Cycling expert touts Vancouver’s innovation
Visiting professor, John Pucher sees Vancouver as a continental leader and says they need to do more bragging about their efforts
Rutgers University professor John Pucher’s eyes light up when talking about the increasing popularity of cycling among North American commuters. The 62-year-old author and civic transportation expert has studied commuting infrastructure in cities around the world and was in Vancouver over the weekend giving a lecture at SFU’s Vancouver campus. Pucher travels the globe, constantly evangelizing the benefits accrued by all citizens when their governments invest in cycling infrastructure.
He sat down Sunday to talk to The Sun before taking the train to Seattle for another lecture. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: How did your crusade for biking start?
A: It started in 1984. There was 20 to 25 years where I did research on mass transit - transit systems around the world.
I was in Münster, Germany. I was a visiting professor at this university for a little bit more than two years. Well in Münster, 40 per cent of all trips are by bike. Stunned isn’t quite the right word. I was incredibly impressed by the fact that there were people in their 80s cycling, little kids cycling, more women then men cycling, people with certain kinds of disabilities cycling.
I thought, ‘Wow, everyone cycles. Even the bishop rides a bike!’
Q: You were last in Vancouver in 2008, how do you rate the city’s progress in terms of promoting cycling?
A: “They didn’t haven’t any (separated bike lanes) five years ago, so I think that was a great improvement. The other thing that they’ve done ... they have traffic-calmed residential neighborhoods. They have reduced the speed limit to 30 km/h.
But then also what they’ve done is they’ve introduced all sorts of traffic-calming devices, traffic circles, sometimes speed tables, speed bumps, because you don’t want through traffic going through residential neighborhoods — because it doesn’t belong there. It’s more noise, it’s more air pollution, but above all is the danger, especially for kids.
Canadians are much too modest. I think they need to brag a little more, because it turns out the city of Vancouver has the highest percentage of people who bike to work of any city in North America. The city of Vancouver has the highest percentage of people who walk to work, it also has the best safety rating for walking and it has the best safety rating for cycling.
Q: In which areas can TransLink and the municipalities of Metro Vancouver improve their cycling infrastructure?
A: Being realistic, most folks are not going to commute by bike from the suburbs to downtown Vancouver. It’s just not going to happen, there’s (only) going to be a few hardy souls who are going to do it. So, I think the focus in the suburban areas ought to be on improving the bike access to the SkyTrain stations: within two miles of the SkyTrain stations, making sure that there are bike lanes that lead to the SkyTrain stations and then safe, sheltered and secured bike parking at these SkyTrain stations.
Often the bike parking is not sheltered. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like getting my bike wet. I also think the secure bike parking they have is ugly! It’s these plastic boxes and I just think it’s terribly unattractive.
In Denmark or The Netherlands or Germany they have much more attractive secure bike parking.
There are in Berlin, Germany, over 50,000 bike parking places at rail stations and the metro system. 50,000! And here in (Metro) Vancouver (there are) 500.
Q: When did cycling become cool again in North America?
A: There was a very very slow increase in this movement, in places like Portland and then I really think things started accelerating in the year 2000 — and in 2005 even more. It’s been this kind of exponential curve.
Nothing happened before 1990. Then you have really a takeoff in 2005 to 2010 and a further acceleration once you get now beyond 2010
When you say a tipping point, it’s not just a matter of the number of bike trips of the overall nationwide interest it’s a matter of the geographic spreading of the interest.
This is why I’m really excited by these new policies in the south and the southeast in the United States, because they currently have the absolute lowest level of walking and cycling, and of transit use, in the entire United States in all of North America actually.
Q: Speaking of those regions that have been loath to adopt cycling-friendly policies, how does Vancouver stack up against other cities in terms of the “War on Cars?”
A: It’s not as bad as it is in Texas, haha. This past April I had to give a series of five talks in Texas and let me tell you I was intimidated. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going into the lion’s den.’
(Beforehand, I was told) whatever you do, don’t take away our pickup trucks. Don’t suggest an increase in the gasoline tax and don’t reduce parking supply or (increase) parking charges, Texans don’t want to hear it.
(I was told to) focus on the following two things: the economic benefits and the health benefits of cycling. Why? Because Texans are interested in money.
They said don’t tell us anything about Vancouver, Portland or Seattle, we can’t stand Cascadia.
