Local government’s response to reducing transportation emissions may be wishful thinking. Or foolish.
IS THE CITY OF VICTORIA’S STRATEGY to create protected bike lanes in the Downtown core a well-thought-out strategy to make bicycling safer, relieve vehicle congestion and move Victoria in the direction of a low-carbon future? Or is it another case—like the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project—of the City unintentionally displaying its proven tendency toward decision-based evidence-making?
The first component of the strategy—a $3.5-million, 1.2-kilometre-long corridor on Pandora between Cook and Store—became operational in May. By mid-June the City’s PR team announced “the number of cyclists using the new bike lanes is very encouraging” with “nearly 40,000 bicycle trips” made along the corridor in its first month of operation. That timeframe, and the numbers, included Victoria’s Bike to Work Week, an annual outpouring of temporary enthusiasm.
A second protected bicycle corridor—1.2 kilometres of Fort from Cook to Wharf—was approved by City of Victoria councillors on June 8. Construction is scheduled to begin in September.
The City plans to expand these corridors to Wharf, Humboldt and Cook. At the cost per kilometre of the Pandora corridor, the 5.3-kilometre-long Phase 1 would cost about $16 million—and depends almost entirely on the availability of grants from the Gas Tax Fund.
The rationale behind the protected lanes—as opposed to cyclists sharing the existing infrastructure with automobiles—is to increase the safety of cyclists. But creating protected lanes has resulted in removal of auto parking space, already in short supply in the Downtown core much of each day. The Pandora corridor removed 43 auto parking stalls; another 30 will be removed on Fort Street. At that rate of parking space removal, Phase 1 would see about 175 spaces disappear. Before construction of the protected corridors began, the City had less than 2000 on-street parking spaces Downtown. So Phase 1, originally planned to be complete by the end of 2018, will see the loss of nearly 10 percent of on-street parking in the Downtown core. The City’s aim appears to be to quickly replace a significant fraction of motorized individual transport with unmotorized individual transport.
For people who drive a car, truck or van Downtown and don’t see themselves as likely to ever switch to a bicycle, the new situation feels like an attempt to force them to make a change they can’t or don’t want to make, and carries a whiff of social engineering. Some Downtown businesses have expressed concern that making vehicle parking Downtown less available will discourage potential clients and impact their businesses. But Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has argued that protected bicycle corridors will make auto parking more available, not less. Her theory is that by making biking around Downtown safer, people who in the past would only travel there by auto will now be encouraged to come by bicycle. Victoria’s 40-ish mayor is an avid cycle commuter and she now has a protected corridor that runs most of the 1.4 kilometres from her home in Fernwood to her place of work at City Hall.
Implicit in the City’s decision to proceed along this course is the belief that the number of cyclists, especially those commuting to work, needs to be encouraged and allowed to grow far beyond current levels. Why are they doing that? Here’s the City’s official position on “why”: “Encouraging cycling, along with walking and transit use, is an important strategy to manage expected population growth and support community health, affordability, economic development, air quality and climate action objectives. As the City grows in population, we will need to shift some of our trips to transit, cycling and walking because these are much more efficient modes of transportation than single occupancy vehicles.”
The City supports its position with data that it attributes to the 2011 Census that indicated 10.6 percent of people living within the City of Victoria cycle to work. That’s Canada’s highest per capita incidence of commuting by bicycle. It’s hard to argue with federal census data that counts (almost) every single person in the country and has a margin of error close to zero. The City is hoping to build on that encouraging number and calls its plan “Biketoria.”
While the City’s vision sounds progressive and smart, the best available data about transportation in Victoria calls into question the City’s emphasis on cycling and walking—and perhaps transit, too.
Let’s start with Victoria’s claim to fame, that 10.6 percent of Victorians who cycle to work. It turns out that number wasn’t obtained directly from the 2011 Census. Instead, the “10.6 percent” figure comes from the 2011 National Household Survey, which was voluntary and produced data with a margin of error much higher than zero. Since good transportation planning requires good transportation data, it’s important to understand why one of the fundamental numbers supporting the City’s Biketoria initiative is probably flawed.
