City: More bikers means fewer accidents
“Biking here isn’t safe. Four friends of mine have been killed biking in Vancouver.” A friend responded emphatically to a piece in which I stated that bike lanes are an important step toward sustainability.
I love biking in the city. It’s fun and the bike lanes feel safe to me. My friend’s vehemence made me feel like I was advocating something dangerous, something that kills friends of friends. The innermost feeling of my soul is that biking is good for health overall. But I didn’t have any information on that.
Happily, the day after our conversation, Carbon Talks presented a brown bag dialogue with Jerry Dobrovolny, the City of Vancouver director of transportation, on biking.
Dobrovolny, a former CFL player who has worked for Vancouver for 23 years, pointed out that transportation is a “values issue.” “It’s something that people respond to with the innermost feelings of their souls,” he said. “It makes it difficult to have logical discussion.” But he did have some numbers on the issue.
He called attention to a study from Portland, Oregon that categorized locals into four groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation. It showed that less than one per cent of that city’s population is made of the "strong and fearless" riders who will ride no matter what. Another seven per cent are "enthused and confident" riders who will ride under most conditions. 33 percent will never ride -- they don’t want to, and never will. Dobrovolny is most concerned with the remaining 60 per cent, the “interested but concerned.” This segment includes many women, children and seniors. They will ride if the conditions are right. These are the people that city needs to satisfy if it is to reach its goal of doubling bicycle trips from four per cent to eight per cent by 2020.
Consistent with my friend’s comment, the biggest concern among “interested but concerned” would-be cyclists is safety. Dobrovolny stated that more bicyclists on the road would actually result in less injuries. As biking increases, cars expect them more and drive more cautiously. When the number of cyclists doubles, injuries drop by a third. Separated bike lanes increase safety.
Copenhagen, Montreal, New York and Portland
Vancouver eliminated the biggest cause of accidents in bike lanes by consulting with Copenhagen and other cities and learning from their mistakes. On streets with separated bike lanes, cars can turn right only if there is a designated right turn lane. This eliminates cars accidentally clipping bikers as they turn right. It also gives bicyclists a visual signal to expect right-turning cars. Separated bike lanes haven’t been around long enough in Vancouver to establish that they decrease accidents. In the three and a half years before the construction of the bike lane on Burrard Bridge, there were three accidents. In the three-and-a-half years after, there was one accident, between two bikers.
Dobrovolny stated that potential riders who are “interested but concerned” are most persuaded by the personal benefits of biking. He pointed out that cycling for half an hour daily increases mean life expectancy one to two years. People who ride regularly experience a 36 per cent reduction in long term mortality rates.
Dobrovolny said separated bike lanes are considered the best practice around the world, and the only way to create a biking-for-transportation culture. Such lanes are relatively new to Vancouver, but have existed for years in Copenhagen, Montreal, New York and Portland.
People feel safer in separated lanes than in painted lanes on regular streets or on local street bike ways. The “interested but concerned” are more likely to cycle as a result. Cycling is up by 28 per cent on the Burrard Bridge since the creation of the separated lane, and by 400 per cent since the creation of the separated lane on the Dunsmuir Viaduct. These two routes connect the neighbourhoods of Vancouver with the highest number of cyclists to the downtown core. The core itself is “Vancouver on steroids,” with 44 per cent of the people biking or walking to work.
The City places a high priority on the needs of the “interested but concerned” cohort because their participation will allow Vancouver meet its transportation goals. The transportation goals aren't unique to the current administration; the Greenest City goals build on policies supported by the NPA and COPE, as well as Vision Vancouver. The 1997 Transportation Plan determined that increased transportation capacity to serve population growth would have to rely on increases in walking, cycling and transit, and not on cars. Citizens’ concerns at the time were not climate change but the negative impacts of cars on livable neighbourhoods.
Between 1999 and 2008, as Vancouver’s population grew by 27 per cent, driving downtown decreased by over 10 per cent. Between 1994 and 2004, cycling increased by 180 per cent. Between 2006 and 2041, Vancouver projects a population increase of 23 per cent. The increased transportation needs will again be served by walkable neighbourhoods, biking and transit.
Vancouver’s department of transportation used the 2010 Olympics as its laboratory of future conditions, what the City could look like if trend lines continue ten, 20 and 30 years into the future. Walking, cycling and transit more than doubled during the Games, which gave the City confidence that it can meet its goal that over half of all trips will be taken by means other than a car in 2020.
Right now, the City of Vancouver is working on its new transportation plan. Residents are invited to give input on their priorities via town hall meetings, moderated online dialogue and stakeholder workshops. Any privately organized group of more than 12 people can have a stakeholder visit from city staff. Public comment on a draft transportation plan will commence in the beginning of 2012. “That’s when the tough choices will arise,” Dolborvolny said.
During the discussion portion of the talk, one question came from a new biker who was encouraged to take to two wheels by the separated bike lanes. She’s gained enough confidence to go on other streets now, but wishes she had taken a course on rules of the road to embolden her initial foray. A representative of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition assured the new biker that VACC offers Streetwise Cycling courses as well as other courses, recommended routes and bicycle celebrations.
Another person noted that while he cycles the Cambie Bridge, he finds it unsettling to walk due to inconsiderate cyclists. He’s witnessed older people feeling stressed by bikers on the bridge. Dolbronosky answered that, going forward, bike paths will be separate from pedestrian walkways, as they are on the new Seawall lanes at Coal Harbour. He noted that pedestrians have the right of way on mixed use paths and it is illegal to bike on a sidewalk.
A representative of Velopalooza suggested that concerns of safety and transportation goals obscure what makes biking so great: it is really, really fun. In fact, Velopalooza has over 125 themed, fun bike rides planned during Velolove, from June 2nd to 19th suitable for all ages and skill levels. You can ride the Sea Wall with a former city councilor, go on a gelato sampling ride or bike in your pajamas for a moonlit picnic.
I was glad to learn from the Carbon Talk that riding my bike is more likely to extend my life than shorten it. But ultimately I’m in the Velopalooza camp. Sometimes city biking takes longer than driving, but it’s such a great time. Driving makes my lower back hurt and occupies just enough of my brain space to prevent interesting thoughts. The result is boredom interspersed with annoyance at other drivers. On a bike, there’s wind, there’s a different chickadee singing every two blocks, and there’s other cyclists with whom I feel camaraderie, especially when we’re streaming down 10th Avenue in the early morning commute. Also, with climate change, dragging tons of glass and steel around with me just feels bad.
My bike is old and comfortable, with upright handle bars so I can sit with a straight spine. No one wants to steal it. I hope the City meets its goals because I don’t like inhaling exhaust, and doing away with greenhouse gases serves everyone. I hope the “interested but concerned” potential bikers enjoy the strength and fun that biking can bring.