I really focused on giving examples of successful pro-bike initiatives in the southeast, in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and so on, and it went well. They said ‘hey, that’s really neat.’
Most people are going to have a car and there are going to be certain kinds of trips you can only make by car, obviously. We’re not saying ‘you can’t drive your car, you can’t have a car,’ we’re saying ‘there’s many many trips that you could make by walking or cycling or using transit instead.
Q: What do you say to people who are vehemently opposed to the expansion of separated bike lanes?
A: I’m going to convince you to be a supporter of bicycling here in the Vancouver area because of three reasons.
No. 1: The more people who get on bikes, the fewer people who are congesting the roads you want to drive on.
No. 2: The more people you get on bikes, the fewer people are parking their cars in parking spaces you want.
No. 3: The more people who get on their bikes, the less there is in the way of health care costs to the region as a whole.
Also it turns out investing in cycling is a lot cheaper than investing in new roadways. So as a taxpayer you will be paying less taxes as a result of this new system of cycle tracks and bike lanes here in Vancouver.
Q: What about the safety risks of biking to work?
A: That’s another image problem that cycling has: is that somehow cycling’s dangerous. It turns out, first of all, the likelihood of getting seriously injured in any bike crash on any particular bike trip is extremely low — it’s like one in a hundred thousand.
In every single case, without a single exception, the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the traffic dangers or the health costs of cyclists.
Q: Do mandatory bike helmet laws harm cycling more than promote it?
A: What is the additional risk of a serious injury as a result of not wearing a bike helmet? It turns out that only in a specific kind of crash does it really do any good and that if you’re going above a certain speed, I don’t know what it is, then it does virtually no good whatsoever. (Two public health experts and colleagues who studied the issue) are both dead set against the compulsory helmet-use laws. Because they say it deters cycling so much that the lost health benefits of the physical activity - that people would get from cycling - ... far offsets whatever the traffic safety benefits are of people wearing the helmets.
It seems counter-intuitive. It’s a big controversy, by the way, even in the public health profession. Everyone just assumes that, ‘well, the helmet’s gotta be the thing - that’s the way to improve cycling safety.’ That’s a bunch of baloney. If you look at the Netherlands or Denmark, almost no one wears a helmet and cycling there is almost 10 times safer than it is in the United States.
Q: How do you convince someone to get outside and bike to work in the rain?
A: If rain is such a deterrent to cycling then I would like (you) to explain to me why it is that those cities and those countries with the very highest levels of cycling also have the lousiest climates where you can barely see any sunshine at all and it drizzles or rains maybe two thirds of the days in the year. It really is the case in the Netherlands and you just deal with it.
Once you get the right gear, it’s just not an issue. You just get the right kind of clothing and it’s OK.
Q: Are bike-sharing systems a good thing?
A: Overall, I think it’s a good investment, especially if you get it paid for it like in New York. The City of New York didn’t pay anything for it. Citibank was the sponsor, they paid $42 million and that covered the cost of all the bike docking stations all the bikes. The membership dues and whatever fees people pay when they’re using it for more than half an hour cover the operating costs.
The (reason) it’s questionable from an energy and environmental point of view is ... something like 85 to 90 per cent of the trips that are made by bike sharing users are coming from either mass transit or from walking. That’s not necessarily a good thing, in terms of the environment or energy, you’re just shifting among different modes of sustainable transportation.
I don’t think you can defend bike sharing on the basis of energy savings or environmental savings, but I do think that it generates this overall interest in cycling.
What (researchers) have found is there will be people who haven’t ridden bikes in 20 or 30 years. They try out the bike sharing bikes and they say ‘hey this is really neat’ and they end up buying their own bike and then bicycling more on a regular basis.
Q: What has been the greatest accomplishment of your professional career?
A: It makes me feels so good coming back to a place where I’ve talked to promote cycling, say five years ago or three years ago, and to see what I’ve been talking about implemented. Because that’s exactly what’s happened here in Vancouver.
When the message gets across to the public, when it gets through to politicians to actually change policies and you see better cycling and walking facilities being implemented, that is, to me, the most satisfying thing in the world. It’s why I think it’s so important for academics to work together with journalists like you, because if we can’t get the message to the public, it’s worthless.
Story by Mike Hager, Vancouver Sun: