Velo-city Global 2012 Blog
For a few days Vancouver will be the global heart of bicycle policy. Over 800 policymakers, advisers and stakeholders from primarily Europe and North America will exchange knowledge and experience during the Velo-City Global Conference. The conference has drawn the attention of many residents of this west coast Canadian city. The Bixi makes its appearance on the streets.
Friday, June 29th (final)
A cycling blog about Vancouver will not be complete without mentioning the bicycle racks on buses. One hundred percent of public transport buses in Vancouver have such a rack mounted on the front, with space for two bikes. That’s special. A passenger wanting to bring the bike along must unfold the rack under the watchful eye of the bus driver who remains seated, and place the bike in the rack himself. This fits in with the politics of Translink, a sort of transport authority, overseeing not only public transport, but also owner of bridges and even active in transport management. The bike can in this way be included in the bus for free (maximum of 2 bikes), in the metro/skytrain ride for free, in the seabus (maximum 6 bikes) for free, and finally on the west coast express for 1 dollar. Translink also constructs cycling paths under the SkyTrain line because they own the ground anyway (this may be an idea for ProRail in the Netherlands).
The bike racks at the front of the bus were introduced in the mid nineties in buses destined for the ferry to Vancouver Island. It was then very difficult to cycle to the island because the existing tunnel denied access to bicycles. Interest groups then proposed equipping buses headed for the ferry, with bike racks. This was originally implemented for a few bus lines until Translink management decided to equip all buses with the racks. The presence of bike racks on all buses increases the flexibility of the service since all buses are interchangeable, and as a result brings about the delivery of a uniform, unambiguous service to the consumer.
The bike racks are well used on some bus lines, such as those headed for the university and the ferry. Almost every bus will be carrying one or two bikes. Because each bus can only carry at most 2 bikes, the racks are often fully occupied. This is usually no problem owing to the 3-minute frequency of the bus service. On buses headed downtown one sees a bike infrequently.
There have been attempts in the past to introduce bike racks in the front of Dutch buses, but this met with objections based on traffic safety; in an accident involving a cyclist or a pedestrian, the bike rack might cause additional injury. This was completely new for Rachel Jamieson, who organizes a roundtable session on behalf or Translink. Since the introduction of the bike racks in the nineties, safety has never been a point of discussion.
For car drivers in Vancouver, these are hard times. Three city bicycle parades will take place in the space of four days: the official Velocity Bike Parade on Thursday, the slightly anarchistic Critical Mass parade, traditionally on the last Friday of this Congress, and the Naked Ride parade on Sunday. The large cycling groups taking part occupy the full width of the road, causing traffic jams. Actually, the Critical Mass group sees it differently with their slogan: we don’t block the traffic, we are the traffic! For various Dutch Velocity visitors, the Critical Mass parade is the unofficial closure of the congress. Some take advantage of the Critical Mass parade, as well as the previous day’s Bike Parade, in order to protest against the compulsory helmet in Vancouver by demonstratively placing inflatable orange clogs on their heads.
Critical Mass is an unusual phenomenon. A group of several hundred cyclists – perhaps a thousand, and many specially dressed – take over the full width of Vancouver’s streets. The group is led by police officers on bike and motorbike. For the authorities, the direction that the parade will take at each intersection will be a surprise - there is no set route and there is no leader since “everyone is a leader”. People cycling in front determine where the procession goes, and one can only hope that the rest will follow. Today, Critical Mass will take them, after some meandering, to the 61-metre high Lions Gate Bridge. Cars caught in the traffic jams that will inevitably arise at both ends will have to be patient for half an hour. After a stiff climb, we are rewarded with a splendid view of downtown Vancouver in the evening sun.
Thursday, June 28th
Amongst all the upbeat talks about cities around the world doing things right is a sombre tale coming from China. Assistant professor Jinhua Zhao presented a few figures. Bicycle usage in Beijing has dropped from 60% in 1986 to the current 16%. So Zhao was really inclined to entitle his talk as “The impossibility of sustainable transport in China” but he found that overly pessimistic. The title finally became “The Narrow Way of the Cyclist in China”. On the other hand, Vancouver would have to quadruple its bicycle usage in order to equal Beijing’s.
