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Liking biking

Zero dollars for bike infrastructure leaves Halifax with a critical mess.

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Liking biking

It's a slow ride. If it was a race, I couldeasily win. Most of us could. But I'm middle of the pack, surrounded by 300 Haligonian cyclists who have taken over the streets. A chant goes up behind me, "One, two, three, four, we don't want no oil wars."

It's Critical Mass, the two hours of the month when the roads belong to us. As I turn right onto Spring Garden I sneak a peek over my shoulder and see the back of the pack still turning onto Queen Street, forming a serpentine line of two-wheeled smiles.

Usually only a few dozen cyclists come out. This time cyclist and environmental groups have been spreading the word.The result: the largest critical mass inHalifax history.

The ride ends at the Italian Cultural Centre on Agricola Street and the lead rider looks overwhelmed. "We didn't expect this," he shouts in teary-eyed jubilation.

So begins Bike Week 2008, May 30 to June 8. If you haven't yet taken advantage of free ferry and Metro Link rides if you bring your bike along, you have until Sunday.

"This is Bike Week's tenth year," Laena Garrison tells me. She represents the Ecology Action Centre on HRM's bikeways advisory committee, and is a community organizer for Bike Week. "It started in 1998 to showcase biking as a way to get around and to have fun---to show that bikes are cool."

Hanita Koblents, the city staffer who co-ordinates Bike Week, sums it up nicely: "We hope to celebrate cycling, educate people about bicycle safety and motivate people to get cycling," she says.

Koblents explains that this celebration of human-powered bipedalism---that most pro-feminist, energy-efficient form of transportation---is largely community organized, with $5,000 worth of city support in promotion and committee co-ordination. The investment is minimal, in part because of sponsorship from corporations and public institutions.

Speaking of small investments, this year city council has budgeted $0 for cycling infrastructure. Compare that to more than $30 million in road repairs and you might think that our regional municipality cares infinitely more about oil-powered cars than people-powered bikes.

"[This year] is the first year we got nothing for bikes," Garrison says. In the last five years, bikes got $200,000 to $500,000.That money was used to create new cycling infrastructure such as bike racks on some city buses and paving cycling shoulders onto the Bedford Highway.

Despite the zero budget line, some progress may still be made because, under the new Active Transportation Plan, bike lanes are automatically considered in any road upgrades or improvement under the road budget. Still, it's hard to imagine much progress this year with zero investment. Despite the Bike Plan, which has clear short-, medium- and long-term goals, and despite the Active Transportation Plan---passed in 2006, it has taken the Bike Plan under its paper wing---HRM will slip further behind other Canadian cycling cities.

As a cyclist, Garrison says, "In comparison to other Canadian cities I've lived in---that includes Victoria and Vancouver---cycling in Halifax is very poor."

Based on the five years I cycled in Toronto, I concur. Even though Toronto has faltered since winning Bicycling Magazine's coveted best cycling city in North America award in 1995, it is well equipped with a network of bike lanes that, unlike in HRM, actually connect and take you from point A to point B.

"The bike map in Halifax indicates that you can cycle on roads like Chebucto and Quinpool," Garrison quips, "but there are no bike lanes there and it's really narrow."

As councillor Dawn Sloane reminds me, there are almost no bike lanes at all downtown where traffic is most intense and commuter cyclists are most in need of safe routes. "There's just that damn Brunswick Street bike lane to nowhere," she says.

While Sloane blames an over-representation of rural councillors in cycling issues, Garrison says the fault for our patchwork of 49.7 kilometres of bike lanes, etched over random strips of asphalt throughout the region, lies in a lack of focused investment in a real commuter system for cyclists: The kind of investment council just cut.

And so, for the few of us who are foolhardy enough to pedal down a narrow or non-existent path through our city's often over-crowded streets, the risk remains ours and ours alone.

But for now, let us revel in the one week that belongs to us---let us celebrate ourselves and our sustainable, healthy, low-tech rides. "We want to say thank you to cyclists," Koblents says, summing up the raison d'etre of Bike Week.

The least we can do is say, "You're welcome," by coming out and meeting other cyclists, biking to Bowl-a-rama for a free hour of bowling, communing with nature bike-orienteering style, or hitting the tri-city loop, a 50-kilometre mass ride (like Critical Mass without the chants).

Start at halifax.ca/bikeweek. May the centripetal force be with you. a

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