A cyclist sailed down Hornby Street in downtown Vancouver on a recent afternoon, weaving in and out of idling cars spewing thick clouds of exhaust.
A road worker thrust her stop sign in the air and pointed to the red light overhead.
It didn’t matter: traffic was stalled in all directions.
Construction of a separated bike lane has congested the street, to the outrage of merchants who say the loss of parking will kill their business.
But the mayor says the lanes are essential to decreasing emissions and reducing the number of vehicles downtown.
“The future of our economy depends on people traveling through downtown by walking, cycling and transit,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson.
“We aren’t going to be using more cars. So we need to build infrastructure that allows this flow of people to take place.”
The mayor was speaking at “Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around” on Oct. 24, a speaking series sponsored by the City of Vancouver to explore ways to make alternative transportation a viable option for city-dwellers.
Robertson, a dedicated cyclist, has doubled the city’s budget for cycling infrastructure since he entered office in 2008. The Hornby Street lane is expected to cost the city $3.2 million.
The two-way passage completes a network of separated bike lanes that allow cyclists to pass through downtown safely, isolated from buses and cars. The lanes stretch from the Burrard Bridge to the Dunsmuir Viaduct, physically separating cyclists from traffic with a concrete barrier.
The city expects construction of the lane on Hornby Street to be completed by December.
Merchants say the lane will rob them of customers, increase traffic congestion and cost the city much-needed tax revenue. The completed project will replace a lane of vehicle traffic and eliminate 158 parking spots along the east side of the street.
“It’s too expensive to do business in a place that’s hostile to business,” said Chris Sullivan, manager of Tim Horton’s on both Dunsmuir and Hornby streets.
The first separated bike lane in downtown Vancouver opened on Dunsmuir Street in June.
Sullivan said the loss of parking on Dunsmuir Street is responsible for a 20 per cent downturn in sales. He said he expects his location on Hornby Street – where he has already lost three full-time jobs – will follow.
“There’s a real sense of hopelessness,” he said. “Property taxes for businesses are 10 times what residents pay… You’re going to see businesses closing down. Then what is the city going to do?”
Bikes and business
The mayor is calling the lane a six-month “trial” that will be combined with a business impact study. The Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir Street trial lanes were made permanent by council earlier this year.
“We looked at business impact studies from other cities, and cycling infrastructure actually has a positive impact on businesses,” he said.
Bike corrals, which typically park 10 to 20 bicycles in a space otherwise occupied by one to two cars, have been a hit in Portland, Ore.
The city installed a series of corrals in 2008 and business owners discovered they actually increase customer traffic and visibility of their storefronts. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation has been “scrambling” to meet the demand for bicycle parking.
Vancouver first tested bike parking during the Winter Olympics in February 2010. The results were positive, the mayor said.
However, there are no plans to construct bike parking on Hornby Street.
“We envisioned Hornby as more of a commuter corridor,” the mayor said.
Leaving the car at home
Corporate chains like Tim Horton’s, Starbucks and Earl’s mix with mom-and-pop stores like Simmei Fashions Ltd. and Wicked Café on the street.
A city poll of pedestrians on Hornby Street revealed many who drive to the area park some distance away.
Many business owners said they are skeptical the lane will be as popular as the city hopes.
“I’m all for bike lanes, but this is a little excessive,” said Joey Wong, manager of Starbucks and the Beer and Liquor Store at the Sheraton Wall Centre.
“You’re taking away parking to double the lane that no one’s gonna use.”
An average of 2,000 cyclists per weekday use the Dunsmuir Street lane, according to city reports.
“It allows us to leave the car at home,” said Pia Schindler, a Main Street resident who uses the lanes to run errands downtown with her husband. “Before, we were always thinking about where to park, and parking is expensive.”