Why are separated bike lanes so controversial?

Critical Mass
Critical Mass is now the 2nd most controversial local cycling issue – photo: ItzaFineDay

Vancouverites who either support or disagree with how the Hornby Street separated bike lane trial has been implemented have been locked in a heated debate for weeks. But did you know that the very same controversy over bike lanes has been raging simultaneously in several other cities? Places such as New York City, Winnipeg, Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and even Copenhagen (!) have bike lane advocates pitted against critics.

It begs a simple question – why?

It used to be that Critical Mass, the quasi-anarchistic cycling movement which takes over thoroughfares on the last Friday of each month that even future Mayor Gregor Robertson (seen above on the right in June 2007) participated in, caused the most controversy around bikes. But it's taking a back seat to the unhappiness lately stirred up by the Hornby bike lane trial. And somehow during this term of government what has been a positive issue that has caused little public controversy – the growth of city-built bike infrastructure – has become a issue which divides the city.

We’re not alone though. Let’s look at some other cities where cycle path controversies have heated up:

  1. In Winnipeg bike lanes have become such a heated issue that it threatens Mayor Sam Katz re-election chances (Winnipeggers go to the polls today, and CityCaucus.com has endorsed Katz for re-election). CBC National did a good story on it that you can view here (choose the "Battle over bike lanes" in the right column links). Further coverage from Canoe TV is here.
  2. In Brooklyn, New York, placard-waving citizens are confronting separated bike lane supporters. Seniors argue that it threatens their safety. Advocates say it allows them to ride during evening hours. Politicians are getting an earful from angry residents, some who argue the character of their streets have changed for the worse.
  3. In another New York neighbourhood a 14-block painted bike lane was removed after complaints by orthodox members of a religious community who didn’t like the appearance of bare shoulders and spandex on their streets.
  4. In Toronto, Rob Ford successfully campaigned against more bike lanes that he argued would create more congestion.
  5. In Denver a local congressman viewed the bike lanes as a signal of a New World Order.
  6. In Melbourne cycle tracks are resented by some for reducing space for cars.
  7. In Boston, someone created a super hero character called Biker Boy to help drivers and cyclists to get along better.
  8. In Los Angeles a near-fatal cycling accident with a taxi-cab turned Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa into a cycle path convert.

We even hear that in Copenhagen, the city of bikes, an urban route adjacent to businesses has lately caused many merchants to be irate. It’s most likely though that the Danes will quickly adjust. After all, their city is the model for the world on this matter.

There are many urban cycling success stories, of course, such as Montréal. London's conservative and thoroughly charming Mayor Boris Johnson is bragging that his is a cycling city. And the bikes for hire scheme Johnson promoted so far looks to be a success.

But why has there been so much aggravation both here in Vancouver and abroad? I asked SFU’s Gord Price, urbanist, former city councillor and perhaps the most vocal proponent of Vancouver's "seawall to seawall" cycle track for his thoughts on why all the controversy. Not surprisingly, he's been giving it plenty of thought.

Many assumed that building a separated bike track through downtown would be easy. The Burrard Bridge lane closure seemed to go over well, and the ruckus over the Dunsmuir separated bike path eventually petered out after adjustments to right turns were made.

On Hornby Street, however, the Vision city council appeared to be over-confident. City Hall sources said the work would begin promptly after council began their summer break in early August. Work plans were supposedly readied, and overtime for crews budgeted. But then somebody spoke the "C" word – consultation. That’s when things ground to a halt, and gestures were made in the dead of summer to prove that the Vision council was listening.

In the end council formally approved the bike lane construction, and crews with noise by-law exemption permits in hand, pounced. Lane construction is underway with the predictable disruption for businesses (some reporting as much as an 80% loss of sales), their customers, local residents and commuters. We'll know sometime next year whether this "trial" bike lane works or not.

