Thursday, December 9, 2010

Use it or lose it?

Here's a photo that's being sent around the internet by some of my colleagues, at least one of whom organized a Gregor Robertson fundraiser during the last election. He won't be organizing a Vision fundraiser next election.

I received it since I am seen by some friends as a 'bike lane supporter'. I must confess, I am in favour of safer bike lanes, and said so in an August 2007 Vancouver Sun article that I am reprinting below.

But I must also confess that I had reservations about the appropriateness of the Dunsmuir and Hornby Street bike trials, in part since I didn't really believe they were being designed and implemented as 'trials' with a reasonable level of community input.

Now I am increasingly of the opinion that unless these lanes attract a much higher level of use by cyclists, and the congestion and traffic safety issues caused by the lanes are addressed, there could well be a new Mayor in November 2011 who will be elected, in part, on an anti-bike lane platform. The new Mayor will remove them in whole or in part after winning. Here's my earlier Vancouver Sun story:

Move on to make city more bike friendly

It is a well-known fact that where we live is directly related to how we get around. While most North Americans drive cars, people living on other continents use different forms of transportation: trains, trams, tuk-tuks, and in many places, bicycles.

I credit former Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price -- and more recently, Coun. Peter Ladner -- for making Vancouver one of the more bicycle-friendly cities in North America.

As a result of their initiatives, and those of like-minded politicians and planners, we now have bicycle lanes along many streets, required bicycle parking in multi-family projects and an emerging ''bike culture'' in our region.

But still, our bike scene is very modest when compared with that of most European cities, most notably Amsterdam, where I recently spent a few days en route to South America.

Those who have never been to the Netherlands and Amsterdam may not know that bicycles are the primary form of transportation in many towns and cities.

Cyclists have priority over cars, and even pedestrians. Bikes are everywhere, and used by everyone: young and old, rich and poor, even mothers with babies.

Of course, it is much easier to get around the Netherlands on a bike since the country is extremely flat. But I think there are lessons Vancouver can learn from the Netherlands and European cities that would make our city better and healthier for both cyclists and non-cyclists.

Let us start with bicycle lanes. Ideally, cyclists would be separated from automobiles and pedestrians, but this is not usually possible in Vancouver. Consequently, bicycle lanes are often located within a street's right-of-way, sometimes separated from cars by a white line.

But in many European cities, bicycle lanes are an extension of the sidewalk, rather than the road. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense, since it is often easier to widen a sidewalk than a road.

Cyclists are also safer travelling next to pedestrians, rather than cars, although the same may not always be the case for pedestrians.

Bicycle lanes are painted a distinct colour or constructed from a different material in order to direct cyclists and minimize accidents. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, for instance, the bicycle lanes are painted red.

One can follow them along the sidewalks, across road intersections, and in some instances, through public plazas.

Where bicycle lanes cannot be accommodated as part of the sidewalk, they are located within the road, but clearly demarcated with paint. The colouring also makes the sidewalks and intersections safer for pedestrians.

In Gothenburg, Sweden, I was surprised to discover bicycle lanes between the parking lane and the sidewalk.

I thought this also made sense since cyclists would be less likely to be hit by cars or injured by drivers carelessly opening car doors.

Along the beachfront in Rio de Janeiro -- where I am writing this article -- cyclists are separated from both the road and sidewalk by curbs.

To save space, the two bicycle lanes are situated beside one another, in opposite directions.

This seems to work very well, although pedestrians crossing the street have to watch out for cyclists whizzing by, especially where the bike lanes' paint has worn off.

While it might be difficult to incorporate this arrangement into most existing roadways, it would be feasible in new developments and in situations where an overly wide road needs to be 'put on a diet'.

Research has shown that narrowing driving lanes can result in safer and quieter streets due to lower vehicle speeds. Separated bicycle lanes would be an added bonus.

As bicycles become more popular in Vancouver, we will have another problem to deal with: Where to park them? Bicycle parking is a major problem in Amsterdam.

