Despite the many formative events in the cycling advocacy world just before and after Expo ‘86, it wasn’t until the 90s began that the bigger picture began to come together.
From protest and possibility, to hard infrastructure — that was the goal. And one of its greatest expressions in Vancouver — the neighbourhood bikeway — didn’t come from city staff, the advocates, or as the result of any prior event. It came from kitchen table conversations by a couple of dads in Kitsilano.
I think the single thing that kind of kick-started transportation cycling in Vancouver was the creation of the local street bikeway network. Up until that time, we had very few bike facilities.
This is the real breakthrough that occurred.
I was living in Kitsilano. I had moved the location of my company in 1987 to Burnaby. So it was that period, from 1987 to 1990, that I was often biking back and forth.
And I thought, “Why don't I bicycle to work as often as I can?” It's just a way of efficiently getting exercise, getting a chance to think, to ponder and that sort of thing. And having a nice time. Particularly on the path that I took in Kitsilano to Burnaby, most of the way it was possible to cycle on side streets that were really very quiet. Surprisingly safe and quiet.
The frustration was that there was no easy way to cross the perpendicular arterial streets along the way. There weren't many other cyclists at that time.
And so I was interested in the fact that there was what looked like an opportunity, and wondered if anybody had given that any thought.
At first I thought there's no safe way to do it. And it was at that time that I came across an article that Doug had written in the Sun about his experience. It turned out he had also started biking to work downtown. It was about the beauty of cycling, and also the hazards — the difficulties of doing so.
We knew one another pretty well. So when I saw his interest in it I thought, hey here's something we have in common.
Some people, you scratched their head like, what was their motivation?
That first article I wrote in 1990 was just pissed-offness. It was just spouting off, a local guy whose kids were getting older and I wanted them to be able to cycle safely in the city.
I just thought, “We need more bike routes. Why don't we get some bike paths and bike lanes?” Not knowing anything about the bike scene. I was an outsider, I knew nothing.
So I just wrote that piece — maybe the most important article I've ever written.
Like a lot of people, they were frustrated that the city wasn't moving. It's just really difficult to find space on arterial streets. That's common.
I'm surprised my editors allowed it, because it was hard core opinion, and I wasn't an opinion writer. Now I'm a columnist, so I'm doing more. But at that time I was just the neutral reporter. They just let me do this for some reason.
Lorne and I just got talking because he's a neighbour — his kids and our kids played. We lived a block away. He's an inventor, he's quite brilliant — always got ideas.
That’s the kind of thing I like to work on — innovative approaches to problems. Different ways of doing things. It's true I'm a physicist, but I guess you could say a lot of the stuff I work on is all physical. In some cases more organizational.
He and I got together to talk it over, and I floated that idea: “Is there some way of helping with this?” In the context of this conversation, the idea of putting just a few improvements at the perpendicular arterial streets that make it possible to easily cross — in some cases new pedestrian crossings with a push-button —seemed like a very simple, straight forward, practical and good idea for the city.
The idea that you could create a bikeway that was entirely safe for cyclists to travel along. Which is central to what would be developed.
Genius engineer. He developed pike light. You go to McDonald's and you see the big signs, it's not a bunch of lightbulbs, but it's not exactly a fluorescent light either. It's a stick of light. He developed that.
Whenever people started working on a new thing like this, you're always on the lookout for fatal flaws, or criticisms that might come about: “There's got to be something wrong with this. Why wasn't it being done?”
It was really obvious to Doug and me that there was a good possibility that there was just something wrong with this idea.
So of course what we wanted to do was learn about the status quo, and what the state of the situation was at the City.
I think Mark was the first person that Doug reached out to.
Mark contacted me after I wrote the 1990 piece.
In those days, Mark was also doing his own research work.
Mark was an insider, respected and super-connected at City Hall. He did that green report.
Let me expand a bit on Clouds of Change, because it also relates to Doug and Lorne.
My research was looking at precedents from other be municipalities. There wasn't anything — we had to make up our own.
This is something made in Vancouver, and it's funny because, even though the research on other places is really important, there's this local bias. Politicians are very funny this way, because they don't really like to lead, they like to know that somebody else has done it; then they like to say “We're first”, but really only if they've got some evidence for it. Gordon Campbell is one of the worst for this — he wanted stuff that was made in Vancouver, something unique.
