Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Burrard Bridge bike lanes doomed to failure

with 17 comments

Miro Cerentig’s column in the Sun is almost entirely wrong in its forecast. He says that since the previous experiment failed this one will too, and he claims that a computer model run proves it. No it doesn’t. A skilled model user can make a model produce almost any result. That is because nearly everything about a model can be “calibrated”. Essentially it is a spread sheet and users can change not only the values in the cells but also the algorithms too.  

Firstly, the capacity of the “link” (the bridge) is not nearly as important as the signal settings at the light controlled intersections (“nodes”) at each end of the Bridge. Currently the three lane each way configuration gives drivers the illusion of a length of free flowing traffic. The bridge is much longer than street sections between lights – and there is no parking or turning activity. Cars on the bridge move very quickly  – and much faster than the posted speed. Then they have to stop and wait at the light. That is what determines how much moves across the bridge – not the number of general purpose traffic lanes. 

Secondly, in any urban environment, people moving ability is much more important than vehicle moving ability. Copenhagen recognized this 40 years ago and has been reducing car capacity steadily ever since. Even New York City now recognizes this is the only way to make Times Square usable – and is going to close several blocks of Broadway to do it.  

Vancouver has always been behind the times. We have people like Charles Gauthier to thank for that. He is the spokesperson for the Downtown Business Association – and he is stuck in the 1950s mindset that car traffic is essential to vibrant cities. He seems to be unaware of the commercial success of car free streets here and elsewhere. He is still determined that drivers matter more than anyone else. Quite why we would want people to bring two tons of equipment with them everywhere they go is not clear. What is clear is that what makes cities work and traffic flow are antithetical.

Any reduction in car lanes will create similar traffic jams and play havoc with the city’s traffic flow.

Twaddle. Traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. There is an equilibrium of congestion as the trip rate and trip length both can vary depending on available capacity – and the availability of non-car travel opportunities. Car trips into downtown Vancouver can be reduced by making walking, transit and cycling more attractive. Indeed that is what the city’s and the region’s plans have said for decades and only the dinosaur DVBIA seems not to grasp this simple concept.

…reducing car lanes on the bridge will cause gridlock, forcing automobiles and buses to idle, creating more, not less, greenhouse-gas emissions.

Again, more twaddle. Gridlock is not a stable condition. People do not add themselves to traffic when they know they cannot move – they do something else. Gridlock is caused when impatient drivers enter an intersection when their exit is not clear. Traffic management techniques to deter such behaviour are old hat. Yes, it still happens sometimes – and eventually a cop has to intervene to sort out the mess. Collisions and other incidents also stall traffic – but it gets moving again after a while.

The other inescapable fact worth noting is there’s also no cycling crisis that needs solving. In fact, bicycling traffic on the Burrard Bridge has actually plateaued, as the city’s own report notes: “Growth of cycling and walking on the Burrard Bridge, which increased 30-40 per cent between 1996 and 2001, appears to have plateaued in recent years.”

That’s a pre-determined outcome of not doing anything. The Burrard Bridge is not safe or pleasant for cycling or walking – and that deters both. In the rest of the city there has been a steady increase in both as new routes for both have been opened up. Because the car drivers have won every round of the Burrard Bridge battle so far, the walkers and cyclists have been deterred. That’s not what we should continue to do. That is no way to make the place livable. That was never what was intended either. Stopping the downtown freeway was just the start. We knew then that we did not want a city destroyed by the “need” to serve cars. That was the right decision then. We now need to take the next step and steadily reclaim the urban core for people – not cars. And the Burrard Bridge is the line drawn in the sand by the car drivers. They will lose – if not now then eventually – as cars are not sustainable in cities. Even if every one of them was zero emission I would take that position. They simply take up far too much space which is then sterilised and cannot be used for much better purposes – like sitting around and watching the world go by. Which, it turns out, is one of humanity’s favourite activities and a key to “urbanity”. Just read some Jan Gehl.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 7, 2009 at 10:50 am

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. As I mentioned in my tweet, I respect both your and Miro’s work so I’m going to wait until he speaks or comments, but one thing I can tell you – I for one approve that Burrard lane closure for cyclists. Not that I love cycling myself through the Burrard Bridge (I live in East Vancouver so it doesn’t make sense for me) but I certainly enjoy walking through it. By my estimates, I can walk from DT to Incendio West in approximately 35 minutes.


    May 7, 2009 at 10:55 am

  2. I agree that cars take up too much space regardless of fuel source or emissions.

    Also, I suspect that people use the word “gridlock” as a synonym for “congestion”. That is, gridlock is the go-to word when what you mean is “lots of cars backed up.”

