Bike share is coming to Vancouver, and we must make it work
The international Velo-City conference is underway in Vancouver as of Tuesday morning and I arrived in time to hear an inspired talk by urban cycling advocate Gil Penalosa. Judging by the Twitter activity throughout the morning, Penalosa's message excited the full house in attendance at the Wall Centre. While Penalosa's full presentation — available here — is fast-paced and rich with detail, it was nicely summed up by an Australian delegate named Stephen Yarwood.
— Stephen Yarwood (@StephenYarwood) June 26, 2012
Given the way the Vision council have married themselves to the cycling issue, it was perhaps predictable that the site of the Velo-City conference felt like an offsite City Hall. Mayor Gregor hung around to do interviews while his chief of staff parked himself in front of the venue most of the morning. Even Penny Ballem paced around the site. The always affable Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver's Director of Transportation listened intently to Penalosa's speech, which he quipped might put him out of a job. Penalosa's message was to be bold, to be fearless in the face of public opposition, and to make cities as safe as possible for cycling with many miles worth of separated bike lanes. Vancouver, said Penalosa, has not been nearly bold enough when compared to cities like Chicago.
The real star of the show that morning, however, were the over 600 Bixi bikes shipped in for the conference and parked in front of the Wall Centre convention facility. Bixi is the Montreal-based bike share manufacturer that will be providing the two-wheeled transport for Vancouver's bike share program. The operator for the Vancouver bike share will be the Alta company based out of Portland, Oregon.
I had the pleasure of having my first bike share experience, after I signed an insurance waiver and gave conference organizers a stamp of my credit card. To get access to a bike I simply inserted the card provided by Velo-City, waited a few seconds for the light to turn from red to green, and pulled the bike out while slightly lifting the rear of the bike from the seat. With my complementary Lazer bike helmet strapped on I took a short ride downtown.
The Bixi bikes are beautiful machines. They are definitely more sturdy than your typical hybrid or road bike, and sport wide tires with a street-friendly tread. The seat is wide and comfy, something many casual riders prefer.
The seat post – which I got a blurry image of – is easily adjustable, and thankfully you're not able to easily slide the seat and post right off the bike. That would be a big target of theft otherwise.
My demo bike was a three-speed but the bikes on order for Vancouver's bike share will be a seven-speed bike to better manage our city's hilly terrain. The gear changer is located in the right half of the handlebar, and the left side has a small bell you can ring with your thumb when needed. There is a small amount of space over the handlebars to locate a small basket if necessary.
The brakes are built into the wheel hubs, and while you're riding enough power is generated to run safety lights embedded into the frame of the bike, improving your visibility in traffic. Overall it's a solid and comfortable ride, but the slightly heavy frame had my quadriceps burning up a few hills. For all my Bixi bike images see this Flickr set.
I stopped down at Robson Square – which was quiet during the mid-morning – to take a few photographs of the bike. While I was there a young woman now living in Vancouver but formerly in Montreal smiled and proceeded to pull out her iPhone as though to take a picture. The Bixi bike reminded her of home, and she described her excitement at the prospect of a bike share system coming to Vancouver.
"But," she added, "I think it will struggle because of BC's rules around using helmets." I asked her what she thought we should do here, and she provided what I thought was an interesting response.
"I used to ride my bike without a helmet. I would be always looking over my shoulder because I was worried about getting a ticket. Eventually I just got into the habit of wearing a helmet. Today, I just wouldn't ride without one because I don't really feel safe otherwise."
And with that thought she asked if she could take a picture of the bike in order to send it to some loved ones back in Montreal.
This short conversation in a way seemed to sum up my own mixed feelings about the helmet debate. On the one hand I want "Big Mother" out of my life. Government need not always set the rules to dictate our behaviour. On the other hand, helmets save lives and reduce the burden that brain injuries have upon our publicly funded health care system. This Toronto Sun editorial makes a pretty good pro-helmet argument.
But if you create a cycling culture that promotes safety – and helmet use – you needn't rely upon the heavy hand of the law. People will eventually do as this young woman described and take care of her own safety because they've faced up to the risks. Big Mother can butt out and focus on pro-helmet education instead.
Vancouver is setting forth to spend millions to expand our public transportation system to include bikes. As one of the last major metropolitan areas to do this, there is no question in my mind it's time to do this. I foresee the bike share system negatively impacting private bike rental companies that employ dozens of people, and this is a downside I'm wrestling with. But I expect that when thousands of these bikes are on the streets it will be a system citizens and tourists alike will quickly embrace.
If a bike share system in Vancouver should fail, it will be costly. For that reason we should hope that it's a huge success.
Before heading back to the Wall Centre I pedaled around a few more blocks. A courier coming toward me in the Hornby bike lane called to me, "it's Bilderberg for bikes!" It was a droll comment that made a good point. The delegate fees for Velo-City are around $1,400 per person, making it an exclusive affair. You could even buy a decent bike for that amount. Clearly more work is needed to get the active transportation message out to the masses.
One affordable way to get some of the highlights from Velo-City 2012 is to follow them on Twitter:
and search the hashtag #velocity2012.
- post by Mike