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After a Series of Failures, This Is How Vancouver Finally Built a Controversial Bike Lane

The Burrard Street Bridge is a case study in pushing a difficult policy.

Alexander Pope / Flickr

In 1996, Vancouver temporarily converted a car lane on the Burrard Street Bridge into a separated bicycle lane. The six-month trial was a spectacular failure: it lasted a week. In 2005, the city revisited the idea, only to have it shot down for fear of reprising the previous debacle. Then, in 2009, the Burrard bike lane got one more chance—only to work out beautifully and become a permanent fixture.

So why was the third time the charm? University of Toronto planning scholars Matti Siemiatycki, Matt Smith, and Alan Walks reviewed the history of Burrard and found four factors that finally tipped the scale: seizing a political window, designing a great trial, shaping media coverage, and exerting strong leadership. In a new journal article, they hold Burrard as a bike-lane blueprint for other cities to follow against strong opposition from drivers, retail groups, and others:

The Burrard Bridge provides a case study for how bike lane proposals might pass political muster, and facilitate the shift toward sustainable active transportation modes within the context of existing infrastructure built for cars.

Failure: 1996

The Burrard Street Bridge over False Creek in Vancouver opened in 1932. It carried three car lanes in each direction plus pedestrian sidewalks on both flanks. That design worked fine for decades, but it became a safety hazard as cycling grew in popularity. Cyclists had two bad choices: ride in the street with cars and risk being hit, or ride in the sidewalk and risk nudging pedestrians onto the road.

In the mid-1990s, the city council, then led by a pro-business faction, floated the idea of building a bike lane to address the problem. Rather than spend a lot of money to expand the sidewalk, they decided to convert one of the car lanes heading into the city on a trial basis. The temporary lane was supposed to last six months.

As one city council member tells Siemiatycki and company, the trial was a "disaster." The bike lane was fenced off with ugly orange cones and police tape. Traffic backed up over the bridge, providing the perfect photo opportunity for negative news reports. Angry drivers gave interviews to reporters. Although car congestion calmed down toward the end of the first trial week—and, more importantly, the lane seemed to do its job, with cycling up 39 percent—a narrative of failure had taken hold.

The trial lane was cancelled.

The 1996 Burrard Street Bridge bike lane trial only lasted a week. (Pricetags blog via IJST)

Failure: 2005

In 2005, the city made another run at a bike lane on Burrard. By this time a more progressive political party had taken control of the city council, with an even more aggressive push for alternative transport. The new council voted 10-to-1 in favor of reallocating not one but two outer car lanes on the bridge into separated bike lanes for a year-long trial. It would begin in April 2006.

Evidently the new ruling party had pushed too hard. In the November 2005 election they were ousted for the previous pro-business party, which now lobbied hard against the bike lane. While the lane wasn't the biggest political issue at the time, it was a heated one; a council member tells Siemiatycki and company that he lost more votes over the bridge "than 90% of candidates ever got."

When the former party took back power, they canceled the trial in a 6-to-5 vote.

Success: 2009

The problems on Burrard had become worse from inaction over the years. Meanwhile, cycling had grown in popularity across the city. With that backdrop, the city made another run at Burrard following the 2008 election of the progressive Vision Vancouver party, ultimately succeeding. Siemiatycki and colleagues identify four factors that led to the new outcome.

First, Vision Vancouver seized a political window. While the bike lane didn't tip the 2008 election, Vision Vancouver used it as a way to rally its base. Rather than shy away from the lane, as some politicians had done over the years, the party realized they could mobilize core voters on the issue without alienating others, since few people who opposed the lane planned to vote for Vision anyway. Meanwhile, the pro-business party now fully opposed the lane, creating a clear divide.

Second, the new council, led by Mayor Gregor Robertson, designed a somewhat compromised but politically smarter bike lane plan. Rather than close an inbound car lane or two car lanes, the new plan converted a single outbound car lane into a bike lane, with a hard barricade separating it. The plan also converted one of the two pedestrian sidewalks into another bike lane and merged the remaining foot traffic onto a single sidewalk. No one got everything; everyone got something.

The 2009 plan converted one vehicle lane to a bike lane and repurposed the sidewalks. (Complete Streets Canada)

Third, Vision Vancouver shaped media coverage in a more positive light, especially when the trial opened on July 13, 2009. The conversion of the outbound lane ensured that traffic would not back up over the bridge that first day, providing no negative photo opportunities or speculation about future congestion. Meantime, ahead of the trial, city officials informed the public about the change through advertisements, focus groups, and well-placed editorials. Here's Siemiatycki and company:

By surviving its first day without severe congestion and angry commuters, Robertson found that the 2009 trial was able to demonstrate that "five lanes of traffic are adequate on the bridge."

Fourth, Robertson exerted the sort of political leadership that had been lacking during previous attempts. Despite headlines suggesting that "Sucking up to bicycling minority may cost the mayor his job," Robertson remained firm in his commitment to go through with the Burrard project. Given how polarized the lane had been in the past, and how easy it would be to pass the buck yet again, that hard stance made a big difference—especially among city staffers.

Reporters interview cyclists coming off the Burrard bridge on the trial's opening day in July 2009. (Ariane Colenbrander / Flickr)

The 2009 bike lane trial was a clear success. Cycling trips increased by 26 percent (a rise of 70,000) in the first three months of the Burrard trial. Pedestrians liked having a sidewalk free of cyclists. And travel times for cars and buses "remained relatively unchanged," according to Siemiatycki et al, a finding that aligns with more recent evidence that bike lanes don't have to hurt traffic speeds.

In July 2010, the city council made the bike lane permanent.

So the bike lane on Burrard Street Bridge offers something of a blueprint for convincing a city to give up a car lane to cyclists. Obviously, no two cities will or can go at the problem the same way. But given how heated such conversions can get—even in relatively progressive cities like Vancouver, New York, and Toronto—having a rough guide to success is a good place to start.

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