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Editorials Vancouver proves that if you build it, they will come (by bike)

More than 1.3-million bikes cross the Burrard Bridge each year.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

A decade ago this month, a bike lane opened on Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge. To make way for bikes on one of the main links to the city’s downtown, the lanes for cars and buses were reduced to five from six.

Critics predicted trouble – one declared the bike lane “doomed to failure.” Instead, it was an immediate success: motorized traffic continued to move and bike traffic took off.

The trial has become the foundation for a network of protected bike lanes in and around the downtown. On the Burrard Bridge, there are now two bike lanes, and they’re the busiest in North America. More than 1.3-million bikes cross the bridge each year.

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Vancouver is not the cycling paradise it is sometimes made out to be, but it’s getting there. And as other Canadian cities look to make it easier for people to bike, for commuting or just for fun, Vancouver offers lessons in re-thinking transportation infrastructure beyond the hegemony of the car.

One essential is protected bike lanes. Research shows separating bikes from cars is good for everyone, and is a key ingredient in encouraging cycling.

The second necessity is political leadership – because bike lanes always attract loud opposition from drivers.

The third is that bike lanes have to be built as a network. A smattering of paths here and there – as is common in various cities – is better than nothing, but the system functions best when, as in Vancouver, bike lanes are connected, and it’s possible to travel from A to B to C.

Vancouver this year for the first time made the top 20 on the Copenhagenize Index, a measure of the practicality of cycling in a city.

The ranking’s winners are mostly in Europe; Vancouver and Montreal are the only North American cities to make the cut. Montreal, on the list since 2011, is 18th. Vancouver is 19th.

While bike lanes are part of a suite of solutions for offering alternatives to the car, biking isn’t an option for everyone. Most people won’t be commuting long distances on two unmotorized wheels, or biking to shop at the big box store. And given our weather, biking won’t be a year-round choice for most people.

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But it is possible to make it an option for more people, more of the time. The evidence is that re-designing roads to make them safer and friendlier for cyclists leads to – no surprise – more cycling.

The Burrard Bridge still sees 1,600 trips a day in the winter, a quarter the level in summer. Edmonton opened a popular small network of protected lanes in its city centre two years ago. And Montreal, despite its difficult winters, is the country’s urban cycling leader.

Well built and relatively inexpensive infrastructure works. An ongoing survey in Vancouver shows that bikes accounted for 7.7 per cent of all trips in the city in 2018, up from 4.4 per cent five years earlier. Trips made by car in 2018 dipped to 47.2 per cent of the total as a combination of biking, walking and transit accounted for the majority.

The numbers make clear that, to move more people in large and increasingly dense urban areas, better public transit remains a priority.

But bike lanes are part of the answer – what advocates call complete streets, where the primacy of the car is replaced with space for everyone, including pedestrians and cyclists.

In Toronto, the city is assessing a rebuilding of Yonge Street – where people on foot are the most common form of traffic, yet are limited to cramped sidewalks. Toronto City Council also voted to ingrain a complete-streets approach at the outset of all road reconstruction.

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For cycling, a lot more can be done. Last week, Toronto councillors voted to build at least 120 kilometres of bike lanes over the next three years, which is good. But three years ago, they voted to create a 500-kilometre network over 10 years; little was built.

Calgary’s system remains a patchwork. Montreal slowly pushes forward, and has started work on an extensive “express cycling network.”

As for Vancouver, its protected lanes need to be extended beyond the core. But in the face of dire warnings about traffic chaos, Vancouver has made solid progress in turning at least part of the city into a better place to cycle. It’s a model for building communities that are a bit more about people, and a bit less about cars.

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