On Calgary’s 7th Street Bike Track: I like it!

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As regular readers here know, I have been rather critical of the city of Calgary’s addition of bike infrastructure at the expense of automotive infrastructure based on some extremely questionable utilization numbers. My main targets have been bike lanes placed on automotive routes where either residential parking is stripped and or expensive automotive lanes are reduced altogether despite there being a paltry number of cyclists at best.

I see downtown Calgary as something of a different story. While the number of daily bicycle commuters to downtown Calgary has been greatly exaggerated by some, through multiple counts in different locations and with a long drawn out twitter debate with pictured below; it was established that a few thousand people per day commute to work in downtown Calgary.

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Three thousand is a tiny fraction of those who commute downtown in Calgary daily and is a far cry from the completely unsubstantiated twelve-thousand number that some folks have tossed out there. That being said, this is still a sizeable number of commuters and we should reasonably ensure that the infrastructure exists for these people to safely get to work and back.

In doing my counts, I found that while bike lanes on roadways had limited bike use, the Bow River bike path is quite busy with hundreds of cyclists riding it daily. I personally feel that the path should be expanded somewhat to reduce pedestrian/bicycle issues but that is a separate issue right now.

The Bow River bike path gives excellent access from East to West across downtown Calgary. What has been lacking is a safe bike access from North to South in the core and the 7th Street bike path has provided this (on the West side of downtown at least). Now a cyclist can get to many parts of the Calgary core while greatly minimizing the time spent on the open road with automotive traffic which can be a hair-raising experience to say the least.

In visiting the bike track today, I thought it looked very well done. Esthetically it was good and not looking too utilitarian. Directions for both cyclists and auto drivers appeared pretty clear. 7th Street was never really a main automotive artery and the number of cars displaced by the track is negligible. Parking was lost but it can and should be made up elsewhere if city council can get off their policies of choking it.

One thing that was terribly lacking on the 7th street bike track though was actual cyclists.

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Today was what I would consider to be ideal cycling weather. While cars were evident in the thousands as always downtown, I saw only a handful of cyclists using the track. In the next day or so I will get to the track in rush hour and see what sort of traffic the cycle track is drawing but in mid-day the cycle track almost could have sprouted tumbleweeds.

In wandering further downtown, I walked down 5th St. SW which parallels the 7th St. bike track only two blocks away. What I saw there was somewhat dismaying. I saw about as many cyclists on the street with no track as the one with one. In the 10 minutes on 5th, I saw one cyclist going the wrong way on the one way street, another pair riding side by side with a long line of traffic behind them and another riding while texting. Two of those are pictured below. I really do have to get a better camera for this stuff.

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To be fair, another thing I witnessed (wish I had been able to get a picture) was an idiot driving down the separated bike track in a Toyota pickup. Had there actually been bicyclists on that track there could have been a terrible accident as the barriers would leave the cyclists no room to escape. The point of the track is to provide a safe place for cyclists to ride and fools like the one I saw defeat this purpose.

While liking the track and the concept, I have to now wonder what it will take to get cyclists to use it in larger numbers. I used the term reasonable earlier when referencing bicycle infrastructure and I mean it. If bikes refuse to even go two blocks out of their way to use the track, how much infrastructure is reasonable? We can’t put tracks on every street in light of how tiny a portion of commuters ride bikes.

If we build infrastructure for cyclists only to find that pedestrians on sidewalks are still dodging bikes and auto-commuters are still being delayed by cyclists I have to ask: what is the point?

In Calgary we should start to look at bicycle infrastructure with real need, demand and traffic flow in mind. We can use more separated bicycle infrastructure but dammit if we are going to build that I expect a majority of cyclists to actually use it. With a couple more tracks built, I contend we could then heavily enforce and ticket bike users on sidewalks and designate some roadways downtown as being automotive routes only (and enforcing this). Just as no car should be on a bike track, there is no need to displace pedestrians and autos further with bicycles if the alternative infrastructure exists for them.

