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Victoria's expanding cycling network eases fears, attracts new riders

Elise Cote was used to riding her bike in the city, but after she became pregnant with her first child, she no longer felt comfortable cycling around Victoria.
Elise Cote with two-year-old Lucia Velazquez Cote and Milo Velazquez Cote, 7, ride on the Galloping Goose in Cecelia Ravine Park. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Elise Cote was used to riding her bike in the city, but after she became pregnant with her first child, she no longer felt comfortable cycling around Victoria.

She had been hit by cars twice — both hit and runs — and it felt too risky with her children.

“I have to ride defensively, and a lot of times that means riding on the sidewalk or that means walking the bike or that means not riding my bike, because I don’t think the area is safe enough for my kids,” she said.

When she was still cycling in 2014, riding downtown meant cycling in the painted bike-lane space between moving vehicles and parked cars. There was always the risk of being “doored ” — hit by a vehicle door that is suddenly opened.

“That made riding downtown extremely uncomfortable,” said Cote, who now lives in Saanich’s Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood with her partner and two young children.

Soon after her second child was born, she decided to get back into cycling and bought a cargo bike, which she traded in this year for an e-assist version capable of holding up to 220 pounds, or two small children, a diaper bag, a picnic and three big bags of manure for the garden — the limit she’s pushed it to.

To make people like Cote more comfortable cycling in the city, Victoria recently completed an all ages and abilities cycling route on Vancouver Street, running 2.5 kilometres from Bay Street to the edge of Beacon Hill Park at Park Boulevard. Built with funding from the federal government and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the route features protected bike lanes in the downtown core and shared-use bikeways on traffic-calmed streets in North Park and Fairfield, and connects to routes on Dallas Road to the south and on Graham and Jackson streets to the north.

It’s part of a 32-kilometre all ages and abilities — or AAA — cycling network expected to be completed by the end of 2022 to provide a safe, eco-friendly and affordable way to move around the city.

Drivers can still access every part of Vancouver Street, but traffic diversions installed to reduce the volume of motor vehicles now prevent use of the road as a through route, except by emergency vehicles. Drivers are encouraged to use Quadra Street or Cook Street instead.

The diversions restrict travel in certain directions at seven points along the corridor and were designed to work as a system, said Sarah Webb, the city’s manager of transportation planning and development. The project also included changes on Cook and Quadra, including new left-turn signals, an improved pedestrian crossing and a roundabout to accommodate traffic from Vancouver Street.

A new pedestrian plaza at McClure and Vancouver blocks both northbound and southbound motor vehicle traffic, while other diversions generally restrict travel in one direction.

Diversions were introduced slowly between November and May, giving drivers time to adjust to changes one at a time, Webb said.

Coun. Geoff Young said the city received considerable negative feedback to the project initially, mainly from residents who live nearby and complained they would need to take detours and find new routes to and from home, but there’s been little pushback more recently.

Some argued they already felt comfortable biking on Vancouver Street before the changes and questioned the need for cycling infrastructure on the road.

But Webb said the changes are specifically designed to support new and less-confident riders, not seasoned cyclists.

Research shows that people who are interested in cycling but concerned about safety are more likely to hop on a bike when there is a safe, connected cycling network, she said.

It’s this kind of cycling infrastructure that now brings Cote to Victoria for shopping and leisure, because she feels safe riding with her children. Milo, 7, often rides his own bike from Saanich to downtown Victoria, while Lucia, 2, sits in the cargo bike.

“Since we started getting back into cycling, we spend way more time in the city of Victoria than we used to,” she said.

Victoria dad Dugald Thomson, who uses the bike lane on Vancouver Street to take his two-year-old daughter, Maisie, to daycare, said it’s a relief to have dedicated cycling infrastructure for their commute.

While Thomson said he feels comfortable riding in most conditions by himself, putting Maisie on the back of his bike changed his perspective.

“I really appreciate having a quiet street down Vancouver. You know, to be able to go along and cars are just so much more, I guess, respectful of cyclists when you’re on those dedicated bike lanes,” he said.

For Brandon Williamson, who moved to Victoria from Port Alberni in 2015 with the mindset that driving was the default way to get around, cycling infrastructure has helped him ditch his car completely.

“I can get around without fearing for my life,” he said.

The shift has slashed his transportation costs, from about $300 a month for insurance and parking to essentially nothing, he said.

“When we think about affordability in cities, I think that our focus is entirely on housing. And we forget about the transportation aspect of that. So just being able to save hundreds of dollars per month on transportation, I think goes a long way in terms of affordability,” Williamson said.

Corey Burger, policy and infrastructure chair for Capital Bike — formerly the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition and the Greater Victoria Bike to Work Society — said before the city started building the AAA cycling network, the number of people biking in the urban area had essentially reached a plateau. As the network expands, those who previously haven’t felt comfortable are finding their way to cycling, he said.

“We’re starting to see that in proof on the ground in terms of who is riding out there and the stories we’re hearing about people who have kids who maybe haven’t ridden before or are getting back on their bike,” he said.

These behavioural changes as a result of infrastructure demonstrate why counting current users isn’t an effective way to determine the need for cycling routes, Burger said.

“The number of people who will use a protected bike lane or some other AAA infrastructure is totally different from the number of people who would be riding on the road right now,” he said.

An additional 10 kilometres of the city’s all ages and abilities cycling network is set to be built this year.

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