Will the City's cycling initiatives work in our urban landscape?

At “Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around,” a pro-cycling speaking series sponsored by the City of Vancouver, David Byrne is showing the crowd pictures of termite hills.

The legendary Talking Heads frontman and cycling advocate invites the audience to re-imagine the city, and the way it evolved, by contrasting modern skyscrapers with the balanced, habitable living spaces created by subterranean insects.

Calling them “high-rises for termites,” Byrne notes that the natural structures are temperature-controlled and sustainably built to coexist with the ecosystem. Perhaps most importantly, all the termites inside the hills are enabled by the structure to do their job and contribute to the social system that maintains their livelihood.

His next slide is a photograph of a downtown block in Houston, Texas, a city with wide roads, ample street parking, highways and triple-decker parking lots.

“Count the number of people on the street,” Byrne says. There are three.

Social scientists have pointed out that the modern city developed to meet the needs of the vehicle rather than the human being. Throughout the 20th century, as the car became the primary mode of transportation for most city-dwellers, construction of paved roads, parking lots and highways increased exponentially.

In addition to precipitating a global environmental crisis, cars - and car-centric cities - tend to isolate people, reduce pedestrian activity and shut down the social interaction necessary to sustain vibrant communities and economies.

“When you create a neighbourhood like that, it becomes kind of a dead zone,” Byrne says. “Not only are these spaces deadened, but everything around them is deadened.”

Vancouver’s bicycle debate

Over the last year, the City of Vancouver built a network of separated bike lanes downtown that stretch from the Burrard Street Bridge to the Dunsmuir Viaduct. The lanes physically separate cyclists from traffic with a concrete barrier, allowing them to pass through downtown safely, isolated from buses and cars.

Recently, construction of the Hornby Street bike lane – the connecting passage between Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir Street - has infuriated businesses and motorists in the area. The two-way lane is replacing a full lane of vehicle traffic and forcing the removal of 158 parking spots along the east side of the street.

The city is calling the lane a “trial” that will be partnered with a business impact study. The permanent lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir Street began as trials as well.

For certain businesses, it’s still the common view that loss of vehicle parking equals loss of customers. 97 per cent of businesses on Hornby Street opposed the lane prior to its construction.

“Do you think a driver is going to park two blocks away, walk over to get a coffee and then leave?” said Chris Sullivan, manager of Tim Horton’s on Hornby Street. Sullivan said his business at his other location on Dunsmuir Street is down 20 per cent, due to the bike lane that opened there in June.

Drivers have also bombarded news sites with negative comments on the bike lanes, saying that the project will congest traffic downtown. The area is already crammed with one-way streets, few turning lanes, and an overload of vehicles. Still others complain that the city is spending too much money and developing the lanes too quickly.

Greenest city in the world?

Cycling advocates say the lanes are essential to reducing emissions and traffic in Vancouver – and that those who oppose them need to accept the reality of climate change and their role within it.

“The status quo of industrial economic growth is a death sentence for our children and our future,” said Amy Walker, active cyclist and co-publisher of Momentum Magazine. “We’re here because we believe cycling can be a solution.”

Mayor Gregor Robertson, a dedicated cyclist, has doubled the city’s budget for cycling infrastructure since he entered office in 2008. The Hornby Street lane alone is expected to cost $3.2 million.

But his environmental agenda goes beyond making cyclists safer. The mayor has also launched curbside compost pick-up, approved laneway housing, made electric vehicle charging a priority on new buildings in the city, and even allowed Vancouverites to keep chickens in their backyards. He has said his goal is to turn Vancouver into “the greenest city in the world” in the next 10 years.

“Our 2020 target is for over 50 percent of trips to take place by walking, cycling and public transit. We're also exploring an additional target to reduce motor vehicle kilometres traveled per resident,” says the City of Vancouver on their “Talk Green to Us” website (

Vancouver is the only major Canadian city where car use is decreasing. From 1995 to 2005, the city saw a 25% increase in population, but a 10% drop in car use. Cycling is the fastest growing transportation method. Despite this encouraging trend, Vancouver is still far behind other progressive cities in terms of cycling infrastructure.

New York, Chicago, Montreal, Portland and even Shanghai are all experiencing cycling revivals that Vancouver can learn from. In New York, massive investments in bike lanes and other cycling infrastructure have led to a 30 per cent increase in ridership in the last year.

