Okay, before we begin - I want everyone reading this to take a deep breath and put aside the whole 'bike vs. car' debate and just hear me out. This isn't a 'Pro-Biking Manifesto' where I am going to say that no one should ever drive cars and that the bikes will inherit the earth. I also am not saying you need to be on a bike all the time, all I am trying to do is outline to you how 'bikeable' Saskatoon is and to encourage you to spend some more time behind the handlebars exploring the city.
SaskHiker's tagline is, "Go outside. There's fun stuff out there." My whole mission with SaskHiker is simply to encourage more people to go outside and explore Saskatchewan.
Alright, back to business; so why would I make the claim that Saskatoon is the most 'bikeable' city in Canada? Well first, I figured it would be a good clickbait headline to get you this far. So if it worked, sorry?
Secondly, I bought a new cross-country bike this spring with the intention of bike commuting to work a few days a week. My commute is roughly 23km and I would say I am averaging 3 days a week biking to work and have over 1000km for the season on the seat.
With all that time behind the bars huffing it back and forth between Willowgrove and Broadway and other places, I couldn't help but appreciate how easy and great it is to bike around Saskatoon. Now, I will put a caveat on this statement, that it is much much better to bike around when there isn't snow on the ground but it isn't impossible to bike around in the winter. It's just a bit more slow going.
Our tremendous biking assets are often left out the conversation when we talk about cycling in Saskatoon. You don't need a fancy bike to put on some miles. Even if you just do one ride a week, I think you will start to see what I mean about how Saskatoon is the most bikeable city in Canada.
(Note: there is no scientific data to back this statement, but let's claim it anyways! We call ourselves the 'Paris of the Prairies' too. Ijust got back from the real Paris and I can tell you that our two cities aren't even close to the same but yet it has stuck for some reason.)
Reason #1: Saskatoon is incredibly flat
Saskatoon is flat, very flat. Here is a topographic map of the entire city. There is the odd 'hill' you have to climb in the river valley, and McPherson Drive by Rotary Park can sometimes feel like a mountain, but other than those small handful of hills you might gain 10 meters of elevation from one area to another. In the world of hills - that is virtually nothing.
A flat city provides two advantages for biking; speed and ease. When you aren't contending with elevation you can easily buzz around without working up a sweat and if you want to pick up the pace you can easily do so. Climbing a hill for 30 minutes really slows things down and makes you a sweaty mess by the time you get to your destination.
Embrace the flat.
Reason #2: We are littered with more bike paths and trails than you think.
Outside of Meewasin we have extensive muti-use paths that snake there way through the city. Just check out this map below. Look how you how many multi-paths and routes you can hop on. These trails make it much easier and safer to for of all ages to bike.
Click here for the City of Saskatoon's cycling guide for more information.
I know that a lot of people don't feel comfortable having their child bike with them on a street, so use these paths to your advantage. If you are living somewhere that is a little far from a path, I suggest just tossing your bikes in a vehicle and starting your family outing from one of the path entrances.
Tip: A great place to start is the parking lot in front of the Weir, or the parking lot in front of the Canoe Club to access the Meewasin Trail.
Reason #3: Saskatoon is small.
Saskatoon isn't that big. I built this map to show you just how small it actually is. At our widest point we just over 15km wide. On a bike, 15km is nothing for an adult. It might seem far, but you can easily bike that distance in an hour or less.
Now most of us probably won't bike across the entire city, but we all probably bike downtown or to Broadway for an event, or maybe just to a friends house that is less than halfway across the city. No matter where you are in the city, a bike downtown is maybe 30 to 45 minutes tops.
Anecdotally, my girlfriend and I for the last couple years often will bike downtown from our house in Willowgrove for a night out instead of driving and struggling to find a parking spot. It really makes you feel less guilty about stopping at Calories on the way home for a slice of cheesecake.
Reason #4: Winter isn't as long as you think it is
The more time you spend outside the more you realize that the stereotypes of Saskatchewan are the boogieman. Yeah, weather happens here that can be extreme but I find most days are quite exceptional regardless of the time of the year.
It's amazing how hot you can get once you start moving. A 5 degree day is the perfect biking day. Just cold enough to keep you from sweating profusely and just hot enough that you don't need your parka.
