Saturday, August 23, 2014

Crosstown Traffic: Bike trips and the Johnson St. Bridge

Beer discussion.

While bike facilities will draw traffic, they must serve destinations that are trip generators for cyclists, and most will have not much tolerance for out of direction travel, unless for some compelling reason.

Recently published research suggests that those facilities not so purposeful will draw occasional or recreational use but are less likely to fundamentally alter travel choices to grow cycling significantly.

The discussion revolved around connections to the Johnson St. Bridge, a project that at its inception aimed also to improve conditions for cycling across a weak link in the regional cycling network.  Many other deficiencies pointed to a new bridge over any attempt at refurbishment.  Strong support from the cycling community and my own efforts to ensure, at the time, the most practical and achievable facilities on the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, helped to confirm the decision made by council.

Some challenges were understood but not so far easily solved - I could only push so far to incorporate everything I might have wanted on deck and in the surrounding road network.  None were sufficient to support the folly of delay or ill conceived rescue work aimed at preservation of a museum piece over a functional centrepiece of our transportation infrastructure.

Still, there are some now who, because they didn't get everything, may have just as comfortably settled for nothing.  They would do a disservice to those many who will find the new bridge light years ahead of any levels of service hitherto enjoyed on the icon of the old blue bridge, (which, of course, was black for the first decade I was riding east from home in Vic West.

I took the morning a few days back to conduct my own count and observe the patterns of travel on the "delta" side of the bridge - where streams of traffic disperse travelers around downtown like so many rivulets depositing what the river of traffic has streamed into the core.

3 of the 445 cyclists I counted over an hour passing through my observation post were not wearing helmets.  There's $75 worth of lost revenue for the police who can't, it should be noted, be everywhere all at once.

Including those leaving town - against the predominant flow of morning traffic, 13 distinct destination streams were found, though most heading outbound were coming from the south along Wharf and not so many along Pandora (a route that will show higher numbers, no doubt, when I go out again to record the afternoon patterns.)  Still, that is a lot of different boxes to check and analyze.  Keeping up with the count (and, as always, snapping some pics to illustrate the story), kept my fingers busy.

Of those heading into town, more than half headed south immediately upon exiting the bridge, another third continued east, though their end points could have taken them perhaps both north and south into downtown as much as they might have been headed to other destinations served by Johnson St. as it cuts through the city.

The pattern speaks to the pressing need to connect more effectively the new Goose that will spill bike traffic into downtown when the bridge (not to mention the E&N trail) are complete.  That will be a new project, as will new concepts for Wharf and harbour pathway connections will be as next steps take shape.  Wharf has no easy fixes, which is partly why it does not top the priority list for new investments the city's bike plan envisions.

A separated cycle track on Pandora is at the top, and two designs will be assessed, though destination travel analysis would indicate that a couplet with Johnson is a more complete network approach than the two way fashion statement some would prefer.  Engineering challenges will be daunting enough given the inconsistencies in available right of way along the corridor, though it will still be worth extra work (and extra money) aimed at conceptualizing the two way option. Understanding that trip patterns will be at least as important as the symbol provided by a two way cycle track must inform the analysis.  I am less certain than some that the two way concept is the silver bullet.  It has many blemishes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nothing to see here . . 

A sparsely attended meeting of Victoria’s council sitting in committee heard from project managers on the progress of the Johnson St. Bridge.  Those coming to watch a train wreck were no doubt disappointed.

Recent reports notwithstanding, budget and time lines appear to be on track and critics are muted by the steady onslaught of the uncomfortable facts.

The question had to be asked again, though answered more than once or a thousand times, about maintenance of the old bridge.  While wrestling through the forecasts for touching up paint or recoating the bridge, the point seemingly had to be made that, had old blue been painted more diligently, it might have lasted longer.  The answer, as always, has been as consistent.  The old bridge, was state of the art, 90 years ago, using plate steel and rivets to create the structural members the define the structure.  Consulting engineers in attendance, like those that had come before, schooled the studiously uninformed, that the design rendered any scheme to coat surfaces between plates, at best, irrelevant, and, for all intents and purposes, near impossible in any event, at least in situ.

As those who have followed the project and who understand at least the basics of metallurgy, the existing bridge, despite some initial hopefulness, has never been a good candidate for refurbishment, whatever the scheme.  The steel is so compromised by the rust and corrosion of a salty environment and the damp winters of the wet coast that almost nothing of the original bridge would remain after the rust might have been scraped off, lead paint and all, into the water below.

