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


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Mia Birk at SFU downtown 2011-01-26

Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet

Sponsored by and urbansystems, who are moving to downtown Vancouver and downtown Surrey from their office park in Richmond. The talk is now available on video

Brian Patterson introduced the speaker saying that seats went fast [but there were still some empty at the back of the room: if you book please let The City Program know if you can’t show! A lot of potential attendees were probably turned off when they found that they couldn’t book a seat.]

He said that the key issues they want to address are climate change, peak oil, the obesity epidemic and how planners are responding to these  challenges will be tackled in what they intend will be the first lecture of a series. If you have suggestions of who they should sponsor and what should be discussed please to contact them. [I will make a start – how about an open forum on how to pay for more transit?]

Cycling is part of the solution and in this lecture how Mia will discuss how Portland does it. She is promoting her new book ($19.95) and yes, I did buy a copy.

Additional funding provided by bikes on the drive at 1350 Commercial Drive who also offered a nice bag as the prize for a draw at the end of the evening. Shame more of those cyclists could not wait for that. I must also not forget to mention Translink who also will be providing a podcast of the talk in due course.

“I was a Canadian.” Early in life Ma moved to the US. “Nobody walked anywhere in Texas – my brother Bruce told me to “take my bike” when I went to grad school in Washington DC”. As a result of cycling she lost weight and became much healthier – and found the passion which has driven her career.

From there she went to a number of third world cities where she saw dreadful traffic congestion and wondered, “How is it possible that in places where no-one can afford a car,  all the solutions promoted by the US (and others) were more roads.” She became the Bicycle Co-ordinator for City of Portland.

Many places now think that there is something special about Portland. What they need to understand is that it wasn’t always this way – we have come a long way. Just as Vancouver has. By the 1960s the air was foul and the downtown was dying. Then proposed Mount Hood Freeway became the sticking point. For decades the promise was that homes would be taken for the freeway, so the corridor declined. The neighbourhoods fought back. Portland took the money from freeways and built MAX – the LRT system – Pioneer Square and the Waterfront Park. They also established the Urban Growth Boundary, outside of which farmland was protected. Early on they decided to build a connected system of green spaces and trails. Land use goes hand in hand with transportation. “What we did with bikes had to be part and parcel of a whole suite of solutions.”

In 1971 Oregon passed a Bike Bill which specified that a minimum of 1% of the transportation budget had to be sent on bicycle facilities. Earl Blumenauer was elected to city council and since became known as “the godfather of livability”.

When she arrived in Portland in 1983 the merchants all said “we have lots of bike parking and it’s just not used”. That was because it was badly designed and badly located. When they talked about the requirement for bike parking, they asked, “What’s next – ski racks or toy boxes?” There was opposition from hospitals, schools, the university. The media were not on side. Residents opposed bike lanes with a  “Save our Boulevard” campaign which compared the proposal to put in bike lanes to  the Berlin Wall. She told the tale of the local Fire Chief who made a point of speaking personally to mothers who attended the public meetings. He told them that the speed of response to a fire would be reduced by the proposed speed humps and bike lanes. When she tried to respond by pointing  out the health impacts of a sedentary lifestyle and the local problems of air quality they treated her “like a creature from another planet.”

The team she lead aimed to reach around 10% of the population. If they could convince three of the thirty people who might come to an open house, they felt that they had a chance. In 1986 the City adopted network of bikeways.

There have to be many people involved “You gotta have engineers on your side. Skinny up the travel lanes – it’s just a start – we ran out of these options pretty quickly!”  Then they moved to the “Street Diet”: Burnside Bridge is similar to Burrard Bridge. The media were against it, but the proponents decided  ‘We are going to do it in style” and they shut down the bridge for a day. They braced for an outcry but 10,000 people showed up and no-one complained. “It’s not just the street markings, it’s the celebration!” Bike Fest embraced the idea of ‘getting as much as we can out of our roads”. Cyclovias, smart trips, safe routes to school all take the same view.  “It goes well beyond engineering.” SE 7th Street Striping Plan – 4 lanes were turned into 3 lane with bike lanes, but without consultation. The road had been resurfaced and would have needed to have the lane markings painted in any event. Most of the complaining was about things like truck loading zones needing to be adjusted. “The very provision of a phone number prompted the calls. Life goes on. It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission – sometimes!”

Portland now has lots of greenways (off road paths) 300 miles of bikeways. In 1996 they started to innovate with bike signals, signage that specifies distance as both miles and times — at 10mph. This promotes the thought “Wow! I am really speedy. Bike boxes were extremely controversial as were coloured bike lanes in conflict areas. these conveyed the rule that bikes have the right of way on blue markings. None of these are yet approved at the national level.

