Council Pedalling Uphill When It Comes to Bike Lanes

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Floating out in the middle of the Caribbean, I was pretty sure we were going to die.

The small fishing boat I was in, one about the size of what you see on Saskatchewan lakes in the summer, had lost power on choppy water. Now, this prairie girl was very likely the only one who thought we were going to die, but as we were tossed around, with one wave after another jostling us this way and that, it was hard not to feel scared.

It’s a helpless feeling — adrift in a rudderless boat, with no control over where you’re going or how you’re going to get there.

Thankfully, the capable local fishers huddled around the engine were able to work their magic and before long, it roared back to life. The boat straightened out and we were back on track, cutting purposefully through the waves as we headed toward home. 

I’ll just cut to the chase. Saskatoon city council is floating in a rudderless boat — adrift on a sea of public opinion and private pressure, tossed about by individual political aspirations, headed in a totally different direction from where it needs to go.

Last week, downtown bike lanes survived a close Saskatoon city council vote, sort of.

The end.

Okay, not really, but I could likely leave it there because of what the ongoing saga of downtown bike lanes has come to represent: lack of leadership and clarity, unclear priorities and polarized opinions.

Those in the pro-bike lane camp believe the anti-bike lane camp is populated with right-wing MAGA-L uddites who don’t believe in physical fitness, climate change or urban progress. 

On the flipside, the anti-bike lane camp believes the pro-bike lane people are left-wing, tree-hugging granola crunchers who always ride their bikes, even when it’s 40 below.

Meanwhile, Saskatoon city councillors and Mayor Charlie Clark are desperate to avoid being pigeonholed on either side, as was the previous Saskatoon city council and former mayor Don Atchison. And they know they’ve botched this up badly, though don’t necessarily admit the reasons why. 

Somewhat refreshingly, Clark has come the closest to publicly acknowledging that it’s not about bike lanes anymore.

“The lanes there and the level of division in the community, anger and dissatisfaction both from the cycling community and from the driving community, Fourth Avenue wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse,” he told Saskatoon CTV News. 

“Given how controversial this has been and given how divisive it could be, it’s worth taking the time to make it something that’s going to add value and get people excited about . . . Things have gotten more polarized, more divided and I’ve learned you don’t want to force something and create more animosity.”

While I can’t agree with Clark that taking more time is the solution or will get anyone “excited about” downtown bike lanes, he’s right that last week wasn’t the time to cement council’s decision. 

Clark might have been better served, however, by taking things a step further and following Coun. Bev Dubois’ lead. She proposed ripping out the bike lanes and taking a break before starting over from scratch. 

Dubois, who is rumoured to be considering challenging Clark for the mayoralty in Saskatoon’s 2020 municipal election, didn’t receive enough support from her colleagues to pass her motion. 

City councillors did vote 9-2 in favour of removing the widely-disliked Fourth Avenue lanes, putting an end to that failed 30-month saga. In predictably wishy-washy style, however, council also voted in favour of keeping open the other set of temporary bike lanes on 23rd Street. 

After all this, council did make one decision, sort of. They declared 23rd Street, 19th Street and Third Avenue as the definite, absolute, not-gonna-change-our-minds future routes for a permanent downtown bike lane network.

However, they also voted to now proceed with consulting the community on how the permanent bike lanes will be designed. Really? Do we not have people in city hall who get paid to do that? 

City council can see the 2020 election on the horizon. It must fix its motor and get headed in the right direction, because the sharks have already begun to circle the boat. If they don’t get it fixed, it won’t be long before it springs a leak and sinks altogether.