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.

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