The Party for Your Right to Bike

When summarizing Gregor Robertson's ten years as mayor, any historical perspective on the City of Vancouver will undoubtedly refer, perhaps quite pointedly, to his responsibility for the growth in cycling — the activity, and more importantly the infrastructure that enabled its growth.

Credit:  David Niddrie

Cycling is now tangibly integrated with our streets, and in neighbourhoods across the city. From accolades to blame — to everything in between — his role in advancing the bicycle as a safe and accessible transportation mode is undeniable.

In championing cycling as one of Vancouver’s cultural lodestars, he occupies a place in the pantheon of bike-friendly politicians somewhere between Gordon Price and Jack Layton.

Despite all this, when acknowledging the gains the city has made in this regard, Robertson makes a point to give credit where credit is due (and perhaps rarely given). One, it’s really council, not the mayor, that is responsible for determining strategic priorities. And two, it’s staff who ultimately deal with those consequences, including delivering outcomes.

"City staff have been phenomenal in their courage to follow through on council direction," said Robertson during a recent phone interview, "They were on the front lines of a lot of the backlash, and they carried through their professional roles."

In playing out the narrative over the years, many have also shared some of that credit (or blame) with the rest of Robertson’s Vision Vancouver council members, because staff’s role is a less sexy storyline. It's far easier (and click-worthy) for media to play out stories about what politicians and parties are doing and saying, rather than the work that occurs elsewhere.

But three-term Vision councillor Heather Deal confirms that it’s as much the contributions of staff that has made cycling such a compelling story of change the last ten years or so.

"Having your top engineers as advocates — huge," she said in her City Hall office in this past summer. "When you have advocacy at the mayor's office level, you find out where the latent build-up of need or desire to more is in staff. They could have been sitting there, happily doing their jobs, but all of a sudden, you create that space. And they say, "Well, I've actually got a bunch of ideas that I've had in my other drawer over here." And they just start to flood up to the surface.

The story of cycling in Vancouver is indeed about the many factors, some of them complex, nuanced or just mundane, that combined at just the right time to transform the city into "the number one cycling city in North America", according to Robertson, referring to recent international accolades.

Pent up demand for equitable transportation policies and investments — often expressed very publicly by a generation of cycling advocates, as detailed in Van Bikes — combined with the will and bravery of politicians, and a timely cultural transformation within the planning and engineering disciplines, all combined to drive a large-scale, institutional re-examination of transportation from a new lens — demand.

Robertson, and those who would become his Vision cohort, just happened to emerge at the right place, at the right time, and with a shared outlook about the role of bicycles in the transportation mix. But to ignore the significance of a Mayor and Council’s influence in setting the priorities for staff is to ignore the role of a pin in a hand grenade. (Take that analogy as you will.)

As we spoke, Robertson reflected on his formative cycling experiences — such as witnessing the evolving role of the bicycle in China, mountain biking as a young adult on the North Shore, and riding to and from the Happy Planet bottling plant at Adanac and Renfrew in the early '90s — and acknowledged that the need for better cycling facilities in his hometown wasn't immediately apparent.

Maybe because I was always comfortable on a bike, riding at speed around cars, I didn't realize how excluded most people felt.

The transportation system wasn't fair and inclusive, and certainly didn't enable people who wanted more safety and security on bikes to be able to do it. There's an equity issue there that I wasn't as conscious of when I was younger. But it became clear after seeing the deep reliance on bicycles in other countries and cities, and the affordability and safety that people enjoyed in other places that most people in North America didn't get to have.

Robertson's transition from business to politics would occupy much of his time in the early and mid 2000s (culminating in a term as a provincial MLA for Vancouver-Fairview 2005-08), at the same time Deal was also turning herself in a new direction — from a career in marine sciences, to politics.

Pressed into public service by friend, neighbour and legendary local community activist Jim Green, Deal ran and was elected to Park Board in 2002, the same election that made Larry Campbell mayor with his COPE majority. She credits Green with mentoring her during her term as commissioner, showing her the ropes, and ultimately encouraging her to run for Council in 2005.

It was, as we’re seeing this year, a nutty campaign, with the governing, left-leaning majority — the former perpetual also-ran party — in dire straits.

"As soon as Larry Campbell came in, it became very clear that there were two factions within COPE," recalls Deal. "I respect everybody's decisions to run and the passion they bring to it, but from my opinion, there was a group of people who were very comfortable in the role of opposition because you can always find a flaw with something."

"‘We're going to build housing that's not all at welfare rates? Therefore I can't support it.’” And there was a group that wanted to govern — that means compromising, negotiating, and saying yes to things. Almost nothing completely perfect lands on your table, and all that involves negotiating."

