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Bringing cyclists out of the business blind spot

I don’t get angry at motorists anymore.

My daily bike commute used to include road rage conflicts with drivers who cut me off, honked incessantly or drove-by too closely. Things could escalate into self-righteous exchanges of profanity and contempt, followed by embarrassment. The stakes seemed high, my flesh and blood versus tonnes of metal.

But my rage has abated without enrolling in an anger management course, because I’ve been using the new separated bike lane on Dunsmuir street. Cyclists and motorists now have our own space, so there’s no longer any cause for conflict or frustration. Not only do I feel safer and more comfortable, but I’ve noticed many new cyclists on the route who fall far outside the “MEC jacket” stereotype.

To my surprise, this and other improvements in the cycling network have been met with passionate clusters of opposition.

The Burrard Bridge lane trial is a good example.  From the intensity of controversy, you would have thought the city was planning on tearing down the bridge, but just one lane was reallocated from cars to cyclists. The result surprised everyone: a dramatic increase in cycling with no significant change in motor vehicle travel times. City staff were successful in designing a solution that attracted more cyclists without causing major traffic disruptions.

A similar level of pre-implementation hype and controversy has surrounded the Hornby bike lane proposal. Business groups concerned about parking, driveway access and potential for lost revenue, are irate.

Historically, downtown stores have depended on motorists as their primary customers, so it makes sense that these businesses would be protective of motorist interests. But high gas prices and the spatial constraints of the urban environment are driving changes in customers' transportation preferences, and businesses could lose out if they don’t keep up.

The city has consulted widely about the Hornby bike lane and addressed many of the concerns. Plans now ensure that driveway access is maintained and that there will be no net loss in parking. And an opinion survey last week showed that a majority of Hornby street visitors support the bike lane.

Instead of concerns, we could be focusing on opportunities. Pedal-by traffic will increase with the new separated lane; when the Dunsmuir bike route was opened, bike traffic quadrupled within weeks. A similar result on Hornby would expose local businesses to over 2,000 additional cyclists per day.

Aesthetically, the green garden planters that separate cars from bikes will be a welcome break from the concrete and asphalt of the urban core. And with its new connections to the seawall, Hornby will see an influx of pedal-powered tourists, and likely pedestrians.

Business could also tap into the benefits of cycling’s demographics, heavy on young adults and middle-aged professionals. And while the number of car trips is decreasing, cycling is the fastest-growing commuting choice in the city.

Businesses would benefit from proactively embracing the Hornby separated bike lane to attract this growing market of cyclists. Cyclists would purchase more and larger goods if economical delivery services were provided for helmet-headed patrons. Or, a business on the route could expand into providing bike rentals, promote the safe connection to the seawall, and attract both new revenue and new customers at the same time.

There may also be a role for the city to help businesses gear their offerings toward cyclists. City planners could turn an eye towards collaborative opportunities that promote business development near the new bike lane, while other staff could actively support business owners in developing strategies that attract cyclists. Perhaps Hornby Street could even be a good location for a new green business cluster.

The construction of separated bike routes downtown will be an asset to the area’s future prosperity. Transportation demand will only increase, and there is no space to build new roads. Safe bike routes are among the best alternatives for an urban environment.

Separated bike routes have already eased tensions between cyclists and motorists. With support from the city and open minds from cyclists and business owners, the Hornby bike lane could improve the relationship between bikes and businesses.

The business community has been opposed to the Hornby bike lane trial largely because it challenges conventional wisdom about how customers get around. Given the controversy and debate, this may be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that cyclists are valuable customers on the city’s commercial streets.

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