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Has Vancouver become bike-friendly enough?

The Courier talks to Modacity’s Melissa Bruntlett about the state of cycling in the city and what she hopes the next election will bring
Melissa Bruntlett and her husband Chris have a book about cycling coming out in the fall. The Courie
Melissa Bruntlett and her husband Chris have a book about cycling coming out in the fall. The Courier talked to Melissa about the state of biking in the city, what she hopes this year’s municipal election candidates commit to and what still frustrates her about cycling in Vancouver. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Melissa Bruntlett, her husband Chris and their two children — now aged 11 and 9 — ditched their car eight years ago. They rely on their bikes, but also travel by foot, transit and car-share.

(Their decision was the subject of a documentary on CBC’s The National in 2015, as well as a feature in the Courier penned by the Bruntletts. Read it here.)

Recently, the couple, who run Modacity, a communication company focused on sustainable transportation issues, submitted a manuscript for their first book based on the lessons they’ve learned through their travels to the Netherlands over the past couple of years and the colleagues they’ve met there. It’s expected to be published by Island Press, which is based out of New York, in September of 2018.

We checked in with Melissa Bruntlett to find out her thoughts about the City of Vancouver’s progress on the cycling front.

 

 

It’s 2018. How would you describe Vancouver’s progress in terms of making the city cycling friendly?

Since we moved here in 2007, so 11 years ago, there’s been quite a bit of progress in terms of creating safe facilities to attract different people to ride. In recent years, whether that’s through pushback or otherwise, it’s slowed a bit outside of the downtown peninsula. But the downtown peninsula itself is becoming increasingly connected, which, of course, is helping people who commute to work and for shopping and things like that.

Do you think city council and the ruling Vision Vancouver have done enough on the cycling front?

I think they have. I think they could still do more. Gregor [Robertson] and Vision have put up a lot of political capital to get us where we are but as a result have experienced a lot of pushback, which has slowed the progress in the last few years.

What’s the best thing that’s happened in this regard in the past decade?

The downtown cycle tracks are some of the best things that have happened, including the Burrard Bridge — the upgrades that have happened between 2008 and now. It’s made the city a lot more accessible. I could say that as a family we would not have been travelling downtown nearly as often as we are now, especially when our kids were much younger. So, in terms of getting us to a good point, that has been most pivotal in terms of connecting the city.

What do you wish had happened but didn’t?

More focus outside of downtown would have done a lot — there are still a number of areas of the city that are highly underserved when it comes to cycling facilities — with specific focus on connecting people to the shorter distance trip. So, connecting our kids to their schools in a safe manner and getting to shopping districts. We live on Commercial Drive and being able to cycle to go to the shops there is very difficult. We end up walking, which is fine, but we would like to have the option. And, when you get into areas like south Vancouver and southeast Vancouver, those areas still have a ways to go to make it an option for people to cycle safely.

Where’s the worst place to cycle in Vancouver?

I would say southeast Vancouver. That little pocket not quite down at Marine Drive and below Kingsway. I don’t bike there at all because there’s not a lot to make me feel comfortable enough to bike.

Where’s the best place?

It’s the seawall. It’s an easy question. I realize it’s just for recreation but I love the fact that where we are at Commercial and Broadway, we’re 20 minutes from essentially oceanfront riding for endless kilometres.

What frustrates you most about being a cyclists in the city these days?

One is that we’re still labelled as cyclists because I’m no more a cyclist than I am a walker or a driver or someone who uses public transportation. I really think that the labels have done a huge disservice to everybody in terms of putting us up against each other. At any point in time, somebody’s a pedestrian and somebody’s on public transportation or driving. The other [frustration] is this idea that when I’m not on my bike, I still feel very threatened when I’m around people in cars — they’re still quite aggressive, which you’d think after 10 years of implementing cycling infrastructure it would get better. I’m still always very wary and my children are still very afraid when there’s a car driving behind them, whether they’re close or not. The fact we haven’t got passed that yet makes it hard to encourage others to keep cycling.

What are you mostly looking forward to in terms of cycling infrastructure in Vancouver?

I’m really looking forward to, and hopefully they stick past the next election, those connections that will be built outside of downtown. Commercial Drive has been on the docket for a really long time. Connections on West Fourth would be great. I know these are ideas that are sort of sitting underneath a layer but seeing that built up over the coming years would be fantastic and just improve everything that we’ve been working on.

Name one short-term, one medium-term and one long-term goal the city should take on in terms of making Vancouver an even more cycling-friendly city.

Short term: Expanding the bike-share to reach more into our neighbourhoods.

Medium term: Connecting those short-distance trips and making it easier to get to schools and community centres.

Long term: Mode-share (the number of people choosing to ride bikes in the city) has to get up there. We do pretty well in the city but it pales in comparison to a lot of other cycling cities in the world. Getting above 10 per cent, hovering close to 20 would be a fantastic goal.

This is an election year, what promises commitments would you want to hear from political parties or candidates that would secure your vote?

A continued promise to maintain and keep building on walking and cycling and accessibility in general. That commitment needs to be there. It’s not just about one thing; it’s making sure that whether you walk or bike or take transit, the city is accessible to you. If the candidates are going to get my vote, that needs to be one of the top priorities in terms of transportation. [But] there are others things that [are important too].

How often do you drive, if at all?

We have car-share so we usually drive once, maybe twice a week, maybe because of children’s programming being a bit out of reach and it being winter. It drops down in the summer when it’s lighter out.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought, oh, I wish I still had a private car?

In terms of getting around the city, no. Only when I want to go camping.

What’s the most difficult item your family has transported by bike?

Honestly, we’ve almost been able to haul anything. We haven’t done a bed or anything like that but I’d say the most challenging is probably when I transported our Christmas tree last year on my bicycle. We usually use our cargo bike but this time around, we used the front rack of my bike. But with some bungies and some strapping it worked out just fine.

 

What do you say to critics who think the city shouldn’t focus so much attention on cycling when there are so many other issues to address such as affordability?

I think affordability and homeless are pretty high on the priority list. When it comes to transportation, specifically around cycling, it’s become an easy scapegoat for a lot of the problems people see around transportation. When you look at the actual dollars spent on cycling infrastructure, it still pales in comparison to road maintenance, improving streets and putting in new parking. People need to recognize where the money is actually going and that the drop in the bucket, the couple of million for a bike lane, doesn’t compare to the billions being spent on roads and for drivers.

Do you ever engage critics and have you ever managed to sway one in favour of cycling?

I have conversations with peers that don’t always agree with me. I just try to put forward as non-emotional an argument as I can. I’ve had friends that have changed their opinion around cycling in the city, but I don’t usually engage on social media because I don’t find it a helpful place to have those kinds of debates.

How many bikes do your family own?

Five bikes. No, seven bikes — I always forget about our two folding bikes.

Best cycling book?

In the City of Bikes (by Pete Jordan), which is all about cycling and the history behind Amsterdam’s culture there.

Best city you’ve cycled in?

It’s going to be all Netherlands-based. But it’s a city called Utrecht. It’s a beautiful, small, human-scale city. It was wonderful to cycle there.

Worst city you’ve cycled in?

In my memory, probably the worst and I know it’s gotten way better, but the worst was biking around Toronto when I was in university. That was the early 2000s.

noconnor@vancourier.com

@naoibh