Vancouver, Canada: A City on Bikes with Lessons for Los Angeles

A planter protected bikeway in Downtown Vancouver is wide enough for a fire truck.
A planter-protected bikeway in Downtown Vancouver is wide enough for a fire truck.

(In advance of tomorrow night’s presentation with Modacity about the bicycling culture of Vancouver and what L.A. can learn; we asked Streetsblog contributor Roger Rudick to write about his recent trip to Vancouver.  For more information about tomorrow’s event, click here.- DN)

Ten years ago, Jeff Leigh, a businessman and engineer, lived in the suburbs, drove a car nearly everywhere–and put on 30 pounds. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself,” he said. “But I got back into cycling and started biking on errands; I got healthy again.” He also started advocating with HUB, Vancouver’s equivalent to the LA Bicycle Coalition.

His experience mirrors his city. Vancouver, British Columbia, is a seaport town of 600,000. Years ago, it turned away from car-based sprawl to focus on transit and bikes. No coincidence, it now has an obesity rate of 17.4 per cent, compared to 35 percent for the US and around 25 percent for Los Angeles County. Vancouver also has automated rapid transit lines and an extensive trolley bus network.

If trends continue, the city will increase bike, transit and pedestrian transportation share to two-thirds by 2040. Los Angeles recently passed a Mobility Plan in pursuit of similar goals. It can accelerate the implementation of bike and bus lanes by simplifying legal hurdles, explained Jonathan Weiss, an L.A. lawyer and active-transportation advocate. But without Vancouver-style leadership, “nothing will actually happen,” he warned.

Jeff Leigh Surveys an Intersection with Special Markings Signals and Signs for Safety.
Jeff Leigh surveys an intersection with special markings, signals, and signs for safety.

“I’ve been in transportation since 1997 and there was always interest in cycling, even when we had no bike lanes,” said Lon LaClaire, who manages Vancouver’s Strategic Transportation Planning Branch. But things didn’t start changing until City Council took an interest—especially with the election of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, opined Leigh and LaClair. The mayor, now in his third term, bikes to City Hall, rain or shine—even when there aren’t cameras around. “That’s a benefit,” said LaClaire.

Like L.A., Vancouver had protests against bicycle projects. “When the Point Grey road was closed to through traffic to create a seaside bicycle greenway in 2013,” explained Leigh, “the public comment period went on for five nights, with over 150 people protesting that they were ‘taking away my lanes for cars.’ But the politicians took a chance and pushed it through. And Carmageddon didn’t happen,” he said. More recently, when advocates pushed to add protected bike lanes where the greenway connects with the Burrard Street Bridge, “there was virtually no protest.”

Compare this to efforts to get bike lanes on Westwood Blvd., where Los Angeles councilmen canceled projects in response to objections from drivers. Leigh said politicians must fight past the initial hump of protests or nothing changes.

What else can Los Angeles learn from Vancouver? Leigh explained that there’s a tendency to focus on bike lanes and forget about intersections, where most crashes occur. “The intersections are the tough part,” explained LaClaire. This applies to car throughput too, he said. “For all the hubbub about reallocating road space for bikes, we aren’t actually reducing car capacity on the street,” he said. “The key is getting the intersections right, which is where backups actually occur.”

Greenway Projects Closed Through Traffic to Cars-Making A Safe Bike Route
Greenway projects closed through-traffic to cars, making a safe bike route

There’s also the issue of first-responder access, a popular justification for canceling bike projects in Los Angeles. “For our downtown protected bike lanes, we designed them to be wide enough for a fire truck,” LaClaire explained. This has improved response times, because the bike lane doubles as an emergency accessway. “A bike can jump onto the sidewalk to let an ambulance pass—a car can’t do that. So the lane is a life saver.”

Vancouver’s main challenges, however, remain similar to LA’s, said LaClaire. “We are a growing region that will add a million people in the next ten years” and there’s no way to accommodate that by widening roads for cars, he explained. “That’s a fool’s game.”

Meanwhile, Leigh, now 55, lost the 30 pounds and remains svelte and healthy. He moved from the suburbs to a condo in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, where he bikes and walks all his errands and appointments, even in heavy rain. “Retiring lets me focus on advocacy. We need more cycling and more walking infrastructure,” he said. “It’s something that I believe in.”

Developed with NRDC’s Switchboard Blog.

  • elson

    I’ve ridden a bike in Vancouver during my last visit in May 2009. I rented a bike and went all over town with it. The infrastructure is there, though not quite as ubiquitous as these pictures have you believe. I also almost got run over by a bus.

  • Chris

    I couldn’t find an up-to-date LA County obesity number, but 60% seems waaaay too high. The county had it pegged at just under 24% in 2011 (http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/wwwfiles/ph/hae/ha/Obesity_2012_sFinal.pdf), the CDC showed similar numbers, and I just can’t seem to find anything to suggest it’d be over 60% today (nor do I really believe it could’ve gone up that much in the last 4 years). Do you have a source on the 60% from the article?

  • Roger R.

    Hi Chris. Thanks for flagging this. You’re right. I’m really embarrassed but I must have hit the wrong key or read the wrong number at some point or I don’t know what. I’ve asked Damien to fix it.

