6 ways to improve the High Level Bridge

In the last two weeks, we have received nearly 60 reports of collisions or near-misses on the High Level Bridge.

In Monday’s Mayor’s Q & A on CBC Edmonton AM, Mayor Don Iveson was asked about safety issues on the High Level Bridge. He said, “If it becomes necessary…that we have to turn the east side into a proper sidewalk and keep the west side as the shared-use pathway that you can continue to ride, that’s something that will be evaluated and decision will be made in due course.”

We do not support making the pathways single-use or single-direction, for several reasons:

  1. The City is trying to encourage more people to walk and bike. During rush hour, both sides of the High Level Bridge were congested even before the installation of the suicide barriers. Now, both sides are significantly reduced in width and capacity.

    2015-05-22 to 2015-06-30 average daily users

    The High Level Bridge is the busiest cycling route in the city, with 3000-4000 users daily, most of them on bike, sharing less than 5 metres of width between both sides of the bridge. As the city grows (in the next 25 years, downtown Edmonton’s employment will grow to 91,000) and more people walk or bike, and as more people are encouraged to ride through proper infrastructure, these numbers will just continue to grow. Further reducing the capacity of the bridge for all these users is self-defeating and directly opposes the City’s own goals, visions, and efforts.

  2. Most of the current conflicts can be resolved with courtesy and awareness for users: cyclists slowing down when passing, ringing bells, and yielding the right of way to pedestrians, with pedestrians staying to the right and single-file. This retains the flexibility for all users to access the bridge, and allows people to exercise discretion. Many of the conflicts can be reduced through education; those who are impervious to etiquette and education will also be unlikely to comply with new, unenforced rules, while the rest would be punished without benefit.

  3. People walking their bikes across the path would further increase congestion, as more users would be bottlenecked on the bridge, and a person walking a bike is twice as wide as a mounted rider.

  4. There are indisputable design problems with the suicide rails that increase the risk and severity of collision and injury. Both east and west sides are now below the City’s own standards for minimum required widths. Addressing these problems by improving design is the correct solution: not further punishing pedestrians or cyclists because of bad design.

  5. The intersection of Saskatchewan Drive and 109 St can take up to 3 minutes to cross from the east side to the west side, sometimes requiring waiting through 3 light cycles, which currently prioritize car traffic (including phases where cars are moving but no pedestrians are allowed to move in any direction). There are also 6 turning lanes at that intersection, which increases the risk to pedestrians and cyclists.

    The traverse at the north end at 97 Ave is even worse: a walking detour of 300m and again waiting for a minimum of two light cycles to cross the streets, including a free-flow turning lane.

    With access limited to one side of the bridge, many users would have to cross 109 St at both ends every time, adding 5-10 minutes just to get to the right side of the street. The narrowed pathways already deter people from walking and biking. Creating even more barriers would exacerbate the problem.

Walking your bike across the High Level Bridge adds 9 minutes to your trip compared to cycling at a moderate speed of 20km/hr.

In comparison, reducing the speed limit on Whyte Ave between 112 St and 75 St from 50 km/hr to 30 km/hr would make conditions for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists much safer, while only adding 4 minutes of travel time (assuming free flowing traffic with no lights, a condition which never happens; in practice, the travel time change would be even less than 4 minutes):

There are several solutions that can help improve safety and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists using the bridge, without punishing either:

  1. Put additional resources into completing the installation of the suicide barriers sooner rather than later. Construction began in September 2015 and was originally scheduled to be complete by June 2016: already a very long timeline to install two fences. As of July 12, 2016, it is still not complete. The City has announced a “tentative” opening date of July 18.

  2. A cheap, fast safety improvement would be the installation of “rub rails”: railings that are designed to protect against handlebars catching on the posts. With the right design, they can reduce the risk and severity of collisions by removing hard right angles, without further narrowing the paths.

