Pedalling in the Electric City

 

Peterborough's George Street bike lane currently sports bollards and planters.

Peterborough used to be known as "The Electric City" but could it become a pedalling paradise?

by Tammy Thorne

~ A shorter version of this story appears in Electric City Magazine. ~

Imagine a city where there is no real rush hour and many kilometres of pristine bike lanes connecting to even smoother off-road car-free multi-use trails that then connect to smaller surrounding towns. In this biketastic city, there’s even a bike lane right down the main street.

Is this some quaint European town or perhaps la belle Province? No, you’re in the Kawarthas -- Peterborough to be exact. With a population of around 77,000 just an hour-and-a-half from Toronto, two post-secondary institutes, and a fairly flat city centre, it’s arguably perfectly situated to be the next big biking city in Ontario. 

There is a sweet multi-use path along the Otonabee River from downtown to Trent University. You can even bike all the way to the Lakefield.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best it can be, I’d say Peterborough is an 8 when it comes to bikeability. Okay, I admit I may be a bit biased (and suffering from a sort of Bicycle PTSD after seeing cycling grow in Toronto so much that the bike lanes are so crowded you're required to constantly shoulder check) as I’ve just moved back to "The Electric City" after a couple of decades...and it's literally a breath of fresh air. But, as with most cities that are growing their bike network, Peterborough is not without it's issues.

Art en plein air on a part of the Trans-Canada Trail near popular Millennium Park in Peterborough.

After riding in the bike lanes, my first impression of the on-street infrastructure is that Peterborough has a very Toronto problem. Bike lanes often end right when you need them most: in busy intersections. And the bike lanes don’t always connect with each other.

For example, the main street in Peterborough - George Street - has a bike lane with buffer. Yay! But it only goes as far south as Hunter (which doesn’t have a bike lane.) Boo! And suddenly you find yourself on a fast-moving, two-lane, one-way street with parked cars on your right. But the City of Peterborough has big plans for expansions and improvements.

Susan Sauvé, Transportation Demand Management Planner at the City of Peterborough, says the George Street bike lane will be extended all the way to Lake Street in the south this year. Fantastic news if you want to check out fireworks or a concert at Del Crary Park or just enjoy a wee picnic at Little Lake. Regardless of what you want to do in this part of town, you will soon be able to easily do it by bike.

Little Lake and it's famous fountain as seen from Del Crary Park.

If the George Street lane can’t be extended past Lake Street further south all the way to Lansdowne and the Memorial Centre, ideally (in my opinion), a new bike lane should be considered for Lock Street. Lock is a great route to and from the farmers market, the Ex, or a Pete’s game.

With just over 30 km of on-street bike lanes there is definitely room for more new bike lanes.

According to Sauvé, Peterborough currently has73 km of cycling infrastructure and trails, 40 km are multi-use trails and 33 km are bike lanes.”

My second major impression of Peterborough’s bike infrastructure is that on-street lanes are greatly aided by the local (regional) multi-use trail network. It’s worth noting that the surrounding Peterborough County boasts over 300 km of bike routes and the Ontario government's focus on cycle tourism is a true boon to those of us who want to see cycling culture and infrastructure grow inside the city proper. Indeed, the four existing trails that currently run through the city - Trans-Canada, Parkway and Rotary Greenway trails, plus the soon-to-be-extended Crawford Rail Trail - are very useful in creating connected cycling routes to destinations throughout the city.

Peterborough has a high poverty and unemployment rate so you sometimes find people sleeping in the park in summer.

Trans-Canada trail bridge crossing Jackson Creek on the way to Jackson Park.

The trails provide a kind of amuse-bouche to cleanse the palate of the fairly fast-moving-on-street biking experience. Beyond the bike lanes and trails, there are many attractive, wide side residential streets that connect which are pleasant for riding. Indeed, the best way students and staff can get to Fleming College by bike (and avoid the super fast in-town highway known as Lansdowne) is to take these side residential streets up and across. This residential ‘cut through’ is actually the suggested route on the City’s bike map. Compared to the European-esque river-side ride to Trent on the beautiful paved Rotary Greenway Trail along the east banks of the Otonabee, Fleming students and staff would likely not rate the city's bikeability as great. Biking around campus has been made nicer with bike lanes at Fleming, whereas biking to campus at Trent is the highlight.

