Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The numbers game and the Blue Bridge

Asked about numbers of cyclists on the bridge I responded that I "guessed" an average based on regional counts reported to council on fact sheets prepared by our engineers and communications department.  Turns out someone reversed pedestrians and cyclists on one sheet and, because the inquiring journalist was working to a tight deadline, I didn't have time to chase the source of the error.

It's been blown into a bigger isse than it needs to be, so here's some thoughts on what's really happening on the bridge.

First, it's been noted elsewhere often enough that the bridge needs replacement for a number of reasons, including seismic vulnerability, deterioration of the superstructure and its electrical and mechanical systems, a costly and unproductive repair bill and an unacceptable economic penalty for a project of uncertain benefits. 

A new bridge addresses all of those issues, but offers as well attractive opportunities to improve traffic safety, and provide much higher levels of service for cyclists, pedestrians and those with mobility challenges.  One of the more exciting elements of that service will be an important new link in the city's planned harbour greenway - a piece of the trail that threads through the new bridge and connect to a path that will eventually run from Rock Bay to Ogden point.  It delivers some benefits in more rational land use on both sides of the bridge, and how we take advantage of that opportunity will be the subject of a conversation we need to have with the community as we move forward.

The dust up on numbers has been about how many cyclists are on the bridge every day, and how many there might be in the future.

Transportation systems are designed to carry maximum capacity at peak hours, so while averages and daily counts are useful indicators of volumes, a bridge, a road, a bus, a ferry system of a bike path really need to be ready for high tide.  On a good day there are 4,000 bike trips back and forth across the bridge, demonstrating the determination of people to get to and from the Galloping Goose by bike despite convoluted routing, an uncomfortable ride on the road or an all to narrow and congested sliver of the rail bridge.

That's probably one of the more important numbers to remember in assessing how well the current bridge performs for cyclists in particular.  An incomplete count, off peak hours, in the middle of winter, is not a good metric by which to judge how many cyclists are using the bridge.

The next important numbers will be what the bridge will need to carry.  Cycling and pedestrian traffic has been growing steadily on the bridge over the last several years.  Completion of key sections of the Galloping Goose along Harbour Rd and the arrival of new developments in Vic West are contributing to that growth.  The bridge itself, however, remains a barrier.  Cyclists and pedestrians need more space that will be provided on the trail piece of a new bridge, and on road bike lanes will support numbers more commuter cyclists.

Elsewhere in the region and across North America, the addition of supportive infrastructure has been shown to dramtically increase cycling on improved corridors and facilities.  There is no reason to doubt that completion of a more friendly crossing at the Blue Bridge will do the same here.  The current bridge is not, and cannot, be equipped to absorb that growth.  It will be increasingly less safe and more frustrating for all users.

Critics who insist that better approaches or even just better signage will do the trick simply have no concept of how cycling facilities work and how infrastucture connects to participation.  What's further missing from their understanding of that relationship is the absence of any acknowledgement of the new growth that will be generated by the new trail under construction alongside the E&N railway.  Thousands of new trips are likely to pressure the carrying capacity of the bridge, not to mention the Goose, which already is experiencing user conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians during peak hours.

So while for some, an instance where one set of numbers got turned around is a fatal flaw that must sink the new bridge, it really is just clutching at straws to find something that supports a simple agenda - save the bridge at any cost.  That's a legitimate objective to articulate, but wrapping it up in misleading, if not fraudulent, attacks on the project does a disservice to those who have a genuine sentimental attachment to "Big Blue".  More importantly, it's a myopic view of a complicated and comprehensive project that is informed by so many other factors that, taken as a whole point clearly to the new bridge as our best option.

Our borrowing referendum needs to pass, and with that we can turn not just to building a new bridge, but perhaps too, to how we can celebrate or preserve something of the old one.  It's time for a new landmark and a new era in transportation in Victoria.

The E&N trail is coming:

Can it handle the traffic?

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