Vancouver’s bike lanes have made it a city to watch

VANCOUVER — Special to The Globe and Mail

A cyclist uses the Hornby Street bike lane in downtown Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

To many cities, building bike lanes isn’t about serving a small slice of the hipster set. It’s about showing that the city is planning for a different, more sustainable transportation future and serving an increasingly important demographic.

City cycling is no fad, say municipal officials and cycling experts around the continent: It’s here to stay and should be embraced.

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“All of us, in every city around North America, because of demographic forces, are really seeing an increase in cycling,” says Andrew Stober, chief of staff for the mayor’s office on transportation in Philadelphia. “This is not a case of ‘Build it and they will come.’ We are seeing that we need to build something because they’re already here.’”

As cities get more dense, more people are coming to the conclusion that a bicycle is often the most efficient and cheapest way to travel within the five-kilometre radius where they increasingly spend most of their time.

And businesses, looking around the globe at where to locate, factor in the effort that cities are making to provide for their potential bike-riding employees. Philadelphia recently got shortlisted as a new location for a major brewery’s East Coast base because of its robust bike-route network.

As a result, Mr. Stober and many other city officials say they are constantly scanning the horizon to see what other cities are doing.

One of the places they always look: Vancouver.

Vancouver doesn’t have the biggest cycling network. Montreal has far more concrete barrier-protected lanes; New York has more miles of bike routes overall. It doesn’t have the highest percentage of cycle trips (as opposed to walking, driving and taking transit). Copenhagen, with 40 per cent, and even Berlin, with 15 per cent of trips by bicycle, far outstrip Vancouver, which is currently closing in on 5 per cent.

It doesn’t have a bike-share program yet, like other cities aggressively pushing cycling.

But Vancouver was one of the first cities in North America to create a low-cost, low-impact network by creating bikeways along residential streets with relatively light traffic volumes – a system that Portland, Ore., copied. That system has helped push cycling trips in some parts of the city – Commercial Drive, Kitsilano – to the 12- to 15-per-cent range.

“It really has led the way in North American in local-street bikeways,” says John Pucher, a Rutgers University urban planning professor and author of City Cycling.

But in the last five years, the city has moved into a tougher phase: increasing barrier-separated lanes and other route improvements that visibly take space away from cars. It’s the kind of cycling infrastructure that Mr. Pucher and other researchers say is the safest and the type most likely to encourage regular people, especially women, to try cycling.

Vancouver’s efforts have meant fights with residents, downtown businesses, and political opponents who accuse Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver councillors of catering to the city’s tiny minority of cyclists.

This week, city council’s decision to approve a new section of bikeway alongside some of the city’s most expensive properties – and some of its most vehemently opposed residents – was watched carefully across the continent.

“They’re one of the leaders,” says Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for the City of Houston, which has built 300 miles of bikeways recently and introduced a small but enthusiastically welcomed bike-share program this spring.

“That huge controversy they had … it’s kind of fantastic for the country. It shows that even when there’s opposition, if you have strong leadership, you can move ahead and show the success later. It helps other cities when you have wins like this.”

Vancouver is one of the models for smaller or more car-oriented cities that have decided unilaterally to create a cycling culture.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the current superstars among cycling cities, are admired, but not always seen as examples that can be emulated. Amsterdam, where 57 per cent of all trips are done by bicycle, has had a strong cycling culture since the bicycle was invented. Its city governments over the years have mostly strengthened that.

Copenhagen, which has reached the 40-per-cent mark for cycling trips, made more of a leap, but it had a long history of building separated bike lanes – called “cycle tracks” by the experts – in its central city. As well, like many European cities, its public spaces were never taken over by the car to the extent that North America’s were when cars began fighting for and winning dominance on the roads over pedestrians and streetcars in the 1920s and ’30s.

But Vancouver, and other cities like New York, Chicago, Berlin, Seville, Barcelona, Montreal, and Portland that have had to fight to create a cycling culture, are the ones showing the way to cities anxious to transform transportation in their metropolises.

Paris and London mayors may have embraced the bicycle, but they didn’t have the problems of New York – taxi drivers, truckers and rich people who fought against bike lanes.

With the fierce Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan leading the way since 2007, New York has added nearly 350 miles of on-street bike lanes to its city, including 25 miles of protected lanes, for a total of about 850 miles. It has shut down some streets entirely for car-free days on occasion.

But not without some serious skirmishing. Wealthy residents in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn sued over one section of proposed bike lane – a case the city won. Complaints were also in full flood for the bike-share system, introduced this spring, from worries that the docking stations were taking up too much sidewalk space to griping about the technical problems with the stations.

But something is working. Statistics show the number of bike riders crossing into Manhattan during a average 12-hour period doubled from 16,000 to 32,000 between 2005 and 2012, a number that is likely to be up again once the 2013 numbers are counted.

“New York City’s streets are now the safest they’ve been, with the last five years recording the fewest traffic fatalities since records were first kept in 1910,” adds Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Gastel.

As Vancouverites were lining up pro and con to argue about the city’s new Seaside Greenway last week, a University of B.C. researcher pointed out that Vancouver – contrary to public opinion – has been rather timid in its push for separated bike lanes.

“Since 2009, Vancouver has added six kilometres of separated bike lanes,” Kay Teschk says. “Seville has built 120 kilometres of separated bike lanes in the same five-year period.”

Mr. Pucher, of Rutgers University, calls Seville the most dramatic example of a complete turnaround: Before the city started its cycling improvements, only about 0.5 per cent of all trips were made by bicycle. Now, about 6.5 per cent of trips are bike trips, about 85,000 a day.

“Seville is the most interesting because it started with zero tradition of daily, utilitarian cycling,” Mr. Pucher says.

That was in keeping with elsewhere in Spain, especially cities like Madrid, where a cyclist on a regular street is a rare sight.

Some German cities, like Hamburg and Munich, have been good cycling cities for decades. Hamburg had separated bike lanes, complete with little traffic lights that showed green and red bicycles, back in the 1970s. Not Berlin.

“Berlin has turned to it partially because of financial issues,” says Ralph Buehler, an urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech and co-author of City Cycling.

The city was struggling economically after re-unification. “It found out that building bike infrastructure is much cheaper than highway interchanges or even subways.” Mr. Buehler says.

Between 1990 and 2008, the number of cycling trips doubled, accounting by the end of that period for 13 per cent of all trips. The figure is now up to 15 per cent (and as high as 25 in some neighbourhoods), as cyclists now have access to about 620 kilometres of bike lanes.

Cycling experts gripe about some aspects of the Berlin system – that it’s inconsistent, with riders sometimes in protected bike lanes, sometimes on the sidewalk, and sometimes on roads with arrows.

The group Copenhagenize Design, which rates cities on the cycling facilities, also notes that Berlin is still doing contradictory things, like pouring money into projects for cars.

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