Category: Cities (Page 2 of 2)

Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver flourishes as a bike city, while Toronto is mired in yesterday’s battles

A decade ago, riding a bicycle in Toronto and Vancouver was, in some ways, a similar experience.

Two of Canada’s biggest cities, both had dense and walkable urban cores, but little in the way of bike-specific infrastructure, so riding through the city could be a harrowing experience. Both cities had thousands of cyclists who were keen on getting around safely, but there were also those who hated the idea of carving out space for cyclists, so fierce debates played out in the media and the local pubs over the idea of bike lanes.

Since then, the two cities went in different directions, and the results are palpable. At least, they are palpable if you were reading the local papers this weekend.

In Toronto’s Globe and Mail came yet another column lamenting the “Mad Max” scenarios between cars and drivers. After witnessing a frightening confrontation between a motorist and a cyclist, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti said summer in her city feels like “Death Race 2016.”

Over on the west coast, in contrast, the Vancouver Sun ran a long piece about the blossoming of businesses located along new(ish) separated bike lanes. The feature even quoted the leader of a downtown business group that was once hostile to bike lanes, who said there has been a “sea change” in attitudes toward cycling, as many business groups embrace the burgeoning scene and the spendy nature of those cyclists.

Neither piece is, of course, completely representative of their respective cities (Renzetti’s column is a tad dramatic, and the Sun’s piece is a tad optimistic), but they both are further signs of how much their respective cities have changed (or stagnated) for cyclists in the past decade.

First, Toronto: After an ambitious plan from city hall in the 1990s, Toronto went through a bikelash the likes of which few cities have experienced. After making some headway on the plan, late crack-smoking suburban populist Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010, and he promptly went about dismantling what little progress the city had made for cyclists. With typically wrong-headed rhetoric, one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to remove a recently installed bike lane. “The war on cars is over,” he famously said.

Six years later, a more forward thinking and reasonable regime is leading city hall, and the plans for making the city better for cycling are slowly being dusted off. In a city that is filled with so many bicycles only the willfully ignorant could deny their place with a straight face, those lost years are taking their toll. Progress is finally being made, which means the growing pains of its transportation infrastructure are being acutely felt, and the result is those portrayals of a bottled-up sense of hostility on city streets, confrontations, raging debates in the press, and those “Mad Max” analogies.

That scenario might sound familiar to Vancouverites. The city was within the throes of its own George Milleresque dustup over bikes just a couple of years ago, when plans to add a bike route sparked street protests, allegations of class warfare and general unpleasantness directed toward those on two wheels. The turnaround has been swift, with formerly hostile business owners making a complete turnaround, cyclists flocking to the new routes, and city planners trying to keep their I-told-you-so smirks in check.

That may seen a dramatic flip, but it’s not atypical. The controversies that dog bike-lane proposals seldom last long, often because well-planned and well-executed projects quickly prove their worth and then fall from the minds of reasonable people who were once opposed. That tends to leave those dug-in opponents looking like lonely cranks, like this guy.

What worked in Vancouver, and in so many other cities, was the political courage to back a project that was well-conceived but contentious. Not every project will work, but sometimes giving them a try is worth the pain.

Toronto is a different city than Vancouver, with its own unique transportation and political problems, but you can’t help but wonder if those bike plans had been implemented all those years ago, Mad Max would exist only on Netflix.

Here’s what happens to your bike ride when thousands of more cars are added to roads

You’ve been there, even if you haven’t consciously been there: Riding your bike down a typical city street feeling squeezed from all sides, unable to see past the next intersection, worried about being doored and generally unwelcome on what should be public space.

Why do you feel that way? Because the street looks like this:

UntitledThere’s nothing wrong, technically, with this street. These scenes are everywhere. But the reason you feel all those things is so obvious it’s almost invisible. There are cars everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Crammed along the curbs, congested on the street, taking up space everywhere.

I know you know this. Like me, you’ve read all the statistics about the increasing number of cars on our streets. But maybe you were like me and didn’t really stop to think about what that means to your everyday bicycle commute.

What opened my eyes was a comment from a reader named Stu on my piece a couple of weeks ago about vehicular cycling. Here is part of Stu’s comment.

I can barely remember 1976, but what I do remember is that I could bike down most streets and not encounter a motor vehicle. Today it is the (opposite), no matter how ‘residential’ the street, the chance of not meeting up with a MV is slim. Times have changed, everyone seems to own a car or two and they use them for even the shortest of trips.

