by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett
As Vancouverites enjoy an unseasonably mild and pleasant February, it becomes increasingly apparent that spring is just around the corner, meaning many memorable days of riding our bikes in the sunshine. It also means an annual resurgence of cyclists on our city streets, but for all of those additional riders, we speak to plenty of friends and acquaintances that – for various reasons – continue to avoid two-wheeled travel. Some physical barriers are perfectly valid, but many times we find the common excuses are more centred around psychological ones. So, in the lead up to warmer days, we thought we’d tackle some of these “myths”, proving that biking in Vancouver can be fun and easy for anyone and everyone.
First, let’s tackle the most common barrier: safety. While riding on streets can mean sharing space with large, fast-moving vehicles, under the right conditions, cycling can actually be incredibly safe and enjoyable. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t do so daily with our two children. In fact, riding a bike is often safer than walking ((Trip-by-trip and km-by-km, there are more pedestrian fatalities in BC than cycling ones). We cannot overemphasize the importance of route selection, always choosing one of the many traffic-calmed bikeways, and/or the several kilometres of protected bike lanes. We ride in a manner that makes us visible to other road users, always following traffic signals, and – when it’s needed – we take things a little slower. As a result, our family has cycled thousands of kilometres throughout this city without a single collision or injury, and riding a bike has become an unremarkable part of our everyday routine.
This is one of those myths we manage to bust almost every time we sit on our saddles. In fact, unless you’re travelling from the furthest reaches of East Van to U.B.C., we’ve often found riding our bikes will get us to our destination faster than any combination of transit, especially in rush hour. Every day, Chris travels from our home at Commercial and Broadway to his office at Granville and Broadway, nine times out of ten choosing to ride instead of braving the 99 B-Line. The commute on two wheels takes just shy of 25-minutes, travelling at a slow, leisurely pace. On those rare occasions he opts for transit, the trip takes at least that long, and that if he is able to get on the bus as soon as he arrives at the station. Similarly, we frequently ride to Granville Island with our kids, the trip taking about 30-minutes with the glorious seawall as our backdrop. Making that trip by car involves the likelihood of getting stuck in traffic, and then the painful search for parking once arriving there.
Since 2009, HUB has been running the “Share the Road Challenge”, pitting travellers in cars, transit and on bikes to see which mode is more efficient. The event takes place during rush hour, and historically those travelling by bicycle have arrived first 75% of the time. More than any anecdotal evidence we can provide, this statistic alone helps to refute any notion that bikes are the slowest way to get from A to B.
Yes, Vancouver’s topography is far from flat, and it’s hills have been an excuse our own family has used in the past when deciding whether or not to ride to a destination. Then we visited New Zealand, and our outlook changed very quickly. Suddenly Vancouver’s rolling hills seemed a bit more palatable. The wonderful thing about the city’s bike network is that, in most cases, the bikeways follow routes that avoid the more intense inclines, and even when they don’t – with a little trial and error – you can find other routes to take that are a little flatter. For more seasoned riders, it is not uncommon to have conversations about routes that discuss which streets are ideal for more or less intense rides. Even our kids understand the lingo, often asking to take “the wiggle” (Ontario-St George-10th Avenue) to get from False Creek to our East Van apartment. On those occasions when hills are unavoidable, it’s great to remember that the very best part of riding uphill is the trip back down!
Plain and simple, Vancouver is a small city. We have a geographic boundary that limits our growth, so unlike sprawling metropolises such as Toronto and L.A., our city has been built quite compactly. It’s something we gained a new appreciation for when we sold our car in 2010, and relied mainly on our bikes to get around. Within a short amount of time, the city became much smaller, and areas of we previously felt were unreachable unless in a car became surprisingly closer than we thought. For no trip did this become more apparent than our weekly visit to the Vancouver Aquatic Centre for our kid’s swimming lessons. When in East Van, everything in the West End seems so far away, so the first time we took the ride over, we gave ourselves nearly an hour and a half. Then we arrived, with over forty-five minutes to spare. Turns out, even with slower moving children, the bike trip took about half that time, resulting in us willingly making it weekly, even in the wintertime. On average, travelling about ten kilometres by bicycle will take about thirty minutes. When you think that the distance from Boundary Road to U.B.C. is just over twenty kilometres, the argument about distance starts to become a little less compelling.
Admittedly, Vancouver has one of the wettest climates in Canada, averaging 1,600 mm. of rain each year. But here’s a startling fact – the city keeps running despite our climate, and we won’t melt if hit with a little rain. Cycling in the rain is actually a lot easier than it seems, so long as you have a reliable raincoat and a pair of gumboots. It’s really no different than walking. We’ve even taken to riding with an umbrella from time to time, a feat made much easier on an upright bike at a slower pace.
