Biking in a Rainforest City: Vancouver, BC

Cruising by Stanley Park.

Vancouver isn’t your typical metropolitan center. Known for having a densely populated downtown core where many health and ecology conscious citizens walk or cycle to work, its lush mountains and glittering glass condos attract soul seekers, explorers and hedonists alike from around the world. Vancouver is a place where extremes often meet.

Within the extreme transportation demands of a bustling port city and tourist destination, lives a thriving commuter cycling movement which is seeing the fruits of about 30 years of effort. The city of Vancouver has extended an olive branch to cyclists in an effort to improve the transportation system and meet the mounting calls for safer and more sustainable roads.

“Several cycling projects that people have been working on for years have been completed or happened this summer, including the Central Valley Greenway, the bike path on the Canada Line Bridge and, of course, the Burrard Bridge [bike lane trial],” said Richard Campbell, commuter cycling advocate and co-founder of Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) and the British Columbia Cycling Coalition. “All of these point the way to the future.”

The Burrard Street Bridge bike lane trial, in particular, has been a defining moment in Vancouver’s cycling history. After a disastrous first attempt in 1996, the separated bike lane trial that launched on July 13, 2009 has been praised as a success story for the city. Statistics indicate an estimated 26 percent increase in ridership over the bridge since it began and no significant change in the number of motor vehicles heading over the bridge. In turn, pre- and mid-trial polls of 300 residents – conducted for the city – found that 45 percent supported a continuation of the trial, with 31 percent opposed.

“I think this bodes well for other protected bike lanes in the city in the future,” said Campbell, who added that he sees more children and women on the bridge now that there are protective barriers separating the bikes-only sidewalk heading north and the bikes-only street lane heading south over the bridge. “We’re having a bicycle baby boom these days… There seems to be children on bikes everywhere.”

Vancouver’s bike cultural scene has been building since people first rode bicycles here in the late 1800s, but the contemporary cycling movement began taking shape in 1968, when protesters headed off the construction of the inner-city Chinatown Freeway, which later became part of the Adanac Bikeway. Transportation cycling discussions took off after 1980, when city hall established a bicycle committee with a mandate to examine infrastructure for cyclists. The first bike stencils hit the ground in the early 1990s for what is now an extensive bikeways system, which utilizes side roads rather than arterials. A moderately well-connected network of on- and off-road bike paths link the downtown core to the many satellite communities within the City of Vancouver proper and the 22 municipalities that compose Metro Vancouver, including Burnaby, Richmond, New Westminster and North Vancouver.

Still, the commuter cycling push at city hall has had some growing pains. Streets generally continue to be dominated by the personal automobile. However, much has changed since the late 1980s when advocates for bike paths and safer roads for cyclists were labeled radicals.

In the early 1980s, just as mountain biking was finding a fertile home on the slopes of the North Shore, The Bicycle People – one of the first groups to tackle transportation cycling in Vancouver – was formed. An ensemble of between 50 to 100 advocates, The Bicycle People staged rides and protests to draw attention to their cause.

“Vancouver really wasn’t a great place to cycle around then,” said Campbell, “certainly, things needed improving.”

The advocacy group BEST was founded in 1991 by dedicated cyclists to marry sustainable urban design and transportation needs with cycling.

Critical Mass (CM) began in 1996 and was attended by a core group of about half a dozen people. Soon after, The Bicycle People disbanded, many directing their efforts towards the galvanizing spirit of Critical Mass. Between 1996 and 2009, participation in CM grew from half a dozen individuals to several thousand in the summertime.

The rides, which for a few years concluded with a “Velofusion” Party at the Australia/New Zealand (ANZA) Club, have become a powerful venue for utility riders to physically demonstrate what roads dominated by bikes might look like.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, Vancouver bike culture blossomed with theatrical responses to auto addiction: the community-spirited bike rides of Dinosaurs Against Fossil Fuels; Wholesome Undy; World Naked Bike Ride; Musical Lantern Ride etc.; art shows; Uberkrank and the Margaret Charles Chopper Collective chopper gangs, and the B.C.Clettes – an all-woman bike-inspired performance collective!

B.C.Clettes collective member and artist Sara Ross, a.k.a. RedSara, said the guiding principles of that group are similar to those of a lot of bike/art happenings in Vancouver since the late 1990s.

“In the community, we’re celebrating bikes and people who ride bikes,” she said. “I think we’re affirming people’s values, those who have chosen bicycles as a mode of transportation – because frankly we’re marginalized – so we affirm their values through celebration and performance and we inspire people to ride.”

As of 2009, a Museum of Vancouver exhibit entitled Velo-City: Vancouver and the Bicycle Revolution listed 42 cycling subcultures in Vancouver, including commuter cyclists, unicyclists (vanuni.com), cruisers (vancruisers.ca), BMXers, electric bikers (“Kilowatt Hour” meet-up), bicycle couriers and fixie (fixedvancouver.com), monster, tall, and chopper-bike riders. The exhibit zeroed in on the emergence of a vibrant and very active cycling community that had previously received little notice from the mainstream culture.

Rumors of a month-long “Velopalooza” festival for summer 2010 (modeled after Portland’s PedalPalooza) are spreading. In many ways, Ross pointed out, what’s taking place right now is pure evolution.