In 20 years while she get concessions from former opponents, she still gets push back. It would be nice if the measures now being introduced on Broadway in Portland, New York and  Seattle could  be matched in Vancouver. In Washington DC they have introduced centre lanes (my photo).

Centre bike lanes

Referring to recent local reaction to changes on Dunsmuir she remarked “There’s pushback in every city. If there isn’t, then you haven’t really done anything. We are starting to get somewhere. We should not shy away from discussion. Hornby is a fundamental change in the space time continuum.”

She is now working around the world. The lessons do translate. She is also teaching at the University of Portland, which includes mid career training for engineers and has “touched more than 1,000 communities”.

Alta Bike sharing

Capital Bike Share bike rental station

In most North American communities about  1% of cyclists are confident in traffic. About one third of the populations are willing to try cycling, and about 60% might ride on the weekends, but they feel uncomfortable about commuting. There are a  lot of issues: “these are the people we are trying to reach.”

Can we do better? We’ve come a long way but there is much more to do. We have to evolve codes, change laws, impact land use and design, integrate into schools (one principal remarked “Fit kids are smart kids”) and “We all have to commit to change.”

There is increasing bike use. We have increased capacity/use on bridges and the crash rate has plummeted  for less than 1% of the City transportation budget “It’s the best bang for the buck”.

Around one third of  greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. There are healthcare cost savings too. Currently the $4.5m spent annually on  cycling in the US saves $65bn a year.  We are making progress in urban centres – once they get a taste they want more.

KATY trail in Dallas TX – downtown arts loop: “If we can make Dallas bike friendly we can do it anywhere”


q – This room is 95% Caucasian. That’s  not like the rest of  the city.  Have you encountered this in other cities?

a – We find that we reach first the caucasian males, then females then the other communities. We are trying to engage but our ways don’t work with other communities.  We need other approaches. Understanding barriers – language, low income.  For example we often hear from Hispanic minorities their fear.” If I ride a bike, I will get stopped by the police and asked for my papers”

q –A low % of people in this room used the new bikeways to get here [based on a show of hands]

a- It takes time and it needs tweaking

q – is this really making a difference? In the City is one thing but in the region it’s still “Portland in the 50s” The freeway expansions are being greenwashed by adding bike lanes. We need a real revolt and e should not be satisfied with just 1%of the budget. What is the role for professionals?

[At this point the exodus starts]

a – Those are good questions. Make it part of your mission; we see that as part of our course. One person in a department can get drowned. We need to elect leaders. Vancouver has a Mayor who truly embraces the mission. We need strong advocacy groups – and you need money

q – linked to disabled access, walking, transit?

a – If we make our communities accessible for people with disabilities, then we have done it for everyone. Because we will all be in that position. Crumbs are not enough. We are advocates for each other. We do not promote bikes at the expense of pedestrains or people with disabilities. All the successful ones are connected by transit. I am working with a lot of streetcars now. We are on the same team NOW (we weren’t initially) avoid conflict areas

q – We need to get in Tsawwassen what Vancouver has. Is this getting out to the suburbs?

a- There are lots of examples

q – bike box – merge on right (this was a technical question which was clear only to the questioner)

a – we just wanted bikes to have bikes first – motivated by right turn fatalities – no strong opinion on solid v dashed

q – helmets

a – I like helmets are a good thing but helmet laws are a problem. Bikeshare sees helmet law as problem – barrier to entry. Members vs casual users. Visitors and tourists will not have helmets. Melbourne use is low due to the need for helmets – even though it has machine vending – most people say “I don’t want to get a ticket.”

Contributed from the audience: In Portland they have increased helmet use to 80% of rider but they don’t have a  helmet law. Helmet laws deter cycling – her chart shows a dip in cycling 1993 when a child helmet law was introduced. In Canada in 1996 in 7 cities compared to 2006 showed that cities without helmet laws grew cycling by almost 40%, compared to those with helmet laws 3%.  In Metro Van we have actually gone down in that period.

q – Surrey course

bike licensing – eliminate barriers to entry

q   What’s the next step here?

a – In June 2012 Vancouver will host the international Velo-city conference.  – City staff have proposed that for May & June 2012 significant infrastructure be put in place, similar to 2010 Olympics. Vancouver also needs public bike sharing. “You are inspiring all of North America. You have a good system of greenways but we need to se a complete embracing of encouragement. It’s a game changer.”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 26, 2011 at 11:07 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Nice write-up: thanks Stephen!

    Reverend Twowheeler

    January 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm

  2. […] Stephen Rees also provides a comprehensive summary of Mai’s lecture in Vancouver here. […]

  3. Great post Stephen!
    What puzzles me–and I have the same problem with many of the photos of bikes on Momentum–is that Mia Birk doesn’t appear to have a front light on her bike.

