As the nonprofit HUB Cycling was preparing for its Go by Bike Week, from May 25 to May 31, the volunteer chair of its Vancouver committee was in an ebullient mood.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Jeff Leigh pointed out that there were more people riding bikes in Stanley Park on a Wednesday this month than on the Burrard Bridge cycling lanes, which he called the busiest bikeway in North America.
“There’s a lot of pent-up desire for people to get out and move in space,” Leigh said.
Data from the park board reveals that 168,000 cyclists travelled through Stanley Park from April 8, when the park board closed the road, until May 10. On that day, 8,301 cyclists rode through the park, compared to a daily average of 3,000 in 2019.
According to Leigh, this shows what can happen when safe cycling routes are provided to the public.
It was a similar story in 2017 when the Point Grey Road two-way bike route opened, protected from motor vehicles. Despite a raft of controversy in advance and predictions that few would make use of it, this bikeway became an immediate hit. Leigh noted that between 2,500 to 3,000 people cycled along the road on the first weekend after it opened.
“No engineer has ever determined the need for a bridge by counting the number of people swimming across a river,” Leigh quipped.
The city’s general manager of engineering services, Lon LaClaire, told the Straight by phone that Vancouver has the highest rate of commuter cycling of any city in North America.
Between 1996 and 2016, cycling trips to work rose 85 percent in Vancouver, according to census data, whereas driving to work went down 20 percent over the same period. The latest Greenest City Action Plan update shows that 53 percent of all trips in Vancouver were by bike, transit, and walking.
As part of the city’s declaration of a climate emergency last year, the goal is to increase that modal split to two-thirds of all trips by bike, transit, and walking by 2030. LaClaire attributed a lot of the increase so far to the growth of protected bicycle lanes, including those on Hornby and Dunsmuir streets.
“It wouldn’t be unusual now to see a father with a young son or daughter biking through the downtown,” LaClaire said. “You would never have seen that before.”
The city’s top engineer acknowledged that there has been a dramatic drop in trips into the downtown core since the pandemic was declared in March, including on bicycles, because far fewer people have been going to work.
Yet there’s been a sharp increase in the number of recreational cyclists over that period, not only in Stanley Park but along the Arbutus Greenway, Point Grey Road, and the seawalls.
“I would say, broadly, we’re up about 50 percent across all of the routes that don’t head to the downtown,” LaClaire said. “Cycling is a great way to get some exercise. Of course, the gyms—broadly, across the city—are closed. So we’re very mindful of that.”
City officials are proud of their record in increasing the cycling rate, but it still isn’t enough for many activists who feel more must be done to address climate change.
One of those who feels the world is burning is Lisa Corriveau, who tweets about her rides every day with the hashtag #Bike365.
When the city recently announced the first 12 kilometres of “slow streets”, with barriers and signs along Wall, Lakewood, and Gladstone streets, she declared that this will do “nothing for anyone trying to shop or run errands by bike”.
Others want the city to repatriate a great deal more road space from motor-vehicle use and turn it over to cycling in the wake of the pandemic.
On May 27, council approved a motion by NPA councillor Lisa Dominato to go part of the way. It directs staff "to expedite efforts to identify and implement appropriate reallocations of road space".
According to the motion, this would include high-use greenways and streets adjacent to parks, which would enable more physical distancing between pedesrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles.
The city also plans to redesign the Granville Bridge to make it more welcome to pedestrians and cyclists.
One of HUB Cycling’s chief concerns is addressing interruptions in the network of bike lanes across the region. Its campaign, #UnGapTheMap, has identified more than 400 priority areas that it wants to be addressed to promote safe cycling.
Leigh said that one of his group’s most pressing issues in recent years has been along Powell Street in the northwest quadrant of Vancouver.
Commuter cyclists from the North Shore travel over the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing, passing alongside New Brighton Park on their way toward Vancouver. But they hit a “dead end” at Powell, often riding along the sidewalks to avoid the heavy traffic.
A new overpass at Clark Drive, financed by the federal government as part of a port expansion project, has now made it safe for cyclists to cross there and then get into Gastown along Alexander Street.
“But there is a gap from McLean Drive to Wall or Semlin [streets],” Leigh said. “I won’t call it a death trap, because I don’t know if people die there, but it’s a very uncomfortable place to cycle.”
According to Leigh, the city won’t be making changes to this section of Powell Street for many years, so in the meantime, HUB Cycling has convinced officials to create a “Powell bypass”.
This enables cyclists to travel along Pandora Street all the way to Hastings Park, facilitating connections with the north-south McLean and Lakewood bikeways.
“What that does is give some access to that whole neighbourhood, which in the past didn’t want to go to Powell,” Leigh said. “It wasn’t a nice place to cycle.”