Derrick Harder is a fan of people getting around without cars. He used to ride a regular bike to work in Victoria, but now rides an e-bike. He is often taken aback at the tussle for space in bike lanes as a new array of non-motorized wheeled vehicles proliferates.
“The bike lanes have increasingly become ‘not car lanes.’ There are skateboards, big mobility scooters, e-scooters, everything. Sometimes I can clearly see the horse carriage going down the lane. The delivery guys weaving in and out. And pedi-cabs.”
In Vancouver, Tamara Herman has noticed the same kind of conflict.
“As a long-time regular cycle commuter who cargo-bikes my kids around, I’m happy to see so many people using e-bikes and e-scooters. Yet many don’t seem have an awareness of basic cycling safety. Without expanded cycling, non-car infrastructure, it is getting sketchy for everyone,” she said.
In response to a request on Twitter for users to describe their experiences with alternative modes of transportation, users told The Globe and Mail about being hit or nearly hit by skateboarders, scooter users, or e-bikers as they wove their way through slower-moving walkers and riders.
Vancouver and Victoria, like other cities across North America and Europe, are grappling with how to create space for micro-mobility vehicles – e-bikes, scooters, electric scooters, electric tricycles, electric unicycles, unicycles and more – but the proliferation of these vehicles has meant policy isn’t keeping up.
“There’s a huge cultural change,” said Simon Fraser University sociology professor Travers, who uses only one name and prefers they as a pronoun.
Dr. Travers recently spent part of their research year making food deliveries on an electric unicycle to study what life in the new era of micro-mobility proliferation is like.
“We now have pedestrians, cyclists, people delivering stuff, everything, all competing for the tiny fringe that’s available to them.”
It’s tiny because city planners and engineers, in spite of much-publicized efforts to improve basic cycling infrastructure during the past 20 years, are still reluctant to take away too much space from the car, the dominant mode for a century.
That has to change, say transportation watchers, as the popularity of new methods of propelling oneself faster than walking accelerated during the pandemic.
B.C.’s program offering a rebate of up to $1,400 (depending on income) for anyone buying an e-bike got 12,000 applications the day it was launched June 1.
The interest isn’t confined to young professionals, many of whom were spurred on by environmental concerns but also the high cost of living.
“Our fastest-growing demographic is people over 50,” said Aaron Binder, the chief experience officer of Segway of Ontario, which has been in business for 19 years. The biggest sellers in his non-bicycle selection are e-scooters, at 95 per cent of all sales – a mode that both B.C. and Ontario have allowed on streets in pilot programs in the last two years.
There are more coming, too, as manufacturers continue to experiment with ways of getting around that are less expensive and cumbersome than a car. Fiat is launching an electric quadricycle – essentially a micro car.
But cities face the sheer engineering challenge of trying to accommodate a plethora of non-motorized vehicles of vastly different sizes and travelling at different speeds, along with the usual pedestrians and car drivers. There are also problems with vehicle litter for cities that allow dockless bikes or scooters, complaints about bad behaviour and accidents as new users juggle learning the rules of the road and driving skills for their new vehicles.
“I think what’s happening is confusing to a lot of people, so there’s a lot of anger,” said Mr. Binder.
But mobility advocates say there are inevitably going to be jerks in all forms of transportation. And, they point out, any accidents among different users in this world pale next to the catastrophic rate of deaths and serious injuries caused by cars and trucks.
Still, there is agreement that cities need to think differently about who goes where.
At the City of Vancouver, transportation planner Paul Storer sums it up this way: “We’re definitely in this adjustment phase.”
Mr. Storer remembers that when he started at the city in 2005, there were easily defined categories: pedestrians on sidewalks, cars on roads, lanes here and there for the cycling that was just starting to achieve critical mass.
Now, there are different rules and different road spaces for different things. Electric unicycles and electric skateboards are technically illegal on any public property. Non-motorized skateboards can go in protected bike lanes, as can electric kick scooters, though they’re not supposed to be travelling at 50 kilometres an hour, as Mr. Storer has sometimes seen. Wheelchairs go on sidewalks.
Vancouver’s new council has also directed staff to move ahead with a request for proposals from companies for an e-scooter-share system, which risks bringing the kind of sidewalk litter problem that cities such as Los Angeles have seen.
Mr. Storer’s team is also working with Vancouver Coastal Health on getting data about the rate of injuries among all those modes.
Some cities are reconsidering the approach over all. Instead of looking at whether something is a car or a micro-mobility device, people should think about the speed and mass of whatever is out there.
If cyclists are travelling at 35 or 40 km/h, they should probably be on the road, rather than, say, a cycling path like the one along Railway in Richmond, which might also have a toddler riding a strider bike.
The City of North Vancouver is planning a network of what it no longer calls bike lanes but “mobility lanes.”
There’s not enough room to create the ultimate utopian system – six lanes everywhere, one for the different speeds people are travelling at, said head engineer Karyn Magnusson. But there are other options.
On its Grand Boulevard path, for example, there’s now a separate road lane nearby for cyclists travelling fast. Three-year-olds on trikes stay on the boulevard path. Those hitting 30 km/h use the bi-directional road lane.
And, in general, “we’re building at the wider end of the spectrum for all paths – that’s designed for passing,” said Ms. Magnusson.