Thoughts on the future of biking in Victoria

this item is a departure from my normal content on this blog – I’m posting it here temporarily, while the City of Victoria City Council debates its commitment to #Biketoria, a city-wide network of protected bike lanes

April 27, 2016

 

Mayor Lisa Helps and Councillors

The City of Victoria

 

Dear Mayor Helps and Councillors,

Re: #Biketoria final report

Congratulations on the completion of the #Biketoria design project and report.

Knowing that you will face significant resistance to implementing #Biketoria, I offer these perspectives.

Challenging the Status Quo

We require leadership to make change.

In considering changes like that envisioned by #Biketoria, we need to take a big picture view. Looking at our current street configurations, the vast majority of the space – the allocation of travel lanes and of parking space – is dedicated to motorized vehicles. That 20th century model has become the status quo and most people assume that it should always be thus. But we must move to a more sustainable and human-friendly model.

Because #Biketoria challenges the status quo, it will create resistance. This is normal. Every city implementing street changes faces this. Yet real change is not possible without some difficulty.

We can’t reduce our environmental footprint without changing our streets. We can’t encourage our residents and visitors to be healthier through non-motorized movement without changing our streets.

And make no mistake – the status quo is very attractive to those who it serves. If you have enjoyed decades of curbside parking in front of stores you don’t want to lose that advantage – and you assume you can’t live without it. Invariably, though, adjustments can be made.

I make the parallel between less car-centric streets and the 20th century move away from cigarette smoking. Not that long ago, smoking was the norm everywhere – in public, in meeting rooms, in stores and in restaurants and pubs. When health advocates first started to suggest change, many voices exclaimed that change would be expensive, would violate smokers’ rights, and would destroy businesses.

Today, we wouldn’t choose to go back to that era. The process of change was contentious – as it will be with active transportation – but the outcome was worth it.

Equity on our ‘Main Streets’

Some residents will tell you that “cyclists can use those side streets,” and it’s true. They can. But let’s realize how inherently unfair it would be. If we were to say “children can use the side streets” or “senior citizens can stay off our main commercial streets” we would quickly recognize the inequity in those statements. The statements are often disguised as being caring or protective – “it’s safer if you just go over there…” but the effect remains.

Our main streets – our commercial hubs, our urban villages – are for everyone. That’s what a vibrant city requires.

Some confuse equality with equity – saying that ‘bikes can use all streets,’ or suggesting that painted bike lanes and sharrows allow equal access. Clearly, though, a person on a bike does not have the same protection as a person in a multi-tonne vehicle. For true equity, a person on a bike needs the same level of safety and that only comes through physically protected lanes.

Recreational bike riders are often the first to say “why would you want to ride down a busy Cook St or Oak Bay Avenue?” We wouldn’t ask the same question of a person on foot or in a car. People want to use their main streets for thousands of reasons – shopping, education, visiting friends, running errands. We must make it safe for people to do so on bicycles.

Change Now for the Future of a Generation

This is truly a once-in-a-generation moment in Victoria. Street infrastructure changes are not easy nor inexpensive. Things become, literally, “set in concrete.” If we relent on key route choices now, we will entrench the old imbalances.

I am concerned that negative feedback from the majority of Victorians who currently drive cars will push the bike network plan to the side – onto side streets and secondary routes. If that happens, it will be so for a full generation. We are building this bike grid for everyone, but especially for today’s 10 year olds and 20 year olds. Is that 10 year old going to learn that she can safely cycle everywhere in this city, or just in a few quiet residential areas? It that 20 year old who has moved here for a high tech job downtown going to walk, bike and take transit everywhere or is he going to decide he needs to break down and buy a car? Our biggest commitment is to these younger people.

 Sensitive Design Can Help

As founder of Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, I am a strong proponent of quality citizen-led urban design. People who love their places can add significant value to the understanding of and design of their neighbourhoods. I encourage you to use pilot projects with public input to help configure elements of the bike network – and to identify pedestrian / streetscape enhancements that will help us create “great streets” throughout our city.

At the same time, changes to the status quo are not necessarily made easier by a “go slow” approach. For people to see how a complete network works, they need to actually experience an intact complete network (even if some of it is in pilot or temporary configurations). So public engagement should include a strong commitment to routes and safe design while inviting input regarding local nuances.

That’s enough advice for now. Thanks to each of you for helping guide our wonderful City forward.

Onward!

Sincerely,

Lorne Daniel