Vancouver’s On-Road Bicycle System

April 3rd, 2010

I recently moved to Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia, Canada, and spent 18 months there. At first, I was a bit disappointed by its lack of cycling infrastructure. I had come from Canberra, Australia, and was used to its extensive off-road bike path system, which there seemed to be no direct analog in the Pacific Northwest city.

But it dawned on me that Vancouver has its own bicycle network, with a hugely different philosophy to what I was used to. It was an on-road system, and a bit hidden if you didn’t know about it. Once discovered, however, I quickly realised what a great system it was.

The greater Vancouver area has a population of about 3 million people, and about the same number of cars. The city was largely built during the mid 20th century, when cars were the only answer to the transportation question. Driving from one end of Vancouver to the other can be an exercise in frustration, gridlock, endless red lights, narrow lanes and tired, intolerant drivers. Taking a bicycle on any of the main roads that go North-South or East-West would be a life-threatening experience.

So for my first few months in Vancouver, I didn’t ride long distances within the city. It was simply too dangerous.

Every now and then, I caught hints that there may be more to cycling in Vancouver. There were cyclist around, an occasional signpost, and finally a bike shop with a free cycle map.

What I discovered is an extensive, almost comprehensive on-road cycle system using a clever variety of techniques to make the cyclist’s journey safe.

Vancouver’s road system, like many North American cities, is built in a grid system. The majority of roads go North-South and East-West. Roads are spaced at regular intervals apart, with major roads every mile, and more minor roads between them.

Vancouver Bike map

Vancouver Bicycle Network - the dark green lines are major bicycle routes, the pale green lines are alternative bicycle routes, and the orange roads are major car traffic routes. Clickety-click for bigger pics.

Riding a bike along almost any of the major roads is unpleasant and dangerous. What the city has done is to dedicate many of the secondary roads as bicycle ways. Car traffic is still allowed on these roads, but through traffic is discouraged using a variety of techniques. What we end up with is a system of quiet, safe bicycle ways that traverse the city in all directions. A cyclist can get from almost anywhere in Vancouver to anywhere else using this grid system.

What follows is a photo essay showing the traffic calming techniques used to create Vancouver’s bicycle system.

Our journey starts in Richmond, across the Fraser River from Vancouver.

Richmond bicycle lane

A bicycle lane along Railway Avenue in Richmond, clearly marked and clear of parked cars.

Bicycle lane barriers

As Railway Avenue curves and becomes Granville Avenue, cars may be tempted to cut the corner and cross into the bicycle lane. The city has put pylons up to stop cars from encroaching into the bicycle lane.

Bicycle sensor

At traffic lights, bikes usually don't have enough metallic mass to trigger the sensor to change the lights. Many of the intersections in Vancouver have special sensors that can detect the presence of a bike, and trigger the traffic lights to change. A sign shows where to position your bike.

Sensor built into the road to detect bike

And here is the position top put your bicycle to trigger the sensor to change the traffic lights.

Canada Line bridge and bicycle path

To get from Richmond to Vancouver, we must cross the Fraser River. A new bridge has been built to carry the new Skytrain, Vancouver's automated light rail.

Canada Line bridge and bicycle path

Under the rail line, there is a purpose-built bicycle lane, well lit, clean and even partially under cover.

Recumbent Bike on the North Arm bridge

Within days of opening, the North Arm bridge became a major bicycle thouroughfare. It is by far the safest way to cross the Fraser River, as it was built with bicycles in mind, and carries no cars.

Bump sign

Only in Canada would you expect a bump to be signposted!

Ramp to North Arm bridge

The bicycle path across the river was no afterthought. This pic shows the extensive ramp allowing bicycles an easy inline to the top of the bridge. There is still a lot of construction at the base of the bridge.

On the north end of the bridge, we find the Marine Drive Skytrain station. All new Skytrain stations have multiple bicycle lockers available for hire, allowing people to ride to station and catch the Skytrain. Part of Vancouver's integrated transport plan, aiming to reduce car traffic within the city.

Cambie Road bike Lane

Heading into Vancouver along Cambie road, we find a very wide, well-marked bike lane. Here, we have a major road with a bicycle lane. We will see later how this integrates with Vancouver's secondary street on-road bicycle routes.

Bike route sign-posting.

We leave busy Cambie Street, and follow the on-road Ridgeway bicycle route until we get to Ontario Street. Both these are designanted Bikeways, quieter streets to encourage bicycles, and traffic calming to discourage cars. Everywhere there is excellent sign-posting, an important aspect of a bicycle-friendly transport system.

On all the well-marked on-road Bikeways, car traffic is still allowed, and there are usually no bicycle lanes. However, the roads are made safe for bicycle commuting by a clever system of traffic calming. Read on...

The Ontario Street bike route has traffic calming systems at every street crossing. Here, car traffic is slowed using a round-about.

In many cases, Ontario Street is blocked to through traffic, and only bicycles are allowed through.

Along another stretch, there are speed bumps at 50m intervals, making fast driving impossible, but cycling is unimpeded.

In many intersections along designated bicycle routes, right turns are prohibited for cars, making that road unattractive for car traffic, especially during peak times. Bicycles are excepted.

Even the local communities encourage traffic calming. Residents remind drivers to drive slowly and safely along bicycle routes.

Where one on-road bicycle route crosses another, there are often maps placed at the intersection, specifically for bicycles. These maps show not just the nearby bike routes, but also toilets, places to get water, parks and points of interest.

There are water fountains placed at many of the intersections of bike routes.

Where the bicycle route crosses a major road, there are bicycle-activated traffic lights, purely to allow cyclists to cross. In Vancouver, these traffic lights are activated by the cyclist pressing a button.

Another instance of blocking through traffic for cars, while allowing bicycles access. Note that there are many other roads cars can choose to take if they are in a hurry.

At many intersections along a designated bike route, a 'safe haven' is provided for bicycles, so they can wait to cross without danger of being rammed or pressured by car drivers.

We loop back through Vancouver, into downtown and back along the Burrard Bridge. In a controversial trial, one entire car lane was closed down on the bridge and converted to a protected, separated bicycle lane. The trail was so popular that the city will be making this a permanent change.

Another example of closing access to one lane to cars, yet allowing free access to bikes. This is the start of the Cypress on-road bike route.

The Cypress bicycle route, explaining to car drivers that this is a designated bicycle route and traffic calmed area.

Property prices along designated bicycle routes tend to be much higher than a similar house along a non-bike route street. Most people would prefer to live on a traffic-calmed safe street, than one with noise, traffic and pollution. The Bikeways are popular with local residents.

In a one of the world's busiest cities, with car traffic still the king, we have multiple routes to cross the entire city North-South and East-West on bike that are so safe that children can be take to pre-school on bicycle on roads.

Since the 1990’s, Vancouver is the only city in North America that, despite a growing population, has decreased rates of car ownership, decreased distances driven by residents and a 7% decrease in cars entering the downtown core. This has been an active goal of city planners, and has been achieved with an effective public transport system, and encouraging bicycle use.

By no means is Vancouver a perfect place for cyclists. There are some gaps in the bike route system, and there are many localities within the city that are not serviced by bike routes. However, Vancouver is showing that it sometimes just takes a different approach to thinking of a city’s transport, along with some relatively minor engineering to make a comprehensive, safe and attractive city to ride and live in.

Entry Filed under: Bicycle Infrastructure


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