Even though there are ample residential side streets that are nice enough (when you plan ahead) for biking, and of course the lovely trails, the network of on-street bike lanes here in Peterborough still has lots of room to grow. The existing network recently earned Peterborough a silver in Share The Road’s Bicycle Friendly Community awards. And George Street, the bike lane-lined main street, was featured on the cover of a recent book about cycling in cities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. George is one-way so the adjacent main street, Water, also has a bike lane. Both go pretty far north, up to Hilliard, where you can then go west on the Parkway Trail or east over the river to the Rotary Greenway Trail.

I biked on this lane to Joanne’s health food store on the hunt for corn tortillas and chemical-free laundry soap. Getting over to George to head back downtown was also hairy scary. This intersection needs improvements for cyclists and pedestrians for sure. It’s not clear how to cross safely. I waited for a long time for a safe opportunity to cross.

On the way down Water I found the intersection at Parkhill Road a bit scary with westbound traffic merging south to Water right through this green bike lane. And traffic is really fast.

Green paint is used at some intersections in Peterborough, like this difficult intersection at Parkhill and Water streets where west-to-south-bound motorists come at you from an off ramp instead of having to make a hard right turn.

The signs say 50 km but it felt like most were driving over the speed limit. The bike lane has no bollards or planters but it does have a painted buffer and is fairly smooth. There is also a section on the Water Street bike lane where cars are actually allowed to park... to pick up batteries. Apparently, the battery shop pushed the City to make an exception for them.

Sauve told me that the bike lane on Water will also be extended (south) to Sherbrooke this year where both Water and George street bike lanes will connect to a brand new, much needed east-west bike lane on Sherbrooke. The new lane on Sherbrooke will be “protected” by a wide landscaped median between Water and George on the westbound side.

But, as George and Water bike lanes currently exist, they both have terminus' at Hunter. Hunter is a restaurant row for Peterborough. In my opinion, this street should be pedestrianized. If the city were to add cobblestones (or pavers as they are usually called in planner lingo) it would greatly enhance the patio dining experience by slowing down traffic - and it would look pretty too! With over 20 restaurants and cafes Hunter is a major destination day and night. It also connects to the Hunter Street bridge, which currently has a narrow bike lane and delivers you to East City, where you will see the world famous Lift Lock next to the grounds of which will soon be home to the Canoe Museum.

Hunter dead-ends at Walton going west, which means it’s not an ideal thoroughfare for emergency vehicles that need to get up to the hospital via Charlotte. Hunter is a perfect candidate for a complete street treatment, yet it is the street one block over, Charlotte, that is most discussed amongst local active transportation circles. (Also worth note: Charlotte has half as many restaurants and cafes but more on-street parking than Hunter does.) 

Regardless of which street gets a pedestrian-focused treatment (hey, why not both?!) the City needs to at the very least beef up the skinny little bike lane over the Hunter Street bridge, which is a gorgeous piece of infrastructure under the historic Quaker Oats factory.

Quaker Oats viewed from the new rail bridge bike path.

The Hunter Street bridge bike lane is in desperate need of a buffer. It could also be slightly raised and painted green to add visibility. There are no plans for the City to install bollards (which Toronto uses on the Bloor Viaduct bike lane now, to mixed reviews.) As it currently stands, trucks and cars zoom past at such high speed over the bridge I would not bike here with my partner and his young son. We would go on the sidewalk.

The downtown cycling culture here is still growing. But there are so many signs of great things to come, like the new bike share program with three stations.

So yes, the off-road multi-use trails are fantastic, including the new rail bridge path behind the Holiday Inn that takes you out to the point on Little Lake where you can watch twice weekly fireworks in the summer and then continue on to the Ecology Park, or back towards the Lift Lock (to avoid the massive hill in East City.)

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But besides checking out all these scenic destinations, I wanted to see how easy it was to get around by bike to do my regular everyday things like going to work, running errands, shopping, and going out for dinner.

Enter Monaghan.

Monaghan is another lovely long bike lane through the city that runs from the McDonnel bike lane (and TransCanada Trail in beautiful Jackson Park) all the way to the river in the south end, and the new Crawford rail trail. I rode it to get to Lansdowne Place - the main shopping mall here. This lane also takes you by the current location of The Canoe Museum.  

For this 10-plus-km round trip (which I did during ‘rush hour’). I was prepared for a white knuckle ride. I took my bright safety vest. But I was pleasantly surprised: Even though there is no buffer on this simple painted single-white-line bike lane it was free of debris and potholes and was wide enough for me to feel pretty safe, even with the traffic whizzing by. I found most motorists gave a wider berth when passing and were very considerate. The intersection at Sherbrooke was a bit terrifying though. The multiple school crossing signs per corner in neon yellow seemed to indicate that this is a problematic intersection in front of the Prince of Wales School (where I attended Kindergarten.) I proceeded with great caution, locking eyes with a motorist who was about to turn south off of Sherbrooke and nearly T-bone me -- just in time for her to wave me on impatiently. Then I continued on past the Canadian General Electric (CGE) where my aunt and uncle spent their entire working lives.

