This summer marked a big change in Edmonton's downtown core, as 7.8 kilometres of protected bike lanes and shared-use paths sprung up seemingly overnight.

The speed at which the new downtown bike network was implemented came as a surprise — even to those who made it happen.

“Edmonton was getting a bit of a bad reputation for not being able to implement anything," said Anna Ho, co-executive director and co-founder of Paths for People, the active transportation advocacy group that drove the initiative. "It’s really great to see this type of infrastructure being put in this quickly."

Though the lanes have been open for use over the past 10 weeks, the official opening ceremony will take place this Saturday with a Cycle in the City Bike Party that kicks off at the Alberta Legislature grounds.

The core has always been well-utilized by cyclists, but prior to the implementation of the bike lanes there weren't many safe ways to navigate the area's busy streets. Every year, this would result in 19 people injured while cycling in the area, according to data obtained from City of Edmonton and Statistics Canada.

Paths for People wanted to change this, so last April, the not-for-profit approached engineering services company Stantec about donating in-kind time to create a proposal for a downtown bike network.

"They loved it," said Ho. "As a company they are all about sustainability and health and wellness."

Stantec identified downtown streets that were overbuilt and underutilized — meaning they could hold additional cycling infrastructure without disrupting traffic — and six months later, city council approved the project, voting to implement separated bike lanes by June/July 2017.

"We’re getting great applause for the speed at which we implemented (the grid)," said Ho.

“It’s a wonderful example of collaboration between community groups, business groups and the city,” she added.

Cycle commuting has been shown to be the best way to fit in daily exercise, but it's hard to convince people to take up an activity that makes them feel unsafe, said Ho. The protected bike lanes remove the biggest barrier to cycling: the fear of getting hit by a car.

They also make motorists feel more comfortable and add a barrier between traffic and pedestrians.

"Whether you're driving or walking or cycling, I think this has the ability to improve everyone's commute," said Ho. "No matter what mode of transport you choose to take, it gives everyone a known place to go."

Since the implementation of the grid, cycling downtown has increased 92 per cent, according to initial counts from the City of Edmonton.

The downtown bike network is what is called a minimum grid — a minimum number of routes that make a grid accessible and desirable — and reaches within two blocks of many downtown destinations. While the majority of the network was installed this summer, the city is still working on parts of the grid, such as the protected bike lanes down 102 Avenue that will connect the Brewery District with the downtown core. Segregated lanes will also be added to 105 Avenue from 116 Street to 101 Street and to 96 Street from Louise McKinney Park to 104 Avenue later this year.

Paths for People hopes that the city will expand on this grid next summer. The not-for-profit is currently putting together a proposal for a southside grid that would connect Old Strathcona and the University of Alberta campus to the downtown core.

"I think you can only increase ridership in the downtown if you've got a way for people to get downtown first. If there's no safe mechanism for them to do so, then you're limiting your ridership," said Ho.

The Cycle in the City Bike Party will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the downtown bike network. Details on each of the five pit stops can be found on the City of Edmonton website or in this easy-to-use map.

Don't have a bike? Revolution Cycle will be on hand at the Alberta Legislature with rentals.

Related reading

Anna Ho was featured in our Change Maker series. Check out her interview here.