The same voices who began their term insisting that an iconic bridge was too rich for Victoria are now as insistent that no expense be spared to ensure that the trail crossing that will connect the E&N trail to the Goose and the new bridge has all the architectural panache of the bridge project they once insisted would serve as well if it were a replica of the Spencer Road overpass.

Different storylines emerged that counter the recent and familiar noise from other critics.  Routine maintenance and schemes for replacement of load bearing mechanical elements of the bridge are designed into the management plan for the future of the new bridge, not, as some might have it, a sudden and surprising change to the lifespan project for the bridge, which remains at 100 years.  Proxies at the table were left looking for minutiae around how bearings might be replaced or paint touch up work might be arranged. 

The use of one sort of grouting or another to sandwich steel surfaces subject to loads and friction were revealed as  likewise commonplace, well protected from the elements encased within the structure where operational requirements demand.  Nothing to see here, and not so much to report, more than that most all of the 4,000, give or take a few, movable bridges across North America are using much the same elements of design. 

Engineers put paid to the notion too, that the mechanics of the bridge are untried or untested.  They went so far even as to share that the key elements of rollers and bearings, racks and pinions and the like were so commonplace as to be available off the shelf, should one or another piece require replacement.  That too, is designed into the bridge.  Due diligence will require maintenance, maybe repairs, perhaps replacement of some of those movable parts that will wear over time.  Unlike the current structure, however, everything is designed with maintenance and durability in mind.  The old bridge, not so much.

Rail service, as much as we would have liked to include it in the first go round, is protected, at least conceptually.  The right of way remains and, should a revival demand a downtown station, the logistics of approaches from the west side will be easy enough to construct, even as those most attached to bringing the train into sight of the city centre decry the expense of public space design that might require some rearrangement should a station be required or tracks need to be laid.

More practical approaches might be explored where a new station location that harkens back to the ‘70s, when rail served, more practically, deeper into Vic West.  Locations have more generous space that might be afforded a station, parking would be more readily available, transit connections could be designed, and local development would be anchored by passenger rail or long haul commuter services.  Not that the rail is operating yet, but the prospect of revival, however shaky, would best be served by functional realities more so than political posturing.

All of the noise around design milestones and the impatience with those elements still incomplete revealed some stark contrasts in approaches.  The public realm west of the bridge that will reclaim land currently supporting the dysfunctional S-curve is rightly unfinished on paper.  As much as the concepts of land use have been driven by community desires for more park space, it remains most crucial that the public be involved in the more detailed design that can follow the more immediate need to finish the bridge and road connections that will service the new crossing.

Further on up the road, or the trail, so to speak, the E&N rail trail continues to emerge alongside the increasingly decrepit track bed, though many of us still hope the train will be rescued as promised.  It will connect to the project and, truth be told, I would rather not have detailed design completed without having a good look at both functional design and architectural expression.  I’m uncomfortable enough with the continue characterization of the link as a “pedestrian” bridge, when it will also serve commuter cyclists and other wheeled travelers who will require different kinds of geometrics than those needed for foot travel alone.  I’m sure everyone involved understands this, but it needs to be spelled out as a design driver as the project proceeds.

Road links and fresh works connecting Harbour Road across to the Ocean Pointe Hotel are already in progress, and the ramp down to the road from the current E&N trail piece are fenced off for the next several weeks.  More effort could have been made to design better detour arrangements and more pointed communications, but it will be very short term, and the promise of dramatic improvements to cycling facilities that are central to the new bridge will draw more traffic despite new ideological skepticism emerging among some in the cycling community.

Something new will be emerging as city staff and project consultants work through the change order demanded by the contractor hoping to squeeze more money out of their fixed price deal, but that wasn’t ready for the council gabfest.  No doubt it will be fuel and fodder for the naysayers who aren’t much interested in the facts in any event.  While some may be journalists in their day jobs, they’ve lost any sense of objectivity on this project, leading the charge in opposition whilst pretending to be mere reporters.   Guess you have to give them credit for being consistent.

Project team members turned aside questions that had been raised about the ethics of designers assessing the changes.  They reminded council that their r professional credentials demanded that they provide accurate and fair information, and that anything they turned in would be run through city staff and were subject to audit, in any event, by federal funders who have a lot of skin in the game and have, thus far, found everything in order.