There is another counter-argument to the rain problem, and that’s the simple fact that – while our winters are riddled with wet days – Vancouver remains one of the warmest places in Canada from November to April, and it doesn’t rain nearly as much as you imagine. In fact, we have some pretty glorious stretches here when the sun shines for several days, and we have found that – as the years pass by – the days we choose not to ride become few and far between. For this February alone, Vancouver has seen no more than 26 mm. of rain, with the daily average actually sitting below ten mm. This hardly seems like a reason not to get on your bike and enjoy the trip, instead of sitting behind the wheel of a car or crammed on a bus.
As parents, this is the barrier we hear about most often. It ties back to the perception of danger around cycling, which is difficult to refute when it is a parents’ job to ensure the safety of their kids. But like riding solo, biking with kids requires little more than teaching them to ride responsibly and follow the rules of the road. Kids are surprisingly resilient creatures, and if you offer them the opportunity to have a little independence, they will often amaze you. Both of ours have been riding on their own two wheels since the age of five, and prior to that, we relied on a trailer and/or trail-a-bike to get around town. Getting set up is no different than putting them in a car seat or on the bus, and requires similar prep-time. The wider availability of cargo bikes is actually making this easier, providing everything you need in one bike without attaching additional gear. When we bike with our kids, we take calmer routes to get from A to B, add a little extra travel time for their shorter legs, and build in stops for longer trips so they can rest. It’s really no different than when we (occasionally) travel by car, except that on our bikes, we enjoy the time spent being active together and interacting with our city on a more personal level.
An unfortunate by-product of the sportification and dangerization of cycling in North America has been the prevailing attitude that it is only for the fit and the brave. In cities that have prioritized the comfort and safety of cyclists in their street design, nothing could be further from the truth. In the Netherlands, where they have done just that, those 65 and older make a quarter of their journeys by bicycle; a number that’s steadily increasing with the growth of E-Bike technology. One in five new bikes sold there is electric, with 80% bought by people over the age 50. We call cycling “The Great Equalizer”, providing a newfound mobility, independence, and sense of freedom to those with physical limitations, along with a mode of travel that is often easier on the body that walking. And when even an E-Bike is too difficult for a senior citizen to manoeuvre, there’s always a special rickshaw waiting for them.
This becomes another area where a lack of imagination precedes a lack of action. We are often astounded at the amount of stuff we can carry with a combination of baskets, bags, and panniers. Food shopping by bike also means we shop local, we shop smaller, and we shop fresher. In the summertime, it’s not uncommon for our family of four to load up our bikes with a picnic, sand toys, towels, and an umbrella, and pedal out to one of Vancouver’s beautiful beaches along a spectacular stretch of seawall. Our recent acquisition of a TrioBike Cargo has taken hauling stuff by bike to the next level, with the sudden discovery of being able to haul big grocery shops, cases of beer, small appliances, and even our annual Christmas tree in the front cab.
Undoubtedly our biggest pet peeve about Vancouver’s bike culture is the idea that, in order to participate, one has to invest in hundreds of dollars of cycle-specific clothing and gear. We have a simple dispute to that concept, and it relates back to our children. When teaching a child to ride, parents don’t go out and buy them a bunch of fancy shoes, clothing and the like – all the give them is a bicycle and the encouragement they need to put their feet on the pedals and go. We have memories from our own childhood of hopping on our bikes and riding to meet friends at the park, and not once did that involve changing into cycling specific clothing. Why, if riding a bike is so simple as a child, is there the need to overcomplicate it simply because you reached your adult years? Riding a bicycle is a tradition that has been passed down for generations over a hundred years. All you need to do it is a simple two (or three) wheeled machine and the desire to slow down and enjoy the ride.
So as the days of summer get closer and closer, we hope this list has managed to dispel some of the personal barriers Vancouverites face when it comes to getting on a bicycle. The City of Vancouver has been investing greatly in ways to make cycling safer and easier for its residents, and it’s time to show them that we’re thankful for what we have, and inspire them to do more. Each year, we meet more people who decided to try riding a bike, and are now grateful to enjoy this fun and easy mode of travel. It can be daunting at first, and there was a time when we were just as hesitant, but all it took was a willingness to give it a shot, and now nearly six years later, we can’t imagine a better way to get around this beautiful city we call home!
Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-founders of Modacity, a multi-service consultancy focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography and film. You can find them on Twitter: @modacitylife.