For most university students, the idea of commuting to school by car is nothing but a daydream. Barring the costs of buying and owning a vehicle, the limited parking on campus and its price per term are enough to dissuade most. Gas prices over the previous summer have definitely not helped this dilemma. This leaves a number of commute options: carpooling, taking transit, walking and biking. Whether you live too far to walk or you just hate waiting for the bus, cycling your way to class is both practical and affordable for many students.
According to statistics from the national census, biking is a more popular form of transportation surrounding the city’s two universities compared to the rest of the Waterloo Region. If you take a look at bike parking spaces on campus throughout the day, at least during this time of year, you can see there is clearly a healthy number of bike commuters on campus. This means that there is not only a population of students compelled to bike to school, but also sufficient bike infrastructure and safe road conditions for these students to get there. However, that does not mean the current infrastructure is as conducive to cycling as it could be.
The University of Waterloo’s campus has plenty of bike parking locations. Some parking types are more sturdy and easier to use than others, but they all serve their purpose nonetheless. There is also a dedicated bike storage which students can pay a fee to store their bikes in. The City of Waterloo itself provides bike parking in Uptown as well as at all community centres. However, most shopping plazas, including University Shops, Bridgeport, University Commons, and Westmount Place, do not provide any bike parking. This makes it difficult for students to safely leave their bikes while running errands or going out with friends.
In terms of bike lanes, paths, and trails, the Kitchener-Waterloo Region has an impressive amount of infrastructure compared to bigger cities in the province. Looking specifically at the City of Waterloo, Uptown is the best serviced area in terms of protected bike lanes. These lanes span King Street from just past Erb all the way to Columbia. There are connecting lanes on Columbia from King until the intersection with CIF, as well as on a small portion of Erb, and on University until Seagram. These lanes offer a safe way for bike commuters to get around and are well placed near WLU, UW and Uptown. The lanes on Columbia and Erb continue as unprotected ones well past Westmount and Fischer-Hallman. While the city’s official map claims there is an unprotected bike lane on Westmount between University and Columbia, it is not actually physically present on most of the street, and even when it is present, it is nothing but a poorly labelled shoulder.
The protected bike lanes provided are an excellent service to ensure bike commuters feel safe while riding, however their reach is very limited. These lanes should not only wrap around both WLU and UW, but also the surrounding areas where most students live, such as on Westmount, the rest of University, Columbia and Erb. A cycling advocacy group called CycleWR in the Waterloo Region conducted a survey earlier this year on perceived risks of bike infrastructure. The key takeaways were that most respondents perceived cycle tracks and multi-use paths to be significantly safer than unprotected bike lanes. This is possibly because not only is there no barrier with vehicle traffic, but they face more severe issues during the winter. Snow clearance of the roads often creates snowbanks in the bike lanes forcing cyclists into the road, or off it completely. When the road has snow on it, the lanes are hard to identify, making it more dangerous for cyclists, as cars might drive in bike lanes unintentionally.
Improving the bike infrastructure in the city is a joint effort that must be made between the region, the city and businesses. More bike parking in shopping hubs will allow for students to choose biking as a form of transit for shopping. Better cycling lanes will encourage more hesitant riders and those who ride only outside of the winter to bike more often. A study in Europe published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 found that cities that added bike lanes increased bike ridership by up to 48 per cent. These lanes will also improve travel time and reduce the risk of accidents. Researchers from the University of Colorado studied data from 12 U.S. cities and found that protected lanes not only had the greatest ridership, but also had significantly lower fatality rates from 38 per cent to 75 per cent less.
Better infrastructure not only offers more convenience to commuters, but also helps improve community health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As of the 2016 census, the City of Waterloo’s rate of commuters by bike was barely higher than the national average, showing there is much untapped potential left. In the region’s upcoming plan to upgrade infrastructure, cycling infrastructure surrounding students’ lifestyles should be a top priority.