Me too.  I read all 483 pages of the report and voted yes for a new bridge.  Didn’t forget also, to read page 484 too – that’s the one where the referendum results showed the voters of Victoria made the same choice.  Haven’t seen anything new that indicates it was the wrong one.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jobs sailing in to Victoria

There's not a lot to support in the province's decision to abandon the Capital Commission and sell off key assets to finance operational debt.  This trade of lands for those the city owns at Point Hope, however, is one of those exceptions that make good sense. 

During my time on council I was also pressing the case that we sell Point Hope the leased lands to give them certainty for at least some of the investments they had then mapped out.  I hope they proceed with the graving dock they planned that would allow more and larger vessels to come into the yard, creating new and better jobs than I am expecting from the more shaky LNG industry that some operations will service. 

There will no doubt be some who strike the match and light their hair on fire, insisting, wrongly, that the land should be saved for housing or a park.  Both of those soapboxes are too shaky to stand for long.

For the city, the new provincial properties along the other side of the harbour will help to consolidate the city’s holdings on the downtown waterfront, and make it easier to advance a harbour pathway project that has been in the works for years.  That will be a welcome and well used public space that gives hope to the idea that we can stop providing viewscapes for empty cars and give more of our waterfront back to our citizens.

Back on the other side, the Point Hope lands have always been a liability more than an asset for the city.  They cannot be used for housing – too contaminated from near a century and a half of industrial activity that would make reclamation uneconomic.  For health reasons, you simply cannot build housing on toxic sites.  Why would we ask those who need affordable housing to absorb the costs or the risks associated with who knows what buried in the fill?

As a park, it doesn’t have a lot to offer – it would be isolated and less appealing than the new and better park space the city has already planned into the local neighbourhood south of the new bridge and taking advantage of land reclaimed from the soon to be redundant “S” curve (a sticky issue for those that insist traffic calming is so well served by preserving accident generators).

For the shipyard, the lands will be an asset.  They can consolidate their property, cap the site, contain the contamination and keep on doing what they do best - serving dozens of vessels from near and far who check in now again for minor repairs or major work.  Those who might believe it’s but a pittance to fix might cast their eyes towards the BC Hydro lands where tens of millions of dollars have been, and continue to be spent, on one of Canada’s most toxic pieces of land.  That’s not something the city needs to take on.

Point Hope can take this to the bank – as an owner better than a leaseholder, to secure the financing they need to build their business and create jobs you can count.  Both the shipyard and the city also escape the conundrum of the landlord also being the regulator of the lands and eliminate any conflict over the watchdog role.

Not to be undersold also is the planning that went into the bridge project – some elements of design were added late to the plan to allow Point Hope to pull in bigger, wider vessels.

I’m sure the deal will be the “focus” of some critics but this is a good deal for the city and for the sustainability of our community.  We need to be a working city too and this is a big boost for our marine industrial economy.  Our marine highways, despite the efforts of some, aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, and the vessels that ply our coastal waters need their marine garage.  It’s here at Point Hope and it’s about to tool up.

Kudos to Mayor Fortin and the city for making this work.

City news at:

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Windshield Myopia

A couple of weeks ago the Victoria Times-Colonist published an editorial proposing that weather alone was pretty much responsible for our high levels of cycling in Victoria.  Here's my rejoinder, an op-ed piece sent in soon afterwards, but never published.

Re:  TC Editorial, Thursday June 6, 2013, on bikes and traffic safety

Your editorial on road safety issues suggests that Victoria has done little to improve the lot of cyclists and that our high ridership is a happy accident of climate.

That doesn’t square with the facts.

Saskatoon and Kingston, both cities with harsher winters also enjoy high levels of cycling and in the U.S. places like Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota also have high levels of cycling, challenging the notion that weather alone will generate higher levels of participation.

Victoria, like other cities that have extensive networks of bicycle facilities, still has work to do to fill in the gaps, but the pace of change here has been impressive.  A more thorough investigation of what we do have will find one of the most well developed off-road trail systems of any city in North America.  Few have parallel routes that provide the levels of service, continuity and connectivity as efficiently and effectively as do the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails.  Counts near 1,000 bikes per hour have been recorded at busy locations.

