, there is still hope for the near future. Recently, the province granted $3.3 million to the city for better bike transit.

“That fund has been earmarked for the North Branch connection of the Thames Valley Parkway to fill in the gap of the trail network between Western University and the Kipps Lane area,” said Hall. “The project is slated for next summer ­– a boon for any student traveling east of campus.”

Campus Community Police Service records show bike thefts have decreased steadily during the past three years; 115, 105, and 89 bike thefts in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively.

Western is a game-changer and an agent of influence in the city. By taking on the mantle of London’s first car-free zone, and London’s first bike-share program, Western can lead the way, showing the city that alternate modes of transport are feasible.

Navaneeth Mohan is an MSc candidate in Applied Mathematics.

Editor’s note: A map of London’s bike trails and multi-use pathways can be found and downloaded here: https://www.london.ca/residents/Roads-Transportation/Transportation-Choices/Pages/Bike-and-Walk-Map.aspx