What I did on my summer vacation: cycling around Vancouver amongst the sporty set

On my summer vacation we got a chance to visit Vancouver for a few days on our West Coast trip, borrowing a couple folding bikes from friendly Momentum Magazine folks. Vancouver is quickly jumping into the lead of great cycling infrastructure. Soon they'll have their own BIXI program. It's all great except for the pesky helmet law.

Vancouver is getting great cycling infrastructure (top photo: Burrard bridge). Cycling there is so much less stressful than Toronto. If there's anything "wrong" with Vancouver cycling is that it is still heavily dominated by the "sporty", white, middle class set compared to Toronto. Is it a cultural difference or is it BC's helmet law that is excluding non-sporty people away from picking up a bike? It will be interesting to see how the bikesharing program will be hurt by this or will change it.

Chris Bruntlett of Hush Magazine, as pointed out by James of the excellent The Urban Country blog, made a recent trip in the opposite direction of myself and made some insightful comparisons of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal cycling habits. While Toronto really sucks for safer cycling infrastructure compared to Montreal and Vancouver, the one thing going for it is no helmet law. The helmet law in Vancouver, Chris contends, just serves to drive people away from cycling:

It achieves little, except deterring the most casual cyclists, who also happen to be the slowest and safest ones on the road. Shaming and/or fining those who take this relatively minor risk isn’t going to get them in a plastic hat: it’s going to stop them to stop cycling.

Vancouver, we'll take your cycling facilities but you can keep your spandex and helmets. Funnily even with a helmet law it seemed that about one quarter of people didn't bother to wear one. Perhaps this is because repercussions are relatively rare: a local friend noted that there were thousands of outstanding helmet fines. Still just having to stand there and be publicly shamed while a cop writes a ticket would be enough to turn off many. The helmet law has done a good job of making people think that cycling is a dangerous sport even if just riding a few blocks to the corner store. Which is a real shame since Vancouver is actually quite enjoyable by bike.

Anyway, for us outsiders I was most interested in the cycle tracks and bike boulevards, and I snapped a few photos.

Tenth Avenue bike boulevard intersection. Characteristics include restrictions of through traffic to bicycles only - motor vehicles can make right turns only - and light activation buttons accessible at bike level.

Hornby cycle tracks - bidirectional bike lanes separated from Hornby streets. They are actually narrower than what is planned for Harbord. No one complained about the inability to pass (a problem which some hardcore cyclists here have invented before the cycle tracks are installed).

Great Northern Greenway - a cycle track alongside the major street. This would be comparable to Lakeshore East bike path.

Downtown cycle tracks with bike racks. I forget which street this was on, but it was relaxing and peaceful and had easy access to parking.

Bike valet offered at the local farmers market. Cycle Toronto: make note of the efficient way to hang the bikes by the seats.


Downtown cycle tracks with bike racks. I forget which street this was on, but it was relaxing and peaceful and had easy access to parking.

Looks like Hornby to me.

Not to sound like a hardcore cyclist, but at times, I find it necessary to pass slower cyclists by briefly moving out of the shoulder/bike lane. How do the cycle tracks in Vancouver (and the proposed ones on Harbord) lend to passing others?

This may sound obvious: just pass by going into the other lane.

Sounds simple enough. Thanks!

I'm pretty sure it's a combination of helmet law and the fact that we have crappy weather 9 months of the year and far more hills than most cities. The sporty set definitely dominates as Vancouver is a cycling mecha because of its amazing terrain, racing scene and for some reason people like to wear that MEC crap. Toronto on the other hand offers little for the racing types...who wants to hop in a car to go ride your bike?

Here is my reflection on cycling in Vancouver and the Hush Magazine article:

Looking at those pictures raises some questions for me.

  1. If dedicated lanes are that empty, then who needs to worry about passing another cyclist? There aren't any to pass!
  2. Umm, where is everybody? Is this 5 AM Sunday morning on a long weekend after they dropped a neutron bomb? Nothing there resembles College or even Harbord. Of course it's easy and relaxing riding your bicycle when you're the only thing moving for blocks and blocks.
  3. Which makes me wonder, where are the Amsterdam-like, Batavius-riding crowds? I thought dedicated bike lanes would inevitably lead us to Dutch Nirvana with zillions of riders and cause super-duper infrastucture to sprout in every corner of the city. Not really seeing that here.