The report on China is reminiscent of developments in the Netherlands in the 50s and 60s of the previous century. Bicycle usage also dropped dramatically in the Netherlands within a period of 20 years. Happily, the trend reversed itself somewhat after the dip in the seventies. According to Zhao, the conditions for a bicycle revival in China are present: the country has a long cycling tradition, bike ownership is high and the ample cycling infrastructure from the peak period is still present. The big problem, says Zhao, is the image of the bike as a means of transport for the poor. He shows an advert portraying a lascivious film star together with the text: “I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on your bike”. In this sense Vancouver has better prospects than Beijing because the bicycle here is more popular with young and healthy city dwellers. But Zhao is hopeful: peoples’ preferences can drastically change in 20 years.
Wednesday, June 27th
The day began early enough with a side meeting of the national cycling coordinators of a number of European countries, from Norway to France to Hungary. The degree to which the national governments implement cycling policy differs strongly; in general the national governments in countries surrounding Holland have more civil servants in charge of cycling than the Dutch government. Germany’s approach looks sound with a proper Fahrradakademie (“bike academy”) to train municipal traffic officials. Hungary, on the other hand, has no cycling officials at the national level; the Hungarian representative gave his talk in his own free time. But this does not detract from the fact the Hungary has a real cycling culture outside of Budapest. In country towns, the bicycle (ownership) percentage is around 50 percent according to him.
The French government has appointed a special 'monsieur Vélo', charged with coordinating the policies of the different ministries. He mentioned that the public bicycle rental systems have boosted bike usage enormously; in Paris the Vélib has contributed to a 42% growth in bicycle use within a five-year period. One bike in three that passes by is a Vélib. However, the introduction of a bike rental system is no guarantee for success. In Marseille there has been no increase in bike usage, and in Aix-en-Provence - a city of 100,000 inhabitants - the bike rental system is being dismantled.
To the dismay of the Dutch participants, Holland is scarcely present in the Velo-city plenary program. Is Holland way ahead of the game, or are the Dutch not good at placing themselves in the spotlight? In Wednesday’s plenary session, the floor was for Copenhagen, Vienna and the Australian city of Adelaide. Morten Kabell from Copenhagen gave a talk that could inspire Dutch cities. In order to encourage commuters from Copenhagen’s surrounding municipalities to take to the bike, 170 million dollars will be invested in the coming 12 years for the construction of 26 cycling super highways. Kabell puts this into perspective: "this is comparable to the construction costs of 1 km of subway line." What it is that makes these paths cycling super highways is not immediately apparent from the photographs displayed; they look like respectable bike paths, where attention has been given to circulation, among other things, by implementing a green wave (synchronizing the traffic lights) for cyclists. Even so, the results have been impressive, with the number of cyclists on a particular cycling superhighway increasing by 50 percent – 4200 cyclists per day in absolute terms.
At the end of the afternoon, the Dutch Consulate General invited all Dutch participants for drinks at a posh hotel. Consulates and embassies want to exploit growing American and Canadian interest for cycling in order to cement their contacts. This is a bit of a balancing act for the Dutch consulate in Vancouver since the city has a number of cycling activists with a light anarchistic bent, with whom the consulate does not want to be too closely associated.
At the end of the day I encounter a group of cycling activists on my way to the hotel. They ride on home-made bicycles of “alternate” design, so to speak, such as two bikes welded together, or a large mobile speaker converted into a bike trailer. One of the ”anarchists” invites me to “join the party”. When I tell her about the 4-day bicycle congress, she reacts, surprised: hadn’t we already thought this all out?
Tuesday, June 26th
Gregor Robertsen, Vancouver's mayor, opened Velo-City Global 2012. Even before his election, Robertson was known as an inveterate cycling commuter who considers cycling to be an important way of keeping contact with the city. A bit of delay at intersections is not unwelcome, since it allows him to have a short chat with city residents. According to Robertsen, increased cycling is not only good for the accessibility and quality of public spaces, but also for social cohesiveness in the city. Many fast-growing cities wrestle with the “loss of community feeling” and should invest in a sense of togetherness which according to him can be achieved in no better way than by promoting cycling. According to the mayor, Vancouver is well along the way to achieving this goal. Although the number of downtown inhabitants and jobs has risen sharply in the recent years, the number of automobile trips has dropped by a fifth. The mobility policy fits well in Robertsen's pursuit to make Vancouver, in 2012, the world's greenest city.