It's a theme that resonates, not just because we've heard it most recently as a critique of the Vancouver Green Party, but because this willingness to compromise on progressive values to get shit done was apparently the hill upon which the “Friends of Larry Campbell” (as one part of the cleaving party was known) were willing to be killed. And this spirit of compromise, for the sake of forward momentum, was the same hill upon which others wanted to see bodies. But those bodies would prevail, and the new Vision Vancouver party rose from the ashes of COPE to take four seats in the 2005 election, including Deal.

Today, speaking to his and Vision’s legacy, Robertson rejects the widespread sentiment that council was asleep at the wheel on civic issues that form the basis of today’s fraught 2018 election season. His only counter to the anti-Vision drumbeat — you didn't solve opioid crisis, so you're gone…you didn't solve housing prices, so you're gone…the grass is too long on Cambie Boulevard, so you're gone — is the simple fact that external factors limited his party’s ability to make change on some very critical issues. Jurisdictional authority and organizational mandates wielded by independent bodies like Park Board, the Province, and the Feds obstructed progress, he says today in the post-mortems being conducted on his final term.

But of the many policies and outcomes he and council could control, one loomed large from the start.

“My frustration was with previous city governments’ inability to make the bike network safer, and stick to it. To ensure that transportation investments included safe bike infrastructure. There'd been a failed attempt at the Burrard Bridge, and that stirred up even more advocacy, and I felt it was long overdue.”

Deal further suggests that the city’s failure to resolve the Burrard Bridge issue in particular was symbolic of Vancouver's timidity and lack of resolve when it came to resolving emotional polarizing that had no basis in fact, and was holding back real change.

"I know that story very well, because I've lived in Kits for almost all of my 34 years in the city," she says, recalling the very first debacle on Burrard Bridge, the 1996 failed trial of a separated bike lane. "I was so excited by it, and then when it disappeared a week later I was so angry. I remember thinking, "what is wrong with the city?"

Fast forward through three mayors and four elections, and in 2008, Robertson was Vision Vancouver’s first candidate for mayor. His opponent? The similarly bike-friendly, business-savvy and politically connected Peter Ladner, incumbent councillor with the NPA. And in historic miscalculation on the issue of bike lanes on Burrard Bridge, Ladner hedged on a proposed revisitation of the project, whereas Robertson dove in head first.

We ran with it because it's the right thing to do — making transportation safer and more affordable is a key responsibility of city hall, and in particular we can control changes with pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

We don't have to wait for provincial and federal governments to show up with their jurisdictional roles. Active transportation is a responsibility of the city, and that's one where we had a very clear responsibility to deliver change on, and reduce traffic fatalities, and improve the transportation options for people in the city.

It's the right thing to do, so we carried on despite the opposition.

Robertson cites the research conducted by Professor Kay Teschke of the UBC School of Population and Public Health (among other academics) in providing “irrefutable” evidence of the importance of the importance of separated bike lanes in not just ensuring cycling safety, but making the transportation mode accessible beyond the exclusive few.

And then there was what he found on the books, and in the files, once he stepped into city hall as mayor.

"We had shocking information about the legal settlements for accidents on the Burrard Bridge, which were confidential at the time. The city had been paying out millions of dollars to people on bikes who had fallen into traffic off the sidewalk. So there were compelling financial reasons to deal with the Burrard Bridge, and building separated lanes. It was a no-brainer."

Vision's run represented the glory days for cycling — a revolution in transportation mode shift away from the sole focus on motor vehicles, complemented by ‘peak advocacy’ work of organizations like HUB Cycling and B.E.S.T., as well as the newly-reformed committee of council, the Active Transportation Policy Council. Newer, younger faces emerged the city’s planning and engineering groups, with teams focused solely on transportation, staffed in part by a flock of fit, young men named Jerry, Dale, Sadhu, Paul and Paul — regular cyclists, all socialized and trained to look beyond their demographic privilege. Plus, a majority council aligned on the both the policy imperative, and the self-awareness and sensitivity that would be needed to actualize it all, in the face of outrage from the majority of residents who still felt quite comfortable in their vehicles, thank you very much.

Says Deal: “There was always a comfort level with encouraging cycling, but there wasn't a comfort level with this concept of taking things away from car drivers to do so. And I think it's a wrong-headed concept. Road space is road space. The public realm has to be equitably divided between the users.”

“If you ask any car driver, ‘Do you like driving your motor vehicle with a bike in your lane?’ Nobody likes that. How far to the curb do you push the cyclist? What if they're actually in the middle of your lane, which they are perfectly legally allowed to be? Most drivers would say, ‘I would much rather not have a bike in my lane.’ So then you say, ‘Okay, so do you want them on the sidewalk with your elderly grandmother?’ ‘No, they don't belong on the sidewalk.’ Well, then there has to be a place for the cyclist to go. It's the car lane, the bike lane, the pedestrian lane.”

