This article originally appeared in PEDAL magazine.
Velo-city Global 2012
International Cycling Conference Comes to Vancouver
Vancouver, B.C.’s cycling infrastructure is considered pretty state-of-the-art for a North American city. Add in a bike-riding mayor and a reputation for going green at every opportunity and you’d be right for thinking this Canadian city is willing to look beyond automobiles for personal mobility. This new age persona also helped convince the European Cyclists’ Federation to hold the 2012 Velo-city Global conference in Vancouver (June 26-29, 2012).
Each year, the Velo-city conference uses some key themes to organize a range of seminars, workshops, lectures and events for several hundred delegates from government, business, academia and advocacy organizations. This year, evolving road designs in Europe and North America, the impact of public bike-share on urban transit systems and the potential for cycling to find new opportunities in tourism and light-cargo applications were on the agenda.
Also prominent, the rights of children to access to public space, whether it’s traffic-calmed roads safe for play or cycling education to breed a next generation of bicycle users who see cycling as transportation as well as recreation. In fact, one of the key events of the conference was the unveiling of the “Charter of Vancouver,” a document urging the United Nations to recognize children’s mobility as a fundamental human right.
“We’re calling upon the United Nations and we call upon you, Ban Ki-moon, to give all children access to cycling,” said Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation. The charter asks the United Nations and other institutions to make cycling a human right for children and “to include cycling as part of all sustainable transport policies and strategies.”
With hundreds of delegates from around the world attending, Velo-city Global 2012’s schedule of events tried to cover a lot of ground. Everything from safety to bicycle parking was discussed, with the most attention paid to elements such as road design, policy issues and social marketing. Public bike-share programs got much attention during the conference, especially with the event’s headlining “Yellow Jersey” sponsor none other than Public Bike Systems Company, the organization behind the well-known Bixi bikes of Montreal’s bike-share system.
Safety remains a key topic in the push for cycling cities. While the issue of mandatory versus voluntary helmet use was hotly debated and largely unsolved during Velo-city Global 2012, other safety-related topics proved more fruitful. Of particular interest to Canadian cyclists were the findings of the Cycling in Cities research program, which examined not only the various risks presented by various types of bicycle facilities in Toronto and Vancouver, but also the difference between the real risks cyclists face and the perceived risks they envision.
Notably, separated bike lanes were discovered to be 20 times less risky for cyclists than a regular shared street without road markings. Traffic circles, now a common sight in many Canadian neighbourhoods as a supposed traffic-calming measure, were actually eight times more risky than a regular residential intersection. Multi-use paths were perceived by users to be safer than they actually are, highlighting the risks in mixing travel modes, be it bikes and cars, or bikes and pedestrians.
Also of note, the relative danger of cycling itself. That cycling has remained the mode of transportation mostly likely to result in injury per distance traveled and that pedestrians have the highest fatality rate are a stark reminder that Canada’s pedestrian safety considerations remain as under-developed as its cycling infrastructure.
The reason the Great White North isn’t a world leader in cycling cities? Don’t put it down to weather. The Danes and Dutch ride in similarly cold and dreary conditions. Nor is it a case of money. Cash-strapped cities such as Bogota, Colombia have already invested in major road projects that put bikes and pedestrians first. Gil Penalosa of the Canadian cycling/walking advocacy group 8-80 Cities pointed out the crucial difference political will. Penalosa is the brother of Enrique Penalosa, who spearheaded Bogota’s green transportation revolution, as the city’s mayor from 1998 until 2001. Gil laid down the gauntlet, challenging political leaders to set much higher mode-share targets.
To the delight of the opening-day audience, he didn’t spare Vancouver mayor Robertson, pointing out that even Vancouver’s $25 million in additions to its bicycle network since 2010 are weak sauce compared to the hugely ambitious programs being launched in other countries such as South Korea, where they have a goal of 3,114 kilometers of bicycle-only roads across the country by 2018.
Penalosa’s challenge is one that conference attendee and Share the Road founder Eleanor McMahon says Canadian politicians must face sooner rather than later. She says it’s time for elected officials to recognize the benefits and avoid playing politics.
“It’s a good conference, good for Canada and good to celebrate (Vancouver’s bike infrastructure), which is something we don’t do enough in Canada with respect to cycling,” says McMahon, when asked for her impressions of Velo-city Global 2012. But she recognizes how far there is still to go. “As politicians, they hold the safety and the well-being of the citizens in their cities in their hands. It’s time to stop the polarized conversation and inspire politicians to do the right thing. I think it’s part of my job as an advocate to find ways for politicians to say yes, and what I’ve seen here is a lot of reasons for them to say yes and be inspired by what’s happening around the world.”