Urban cyclists still face unfriendly terrain in Vancouver

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Effervescent cyclist and former COPE city councillor Fred Bass has always expressed his opinion in a colourful fashion.

      For the latest example, witness the Coalition of Progressive Electors–hosted transportation forum February 11 at Our Town Café in Mount Pleasant, where Bass—for once not decked out in full-face bike helmet and Gore-Tex—said it would take “politicians with balls” to implement a transportation plan that incorporates more bicycles out on the roads.

      “We need a convivial investment, [away] from cars, to shoes, bicycles, or transit,” Bass, 73, said to applause. “And we need to get some politicians with balls, or the gender equivalent, to take charge.”

      Now that transit fares in the region have risen once again, and with roads clogged due to construction and car volume, bikes are a more viable option than ever. However, Vancouver is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

      This didn’t stop the 200 or so brave souls who braved the up-and-down weather during the February 29 special leap-year Critical Mass. The mass takes place on the last Friday of each month downtown, beginning in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where cyclists of all shapes, sizes, and speeds (and costumes) converge on the Georgia Street steps.

      The mass riders are never specific about route, arriving at a consensus on direction as an intersection approaches. While bikers wave at pedestrians, stop for bus drivers at intersections, and revel in the anarchy of it all, there is still a political edge to these events. The aim of the riders is simple: have as much fun as possible while awakening everyone around to the potential of the bike as a clean means of transportation.

      It worked a treat on June 30, 2006, when Vancouver-based Critical Mass veteran Jane Buker told the Georgia Straight the ride shattered records and attracted “1,835 riders as a minimum count”. Not bad for a three-hour party in the sun. Less gas, more ass? No question. However, cars continue to be added to the region, while bicycles are used for three to four percent of trips in Vancouver.

      Peter Stary, City of Vancouver bicycle-program coordinator, told the Straight he believes it is “over three percent at this point”. However, he said there is no definitive data, as the city is relying on dated information from TransLink trip-diary surveys carried out in 1994 and 1999.

      “The data we have gotten previously showed a mode share of 1.4 percent in 1994,” Stary said. “That doubled to 2.7 percent in 1999. We are anticipating that it has gone up substantially since then.”

      Stary said he has heard from TransLink that it anticipates carrying out the studies again this fall. Meanwhile, transportation planning consultant and West End–based cyclist Don Buchanan told the Straight a funding commitment to the tune of “between $50 million and $100 million over a 10-year period” from all levels of government would take cycling in the city to the next level—somewhere at least close to the City of Vancouver goal of a 10-percent mode share by 2010.

      “We need to acknowledge the exponential growth that has happened up until today,” he said, in relation to Stary’s stats. “While we may be talking about a relatively small mode share, we are going from a very small amount to doubling a small amount. To be able to continue that growth, we need to see increased funding, we need to see a commitment to rebalancing of transportation and moving away from the single focus of people moving people in cars to reallocating the road space that is there.”

      Buchanan added: “The city has some great policies. Unfortunately, up to now they have only had the funding to do small, off-street construction projects or bike lanes that don’t do a whole lot in terms of encouraging more people to use cycling.”

      Buchanan said that, while stencilled-in bike lanes on Burrard and Hornby streets are helpful, they will only serve “hard-core riders and serious commuters”. There is a point beyond which people in the city will not go, out of either fear for their own safety or lack of confidence, and this will not help the mode share.

      Stepping into the breach is Bonnie Fenton, director of the commuter-cycling-skills program with the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition. She said her TransLink-funded program—now in its third year—goes a long way toward helping shift that modal split in favour of bicycles.

      Fenton said she and her eight fellow instructors have seen over 400 people go through the course, many of them very hesitant initially, and uses words like empowering and amazing to describe the experience gained through the course, which involves riding assertively, confidently, and safely in traffic, and learning correct positioning on the road.

      “This is what it is all about, I think—not just infrastructure, but people as well,” Fenton said. “When they start out these people are scared. They really are. They see the traffic and they say, ”˜I’m not doing that.’ Then they do and they say, ”˜Wow, look at what I just did.’ These are regular folks, people I don’t know. I think people who ride all the time don’t realize what it is like for these people.”

      Sitting in the afternoon sun on Granville Island, Fenton pointed to a number of cities that are doing a much better job of incorporating two-wheeled traffic.

