Bicycles are not a North Shore Panacea, Transit Might Be

Published: Price Tags (link)
August 30, 2016
1135 words

For three years I’ve been part of the District of North  Vancouver’s Transportation Consultation Committee. Few things have enjoyed more discussion than cycling infrastructure.

The cycling community, including HUB, have done a tremendous job of lobbying local governments for better bike paths and lanes, and for the inclusion of bike specific amenities in major developments. When these discussions happen, bicycles are almost immediately proposed as the solution to traffic jams.

Good though that is, it isn’t about to solve the problems of the daily traffic jams on the Upper Levels highway. The problem is that our most avid cyclists don’t seem to understand the motivation of all of the thousands of people driving to and from their destinations.

The North Shore has a significant problem caused by the volume of automobiles trying to get to and from the North Shore via the two bridges. The people who are driving to and from work each day don’t generally enjoy it, and they don’t like what it costs them. No one chooses to sit for an hour in stop and go traffic, or to pay more and more for gas and insurance for the privilege. Just raising gas prices, eliminating parking, or laying on guilt trips won’t change this. You can probably make commuting by car twice as expensive and see little decrease in traffic volume – unless you can offer drivers a real and practical alternative. Or more to the point, offer drivers an alternative that they see as reasonable and attractive.

I have neighbours who cycle from Lynn Valley to downtown Vancouver and UBC respectively, but they are part of a very, very small minority. The number of North Shore residents who will be prepared to cycle or walk to jobs in Vancouver or Surrey is marginal at best. Despite the apocryphal stories about cyclists whizzing by slow moving cars on Lions Gate Bridge, the majority of drivers believe that, all things being equal, driving will get them to their destination faster than cycling. For the vast majority of drivers that’s entirely true, and the only possible options are private automobiles or public transit.

Travelling long distances by bike, over hilly terrain, at the same speed as driving, requires a high level of fitness, probably a bike costing at least thousand dollars, plus an employer who either doesn’t mind wet, smelly employees, or has shower and change facilitates at the office. The cyclists who have all of these things available really do represent a pretty elite group.

As an elite, they leave out the people who are physically unable to ride a bike. The people who are moving three or four children to various activities each day, as well as shopping and medical appointments. People moving appliances and parcels. People who carry the tools of their trade to work each day, or who work in different places and at different times. People who can’t afford the bike, and clothing, and helmet, and the extra time to travel by bike. And, of course, people who simply don’t want to ride bicycles.

For the North Shore, a solution that relies solely or mostly on cycling is not reasonable. Lecturing commuters about the “real costs” of driving (either in terms of infrastructure or in terms of the environment) won’t move more than a marginal number of people out of their cars.

The factors that keep people driving are entirely different. The person who is commuting by car will ask a few specific questions about any transportation option you offer them.

They’ll ask how long it takes to get to and from their job. If they can’t get to work on time, or if they are forced leave home a half hour early just to be sure, they’ll stay in their car. If they arrive home an hour later, and miss their kid’s soccer game, they’ll stay in their car. If their commute includes a transfer in the middle – or two – and those connections are unreliable, they’ll stay in their car. They’ll ask how close the transit start point is from their home, and how far the end point is from their work. If it’s five blocks at each end, they’ll stay in their car. If the trip involves standing or riding in the rain, they’ll stay in their car. They might not ask about it, but they care about comfort. If the bus is old, noisy, and crowded, they’ll stay in their car. If the driver is rude, or the passengers smelly, or if they usually wind up standing for much of the trip, they’ll stay in their car.

They’ll ask what it costs to take transit. In real world terms that means: is the transit fare more than what I pay for gas? Because usually it is. The other costs of driving – purchase, financing, insurance, maintenance – don’t enter into the discussion. They’re sunk costs that remain the same whether the car is parked, or being used to commute. The only variable cost is gasoline, and that’s what transit fares need to beat.

Downtown dwellers can get by with Car2Go and similar services. People living at the ends of suburban communities usually can’t – The District of North Vancouver is designed on the assumption that you’ll drive to shop, to work, to play, and a car in the driveway becomes a necessity. Even the newer, high density “town centres” being built now in  Lynn Valley, and at the bottoms of Capilano Road and Mountain Highway, assume that they’ll be a shopping hub for the surrounding residential areas, and include ample parking for all of the families who will drive to them from their homes. Despite including bike racks and designated bike routes, the prevailing assumption is still that transportation is primarily provided by cars.

Consequently, on the North Shore, you can’t assume that the choice is cars vs transit or bikes.  It’s actually, “I’ve already got a car in my driveway, so why should I take the bus?”  People are commuting by car to and from the North Shore because they do not see an alternative that is as good. Not even close. Whether you’re promoting transit or bicycles, you’re working against convenience, comfort, reliability, and a sense of control.

That’s a combination that is worth a lot to people.

As it stands now bicycles aren’t going to replace cars on the North Shore, and North Shore transit isn’t close to offering most commuters what they think is a palatable alternative. It’s really a chicken and egg, cart and horse problem. Before you can start trying to get people out of their cars, you need to put in place the alternatives that they will be happy to use.

Or, more positively, if you build a super good transit system, people will move to it on their own because it’s better.