David Suzuki: Building bike lanes pays dividends

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      Most arguments against bike lanes are absurd. Consider this: we have wide roads everywhere to accommodate cars, most of which carry only one person. On either side of many of those roads, we have pedestrian sidewalks. In most large urban areas, we also have bus lanes and transit systems such as subways and rapid transit. When cyclists ride on roads, drivers often get annoyed. If they ride on sidewalks, pedestrians rightly get angry.

      Human-powered transportation will only get more popular as gas prices rise and as the negative consequences of our car-centric culture increase. We should be doing everything we can to discourage single-occupant automobile use while encouraging public transit and pedestrian and pedal-powered movement.

      In many North American cities, including Vancouver, where I live, commuters scream bloody murder if it takes them an extra two minutes to get to their destination by car. The reality is that drivers are slowed more by increases in car traffic than by bike lanes. According to the Globe and Mail, a study by Stantec Consulting Ltd. found that traffic delays because of bike lanes in Vancouver were mostly imagined. Drivers who were surveyed thought it took them five minutes longer to travel along a street with a new bike lane. But the study showed that it actually took from five seconds less to just a minute and 37 seconds more.

      There’s also the argument that slowing car traffic down is a good thing. In some European cities, planners are finding that making life more difficult for drivers while providing incentives for people to take transit, walk, or cycle creates numerous benefits, from reducing pollution and smog-related health problems to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and making cities safer and friendlier.

      In Zurich, Switzerland, planners have added traffic lights, including some that transit operators can change in their favour, increased the time of red lights and decreased the greens, removed pedestrian underpasses, slowed speed limits, reduced parking, and banned cars from many streets. “Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers,” chief traffic planner Andy Fellmann told the New York Times. He also noted that a person in a car takes up 115 cubic meters of urban space in Zurich while a pedestrian takes three.

      Where streets were closed to cars in Zurich, store owners worried about losing business, but the opposite happened—pedestrian traffic increased 30 to 40 percent, bringing more people into stores and businesses. In Vancouver, the Stantec study found that businesses along new downtown bike routes initially experienced minor decreases in sales, but that numerous strategies were available to overcome the declines. In the long run, most cities that have improved cycling and pedestrian infrastructure have seen benefits for area businesses.

      Building bike lanes also creates jobs and other economic spin-offs, according to a study from the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, titled “Pedestrian and Bicycle Infrastructure: A National Study of Employment Impacts”. Researchers found that “bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending.” For every $1 million spent, cycling projects created an average of 11.4 jobs in the state where the project was located, pedestrian-only projects created about 10 jobs, and multi-use trails created about 9.6 jobs. Infrastructure combining road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities created slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects created the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million.

      One of the main reasons is that more of the money for road-building goes to materials and equipment whereas with bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure more goes to wages and salaries.

      It’s important to note that European cities have matched disincentives to drive with improved public transit. After all, not everyone can get to their destination by walking or cycling. But with fewer cars and reduced gridlock, those who must use automobiles—including service and emergency-response vehicles and taxis—have an easier time getting around.

      Fortunately, the backlash against cycling infrastructure improvements appears to be subsiding. As oil becomes scarce and pollution and climate change increase, people are finally realizing that transporting a 90-kilogram person in two tonnes of metal just isn’t sustainable, especially in urban areas.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.




      Aug 9, 2011 at 5:07pm

      The bike lanes are terrific, and when I was downtown earlier today, they were quite busy. Congrats to the City of Vancouver for providing safe and effective infrastructure to all its taxpayers, no matter what form of transportation they choose.

      Joel from Vancouver

      Aug 9, 2011 at 6:16pm

      I went to an interesting talk the other day about increasing economic growth in Vancouver. Ignoring the troubling concept of infinite growth for the moment, the engineer made an interesting point: if increasing economic growth in Vancouver means increasing the number of trips, and given the fact that we can't increase the physical area of Vancouver, how do we accomodate the concept of increased economic growth by increasing the number of trips? In all ways other than the car...

      james green

      Aug 9, 2011 at 8:07pm

      I like the lanes as well but let's raise our standards and expectations.
      In three years the Vision crowd has built lanes on 3 streets and you say terrific. Come on in 3 years they could have done much better and they have done literally nothing regarding getting the 100s of diesel powered buses off the streets in this city. But they did spend $8,00,000 to keep the heritage line running for 2 months.
      I don't know why but many Vancouverites have limited expectations of the mayor and council.
      After 3 years they put a transportation plan on the table with no financial plan with it.
      Raise your standards and evaluation criteria. There is so much more that could and should have been done in 3 years.


      Aug 9, 2011 at 8:50pm

      Great photo of the busy bike lane during a small smatter of rain.

      James G

      Aug 10, 2011 at 1:12am

      As a non-suburbanite, non-car owner and one who has never wasted a moment listening to talk radio, I do support the bike lanes for the most part.

      Cycling over the Burrard bridge prior to their development was simply dangerous, as was being a pedestrian when a careless cyclist zoomed by. It could use a little fine tuning and should almost certainly have been done on both sides but ultimately it may have saved lives.