Something about Stu’s comment stuck in my head. I started imagining my bicycle commute in 1976. I’d be riding a steel-framed 10-speed in tiny shorts and knee socks, my feathered hair unencumbered by a helmet, and I would pass down a residential street with no cars. It’s almost unimaginable (not the hair, the image of a street with no cars).

So I did some digging into the impacts of increasing car ownership rates on the physical space in a city. Beware incoming numbers:

I live in Calgary, Canada. Back in 2008, the number of registered motor vehicles in the city was 829,030, according to this. By 2015, that number had grown to 1,005,109, according to this. That’s an increase of 176,079 vehicles in about seven years.

Think about how much space that takes up in a city. If each vehicle is, say, five metres by two metres (that’s an estimate, mostly to make the math easier, but it’s in the ballpark), that’s 10 square metres we’ve lost for each of those vehicles. I know they aren’t all on the road at the same time, but no matter how you slice it, occupying 10 square metres more than 175,000 times is a lot of space — 1.76 square kilometres, to be exact.

There’s more. According to the 2011 census, the size of Calgary is 704.51 square kilometres. For the sake of argument, let’s say that number didn’t change much between 2008 and 2015 (the city has grown, but not by much: Calgary’s wise but belated push to reduce sprawl, like basically every other city in North America, means there hasn’t been a big annexation since 2011, and the last major one was in the early 2000s).

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years,.

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years.

That means the number of cars per square kilometre had grown to 1,426 in 2015, from 1,176 in 2008.

Think about the square kilometre around your house, and then imagine cramming in an average of 250 more cars in that space. Guess what? That happened over the last seven years, and you probably didn’t realize it.

Here’s one more thing to think about. I couldn’t find car ownership rates going back to 1976 to test Stu’s memory. But I did find this fascinating study from NYU, which compared vehicle ownership rates around the world between 1960 and 2002. In Canada in 1960, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people was 292. By 2002, that had climbed to 581. Based on a 2015 population of 1,230,915, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people in Calgary in 2015 was a whopping 816.

That isn’t an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, so I wouldn’t base your Ph.D thesis on it, but it does give you an idea of how many more motor vehicles are on the roads these days, and it’s a safe bet a similar story is playing out in other North American cities.

It also helps explain why you sometimes feel like an alien, unwelcome and pushed around, on your own street, when you ride a bicycle.

A well-functioning society of course needs motor vehicles, but Stu, it seems was right — our streets are much different now than they were just a few years ago, never mind back in 1976.

Much of this has happened unconsciously, so maybe a first step in making our cities more friendly is to start thinking about what enabled all those cars, and to take the steps necessary to curb the growth of car-ownership. We all, after all, have to share that space.

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Here’s what happened when one city rejected vehicular cycling

In the 1970s, an American named John Forester came up with an idea for keeping cyclists safe while riding on busy roads. The idea was that bicycles should be piloted, and be treated, like motor vehicles  — riding alongside moving cars, using hand signals and crossing traffic for left-hand turns. The idea, which he called vehicular cycling, caught on, and it soon became the dominant theory of bicycle transportation in North America.

Today, that idea has been almost universally rejected. Cities everywhere are scrambling to do something Forester argued against for generations: building bike lanes separated from cars.

But here’s a thought experiment: What if Forester’s ideas had never caught on? What if, 40 years ago, the idea that all people on bikes should be strong and confident enough to mingle with cars was rejected, and today’s ideas of building safe, bike-specific infrastructure had been embraced back then? What would North American cities look like?

Here’s one idea: They’d look like Montreal.

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One of Montreal’s many segregated bicycle paths. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal is a fascinating bike city. For much of the past 30 years, the city was nearly alone in North America in building segregated bicycle infrastructure. Today it has grown into a bicycle haven in a continent of car-centricity, perhaps the most bike-friendly city on the continent (sorry, Minneapolis).

So what was different in Montreal that gave it a 30-year-head start? I recently put the question to Jean-François Pronovost, the VP of Public Affairs of Velo Quebec, a cycling advocacy organization that, next year, celebrates its 50th (!) anniversary. He has an interesting theory.

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Montreal pioneered the use of bike-sharing systems in North America. Photo: Tom Babin.

First, some background. Around the time Forester was developing his ideas for vehicular cycling, a different approach was developing in Europe. Fuelled by the oil crisis and grassroots protests from citizens horrified by the post-war takeover of their cities by cars and the carnage they had wrought, a few cities started building safe spaces for bikes on city streets. Amsterdam (and much of the Netherlands), and Copenhagen were chief among these cities.

The positives of cycling were also dawning on North American cities at the time (albeit on a vastly smaller scale), but the ideas being embraced were Forester’s. Blind to what was happening and Europe, North American cycling advocates rallied behind the idea of vehicular cycling, and its promise that education and training would be enough to fill the roads with cyclists.

