I’m sitting on the Amtrak train as I write this, on my way back to Seattle from Vancouver B.C. after attending the international Velo-city conference. I learned a lot about the state of bicycle planning and research while I was at the conference, but most of the things that stuck with me, I didn’t need to pay the steep registration fee to discover — the wondrous city of Vancouver provided them to me free of charge as I pedaled through it.
I arrived by train on Sunday afternoon and loaded up my Rodriquez with my luggage for the week. I hadn’t been to Vancouver in about seven years, and never with a bicycle. I was unfamiliar with the area, unsure of where I needed to go, and a bit disappointed when I discovered that my hotel for the next two nights was not even in Vancouver – it was located in some neighboring town called Burnaby. And Burnaby looked far away on the map.
But as I studied the map, I also saw that there was this line, a mix of solid green and short and long green dashes, labeled as the Central Valley Greenway. I was told to follow the line and it would bring me to my hotel for the night. So off I set, in the opposite direction of downtown Vancouver, in the opposite direction of the conference, and into the great unknown of British Columbia.
But the green line steered my bike true. I rode on a brief stretch of on-street bike lanes before landing on a wide multi-use trail where every driveway and intersection that crossed my path was splashed with vibrant green paint that made me feel warm inside, like a sip of good bourbon. As I pondered whether my wife would let me paint our future child’s nursery with green bike lane paint, I transitioned from the trail onto what I can only describe as the most authentic bicycle boulevard I have ever been on in my life.
I found myself crossing busy intersections with great comfort and ease, gliding between cuts in the curb, as if they knew I would be there. I went where no cars were allowed, and in case there was any confusion, all the signs all said it was true. When my bike boulevard ended, I almost wanted to wave goodbye (wouldn’t be the first time I have actually waved at a piece of bike infrastructure) but immediately turned my attention to a new trail as I slipped into the shade of the Sky Train tracks towering above me.
For over a mile I rode directly beneath the Sky Train, a path on each side of the stanchions. I smiled as I realized that whoever designed this great piece of transit network decided to build a bike path underneath at the same time. And when we approached the light rail stations, the path cut straight between the ample bike parking and the station itself because, hey, why not combine biking and transit? More than 10 years ago, some transit engineers and planners in Vancouver thought it would be a good idea to make it entirely seamless in nearly every way. You could say I was [bike lane] green with envy.
And finally, I crossed Boundary Road and entered Burnaby. The difference was immediately apparent. Quiet two-lane streets turned into four- and six-lane roadways and the surrounding buildings took on that office-park feel. But the Central Valley Greenway delivered: it delivered me to the lobby of the hotel (well, just about). All in all, it was a 20 minute ride from the train station. I walked up to the front desk of the Accent Inn and blurted out, “Can you believe it?!” The man behind the counter smiled as if he knew exactly what I was talking about.
Later that very same day – and for the next three days, really – I rode that Central Valley Greenway like it was a ride at Disneyland. I also rode the Adanac greenway, the most popular bike commuting route in Vancouver. And the Slocan greenway, and the Lakewood greenway.
And then there were the cycle tracks. Hornby Street and Dunsmuir Street became the main attractions as I navigated east/west and north/south through downtown. I would go blocks out of my way just to get some time in on one (or both – they intersect) of these two-way slices of urban cycling heaven. Even the vast Dunsmuir St Viaduct (reminiscent of our own Alaskan Way Viaduct) welcomed us two-wheeled travelers and sheltered us from the hordes of speeding motorists. But the truth is, in Vancouver, this type of protection is becoming normal. Because bicycling is normal. Though it felt as if someone knew I was coming to town and rolled out the green carpet ahead of time, all of these great pieces of bikeway existed before I got there and they will remain after I’ve left, for everybody to use.
When I finally did get around to attending a lecture at Velo-city, I heard Dale Bracewell, Manager of Active Transportation, talk to a packed room of conference-goers. He shared with us Vancouver’s core principle for bicycling: To make cycling feel safe, comfortable, convenient, and fun for people of all ages and abilities. Whoa, I thought. That sounds really, really familiar.
Seattle can do what Vancouver has done and continues to do, but it will take time and a lot of work. The update of our Bicycle Master Plan is underway, and our expectation is that it will soon lay the foundation for a city that bicycles, where bicycling is normal, convenient, and safe for everyone. But we can’t stop letting our Department of Transportation, our transit agencies, and our elected officials know what we envision for the future of bicycling in Seattle and how we expect to get there. We need our city staff to set the bar high for how we design our streets to accomodate bicycle riders of all ages and abilities, and we need our city leaders to make building these projects a priority in the annual transportation budget.
Vancouver has already accomplished goals that they expected to achieve ten years from now, and yet they continue to push themselves internally. A lot of this change is driven by the city itself. All it takes is one visit, and you will know what I am talking about, probably within the first 20 minutes. On one hand, it’s inspiring, but on the other hand, it’s a reminder of how far we have yet to come.
Looks like the train is arriving in Seattle.