Support Crosscut

In Vancouver, B.C., new bike lanes and soon public bikes

Pronto! bikes at Occidental Park Credit: Josh Cohen

Editor’s note: This is the first column by our new regular Vancouver, B.C., correspondent.

Vancouver’s bike infrastructure has taken a symbolic roll forward with the recent opening of the Dunsmuir Street bike lane and the pending opening of a protected harbor-to-inlet north-south lane along Hornby Street. Merchants and drivers are protesting, as in Seattle, but the bikes keep rolling along.

As with the successful Burrard Bridge lane reallocation for bikes, it’s hard to justify these piecemeal improvements by counting cyclists versus cars. These are still small havens of safe riding, and the cars are still vastly more numerous, even though cyclists’ numbers are moving up. (Latest numbers show bike crossings of the Georgia viaduct/Dunsmuir route up from less than 100 to 1,500 a day.)

Instead, these new lanes should be measured as progress milestones on the road to this British Columbia city’s goal of a 10 percent share of all trips by bicycle. That would be a North American high, even if far off the 40 percent share seen in cities like Copenhagen. That achievement would take many more cars off the road, lighten the load on public transit, improve public health (cleaner air, more exercise), lower greenhouse gas emissions and, yes, generate new business for stores along the route.

Stopping for an impulse retail buy while you’re riding a bicycle is about 100 times easier (based on my personal experience) than when you’re driving a car. But some of the businesses along the proposed Hornby Street route are not looking for drop-in customers on bikes. They need valet parking, deliveries, and front-door vehicle drop-offs, and they’re very unhappy about the new lane.

They’re doomed to be ground up in this nice new sausage. The lanes have unanimous support at City Hall. Even the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s protests sound a bit half-hearted, maybe because the executive director is a cycle commuter. The biggest complainer about the Burrard Bridge bike lanes was an art dealer who had through traffic diverted away from his street. It turned out his destination business was already shutting down, opening only for a few hours a day.

The next big step in bike infrastructure for a city that’s aiming to be the “greenest” in the world is a public bike-sharing system. Now established in cities around the world (Paris, London, Lyon, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Montreal, Minneapolis, Denver, San Antonio, Mexico City…), this concept has been in discussion here for the last three years. TransLink and the municipalities most involved (Vancouver, Richmond, North Vancouver) have yet to figure out how to finance that big first step to achieve critical mass — probably around $15 million in capital costs for 2,700 bikes plus a net annual operating cost in the $2 million range.

These systems work: in Lyon, the number of bike trips has gone up 500 percent, boosting the bike mode share to 9 percent and reducing car traffic by 5 percent.

This doesn’t all have to be public money. In London, Barclays Bank just bought the city’s system of 6,000 bikes and 400 stations for C$38 million. In Melbourne, the Royal Automotive Club was a partner in a system that is starting with a $5 million contract for 600 bicycles. In Minneapolis, the Blue Cross Center for Prevention invested as a health-improvement measure. In Montreal, businesses like Deloitte are sponsoring stations outside their offices for the convenience of their staff and clients. In Paris, J.C. Decaux pays for the city’s 20,000-plus bikes with advertising revenues.

When I was in Montreal recently, I bought a three-day transit pass but never used it after I discovered a Bixi public bike rack outside my hotel. I inserted my credit card for the daily $5 fee, then had unlimited use of these funky 3-speed tech wonders for any ride under 30 minutes. Locals pay $78/year.

No other city in the world with a public bike system (except Melbourne) requires helmets. Mexico City just repealed its compulsory helmet law.

The beauty of the public bike system for a place like Vancouver (or Seattle) is that you can ride in your street clothes year-round and never have to worry about getting soaked in the rain. If it starts raining (or if you start sweating), pull over to the nearest rack, lock up the bike, and move on by foot, bus or taxi. For a tourist, it’s a dream: no rental hassles, just slide in your credit card, punch in your code, and ride off, knowing there will always be a nearby place to park it.

A big barrier here is our compulsory helmet law. We should waive it for public bikes. No other city in the world with a public bike system (except Melbourne) requires helmets. Mexico City just repealed its compulsory helmet law when it brought in its public bike system, probably looking at the many benefits compared to head injury risks from slow-speed rides.

The continuing addition of protected lanes for cyclists in all Metro Vancouver municipalities, especially in downtown Vancouver, makes the success of a public bike share system here a no-brainer. All it takes is political leadership and determination. And maybe a savvy corporate sponsor.

A version of this column previously appeared in “Business in Vancouver,” www.biv.com.

Share On:
Support Crosscut