During the pandemic, many Winnipeggers decided — to borrow a line from the legendary rock group Queen — to get on their bikes and ride.
Cycling was a way to get some exercise at a time when gyms were closed, a head-clearing activity to alleviate stress, and an opportunity to commune with nature after months of being of being cooped up at home. Winnipeg’s Open Streets pilot project, which was unrolled in 2020 and saw the expansion of the city’s annual Sunday and holiday bike routes, got even more people out on two wheels, in large part because they felt safe to do so.
Alas, with this bicycling boom has come an increase in tickets being handed out to cyclists riding on the sidewalk. Winnipeg police issued 87 tickets in 2020, compared with 43 in 2019. So far, police have handed out 38 tickets in 2021. The fine for riding on the sidewalk is $113.
Instead of focusing on ticketing cyclists using sidewalks, Winnipeg might be better served by prioritizing safe and accessible biking infrastructure — especially in areas of the city where there is none, and areas in which sidewalk riders are disproportionately ticketed.
We don’t really know where to put people on bicycles in this city. Cyclists are not motorists, nor are they pedestrians. And yet, in many areas of the city, if they aren’t sharing the road with one, they are sharing the sidewalk with the other.
Winnipeg’s biking infrastructure has slowly improved over the past decade with the arrival of dedicated off-street bike paths as well as protected, buffered and painted on-street bike lanes. But that mix of infrastructure is mostly linked together in a city-wide network by so-called "informal on-street routes," which are just streets deemed to be low or medium stress for cyclists.
On Winnipeg’s Cycling Map, areas of caution are circled in red. As you might expect, many of these are intersections.
In many neighbourhoods, especially those in the northern parts of the city, informal on-street routes are largely the only biking infrastructure that exists. That means riding one’s bike in many places in the city — especially if one is a commuter cyclist — inevitably means riding with traffic, often moving at high speed. On busy stretches where bikes are frequently crowded out by cars or near-constant construction, the safer choice is clear.
According to Statistics Canada and data from the Canadian Vital Statistics: Death Database, 890 cyclists died in Canada between 2006 and 2017, for an average of 74 deaths per year. Seventy three per cent of these deaths were the result of a collision with a motor vehicle.
Pedestrians are also killed by motor vehicles in Canada; 332 in 2018. Pedestrians have been killed by cyclists travelling at high speed in other places, too, though those incidents are decidedly more rare.
The bottom line is that everyone needs to slow down; everyone needs to follow the rules of the road. Mixed-use pathways are frequently shared by pedestrians and cyclists, who should practice proper etiquette by announcing their presence with a bell or a simple "on your left." Cyclists need to follow the rules of traffic, and motorists need to realize bikes have the right to be on the road.
The increased interest in cycling shows there’s an appetite for safe, equitable and accessible biking infrastructure in this city. Until everyone can stay in their dedicated lane, we need to find a way to share without being punished.