More steps being taken to return city streets to pedestrians

Something very odd happened when the City of Vancouver recently announced yet another bike lane reducing car capacity on the Burrard Bridge: nothing.

A small furor rose like an angry baby alligator from the swamp, then settled back into the mud. (“Absolutely ridiculous. The amount of bike traffic doesn’t warrant another bike lane,” snarled the most-liked comment under CBC’s story, even as daily bike trips across the bridge were topping 6,000.) The Vancouver Sun printed a widely circulated editorial effectively saying “no big deal.” The NPA stared menacingly and moved on. The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was in favour.

It could be because the “Carmaggedon” scenarios so shrilly predicted when the first southbound bike lane was fenced off in 2009 never materialized. Car traffic on the bridge has stayed steady while bike crossings have soared. It could be because automobile safety was in the forefront, with the new traffic flows designed to reduce the second-highest accident intersection in the city at the north end of the bridge.

But I think something else was going on too: the ascendancy of The Pedestrian as a legitimate user of public street space.

When the current bike lane configuration was introduced, pedestrians lost the east sidewalk. A pedestrian coming from the Molson brewery site on Burrard headed for, say, David Lam Park had to cross 25 lanes of traffic, detouring to the west sidewalk of the bridge and then back. The biggest beneficiaries of the new bridge plan will be pedestrians, who will now be free to use either sidewalk.

Streets designed exclusively for the most efficient through-flow of car traffic may turn out to be a temporary blip in urban design, now that the full costs and limited capacity of automobile mobility are coming into focus.

Trips by walkers, transit users and cyclists now equal trips by cars and trucks in Vancouver. As of May this year, their numbers had already reached the 50% target in the city’s plan for 2020, en route to two-thirds of all trips by 2040.

Getting more people on transit, walking and cycling makes life better for cars and trucks that have no alternative, but it requires some accommodation: one is improving pedestrian safety. (More on transit funding later.)

Imagine if a gang arrived in town and started killing and injuring innocent people at the rate of 33 deaths and 1,700 injuries a year. There would be outrage. But when cars do it, we live with it. However, that’s changing.

Vancouver, like the Netherlands, Sweden, the U.K., New York, San Francisco, Boston, Portland and Seattle, has a goal of zero pedestrian fatalities. Like New York, our pedestrian fatality rates are dropping, now the lowest in decades.

Score one for The New Pedestrian.

Now factor in the explosion of health-care costs, the proliferation of seniors and the exhilarating knowledge that walking for 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of bowel cancer by 60%, diabetes by 50%, breast cancer by 50%, as well as reducing heart disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases that are eating up the majority of our taxes.

Throw in all those new tech devices people are wearing, and apps that measure our daily physical activity levels, reminding us that with only 10 minutes more walking we can meet our daily quota and earn that foamy craft beer.

Smart businesses are catching on too: walking meetings are all the rage in Silicon Valley.

As more people decide to walk, the city’s Transportation 2040 goal – “Make walking safe, convenient, comfortable and delightful” – is getting new legs. Some Point Grey Road homeowners are about to lose their front yards so the city can widen the sidewalks and sweeten the walking experience on the Seaside Greenway.

Cities now have enough good reasons to cater to pedestrians that they are starting to get a lot more serious about it. •

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is the author of The Urban Food Revolution.

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