In Metro Vancouver’s North Shore municipalities, even low-hanging fruit like a new bike route or an express bus lane seem to face intractable obstacles. Despite declaring a “Climate Emergency,” local councils still default to private cars when designing their cities.
Our travels to China show just how much can be accomplished when government just steps up to the plate and makes changes.
Chengdu, population 10.5 million, is the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, which borders Tibet, and is known for pandas and spicy food. Once you drive past Chengdu’s first ring road, you can look in any direction and see dozens of fifteen- and twenty-storey apartment blocks stretching to the horizon.
This is the kind of population density that makes complaints about densification in our own region laughable; the density in China influences transit planning and construction by a government which understands that infrastructure investment is positive (and often necessary).
Admittedly, lots of things are easier in a one-party police state, but by the same token, that doesn’t necessarily make them bad ideas.
On many arterials in Chengdu, you’ll find a full traffic lane on each side of the road dedicated to bicycles and electric motorbikes. These lanes are protected by low barriers – good looking metal railings, not concrete Jersey barriers – that keep slower vehicles safe from automobile traffic.
Outside of the bike lanes are sidewalks that are wider still, encouraging pedestrian traffic, although they’re also used by bikes and e-motorbikes. Despite these interlopers (I don’t actually know what the local rules are) the sidewalks feel spacious and safe. Tactile paving is widely used as well.
When I talk about bikes and electric motorbikes, I don’t mean the low volumes seen in many municipalities outside Vancouver (like North Vancouver); I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of them, in every part of town.
There are at least three or four bikeshare companies that are heavily used by local residents. As with so much else in China, you pay using WeChat on your smartphone, and off you go. These bikes represent almost all of the cycle traffic that I saw.
The growth of bike share results in heaps of bikes, usually three or four dozen unused bikes pretty much everywhere. The cute little electric scooters haven’t really arrived yet, and I only saw a couple of skateboards.
What doesn’t move by bike travels on an electric motorbike. These e-bikes, looking like electric Vespas, are by far the primary vehicle used for everything. Pretty much any delivery smaller than a fridge moves by e-bike, as well as construction supplies, food deliveries, and as many as five family members on one bike – a mother, a father, and three pre-school toddlers between the handlebars and the seat.
By moving so much cartage onto an electric vehicle you almost eliminate the 5-ton, cube, and panel vans that are ubiquitous in Vancouver. That said, it should be acknowledged that these clean electric vehicles are charged using power from big dirty coal-fired generation plants. And — because small deliveries are practical and cheap — last-minute shopping by families and businesses alike is thriving. Taobao (part of the Alibaba empire) and WeChat (part of the Tencent empire) dominate the market.
At any intersection, the mix is evenly divided between cars, bikes, electric motorbikes, and pedestrians; in Vancouver, these volumes would be considered “rush hour.” Although traffic lights are acknowledged, the reality is that when they change all four groups move confidently (but slowly) into the street at the same time, with no-one stopping, and everyone weaving in and out of each other’s path.
While I did see wheelchairs from time to time in Beijing and Chengdu, neither city is close to being what I consider “Accessible.”
A great mosh pit of competing transportation types that would have led to fatalities here actually works fine in Chengdu. My guess is that decades of collective Communist life has instilled an instinct to work in concert with other road users instead of seeing bikes or cars as an enemy to be defeated. Whatever the reason, these groups have learned how to coexist politely and safely.
The other benefit of high volumes of bikes and electric motorbikes is a significant reduction in road noise. It’s possible to carry on a conversation in a fairly moderate voice while walking down the sidewalk. Try that at Burrard and Georgia. (It also helps that Chengdu has outlawed car horns.)
Chengdu in particular demonstrates straightforward ideas that could easily work in the Lower Mainland. First, treat pedestrians and two-wheeled transportation as equals to automobiles, not afterthoughts to be squeezed in after the roads have been built. Second, different travel modes can share the road with safety and ease, but only if everyone respects each other, and others’ right to use the same space. Finally, the best and easiest way to reduce travel by gasoline powered cars is by making it expensive.
Regardless of the shortcomings of the Chinese government, most of the population is able to get from Point A to Point B easily, cheaply, and safely, and enjoy doing so