  3. If, as an interim measure to address immediate safety issues, the City wishes to make one side pedestrian-only, it must first improve both the north and south crossings of 109 St. We proposed a list of improvements to the south intersection last year. Vancouver improved its own anti-pedestrian intersection of Burrard and Cornwall in 2014.

  4. Although it doesn’t address safety issues, the user experience of the existing suicide barriers could be vastly improved by applying the City’s Percent for Art program to create a more humane space, turning the imposing barriers into part of an art piece. The project had a budget of $3 million, so under the policy, up to $30,000 could potentially be available for art.



  5. Part of the longer-term solution will be to replace the existing suicide barriers with one of the better options that were initially presented, which don’t narrow the walkways:

    option 3

    Another advantage to this design is that it can also protect against suicide attempts from the upper deck.

  6. Opening the upper deck to create a park, shared with pedestrians and the streetcar, and possibly cyclists, will alleviate pressures from the side paths, while also creating a signature public space for Edmonton.

    High Level Park

    The width of the upper deck is over 10m; it used to support two streetcars and a freight train passing simultaneously:
    archive streetcar

    In his Q&A, Mayor Iveson mentions that the City of Edmonton has a lease from the Province for the upper deck of the High Level Bridge, which the Province holds for the possibility of future high speed rail. We’ve already invested heavily to extend LRT to south Edmonton; making a rail connection at the end of the LRT line makes far more sense than blasting a high speed train through central Edmonton.

    Creating a public park for all Edmontonians, including the thousands that cross the bridge daily on foot or bike, and the many thousands more who will come just to enjoy a High Level Park year-round, is a far better use of this iconic bridge.

Allan Bartman, City supervisor with Infrastructure/special projects, said of the suicide barriers, including the lack of consultation and the design’s negative impact on safety and accessibility: “We take congestion and public concern seriously, and while narrowed sidewalks aren’t preferable, we’re happy with the project. The goal was to get supplemental railing up sooner than later, to deter suicide attempts, within the budget and timeline.”

Hopefully the City can be consistent in this philosophy, and apply it to roadways as well: narrowing roadways to install protected bike lanes sooner rather than later, to prevent traffic deaths, even if it means a shorter consultation period or fewer on-street parking stalls.


21 comments on “6 ways to improve the High Level Bridge

  1. Greg Evancio [Likely posting from: Canada]

    Two points:

    First, I’ve noticed that many cyclists still don’t use bells when they pass pedestrians. They shoot by, usually snarling at the pedestrian for blocking their way, without any bell or audio warning at all. If cyclists want respect, they need to give it first, and especially to pedestrians.

    Secondly, the city seems to be spending a lot of money to prevent suicide attempts. Since a person’s life belongs to them, they can dispose of it as they choose. So, it seems like a waste of money to try to prevent suicide attempts, when the person making the attempt has made a decision for themselves about their life, and is acting on it. They own their life. So let them do with it as they choose.

  2. Gerry Tychon [Likely posting from: Canada]

    I am discouraged that Mr. Bartman says “we’re happy with the project”. This sets the bar low as to what can be expected from the City. And if the City knows the High Level Bridge will be redone in 5 to 10 years then this should have been factored into current planning.

  3. Scott Rollans [Likely posting from: Canada]

    According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one-third to 80 per cent of suicides are impulsive acts. By making it harder to jump, we save lives—period. Mr. Evancio’s attitude—”If they wanna jump, let ’em”—is so unbelievably callous it barely rates a response. Here’s hoping your family is never touched by suicide, Greg.

    That said, yes, of course, cyclists should use bells (and not snarl).

    The railings proposed by Dialog are great, particularly as they serve both lower and upper decks (the eventual opening of the upper deck to pedestrians and cyclists should be a no-brainer). I’m guessing Dialog lost out due to cost. (I’m also guessing that it will end up costing a lot more to undo the jaw-dropping blunder of the current barriers.)

    Great blog!

