Are bike lanes truly a scourge for small businesses?

The proposed lane on Commercial Drive has run into resistance. The concerns may be overblown

March 31, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Beth Taylor/Flickr

Here we go again. In December, Vancouver city council approved 12 new bike lanes to be built over the next five years as part of the city’s Transportation 2040 plan. But while local cyclists were encouraged by the addition of routes down Richards, Bute, Smithe, and Nelson streets, the proposed lane on Commercial Drive ran into more resistance. Once again, a local business group is objecting to a bike lane being built in its neighbourhood, and once again those objections revolve primarily around reductions in parking spaces and the impact that would have on nearby merchants.

“Using a street like Commercial Drive, where many of the longtime family businesses are already economically vulnerable, is not worth the risk,” says Nick Pogor, the executive director of the Commercial Drive Business Society (CDBS). “We really think that taking the existing cycling infrastructure, making it better, and improving upon what’s already here is the way forward.”

Charles Gauthier, the president of the Downtown Vancouver BIA, understands Pogor’s position. After all, when the City of Vancouver was in the earliest innings of building out the city’s new bike lane infrastructure, it started in his back yard—and he felt largely the same way. But five years later, and with an economic impact study on the books, he’s decided that bike lanes aren’t necessarily the mortal threat to local merchants they looked like at the outset. “I think they have some valid concerns,” he says of the CDBS. “But having said that, I think we came out of it on the other end. That’s not to say there aren’t some retailers experiencing negative impacts, but at the same time [bike lanes] appear to be popular, they’re well-utilized, and they’re getting people in and around the downtown.”

thedrive

Pogor’s primary concern, of course, is the on-street parking that a separated bike lane would cannibalize, and he points out that Commercial Drive has less in common with Hornby and Dunsmuir streets and more in common with busier thoroughfares like Davie, Denman, or Robson. But Samuel Baron—an SFU master’s student and principal with Slow Streets, a Vancouver-based urban design and planning group—thinks the focus on parking is misplaced. His group published a report in January 2015 on the virtues of a separated bike lane along Commercial Drive, and it noted that there are over 700 parking stalls surrounding the Drive between Broadway and First Avenue that are free and available to the public. Putting a separated bike lane along the Drive would eliminate just 87 spaces along that same stretch. “This thing polarizes. It’s that whole bikes versus cars thing, and it’s not about that. To me, it’s about designing this retail street to better reflect the needs of the residents and the fact that it’s one of the primary retail streets in Vancouver. It’s one where people go specifically to be a pedestrian because it’s an interesting place to walk and an interesting place to be.”

In an online petition the CDBS posted in order to rally support for its position—and opposition to the bike lane—it posed a rhetorical question to readers: “Why risk negatively impacting the character of the Drive with this proposed change to the neighbourhood?” But Tania Lo, a longtime local resident and cycling advocate, thinks that question ought to be turned on its head. “Why risk leaving it the same? There are more people moving to this area, and if you want to make it easier for people to get around you’re going to have to change it. You cannot leave it as a thoroughfare, where people use it to get through the Drive. You should leave it for people who want to be there—and that isn’t what the street is built for right now.”

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