Unlike many cities, however, we do not have an extensive grid system – something that makes easier work of the “cycle track” systems now being seen in Vancouver or Montreal.   Even those cities still rely on marked bike lanes on major routes or traffic calming on quieter streets to support cycling for transportation.

Painted bike lanes do make conditions safer and more appealing for many and other local count projects have found a significant, positive correlation between our on-road facilities and an observed growth in cycling traffic.

Local governments and other agencies are looking at separated or buffered bike lanes for numbers of routes, but they will be constrained by local context and daunting cost issues.  Solutions will not be immediate and indeed, our regional plan has a long term horizon. 

Your editorial also suggests that we lack for a good education program to teach people how better to share the roads.  That is incorrect.  More than 2,000 cyclists have gone through a Bike to Work commuter program that is equipping people with the skills to ride safely in traffic and cycling advocates have worked with local authorities on enforcement initiatives and better bike smarts for drivers.

A blip in collision numbers may make for a good story, but actual rates show a relatively safe cycling city.  Growing numbers of people are choosing bicycling for at least some of their daily travel needs, at least where infrastructure has been improved and all municipalities are continuing to work on further improvements to serve local as well as regional needs.

While we need to do more, and our regional plans provide an ambitious blueprint for how our transportation system might evolve in the future.  Your editorial misses the very real progress we have already made, the associated increases in cycling numbers and safety outcomes that we are building into the fabric of our transportation system.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

June 2013
Bike Lanes Threatened

BC Transit is considering options for rapid bus services along Douglas St., the Trans-Canada Highway, and other main transit routes serving high demand destinations in the region.

Some proposals that will be presented should set off alarm bells for cyclists in Greater Victoria.  Existing bike lanes could be erased for transit priority service - bad medicine for a transportation system that needs to shift road capacity to more sustainable choices.  Bike lanes shouldn’t be sacrificed to coddle the cars.  We need to offer alternatives for drivers to choose transit – not try and push bikes off the road where design challenges are too much for planners to grapple with.

Across downtown bicycling’s share of the commuter market exceeds 10%, not so far behind transit passenger volumes.  Like every traveler on our roads, cyclists are looking for direct and convenient routes to their destinations and, without an effective grid system, few options to take parallel routes.

For the same reasons that Blanshard has been dismissed as a primary rapid transit corridor, cyclists destined for shopping or workplaces along Douglas will want to use Douglas.  They already do, by the hundreds, if not by the thousands, every day.  They too pay their taxes and deserve no less access to the streets they pay for than do their fellow citizens.

Lately a “complete streets” approach to allocating road space has gained currency across North America and is rapidly gaining traction here in Victoria.  Pushing cyclists off of a key route by erasing bike lanes runs counter to a policy framework embraced by both the city and the region and should come off the table.

We are trying to build a more sustainable city, a more sustainable region and we are working to provide alternatives to an over-reliance on the private automobile.  Stealing space from cycling to speed up transit won’t be successful if it does so only to keep car capacity whole.

What we are seeing here is a retreat to an old-style of thinking – some see bikes as a competitor to transit, so they aren’t invested in providing space, let alone funding, to make more complete streets work in practice, (if it is seen to be stealing market share).

The real target, (and a much bigger one), are the more than 70% of residents who still choose driving first.  Chip away at some of their space; make transit a little more competitive in time and convenience - then you can start attracting the big numbers you need to fill buses, justify more resources and start developing the case for LRT again.  Stealing capacity at the margins from bicycle commuters targets a much smaller market, generates ill will among potential allies, and belies a commitment to sustainable transportation.

With more bike commuters, based on population, than in any other city in Canada, and well beyond most every city in North America, we are not a good target for reduced levels of service for cycling – rather we need more.  We need to find the option that helps Transit do their job better, but allows for those of us who ride to maintain fair access to the routes and destinations we need to get to - just like everyone else.

Let Transit know that cutting bike lanes is not on.  Check out the Transit future bus “open house” road show.  Make sure your council hears from you.  Transit meets on June 27th to consider options.  Don’t let them take away what we’ve worked hard to build.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bridge Chronicles

New installments April 2013
The crisis of bridge financing is in the eye of the beholder.  Accounting idiosyncrasies and scope changes supported by a majority of council have evolved through reasonable project timelines.  Choices have been transparent – presented in public to those at the table, mindful of the expectation that distinct elements of the project and its management require due diligence at every decision point.

