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:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New bridge, refurbished economy.

The recent award of a contract to build the new Johnson St. Bridge will have some critics looking for a new storyline.  Pretty clearly the fiction that the deal was on the verge of collapse was overblown.  Construction will start soon and some will continue looking for new theories to explain away the public process, democratic referendum and a solid professional design and development process that is moving the new crossing project along.

Council critics will be left behind as well, pointing fingers at the majority who have consistently voted to proceed despite the claims of sinister intent that are likewise overstated.  More perplexing, though, is a newfound interest in downtown vibrancy possessed of some of the same voices who are finding the wind at their backs has turned and their ship has now sailed, and seemingly rudderless.

Anyone who took the trouble to read the economic impact assessments that weighed a potential refurbishment project against the choice of a new bridge would have found the impacts to the downtown economy of a bridge rescue mission unsupportable.  Potential losses were pegged at as much as $13 million a year, dwarfing what impacts they have lately noticed from market shifts to the new Uptown mall in Saanich.  If the rush to the burbs is built on convenient access and plentiful parking, how come they didn’t notice the gross inconvenience of losing the old bridge for a couple of years?  (The only viable means of refurbishing structural elements and getting at the shaky foundations was deconstruction and off-site reworking that has, in any event, proven unfeasible).

Certainly business voices in the city were, after initial apprehensions over costs, quickly convinced of the sound choice embodied in the new bridge.  They, as well as anyone, understood the engineering analysis as well as the very real problems of losing a vital crossing would be for the centre of the region’s economy.  Like most who have had a more practical sense of the issues, the hair on fire claims that a cover up of a cheap and easy fix was being ditched by empire builders just didn’t hold water.  More so, the recognition that the functionality of the system design represented in the new road alignments and added levels of service for cyclists and pedestrians maintained a balance that would have been thrown off-kilter by lane reductions or other closure schemes sometimes promoted by dissenting voices.

The bridge is an essential connection to the city’s downtown for many in Victoria as well as for those who live in municipalities beyond our borders.  Shutting it down would send them off to other commercial and retail destinations to avoid the headaches of getting downtown via other routes that are even today oversubscribed and not really direct links for many of the trips to downtown businesses in particular.  Why is that point lost on the supporters of a “vibrant downtown economy” who have been taking aim at the bridge project?  Add economic illiteracy to their sandbox grasp of transportation system design.

As much as some would like more parking, more travel lanes for their cars, just as there are those who propose to shut it all down and imagine everyone will walk or bike to every destination for every trip, neither is going to happen.  We’ve achieved something of an equilibrium where extra capacity for cycling and walking trips will help people make more sustainable choices, but those who choose to drive, or who must, will keep the level of service they have now, at least as much as they have had since 1924 when the current bridge was completed. (Transit services and goods movement would run into their own problems if the “greener” solutions were implemented).  What’s useful to know, however, is that the new bridge also caps capacity at those same levels for cars and trucks, and this despite the clear signs of fresh new growth in residential and business development immediately west of the bridge that will generate many thousands of more trips a day to and from downtown.  Most of that growth will be on foot or by bike – the bridge already accommodates more than 1 million trips per annum by bike, some figure larger on foot.  Both will enjoy service improvements that will accelerate those numbers when the new bridge arrives.

Word to the wise on that one too.  Developments on both sides of the bridge owe at least something to the new project.  The uncertainty of a decision, the very questionable resilience of the existing crossing and even the lack of cycling and walking features were an impediment to their moving forward.  Those “concerned” about the city’s economic vibrancy have now another shaky platform to climb down from.  The new bridge is a positive, not a negative, for Victoria’s economy and it’s time to move on.

Next steps will see the start of construction as the city’s freshly secured contractor starts poking holes in the harbour bottom for new foundations.  It will also be the foundation of a new era in the city’s history and one we can look forward to.