The issue of the Seaside Greenway reared its ugly head again last week, when prominent millionaire Nelson Skalbania was given copious amounts of time and space in The Province and CBC News to rant angrily against the project. His main point of contention: the “closure” of Point Grey Road to motor vehicle through traffic, and the (long-planned) seamless greenway connection of Kitsilano and Jericho Beaches.
The newly completed Seaside Greenway is the crown jewel of Vancouver: one that now allows one to walk, jog, skate, scoot, rollerblade, or cycle separated from automobile traffic, over a stretch of 30 kilometres along the waterfront, from Crab Park in Gastown to the endowment lands at U.B.C. City crews are now seven months into construction, the project having been approved by council back in July 2013 (by seven votes to two), and recent polls showing 64% of Vancouverites support safer, separated cycling facilities.
This hasn’t stopped a small group of Point Grey residents from whining, threatening lawsuits, and throwing around baseless claims of an “undemocratic” consultation process. Frustratingly, local media outlets have been more than happy to provide them with an unchecked platform, needlessly sensationalizing the issue, and manufacturing controversy in order to fill column inches, generate clicks, and sell advertising space.
To make matters worse, these editorial boards, talk radio hosts, and news producers fail to give adequate attention and airtime to the tens of thousands of citizens who have discovered secure, comfortable access to an entirely new portion of the public realm.
“I Didn’t Need a Bike Lane”
Skalbania, who regularly cycles downtown from his home on Point Grey Road, claims the bike route is an attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. “I didn’t need a bike lane,” he told the CBC, seemingly unaware that Vancouver is also inhabited by some 650,000 other people, 40% of whom are “curious, but concerned” about riding a bike.
In Skalbania’s world, if the physically fit, traffic-tolerant male doesn’t want dedicated space for cycling, then the rest of the population simply does not need it. However, in the real world, getting that 40% on bikes is about encouraging all ages and abilities – like my five and seven year olds – and making them feel welcome on their city’s streets.
The Trend is our Friend
Having said that, this project is much, much bigger than just bike lanes. These traffic-calming techniques – no different to the ones seen throughout the West End and East Van – have opened up the entire corridor for residents and visitors to use, reclaiming a residential street that was never intended to be an arterial road. Within hours of construction crews setting up barriers last month, social media was flooded with stories and photos of folks enjoying Point Grey and its adjacent waterfront parks, some describing it as the “best thing that has happened to my community in a long time.”
My own five-year-old son still talks about the Sunday afternoon in January we spent riding side-by-side out to Jericho Beach for the first time, grinning the entire way.
While some cynics argue that city officials are engineering social change, in reality, they are simply reacting to it. Rates of driving peaked in Vancouver in the late ‘90s, as rates of walking, cycling, transit, and car-sharing all continue to increase rapidly. According to the Transportation Department’s daily vehicle counts, the two streets directly affected by the traffic-calming – Point Grey and MacDonald – saw a 20% to 30% decrease in traffic between 2006 and 2012. These numbers are indicative of a continual, downward, citywide trend over the past 15 years, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
Of course, those inconvenient truths haven’t stopped our shortsighted opposition party from hitching their wagon to this dying horse. Presumptive NPA Mayoral Candidate George Affleck recently made the first promise of the 2014 municipal election: to reopen Point Grey Road “for all Vancouverites”, thus playing into Vision Vancouver’s hand, and sealing his party’s fate months before the campaign even begins. Mr. Affleck’s pandering may resonate with the few dozen millionaires who are still moaning loudly about being inconvenienced, but it isn’t going to fly with the rest of the voting public.
Genuine Opposition Wanted
I am by no means an unconditional Vision Vancouver supporter. In fact, I would argue they haven’t been brave enough in democratizing our streets. While Michael Bloomberg swiftly moved to modernize New York City with road diets, pedestrian plazas, bike-share, and hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes, we are stuck fighting one (tiny) battle at a time, at an average of one kilometre of backstreet bikeway per year.
We can’t even garner the political leadership required to permanently establish a civic square on a single block of Robson Street, let alone provide the foresight needed to re-invent Granville Island or Water Street as permanent pedestrian malls. And let’s not even discuss the continual fumbling of the city’s long-delayed public bike-share system.
Moreover, I fear the city set a dangerous precedent in rerouting part of this bikeway to the quieter, “less disruptive” York Avenue: a move that Heather Deal (the councilor responsible for the cycling portfolio) unwisely went on record to say was done “because keeping cyclists off Cornwall helps local businesses.” The city has shown very little ambition or willingness to engage with business and property owners, and make the overwhelming economic case for cycle tracks where they are truly needed: along busy, destination-lined high streets such as Main Street, Commercial Drive, and Broadway.
It is certainly in everyone’s interest to have a relevant, competitive opposition party, but that won’t happen until the NPA present the citizens of Vancouver with a more compelling vision of a resilient, accessible, and competitive 21st century city. A key part of that involves taking a cue from their Republican counterparts in New York City, and accepting that the North American love affair with the automobile is over. Voters will opt for wider sidewalks, narrower streets, walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods, and plentiful patios, parklets, and plazas. They just need to be given that opportunity.
Disappointingly, the NPA are following the path of federal U.S. Republicans, who insist on shifting further and further to the right, in order to appease a radical, vocal minority.
Exclusive and Elitist Street Design
The most telling moment of Skalbania’s selfish tirade came when he complained about being “forced” to drive six blocks to the Jericho Tennis Club, rather than the usual two. Somehow, his personal sense of entitlement trumps the security of the many who are unable – or unwilling – to drive everywhere they go. As the infinitely quotable Enrique Peñalosa maintains: “A bikeway is a symbol of democracy. It shows a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen in a $30,000 car.” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that notion of equality. Except, perhaps, Mr. Skalbania and Mr. Affleck.
In another overly dramatic, rhetoric-filled letter circulating online, a Point Grey resident parroted the puzzling line that efforts to encourage walking and cycling are “elitist”. Because – as one commenter pointed out, with a heavy dose of sarcasm – spending over ten thousand dollars a year financing, maintaining, fueling and insuring a rapidly depreciating machine is clearly the behavior of societies’ downtrodden. Without any sense of irony, the anonymous victim then went on to mourn the loss of free, on-street parking for his friends who visited for sailing weekends. You just can’t make this stuff up.
So please, let’s move past this non-existent “controversy”, and start a real conversation about how we make the streets of Vancouver work for all users, regardless of how they get from A to B. Let’s stop pitting cars against bikes, and start transforming our streets into safe, pleasant, welcoming destinations, not just a series of roads and thoroughfares. Giving ourselves less expensive transportation options also happens to be one of the easiest things we can do to increase affordability. Yes, a handful of folks will be inconvenienced, but the vast majority of us will benefit. And, as an added bonus, we’ll make our city a healthier, cleaner, more liveable place for us – and our children – to be.
Chris Bruntlett is a Residential Designer and father of two, living the (car-free) East Van dream. Outside of the office, he diligently documents the rise of mainstream bicycle culture via words, photographs, and film. He cherishes the ability to live and work in a dense, vibrant, sustainable city, and contribute to that vision on a daily basis. You can find Chris on Twitter: @cbruntlett