Published here November 2006.


Musings Index

Projects to Green Vancouver

For some years now, the city fathers of Vancouver have been trying earnestly to improve the environment in our city. It seems they have been having some success because a recent front-page newspaper article announced:

"Vancouver Home to Canada's Greenest Commuters - 3% cycle to work, 17% walk.
More people in Vancouver walk to work than anywhere in North America except New York City. The proportion of people commuting by bicycle has doubled in 10 years. And the transit system, with triple the number of people using it to go to the University of BC since 1997 thanks to U-Pass, has become so popular that it's in danger of losing passengers because of overcrowding."[1]

Of course the press doesn't mention that there's been an increase in population of around 20% over the last ten years, but we'll let that pass.

But the actual focus of the city fathers is on discouraging cars and reducing the number of car trips "to reduce pollution and create more livable cities." That presumes you can afford to live in close proximity to Vancouver's downtown area. Vancouver, like so many other cities is an expensive place to live in, and public transit is not necessarily the answer if it doesn't pass your door, or the schedule and frequency is not convenient. So, for those of us who find it too far to walk and don't have the puff power to cycle, it seems that the car is the only realistic option.

Still, I've been made to feel thoroughly guilty every time I step into my car to go downtown and it seemed only reasonable to fight back with my observations on the limitations of bicycles versus the merits of cars.

The Limitations of Bicycles

Bikes are bad because:

  • Bicycles are highly unstable except when chained to a lamp post
  • They will not stand up on their own
  • Due to their inherent instability, the direction of the rider is highly unpredictable to anyone in the vicinity
  • They do not protect the rider in any way, neither from unsafe conditions nor from the weather
  • They are not a satisfactory means for most people to cover long distances
  • Their capacity for carrying things is strictly limited, innovativeness of far eastern populations using three-wheelers or mini-trailers notwithstanding
  • Six bicycles take up about as much room as a car for six
  • Bike owners tend to occupy pedestrian sidewalks
  • Except for tandems, they are individualistic and hence unfriendly, and tandems are only suitable for people who like snuggling close. Even then the potential is very limited.
  • Modern bikes are capable of speeds lethal to the rider and are operated at these lethal speeds more frequently than cars
  • Cable actuated caliper brakes are not a robust mechanism for speed control, and bicycle tires wear out quickly
  • Anyone who has tried to cross the street at quitting time in an eastern city where bicycles are the norm will know that it is like trying to cross a twelve-lane highway next to impossible
  • Modern bikes tend to be worse than earlier models because they don't have mudguards and so make the back of the rider unconscionably mucky, to say nothing of anyone who happens to stand too close
  • They require a lot of personal effort to operate resulting in the operatives giving the impression of being superior and distant when they are really sweaty and uncomfortable

The Virtues of Cars

Before extolling the virtues of cars, we first need to take a look at the proclivity of humans. Homo sapiens is an insatiable consumer. We consume from the moment of birth to the day of our death. We consume things like wool for warmth; wood for homes; and all manner of foods natural and artificial for sustenance often transported over vast distances; resources of all kinds for survival; to say nothing of a vast array of electronic toys to keep us amused; and space for all manner of activities like living, travel, recreation and growing things to eat. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot survive without consuming. For most people, what we consume is a matter of personal choice. We call that democratic freedom, something that we vigorously and rightly defend.

Within this context, it is understandable that people have a love affair with the automobile, because it has emancipated the individual more than any other mechanical invention. So, cars are good because:

  • The car enables you to go wherever you want, at least on land
  • You can go whenever you want
  • You can go as far as you want
  • It is safer than other means
  • When not in use, it is no harm to anyone, nor is it consuming energy like public transportation. In these respects, it is better than the horse-and-buggy
  • It is stable on its own
  • It is less likely to be stolen, though in the city that might be a moot point
  • It will carry a whole family together
  • It can be used for carrying goods like the weekly shopping in one trip, or all the gear required for camping, fishing or the weekend ski trip and, yes, the kids to school
  • Perhaps above all, it is a technological marvel within the reach of the individual, yet represents millions of hours of work (over the years) that has brought employment, wages, dignity and satisfaction to millions of people to enjoy what we now call our "standard of living" or "quality of life".

None of this is to deny the rightful position of the humble bicycle. It is simply to show that there is a group of people out there who are bent on promoting and launching projects designed to solve the wrong problem.

Issue: What is the real problem that cities should be trying to solve? And what might be the proper solutions?

1. The Vancouver Sun, May 25, 06, pA1
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