As someone who regularly commutes by bicycle, I tend to maintain a keen eye on how city officials (region-wide) talk about transportation. I follow Chris & Melissa Bruntlett’s work, I’m a regular reader of Gordon Price’s blog, and I’ve certainly retweeted and “liked” my fair share of articles from CityLab and Treehugger.
Here in Metro Vancouver, we’re fortunate to have leaders that seem to get it. Nathan Pachal in Langley City, Heather Deal in Vancouver, and Matthew Bond in the DNV stand out among their peers as genuine and passionate proponents for all-inclusive transportation solutions. Many of our region’s municipal websites feature cycling prominently, and most have invested at least at a minimal level, in measures that improve cycling comfort and safety (from unprotected lanes to dedicated signal crossings and full separation from motor vehicles). Some have even been so bold as to talk about cycling as a transportation priority, near the top of a hierarchy that places single-occupancy motor vehicles firmly at the bottom. I think I can safely say that for most people, the notion that cars are the lowest priority represents a drastically skewed (delusional?) perception of our current transportation reality.
For me, the recent arctic blast that hit our region was an excellent opportunity to see priority in action. Rarely do we see snowfall levels high enough here to impact transportation. Sure it gets cold (by regional standards) and windy, and everyone knows how much it rains, but we can almost always get where we’re going regardless of our chosen mode. Sometimes it takes a bit longer, or we need to be a bit more careful, but we can get from A to B. On December 6th however, we got hit pretty hard, so much so that commuters in all modes were stopped in their tracks. Transit service was a mess, and road users drove/rode/sloshed through slippery conditions while the snow continued to fall.
I rode our family Bullitt cargo bike that morning from Deep Cove into the DTES largely without issue. I moved a bit slower, but there wasn’t enough accumulation in the early morning to have any real impact. The ride home in the afternoon was a slightly different story: low visibility as large snowflakes came down, and enough on the road to demand a higher level of concentration, but a mostly pleasant ride nonetheless.
The next morning, I decided to instead ride my all-season commuter, a 2012 Raleigh Port Townsend, and a I left really early, anticipating a challenging commute. The first image above was taken that morning as I arrived at the foot of the Ironworkers’ Bridge active transportation path. There was no way I was equipped to ride on a sheet of ice (though some passed me that were), so I walked over. The walk continued into Vancouver, as conditions were similar on the Portside route and beyond. In all, the snow and ice added about an hour to my commute that day.
My gripe here is certainly not with the conditions that day. To speak specifically about Vancouver and North Vancouver (though other parts of the region were hit much harder), we had more snow accumulate that day than many of us had seen in the last few winters combined. And in a region where the vast majority of people commute (especially in winter) in some form of motor vehicle, I think it makes perfect sense in this case to clear as much of the white stuff as possible from major driving routes before the next rush hour. Snow and ice serve only to make a relatively unsafe activity like driving that much more dangerous, and when you know most people will do it anyway, that’s where your immediate focus should lie.
As the days and weeks went on however, I found it increasingly frustrating to see the supposed top transportation priorities be given little to no assistance. A full 72 hours after the snow initially fell on Monday, I snapped the second image at the opposite foot of the Ironworkers’ on my way home. While the active path on the bridge deck had been salted (a Provincial responsibility), the path leading up to it was completely untouched. Similar were the conditions on each of the major cycling routes I came across. Weeks later, major sidewalks and bike lanes remained snow/ice-covered despite no additional accumulation, while the equivalent motor vehicle lanes had long been cleared.
If city officials throughout the region are going to say that active modes sit atop the transportation hierarchy, surely citizens should expect to see that put into practice in their approach to something like snow and ice removal. Practicality, of course, dictates that major driving routes be the first to be cleared. But what about major bike routes and sidewalks? What’s a reasonable amount of time after a snowfall to expect biking and walking to work to be just as smooth as driving again? A big part of prioritizing active modes is being able to answer that question.