From Vancouver, with Bikes

Riding on the Dunsmuir Cycletrack in Vancouver.

A letter from the executive director

Hello from the Velo-City 2012 conference! Some of the best and brightest bike planners in the world are meeting here in Vancouver, British Columbia and I’ve been sent to gather all the latest and greatest tactics to help us cover our city with pedal-powered vehicles. Many wouldn’t know it out on the East Coast, but Vancouver is the perfect North American locale for such a meet-up. It is fast becoming one of North America’s most amazing bike cities (and a super nice place to hang out to boot!).

Starting in the 1950s, when America was spreading suburbs like lard across the land, Vancouver city planners began encouraging developers to erect residential towers near its downtown, keeping them far enough apart to preserve views for all. This method of “Vancouverism” spread to create one of North America’s densest cities (even edging out our beloved Boston). All of this urbanity is strikingly balanced with vast public spaces taking advantage of the natural beauty of the North Shore Mountains, English Bay, Coal Harbor and several islands, all visible from the city on clear days. Vancouver is also home one of the largest urban parks in North America, Stanley Park. Riding around its edge and checking out the beaches and beautiful bay views gave me dozens of ideas about how we can separate bike and pedestrian traffic in Boston’s Emerald Necklace and elsewhere.

One of Vancouver's Local Street Bikeways.

It was in 1991 that Vancouver woke up to the need for bike infrastructure on its streets, and unlike Boston, it began its journey with “Local Street Bikeways” which are very well designed bicycle boulevards. Traffic calming is achieved by building small parks in place of select intersections that allow bikes to pass through but divert motor vehicles back to the main arterials.

In the mid-90s the city turned to bike lanes and sharrows, much like Boston has emphasized over the past four years, but it quickly became clear that paint was not enough to protect cyclists from harm on Vancouver’s busy downtown streets. So current mayor Gregor Robertson and a dedicated team of progressive (and amazing) active transportation planners recently installed several Montreal-style two-way cycletracks replete with protected right-hand turns and cute little bike traffic signals that keep cyclists safe from conflicts with cars. They were made permanent with a unanimous City Council vote earlier this month.

One of Vancouver's newest facilities—a two-way cycletrack on Dunsmuir Street, right through downtown.

Riding these ultra-safe bikeways makes me happy the Boston Cyclists Union is busy promoting the Connect the City program, which is raising grassroots support for cycletracks on Seaver Street near Franklin Park, Malcolm X Boulevard to connect Dudley Square to the SW Corridor, and in our own city’s Downtown. In Vancouver I’ve seen 12 and 13 year olds navigating downtown on their BMX bikes—safe as can be. That, to me, is how it should be.

The one thing that may be holding Vancouver’s biking rate in check is British Columbia’s mandatory helmet law, and this has been hotly debated at this year’s conference, with prominent Dutch bike planners talking smack and making local headlines for it.

While there are also a small number of helmet law supporters attending—-even from overseas—-an even higher percentage seem to be dubious that the bike share called Bixi—expected to land here in 2013 with 1,500 bikes (almost three times as many as Boston began with), will succeed—given that bikers will have to plan ahead and bring a dome protector each time they take out a bike or be subject to a $129 fine. Vancouver’s Active Transportation department is hopeful, however, and planning to create much more access to cheap bike helmets than did Melbourne, Australia, which is under a similar law. One thing is certainly true, Vancouverites are excited about Bixi. As I’ve tooled around the city on the Bixi provided by PBSC Urban Solutions for conference goers all this week, hundreds of people have pointed, wide-eyed, and said “Bixi” in reverent tones. At one point I was accused of stealing it from Montreal.

As exciting as it is outside the conference walls for a bike planning geek like me, it is even more fascinating inside. Director of 8 to 80 cities Gil Peñalosa kicked off the meeting on Tuesday, demanding that we stop building our cities for 30-year-old athletic men and reminding us that cycling is the only individual mode of mobility within reach for 70% of the people living in developing countries. Biking and walking allow you to use your senses, he said, and that is like adding spice to your commute. Would you make pasta without any spices? Well then, why would we build cities without safe, convenient and enjoyable bike facilities?

