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Cyclists pump up Victoria shops, study says

Some retailers believe catering to cyclists is bad for business. Why? They think most shoppers drive automobiles to Victoria’s downtown. Therefore, when it comes to customers, the motorist reigns supreme.
Tom Berkhout, left, and Ray Straatsma, vice-president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, are co-authors of a new report on cycling that looked at the impact on downtown of people who use two-wheel transportation.

Some retailers believe catering to cyclists is bad for business.

Why? They think most shoppers drive automobiles to Victoria’s downtown. Therefore, when it comes to customers, the motorist reigns supreme. And narrowing the streets with bicycle lanes or replacing parking spaces for bike racks is not a good idea.

Right? Maybe not.

A new study, Bikes Mean Business, indicates most patrons of downtown businesses did not drive automobiles to get there.

A survey conducted for the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition suggests only 23 per cent of people visit downtown Victoria by car. Almost half of those surveyed (48 per cent) came downtown by bicycle or foot.

For the Cycling Coalition survey, conducted over two months last fall, 504 people were asked in sidewalk interviews how they had travelled downtown that day. The results:

• 31 per cent walked

• 26 per cent took public transit

• 23 per cent drove an automobile

• 17 per cent cycled

• Three per cent took another mode of transportation (taxi, scooter, motorcycle)

Surprisingly, the survey suggests people who drive cars to get to downtown Victoria are in a minority.

There’s more. When the Cycling Coalition crew asked downtown visitors about their transportation modes over a typical month (as opposed to a day), 30.7 per cent reported cycling “either frequently or almost always.” The percentage who said they drove automobiles downtown frequently or almost always over the same period was 26.8 per cent.

The Cycling Coalition also talked to 125 business owners. Their estimates of car travel were higher than what the survey found.

One might think motorists buy a lot more goods which they’re able to transport in their cars and trucks. The Cycling Coalition survey suggests this is not the case.

Sixty-five per cent of motorists reported spending more than $100 downtown in a typical month. But an even larger percentage of other groups also spent more than $100 monthly: 74 per cent of walkers, 68 per cent of cyclists and 67 per cent of bus riders.

Cycling Coalition vice-president Ray Straatsma authored the study with Tom Berkhout. Straatsma cautioned that the Bikes Mean Business study — funded by a $10,000 City of Victoria grant — looks specifically at the city’s downtown. (Of the people surveyed, 44.8 per cent said they live downtown.) Doing the survey in other areas of Greater Victoria, such as Uptown or Hillside, would likely yield different results, he said.

Nonetheless, the Cycling Coalition is buoyed by its findings, which are consistent with other cycle-friendly cities such as Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Toronto. The study says cycling in the 70 largest American cities increased by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2009.

The study recommends an annual budget “in the range of $2 million to $3 million” be implemented for cycling infrastructure.

For the Cycling Coalition, the not-so-coincidental timing of the Bikes Mean Business survey is excellent, given the City of Victoria is devising an updated bicycle master plan to replace the last one, issued in 1994. A city task force is compiling information that will help shape its decisions regarding cycling in Victoria — which, according to Statistics Canada, has the highest percentage of commuting cyclists of any city in Canada.

The Cycling Coalition says Greater Victoria did stellar work in establishing bike paths such as the Galloping Goose, Lochside Trail and Selkirk Trestle.

But over the past decade, the cycle-friendly push has slowed.

“I would say the region as a whole is falling a bit behind,” said Cycling Coalition president Edward Pullman. “It’s not just about more paint on the road for more bike lanes. We need to start asking ourselves, what can we do to take it a step further?”

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin — leading the city’s cycling task force — appears to agree. In an interview, he cautioned that changes won’t happen overnight.

“These things take time and money,” he said.

But Fortin is fully in favour of a bike-friendly downtown, saying expanding facilities and infrastructure for both cyclists and pedestrians is “one of the top priorities for the City of Victoria.”

While the city’s task force has yet to assemble its findings, future priorities will likely include creating separated bike lanes. (“You can literally have concrete barriers,” Fortin said) and making improved bike links between neighbourhoods that are already bike-friendly.

Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt, a member of the city’s task force, said Victoria needs to create several east-west and north-south cycling arteries that are “high quality, efficient and safe routes.”

Improvements can be smaller things, such as installing crossing lights that can sense the presence of a cyclist, Isitt said. Such lights allow bicycles to cross in a shorter time than allotted for pedestrians. This is safer for the cyclist and less disruptive to traffic flow.

“To get through some parts of the city, you’re literally taking your life in your hands. And that’s got to change,” said Isitt, who cycles with his eight-year-old daughter on her way to school.

While work needs to be done, some good things are already in the works.

This year the Capital Regional District will install a new sewage line along Dallas Road. The plan is to build a 2.8-kilometre path — separated from the street by curb and boulevard — over the sewage line. The existing pedestrian path will not be affected.

Architect Franc D’Ambrosio, meanwhile, is overseeing a two-tower development across from Victoria City Hall. He said the 287,000-square-foot project, including offices and commercial uses, will be extra bike-friendly.

As well as offering bicycle lockup rooms, bike parking (including a covered area for visitors), showers and change rooms, the development will have what D’Ambrosio’s calls Victoria’s “first segregated bike path” along Pandora Avenue, separated from motor traffic by a planted boulevard.

Fortin said he hopes Victoria, armed with a new bicycle master plan, will once again be on the cutting edge when it comes to city-friendly cycling.

“I think Victoria has led the way in the past,” he said. “Everyone’s caught up to us. It’s time for us to lead the way again.”

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