So we were doing this dance back and forth between truly being cutting edge and saying, “There's Gottenburg, Sweden, and all these other places that are doing this,” and “This is the way we do it in Vancouver, and it's time for us to step up, and we're going to do it differently from a city that is flatter and more sprawling. This is the Vancouver way to do it.”
One of the recommendations in it was to create a bicycle rectangle —two north-south, and two east-west streets. I can't remember which ones they were, but you could basically get around if you took out a lane of traffic or a lane of parking.
We had enormous opposition, not from the usual suspects — not from the merchants — but from the cycling people. And particularly, the couriers and the elite cyclists. This was fascinating.
At that time, there was a very popular book…
Foresterism. John Forester and his adamant advocacy, a big influence. And he wrote that cycling should not be separated from traffic. A bicycle is traffic, and they should get the same respect and ability to use the road as the car and anybody else.
So if you get the bicycle off the street, or away on a separated lane — even a painted lane — you're violating this fundamental principal. Ghettoization.
His argument was basically that cyclists just have to be better, and learn how to cycle traffic. Offer them training.
Of course the couriers and the elite cyclists love this stuff, but they’re basically insane compared to most people.
Engineers loved Forester, because it meant almost no change. It means you gotta fight it out!
Well, good luck baby. Two-thousand pound car, bicycle — figure that one out.
Your average person who's trying to get groceries or has a kid on the back is not going to do that.
Even if their data was correct — which it turns out it wasn't, there was this whole thing disproving their stuff — the perception of safety is almost as important as safety itself. The whole point of the Greenest City momentum was to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes, and you're not going to do that if people feel like it's incredibly unsafe.
Yeah, Forester took us in a very bad direction. It doesn't meet the eight to eighty requirement; this is something that came out of the thinking of Gil Penalosa, in Toronto. Cycling should be safe, comfortable and practical for eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. If it's safe for kids, it's good for everybody else.
Same principal for the disabled. If you make the city safe for the disabled, it will be good for everybody else.
And to do that, you have to separate the bike from the car.
So it was a real eye-opener to realize that it was the cycling community that was opposing the most progressive cycling legislation that we were coming up with municipally. That was very, very interesting.
Mark certainly was more familiar with some of these civic issues, and helped us to learn more about them.
Doug, Lorne and I met a few times over a few months in Lorne's kitchen. That's when the Vancouver bikeway network was hashed, over those kitchen table meetings.
It wasn't rocket science really. I remember Lorne had some really good ideas, and for him it was really simple — let's look at a map. And so we looked at a map. “Let's put it here.” We were not transportation engineers, but again we were coming at it from different values than transportation engineers.
I thought we were a pretty good team. We just thought, “This should work, there's no reason this shouldn't work.”
For me it was about, “This is a good idea, it makes sense, it's articulated, let's try to engage the cycling community other than the Forester cyclists, and get them to take this on.” For me, it was to be a catalyst, and not to make that my agenda.
He really helped to develop the concept of local neighbourhood bikeways. Bike boulevards, greenways, whatever you might want to call them. That concept became the focal point of the City of Vancouver's network-building, for many years following their efforts.
It took about half a year to get organized. I think we can credit Lorne with the side streets, the whole network of bikeways. We wrote 35-page reports on how to use the side streets as greenways.
I don't recall if it was Mark who introduced us to Gordon, or it might just have been that both Doug and I knew of his interest in this. But very early on we met with him and asked his views, his thoughts and this sort of thing.
These three guys came to my office with a proposal. At this point, we were struggling to figure out how would you actually provide space for the bicycle in a safe way. It's always back to these issues of safety and movement.
They solved the problem by making a commitment to cycling with a far, far more practical solution; rather than trying to find room for a bike lane on Broadway, use 10th. Put in a little traffic calming. Most importantly, put in a signal when it crosses an arterial — Oak, Main, Fraser — that you wouldn't ordinarily because it's a side street. The arterial may be just one block away.
The engineers actually had a standard where you wouldn't put the signals one block apart. Minimum two — keep the traffic moving. Well! That was brilliant. Because it was so fucking cheap!
The idea was you would create a network of bikeways on side streets, on a grid, that gave you access to the city just as the arterial grid system does for the car. And the ultimate thing, you had to have a plan that envisioned a complete network of connected and named bikeways.
It was a concept that was palatable to the politicians, it wasn't challenging the car-oriented streets, the arterials; it was focused on secondary streets, and it was just a matter of facilitating cycling, and maybe calming traffic.
