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The trials of the Burrard Bridge

July 13th, 2009 was a long-awaited day for cycling advocates in Vancouver. The Burrard Bridge, one of three bridges connecting the Lower Mainland to downtown Vancouver, officially began its six-month lane re-allocation trial.

Pedestrians on the sidewalk and cyclists in their own lane on the southbound side

Pedestrians on the sidewalk and cyclists in their own lane on the southbound side

One of the three southbound lanes was divided off by a concrete median for exclusive use of cyclists. Pedestrians finally get exclusive use of the narrow sidewalk on the south side, while the northbound sidewalk functions as a bike lane. You can see by the pavement markings above that each sidewalk used to be shared between pedestrians and cyclists. While the trial is far from ideal (pedestrians have to cross to the west side at busy intersections at each end), it is the culmination of more than a decade of efforts by sustainable transportation advocates. 

About half of the 8,000-9,000 cars that drive over the bridge each day are single-occupant vehicles, a number that the City of Vancouver wants to decrease. Safety has also been a major issue: because of the narrow sidewalks, shared between commuting cyclists and walkers, and the lack of protective elements between the sidewalk and roadway, there have been many accidents in which cyclists have narrowly escaped death. As you can see in the pictures, the sidewalks comfortably fit three people across, which is why cyclists had to move fairly slowly (15km/h) to avoid injuring pedestrians. 

The last time the Burrard Bridge closed off a lane for cyclists, back in 1996, the trial lasted only a week before angry motorists forced it to close. However, the number of cyclists using the bridge during the short trial increased by 39% while drivers decreased by 9%. Traffic delays of 20 minutes the first day decreased to only a few minutes by the end of the week. City Council admitted that it hadn’t done enough to prepare people for the trial, including advertising and new signage. This time around, the long delay in getting the trial approved meant that there was plenty of publicity, new signage and traffic police on hand at each end of the bridge to help direct people to the correct side of the bridge. Of the $1.45 million budget for the project, $250,000 was spent on public education.

Banner advertising the Burrard Bridge Lane Re-allocation

Banner advertising the Burrard Bridge Lane Re-allocation

Council has been considering closing two lanes of the bridge (one northbound and one southbound) for many years. Four consecutive councils have considered over 30 different proposals for the Burrard Bridge, and Vision Vancouver’s discussion of the bike lane trial in 2005 was thought to be a deciding factor in that year’s municipal election, in which Sam Sullivan (Non-Partisan Association) defeated Larry Campbell (Vision Vancouver). During Sullivan’s term in office  (2005-2008), Council members decided against the proposal.

This time around, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Council debated three options: 

  • Closing two lanes for bike travel (one northbound and one southbound), leaving both sidewalks for pedestrians
  • Closing one lane for bike travel (southbound), leaving the southbound sidewalk for pedestrians and the northbound sidewalk as shared between cyclists and pedestrians
  • Closing one lane for bike travel (southbound), leaving the southbound sidewalk for pedestrians and the northbound sidewalk for cyclists only

Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of Walk and Bike for Life, was one of the speakers at the May 5, 2009 meeting that decided the fate of the bridge. Penalosa is the former Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for the City of Bogata, Columbia, where he helped introduce 91 km of car-free roads on Sundays (Ciclovia). 1.5 million people use the Ciclovia weekly.

The usual opponent in this storyline, the business community (such as the Downtown Business Improvement Association), opposed the lane closure. They apparently still believe the 1950s fallacy that only cars can bring people into business districts. Try telling that to Vancouverites, who successfully fought a series of highway projects that would have destroyed downtown neighbourhoods back in the 1970s. At that time, businesses supported highways that they saw as bringing suburban residents into the city, a strategy that failed miserably in many cities across North America.

Some suggest that there the Burrard Bridge lane re-allocation trial is not as politically risky as it might have been in the 1990s. There has been a considerable shift in sustainable transportation policy and programming since 1996. In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, TransLink was created in 1997 and ridership has increased substantially. In the City of Vancouver, cycling trips have tripled while driving trips decreased substantially. The City has decided to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. Experts like Penalosa, UBC’s Larry Frank, and SFU’s Gordon Price, a former Vancouver City Councillor, support alternative transportation options and argue that increased cycling, walking, and transit infrastructure discourages driving. The final nail in this coffin might have been the vocal support of Gregor Robertson, a regular bike commuter; his opponent in the 2008 election was Peter Ladner, who also regularly commutes by bike.

Both sides are waiting to see how the trial lane allocation goes; it has been approved for six months but will probably be re-evaluated in September when traffic volumes resume. If you live in Vancouver, check out Vancouver Public Space, which has a list of ways, including old-school phone numbers and email addresses, plus blogs, Facebook and Twitter sites where you can voice your support of the trial. And go to the fun cycling-oriented events that have been planned along with the trial run (see below).


Bike-in movie at Vanier Park on the opening day of the Burrard Bridge trial

Bike-in movie at Vanier Park on the opening day of the Burrard Bridge trial


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