Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
The last time I biked the seawall around Stanley Park, I left with a skinned knee. I’d persuaded my husband to duck out of work early for a summer afternoon ride. The bike and pedestrian paths were jammed, and we were riding slowly when a woman pushing a baby stroller suddenly changed course and charged across the cycle lane. I hit the brakes – the woman behind me did not. She crashed into me and we went down in a heap. The accident wasn’t serious, but it took the glow off the afternoon.
Since then, I have stuck to cycling Stanley Park Drive, the road circumnavigating the park. It’s not as scenic, but I decided I’d rather take my chances with the cars than novice rollerbladers and straying pedestrians on the overcrowded seawall.
In early April, when Vancouver was already well into pandemic lockdown, droves of pedestrians and cyclists desperate for outdoor activities flocked to Stanley Park. Social distancing, especially at the seawall pinch points, was impossible. To free up room for pedestrians on the seawall, city staff temporarily closed the park to vehicles and diverted bikes to the road. I was thrilled. It was blissful to cycle the quiet tree-lined drive with no fear of being hit by a car.
The plan was a hit. About 370,000 people cycled the drive from the time of the ban was enacted until early June. In contrast, only 60,000 vehicles had used the road during the same period the year before. The mix of cyclists was radically different from the norm. Families with young children never used to bike the road and now, here they were. Some riders seemed unprepared for the hill, which is formidable if you aren’t in good shape. cycling trim. But even those pushing their bikes up the last bit were smiling and appeared triumphant at the top.
I was so busy selfishly revelling in the car-free zone, it wasn’t until debate over the road closure exploded that I considered the change had rendered vast swaths of the park inaccessible to others. People who can’t cycle or walk far, the elderly and people with disabilities were effectively denied access to Vancouver’s premiere natural green space.
As the number of COVID-19 cases waned and restaurants began to reopen, businesses such as the venerable Teahouse in Stanley Park and the Prospect Point Bar and Grill, which historically saw 87 per cent of customers arrive in cars or tour buses, added to the complaint chorus. The Prospect Point operators say that with 65 fewer parking spots, they fear for their survival. That assumes, possibly erroneously, that the legions of cyclists wouldn’t be interested in a bite to eat. (The same cry erupted from businesses when most city bike lanes were built, and the sky did not fall.)
Vancouver’s cyclists loved the new arrangement, and some argued the park should remain permanently closed to traffic. But the total vehicle ban was always meant to be a temporary response to the pandemic. As businesses began to open, staff divided the road to allow vehicle access on one lane and relegate cyclists to the other. That lane is now open and although parking is diminished, there is vehicle access to all businesses.
This seems to me a reasonable compromise. And if it proves successful, the park board should permanently adopt it to ease seawall congestion.
The debate is split predictably along party lines. The conservative change-averse Non-Partisan Association commissioners are resistant, arguing both lanes of Stanley Park Drive should remain open to cars until more study and community consultation is done. The more cycle-friendly commissioners of the Green Party and the Coalition of Progressive Electors argue this is a perfect opportunity to test new ways of sharing blacktop, and note there were overcrowding problems on the seawall long before the pandemic struck.
So where will most Vancouverites land on this? The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened a cycling renaissance that was already under way by those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint. If it holds, there will be more calls to wrest pavement away from motorized vehicles.
Before they resist, politicians should note the record-busting pandemic bike-sale statistics and check out the two-wheeling crowds on Stanley Park Drive.
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