October 20, 2000 Features & Images » Feature Story

bicycle tast force 

Pedal power Bicycle task force aims to secure Whistler’s spot on world cycling map Sub (if you need it Aaron) Plan will cater to both local commuters and recreational cyclists By Andrew Mitchell Cycling. It’s an idea that keeps coming up in Whistler’s environmental strategies, transportation strategies, tourism strategies, and five-year plans. According to Whistler 2002 — Charting a Course for the Future, "Whistler is one of the top bike towns in North America, with world-class trails and with international, national and regional biking competitions". The Whistler Comprehensive Transportation Strategy identifies cycling as a partial solution to traffic congestion in the valley and suggests significant improvements to the infrastructure to encourage and reward bicycle commuters. The Whistler Environmental Strategy recommends "building a more environmentally-sustainable transportation network" by enhancing the current cycling trail network and installing end-of-trip facilities in the village. Now, after years of discussing the possible future of cycling in the valley, the municipality is doing something about it. On Oct. 2, Whistler council approved the terms of reference for the creation of the Bicycle Task Force (BTF), as submitted by Keith Bennett, manager of parks 0perations for the RMOW parks and recreation department. The BTF is a round-table venture, comprised of representatives from the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association, Whistler-Blackcomb, Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission, three community representatives, and members of the municipal planning, parks and recreations, and public works departments. Bennett also identified several key stakeholders that would be brought into the process whenever a BTF policy or action concerns them. These include the Advisory Planning Commission, the Howe Sound School Board, Whistler citizens, tour operators, the Ministry of Forests, the Ministry of Transportation and Highways, Whistler council, Tourism Whistler, bicycle shops, emergency services, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), cycling event promoters, B.C. Rail, and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. The goal of the task force is to co-ordinate a Cycling Network Plan for inclusion into the Official Community Plan and to create a mountain bike vision and a policy that supports and enhances Whistler’s position as one of the "top bike towns in North America". When these first two goals are reached, the task force will bring together interested community members to form the Whistler Cycling Coalition, a permanent body that will deal with cycling issues in the valley after the task force disbands. The municipality will commit people, resources and funding to the task force for up to three years. Although that may seem like a long time, there is a backlog of unresolved transportation and trail access issues to address, and a number of ambitious projects in the works for the future. "I’m looking forward to this," says Bennett. "It’s going to be a lot of work, but I think it will be a positive thing in the long run. The Whistler 2002 document is our collective vision for the future, and cycling plays a part in it. We recognize that there is already a lot of cycling out there. Now here’s an opportunity to make it better." Phase 1 — the Transportation Proclamation Whistler has a traffic problem. On an average day in 1991, 10,000 cars, trucks and buses would pass through Whistler. By 1998, that average had increased to 15,000, with more than 20,000 vehicles per day during the ski season. Summer is also starting to get busier, with average daily traffic numbers growing by over 10 per cent each year to reach 18,000 vehicles in 2000 — that’s almost twice Whistler’s permanent population of around 9,600. On a bad day in the winter, it can take up to 30 minutes to drive the four kilometres from Creekside to the Village. If Whistler-Blackcomb sells just 10,000 lift tickets, a moderate day during ski season, the highway will exceed its carrying capacity. This results in traffic jams and turns parking lots become battle grounds. In 1997, the municipal Transportation Advisory Group (TAG) commissioned an extensive study, the Whistler Comprehensive Transportation Strategy (CTS), to find solutions for Whistler’s growing traffic problems. The end result, which took three years and about $400,000 to put together, contained more than 200 short- and long-term recommendations, many of which have already been endorsed by council. The CTS also contained a number of suggestions for expanding the current bicycle and pedestrian network that will hopefully encourage people to leave their cars at home whenever possible. First and foremost, the plan recommends a continued expansion of the 20-plus kilometre valley trail system, adding sections, upgrading existing sections, and establishing standards for width, curves, grading, painting and signage. In addition, the CTS recommends installing lighting on more sections of the trail to encourage more night use and increase trail safety. The municipality also has plans to complement the valley trail system by establishing bike lanes on Highway 99. During the last major construction on Highway 99, the Ministry of Transportation and Highways agreed with Whistler’s requests to widen the roads for this purpose. "The valley trail system is a terrific resource to build on," says Emma DalSanto, the traffic demand co-ordinator for the municipality. "There is still more we can do in terms of the highway, but the existing trail system puts us way ahead of the game." DalSanto played a key role in the establishment of a successful bicycle master plan for North Vancouver, and as a long-time bicycle commuter, she believes many Whistler cyclists are halfway there. "I see a lot of people already riding around town recreationally, and there are a lot of people who are already commuting by bike," says DalSanto. "I think it’s an easy step for people to go from recreational riding to commuting with a little encouragement. You can always use