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Bike Lanes on Burrard Bridge

with 23 comments

West End Residents Association at SFU 22 February

Burrard Bridge Facing South

This meeting was called, I thought, to build the case for lane reallocation on the bridge. It turned out that it was supposed to be a forum. And contributions from the floor were supposed to just be questions of the experts on the panel. Yet more than one panel member admitted to be unfamiliar with the issues and there was a lot of expertise in the room.

John Whistler of WERA introduced the meeting with a quick run through of the history, starting with the 1960 freeway plan, which gave rise to the Hornby Connector. While this is still part of City Policy it now seems highly unlikely. Bikes have always an issue on the bridge but up until 1988 shared the roadspace. The city bike plan and city bike network followed but on Burrard Bridge pedestrians and cycles have to share a narrow sidewalk which is a poor solution for both groups. In 1994 Delcan was appointed to look at False Creek crossings and many options were looked at including new bridges. The lane reallocation on Burrard rated highly. In 1995 Vancouver produced its City Plan, and on transportation priorities pedestrians and cyclists were the top two priorities.

Eventually a six month trial of lane reallocation was started in 1996 but stopped within a week when motorists called City Hall on their cell phones. A staff report of the brief trial showed that most of the 9% reduction in motorists trips simply “disappeared”. In 2006 another trial became an election issue and was cancelled by Sam Sullivan. Delcan was then hired to do widening study.

Times are changing – traffic volumes across the bridge have decreased, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians have all increased. We also now have to deal with climate change and peak oil, neither of which were an issue 16 years ago when this debate started. A report from Delcan to is due to go to council in the next few months.

The moderator was provided by the Vancouver Public Space Network: Andrew Pask

He chuntered on about urban fabric, residents, sustainability and said that questions are being asked about our ecological footprint. He also mentioned the bridge’s importance to our urban experience and quoted Bing Thom’s remarks at that iconic buildings meeting that it is his favourite place. “Burrard Street is designed for speed” and creates all sorts of conflicts but there are a multiplicity of perspectives. Sadly he did not use the amount of time he took to explain the way he was going to run the meeting, which led to conflicts later. He seemed inexperienced in moderating meetings.

Tara Scollard represented the City Engineers Department but was the first to admit that she had not been part of the process and had in fact fairly recently arrived in Vancouver. Throwing her at this meeting was unfair on her and her audience, but she was treated very gently. I suspect if the man responsible for the current mess had been there that would not have been the case. She also recited the history and said that the current condition is that SOVs are “constant” across the bridge while numbers of bikes and pedestrians are increasing. [In fact traffic volume dclined 5% from 1996 to 2004] In 2005 design direction was determined by Council (expansion of the footway) with final design in next month or two. There are two choices either widening both footways for the length of the bridge or retaining “pinch points” at the arches to preserve the current design.

Larry Frank

“I use the bridge every day and I see near disasters every day. How much money are we really saving? I am all for accommodating non-motorised travel. I think we need a Cost Benefit Analysis of how much we should accommodate the car. Since I arrived here, we seem to be in the dark. The problem is analogous to the Port Mann twinning: the policy here is to preserve the roadway. Why do we need to accommodate capacity for cars? Is there to be a transit lane on this bridge? If not, then it’s wrong! Don Buchanan [who was in the audience] has pointed out that transit is the missing piece. There is a significant volume of latent demand for cycling but people are currently afraid to ride their bikes over the bridge. This is due to a combination of conflicts with pedestrians and the high curbs, which threaten an errant cyclist with being tipped off into fast moving traffic. There is not enough space for both pedestrians and bikes on the sidewalk. Take a lane for bikes and then leave sidewalk for pedestrians. This not only mitigates vehicle use, it sends right message. How does that accommodate transit? By diverting cars to Granville Bridge which has spare capacity and is designed for cars. All my research on obesity and physical activity shows that we need to get moire people cycling and walking. Of the present plans pinch points are just a way to create accidents: neither is consistent with the vision for the region or the city but only one option (widening) is being looked at.

