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Cyclists ride along the West 10th Avenue bike corridor near Yukon Street in Vancouver on Dec. 24, 2016. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
Cyclists ride along the West 10th Avenue bike corridor near Yukon Street in Vancouver on Dec. 24, 2016. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

THINGS THAT WORK

Vancouver’s cycling-friendly side streets seen as a key step forward for North American cities Add to ...

Things That Work: The Globe and Mail looks at businesses, services and other projects in British Columbia that aren’t often talked about because they actually work.

For the past decade, Vancouver’s separated bike lanes have continued to generate headlines and heaps of public scorn from conservative Vancouver residents who see them as the most overt example of Big Government’s ongoing “war on the car.”

Their most ardent critic, CKNW radio shock jock Bruce Allen, has spent numerous segments railing against the “big ugly cement barriers that turned our streets into eyesores.”

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And yet, he is a fan of the more understated network of traffic-calmed residential streets that allow cyclists to traverse the city in relative safety and peace.

“Sixty per cent of the 280 kilometres of Vancouver bike lanes are on side streets and that’s good,” he said in an early 2016 editorial. “And some of those side streets also have traffic calmers or speed bumps to slow down vehicular traffic.”

Urban-planning and transportation experts have long feted Vancouver’s extensive system of bike-friendly side streets as a cheap and uncontroversial way for bike-resistant North American cities to create the infrastructure that gets people out of their cars and onto two wheels.

“It’s very simple,” says Gordon Price, a six-term former city councillor and former director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. “All you have to do is put in traffic signals where these side streets cross another arterial.”

Mr. Price says Vancouver’s place at the forefront of North American cycling infrastructure stems from activists in the early 1970s successfully stopping a freeway from carving through its downtown core. After that, he says, Vancouver’s politicians declared that the car would not be the dominant mode of transportation, which paved the way for the city’s first dedicated bike lanes to be created in the early 1990s, with little backlash.

These lanes – which force cars to obey lower speed limits in order to give cyclists preferential treatment on an open residential street – soon began to reshape the “mental map” residents use for getting around the city, he said.

Mr. Price was a councillor from 1986 to 2002, after which he says his Non-Partisan Association party committed to fomenting a “bikelash” among Vancouver’s more conservative residents to oppose any expansion to the city’s cycling infrastructure. This movement began to reach a fever pitch in the run-up to council reallocating a car lane of the Burrard Street Bridge in 2009 to create a separated path for cyclists riding in and out of downtown.

“It’s territorial, it is tribal – it doesn’t matter what the data says,” Mr. Price says of the resistance toward such separated bike lanes. “People just feel like ‘you’re taking space; the congestion’s bad already; you’re deliberately making my life worse. For who? A bunch of jerks who aren’t obeying the law. Why don’t you licence them and make them pay their way? Anyway, we don’t have room and blah blah blah.’ And guess what happens [after a new bike lane is built]? Nothing.”

Networks of traffic-calmed streets can be an important – and politically feasible – middle step for a city to make cycling safer and easier for many, but, ultimately, separated lanes on busy streets are the key to getting more commuters peddling to work, according to Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former director of planning.

Roughly 10 per cent of Vancouver commutes are now on bikes thanks to these separated lanes, making it one of North America’s top-three cycling cities, he says.

Still, the vast network of bike-friendly side streets have helped make Vancouver the safest city for cyclists by far on the continent, according to a recent study of nine major hubs by John Pucher, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University and an expert on urban transportation.

“By far the biggest safety benefits are in terms of huge declines in traffic injuries of children,” Mr. Pucher says of the side streets calmed for cyclists. “What resident of a neighbourhood is going to oppose this?”

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