    I support the lane closure trial. Soon I’ll be taking my son out in the bike trailer and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable using the existing 1m wide bike lane while pulling him. I’m going to call the city every day during the trial to say how great I think it is.


    May 7, 2009 at 11:48 am

  3. DVBIA ought to consider dropping ‘improvement’ from their title. Even though I’m fed up with the preposterous foot dragging that has gone on over the Burrard St. bridge issue I’m not convinced the lane closing is the solution to the problem. The bridge needs and will get an upgrade and I support the widening of the sidewalks outward. I support heritage preservation but I think resistance to the sidewalk upgrade on heritage grounds is daft.

    Nevertheless, the DVBIA needs to wake up and smell the coffee. They ought to put their efforts into pushing for improved transit, car-free streets, more bike racks, etc. They need to be creative, co-operate, and stop acting as if we can continue to support the SOV culture in Vancouver.

    I agree completely that those who think our car problem will be solved once the non-polluting car is readily available are sadly mistaken.


    May 7, 2009 at 2:38 pm

  4. Vancouver has 3 bridges leading downtown from the South shore, plus more downtown access by the East/South east (Hastings, Main st etc.) and we can’t spare 2 lanes for bikes on one of these bridges?
    Downtown Bordeaux (on the left bank of a wide river) is linked to its right bank (where major roads from ever expanding suburbs, not to mention roads coming from Paris, end up) by a bridge that was the only one for a long time. Since 2003 this bridge has gone from 4–often congested–car lanes to 2 LRT lanes and 2 car lanes–with smoother traffic (the bridge sidewalks on each side have long been divided between a pedestrian path and a bike path now painted in green to make it more visible). So where have all the vehicles, that once used the 2 missing lanes on the bridge, gone? Some, who only go downtown, use a bridge about 600 metres upstream, built in the 1960s. Those that go to the western suburbs or beyond Bordeaux use 2 other bridges that are part of the circular freeway (also built in the 1960s) that stay well clear of downtown.
    When the town built 3 LRT lines from downtown to various suburbs in 2000-2003, it used this opportunity to change the whole traffic pattern in order to make the downtown area more livable, turning even more downtown shopping streets into car-free ones, much to the benefit of downtown businesses who see more shoppers than ever before. As a carrot to car drivers, there are 15 Park and rides lots in the suburbs that only cost a few Euros a day for parking and also give a free tram day pass to the driver and his/her passengers going downtown. Obviously the DVBIA is still living in the 1950s!! (Bordeaux isn’t an innovator, just following placidly the lead of so many towns on several continents)

    Red frog

    May 8, 2009 at 1:15 am

  5. […] Downtown condo tower to be Canada’s first plug-in electric vehicle building [Vancouver Sun] Burrard Bridge bike lanes doomed to failure [Stephen Rees] B.C. ELECTION Where this Election Will Be Won [The Tyee] STV seeks ’someone […]

    re:place Magazine

    May 9, 2009 at 11:16 am

  6. What a load of twaddle!!!
    This letter is a plea to reason and rationality.
    Please, do not allow the trial lane closure on Burrard St. bridge to occur. The vocal minority made up of zealous cyclists cannot be allowed to trump common sense (need proof they’re a minority? A city report proves all cyclists AND pedestrians account for a mere 10% of traffic on the bridge).
    I witnessed the two-wheeled terrorists’ actions today, Friday June 26 at approximately 8:30pm, as, in their overreaching arrogance, they thought it reasonable to prevent all east-bound traffic on Cornwall St. from crossing onto the Burrard St. bridge. Traffic quickly backed up as far as the eye could see, as citizens were illegally prevented from reaching their destinations by misguided militants. All as the police looked on.

    Cyclists once had my sympathy; they have now earned my enmity.

    A blind man can see that closing one lane is doomed to failure, just as it failed in 1996. City experts state: “Lane re-allocation can meet objectives for walking and cycling, but not without increasing traffic congestion, slowing goods movement and degrading transit service across the bridge.” Pollution is guaranteed to increase as cars will have to travel further, and idle much more. Citizens will spend more time in their cars, and less with their families. How on earth will this make our great city more “livable?” Short answer: it will not.
    I’m 34 years old, and have never been moved to take political action until now. Nobody has yet had the political courage to vote against this doomed experiment; the first politician who does will earn my vote. I will do everything I can to ensure that those who support this ridiculous waste of $1.5M of taxpayer dollars are NEVER again reelected. This type of waste should never be allowed to happen.