Another keynote speaker of the opening session, Gil Penalosa, the director of 8-80 cities, speaks highly of the mayor but nevertheless thinks that he should display more daring: the objectives must be more ambitious. As administrator of Bogota, Penalosa succeeded within a couple of years in putting the bicycle on the map of this relatively poor South American city. Such an outcome should also be possible in rich Vancouver. Moreover, Penalosa thinks that many American and Canadian cities have their priorities wrong, spending money on pleasant things such as route signs, cycling maps, road markings, bicycle rentals, and parking systems, while two important requirements remain unfulfilled: safe dwelling areas and a coordinated cycling network. Penalosa advocates the application of the 8-80 test: a city has achieved bike-friendliness when you can happily allow your 8-year old son and your 80-year old grandmother to cycle around in it. Her passionate speech was greeted with a standing ovation by the conference participants.
The talk given by Wan-Su, mayor of South Korea's Changwon City makes one appreciate the large differences in the world when it comes to implementing policy. His city rose from the ground up in 30 years and now totals more than 1 million inhabitants. A few years ago Wan-Su and his staff travelled to Paris to have a look at the Vélib. That bike rental system has now been copied and improved upon. When contrasted with these developments, Vancouver, as well as other American and European cities, could be more resolute in the implementation of bicycle policy. One important similarity with Vancouver is that Changwon's mayor is also an inveterate cyclist and as a result a driving force for bicycle policy.
A couple of notes from the session on electric bikes: The Swede Michael concludes that the emergence of electric bicycles requires some adjustments in the cycling infrastructure that will also benefit ordinary non-electric cyclists. Cycling paths will have to be broadened as a result of the higher speed differences; parking facilities would have to be improved owing to electric bikes' increased susceptibility to weather and theft, and more attention should be given to extended longer-distance routes in cycling path networks. Finally, Elizabeth Gordon of the U.S.A. noted that cyclists on electric bicycles observe the traffic rules better on 4-way intersections because stopping and starting require less effort.
Monday, June 25th, the preamble
The Bixi is a trendy bike-to-lend from Montreal, comparable with the Paris Vélib, but coming from a competing Canadian firm. For the Velo-City occasion, a couple of hundred Bixis have been shipped to Vancouver. Conference participants can make use of the Bixi, which visibly elicits reactions from the city folk. Although people have become used to bicycles in the streetscape (2 percent of all trips are done by bike), the Bixi nevertheless claims much attention. Passers-by wish to know what kind of bicycle it is and respond favorably to the explanation given.
Hotels are not yet equipped to accommodate conference participants who wish to safely stall their borrowed Bixi for the night. So the receptionist advises them to take it to their own hotel room. Besides, it's not unusual for Vancouver residents to take their bike into the lift on the way up to their apartments; one can see bicycles on balconies here and there, some partly hanging over the handrail.
For the Dutch conference participants (some tens of them) it is in fact the helmet included with the Bixi that provokes reaction. Vancouver law stipulates that cyclists must wear a helmet, which poses a dilemma for the Dutch visitors. Is the wearing of a helmet cow-towing to a bad policy measure? A cycling veteran even refuses to receive the helmet out of principle. Another invites the Dutch participants to take part in a symbolic protest action during the Bike Parade on Wednesday evening. Many Dutch participants have received the helmet (which is of fine Belgian design) but then do not wear it. They have little to worry about, says a Vancouver resident, as most police officers will turn a blind eye to this.
The company that provides the Bixis (Public Bike System Company – PBSC) is taking no risks. He/she who wishes to use the Bixi, must sign a statement: "I understand, acknowledge, and agree that bicycle riding is an inherently risky activity, and that there is a high risk of serious bodily injury or even death when riding a bike." A PBSC employee admits that this statement does not quite work as a promotional ad for cycling.
Otto van Boggelen