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Emotions run high on both sides of the Calgary cycle track debate

Bike lanes won't kill off businesses, but they aren't a magic bullet either

Metro File

With downtown restaurants and retailers struggling to stay afloat through a recession, Calgary’s new cycle tracks are an easy target.

But is it fair to blame them for keeping customers away? And for cyclists to then defensively suggest businesses aren’t being impacted by the new cycle track on 8 Ave SW?

No and no.

In the absence of data, there is emotional overreaction on both sides.

Let’s start with the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA). The freewheeling days of $100 oil are behind us. At the same time, Calgary’s core is undergoing a kind of two-wheeled transformation.

But correlation is not causation. This seems to be lost on the CDA, which has always been chilly to the idea that a cycle track on 8 Avenue SW could be a good thing.

“Both restaurants and retailers were promised great gains because there’s these new customers, which clearly has not happened,” Maggie Schofield, the CDA’s longtime executive director, recently told Metro.

Coun. Evan Woolley was speaking for many last week when he criticized the CDA as being “like dinosaurs” in its approach to multi-modal transportation.

In a recession, as thousands of people are being laid off, it’s not realistic to expect a bike line alone to deliver “great gains.”

A new bike lane won’t help any more than adding hundreds of parking spots, or doubling LRT frequency to the area, would.

Thanks to the economy, people are carefully watching their wallets. Altering the nearby transportation infrastructure doesn’t change that.

Still, some impacts are to be expected. When Vancouver’s downtown got new separated bike lanes in 2010, a study the following year found a “relatively moderate” decrease in merchant sales. (Data was gleaned from surveys completed by businesses.)

Interestingly, it also found that merchants greatly overestimated the percentage of their customers who arrive by car. Businesses guessed 40%, but a survey of customers pegged it at 20%.

Merchants also underestimated the percentage of its customers who were cyclists.

Calgary has a different transportation mix than Vancouver, but it’s possible that businesses overestimate the share of their customers who rely on parking.

It’s also entirely possible that businesses are feeling some pain because of the new cycle track.

Without data, it’s speculative. (The city plans to survey businesses in the fall to analyze the impact.)

Like the CDA, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) originally opposed the bike lanes.

But after five years, the organization changed its tune and now enthusiastically promotes them.

“Times have changed, and it’s obvious that separated bike lanes [are] working in the downtown area,” the DVBIA’s Charles Gauthier told News 1130 last year. “They’re here to stay and we need to adapt.”

As 8 Avenue SW suffers growing pains, the CDA should help downtown businesses adapt.

Meanwhile, the rest of us should recognize that while growing pains may be temporary, they still sting.

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