    June 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm

  7. It has been claimed that I do not permit contrary opinions to appear in my blog comments. So possibly the appearance of this rare gem will satisfy – very few critics bother to write to this blog. And when they do – and clearly have not read what I wrote – I cannot resist publishing them. Since the lane closure will not reduce capacity – since that is determined by the signals at the intersections – the “doomed to failure” prediction is in my mind unlikely. Moreover the confusion between the participants in critical mass and “terrorists” is about as over the top as one can get. Of course the writer wants to be anonymous. “Reason and rationality” would lead one to the conclusion that a trial period is necessary to determine which of us is right but “worldrider” prefers to live in his or her own world of utterly certainty where experiential results are not needed.

    Stephen Rees

    June 27, 2009 at 9:17 am

  8. Vision Vancouver, in its election campaign, promised a one-lane trial for the Burrard Bridge. They won a clear majority of seats on council and are about to deliver on that promise.


    June 27, 2009 at 10:13 am

  9. Thank you for not censoring my post.
    Firstly, I love living in a city where I can hop on a bike and within minutes spend hours riding along the ocean’s edge. I hate jogging in my neighbourhood, coming to a red light at Cornwall, and being forced to suck car exhaust fumes into my lungs.
    I believe that economically, environmentally — and now politically — our “car-based” society as it exists today is not sustainable.
    And Stephen, I read your article in its entirety. Twice.
    Firstly, if the signal settings are the congestion culprits, why not reduce the bridge car lanes to two, or even one? While I have no proof, I can’t help but think that would cause massive traffic back-ups, well into downtown for the south-bound lane(s).
    Secondly, I find it odd that you feel Vancouver has “always been behind the times,” yet is rated as the top (or one of the top) livable cities on Earth by numerous respected sources ('s_Most_Livable_Cities).
    In a perfect world, “traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available.” However, when that space is reduced, congestion increases. Just as it did in 1996’s failed experiment to close a lane on the bridge. Just as it will in 2009.
    And your solution to gridlock is a fantasy, at best. I would never voluntarily drive during rush-hour, but my job requires that I do.
    You also state that cyclists and pedestrians have been deterred from using the bridge, yet offer no proof of this. I’ve walked and cycled over the bridge numerous times, and never had a problem.
    I moved here from Calgary, and loved that 8th Ave was closed to cars, and that I could hop on the C-Train and ride it for free downtown. Vancouver would do well to copy this formula (how nice would a cobble-stoned, people-only Robson St. be?).
    I am not at all against experiments. I find them to be much like risks – they can be “calculated” or “foolish.” Shutting down a lane on the bridge, AGAIN, is foolish. It’s been done before, and nobody can prove why the results will be any different this time. As Mr. Santayana remarked “those
    who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


    June 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm

  10. Not in a perfect world – in this world. Traffic contracts when space is reduced – and increases when more room is made for it. Not every trip is essential – many trips can be combined – and there other ways of achieving the trips’ objectives. This process however takes time. The last “trial” was very badly publicized and was cancelled too soon – before any adjustments could be made.

    My “solution to gridlock” is not a fantasy it is being demonstrated in cities worldwide. Even in New York, NY! The weakest link in this city is the paucity of decent alternatives – especially our woefully under provided transit system. There is no point making it free if you cannot get on it!

    Stephen Rees

    June 28, 2009 at 4:48 pm

  11. A response to Worldrider:
    As a Vancouver City Councillor for two terms, my finest day in office was the day in 2005 that Council passed my motion for a six-month trial (not a final decision) to assign to bicycles two lanes of the fourteen lanes that cross the western end of False Creek. I was emboldened to do that after a leading expert in N America on walkable cities pointed out (as we walked across the bridge) that, as Stephen Rees noted above, cars accelerate beyond the speed limit as they traverse the bridge and then clog at the traffic lights at either end.
    Worldrider, Copenhagen, in 2004 did 36% of its commuting to work and education by bicycle. That city’s goal for 2015 is to raise 36% to 50! We now are less than 4% cycling to work by bicycle.
    Copenhagen gets that kind of action because, for years that city has asked,”What kind of a city do you–the citizens–
    want?” With the answers to that question, they set goals. And then the city uses comprehensive planning, wise economic investment, and behavioural measures to change the way the city works, to measure progress, and to reach or exceed its goals.
    In contrast, Vancouver addresses transportation projects one at a time, without ongoing interaction with what the public wants and without goal setting. We are rated as a highly livable city in my opinion, for two reasons that have little to do with the governance of the city–one, nature has provided us with one of the most spectacular settings for any city and two, Canadians, old and new, are a peaceful and decent people. The city government likes to take credit for its world class rating but doesn’t deserve much of the credit it claims.
    Worldrider, you rightly point out that we are in an environmental crisis and that our car culture is not sustainable. I would go further. As a scientist (a preventive medicine physician trained in epidemiology) I conclude, from the failure of the panel of international climate scientists to forecast the changes that have already occurred, that we are in an unprecedented ecological meltdown and that we have very little time (like a decade–until 2020) to prevent even much greater ecological and human destruction than we have wrought already.
    That is why my proposal for a trial of two lanes was my best day as a Vancouver city councillor. I turned to politics because I had seen that city-level initiatives led major societal changes in controlling the tobacco epidemic. My hope has been that Vancouver might lead in coping with a much more threatening and serious challenge than tobacco.
    One lane on the Burrard Bridge is inching in the right direction. Two lanes would have been a bolder step, of which we need many, many more if our children are going to have a livable world.