Critics need to choose between journalism and advocacy, though it seems the two are cross-pollinating, with those investigating the story clearly advocates for an alternate agenda and storyline, and predictably less interested in the facts that don’t echo their view of history.

Costs of the referendum and an alternate design project are now in the budget, as are scope changes like the project to move Telus lines, and new features aimed at protecting structures from new traffic that may be generated by a post-referendum ship building program, among other line items.  Endorsed as a package, council dissenters could have asked for separate motions to consider each distinct accounting change or substantive cost element.  They had a voice, and a vote, not a veto.

Council chose, as it should have, to remain “focused” on value for money and voted to support clear, if sometimes mundane budget additions to protect taxpayers and the city’s capital investment, though nothing that could be characterized as inflationary, irresponsible or aimed at conspiratorial subterfuge.

The contractor will be in the water soon enough, even as those who lost the referendum and continue to lose votes at council, sometimes by proxy, continue to launch torpedoes aimed at scuttling the project.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Last week environmental organizations put out a proposal for a "Better Future Fund" aimed at the next BC election coming in May.  It proposed to take the provincial carbon tax and apply revenues to various initiatives to green up our energy expenditures.  The biggest chunk they earmarked for transit while proposing other investments in energy efficiencies for buildings and local community initiatives aimed at reducing our carbon footprint.

The community piece was pretty light on details, and the fund proposal missed the mark on active transportation - nothing in there about cycling and walking which, in many BC communities, are rapidly growing as viable transportation choices for more and more of our citizens and, unlike some of the other proposals, have a much more immediate and direct benefit in individual and community health.

I put out a news release to point out the missing link here, unfortunately all too typical of those who can't see the trees for the forest.  They get the big picture but don't always grasp some of the details of how to get there.  The Better Future Fund is still well intended and a good start to an important discussion, but we need to make sure that the practical solutions that we need to help people make more sustainable choices are spelled out in some detail and appropriately funded so that the sticks of the carbon tax are better paired with the carrots of real options for more sustainable lifestyle choices in how and where we live, and in the transportation choices we will be making several times a day, every day.

March 12, 2013

For Immediate Release

Better Future Fund Incomplete Says Cycling advocate

The Better Future Fund proposed by leading environmental organizations is a good recipe for BC’s carbon tax, but it is missing some essential ingredients, says Capital Bike and Walk Executive Director John Luton.

“Dollar for dollar, investments in cycling infrastructure is one of the most efficient and effective means of shifting travel choices to sustainable modes”, he said. 

“Carbon taxes need to be paired with investments in cycling infrastructure to help people choose cycling for more of their daily travel needs”, says Luton, “and the Better Future plan is a missed opportunity to make that point. When it comes to transportation, there is more than one shade of green”.

Victoria already has the highest mode share for cycling of any city in Canada, and can do more, but cities need helping funding the capital projects that are needed to attract a broader demographic than we’ve been able to grow so far. Cycling is not only a viable choice on its own, but, in larger cities, it also partners well with the transit that Better Future supporters want to fund, and has a coincident benefit in individual and community health.

Capital Bike and Walk has been working with local advocates and others in the province through the BC Cycling Coalition to develop a vision of what the province could achieve with new investments in cycling infrastructure.  He says the plan would not only help shift travel choices to more sustainable modes but would also help BC better compete with other jurisdictions putting money into cycling tourism initiatives that are growing jobs and new, sustainable economic modelsy.

Quebec is growing thousands of jobs around their “Route Verte” project; Vermont’s cycling tourism industry is bigger than maple syrup and locally, businesses and many BC communities are already building their own strategies to attract green tourism.

“Moving BC forwards to a more sustainable model needs to pair more of the carrots with the stick of the carbon tax.  We can’t just punish people with new costs – we’ve got to give them a range of options that will help them make the transition now and in the future.  We need the transit plan, but it has a much longer gestation period and higher up front capital costs than does cycling infrastructure programs”, said Luton.

“Provincial investments in cycling have been working, but programs have too often been cut to meet fiscal pressures.  We need to tie carbon taxes to program spending that makes good policy sense, and putting money into cycling is essential to a better future for BC.”

For more information:
John Luton, Executive Director
Capital Bike and Walk Society
250-886-4166 (cell)

BC Cycling Coalition provincial recommendations at: