It's a sunny summer morning and the Burrard Street Bridge is buzzing with rush-hour traffic. By day's end, about 6,000 bicycle trips will have been made over the bridge, an increase of 24 per cent since the separated-bike-lane trial started on July 13, 2009.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Roberston is hailing it as a success and last month city staff gave away T-shirts to celebrate one million riders crossing the bridge in less than one year.
For Gordon Lovegrove, a civil engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, a million is not enough.
He researches sustainable road safety, which combines safer road-network design and green transportation to reduce collisions. He says that while safe cycling infrastructure, like separated bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir Viaduct, is important, a critical mass of cyclists is key to seeing a significant and sustainable change in road safety for both motorists and cyclists.
Once there is a critical mass of bicycles, drivers become more aware of cyclists as road users and change their driving habits accordingly, explains Prof. Lovegrove.
Although almost 50 per cent of Vancouverites live within five kilometres of their work, only 4 per cent of commuting trips in Vancouver are made by bicycle. Prof. Lovegrove estimates that for critical mass, 25 per cent should be riding their bikes to work.
Jerry Dobrovolny, director of transportation for the City of Vancouver, agrees that an increase in the number of cyclists would affect driver behaviour, and adds that the demographic that has the most potential for growing the cycling population is women between the ages of 25 and 35. Historically, young men who are comfortable weaving in traffic have predominated among the city's cyclists. Research shows that one of the barriers to increasing cycling as a mode of transportation is proximity to traffic, and with more dedicated bike lanes there has been a definite increase in cyclists – especially young women.
To further study how cycling affects road safety, Prof. Lovegrove and his team will use his expertise in collision prediction modelling, but the team will have to go overseas to find data since the cycling population in B.C. is too small. They're looking to partner with institutions in the Netherlands and China, where cyclists make up 40 per cent of the traffic in some areas.
Cycling road safety is just one area of interest for Prof. Lovegrove, who recently completed a joint study with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. John Pump, ICBC's road improvement strategy manager, observed on his commutes to the airport that left turns and parked cars at intersections on Granville Street without traffic lights were notable hazards. He asked Prof. Lovegrove to quantify that hunch.
The professor and his team confirmed that parking and left turns are related to as much as 30 per cent of intersection collisions, and they developed a suite of models to predict the rate of collision reduction on major arterials like Broadway and Granville Street if parking and turning restrictions were implemented.
Mr. Dobrovolny says this is valuable research and it's one aspect the city considers when planning transportation projects. "The challenge of managing the road system is finding a balance between needs," he explains. Congestion and budget are other considerations, with resources being dedicated to the highest collision areas.
Prof. Lovegrove has also created a blueprint for a new community design for roads that his models predict will have 60 per cent fewer collisions than conventional road patterns.
"Good community planning allows for access by people in and out of the community without allowing good access for short-cutters," Prof. Lovegrove said.
Dedicated bike/pedestrian/bus routes, mixed retail/residential land use and traffic calming infrastructure are also important considerations when planning a community based on sustainable road-safety principles. Prof. Lovegrove is eager to put theory into practice and has been looking for a new community development that is willing to try a design based on the ideas of sustainable road safety.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to June, 2011, when his sustainable road safety research lab will open at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. It will be the first of its kind in the world and he's hoping not only to attract top-level international researchers, but to build a technology transfer centre where his research can be used by city planners and engineers to build safer and more sustainable communities.
Special to The Globe and Mail