    Fred Bass

    July 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm

  12. […] in Vancouver.  He was unimpressed with Miro Cernetig’s musings on the bridge, and wrote a strong rebuttal to it.  When I say strong, I mean “full of […]

  13. I would like to make a suggestion for building another bridge for bikers and pedestrians. I know the city doesn’t have the money that’s way I am suggesting to make it a toll bridge.
    As we all know toll bridges are been build for cars and trucks when there is no funding but the need is there. And to start I think the city needs to implement a toll on the current bike lane on Burrard bridge.
    I am sorry but as we all know there is no free ride.

    Few more things, I am also a biker, I love to go around by bike, but am not stupid and ignorant enough to go on the roads and bridges, stop the traffic for an hour or so, raise my bike and scream like a wolf, only to show to the car drivers and their passengers how much I don’t care for them. Why should we care for this herd?


    July 18, 2009 at 4:38 pm

  14. I also have another suggestion. Why don’t we the motorists organize a blocking of the bike lane and demonstrate to them the same attitude as they are demonstrating toward US the motorists. We don’t need too many people to do it, 10-12 people will do the job.
    Please advise me if you know some other blogs where I can post my suggestion.
    As I mentioned in my previous posting I am also a bike rider, who isn’t, but in this case I do not share any of the ideas of the organized bike riders.


    July 20, 2009 at 11:08 am

  15. I love the Burrard Bridge bike lanes and hope they will be retained, enhanced even, once the current test is over. There has been a lot of squawking in the media by a handful of businesses who maintain that the changes have reduced the number of customers frequenting the area. Whether true or just the reflex actions of change-resistant business types is of little interest to me. What they should be doing is embracing the change, mounting bike-friendly events [discounts if you bike in, special delivery services for two-wheeled shoppers who spend over a certain amount, etc. ad nauseum]. Get creative guys. With all this whining going on I certainly can’t see myself patronizing these businesses. I dine at Kettle of Fish once in awhile and I visit Art Knapp’s every spring. This year I’ll hold my nose and buy my plants at one of the big box retailers since the little box retailers can’t seem to see outside of the box itself. In the case of Art Knapp’s, the opening of the Canada Line, Canadian Tire and Home Depot on Cambie Street are probably having a bigger impact on retail sales than any bike lanes could ever have.

    Change is going to happen with or without them on board. What needs to be done is make hard choices and it’s heartening to see that the mayor and council are willing to make those choices rather than bowing to anachronistic interests. Thanks for pioneering a new way forward.


    May 5, 2010 at 10:52 am


    {moderator’s note: the original comment was just the link. I do not like to think you would click on a link that you do not know much about so I have added the following excerpt]

    News release
    Burrard Bridge bike lanes reach one million cyclists

    July 8, 2010 – Almost one year after a separated bike lane pilot project started on Burrard Bridge, the millionth cyclist crossed the bridge just after 10 pm Wednesday evening.

    “This is a remarkable achievement,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson.

    wayne knoff

    July 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm

  17. “I was wrong.”

    I don’t have to say those words more than once or twice a year, as rule, and here’s the first for 2010.
    While I still don’t understand the logic behind it, the closure of one lane has not negatively impacted my drive home to Kits from downtown most afternoons.
    I find myself spending more time crossing the bridge by bicycle than in the past, and can attribute some of this to the new lane (though I still fail to see the value in adding yet another pedestrian lane – 2 for bikes, one for walkers seems plenty).
    I’m happy I was wrong, again because there was no negative effect. Keep the bike lanes coming!

    As long as there’s no negative effect on the majority.


    July 8, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: