A cyclist rides along the edge of a bike lane on Fourth Avenue in Whitehorse on Oct. 15. A handful of cyclists presented a petition of more than 2,100 signatures calling for better cycling connections in Whitehorse to city council on Nov. 4. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Whitehorse youth call for better cycling connections

Students address city council over school commute

Armed with more than 2,100 names attached to an online petition calling for better bicycle connections in Whitehorse, cyclists — many under the age of 10 — called on Whitehorse city council to fast track the implementation of the city’s 2018 Bicycle Network Plan at council’s Nov. 4 meeting.

The petition has been circulating on social media through change.org since last month. It was started by Sarah Johnson and Jocelyn Land-Murphy, who cycle downtown to work and school with their kids everyday. As of the morning of Nov. 6, 2,284 names were listed on the petition.

Land-Murphy started and leads the “bike bus,” a group of about 10 mostly students, who bike from the Takhini neighbourhood to École Whitehorse Elementary School every day.

Most of the youth — ages eight to 11 — who spoke to council are part of the bike bus and as council members learned there’s a few reasons they choose to ride their bikes to school and back home every day even through the winter (unless it is too icy or colder than -30 C, as one cyclist told council).

It’s fun, cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions and is good exercise, they said.

The problem is a lack of bike connections through the city, which means that while there are a number of paths, cyclists have to use sidewalks and roadways to make their way between those pathways.

“Sometimes I don’t feel safe,” 10-year-old Kieran Horton said, going on to note there are “irresponsible drivers” on the road.

Some of the youth described almost getting hit by vehicles that don’t slow down for cyclists or drive in bike lanes. Johnson told council of being struck by a vehicle in January at the intersection of Fourth and Second Avenues.

If the roads were safer, more students would likely bike to school, the youth told council.

In her presentation, Land-Murphy was quick to note the Bicycle Network Plan is already in place and can guide improvements needed for cyclist safety.

“We’re big fans of the plan,” she said, pointing out that improving the connections would benefit the entire city. “We want to speed up implementation.”

As a naturopathic doctor, Land-Murphy said she has a number of patients who struggle with finding the time to be more active. This is one way residents who are able to commute by bike can make active living a part of their lifestyle. It also has the potential to set kids up for active living into adulthood.

She put forward a number of potential funding options to implement the changes including gas tax funding, bilateral government agreements, potentially using the city’s parking reserve and more.

In asking council to commit to speeding up implementation of the plan, she also suggested the work could be a flagship initiative coming out of the city’s recent declaration of a climate emergency.

A letter of support from École Whitehorse Elementary School principal Sharon MacCoubrey (who was unable to attend) was also presented by Jonah McConnell, a student at the school with Thane Phillips voicing support on behalf of the school council.

After speaking for the school council, Phillips went on to address council individually, highlighting his own experience as an “infrequent bike commuter” who occasionally cycles from Copper Ridge to the downtown.

He said he’s taken a variety of routes over the years by bike and each has its own challenges in trying to move with vehicular traffic at some point, whether that’s coming down Two Mile Hill or crossing the Alaska Highway to access a trail. Improving the infrastructure for cyclists, he said, would encourage residents to bike more.

Acknowledging the Alaska Highway is under the jurisdiction of the Yukon government, Phillips suggested the city work with the territory as it is making improvements to the highway.

“You have a huge opportunity to make a positive impact on the community,” he said.

Keith Lay also spoke on the issue, noting the city has a number of interests to balance when it comes to active transportation and city trails.

“Safety for all trail users must be considered,” he said.

Questioned by council about the implementation work for the bicycle network plan, Mike Gau, the city’s director of development services, explained the city is working on planning for the first parts of the plan.

Efforts are underway to look at how to best connect Two Mile Hill with the riverfront trail, for example.

The short-term recommendations in the plan — initiatives like that connection and others — are proposed to be done within one to five years, though that will depend largely on the priorities of council, budgeting and other factors, acting city manager Valerie Braga said. The petition calls for the work to be done by 2022 rather than 2023 as the plan calls for.

After the meeting, Mayor Dan Curtis said Whitehorse is quickly becoming a year-round biking city and having connections between cycling routes is important, but there are a number of priorities the city is balancing.

He too stressed that planning work is underway to determine the best connections for cyclists. He added the city will look at where the major safety concerns are as that planning work continues.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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