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On bike-lane branding and housing the homeless

Monday is the first anniversary of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's thumping re-election victory over challenger Suzanne Anton. Compared with the dramatic events of his first term – the Olympics, the fiscal fiasco of the Olympic Village, the Stanley Cup riot – the first 12 months of Mr. Robertson's second term have been relatively quiet. Nonetheless, there were issues for the mayor to address in a review of the past year, and yes, he intends to run again in 2014.

Given that you might go down in history as the Bike Lane Mayor, do you find the public's fixation on bike lanes frustrating?

Yeah, it's exaggerated on every front. But that's the way it goes with iconic changes to a city's fabric. It's such a small percentage of the overall road space activity in the city. Within Vancouver, bike lanes are enormously popular. My entire team got re-elected. Most of the criticism comes from outside the city proper, people who don't pay taxes or vote in Vancouver.

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Meanwhile, however, your hope for public bike rentals has been clouded by the helmet issue. Are we ever going to see such a system?

We are on track to see a public bike system by the middle of 2013, and a helmet solution will be part of it. But there's ongoing work to arrive at the best solution. I don't think there's any question people will embrace the availability of bikes on our streets. But the helmet piece is part of why we've taken longer than other cities in getting going.

How is the city doing on your well-publicized pledge to end street homelessness by 2015? Can it be done?

We've made enormous progress for several years. This winter, we have 160 more shelter beds and 100 units of interim housing that will help get the numbers down through the winter. But street-homeless numbers are directly tied to funding for shelters and housing, so it will completely depend on our partnership with the province. We have a long way to go to reduce the overall number of homeless people.

It has stabilized, but now we need to bring it down with permanent housing.

Since so much relies on outside funding, was it a little foolhardy to boldly state your homelessness goal?

I believe it was essential to commit to that goal, and do everything in our power to bring our partners along. It's ultimately a moral issue, that we commit to not leaving people outside with no options. I'm confident the federal and provincial governments are going to come through. It's taken longer, but I think, increasingly, they are realizing we spend more money managing homelessness without housing and shelters, when you look at costs of health care and the justice system.

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Lately, you've been focusing on affordable housing, which everyone would love to solve, but few succeed. And right off the bat, you backed away from narrowing streets, which was a key recommendation of your task force.

It's still out there as an option, but the challenge with housing generally is making sure that it fits reasonably well with existing neighbourhoods. We're running out of empty space and we're not willing to re-develop industrial land as other councils did. That means we're having to really look hard at where affordable housing might fit. That's not easy. But I didn't expect it would be.

You've now been mayor for four years. What have you learned?

That's a tough question. Boy … I would say I've certainly learned a lot about the inner workings of city hall and its connection to Victoria and Ottawa. That's a big advantage for getting things done, day to day. It also means I probably don't make as many edgy and bold statements about where the city can go, based on those challenges. When you look at affordable housing, it will be a long road to see the sweeping changes we'd like to see in place.

Will you be around to see those sweeping changes?

Yes, I hope so. My plan is to run again in the next election. A lot is taking longer than I expected, but we're tracking well on most of our goals. That's been really fulfilling, to see progress on many fronts that people said were impossible.

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Speaking of impossible, will we ever see rapid transit along the Broadway corridor?

(Laughs) Yeah, I've been pushing hard on the Broadway rapid-transit front, given we have a funding predicament with the province that we may see a breakthrough on this winter. We need rapid transit on Broadway desperately. Getting SkyTrain underground through the Broadway corridor is a must to deal with congestion, the bus pass-ups and growth along Broadway.

Do you still like being mayor?

I love it. It's been an incredible four years. It's a relentless pace, but I find it works for me. I'm just happy to have the confidence of Vancouverites to keep going.

So we're going to have you to kick around for a while longer.

I hope so. It's up to the people.

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