Posted by: Brandon Yan | October 29, 2010

Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around

Spokes_Roomic Cube

Spokes. Photo by Roomic Cube

On Sunday, October 24, hundreds of cyclists and interested Vancouverites braved the oppressive, wet and windy weather to fill the Playhouse to listen a panel of speakers talk about Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around. Part of Capilano University’s Pacific Arbor Speaker Series, the Panel composed of Vancouver Mayor Gegor Robertson; musician and artist of Talking Heads fame, David Byrne; Co-Publisher and Creative Director of Momentum Magazine, Amy Walker; and founder of re:place Magazine, Erick Villagomez. Retired CBC Broadcaster and Cycling advocate, Paul Grant, emceed and mediated the night’s proceedings.

Grant initiated the evening with an apt quote from Mark Twain’s essay ‘Taming the Bicycle’: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it – if you live.” Although Twain’s quote actually referred to the difficulty in riding early bicycles (sometimes monstrous contraptions), the statement holds true today with the inherent conflict between the bike and the automobile for space on the road. A 2007 study in Portland found that 60% of people would like to bike regularly but don’t because they are concerned about their safety. This thought lead into David Byrne’s presentation.

Byrne began by talking about the design of the city. He started with an image of a termite mound and juxtaposed it against our modern buildings. He lamented that the termite is capable of building these complex structures that efficiently regulate their internal temperatures yet humans cannot, which garnered laughs from the audience. He moved on to talk about the great urban ‘visionaries’  that are partly responsible for giving cities their current form. From Hugh Ferris’ monolithic skyscrapers, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Buckminster Fuller’s Harlem, to Corbusier’s Radiant City – Byrne commented how each man planted the seeds of  our present situation: a concrete and auto-dominated and ultimately oil-dependent city. He conceded that, to a point, Le Corbusier’s call to arms “We must kill the street” has succeeded and he offered a myriad of photographic evidence.

Byrne took the audience on a tour of sorts. He showed us example of cities like L.A. and Austin where ‘visionaries’ like Corbusier succeeded. The one particular image stuck with me was of Downtown Houston, 11:00am on a weekday with no more than 3 or 4 pedestrians visible. But then he offered some hope.

He showed us projects in New York and Chicago, not normally known as ‘biking cities’, where biking is become more popular with the creation of new facilities. New York is getting to the point where it may rival Portland for the most bike-friendly city in North America. Vancouver, take note.

Byrne ended on some striking visual queues: He showed us some images from a photography project (Narrow Street: Los Angeles) where photoshop is used to manipulate wide streets into narrower ones. The difference is remarkable and it goes to show how much life and intimacy is lost in streets meant for cars and not people but, on the other hand, it shows how much we stand to gain if we design our streets with human dimensions.

Following Byrne, Erick Villagomez, true to his trade and his work with re:place, was much more methodical in his presentation that he entitled ‘Bike-Curiosity’. He began with an interesting contradiction he found in the plans for Hornby Street trials: for a debate and ‘controversy’ revolving around parking, there was no mention of bike parking in the City’s proposed changes. Indeed, the city has no comprehensive bike parking strategy.  If we’re going to encourage people to bike, they need complete facilities.

Villagomez continued to talk about facility and community design and how it can encourage cycling. He first brought up problems he’s noticed with London’s Cycle Superhighways where ‘human dimensions’ were not respected and paths are far too narrow, especially in curved sections where a wider right-of-way is necessary. He highly emphasized, rightly so, that dimensions matter – why build something at all if it’s not done properly?

Expanding on dimensions and design, Villagomez brought up some interesting ideas on development. He stated that 70% of trips (in Vancouver, I assume) occur within a 4km radius but 50% of those are within 2km. He noted that currently, Transit Oriented Developments (TODs) are designed for  a 5 minute walking radius to destinations (transit stops, etc.) and that Car Oriented Developments (CODs) are designed for a 5 minutes driving radius to destinations. What he found missing was the ‘in-between’ or Bike Oriented Developments (BODs) which relied on a 5 minute bike ride (2km) which can account for 50% of trips.

Amy Walker’s presentation focused on advocacy and the bike as a catalyst for change. She explained that the influence of bikes have led to ‘chain-reactions’ (not sure if she was going for the pun or not) of positive social change. She used the example of how bikes affected Women’s fashion that then influenced the Woman’s Rights Movement. She then shared some personal stories that Momentum readers sent in on how their lives were positively changed by cycling.

She also espoused the need for more equitable access to financial/infrastructure resources for cyclists and better education for all road-users. The thing that stuck with me the most was her plea for cyclists to respect the rules of the road even if they don’t meet their needs right now and it was met with resounding applause.

Last up for the night was Mayor Gregor Robertson. He began with some stats: between 1995 and 2005, there was a 27% increase in population but a phenomenal 10% decrease in car-use. According to Robertson, the biking is the fastest growing mode of transportation in Vancouver he took office, justifying the doubling the City’s budget for Cycling infrastructure. He argued that the last 100 years was a century dedicated to walking and the driving (i.e. roads and sidewalks) and that the reality of continued economic growth necessitated alternate forms of transportation. He stressed that the City cannot afford add any more cars to Vancouver’s streets and nor will it facilitate their increased use. He did acknowledged that cars will be around for the foreseeable future (electric or otherwise) but that the bike represented a sensible solution – ‘It’s not rocket science, it’s bike science.’

Robertson was adamant that what he absolutely did not want Vancouver to have what happened in Toronto. That is, to have politics get in the way and let pro-bike equal anti-car / a ‘war on the car’ (re: Rob Ford). He explained that the Olympics was a gift that showed Vancouver that it can cope with thousands of more people and end up with less car trips.

He called Dunsmuir a ‘legacy’ of the Olympics in that it was ‘easy’ for the City to convert it into a separated bike lane and the Burrard Bridge trial went on without a hitch and has become a permanent fixture. However, his biggest problem was the ‘missing-link’ or the connection between Dunsmuir and the Burrard Bridge lanes. He said that he was hesitant to push for Hornby because if the City moved too fast, they could encounter considerable back lash (which happened). But then something made him push for it: the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill. In a rather personal twist, he told the crowd that watching the deadly sludge spill into the Ocean convinced him that everything – including our own actions – is connected and that it was the right decision to make and the sooner the better. The audience couldn’t have agreed more.

After Robertson, the floor was opened to Q and A. I half expected some harsh and pointed questions for the Mayor, given the protest over Hornby but, for the most part, it was a love-in. Most gave praise to the panelists for their advocacy work and thanked the Mayor for taking such significant action.

Overall, the night was an interesting mix of personalities with different perspectives but with the common goal of furthering the  bike as a useful mode of transportation. Although the forum missed its mark for its intended audience (those divided on the merits of bike lanes and bike infrastructure), it was a useful exercise to talk about the city, its space and how we intend to move about it in a more responsible, sustainable way.

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