  4. DRZ [Likely posting from: Canada]

    @Greg Evancio:

    We’ve all witnessed people being jerks. I don’t think that cyclists, pedestrians or drivers of cars get to take the prize for “biggest jerk” and I for one would really appreciate more constructive feedback than criticizing one group over another. I happen to be a cyclist, pedestrian and a driver, just depends on where I’m going and why!! And I try not to be a jerk. I never think I own the road. I watch for bikes when I’m walking, I have a bell, I am aware of the people and cars around me.

    I for one am hopeful that the west side of the bridge opening will help ease the congestion and am looking forward to seeing the difference when the other side opens (hopefully soon!) as it in theory would reduce congestion that’s being currently faced. I don’t think closing one side to cyclists or asking them to walk is reasonable (both actually seem a little absurd to be honest… and how exactly do you police rules like this? Tickets? Cops patrolling the bridge?)

    My own near collision came about two weeks ago when a pedestrian with headphones on was walking side by side with someone else on the bridge. She was on the wrong side, I saw her and slowed down. But her head down and due to the headphones she was unable to hear my bell. I don’t know if she was passing the person next to her, they didn’t seem to know each other, but that person had to pull her out of the way to keep her from walking right into me and my bike (I at this point had slowed to almost a complete stop as I had no means to pass)

    Not sure of solutions other than the ones preposed in this article, and I think many of them are reasonable to me. We need this city to be more pedestrian and cyclist friendly!!

    1. Chris [Likely posting from: Canada] Post author

      What part don’t you believe? (1 km / 20 km/hr) – (1 km / 5 km/hr) = -0.15 hr, or a difference of 9 minutes. You can double check the arithmetic if you like.

      Anything faster than that would be quite challenging with a bicycle (and certainly the bike would be less controlled), and out of the question if the person is wearing cycling shoes. Additionally, many people who bike have injuries or other conditions that make walking longer distances difficult or painful.

        1. Chris [Likely posting from: Canada] Post author

          No. You are confused about your walking speed.

          A speed of 7km/hr constitutes power walking.

          Anything faster than 5km/hr, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already defines as a “brisk” walking speed, would be quite challenging with a bicycle (and certainly the bike would be less controlled), and out of the question if the person is wearing cycling shoes. Additionally, many people who bike have injuries or other conditions that make walking longer distances difficult or painful.

          1. bugleboybJohn [Likely posting from: Canada]

            Chris.. I would guess that 100% of cyclists wearing clips don’t bother with bells .. It’s not cool to have one in their world. Do you have one on your road bike Chris ? Secondly.. If TdF competitors can run up the Ventoux with clips what’s so difficult about a brisk walk over the High Level Bridge with clips ? Thirdly.. My math skills are more than adequate.. Thanks for asking.

          2. Chris [Likely posting from: Canada] Post author

            Yes. Also about characterizing mothers with child trailers as some kind of professional racer capable of power-walking their bike while wearing clipless shoes. But thanks for the bizarre, baseless generalizations.

  5. Doug Bezovie [Likely posting from: Canada]

    The new fence/barriers create more congestion and are a hazard to all users. What was the person responsible for this ludacris solution smoking. So now we stop people from killing themselves and deliberately kill people trying to traverse this bridge. There’s got to be something wrong with the logic of this thinking. These barriers need to be removed immediately before somebody gets badly injured or killed. Why were these barriers not installed on the outside of the existing fence (on to the sides of the concrete walkways)? If anything, these walkways need to be widened, not narrowed as traffic continues to increase and will continue to do so.

  6. Greg [Likely posting from: Canada]

    As usual, Edmonton implements the cheapest, fastest – let’s forget about execution delays – solution imaginable. After all, we are not talking about spending ridiculous sums on an an arena for the worst hockey team in Canada, just public infrastructure that aligns with Edmonton’s The Way We Move vision.

    I think Iveson has the intent to provide much needed cycling infrastructure, but is screwed over by administration and the propensity for Edmontonians to accept over-priced, sub-standard solutions.