      The ones over the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are excellent and have had minimal impact on traffic flow. Perhaps because the viaducts were built to last and have, remaining in spectacular condition equal to much more modern infrastructure. I wonder, though, why only after developing these lanes would the city then turn around and pay more for a study for removing the viaducts altogether than the bike lanes cost themselves?

      It is puzzling, especially given the overlapping Skytrain track and the lack of much impediment to developing green space in underutilized lands beneath it. The puzzle starts to be solved when you look at the Hornby bike route and see how the development was rushed through with little consultation. It is the in the very manner of public consultation that the Vision council has developed. In an about-face to how the process is expected to work, council members for Vision seem to meet in camera, make decisions and then use the public consultation process to sell those in attendance on the decisions already made. They have utterly lost even the pretense that their opinions on any issue may be swayed.

      For this reason, namely that the city government under Vision lacks transparency, I suggest that further major development for bike lanes should be brought on a separate ballot line item when asking for funding as part of the capital plan. If the need is so manifest, surely the electorate will back it. This will make the Vision councilors have to actually sell their agenda to the electorate rather than continue to govern by fiat (and I don't mean the car). I would vote for such change myself but then I have only voted 'no' to one item of the many capital plan funding resolutions ever put before me and that was long ago.

      I would also suggest that a referendum be held on the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, as was done recently in Seattle. A little democracy would go a long way to restore mostly lost faith in the incumbent council and given what has passed thus far, the study is a wasteful facade for decisions already made.

      I for one, do not want an additional 40,000 vehicles per day re-routed down East Hastings and other already stressed major roads in East Vancouver because council members have swallowed the fiction that everyone, all at once, can disengage themselves from private automobile ownership and/or afford to quit jobs or sell off suburban homes and somehow then have money to buy within municipal boundaries.

      My opinion may be silly but then, I don't have the urban planning skills of a zoologist.

      Brian Gould

      Aug 10, 2011 at 7:27am

      James, you're asking for votes that cost a significant chunk of the bike lanes themselves ($1 million for Dunsmuir, $3 million for Hornby), when other more expensive projects are done regularly and never receive scrutiny.

      As for the viaducts, they are only congested because they can hold so much more traffic than the city streets they tie into. Connect to Georgia (and Dunsmuir if you must) via the Boulevards and the difference will be imperceptible in anything but the ability to blast straight out into a residential neighbourhood.


      Aug 10, 2011 at 10:02am

      @ James G: what you are proposing is not a change in urban planning but in governing as a whole. To have a referendum on funding allocation for infrastructure projects would be paralyzing. What's the point of having elected government representatives if we want to have a referendum for every project?

      That would, indeed, be silly - whether you are an accountant or zoologist, or anything in between.

      James G

      Aug 10, 2011 at 10:12am

      @ Brian Gould
      You are distorting what I have said.

      All borrowing for capital plan projects is put to the voters during the municipal elections already. I should not have to tell you this. I am merely asking that a separate line item to approve spending on development of new bike lanes be added. I don't believe that the costs would entail anything like what you suggest but then it is likely easier for you to claim that than admit that your Vision masters are afraid to go to the electorate with the measure. Even at that, whenever is democracy a waste of money? It would certainly make some amends for the farce that this council has made of public consultation.

      You also seem to suggest that I maintain that the viaducts are congested when I clearly said the exact opposite -- which is that they are in excellent condition and efficient enough that they have easily accommodated the new bike lanes.

      I like the excuse of speed. The city has no jurisdiction over speed limits now? I live in the Hastings corridor and it already handles a traffic volume that at least the equal of what 'blasts' into Strathcona from the viaducts we already bear a substantial commuter traffic load. Yet the City has lowered the speed limit it that very area where there have been recent traffic fatalities. Can you claim that Prior is actually more problematic? No? Yet, City Councilor Meggs and Vision will re-route a goodly portion of that traffic our way as well and all in order to develop 30 new residential towers.

      Who benefits from those towers? While you are here, which city council signed that contract with Enerpro? Was it the NPA or Vision? Do you know where Vision gets its funding? Some of us can connect the dots but I'd like the complete picture from an insider like yourself.

      All we have seen from Vision is bravado. The Greenest City in the World. I guess we will have to outperform Pyongyang then, is that the goal? Picture it ... dark every night from total power blackouts, no private automobiles ... paradise to you? Eliminate homelessness in two terms. How, by tearing down social housing? By redefining the goalposts to 'street homelessness' and then manipulating numbers by not having seasonal adjustments? As I stated at the beginning, I like the bike lanes so far. I just don't like the way you do business and can hardly wait for the municipal election.

      James G

      Aug 10, 2011 at 10:19am

      I have not proposed any such thing. If you have ever voted in a municipal election, you will have found measures there to approve borrowing for capital plan projects. Often, the funding measures are separated, such as for libraries or parks. I believe that you and Mr. Gould are trying to spin my proposal because you know that if you take that to the voters as a proposal standing on it's own merit, you will not find approval from the voters. Nonetheless, it is their money.


      Aug 11, 2011 at 10:41am

      I can't be the only one who read this whole thing in David Suzuki's voice...