In Montreal, however, things were a little different. A much more robust citizen movement in support of bikes was taking place, driven by several groups, including Velo Quebec, but also by an organization called La Monde a Bicyclette. This group quickly drew attention thanks to the advocacy of Claire Morissette, and the theatrical leanings of Robert (Bicycle Bob) Silverman, who had a knack for making it into the newspapers by doing things such as dressing as Moses while attempting to part the waters of the St. Lawrence River for cyclists because the bridges were too dangerous.

Pronovost was getting started in his bicycle advocacy at the tail end of this era, and he remembers the unique mood in Montreal at the time.

“There was more of a connection to Europe here (in Montreal),” Pronovost says. “The model was the Netherlands. The model was Denmark. We saw that it was a way to bring more people on bikes.”

To outsiders, Pronovost says this approach seemed bizarre. He remembers meeting with bicycle advocates in Vancouver in the early 1990s, who were openly hostile to the idea of infrastructure built specifically for bikes.

“They were very against bike paths,” he says. “We even invited John Forester here for a public debate in 1992. It was like a boxing match,” he says with a laugh.

Undaunted, the Montreal groups continued lobbying and eventually got their wish. The first segregated bicycle path was build on Montreal’s Berri Street in the 1980s, while the idea was being mocked by vehicular cyclists elsewhere.

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The first on-street separated bike lane in Montreal was built here, on Berri Street. This is what it looks like today. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal, and Quebec, has often embraced its independent status, and that proved true with cycling as well. For the next 40 years, the city quietly grew more bike friendly while the number of bicycle commuters in nearly every other city stayed stagnant, and minuscule.

Today, we know things are changing. Those European ideas of encouraging people to ride bikes by ensuring their safety with segregated infrastructure are being implemented everywhere. In Montreal, the idea is still growing. The difference is a 40-year head start.

This plays itself out in many ways. The province is adopting new laws to protect cyclists, and continues to build for cycling. On a recent visit to the city, I found myself among hundreds of commuters, including Pronovost heading home at rush hour along Laurier Street, where a bustling bike lane was recently installed, dappled with wide pedestrian plazas. While Pronovost  stopped at a bakery on the way home for dinner, I marveled at the volume and diversity of cyclists streaming past.

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The bike- and pedestrian-friendly spaces around Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

The result, according to a recent Velo Quebec study, is that, over the past 20 years, 600,000 people have started riding bikes in the province, and 2.7 million people now ride a bike weekly. The network of bikeways in Quebec has grown by 30 per cent since 2010 to reach 12,000 kilometres, while the number of serious injuries continues to drop.

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A new bike counter on Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

Much work remains to make Montreal more bike-friendly — Pronovost thinks more of a focus on completing small connections between existing bike routes would make a huge difference, and my ass can attest to the terrible state of the city’s pavement — but the work in Montreal shows what a difference a long-term commitment to cycling can make.

And as far as thought experiments go, with cities all over the continent just beginning to embark on bike-friendly building binges, just imagine what they will be like in 30 years.

Four ways New York’s bike renaissance can help fix your city

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, the new book by Janette Sadik-Khan, offers insight into how the former traffic commissioner of New York City overcame decades of planning inertia to put the city on a path to a more human-centred transportation network by improving walking, cycling and public transit.

Street Fight details Janette Sadik-Khan’s transformative time as the transportation czar of New York City.

While some of her experiences are of limited relevance in places that lack the density and pedestrian/transit traditions of New York, there is much applicable for other cities. Here are a few lessons for other cities looking to refocus their transportation networks away from cars and onto people — on bikes, transit and their own two feet.

Sell it on safety

The environmental benefits of walking and cycling are real, but can be a tough sell thanks to the annoying intractability of what passes for modern environmental debate. Likewise, selling bike lanes on the idea of improving traffic is often a non-starter, not because they don’t, but because arm-chair planners have developed a skin of skepticism so thick it’s impervious to logic and evidence. Touting the increased health benefits of active transportation may be a little more effective because it’s a no-brainer, but if nagging people into being more active was an effective strategy, we’d all be a nation of health nuts by now.