your commute to train for your recreational riding." One form of encouragement that the task force will focus on is the construction of end-of-trip facilities for commuters, including bike lockers and change rooms with showers. "The question for bicycle commuters has always been ‘what do you do when you get to work?’," says Bennett. "You need a secure place to put your bike so you don’t have to worry about it — there are some bikes in Whistler that you just wouldn’t want to leave out in public, no matter how big your chain is. "You need a place to change, and clean up if necessary. If you worked at the front desk of a hotel or at Tourism Whistler, you can’t look like just rode in through a mud puddle and sit there all day with helmet-head." According to the CTS report, the proposed facility will cost approximately $200,000 to build and about $60,000 a year to operate and maintain. Not all of this financial burden will fall on the municipality, however — once the Bicycle Network Plan is endorsed by council, the municipality is eligible to apply for provincial funding assistance for commuter routes and facilities. Bennett believes many Whistler cyclists will appreciate the end-of-trip facilities almost immediately, while others will take a little more convincing. "I’ve put a lot of thought into this process, and I personally think it will take a major paradigm shift to get people to commute by bicycle. It takes longer, so you have to get up earlier, and it takes a lot more preparation. It takes a few trips to realize the benefits and rewards of commuting by bike, to your health and financially." According to Travel Options, a commuter program run by B.C. Transit, it costs up to $10,000 a year to operate a car when you factor in depreciation, insurance, and day-to-day maintenance . It can cost an employer up to $6,000 annually to pay for a single parking space, which is why local businesses are being encouraged by Travel Options to offer their own end-of-trip facilities and secure lockers for employees that cycle to work. There are also plans to make it possible for the more than 20 per cent of Whistler employees who make the daily commute from Pemberton and Squamish to bring their bikes on regional bus services, like Greyhound and Perimeter, and on B.C. Rail trains. If a bus lets you off at Creekside and you work in Function Junction, you will have the option of cycling to work from the stop rather than waiting for the connecting Whistler bus. "There is a whole package of initiatives to consider to meet the transportation needs of Whistler," says DalSanto. "The bicycle route network, end-of-trip facilities, monitoring, education, and other encouragement programs have to be in place for the task force to be successful." Phase 2 — Happy Trails Somewhere along the line Whistler became a mountain bike town. Nobody can pinpoint the exact moment in time that status became official, but there is no question that the Whistler 2002 guide is accurate in referring to the Whistler as one of the "Top Mountain Bike Towns in North America". Between the bike zone on Whistler Mountain and the dozens of trails that meander through the valley, there are hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails in Whistler to enjoy. There is also BMX/skateboard/in-line skate park, a dirt jump park, and an area for trials riders, all built and maintained by the municipality. An increasing number of tourists are coming to Whistler for cycling and mountain biking, yet there is no official town plan in place to deal with mountain bike issues. With the exception of the bike zone, most of the trails in the valley are unauthorized, unsanctioned and completely unmarked. They cross through municipal land, Crown land and private property, and while the landowners have been tolerant, there is nothing to prevent the provincial government, or landowners from shutting the trails down. "Whistler talks about itself as a big mountain bike town, and with the World Cup coming next year, we’re going to be known internationally for our trails," says Bennett. "But unless you have a lot of local knowledge, you can’t find half the trails out there, and if you do find them, there’s a good chance you’re going to get lost at some junction somewhere. The task force will look into ways to secure tenure for our signature trails so we can finally post some kind of signage. It’s overdue." When the Resort Municipality of Whistler took over the Emerald Forest on Sept. 16, some 30 people came out to cheer as mayor Hugh O’Reilly tore down the private property sign with a backhoe. By purchasing the Emerald Forest from developers, Whistler spared an important piece of ecological area from a proposed subdivision, and, in the process, secured tenure for the popular bike trail "A River Runs Through It". When "Danimal" — another well-used trail on Whistler’s west side — ran into conflict because the trail crossed into B.C. Rail property, the municipality made a deal with B.C. Rail and worked to secure tenure for the trail under the Forest Practices Code. "We obtained tenure in that area because of the bike trail," says Bennett. "Unless we secure tenure for our signature trails, we could get into a situation where they could be shut down permanently." The challenge of keeping the trails open is complicated by the wandering nature of the trails themselves. "These trails just sort of appeared on private property and Crown land over the years, and many of them cross a lot of different boundaries — the more boundaries they cross, the more difficult they are to protect," says Bennett. The task force plans on making a full inventory of Whistler’s bike trails and determining to what extent they lie on municipal, Crown or private land. "That’s where the stakeholders come into the process. If part of a trail juts into B.C. Rail land, we’ll sit down with B.C. Rail and work out an agreement. If it’s Crown land, we’ll talk to Ministry of Forests — the important thing is to keep the trails intact." Once tenure is secured Bennett says the next step will be to mark the trails for visitors and new riders. While some local mountain bike riders may get annoyed that they