Creating cycling routes for the cautious majority

In the years between 1995 and 2005, governments spent about $100 million creating pathways for cyclists in Metro Vancouver. Census figures show this spending failed to increase cycling’s share of work trips outside Vancouver City; cycling’s slice of the pie held to a near-invisible 1.0 per cent.

Even so, governments have continued to spend — on separated pathways, such as those around the new Golden Ears and Pitt River bridges, and on marked routes along city streets.  Metro Vancouver’s cycle route maps are becoming more and more elaborate. 

In a public presentation in Maple Ridge, cycling network planner Richard Drdul said most public investments in cycling don’t address the needs of the mainstream.  Governments have responded to input from a dedicated, confident minority who are at the core of cycling advocacy groups.  Most potential cyclists, however, belong to a segment that Drdul calls “interested but concerned.”  We would like to cycle, for  practical reasons; but we’re fearful around trucks and heavy traffic.  Most separated  pathways don’t take us where we want to go: they connect communities (the Golden Ears Bridge is an example) but they don’t connect high-traffic points within communities. As for on-street marked pathways, we perceive many of these to be dangerous; and, as Drdul says, perceptions are important.

A key recommendation, as reflected in the 2011 Metro Vancouver cycling strategy that Drdul helped to craft, is for governments to build more short-distance separated pathways, to take ordinary, cautious folks to school, work and shopping.  This  approach has been successfully implemented in Copenhagen, where the city government reports that 55 per cent of residents cycle to work.

I would support the conversion of space on public streets for cycling use; but politically, this will be a  steep climb in suburban Fraseropolis.  The backlash against the recent construction of separated bicycle lanes in downtown Vancouver was strong and sustained, fanned by major media. It formed the centrepiece, incredibly, for the election campaign mounted by Vancouver’s largest opposition party in 2011 — in a city with a large mass of cyclists, where cycling  represents close to 4 per cent of work trips.

The actual business consequences of the downtown bike lane project were, in my view, modest; the removal of a left-turn opportunity in front of a Surrey shopping mall might have had the same impacts overall, and never been noticed.  But perceptions, as Drdul says, are important.  He’s calling on “strong and fearless” cyclists to change out of their lycra and show up as ordinary folks advocating for short-distance cycling  routes that will welcome the cautious majority.  In his view, this would build a culture of transportation cycling that would benefit everyone.

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