    “Hey, we have some left-over paint, let’s make bike lanes!”

    “Oh, uhm, let’s take them bike lanes out.”

  7. Julie [Likely posting from: Canada]

    Mark my words it is only a matter of time before a CHILD on a bike gets seriously injured on this bridge. Parents do come on the bridge with their children riding bikes and sometimes during busy hours. If I, being a casual downhill rider, can clip the railings on the east going no more than a walking pace and end up with a bloodied hand, leg, and the wind knocked out of me so can a child on a bike.

    Unfortunately I think it will take a child on a bike to get seriously hurt before the city takes action. And they should be prepared for a major lawsuit when this happens. This city has been irresponsible with the bridge almost everything about the bridge is flawed.

  8. J [Likely posting from: Canada]

    “with pedestrians staying to the right and single-file.”

    It seems ridiculous to expect pedestrians to walk the entire 20 minute span of the bridge single-file. Although it’s a traffic corridor to cyclists, it used to be a social walking path for pedestrians… beautiful views between the legislature and retail/restaurants on 109. What if a couple or pair of friends would like to walk home from work together, or a family of four would like to walk from the legislature to the High Level Diner?

    This is why I would advocate for single use (pedestrians on one side, cyclists on the other) despite the fact that it would require crossing at either end in some instances.

  9. Mike Vanden Ham [Likely posting from: Canada]

    Really looking forward to this issue creating a meaningful conversation and potential action on the upper re-development of the upper deck on the bridge. It’s a significantly better and inherently safer design option for a multi-use trail than the two existing ones on the main level.

  10. Sylvia Riep [Likely posting from: Canada]

    My favorite memory of growing up in Edmonton is the High Level Bridge. Almost 70 years in Edmonton. So exciting to see the bridge lit up every night. I used to ride the street cars and CP Rail over the bridge. I agree with Chris. The design is terrible and has to be more user friendly. Personally, I love how the young people are embracing cycling & walking. Both sides need to be respectful. The City has to solve the issues. I’m all for using the upper deck. Just please don’t take away the street cars. Biased.

  11. Kevin Webster [Likely posting from: Canada]

    I agree with most everything the author has pointed out; especially point #2, regarding education. I walk the east side of the bridge twice every day to work and keep to the right. Even with my winter hood snugly around my head I can still hear the bells that riders ring and immediately move even further over to allow them a safe pass. If they are going by slowly enough I thank them, and some have thanked me for moving over. That is, WHEN they ring them. By my count, only about 50% of cyclists ring their bells or otherwise announce their presence. Some days it is more, some days it is less. I do realize that some do not have bells, but a simple call of “on your left” is just as effective. After calling out to a cyclist who approached and passed me silently to use his damned bell, I got a response: he rang his bell. After, of course.

    I have been grazed a couple of times as cyclists have gone by me at way too fast a speed for the hazardous condition of the path. It made me wonder what could have happened had it been at that point that I reached up with my arm to adjust my toque: my elbow would have been right where the cyclist’s face would be. That would end badly for both of us. Should I constantly be checking behind me prior to doing anything? Should I have a little mirror strapped to my forehead? I think not.

    No one, whether cyclist or pedestrian, has any more right to a shared path than the other. But when overtaking something moving slower the onus is on the person approaching from behind to warn the other, who does have the right of way. While downhill skiing it is the lower skier that has right of way and it is up to the uphill skier to avoid them. In sport parachuting it is the lower parachutist that has right of way and the higher person is to avoid them. Why? Because the lower person cannot see the other.

    I am certainly not painting the entire cycling community with the same brush, as it is evident in the article above that these points are acknowledged by many. But this seems like a good forum to begin the conversation. Certainly waiting five years for the city to renovate the bridge is not a solution for any of us.

    Most people are pretty good at looking out for each other, but it only takes one or two people who feel entitled to put the rest of us on edge. And don’t get me started on the running clubs with members coming at you three abreast and refusing to give space. :)

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