have to share the trails with newcomers, Bennett says that it may become a choice between access for everybody or access for nobody. As soon as mountain bikes appeared on the landscape in the 1980’s, they started to leave their impression. Trails get worn over time, exposing more rocks and roots, and eroding hillsides. It is possible to maintain the trails in a somewhat natural state, but it takes time and money. The municipality and other users are hesitant to pay maintenance costs for a trail that is outside of their jurisdiction, or could be shut down at any time. After the tenure is secured and the trails are opened to the public, funding for maintenance will be easier to find, says Bennett. Much of the maintenance that takes place on local trails is funded by the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA), of which Bennett is president. Although he will represent the municipality’s best interests on the task force, he says that WORCA and the municipality ultimately want to achieve the same goal — tenure. "WORCA mainly deals with trails outside of municipal jurisdiction and works on co-operative efforts like trail maintenance in the Emerald Forest," says Bennett. "WORCA has a good working relationship with a lot of the stakeholders at the table and some of the work we’ve done has helped us to keep trails open." Last year WORCA spent more than $8,000 on projects around the valley, but if the number of trail users continues to increase and trail degradation accelerates, the annual maintenance bill could triple in the next few years. Once the tenure for a trail is secured, the task force will arrange for an appropriate level of maintenance that reflects the number of users and variables in the terrain. "We don’t want to sanitize trails or cover them with gravel like the trails in the Interpretive Forest, we want to maximize the challenges while minimizing the consequences of those challenge to the environment and to riders," says Bennett. When Whistler hosts the Mountain Bike World Cup triple crown in 2001 and 2002, with full downhill, cross-country and dual slalom events, the eyes of the world will be on Whistler’s bike trails. Although nobody is sure what effect that will ultimately have on Whistler’s value as a mountain bike destination, if everything goes well, the general feeling is that this event will attract greater numbers of mountain bikers than ever before. "It’s an exciting event for Whistler, and for the future of mountain biking in the valley," says Bennett. "It’s going to be a lot of work for the municipality and the task force, but it’s a good time to get serious about the way we look at the sport." Phase 3 — the Task Force Disbands Once the transportation and recreational interests of cycling have been put into order, the Bicycle Task Force will disband. It’s final task to will be form the Whistler Cycling Coalition, "a community group that will become the voice of cycling in Whistler" in the future. Before it can be disbanded, however, the task force has to be formed. Bill Barratt, director of parks and recreation, says that the goal is to get all of the task force members together in the next few months and submit a budget to the municipality before Christmas. The task force will include members from the community in order to lighten the workload and ensure that policies reflect the needs and wants of different user groups in town. The goal is not to create a municipal task force, but an active citizens’ group with municipal representation. "Our staff is busy with so many different things, it’s nice to utilize some of the community to develop and handle some of the initiatives and make recommendations to council,’ says Barratt. "There’s a lot of energy behind this." Although the task force should be laying the ground work by the time the snow melts next year, it could be years before the changes are noticed on the highway or local trails. The important thing is that all the concerned parties are on the same page. "The task force wasn’t created because we were concerned about cycling, it’s about working with various groups and trying to make a good thing better," says Barratt. "It will put the focus on cycling, which nobody really gave much serious thought to in the past, and it fits in with the transportation strategy and other plans for Whistler. We’re taking the bull by the horns, so to speak." (side bar .. can cut from the bottom as needed for space) Spokes ‘n Sprockets ? The valley trail system was officially designated as a roadway by the Ministry of Transportation and Highways, making it illegal to ride without a helmet or lights at night. ? Bicycling was so popular in the 1880’s and 90’s that cyclists formed the League of American Wheelmen in 1890. League members actively lobbied government for better maintained roads and bike routes 10 years before the first automobiles rolled off the production line. ? Because cycling was impossible while wearing corsets or hoop skirts, cycling led to the demise of those restrictive fashions. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony commented that the "invention of the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world". ? According to a Bicycle Trade Association of Canada survey, retailers sold 1.83 million bikes in 1997. During the same period of time, automotive dealers sold just over 714,000 motor vehicles. ? In 1997, Canadian retailers sold 868,000 mountain bikes to adults, or almost twice as many units as all other bicycle styles combined. ? Bicycling is the number one sport for men, with over 66 per cent of respondents saying it was their most important activity. It’s also the number two for women behind swimming. ? In 1997, adults and children spent more than $286 million on mountain bikes and accessories. ? While almost 100 per cent of all stolen cars that are recovered are returned to their rightful owners, less than 3 per cent of all recovered bikes are ever claimed. According to the RCMP, this is due to owners not keeping records of their bicycles serial numbers. Mountain bikes are the most commonly stolen bicycle in Canada.

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