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Of bikes and cars and city politics

This past weekend, many of Vancouver city politicians' best intentions for more sustainable transportation seemed to come crashing up against the harsh reality of the majority of residents who travel by car.

First, there was the sudden surge of media attention for the monthly Critical Mass bike ride, sparked by a warning from the Vancouver Police Department.

“Whenever there is a public gathering in the city the police are expected to perform some important functions, such as informing the public of the timing and location of the event and ensuring that everyone involved is safe,” read the statement from Inspector Rick McKenna of the police force's Emergency and Operational Planning section.

“But this Friday evening, despite our best efforts, we are very concerned about the safety, timing and location of the Critical Mass bicycle ride. ... The fact of the matter is that Critical Mass has reached a critical mass of civil disobedience.”

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson -- who had participated in previous incarnations of the cycling take-back-the-streets event -- called for meetings with organizers of the notoriously unorganized event, with hopes of reaching “an agreement on a negotiated, predetermined route.”

Mike Cantelon of the Georgia Straight echoed the feelings of many when he wrote:

Critical Mass has been going on in Vancouver for a long time. As a political tool promoting the agenda of cyclists, there's debate about whether it's effective. But over the years the event has remained the same: cyclists meet each month at a certain date and time, then go on ride without a predetermined route.

Things haven't changed, yet this week the establishment began demanding that Critical Mass follow a predetermined route and, because their demands haven't been met, this month's Critical Mass is being treated in both of Vancouver's daily papers as a crisis that must be dealt with.

The bike ride proceeded Friday evening without serious incident, despite the inability of the Vancouver Police to accurately inform media of where the swarm of cyclists were heading.

But the backlash has prompted some bike riders to consider more driver-friendly ways of taking to the streets. Following the lead of a group in San Francisco, they intend to launch an alternative “Critical Manners” bike rally, according to a report in The Province.

The city's decision to decisively side with the drivers in this cars-versus-bikes debate may act as a balance to their very pro-bike approach to the Burrard Bridge. On Friday, the city released the first traffic statistics showing the impact of the three-week-old switch to dedicated bike lanes on the bridge.

The statistics show a marked increase in the number of cyclists crossing the bridge after the bike lanes opened, compared to June traffic. The city's press release also notes that average bike numbers for the second week were higher than for the first. However, a look at the day-by-day statistics shows that this trend was likely caused by abnormally high numbers during the days of the HSBC Celebration of Lights fireworks shows, when hundreds of thousands of people crowd into downtown Vancouver in the evening.

The statistics also showed an average five per cent drop in vehicle traffic across the bridge during the first two weeks of the trial. However, the city's analysis acknowledges that this “could be due in part to typical lower traffic volumes during the summer vacation period,” especially since there was no significant increase in traffic on the Granville bridge, the alternate route for drivers.

The Burrard bridge bike lane trial is due to continue at least until the fall, when it will be reviewed by Vancouver city council. However, another summertime experiment in restricting motor vehicle traffic appears to be heading for an early termination.

Commercial Drive will likely be open to traffic on Sundays for the rest of the summer, despite the fact that the city's “summer spaces” car free days program for the neighbourhood was supposed to continue throughout August. (A lack of resources, due to events such as the Pride Parade and Powell Street Festival, was the reason the roads were not closed this weekend.)

In a story for Monday's The Globe and Mail, Frances Bula reported:

That growing sentiment among many merchants has already prompted three unhappy meetings among City of Vancouver staff, merchants and car-free proponents to try to find a compromise. And there may not be one.

"We're in the middle of talks, but we'll probably pull the plug for the next three weeks," said Charles Latimer of Car-Free Vancouver, which has been running the Commercial Drive closings. "If it doesn't work for businesses, it just won't work."

However, Bula notes that the other parts of the Summer Spaces program remain popular, and are unlikely to be cancelled early. On her State of Vancouver blog, she concluded:

The message didn’t seem to be that car-free days don’t work at all. Instead, it seems to matter who’s involved in organizing, which streets and how many blocks are closed, whether there’s an activity for people to come out to that they normally wouldn’t have, and other factors.

When The Tyee asked Vancouverites at car-free days on Commercial and Main streets in June (before the summer-long program was approved) for ideas on how to improve city transportation, many said they wanted to make the events a permanent weekend feature. But if that is going to happen, there will clearly have to be a new strategy to sustain the street festival atmosphere of those one-time events.

Because as the backlash to Critical Mass shows, city politicians are only willing to support sustainable transportation efforts so long as the numbers of proponents aren't outweighed by the numbers of critics.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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