      “If you take a trip through Copenhagen, like I did last summer, you see bikes, bikes, bikes—every kind of bike,” she said.

      Fenton noted that Copenhagen has a 36-percent bike mode share, while Odense, Denmark, and Mí¼nster, Germany, are both at 40 percent.

      “We could totally do that here, and there is no reason why not,” she added. “It is just a case of education, so that people know how to ride the bikes, and how to do it safely and respectfully, and a case of people in cars knowing how to interact with the bikes on the road.”

      Looking outside Vancouver and the inner suburbs, there is less reason for optimism. The Straight contacted Newton resident Gordon Scott, who immediately dismissed Surrey’s bicycle infrastructure, saying “Generally, it sucks.” (Scott was named Best Defier of Suburban Death in the 2007 Georgia Straight Best of Vancouver awards for narrowly escaping death by truck at the inaugural Surrey Critical Mass last year.)

      “There might be some good portions, but generally it sucks to be on the road and the city doesn’t really take care of the cycling lanes,” Scott said by phone. “I am not impressed. I haven’t seen much happen here, if anything at all. The only thing they did was they made a big hoopla when they painted a wide bicycling lane up and down King George Highway. Well, that’s great if you like sucking lead air into your lungs.”

      Patrick Meyer lives with his family in the Windsong cohousing community in Walnut Grove, just north of Highway 1 in Langley. Though he is a keen cyclist and comes from the Netherlands—where cycling is ubiquitous—Meyer told the Straight “only insane people ride bikes around Langley.”

      “I don’t know anybody in Langley who commutes by bike,” said Meyer, who ran for the federal Greens in Langley in 2004 and 2006. “There just is not the infrastructure in place to do it effectively and safely. There are two ways of getting to Langley City from Walnut Grove—along 200 Street and 208 Street. Well, cyclists get killed on 200.”¦There are bike lanes on the sides of new roads, but they start in the middle of nowhere and they end in the middle of nowhere.”

      North Vancouver resident and VACC president John Fair told the Straight he estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 bicycle commuters in the three North Shore municipalities of West Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, and the District of North Vancouver.

      “I would rate it [North Shore] very poorly for transportational cyclists,” Fair said. “The problem we have got over here is one of limited space, and with the infrastructure having all been built, in order to add bike lanes to existing roads costs a lot of money. You
      either have to realign the road and acquire property, or you are stuck up against either a hill or the ocean. So it is tough to do.”

      In Vancouver, cycling and the fate of the Burrard Bridge go hand in hand. On February 21, the West End Residents Association put on a public forum at SFU’s Harbour Centre campus. The group says it is worried that Vancouver’s ruling Non-Partisan Association has made a foolish choice in pursuing a more expensive widening option for the Burrard Bridge.

      “Before 1984, cyclists used the bridge,” John Whistler, a WERA board member, said. “Putting cyclists on the sidewalks did not solve the problem.”

      On July 19, 2005, Bass, then the chair of the city’s transportation and traffic committee, sought closure on the 15-year-old Burrard Bridge issue. He proposed that staff look into the lane widening, but that a six-month trial be started in April 2006, in which two lanes of car traffic would be given over to cyclists and in-line skaters, creating a much-needed segregation that would guarantee the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, who still have to share the narrow sidewalks. Bass convinced all COPE councillors to vote in favour, along with then–NPA councillor Peter Ladner. Mayor Sam Sullivan is the sole dissenting vote, though Ladner—now seeking the NPA mayoral nomination—announced later on that he had changed his position. He was derided at the WERA event for doing this.

      “I can’t win that one,” Ladner said by phone. “Will I repent? No. If you are a cycling advocate, nothing I did should make you concerned. We are widening the sidewalks. There will be better issues for cyclists. So what’s the issue? It is the anticar advocates who are pissed off at me.”

      The Straight asked Ladner how he would react to being called a cycling flip-flopper at election time.

      “I have always been consistent that cyclists need more space,” he said. “It is just a question of where to put it.”

      In information handed out at the event, WERA notes that—based on TransLink’s numbers—traffic volumes on the Burrard Bridge saw a five-percent decline from 1996 to 2004. At the same time, public-transit ridership increased 40 percent. Between 1996 and 2001, cycling increased by 110 percent and pedestrian traffic increased by 350 percent. WERA adds that the Lions Gate Bridge carries more traffic with half the allocation of lanes for cars.