In the three and a half years since the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade was completed travel between Whistler and Vancouver has become substantially easier and safer. Traffic has also increased but additional passing lanes have added capacity and made the drive more pleasant.
But it isn't only automobile traffic that has increased. When the highway was rebuilt some efforts were made to widen the shoulder for cyclists. With the announcement that the first RBC GranFondo Whistler would take place in September 2010 cyclists took to the highway all that summer to train. The past two summers have seen cycling traffic on the highway increase, as the popularity of the fondo and road cycling have grown.
This year the number of cyclists on the highway is expected to increase again, as competitors in the August Ironman Canada triathlon come to town to train. Much of their training, however, is likely to be on the section of the highway between Whistler and Pemberton, a stretch of highway that is in desperate need of upgrading.
Although there are only hints of spring in Whistler, in Pemberton, Squamish and the Lower Mainland the snow is gone or nearly gone and plants are blooming. With the warmer weather the toys of summer come out. Including bikes on the highway. And so it is timely to remind all that the highway is to be shared.
When the highway was upgraded between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler there were attempts made to alert drivers to the fact they share the road with cyclists. But road markings indicating cycling lanes haven't been maintained and many are now indecipherable. A study by Simon Fraser University students last year found "...a severe deprivation of appropriate signage to make motorists aware of possible cyclists riding on the shoulder." In fact, there are far more signs warning drivers to watch for wildlife than for cyclists.
The study found the effective shoulder width of this stretch of highway varied from 38 cm to 153 cm. It also found drain grates to be another hazard to cyclists and effectively further reduced the shoulder width. Finally, "Painting maintenance appeared insufficient, with paint marking the highway shoulders nearly disappearing in the most dangerous areas."
All this was for the upgraded section of the highway. The section between Whistler and Pemberton is another matter altogether. The shoulder, in particular, is atrocious. Sections have been patched many times over the years but the patchwork doesn't keep up with the frost heaves.
The Ministry of Transportation has acknowledged that the highway between Whistler and Pemberton needs upgrading but of course there are many highways across the province that need work and the budget is limited. Priority, presumably, is given to highways or sections of highways that have more vehicle traffic.
Cycling traffic on the Whistler-Pemberton section is certain to increase this year. It's a fact that many Ironman participants come to the area prior to the event to train. A 2005 study done for the Ironman in Lake Placid, New York found: "A majority of the attendees stayed in Lake Placid for both pre-race training trips and the Ironman event." A similar study in 2004 in Penticton estimated the average participant's stay in Penticton to be seven days.
During the Ironman event, on Aug. 25, there will be two-way cycling traffic on the highway at the same time as regular automobile traffic. However, there should be plenty of publicity leading up to the event and signs on the highway alerting everyone to the fact the event is going on.
That won't be the case in the months leading up to Ironman or the GranFondo.
All of us can take heed and acknowledge that from spring through fall Highway 99 is now shared by cyclists and drivers. We all have horror stories of cyclists riding inappropriately and of drivers buzzing cyclists. That won't change until we all agree the road is shared.
And speaking of sharing, perhaps it's time the local governments put some pressure on the Ministry of Transportation to upgrade highway signs and paint in a timely manner. The SFU study found "...that the most appropriate mitigation methods to pursue are increased signage, more frequent shoulder sweeping and improvements in drainage and hazard marking." The cost of these mitigation efforts, according to SFU estimates, would be $116,000.
Whistler, in particular, has benefitted from the recent growth in participatory events such as the GranFondo and The North Face Whistler Half Marathon, which has spurred some runners to train on the highway. Whistler actively sought to host Ironman. All of these events contribute to the economic success and sports culture of Whistler. Whistlerites should welcome them and should recognize that for many people the highway is now an important part of the Whistler experience.