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Vancouver mayor may pay the political price for bike lanes

The Globe and Mail: Vancouver mayor may pay the political price for bike lanes

MARK HUME 

VANCOUVER— From Monday's Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 31, 2011 8:16PM EDT

When Mayor Gregor Robertson brought separated bike lanes to the downtown core last year, he initiated a change that over the long run will have a profound and positive impact on the city.

In the short term, however, he may pay a political price for it. A “honk if you hate Gregor” campaign hasn’t started yet, but political rivals are doing their best to stir one up.

Car-bound commuters can be heard almost daily, whinging on talk radio about bicyclists who don’t signal, who ride without helmets, who run red lights and who just generally slow traffic down.

And the business community, ever sensitive to shifts in the economic climate, has been fretting about the impact on sales along the bike routes, where there is less parking for customers and more traffic congestion.

Change is never easy, especially in Vancouver, where everyone is already in love with the city as it is – apparently having forgotten it only got this way through constant change.

It would have been safer for Mr. Robertson, who is facing re-election in November, to do nothing. No dedicated bike lane over Burrard Bridge, no separate lanes downtown, no controversy.

But Canada’s bike-riding mayor took this issue on because he has been pedalling through the streets for years on a daily basis – and he knew if more people did that, it would make Vancouver a better place to live.

He also knew it would be better for society in ways that might not be easily measurable. For example, one has to wonder what the health system impacts are of having thousands more people getting cardiovascular workouts as they ride to and from jobs every day.

And what are the economic benefits of having people choose bikes over cars? If they save money by reducing auto gas bills, or save even more money by not buying a car in the first place, don’t they have to spend it somewhere?

Taking a few thousand cars off the road won’t do anything to stop climate change. But it helps make the air cleaner. And the people who live up the Fraser Valley, where Vancouver’s pollution drifts, might appreciate it.

It is too soon to say that a major cultural shift has taken place (the car is still king in Vancouver), but it’s starting to look like one is in the making.

The weather has been dreadful this summer. It has mostly been cold and rainy. Despite that, the number of people riding bikes has soared.

In June, an average of 2,200 cyclists used the Dunsmuir bike lanes mid-week – 50 per cent more than during the same period last year.

Several thousand cyclists a day now ride over Burrard Bridge. A date picked at random from daily statistics shows that on June 4 this year, 6,274 rode over the bridge, as compared to 3,006 last year.

And the number of riders will get a boost when the city introduces a public bicycle system next spring, which will see thousands of rental bikes parked at self-service stands downtown.

The city has received expressions of interest from about a dozen potential rental bike suppliers and is expected to select a winning bidder this fall. By next spring, Vancouver will have joined Paris, Lyon and Montreal in implementing a public bike system.

The only way Vancouver won’t see more bike lanes and more bike riders in the city is if Mr. Robertson and his party are defeated in November.

The mayor’s critics have been attacking him by saying his bike-friendly approach causes traffic congestion and hurts downtown businesses.

But a recent study, by Stantec Consulting Ltd., shows businesses along the bike lanes have suffered little (annual sales down an average of 5 per cent), and some thoughtful strategies for mitigating the impact are given. Among other things, the consultants suggest allowing more valet parking, adding angled parking on secondary streets, and strategically placing bike racks where they will encourage cyclists to use businesses.

What about all the driving delays?

Stantec found that is mostly in the heads of drivers. A survey showed drivers felt it took them five minutes longer to go down Hornby, between Pacific and West Hastings. But in fact it took them from five seconds less to one minute, 37 seconds more. At its worst, that is equivalent to missing one traffic light. And that hardly seems like grounds for criticizing a mayor who was bold enough to change things.