City of Vancouver councillors Geoff Meggs and Heather Deal addressing bicycle advocates prior to a mass vote during the 2015 Metro Vancouver Better Transit & Transportation Plebiscite. The plebiscite failed to pass.

City of Vancouver councillors Geoff Meggs and Heather Deal addressing bicycle advocates prior to a mass vote during the 2015 Metro Vancouver Better Transit & Transportation Plebiscite. The plebiscite failed to pass.

Both Deal and Robertson credit advocates for providing supporting air cover. “Vancouver's bicycle champions were essential to ensuring that city government follow through on our commitments, and providing that steady voice of support when there was plenty of protest,” says Robertson. “With media and road rage, the whole bike debate became more emotional. It's important to have advocates that provide a counter on the emotional level."

Deal also credits the support that came, rather early and unexpectedly, from the business sector during the infamous introduction of the downtown bike lanes plan (Hornby in 2010, and Dunsmuir in 2011).

“One of the key players in all of this was the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, and Charles Gauthier. Charles saved it — absolutely. And he reflects his Board, and his Board reflects the businesses — his membership. So it's not just Charles’ opinion.

But he's been such a strong advocate, and he's been getting out in front of these things, and he's bringing the whole downtown business world with him into this “lefty cause” of riding your bike.

They were so opposed to everything, and then they started seeing that, in fact, the vacancies on Hornby dropped within a year or so of the lane going in. They had some vacancies that ended up getting filled."

The downtown lanes could have been the death knell for Robertson and Vision in his very first term. Instead, attempts to distill anger over cyclists' “entitlement” into negative voter sentiment may have ultimately lost the next two elections for the NPA. Vision sustained their majorities in both 2011 (vs ex-Liberal MLA Suzanne Anton), and 2014 (vs Business in Vancouver's Kirk LaPointe).

Similarly, attempts to generate bikelash became at points both comical and a sad dissolution into polarizing politics. In a widely mocked media piece, Anton promised to “rip out the bike lanes”, since morphed into into the stereotypical sound-bite of a the classic, soul-less, right-wing Vancouver anti-bike bureaucrat. (Fact: Anton rides a bicycle.)

And then there's the 2013 Point Grey Road neighbourhood calming debacle. As Deal relates:

That was a huge spike, and that was where you started seeing the NPA coming out against the bike infrastructure even more than they had before. I mean, they had George Affleck there at the protests leading it. We had these guys, the Cedar Party, who are now floating around other parties, with their muscle car and their name on the side of it, literally gunning their engine as they went around Point Grey Road

People said, “I go down Point Grey Road all the time to go to UBC.” And I said, “No you don't.” They say, “Yes I do.” I said, “No you don't. Let's get in your car in our minds, and go — you're coming off the Burrard Bridge, you turn right on Cornwall, you're heading on out and what happens when you get to Alma?”

“Well, I turn left and go to 4th Avenue and go to UBC.”

“That's right, you don't take Point Grey Road to UBC, you take it to Alma. We're asking you to turn at McDonald. That's 7 blocks earlier. It's a 7-block difference in how much time you spend on one road versus the other road.”

Ultimately, the calming and diversions on Point Grey Road went in, and they stuck. A ton of all ages and all abilities walking, cycling and rolling — year-round.

Yet, it only took a third term — and, to a large extent, boiled-over anger over the emergent housing and sustained homelessness crises — for discussion of Vision’s impact on cycling to be viewed as a political liability.

The 2018 municipal election campaign now brings to a close not only his mayoralty, but also the sense of a viable future for his party. And that affects someone like Deal, the only Vision Vancouver council incumbent running to retain her seat.

Do I fear the election impact of being pro cycling? Not too much. It's not going to change my position. We have a lot more to do.

Like Commercial Drive makes me nuts. It just makes me nuts. It's a tight space, and I understand the fear of losing parking there. It is a destination street.

But most businesses would have two parking spaces at most in front of their business. And those two spaces don't provide them with all of their customers. That one flares unnecessarily because of a couple of the businesses that really don't like cycling. It may be a generational shift that is needed before that goes through.

People say, “Just go on Victoria.” But when I go to Commercial Drive, I want to be on Commercial Drive. That's why I'm there. I'm going to brunch at Fetts!

As for Robertson, his future plans involve sleep, family and travel. No matter what happens to Vision, its legacies around cycling and improving active transportation for a broad segment of Vancouverites not supported by previous administrations — and his role in all of that — are secure.

More important than the political or personal legacies, from a transportation policy perspective, his city is better off now than it was when he entered office.

I've always had a comfort and a reliance on bicycles, and that's a foundation for my study of how to integrate them better, to make Vancouver's transportation system more efficient and safe.

Over 10% of people commute on bikes in the city core. We're now winning awards as the top cycling city in North America. We're attracting tourism and growing all kind of spin-off businesses because of it. There's a lot of success coming from this.

For a North American city, we've made remarkable progress.