Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Lee Haber, a founder of Downtown For the People, a group campaigning for a people-centric downtown Vancouver. He is a traffic engineer and planner.
Prior to the completion of the Broadway Subway, City of Vancouver officials are recommending that Broadway be reduced from six vehicle lanes to four—since the curbside bus lanes serving the 99 B-Line will no longer be needed—and that space be made for widened sidewalks and Terraces to be redistributed.
While this would be an improvement over the status quo, it goes against the previous Vancouver City Council’s recommendation to add bike lanes to Broadway. It would also be a missed opportunity to make this city more livable.
However, there is a way to make Broadway what city officials have dubbed “Great Street” that works for everyone if we think beyond the notion that vehicle lanes need to come in pairs. There’s a way to really make Broadway a great street for people, with widened sidewalks, courtyards, and, yes, bike lanes.
Do we even need bike lanes on Broadway?
Before we discuss possible solutions, let’s consider whether cycle lanes are even desirable on Broadway. I know many people reading this are skeptical about putting lanes on Broadway and question their necessity when there are parallel bike lanes on 10th and 7th avenues just a few blocks away.
It’s easy to compare cycling to public transport. They have routes and people use them to get where they want to go and you only need public transit every few blocks.
The problem with this view is that cycling is more like walking than using public transport. Just as most people are not willing to stray far from a sidewalk, most people will not stray far from a safe cycling facility. Would you feel safe walking to a store several blocks away without a sidewalk?
Bike lanes on Broadway would serve a different purpose than those on 10th and 7th Avenues. It would allow people to use the most energy-efficient form of transportation mankind has ever invented to patronize these businesses, while 10th and 7th Avenues serve more of a purpose for inter-city commuters. Cyclists wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit; People using scooters and electromobility devices would also benefit. Maps also hide the significant difference in elevation between the parallel streets.
If we absolutely want to maintain four lanes, then there isn’t enough space to accommodate both bike lanes and patios. However, there is no hard and fast rule that Broadway must have four lanes. City officials were studying a two-lane option that would accommodate both bike lanes and courtyards; However, they advised against it, citing access to Vancouver General Hospital, difficulties loading and unloading vehicles and traffic jams.
However, city officials never considered making Broadway a three-lane street. This solution would include a center lane for left turning vehicles and a through lane in each direction. That would be enough space for everything we want for this street: terraces, widened sidewalks and bike paths.
Will a three-lane Broadway increase congestion?
Traffic and congestion are things that many people get wrong, including engineers. I don’t blame people who get it wrong because it’s counterintuitive. It is easy to see traffic like water through a pipe or blood through a vessel. If you clog or narrow the pipe, you increase the pressure.
You might think cars and roads work in the same way, but the opposite is true: reducing vehicle space reduces pressure/demand. Why is this? That’s because traffic is caused by people using vehicles, and people are not lifeless drops of water or blood cells. People are able to make and change their decisions based on the circumstances, and when people see that a road is less convenient, they will choose another option.
Is there evidence for this counterintuitive view? Yes, many indeed. There are examples of freeway demolitions in Seoul, Korea, and New York City, where traffic on those freeways simply “vaporized” after the demolition.
Traffic is incredibly elastic; it adapts quickly to changing circumstances. I believe this is because there are many ways people can adjust their behavior by choosing different routes, different modes, different times, or different ways of grouping. (In Stockholm, about half of the traffic reduction caused by the congestion charge happened because drivers consolidated trips).
A 50% reduction in road capacity does not mean that congestion will double. That’s not how traffic works; it is more likely that transport demand will fall by 50%, if not more.
If you’re still not convinced, consider that a good chunk of congestion is caused by U-turns. The special left-turn lanes, provided in a three-lane solution, allow traffic to move freely in through lanes. This means that a three-lane road actually has only slightly less capacity than a four-lane road, despite having one lane less.
Will a three-lane Broadway hurt business and hinder emergency vehicles?
Evidence from our Canadian neighbors suggests the opposite would likely happen, as both saw significant business growth with the introduction of bike lanes.
Also, if you’re concerned that reducing lanes by 50% means 50% less business, consider that the Broadway Subway will have the capacity to carry over 40,000 people per hour, which is the equivalent of a 40-lane arterial road. The addition of terraced bike lanes will not only make walking and cycling safer and more enjoyable, but with the arrival of the Broadway Subway, transportation capacity will increase by 250% over the status quo.
With Vancouver General Hospital just a few blocks away, efficient and quick access to emergency vehicles is a legitimate concern. However, the evidence shows that a three-lane Broadway will improve the ability of emergency vehicles to cross the street.
Quote from the Iowa Department of Transportation: “Contrary to popular belief, converting from four lanes to three lanes does not increase emergency response times. In fact, response times usually improve because emergency vehicles can use the middle turn lane when responding to an incident. This avoids bottlenecks that can occur on four-lane roads when drivers in the middle lanes attempt to switch for the emergency vehicle but are unable to.”
A three lane Broadway is a solution that has the potential to serve everyone. It would accommodate patios, widened sidewalks, and bike lanes, making it a truly complete street. Given that a three-lane road could improve the responsiveness of emergency vehicles, ignoring this solution could be viewed as negligent and irresponsible.
I recognize that while the establishment of cycle lanes on major roads has been successfully implemented in many cities around the world, this is something new for our city. Sticking to what’s comfortable and familiar isn’t the path to greatness, it’s the path to sustained mediocrity.