The National Household Survey asked participants only one question about transportation: How did the person filling out the survey “usually get to work.” There were 11 modes of transportation listed (auto driver, auto passenger, transit, walking, bicycle, etc...) and the respondent could choose only one. How did multi-modal commuters decide how to respond? We don’t know, but it’s well-known that commuter cycling ebbs in the darker, colder, wetter half of the year, so it’s reasonable to assume that some cyclists must be using other forms of transportation to get to work at least part of the year: walking, transit, some might even drive an auto. But the National Household Survey didn’t allow for such complexity. Nor did it attempt to gauge the distance people had to travel to work. As a guide for transportation planners, then, the National Housing Survey doesn’t really qualify as a reliable tool for making multi-million-dollar transportation decisions. Yet it is attributed as one of the primary sources upon which the City based its case for building protected bicycle corridors.
The other source the City cites is the 2011 CRD Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey. But a careful read of the data in that survey, especially when compared with the data the survey produced in 2006, raises questions about the City’s direction.
According to the CRD’s 2011 survey, only 3.8 percent of trips within, into and out of the City of Victoria over a 24-hour period were made by bicycle. When the average distance of trips made by different modes of transportation are factored in, bicycles accounted for less than 2.5 percent of the total distance travelled using all modes. Moreover, the Origin-Destination survey didn’t capture trips that were made to move goods or to provide services—like taxi drivers, social workers, delivery services, healthcare providers, transit drivers—it’s a long list and almost none of it is done by bicycle.
If bicycles currently account for only a tiny fraction of the total distance travelled each day in the City of Victoria, how realistic is it that large numbers of Victorians will soon become cyclists?
While Copenhagen’s large contingent of cyclists is held up as a model for Victoria to aspire to, the average age of a person living in Copenhagen is 35.9 years and has been falling for many years. In the City of Victoria, the average is 44.5 and is projected to rise for many years. As people get older, they generally spend a lot less time on bicycles, especially in hilly places like Victoria. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Origin-Destination surveys for 2006 and 2011 show that, for the whole CRD, the daily mode share for bicycles dropped slightly over those five years, from 3.2 percent to 2.8 percent. Yet the official goal in the CRD is to raise that to a regional level of 15 percent by 2038.
Is this realistic?
The answer to that becomes clearer when we consider the cumulative distance travelled each day by residents of the Capital Regional District (see table below). According to data in the 2011 Origin-Destination survey, about 6.6 million kilometres are travelled within the CRD each and every weekday (note that’s each day, not week). Of that travel, 72.7 percent was as the driver of an auto and 15.6 percent as a passenger in an auto. That means that about 88 percent of all travel within the CRD relies on autos.
Share, by transportation mode, of total distance travelled within the CRD on a weekday
Source: 2011 CRD Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey, conducted by Malatest and Associates Ltd. The survey did not capture commercial traffic or traffic originating outside of the CRD. The 2011 survey is the most recent data available.
Only 1.5 percent of the distance travelled is by bicycle. As noted above, the survey does not capture commercial trips made to move goods or to provide services. If commercial traffic was included, bicycles would likely drop to little more than one percent.
So bicycles currently account for a tiny fraction of the actual distance people cover in getting from point A to point B in the CRD. Again, is it realistic to think that bicycles—currently providing about 1 percent of the work being done by our regional transportation system—will supply 15 to 20 times as much work in 20 years?
Without improving the cycling network, City and CRD transportation planners won't know whether their long-term goal is achievable. Unfortunately, though, as they experiment, the protected lanes may unintentionally increase emissions by delaying vehicles making right-hand turns off Pandora, resulting in hours of additional engine idling each day (see the short video below). Unless use of the corridor increases dramatically, it could be argued it's doing more harm than good most of the day.
