Guest column: Windsor always been a cycling city; hopefully improvements continue

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WINDSOR, ONTARIO:. SEPTEMBER 29, 2021 - Chris Waters, a University of Windsor law professor, pictured with his bicycle in Walkerville on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, has written a report on the very long history of bicycling in Windsor.
WINDSOR, ONTARIO:. SEPTEMBER 29, 2021 – Chris Waters, a University of Windsor law professor, pictured with his bicycle in Walkerville on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, has written a report on the very long history of bicycling in Windsor. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

Cycling in Canada’s automotive capital has a long and unique history — one that predates cars.

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During the ‘bicycle craze’ of the 1890s, cycling was common in the city and throughout the region. In 1891, the Amherstburg Echo reported: “Go almost anywhere and you will see an aspiring ‘cyclist’ trying to learn the tricks of the wheel.”

Cycling started as a sporting phenomenon — largely the preserve of men drawn from the Anglo elite — promoted by clubs such as the Windsor Wheelmen founded in 1892. However, as the decade wore on, recreational and utilitarian cycling expanded.

Many ordinary Windsorites commuted to work daily by bike, including to jobs in Detroit using the ferry. Intriguingly, given Windsor’s city’s manufacturing history, bikes were not only common here before cars, they were built here before cars.

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In 1897, Evans & Dodge (yes, that Dodge, two brothers in fact) employed 100 people making bicycles near the ferry dock in downtown. They were not alone in manufacturing bikes in Windsor — and in many ways the car was born on the processes and parts originally designed for bicycles.

It would be tempting to write off the history of cycling in the first decades of the 20th century as one of a long, slow decline of the bicycle following the golden era of the 1890s.

Certainly, as a result of increased car use, street parking became common and cities were remade to accommodate the automobile and sprawl.

From the 1920s, on-street cycling began to be cast as a danger and an obstacle to a definition of “traffic” which excluded bikes and other sorts of road users, including pedestrians.

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However, the every day use of bikes for transportation to school and work continued well into the first half of the 20th century in Windsor. The Second World War was in some ways a high-water mark for cycling despite bike rationing.

In the post-war era, efforts were made, sometimes through well-intentioned safety initiatives, to squeeze bicycles off the roads.

In the absence of well-organized cyclist groups, city officials, police, courts, columnists and motorist associations were at liberty to blame cyclist death or injury on unsafe cycling with little regard to infrastructure or unsafe driving.

Culturally, cycling began to be associated with children and bikes were marketed as toys. But cycling retained its presence, celebrated in bike rodeos and the return, in 1958, of bike racing to the city through the Tour di Via Italia.

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The “bicycle boom” of the 1970s hit Windsor hard. In 1973, bike sales here were estimated to be 30 per cent higher than the year prior. This decade also saw the first efforts to organize cyclists and press for better infrastructure.

In 1973, the Windsor Chapter of the Ontario Biking Coalition produced a “Master Bikeway Plan” and presented it to the city. It gathered dust for two years until 1975 when city council revisited the report and agreed to commission a “bikeway development concept” to accommodate an estimated 60,000 cyclists.

The Bikeway Plan was modest and focused on recreational cyclists, but was a start. The Bicycle Use Development Study (BUDS) of 1991, the Bicycle Use Master Plan (BUMP) of 2001 and the Active Transportation Master Plan (ATMP) of 2019 all moved the needle and improvements have been made.

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Unfortunately, improvements have been slow, unambitious and uneven. While every year cycling facilities are added to Windsor’s cycling network, a lack of connectivity between routes (bike lanes abruptly start and stop), the lack of physically separated lanes on major commuting routes and failure to promote a culture shift continue to be in evidence.

The lack of bicycle infrastructure in the core has been highlighted by the addition of e-scooters. The failure to add ‘pop-up’ bicycle lanes thus far during the pandemic, when a diverse group of Windsorites has taken to their bicycles in search of safe recreation and transportation, has also been a disappointment.

But I remain optimistic.

We have flat terrain, mild winters, good bones of an urban core, plus proximity to natural and built heritage. And as a century and a half of cycling in Windsor shows, cyclists here are resilient and can tap into our rich local history for inspiration.

Christopher Waters is a law professor at the University of Windsor and member of its Centre for Cities which provides avenues for students, faculty, municipal governments and community groups to achieve sustainable local governance.

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