We should be able to travel between Nelson and Castlegar, and points in between, by a mix of bike, electric rail, and bus, says the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition.
The group has developed a plan that envisions a network of bike paths, transit stops, utilization of community halls as hubs along the way, ties to other regional trails, a footbridge across the Kootenay River at Taghum, and even an electric passenger train.
“We have the technology to move to a lower carbon way of living, but we we just haven’t built the infrastructure to support that,” says the coalition’s Solita Work.
She points out that the highest emissions in rural areas are from private car transportation.
“But we have to do this in a way that is efficient and accessible because no one’s going to willingly give up their car for something that’s going to take twice as long and more effort.”
How feasible is the Castlegar–Nelson Active Transportation Network Vision?
The cycling coalition intends to find out by hiring a transportation consultant to do a $50,000 feasibility study. This funding would come from the Infrastructure Canada Active Transportation Fund, which is providing $400 million over five years to support a transportation shift away from fossil fuels.
The federal government requires grant applicants to have a municipal government partner to apply for the money and administer it. The Regional District of Central Kootenay board, at its March 17 meeting, agreed to do just that for this project.
Joe Chirico, the RDCK’s director of community services, told the Nelson Star that the district would welcome the information that the feasibility study would provide, but otherwise the cycling coalition’s ideas are not part of the RDCK’s work plans.
The new transportation vision could appear to be “pie in the sky,” Work says, but the feasibility study will determine what will work and what won’t, and she thinks her group should aim high.
Much of the proposed bike path would run beside the highway but be separated from it with a barrier. This is consistent with accepted evidence that bike paths are safer, and better used, if they are physically separated from traffic.
“My opinion is that if you’re not comfortable with your five-year-old riding the pathway, if it’s not safe enough for anyone,” says Work.
Some parts of the highway would have to be widened to accommodate this, Work says, but she is undaunted.
“When you think about the climate crisis,” she says, “we really should (realize that) we kind of have to change the rules a bit so we can meet our obligations.”
Work, who is an avid all-season cyclist, says it takes about two hours to cycle from Nelson to Castlegar, and much less on an electric bike.
Other parts of the path might be built on a different route from the highway, using existing trails or roads. Some of those are on private property and would have to be negotiated, Work says.
She said the request for a new kind of infrastructure should not come as a surprise to B.C.’s highways ministry.
The provincial government, through its CleanBC initiative, has given itself a mandate to double the trips taken with active transportation by 2030, and it has produced a funding steam and design guidelines to support this.
Active transportation means walking and cycling, along with other non-motorized transport including wheelchairs. Cycling does not mean just hard-core cyclists, but includes families on bikes.
The cycling coalition’s plan envisions a footbridge at the old Taghum bridge location.
Work thinks an electric rail line with several rural stops between Castlegar and Nelson would work well. She cites Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison’s ideas about Creston-Cranbrook and Nelson-Castlegar passenger rail.
“One of his campaign promises was passenger rail, and I’m holding him to it,” she says.
Work says her group has put bus stops on the proposed route as well, “thinking about where the different neighbourhoods are and the clusters of homes along the way. And it turns out that a lot of those bus stops already exist.”
But she says the bus transportation system will need an upgrade because buses run so seldom and only have two bike racks.
Work’s enthusiasm for this new world of multi-modal rural travel extends to several community halls along the route that she says are under-utilized and could be community hubs, with train stops and bus stops as well as cafes, community kitchens, community gardens, daycares, and mini-libraries. She says existing gas stations and stores along the way would benefit as well from additional foot, bike, and bus stop traffic.
Work, who grew up in Nelson, moved away from the Kootenays for many years, and recently moved back to Beasley, says it’s the mix of transportation modes in the plan that attracts her.
“I would love to be able to, let’s say, ride my bike into Nelson and get on a train and go to Creston. Maybe I could get off on my way back from Creston at Procter and take a pathway. Or ride to Salmo or Cottonwood Lake, on a completely separated trail, and go for a picnic.”
As for winter cycling: “It’s the same as skiing, you just dress for it. It’s really fun.”