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Cyclists use the Dunsmuir Street bike lane in Vancovuer, BC, June 15, 2010.

Lyle Stafford For The Globe and Mail/lyle stafford The Globe and Mail

Vision Vancouver will not be abandoning its hotly debated downtown bike lanes, even though a new economic-impact study estimates that the 150 businesses along the lanes will likely lose $2.4-million by the first anniversary of their construction this fall.

Instead, the report from the city's economic-development commission, along with another by the city's engineering department, suggests that economic impact is "relatively moderate by industry standards" and that it can be reduced by a few specific improvements to the way the lanes work.

The commission's director of business development, Lee Malleau, said the study compared businesses on parallel streets, factored out other impacts like the recession, the HST and parking tax, and determined that businesses along Hornby were seeing a 10-per-cent decrease in business because of the lanes, and businesses on Dunsmuir a 4-per-cent drop.

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However, rather than settling the debate permanently over the lanes on Hornby and Dunsmuir, which have been a hot-button issue since they were voted on and built in a rush last summer and fall, the study is providing new material for debate.

The report, along with another one from the engineering department and a poll of various groups of street users and city residents, indicates that traffic volumes are just as high as they've always been on the bike-lane streets, traffic delays are minimal, collisions are down, store vacancy rates along Hornby Street are down, and public opinion is generally growing in support of the lanes.

About two-thirds of people polled say they support them, while opposition has stayed steady at 28 per cent.

Downtown businesses say the study has proven that the bike lanes are causing losses, but pro-bike lane city councillors say it also proves that things are not as bad as people feared and that improvements are possible.

Critics and advocates both point to holes in the report that they say underestimate either the positives or the negatives.

"This confirms for us that bike lanes do have an economic impact," said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. "And what this underscores is the importance of making sure that all decisions the city takes have an economic filter. There has to be more to policy than just saying, 'We're green.'"

He and many business owners are hoping that the mitigation measures recommended – restoring right-hand turns on some streets, improving loading access, expanding passenger zones – will be put in place as soon as possible.

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But Mr. Gauthier was dubious about the finding that vacancy rates were down. He said that could be the result of people signing leases that they're now committed to before the lanes were announced.

On the other side, Vision Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs said he sees the report as generally positive because it shows that vacancies are down, cycling numbers are up, and car traffic hasn't been affected.

But he thinks there are positive impacts of the lanes that haven't been identified.

Mr. Meggs said that, although he's never happy about a city action that results in negative business impacts, he doesn't believe the city should provide compensation to owners for their losses.

"It's not something the city typically does when it builds infrastructure," said Mr. Meggs.

He and others expressed disappointment that the impact study was weakened by the fact that only four businesses were willing to open their books to scrutiny by Stantec, the firm that was hired to assess the economic impacts.

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But Mike Brascia, the owner of Brascia's Tailors on Hornby Street, said business owners were told in their first meeting that, even if they did that, there was no guarantee the city would be willing to rip out the bike lanes.

That made many of them think there was no point.

"We've had probably the worst winter in the 15 years I've been here," said Mr. Brascia, who estimated his business went down by 25 per cent in the months when the lane was being built just before Christmas, 2010. "My clients tell me it is a struggle to get in here."

At this point, he's mostly resigned about changes, though hopeful that at least the city will get rid of the restriction on turns onto his street.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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