I am looking forward to seeing how rush hour goes on the new cycle track and do hope to see well built infrastructure in the future. If we continue to idiotically keep bike lanes on roads such as 11 St. SE that has a few bikes per 24 hours at best while taking an entire two automotive lanes up I think my hypothesis of Calgary’s bicycle strategy being one of an anti-automotive bent rather than pro-cycle will have been proven. There is no excuse.

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Reality calling.

I don’t quite celebrate the erosion over even outright loss of naive ideals that comes about through life experience. We need those starry goals and ideals when young in order to keep ourselves optimistic and pursuing outcomes even if they may be impossible in reality. Growing past the unreasonable ideals is a part of growing up as well and it is an important one. We do see people who never managed to outgrow their ideals on occasion. They usually are sporting thin, greying braids and a buckskin jacket with a tie-dye shirt underneath. The rest of the folks of that idealistic generation learned through life experiences that one has to compromise to “the man” to a degree and pursue the less savory but very important things in life such as a career and independently sustainable lifestyle.

Some years ago I listened to a radio documentary on CBC where some former residents of a 70s commune outside of Edmonton related their stories of their time pursuing the ideal hippy lifestyle. None sounded regretful and most looked back at it as a growing experience for themselves. They all were utterly confident in the futility of the socialist communal lifestyle as well. Nothing drives those lessons home better than trying to live the idealistic dream. As with countless other communes in the 60s/70s this one fell apart within a couple years. Tensions grew quickly as it was soon discovered that a small portion of the folks were doing the majority of the work while a larger portion sat around smoking weed. The free-love concept was wonderful until somebody actually saw somebody of romantic interest literally enjoying the sexual embrace of another in front of them. Resentment grew, people came and went and the whole thing faded away. The reality is that human nature does not allow for any true communal living no matter how pretty the ideal sounds.

The only communes that are or have had much success and staying power have had a unifying factor keeping in the people together and motivated. That is most often religion as with Israeli kibbutzs or even Hutterite colonies. A vague notion of inequity and socialism has never been enough of a unifying power to keep other communes together.

A generation later and we see the same sort of doe-eyed pursuit of impossible ideals in our “occupy” movement. The ideas of consensus and the talking points are the same. Unfortunately for them, there has been utterly no unifying factor in this disparate gathering of the discontented. There is anti-capitalist mutterings, vague general inequity ramblings, statements about homelessness the environment, currency systems, electoral systems and on and on and on and on. There is no war such as Vietnam to pull these guys together nor any common religious link. There are no social inequities such as there were for black people in the USA in the 60s and there is no dictatorship as the folks in Arab Spring dealt with.

Due to this lack of a cohesive cause and lack of any real identifiable general hardship in Canada, the “occupy” movement simply has not taken off in Calgary. Very few Calgarians are supportive of the campers in Olympic Plaza and outright opposition is growing to the squatting as we see estimates of the damages to the park rise and we hear of more legitimate events and groups being compromised due to the squatters in the park.

What this has left is pretty much a small group of the hardcore of their movement. These are likely the folks we will see still sporting braids in a couple decades as they simply will never let their ideals go no matter how inane or impossible they may be.

What has been interesting to see though is that some of them are learning some lessons. These are hard lessons but they are important ones. In the larger (and arguably much more legitimate) protest in New York, the ideals abounded to begin with. The poor souls displaced by capitalism could find sanctuary in a nice big communal campground near Wall Street where volunteer chefs could feed them organic free range beans and lentils or whatever. Unfortunately, before long it was determined that many who were eating the food were not underprivileged. Many mouths were simply those of freeloaders. The Chefs of Occupy Wall Street have now begun to refuse to cook for the freeloaders. The ideals are waning.

On a local level we can see that these lessons are happening to a degree with our Calgarian Occupy crowd. I thank Lonnie Taylor for tweeting some of the resolutions from yesterday’s occupy Calgary meeting. I honestly would like to attend one of these things but am caught working in Eastern Pennsylvania for a few more days. Should we be unfortunate enough to still have people squatting in our park when I get back, I will be sure to pop by for a visit.

