My latest Business in Vancouver column:
Half a month after the new Dunsmuir cycle track opened, the reaction to the separated bike lane that runs through the eastern heart of downtown, from Main Street to Hornby, has been surprisingly muted, given the emotions typically stirred up by the reallocation of road space.
The prevalent attitude in the downtown business community seems to be: wait and see.
Those who had rushed to judgment once before, predicting chaos and overwhelming disapproval of the bike lane on the Burrard Bridge, were disarmed by its success. This time they’re holding fire, save for the culture warriors who clamour for scalp on their blogs.
For those inconvenienced, particularly by the loss of right-hand turns, there’ s a sense that a self-righteous minority is changing the rules of the game, that the social engineers have been given a bulldozer. They turn their anger on those “children of traffic,” the red-light-flouting cyclists.
There’ s also that annoyance factor when guilt enters the equation. Those who don’ t embrace two-wheeled transportation intuitively feel they’re being criticized for a slovenly lifestyle, not to mention the death of polar bears. It can make for a touchy conversation.
But, we all wonder, where is this going?
More lanes to be reallocated? Viaducts to be torn down? Streets to be pedestrianized? It looks like those advocates for Copenhagenizing the centre of Vancouver have momentum – and a movement.
‘Active transportation’ is the catch-all name for ways of getting around that involve the human body. It can mean anything from cycling to work to taking the stairs. Embraced by the public-health profession, it now comes with the imprimatur of those who have “Dr.” in front of their names.
In addition to the obesity epidemic, active transportation also addresses other major issues simultaneously: reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution, increasing affordability and transportation choice, creating green jobs and attracting the creatives.
That’ s a tough list to come out against. Trying to argue against a bike lane suggests that none of these issues need to be taken so seriously that we would actually do anything about them, certainly nothing that would inconvenience those in cars and trucks.
There’ s also legitimate doubt about the consequences of redesigning the city for those on foot and bike. Will such strategies be accepted enough in the real world to really make a difference? Are they worth the money? And will such social and physical engineering hurt the economy, threatening the vitality of the very thing it’s trying to be part of – the downtown core?
In short, is a cycling city really practical for our rainy way of life?
A few years ago, it might have been possible to spark a campaign of opposition to changes like the Dunsmuir cycle track, maybe even strong enough to create a political movement. Opponents could claim, as they did in Toronto about a proposed bike lane on Jarvis Street, that there’ s a “war on the car” being mounted and that greener-city strategies are ultimately frivolous, wrong-headed and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. At another time, even half a decade ago, that might have worked.
But in the meantime, the Gulf of Mexico started to bleed.
What’ s happening there is not just a another oil spill – regrettable but correctable. This is an oil volcano – a hole in the ocean floor through which the earth is spewing its innards. A man-assisted hole, to be sure, but not man-controlled. The 24-hour broadcast of that cloudy spout, pumping out an Exxon Valdes worth of oil every week, month after month, is devastating to the narrative of progress and technological mastery that constitutes our secular religion.
For Canadians, it surely raises some troubling questions. Will Canada allow drilling in the Arctic? Will we lay more pipelines, build more ports, scale up the tarsands to get more of the crude we need to keep our civilization’s trajectory going ever upward? Well, probably.
In doing so, we create a tension in our conscience. A society trying to reconcile the planetary consequences of its consumption is one ripe for change – and a bicycle route in a world of climate change and peak oil looks increasingly more like common sense than alternative lifestyle. Read more »