Is There an “Ideological War on Transportation” in Vancouver?

Mayoral candidate insists there is, but experts disagree.

Vancouver mayoral candidate and former federal MP Wai Young insists that there is an “ideological war on transportation” in this city. In her view, the construction of separated bike lanes and planned demolition of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are salvos in this war. She proposes to halt both separated bike lane construction and the viaduct demolitions if elected mayor. In an interview with VanMag, Young insisted on a few key points about transportation in the city. That separated bike lanes are dangerous and can be blamed for worsening congestion rates and that the demolition of the viaducts will worsen congestion further. “There’s a conscious ideology to block mobility, leaving people sitting in their cars for hours,” she insists. We put those claims to an urban planning expert and a civic business leader, and examined major international and local urban affairs studies. All of these sources raised significant issues with Young’s claims, and her proposed solutions.

Do separated bike lanes actually cause congestion?

One of Young’s primary targets has been separated bike lanes, arguing that they cause congestion and are dangerous. Young promises that she will build no new bike lanes in the city, and any new construction will see an old bike lane removed. “We’re not against painted bike lanes,” she insists “just separated bike lanes.”“Congestion is not being driven by bike lanes,” says UBC Civil Engineering and Community and Regional planning professor Alex Bigazzi. He admits that bike lanes may have small and localized negative impacts on congestion, but notes that population growth is a far bigger contributor. Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transit in Vancouver according to a 2016 study by the city. Fifty-one per cent of Vancouverites have said they want to ride more often. Fear of traffic has been a major deterrent to those riders, eighty-six per cent of respondents said they are comfortable riding in a separated bike lane on a major street, sixty two per cent said they are comfortable in a painted bike lane, and only twenty-three per cent claimed to be comfortable riding regardless of the traffic conditions. Charles Gauthier, President and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, attributes separated bike lanes to a growth in cycling rates. “They’ve come with a huge demographic shift in ages and abilities as well,” he says. “We see more parents riding with kids and more older folks on the bike lanes, people who wouldn’t be comfortable riding unless they were separated from traffic.”As for safety, a 2012 study of cycling accidents from UBC found that a cyclist is ten times less likely to be injured in a separated bike lane. “Managing intersections is key to their safety,” says Bigazzi who admits the lanes aren’t perfect. Bigazzi and Gauthier both agree that drivers prefer to have cyclists in a separate bike lanes. Bigazzi says it removes the fear of accidentally hitting a rider while Gauthier, a driver, says that the cyclists represent cars that aren’t on the road, easing traffic for him.       

Without the Viaducts, how much worse will things get?

According to INRIX, a firm studying global traffic patterns, Vancouver has the 203rd worst traffic in the world. Vancouverites average twenty-nine hours per year spent in traffic. That puts us fifth in Canada behind Montreal (50), Toronto (49), St. John’s (34) and Ottawa (31). “Ninety-eight per cent of people can’t get where they want to go easily,” says Young, “and now they want to make it even more difficult by ripping down the Viaducts.” The city’s planned demolition of the viaducts is part of the wider Northeast False Creek redevelopment plan. They will be replaced by new sections of Pacific Boulevard and Georgia St. and the city claims the new streets can “handle 100 percent of current and future traffic volume.” Bigazzi isn’t as optimistic as the city. In his view, removing the viaducts will worsen downtown congestion unless improvements to cycling and public transit infrastructure are made as well. Those improvements, however, are part of the city’s plan. “The effect of demolishing the viaducts will be small in the big picture,” Bigazzi says, “the much bigger effect is going to be changing land use.” The planned new neighbourhood of Northeast False Creek will further increase downtown’s density and add new drivers and commuters into the street network, exacerbating congestion. Charles Gauthier is satisfied with the city’s plan for the viaducts, and thinks that the new road network should be able to handle the capacity. He thinks that any negative impacts on congestion will be far outweighed by the construction of a new neighbourhood with more housing and greenspace that he believes aligns with the Reimagine Downtown Vancouver study.   

Is this an “Ideological War”?

Neither Bigazzi nor Gauthier see an “ideological war” on transportation. Gauthier has seen downtown businesses come around to cycling infrastructure in recent years, especially tech companies attracting a younger workforce that doesn’t drive as much as older generations. He still has some concerns over bike lanes’ impact on street-level retail businesses, but notes that when businesses relocated away from Hornby St. after the construction of separated bike lanes, new businesses moved in with models that didn’t rely on street parking. “There’s absolutely no evidence of an ideological war on transportation,” Bigazzi says.  “If what’s being referred to by is driving, the emphasis is on moving people and goods, not on moving private vehicles.” Bigazzi argues that private vehicles are an inefficient way to move people and that in many cases additional road space for pedestrians, cyclists, and busses will actually increase transit efficiency. He argues that drivers can spare the space, “private cars still have the lion’s share of capacity provided to them.” 

What do you think about separated bike lanes… are they a boon or a bane? Let us know in the comments!