Bikes can be found leaning against every conceivable vertical surface; in the early morning, they are often found lying around sidewalks or hanging off bridges.

Conventional bicycle racks have been added along the sidewalks, but often this does not solve the problem.

Therefore, Amsterdam's engineers have started to convert on-street vehicle parking spaces into bicycle parking by fixing specially-designed racks onto roads.

Near train stations and most major commercial and institutional buildings, large areas can be found devoted to bicycle racks.

Amsterdam has even built parking garages exclusively for bikes.

While I don't expect to see bicycle-only garages in Vancouver in the foreseeable future, the city does need to increase the supply of bicycle parking soon.

This may well require the conversion of on-street car parking for bikes.

While I would not have suggested this before setting off on my trip, the degree of traffic congestion in cities which are primarily car dependent has made me change my thinking.

Two final thoughts. In Amsterdam, most bikes have one or three gears, and upright handlebars. Cyclists tend to travel at lower speeds and many do not wear helmets.

I have often thought that more people in Vancouver would ride bikes if they did not have to wear helmets.

While I do not want to publicly advocate an unsafe practice, it may be worth considering that helmets might not be as necessary if it was safer to ride bikes in Vancouver.

This may also result in more cyclists -- and fewer motorists -- on the road.

In addition to the obvious benefits of bicycles -- reduced traffic congestion, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and lower transportation costs -- bicycles offer another plus. In the Netherlands, you do not see as many overweight people as you do in North America.

While I have not seen any research, I am convinced there is a correlation between bicycle use and good health.

This is why I plan to ride my bicycle much more when I return to Vancouver, especially if I can be safely separated from the cars, and have a convenient place to park.


spartikus said...

This is not directed at you, Michael, as you were a recipient and not the origin of the photo...but I for one am extremely tired of these selectively framed shots one sees now and again. It would be equally easy for me to take a photo of a busy street without a single car on it. Time-consuming, but easy to create. I am tired of the tweets of right-wingers saying "I just passed Dunsmuir - didn't see a single bike". I didn't see the sun today...I guess by extension it's gone.

The cycling lanes are still new. Time is needed for the culture to change. As you know, the city is conducting traffic counts on the lanes (some allege these numbers are being faked, but I've never seen any credible evidence, or any evidence at all, of how this fakery is being done). It would be really great if we all could up our game and embrace these more rational methods of determining the success and failure of the bike lanes.

Yes, that includes lane supporters.

Chris said...

I've had a few morning commutes now when I'm biking along the Dunsmuir Viaduct and look up and see 5 cyclists in front of me and not a single car in sight. If you want Michael, I can snap a picture for you next time.

Anonymous said...

The picture is quite accurate actually whether you like it or not. Also, the Dunsmuir lane is hardly "new". The Hornby lane is now open, yet cyclists are still using the sidewalks. There are a lot of cyclists in this city that really need to grow up.

Rick Pedersen said...

"Michael - it would be interesting to see exactly what the benchmarks and expectations of this "trial" period are exactly. We must know how many people were cycling down Hornby before the lanes went in, I would hope. I'm sure we can measure how many people are using it now, and track this progress as the trial goes on. And, I would think that Council has an idea of what a "successful" trial would look like in terms of increased ridership. So, if we know all that, it will be pretty clear at the end of the trial whether or not this initiative has been successful. In that case, any new mayor or Council would have the information he or she would need to make a decision that would be rational and intelligent, and not simply driven by ideology. Does that make sense?"

voony said...

I have seen this kind of tired campaign many time.

have you notice on the picture that there is more pedestrian than people in car: the later have already more space but still want more ! why?

the reason a bike lane or a bus lane look empty when the car lane look full is illustrated here:

Tessa said...

It would be a sad thing if the bike lane is taken out for me, because if it is then I won't be biking downtown anymore. I tried once going over the Cambie Street Bridge and while the bridge is lovely, the streets on the downtown side aren't worth it for me. I love going down Dunsmuir, and I've been downtown on several occasions since it opened, and I can usually bike downtown quicker from my home near Fraser than going by transit.

