The One Lane Lament

The following is an expression of my own opinion only, and not an official message on behalf of the Friends of the Burrard Bridge. Thank you to everyone who supported the two lane trial campaign and I hope you will help us to make the one lane experiment as successful as possible.

The Vision Vancouver-dominated city council voted on the proposed Burrard Bridge lane re-allocation trial on Thursday afternoon. Three options had been put before council. The first option, widely considered the best route to a successful experiment and useful data on traffic pattern changes, would have seen a curb lane in each direction separated from motorists by concrete barriers, giving cyclists a safe road-level corridor to and from the downtown core. Pedestrians would have had sole access to sidewalks on either side of the bridge. That’s not the plan that will go ahead however. Instead, Vision supported a third option. With this scheme, pedestrians will be banned from the east sidewalk and it will become a cyclists-only facility. Only one lane on the bridge (heading south) will be allocated to cyclists. Sound like a practical compromise? Unfortunately, as with many half-measures, this plan lacks audacity at a time when our city has a real need for courageous political decisions. 

Here are some of the reasons I am disappointed, by the decision and the process:

Hundreds of people sent emails to Council in support of the two-lane trial. A Facebook group supporting the two-lane reallocation has nearly eight hundred members. There is, as far as I know, no organized support for the status quo, or a one-lane experiment. More than two dozen people came to City Hall on their own time, to voice their support for this option, or bear witness to the proceedings. One person spoke against it and a representative for downtown businesses presented a non-committal stance on the experiment. Yes, you read that right. Only one citizen of Vancouver went on record as opposing the trial!

Throughout the process councilors encouraged two-lane trial supporters to build support and make our presence known. Once it came time to make a decision however, this grassroots expression of political will was characterized as the work of the vocal ‘cycling lobby.’ Apparently it’s possible to be too organized and have too much support. At least that’s the impression one gets after this experience. From my perspective, this decision looks as choreographed and predetermined as a performance of Hamlet. Given the ongoing safety issues, we can only hope a real, long-term solution can be implemented without a similar quantity of blood spilled by the time the curtain drops. Unfortunately, given the abysmal record of the bridge with regard to injuries and lawsuits, there’s little reason to suspect this road story will be analogous to a happy Hollywood reboot of the Danish prince’s misfortunes, re-titled Ophelia’s Big Fat Wedding.

Councilor Suzanne Anton’s performance was particularly disappointing. She quizzed staff on the minutiae of the communications budget for a proposal which she clearly had no intention of supporting. Most of the questions could have been asked, and answered, with a simple email to the appropriate staff members, either before or after the meeting. In all, a waste of everyone’s time and certainly an expensive way to make a point when you consider the cost to taxpayers to have everyone come back on Thursday to finish the debate and vote on the matter. Here’s the kicker. Anton wasn’t present for the vote on Thursday, or to hear the rest of the speakers who wished to address Council. One would have thought, given her interest in knowing the particulars of the plan on Tuesday, she might have deigned to actually cast a vote one way or the other when it came time to represent those who put her in office. If I were an NPA supporter I would be livid with this lack of representation on an important issue. At least we know where she stands–even if she didn’t care to cast a vote. Councilors Louie and Stephenson didn’t speak to the issue. They and the rest of the Vision councilors voted in lock-step, all supporting the pedestrian-unfriendly plan. The mayor, and Vision councilors Chow, Deal, Jang, Meggs, and Reimer did voice their reasons for choosing the third option. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between their fine-sounding words and the meat of the matter. Safety, safety, safety. That was the mantra invoked again and again. But, it’s clear the two-lane re-allocation was the safest plan. Pedestrians first. That’s the city’s official position. Yet, walkers are now to be banned from one side of the bridge. Anyone wishing to walk from the southeast side of False Creek to the northeast side on the Burrard Bridge will now have to cross more than twenty lanes of road to make the trip. Currently, they needn’t ever set foot on asphalt. If this is how we improve walking in the city I hope we never find the money or will to really improve cycling infrastructure! Last time I checked adding time and distance to a journey is a good thing for hang glider pilots, but not the usual method of making self-propelled transportation more attractive.

Now, it’s easy to do the right thing when you’re in opposition. You have nothing to lose. And COPE Councilors Cadman and Woodsworth gave it their best shot. Kudos to them for attempting to see Vancouver emulate the demonstrated successes of New York, Copenhagen, Paris, Seoul, Bogota, Budapest, Barcelona and a host of other cities unafraid to tackle auto-dependence. Unfortunately, two councilors aren’t enough to ensure two lanes of the multitude of roads leading in and out of downtown are made safe for the growing number of commuter cyclists in our city.

What really happened was not a question of putting pedestrians first, or choosing the best way to encourage both cycling and walking downtown. What we saw on Thursday afternoon was the mere specter of upset drivers making Vision Vancouver ignore the wealth of evidence that lane reallocation doesn’t create long-term traffic congestion. This is important and bears repeating. Lane reallocation doesn’t create long-term traffic congestion. Drivers quickly find alternate routes, such as the under-capacity Granville Bridge just a few blocks away. They sometimes actually decide to try biking or walking or taking transit instead of driving… and quickly discover that not all trips need be done in an automobile. This isn’t the mad raving of a cyclist or the theoretical results of a computer model. In every city where road space has been re-allocated to pedestrians and cyclists, a brief period of congestion and adjustment to new traffic patterns resulted in better facilities for the self-propelled, with no ongoing issues for those who still need to use their cars. Why? Because people aren’t idiots. Nobody knowingly sits in a traffic jam. Hence the traffic reports that dominate local television and radio during rush hour, offering advice and alternate routes around accidents and other traffic snarls. Speaking of which, turn an ear to those reports before the trial begins. See how often our local traffic reporters mention congestion on the Burrard Bridge. Get yourself a coffee and donut first however. Unlike the drivers who use the bridge, you’ll be waiting a while.

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