Bike Lanes and Downtown Vancouver

Face the future: downtown Vancouver bikes lanes are proliferating and cars are not going to be part of the city’s growth.

Hornby bike lane downtown Vancouver
More to come: With road capacity maxed out, bikes lanes are here to stay.

Face the future: downtown Vancouver bikes lanes are proliferating and cars are not going to be part of the city’s growth.

Jerry Dobrovolny has a message for the irate business owners protesting Vancouver’s latest bike lane plan for Hornby Street: welcome to the future. As the city’s director of transportation, Dobrovolny spends a lot of time thinking about how people get around Vancouver and, more pointedly, how they will get around in the future. Road capacity serving downtown is at its limit, he says, and the only way the city could make way for more cars would be to rip up sidewalks and bulldoze buildings, which isn’t going to happen.

“The only way we are going to be able to grow the economy and increase the population in Vancouver is to grow walking, cycling and transit,” he says. 

Dobrovolny says Vancouver has already made great strides to this end: over the last 15 years, the city has been able to accommodate steady population and employment growth thanks to a spike in transit use (up 50 per cent, including the Canada Line), walking (up 44 per cent) and cycling (up 180 per cent). (At the most recent count – pre-Canada Line – transit, walking and cycling accounted for 60 per cent of all trips to and from the downtown peninsula.) The challenge over the next two decades is to create the conditions where these three transportation modes can absorb the projected increase of people required to spur growth.

Hornby bike lane

And that’s where the Hornby-Dunsmuir bike corridor comes in, along with a whole host of other measures designed to make getting out of a car possible. Another major piece is to limit the availability of parking, which has been capped at about 35,000 commercial spaces – a number that will not increase for the next 25 years. In addition to reducing parking requirements for commercial buildings, the most in-demand meter parking locations now cost the most (the highest meter rate is $6 an hour).

While conventional thinking has long assumed that parking disincentives are bad for business, new research is turning that notion on its ear. A Transport Canada issue paper published this year notes that eliminating or reducing parking spaces can increase tax revenues for municipalities, lower construction costs for developers, make roads safer and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Parking lots and parking spaces often do little to enhance economic activity, encourage active and sustainable transportation, or provide additional tax revenues to local governments,” concludes the report. “Rather . . . businesses can benefit by supporting better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users.” 

Transportation alternatives

Vancouver is not alone in its attempts to encourage such transportation alternatives. Calgary provides only enough parking for about half of its downtown workers, making its CTrain light rail system the primary mode for getting to work. The city makes it easy for suburban commuters to use the system by building parking lots at strategic locations. (“It’s easier to park and then walk or take the LRT than circle the block,” says a local city planner.) A downtown portion of the CTrain route is also fare-free.

Then there is Copenhagen, which has reduced parking spaces by two per cent every year for the last 30 years, enabling the creation of new bike lanes and vibrant pedestrian spaces packed with thriving businesses.

Vancouver must take this latter approach if it is to prosper in the future, says Anthony Perl, director of SFU’s urban studies program. In particular, he is critical of Vancouver’s plan to maintain the current amount of parking over the next 25 years: “The only sensible approach is to reduce it.” Perl predicts that in 25 years, soaring energy costs will force more people to live, work, shop and play within walking distance from where they live; meanwhile, car-dependent communities in the Lower Mainland and across North America will lose value and population.

“When it costs more to fill your pick-up truck with gas than you earn in a day, it just won’t be affordable to live out in Chilliwack and have a job somewhere else.”