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Like their counterparts in Vancouver, officials in Kelowna are embracing separated bike paths as a way to get people out of their cars. But unlike Vancouver, Kelowna has managed to avoid a backlash.

However, a collision may be looming as future efforts take away parking spaces and cyclists clamour for more separated paths to replace on-road bike lanes that they say are too dangerous.

Kelowna's population has swelled over the past 35 years to 115,000 from 50,000, resulting in rapid urban sprawl and an influx of personal vehicles.

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"Kelowna is very car-centric," said Bernard Momer, an associate professor of geography at UBC Okanagan who studies urban planning and sustainability.

That reliance on cars and trucks has given Kelowna some of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in B.C.

Kelowna began installing on-street bike lanes in the 1990s as part of a more "balanced approach" to transportation planning, said the city's general manager of community services, John Vos.

But while that network has grown to 274 kilometres, it appeals to only "hard core cyclists," said Grant Rice, a member of the Kelowna Area Cycling Coalition, a community group that advocates for better bicycling infrastructure.

The problem with the 1.5-metre-wide on-street lanes is that bikes still have to share the roadway with cars and trucks, and more casual cyclists feel unsafe there.

City hall soon started hearing demands for safer cycling routes.

"The public sort of forced our hands," said Mr. Vos.

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So, in 2002, Kelowna opened its first 1.2-kilometre path that separates cyclists from other traffic and developed a plan for similar corridors in all of the city's major neighbourhoods.

"They started finally to get the message that bike paths are not just a couple of feet of pavement on the side of the road," Prof. Momer said.

Over the next seven years, the city slowly added another 3.6 kilometres of separated paths. Then came the recession and government stimulus programs. Of the $21.1-million the city received from senior levels of government, $8.25-million went towards five new paths. When they are completed in the spring, Kelowna will have 12.2 kilometres of separated bike paths.

Because the new paths go mostly along residential streets and don't reduce the amount of road space available to motorized vehicles or eliminate parking spots from in front of businesses, they have not stirred the kind of opposition that greeted the separated lanes along Vancouver's Hornby Street and Burrard Street Bridge.

But that could change. Mr. Vos said that if cycling becomes as popular in Kelowna as it is in Vancouver, future lanes will likely cut through commercial areas and "taking away parking becomes the only real option when you're in those business areas ... we could be facing those tough decisions."

For now however, the challenge is in getting people to hop on their bicycles with the infrastructure that is in place. According to data collected by the city, only about seven per cent of commuter trips in Kelowna are conducted either by bike or by foot, while automobiles still account for 90 per cent.

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And while the new separated paths are being warmly welcomed by cycling advocates like Mr. Rice, the network still has large gaps, meaning cyclists still have to use the on-street lanes to complete many of their trips.

"Not a lot of people are going to try and change their [commuting]habits ... just with that," he said.

The biggest problem of course, is funding. The cost of completing Kelowna's bike lane network is estimated at $60-million, said Mr. Vos.

And with both Victoria and Ottawa facing large deficits, a repeat of the stimulus funding seems unlikely.

"If we have to fund 100 per cent ourselves, in-house, based on our current financial plan, it will take us 20 years to build them all," said Mr. Vos. "That's why outside funding is so important."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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