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bike lanes

A cyclist uses the Hornby St. bike lane in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Friday October 7, 2011.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The city put on a burst of speed this week in its plan to transform Vancouver into a two-wheelers' haven.

The Vision-Vancouver-dominated council approved plans Wednesday to launch a bike-share program by next spring, naming a Portland company, in conjunction with Montreal's Bixi bikes, as the likely private partner.

It declared that its two-year trial of separated bike lanes downtown is no longer a trial, but permanent.

And the recently released draft transportation plan envisions an even more aggressively bike-friendly city, where trips by car are reduced from the current 60 per cent to only 33 per cent by 2040. By then, there would be a comprehensive network of bike lanes, a focus on routes that link high-use locations and substantially improved bike facilities in high-rider areas such as Kitsilano and Commercial Drive, among other things.

But that day's not going to come without some uncomfortable adjustments, said Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs, as he voted on making the bike lanes permanent.

"This has been a long and controversial process," said Mr. Meggs, who has been council's main public advocate for more bike infrastructure. "But it's obvious we can't make these changes and leave everything the same."

That didn't bode well for two separate groups of businesses whose representatives came out Wednesday to voice their concerns.

One was private bike-rental companies worried that a new, city-supported bike-share program will destroy their operations. The other was downtown businesses, concerned about the impact the separated lanes – now destined to be permanent and with no driver-friendly adjustments – will have on nearby businesses.

Council rejected the idea of reintroducing right-hand turns off one of the bike-lane streets, Dunsmuir, onto two busy downtown blocks, despite a plea from Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association director Charles Gauthier.

Some councillors said any changes would endanger pedestrians, because sidewalks would have had to be narrowed to do that.

But Mr. Meggs said it was really a question of money, arguing it was unrealistic to suggest "that we spend millions of dollars and tear up pedestrian infrastructure for a handful of businesses."

As for the private bike-rental companies, councillors recommended that the planning for the new bike-share program pay attention to their concerns. Representatives from English Bay Cycle Rentals and Spokes Bicycle Rentals told council that private bike operations have been driven out of business in Montreal after the bike-share system came in, and asked council to consider measures like banning public bikes in Stanley Park or not allowing them to be rented through a one-day pass.

But, while expressing sympathy, councillors did not put any brakes on the plan for a bike-share system, to which the city anticipates contributing $1.9-million a year, along with some initial capital costs.

"A subsidy is involved in all forms of transportation," said Jerry Dobrovolny, the city's transportation engineer.

Mr. Dobrovolny said that, out of six applicants, the city is now negotiating with a single preferred bidder, Alta Bicycle Share, which will subcontract with Montreal's Bixi for the actual bikes. The bike-share system will operate with about 1,500 bikes at 125 stations throughout the downtown and around Broadway from Main to Arbutus – areas that already see the highest numbers of cyclists.

He said the city still needs to come to an agreement with Alta, which runs – or has been chosen to run – the operations in New York, Chicago and Washington, about who pays for what and how the contentious issue of helmets will be handled.

Vancouver is one of only three cities, out of 300 around the world with bike-share systems, where there is a mandatory-helmet law, which has caused lengthy delays in implementing the popular bike program long after it's gone into other places like Mexico City, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

Mr. Dobrovolny said the city has chosen not to ask the province for an exemption to the law, as some other cities have done.

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