Soon you find yourself at the Canoe Museum. You no sooner set eyes on the museum when the bike lane ends unceremoniously with nothing but a black and white sign that says “bike lane ends here.”

I was suddenly in the soup: Four lanes of fast traffic. I hopped up on the sidewalk - which I hate doing. It’s dangerous, you have to completely stop at every laneway to avoid a potential collision with motorists who aren’t expecting you. And it’s bumpy. But I did it. I rode past a little cemetery and saw another cyclist on the sidewalk. I made it to the big intersection at Lansdowne and walked my bike through the intersection. Strangely, after crossing my bike on foot through the big intersection there was a inexplicable sign.

It was a yellow diamond with a bike on it. I had no idea what it could possibly mean as there was no bike lane in site and certainly no one in their right mind would try to bike in this busy, wide, fast road with no bike lane, in front of laneways to the busiest mall in town. I wasn’t sure how to proceed so I kept walking on the sidewalk until the bike lane started again, which was also at the mouth of the new(ish) rail trail. But I wanted to keep going on this bike lane, so I hopped back in the saddle.

Rail trail entrance at Lansdowne.

The bike lane does become a bit sketchy at this point though: Narrow, faded, bumpy, potholed, filled with buses and also occasionally big rigs delivering to the various industrial outlets. I considered getting out the safety vest.

Rare potholes in the bike lane at the south end on Monaghan.

Debris in the bike lane is rare, but in this case it was a downed lamp post with one pylon to caution.

On the way back I took the Crawford Rail Trail. It runs behind the mall and through part of an industrial area. If I lived in one of the apartment complexes in the south end I would totally take the rail trail to the mall. But right now, the rail trail is fairly useless until it gets extended downtown to Lake Street. The Crawford Trail currently runs diagonally from Crawford Drive near Costco to Monaghan Road just south of Lansdowne Place.  

Cat paths from the Crawford rail trail into the back of Lansdowne Place.

The view down the rail tail soon-to-be extension at Lansdowne, looking north-east.

The City is working to bring the trail along the old rail line right into the bottom of Bethune Street. Bethune Street is getting a complete overhaul over the next few years and will be reconstructed as a bicycle priority street, as the City replaces the aging underground water infrastructure.

I work on Bethune Street which is, in fact, screaming for a complete street treatment. Bethune is already nice and slow and wide – and bumpy– like many Peterborough streets. I like that I rarely feel squeezed. I love having lots of room for cars to pass. It’s such a change from Toronto. That said, I have noticed that in Peterborough there seems to be an inordinate amount vehicles that have loud mufflers, and the loudness combined with the faster speeds can make you flinch.

Back on Monaghan there’s an incline as I head back downtown, and in an effort to avoid the steep part of the hill before McDonnell I turned right on King which was super wide with fantastically massive speed bumps. At the bottom of King, you can connect back to Bethune to go north-south, or go straight down to the river where there is the excellent Silver Bean Cafe at Millenium Park with facilities including an air pump.

One of the very best things about biking in Peterborough for me right now is not having to shoulder check every two seconds for other cyclists riding too closely. The kink in the left side of my neck might finally release!

Of course, one day soon there will be way more people riding bikes here in Peterborough. For now though, being a big city girl in ‘recovery’, I am concerned about silly things like...OH...bear attacks on the trails. So I asked the expert, Sue Sauve said: “I haven't heard of any bike/bear incidents. My fear is of a deer jumping out in front of me as I'm careening down a hill at 50km/hr!”

So far, this turtle has been the biggest wildlife I've spotted on the trails.

A classic ending to ANY bike ride in and around Peterborough: Enjoying a frosty SteamWhistle on the Only Cafe patio.

Bike maps are available at City Hall and most bike shops in town. I got mine at Spokes and Pedals where I enjoyed great service. You can also find it here online.

A shorter version of this story appears in Electric City Magazine. ~

Related on dandyhorsemagazine.com:

Cycling in the Greater Horseshoe

Building Community through Bike-Friendly Planning

Too pretty to ride? Go cluck yourself!

Waterfront and GO a match made in heaven

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