The Pandora Avenue protected bicycle corridor includes new traffic signals that delay right-hand turns off Pandora by 25 seconds at each of six intersections. As is shown in this video, this will increase emissions from autos even though there are few cyclists using the lane.
You might be wondering why I am quoting a study done in 2011. The Origin-Destination surveys are done every five years, but the 2016 survey has been delayed. John Hicks, senior transportation planner at the CRD, told Focus the 2016 version, which would normally have been released about now, was pushed back a year so that 2016 federal census data could be used more directly in determining required sample sizes.
A call for credentials was issued by the CRD in April and the survey will be conducted during the same months as the 2011 survey. It should be released in March 2018. So, for now, we are dependent on the 2011 data, and that shows bicycles only provide a tiny fraction of the travel needs of people throughout the CRD.
Regardless of whether the loss of nearly 10 percent of the Downtown core’s on-street parking is or isn’t a reasonable trade-off for a greater level of safety for bicyclists, the claim that these corridors will play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions seems like a refusal to accept the obvious: Most people prefer to use four-wheeled motorized personal transport. So at least some of the CRD’s and the municipalities’ efforts in transportation planning ought to include how that strong preference can be incorporated in a transportation system that evolves toward a low-carbon future. For example, why not incorporate charging stations for electric cars into the protected bicycle corridor infrastructure? Providing electricity for free would create an incentive for electric vehicles Downtown. Even so, such ideas would be little more than civic acknowledgment of the need to reduce emissions since the vast majority of motorized vehicles depend on fossil fuels and likely will for many years to come, according to auto industry experts.
To produce a significant reduction in CRD transportation emissions, a more sophisticated approach than painting bicycle lanes on roads will be needed. That will, at least to begin with, require helping auto drivers and auto passengers reduce their use of fossil-fueled vehicles, while accepting their choice for how to get around. How can that use be downsized? The data the CRD has collected, if it’s accurate, contains some interesting possibilities. Comparing the 2006 and 2011 surveys, it appears two shifts in the use of autos were underway. One was good news, the other bad.
First the bad news. According to the CRD’s Origin-Destination surveys, between 2006 and 2011, about 78,000 fewer trips were taken as auto passengers each day. Where did the passengers go? It appears that many of them might have become drivers. In 2006, drivers accounted for 59 percent of non-commercial trips. But by 2011 that had climbed to 64 percent. If nothing else had changed, this would have meant more vehicles travelling each day—and higher emissions.
But—and this is the good news—regional transportation emissions per person may have declined in spite of the trend of passengers becoming drivers. That’s because the average number of daily trips per person in the CRD decreased after 2006 by 4.8 percent. That translates to CRD residents driving about 43,000 fewer kilometres each weekday than in 2006.
These two factors—the incidence of single-occupancy vehicles and the average number of daily trips taken by CRD auto users—suggest possibilities for emissions reduction that don’t involve converting car drivers to cyclists. (Again, this is only true to the extent that the data collected for the Origin-Destination surveys for 2006 and 2011 is accurate.) The CRD needs to gather more data that provides decision-makers, elected officials and media answers to basic questions, such as: Why did CRD residents reduce the number of their trips between 2006 and 2011? Is there some way to incentivize that shift in behaviour? If the City of Victoria can spend $16 million on safer bicycling for a few thousand bicyclists—using money collected from auto drivers through the Gas Tax Fund—why can’t the CRD refund a few million a year back to auto drivers who can prove a significant reduction in the miles they travel each year or switched to an EV? And what were the factors that turned auto passengers into auto drivers? What would it take to reverse that trend? Can local government, especially the CRD, play a role in facilitating that reversal? With the huge growth in the use of cell phones, ipads and apps, why does the CRD not have its own high-profile regional rideshare system in place that can connect car drivers who are about to make a similar trip?
