Vancouver - The Best Bike City in Canada?
The aspiring writer Isabel Ruitenbeek, an intern at thetyee.ca, wrote an article comparing cycling in Amsterdam and Vancouver. This article perfectly illustrates all that is wrong with the attitude towards building better cycling infrastructure in Canadian cities.
To add my voice to the pile I wrote a letter which was, of course, unacknowledged and unanswered. So, here it goes.
Dear Ms. Ruitenbeek,
I wanted to let you know that I have great respect for your writing and perspectives. I do want to write to see if I could persuade you to make an amendment to your piece comparing cycling in Vancouver and Amsterdam.
My name is Stephanie and in my work I focus on the design and visioning of public-space projects, streetscapes, and large-scale landscape infrastructure in the urban realm.
In 2008 I was an undergraduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax and as part of the program (Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies) I had to take a 4-month internship at a design firm after my first year. I was selected to intern at a firm in Amsterdam, and, having visited the city twice previous I decided to take the offer and move to Amsterdam. In total I lived there for about 6 months.
This letter is not to tell you how amazing I found the cycling in Amsterdam. Rather, I want to let you know my background so you can hear me out.
After my internship I took my master's degree in architecture in Copenhagen, where I lived (and biked) for 2 years. Following that, I moved to Berlin, where I worked (and biked) at an urban design & landscape architecture firm for about 1.5 years. After that I moved to Toronto, where I lived and worked (and biked) for nearly 4 years. I moved to Kigali, Rwanda for a year before finally coming to Vancouver in 2017.
In each of these cities, from Halifax to Vancouver, I cycled. Cycling was my primary mode of transit everywhere except Kigali, where I took motos or walked. I have never owned a vehicle, and barely used my driver’s permit; actually, it was only a ‘learner’s permit’ since I never bothered to take the full permit exam.
Until I moved to Vancouver.
2017 was the first year I found it necessary to buy a car. I have a dog, you see, and dogs aren't allowed on public transit here. Car-sharing is wonderful if you stick to the covered zones, but you aren't able to bring an Evo 10 minutes away to IKEA Richmond, or other surprisingly close-by locations. You can't park an Evo at Mt. Seymour to go snowshoeing, or go for a hike in Squamish with your Evo unless you rent it for the day. With a trail-running partner and an active dog, I quickly learned the limitations of getting around without a car in Vancouver.
It also became quickly apparent that cycling in Vancouver means taking your life in your hands every single day.
Still, my partner - who works at an architecture firm downtown, the same architecture firm that painted the alleyway you were photographed in for your piece - commutes every single day from Knight & 30th downtown. The fastest way to get to work for him is along Kingsway - a deeply unpleasant and dangerous experience. Of course, it wasn't long before people recommended the 'bike streets' - Ontario, Quebec, 14th, 10th, etc. I work from home, but when I cycle around the city these also became the streets I stuck to.
I am not sure what your thesis is in the article - on the face of it you seem to be saying that cycling in Amsterdam isn't all it's cracked up to be, yet you offer no real benefits to cycling in Vancouver either. You seem to be implying that separated bike lanes are crowded and that the shared bike/car side streets of Vancouver work perfectly well. You say that there may not be as many lessons to take from Amsterdam as people might hope for.
Allow me to offer you a different perspective, one that is rooted in my 13 years studying and working in the field of architecture, landscape infrastructure and urban design, and 11 years of being an urban cyclist.
There are 4 key elements of successful bike programs in cities.
Visibility, Volume, Safety and Access.
Vancouver is a failure on all counts.
When cyclists are visible to drivers, that is, when many modes of transport are able to travel together, it increases awareness among all users of these mixed-mode networks. Buses, light rail, cycling, driving and walking should and MUST occur in tandem on active urban streets. Vancouver makes the mistake of separating modes of transit under the guise of safety, which creates a hierarchy of use where we see bus drivers and car drivers acting dangerously and aggressively towards other transportation forms when they dare to use streets that aren't 'designated' bikeways.
When cyclists have access to a functional, direct network, they tend to band together on those streets. Therefore, in Toronto you will see clusters of 20-30 cyclists at a stop light on Queen St. West in the morning rush hour, and perhaps hundreds of cyclists during the day anywhere in the city, and this volume of cyclists creates its own sort of 'awareness clan' as they travel. This is despite the fact that there are no bike lanes on Queen Street; yet it is the most direct and straightforward route from east to west so it attracts cyclists by default. At a certain moment, Adelaide and Richmond in Toronto became recognized preferred routes and the city implemented separated, protected bike lanes along the length leading into downtown and out towards the waterfront paths. The visibility of cyclists directly led to a change in infrastructure.
In Vancouver, the bicycling network is so dispersed, so segregated and so diluted from the main paths of transit that the volume of cyclists are dissipated to such an extent that I have ridden for 30 minutes on these so-called bike-streets without seeing a single other cyclist.
