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The Globe and Mail

Suburban planners struggle to boost cycling

John Burgess arrives at the King George SkyTrain Station for his morning commute to Vancouver in Surrey, British Columbia, Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

John Burgess has had insults and rocks hurled at him from car windows in his years of commuting by bicycle in Surrey.

The bike lanes he uses sometimes put him inches away from fast-moving trucks.

Mr. Burgess persists, however, in commuting by bike, even to his information-systems job in Vancouver General Hospital from his house near the Surrey King George SkyTrain station.

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Though bikes are prohibited on SkyTrain during rush hour and physically difficult to get on board at other times, Mr. Burgess is undeterred. He locks his bike at the King George station, rides the train, and then hops on another bike that he keeps at the Vancouver end of the train trip so he can continue his bike commute in the city.

In Surrey, he uses his bike for weekend errands and shopping whenever possible – though it's often a lonely ride.

"We are very few and far between out here in Surrey," said Mr. Burgess. He's hopeful, though, because he's seen an increase in the number of cyclists in his suburb. And he has hopes for more.

So do suburban planners and the region's transportation agency, TransLink, struggling hard to boost cycling in areas where the percentage of work-trips by bike is somewhere between zero and, at the most, four. Peak areas in Vancouver see 12 per cent.

While attention is often focused on Vancouver's efforts to boost cycling, other parts of the region are also upping their game.

Last month, Surrey announced the opening of two new bike bridges, worth $10.5-million, across the freeways that cut through its sprawling territory. (Some of that was covered by provincial and federal infrastructure grants.) It is also spending $2-million a year of its own money on cycling improvements.

TransLink, which has spent $46-million on improving facilities for cycling during its 11 years of existence, issued an ambitious report in late June saying it needs to spend more and aim for a target of 10 per cent cycling-to-work trips by 2040.

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That would mean five times the rate that most of the suburban areas get now.

"That is an ambitious target," conceded TransLink senior planner Kamala Rao. "We acknowledge it doesn't happen overnight. It takes funding and political will. But it's not impossible."

Suburbs present special challenges for cycling. The distances are sometimes huge. The road patterns, with their predilection for cul de sacs, often mean the only through routes for cyclists are on busy main arterials.

But planners are looking for ways to get around those problems, by creating greenways through the city, as Surrey is doing, or looking at how to create bike paths that connect through cul de sacs, as Richmond is.

In Richmond, the region's flattest suburb, there are already small signs that cycling is on the upswing, especially with the arrival of the Canada Line. The municipality is about to install extra bike racks at the Brighouse station, while TransLink has doubled its original 10 lockers.

"Besides that, in my 10 years of riding to work, I've seen a lot more year-round riders," said Joan Caravan, the Richmond engineer who oversees the city's cycling program, which adds about $250,000 worth of new infrastructure a year.

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Surrey, under Mayor Dianne Watts, has thrown itself noticeably into developing a more complete cycling network, a challenging task in a municipality twice the size of Vancouver with less population and a current cycling rate of about one per cent, as far as anyone knows.

It currently has 432 kilometres of various types of cycling-friendly paths and lanes, compared to 300 in Vancouver and 50 in Richmond.

The next goals: Installing Surrey's first public bike racks, focusing more on non-arterial bike paths, and aiming for 7 to 8 per cent of work trips done by bike perhaps 20 years from now.

Surrey's transportation manager, Jaime Boan, said that idea isn't as far-fetched as it might sound.

"We get criticism from some people on why we're spending money on cycling when there are so few. But I say it's a long-term plan."

When Mr. Boan was a student in Montreal 20 years ago, almost no one cycled. Now, Montreal, with more kilometres of separated bike lanes than any other Canadian city and a public bike-share system, has cyclists everywhere.

Mr. Boan, who cycles every day from his home in Fleetwood to his job at City Hall, said he thinks the same transformation can happen – even in Surrey.

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