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A throughfare for bikes unsafe: Nicell

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Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), observed Car-Free Day on Monday holed up in his office, catching up on work. Responsible for the physical development of the University and with a background in environmental and civil engineering, Nicell could be the one to turn McGill’s campus into a car-free zone. He seemed primed to help cut back McGill’s carbon diet as students expected him to by embracing alternative transportation systems and green initiatives. While Nicell sees McGill’s future as free of vehicles, with the exception of security and delivery, he is strictly opposed to creating a bike route connecting the Milton and Maisonneuve paths, though the McGill cycling population is expected to triple over the next two decades. The Daily tracked down Nicell this week to seek an explanation.

McGill Daily: How do you think that McGill can improve the sustainability of the campus infrastructure through coordinating pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles?

Jim Nicell: The thing that we’re struggling with is how to accommodate the shift away from independent car transport over to alternative forms – bikes as well as other means, and then give people the services that they need for them. But to [continue to] meet the safety needs of the University is a phenomenal issue. The fact is, if you stand outside Dawson Hall at a busy time of day and you watch what’s happening below – deliveries, and students being released from classes, and then the bikes, it’s much better now because we have a security guard, but the bikes create a confluence of people that is phenomenally dangerous. Long-term, we don’t want to have these cars and trucks – it’ll take a long period of transition. But in the meantime we’ve got to ensure the safety of our people.

MD: You told The Gazette this spring that McGill wouldn’t be building a bike path to connect the Milton and Maisonneuve bike paths, primarily because McGill didn’t want commuters to be moving through the campus.

JN: There’s an element of truth to that, in the sense that when the city of Montreal built the bike path to the Milton gates, they never talked to us. And what ended up happening was, there’s this incredible flow of people to our gates. We counted on one day 3,000 bikes. Five hundred appeared to have stayed, but 2,500 others went through, and the majority went against the flow of traffic, creating innumerable reports of accidents or near-misses.

MD: Wouldn’t a bike path solve many of those safety issues?

JN: We have no authority over people coming through our campus to issue a ticket, to bring them in front of courts to deal with repeated behavior…. I think there are alternatives. I know they’re not great, but we’re working with the city very closely to see if we can get a proper connection between the north-south corridor and the east-west-corridor of the de Maisonneuve path. One of the things we were looking at is the possibility of a bike path down University Street, or a number of the other streets. McGill has more than enough right to set certain boundaries on the way its campus is used. Most of us wouldn’t let a bike path through our own personal properties; I’m not sure why McGill should let it happen either. Imagine we make ourselves wide-open to city bike traffic, and somebody gets hit by a bike. Imagine the headlines. People are going to say, ‘You built an unsafe system that allowed bikes to go through here, but [say] you didn’t take care of the other people on your campus.’ We had a staff member killed at McGill University a number of years ago, not on McGill, but right across the street. It was by a cyclist riding on a sidewalk. Do you think we’re going to allow that to happen at McGill?

MD: If there were to be a cycling accident at McGill, wouldn’t it be better for liability reasons to have a bike lane that would delineate where cyclists should be?

JN: Liability is not what’s driving me here. It’s the fact that somebody could get killed. We want to think of this campus and where we want to be 20, 50, 100 years from now. If we open up [bike] traffic through the campus, basically we’re turning on a tap that we can’t shut off. What we want to do is turn this University into a pedestrian-friendly, open, porous, almost a park-like atmosphere, which is what would be achieved if we eliminated some of the parking and vehicle traffic on our campus. And I honestly don’t think that having what I think would become a [bike] highway in 10, 15 years – I don’t think it would be consistent with that vision, and I don’t think it would be safe.

MD: What is the grand scheme for the James Admin–Macdonald engineering campus area then?

JN: I can’t tell you what that whole layout is going to be, but I think it’s a great opportunity to rethink that whole area in a way that would enhance the safety of everybody….The tunnel project will be completed sometime in August 2009, and the last stage is landscaping, and we have a number of landscape architects, transportation people, specialists that are looking at this whole area to come up with some interesting concepts. We’re rethinking the way things are organized, the circulation patterns of the University, and to improve the green space.

MD: So are we going to be keeping those traffic guards there for all eternity?

JN: We can’t afford to. It’s costing a fortune. Last fall it cost about $5,000 to keep a security guard there. It’s not a sustainable solution, but there’s no way we’re going to have a dedicated bike path across campus for the public. We want to make sure McGill becomes a destination for people with bikes. We want to make sure this is a place people can come safely and bring their bikes and use it as a way of commuting to McGill. But we should not become a thoroughfare to the public.

– compiled by Kelly Ebbels