“I think it’s changing from fringy advocacy to mainstream,” she said.

Within the steady stream of cyclists heading to work, play, school, daycare, etc. there is a growing need to recognize, not only the enjoyment and creative possibilities attached to cycling, but the daily practicality of the bike as an alternative transportation mode.

In less than 20 years, cycling groups in Vancouver have gone from a fringe and radical effort carried out by a select few, to an overwhelmingly pervasive cultural phenomenon.

Behind this movement is a conglomerate of advocacy organizations. The Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC), in particular, has followed a mandate to improve city streets and infrastructure for transportation cyclists and the broader cycling culture. The VACC runs two Bike to Work Week events each year; one in the spring and the other in the fall. The rides, as well as other VACC initiatives are oriented towards getting people onto their bikes and out on the streets.

“We encourage municipalities, TransLink and the province to improve cycling throughout Metro Vancouver,” said VACC president Arno Schortinghuis. The volunteer-run non-profit society, established in 1998, works with the local police department to make roads safer for cyclists and also organizes Streetwise Cycling courses that “help cycling commuters to be more confident and safe while riding in traffic,” Schortinghuis said.

As a result of the advocacy work conducted by these groups over the past several years, Vancouver has become a much safer and more accessible place for commuter cyclists. Bikeways meander along the ocean from the peak of Stanley Park at the city’s northern border, around the University of British Columbia peninsula and down along the north arm of the Fraser River.

Tree-lined streets are a staple of Vancouver’s urban roadways. In spring, cyclists of all stripe gather for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, often taking bicycle tours to a variety of local hot spots, including the VanDusen Botanical Garden and the city’s Commercial Drive area – known for its artistic and cosmopolitan atmosphere and as a gathering point for car-free cultural events. During the summer, part of ‘The Drive’ – along with other streets throughout Vancouver – is periodically closed off to car traffic for Car Free Vancouver Day and Summer Spaces.

“The big advantage that Vancouver now has is a grid of completely interconnected routes,” said Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. “So you can think about getting anywhere in Vancouver on a bikeway.” Plus, he added, Vancouver’s bike paths are “really well signed – that’s key, you just have to look at every street sign to make sure you’re on a bikeway.”

A former City of Vancouver councilor, Price played an integral role in developing Vancouver’s bikeways network, starting in the late 1980s – particularly the seawall that borders the coastline. That seaside loop “will connect you up with almost all the tourist-oriented facilities that you may want to go to, from Stanley Park to Science World, Granville Island to Chinatown and the beaches,” Price said, making it an ideal causeway for visitors and residents. “You can make your way to the Museum of Anthropology (on the UBC campus grounds), practically, on separated bikeways; that’s the number one flashiest thing we’ve got,” Price added. Plus, the mild climate means that people can travel on the city’s integrated system of bike paths year-round.

The present direction of Vancouver city council bodes well for developing even safer and more interconnected bike routes for cyclists. Mayor Gregor Robertson is a commuter cyclist and about half of council members ride to work, according to Councillor Geoff Meggs. “There are probably more active cyclists on council now than ever before,” he noted.

Starting in 2010, the City of Vancouver is looking at establishing more segregated bike lanes, according to Meggs and Mike Anderson, a civil engineer with the City of Vancouver’s greenways and neighbor-hood transportation department. Anderson said there is also going to be a bigger push for safer downtown bike routes and much-needed bike parking facilities including on-street bike parking corrals.

“I would say that cycling permeates throughout a lot of the city now. It’s a pretty high priority,” said Anderson. “Things have changed culturally; we’re much further along.”

NAVIGATING THROUGH IT ALL

Vancouver can be intimidating for visiting cyclists because of its hilly terrain, tall buildings and trees, and its numerous bodies of water and bridges. Once you discover the bike routes and Seawall, the city is your oyster and biking is the best way to explore it. A free, pocket-sized bicycle route map is available at most bike stores and as a free download from vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/cycling. A note to visitors: it’s the law in Metro Vancouver for all cyclists to wear a helmet. You also need a bell and lights for night riding. In Vancouver, it’s possible to avoid busy streets and enjoy the quiet and lovingly-gardened neighborhoods by traveling along bike routes.

Vancouver’s interconnected transit system can help you travel further. By hitching your bike to the front of Metro Vancouver buses, using their bike racks that can hold up to two bikes at a time, you can get to just about anywhere. There’s also the Sea Bus that will take you and your bike over the Burrard Inlet and over to the North Shore where you can visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Lynn Canyon Park. You can also take your bike on the Canada Line, a light rail system, that opened August 17, 2009 and that connects Vancouver International Airport to downtown Vancouver.

The UBC Bikeability Map is a great way to plan your trips. The map allows you to pick the route with the least traffic pollution, least elevation gain, most vegetation and shortest path. Designed by a team of University of British Columbia researchers, the map also provides information about nearby light rail (SkyTrain) stations, alternative bike routes, community centers and more.

The VACC offers online resources and bike maps on its website: www.vacc.bc.ca/resources

Tourism Vancouver (www.tourismvancouver.com) has a host of information about local sights and sounds, as well as information to help you enjoy your stay.

Originally published in the Jan/ Feb 2010 issue of Momentum Magazine and on momentummag.com.

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