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Cycling along the Elbe (why not the Fraser?)

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Dinah cycling on the path on the Elbe dike

Dinah cycling on the path on the Elbe dike

Dinah and I went on a bike tour in Germany, between Magdeburg and Dresden. This is part of the Elbe Radweg, the cycle path along the Elbe river. We were blown away by how easy, safe, and well organised the whole thing was.

The bike road along the Elbe in Germany

The bike road along the Elbe in Germany

Okay, well organised may not be a surprise, given that we were in Germany. Every evening a bike-friendly hotel was waiting for us; every morning someone came to fetch our bags and get them to the next hotel. It was easy – we were on our own, biked at our speed, but met numerous other cyclists. Everything – online booking, maps, finding our way, etc – went as planned. But most noteworthy was the quality of the biking experience, itself, and of the bike paths, in particular.

Except when going through a few villages, the bike paths are for bikes only. None of this riding on the shoulder of a road, no matter how wide or whether there is a divider. Sharing a path with cars and trucks is stressful, because of the perceived danger, the speed, the noise. Here, we found ourselves on mostly smoothly paved paths well away from roads, sometimes in the middle of small forests, meant for cyclists and cyclists only.

As a result the paths are well used. There are some tourists, very few North Americans; but it’s mostly Germans, whole families of them, who take to these paths in droves. We stuck to the Radweg, but there are other paths branching everywhere. And of course, this being Germany, there are many, many places along the way where we could stop for an ice cream, a meal, a coffee or a beer, and meet fellow cyclists.

Bridge over the river Mulde, near Dessau (now that's bicycle infrastructure...)

Bridge over the river Mulde, near Dessau (now that’s bicycle infrastructure…)

This was not an athletic endeavour, by any means. Biking along a river means biking along mostly flat land. Much of the path we followed was built on top of flood control dikes – the Elbe is quite unruly, with its last major flood in 2003; flood markers are quite conspicuous along the route. But from the top of the dike, you get a great view of the river and the countryside.

And you discover uniquely German markers; at some point near Schonefeld, we passed a small sphere on a stand. Then, maybe one kilometer further, another. Then another. I stopped at the third one: on the base was a plaque that said “Uranus”. We’re cycling along a scale model of the solar system! Eventually we saw a very large sphere – the sun – and a full explanation.

We were also quite lucky with the weather. As it happened, this was a record week for renewable energy: there were major wind storms in the north, with rain; but though the south got its share of wind, it remained sunny. Most windmills are in the north of the country, most solar panels in the south, the perfect combination: up to 78% of all electricity consumed was generated by wind and sun that week.

The windstorm created a few obstacles overnight

The windstorm created a few obstacles overnight

What we cycled covered barely half of the Radweg, which goes uninterrupted from the North Sea to the Czech border and beyond. But though its size is unusual, such pathways, fully separated from roads, are common and considered normal. What makes the cycling news are projects like the “Bicycle Highway”, a project in the Ruhr valley that features a path wide enough for overtaking, as well as overpasses and underpasses where the path meets a road. To say nothing of the famous solar highways – a bike path built with solar collectors; the Dutch prototype is proving to be a huge success, and France is building its own.

Families on the bike road (and it's completely safe)

Families on the bike road (and it’s completely safe)

All of this got me thinking – could we transplant a bike path like this in the Lower Mainland? What would that look like? Would it make sense here?

Don’t get me wrong: we do have a good number of bike trails. And one of them, the coast-to-coast Trans-Canada trail, covers a distance that leaves the Elbe Radweg in the dust. On its way it crosses the Lower Mainland, from Vancouver to Hope. It’s just that it’s a little too wild and hilly for my taste. I discovered I like flat, and I like civilization – well, at least a pub – within easy reach.

Why not along the Fraser itself? There are already several paths along the way, through North Langley and Abbotsford. They just need a bit of work to connect them all (in a flat and direct way, please! Just follow the shoreline). Besides, the dikes along the river are in dire need of upgrading; why not design a bike path as part of the necessary construction?

Just imagine: you’re cycling slowly along the mighty river. You’re enjoying watching the flow, the wildlife – was that an eagle swooping? – the mountain scenery. You’re totally relaxed: there are no cars, no trucks to worry about. You notice families – mom and dad on their fancy bikes, their six year old twins on their own bikes ahead, a toddler in a trailer. Oh look, there’s a food truck ahead! Let’s stop for a fish taco, why don’t we? (And a beer, please…)

The Fraser Valley main dikes along the Fraser, in red

The Fraser Valley main dikes along the Fraser, in red

Sure, building something like that wouldn’t come free, at least not for the part of the shoreline where there isn’t already a dike nor a path. But hey, I’m told there’s infrastructure money coming. Would that be a wise use of money? I’d like to think so. Not only would it be another tourist attraction to “super, natural BC”, but it would encourage staycations. It would reconnect people of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland with their river. It would promote an environmentally-friendly, healthy activity. And, mostly, it would be affordable, enjoyable fun. Why can’t that be a consideration when we build public amenities?

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Written by enviropaul

March 6, 2016 at 7:47 pm

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