Monday, December 28, 2009

Letter to Monday Magazine

Couple of issues came up in the latest edition of Monday Magazine around the bridge and also around bicycle parking. Here's my letter back, which I'm not expecting to see published (it's too long, but complex issues can't be covered in 50 words or less).

Bikes and the bridge

Rather than a solution, Allan Gallupe's letter on bikes and the bridge emphasizes the point David Cubberley made in his letter.

Gallupe's suggestion to cyclists that they get off an walk reflects an all too common self-centered approach to the provision of bike facilities. "I can manage, so just suck it up and you can too."

That's appealing to very few of those already cycling - most would like something better, but it is also gallingly myopic when it comes to providing for a much larger potential market for cycling among our population who can't or, more to the point, won't, choose to bicycle because either the reality or their perception of traffic and the road environment is that it is at best, unappealing and at worst, unsafe, to do so.

For a good piece of research on cycling populations check out the research done in Portland. I think it is pretty representative of cycling populations across North America, and certainly local research bears this out (the province did some surveys in the '90s and federal research on active transportation confirms as much).

Victoria is, nevertheless, doing well. A greater proportion of our citizens bike for transportation than in any other city in North America (outside of Davis, California, which is a freak of history). Still, at almost 8% of commuter traffic (you need a primer on statistical analysis to slice and dice the numbers here), the mode share for cycling in Greater Victoria pales in comparison to success rates in numbers of European jurisdictions.

Our objective (Victoria has signed on to the Regional Growth Strategy), is to grow our percentages significantly (measured in terms of all trip purposes) and that is simply not possible while providing a "level of service" that equates to failure under any competent traffic engineering analysis. Imagine that motorists were required to stop their car and push a button to get access to the bridge (suggesting that they get out and push is a little far fetched), or go through the contortions expected of cyclists as the approach or cross the bridge. Most of them would be outraged. Why is it satisfactory that cyclists should accept a level of service that is so appalingly inadequate?

For Gallupe, that may be sufficient, but it lacks any credibility. Anyone who has done any research on cycling populations and the provision of supportive infrastructure will understand that his prescription has zero appeal, and is totally ineffective at growing participation.

I note the irony of Monday's Christmas wish list, which includes "a general increase in the city's overall bicycling infrastructure". There are no solutions using the current bridge that will address the frustratingly inadequate level of service avialble on the Blue Bridge, notwithstanding Ross Crockford's insistence that he can design facilities on the back of a napkin and provide them at no cost. Darren Mar (president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition) summarized the challenges well enough in a recent op-ed in theTimes Colonist, and certainly I have been aware of these limitations for more than a decade and continue to research issues that are tossed in the way of the new bridge.

The bridge can't be viewed in isolation (a convenient myopia of Crockford's organization). For many cyclists, and particularly for would be cyclists, the bridge is an insurmountable barrier, and its key location at the "delta" of our major off-road cycling facilities (the Goose and Lochside and soon the E&N trail), makes it particularly important. The impacts radiate far beyond the immediate catchment of the bridge. Bicycle trips will not start in Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt etc., for so many people who know that the bridge figures into their journey.

The problem is not unique to Victoria area residents - talk to Jeff Stamp at Capital City Cycles (the former owner of Chain, Chain, Chain still puts in time at the newly named downtown store). Jeff can tell you ad nauseum about the touring cyclists he has sent over to the Galloping Goose over the years. Invariably they love the trail but hate the bridge.

As for the cycling infrastructure in Victoria that you want more of, there is nothing more critical than the bridge. Elsewhere on your wish list is a reminder to critics to redouble their efforts to put the brakes on the city's borrowing bylaw for the new bridge. That, I might suggest, is counterproductive to your desire for more and better bike infrastructure.

I'm not looking necessarily for publication of my comments, as I think the issues are more complex than I can summarize in 50 words or less. I would like, at least, to point you in the direction of some more detailed discussion of the issues for cyclists and the bridge. You can find more on my personal website at and

So, you may cross off your wish for more ambivalence from the city around the bridge project. You certainly won't get that from this councillor. I have zero interest in preserving the old bridge to favour cars and trucks over all other modes, not for another 30 or 40 years, let alone in perpetuity (as some critics believe we can do).

Bicycle Parking
The other issue that has received some play in the most recent issue and in other editions of Monday is the city's efforts to provide more and better bike parking downtown.

Plans for conversion of our parking meters to the pay by space system were well advanced when I got elected. I had been, as an advocate, pestering engineering and parking services to provide better bike parking hardware as their program displaced the informal opportunities provided by parking meters. That initiative got more traction after the election.

City staff continue to work on adding the city's inverted "U" racks to blocks where the pay by space posts are going in. I think your previous article on this a few months ago suggested that there are only a couple of racks along any block. In the 800 block of Fort, there are, in fact, at least 12 racks - space for 24 bikes. Many other downtown blocks are getting similar numbers. Not every meter post will be replaced. The one for one suggestion made by other letter writers (I think Bob McInnes either wrote or was interviewed) would be a poor use of resources and stunt the growth of other, more creative solutions. There are many locations where meter posts are simply not ideal locations for bike parking.

The inverted "U", by the way, is the most popular and effective design in use across North America and is universally supported by bike advocates and professionals as such. Here's a few illustrations of the inverted "U" and the "staple" rack, which is a variation on the same theme:

And those are just some of my pictures. You can find many more of the same basic design in use across the continent. It was the subject of a seminar at the Pro Bike conference in Santa Baraba in 1998. After that one, I came back to Victoria to badger the council of the day to adopt the inverted "U" design over the poorly thought out "wave" or "serpentine" rack, many of which are still, unfortunately, in use.

The program to install numbers of new racks is moving ahead, more slowly than I or many other cyclists would like, but there are some challenges - the 150 inverted "U" racks ordered as part of the meter conversion initiative will run up a cost of about $45,000 I think, and we will need more. Other issues include the available sidewalk space and what's underneath the concrete (water, electrical utilities, etc.) that can stymie some installations.

With respect to other facilities, one of the operational plans we have under development is a Bicycle Parking Strategy, which I insisted upon to respond to the parking meter conversion program. It's not just about bike parking, but about the safety of our sidewalks - using poles, posts, or other street furniture can create hazards in the pedestrian right of way, particularly a problem for people with vision problems. So while it might have had a more difficult time moving up Council's priority list, I have been at least able to get a project going to try and address a problem resulting from incomplete planning in the past.

Sheltered bike parking like the one at MEC (which I initiated through discussions with MEC and the Cycling Advisory Committee several years ago), parking conversion (worked with Shane Devereaux at Habit Coffee to ditch a couple of parking spaces in favour of expanded bike parking), will be part of the strategy, along with some other ideas. See for example: Vancouver, Washington and some other cities are using pay as you go lockers for higher security and it is something I'm pushing for in the strategy, among other ideas.

You may wish, also, to review the challenge of improving bike parking on private property. It took me ten years (as an advocate) to get requirements in zoning bylaws to ensure all new developments include a certain number of bike parking spaces, depending on land use (commercial, retail, multi-unit residential, instutitional etc), and I'm expecting to see more prescriptive guidelines in our strategy (better site planning, acceptable hardware).

For a great example of the worst of bike racks, look outside your front door. There are, unfortunately, also many other examples around town.

I guess we'll make it one of our new year's resolutions to try and fulfill at least the bike parking gifts on your Christmas wish list. I look forward to more coverage on these issues.

John Luton

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