After Gil’s standing ovation, attendees began a long series of workshops, symposiums, lectures and pecha lucha on every bike topic imaginable.

Out of the Twin Cities and Denmark, we heard about two separate bike reward schemes that use RFID chips to measure true bike use. Bike to school or work and as you pass certain checkpoints you hear a little “boop” and that means you’ve been automatically entered into a lottery for a cool bike prize. Check out a website and see how you stack up against your friends, your company, your company’s rival, or even see how your city stacks up against others. Or stop by your local grocery store and automatically get a discount on your bill! The possibilities are endless. I plan to connect these folks to the Union’s connections over at Harvard and MASCO and see what develops.

Out of the University of British Columbia we heard about a new video surveillance system that can detect the difference between pedestrians, cyclists and cars, track their trajectories and identify near crashes or “conflicts.” While the Union’s work to help the city combine ambulance, police and ER data will help identify hot spots for crashes and give us guidance on how to educate cyclists and drivers on better behavior, this system can deeply analyze where conflicts are happening in a particular intersection in about three days, because conflicts happen far more often than actual crashes. Best of all it works with any existing camera. With this new technology, transportation planners who are about to reconstruct an intersection can get a heat map of where the conflicts are happening and design to eliminate them! I’ve made contact with this team and I’ll be sending them requests to study a few of our more complex intersections that are due for retrofits—such as Commonwealth Avenue and Montfort Street, near where the BU Bridge lands (cross your fingers).

I also got a chance to go over the plans for Casey Arborway with members of the Dutch Cycling Embassy. In that project, we’ve been struggling to come up with a design that would limit pedestrian and bike conflict while creating safe crossings for bikes at all the intersections. Talking to Troels Anderson, a planner from Fredericia, Denmark was like the clouds clearing after a month of rain. When I get back to Boston I’ll be fleshing out the Danish methods with our collaborators on the project’s Design Advisory Committee, as well as with the City of Boston and MassDOT.

These are just a few of the many highlights and opportunities we will all gain from as a result of this trip, but suffice to say it has been well worth the expense. To all of you who have joined the Union and supported our continued efforts to bring Boston up to speed with the worldwide bike revolution——I am humbled by your support and grateful to have the opportunity to serve the cause.

8 comments to From Vancouver, with bikes

  • Justine

    Thanks for the update from Vancouver and for all that you do! It’s really exciting to hear everything that is happening to increase the prominence of biking all over the world. I especially liked the photo of the local bikeways – neat stuff.

  • Pete:

    These are fabulous ideas, every one of which is applicable and appropriate for Boston. Transit and bicycling are the best forms of functional public urban transportation.

  • Amazing update! I can’t wait for BCU to kick some a** back in Boston!

  • Wow, so cool Pete! very inspiring, and with a classy helmet no less.

  • Yvonne

    Hey, Pete. Glad you went. Thanks for the report. Vancouver is a beautiful city. Having the sea at the opposite side of Boston confused me thoroughly. Avanti with the true Silent Revolution! We are changing the world.

  • Jesse Kollins

    Great post. I love hearing all the other great bike ideas from across the globe. Spread the good word, Pete!

  • Ray

    Add a similar legal environment of the Netherlands to the mix (regarding motorist responsibility) and similar public transit options and you’ll find more support for cycle tracks from me.
    Until then, not so much.
    But those two-way ones pictured look horrendous.
    Narrow. Curbed. Yuck.
    Ever been on Rue Rachel in Montréal?
    That’s a true POS bike facility and it isn’t double-curbed.

    One makes pasta without spices.
    Check your pasta making recipes.
    Sauce? I like plenty of spices.

  • Robert Fine

    I follow electric bike tech with an eye for innovation and practical application. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen is from a Portland, OR company called Ecospeed. They have a great photo gallery of applications from trikes to cargo bikes at http://www.ecospeed.com. There is definitely something in the air in Portland! (must be the ocean breeze)

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