Why do bike lanes proposals create such reaction? From Wall Street Journal editorial writers to hundreds of Point Grey homeowners, the battles over bicycles have created unprecedented levels of passion. A 'First-World' problem, to be sure, but clearly something is going on – and it's about more than just bicycles.
It is, perhaps, a signal of a change in our way of life that some – in particular, aging boomers – see as a threat.
We have spent most of the last century building car-dominant urban regions. Every stage of the transportation network was designed to lead, without congestion, to a garage in every home or a parking space near every business and destination.
To ensure smoothness in the vehicle flow meant, for safety reasons, keeping other modes like bicycles off the vehicle rights-of-way. The result: almost everyone drives, almost everywhere, for almost everything. And because driving is so prevalent in the absence of alternatives, it follows that drivers deserve the greatest recognition – and the budget allocations which follow.
And they have.
So when the assumption of car-dominance is threatened – particularly if it looks like it might cause inconvenience for drivers – it feels for many that there is something inherently wrong with this, that the natural order of things has been disrupted. Arguments are then assembled to make the world right – even if it means turning it upside down: By encouraging cycling, we increase pollution. By encouraging healthy activity, we increase accidents. By making the city a better place, we make it worse.
The conclusion: No intervention should be made where it might add to congestion. Those plans that put walking and cycling first are therefore meaningless, and only tolerated when they have no impact on motor-vehicle flow. Anything else is declared a 'war on the car' and used to divide the electorate for political advantage. Hence the ginned-up passion, often media-amplified, over these issues.
But here's the irony: Bike lanes and pedestrian priorities don't create congestion no matter how often it's predicted (and it's been happening since the 1970s in Vancouver). We've been reallocating road space, introducing traffic calming, closing off blocks, reducing parking, and yes, adding more bike lanes – and what happens? Traffic quickly adjusts, and over time driving diminishes, even as the number of trips grows.
Traffic volumes into downtown Vancouver, for instance, are now down to 1965 levels, even though population, jobs and tourism have roughly doubled – the result of better transit, changing work and residential patterns and, yes, more walking and cycling. In the case of the Point Grey corridor, the shift of vehicles to other arterials will only return them to levels previously experienced, and will likely drop from there if recent trends continue.
So why the anxiety? Is it because those who are car-dependent fear someone might force them out of their cars, make them feel guilty for their habits, or above all, inconvenience them for the sake of those who have traditionally been of lower status or who, more annoyingly, flaunt their fitness and the traffic laws with impunity and who, don't in the minds of vehicle owners, pay their way?
Still, it's hard to condemn those who take personal initiative to keep fit, save money, pollute less and have fun. So critics substitute passion, contempt, even hysteria – fearful that it is their way of life, their values and their status, not just a few metres of asphalt, which is at stake.
But here's my prediction: after the passion recedes and the road rebuilt, it will only be a matter of time before we wonder what all the fuss was about. Nor will any politician promise to restore the status quo, the changes having become part of our lifestyle, and then our way of life.
Gordon Price is the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. In 2002, he finished his sixth term as a Vancouver City Councillor.