We could see we were making some traction with Gordon Price and others. [Marty] Pospischil was supportive. Peter Stary and Doug Louie were both pretty cautious, because they were government employees.
We weren't pissing off hardly anybody, partly because you weren't doing much; you were just saying this is a bike route now.
The biggest opposition was the bicycle activists and the elite bicycle community, who thought we were crazy.
It became apparent pretty early on that there were two antagonistic perspectives on bikes. I don't want to be disparaging of either party, because I think they both have very legitimate points of view, but unfortunately they were in opposition.
One mindset was typified by the average driver who has no interest in cycling, and who sees cyclists as a pest or an inconvenience. Often they're just really afraid of hurting a cyclist. So the idea of driving at relatively high speed on a narrow road and encountering a cyclist that you're afraid you're going to hit is disturbing to many drivers. If they had their way, groups of people from that perspective would ban cycling from roads.
Simultaneously, there were a number of well-organized bicycle advocate groups that obviously were very concerned about that perspective, and wanted to be sure that under no circumstances would they be banned from roads.
And groups that were in opposition to one another with regard to the laws about where you could or could not cycle.
Listening to John Forester, and saying, “No, we have to fight for the right to be on 4th or Broadway.” Just making it as difficult as possible.
To see that coming from the cyclists was the shock. I'm thinking, “That's the last place I'm going to ride. I'm a slow cyclist. I'm not going there. I'm a dad, I can't afford to get killed.” I would never want my kids on 4th. I still don't.
We tried to use the carrot. “You will get some good publicity from this.” I was thinking to give out some kudos. Nobody ever said it, but the journalist would support them and say, “Way to go.”
We had five meetings with those guys just to say, “We need to do this for other people. You can go do what you want, you can cycle on 4th.”
We had to get them quieted down so that the politicians could do some good stuff and know that they're not going to get criticized by bicyclists.
The little ad hoc committee pitched that to mayor and council, and got mayor and council interested and supportive.
Richard Campbell and I joined this ad hoc group. They wanted Cycling BC's endorsement. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and started talking about different ways we could develop this idea. Add more to it than simply the pushbutton signals.
But to be honest with you it was hard to get Cycling BC onside at that time, because there was very much a 'most bike facilities suck' mentality, a very John Forester kind of Effective Cycling view of infrastructure, of purpose-built bicycle infrastructure.
Which is not entirely misplaced, I mean it was largely true, as witnessed by the BC Parkway. So people were very leery.
So we went and had meetings with several different bicycling groups, and anybody else — basically anybody we could find that might have an interest and an opinion on this.
We simply explained the possibility and asked them whether they'd be interested, whether they thought it would be a good idea to try. Not to replace anything, but to add to the possibilities for cyclists. Bikeways of this particular type.
I ended up calling John Forester — I found his home number and just cold called him one evening.
To my surprise, he not only answered, we chatted for about twenty minutes. I explained the concept, and he said, “I don't see anything wrong with that. Nothing in what you described causes me any concern.”
So I reported that back to Cycling BC, and they said if it's good enough for Forester, I guess we can endorse it.
Once they stopped opposing us that worked. But when they were actually our direct opposition that was potentially quite bad, because we had to show city hall that we could outweigh the negative attention that the elite cyclists would give them.
One of the potential criticisms was about the interference of traffic.
It turned out by that point, Vancouver had already computerized all of its traffic signals; it was already true that if you push a button to have a red light appear on the perpendicular cross-streets that the pedestrians cross, those were automatically timed to not interfere with traffic flow. They were synchronized to nearby traffic signals, and they were on the street.
So essentially pedestrian crossings were helping pedestrians get across busy streets without slowing traffic. And all we were suggesting was adding a few new pedestrian crossings, or in some cases, just adding a push-button for the cyclists so they could push the button for an already existing pedestrian crossing to get across the street — even cheaper. So, we were happy to hear from the folks in Vancouver city engineering, that concern was just not an issue.
This is an engineering culture, and the culture was that the engineers were all god. Kind of like doctors; they have sacred knowledge or something like this. The Bicycle Advisory Committee was an engineering committee. I didn't realize the implications right away, but actually it was good; engineers needed to change at the city level, because they were old school, and engineering has all the money and the power. But I didn't realize all those dynamics until a few years later.
