Riding to the future: Vancouver on two wheels

Riding to the future: Vancouver on two wheels


A WhatsApp message from my friend Brendan: “I’ve moved into my new apartment in Vancouver. Come for a visit, bring your bike.”

Why, yes. Vancouver had long been on the must-visit list. A charming harbour city with progressive politics, good coffee, loads of genial Canadians, and a reputation as a poster child for cycling infrastructure. Escaping winter in Auckland for two weeks of summer in Vancouver was an easy choice.

I knew Brendan from my time as a corporate animal in Hong Kong. Both fitness obsessives, we met in a swim squad and became running and cycling buddies. There were early-morning road rides, tons of them, grinding our way up to the top of HK Island and screaming downhill to the seaside village of Shek O for coffee and toasted sandwiches. He was nearly always faster than me, and he could do something I couldn’t: sit up in the saddle and ride with both hands off the bars. No matter; the ride was the thing.

Off I went, then, to Vancouver. The plan was to base ourselves in the whizzo new apartment and to do some island-hopping by bike and also lots of city rides. What, I wondered, would it be like to ride in a city that was known for taking cycling seriously?

We got the answer on day one. Brendan, who is Canadian but not a Vancouver native, was unfamiliar with the city’s bike network and I certainly wasn’t any help. But a little online research pointed us to the Central Valley Greenway which, we read, runs east-west towards downtown Vancouver, largely following a Sky Train line. And so it proved. It turned out to be a mix of infrastructure – sealed and unsealed shared paths, quiet back streets, and painted on-road bike lanes – that delivered us to the water’s edge at False Creek.

From there, we played tourist, pedaling along the coast to Granville Island and then across the Burrard Street Bridge’s protected cycle lane to the city centre and then around Stanley Park which, it appears, is a compulsory destination for any first-time visitor to Vancouver.

Proof positive that bridges with their own bike access are possible. This is the Canada Line walking and cycling bridge built onto the North Arm Bridge over the Fraser River.

We got lost once or twice on the way, but then it dawned upon us that the road signs pointed riders to the network. And when we found the network, it really was something – long stretches of what the city calls “all ages and abilities” or triple-A infrastructure: wide lanes protected in many cases by planter boxes. At more than a few intersections we found signaling phased specifically to separate turning traffic from pedestrians and cyclists. At others, turning lanes for riders were painted on-road. And there were bridges with dedicated bike lanes on them. I nearly wept.

Yield to bicycles, says the sign. And the locals do.

If you look at it on the map, triple-A infrastructure forms an almost complete network through and around Vancouver’s city core. This turns out not to be coincidental. Ten years ago, when the city first rolled out protected lanes, its plan was to start downtown and then to exploit the network effect by extending into the suburbs. Vancouver’s network now runs to 311km, a quarter of it at triple A standard. And it works: we were there on a sunny Saturday and the place was teeming with people on bikes, tourists and locals alike.  Back in ’94, I’d learned, cycling accounted for 1.3 percent of all trips into the city, roughly what Auckland does today. In 2017, it reached 6.9 percent.

The three-quarters of cycle network that isn’t triple A is still pretty damn good, thank you. We made our way back home by riding east along what the map told us was a local street bikeway, which meant quieter local streets with plenty of traffic calming measures. There we found another luxury: signage that let bicycles into certain streets and gave motor traffic a big, fat ‘no’, effectively turning the street into a two-way route for bikes and one-way for cars. And those roads were signposted at 30km/h. Bliss.

No entry – except bicycles! (Bike Auckland file photo)
30k, one way – except bicycles! (Bike Auckland file photo)

At the back of my mind, however, was the nagging thought that something was missing. Then it dawned on me: glass. There just wasn’t any. “Why aren’t there loads of broken bottles on the sides of your roads?” I asked Brendan. He looked puzzled. “You throw bottles on the road where you come from?”

