Friday, August 19, 2011

Waterloo's Great Cycling Gulf

For some years, I have been saying that we have some pretty good cycling routes in Waterloo Region, but they are too disconnected. I've been mulling a question: How do you best show the gaps in our cycling network that need attention?

To answer this question, you must define our cycling network. For instance: while I know some cyclists will brave the major arterial roads such as King, Weber, Northfield, University, and so on, I would not include the portions of those roads that don't provide any cycling infrastructure as part of my cycling network. And in fact, I go to great lengths to avoid them as unpleasant and too dangerous. In general, casual and new cyclists will also do this, unless they have no choice. A lack of alternatives may keep someone from becoming a cyclist at all.

On the other hand, parts of this city that aren't "officially" cycling routes are, in fact, very suitable for cycling-- most of our minor side streets and neighbourhoods are calm enough to be welcoming to cyclists.

I've played a bit with Google Maps, learning how to use its javascript API to visually sift through geographic information. I've focused on the City of Waterloo-- after all, Waterloo (the City) has a silver ranking for cycling friendliness and also where I do most of my commute and utility cycling, despite living just over the border in Kitchener.

I haven't worked out how to get this kind of javascript querying of Google Maps to embed nicely in Blogger, but that's okay. In the end I took information out of two maps and combined them:
  • A map highlighting all minor "local" roads (on the generous assumption that they are bike-friendly enough for casual riders, even without cycling infrastructure)
  • A map using Google's "Bicycling Layer" (which excludes any road-- major or minor-- without cycling infrastructure)
The result is below. I recommend you click through to see the image in all its high-res glory:

Even without zooming in, there should be one thing that's abundantly clear. Do you see it? Viciously cutting an uninterrupted swath across the entire northern corner of the city?

It's Waterloo's biggest cycling problem. It's the Great Conestoga Parkway Chasm. Like the Amazon River, the Parkway snakes its way through our city, and you take your life in your hands to ford it.

By excluding from my map anything that a casual cyclist would reject, I can reveal in stark relief just how big a problem this is for cyclists. In Waterloo, every crossing of the Parkway is an arterial road. None of them have cycling infrastructure. And they look like this:

Northfield Dr.

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King St. N

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Enough to send your sense of self-preservation into a tizzy, and make you think about leaving two wheels behind and taking four.

Two observations to make. One: none of these routes are the kind you'd want your child biking on. And two: Lexington is the least bad of a very bad lot.

As it stands, we have a completely disconnected cycling network. For a city priding itself on its move towards complete streets, this should be Number One on its cycling improvement agenda. Fortunately, providing some small solution to this problem does appear to be on the city's radar.

With the proposed Lexington upgrade, we go from completely disconnected to one imperfect and tenuous connection across the Parkway Gulf. A step in the right direction. It must happen, as soon as possible: the Gulf is a major impediment to the adoption of cycling by young and old.

But it must also be followed by other crossing points for cyclists and pedestrians. I've been over each of these monstrous crossings on foot, and they range from unpleasant to horrifying. I can tell you what Northfield Drive is like, in January after dark as the wind and snow drives down and the speeding headlights are everywhere. I've used the Gulf and Giant River metaphors already, but for pedestrians the Parkway is also a wall.

Dear City of Waterloo council, should you read this: please remember what I've said when the Lexington improvements come before you.

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