Photo: Amber Bracken
Great Canadians: Conrad Nobert & Anna Ho of Paths for People
On a frigid March morning, Conrad Nobert locks up his bicycle and crosses 102 Avenue, a multi-lane road in downtown Edmonton. By the summer of 2017, it will begin its transformation into a separated bike route connected to a seven-kilometre-long grid of safe bike tracks.
Until then, Edmonton will have the dubious honour of being Canada’s largest city without a dedicated downtown bike lane. But that’s changing thanks to Paths for People, the organization Nobert, a computer programming teacher, founded with his friend, neighbour and fellow parent Anna Ho, an environmental engineer. Since 2014, the pair has pressured the city to make it safer to be a cyclist or pedestrian in a place Nobert describes as resolutely “car first.”
Home to the world’s largest parking lot (courtesy of West Edmonton Mall), Alberta’s capital is renowned for its car culture. It’s the Canadian city with the most pedestrian fatalities per walk-to-work trip; a mere 15 per cent of pedestrians survive being hit by a car driving 60 kilometres per hour or faster, the standard speed on Edmonton’s wide streets. Until a few years ago, most citizens accepted these deaths as tragic, yet unavoidable.
That’s no longer the case. School-zone speed limits are back after four decades, and Edmonton recently became the first large city in Canada to adopt Vision Zero, a strategy borrowed from Sweden to eliminate traffic deaths and major injuries through bylaws and design. Seventy crosswalks are being rejigged, and then there are the new bike lanes, which Paths for People helped conceive. “You can’t develop a vision until you know what’s possible,” says Nobert.
For the 42-year-old, that realization came after he, his wife and their two young kids spent a few months travelling around Europe and Japan, where they felt safe cycling. When the family returned home in May 2014, Nobert was newly shocked by Edmonton’s unforgiving streets.
The municipal government had already designated two major inner-city roads for separated bike paths, but as of November 2014, only one had been recommended for funding. So Nobert and Ho created an ad-hoc group called the Edmonton Bike Coalition. They mobilized local cyclists to share their stories with city council and gathered 1,100 photos of locals holding signs proclaiming “I Bike.” By December 2014, the government had freed up $8.8 million for the paths, both of which should be complete by 2020.
Under the new name Paths for People, the coalition then set its sights on crosswalk safety and collected data on the alarming number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries—almost 5,900 between 2005 and 2015. Faced with this information, as well as mounting pressure from grieving families and Mayor Don Iveson, city councillors agreed to upgrade crosswalks in high-collision zones.
Paths for People’s most impressive accomplishment remains the downtown grid—a network of connecting bike lanes that was proposed, designed and approved over a few months in 2016. The group, which now boasts 500 active members, raised money to partner with an international engineering firm that wrote a plan Edmonton could quickly implement on a marginal budget of $7.5 million. And that’s great news for Karen Parker, a city employee and mother of three who’s dodged dicey traffic situations. “Some people think we’re crazy for riding our bikes with our kids,” she says, “but it can be fun and convenient. Plus we get a lot of exercise.”
As Nobert strolls downtown on this March morning, city council is in the midst of voting on Paths for People’s latest idea, Ciclovia, an event that would close a huge stretch of road to traffic and devote it to leisure pursuits. Just as he begins to unlock his bike, Nobert gets a text from Ho: “Motion passed on Ciclovia.” For cyclists—and all citizens—it’s yet another reason to celebrate.
Like to bike? Check out famed Canadian cyclist Clara Hughes’ RD Interview.