Frequently, when you read about the introduction or improvement of bike lanes in Vancouver, you get the impression that the city is out of step with the rest of the world, given the resistance they receive from business owners, motorists, and news organizations. The simple fact remains, that despite being a city that prides itself as being “bike-friendly”, it is lagging behind so many other North American cities. The City of Chicago, for example, committed to increasing the number of bicycles on their streets, has already laid 17 kilometres of protected lanes of 160 kilometres planned to be installed by 2015. Vancouver currently sits at six kilometres of protected lanes, and faces stubborn opposition every single time they suggest adding more.
I’m quite happy with the existing, functional cycling network found in Vancouver, and I’m reminded of that whenever I visit the many other places that still refuse to acknowledge the existence of the bicycle. However, I am continually perplexed at how angry people get about proposals to either introduce new facilities, or upgrade existing ones. From the perceived increase in congestion, to the loss of parking spaces, and the money being spent to install them, it’s quite amazing how such a small step forward for our city can get many people into such a rage.
What I think the general public doesn’t realize is that throughout North America, many cities are seeing the collective benefits of installing physically separated bicycle lanes. The biggest benefit, especially to a mother like me, who travels by bike every day with two small children, is that protected bike lanes increase the safety of myself and my family. Since the introduction of the two-way cycle tracks on Hornby and Dunsmuir Streets, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in collision between vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. In a city with a population of just over 600,000 people, not including tourists and those travelling into the city daily from the suburbs, that’s a pretty important decrease, and in just one tiny stretch of the downtown peninsula.
For the average person who doesn’t ride a bike daily, the idea of pulling that rusty frame out of storage and pedalling through the city can appear difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable. Rubbing shoulders with cars, and feeling the need to keep up with their two-tonne metal counterparts to avoid agitating impatient motorists, would only sound exciting to someone who likes to live dangerously. The fact is that if given the right infrastructure, riding a bike is easy, safe, and incredibly enjoyable. Providing better infrastrcture will get “bike-curious” citizens all of sizes, incomes, and ages to give riding a bike a shot, whether they’re kids, millenials, or boomers.
As any motorists can attest, driving behind or next to a cyclist is just as nerve-wracking for the person in the car. One wrong move and anything could happen. While turning right from Hornby to Georgia Street may be painfully slow during peak hours, as priority is given to the bicycles and pedestrians, drivers can now rest a bit easier knowing that they no longer have to worry about someone suddenly appearing out of their blind spot, ending in a collision. Protected bike lanes make car/bicycle/pedestrian travel much more predictable, reducing collisions, and keeping more people out of emergency rooms. That can’t possibly be a bad thing.
The simple fact is that bicycle travel is increasing in the City of Vancouver. It is not a “war on cars” as has been lazily and sensationally proposed by the media, but rather a council and their citizens moving forward and embracing changing times. Physically separated lanes have played a part in that, with cycling being the fastest growing transportation mode, experiencing a 40 per cent increase in the number of trips between 2008 and 2011. More and more people are opting to get on a bike because it is getting safer and easier. Increased options means less people in cars, which in turn means reduced congestion on our streets.
Another significant sign that protected bike lanes are a good thing is the simple fact that among the increased number of cyclists on the road, the number of girls and women choosing to ride has had the biggest growth. In 2011, 41 per cent of all trips made by bicycle were done by girls or women, 11 per cent higher than the 2006 Canada Census average. It has been well documented that women are the indicator species, meaning that until women adopt an idea, in this case using a bicycle as a safe and reliable means of transport, it will not have resounding success. So, in Vancouver, where nearly half of those choosing to ride a bike are women, it is pretty clear that through introducing protected bikes lanes the city has made cycling safer for all riders, regardless of age, gender and ability.
The three proposed bike lane improvements will cost Vancouver taxpayers approximately $3 million, equating to about $5 per resident. Meanwhile, the recent provincial transportation budget plans for $179 million in road rehabilitation expenses alone in 2013/14 , while cycling projects account for just $3 million in the same period of time. So it’s important to have a bit of perspective when it comes to the cost of embracing these vital safety upgrades to existing infrastructure. The bottom line is this: protected bike lanes are the future of transportation, and if we keep having these ridiculous bike vs. car debates, Vancouver is going to be left in the past.
Written by Melissa Bruntlett.
Melissa Bruntlett lives in Vancouver with her husband and two young children. When not riding around with her family and enjoying life by the ocean, she writes for her blog Velo Family Diaries, where she talks about the triumphs and challenges of a car free existence. Find Melissa on Twitter at @VeloFamilyYVR.
Image: Chris Bruntlett @cbruntlett