Vancouver Velo-City recap

Velo-city conference goers enjoy lunch in the sun. Photos by Yvonne Bambrick.

Velo-City recap by guest blogger, Kathleen Banville

Photos by Yvonne Bambrick

Story by Kathleen Banville

Vancouver hosts international cycling conference

The international cycling conference known as Velo-City was held in Vancouver B.C. this year. It was the first time since 1992 that the urban planning event with a focus on cycling in cities was held in North America.

As a resident of Toronto, I felt envious when reading about Vancouver's new bike lanes and infrastructure. So when Urbane Cyclist  (the bicycle co-op where I work) decided to send me to the conference, I eagerly packed my bike and hopped on a flight. But, at the Velo-City conference, Vancouver was put in its place by delegates from European countries who think much more is possible.

Vancouver is only moderately successful as a cycling-friendly city when compared to Copenhagen. This was a constant theme of the conference, and there were many presentations to show just what a real connected, protected cycling network can do to transform transportation options for a population.

All the same I was very excited to be heading to Vancouver with my bicycle and I was looking forward to exploring the city. I'm inspired by the willingness of Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council to support cycling infrastructure, even if businesses are [at first] against it.

Dunsmuir viaduct bike lane (above). All photos by Yvonne Bambrick.

The Vancouver TransLink system made it easier to take my bike on with me by having signed, designated areas for bikes. On the viaduct that takes cyclists from Strathcona into downtown, modes of traffic are separated by large concrete dividers, and cyclists are given more space than the normal three foot bike lane. Getting downtown is a breeze either from that direction, or from Kitsilano via the Burrard Street bridge.

On a Sunday morning I was guided on a ride around the scenic Sea Wall with a local bike enthusiast and amateur historian. The 15 km/h speed limit didn't even seem restricting when we were riding around breathing fresh ocean air and marveling at the cliff face we were cruising around. Old growth trees and multiple beaches are common scenery there, and this path is only accessible by active transportation, not by car, making it a great example of how the Vancouver lifestyle encourages people to have active recreation time.

As a cyclist in Vancouver, I couldn't help but notice the small touches that made the city truly inspiring as a cycling-friendly leader of Canadian cities. Amenities such as crosswalk buttons by the bike paths at busy road crossings, and even a ledge to put your foot on so you don't have to dismount at a stop light, make cycling more comfortable throughout the downtown.

The suburbs aren't completely forgotten either, with paths like the Central Valley Greenway that connects Vancouver to neighbouring communities of Burnaby, Coquitlam and New Westminster.

The “green carpets” painted through intersections and barrier-separated lanes made me feel accommodated and respected as a road user, which was a refreshing feeling.

But I can see that these few lanes don't really connect everyone to everywhere they need to go. And only strong and confident cyclists would feel comfortable cycling on the Lougheed Highway. As Gil Peñalosa, the “machine gun” of cycling advocacy says, judge a city by how it accommodates its eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. [8-80cities.org]

After a few days of riding my bike all over the beautiful, smooth, scenic bike paths, I was finally ready to head to the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre for this four-day conference.

Sharing success stories and challenges, delegates from many countries around the world gathered from June 26 to 29. Engineers, architects and city staffers were also in attendance to present studies on infrastructure, cyclist behaviour and to help everyone understand the benefits of cycling and how to plan for it.

As with all annual events, some themes emerged. Gone are the days of arguing over the helmet law (it's dumb) or whether cycling helps to prevent obesity and diabetes (it does). We are now focusing on the  large proportion of the population who want to start cycling but are too concerned about safety. Getting more cyclists on the road will make cycling safer for everyone, so the main challenge facing most major cities today is how to encourage those curious potential cyclists to start riding. The most effective way to do this is to build a connected network of separated bike lanes.

Many governments like to focus on less grandiose cycling projects such as publishing a bike map, installing bike parking, or even having a cyclist training program. These are all great resources, but without a safe network that the curious can use to warm up to cycling in traffic, there will never be a critical mass. This is especially true in cities like Toronto where there are so many other barriers like narrow streets and poor road conditions, not to mention our current anti-cycling mayor.

Another familiar Toronto face that I saw was Olivia Chow, announcing a new national cycling network. Her energy and enthusiasm is a great tool for the cycling movement in Canada. I hope she is successful with her campaign to make sideguards on trucks mandatory, and soon!

Aside from the daily plenaries, there were many concurrent sessions to choose from and agonize over. I just couldn't do everything! Luckily I ended up in a good mix of statistic-and-Power Point-heavy sessions contrasted with passionate community presentations.

I loved the concept of “open streets”, like our local Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market. Erin O'Melinn of bikehub.ca shared some tips with us on how to present the idea of shutting a street to traffic to local business owners, who always seem to be opposed. Even though the statistics prove that cyclists and pedestrians visit more often and spend more in their local economy, business owners seem to be convinced that only car drivers have money. So wear your bike helmet when you go into your local flower shop or hardware store, and let them know you came by bike!

I was lucky to catch a round table discussion with Bicired [bicired.org], the Mexican national network of cycling advocacy organizations. These grassroots activists are making some really impressive headway and raising awareness about the connection between bicycle issues and other common urban problems such as air pollution, lack of public space and inadequate public transit.  After fourteen years of advocacy the have managed to get the government to recognize the concept of non-motorized vehicles. They may have a long way to go before they get separated bike lanes, but you never know. Bogota, Columbia, was transformed not by time or massive amounts of cash but by the political will of Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota.

 

After all this sitting in conference rooms, many delegates were loudly yearning for a bike ride. I heard it suggested that we should have had stationary bikes in the conference rooms instead of chairs. Luckily the annual Velopalooza velopalooza.ca celebration was in full swing and there were many bike events to participate in. After the closing ceremonies on the Friday, we flowed out onto the streets to join the traditional monthly Critical Mass ride. Many of the international delegates were there on their loaner Bixi bikes from the conference, and riders were invited to chat with them as we rode the many bridges and main streets of Vancouver. Apartment dwellers were on their patios waving at us as our lively bike parade rolled by, and there were three bicycle sound systems throughout the ride to keep the party going.

Olivia Chow is one of the profile subjects in our current youth and employment issue of dandyhorse magazine.

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