Now apparently a fellow named “Paul” has taken it upon himself to enforce security around the encampment. An unfortunate reality is that when one shuns conventional forms of security such as our city police, we will either have anarchy grow or people will take things into their own hands. When people take things into their own hands they often are not as fair, controlled, predictable or restrained as proper law enforcement officers despite the often collective loathing of occupiers of “The man’s” police force. Many people drawn to these encampments have some serious issues and a degree of control is simply needed. There was a bizarre incident with the occupy camp in Toronto for example where a fellow was sneaking into tents in order to sniff women’s feet.

Now apparently the occupiers have resolved to no longer provide tents and food to those who have not been a part of the movement. How membership in this movement is to be determined may be dicey. I thought that the movement was directly tied into the occupation in itself so wouldn’t simply being present mean one is part of the “movement”. Does one have to tweet about their involvement to be included? Is there a formal means of membership?

Look I understand why the occupiers are having to make these tough decisions. Some have tried to cloak this movement into being a thing about homelessness. Many felt that if misunderstood homeless people were simply invited into their commune and shown love that these people will act in control and will happily participate with the occupation. Reality is unfortunately dealing a hard slap in the face to naive idealism here.

Yes, homelessness is a problem in Calgary. There are homeless people in every city in the planet. We have had homeless people since the first human fabricated a shelter and we will have homeless people until an asteroid or something ends life on earth. I am not dismissing homelessness by any means nor do I think for a second that we should stop efforts to reduce it. I am just saying that if we really want to deal with chronic homelessness we need to work within the bounds of reality.

The reality is that the majority of the homeless people encountered on the streets of Calgary are suffering either from addiction or mental health issues. These people have had an extremely rough time and are not able (or often even willing) to try and integrate with society in a settled home. These people can be volatile and even dangerous at times. A deeply addicted person will not hesitate to steal from or lie to other people if they think it may lead to their next fix.

Certainly some people simply have a bad chain of events or decisions and they find themselves homeless for a time. These people are the ones most likely to take advantage of the programs and housing we have available and these people are likely to climb out of their rut with some help. These people are not the chronically homeless and these are not the ones we see moving into the “occupy” camps.

I suspect that the occupiers are learning that the aforementioned people do not belong in a communal tent camp. Simply welcoming these people with open arms and good intent has and will backfire. Complex counselling and treatment by professionals is required for these people. We certainly can discuss whether society is providing enough of these services to these people. Personally I think it is a gross embarrassment that we have followed a foolish and idealistic trend of deinstitutionalization of people with mental impairment which has led to many unfortunate souls being either on the streets or in the correctional system. I am digressing however.

What I am getting at is the point that no matter how good the intentions may be, the occupy Calgary is doing absolutely nothing for the homeless.  The group is not raising awareness of the issue because the group is spreading dozens of messages in a shotgun approach to all that they see as the ills of our society. In light of the recent meeting resolutions thing many of the remaining “occupiers” are realizing this.

What the rest of the “occupiers” need to realize now is that their little campout is really doing utterly nothing for whatever cause they may be claiming to represent. Camping in a park is simply wasting time and pissing off your fellow man who is paying the bill.

Retain your ideals guys. Go out and fight the inequities. We have all sorts of groups whether charitable, government, religious or even political that work to ease all sorts of problems in our city and country.  All of these groups happily welcome contributions whether through volunteering or fiscally and all can claim at least some degree of measurable success.

Yes it is a lot of work to take part in these groups though. It can be tiring and thankless. It is not nearly as easy as squatting in a park for a campout.

Are the occupiers truly interested in making real changes or are they simply kids camping?

Personally I think the productive have already moved beyond this group. How many are really there now? 20? 30? It is time for the rest of them to move on to better things.

I do hope that the city gets around to enforcing our bylaws and kicking the occupiers from our park before they do more damage. I am happy to see these guys learning life lessons. I am tired of seeing this learning experience happening on the backs of the taxpayers as our park continues to get damaged and other citizens have their rights to use the park displaced.

Reality is often hard but is always much more productive than blind ideology.

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