Fort Street Cycle Track – Making Downtown Victoria a Little More Bike-Friendly
The City of Victoria has long been lauded as one of Canada’s most bike-friendly cities, enjoying some of the highest ridership numbers throughout the country. So, it came as little surprise when the City approved the Bicycle Network and Priority List in 2014–a plan Urban Systems helped develop–which prioritizes a complete network of All Ages and Abilities (AAA) bike infrastructure in Victoria’s downtown neighbourhood.
Since the plan was approved, work has been underway to realize the network, visible through the Pandora bi-directional (two-way) separated cycle track that opened in 2017 that connects to the newly upgraded Johnson Street bridge. For our Victoria team, the most recent addition of the Fort Street bi-directional separated cycle track – officially opened in May 2018 – has proven to be a point of pride for the office, located right across the street from the new facility.
Creating Space for Bikes on a Budget
Part of Phase 1 of the 5.4-km minimum grid network, the 1.4-km facility features a number of treatments that make it easy to use and interact with for all road users (cars, bikes and people on foot). Each intersection uses protected phasing, eliminating the potential for conflict between cyclists traveling along the bike lane and cars turning across the bike lane. The lane itself is largely parking protected, with a buffer on the driver’s side to give space for people exiting the cars without forcing people on bikes to travel in the “door-zone”, and where more protection was needed, adding plastic bollards – or flex posts.
As Matt Sallee, a Transportation Engineer for Urban Systems, notes, “We tried to minimize spots where we installed concrete, using them mainly at intersections or other points of conflict, to help keep costs down.” But that isn’t to say that the lanes are all function and no fashion. All along the route are also median bike corrals for added bike parking, trees and benches to stop and rest. Along the 700-block of Fort Street, the bike lane also intersects with a parklet installed by the City as a pilot project. To ensure that pedestrians can easily access the parklet, as well as any mid-block crosswalks, the bike lane is raised to sidewalk level, signaling to people on bikes to slow down and be aware of people on foot.
Navigating Construction While Preserving History
As Professional Engineer, Dan Todd, points out, constructing the separated infrastructure in the heart of Victoria’s historic downtown was not as easy as cut-and-paste: “It was built right in the downtown core, so that brings a whole other level of complexity and dynamics just to the construction process. In terms of directing traffic around the work, managing pedestrians and even just having enough space to build what they needed to build was challenging.” A lot of the existing infrastructure in the area is old, so when crews began digging, they weren’t sure what they would find. “A lot of it was unknown and when it was discovered it didn’t meet the standards of today.”
For example, the crew found electrical conduit powering the adjacent building and street lights poured directly into the concrete. They also had to be aware of old sidewalk basements – storage facilities for the businesses along the route – that had been constructed below the sidewalk and ran the risk of collapsing during construction unless properly fortified. Even the small but significant feature of the decorative brick long Government Street denoting the original boundary of Fort Victoria, complete with original residents’ names, had to be taken into consideration, carefully reset where Fort Street meets Government.
Taking a High-Touch Approach to Engagement
Construction considerations aside, an important element of the project was ensuring the many businesses located along Fort Street remained happy throughout the process. “Keeping the business owners happy as well was crucial to the success of the project,” says Dana Simpson, a Civil Technologist in the Victoria office. “For everyone up and down Fort Street, we needed to keep the impact minimized for them and their businesses. Being able to keep everything open while construction was going on was a juggling act.” This included ceasing construction over the Christmas shopping season (Remembrance Day to early January) around the adjacent Bay Centre due to the sheer number of people visiting the area at that time.
“One of the cool and pretty unique things that was a City initiative was to put out a biweekly notice to all the stakeholders (businesses) along the corridor,” explains Dan. “We helped them develop the content, notifying businesses of what was coming up in the next two weeks. It was a pretty high-touch approach for stakeholder engagement.” That high touch approach was necessary, as the project was high profile and polarizing in the media with a lot of potential for negative backlash over any missteps.
A New Safe Space for People of All Ages
On May 27, 2018, the brand-new Fort Street cycle track officially opened, with hundreds of people coming down for the launch, including Dana, who was so pleased to see results of the team’s effort come to fruition. “It was really gratifying. It was quite a large turn out and I was surprised to see so many people come out to see the new bike lane.” Attendance numbers aside, it was the type of people using the new facility that was most heart-warming for Dana. “I think for me personally, the thing that brought me the most joy was seeing toddlers out on their push bikes going up and down the bike path. I never imagined 2 and 3-year olds being able to ride their bikes in downtown.”
In the end, the goal of the 5.4-km network is to create a safe place for families to bike downtown, which will ultimately make them safer for everyone. About three months in, Dana is noticing a consistently high volume of ridership along the route, including himself, now making more regular use of the U-bicycle bike-share scheme in the city with more comfortable places to ride, and is considering now riding all the way from his home near the university, but perhaps with some help from an e-bike.
As for the project itself, the team completed construction on time and on budget and consider it a big success. As future portions of the network are constructed, they are excited to see it all come together and help make the downtown a more inviting place for people on bikes. For Fort Street itself, the bike lane presents new opportunities for locals, which Matt, who will soon relocate with his partner and their new son from Vancouver to Victoria, sees as just the beginning for the community. “Fort street has always been a lively place with the number of restaurants and retail businesses on it, so hopefully this just brings more people to the area.”