When vehicles use these streets - as they still do - they don't feel that they need to share the road with one cyclist. They see the cyclist as an intruder. They begin to act aggressively or cause dangerous passing situations in an attempt to overtake cyclists. Seeing a volume of cyclists at every corner and intersection would go a long way towards changing driver's views of their road-ownership, yet with all of the dispersed sharrow streets, cyclists are less visible as a totality. Vancouver needs to implement bike infrastructure on main thoroughfares, but they refuse to. Articles like yours, praising the separation of bikes from traffic, harm this initiative even more.
Your statistic on cyclists injured or killed proved how very awful the cycling infrastructure really is in Vancouver. When only 6% of the population cycles (and, remember, that is self-reported data and not verified by official counting programs) yet you see people being killed or seriously injured, then you compare it with the 63% of daily riders in Amsterdam, you can clearly see that your position that cycling is more chaotic or dangerous in Amsterdam is quickly disproved.
For the amount of people who are using the streets whether by walking, taking transit or cycling, Amsterdam has an incredibly low ratio of injury and death. As many commentators pointed out, getting hit by a bike won't kill you, but getting hit by a speeding maserati will. I can't count the number of close calls I and my husband have had with transit operators who literally tailgate cyclists their entire route, or the harrowing times we've had to cycle on Clark or Kingsway and the drivers pass within inches going 60+ km/hour.
The speed limit in Vancouver is ridiculous - it's posted at 50 on most main arteries, but it's more common to see people going 60-70 on these wide, open roads. Toronto's inner city limit is 40, and traffic is often congested to the point of a slow crawl; to which I say GOOD. It should ALWAYS be more efficient to cycle or take public transit than drive, which is not at all the case in Vancouver. Speed is a huge factor in cycling deaths in Vancouver, and this won't change when cycling is seen as fringe activity only allowed on side-streets.
Additionally, streets here have multi-lane travel with parking on both sides; where Toronto drivers are now used to cautiously checking their mirrors before opening or closing their car doors, drivers in Vancouver freely give 'door prizes' to cyclists, who have to swerve into dangerously fast traffic to avoid crashing. Toronto began putting bike lanes next to the sidewalk, with the parking lane outside which makes a lot more sense; the car doors being opened are almost always the driver's side, and the parking lane offers generous separation from travel lanes.
The lanes themselves along many streets (12th, Clark, 16th etc) are smaller than normal (my count was 2.3m wide where a normal travel lane should be 2.8), with large trucks and fast-moving cars speeding along in ignorance and blatant disrespect for cyclists who may be on the road also. And people wonder why cyclists use the sidewalks here?
Accessibility in bike travel means that all kinds of people can easily get onto safe cycle routes or lanes that take them where they need to go in an efficient way. In Vancouver, the cycle routes are discursive, cut off from normal connections, and highly circuitous. Often the fastest way to get somewhere is the route by which car-traffic would travel, yet there are no accommodations made for cyclists on these streets. The seawall is a beautiful, but useless piece of purely recreational infrastructure.
As Jan Gehl says, you can have all the bike routes in the world but if they don't take you where you want to go they are pointless. Vancouver may have plenty of km's of 'bikeways' and 'waterfront path' but for the average commuter, these are completely and utterly pointless if they can't easily get to them or use them to get where they need to go. Where does the seawall lead? To the beach? Great - if you work at the beach. How about getting to the grocery store, the bank, school or work? Getting to these bikeways is an ordeal if you don't live directly next to one; finding your way to a designated bikeway may mean going several km (on hilly terrain) out of your way to find it, a barrier to many people who cannot afford the extra time or energy in their daily commute.
Biking across any of the bridges in Vancouver is an utter nightmare. Connecting from the downtown to the rest of the city is an utter nightmare. To safely get anywhere, a cyclist must be ready to encounter hills with grades of 6% and above, besides jigging and jagging down a disconnected set of streets that stop abruptly in dead-ends. These are all more barriers to increasing cycling in Vancouver.
You must recognize that while you personally may have had a pleasant experience on your straight-down-the-road commute to your office, most people in Vancouver experience a hellish nightmare of bike commuting in the city. The numbers (and I would guess even 6% is highly inflated by personal ego) don't lie - Vancouver can and should take the opportunity to learn from every single other bike city in the world, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and others in Canada and the States, which are doing far better then Vancouver is.
It's an outright lie that Vancouver is the 'best' bike city in Canada - if this is true, there is a very low bar. I'm speaking from months and years of experience in every city I mentioned - not just a few weeks of vacation cycling. I cycled through winter and summer in Toronto for almost 4 years, and I would take that any day over cycling in Vancouver.
I believe that it's both dangerous and irresponsible to put out articles like the one you did - as well as a total dis to the cyclists who are trying to advocate for safe and accessible biking in this city. People are working hard to build up the infrastructure we need to create better cycling networks and awareness; articles like yours only create complacency and feed into the cycle that 'Vancouver is Better than Everyone Else' - a civic mistake with dire consequences when it comes to improving urban infrastructure.
I respectfully hope you will reconsider your point of view on this, from one world cyclist to another.