A Push for Cycling in Vancouver
every new block of bike lanes has caused outrage and frustration. Two Activists want to turn the heat on that debate way up
March 4, 2013
On a rare snowy December at UBC, the morning bus commute is a miserable crawl through a city shocked by a sudden burst of winter. Yet Jinhua Zhao, assistant professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning and the department of civil engineering, is beaming. He loves this weather as a metaphor for the shock he says Vancouver needs in order to establish a bicycle culture.
In 2007, Vancity ran an experiment that invited people to share a fleet of 45 free machines. Two months later, half the bikes had disappeared and the rest were eventually donated to a nonprofit connecting low-income earners with transportation options. That short-lived pilot was inspired by UBC, which has been home to its own public bike share since 1998: $15 grants access to some 100 purple-and-yellow bicycles scattered around campus. Zhao likes these programs but wants more, much more. “What if we buy one million bicycles-cheap bicycles from China for, say, $30 million-and just scatter them around the city?” he says. “You need to build up enough momentum to say this is serious. One million bicycles would really disrupt the system. I would call it Magic Bicycle Week.”
Sure, many bikes would end up stolen, abandoned, or sold for scrap. But Zhao insists a sudden invasion would create a seismic shift in a city whose two-wheeled renaissance lags despite the best intentions of city officials and transportation authorities.
Zhao, also commissioner of China Planning Network, a think-tank focused on that country’s urbanization, was inspired to think big after a recent trip to Beijing. In the 1980s, Beijing was the kingdom of the bicycle, with a cycle mode share of 60 percent-six out of every 10 trips by bike. Millions of those bicycles disappeared in the 1990s as China embraced the middle class and the private automobile emerged as a status symbol. Yet a smoggy quarter-century later, Beijing’s cycle share sits below 20 percent and Zhao says planners there are again considering the bicycle as a real transportation option, even reverting some bike lanes-long annexed as parking or turning lanes-to their original purpose.
Many cities around the world are bent on enabling denser communities and healthier citizens by ramping up bicycle infrastructure and policies. That gives Zhao hope for Vancouver, where selling the benefits of cycling has been a slow slog. The ruling Vision Vancouver party without doubt champions the bicycle, but opposition from businesses and neighbours has been brutal, he says, and TransLink, which prides itself on helping increase Metro Vancouver’s cycle mode share, has slashed funding for its cycling program by 50 percent to $3 million a year, 0.2 percent of its total budget.
That’s why Zhao is calling for his big push. “Thirty million is not a trivial number, but it’s not that big. If I’m the mayor and have the money, I would like to do such an experiment. It takes the guts to say, ‘If it fails, so what?’ ”
Across town, architectural technician Chris Bruntlett is focused on fixing cycling’s image. In his peacoat and newsboy cap, he looks quite the dandy as he locks his European-styled Linus commuter to a bike rack on Alexander Street. The bike has fenders and a chain guard, a leather seat, and tall handlebars for upright posture. Co-director of the Vancouver Cycle Chic Society, Bruntlett applauds the city’s efforts in infrastructure and policy work but feels officials are overlooking a critical third prong of bicycle advocacy.
“Vancouver is in dire need of a bicycle marketing department. Really, what we’re doing at Cycle Chic is selling bicycles to the masses as normal and safe and accessible,” he says. “It’s been very clear over the last decade car sales are declining. The need to drive is declining. Freedom is no longer represented in a car.”To that end, Cycle Chic (part of an international network) spent last year blogging and throwing parties and fashion shows to connect bike-friendly artists, musicians, photographers, businesspeople, and tastemakers. This year, he says he wants to emphasize bikes’ utilitarian appeal.
“The Cycle Chic name is a bit misleading. We need a wider shift-getting kids and older people on bikes, not just white guys in cleats and bearded bicycle couriers,” Bruntlett says. “Active citizens are healthy, happy, money-spending citizens. We pat ourselves on the back as the World’s Greenest City, but even Gregor Robertson and company could be doing a lot more.” He points out that the city budget doesn’t even have a line item for bicycle marketing, despite ambitions to have 50 percent of all trips taken be by walking, cycling, or transit by 2020.
City transportation director Jerry Dobrovolny says much of 2013 will be spent thinking about more infrastructure. The engineering department is looking to complete a bike path linking Hornby Street to Stanley Park, consult about improved links from Hornby to False Creek and from the Burrard Bridge to Point Grey Road, and brainstorm options for cyclists along Commercial Drive. City hall is softer on promises of a public bike share system. Plans called for a launch this summer, but Dobrovolny says despite ongoing talks with Montreal’s PBSC Urban Solutions (developers of the original BIXI bike sharing scheme) and Portland-based operator Alta Bicycle Share no contract has been awarded. He still hopes to see some portion of a rollout take shape before the end of 2013. Such a project would scatter 1,500 bikes across Vancouver in an effort to get more citizens cycling-one small step in a journey of a thousand miles.