What is an issue is you have to spend a little bit of money putting some new crossing lanes along a given line, but interestingly they were also a benefit to pedestrians. In the City of Vancouver, there was already a budget allocated for installing additional pedestrian crossings at good locations. It was relatively easy, there was really a lot of choice as to where they could go, so it was relatively easy to have some of them in a line to form a bikeway.
One of the most interesting conversations took place with a really nice guy, Ian Adam. At the time, I think he was the chief traffic engineer for the city of Vancouver. Ian was just so pleased to hear about this idea.
The thing that really excited him is that potentially this is an idea that everybody can get behind. And why was that? Well, if you believe that it made it easier for cyclists to bicycle across town. In principle, any cycling group should be behind that, as long as they trust that it wasn't a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that it wasn't an attempt to ban bikes from anywhere else, but that it would be another opportunity for cyclists, which is all it was.
Ian thought that it was very positive. If every cyclist does take a bikeway by choice because they prefer it, it’s not cycling on a major arterial, and that's going to improve safety for everyone. So from any logical perspective you would expect that automotive advocates would also be pleased with this.
Also, I mentioned the other benefits for pedestrians. There really wasn't anybody that didn't like it.
The net result of all of that was that City of Vancouver engineering was really behind it. So, in collaboration with us, they launched a public consultation process, the goal of which was to get a large amount of input from the community about the potential value of starting this bikeway network.
It was extensive. They had material distributed. We wrote the report, Doug and I wrote it in consultation with them, and that report was distributed to all the community centres, a variety of places. There was an extensive process, including a big public meeting in council chambers in city hall. I think there were some surveys done, and a public information event for members of the community would go. It was very professionally done, highly integrative.
Lorne was the brains behind this in some ways; he has the engineer mentality. He presents very affably; he's very persuasive, and he doesn't get mad very easily.
He was very entrepreneurial, and a very social and outgoing person, so he was a great front person. He talked to councillors and the mayor, talked it up and presented the ideas to a forum that the city had set-up. A lot of cyclists came out.
We worked very closely with the engineering folks in the public process, and on the basis of that happening a proposal was made to council to do a first test bikeway, which was Adanac.
I think Peter mentioned Adanac as the first one because — not trying to be cynical — but at that time, the east side wasn't as organized as the west side to mount opposition. So they just thought, “Let's do Adanac”; it was already being used somewhat, apparently.
One of the reasons for that was that at the Hawk Street cul-de-sac, there was no let-down on the west side. You could get onto the sidewalk, and then you had to jump down to get onto the road.
So people had been building guerrilla bike ramps. Someone would take a sack of cement, mix it up with a tub in the middle of the night, and build a ramp. And then the city crews would find out and break it up, and then somebody would build another ramp.
We thought, “Okay, this is obviously the place to start.”
As we started developing this, a little advisory sub-committee was set up to work with Doug the engineer who was detailed to actually get one of these things built.
Doug and I and Mark and several others were a sub-committee of that committee. It was highly integrated.
I had been part of the ad hoc group, but I wasn't letting on at work when it came time to present the concepts to the city. I was hoping that I would be able to lead this, to take on this project. But they assigned it to a very conservative young "don't rock the boat" engineer.
The person charged with designing the Adanac Bikeway and the engineering work itself was Doug Louie. There were others, but he's the one that I was most connected with during that time. Really nice guy.
I was a member of a union, which means that they had less control over me; I have protections that probably caused them some concern. Doug wasn't a member of a union, so he was easy to lean on.
I managed to insinuate myself in the process as a citizen on the committee. Which is bizarre.
Peter was a big cyclist actually, a high level guy. Peter cared. He was working with us to push as far as he could.
So now we're designing the first bike route, and we were micromanaging really little details. I can recall a huge debate about whether the street light at Union and Main should have an exclusive bicycle timing component. Because there wasn't an allowance in the Canadian transportation manual, or whatever the thing was, the engineers refused to budge.
It was one of those things where we said to the engineers, “We're going to take it to council.” We took it to council, and council told the engineers to do it.
This was the first of many incidents where, over my six-year term, I saw a bunch of engineering strategies that I thought, “This is fucked up.”