On subsequent rides, we headed east and south and north, following the map on some occasions and our noses on others. What rapidly became apparent is that Vancouver’s bike network is, like the curate’s egg, excellent in part. Greater Vancouver, all 2,800km² of it, is governed by 24 different local authorities, and their cycling policies…um, vary. That gave rise to “what just happened?” moments when we’d cross the boundary between Vancouver City and, say, Burnaby, and our carefully-designed bike lane would just stop.

This is what triple-A infrastructure looks like – wide, protected bike-only lanes, with cycle-specific signage and signaling.

Still, I was on holiday. One mustn’t complain. And mixing it on the road with the drivers of Vancouver taught me something else: they’re really, really considerate of cyclists. Almost without exception they hung back on the road, let us through pinch points, and passed with super-generous margins.

The biggest threat to Vancouver cyclists appears to be the bears.

A bit of a shock for a commuting cyclist from Auckland. Why, I asked any number of people, does it feel like Vancouver’s drivers have all just popped an e? There was no one answer. Maybe Canadians genuinely are chilled, some suggested. It’s because there are loads of riders on the road and drivers learn to watch for them, said others. Or, thought one person, it’s because British Columbia’s road rules, which require drivers to give way to pedestrians at both marked and unmarked crossings, have shifted the balance of power away from motor vehicles and towards active modes. You choose; it all adds up to a wonderfully low-stress environment for cyclists.

An Auckland bike goes for a Vancouver bus ride.

There’s more goodness, too. Vancouver’s Sky Train and its bus network all accept bikes, although first-time users would be well advised to swot up on the bike racks on the buses before trying them out.

Oh, and the good people that run British Columbia want you to cycle, so much so that new bikes are exempted from the seven percent provincial sales tax that applies to almost everything else.

Next up: island-hopping with bikes. Brendan’s parents live on Vancouver Island. Visiting them involved a zig-zaggy 17km ride through Vancouver’s southern suburbs, a bus, and then a truly spectacular trip on a vehicle ferry which threaded its way through the islands dotted along the coast. The ferry company was well used to cyclists; the crew ushered us on board ahead of the motor vehicles and pointed us to some very secure bike racks.

Then there was a 34km ride, most of it on a dedicated bike path, down the coast of Vancouver Island to the city of Victoria, where we met Brendan’s parents for coffee. “What did you think of the bike racks on the ferry?” asked Brendan’s dad, Gary. “Um…very secure,” we volunteered. Gary was pleased. Turns out he used to work in community relations for the ferry company and years before had run a public design competition for the racks.

A cycle counter on the approaches to Victoria, which benefits from well-used infrastructure dating back to the 80s and 90s. Today, Victoria’s goal is to become the “best small cycling city in the world”. This picture was taken mid-afternoon on a sunny day in mid-July and the day’s total was then 1949.

The next day we hopped on another ferry to explore Salt Spring Island, described by Brendan as a haven for dope-smoking hippies, did a roller-coaster ride up the island, and caught a third ferry back to the mainland. It was bike touring for city softies, discovering new places without ever being too far from a cold beer.

This is what civilisation looks like: racks for your bike while you work your way through the list of craft beers at the Local Kitsilano.

Cycling Vancouver-style is an eye-opener. To the visitor, the city’s infrastructure, especially the triple-A parts of it, are luxurious. It made me feel that my experience of cycling in Auckland has taught me to be grateful for modest gains. It also confirms that there is a direct link between infrastructure and rider numbers. In Vancouver’s case, cycling has the city’s fastest-growing share of mode. Its share of all trips grew from four percent in 2013 to seven percent in 2016.

Nor is this the work of a lifetime. Vancouver’s first protected lanes went in only 10 years ago. The connection between infrastructure and rider numbers is a direct one.

Happily, my chum Brendan is a case in point. He’s always been a roadie and I don’t remember ever seeing him on a commuter. But halfway through our grand tour of Vancouver’s cycleways, he decided it was time he invested in an everyday bike – something he could pedal to the shops and the pool, without the cleats and the lycra. So we went shopping. When you build it, they do indeed come.


Next week: change from the inside out – Ross Inglis talks with the City of Vancouver’s Transport Planning team.

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