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Things that Work: The sixth in a series on a better B.C.

For cyclists - and motorists - it's an easy ride Add to ...

Few can sniff pending disaster like the media, particularly if there might be pictures. So television, radio and notebook-wielding print reporters were in place early, primed to file up-to-the-minute dispatches on what would surely be the fiasco of the year.

This was July 13, Day One of the great bike-lane experiment on the busy Burrard Bridge. Pundits had been predicting chaos for days. TV choppers circled overhead, searching for the first trace of long lines of impatient motorists.

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When suddenly, as the Monty Python skit put it, nothing happened. But for a brief snafu at one end of the bridge during the evening rush hour, pounced on by the news-starved media as manna from heaven, the day had all the drama of a golf course tap in.

Restricting one of the bridge's six lanes to bicycles worked right off the bat. Five and a half months later, it's still working.

On a recent, hectic, pre-Christmas late afternoon, vehicles moved smoothly across the venerable, 77-year-old crossing, cars slowing only for turns off and onto the bridge.

“There's a bit of a backup, depending on the lights, but for the most part, it's fine,” said a driver in a black SUV, waiting for her chance to access the bridge.

Said cyclist Chris Marti, bundled up in bright yellow togs, who pedals across the structure several times a week: “It's much better. I love it.”

The new bike lane not only gave more room to cyclists, it also ended the perpetual peril of bicycles and pedestrians sharing the sidewalk.

“It was really scary before, always looking over your shoulder for cyclists,” said Nicole Cutler, toting two bags of Christmas shopping, as she headed over by foot. “It's great. I'd be really upset if it went back to the way it was before.”

No chance.

Although the experiment – a bike-only lane going south with one sidewalk reserved for cyclists headed north and the other sidewalk for pedestrians – is still officially a trial, no one expects it to be reversed.

“It's working,” said the city's assistant transportation engineer, Jerry Dobrovolny.

Overall, bike traffic on the bridge is 26 per cent higher, Mr. Dobrovolny said, while vehicle crossings are down slightly and pedestrian use is up slightly.

“The big thing is, there are no delays on the bridge itself. There have been added delays of perhaps a minute or two elsewhere, but the data shows people are changing their habits.”

The success of the experiment is a feather in the cap for the city's biking mayor, Gregor Robertson.

Mr. Robertson, with the support of his Vision party councillors, pushed the trial through in the face of almost universal predictions of delay-fuelled motorist fury.

The previous, right-of-centre council had bowed to the bleating of the car lobby, opting for a plan to widen the sidewalks for $30-million rather than simply give the bike lane a try.

Critics looked back to a pilot lane closing in 1996 that lasted all of a week before being called off, although traffic had started to stabilize after a few angry days of tie-ups.

Mr. Robertson gives the current trial a nine out of 10.

“It's definitely improved safety for walking and cycling on the same bridge, and saved us upwards of $30-million in capital costs. We just need to smooth out a few wrinkles.”

Inveterate cyclist Peter Ladner, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Robertson for mayor, said there's no doubt the bike lane works, despite his own vacillation on the issue while a member of council.

“Traffic engineers predicted doom. They gave us maps, showing how far back the traffic would stretch. Where are they now?” wondered Mr. Ladner.

“I cycled over this morning. It's certainly more relaxed. I think we're at a bit of a tipping point. People's attitudes are changing.”

Urban expert Gordon Price, the former councillor who spearheaded the 1996 experiment, said the tactic worked better this time for three reasons.

Officials communicated the change effectively, they closed the southbound lane to cars instead of the northbound lane used in the morning rush hour, and Vancouver is a different city than it used to be.

“It's moving into post-motordom. By that I mean, everything used to be designed around the car. Now, we have to have other choices, or the car fails,” he said. “That's happening.”

One dark cloud hovers over the venture. A decision by traffic planners to close off a turn from Pacific Avenue onto Hornby Street to protect cyclists streaming off the bridge is devastating at least one long-standing business.

Since the bike lane opened, sales at Art Knapp Urban Garden, a Hornby fixture for 35 years, have plummeted. Business this month is off 40 to 80 per cent from last year, depending on the day, says owner Wim Vander Zalm. “It's ugly.”

If he can't get a break on his rent, he's gone, Mr. Vander Zalm said. “We need new, drive-by customers, and they're not there.”

Mr. Robertson hopes a solution can be worked out.

But, after a week earlier this month in cycling-mad Copenhagen, he's imbued with a distinct case of bike buzz. The mayor wants more.

“If the number of cyclists continue to increase, we are going to be looking at making more space available,” he said.

“Burrard Bridge was the first big demonstration of protecting bicycle lanes. We showed it was possible, without creating a huge traffic issue.”

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

 

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