Of course, because starting December I won't have a U-Pass, that means I won't take transit much regardless. I just won't go downtown unless I absolutely have to - I'll stick mostly to my neighbourhoods in East Van easily acceptable by quiet bikeable streets. I just find it rough that some people who run these sorts of campaigns think that my mobility doesn't matter because I don't drive a car. Also not directed at you, of course.

As an aside about the Hornby lane, I had no idea it was open until I walked past a few days ago. Where was the fanfare? The official opening?

Michael Geller said...

Thanks for your comments...I too want to see the bike lanes remain, provided there is a demonstration that they are needed and are being used. Tessa, good point about the absence of an 'official opening' for the Hornby Bike Lane. By the way, if you want to continue getting a cheap Transit Pass, you might want to consider moving to UniverCity...all residents have access to a very discounted transit pass! And there is bicycle infrastructure!

Gord Price said...

Another perspective (illustrated!) here:

Mark Allerton said...

Perhaps a shot from the corner of Howe and Dunsmuir at the same time would have offered some insight into the root cause of the problem here.

I'd put money on seeing cars blocked up on Howe Street too, caused by the construction work going on at the former Hotel Georgia. A lot of traffic from Dunsmuir turns on to Howe at this intersection and if they can't make the turn everything backs up. When the crane is in use Howe Street can be completely gridlocked.

People get so worked up about bike lanes but seem to be able to completely ignore construction work taking lanes out of streets downtown for months at a time.

Anonymous said...

Agreed that there's some congestion from back-up from the left turn lane at Howe. The pedestrian volume there is quite heavy, and even with the advance left turn, there's still a line of cars behind. That probably backs up the lane on the right of the photo. I guess the related question is whether the reduction in lanes from 3 to 2 (leaving only one through lane if the left turn lane backs up) has resulted in the congestion seen in the photo.

Declan said...

"provided there is a demonstration that they are needed and are being used."

I walk by them every day (work at the corner of Dunsmuir and Hornby) and can confirm there are lots of bikes using them.

Do you need photos as proof, or are you willing to take my word for it?

Or just walk down there some day and look around?

Or I guess you could just take a cherry picked picture circulated for political reasons and base your views on that - yeah, that makes sense.

Mark Allerton said...

By the way Michael, given your obvious desire to stave off an unfortunate turn of events such as those you describe, I assume we'll be seeing you out on the bike lanes yourself this winter.

Anonymous said...

Sadly it's predictable that there will be the usual outcry about "staged photos" when we see these shots of the bike lanes. Even sadder is the fact they are not staged. Lets all be honest - the lanes are not well used. They may be busy for a brief period during rush hour, but in a city where real estate is scarce, they are a poor use of a valuable resource. If the public chooses to walk or drive (as evidenced in the photo) why should bike lanes be rammed down their throats?

I can't help wondering about the ambulance in the photo. Lets hope it wasn't on an emergency call!

Tessa said...

Haha thanks for the suggestion, Michael. They're pretty, but I do love my neighbourhood. And I'm not quite as hardened a bike rider as the people I sometimes see cycling up Burnaby Mountain.

Chris said...

Well, there are cyclists in the picture further down, and the intersection has a green light.

It looks like the cyclists have all just continued on because they weren't stuck at the green lights, waiting in a traffic jam.

Seems like the lanes are working!

Chris said...

Well it didn't take long for me to see the opposite situation on my ride into work. Even on the dead of winter.

Seems that car-traffic is down due to holidays, but bike traffic is still steady. There were 7 cyclists who went up the Dunsmuir viaduct with me this morning from Main and Union. When we got the bridge deck, there were 0 cars in sight.

I tried snapping a photo on my phone, but most of the cyclists had zoomed ahead of me by the time I had it ready. You can still see 4 of them, and the absence of cars at 8:45 in the morning.