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Western’s Open Space Strategy makes cycling safe year-round

The 10-year-long project adds bike lanes, racks, showers to incentivize students, staff and faculty to step away from car culture.

BY MICHAEL RANCIC | MAY 02 2022

Up until recently, cycling at Western University was seen as a seasonal practice by faculty administrators, epitomized by the bike racks across campus that had become the favourite dumping grounds for snow ploughs during the frozen winter months. But over the past five years, that mindset has changed, with the school adding bike lanes, secure enclosed lockers, covered bike racks, and gender-neutral showers across the campus to incentivize cycling and make it safer for those who already commute by pedal.

Like many cities across Canada, London Ontario’s transportation infrastructure is purpose built for cars, and the location of Western is no exception; its University Drive bisects the campus and connects two major roadways to the east and west. “When we did some transportation studies, what we saw was over 40 per cent of the cars going through Western had no business on campus,” revealed Elizabeth Krische, Western’s associate vice-president of facilities management. “Our goal is actually to try to cut that traffic off and stop them from coming through.”

Reducing car traffic on campus is one of the driving principles of the university’s “Open Space Strategy,” a plan unveiled in 2018 which prioritizes pedestrians, public transit, and accessibility to create a much safer environment for students, staff and faculty. “We’re looking at closing different parking areas, moving the people further out from the core, adding bike lanes, making sure it’s very well delineated where you’re supposed to bike, where you’re supposed to walk versus where a car might go,” Ms. Krische explained.

Aside from the benefits to health, the environment, and general road safety, the plan also prioritizes the safety of bicycles themselves, with the addition of a 60-capacity keyed-entry bike storage facility near the Alumni/Thompson parking lot on the south end of the campus. “There were about a hundred reported bicycle thefts on campus in 2019,” explained Jörn Diedrichsen, Western Research Chair for Motor Control and Computational Neuroscience at the Brain and Mind Institute. “And because of theft, a lot of people just don’t ride a bike.” Dr. Diedrichsen is a lifelong cyclist, and co-founder of the Western Active Transportation Society (WATS). The society is a multidisciplinary cohort of students, staff and faculty who have been advocating for better bike infrastructure on campus since 2019. Having safe and adequate storage facilities has been a significant part of their organizing.

WATS is using tools like surveys to inform their advocacy, feedback that in turn has helped the university determine important areas to develop biking infrastructure. “[WATS] did a survey recently and asked for feedback as to where they think we need more shelters. So we’re informing our decisions based on those responses,” Ms. Krische said. Their level of organizing, and the desire for better infrastructure for year-round cyclists speaks to the increasing need for the university to prioritize this growing cohort.

That trend will likely continue, as London itself is investing a lot in cycling infrastructure such as bike lanes and dedicated bike paths, and might even be incorporating a bike share program in the near future. “We’re trying to make sure that we connect into wherever we can, the local city network, so that it makes it easier for people trying to get to campus, to come along a network and as well as get onto our network,” Ms. Krische explained about the level of coordination happening between Western and London.

Indeed, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Demand for a new bike storage enclosure quickly exceeded capacity, so a second 100-capacity enclosure is planned for the fall, with other sheltered bike racks in the works.

Also there are plans for the aforementioned University Drive that could permanently close the drive to non-Western traffic when the one hundred year old bridge at the centre of it gets revitalized in 2024. Western just recently hired a consultant for the project which could see the bridge being demolished entirely in favour of a new structure, or conversely, with a new pedestrian-friendly structure built alongside it. Either way, Ms. Krische said the university is looking into making the road only accessible to transit, service and emergency vehicles. “That would be an absolutely amazing change,” Dr. Diedrichsen added. “That would be a tidal change.”

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