Divided they ride

Drivers ignore painted lanes for cyclists. Vancouver decided there was only one way to fix that problem.

Divided they ride


Separated bike lanes are every cyclist’s dream. And when a single weekend in May left five cyclists dead in a series of accidents in Ontario and Quebec, many Canadians—non-cyclists, too—alighted on the idea.

Vancouver is going a long way toward bringing the two groups together by keeping them apart: it’s creating a protected bike network that makes it safer and easier to cycle the city core. This fall, the city is adding a two-way, bikes-only, separated roadway along Hornby Street, running north-south through the downtown.

It joins another separated bike route that bisects the city east-west along Dunsmuir Street. They meet new, protected bike lanes on two of the busiest downtown entry points: the Burrard Street bridge and the Dunsmuir viaduct. By late fall, cyclists will be able to enter and ride downtown without having to wrangle for space with a car—and vice versa. The network went up over the past 12 months, as city engineers quietly stole a lane (sometimes two) from drivers with every new leg.

The rationale is simple: painted lanes just don’t work. Some cars ignore them, or double-park in them; taxis idle in them; and trucks use them to unload. Barriers need not be expensive or concrete eyesores. Potted plants and bike racks separate bikes from cars on Dunsmuir. That’s good enough for real estate developer Luke Harrison, who began riding his elegant, cherry-red city bike to work one day a week this summer. He’s just the type of new rider Vancouver is hoping to lure from cars, says city transportation director Jerry Dobrovolny. Vancouver aims to more than double its current share of commuting trips made by bike to 10 per cent. That would be a North American high, although nowhere near the one-third share seen in bike-mad European cities like Amsterdam, which is currently building a 10,000-bike parking garage at Amsterdam Centraal, its main train station.

In Copenhagen, which already offers residents free public bikes, separate lanes and signal systems, planners are hard at work on a system of bike highways: as many as 15 wide, segregated routes connecting the suburbs to the Danish capital. Designs for the US$47-million network call for bike service stations, with air pumps and tools for quick fixes, and coordinated traffic lighting. (When cyclists in Copenhagen maintain speeds of 20 km per hour, lights are timed so they’ll hit green all the way into the city centre, a system known as the “green wave.”) And Europe isn’t going it alone. Two years ago, in the car-crazed U.S., a “Bicycle Routes Corridor Plan” received the official nod from an association of state-highway officials, a small yet significant step toward creating a network of American bike highways. In February, Portland, Ore., which has seen bike use quadruple in the past decade, okayed a $613-million long-term cycling plan, which would see 1,095 km of new bikeways added in the next two decades.

When it comes to auto infrastructure, Vancouver planners have long worked on a kind of reverse-Field of Dreams approach: if you don’t build it, they won’t come. That means saying no to new bridges and roadway expansions for cars, giving precedence, instead, to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users (in that order). It is working. According to a 2007 study Vancouver has, since 1997, seen its population increase by 27 per cent, and jobs by 18 per cent, yet 10 per cent fewer cars are entering the city than a decade ago.

Pedestrian trips have risen by 44 per cent, cycling by 180 per cent, and transit use by 50 per cent. But even Dobrovolny admits the push is more geography than environment. Calgary this ain’t. The core is already built-out, and hemmed in by water on three sides—“we can’t widen the road without either tearing down buildings, or ripping out sidewalks.”

Taking a lane from the car to give to the bike is a bold move, but the howling has subsided. In a glimpse of the current zeitgest, the tech site Gizmodo recently featured a fantastical alternative designed by architect Martin Angelov: the Kolelinia, a suspended aerial bike lane made of steel cables—essentially a tightrope for bikes—allows cyclists to safely ride three metres above traffic. In comparison, a bike lane separated by some planters doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.


Divided they ride

  1. The new separated bike lanes in Vancouver are fantastic. What used to be a stressful commute jockeying for position in traffic has become a relaxing, almost recreational jaunt. The only annoying thing is that the lane has incited the lolly-gagging dawdlers to ride their bikes downtown too. Annoying, but a small price to pay.

  2. Vancouver's City Engineering Dept. has been very clever in the way they've introduced these lanes, which might have been mentioned in the article. They've been able to achieve acceptance by putting bicycle lanes on streets which generally have had excess carrying capacity and a bike lane will not unduly disrupt traffic. They did constrict a bridge lane (one way) somewhat, but overall there was (and I believe still is) excess capacity on bridges leading into and out of downtown. Once bicycle lanes are in, drivers adjust to account for them, and merchants begin to serve the many cyclists who use them, the bicycle lanes will stay. But it is hard to get people to make accept the initial change.

  3. Vancouver is a young city and offers so much potential for this kind of thoughtful growth. But sometimes some of its residents can fight change like a bunch of old codgers. Whenever I hear someone complain about the new bike lanes I say, "Remember when the City pulled smoking out of the bars and restaurants? There was a lot of whinging then too." Once our citizens got used to it, they realized — they kinda liked it!

    I suggest the current batch of "smokers" (the vehicle drivers) take a fresh-air break; bicycles aren't just for weekends anymore.

  4. "That means saying no to new bridges and roadway expansions for cars…" Not true, look at the Port Mann expansion. While I do think something is needed to alleviate the congestion, the expansion kind of encourages people to drive more. I live in Van but work in Surrey (I take transit) and people that live east of the Port Mann but work west of the bridge have few options except driving. I really think they need rapid transit south of the Fraser out to Abbotsford. But I guess that's a whole other ball of wax! Happy for the addition of bike lanes downtown, but I don't go downtown often (since I don't work there) so doesn't affect me.

