November 16, 2011

Active Transportation Plan needs active support

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you could ride on a network of wide, safe bike lanes, where would you like to travel? Would you be looking for regional destinations, like Rockwood, Fergus, Orangeville, Belfountain or Acton, or just loops close to or inside the Town's urban areas?

We already have the Trans-Canada Trail linking Cataract, Erin village, Hillsburgh, Orton, Belwood, Fergus and Elora, but the Wellington Active Transportation Plan is about creating a broader network, combining roadside lanes and off-road trails.

Not every road will get a bike lane, so it is important to find out where there is public demand. Should we have more paved trails, natural hiking trails, mountain bike trails, horse trails, or all of the above? Or do we prefer motorized trail travel, on various snowmobile routes and the unofficial dirt bike and ATV trails?

Convenient access to trails and bike lanes means opportunities for physical activity, saving people money, reducing our local greenhouse gas emissions and making our communities safer, more cohesive and attractive. Trails also protect natural areas, while making them accessible to more people.

The process started in June, including a meeting in Erin involving local politicians and residents. Existing trails have been mapped and there is an ongoing internet survey (search Wellington Active Transportation).

Preliminary results were reported at an open house held recently at Centre 2000, showing that active recreation was the main factor motivating trail users, as opposed to travel for work or shopping. Walking (or running) was the top activity, followed by cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing (or snowshoeing), horseback riding and in-line skating.

MMM Group of Mississauga, the consulting firm hired to develop the plan, will now be doing field investigations, developing design guidelines and devising strategies for implementation, funding, tourism and getting more people onto the routes.

Project Manager Jay Cranstone hopes to have a draft network by February, with recommendations going to County Council in the spring. The County could adopt the Active Transportation Plan, then incorporate key elements into its Official Plan. Lower-tier municipalities such as Erin will likely be asked to follow a similar process.

County Planner Sarah Wilhelm said that actual improvements will still be dependent on available funding, but that it is important to have an official framework.
"You need a plan in place for grant applications," she said.

Taxpayers generally don't know or care whether a road is controlled by the County or the Town, but they do expect them to work together to deliver the most practical improvements.

In its Official Plan, the Town of Erin has objectives that include promotion of compact, people-oriented downtowns by establishing a safe and pleasant pedestrian environment, encouraging movement by foot and bicycle rather than by automobile.

Vehicle and pedestrian movement is to be facilitated through improvements to roads, parking areas and pedestrian paths, including linkages along the rivers.

Just because something is in an Official Plan, however, does not mean it is going to happen. If people actually care about such "objectives", they need to prod the Town and County into aggressively pursuing them.

One priority should a bypass route to divert truck traffic from downtown Erin village, along with at least one more traffic light and some official crosswalks. These ideas have been discussed in the past and not done, but that does not mean they should not be done. Often a need will exist for a long time before action is taken – for example, the creation of a village fire brigade in 1946 after decades of disastrous fires.

Erin's Official Plan also requires that new developments provide links with pedestrian and cycle routes "on their perimeter". Perhaps that idea could be expanded so that a new subdivision would have a trail winding through it, separate from roads and sidewalks.

Some would prefer that no new subdivisions ever be built in Erin, but that is probably unrealistic. They will not be built any time soon, however, since the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study process, which has frozen most development since 2007, is proceeding very slowly. The study was originally to have been done by now, but we're still in the middle of it, waiting for a report on sewer and water options, with several stages still to go.