Ideological traffic is often gridlocked in Vancouver bike lanes these days.
A bike is a bike is a bike, as Gertrude Stein might be tempted to observe, but in our town, it can be a heavily laden vehicle, with panniers full of policy issues and political rancor.
When I was a tubby and ferociously geeky little kid, I loved my bike, and even now, as the recent arrival of my gold Care Card suggests I am, in the kind words of one of my grandchildren, now officially old, being able to do most of my city travel on a bike is a great source of pleasure. But I remain bemused by the way the bicycle has lately become a central element in huge and passionately argued disputes about city planning, public health and global warming/climate change.
Who knew in the old days that my battered old three-speed Schwinn was going to morph into a world saving technology (when viewed through the green lenses of environmental and city planning concerns) or into a malign and dangerous terror machine, ruthlessly wheeling over the hard fought freedoms of the city's car lovers (when viewed through the lens of the bitter criticisms of bike infrastructure reforms) in our city media and coffee shop conversations over the past few years?
Bikes and bike issues seem to be everywhere you look these days. The June 27 Courier, for example, features my colleague Mike Howell's magisterial account of a proposed new public bike-share program and the attendant worries about helmet hygiene (hair nets or disposable paper caps, anyone?). Meanwhile, in a single issue of another city paper the same week, bikes figured in a prominently positioned story and a ferocious opinion column.
The news story was about UBC research that warns that residential traffic circles are far more dangerous for city riders than intersections controlled by stop signs, and that the inelegantly named "sharrows," (the narrow, painted bike lanes on busy streets) are more dangerous for riders than roads with no bike friendly infrastructure at all.
The opinion piece was a fierce polemic against an apprehended evil conspiracy by "High Priests of the Green Religion" written by a senior fellow at a local free market think tank. The evil Greens and bike fanatics are apparently engaged in an effort to empty the public purse by imposing bike sharing on the city's already cycle-clogged streets. Soon enough, if we don't watch out, there will be no room for our Hummers and the city will be bankrupted by bike infrastructure outlays.
Everyone needs to take a deep, calming breath here. Fans of the bicycle (and I am one) need to acknowledge that while our efforts to increase bike ridership by improving city infrastructure will help reduce Vancouver's contribution to global warming/climate change in a small but real way, (and will no doubt improve our over all health levels, too) it is essentially an ecological side show.
The real action isn't in the bike lane. Without dramatic (and in the current political situation, sadly unlikely) action at all levels of government to drive down industrial emissions fast and actively discourage private auto use, we could find ourselves in a few decades trying to enjoy our bike rides in a catastrophically altered climate system, maybe pedalling along the lovely new coastline where the harbour waves lap at the foot of Little Mountain. Bike reforms are desirable, but not quite the big enviro game changers as we sometimes like to imagine.
And on the other side of the civic shouting match, the bitter anti-bike voices could usefully be lowered as well.
The quality of life in our city and our civic finances are far more seriously threatened by real estate speculation, income inequality and climate change itself than by modest outlays on bike lanes and bike share programs. And if increased bike traffic slows down or even reduces the throngs of cars that fill our city streets, that will be a good thing.
Bike reforms, taken alone, will neither save nor ruin the planet. Or the city. Nevertheless, they do represent good public policy and should be supported. Pass me over that bike share vehicle, a rental helmet and a paper cap, please.