Vancouver has caught the cycling bug in ways that nobody could have imagined 20 years ago.
When Lon LaClaire joined the City of Vancouver’s engineering department in 1997, council had just passed a landmark transportation plan with 76 major initiatives. It marked the first time that the city explicitly expressed a desire for more trips by walking, cycling, and transit and set out ways to accomplish that.
“I think at that point we had only one bike route that was existing at that time,” LaClaire, now the city’s director of transportation, told the Georgia Straight by phone from Vancouver City Hall. “The mayor and council of the day wanted us to focus a lot more on development of cycling infrastructure.”
He recalled that a couple of years later, there was a celebration when the city’s bike network reached 100 kilometres. It was mostly made up of a north-south route on Ontario Street, an east-west route on Adanac Street, and an off-Broadway route along 7th and 8th avenues.
Within a decade, however, cycling had almost tripled and there were more than 50,000 bike trips inside the city, according to a May 2006 report by LaClaire.
By 2013, the city reported that 83,000 trips were taken on a bike. The following year, this rose to 99,000, and by 2015 the number shot up to 131,000. That’s a 32-percent hike in cycling in a single year.
“These jumps are just really, really shocking,” LaClaire said.
As the Lower Mainland prepares for the 10th annual Bike to Work Week—from Monday (May 30) to next Sunday (June 5)—it’s a good time to reflect on how the city’s cycling culture has blossomed. Nowadays, 10 percent of Vancouverites cycle to their place of employment, according to City of Vancouver statistics.
LaClaire pointed out that the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 helped sharpen transportation planners’ minds.
“It was a good exercise in foreseeing a future when you have to accommodate 30 percent more trips into the downtown,” he said. “Walk, bike, and transit were kind of managed pretty well.”
Vancouver's growth in cycling is being noticed internationally. LaClaire said that he was recently at a conference in Amsterdam, where people were surprised to hear how cycling is becoming so much more popular in a North American city.
Bike to Work Week promotes cycling
Over at the bicycle-advocacy group Hub Cycling, the director of corporate engagement and events, Laura Jane, is ecstatic about how things are progressing. In 2007, 3,550 people signed up for Bike to Work Week. This year, she hopes Hub can reach its goal of 13,000 participants.
There are 75 events taking place during the week. At “celebration stations”, people can stop for free coffee, free snacks, and free bike repairs. Logging on to Hub’s website makes them eligible to win bicycles or a trip to cycling-crazy Amsterdam.
Jane explained over the phone that cycling to work is a great way to incorporate regular exercise into the day. She also said that people often underestimate how much time they can save by cycling.
“You don’t have to drive around in search of parking and you don’t get stuck in traffic,” she said.
Jane added that people who bike to work are often happier commuters. And once newcomers learn to get comfortable cycling during Bike to Work Week, they often continue.
“We do follow-up surveys after the event,” she said. “Most of the people stick with it on a regular basis.”
In fact, Bike to Work Week has been such a success that Hub is adding two more events on this year’s calendar: Bike to Shop Day on August 13 and Bike the Night, which will take place on an unspecified evening later this summer. Bike the Night was inspired by a similar event in Montreal that, she said, attracted approximately 17,000 people.
Vancity offers cycling workshops
Hub pays tribute to cycling-friendly organizations with its annual Bike Friendly Business Awards. Last year’s winners included Arc’teryx, Hootsuite, Bosa Properties, and the Kwantlen Student Association, to name a few.
The prize for “cycling education champion” went to Vancity, where 52.7 percent of the staff commute by sustainable means.
This year, the credit union will offer two bike-maintenance workshops at Vancity Centre (183 Terminal Avenue) and at its 815 West Hastings Street location. At the latter site, Vancity will also offer two commuter-primer workshops.
The credit union is also sponsoring Bike to Work Week “celebration stations” at Science World, Hornby Square, and UBC.
Vancity’s manager of environmental sustainability, Anthonia Ogundele, cycles to work on most days and walks on those when she leaves the bike at home. She’s not alone, telling the Straight by phone that it is sometimes hard to find room for her bike in Vancity’s storage room because so many of her colleagues also cycle to work.