The next route we worked on was the Off Broadway route, because we wanted to get into the west side. Also, it was where we lived, although that wasn't really a factor. I named the Off Broadway route. Peter and I were sitting around — “What should we name this thing?” I said, “What about Off Broadway?”, thinking of New York of course. And it stuck. One person didn't like it. She said she heard from the elite bicyclists, “We don't like that name because it's suggesting we should get off Broadway.” I figured we can't win here…
Funny enough, once we got the energy going for Off Broadway, Gordon said we should have made it 6th. And he's right, because 6th is actually more pleasant, more tree-lined. The engineering world was to measure heights and speeds and traffic signs and say, “No, this is probably the easiest route for cyclists, the fewest hills and so on.”
Slowly, the infrastructure started building up.
In fairly rapid succession there was Ontario, Cypress and off-Broadway, and parts of Ridgeway, so you could kind of get to the northern and southern and eastern and western extremities of the city. It was the start of the network, and it seemed to have a really positive effect at getting people out cycling.
Local street bikeways, in my view, really opened up cycling in Vancouver, and by extension the Lower Mainland.
And it worked; apparently it's extremely popular now.
The success came as a result of a successful appeal by advocates to the top level, the political level.
I think my contribution was the name. I argued that you had to have a name. Just having a bike logo, well that would be like having a car logo for every street. You're driving along, you see a car logo, you turn the corner — nah.
You have to have names. So do the same with bikeways. People can create their mental maps, and give directions. "Go along Adanac until you get to Mosaic,” or whatever.
The simplicity of the grid system here is one of the huge virtues we take for granted. Almost no city has this completely connected grid. There's a few jogs, and that kind of thing. What it meant was that, for almost no money in the scheme of things, you could create kilometre after kilometre of bikeway. And then all you had to do was facilitate it with a little bit of traffic calming, and above all these signals and the proper signage, and again an overall vision.
My level of respect and admiration for the City of Vancouver just skyrocketed in that time. It was just such an impressive, welcoming, thoughtful, and professional enterprise.
And I think Gordon Price could be credited to a significant extent for helping to create that atmosphere within city hall.
For the next ten years, every summer — June, during bike week — we would open up another bikeway, sometimes two or three. And there would be a cake and t-shirts, and the mayor would show up, and we'd cut the ribbon, and we could roll this stuff out.
Well, politicians love this, just love it. Advocates often get into this, “Don't give them too much credit, or they won't continue to make a commitment." Never acknowledge success, because it might mean , “We're done.” Housing advocates do this too.
The reverse is true. “Oh, you mean I'm going to get credit for this? Let's do more!” And because it was so cheap, it was easy to just slip these into engineering budgets. A tiny fraction.
And man, it was such a brilliant idea, because it allowed us to build a constituency. It created demand, that again met an eight to eighty standard for people who couldn't imagine themselves cycling on Broadway [unintelligible].
I think we were influential, but I don't remember getting a lot of kudos from the bike community. I don't like the term, it's just the biking population. We were outsiders, still outsiders. I don't know all those people. I don't hang around with them. Nothing against them, it's just I had to raise kids.
And Lorne's never been part of a biking club or anything. I don't think Mark was either.
I stayed on the Bicycle Advisory Committee almost to 2000. Mark didn't stay with it, and Lorne didn't either. Sometimes it felt pretty advisory, like we weren't really having too much impact. But in the early few years we did. It was amazing, because they were kind of boring. But for some reason there was a real buzz around us for about three or four years. And it worked.
The success of the Seaside route emboldened Price and the BAC to go after the rest. We started having these bicycle-friendly streets.
And over the years they've really done well to refine it. That's classic engineering: “Okay, it's not quite right. How do we tinker with this thing to get it better?”
We didn't have the national standard really well organized back then. I think we led in traffic calming and bicycle facility planning design, and the Transportation Association of Canada came forward with their manuals and publications, kind of following our lead in a lot of different ways, which sounds really arrogant. It just seemed to me we had nothing.
We got most of the low-hanging fruit done, the physical hub that you could connect all the radiating paths through the rest of the city. And then eventually we went for the grid — north-south, east-west, Ontario Street, 37th, and all that.
We added signage, stripes, map boards on a regular interval, the city's first bicycle signal. We didn't pave anybody's living room. We didn't shut any streets down. We were able to work within people's neighbourhoods without them really realizing we were there.
The expression is “build it and they will come” — I think that's what happened. We started the network, we put the plan in place, and built the hub which made it obvious and attracted riders.
The engineers that got left behind realized, “Crap, this is a major undertaking. We have to actually give some more priority.”