This is the kind of blog post where I repeat what I’ve already said before, but more forcefully. In other words, it’s like the Zuuko posts on Europe. Oh, I also link to a bunch of videos.
So here‘s a neat video of Vancouver downtown slightly over 100 years ago. And here‘s a video I’ve already hate-linked several times on this blog: Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a man whose portly silhouette fills the otherwise rare Venn diagram overlap between scumbag and buffoon, explaining that “the roads are made for cars and trucks.” Did you notice anything in the first video that informs your opinion on the second? Maybe it’s a little too obvious to put in words, but roads are not “made for cars and trucks” because that’s just how things are and that’s how nature intended it. The surprising thing is that, at the time, Vancouver hardly had 100,000 inhabitants. And yet the pedestrian traffic on West Hastings, Carrall or Cordova was, if anything, more lively than today (Robson is livelier today, because back then it was apparently tree-lined suburbia). How did this change come about? Maybe, like Rob Ford implies, the automobile just “naturally” came to dominate the city centre. And yet it isn’t quite so. Sarah Goodyear documents what happenned in America: the proliferation of the automobile led to a lot of accidents in cities. Initially, these were blamed on the automobile, which was seen as a menace. Entertaining safety videos were shot (h/t LGM, once again). To counter this anti-automobile sentiment, the automobile industry basically worked for the creation of the concept of “jaywalking” to the point that cars have the right of way by default and drivers bear little to no criminal responsibility for harm to other road users. But, again, the main takeaway shouldn’t be that cars or drivers are bad. It’s that the total dominance of cars in the city is not something that is predestined and inescapable.
The next day, Goodyear followed up by asking what happenned differently in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, cities where street traffic in the centre looks somewhat like Vancouver’s did a century ago. Sadly from a policy standpoint, the key to decreasing car traffic and increasing walk/bikeability seems to be an oil crisis and lots of dead children. So perhaps it’s not something we wish to replicate. The thing is, I think the article and especially the video that is embedded in it oversells the status and importance of bicycle infrastructure: I don’t think we need to go all the way to segregated bike lanes in our cities before the city centres become walkable and liveable and biking becomes safer. Maybe there are places where bike infrastructure is “perfect” as the video describes it. But in Amsterdam that’s not the case. Amsterdam is a safe city for biking not because the infrastructure is faultless. I mean, sure, it’s pretty great. But still, a lot of biking involves going down narrow, cobbled one-way streets in the “wrong” direction (which is perfectly legal there, but for example not something I would consider safe to do in Vancouver), and crossing large streets without any signage. There’s a place on van Woustraat where you unexpectedly have to merge into a fast-moving one-lane street with tram-tracks on one side and, usually, unloading delivery vans on the other and it is genuinely scary. You are often biking along tram tracks or along rows of parked cars that, were it not Amsterdam, would be liable to get you doored within minutes. But Amsterdam is a very safe city to bike in because everyone does it. For instance let’s take apart the last example: people get doored by parked cars because drivers don’t think that a cyclist could be coming beside them. But in Amsterdam, there is basically always one there, so a driver can’t but be aware of them.
So if cities want to increase the liveability of their city centres and the safety of bicyclists, they need to get more people to bike. And okay, segregated bike lanes can be a part of that. But they are an expensive part and by no means the only thing that can be done.