  • Asher Of LA

    60% sounds about right for the overweight or obese category (>25 BMI).[1]

    Plus, those figures are generated using BMI, which tends to understate obesity/overweightness [2].

    [1] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/ha/reports/habriefs/lahealth073003_obes.pdf

    [2] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/243708.php

  • Rachel H

    Could there be a Streetsblog in Vancouver? Great innovation is going on up there, but I have trouble hearing enough about it.

  • Streetsblog California is at cal.streetsblog.org instead of ca.streetsblog.org to save space in case there is ever the interest, and funding, for a Streetsblog somewhere in Canada.

  • Gezellig

    As the city my grandparents are from I always find it interesting following developments in Vancouver from what it was even only a few decades ago.

    And recently Vancouver has been doing some cool stuff bikewise! Including implementing North America’s first Dutch-style protected intersection in 2014:

    http://edmontonbikes.ca/uploads/post/before-and-after-transforming-a-15-lane-pedestrian-crossing/Burrard-and-Cornwall-after.jpg

    I generally enjoy biking around Vancouver, but it still has some major challenges.

    Even in fairly core areas, bike infrastructure can still often be completely lacking. As with Portland or Berkeley, the Bike Blvd strategy is a nice start but it’s not very helpful when you actually need to visit a busy arterial for services/errands/etc. Vancouver’s Bike Blvds (branded Neighbourhood Greenways there) are often many blocks away from the arterials they parallel:

    http://www.cbc.ca/onthecoast/hi-bc-130129-cornwall-bike-lane-8col.jpg

    ^ Above, notice the huge gap in greenways in Kitsilano. Unfortunately, lots of businesses and services are located precisely on 4th Ave which has no bike lanes whatsoever and at points is a good *four blocks* away from the nearest paralleling Neighbourhood Greenway–not to mention even further still from the nearest actual bike lane.

    You do not mainstream 8-to-80, low-stress biking with this kind of network.

    Another example–the picture below was taken near the intersection of major thoroughfares Broadway and Cambie very close to City Hall, the Broadway-City Hall SkyTrain stop, supermarkets, Vancouver General Hospital, etc. Yet despite all the very many good reasons to have bike lanes there, there are none on either arterial. Like 4th St, both arterials are full-on traffic sewers:

    https://icelandpenny.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/vancouver-022.jpg

    Far too many of Vancouver’s main arterials look like Broadway, Cambie and 4th St.

    Another huge problem with mainstreaming biking to get around in Vancouver is BC’s backwards provincial all-ages helmet law.

    Van City Buzz has a great piece on these and other problems/challenges below:

    http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2015/08/montreal-bike-culture-lessons-vancouver/

    Van is off to a great start but hopefully can truly build upon this momentum to become an actual world-class city for biking.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah! Prior to my visit in Sep ’14 I tried doing some research online as to bike developments in Vancouver and found comprehensive info of the kind we’re used to on Streetsblog difficult to find.

    As it turns out, Van had just opened up North America’s first Dutch-style protected intersection yet no one was reporting on it even in the local blogs I was scouring so I didn’t find out about it until long after my trip.

    I actually missed it by a mere half block while I was there, blissfully unaware of its existence. Gah!….next time. :D

  • Rachel H

    Great post! Thanks for the photos and info. I’ll have a better cycling life next time I’m in that beautiful area.

  • Gezellig

    Check out Van’s upcoming second Dutch-style protected intersection!

    http://www.vancitybuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/burrard-detail.jpg

    Not sure when it will be done, though.

  • MaxUtil

    Leigh’s point about intersections is really critical. I think this is regularly overlooked, even by advocates. With the N Fig project in particular, what congestion problems there would be after the road diet would pretty much only be due to intersection issues. Get those right and the road will flow car traffic as fast or better than before.

  • bikecar101.com

    Hello Roger, Great article. We do not think that you should be that embarrassed for stressing the growing problem of obesity with an untapped possible solution of riding a bicycle to realize the obvious health benefits (reduction of stress and weight, etc.). Although, numbers are important. Still, the BMI measurement is controversial and some people think that the BMI measurement needs an overhaul. What is not controversial is the onset of diabetes from obesity. And a solution exists — which is get on a bicycle or walk and engage in active transportation. Here is a statistic from the LA County Department of Public Health:

    “In 2007, the obesity rate of those with diabetes (43.5%) was more than double the obesity rate among those without diabetes (21%).”

    That is astounding. Further, the authors suggest (for prevention of diabetes) the solution which is in-line with the subject matter of your post:

    “If applicable, lose excess weight through a healthy diet and increased physical activity”

    We think that a most people can agree that there is an emerging problem in the nation at large with respect to obesity. In 2010, 75% (or more) of civilians looking to enlist into the US Army were denied due to being classified as obese. Furthermore, of the remaining 25%, 60% could not pass the minimum fitness test on the first day. That is astounding. That is a national security issue.

    The source:

    http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/wwwfiles/ph/hae/ha/Diabetes_2010_6pg_Sfinal.pdf

    General Hurtling speech (start at 4:00):

  • Joe Linton

    I highly recommend the excellent Vancouver-based Gordon Price who blogs at https://pricetags.wordpress.com/

  • SFnative74

    A lot has changed in 6 years…

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