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Mark Hume

Bikers get their own lane, but they deserve a bridge Add to ...

When city crews close off one of the six traffic lanes on Burrard Bridge to make it safer for cyclists, there are going to be a lot of angry motorists.

"Honk if you hate this bike plan" bumper stickers can't be far off.

In 1996, city council attempted a six-month lane-reallocation trial on Burrard Bridge.

But with the tempers of irate commuters boiling over, the experiment was abandoned after one week.

It was such a scalding experience for city hall that politicians were reluctant to revisit the proposal, even though the need (already evident 13 years ago) became increasingly obvious as the popularity of biking grew.

By 2007, nearly 3,500 cyclists a day were pedalling over Burrard Bridge, squeezed onto a narrow sidewalk with some 2,400 pedestrians on one side of them and a precipitous drop into a busy traffic lane on the other.

Biking over the bridge was becoming more and more dangerous.

Under Mayor Gregor Robertson, an avid cyclist, city council found the nerve to tackle the problem again, and some time in the next few weeks the date for the trial will be announced.

Note that it is still just a trial. Even this council hasn't yet worked up the courage to declare it a permanent change.

The impact of the lane reallocation will be studied carefully. The mood of commuters measured.

And to make sure the experiment isn't as shocking as it was in 1996, $250,000 will be spent on a communications plan to explain the project to the public and mollify the drivers who will be inconvenienced.

Don't expect this to go smoothly, however, because driving in the congested downtown core is already difficult, and the loss of one Burrard Bridge lane (even though cars will still get to hog five lanes) will cause a lot of commuters to fume.

It shouldn't be this way.

What city council should really be doing is planning a new bridge over False Creek - one dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians.

City hall did look at that option but it never got any serious consideration because of the shocking price tag: $100-million.

That seems like a lot to span False Creek, but assistant city engineer Jerry Dobrovolny says that is a conservative estimate.

"The reason why is for clearance over False Creek. ... Barges and cranes are going under there and you have to be able to accommodate that," he said.

Mr. Dobrovolny said the city looked at the SkyTrain bridge over the Fraser River as a possible model.

But that bridge cost just $21-million in 1990, and it is hard to believe costs have soared so much since then. The SkyTrain bridge is also on a larger scale than would be needed to cross False Creek.

Where city hall should be looking for inspiration is the recently approved Rabobrug bridge, a 275-metre structure that will vault the main railway junction in Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

The Rabobrug, designed by Cepezed Architects, is not just a bridge, it's an architectural statement, a beautiful structure with graceful lines that opens up a pleasant, treed boulevard in the middle of a busy city. A bridge like that over False Creek would be a tourism magnet and would extend Vancouver's remarkable public waterfront.

The Rabobrug cost $22-million. But even if the $100-million estimate for a False Creek bike bridge is correct, why should that automatically rule it out as an option?

The Sea to Sky highway project cost $775-million. The Perimeter Road truck freeway will cost $1-billion. The Port Mann bridge is to cost more than $3-billion.

When building infrastructure for cars, governments aren't scared off by big numbers.

But when it comes to spending money on biking, they suddenly become parsimonious, and the best anyone can offer is to squeeze cyclists into space already designated for vehicles.

The Burrard solution is a necessary compromise in the short term. But cyclists deserve more than a lane of their own - they deserve their own bridge.

And to pay for it, why not charge a $1-per-trip toll for cars on the major commuter routes in metro Vancouver? That would raise an estimated $300-million a year - and really give drivers something to honk about.

 

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