In Praise of South Van

 Today on the ride to work, my derailleur snapped (actually snapped – the metal broke) and so it is with regret that I have to turn, in terms of the biking world, from experiment to theory. Thus, prepare to read me blather on about biking!

My stance for a long time has been that to increase bikeability of a city, which many cities want to do, and which I want to happen for my city, the first aim should be to increase number of people biking. And to increase the number of people biking (which, by the way, is a goal that many cities have in and of itself), the best thing to do is to increase convenience of biking. Thus, I am confused by sharrows, skeptical of helmet laws (though generally supportive of helmets), against spandex, and strongly in favour of bike signage on the streets and bikeshare programs. What about bike lanes? What are some good general principles for constructing bike lanes, which, once again, many places are doing? I can’t vouch for Portland, where things are supposedly the reverse of all normal places with respect to biking, but in general it is a good principle that bicyclists do not enjoy being run over. Another is that they enjoy convenience. In some cases, they also enjoy speed. I want to point out that a strategy long employed in South Van – having streets besides major arteries designated as bike streets – is a very good one.

Let us look at this strategy with the exanple of the Cypress bike route that is parallel to Granville St. First: on not being run over – this one is a no-brainer. Compared to Granville, there are no taxis, no one is going to open their door into you, there are no trucks or buses, and cars drive slow. Now, many planners recognize these benefits to bike infrastructure away from main streets, which is why they put bike trails where they are not particularly useful (the Interurban in Seattle?). In the end, most of the time, you don’t get run over, so convenience will usually trump safety for choosing a bike route. Large streets are easy to get to and go straight through things, and everyone knows where they are. That is why you often find bikers on large streets. They may not enjoy it, but it is better than getting lost or having to loop in meandering sideroads. Or they may have just been put on the big street and don’t know where to go. If you are coming over Arthur Laing, you have basically no choice but to end up on Granville. And that’s why it’s so great that the sign to the Cypress bikeway is right there, and the bikeway is also close and functions the same way as Granville does. It would be even better if you didn’t have to cross the street for it (ie if there was one on each side of Granville), but you can’t have it all.

A third benefit of the side bikestreet strategy is that this is bike infrastructure built incredibly cheaply (just some signs, biker-controlled intersection buttons, maybe installing a roundabout or two) and non-confrontationally. Now sometimes confrontation for bike lanes is worth it. Once again referring to the Memoirs of Hadrian quotes, I see great wisdom in the observation that any change, whether natural or imposed, whether positive or negative, tends to endure. If having that bike lane is important, then it’s worth the confrontation. Because, okay, you antagonize some drivers, but you get a bike lane, and soon everyone forgets the whole thing, or, at worst, makes a funny youtube Hitler video. There is an alternative view that confrontation causes backlash. Build one too many bike lanes, the thinking goes, and suddenly your town goes and elects Rob motherfucking Ford. This view was espoused in terms of pushing for gay marriage in the US, by for example Jeffrey Rosen and Peter Beinart, who claimed that judicial activism would piss people off whereas a non-confrontational approach would be more likely to succeed. It was always somewhat dubious, and I would say is generally discredited at this point. But bike lanes aren’t a rights issue – it’s not too big a deal to wait, and pissing off good people just seems unnecessary. Another difference between gay marriage and bike lanes is that gay marriage doesn’t actually infringe upon straight people in any way. Thus, it is much more objectionable “in theory” than in reality. Bike lanes on busy roads, though, actually take a lane off the road. Adding bike infrastructure actually pits bikers against drivers in a zero-sum way, at least during the initial construction process. Therefore, while I think confrontational bike lane expansion is sometimes warranted, the “non-controversial” (or, if you like, “stealth”) nature of the Cypress bikeway is a plus. The Cypress bikeway is not perfect in that it has a somewhat convoluted route, reducing convenience. On the other hand, the part of the route on Cypress is seriously pretty beautiful with those giant, dark suburban trees. Bike lanes like this need to be built.

Thus the upshot: a good bike lane is one that is easy to get onto from a main street, preferably right beside it but not on it. Let’s do this, New Mexico*!

*(this is my new catch phrase)

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