A warm winter day in Saskatchewan. They happen more than you think.
Okay, I said I wasn't going to get preachy - but this is one thing I want to get off my chest. The first thing you hear when you someone mentions the words 'bike infrastructure' is, "It's winter 8 months a year here!" I have two responses to that.
First, that is a gross over exaggeration based on your definition of winter. Our shoulder seasons of spring and fall are often overlooked for their accessibility for outdoor activities. Secondly, if you really believe it's cold three quarters of the year here, why wouldn't we want to invest in infrastructure that maximizes the hell out of the summer months?
Let me put this another way. The Waskesiu marina in Prince Albert National Park received $7.4 million dollars in 2015 for upgrades. The marina is only used in the summer and in reality is only going to be used by a limited amount of people, but yet and rightfully so, we invested in it. Why? Because we should invest in summer activities because we need to maximize our hot days as much as possible!
Now what if we applied the same logic to building more multi-use paths? Why wouldn't we want a system that is dope as hell when it's hot out so we can maximize our time in the sun? Seems like a good idea to me. We can design these paths to be useable for almost everyone, regardless of their mobility issues. A good example of this done right, in my opinion, is the upgraded path along Spadina Crescent between the University Bridge and Train Bridge. The path is wide, smooth and awesome.
Invest in summer!
Reason #5: There is usually a side street
I get it, there isn't always a path, as much I was maybe selling that above. But there is usually a side street that basically has no traffic on it.
Do you need to bike down Clarence Avenue? Bike down Albert Street instead. Need to hoof it down 8th Street? 9th Street is right there. 21st Street? How about 23rd Street?
Now I am not saying this will work perfectly in every neighbourhood, we do have some accessibility issues in some areas of our city, but one of the things you realize quickly when you hop on your bike is that are many nooks and crannies you can use to your advantage.
There are numerous places to cross Circle Drive and the river is also easily crossed. You might not be getting there in the most straightforward route but like I argued above, Saskatoon is not that big so this doesn't matter too much.
When you are in your vehicle you think about getting around Saskatoon only by using its main arteries that are far from bike friendly. When you hop on your bike you start thinking about how you can use the design of the city for your advantage; routes and possibilities start to open up to you that you never knew existed before.
Tip: Meewasin trail is the Circle Drive of biking.
Reason 6: We have a free bike valet at many of our festivals
One of my favourite initiatives is Saskatoon Cycles. This group is awesome! Did you know pretty much every summer festival has free bike valet? It's the best! You just hand them your bike in a secure area, they hand you a tag and you are on your way. I mean how awesome is that?
Look at these stats from the Jazz Festival. They parked 2,000 bikes. That's a lot of cars that didn't come downtown!
Reason 7: We have hidden mountain bike trails.
Did you know that there are hidden trails in the river valley that are incredibly fun to rip down in a mountain bike? They are mostly on the east side of the river, with many of them north of Circle North Bridge. If you are looking for a thrill - check these out. There are technical and so much fun!
The bad stuff
Okay, I know I can't just paint this all with sunshine and rainbows. There are some bad things about cycling in Saskatoon that we need to address. Bike theft is a problem that really can suck out the fun. The best thing you can is to buy a good lock. Don't buy a flimsy cable that is easily cut. When you buy a bike budget roughly 10% to 15% of its cost on a lock.
To help combat this problem the Saskatoon Police Service just launched a bike registry to help you get your bike back if it is stolen. Make sure to register your bike!
We have the odd problems with bikers and drivers not respecting each other. This isn't an exclusive problem to Saskatoon. I think that most of the time it is just that both parties are confused about how to interact with the other. Also, people don't realize that they are saving mere seconds in their day by taking actions that can make it dangerous for the other party.
What is the point of all of this?
I just want more people to explore Saskatoon behind the handlebars. I can guarantee you that your perception of the city will change. You will notice things you've never noticed before and you will start saying to yourself, "I didn't know we had that!"
People often tell me that it is crazy to bike 23km a day for work, or to hike for 5 days straight or spend a weekend alone camping in the dead of winter and my response is always this - the thought of starting is always much harder than actually doing it.