We're in the midst of a self-imposed hiatus from writing new blog material, as we're busy hustling behind-the-scenes on our first full-length book. But rather than suffer through total radio silence, we thought it would be fun to periodically revisit old articles we've published over the years, many of which are no longer available online. The following, written by Chris, originally appeared in Hush Magazine on November 28th, 2012.
As you may have noticed, the outrage over the act of cycling on the sidewalk has reached a fever pitch in Vancouver, becoming quite the populist sport. Whether it’s columnists from The Tyee advocating violence, misguided MLAs calling for a police crackdown, or anonymous vitriol spewed across the bottom half of anything vaguely bike-related on the Internet. What these people fail to recognize is that sidewalk cycling is a symptom of a much larger problem: the failure of our city officials and Traffic Engineers to provide safe and convenient bicycle routes to where people actually want to go.
While we do have an existing network of bike boulevards stretching across the city, they resemble an afterthought; relegated to residential side streets with very few amenities (10th Avenue, Ontario Street, Woodland Drive, etc). To borrow a transportation planning term, travelling the “last mile” to a restaurant, shop or theatre is where the problem lies. If you’re headed somewhere along Main Street, Commercial Drive, Robson Street or Broadway, for example, you are fully expected to run with the bulls, and rub shoulders with massive cars, trucks and buses travelling twice your speed. Trust me, it’s not for the faint at heart.
In that situation, the cyclist is legally obliged to take the entire lane, effectively doubling the amount of road space they are entitled to, but risking the ire of passing motorists. It’s far more secure, and less confrontational to ride the sidewalk to your ultimate destination, especially if you are cycling with children, as I often do. It’s not a coincidence that sidewalk cycling is most prominent on these busier streets. As Mikael Colville-Anderson often says: “Badly-behaved cyclists are usually just cyclists with inadequate infrastructure. Or none at all.”
The solution to this dilemma is a simple one: a physically separated bike lane that allows cyclists of all ages, abilities and confidence levels to reach their destination without risking their life. But if council’s recent implementation of two separated lanes downtown showed us anything, it’s that there are still plenty of organizations that vehemently oppose this democratization of our streets. And that’s ultimately what this is about: creating transportation equality; that is, complete streets that are safe, reliable and comfortable for every single one of their users, not just the motorists. As Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá famously said: "A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen in a $30,000 car."
From archaic media outlets such as The Province and CKNW, I expect nothing less. They know their audience (the suburban car commuter) and their advertisers (the automobile manufacturers and dealerships), and cater to them accordingly. However, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned the majority of businesses in my own neighbourhood of Commercial Drive oppose a proposed separated lane. These are locally owned cafés, delis and restaurants within a family-oriented community with the highest rates of walking and cycling in the province. If a separated bike lane couldn’t win approval here, it couldn’t anywhere.
For some unknown reason, these businesses still think their success depends on having two parking spots on the street, and two swiftly moving lanes of vehicles outside their front door. Nothing could be further from the truth. Within a comparable dense, walkable neighbourhood (the Annex in Toronto), only 10 per cent of patrons at local businesses arrive by car, while the other 90 per cent arrive by foot, transit or bicycle. Furthermore, countless studies (from Portland, New York, Toronto, Ottawa and San Francisco) have found an immediate and considerable increase in retail activity along streets with bike lanes, and a sizable drop in commercial vacancies, with higher rents being paid for street front locations.
Perhaps more importantly, the safety and comfort of people walking and cycling along those streets is also enhanced. A city report on the downtown separated lanes found that collisions of all types (involving automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians) dropped by about 20%. They also found an overall increase in bicycle usage, particularly with women and children. In a region where 71% of all cyclists are still male, this is a noteworthy development. There were no measurable changes in automobile volumes or travel times, and cycling on sidewalks had been reduced by 80%. When you look at the facts, the answer becomes apparent: those calling for stiff reprimands towards sidewalk cyclists should actually be calling for separated lanes on every major street. In Portland, which has done just that (albeit with painted lanes), sidewalk cycling is virtually non-existent!
All in all, this resistance represents a clear misunderstanding of the bicycle as a mode of transportation; an archaic belief they are a nuisance rather than an asset, somehow worth less than an automobile. While addressing a new proposal to reclaim two lanes of traffic for pedestrians and bikes on the vastly underutilized eight-lane Granville Bridge, Charles Gauthier, director of the Downtown Business Improvement Association said this: “We have to ensure that we’re not choking the lifeblood out of the downtown.” He was, of course, expressing the anachronistic viewpoint that 4000-lb pieces of steel and fiberglass are the lifeblood of a city, and not, as I would insist, the actual people.
Whether holdouts like Charles like it or not, cities around the world are shifting towards multimodal places with a level playing field for walking, cycling, transit, car-share, and even the private automobile. In those cities, bicycles are being used as tools, no more differently than vacuum cleaners or toothbrushes. This particular tool just happens to reduce healthcare costs, stimulate local economies, boost employee productivity, mitigate climate change, improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, decrease car congestion, enhance personal mobility, connect citizens to their surroundings, alleviate demand on over-burdened transit systems, and significantly reduce road infrastructure costs. Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Post script: In 2015, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) undertook an extensive public engagement process – dubbed Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver – that ended up challenging many of their core assumptions and beliefs. To his immense credit, President and CEO Charles Gauthier has since become one of the city's most vocal proponents of bicycle infrastructure, reversing his organization’s position on the Dunsmuir and Hornby Street protected bike lanes – calling them “the way of the future”, supporting walking and cycling improvements to the Burrard Bridge – a “win-win-win for all users”, championing the arrival of bike share to the public and to its members, and even hosting HUB Cycling's annual Bike Friendly Business Awards. Earlier this year, the DVBIA cemented this progression with a platinum HUB membership, making a $15,000 annual commitment to the cycling group to spend on initiatives like Bike to Work Week or Bike to Shop Days.