The mayor recently announced that Vancouver will be hosting Velo-City, a global cycling conference, in 2012. This year, the conference was held in Copenhagen, a city so far ahead of ours it might as well be a futuristic theme park. 36 per cent of the city’s beautiful and athletic citizens commute via bicycle in the city on over 350 km of separated bike lanes.

Whether businesses or motorists like it, the fact is that cycling initiatives are high on the radar of the current council. The future of our economy and city planning will undoubtedly be shaped by alternative transportation. It may be time to get used to the bike lanes – and expect more to come.

Creating a network

“We need to create a planned approach to a network of separated bike lanes,” said Councillor Geoff Meggs, a vocal advocate on transportation issues. Meggs said the city is currently working on a new 10-year cycling plan.

Although Meggs could not give details prior to the 10-year plan’s completion, he said that the network would expand upon the one already in place in the downtown core and would link up with Skytrain stations and bus loops in key areas.

Erick Villagomez suggested that the city draw from research done by Meghan Winters, a researcher who asked the question, “How far away would you be willing to go in order to use a bike route?”

Winters found that prospective cyclists require a network of bike lanes, in which each lane is no more than 500 metres apart from the next. In instances where the lanes were further apart, people were less likely to ride their bicycles.

Villagomez also stressed the importance of integrating cycling, walking and public transit.

“If this is going to be successful, all the different modes of transportation have to move towards a cohesive whole. Right now, the best locations to focus on are around the SkyTrain Stations, such as Richmond and Burnaby, hopefully Port Moody,” he said.

The bike lockers and parking available at many SkyTrain stations are a step in the right direction, but the ongoing ban against bikes on trains during rush hour discourages cyclists from commuting long distances, cycling advocates say.

“If you consider them separately, it just won’t work. Everything has to allow people to move, and it has to work together. Sometimes we want to go to corner store. Other times, we want go to a different city,” said Villagomez, adding that the car still has its place in traveling long distances.

Portland, Ore., and other cities searching for solutions to traffic congestion and pollution, have made public transportation central to their car-reduction strategy. Portland has free transit in the downtown core, including light rail and streetcars that operate within a 330-block area. The combination of cycling initiatives and public transit in Portland has led to a relatively car-free downtown core.

But Councillor Meggs said it is unlikely a strategy like that would work in Vancouver.

“The problem is our regional transportation at work,” said Meggs. Translink has recently struggled to fund its Evergreen Line, a SkyTrain line that would provide rapid transit from downtown to Port Coquitlam.

“Personally I would like to see that kind of transportation initiative, but a solid business case needs to be made for it, and that hasn’t been done,” said Meggs.

Car-free zones

Increasing pedestrian spaces will be central to reducing car use downtown. Yet the recent return of buses and cars to Granville Street is viewed by many as a step backwards for the city.

The street became an active pedestrian walkway during the Olympics, when the city decided to shut down the area to vehicles to allow for an influx of tourists. For six months, the street enjoyed a renaissance of outdoor cafes, art exhibits, buskers, and thousands of patrons moving freely between shops, bars and restaurants every day.

Ultimately, Translink’s $10.5 million investment in the renovation of Granville – on the understanding that buses would eventually return to the street – was a major factor in the city’s decision to allow vehicles back in. Businesses also thought they would benefit more from parking, especially those in the underground Granville Mall.

This is especially disappointing considering that the mayor of New York, the busiest city in North America, was able to shut down areas of Manhattan to vehicle traffic. Even members of the Downtown Vancouver Association, an association of businesses in the downtown core, expressed their disappointment with the city’s decision at a meeting with Councillor Meggs.

Vancouver is full of spaces that look and feel as though they should be pedestrian, including Granville Island, Yaletown and even the West End. But businesses have a highly conservative view of the value of cars to their customer base, and so further pedestrianization is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Yet the city tentatively approved an idea for a “ciclovia” from English Bay Beach Park to Jericho Beach Park at the June 2 meeting of the Council on Transportation and Traffic. The ciclovia would create a car-free stretch along six kilometres of road in English Bay - including Beach Avenue and Cornwall Avenue – on Sundays in the summer months.

