October 20, 2014

Commentary | September 9, 2013
Bikes on parade
The inefficacy of the new bike barriers at Milton gates
Written by | Visual by Robert Smith | The McGill Daily

University Services recently installed a new set of barriers at the Milton Gates entrance to campus. The new contraptions consist of elongated car barriers that are flush with the curb, and swinging aluminium gates at waist height on the sidewalks. The barriers are the newest tools in the University’s ‘no biking on campus’ campaign, which is promoted with stencils and posters, and security guards instructing cyclists to dismount. However, this campaign carries no legal obligation except on McTavish, a pedestrianized street, where cyclists may be fined by the City of Montreal for failing to dismount.

The gates are inefficient at making campus safer. By further withdrawing campus space from its surrounding neighbourhood and creating obstacles to entry, they also conflict with McGill’s stated commitment to community involvement and accessibility.

Robert Couvrette, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), said in a McGill Reporter article that the gates’ only purpose was to “make campus safer.” The options for cyclists are to either ride through campus, or bike along Sherbrooke, one of the busiest arteries in the city without a bike lane. It would be worthwhile to compare collision statistics – I suspect cyclists on Sherbrooke are in more danger from car traffic than pedestrians on campus. The new barriers have little effect, as cyclists routinely get off their bikes to cross the gate and then cycle on again. With a little coordination, it is even possible to bike through the middle of the pedestrian gates. If a cyclist was comfortable breaking the ‘no biking’ rule before the gates, it is naïve to think that they would now stay off their bike. Furthermore, how does McGill reconcile its ‘no biking’ rule with its allowance of delivery vans, construction trucks, and security SUVs on campus? These vehicles perform a function on campus, but collisions between motorized vehicles and pedestrians are a far more pressing issue than bike crashes.

A real solution would be to designate bike lanes on campus, so cyclists know where to safely bike and pedestrians know where to safely walk. This model already exists in comparable urban campuses such as University of California Berkeley and New York University. It is much easier to allow people to bike conveniently than to convince them not to bike at all. Cycling, and promoting cycling by exposing pedestrians to bikes, inspires physical activity, reduces traffic congestion, reduces emissions, and helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is disheartening that McGill is so committed to discouraging this activity.

The barriers at Milton Gates are also part of McGill’s newest effort to insulate campus from its surrounding community. Since its establishment, this campus has sought to create an anglophone foothill enclave. A spiked steel fence lines Sherbrooke. There is a blatant lack of connection between McLennan library and Sherbrooke – the area outside the library has been under construction for over a year with no hints at improving accessibility. Courtney, a U3 Geography student, says the new gates make them feel “caged in, especially with the security guards there.” These are deliberate architectural and infrastructural choices.

If McGill were intentionally trying to create a fortress-like campus, then this would reflect a debate that exists at the societal level: some people prefer privacy and exclusiveness on their property, while others accept open and shared alternatives. If McGill were honest about its anti-cycling, fortressed design, then students could decide whether they want to be students at a university with these values. The problem is that McGill declares itself an open, accessible, connected campus, while simultaneously acting in opposition to those declarations.

Official campus media often brags about McGill’s connectedness to downtown Montreal, to the Milton-Parc community, and to the Quebec province. The University adopted the Office for Students with Disabilities’ planning standards, which call for a “barrier-free campus.” Yet the school is constantly shutting off entrances and building obstacles. Official McGill media often broadcasts research from Transportation Research at McGill (TRAM) praising the benefits of commuting by bike. It seems incongruous to then take measures to bar bikes from campus.

I will continue to clang my way through the gates and cycle through campus until McGill implements more sensible bike policies. This university is home to top-ranked transportation researchers – so it shouldn’t be too hard.

Malcolm Araos-Egan is a research assistant in the Geography department, who recently graduated with an honours undergraduate Urban Systems degree. Malcolm can be reached at malcolm.araosegan@mail.mcgill.ca.

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