In 1997, when I first moved to Vancouver, I lived in Grandview Woodlands and unless it was pouring, walked to work downtown. It was a brisk 50-minute hike through historic Strathcona, which I loved, and a challenged strip of the Downtown Eastside, which I found depressing, but never scary. I listened to the radio to brush up on the news and arrived refreshed by the blast of fresh air. All that ended when I got a dog. After I walked Sally, there wasn’t enough time for me to walk, too, so I switched to the SkyTrain.
My husband, who has always been a cycle-commuter, pointed out I could ride in about the same time. And I tried it a few times in the summer. But this was before Dunsmuir Viaduct had a separated bike lane and I found navigating rush hour on downtown streets too daunting. I always felt lucky to survive the trip in one piece.
There was also the problem of hair. After I’d spent part of my morning trying to achieve some semblance of style, jamming a bike helmet on my head knocked my efforts a step backward. So, I stuck to the train until the 2010 Olympics, when we were warned that with so many tourists in town, both transit and roadways would be jammed. I dug out my bike and started to ride.
Vancouver’s biggest cycling proselytizer, Gregor Robertson, was mayor at the time and photos of him cycling to work in a suit were changing the perception of cycling as a recreational pursuit to a viable transportation option. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? The clincher for me was the Dunsmuir bike lane, which opened two weeks after the Games. Suddenly, riding into the downtown core felt safe.
I bought gear to keep me dry even on nasty weather days; first, light waterproof pants, then shoe covers and a ridiculous-looking orange Gore-Tex helmet cover. I didn’t love riding in the rain, but got so hooked on the exercise that within a couple of years I morphed into a full-time cycle commuter. I wasn’t the only one.
The more bike lanes that were built, the busier they became. From 2011-16, the number of people cycling to work increased by 41 per cent. City staff reports boast more people cycle to work in Vancouver than any other major Canadian city which, considering our milder winters, should be a given. Only 7.3 per cent of people cycled to work in 2018, according to the 2018 Vancouver Panel Survey commissioned by the city. That’s a far cry from Amsterdam’s 30 per cent and less than many inner-city neighbourhoods in Toronto that, despite the city’s much harsher winters, have year-round cycling rates of between 15 per cent and 25 per cent.
More encouraging are Vancouver’s statistics, which add up the number of trips made by walking, cycling and transit. For the first time, the combined total surpassed 50 per cent, the 2018 survey results show. Part of this was increased transit ridership, which in 2018 rose everywhere in Metro Vancouver. But of the three sustainable modes, walking remained the most popular; 28.5 per cent of trips were made on foot.
Vancouver has set an ambitious target of having two-thirds of all trips in the city take place by foot, transit or bike by 2040. To meet the target, it will require the number of motor vehicle trips staying pretty much constant and as the city becomes larger, more people choosing sustainable transportation options.
This will require intelligent land-use planning to situate major destinations and density near transit corridors and infrastructure improvements to serve cyclists and pedestrians. It will also take transit that isn’t overcrowded, which means big spends such as the train to University of British Columbia.
As a cyclist and pedestrian, I hope for more separated bike lanes and crossing lights to slow traffic – I’m thinking of streets such as Nanaimo, which has always been difficult to cross and where a calming strategy is finally underway.
As for the hair, there’s nothing the city can do about that. I developed a few tricks to mitigate helmet-head; but mostly I have abandoned a coiffed look for something messier, and the great feeling that comes from a workout and fresh air.