Biking banned on campus

Administration stresses pedestrian safety

Since May 28, cyclists have been asked to dismount their bikes across the downtown campus. While there is no official legislation enforcing the rule, the administration is trying to establish a norm across McGill that prioritizes pedestrian use of space.

“It’s the way we’re trying to manage things, to set expectations. You’re not going to find any document in a green book somewhere that says this is the policy of the University,” said Jim Nicell, Associate VP (University Services). Nicell has been coordinating many of the sustainability and infrastructure developments on campus.

The change is part of McGill’s master plan to update infrastructure and make lower campus a greener and safer space for pedestrians. The administration says there have been numerous accidents involving cyclists over the years.

“The reason for making the lower campus a walk-bike zone should be readily apparent: thousands of pedestrians cross McGill’s downtown campus every day, sometimes – especially when classes change – in substantial numbers,” a preliminary document explaining the new transportation protocols reads.  
“Mounted bicycles are incompatible with pedestrian safety,” it continued.    
Nicell emphasized the increased ability for pedestrians to take advantage of outdoor space. In addition to the ban on cycling, deliveries are now restricted to between 7 and 11 a.m., parking permits for about 150 vehicles have been transferred elsewhere, and McTavish is now completely car-free.

“We want to bring people off of the sidewalks,” Nicell said.  “The idea is to give them more social space.”

The University does not view the no-bike implementation as incompatible with its greening initiatives.  The number of bike racks on campus, mostly clustered around entrances, is also being doubled by the end of 2010.

According to the University, it shouldn’t be a big deal to dismount and walk.

“I think a lot of us feel that it’s not a huge compromise,” Nicell said. “To the cyclists, we’re offering them as many parking spots as we can physically fit on the campus. We try to make sure they’re as safe and secure locations as possible. And we’re asking them, as well, to walk the reasonable distance to wherever they’re going.”

As for general public who commute through campus or arrive by bike to enjoy the space, Nicell does not see any major inconvenience.  
“You have a choice to go around [McGill], or you can enjoy us for two more minutes,” he said.

Campus cyclists, however, are less than thrilled. Chuk Plante, a sociology graduate student, cyclist, and volunteer at the Flat, the student bike collective in the Shatner basement, says that the change is misguided at best.

“It’s not an anti-bike policy so much as an overly-reactive safety policy,” he said. “It assumes pedestrians are pretty dumb, and cyclists are pretty careless.”  
Plante argues that it further antagonizes the administration in students’ eyes. “The policy makes it seem like the administration is very out of touch,” he said. “As long as it’s in place, [students] interact with the admin every day in a negative way.”

While Plante tends to obey the dismount request and agrees that the new bike racks are helpful, others often speed past security guards.  Last Friday night, two disgruntled cyclists on McTavish even tried to steal a “Dismount Your Bike” sign before the guard was able to retrieve it.

Nicell concedes the change can seem harsh at late hours when there are virtually no pedestrians.  As the semester begins, the University may look to reduce the hours during which cyclists must dismount to peak times.

“From a long-term sustainability viewpoint, we need to figure out how we’re going to work with cyclists and put them into the mix with pedestrians,” he said.  “We’re trying to find that middle ground…and in this case, compromise on the ability of cyclists to pass through the campus.”

Further concerns have been voiced, however, about a perceived lack of consultation before the protocol’s implementation, which began in earnest this summer, but can be traced back to the construction at the Milton gates that restricted road space over the past two years.

Though the administration is holding a forum for cyclists and other interested parties September 23, some think it’s coming too late.

Nicell argued that proper consultation was done. He said that the diverse stakeholders involved in weekly planning discussions included avid cyclists, though no students. According to Nicell, several presentations on sustainability, including some to Senate last year, were sufficient, even though the presentations may not have specifically discussed the no-bike rule.

“They probably should have involved people before it was implemented,” Plante said.