The absence of timely, deep, reliable data on transportation in the CRD will make it difficult for the community to make sensible decisions based on evidence. One example of how badly politicians can steer the public interest—when they make a decision and then look for evidence that supports it—is the CRD’s controversial LRT initiative. That began in 2009 as the provincial NDP’s response to the then-Campbell government’s transit initiatives in Vancouver. Local NDP MLA Maureen Karaganis stated back then: “The Campbell government’s transit plan focuses almost entirely on projects in the lower mainland while the rest of BC, including Victoria, has been ignored. The Capital Region seeks to avoid sprawl by building an innovative, high quality public transit system with LRT between Downtown and the western communities.”
By 2012, that we-want-one-too logic had ballooned into a live, billion-dollar proposal to build an LRT between “Downtown and the western communities.” Note that the western terminus of such a system wouldn’t have been the “western communities,” but rather Langford.
When politicians start pounding the drum for some large infrastructure project, which they hope will distinguish themselves from their political competitors, the only thing that might prevent them from making a big, expensive mistake is credible, accurate, up-to-date information. With the LRT proposal, if a billion was going to be spent anywhere, should it really be used to connect Downtown with Langford?
The 2011 Origin-Destination survey included a graphic of the “Desire Lines” in the CRD (see graphic below). These represent the most heavily-travelled routes people take in moving around the CRD each day. In the illustration, you can see that, by far, the strongest flows are between Downtown and south Victoria, from Downtown to Uptown, and from all three of those areas out to the University of Victoria. Notice the feeble desire line out to Langford.
Desire Lines in the CRD, from the 2011 Origin Destination survey.
The illustration excludes trips that originate outside of the CRD. For example, trips from anywhere north of Langford, which contribute much of the traffic on the at-times congested Trans Canada Highway. The LRT the NDP was proposing would likely not be used by such travellers.
The most prominent desire lines show where an LRT should be located if the goal was to reduce emissions and create a more compact community. A 19-kilometre-long loop that connected Downtown, Oak Bay, the Shelbourne Valley, UVic and Uptown would follow arterial roads that already pass within a kilometre or so of tens of thousands of existing homes. Over time, the presence of a transit line would encourage even greater population density in those already-developed areas.
According to the desire lines, a 15-kilometre (one way) route from Downtown to Langford wouldn’t make sense. Yet the Regional Transportation Plan’s rationale for LRT sees that route “as a possible means to significantly curb pressure on auto infrastructure in high growth areas.” By “high growth area” the CRD means Langford, which has the highest relative population growth rate in the CRD. But in terms of absolute growth—which includes growth in population, commercial and institutional development and employment—the area of Victoria and Saanich already heavily criss-crossed by desire lines is experiencing more than twice the growth of Langford.
With the NDP about to become government, will an LRT to Langford be resurrected? Quick! Using Google Earth, someone needs to count all the dwellings and places of employment within walking distance of the above two routes. Why isn’t that information already available?
Choosing the wrong first route for LRT would have a devastating effect on the long-term prospects of reducing emissions in the CRD. What the CRD really needs, before spending countless millions on pet transportation projects that address a tiny fraction of the CRD’s emissions problem, is credible and comprehensive information about what it would take to get people who live here (as opposed to Danish twenty-year-olds) to change their travel behaviour. Obtaining that information would cost money, of course. One way to fund such data gathering would be to use the Gas Tax Fund.
Unfortunately, that huge chunk of cash—which is taken from drivers of vehicles that run on fossil fuels—is used almost exclusively for cycling infrastructure or non-transportation-related projects in the CRD: an agricultural strategy here, a tennis court there, water system upgrades all over the place, even a fire hydrant in Shirley. The tax isn’t being used, however, for any initiative that might one day seriously lower carbon emissions. Perhaps that’s because actually reducing the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles would diminish the flow of money to the Gas Tax Fund, and that, in turn, would start to dry up funding for local politicians’ pet projects. It’s an interesting dynamic, one addiction feeding another. How do we get free of it? Please let me know what you would do.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.