How can the City of Victoria improve and design its transportation network to encourage people of all ages and abilities to cycle more often?
That’s the question Victoria must address in its Bicycle Master Plan Update, launched last week by city council and set for public consultation early in 2014.
The previous master plan was completed in 1995, so a full review of Victoria’s cycling strategies and priorities is long overdue. The quality of, and funding for, Victoria’s cycling infrastructure is inadequate to meet the needs of residents in Canada’s “Cycling Capital.”
Victoria acquired that title due to its high ridership: 10 per cent of trips to work are by bicycle; for all trips, about five per cent are on a bike. These numbers are among the highest in Canada. However, Oak Bay has similar numbers, as does Yellowknife, and large areas in Montreal, Vancouver and others.
Victoria has the physical attributes of a strong cycling community. The city is small, with compact neighbourhoods in easy reach of downtown and other key destinations. Victoria is largely flat and crossed with a fine-grained, functional street network.
Despite these structural assets and its high overall ridership, Victoria has failed to keep pace with other cities where smart cycling investments have won success and broad community support from tourism to the tech industry. With this new master plan, Victoria can begin to catch up and show leadership in the region.
The gaps in the city’s cycle network are notorious: bike lanes that disappear near intersections; perilous unmarked crossings; poorly designed lanes and routes; and inadequate signs. No consistent effort has been made to fix unsafe segments or build quality facilities to attract new cyclists to city streets.
Victoria’s cycling budget is modest. Consider Kamloops, a similar-sized city. Its recent bicycle plan includes an annual $500,000 budget, twice what Victoria typically spends per year.
Surrey spends $7 million annually on cycling projects. Edmonton’s cycling budget is set at $10 million per year for the next decade. Calgary will spend $28 million over the next three years. Montreal, Seattle, Minneapolis and many other cities have made major investments with dramatic results.
Between 2000 and 2009, cycling usage was up by 70 per cent across 55 major U.S. cities. In Vancouver, cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation. Daily bike trips have tripled since 1994, with 40 per cent growth between 2008 and 2011. These trends are true wherever significant investments have been made.
In Victoria and region-wide, by contrast, we have seen little growth. Bike-to-work numbers in the capital region have been stuck about 3.5 per cent since 2001. Victoria’s numbers have barely budged, where measures are available. This tells us that Victoria’s cycling facilities are failing to attract new riders.
Like most cities, Victoria has a large and untapped cycling market. Research at the University of British Columbia identified a “near market” of people willing to bike more frequently in the short to medium term, comprising 31 per cent of the adult population. A Portland study found up to 60 per cent of adults were “interested but concerned” about cycling. They wanted to ride more often, but see many barriers, the biggest being cycling in traffic. Other concerns include parking, comfort and uncertainty about routes.
What these potential bike riders seek most are bike lanes separated from traffic, or “cycle tracks.” Well-designed cycle tracks, separated by barriers, buffers or planters, generate major increases in bicycle trips, anywhere from 50 to 200 per cent more riders on some corridors. Every major city in Canada has now built or is planning at least one cycle track.
Victoria’s cycling plan will have to address other key issues. A well-connected bicycle network must be identifiable, easy to navigate and ensure clear, safe crossings at major intersections. Key amenities, such as cyclist-activated signals and green paint at conflict zones, will make routes safer and more visible. Existing painted bike lanes can be extended and improved, and with minor changes many residential streets can link to a coherent and truly functional bike network.
Victoria has a tremendous opportunity to be a true cycling leader. Let’s start now.
Ray Straatsma is vice-president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition. On Nov. 30, the coalition is hosting a workshop to help shape Victoria’s Bike Master Plan. See gvcc.bc.ca for details.