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A Push for Cycling in Vancouver

Every new block of bike lanes has caused outrage and frustration. Two activists want to turn the heat on that debate way up
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Every new block of bike lanes has caused outrage and frustration. Two activists want to turn the heat on that debate way up

On a rare snowy December at UBC, the morning bus commute is a miserable crawl through a city shocked by a sudden burst of winter. Yet Jinhua Zhao, assistant professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning and the department of civil engineering, is beaming. He loves this weather as a metaphor for the shock he says Vancouver needs in order to establish a bicycle culture.

In 2007, Vancity ran an experiment that invited people to share a fleet of 45 free machines. Two months later, half the bikes had disappeared and the rest were eventually donated to a nonprofit connecting low-income earners with transportation options. That short-lived pilot was inspired by UBC, which has been home to its own public bike share since 1998: $15 grants access to some 100 purple-and-yellow bicycles scattered around campus. Zhao likes these programs but wants more, much more. "What if we buy one million bicycles-cheap bicycles from China for, say, $30 million-and just scatter them around the city?" he says. "You need to build up enough momentum to say this is serious. One million bicycles would really disrupt the system. I would call it Magic Bicycle Week."

Sure, many bikes would end up stolen, abandoned, or sold for scrap. But Zhao insists a sudden invasion would create a seismic shift in a city whose two-wheeled renaissance lags despite the best intentions of city officials and transportation authorities.

Zhao, also commissioner of China Planning Network, a think-tank focused on that country's urbanization, was inspired to think big after a recent trip to Beijing. In the 1980s, Beijing was the kingdom of the bicycle, with a cycle mode share of 60 percent-six out of every 10 trips by bike. Millions of those bicycles disappeared in the 1990s as China embraced the middle class and the private automobile emerged as a status symbol. Yet a smoggy quarter-century later, Beijing's cycle share sits below 20 percent and Zhao says planners there are again considering the bicycle as a real transportation option, even reverting some bike lanes-long annexed as parking or turning lanes-to their original purpose.

Many cities around the world are bent on enabling denser communities and healthier citizens by ramping up bicycle infrastructure and policies. That gives Zhao hope for Vancouver, where selling the benefits of cycling has been a slow slog. The ruling Vision Vancouver party without doubt champions the bicycle, but opposition from businesses and neighbours has been brutal, he says, and TransLink, which prides itself on helping increase Metro Vancouver's cycle mode share, has slashed funding for its cycling program by 50 percent to $3 million a year, 0.2 percent of its total budget.

That's why Zhao is calling for his big push. "Thirty million is not a trivial number, but it's not that big. If I'm the mayor and have the money, I would like to do such an experiment. It takes the guts to say, ‘If it fails, so what?' "

Across town, architectural technician Chris Bruntlett is focused on fixing cycling's image. In his peacoat and newsboy cap, he looks quite the dandy as he locks his European-styled Linus commuter to a bike rack on Alexander Street. The bike has fenders and a chain guard, a leather seat, and tall handlebars for upright posture. Co-director of the Vancouver Cycle Chic Society, Bruntlett applauds the city's efforts in infrastructure and policy work but feels officials are overlooking a critical third prong of bicycle advocacy.

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