The self-described urbanist said she’s had a long-standing love for sustainability.
“I’ve always cycled,” Ogundele stated. “I feel it’s the best way to be connected with your community. It gives you that opportunity to stop and smell the roses.”
TransLink faces a new competitor
Another company that participates in Bike to Work Week is Comor, which is B.C.’s largest independently owned sports retailer. This year, people can win prizes from the company, including a $75 gift certificate, at a celebration station at Vancouver International Airport.
Comor’s Carlos Strachan told the Straight by phone that Bike to Work Week doesn’t necessarily lead to sales of big-ticket items but it gets riders thinking about having their bikes tuned up or buying gear, like helmets or new gloves.
“It gets our name out there, which is a great opportunity for us,” he said.
However, the big-ticket business may blossom later this summer if transit operators and TransLink can’t negotiate a contract.
If a labour dispute shuts down operation of buses or SeaBuses, the number of cyclists will sharply increase. And that will drive down revenue for TransLink. (Workers have already given the union a strike mandate.)
Strachan pointed out that TransLink revenue might also decline because of the city’s new Mobi bike-share program. That's because people might decide to use one of the bikes rather than paying a $2.75 one-zone fare.
“It’s an interesting dynamic when you think about it,” Strachan said. “They’re both working for the same thing—less congestion, better for the environment—but totally competing against one another.”
Separated bike lanes boost safety
According to LaClaire, one of the biggest obstacles to cycling is the perception that it’s not safe. That's where the separated bike lanes have helped.
"The more that we build these facilities where people can visualize themselves taking that route on a bike, the more likely they will," LaClaire said. "I would say the rsults of what we see on these investments kind of validates what people have been telling us in our surveys."
At first, the city created bikeways on nonarterial streets between arterials. The Ontario bikeway runs between Main and Cambie streets. The Heather bikeway is between Cambie and Oak streets. The bikeways along Cypress and Angus are between Granville and Arbutus.
"A lot of other cities didn't approach it that way," LaClaire explained. "It was actually pretty unique in North America."
In more recent years, separate bikeways have been added to busier streets, such as Hornby and Dunsmuir.
That's not to say that safety isn't still a concern. The City of Vancouver’s 2015 cycling-safety study identified 19 locations where there had been 10 or more reported collisions between 2007 and 2012.
Green paint and intervention to prevent right turns going west were added at the most dangerous site: the north end of the Burrard Bridge and Pacific Street. Green paint was also added to three more of the top six crash locations, a traffic circle was removed from a fifth, and a new protected bike lane was added at a sixth.
After taking bicycle volumes into account, the neighbourhoods where collisions were most likely were Sunset, Shaughnessy, Victoria-Fraserview, and Killarney.
“This suggests that the neighbourhoods with the least amount of cycling and cycling infrastructure had the highest cycling collision likelihood,” the report stated.
LaClaire said statistics indicate that there has been a decrease in collisions involving cyclists as their number has sharply increased. That’s because motorists are more likely to keep an eye out for two-wheelers when there are more of them on the roads.
And he suggested that the rising popularity of cycling couldn’t have been anticipated 20 years ago because the forecasting models were based on people who were living in Vancouver at that time.
“One of the flaws with that system is it assumes the people of the future are like the people of the past,” LaClaire stated. “These young people behave differently than the young people of 20 years ago.”
One of the reasons is the growing awareness of climate change. Another is the cost of living has shot up in Vancouver, making it more difficult to operate a car on an average income while grappling with student loans.
Still another is the introduction of the UPass program at postsecondary institutions.
"I think that's been a huge, huge help," LaClaire said. "I mean, everyone gets a bus pass when they go to university. And they inevitably get to know the transit system."
Bike to Work Week is welcomed at Vancouver City Hall because it increases the chances that even more people will take up cycling, freeing up road space by having fewer vehicles in the commuting pool.
"They may not bike to work all the time," LaClaire said, "but even if they only do it once a week—for us on the transportation side—that's huge. That's a 20 percent reduction in their car trips."