Business & Economy
November 2, 2010

Capital Pan

There’s been a lot of this sort of argument recently:

I thought of how this city, my city, puts more care into providing bike lanes for urban professionals than for housing the homeless. …  If Robertson and the city of Vancouver would put one ounce of the passion into putting a few roofs over a few heads as they do with providing surplus recreation for the over-privileged, there’s one old man who might still be here today.

That’s from an op-ed in today’s Sun.  But it’s typical: Choose your issue – and then decry the expenditure of dollars for something as trivial – or at least of lower priority – as a bike lane.  

Such a juxtaposition usually suggests confusion between capital and operating expenditures.   That is, the difference between paying for a program in an annual budget versus paying (or borrowing) to build or maintain a permanent piece of infrastructure. 

And that’s not just a wonky distinction.   If resources can be shifted from capital to operating any time a consitutency or politician dislikes a high-profile project, then any attempt at planning for infrastructure that extends beyond the term of a council wouldn’t be taken seriously.  

But hey, so what.  It makes a point about our priorities.  So why not go where the real money is?

Did you know we are spending $22 billion on the Pacific Gateway – ports, roads, railways and airports.   That’s a lot of money. (To illustrate: a million seconds equals about 12 days.  A billion seconds?  Almost 32 years.)  

Doesn’t quite turn people’s crank like a bike lane, does it?   And while, sure, the Gateway project is arguably justified as a jobs-generator, as good for the economy, so, arguably (no kidding), are bike lanes.

Illustration:

This is the block of Hornby Street (you can see the cycle-track divider in the foreground) between Beach and Pacific where the Appleton Gallery (the red building on the left) was once located – the business the owner claimed was killed by the Burrard bike-lane project. 

But look what is next to it.  The gray building is the Tactix Gym, which specializes in the kind of cross-training that appeals to, guess who?,  the kind of customer who will be attracted by the bike lane.  So which kind of business has the most potential for investment, jobs and growth?   The art gallery or the gym?  And which will benefit by this ‘investment in infrastructure’?   I’m guessing the gym.   With the bike racks out front. 

So if job generation and economic growth is a good argument for the Pacific Gateway, it’s a good argument for a bike lane that attracts customers for the business that pays the city rent and property taxes.  Which then helps pay for a city-funded shelter in the lane a block from the gym.

(Interestingly, the architect, Richard Evans, who has his office atop the gym, tells me that practically all eight of his staff will cycle to work, walk or take transit, with no need for car parking.   Another saving, another competitive advantage for a downtown business.)

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For those who would like to cycle with full protection, but just can’t handle the helmet hair, at last … an airbag with fashion sense:

That’s not the only change that may come as cycling culture changes in Vancouver with the development of separated cycle tracks like those on Dunsmuir and Hornby.  Cyclists – and this is so ironic – are going to have to give up some of their anarchistic individuality and learn how to cycle respectfully in groups.

Urban cycling for most of the last century was something one did, in a sense, by oneself.  Though you might be surrounded by traffic, you were out there on your own – rather like a kayaker in whitewater – tossed into a high-speed flow of potential threats.  You chose your relative pace and position.  And another cyclist was just another moving object.  

There were rarely enough cyclists in one place to constitute ‘traffic.’  Cars, on the other hand, certainly in downtown areas or on freeways, tend to flow in groups.   They bunch together at traffic lights when red, and then move on in a collective group on green – creating what traffic engineers call a platoon – and often stay in a bunch, each moving at the same speed in the same relative position.  

Cyclists occasionally gather at a signal – noticeable on the bikeways at, say, Clark on the Adanac or 10th at Cambie.  But the faster cyclists quickly pass the slower ones, and have no sense of moving together.  They rarely even give each other notice when passing, unlike vehicles where courtesy (and the law) require signalling.

That’s going to change.  As the two-way cycle tracks, bordered on both sides by curbs, begin to attract so many cyclists that platooning becomes more common, cyclists are going to have to learn a little respect – for each other.   The hotdoggers will have to slow a little, the slow ones speed up a tad – until a standard speed becomes the collective norm.  (It’ll probably be about 20 kph.)   That’s normal urban transportation cycling, from Beijing to Copenhagen.

Above all, there will have to be more rigorous standards for passing.  Like a few polite words – “On your left”- or a flick of a bell.  (Oh yeah, a bell – another legal requirement largely ignored because, up to now, they haven`t really been necessary.)

So for all those critics of the cycle tracks, who have been chastizing cyclists as inconsiderate yahoos – well, you have a point.  But that’s because we threw bicycles into traffic and somehow thought they should be behave like vehicles.  Fat chance.

But with the cycle tracks and the growth in bicycle use – oh, the irony – they actually will have to act more like traffic.  For their own safety and mutual convenience.

Now, I think, would be a very good time to undertake a Respectful Cycling Campaign.

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 Friday at noon on Hornby Street:

The Engineering Department has occupied the Hornby Street corridor with an impressive display of logistics.  Military-like?  Kinda.  Whenever big machines are coordinated with people in uniforms, the result is impressive when it’s all working together.  And it’s all underway on a kilometre of Hornby Street, to build the cycle track from False Creek to Coal Harbour.

Citizens may think this transformation is just about a bike lane.  There’s so much more.

A complete street grind for repaving –

Major re-curbing, shifting of boulevards and trees, new sidewalks, drop-down ramps and curb-cuts – for walking, for the disabled, for kids in strollers and for everyone pulling wheeled luggage – all integrated in the new design.

Trenching for conduit – for the nerves and veins of the urban organism.

Sewers, signals, aging infrastructure – it all gets attended to as part of the bike-lane intervention.  That`s efficient planning, executed with skill – when it works.   But often all we see is disruption.  

And, ironically, Engineering is on the spot because of the speed with which it started.   Some who criticize government as inherently inefficient are now criticizing it for acting too fast, implying that no preparation should have been undertaken until the final vote of Council was taken. 

That’s inconceivable in the orderly management of the City.  Not doing planning and logitistics – until Council approves the project and expenditure – would bring things to a halt.  And the costs of such delay have probably never been calculated because such a prohibition makes no sense – to tell a department not to plan ahead in any serious way lest the public believe “the decision has already been made” before the vote has been held.

Frankly, a project or proposal shouldn’t even get before Council unless there’s a reasonable chance it will be approved.  And I’d guess that almost 100 percent of Engineering projects get the go-ahead – or are pulled beforeforehand.

But among the surging platoons of traffic, between the pieces of heavy machinery, in the midst of all the trucks and hundreds – no, thousands – of pedestrians, there are the Flaggers,  out directing it all.  These are amazing women (at least every one I saw) doing a high-pressure job, executed with elan and a certain toughness.

So appreciate the sheer display of organized power – of machines, of workers, of plans – of the way we’re able to  do incredibly complex and complicated public works in the midst of a complex and complicated city.

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In a conversation about the Hornby cycle track with a distraught Vancouverite, who just couldn’t grasp that the urban world she thought she understood was changing in disconcerting ways, I mentioned that this kind of change took a huge step forward when New York City closed off Broadway for pedestrians and built separated cycle tracks down some of their avenues – and by and large it worked brilliantly!  Which showed it could be done in North America, not just in the culturally and historically different cities of Europe. 

Now, to illustrate, I would direct her to this:

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