Started in the 1980s in major cities in Colombia, the ciclovia has been adopted by other North American cities, including New York, Portland and Ottawa. But arguments continue over concerns about residents being able to access parking and what would happen to displaced traffic.

The hills

Many critics of separated bike lanes complain that cycling is not as practical to the Vancouver landscape as it is to European cities. The hills and the rain tend to be the two main detractors that keep the general population off their bikes. Yet there are cities around the world that have faced these issues in innovative ways.

Luasanne, Sweden, is built on the side of a mountain and spans 500 metres of elevation gain. But that didn’t stop the city from building a network of bike lanes that adapt practically to the landscape. The city created cycle paths in areas with the least incline, and then connected those routes with public transportation. They allowed bikes to go the wrong way on streets if the slope is less than a nearby street, and widened bike lanes at the tops of hills where tired riders need more space.

And most uniquely: they installed bike elevators that connect different levels of the city centre. The shimmering glass elevators are not only beautiful additions to the landscape, but they move cyclists to the top of hills quickly and efficiently.

This is not about people being lazy or unfit. Hilly landscapes prevent people who are older, sick, or otherwise differently-abled from cycling. Hills also endanger cyclists more frequently, as visibility is limited and exhaustion can lead cyclists to make errors.

Another solution to this issue may even be electric bikes, which have started to appear in Europe and Asia. The bikes have silent motors and are battery-charged – one can even buy a dual-mode bike that allows you to ride electric to work and get your exercise on the way home. Electric bikes are sold in some stores in Vancouver, but have yet to catch on.

Unfortunately, there are few solutions to the rain – other than reflective rain gear and a fresh set of clothes at the end of your trip.

Cyclists as consumers

The mayor hopes the trial lanes will prove to merchants that their business is not car-driven. Robertson said that council looked at studies done in other cities, and bike lanes actually have a positive influence on businesses.

Bike corrals, which typically park 10 to 20 bicycles in a space otherwise occupied by one to two cars, have been popular in Portland, Ore. The city installed a series of corrals in 2008 and business owners discovered they actually increase customer traffic and visibility of their storefronts. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation said they have been “scrambling” to meet the demand for bicycle parking.

“Bike parking offers businesses a 10 to one ratio in customers,” said Erick Villagomez, landscape architect and founder of re:Place Magazine. “There’s no reason why businesses shouldn’t benefit from bikes.”

Vancouver first tested bike parking during the Winter Olympics in February 2010. After that trial was successful, a corral was built on Commercial Drive and East 6th Street in the summer. The owner of the JJ Bean café on that corner has said he is happy with the corral and hopes to have them constructed at all of his locations.

The mayor said that although he has no plans to construct bike parking on Hornby Street yet, he wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

One can see a difference, possibly, between cafes on Commercial Drive and expensive stores and restaurants downtown. A common stereotype persists that cyclists are not shoppers.

“The only reason a person is cycling is because they’re too cheap to buy a bus pass,” said Chris Sullivan, manager of Tim Horton’s on Hornby Street. “They’re not going to spend any money.”

We still value cars as status symbols. And it may be true that few people cycle into Yaletown for a $300 dinner.

But to say that only the poor and/or cheap cycle is to ignore the growing faction of upscale professionals who cycle to work on bikes because it’s the only time in the day they have to exercise – or because they actually care about the environment.

“I see myself as more of an athlete than a commuter,” said Matt Shandro, who cycles to work downtown from North Vancouver every day. “I see this as a way to kill two birds with one stone - to get some exercise while commuting.”

The car is still king

Despite the changes made in the last year, we are still living in a city where the car rules the road. The total budget for cycling infrastructure is still a fraction of the overall transportation budget. Further, the province is spending billions on highways connecting Greater Vancouver as part of the Gateway Project.

Lisa Slakov, head of the Vancouver/UBC chapter of the Vancouver Area Cycling Commission, pointed out that cities in Europe have made it less attractive for people to drive by increasing fuel taxes and raising the costs of vehicles. In the United Kingdom, drivers pay three times the amount Vancouverites pay in fuel taxes.

“Human beings are infinitely adaptable,” Slakov said. “We see that when there are problems like a transit strike or gas prices go up, you see an enormous shift in human behaviour. When people are given incentives, they will change.”

//Laura Kane

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