Researcher creates new stress test to rate Edmonton bike lanes

More accurate assessment of cyclists’ comfort level could help city planners remove hidden barriers to wider use of dedicated lanes.

A combination alley and grocery store driveway entrance that doubles as a bike path located south of Jasper Avenue and east of 110 Street is creating enough of a cycling barrier to potentially turn off some cyclists who might otherwise cycle in the downtown core, according to a University of Alberta study.

Under the supervision of transportation engineering researcher Amy Kim, Laura Cabral identified the downtown cycling snag that lasts less than a block in a bike lane infrastructure study she conducted as part of her transportation engineering master's thesis.

"You have two beautiful shared-use paths (one north of Jasper Avenue and the other south of the alley that follows the trolley tracks) but to connect them, you have to go through a busy alleyway that is full of parked cars," she said. "The most often cited reason for not cycling is a perceived lack of safety."

While the spot is known to city planners and avid cyclists alike, the industry best practice for assessing the comfort and connectivity of bicycle networks-the Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) framework-has always scored that alleyway linkage as low stress.

However, Cabral said she wondered whether this widely held typology of thoroughfares was the right tool for gauging the comfort of Edmonton cyclists.

"The current Bicycle Transportation Plan includes a goal to increase the share of cycling as a mode of transportation," she said. "One proven way to increase cycling is to make the infrastructure feel comfortable for most potential users."

The LTS framework grades traffic stress imposed on cyclists on a scale of one to four, with LTS 1 being a bike ride along a quiet residential street and LTS 4 being the highest level of stress and includes any cycling situation regardless of traffic volume and speed limit. LTS 2, what researchers feel is the target level for a relatively safe and stress-free citywide cycling network, includes roads that could be comfortably ridden by the general adult population.

Cabral partnered with the city to distribute a survey, which was filled out by more than 3,200 people, both cyclists and non-cyclists, that included short video clips asking participants to rate their comfort level across different infrastructure scenarios.

She found that only 14 per cent of "interested but concerned" cyclists were very comfortable on LTS 2 infrastructure that was designed for them. As well, less than half of this level of cyclist had even a minimal level of comfort on the type of infrastructure intended for their use.

"It appears that the way the LTS defines what is supposed to be comfortable for the types of cyclists doesn't match their stated comfort," she said.

After clustering patterns of similar responses, Cabral came up with a new cyclist typology, which featured just three types of cyclists: uncomfortable or uninterested (20 per cent of respondents), cautious majority (65 per cent) and very comfortable (15 per cent). She then modelled which road infrastructure elements contributed to making each cyclist type more or less comfortable and came up with her own Level of Cycling Comfort framework.

"Once we applied the new framework, it became clear that our initial assessment of the extent of the low-stress network was overly optimistic," she said.

With her new assessment tool, Cabral said the perceived low-stress connection between north and south in the downtown core east of 110 Street was actually a cycling barrier that worked to sever the connection between the U of A, the legislature and Old Strathcona Farmers' Market in the south, and MacEwan University, Rogers Place and Churchill Square to the north.

"It wouldn't be so problematic if there were other comfortable connections nearby, but the nearest comfortable connection is several blocks east, on 106 Street," Cabral noted.

Cabral said the city has been and will continue exploring ways to upgrade that 110 Street connection because it is so travelled.

"If you're trying to get new people on board and create a mode shift away from cars to bikes, you can't just assume people will go out and be ready to ride on any street," she said. "You really have to create the perfect conditions that make it cozy."