    Also, I wish we would stop beig compared to European cities like Copenhagen. There, they have short, flat commutes, hence the style of bikes they are riding in regular (non-cycling) clothing, so not surprising that so much more of their population commutes that way. If you're going to compare us to anyone, make it Portland. At least it's in NA.

  5. "Separated bike lanes are every cyclist's dream"? That's strange, 'cos last time I checked, I was a cyclist, and separated bike lanes have never been my dream. Unless Nancy Macdonald means it's one of my nightmares – if we were only permitted to cycle on segregated paths, that would really be a nightmare. Part of what I enjoy about cycling is the challenge of sharing the road with other drivers. If I could only share with other cyclists, it would take away some of the fun for me.

    While I agree that painted lanes don't work, segregation is not a general solution either. Why? For the same reason it didn't work as a way of solving racism – you simply cannot create a system where every space that people need to be is segregated. It ends up costing twice as much to solve a problem that can be better solved by simply incentivizing people to safely share space. I'm all for bicycle super highways as ways to speed commutes, but they are not a be-all and end-all solution to the safety problem because at some point, cyclists will have to exit the bicycle highway and enter the roadway.

    Bicycle super highways are a solution that enables cyclists to get places at the optimal speed that a bicycle can go. That, as well as bringing in more cyclists to take advantage of the increased speed of a commute, is their main effect. But they are not a solution that makes cycling safe – they can only make cycling a bit safer for those who are able to use these highways. Once the cyclist moves off the highway (as they must), they are just as vulnerable as they were before – perhaps more so because the more they use a segregated cycling highway, the less they will be used to cycling in traffic.

    We can create these unrealistic separated 'green zone' type pseudo solutions in some places, and they will speed up commutes for some cyclists, but segregated bicycle paths can only ever be limited to a very small percentage of the cycling spaces we need to use. In the vast majority of trips, bicycles and motor vehicles will have to share the road. Until we address the real problem, I fear we're just avoiding the real solutions and sweeping the most important problems under the rug.

    • While I bike year-round in Ottawa and use streets as well as paths and bike lanes, I disagree that education is the answer to increasing the number of cyclists.

      Many people are leery of biking in traffic with big, fast vehicles passing them. “Hit-from-behind” accidents are relatively uncommon, about 10% of the total, but disproportionately fatal, about 40% of cyclist fatalities (Toronto study & others). And “behind” is the cyclist’s blind spot and it feels scary when big vehicles are constantly coming up and passing.

      Holland, Denmark, and Germany have been very successful in greatly increasing the proportion of trips by bike by creating networks of separated lanes and paths which go everywhere. Yes, now it’s more complicated handling 3 overlapping networks for motor vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians. Conflict at intersections increases, requiring special signal lights, “bike boxes” and other treatments.

      But all this bike infrastructure is safer than what Canada has. Despite a very small proportion of Europeans wearing helmets (15%, mainly kids), they have an injury and fatality rate 1/4 that of North America while the proportion of trips by bike is 10-20x greater. As well as better infrastructure, there is a “safety in numbers” effect. The more cyclists, the safer each cyclist is. In Portland OR, cycling trips increased 400% but injuries and fatalities remained level over the last 10 years.

      As for winter cycling in the rest of Canada, it is very doable. If you can ski in the winter, you can bike. Dress properly, use studded tires, be visible, and take care. Two years ago, I slipped 3x walking on the ice in Ottawa, but never fell cycling. Cycling is continuous, unlike the push-push of walking, and the carbide studs in my tires give me better traction than my boots. See http://IceBike.org

    • Well-written, Ian – that first sentence doesn't speak for me, either – and you've described extremely well the reality of everyday cycling.

  6. I have to respectfully disagree with the comment by Ian Cooper. Ian is obviously one of those super-brave cyclists who doesn't mind mixing it up with bigger, faster vehicles. However, most people just aren't that confident. And if cycling is ever to catch on and become mainstream – which we need it to do, if this planet is to survive – then we need to make cycling possible and even attractive for average people. Separated bicycle paths are the only way to achieve this, because they are the only way to make many average people feel safe on bikes.

    If anyone wants more details about what has been done, and is going to be done, in Vancouver, I have a lot more details on my blog posting at http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=105 .

    Also, let's give an admiring nod to Montreal, which has made astonishing progress with separated bike lanes, with the result that there are enough cyclists there to create fender-to-fender bike traffic at rush hour – see my posting at http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=458 . Other Canadian cities could learn a lot from studying Montreal's example.

  7. Me again! As an average (and 50-year-old) cyclist, I could not get the comment by Lucy about "lolly-gagging dawdlers" out of my head – it had me sleepless last night. So I had to write a response. It's too long for here – so it's posted at http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=778

  8. A very happy Postscript – on Tuesday night, 6th Oct 2010, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to install a $3.2 million south-north separated bike lane in downtown Vancouver, despite vociferous opposition from some facets of local business. Read all about this truly historic decision here – http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=1029

  9. "It joins another separated bike route that bisects the city east-west along Dunsmuir Street."

    As a cyclist I don't see bike lanes as "bisecting" anything! For us bike lanes connect things together. The new lanes make it possible for us to get around Vancouver like never before.

  10. Actually painted lanes do work in many cases. Separated lanes, though desirable, are not always feasible and sometimes create different problems. Victoria, for example, has no separated lanes yet (though some may soon be planned. We do have a very good off-road trail network but it carries only 10% of all bicyle traffic in the region. Most bike trips are on local streets or on roads with marked bike lanes. Drivers do pay attention and we have the highest mode share for cycling of any city in Canada, and better than most in the U.S. The best research also shows a positive correlation between bike lanes and participation and better results on safety. Where you can do separation, great, but they don’t fit everywhere. Marked bike lanes can and do often offer cost effective solutions.
    John Luton, Councillor, City of Victoria