“Identity crisis for new BC greenway?”
British Columbia’s new 25-kilometre, $25 million Central Valley Greenway [CVG] that opens Saturday will give walkers, joggers and cyclists a fairly flat route from the Westminster Quay to Vancouver’s False Creek. But the greenway can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s for commuters or recreational users.
That’s because the minds behind the Greenway wanted to try to do both things. The majority of trips that are made in this region everyday are actually quite short. That includes many vehicle trips that could be easily achieved walking or cycling. The main deterrent – apart from the deep held prejudice “why walk when you can ride” – is that neither is as pleasant or as comfortable as they could be. Mostly because of all those vehicle trips!
We do not do mixed use very well – mostly because we pay far too much attention to those who drive and not nearly enough to those who walk or use their own motive power in other ways. Pedestrians and other self powered road users are relegated to the edges – not just of the road but to consciousness. Vulnerable road users, after a collision, nearly always have to listen to a driver saying “I didn’t see you.” We are not yet ready to attempt the “naked streets” approach – which forces drivers to behave like social animals again instead of automata.
The CVG was an idea that had been around some time. But the decision by some Translink staff to apply for federal funding under the Urban Transportation Showcase Program [UTSP] allowed it to be inserted into a whole bagful of useful ideas that we wanted to test and measure. Other cities that applied for funding did not put in nearly the amount of effort that the GVTA, GVRD and a few municipalities expended to get these funds. The City of Gatineau, Quebec got the same amount of money to enable it to buy hybrid buses. I doubt it took them a multipage document to justify that. But then, as we have seen recently with Toronto’s streetcars, the whole issue of federal funding is one where politics plays a much bigger role than the ostensible grant application processes admit. We used the UTSP to compare and contrast different ways of trying to get people out of their cars and onto other modes. And one way is to provide a route that does not allow cars at all. There are many different recreational trails that have been created in Canada – where bikers and hikers have an uneasy relationship. But usually since it is the bikes that travel much further it gets resolved in favour of the longer distance users. A bit like the roads. A car is to a cyclist a bit like a bike is to a pedestrian – except the “price” is usually a lot lower in a collision.
Basically even if you design a route a designate it for cyclists only it is almost impossible to enforce in a practical sense. A “self enforcing” deign – using hard engineering techniques to separate the two streams is sometimes used but is expensive – and not especially effective either. (Think of the seawall around Stanley Park, for example.) The people who create the most pressure for more cycling facilities are not average road users – or even average cyclists. For a facility to get wide use – and to achieve a change in mode split – it has to appeal to people who own bikes but do not use them very much for their transportation function. And also to people who might consider getting and using a bike, if they could be convinced that it is both safe and easy to use to get around. The cyclist who is determined and experienced and used to fighting through traffic probably has a significant commute distance – and they may well do that in all weathers. They are fit, and tough, and have developed a healthy sense of self preservation. For a policy analyst, this is a significant problem: it is not likely that many people can be persuaded to change themselves to suit the needs of public policy. Indeed this is the whole problem with climate change and carbon emissions. Most people will do something if they can – but not very much if it means turning their lives upside down.
So the Greenway is a compromise – or a series of compromises. And that is a solution that dissatisfies all parties equally. The biggest compromise is money. Building a complete Greenway would have required land acquisition – and that, in this region, is hideously expensive. Much cheaper is to use and adapt existing rights of way. It is illegal to ride a bike on a sidewalk – and on many footpaths – but often that is the safest route for a cyclist to take. Crossing roads is also problematic. Signals set up for pedestrians at intersections do not usually meet the needs of cyclists very well – or at all. Some of the Greenway can use existing trails – though one stretch required negotiation of what in England we would call a “bridle path” – nothing to do with weddings – it was used a lot by horseback riders, who like a chiptrail – loose woodchips – not the hard surface preferred by cyclists. Indeed when walking or cycling, I much prefer a smooth paved surface. The worst in both cases as far as I am concerned is the solution preferred by most municipalities – gravel. That has the single advantage of cheapness – but little else to commend it.
When municipalities put in bikeways they tend to think simply of local users. They have no remit to facilitate cross boundary travel. And often the bike routes they do have do not link up very well – again because they are more about recreational use than transport. For instance Richmond’s dykes are a good system of walking and biking trails – around the perimeter of the city. But they are not complete – you cannot get around the north west corner of Lulu Island (Sea Island Way and the industrial area north of Bridgeport). The Knight Street Bridge allows cyclists to use its sidewalks which see little pedestrian use but once off the ramps there are no links at all to designated cycle routes. And so on – I talk about Richmond because I Live here and still try to cycle here – but the same is true of most cities. The CVG crosses boundaries – and follows roughly the same trajectory as the Millennium Line. But unlike the Expo Line – where the former BCER right of way became the BC Parkway under the tracks – the existing rights of way used by the Millennium Line were either major roads or busy freight railways. Not only that, but a lot of lessons have been learned since the Parkway was put together. And a lot remains to be done on that route to make it usable end to end as well.
The CVG does not exist in isolation. It was supposed to be part of a new approach to transportation and land use planning that sought to change the way we get around. The authority that created it – the GVTA – has been reorganised and anyway was always more about getting the regional municipalities around the table to talk about Major Roads. Walking and cycling were always seen as a minority, specialist interest within the organisation dominated by Engineers. It is planners who think about people – engineers think about vehicles and building things. “Human factors” tend to be only consulted after the inevitable collisions. But livability should have been – and still must – be the primary concern.
The supposed conflict between “commuters or recreational users” is also more apparent than real. For one thing, they do tend to separate themselves by time of day and days of the week. Though afternoon peak periods in the summer can be an issue.
“It takes what would be basically an uncomfortable, impossible-to-ride route and makes it quite usable,” says Andrew Feltham, the VACC’s New Westminster chair.
Which is about all anyone could ask, I would say. I also hope that over time, and as usage grows, that the route will be improved – there is plenty for scope for that. But unfortunately, in this region, we do not seem to do that very well. For a variety of reasons, the BC Parkway was never well looked after – and although many shortcomings have been identified and are well known not much has changed over the years. Richmond’s network of cycling routes on arterials is not bad – as far as it goes – and that is not nearly enough! But nothing much is happening – the new Canada Line bridge across the North Arm is the only significant addition. Part of the reason is that there are several agencies involved and all have to work together. And each of those agencies has other, more pressing priorities. Which is a pity since human survival on this planet beyond this century is going to require some significant behavioural changes – especially in the way that North Americans get around.