Price thinks that the Hornby lane might succeed because, he argues, Vancouver's engineers are "engaged" and want to make it work. "I was a member of council during the ill-fated 1996 Burrard Bridge lane closure," says Price. "While I don't think all of us – council and staff – gave it time to make it work, I think that's changed today. It's clear to me that our city engineers are coming up with the best solutions they can."

Gord recalled the huge battles over traffic calming that first took place in the 1980s that make the anger over Hornby Street look like kid's play. The West End and Shaughnessy both rose up against traffic calming. "There is no one today who would reverse any of it," comments Price.

As an NPA city councillor, Price was a part of the City Hall governments that chose to make Vancouver into a place that put pedestrians, cyclists and rapid transit ahead of single-occupancy vehicles. While Vision Vancouver aligns itself with the cycling lobbyists today, it was only three years ago that the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition was heaping praise on the NPA for adding hundreds of kilometres of bike route infrastructure…

A city report shows the number of routes designated for bicycle traffic are expected to jump by 62.7 kilometres during 2007, bringing the city total to 240.5 kilometres from the 177.8 that existed at the end of 2006.

"It's a wonderful thing," said John Fair, president of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition. "Anything that makes it safe to bike is a wonderful thing," he added, saying the City of Vancouver is very supportive of cycling.

"I believe it was the seawall that prepared the city for the downtown bike tracks," says Price. "It amazes me that we paved the shorefronts in our parks and never heard a peep. People couldn't wait to be able to ride their bikes all around Stanley Park and around False Creek."


The switch to "bike tracks," as Gord calls them, comes with some new responsibilities for cyclists. "Riders must learn to ride in groups. It's a concept that I learned the hard way. While riding one of these lanes in Montréal I took a sudden turn and someone crashed into me," Price recalls. "Bike tracks are a new paradigm, and I think that our next step should be to educate riders on how to use these lanes."

Anecdotally, we're hearing of a few accidents happening in relation to the separated track, perhaps as a result of the new 'rules of the road' for cyclists. Where accidents have appeared to increase is those involving cars navigating the Burrard & Pacific intersection. (Note, we are correcting an earlier interpreted this data as an increase in cyclist-only accidents) An ICBC accident report (2005-2010) sent to CityCaucus.com confirms this – click image for larger. In time riders will learn the new rules of the road.

So why the backlash? Price says it’s a combination of factors.

"First, you're taking away physical space from people and understandably they don't like that," observes Price. "It's rare when the City comes into a neighbourhood and says 'we're here to change your community'. But when they do you can be sure people will be vocal. I think we're seeing that phenomenon."

"There are those who perceive this as a kind of social engineering, which of course causes some people to be upset. I have another theory that there is a sexual undercurrent to the strong feelings out there. I don't want to overstate this of course, but the car is a symbol of power. Some drivers might resent cyclists for the way they get around on their own steam."

Price says the fact the cycling lobby was for years considered as a fringe group that many underestimated their influence. As we know they have employed more sophisticated media strategies to get their message out. My colleague Daniel Fontaine explored this in his post about the VACC’s PR handbook. Today, these one-time "fringe" groups are well-funded, organized and vocal.

Gord thinks that today's critics will eventually see the benefits of the lanes. "The downtown has several kinds of cyclists. There are the MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra), 'Fixies' who ride trendy fixed gear bikes, recreational cyclists and the 'eight to eighties', who are the very young and much older cyclists we don't see riding roads much today. Like the controversies around traffic calming before, users will most likely adapt," says Price.

It does seem strange though that these controversies have become so heated in so many corners of the globe at the same time. In Vancouver where there was once harmony around bikes there is friction. The Vision government are doing little to calm public concerns about the changes to their city, and letting the cycling advocates and critics duke it out in public. Perhaps that’s what people will remember the most about this debate.

UPDATE: We've updated a line in the post which suggested that there have been more "crashes involving cyclists" at Burrard and Pacific. There have been a total of 15 crashes from 2005-2010 involving cyclists. There appears to have been an increase in vehicular accidents at that intersection in the past year.

- post by Mike

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