What seemed to tip the scales in favour of cycling in New York under Sadik-Khan was the realized safety benefits. Traffic violence, as she calls it, is so pervasive in modern cities that we barely notice it, but the improvements that came about because of the changes in the city were eye-opening. From Streetfight:

  • On streets with protected bike paths, injury rates for cyclists, pedestrians and people in cars plunged as much as 43 per cent.
  • On streets with bike lanes, serious crashes were 40 per cent less deadly for pedestrians.
  • The rate of cyclists killed fell by nearly 75 per cent.
  • At locations where major engineering changes were made, fatalities dropped 34 per cent.
  • One small street redesign on Clinton Street lead to a 21 per cent reduction in crashes on the street.
  • Reducing speeds to 30 mph from 40 (from 64 km/h down to 48 km/h) lowered the chance of death for pedestrians by 50 per cent.
  • Improving a pedestrian crossing on one busy Manhattan street decreased injuries by 88 per cent.

Considering the blase attitude we continue to display about the inevitability of vehicle violence, these numbers can be sobering.

Jeanette Sadik-Khan

The backlash is inevitable

Not every bike lane project is a good one. Not every street needs a bike lane. But the opposition to even well-planned, well-designed bike routes is eerily similar in every city. New York is no exception, except that everything was magnified.

Sadik-Khan won many of the battles over the streets, but what struck me about her recollections of the debates was their familiarity of the arguments against the lanes, even when such arguments have been disproven in other cities time and again. Opponents said bike lanes would create traffic chaos (they didn’t), they would make the streets more dangerous (they didn’t), they wouldn’t be used (they are), they weren’t justified because the number of cyclists was too low (the number of cyclists grew after lanes were installed), the community wasn’t consulted (one project included 151 public meetings), the city is not Amsterdam and never will be (well, it was once called New Amsterdam, but duh), the city faked the data to justify the project (Sadik-Khan denies this), the bike lane would increase pollution from the exhausts of cars stuck in traffic (data showed traffic actually flowed better on some roads after bike lanes were installed), the bike lane location was arbitrary and wrong (cyclists might disagree), and, not incidentally, bike lanes are ugly (compared to what)?

I’m not saying there is never a good arguments against a bike lane. Bike advocates have a tendency to over promise in their zeal to make their point. The point is that common arguments against bike lanes tend to be ill-informed, wrong and nearly universal. Prepare for them.

Beware of the top-down nature of planning

Like every other book about city building written in the past 50 years, Sadik-Khan evokes the epic battles between grassroots activist (and now urban icon) Jane Jacobs and her nemesis, New York city builder Robert Moses in the 1950s. The lesson most people take from these battles in the importance of giving the community a voice in the way a city evolves. That’s what led to the extensive public consultations whenever city planners do anything except tie their own shoes.

One of the troubling, and ironic, aspects of the modern renewal of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is how opponents often accuse planners of bullying through projects onto unwelcome citizens. It’s almost a reversal of what Jacobs advocated: high-minded bureaucrats foisting projects onto communities for their own good, all in the name of making the city better for them.

Sadik-Khan makes an interesting counter-argument. She says, in essence, that 60 years of automobile-centric planning has skewed the way planners, politicians and even citizens view their own cities, so it’s difficult for most people to even fathom how to design a street differently than the multi-lane highways that have proliferated since the 1950s. Even if communities aren’t storming city hall demanding a better pedestrian realm, she argues that people are doing just that in their actions, if not always in words.

She recounts dispatching legions of planners to watch the behaviour of people moving through the city. If dozens of people are jaywalking across a specific street, they are, in essence, asking for a better way to cross the road. If cyclists are taking to the sidewalks, it’s because they don’t feel safe riding on the roads and they are, in essence, asking for a bike lane.

She says it’s important to watch for the “desire lines” that people exhibit in their behaviour, and respond to them. That, she argues, is responsive planning, not simply listening to those arguing against every project.

Move quickly

One of the more astonishing aspects of Sadik-Khan’s reign is how quickly she managed to move on projects in a city that seemed intransigent because of the decisions of the past. In only a few years, she managed to build hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, build new plazas all over the city and pull off projects that once seemed unimaginable, like shutting down parts of Times Square to cars.

Throughout the book, she repeats the mantra that moving quickly and inexpensively to make changes, then assessing them afterward, worked better than the traditional process involving long public consultations and a slow-moving bureaucracy.

I’m not sure this approach is replicable, nor advisable, everywhere. New York’s governance model gave her more power as a commissioner than most city bureaucrats tend to wield. And the risk of moving quickly is alienating neighbours who feel left out of the process.

What might be taken from this experience, however, is the power of bold experimentation. Trying new things as pilot projects, or urban experiments, can loosen opposition and give citizens a more open mind. It can also get projects seen as innovative, or even a little wacky, installed quickly as a trial run, which can lead to more permanent changes later. They key, she says, is to be nimble, keep the costs down and use ingenuity to get the ideas implemented.

 

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