Donald Luxton of Heritage Vancouver has been “saying the same thing since 1990s. The only alternative that we oppose is the widening of the bridge. We are not against change, but the outriggers (the worst design solution) keep coming back. We are trying to work productively but we don’t need to wreck the Burrard Bridge. It is the No 1 endangered site of Heritage Vancouver list. The present design would see masonry railings replaced with metal – and metal hoops at the piers. This will cost at least $50m, maybe more and does not address real problem which is at the bridge heads. It is on the 2006 top ten list produced by Heritage Canada and is an internationally significant art deco icon. Heritage issues do not run the show but there are times when they are paramount. We need to tackle the issue but why mess up the bridge to do it? The cost is too high and it is wrong.

Bonnie Fenton,asked why we need to do this when we don’t have to? Re-allocating lanes will not save the world or destroy the city. The major issue is the need to make the bridge safe for bikes and pedestrians. There are actually two cycling camps which she labelled pragmatists and idealists. In 15 years of talking nothing has been done. Lane re-allocation would send a strong signal about what we need to do in this city. In the 1996 trial there were 870 cyclists, a 39% increase but a 9% decrease in car trips. these were not diverted but trips not made. This suggests that these trips were discretionary and their loss caused little inconvenience. Car drivers made the adjustment quickly. And at the end of the week there was a 50-50 split in comments received by the City – for and against. Fred Bass’s motion to the last Council was visionary and would have include a major communications package – something omitted in 1996. She also quoted at length a Business in Vancouver article by Peter Ladner which conclude that if the trial was successful it would be a potential bonus for tax payers. We now that traffic disappears. The modelling assumptions used by engineers do not include this. But we know that people have brains and do not try to go where they cannot. We also know that of the trips across the bridge by SOVs, 50% are not regular. In other words those trips can be made in other ways. Logic is not being used by the City.

John Tylee was the other newcomer to the issue and represented the Economic Development Commission for Vancouver. He was the only speaker who said “I think the city is doing the right thing.” He said that strong downtowns are vital to the City and the region. “The suburban challenge is eternal and relentless.” Downtowns set the identity of the community, and you only get once chance to make a good impression. Currently Vancouver’s downtown is profitable: 25% of the region’s population is in Vancouver but 50% of its commercial property value. It is necessary to balance a large critical mass of “people like us and and people unlike us” and Vancouver has a great mix of ages, races and occupations. It must be easy for people to get in and out. Downtown is the high cost option so it has to provide a better experience than its competitors in the suburbs. “Change can be sudden and hard to spot .” There will be a tipping point: a lot of assessment left downtown Toronto for “905 area” because of congestion. San Diego and San Francisco both had similar experiences and the VEDC has “reasons for concern” as business is becoming difficult to do. Richmond and Surrey both have ambitious plans for commerce in their downtowns. Removing lanes from cars makes downtown less attractive. He said that he thinks adaptation is more interesting than preservation, and noted the way that Berlin had modernised the historic Bundestag by adding a “glass bubble” to let in more light. We can find a way but we do need to deal with the “attitude of cyclists”

At this point my battery waring flashed and we moved on to discussion, so from here on we must rely either on contributions from the small number of people who were there – or my notoriously unreliable short term memory.

I do not recall anyone supporting the City’s position. Reallocation seemed to be the most popular option though I also liked Ned Jacob’s idea. Sidewalks for pedestrians only. Two lanes for cars and cycles with a 25kph speed limit, and the centre lanes for transit only with no speed limit.

I did get to point out that the car volume across the bridge was not determined by the number of lanes but by the intersections at each end. And Don Buchanan said that the intersection at the north end is the second most dangerous in Vancouver – with a casualty number higher than all the fires in the city.

One recent immigrant from Holland was adamant that pedestrians and cyclists should never be expected to share the same path.

l to r Tara Scollard , Bonnie Fenton, John Tylee and Donald Luxton

Written by Stephen Rees

February 22, 2008 at 9:22 am