Dear pedestrians, rollers and cyclists: it’s time to take over the world.
One consequence of COVID-19 has been the remarkable uptake in cycling across the world. People are seeking mobility, meditation and exercise in a sedentary, stressful time, and they want a way to re-engage urban life without the close proximity that usually defines the city.
Cycling offers a 2020 solution. Urban folk (over 80% of Canadians) were already desperate before COVID came along to escape the stress and violence of life in motor vehicles. COVID just opened the door. It won’t be open long.
Paris, Bogota, Mexico City, Milan and Oakland are all carpe diem and, ¡Ya basta!, taking head-on the fossil-fuelled, private car that externalizes its brutal social + ecological costs. But Canadians, globally notorious per capita energy hogs, are moving slower (although see Montréal). If we don’t seize the day, a surge in new driving (with transit hobbled by physical distancing) might lock the car even further into cities’ suburbs––just when the world least needs it.
How might Canada ‘roll through the door’ to a more resilient, survivable planet? A few clues emerged because of COVID on the west coast. It all started in Stanley Park, which shut out cars in April for the first time in its history so local walkers, joggers and cyclists could safely move outside.
I always imagined what this beautiful place (long considered sacred to Coast Salish First Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh) would feel like if cars were removed. I was so inspired I penned a Globe and Mail editorial about it (PDF). The piece ushered into my inbox the vitriol and wrath of readers who, among other things, were disgusted that the government would fund my cycling research and promised “war” if the City ever tried to exclude cars from the park permanently.
Despite such push back, Vancouver moved (a wee bit) forward, shutting down half of Beach Avenue (a four lane arterial approach to Stanley Park for cars), giving roadspace to people rolling and cycling (who came in droves, ~5000 a day).
And, after some dawdling, the City of Vancouver promised to create 50km of ‘slow streets’ (local car traffic only, including deliveries), along Vancouver’s traffic-calmed “greenway” network (where walkers and cyclists already enjoy some respect). Only about 1% of Vancouver’s road network. But hey, it’s a start.
The first 12km rolled out in late May, including Wall Street in Hastings-Sunrise, a relatively car-dominated neighbourhood in East Van. I was literally in the middle of Wall Street running (you know, to physically distance myself from pedestrians..) when I bumped into the barrier below. Except it wasn’t a barrier at all. It was a portal.
One reason why Vancouver’s 50km is far too low centres on equity. Most people can’t afford to live in central Vancouver and cruise around its sweet greenways. Peripheral neighbourhoods and cities like Surrey need political and financial support to give non-wealthy people in the suburbs safe space for biking, too. Especially women, who tend to be excluded from cycling in low-cycling countries like Canada.
The car may return in the suburbs after COVID-19 1.0 with a vengeance. People will go back to suffering deaths from car accidents and car pollution instead of novel viruses.
Unless I (and your city councillor) can get an ‘on your left’ and a ding ding from your bell already?