    Quite a few kids and teachers rode bikes-at least in good weather–when I was in high school in Europe..many many years ago. Bikes HAD to have fenders over the wheels and lights (front and back). We had 2 canvas or leather bags over the back wheel (school books had to go somewhere). I can’t remember anyone having these, or the bike, stolen even though we never locked them.
    The lights got power from a small bottle-like battery mounted on the fork of the front wheel. The wheel made the “cap” of the bottle rotate and that how the battery was charged (now one can buy fancy lights to clip to the bike or to clothes but not every cyclist I see has them).

    My grandfather, his work buddies, various relatives, neighbours etc. all rode bike practically daily. Everyone wore street clothes…something that Japanese also do, in big numbers, even in downtown Tokyo and Osaka..
    Japanese men bike in business attire, Japanese women often wear a hat, gloves, high heels..none has a helmet..and if it rains they hold an umbrella in one hand..

    I saw Jan Gehl years ago at SFU downtown..mid-80s? My only complain at the time is that he didn’t seem to be aware of the numbers of medium to small towns in Southern Europe (From France down)that already had pedestrian streets.

    Red frog

    January 27, 2011 at 10:54 pm

  4. […] swing land deal with city hall [Vancouver Courier] Jan Gehl: Cities for People [Momentum Magazine] Joyride [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    January 28, 2011 at 8:24 am

  5. “This room is 95% Caucasian. That’s not like the rest of the city” Caucasians aren’t all the same. The ones that are immigrants, like me, have way more in common with immigrants from visible minorities than with Caucasians born in Canada. By the same token a born-in Canada Asian has much more in common with a born in Canada Caucasian.
    There is also the language problem that prevents many of enjoying a lecture.

    Red frog

    January 29, 2011 at 2:06 pm

  6. I grew up in Vancouver and for 11 years rode a bicycle every day. I had fenders, reflectors on the spokes and pedals, and lights on both front and back powered by little generator that rubbed against the rear tire. That system did not have a battery so the lights were off when I stopped and dim when I was riding slowly. I did not have any bag rack and carried all my books in a backpack. While harder on my body it made sense because I could easily carry everything into school or around campus.

    I recall wearing a huge waterproof poncho over my body in the rain. It was anything but aerodynamic, but it kept most of me and my backpack dry and greatly increased my visibility in traffic. The biggest problem in the rain was always my feet. At any speed above dead slow water would pour off the bottom of the fender directly onto my shoes. Today I see a few people with little rubber flaps attached to their front fenders, but I never saw such things back in the 1980’s. I responded by sticking my feet into plastic bags and wrapping an elastic band around my leg. Definitely inelegant, but effective. The added slipperiness wasn’t a problem because I had toe clips and straps holding my feet to the pedals.

    It surprises me how many bikes I see around Vancouver with no fenders at all.

    It’s been almost 20 years since I rode a bike and it would take a lot of coaxing to get me back. Compared to cycling walking in the rain is a pleasure and transit is a very convenient and low stress way to get to/from work. I find driving in the city frustrating and I imagine that cycling would be worse because of the added fear of injury.

    I never used to let near misses bother me, but now I fear the incompetence and arrogance of drivers. It seems that the percentage of people who don’t think cyclists belong on “their” streets has risen dramatically in recent decades. I believe the dedicated bicycle routes have accelerated this trend. The more bike routes that exist, the more drivers think the unmarked roads belong to them exclusively.


    January 30, 2011 at 12:02 pm

  7. “It surprises me how many bikes I see around Vancouver with no fenders at all.”

    Yes, it is the problem of the cycling culture in Vancouver. and the cyclist crowd was very recognizable at this Mia Birk lecture…

    They where basically all dressed up with high vis jacket and other ugly waterproof gear making lot of noise when they move, this in despite the dry weather this day.

    That contributes to despite cycling as an “extrem sport” and not a “way to move”

    The day after, it was a lecture of Jan Gehl at Richmond (and yes the Richmond mayor, as well as staff of the city was there…), and it was a point of its lecture:
    cycling- up right- in everyday clothes, is important, since it get cycling outisde tof the ghetto of “extrem sport”…

    of course cyclist can’t be all blamed, when the Helmet law, exactly say that: “cycling is a sport extrem enough that you need to wear an helmet”

    Beside it, it was an important sentence in the Mia lecture, about process (and we all know, especially Fabula’s blog lurker, that people are not against “bike lane”, but against process !), and this sentence was:

    “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission – sometimes!”


    January 30, 2011 at 5:30 pm

  8. […] UPDATE: Stephen Rees also provides a comprehensive summary – in actual words! […]

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